"Beware the green monkey!" Vasir whispers in my ear.

I need to tell you something! I try to say, but the words don't come out.

Turning, I try to catch Vasir, to tell her that I need to tell her something (though I know not what), but too late; she has vanished, along with the dull metal of Afterlife.

Then, suddenly, I'm standing in my House. There isn't any motion or blur to indicate movement; one moment I am in the halls of Afterlife's secure levels, the next I am standing in the hall of my Father.

No.

No… this is... wrong.

Isn't this wrong?

Quietly, I wander through my House. For once, my mind is silent and still, no thoughts bouncing around my head.

It should be serene, but something ticks away at me.

Like… where are my shoes?

I glance down at my bare feet, but as I do my suspicion floats away. Of course I'm not wearing shoes, I chuckle to myself, I'm inside.

My suspicion vanished instantly; that worries me, but I don't feel worried. It is a bizarre dichotomy, as if my emotions and my body have been separated.

Why… why is that old couch over there?

We threw that couch away years ago; it was too full of dog hair for my brother's allergies.

Again, my righteous suspicion vanishes before I can verbalize it.

Why shouldn't the couch be there? It'll always be there.

Is this a dream?

My suspicion arises again, and this time I get to open my mouth, just about to shout out the Truth, that this is a dream.

But then the words just… vanish. My mouth opens and shuts, without saying anything.

The Silence is starting to disturb me.

This must be a dream, I think. I dare not say the words aloud, but I know it to be true.

I am Home.

Quietly, I pass the stuffed bobcat, peaking into the well-lit and warm room that served as my Dad's den. It was a place of importance, where I was taught crucial lessons and where we watched football (at my families insistence) and hockey (at mine).

Three leather recliners rest in the small (yet somehow not cramped) room, before a large television. Two of the chairs are Chesterfield knock-offs, with studded buttons indented in the leather, but the third (closest to the gas fireplace) is mine. Technically, it is Papa Frank's (my paternal grandfather), but I sit in the most.

My breath bated, I carefully set myself down in the Chair, leaning back and pressing the legs out. I have good memories of sitting in this cozy Chair and writing or reading, my mind always full of some fantastical and bizarre idea while the Chair kept me in perfect comfort.

But when I sit down, I feel no pleasure, no restful peace settling over me. The Chair is not comfortable or uncomfortable; it gives me no feelings of relaxation or ease.

I stand up, knowing that I should be angry, but of course my emotions have been cut away, so I feel nothing.

This is not my Chair. This is not my Dad's den. This is not my House.

Glancing around, I almost expect to see my family enter the den.

Dad, tall and stentorian, would tell me that I was being silly and that I needed to get back to work.

Mom, short and intelligent, would tell me (with a warm and welcoming tone) that I could do whatever I wanted, despite her own feelings on the matter.

My Sister, about my height and very insistent about that fact, would enter with a loud He~eeey! or a Nick-O! and would immediately plop down on the closest chair (wrapped in her usual assortment of blankets and warm clothes, despite the already warm temperature), and start chattering about everything that was going on in her life.

My Brother would sit down, glancing disappointedly at my computer, and try to get me to care about his usual topics: nutrition, working out, importance of women, perhaps the gun laws or maybe economics. He would tell me that he was afraid that I would waste my youth away on my stories, that they had no possible positive impact on my life.

But they don't.

My Family is not here. This is not my House.

This is a gilded cage, designed to make me happy and content.

I squat down, sitting on my haunches, and hold my hand next to the crackling fire; but I don't feel any extra heat.

The House is bright and vibrant, as colorful and distinct as it was in life, but there is no sound, smell, or temperature.

I roam through the House, passing happy faces in framed photos, smiling sadly at the nostalgia of being Home again.

The pleasure is fleeting, because I know that I'll have to go soon, I'll have to leave, and –


"He's waking up."

Wincing at the sudden light, I groan as some joyous chattering starts up around me.

"Shut up…" I grumble lightly, but the answering chuckles mean that nobody takes me seriously.

"You've been sitting around long enough, punk. Time to get up." Grizz rumbles, tapping me twice on the head with a talon.

"Fuck off, Grizz." I return sourly, as I take a look around the room.

Grizz was sitting on a counter off to the side in full armor, rumbling in a content tone (I think, anyway, it's hard to tell with turians), while Holly the Asari doctor was putting away a futuristic looking IV drip. A glance to my arm shows a small dab of medigel, presumably where the line was hooked up.

Despite the decent size of the infirmary, having Grizz loom over me in full armor makes the room seem a lot smaller than it really is.

Wait, wasn't there something important I had to tell them?

Oh, shit, Vasir!

"Where's Vasir?" I demand harshly from Grizz.

The turian recoils a little at my tone, sending a questioning look at Holly, before shrugging.

"She's with Aria, in the club. Why?" Grizz answers rapidly, hopping off his perch and moving closer.

"I need to talk to them, as soon as possible. Tell Aria that this takes priority over everything else." I order.

"You know it isn't a small thing to pull Aria away from business." Grizz reminds me, staring straight into my eyes, as if testing the seriousness of my demand.

"I don't give a damn." I reply heatedly, staring straight at him. "This is more important than anything she's dealing with. Tell her that it's a matter concerning the Collectors, and get them both to the safe room as fast as you can. Every minute matters, so go!"

Grizz gives me another intense look, then nods once and runs out the door of the infirmary.

I try to sit up, but my left shoulder starts protesting just as Holly rushes over to push me back down.

"You're in no position to go anywhere, young man." Holly reprimands sternly. "If you strain that shoulder and start the bleeding again, you'll die in ten seconds, and none of your bluster will save you."

"Then get me a sling for my arm!" I demand. "I'm going to talk to Aria if it's the last thing I do."

