Ambassador Donnel Udina was coming down from a world-class rage. Veins were standing out in his face. Tendons sticking out of his neck. His trademark fist was in the air. His aide was cowering. Moments ago, he had dramatically swept datapads off of his desk-- the effect somewhat ruined by the presence of a mild-mannered keeper, who went about tidying the place up according to its arcane specifications.

"Where were you the whole time?" Udina demanded, seizing on Anderson's arrival.

"Sorry to miss all the excitement," David said, straightening the cuffs of his uniform. "But it looks like everything's under wraps right now?"

"If that's what you want to call it," sniffed Udina. "The comm is ringing off the hook. The Council, the media, the Alliance, everyone, everything. C-Sec is conducting a bloody purge. Trams still down. Limited sky traffic. I've had to reschedule all of my appointments."

Anderson stepped around the keeper, ignoring it as it ignored him. "Sounds better than before," he said as he went to the desk. "Anyway, C-Sec will do the right thing. Kicking down doors, dragging people out. Obliterating the remnants of Saren's network here. Pallin's job and honor are on the line. The Spectres made him look terrible, so he should have ample motivation to help us out."

Udina hissed. "This is a disaster."

The keeper picked up one of the chairs, starting the process of moving furniture to the opposite end of the room.

"Not so bad as we think. I've just been talking with the Alliance. After some misunderstandings.. the turians are impressed with Shepard and his team. It took everyone, and a little luck, but they brought down almost a full commando squad."

"After enormous bloodshed. The destruction of priceless artifacts. The asari are going to complain about that. What am I going to tell them."

Anderson picked an book off the desk, wiped it off, and tucked it neatly under his arm. "You don't have to tell them anything," he said. "If you'll excuse me.. "

The Alliance carrier, Lord Lao, had the curious honor of being named for a peculiar figure half-shrouded in legend. There were several accounts, but it was said in one story that Lord Lao had been a brilliant inventor whom the fearful gods had punished with madness. The captain's cabin and the mess were decorated with holographic reproductions from his wild notebooks. A mad man with mad dreams, the dream of flight.

"Commander, please," said Dr. Chakwas, "Captain Kin was generous enough to let us into the medbay. If you keep this up, we'll both be going out the airlock.. "

"I hate these hospital gowns," Shepard complained. "My ass is always hanging out. Might as well go whole hog."

"Now, John. Are you just going to fly around naked irritating everyone?"

Shepard smirked back at her. He was levitating with a dull blue-black glow rippling over his bruised body. "You know me, Helen."

He'd taken a beating, and he was almost certainly going to have to change out bio-amps. Yet he was conscious, speaking, aware of his environment, and being his usual obnoxious self. Dr. Chakwas was trying to scan him, a somewhat easier task now that he attempted the Lotus position.

"You could have been killed," she said, watching the readout on her omnitool. "We were all so worried."

The doors of the medbay hissed and Captain Anderson came through, flanked by two officers from the Lord Lao. Anderson thanked them, exchanged some words, and drifted up to his former crew with a furrowed brow. He had a book tucked under his arm.

"Cap'n," Shepard said, a mischievous grin crossing his face. He had a black eye that was transmogrifying into a truly spectacular blue-black-green-yellow oil slick of color. "Forgive me if I don't stand at attention."

"Be at ease," Anderson grumped. "Why don't you have any clothes on?"

"You know Doc Chakwas," Shepard said. "You leave her alone with a young man for just one minute. God only knows what happened to Alenko."

Anderson rolled his eyes and got down to it. "Everyone's all right. Wrex came back to life."

"I know. They always do. How's Williams?"

"Wet and angry. The hanar fished her out of the lake."

Johnny's grin became something truly beautiful. "I bet she just loved that."

"Well, that was a crazy thing to do, John, but you got her out of danger. She had more than enough air."

"You know, I've always been curious what's under the Presidium lake. I'll ask her."

Anderson put his face in his hand. "Honestly, John.. I wouldn't bring it up ever again."

