As the three holograms faded, Frederick resisted the urge to slam his balled fist into the tall plasma screen behind the holoprojectors. The Council had found a way to be displeased again.

It was easy for them to say he should have acted this way or that when they were safely ensconced at the heart of the Citadel, light-years from where he was making life-or-death decisions for entire colonies. He didn't have the luxuries of retrospect, mission reports, or endless rainy-day games of "what-if" during those split-second intervals in which he had to make choices.

Feros had been a rotten operation from the very get-go; Frederick knew it, the Council certainly knew it, and everyone on the colony knew it. In fact, if he were in charge of colonial affairs, there would never have even been a Feros colony. Post-industrial in every sense, Feros had little to no natural resources left, meaning everything for the colony had to be imported from some place or another. A colony like that would never be self-sufficient, let alone profitable, but that accursed Exo-Geni decided they wanted a colony there anyway.

Frederick knew why now, and that just made him angrier. And to think the Council would have the nerve to say he should have preserved that abomination they called the thorian for "study".

That bothered him more than the turian Councilor's remark that he "would have done anything just to save a human colony." That kind of bigotry was to be expected, so it didn't really affect him. It might not even be bigotry, but just the turian being difficult simply to be difficult. Who knew, maybe he was that much of an ass to all the Council Spectres; Frederick couldn't really care less.

In the end, he'd put his foot down and told them all they could keep second-guessing him and picking apart everything he did in retrospect, or they could shut up and let him do the job they themselves assigned him. Frederick supposed he could have put it nicer, but thirty-two straight hours awake and on the alert, if not entirely unfamiliar, still had a way of wearing down on his patience. He'd gotten some sleep since leaving that junk heap of a planet, but not nearly enough.

Turning away from the darkened holoprojectors, Commander John Frederick Shepard, Council Spectre, decided not to be annoyed. There was no point to it.

Wearily, he looked at his chronometer and realized he'd been in session with the Council for the better part of two hours. He was probably needed in the mess hall by now. If not, his empty stomach would shortly remind him.

Leaving Council politics for when he had replenished his energy reserves, Frederick turned away from the briefing room with its enormous plasma viewing screen, the state-of-the-art holoprojectors, all the chairs arranged in a neat little circle to satisfy some turian designer's fancy, and its cave-like blue lighting. Heading along the spine of the ship, SSV Normandy, he passed a few crew members whose names he'd either forgotten or hadn't memorized from the personnel files still sitting on his rarely-seen desk, and idly wondered why the ship's design team had decided to include only blue lighting for the entire ship. He felt like the pervasive monochrome blueness was bleaching his retinas.

"--You're cheating! Admit it!"

"I am not. If anyone is cheating, it's you. I clearly saw you switch the cards!"

Arguing voices drifted to Frederick's ear as he passed the infirmary. He backed up a few steps, listening closer. He recognized Dr. Chakwas' motherly voice, though it was a little odd to hear her being anything but agreeable. He thought he heard someone else, someone who ought to know better. The closer he got, the more he was convinced it was who he thought. Finally, rounding the corner, he peered in the open door. The sight inside confirmed it.

"Pressly! Doctor! What's going on here?" he demanded.

The two in question looked up sheepishly from different sides of an empty cot, where was laid... a game board? Pressly was brandishing a pair of dice and Chakwas sternly perusing a small paper booklet.

Pressly's fist was still raised in opposition. He lowered it awkwardly.

Summoning his stoniest face, Frederick pinned both crew members with a stare that clearly enunciated his expectation of professional conduct from them. "Sir, ma'am," he said, leading them on.

Pressly cleared his throat. "Commander."

"We were just--" Chakwas cleared her throat "--I mean, Pressly invited me to join him for a quick game of--what did you say this was?"

"Dungeons & Dragons, ma'am. Sir," Pressly responded stiffly.

Frederick raised a suspicious eyebrow at the both of them, his concerns already alleviated but wishing to keep his subjects in the dark still. "So..." The word rolled of his tongue slowly, ominously, eliciting nervous sweat from Pressly. "Wow, Pressly, I never pegged you one for D&D."