"It damned well might be!" Holly barks back, her accent (British? Where the hell does an Asari get a British accent?) very evident as she raises her voice to match mine.

"Then I'm gonna die." I snap back, any joking joviality gone in the seriousness of this situation. "So get me a sling so that I don't die."

Holly glares at me for another half-second, then busies herself getting a sling around my left arm. As she does, she quickly explains the nature of my wound.

"You were shot around the this area here." Holly informs, pressing a blue finger below my left shoulder, just behind the armpit. "The shot damaged your radial nerve and managed to completely transect your left axillary artery, which is where the blood came from. I don't know why, but your suit's automatic medi-gel dispenser was delayed in administering the dose to the wound, so you lost quite a bit of blood."

"You mentioned not having any human blood stored." I remember faintly as Holly tightens the sling around my arm, pinning it in place.

"This is Omega, boy." Holly retorts with a grim smile as she secures the sling. "If Aria wants O-negative donor blood in a hurry, no one on this Goddess-forsaken station is going to refuse."

"Alright, but what about the – ugh – nerve damage?" I grind out as Holly helps me to my feet, my whole body lurching as I take my first step.

"Don't worry about nerve damage just yet. I'll tell you about it later." Holly informs me. "What was more pressing was that artery. When it was cut, the ends retracted from the tension and disappeared into the rest of your body. I had to –"

"Wait, wait." I interrupt, looking at Holly in horror. "My artery was cut?"

"That's what transected means." Holly replies severely. "And Aria told me you were a smart boy."

"I've never heard transected before, but that doesn't mean jack shit about my level of intellig – no, no, no, what about the retraction?"

"I'll make it simple, then." Holly muttered as I walk out of the infirmary, taking care not to jostle my arm too much.

Of course, as soon as the door slides open for me I remember that they had to cut away the upper half of my undersuit to get to my shoulder.

"Hey there, are you joining us on stage?" an asari dancer in skimpy attire cat-calls to me as I stomp past, gritting my teeth while Holly talks about joining the two ends of my artery back together.

The other dancers giggle a little, and I have to remember that despite the age of the asari (averaging around one hundred years old, I believe), they have the emotions and maturity of college students.

Of course, these particular asari seem to be closer to the intellectual age of a middle-schooler.

"Stupid sex-maniac sparkly-bitches." I grumble irritably as I pass them. "Can't you ladies find something better to do?!"

It isn't my fault that – fuck, actually, it is my fault that I got shot and wound up in this situation.

And of course, I have to go through the halls of Afterlife's secured section just as the shift changes, bare-chested and wearing the lower half of my undersuit, which admittedly is very tight fitting and loosely resembles leather-y fetish suit.

I mean, what messed-up Alliance engineer decided that the undersuit for the Marine's armor should look like fucking bondage gear? What the hell was he thinking?

Well, I reflect darkly to myself, it's true that when it rains, it pours.

And it's not going to get better anytime soon, is it?

Grumbling under my breath like an old man confronted with in-laws, I moved as fast as I could to Aria's safe room.

It's not that I have some difficulty physically moving my legs (well, other than the blood-loss drowsiness); it's the problem of Holly holding me back.

"I'm not moving the arm, let go." I snap impatiently, striding hurriedly through the dull and dingy metal corridors as Holly held onto my (good) right arm. "There's no risk of ripping the stitches if I don't move the arm, right? So let me go, and I'll get out of your hair!"

Holly quirked an eye-ridge at that last statement, but insists on holding on to my right arm.

Highly annoyed, I twist my arm to get out of her grip, but Holly's nimble fingers blur in speedy motion and I wince as Holly pins my arm against my back in a hold.

"If you want me to pop your shoulder out of it's socket, by all means, continue." Holly says scathingly. "I am your doctor, and I expect you to follow my advice."

"Dammit, doc." I grunt, my pain increasing as she lifts my restrained arm higher. "This is important!"

"So is your health." Holly retorts. "Despite how little you seem to care about it."

"Doc, if I don't tell Aria this intel now, then we are, as a whole, fucked. Afterlife will fail, Omega will be destroyed, and we – will – all – die." I explain angrily. "I cannot stress this any higher – I mean, this cannot be any more important - my intel I mean!"

"Be that as it may," Holly replies smoothly, pulling me around by my arm so that she can glare at me eye to eye. "I put a large amount of effort into saving your life – once – and I do not want to do have to do it again. You are going to walk to the safe room. No faster than this."

"Authoritarian Napoleonic dictator." I mutter as we resume walking at an absurdly slow pace.

After that friendly chat, we walk in silence the remainder of the way, to no one's surprise.

Two minutes later, I bang my fist along the side of the metal door twice. There's a slight pause, then a tiny metal cover slides away, revealing the retina scanner. Hunching a little, I open my left eye as wide as possible, fighting the urge to blink as the scanner… well, scans.

A few seconds waiting later, the door opens up, revealing another door just four feet away and Grizz leaning on the wall, his Carnifex casually aimed at us from hip-height.

"You can go, doctor." Grizz instructs politely, waving the Carnifex to the side.

"I have to make sure that Nick doesn't tear open the bonding agent and re-start the bleeding." Holly argues, crossing her arms and staring resolutely into Grizz's barefaced plates.

"Aria says no, doctor." Grizz says, his serious tone and unchanged face giving weight to his words.

Holly opens her mouth to argue once more, but shuts it with a scowl after a glance at the Carnifex pointed at her stomach.

"I'll check in later, doc, don't you worry." I reassure her, but my mind is already racing towards this meeting, and I think Holly can see that.

Holly sighs, but obligingly turns around and walks away. Grizz and I watch her for another couple of seconds, making sure she doesn't turn around, then Grizz smacks a wall-button and the outer door shuts, closing us in.

