The viewport was wide open, as usual, bathing the room with dim light. The only other light in the room was the faintest blue glow, surrounding Samara like a second skin— a lone sign of the asari's carefully contained turmoil.

"I have had a goal, a target, for a very long time, Shepard." The Commander waited, leaning against the edge of the viewport. She had never heard such uncertainty in the justicar's tone, and it was more than a little humbling that such a powerful, aloof kind of being would allow her to see this hint of weakness. "Now… I am unsure."

Staring out into the void, her back straight and arms hanging loosely, Samara maintained a dignity and remoteness that Shepard envied a little. Sure, she was getting better at the politics, but she was still too hot-headed to ever be completely inscrutable.

Eventually the silence grew too heavy, and Shepard sucked in a short breath through her nose. "I have no idea where to go from here, Samara. Sovereign nearly crippled the Citadel Fleet, decimated the Fifth— there could be hundreds of thousands of Reapers lurking out there." She shook her head sharply, refusing to dwell on the impossible odds any more than necessary. Impossible odds were her speciality, even if they did seem particularly bad this time. "I'm unsure too, but the one thing I absolutely refuse to do is stop moving forward, even if I'm flying blind. Sitting on my butt never held a lot of appeal."

"Nor to me," Samara said softly, and Shepard was relieved to see the corner of her lips twitch upwards. "The scale of the Reaper threat is barely comprehensible, but it is not the only evil in the universe. I will go, but I will return soon."

Selfishly, that wasn't the answer Shepard had hoped her friend would come to, but it wasn't surprising. "All right. Where?"

The radiance of the biotic field had faded; the room was very dark, but the stars still reflected from Samara's eyes when she turned her head. "I will disembark here, but I believe I will travel to Omega. I will restore some balance."

"So," she said carefully, keeping her voice as normal as possible. Now, after so much effort spent cracking Jack's imposing shell of bullshit and grief, would not be the right time to screw it all up. She was poised as close to the stairs as possible, just at the arch structure that opened into the space of Jack's room, and she was ready to retreat out of the hidey-hole if the still unpredictable biotic went crazy-nuts. "Packing?"

It was a stupid question, what with the canvas duffle bag clearly slumped on the small cot, stuffed full of way more guns than clothes, and Jack's derisive tone of voice when she responded did not disappoint.

"Congrats, Shep. You still got your eyes." There were a long few minutes of silence, broken only by the hum of the engine core and the small sounds of frustration escaping Jack's lips as she searched almost violently for something to occupy her hands— any excuse not to look at Shepard. Eventually, with one final grunt of annoyance, Jack kicked the side of the cot hard enough to dent the frame.

"Listen," she growled, and Shepard wasn't about to do anything less. Regardless of how she ran her mouth, Jack deserved to have more people listen to her. "It's nothing personal, all right? I mean, you are a goddamn pussy way too often, but I don't hate you. I just don't— ah, fuck—"

It was like watching an animal in a zoo, pacing and snarling, and Shepard didn't feel guilty for thinking so. Jack was a bit more feral than most people— even after months in the Terminus Systems, even after Aeia, Shepard knew that to be true.

"I can't convince you to stay," she murmured, and it wasn't a question. Jack was already gone, at least for a while. They were lingering near the Citadel for a few days, cautiously picking up some emergency parts for the drive core and planning to be gone before the vultures noticed them limping, and it really was the perfect opportunity to disembark. Like everything else, Jack would prefer her exit to be quick and brutal.

Finally, there was some eye contact, and a flash of teeth that was almost a grin. "Shit no. I'd be tearing up the bulkheads in a week. Space all you motherfuckers."

It was not a good thing to mention, even to joke about. Jack knew that, and Shepard forced herself to forgive the woman. Taking a small step forward, deeper into the pit, the Commander crossed her ankles loose and casual as she cocked one hip back against the wall.

It hardly mattered anyway; even if Shepard had wanted to call her on her poor choice of words, Jack wasn't finished. "I mean, it's been a treat and all, getting shot at by every asshole in the galaxy who thinks he can hold a piece, but I don't play well with others." There was another pause, shorter this time, and nothing got kicked. Shepard felt the weight of Jack's attention settle on her.

Shuffling her bag around, guns clinking together, Jack took a deep breath. "Just… you've done a lot for me, and I appreciate that. Maybe if I get tired of dicking around on my own, I'll be back. Maybe not. Who the hell knows."

"You've always got a place on my ship, you know. I mean that."

Rolling her eyes in a way that, had she been anyone else, would have made her look ridiculously young, Jack zipped up the duffle. "Save it. I know."