"How's Alenko?"

"Back on the Normandy. One of his headaches."

"My hero," Shepard said in his sassiest voice.

"Now, John, he went back for you."

"I'll never live this down."

Someone from the Lord Lao came in with some fresh folded clothes, saw Shepard, blushed, and laid the bundle on a sidetable. She bowed, said something quickly to Anderson, and left.

Shepard looked unhappy. "I lost my knife," he said after a moment, picking at the clothes.

"Well, you're lucky you didn't lose more than that."

He gloomed. "It was a Christmas present."

Anderson remembered the suspiciously shaped package under the ship tree that year. Margaret had been so pleased with herself.

"We can get you another one."

"I don't want another one."

"She probably has ten of them, John." Anderson rubbed at his face. "How's your Solaris?"

"I think he's ready for a different amplifier, Captain," Dr. Chakwas spoke up, cycling through a menu on her omnitool. "Since Commander Shepard is humanity's Spectre now, he deserves the best we can offer."

Shepard perked up a little. "Yeah, cap'n-- I bet if we got on the horn with the people on the Ascension Project, they might make some recommendations."

He added, brighter now, "Over dinner, even." He was dressing himself. Civilian clothes, something loose and comfortable, vaguely Asian in style.

"Johnny, you're on thin ice right now," Anderson warned.

"Of course, sir."

Dr. Chakwas tried to hide her smile. "I'll send off this report and we'll see what we can do," she said, dimming the projection from her omnitool. "Please behave, John."

Anderson set his book aside and pulled up a chair. "Another Spectre spoke on your behalf. She had a follower in place for something of her own."

"Where is she?" Shepard eyed the book, but said nothing. There was nothing to discern from its cracked black leather cover. He was curious, but David wouldn't reward him just yet. "I want to talk to another Spectre. They need to know what's happening."

"I don't know where she is. Left. She was here on her own affairs. Something to do with Pallin. Spectres almost cost him his job-- may even still-- so I don't think she'll get what she wants, whatever it was."

"The Council will never help me."


"Well-- fuck 'em."

"I'm sorry it happened like this, John."

"Me too. But sometimes to get things done you gotta do it yourself."

"I believe you," Anderson told him gently.

"Everybody thinks I'm a rampaging asshole."

"Johnny.. you are a rampaging asshole."

Shepard scowled. "Yeah well, fuck them."

Anderson leaned back in the chair, his hands spread out on his knees. Might as well get to it. "About Commander Danvers' wife."

"Oh God." Shepard sank back onto the bed, making a sour face.

"You never told me your side of the story."

"Does that even matter now?"

"Why did you hit her?"

"Because she deserved it."

"John." He didn't want to pick at an old wound, but there was something more. Hell. There had to be. If anyone else had done what he did..

"Everyone knows she deserved it," Shepard said. "Kind of strange that I hit that bitch in front of a room of people and nobody saw anything."

"You weren't officially punished for that, but I think we both know what your Arcturus desk job was about. And the medication." He would have never gotten away with it if he wasn't what he was.

"Arcturus wasn't so bad. Don't really remember half of it til my meds got flushed." He smirked. "I'd do it again."

"You didn't sleep with her, did you?" Half the Alliance had made that mistake, so far as Anderson had heard. He wasn't one for gossip, but on some ships it was impossible not to know scuttlebutt. Yet he thought he knew Shepard better than that.

"She propositioned me once," John allowed. "I think she wanted a slice off the Butcher of Torfan. Back when crazy was in style. Fuck that. Maybe she was angry I refused her. Maybe she wanted attention. I don't know. Could care less now. At the party, she said some things to me, trying to get me riled up."

"Then it worked."

Shepard sighed.

"You let her make you angry."

"We were civil at the party. It was like nothing had ever happened. We talked for a few minutes by the punch bowl. Then she leaned in real close.. she said, out of nowhere, 'I should hope your sister enjoys fucking aliens as much as you do.'"