Grizz doesn't hit the button to open up the next door, though.

I sigh.

"No time for this, Grizz." I say tiredly, but Grizz just stares at me.

"What did Aria call you when you first met?" Grizz interrogates, keeping the pistol pointed at me.

"A stupid young punk." I say sardonically. "I don't fucking remember, it was a month ago Grizz!"

"You know I can't let you in until you give a good answer." Grizz reminds me, his tone brooking no argument.

"Okay, how 'bout this then?" I reply irritably, raising my chin and glaring up at Grizz's head above mine. "Vasir proved that you were misled when we were aboard Aria's ship, and it turns out that you were cast out of turian society because of another turian's corruption; a great fucking argument for a meritocracy, eh?"

Grizz doesn't say anything for a minute, merely narrowing his eyes as I glare stubbornly at him just like Holly did a minute ago.

"Alright." Grizz admits finally. "Go in."

"Thanks." I say. "Sorry for the crack about your government, that was a bit too harsh."

"The Hierarchy hasn't been my government for a long time, pup." Grizz sighs. "Just get in there."

I nod, then turn to face the door's keypad. Quickly, I type in my nine-letter password (a little awkwardly with only my right hand), which matches up with my retina scan to open the inner door.

Scratching my bound arm (I didn't know that slings itched so much), I stride into the safe room with as much pride as I can muster after my somewhat failed excursion.

There's no nice way to put it: I got suckered by an EMP just like Zaeed always told me, then I pissed off Cerberus, and then I almost bled out when I took a wrong turn into gang territory.

"Nick." Vasir greets me warmly, wearing her usual casual wear of a grey sleeveless jacket (with white fur collar, anime-style) over a dark body-glove. "How's the arm?"

"Not now." I interrupt impatiently. "You need to get to Galadien as fast as you can."

There's a slight pregnant pause while Vasir glances at Aria, seemingly confused.

"Why?" Aria asks, cutting in before I can start off on another of my already well-known rants.

"Because Liara T'Soni and her drell Feron are going to Galadien to try to steal information from the Shadow Broker base there, and I need Vasir to go along with them so that I can steal as much information from the Broker as possible, while the two idiots find out where Shepard's body is!"

"I'm… just going to go now." Grizz interjects quickly, having recognized this as a conversation above his metaphorical clearance level.

The inner door shut behind him with a pneumatic hiss, giving a moment to catch my breath.

"Nick, I don't know what you are talking about."

"Liara T'Soni," I grind out, painfully slow. "And her accomplice. A double agent named Feron. Are going to the Shadow Broker's base. On the planet Galadien. To find out where the Shadow Broker is keeping Commander Shepard's body. Before he sells it to the Collectors. You. Need. To. Go. Right. Now."

"Alright, but I never heard of the planet Galadien." Vasir replies quickly, perhaps seeing the extreme irritation on my face right now.

"The Shadow Broker's Base." I bark, fully aware of the weight of this problem.

"The one with the glowy humanoid hologram of the Shadow Broker, in a big, long room full of machinery. If you go through the Mass Relay without the Shadow Broker's sentries knowing that you are supposed to arrive, they will attack you, regardless of affiliation. It's in a – fucking– jungle, for fuck's sake."

"Do you mean Alingon?" Vasir asks, slightly skeptical. "I don't know how you got 'Galadien' out of Alingon, but that's the only base that has the hologram you described. But… Nick, why do I need to go there?"

"Because Tazzik, the Shadow Broker's hitman, is there right now with Shepard's body!" I say impatiently, growling mentally as they don't understand.

Then Aria speaks up.

"Shepard's body is on Omega, Nick."

"Huh? What?" I return confusedly, my angry mood stopped dead.

"I was going to tell you, but you wouldn't shut up." Aria states, her cold tone telling me exactly what she thinks of my babbling. "Whatever information you have, no matter where you got it, you are wrong."

"What Aria means, Nick," Vasir clarifies gently, "is that we're not so sure about the source of your intelligence."

What.

"I'm not wrong!" I protest, eyes wide in shocked surprise. "I was right about the Collectors, about Kenn, about Tevos, so – so – I'm not wrong!"

"Your prediction was wrong, Nick." Aria cuts in uncaringly as she stands up from the Couch. "You might be right about other things, but you've proven that you are not infallible."

"It's backwards!" I try desperately, holding up my hands as if to ward off an attack. "I knew this was gonna happen, but I thought the events were the other way around!"

"Explain." Vasir instructs, waving Aria back to her seat gently. "Calm down, take your time, and explain everything."

"Okay." I mutter slowly, closing my eyes and breathing deeply.

Be Zen, monkey-boy… channel your inner thoughts until focus provides the key to victory:

Cookies!

"I think," I say slowly as I carefully sit down in my usual recliner, tossing that last thought away. "I think that I have mixed up two events, two events that are in a series of comics back Home. I believe that, because issues of comics are sold in a… confusing manner, I jumbled up the events, due to not reading the comics in the correct order."

I pause, taking a moment to turn the events over in my memory.

"The proper sequence of events is that Liara and Feron talk to the Illusive Man, then go to Afterlife to talk to you, Aria. Afterwards, they travel to a docking port controlled by the Blue Suns, transferring Shepard's body to Tazzik. After that, then they travel to… Alingon, where they wreck part of the base and retrieve the body; but Feron gets left behind." I explain softly, rubbing my head.

Maybe I should be taking it easier, considering what I just went through.

Well, I figure that if Holly allowed me out of her sight, then I'm not going to just fall apart into a collection of meaty pieces.

Aria glances back at Vasir, quirking a tattooed eyebrow in question. Vasir shrugs, then turns back to me.