Shepard had one more shot, waiting patiently in the barrel. Just as Jack slung the bag over her shoulder, grim determination hanging heavy around her, Shepard fired. "Thanks for your help, Jack. I wouldn't have wanted to do this without you, and I was glad to have you at my back."

False sentiments would have sent her into a rage— the simple truth stopped her cold. Shepard could see how tightly her thin, pale fingers were biting into the duffel's wide, webbed strap.

She would leave, but she would be back. With a snort, Jack clomped across the deck towards the stairs. "Yeah, well, they don't make leathernecks for their fucking brains, do they?"

Shepard smiled, broad and true, and leaned against the bulkhead. "Nope. We're more of a point and shoot design."

"Whatever. Try not to bury yourself in the shit again." Loud boots, clanging as if Jack weighed five times as much as her small frame, disappeared upwards. "Later, Shepard."

"Tuchanka's the next stop after we blow out of here. I've already sent the message to let Wrex know you're coming."

Grunt growled low, almost too deep for her ears to register, and flexed his thick fingers. "Good."

And that was all the talk they'd have about that. Shepard had very little interest in discussing exactly how many females had shown an interest in breeding with the genetically perfect clone, slayer of thresher maws and baby-Reapers.

Grunt was… too distracted to notice.

Later, after he'd settled in with his people, Grunt had already made it clear that he would be returning to the Normandy. The enemy still lived, after all.

She had been working her way downwards, through the decks, and now Zaeed was the last crewmember she had to check up on. There had been no surprises with the others— a handful of crew beginning their exodus, back to families, or safety, or whatever drew them away. About a third of her regular crew, and she hardly blamed them. Of her elite squad? Only Jack and Grunt, and Samara.

Tali would stay on board, unless the Fleet called her back for something truly vital. She'd had her fill of dirty politics for the time being. Miranda and Jacob were staying to fight the good fight, and to stay near each other (though neither would admit it). Mordin had found his final hurrah, the occupation of his twilight years, working in their state-of-the-art lab (and he had, among other things, both the genophage and Kepral's Syndrome to keep him busy). Thane had found some small sliver of hope in the success of their suicide mission, and was allowing Mordin to examine him. Perhaps it was the weekly messages from Kolyat that kept him from disappearing off to die. Legion would remain as some kind of liaison to organics, at least for a while. The geth had an interest in destroying the Reapers, the false gods, and Legion seemed to have some strange fascination with Shepard specifically. Garrus… well.

Zaeed was the last, and Shepard was honestly shocked she still had to drag her ass down to cargo. She'd fully expected the merc, along with the faint stink of cigar that permeated the lower decks of her ship, would have already been long gone. She'd avoided asking about Zaeed's continuing presence for many reasons, not the least of which being that no matter his occasional attitude, the man was a great shot and tough as all hell. Very, very useful to have on your side, so long as you could trust him there.

And Shepard, damn her stupid gut instincts, trusted the old bastard.

She hit the chime before entering, because hell if she'd risk walking in on the man… polishing his rifle again. Garrus had nearly pissed himself laughing when she'd told him how it'd happened the first time, but the turian had certainly clamed up quick when she'd made passing reference to Zaeed having a very decent body for a man of his age and experience.

Now she always used the chime, and this time she got a distracted "Yeah, come in," for her trouble. The door whooshed open, she stepped inside, and he actually was polishing his rifle. Pieces of Vindicator were scattered across the table where Jessie normally lay, and Shepard was treated to the rare sight of Zaeed in what passed for his civvies— faded green fatigue bottoms, and a dark grey undershirt. The merc barely glanced up from his work, and Shepard suppressed a wince when she saw the thin cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth, but the thing wasn't lit. Hell. At least he had the sense not to set himself on fire, with the solvent fumes in the air and the oil on his fingers.

"Commander," he rumbled in greeting, wiping down the side of the rifle barrel with a cloth. There was no evidence of any sort of travel preparations— the room still looked like a battle museum, and Zaeed had even installed a bracket to hold Jessie on the wall. It looked a bit like he was settling in for a long haul.

"I noticed you're not packing your things," she said, subtlety be damned. Her bluntness earned an amused chuckle, rattling from his throat like coarse gravel.

"Why," he replied, peering at her out of his good eye as he snapped the freshly cleaned barrel back in place. "You booting me out?"

"No, but I'm not paying you either." There was a small freight container near the door, and Shepard flicked an indeterminately clean sock off its lid before dragging it closer to the table to sit. "At least not the kind of creds Cerberus offered."