Normandy's First Officer visibly relaxed. "Yes, sir. I've loved the confounded board games since I was six. Though, in my experience, nothing beats Dungeons."

Frederick nodded, looking to the good doctor. "And you?"

"Oh, I have a nephew who can't get enough of it. Never did get on with the video games like so many kids his age. I have to learn his board games just to get by," Chakwas responded easily.

Frederick shrugged. "Alright, well, just remember; no one cheats on my ship."

"Yes sir!" Pressly replied. He was about to toss his die when Frederick caught his hand and tossed them himself.

Frederick grinned to his First Officer. "That means you, Pressly."

Pressly finally smiled. "Yes, Commander."

Shaking his head, Frederick continued through the ship and its maddening saturation of blue light.

Well, that certainly was interesting. Pressly and Chakwas - his First Officer and Chief Medical Officer - were both into Dungeons & Dragons. Frederick made a mental note to add that to his list of surprising discoveries.

Upon reaching the entrance to the mess hall, Frederick cursed a little under his breath as he nearly tripped over something in the middle of the walkway. After stumbling a few feet, he turned around and stifled his curses.

It was Tali. Sitting in the middle of the floor, her legs crossed, totally absorbed in a stack of Minneapolis newspapers he'd brought with him from his last trip back home.

"Sorry," he mumbled, still trying to take in the unexpected sight.

The quarian girl looked up, and if an opaque face mask could be said to look puzzled, hers did. "Oh, hello Shepard." She pointed across to the tables where a number of Normandy's crew were chowing down. "They're all wondering why you were taking so long."

"The Council were just--" Frederick frowned. "What are you doing, Tali?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Shepard!" Tali exclaimed, immediately taking to her feet and gathering up the scattered newsprints. She started apologizing. "I thought it would be okay if--I mean, if you would like me to leave your things alone--"

"No, no, no, it's alright," Frederick assured her. "I was just wondering, well, what you're doing with my Earth newspapers."

The quarian brightened. "Your ship's cook was kind enough to let me borrow his when I discovered the most fascinating activities in the back of one." She held up a section for him to see. It was the puzzle page. Words, letters, and lines were scribbled all over it; she'd been busy for some time. "And well, I happened to find a stack in the corner so I--"

"Okay, I get it. No, that's fine, Tali. Don't know why I've been keeping those old newspapers anyway. You're welcome to them."

Tali beamed. "Thank you, Shepard! There is this one thing I've been trying to figure out," she said, pointing to a three-by-three grid on the page she was working on. It appeared to be Sudoku. "I just can't seem to understand the mechanics of how it works." She scratched her hood - more blue, Frederick noted - in frustration.

Frederick bent down and scooped up more of the scattered papers and with his other hand took Tali by an arm and guided her to the vacant end of a table, setting her newspapers down on the level surface for her.

"Here, use a table. You shouldn't be bending over so far, it's bad for your back. And this right here--" he pointed to the squares filled in places by random numbers "--is Sudoku. It's sort of a logic game where you have to fill in all the blanks with other numbers. You can see there's already some numbers in the spaces, what you're supposed to do is find the right places for all the other numbers one through nine..."

As soon as he started explaining the rules of Sudoku from his own admittedly limited understanding, Tali caught on quickly. Soon she was filling in the empty boxes like a pro, scrawling what he guessed were quarian numerals in the spaces, and had forgotten he was even there. Turning away, Frederick decided this would have to go on his list of things he wasn't really all that surprised to learn. After listening to Adams praise Tali in the most glowing terms on her knowledge of engine systems, and now this, Frederick was starting to think quarians had unlimited intellect at their disposal.

The Council had really let something remarkable slip away in the quarian people.

A sharp growl from his stomach reminded Frederick why he'd come to the mess hall in the first place.