"Give us more detail, Nick." Vasir orders, her gaze hardening and reminding me of her Spectre-status. "Everything you can remember."

"The comic didn't do a good job of accurately showing the time intervals." I realize and say, my breath catching as a bit of my panic starts rising up again.

"Aria, you need to get back up to the club, because Liara might be coming up any second now. She's wearing a… slim set of asari armor, with…uh… grey and blue as the primary colors, with a… uh, an orange-ish tint on some sections. A batarian sitting at one of the upper tables will make a grab at Liara, and his volus… 'business partner', I guess, will ask Feron what the price is for Liara."

Another slow, calming breath, and I look up, meeting Aria's cool gaze.

My mind urges me to look away impulsively, frightened instinctively by the sheer power behind those steely asari eyes, but I keep staring, unwilling to give ground.

"Liara, of course, takes exception to this and smears the batarian against the wall. Anto's going to refuse Feron admission, but Feron will claim that Anto is selling information about your meetings, so Anto lets him through. You interrupt, saying that you already know about Anto, but that you like him, so he gets a free pass. Liara tries to get the info about Shepard out of you, but it doesn't work until she mentions the Collectors, at which point you have a… uh… intense reaction to that, and you give her the info."

"I'll talk like I want to talk, Nick." Aria says icily, no doubt annoyed the mentions about her emotions.

Aria doesn't like people knowing that she is mortal, and I just talked about that emotional weakness in front of a Spectre; even though Vasir is on our side, the old habits of paranoia are hard to break.

"Well… you're the boss." I reply submissively, before continuing in a stronger voice. "I mean, I can see two ways to play this; either you act strong and all-knowing, or you show a little emotional weakness."

"The first way might give Liara an impression of how powerful we are." Vasir hypothesizes, leaning back in her asari lounger and tilting her head (I guess it's an asari thinking gesture, instead of a human gesture of doubt). "While the second might make her ignore you."

"Thank you, Tela, I can see that myself." Aria says dryly, but it's good-natured. "Will you be coming up, Nick?"

The question catches me by surprise.

"Hmm…"

On one hand, I try to only go up to Afterlife when I'm armored up, and that's not an option with my arm in a sling and my undersuit shredded.

See, we'd been having a rash of bar brawls recently, which Garka pointedly theorized to be the result of having a human bouncer. Personally, I don't think Garka will ever like me, despite Anto being a good friend.

Of course, I'd be right next to the Couch, by Grizz and Garka, so I doubt that anybody would try anything.

"Yeah, I'd like that." I answer wearily, resting my head back on the recliner. "Just… head on up without me, I've got to get dressed first."

"You sure?" Aria asks lightly, a slight teasing tone in her voice. "You might not be as muscular as Zaeed, but with that outfit, you don't have to be."

I stare at her, my face stony and un-amused.

"Aria, I understand that you want to make me feel at ease, but I am not – at ease, that is… In last the four hours, I've been kicked in the head, almost killed by Cerberus, shot in the shoulder, lost a large amount of my blood, watched a man burn alive, and had to face the fact that I was wrong. Please, I'm not in a joking mood right now." I explain as calmly as I can, my hands starting to shake again while I see the grim, hollow corpse of the turian in that back alley.

Aria nods, almost respectfully, and smoothly stands up and walks out of the room, her cold mask as the Pirate Queen sliding easily into place.

It's quiet for a moment, then Tela Vasir sighs.

"Aria doesn't have a lot of opportunities to be friendly, Nick, not on Omega. She has to be harsh and unforgiving to everyone, even Liselle." Vasir informs me gently, offering a sad smile. "You probably can't see it, but she's always fighting to keep Omega under control. She's lived for a hundred years thinking that every day might be her last; and nobody could handle that."

"So why'd she joke around?" I ask sluggishly, my head starting to ache again. "Because she felt sorry for a useless human punk?"

"Nick, you've given her enough power and blackmail to rule this station uncontested for a thousand years, if she wanted." Vasir flatly states, before continuing in a more friendly tone. "She's happy about that, but she's been fighting for too long, and she doesn't want to lose that power. After you reassured her about your… otherworldly knowledge, you basically guaranteed her power."

"So what?" I ask tiredly, sighing. "You want me to play nice with the Pirate Queen of Omega? The woman who holds Councilor Tevos by the balls?"

"No." Vasir says, catching my eyes with a serious look. "I want you to show her that you're fine. I want you to show her that you have her back, literally, if she calls for it."

"…I … I can do that." I slowly answer, nodding my head.

"Good." Vasir says with the bright flash of her smile. "That means I can have the front. Nothing beats post-mission melding."

"Vasir… I've got a question." I ask hesitantly.

"Go ahead."

"How do you… deal with it?" I question quietly, looking down at my lap.

"Your first kill?" Vasir asks gently, standing up from her chair.

She moves lithely over to the side of my recliner; were I not about to succumb to a bout of depression, my eyes would be glued to her form-fitting body-glove.

Sitting down on the arm of the recliner, Vasir gently lays a gloved hand on my exposed left shoulder and just sits there.

It's silent for a few moments, then Vasir speaks, talking softly and quietly, her tones reminding me of my old mentor, Mr. Anderson, the wise Senior Master Emeritus from my boarding school.

"Generally, most sentients puke on their first kill. It's not a question of upbringing or of beliefs, it's just that most people, regardless of species, are compassionate enough to care for their victim."

"I've killed before." I mutter numbly, my mind replaying the scene over and over in my mind, the flames licking up the gaudy purple clothes of the turian, who just howls in agony. "Not at Home, but I killed those batarians on my first day here. I killed gangers when I was with Liselle, going to Marsh's. I didn't throw up either of those times… does that – does that mean-"

Vasir slides over the chair and engulfs me in a hug, the soft fur of her anime-esqe outfit tickling my skin.