Zaeed finished reassembling the rifle with quick, automatic movements, then began wiping excess oil from his hands. "The kind of creds Cerberus offered are also the kind of creds that already cleared, and are already safely stashed where pissed-off shadow organisations can't snatch them back. I got my money, Shepard, and it's more than enough to retire."

That was unexpected, and she didn't even try to keep the scepticism out of her voice. "You don't seem like the retirement type."

He laughed again, a barking sound, and leaned back in his chair. "What, you mean lounging around some goddamn condo in a peaceful little colony, getting fat and uglier? With a cat? I'd rather eat my fucking gun."

He braced one boot on the edge of the table, tilting even farther back. If he'd been some cocky FNG, the pose would have easily been grounds for a smack, but Zaeed could somehow make that swaggering air work. "You remember on Illium? When I said I never work for a security firm?" When she nodded, he continued. "I enjoy my lifestyle the way it is. I like autonomy, and padded pockets go a long way in securing that for a while. I don't have to take another job right away, and you could sure as hell use the help."

Something still wasn't quite right. Shepard scratched her eyebrow. "You offering to stay and help? Out of the goodness of your heart?"

"Out of my goddamn good sense, more like." Chair legs hit the deck with a loud clang, and suddenly Zaeed was all seriousness and steel. This was a man who'd made a few trips into hell, and this was the reason Shepard had begun to trust him. "There's a mess of trouble coming, and you seem to be one of the very few not shoving your head up your arse about it. I haven't lived this long without first-rate instincts, and I think if we've got any chance at all, you're it. I'm sticking with you, Commander."

She'd checked with EDI after she'd stepped back into the elevator, and had been pleasantly surprised at Garrus' location. Apparently, the guy was making himself right at home, and that wasn't bad. Not at all.

She'd never had somebody to come home to before. It felt important.

"Hey," he said as she entered, barely looking up from the datapad he was reading. He'd claimed a seat over at the smaller desk down beside Shepard's sofa, and she could see definite tension in his spine, to match the extremely forced casualness in his voice. "What's the damage?"

"Privacy mode, EDI." She tossed her own datapads— three of them: a repair schedule, a requisition request from engineering, and a general medical update— beside her terminal, and stretched out the tight feeling in her shoulders as she descended the stairs. "Not as bad as I'd thought, actually. We're losing eleven crew, plus Samara, Grunt, and Jack."

Despite the dark mood lingering around the edges of her mind, and whatever Garrus was pretending to read, it didn't change the fact that he was just hanging out in her quarters. That wasn't something she was going to ignore.

Foregoing a seat on the sofa, Shepard didn't hesitate as she gently pushed his datapad aside and squeezed into the space between Garrus and the edge of the desk. His expression was a little surprised, but he still slid the chair out a bit, making her perch on his lap rather comfortable. It was all the better when his arm came up around her, and no armour on either of them meant she could feel the heat of him seeping up into the backs of her thighs.

"You're like a leathery hot water bottle, big guy," she murmured, and the corner of her mouth twitched just a bit when he lowered his forehead to hers. "I might just keep you."

The soft, multi-tonal rumble was a very pleased kind of sound— between it, and the feel of talons tugging the neat bun of her hair loose, Shepard wasn't ashamed to admit her stomach fluttered. A little.

"Doesn't sound half-bad," Garrus said softly, promisingly, but just as he began to nuzzle along her jaw, her comm terminal chimed. "Damn it."

She sighed, unsurprised and incredibly frustrated that her long, stressful day wasn't over yet, and buried her face in Garrus' neck for one brief moment. "Shit. Shit." Being a marine wasn't a nine-to-five kind of life, and she'd enlisted for that— being a Spectre and a rogue galaxy-protector didn't exactly increase her down time either. She very firmly reminded herself that calls to her private terminal were often important, and with a brief kiss to Garrus' cheek, she got to her feet.

"You're not done cheering me up, hot stuff," she said, tamping down her irritation with a bit of ridiculous humour. The comm chimed again, insistently, and she all but vaulted the stairs. "Don't go anywhere."

"I'm staying right here," Garrus replied easily, with a bit of a chuckle, and maybe he hadn't meant for it to be a meaningful sentiment, but it was.

Throwing herself into her chair, Shepard punched in the command code that would bring EDI back. The blue globe lit up beside the door, and Shepard turned around enough to give the AI her attention. "Where's the fire, EDI?"

"It is a priority vidcall from Councillor Anderson, Shepard. On a secure channel."