A number of the crew were congregated about food bar, helping themselves to old-fashioned, American Midwest steak roast and potatoes, a salad so green it would have made Ralph Nader turn in his grave, and curious little plastic bowls of jello. Armed with a lunch tray, Frederick claimed a sizable portion for himself - command had its privileges after all - and added an extra shake of cayenne pepper to his medium-rare cut. Steak wasn't steak unless it was spicy, as far as he was concerned. The potatoes he could tell by inspection had been fried in synthetic, fat-free oil that was pretty much devoid of any nutritional value. In fact, they were probably even safe for Garrus to eat without any trouble. Frederick picked himself a bowl of blue jello because he never ate the red or the green.

His tray amply-loaded, he cast about looking for a space, preferably in a corner where he could look over most of the room. That usually meant he ate by himself, which he didn't mind, and maybe even preferred. He quickly found a spot near the end of another of the long tables, away from most of his fellow diners as was normal for him. Picking up a greasy chunk of nutritionless potato, sticking it in his mouth and chewing contentedly, Frederick started toward his chosen seat.

A chorus of laughs and chuckles halted his gait. Frederick looked one table over to see Lt. Alenko, Dr. T'Soni, and Joker sitting close by each other, with Garrus lounging against a nearby wall. They were all laughing at something Alenko had said.

Frederick rolled his eyes, his curiosity now overtaking him. He diverted his course and sat down opposite them. Upon seeing him approach, Alenko immediately tried to halt his chuckles.

"Commander," he said through a mouthful of lettuce and croƻtons, saluting with fork still gripped determinedly in his hand.

"At ease, Lieutenant," Frederick ordered, gesturing with his spoon.

Dr. T'Soni leaned over toward Alenko in interest. "So what happened next, Lieutenant?" she asked.

His face stretched in a broad grin. "Well, as you might imagine, no mere steel chair can keep a good pretty boy down. He whacked me a few times but good before I kicked him in the groin. Now that put him out for a few seconds, then I slammed him up against the cage--"

Frederick rapidly aborted his attempt at chewing his savory steak before he choked on it. "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Alenko! Do I need to know something?"

Joker answered for him. "Would you have guessed? Kaidan's got cage fightin' street cred."

Alenko smirked in ironic confirmation.

Frederick stared. "Cage fighter?" Alenko nodded.

"Really?"

He nodded again. "I was four-time King of the Cage back at Jump Zero."

Lists, Frederick reminded himself, keep everything on lists. That was certainly going on his list of surprising things. Actually, no; it was going on his list of downright flabbergasting things.

"So, anyway," Alenko said, continuing to Dr. T'Soni's rapt interest, "after the smashing I gave him, his forehead opened up and he started bleeding everywhere--everywhere, I'm telling you. The referee called the match after that."

"So you won?" the asari asked in her cottony voice.

Kaidan leaned back in his seat for a second and let out a satisfied sigh. "Yep. Of course, he was still on the floor, smarting from that blow to the crotch, so he picked up the chair and returned the favor."

Joker roared with laughter. "Well, what goes around comes around, I guess," he remarked.

Alenko put on a mock hurt face. "Yeah, my singing voice has been the best soprano in the Arcturus Opera since."

Joker hooted again, pounding on the table.

"I don't understand," Liara said, confused. "Singing voice? What does that have to do with being hit in the pelvis like you said?"

"What he means is--actually, never mind, you're probably better off not knowing. Don't worry, Doctor, he wasn't serious," Frederick assured her. "About the singing voice, I mean."

She nodded in understanding. "I see. I'm sorry, I must not be used to such plays of speech. It must--"

"--be a human thing," Frederick finished for her, scooping a large forkful of the salad into his mouth. "Mm-hmm, that's about the size of it."

Joker nodded in solemn agreement. "Yeah, us humans say and do lots of stuff that doesn't make sense, but we still get by. I mean, hey, look at me."

"What do you mean?" the asari doctor asked.

"Well, my favorite sport used to be rugby..." Joker began explaining.

"Come on, now, Joker, nobody wants to hear your rugby story again," Alenko said in mock horror, shoveling imitation banana cream pie into his mouth.