"No." Vasir interrupts, her arms tenderly holding me close. "It means that you got lucky. You didn't have time to look at the kill, to emotionally comprehend what you did. It doesn't mean that you have a mental condition. Now… tell me what happened with Cerberus."

"It wasn't Cerberus." I answer robotically, my mind on autopilot. "I was coming back from – from where Cerberus dropped me off, but I got lost. I… I wound up in a gang district. I think it was run but a group called, uh, the Terrocks, but – I don't know. They had a rifle, a Mantis I think. I took two shots, and the second did this to my shoulder – or my armpit, I don't know – and my gun was gone. The turian – ringleader? Fuck, I don't know – he – he came closer, so I used the fire-drone, that STG thing you got me."

"It worked, then." Vasir murmurs, her tone relaxing and friendly. "Fire has always been a brutal tool."

"First his clothes caught fire." I remember mechanically, as if my mind is detached from my mouth. "Then his plates melted… and then he stopped screaming. Tela… Tela, there was only a pit where his chest should have been. Just a burnt crater, and… and then he was dead."

"It was kill or be killed, Nick." Vasir reminds me gently, pulling away from the hug and looking at me with a kind gaze, the kind of look that shouldn't appear on the face of a cold and professional Spectre. "You saved yourself. There will always be someone who wants to kill you, someone who needs to be killed before he can."

I don't have an answer for that.

"The Asari think that the universe is inherently good. They teach naïve Maidens that life is pretty and sacred, and all the experienced Matriarchs keep their mouths shut about the horrors of the galaxy. The truth is, kid, that deep down we're all still animals. We may float around on sparkling spaceships and talk in flowing languages, but we're still the same creatures that clawed a path to civilization over the bodies of everything else.

"The only thing I can tell you, kid, is to keep your head on. To be better than this station. On Omega… it's always a fight for survival. If everything was perfect, you'd be back on Earth, studying law or medicine and living a life far away from criminals and Reapers. I wish there was some way for you to keep your world-view, but the fact is that you've got to close your heart a little.

"It's true that the killing gets easier, the more you do it. What they don't say is that it's a slippery road. Even before Saren, Spectres knew that the path we walk leads straight into Hell. I try not to kill often, and when I do, I only do it if I know it's right. The turian you killed sounds like a gang killer, the type of person who doesn't care about who he kills or how. Right now, you're thinking that the turian was just some innocent bystander, trying to get some money for his dying mother or something similarly sappy.

"I wasn't there, kid. I can't tell you if the turian was innocent or not. From the sounds of it, he wasn't a nice guy. You've got to remember that this turian could have killed dozens of people before, innocent or not. He could have killed hundreds of people after he finished you off. Instead, you killed him, and now he's gone. Besides, you're helping us prevent galactic extinction; I doubt this ganger was working for a goal like that."

"Vasir – Tela… how can you be so calm about this?" I demand quietly, feeling as if the weight of the entire galaxy is on my back. "Is this – is this really so simple to you, after all your years?"

"Simple?" Vasir snorted, a gesture that didn't fit her asari physique at all. "Kid, you met me while I was legally searching through your memories. I thought at the time that you were just the next in a series of bodies lining the path to a 'better world.' Don't forget that I was also trading favors with the Shadow Broker, all for what I thought to be the greater good."

"I guess… if the world was simple, it wouldn't need people like us." I reply slowly.

Vasir chuckles and hands me a pill and a glass from the bar (full of water, luckily).

"What's this?" I ask, a little suspicious.

"It's a pain reliever." she informs me. "Holly gave it to me on the off-chance that she'd be kicked out."

"Heh. Smart girl." I chuckle, popping the smooth (it's a bit weird, to be honest) capsule into my mouth and chasing it down with some water.

"She's four hundred years old, kid." Vasir chuckles as well, rifling a hand through my knotted hair. "She's quite a bit older than you."

"Let's be honest, darlin', everyone who works here is older than me." I groan, clambering slowly to me feet. "Now, can you help me to my room? I want to get a good look at Liara, just in case something doesn't match up."

Vasir nods, a slight smile to her face as I stand back up and start moving again.

"You know," Vasir mentions casually as she helps me out the secure, airlock-like door. "Aria's going to want to double-check that information."

"I'll answer anything she asks." I say, shrugging as I stride out of the security checkpoint and into the halls, which are now blessedly free of giggling dancers.

"I think she has a different idea in mind." Vasir says, with another little chuckle.

"Oh? What do you mean by – fuck."


"Your friend is better looking than your usual company, Feron." Aria calls out as she gracefully strides down from her Couch. "Which means she can't be your friend."

I exhale as quietly as I can, reclining on the Couch. When Anto had told me over the comm. that Liara had arrived, I'd rushed up to get to Aria's meeting room as fast as I could, but I didn't want Liara or Feron knowing that.

The meeting room was upstairs from the club's floor, safe from 'casual bystanders', and was semi-safe from listening devices. It was a simple enclosed room, and the only guards Aria had inside were Grizz and me. It was, in short, the place to meet Aria when you had something important to discuss but wanted to keep it quiet.

And, of course, Aria had another one of her Couches in here.

Vasir had managed to help me get dressed in record time, slapping on another medi-gel patch and throwing away that sling. I didn't want to make Aria appear weaker by having a lieutenant appear so obviously injured (if I could even be considered a lieutenant, that is).

I'd protested, of course, thinking that I was going to tear open the bonding agent holding my artery together, but Vasir had simply chuckled at my inexperience.