"Anderson?" Pressing the heel of her hand against her forehead, hard, Shepard counted to ten as her irritation flared. "I met with him this morning. Again. All morning. What the hell?"

"You're cranky," Garrus piped up, and she whipped around to frown at him through the display of ships. The look prompted him to lift his hands in surrender, but with absolutely no apology on his face. "You're entitled, but hey, still true. Take a breath, and whoa with the death glare."

"You're getting awful mouthy, soldier," she growled back, but her frustration had lost most of its heat. Now she was just mildly annoyed. "Patch the call through; thanks, EDI."

Her console blinked, shimmering to life with a tiny image of her old captain. He didn't look terribly pissed off, so maybe the Citadel wasn't imploding.

"Shepard," he said by way of greeting. "I just got out of a meeting with the Alliance brass— longest damn argument of my life, and you had a starring role." Suddenly, there was a sharp, harsh voice in her head that sounded suspiciously like a particularly grizzled Gunny she'd met on her first posting out of boot camp.

Other people are being inconvenienced too, marine, so stifle your goddamn whining.

"Anything I should be worried about, sir?" she heard herself ask, her brain running on auto while her thoughts caught up, and she felt a pang of apprehension when Anderson shrugged almost guiltily.

"It depends on how you look at it." Okay, that sounded ominous. "That information you gave me about Cerberus ties within the Alliance? It's got some feathers ruffled." Anderson ran one hand over his head, smiling slightly with what appeared to be strained composure. "I'll spare you all the gristly details, but I will say that we're lucky neither of us is still commissioned. I'm fairly certain they'd already have the court-martial assembled."

Shepard felt her stomach drop. She didn't particularly like burning bridges, but it was especially distressing when she hadn't intended to light the fire. Garrus was shifting in his own seat, his expression a mirror of her own concern, but Anderson wasn't finished.

"Nothing was decided today— there's another round of meetings tomorrow, and I need you there in the afternoon. Fourteen-thirty hours."

She had wanted to be the hell away from the Citadel by fourteen-thirty, but there was a tenor of steel in Anderson's tone that kicked that escape plan right in the teeth. Instead, she nodded. "Of course, sir. Can you give me some idea of what I'm walking into?"

"Piles of bullshit," came the pointed answer, without missing a beat, and it was so unexpected that Shepard couldn't help but laugh. The reaction earned a chuckle from Anderson, which was something, but then the moment was gone.

"I won't lie to you, Shepard," he said, and suddenly his voice sounded like he'd aged a hundred years in a split second. "There's talk from some about trying to seize the Normandy, since it's based on classified Alliance design. Most positions aren't that extreme, thank god. There is a definite call for some serious debriefings, intelligence and tech sharing, all that. Losing you to the Council once was embarrassing, especially after what it took to get you to Ilos, and now they're blustering around like you bloodied their nose."

"Life is a negotiation," she murmured, remembering the sterile scent of a clinic after the acrid, rotten stink of the Omega slums. "We all give to get what we want." Before Anderson could comment, she snapped back to attention. "I'll be there, sir. Ready for whatever they've got."

"Good; thank you Shepard. I'll see you in my office tomorrow." And just like that, the comm went dark.

"Well, great." She took a deep breath, flexing out her fingers. She'd hidden it below the edge of the desk, but her hands had been clenched in painfully tight fists ever since seizing the Normandy had been mentioned. That wasn't going to happen, no matter how ugly things got. The Alliance could go to hell if they thought they were taking her ship.

Garrus' mandibles were snapped tight against his face, even the scarred one, and that was a definite sign of displeasure. What a mood killer. "Ah, yeah. That could have been better news."

"Could have been worse, too," she added, but the thought didn't exactly help her frame of mind. Tugging off her boots, she stood and padded back around to the lower level of her quarters, and for a moment she considered bypassing Garrus altogether. The bed looked comfortable, quiet, and a lot like something she could bury herself in for the next few centuries. But no.

"C'mere," he rumbled, flanging deeply, and she followed the sound. Her higher thought processes were already busy considering variables and concocting contingency plans, and Garrus knew that. It didn't stop him from drawing her close, cuddling her up against his chest, and Shepard knew that his mind was running off in a dozen different directions too.

It was actually more comfortable, because she was confident that whatever happened the next day, they'd work it out. Nobody outmanoeuvred the pair of them.

"You're bringing the Cain? Really?" Shepard glanced over at Jacob, who was looking utterly askance, and twisted her mouth up into a fierce kind of grin. Her impressive collection of heavy weapons was laid out across one of the armoury tables, and the Nuke Launcher was a solid, dangerous weight in her hands.