Garrus leaned in. "Hang on, I want to hear this one."

"I would rather like to hear it, as well," Liara said with interest.

Joker grinned, quite content with being the center of attention; notably the center of the asari doctor's attention. "Well, I always liked rugby, which is just about the roughest sport on Earth--"

"Is not," Frederick said under his breath.

"--trouble is, with my condition and all, no matter how much me and my friends tried to water it down, we all knew the instant someone tackled me for the ball, there was going to be some crunching and cracking. And I really, really wanted to play. Couldn't take my mind off how much fun it probably was, and with everyone around me either knee-deep in European football or some other contact sport, it was hard not to be a little depressed. I was in my teens, so I felt entitled to be a little sorry for myself.

"Anyway, it wasn't long before some of my friends started hatching a plan."

"A plan for what?" Liara asked.

"That's what I asked, but they wouldn't tell me. I found out anyway; they hadn't the slightest clue what to do about me, but I never let on that I knew, 'cause I wanted to see what they'd pull out of their ass--er, hats, when backed up against the wall."

"So what happened?"

Joker grinned. "They gave up, but not before getting some of their sisters to drag me to a couple cheap stage plays."

Garrus snorted. Frederick dropped his fork, thinking surely Joker had to be hard at work earning his nickname again.

"Stage plays," he said flatly.

"What can I say? It worked! I really started to get into the whole performing arts thing. Of course, it probably helped that those girls were the cutest this side of Thessia," Joker chuckled to Frederick's stunned disbelief. "I haven't watched rugby since."

Dr. T'Soni had a distinctly pleased look on her face--attracted even.

"You gave up rugby for stage plays?" Frederick was almost too shocked to form words, his mind scrambling to make up a new list to file this howler under.

"Ballet, too, if you can believe it," Joker added.

Liara smiled radiantly at Joker. "I think you made an excellent decision."

Joker grinned like an idiot. "Well, thanks, I--"

"Bunch of pansies, if you ask me," a deep voice growled from behind Frederick. The thunderous bass, combined with the unmistakable meaty odor of krogan breath wafting over them announced Wrex's arrival at the table.

"Have something to say, Wrex?" Frederick asked, turning in his seat to look up at the massive krogan.

"What? Nothing," came the monosyllabic reply.

"I believe you were commenting on Joker's choice of pastime," Frederick pressed.

"Doesn't matter."

Alenko stifled a belch. "Ah, Wrex, now you've got me curious."

The krogan grunted - a sound that made Frederick's chair vibrate for its deep baritone - and sat down heavily at one end of the table, buffered from the rest of them by three chairs on either side. "Sitting on your ass watching people in nylon suits jump and spin to chamber music on a stage is not my idea of entertaining," he declared grumpily. "Me, I'd rather be shooting something or swilling something."

Frederick raised an eyebrow. "Swilling, you say?"

"Yeah. I was on a colony several years back, kinda boring, they were having some kind of big event where everyone got drunk and had hangovers." Wrex chuckled just a bit. "That was funny; watching them drop one at a time."

"Oktoberfest, perhaps?" Lt. Alenko commented under his breath.

"What was it?" Joker asked.

Wrex shrugged. "Some kind of wine festival, they called it. Normally, I wouldn't think that anything could stand up to traditional krogan grog - best swill in the entire fracking galaxy - so I was a little impressed to find some of this wine stuff actually had some kind of taste to it. I decided to give it a try, since I don't get krogan grog very often any more. It kind of grew on me."

"Wait a minute." Frederick frowned, looking dubiously at Liara since she was the closest, seated directly across from him. "Is he saying what I think he's saying?"

Almost before he'd finished saying it, he knew Liara was the wrong person to which to put the rhetorical question. He winced as she immediately turned to Wrex. "Are you saying what he thinks--"

"You're into wine?" Alenko asked, covering for them both.

At the pointed question, Wrex's social goodwill evaporated, and he responded with a barely intelligible "Hmrrgh."