"Doctors are all the same," Vasir had explained to me as we strode into my tidy room. "They tell you to not risk re-opening a wound and 'make it any worse', but there's not much chance of that actually happening. The bonding agent that's holding you together is made of a specialized derivative of omni-gel, Nick, so don't worry about ripping out any stiches."

"So the spook talk is just so that she can scare me into submission?" I ask, brows furrowed in confusion as I pull on a new pair of tan climbing pants one-handed (dressing yourself almost completely one-handed is something I picked up in rowing).

"Pretty much." Vasir answers with a shrug. "That stuff will hold together under a lot of rough situations. You're only going to be sitting down, so you'll be fine."

So here I am, leaning back on the left-hand side of Aria's Couch, watching her smoothly take control of the discussion, the perfect mix of lethality and grace.

Unable to help myself, I shiver as Aria reminds me that I'm working for a criminal warlord.

No matter how useful Aria is to my plans, I can't help but think that if I hadn't had my valuable intel, she'd have calmly tossed my corpse into the waste vents without a second thought.

Anto leaves us alone with Liara and Feron, and the business talks start.

Liara leaves the talking to Feron, but that doesn't mean she's idle. She looks around, her bright eyes glancing at Grizz, then at… me?

Shit, I'm looking at her!

Our eyes meet, and Liara's narrow in suspicion.

Panicked, I shift my gaze to Feron, but Liara's still staring straight at me.

Unbidden, my left hand twitches once.

Feron and Aria are still discussing business, so I start listening, hoping that Liara will lose interest quickly.

"And you… I know you. You're one of Shepard's crew." Aria is saying, lifting Liara's head back towards her, all whilst wearing a predator's grin. "I wonder if you could speak when Shepard was alive? Or has Nick over there stolen your voice?"

Huh? That wasn't in the comic.

Oh, right. 'Cause of me.

Butterflies… wonderful, the first of the butterflies.

Liara crosses her arms, matching Aria's cold glare easily as the Pirate Queen steps around her, as if inspecting Liara for a dancer's position. Liara's glare only seems to encourage Aria, as her grin widens, turning almost shark-like.

"The Shadow Broker may be powerful, but Omega is mine. Of course I know about the transfer – but I'm not a running a charity here. Tell me, Feron, why's the Broker so interested in Shepard?" Aria interrogates, smoothly taking control of the situation.

"I – I don't know, Aria; that's what we're trying to-" Feron tries to bluff, but his slight hesitation is his downfall.

Well, that, and my intel.

Heh.

Aria's leading Feron around like a deluded puppy, always having control of the conversation, every movement being watched carefully, lest she turn on him.

Oddly enough, Liara is controlling her emotions better than Feron is, though that might just be because she doesn't fully understand how dangerous Aria is.

"Bullshit!" Aria retorts, turning away from the unlikely pair with a smirk on her face.

Unseen to Aria, Liara balls up her fists in a surprisingly human gesture of anger, gritting her teeth at Aria's manner. Okay, so maybe Feron is controlling his emotions better than she is.

"You might be a two-bit information broker, Feron, but even you aren't that incompetent. You figured out what the Broker wants even before you agreed to help little Liara here, like any half-decent information broker would. So tell me, Feron, what does the Broker wants with Shepard?" Aria questions, turning back to face the duo just as Liara steps forward.

"Because the Shadow Broker wants to sell Shepard's body to the Collectors!" Liara snaps, standing up to Aria with an expression of righteous anger. "They're the ones that want Shepard's body!"

"And here I thought that was you." I mutter under my breath.

The sound of my voice unexpectedly carries, and everyone turns to look straight at me. Liara and Feron looked a little confused why I spoke, while Aria's giving me a cautious look, as if judging whether or not to allow me to continue.

"Something you'd like to say, Nick?" Aria offers, waving a hand as if to give me the floor.

"No – not really, boss." I reply quickly, cheeks blushing a little at the sudden attention.

"Oh, but I insist." Aria says, every word making my heart sink further. "Given that you're my expert on the Collectors, it's about time you earned your keep."

I lock eyes with her, horrified that she's putting me on the spot, but Aria shows no sign of yielding.

"Well," I say, sitting upright and directing my words towards Liara. "We don't know much about the Collectors, but there are a few things that we do know, chiefly that their mastery of genetics and biology give them unparalleled, uh, skills at using biological warfare. They are known, obviously by their name, for collecting individuals with rare genetic traits. It's possible that they could want Shepard so that they can study, uh, what made her so… well, unique."

"We don't need a history lesson, Nick." Aria mocks, tilting her head to the side in amusement at my uncomfortable squirming (not that there are any physical signs, that is). "Tell them what they need to know, and we'll send them on their way."

"Okay, uh, right." I nod, mind racing furiously as I try to figure out what Feron and Liara would need. "Um… individual Collectors can be, uh, possessed, for lack of a better term. You can tell this by their four eyes, which start to glow orange-ish. They only speak when they are possessed, and, uh, that's the only time that they can use biotics. When 'possessed', they seem to be capable of instantaneous communication with any other possessed Collector, so watch out for that."

"Nick…" Aria warns, crossing her arms. "Back to the point, now."

"Right, sorry. From what we know, the Blue Suns are passing Shepard on to the Shadow Broker's men, who will then pass Shepard to the Collectors. The Blue Suns are making the trade in the lower… uh, ore works, if I remember correctly. That right, Aria?" I explain, passing the conversation back to Aria as quickly as I can.

"The old ore processing plant, hanger four." Aria informs Feron. "You should go now."

"Just one moment!" Liara refuses, taking another step forward and pointing at... me.

Grizz snaps his rifle up to bear on Liara, but she doesn't look like she cares about that.

"How do you know so much about the Collectors?" Liara demands. "And how do I know you're not working for them?"