"Too much, you think?" Regardless of the message such a weapon might send, Shepard was nothing if not practical. A conference room was hardly the most effective battlefield for the type of high-explosive slug that caused a mushroom cloud. Even if they ended up having to fight their way back to the shuttle, she didn't want to blow a hole in the Citadel. Setting the gun back in its place, Shepard hoisted the strange Particle Beam she'd found on Horizon, checking what passed for its magazine before slinging it over her shoulder. There was a familiar click as her hardsuit grabbed hold of the weapon, and she was good to go.

"All right, I'm headed to the hangar. EDI will transfer all command codes to Miranda when I disembark. Be ready for trouble."

Jacob shook his head, patting the hand cannon strapped to his hip. "Been ready for trouble since I met you, Shepard." There was a time when the idea of defending against a boarding party hadn't been fore in her mind. Things had definitely changed. "I'll man the forward battery— tell Garrus I'll be good to his guns."

"You're a gentleman, Mr. Taylor," she said, trying to sound less distracted than she felt, and the pair of them started out towards the elevator. Kelly glanced up as they passed her station, smiling in a way that looked both supportive and a little nervous.

"Good luck, Commander," the yeoman called, just as the elevator doors slid shut, and Shepard shook off her own edginess.

"I am so damn tired of trying to justify this mission, Jacob," she murmured suddenly, rolling her shoulder. Before her refit, that joint had always been not-quite-sore at the worst times— a reminder of Elysium, and a batarian she'd let get too close. He'd come up on her flank, a slug from his rifle tearing through her shields and the muscle of her deltoid.

He'd been the one to give her the scar across her face too, the one she'd lost somewhere in the void. She'd returned fire automatically, even as the agony lanced outwards and the blood ran hot down into her hardsuit, but she couldn't ignore the half-dozen bastards lurking out front. In the split second her attention diverted, laying down some suppression, the batarian was on her, with a serrated blade as long as her hand glinting in the light of her muzzle flash.

She still had the freckle on her left ass cheek that looked like New Zealand, but Miranda hadn't thought that scar was important enough to put back on.

"The way I see it," Jacob replied, interrupting the memory she'd fallen into. "You've got nothing to justify, and you know my opinion of Alliance command. We don't need more enemies, true enough, but I doubt we've got a chance of getting an ally out of this." Artificial gravity pulled at her gut just slightly as the elevator decelerated, and then the doors were opening with a soft hiss.

The sound of chatter from the mess hall was faint, but audible, and Shepard jerked her chin out towards the corridor. "Yeah," she said, and she felt the words become reality as they left her lips. "I'm done tiptoeing around."

"If this has been you tiptoeing— Hell." Jacob stepped out onto the deck, keeping one hand braced on the open door. "I'll make sure the cannons are primed. Kick ass, Shepard."

"You know it." She smirked, forcing confidence to churn through her veins, and then the doors were closing again.

It was the Alliance, through Udina, who'd grounded her the first time. It was the Alliance who'd disbanded her crew, sent them drifting, and had done nothing but disparage the warning she'd left behind when she died. It was the Alliance, not the Council, who wanted to leash her most of all.

Spectres were given a goal and told to accomplish it. Marines very rarely, if ever, had that kind of liberty.

The hangar looked a bit crowded, but not unexpectedly so. When Shepard stepped out, she was braced— ready to blast her way through whatever goat rope was waiting.

"Mount up," she bellowed, and her ground team snapped into action. Armed to the teeth, she watched the four of them pile into the Kodiak, and gave Garrus' arm an affectionate punch as she jumped in behind him.

Garrus and Grunt for the muscle, Thane for the cloak-and-dagger, and Tali for the KO— and the Alliance had thought they didn't like her alien crew before. Just wait until they got a load of this.

She leaned into the cockpit, rapping twice on the bulkhead with her gauntlet. "Get her in the air, Goldstein."

"Yes, ma'am."

Since they'd moved the Normandy closer to the Citadel after her first meeting with Anderson, the trip wouldn't take much more than an hour. Shepard settled in her seat as the shuttle shuddered with the first purr of engines, and the warning lights in the hangar began flashing brightly through the viewport. She was starting to feel damned determined about this, getting her head into the mission, and it was a familiar place to be. She was on.

The Kodiak held twelve, plus pilots, so five wasn't cramped. Still, it was a little cosy with a frustrated krogan pacing around, and through sheer mental-preservation, Shepard found her attention eventually wandering to the quarian who's helmet had been reflecting the orange glow of her omni-tool for over twenty minutes.