Anderson blinked. He hadn't expected that. "She was trying to bait you, John."

"I can't say no to a lady."

"That could have cost you more than a desk job, John, that could have been your career."

Shepard scowled. "I know it was stupid, sir.. but nobody says that kind of shit to me. Nobody."

Anderson saw the flash of pain on his face, that stubborn set to his jaw, like he was ready to pick a fight with anybody. His heart sank. He thought of the scrawny boy with the shaved head and varren bite from a therapy vid he had forced himself to watch. He'd been trying to understand. He thought of the raid on Mindoir, the fire and chaos the survivors described. The cruelty of the batarians. The gruesome fate of the captives. The death of a brave and unusual girl that Anderson never met, but felt that he had come to know.

But how could John be so stupid. Impulsive. That temper..

David sighed. "I know, Johnny," he said. "I'm sorry. People like Victoria Danvers can't even begin to comprehend the horror and suffering of a slaver raid. That witch doesn't even know what she's talking about."

"Yeah," Shepard said, flat.

Anderson hated this part, but it was the theme of a talk he'd had with John all his career. "You're going to be in the spotlight now. I don't envy you. I don't know how I would have managed if I'd have been the first. Everyone's going to pick at you, pick at your life. You can't just go around punching everyone in the face."

"Actually, cap'n.. " Shepard rubbed his jaw thoughtfully.

Anderson gave him a stern look.

Johnny lowered his eyes. "Yeah, I know," he said.

After a moment, Anderson relented, and said, "Jane would be so proud of you, you know."

"You kidding?" Johnny frowned. "Nothing was good enough for her. She always had to upstage me. She'd be flying around in her own reaper by now."

Anderson felt a genuine smile coming over. "I have your present," he said. He reached back and picked up the old book, handing it over. "This is what I wanted to give you."

He watched Shepard's face closely for his reaction. Curiosity at first, as he ran a hand over the cracked black leather of the cover. He opened it carefully from the edges, and it took him a moment to realize what he was looking at. Anderson relished the sudden change in his expression.

"The Book of the Black Lotus," he said. The obscure and mysterious Zu of the Black Marsh was his favorite philosopher.

"I know how angry you were when you lost your other copy. Anyway, this version has Tho Fan on one side and a translation on the other. I know how you like the calligraphy."

John traced his fingers in reverence over the pages.

"Just don't get any other tattoos," Anderson said. "You don't even know what those things mean."

"You know, there's got to be somebody on Lord Lao who knows even a little Tho Fan." Shepard was looking in better spirits all the time. He grinned and patted his thigh, where he'd staggered back from shore leave with a tattoo in a long-dead language. "They might be able to tell me what my tattoo says."

"Now John. You can't just go around showing your ass to people. You've made enough enemies as it is."

Shepard cocked an eyebrow. "I don't know, cap'n-- that one intel guy up there kind of gives me the impression that--"

"Please don't create any incidents aboard this carrier. We don't want Captain Kin to put you out the airlock."

"Are you kidding? I love this ship. I'll be a good little angel, you know me." Shepard grinned a puckish grin, and then his face grew very serious. He looked like a dog balancing a treat on the end of its nose. "Thanks, cap'n-- for everything."

Anderson felt weary, felt all of his years. Shepard was so draining. "I believe you, John. It's up to you now.. but you've got a good crew. A good team."

"So, by the way," Shepard said, in that tone of voice that Anderson learned to dread.

"What is it?"

"I need your computer to send something back to Arcturus," Johnny said. "I have Ashley's transfer paperwork and payroll. I'm going to issue her some equipment and call it even. I know just the thing, too."

Under the spreading branches of a flowering alien tree, a couple sat together on a curving stone-carved bench. A man and a woman-- a man in his forties, perhaps, with a weathered face, hard eyes, and sharp broad-shouldered figure beneath his drab overcoat. The woman was asari, elegant, ageless, in casual attire.

They were tossing pieces of Thessia flatbread onto the shore of the lake. The feimuk fought growling and squeaking over the morsels before they plopped back into the waters.