"Beeeecause I want to live?" I answer slowly, partly out of hesitation and partly out of mocking. "Agents of the Collectors don't last in the long run. Besides, I get all my vices here at Afterlife, so there's no real point in leaving."

"Well put." Aria remarks sarcastically, before directly her cold glare back at Liara. "This meeting is over."


Sighing, I carefully sit down on my chair (it's mine by this point, and I'll shoot anyone who disagrees), taking care not to jostle my left arm.

The secure room inside Afterlife has been sealed once again, giving us complete isolation from the watching eyes of rest of the Omega. Vasir, who's been camping in here doing some business over a safeguarded computer, is happy to see me, and greets me with a smile and a curt nod.

"Where's Aria?" I ask Vasir curiously, having seen the Pirate Queen depart for the inner sections of Afterlife a few minutes before I did.

While Aria had gone inside, I'd simply stood in her lofty perch and gazed out over the teeming crowds of Omega, to try to remind myself what I was fighting for.

The club was full and noisy, and despite the fact that I normally disliked those two things in combination, it helped soothe my stressed mind.

Turians in armor watched Asari in leather dancing, while Salarians tried (sometime successfully, but mostly futilely) to beat their hyperactivity and relax. Neon lights and flashing holographic flames played over exotic armors of every make and color, all the various species of the galaxy out to party.

Well, except for the drunken human that Grizz just threw out the front door, but there's always one or two party poopers.

If I wanted to ever see a mixed crowd like that in the future, then I had to get my mind back in order and my priorities in line.

"She'll be here." Vasir reassures me, giving me an curiously intense look. "But first, why don't you tell me about your run in with Cerberus?"

"Okay." I nod, despite my misgivings. "I'll try, but I might not get the details right."

Taking a deep breath, I slowly recount the hectic firefight and the catastrophe that followed. As I talk, my throat tightens at the rush of emotion that accompanies the chaotic memories.

Vasir's face doesn't change when I tell her of how my arrogance almost got me killed, or when I tell her that Miranda Lawson now knows that Aria has a Shadow Broker agent in her pocket.

"I didn't identify you. I didn't say anything about an asari or a Spectre or – or anything else, Vasir." I swear to her, uncomfortably aware that I have massively fucked up.

"Could be worse." Vasir mused. "With luck, she'll think we're talking about Feron; but that's not going to happen, is it?"

"Better to prepare as if she doesn't." I mutter grimly. "Listen, I fucked up, but-"

"Can you stop apologizing?" Vasir demands, her cool voice cutting through my resurging panic. "Keep your head on, and we'll figure out how to minimize the damage."

"...alright." I murmur, gazing at my hands.

My left hand twitches. It's been doing that a lot lately. Residual nerve damage?

God, I hope not.

"What about your arm?" Vasir questions, softening her tone as I look back up at her.

"It's – uh, it's more my armpit, really." I shrug, grimacing as I feel the bonding agent shift a tiny bit (a quick glance reassures me that I'm not going to bleed out). "Cerberus, uh, dropped me off, a good distance away from Afterlife. I rushed back, 'cause my rifle was busted, and I was freaked out, residually, from that encounter with Miranda…"

"And?" Vasir asks, prompting me to go on. "What happened?"

She'd heard all this before, when I had told her earlier, but I guess she wanted me to tell her again.

"I took a wrong turn." I whisper. "Wound up in gang territory. Called themselves the Terroks. They opened fire immediately. Took a Mantis round to the shoulder. Tumbled. Pistol flew out of my hand. Man with the rifle – turian with the rifle, that is – came close, started to gloat."

I close my eyes, remembering the sight of the gaudy purple clothes igniting, the turian shrieking in agony as his plates started to superheat.

"Then I set him on fire."

My breath catches in my throat.

My left hand twitches, involuntarily. I try to hold it still, but it twitches again.

The hiss of the airlock/security door opening stops Vasir from talking, but I don't look up to see who it is.

Click. Clack. Click. Clack.

A hand settles on my shoulder.

"It's been taken care of, Nick." Aria says gently, before stepping away, her heeled boots loud against the cold metallic floor.

"Taken care of?" I repeat numbly, glancing over at her.

Aria doesn't respond. She's not in her usual mocking/arrogant manner, instead she's fully serious, fully professional; and that only makes me more scared.

"Garka and a few others are off taking care of the Terroks." she says, off-handedly, as she rummages around the small bar in the back of the room.

"What?" I ask, not sure I heard her correctly. "Sorry, but what did you just say?"

"Garka's taking care of the Terroks." Aria repeats as she smoothly mixes cylinders and containers of odd colored... drink.

"What, like the whole gang?" I ask, astonished.

"They broke my Rule." Aria says simply, shrugging as she hands Vasir a blue shotglass. "Drink?"

"I don't drink." I reply mechanically, my mind too busy buzzing with this new information to offer a better excuse than my usual retort. "You mean that Garka's going to-"

"Kill them?" Aria interrupted, knocking back her shot of blue-whatever-it-was in one quick motion. "Yes. If they try to kill my men, then they're trying to kill me; and we can't have that."

"Aria-" I try to say, but my complaints die on my lips.

"You know how it is on Omega, Nick. You knew that the Terroks were going to die." Aria lectures, as she hands Vasir the shotglass that would have been mine. "So why are you being so dumb about it? Accept it and move on; that's the way things happen on Omega."

"I think you need to remember that he's not one of us, Aria." Vasir advises, setting down her empty shotglasses on a side-table. "He's still a kid, whether he admits it or not."

"...I knew that intellectually." I state slowly, regaining my confidence as I focus on the now, not on the then. "There's a difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing it instinctively, emotionally."