Determination— that flood of confidence that always seemed to overcome her doubts— tended to make her cheeky too. Hooking her ankle over her knee, Shepard raised one brow in Tali's direction.

"So, how's Kal?" There was a long moment of silence, but just as Shepard became convinced that her young friend was too distracted even for some mild teasing, the omni-tool flickered off.

Tali's head whipped up, and Shepard could almost see the blush that would have coloured her cheeks, if she'd been human. Whether or not quarians could actually blush, or whether it meant the same thing if they did, was beside the point. "I— what? I'm not… What do you mean?"

Grunt was off in his own world, growling and cracking his knuckles, and Thane was deep in mediation. Only Garrus was aware enough to groan at Shepard's dangerous grin, even as he continued to adjust the settings of his visor.

"Never mind," she chuckled, tapping her fingers across the plating on her thigh. "Just thinking out loud."

Tali shifted in her seat, looking bashful, and it was so sweet Shepard couldn't help but smile. She leaned left, pressing her shoulder against Garrus', and got a low grumble for her trouble.

"I'm working here," Garrus griped, punching another few commands into the interface at his temple. His visor screen shimmered slightly, and she knocked him harder, ceramic clanking together.

"Me too," she shot back, glancing briefly at her own HUD to triple-check the settings. "I'm getting psyched. Can't you tell?"

Tali huffed out a breath, gusting exasperatedly through her respirator, and reactivated her omni-tool. "I can tell this is going to be interesting. And Kal is fine."

Anderson definitely noticed her choice in companions for this mission— this meeting— but he simply looked resigned. Udina, who was skulking around the edges of their group like an old varren as they discussed strategy for dealing with the Alliance brass, looked ready to pop a vein.

"Incredibly stupid," he was muttering to himself, shooting poisonous looks in her direction at every opportunity. "A slap in the face—"

"Damn it, Udina," Anderson barked suddenly, sounding every bit a hard-as-nails devil dog. Shepard felt her spine tighten automatically. "Shut up, or get out. I'm not in the mood to deal with your pissing and moaning."

"We're going to be late," Tali cut in, her voice bolstered with a kind of confidence that Shepard could tell was only partly forced. Tali knew her job, and she knew it well.

They were late, but only a little. Now that the Alliance held a Council position, the human government was afforded certain perks they'd done without before. Access to one of the most impressive meeting chambers within the Presidium, for example.

The room was huge— more of an amphitheatre than a traditional conference room— but the stadium seating swooping up the walls was shadowed and dark. Only a ring of faintly softened light lit the long oval table in the centre of the ominous space, and the fourteen admirals and politicians seated around its polished surface.

Shepard understood battlefields, and psychological warfare. If they wanted her squirming, they'd miscalculated, and given her a distinct edge.

Thane was already gone, secreted away somewhere in the downright convenient darkness. The brass hadn't even seen him.

Tali was stationed out near the lake, looking like any other quarian with her helmet buried in an omintool, but any other quarian wouldn't have had a geth chattering into her comm system. Geth might not intentionally infiltrate, but they did occasionally assist with a bit of hacking on the order of their Shepard Commander— with some of EDI's processing power diverted for the extra guarantee, they would be ready with the show when the time was right.

She'd told Garrus to look menacing, and Grunt to keep himself firmly in check unless she gave an order. Her scaly wingmen, her team… the three of them were damned impressive striding behind Anderson, if she did say so herself.

She swallowed back the urge to salute, instead dropping into parade rest without permission, and got a few twitching frowns for her trouble. Being on the offensive from the beginning hadn't been her plan, but then she'd seen the room's layout and the message it clearly conveyed, and she changed her mind.

"Good of you to join us, Councillor Anderson." Shepard couldn't risk considering these officials as individuals— she knew too many of the admirals, and their sour, disappointed expressions still cut deep. At least she wasn't staring across the table at her own parents, or the Joint Military Chiefs.

There were two empty chairs, separated enough from the rest to give the entire proceedings an air of interrogation. Anderson sat in one of them, but Shepard simply looked straight ahead, not meeting any particular gazes.

"Five minutes," Tali's voice crackled softly in her ear. If only bureaucracy moved as fast as her tech team, Shepard might not be wasting her time here.

She didn't look around for a glint off a scope. Thane was too good for that.

"You wanted your debriefing," Anderson was saying, very calmly. "And now Commander Shepard can speak for herself."

There was a pause, as if they expected her to start rhyming off a speech. She wasn't about to make it that easy.