"What's going to happen to Shepard?" the asari asked, after a long while. This she said in English.

"Tied to a mast and whipped in the grand naval tradition," said the man in the same. He had a neutral, North American accent. Growing up in New York was Mikhailovich's other secret. "Unfortunately, Hackett overruled me."

"There will be no repercussions from the council," Lidanya said.

Mikhailovich slid a flask out of his coat. "Not like they can do anything to him now, anyway."

"He turned out to be right. In his own way. And I suppose there are some turians who have a greater respect for him now. Violence always has a peculiar way of impressing them." She took in a breath. "Anarinda T'Pela had thirty-six cybernetic implants embedded in her body. All of an unknown origin. The asari commando unit had similar augmentation, as did two of the krogan bodies that were recovered."

"Geth technology? Like the husks?"

"We don't know yet. Citadel Security's chief coroner is requesting outside specialists to assist in the inquest." She paused, and turned to face him. "We understand your own scientists are studying the altered bodies from Eden Prime. If we work together we might find a better answer."

Mikhailovich frowned. "No promises," he said. "Tell the damn Council to give us some ships. Or hell. Get the salarians to give us those little squeak guns."

Lidanya sighed. "We are still investigating the matter of the geth movement beyond the Veil. It will take time to form an accurate assessment and mobilize our forces, if the Council decides accordingly. There are risks involved, and.. "

"It always takes more time, doesn't it?" Mikhailovich asked softly.

She reached out and squeezed his hand. The skin felt leathery and tough to her. He was getting older. They always did.

He got up and went on his way.

In the elevator, hands shoved in his pockets, he was accosted by a smiling alien he distrusted immediately. More than usual.

"Admiral Mikhailovich-- it is a distinct pleasure," said the asari, a young one with unnerving eyes-- too widely set apart, too hard. Her smile never reached them.

"Piss off. Not interested."

"Can't. You know how slow these things are." She shrugged and gestured to the elevator car. "I'm Gwekga. I was hoping to have a moment of your time."

"Looks like I can't say no. Fucking protheans." He'd die an old man in this damn thing.

"I just wanted to meet the man behind Qutaaru III, and, incidentally.. I may have some information of some interest to you."

Liara came onboard with all her goofy baggage-- her computers, her books, her whatever-the-hell all bundled up and knocking at her feet as she stumbled and walked up the gangway before the marines ran up to lighten her load.

"Oh, Commander Shepard," she said, "thank you so much. You won't regret this. I don't say this lightly, but I consider myself one of the foremost authorities on Late Dynasty Prothean, and believe you me, I wouldn't say that if it wasn't true-- from a scholarly perspective, and.. "

Shepard texted Kaidan over his omnitool: is it to late to shoot her

Kaidan wrote back, almost immediately: wouldn't go over well sir

He sighed, and thumped his book gently against his thigh as he waited out the airlock.

Later, standing over the CiC in his sharp blues-- with a huge black eye, Shepard addressed the vessel.

"Everyone. Good work. They say no one has gone against an asari commando unit and lived. They weren't talking about Normandy. We got off on the wrong foot. I've been an asshole. It has come to my attention that this is a problem with me. However for the duration of this voyage I will still be an asshole."

He looked across the CiC. Fredericks grinned at him.

"If you have any reservations, you can depart while we are still docked here in the Citadel. In the military we put up and shut up, but the nature of our mission demands your complete focus. There will be no penalties for those of you who wish to leave now. The Lord Lao is in system. It has a bar. I was just there and saw it with my own eyes. The Stalingrad is here too. It does not have a bar, but it's got a lot of Russians and you know what that means. The Marvelous Dragonfly conducts exciting missions, but if you thought Moreau was the most annoying pilot in the fleet.. you were mistaken."

Bridge Officer Xuan smirked. She, too, had made the acquaintance of Lt Ming, the "Raging Dragon."