"No way!" Joker exclaimed, slapping his hand on the tabletop.

"You laughing at me, flyboy?" Wrex growled.

"No, I'm just surprised is all," the pilot replied, quickly shoveling some potatoes into his mouth.

Despite all his instincts for survival urging him not to press the issue, Frederick's curiosity overcame him, and he heard himself asking, "What was the first wine you had?"

Wrex chuckled a little. Frederick wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. "It was supposed to be burgundy, but it tasted so bad in retrospect I wonder if they didn't just dump some bug juice in a flat white wine and try to pass it off. They would have been better off re-labeling some cheap pinot noir; not the best stuff, but compared to..."

If, six months ago, before this Spectre madness had all started and he was still crucifying military criminals in court martial, someone had told him he would be listening to a bloodthirsty krogan mercenary give him a primer on some very sophisticated winery knowledge, Frederick would have dialed up a certain psychiatrist he knew and told him he had a live one. The extent of Wrex's knowledge of classic earth vintages, as well as some of the stupefyingly exotic, alcohol-saturated asari variants, was mind-boggling, especially given that Frederick already knew a thing or two about wine from having grown up around it for the first ten years of his life.

"But like I said; nothing matches krogan grog, not even feisty ol' Aleena's devilbrew." Wrex snorted again, humorously. "She pumped that swill so full of drugs and chemicals it would have knocked me clean out, maybe even killed me, had I not sniffed her out before drinking it."

"Who is Aleena?" Liara asked, still spellbound by Wrex's connoisseur opinions.

"A bounty hunter I worked with years ago, before we both had a blast killing each other," the krogan replied flatly. Liara paled a little.

Wrex leaned forward across the table, suddenly very interested in Frederick's plate. He unconsciously pulled the galley food protectively to himself, fearing the krogan might somehow inhale the food through his nostrils as his vacuum-like nose sniffed up a whirlwind. "What d'you got there, Shepard?" Wrex asked.

"Bonus from the Admiral for our last Geth purge in the Armstrong Cluster. I had the requisitions officer spring for some steak; I was dying for a good roast," Frederick replied, shielding the cut of beef with his knife and fork.

"And it is quite fantastic indeed!" Liara chimed in approvingly. "Your requisitions officer has excellent taste, this is just what I would have chosen."

Frederick raised an eyebrow, peering over at Liara's plate.

She had to have the biggest hunk of char-grilled steak he'd ever seen. He couldn't believe he hadn't noticed it before. She was already halfway through hers, but from the cut he could tell it had been at least twice as big as his. Frederick supposed he just kind of unconsciously assumed asari would be vegetarian by default. Apparently not.

"So you like the steak?" Frederick asked idly, expecting a simple "yes".

The good asari doctor nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, indeed. It's just as good as mine. I can tell your ship's cook used an open charcoal flame--the only real way to grill a steak like this. The heatless baking ovens used on most ships these days just don't do the meat justice. And the combination of the spices, seasoning, and sauces is simply superb. Please give him my compliments."

"Whoa, quite the grill-master, are you?" Joker remarked, impressed.

Liara beamed. "During an expedition several years ago, one of my human companions would complain every night about the rations and how once he got back home he would grill himself up the largest tenderloin steak he could find. As it turned out, a professor from the university I was doing study for was kind enough one month to send some ribs our way, and my human companion was so overjoyed that he wanted to teach me how to grill over an open fire. Actually, he was teaching anyone he could get his hands on what were the best ways to scorch the meat. I was surprised not many others were interested, as I found the entire process rather fascinating. After the expedition, I did some research on this method of cooking and found it to be largely to my liking. I now have a newfound appreciation for the places you humans call 'steak houses', something not many of my fellow asari share. I suppose it is just another way in which I am different from other members of my species."

For the fifth time since arguing with the Council, Frederick found himself struck by open-mouthed amazement. Surely now he'd heard it all. That seemed to be the general consensus around the table.