She barely blinked. Eventually, someone spoke.

"Commander Shepard," said a very familiar voice, and she wasn't entirely certain if Admiral Hackett's presence was a boon, or a punch in the gut. Was he one of her supporters in this viper's nest, or had he finally had enough of her flying fast and loose with regs? "This information you've provided… it's troubling."

"Yes, sir," she replied smartly. If Hackett was on her side, she wasn't about to mouth off.

"It's garbage," someone else cut in, and she didn't have to look over to know it was one of the other admirals. She recognised MacEachern's drawl, and though she'd never met him in person, she still knew his current tone didn't bode well. He wasn't on the list of Cerberus' moles, or even on the pay-off list, but he was listed as a person of interest for future access. Shepard understood why such interest coming to light would stick in his craw. "We're supposed to accept this absurd and potentially disastrous information on your word, when your own loyalties are suspect. Ridiculous."

"You're right, sir," she said, her voice steady and firm. "That is ridiculous. My loyalty is to my crew, and to galactic survival— I'm sorry that wasn't clear."

"And the Alliance," one of the politicians asked pointedly, the only clear voice within the sea of murmurs Shepard's last comment had prompted. "You've got no loyalty left for your people, soldier?"

More grumbling followed, and for a split second Shepard felt the military opinion in the room shift sharply in her favour, before levelling out again. She was a marine.

She lifted her chin, allowing the barest measure of danger to darken her words. "With all due respect, ma'am, I have shed blood for this Alliance my entire life. My actions now reflect nothing but absolute loyalty to my people." Jacob was right; she didn't have to explain herself to a bunch of shortsighted desk-jockeys. "And I'm going to do everything in my power to try and save my people, whether you like it or not."

"You're not some autonomous—" someone started squawking, and she held up her hand.

"I am a Spectre. If you've got issues with my conduct, take it up with the Council." Making no attempts to slow her movements, no concessions for the tension crackling through the air, Shepard reached into one of the small compartments built into her hardsuit. Ignoring the nervous shifting and the one or two gasps at her sudden move, she threw the OSD onto the conference table. It skittered, sliding nearly perfectly into the middle.

"There," she said, linking her hands calmly behind her back once more. "Schematics for more than a half dozen massive upgrades, mostly for ships. Thanix cannon, multi-core CBT shielding, along with everything we've discovered about Collector and Reaper tech. It's already been sent to the Council, and any other stable government I could think of."

MacEachern turned red, then purple, and he wasn't the only one. "You what—"

Shepard raised her voice just slightly, speaking over the growing objections. "The Reapers are coming, and everyone needs to be ready. Even if you don't believe me, I don't think you'll refuse this kind of military tech advancement, especially if everybody else has it too."

Anderson turned his head, giving her a definite look. The room was buzzing, the dam of civility was about to burst, and Shepard activated her comm the second she saw expressions harden and hands twitch towards terminals.

"Shut it down," she said softly, and a moment later there was a cacophony of aborted buzzing as calls for the heavily armed containment team waiting outside would not connect. Shepard didn't have to glance back to know the security interface on the conference room door was glowing red— locked.

"The room is silent, Shepard," Tali assured her, and Shepard took a deep breath. "Keelah se'lai."

"Shepard," Admiral Hackett began coolly, his large hands braced on the table's edge. He hadn't tried to call security. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Trying to maintain my liberty, sir, and a safe exit from this room. I'm not keeping anybody in, just keeping the troops outside off my ass. If any of you want to leave, you're free to do so." Jerking one thumb over her shoulder, she motioned to Grunt. "I could have let them charge in here, but I've got a krogan on my squad, and he gets a little excited when people point guns at us."

"Is that a threat—"

"Jesus, Anderson, do something—"

"How dare you—"

"This is unacceptable, Commander."

She shook her head, almost sadly, and glanced at Garrus out of the corner of her eye. "We're done here, then."

He nodded, and she drew some measure of solace from the memory of his solid, warm bulk. Just about the only friend I've got in this screwed-up galaxy. She wasn't all alone in this.

"Commander," Anderson cut in, turning fully in his seat to face her as directly as possible. It also had the added bonus of hiding the small changes in his expression from the brass. He was pretty good at bending the truth, but his eyes sometimes betrayed him. "Spectre. Please, we don't have to end this on bad terms. Surely there's some compromise possible here."

There were still a few leaning towards her side, and their voices rose in agreement. This was going better than she'd feared. Hell, no one had even drawn a pistol yet.