"But if you wish to stay on Normandy. I have full confidence in you. I promise you plenty of ridiculous situations and gunfights in strange and exciting locales. We are going to break things and kill people. We will blow up a lot of shit. Kaidan Alenko will be the sorriest officer in the entire Systems Alliance with all the paperwork he is going to have to file. Saren wants to dredge up the past and play out his little fantasy. Fine. Saren wants a fight, we'll give him one and take away all his toys. This will be a difficult mission, but I have full faith in you. It is an honor."

Meanwhile, back on Arcturus Station.

They stood in front of the office screens. The television arrays were crowded with talking heads, gesturing reporters, and crying eyewitnesses from a half a dozen regions and languages. News tickers were scrolling by uncontrollably.

"Shell-shocked recollection," moaned an elcor, filling up one screen. "It was like a loud boom."

A salarian blinked rapidly and waved his hands. "It was like, it was like, explosions! And biotics everywhere! Just so much happening and then it was all quiet and then!"

A kindly older gentleman smiled gently into one camera. "Johnny's got the devil in him," he explained. "A devil you can't even understand. No ma'am, no indeed. The two-faced god-- out of the void, in a fiery chariot.. it's all there if you read it. Yes ma'am, in the Book of Old Blood. I've tried to help him. I can help him still. Johnny, you can still come to me.. it's not too late."

Lt Paulsons stared into the hypnotizing eyes for a moment and then said to the others: "Strange how Major Kyle makes the most sense right now."

"Heh, man. I'm with you," Lt Panhwar said. "My buddy's on that ship and he's totally not coming back. He is dog food right now. How in the hell does Shepard get away with bringing a krogan battlemaster on an Alliance vessel?"

"Now, he was such a nice boy, so polite," piped up Cynthia, the office secretary. "I love the filing system he came up with. It really cuts down the workload for everyone."

Tasha Veracruz said, slowly, "True, but.. he just killed a woman with his bare hands in front of the entire Citadel."

"Turn that nonsense off," Captain Ewan barked. He had just come in, a scowl deepening on his face once he saw the everpresent coverage. His skin was still a blistery bright red.

"Hey, uh, yes sir," Panhwar said. He was the closest one to change the screens.

Ewan had been in a foul mood since the whole suspicious package incident. Paulsons had been out of the office for a followup at the clinic when John's ex-girlfriend sent him a gift that got mistaken for a biohazard. Emergency lockdown/stripping/scouring procedures were implemented. They take that kind of thing very seriously here.

The screens now showed the Alliance military network channel. All of which were featuring a portrait and profile of Lieutenant Commander John Shepard, in his most official looking blues.

Ewan stalked off back to his office. Panhwar winced, made an 'I don't work here' face, and followed after. "Uh, sir, actually I came here to get something signed.. "

"Oh, speak of the devil," Cynthia said. "We've got mail."

From: John Shepard

CC: David Anderson

Subject: Transfer of Personnel/Pay Receipt for Williams, Ashley M

To whom it may concern,

Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams has been transferred to the SSV Normandy. Please update your records accordingly. In addition, the issue of unresolved pay is now addressed. In accordance with Alliance Regulations Part V: Issuance of Pay and Benefits, Sub-part III, paragraph 6 and 7, per the commander's discretion, equipment may be issued to personnel subtracted from or in lieu of regular pay.

Pay and backpay for Chief Williams outlined below:

Combat Scanner II......................................... 1 unit

Kinetic Stabilizer III......................................... 1 unit

Home Stylin' Beef Jerky (Teriyaki Flavor)....... 51.5 units

I trust this resolves the matter. Attached you will find Forms 331 and 924.


John Isaiah Shepard

Lieutenant Commander, Systems Alliance Navy

Commander, SSV Normandy

This message originated from an Alliance military network. It has been censored at transmission source for security purposes. Any reply may be read by military authorities.

Author's note:

Thanks for all your kind words, comments, and critiques. I feel like I've come a long way since I started scribbling this stuff down. I hope you've had fun!