It was several minutes of stunned absorbing later - during which they all occupied themselves with their food, be it revelatory steak or curious blobs of gelatin - when Shepard was finally able to speak again. He motioned with his fork to a certain former C-Sec officer standing silent sentinel to the crew's sumptuous supper.

"Garrus, you've been quiet. Something on your mind?" Frederick asked.

"Nothing really," the turian replied placidly.

"If you're bored of watching us all eat, the cook would be glad to find you something--"

"No, no, it's not that," Garrus assured him. "I ate earlier, before you came in."

"So what's up, then?"

For some reason, Frederick was sure he would be amused by the answer to his question. A simple discussion over mealtime had proven quite enlightening already, even if he didn't count the Dungeons & Dragons party earlier. Or discovering Tali's rabid interest in logic puzzles.

"I was thinking about things back at C-Sec," Garrus replied offhandedly. "Just thinking of a few people who might be a little concerned having not heard from me in a while."

"You leave behind many friends back at C-Sec, Garrus?" Lt. Alenko asked.

"Not really. But on days off I'd sometimes hang out with Tash Varrel. He runs a little place in a corner of the Wards. Usually once or twice a week I at least stop by to see how he's doing."

"You're buddy with Varrel?" Wrex asked bluntly. He chuckled a little. "That crazy volus with the petting zoo?"

Garrus bristled. "Well, it's not a 'petting zoo', for one thing..."

Frederick felt like banging his head on the table and laughing uproariously, although he doubted Garrus would appreciate his humor. And since Frederick liked to fancy himself nice to be around, he struggled to keep his hilarity in check. But it wasn't easy.

A petting zoo.

"What would you call it, then?" Wrex challenged.

Garrus crossed his arms defiantly. "He keeps a collection of exotic animal species from all over the galaxy. It's a work of art. Just because he leaves it open to the public doesn't make it a petting zoo."

"Keep telling yourself that, Garrus-boy," Wrex guffawed. "Petting zoo..."

Frederick put up his hands to stop the teasing before things got out of control and he started laughing despite himself. He could see Joker and Lt. Alenko were also having trouble containing their mirth at Garrus' embarrassing confession. "Alright, that's enough. I think we've established that we all have rather, er, odd on-and-off habits."

"Easy for you to say, Commander," Garrus grumbled. "You didn't just have a painful confession tortured out of you."

"Yeah, come on, what's yours?" Joker asked.

After a moment of indecision, Frederick answered, a dour mood darkening his disposition. "I build three-dimensional puzzles in my spare time."

It took him a second, but Joker got the message. "Oh, sorry, Commander. Guess I just forgot there for a second."

"It's alright, Joker. I know you didn't mean anything by it."

Awkwardly, they all looked down at their plates. Frederick was sure Dr. T'Soni was beside herself with wanting to ask what the short exchange had been about. Thankfully, though, she seemed to read him well enough to at least know he didn't want to explain. In fact, she was the last person he would have wanted to explain it to--a fault of his, not hers.

His left arm ached with phantom pain just thinking about it.

Frederick frowned, shifting mental gears. Someone was missing from the ensemble before him. He couldn't understand why he hadn't noticed.

"Where's Williams?"

Liara coughed quietly to cover a sudden change in her expression that did not escape Frederick's notice. He learned to recognize signs like at his previous post. She was shifting gears as much as he was.

"Excuse me?" she asked innocently, as if nothing sensitive had ever been broached.

Frederick frowned. "Ashley Williams. She's a part of my crew and entitled to as much steak as you. She's not here, so where is she?"

"I think I saw her over near the barracks," Garrus offered. "Do you think perhaps there's some sort of trouble?" He made a point of looking over his shoulder. "Maybe she thinks there's a double agent somewhere on board and she's checking it out. I know that's where I'd be."

Frederick shrugged. "I'm sure she's fine. Just a little curious why she's not here. We don't have this kind of food just every day, after all." Setting his fork and knife aside, Frederick stood. "You guys can finish without me. I'm going to see what our dear Gunnery Chief would miss this incredible steak for."