She paused, trying to appear as if she were considering the offer. "I don't want bad terms either, Councillor. I'm still a marine, and I don't regret a second of my service, but there's a threat out there I can't ignore."

Rather surprisingly, it was one of the politicians who spoke up first— an older gentleman with steely grey hair and dark eyes, who Shepard thought she might recognise from news vids. He spoke with an understated accent she couldn't place.

"We must negotiate a compromise," he said quietly, and all the other suits shut up. She chose to take that as a good sign. "This is too important to piss it all away because of our pride. Anderson, you represent the Council in these proceedings. Is it possible to hammer this out with you, and get all these goddamn guns out of my meeting?"

"Fine by me," Shepard replied, directing the words very obviously towards Anderson. The relief that flashed briefly over his face was nearly palpable.

"Ah, thank you, Minister." Anderson tilted his chin ever so slightly towards the door. "Shepard, I'll contact you."

"Yes, sir." On her mark, Grunt rumbled some vaguely threatening sound and started the slow, careful walk to the exit. She opened her comm channel as she turned to follow, with Garrus walking drag. "Cancel dampening. Green light."

Tali's answer came in the form of the main doors sliding open, revealing a half-dozen marines, all with assault rifles pointed their way. Shepard tensed, unsure whether she should prepare to lay out a few concussive rounds into the wall of firepower, or into Grunt's back before the young krogan tried to eat someone.

"Stand down!" Hackett's voice was clear, powerful, and thunderous even over Grunt's dangerous snarl. Barely a second of hesitation before rifles were lowered proved these marines were well trained, and Shepard did not allow her steps to falter as she shouldered past Grunt and strode out past their welcome-wagon. It would have been messy if Tali hadn't locked the doors, even if it was a tad theatrical.

It wasn't until they were a dozen metres removed from the conference room that Thane made his appearance, stepping smoothly from around a bulkhead and dropping into step beside her without missing a beat. The man was like mist when he wanted to be.

"So?" she asked quietly, very aware of the Presidium crowds they were currently melding back into. "Everything ran smooth, I take it?"

There was a little bit of red blood on Thane's wrist, no more than a speck, but it was gone in an instant as he casually adjusted his jacket cuffs. "It did. There were twelve hostiles hidden in the room— four snipers with support troops. I disabled them, but nothing worse than a few broken bones."

They were coming into the Presidium proper now, with the huge structure opening up before them like paradise caught in a bottle. Tali was just visible, sitting some distance away in one of the small green spaces around the lake, and her helmet gleamed with the false sunlight as she caught sight of them.

Not quite as subtle as their resident master assassin, Tali still made an effort to rejoin their party unobtrusively. Being careful of any valves or important tubing— not that anything vital to survival would be so easily damaged— Shepard reached out and gave one narrow shoulder a gentle squeeze.

"Excellent work." She grinned just a little, pushing very real concerns aside for a moment. "I'm feeling good about this. Maybe if Anderson gets back with decent news, we won't have to wait 'til Illium to have some shore leave."

That earned a low growl from Grunt, and Shepard rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Don't worry, lover boy, we'll get you home first. Can't keep the female camp waiting much longer— I'll get nasty letters."

"Barring the sexually frustrated krogan," Garrus began, carefully side-stepping to place Shepard between himself and that very same krogan. He wasn't quite as suicidal as he had been, all those months before, and it made good tactical sense to duck behind the shield of a battlemaster. She was going to harass him for it later anyway, though. "Shore leave would be nice. A little time to unwind."

That did sound nice, but Shepard forced herself to answer with a vague, wordless noise. Actual verbal agreement would have meant speaking, and the idea of shore leave with Garrus did weird things to her voice. The thought that they might have some time, a few days of relaxation before allowing the complexity and insanity of their continuing mission… that was hard enough to wrap her head around without getting a little giddy.

The thought of spending a few days with Garrus, of practicing some of the more intimate aspects of their relationship until rather-awkward-but-hot transitioned to just fantastic, was extremely appealing.

Her face felt a little warm, and Shepard had never been happier to see the darkened lighting of the Wards looming before them. Blushing like a teenager in the bright of the Presidium wasn't something she thought she could hide. Her team was too good, too observant, and she didn't need more knowing looks. Kelly's giggling was bad enough.

AN: Hello there! This has been a while in coming; I thank you very much for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed.

Is there more of this story? I think so, but I wouldn't recommend checking in before February. The ME3 trailer managed to get me to drag my lazy ass in gear and finish this chapter after oh-god-forever, but despite that inspiration, I've got to devote time to some other fics that have gone fallow.