Joker nudged Alenko knowingly as he got up to leave. Frederick ignored them and their innuendo, too lost in thoughts of three-dimensional puzzles and white cushions. For a second, he almost had a flash of extrasensory vision before it was washed away by the familiar hum of his visual cortex recalibrating.

He thought it an odd time to be feeling it. Then again, the beacon had messed him up inside and things weren't all as they once were. He couldn't always count on his--advantages, as he had before. At least his arm worked fine.

Frederick nearly tripped over Tali again on the way out, not bothering to try to think of why she would have migrated back to the highest-traffic area of the whole mess hall. The relentless blue of the ship's interior had a hypnotic effect on him as he walked, blurring each crew member he passed into simply another body, another faceless soldier on the front-lines.

He had a vague idea of where he was in the ship, somehow able to tell he was heading in the right direction, when he heard an odd sound. Sharp yet soft, harsh yet mellow; it was so out of place that for a second his mind drew a complete blank. The plaintive note folding out into a sweet melody reminded him of home - home like he'd never had - before finally revealing itself to his brain.

It was the sound of a violin.

Automatically, he went over his mental list of assigned crew on the Normandy, but none fit the profile of a musician. Then again, after his last few conversations, that didn't necessarily mean anything. He never would have pegged Pressly or Chakwas for Dungeons & Dragons, couldn't have ever imagined Joker having a good time at a ballet performance or Lt. Alenko in fighter's tights, not to mention he had a hard time envisioning Wrex daintily sampling vintages at a wine festival, or Garrus standing in line to pet fluffy animals--or Dr. T'Soni waiting eagerly by barbecue grill, tongs in hand, ready to pull out the steaks.

Of course, none of this was helping him figure out who would be playing a violin on his ship. He had nothing against violins - indeed, the pure musicianship displayed via passion for that most classical of stringed instruments was idealistically appealing to him - but for some reason the thought of one of his crew playing a violin just couldn't make it all the way through his mind.

Rounding a corner into the barracks, he found the source of the music.

Ashley Williams.

He made a quick mental reassessment. Somehow, in her hands, a violin just seemed to fit. In her hands it was probably even half-weapon.

Sitting easily on a bunk, eyes closed in concentration, she wasn't yet aware that he'd entered. She was lost in the music, swaying gently back and forth to the gentle tune and movement of the bow across the strings.

Williams caught sight of him out of the corner of her eye. Instantly, she set down the violin and bow, got to her feet, and snapped a quick salute.

"Sir!"

"At ease, Williams. Just coming to check up on you."

She nodded. "Yes sir."

Frederick felt himself at a loss for words, having been caught just so completely off guard by the violin in her hands that his reason for being there didn't really seem that important.

He gestured. "You play?" He knew it was an obvious question, dumb even, but felt the need to make conversation and thus justify his presence.

Williams gave a small pleased smile. "Yes sir. It was the only thing of mine from Eden Prime that survived the attack. That's odd, don't you think? My mom used to play while dad was away on duty; sat there for hours at a time grinding away at those strings. She never talked about it, but I think it was her way of coping with all the worry and anxiety when he was off with the fleet. I just kind of learned by osmosis."

"Is that the same one as your mother had?"

"Don't I wish. She actually gave hers to me on my twelfth birthday, but the minute I signed up with the Marines, she was like 'oh no you don't, Ash; you're not using this to stop bullets', so I had to get myself a new one."

"She didn't want you in the Marines?"

"I wouldn't say she didn't want me there, she just didn't want her violin to end up like some of my old dolls I'd use for target practice in our back yard."

Frederick chuckled. "She sounds like a nice lady."

"Yeah. You can't get perfect, but mom and dad were as darn close to perfect as you can get considering the fact that we're a military family, one or more of us almost constantly away. What about you, Commander? You have a good family?"

Frederick grunted, realizing he didn't want to go there. "Well, mine were different." He shrugged. "A lot of things could probably have gone better than they did. My sister's an activist back on Earth; she checks in on me fairly frequently and we get on well. In fact, I really wish we could see each other more, we were always close. I also go fishing with old Uncle Zimmer every once in a while when I'm on leave. He's a regular old Minnesotan and the best of my father's side of the family."

"What about your parents?" she asked.

"They've got their life, I've got mine. We don't intersect much anymore," Frederick said flatly. He knew she deserved more, but now didn't seem like the right time to delve into the issue. Then again, there was no good time.

Ashley seemed to get his mood, changed the subject. "Permission to speak candidly, sir?"

He nodded. "Go ahead."

She frowned a little. "Are you starting to get slightly worried? About the Council, I mean."

"Could you explain yourself a little more clearly?"

"I'm sorry, sir, I overheard some of your debriefing with the Council. Doesn't it strike you as a bit typical that they'd second-guess your decision to kill that plant thing back at the colony? I realize how this must sound, but do you think they'd have made such a fuss if it had been an asari or turian colony instead? I don't know about you, Commander, but it seems to me they like to ride your ass every time you do something that's in the Alliance's best interest but maybe not theirs."

Frederick was starting to get where she was going. "And you're concerned by this, Williams?"

"Respectfully, sir, I think they need to get their heads out of their asses and not expect you to leave the Alliance and the rest of mankind out in the cold just because they put a badge on your chest and called you a Spectre. Sir."

"Alright, I think I see where you're coming from, Williams," Frederick replied, picking his words as carefully as he would when conducting sensitive interviews with possible suspects. He wanted to get this right the first time, avoid miscommunication. "You have some valid concerns. Realistically, though, the Council second-guess, nit-pick, and purse their lips over every decision I make, doesn't much matter what it is. If I'd saved that devilspawn creature alive, the same turian councilor who decried my decision to kill it would have given me a lecture on the folly of leaving such a dangerous creature on the loose.

"They're just ticked because I acted on my own, without their control, despite their claim that that's the whole purpose of the Spectres. No, I don't think they entirely trust me. Sixty years - the better part of a century and two entire generations - doesn't seem like a particularly long time to them, so they can't perceive how we could have made much actual progress. They can't put themselves in our shoes, so to speak."

Ashley scowled. "So how are we supposed to get anything done then? If they don't trust you, how can we trust them?"

"I think bureaucrats are the same no matter where you go. Don't really ever trust them. For instance, I don't trust Udina as far as I can throw him."

"Well, Udina... good point, sir." A mischievous grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. "But I don't know, you could probably throw him pretty far."

Frederick smiled. "My point being, I don't completely trust him, but I have to work with him regardless."

"But the Council's different. The Council--"

"Are aliens?"

"Well, yeah, I guess."

Frederick sighed. "Williams, when I was in rehab after Akuze, I got to know a lot of aliens on a personal basis, even bureaucrats. The Alliance could only do so much for me so I was seeing a lot of private clinics on the Citadel. Then I was approached with an offer for a position at Alliance Internal Affairs, and I got to see the kind of scum and villainy we already have in our own race. The point of this whole speech being: aliens, humans, there's not really much of a different. They're people, just like anyone else; some you can trust, some you can't, there's the good and there's the bad and you can't always tell just by looking at them."

Ashley nodded slowly in contemplation, reasoning it out. "Sorry Commander, I know you're right, I just--I have a hard time looking at it that way."

"Well, just take this for an example: Lt. Alenko likes to smash guys into steel cages and hit them in the groin with chairs in his spare time, Joker's a sucker for ballet and dance, Garrus likes to pet little fluffies, and Wrex has spent a considerable amount of time getting to know classic vintage wines."

Ashley laughed a little at his subtle change of topic. "Wrex--wine?"

A broad smile spread over Frederick's face. "If there's at least one way in which we're all a little similar, it's in our odd choice of pastimes. Don't you think?"

"Hmm, too true."

Frederick nodded his head back in the general direction of the mess hall. "Come on, Chief, there's a steak waiting for you back in the mess."

"That sounds good, Commander."