"You know, I think I attended a seminar on something similar, once." Vasir chimes in. "Something about how arrogance or lack of comprehension could botch an operation as easily as stupidity. I think the proper terms were different, though."

"They probably are." I concede. "It was easier for me to understand the concept with my own terms, so that's what I use. There's a bit of ironic truth there, if you squint hard enough."

"So it's a lack of comprehension?" Aria guesses, looking intrigued.

I guess that since she's only dealt with professionals (or soon-to-be-dead amateurs), she's never encountered this problem before. Her visitors must have already gotten used to the rapid-fire bloodshed of the Terminus Systems. I mean, even Liara, the young archaeologist would have already encountered plenty of death by this point.

Young, naïve people don't exactly come to Omega for a quick vacation, y'know?

"Kind of." I grant, thinking about it. "I haven't had a good real-life example. It's one thing to hear about it, to read about it, but it's a whole 'nother thing to see something like that happen."

It's kinda like skydiving. Everyone's seen the skydiving scenes in movies, and they even see a bit of the same perspective when those scenes show up in games.

But the first time you fall out of a plane, struggling to catch your breath, air compressing your cheeks and roaring in your ears... you realize what skydiving really is (other than a ridiculously awesome way to have an adrenaline rush).

Some things can be understood instinctively with enough information, with enough theory.

That's actually how a surprising number of people learn martial arts, going years without ever actually getting into a fight (sparring does not count in this example, because it's missing the necessary stress that a life-or-death situation brings), just practicing and practicing until they have enough theoretical knowledge to replace practical experience.

But just like in most sports, there's a point where you have to forget theory and just do it.

Some things can't be learned just through theory; it just so happens that one of those things is the horror of death. Not peaceful death, the kind with dignity and peace, but the death of a criminal, the death of someone who doesn't want to go.

I'm not sure that I'll ever be able to forget those screams.

"I'll grant that." Aria allows magnanimously. "But you need to step up your game, boy. You remembered the wrong name, messed up the order of events, and almost got yourself killed."

"Alright, alright, I'll step up my game." I reply. "Just let me adapt to these fucked-up circumstances, okay? I've got to make sure I don't forget anything important again; so I'll write down – no, no, somebody could steal that, somebody could take a physical list. Omni-tool? Maybe, but first I'll have to remember what's important."

"The fate of the galaxy is on the line, and you can't remember what's important? If this is how you deal with stress, I'd hate to see how you deal with down-time." Vasir quips.

"Oh, I took the time to try to remember all the events that actually affect the game, but how about how a character speaks? Those little details evade me, since it's been a while since I actually played the games, and those details end up being quite important when you think about it. There's more to a story than just the plot, after all." I inform her dryly.

"Well, Tela," Aria purrs (since when does Aria T'Loak fucking purr?). "Let's help him remember, then. We didn't have the chance to go over those little details before, given the time constraints, but we've got plenty of time right now."

"Technically, is this non-consensual?" I ask, my mouth running independently of my quickly distracted mind. "I have moral and ethical standards to uphold here, and I've-"

"Pipe down, Nick." Vasir chuckles, lithely striding over to me as she shucks her white fur-collared vest. "This is business, not pleasure."

"I could be convinced to see it as both." Aria said in a simple tone, as if she was not stepping over to me with the seductive grace of a dancer.

"That's all good and well for you, but what about-" I start to ramble, only to be cut off.


Memories fly by in a blur, weeks of knowledge being absorbed in mere hours as Vasir, Aria, and I carefully inspect my stored memories for any mention of Mass Effect.

Games, books, web discussions, everything is examined, reviewed, and either let alone or played through, painstakingly slow, in real time.

I'd protested that I'd never seen anything like this in the canon explanations of melding, but Vasir had refuted that simply by asking me if I really thought that a hundred-year old asari virgin was the pinnacle of the famed asari meld.

Fair point, I mused.

The game's action scenes are forgotten, while the dialogue is watched slowly, carefully, all three of us commenting on certain words.

Heh, it's almost like a Rifftax of the games.

Quiet, boy, Aria says. Focus.

Yeah, yeah, Aria, I think.

It's alright, she's just annoyed that there was a possibility about that whole 'Kai Leng' thing, Vasir comments.

It would have never happened that way, Aria denies hotly.

Times like these, I wish I could see your face.

Shut up, Nick. You know we can't inspect memories and have a mental construct for each of us, Aria says, though her 'tone' (if you can call it 'tone' when you are tasting the emotions with your brain instead of your ears) tells me that she's mostly amused.

You have to admit it would be funny to see your face. Your lips kinda twitch when you get irritated.

Focus, Vasir tells me, but the 'taste' of her emotions telling me that she is struggling not to laugh (well, convey amusement instead of physically laugh, but that's beside the point).

We sift through memories carefully, and every time the memory shifts away from the computer screen, I have to fight off waves of nostalgia, because every time, I see Home. I see what I have left behind, what I can never see again.

Sometimes it is my old house director, Mr. P (which is actually what we called him, funnily enough), and sometimes it is my good friends knocking on the door for a favor.

When the memory turns away from the game, Aria and Vasir usually fast-forward until they find the next relevant memory, but they stopped a few times to inspect my life, over my pleading.

Familiar faces haunt me. My old rowing crew, the few juniors I took under my wing, or even just the sight of my old, familiar room.

Aria and Vasir do a good job to move quickly onto the next important memory, but each irrelevant memory that seeps through does a number on my morale, on my motivation, and I think that Aria and Vasir can see it.

I don't know how long we spent going over memories, since I have no physical perceptions to root me to a sense of time.

Eventually, though, we had seen everything.

We had debated, analyzed, and browbeat every piece of information to death, and we were finally done.

Content, now? I ask, directing my thought-question to both of the asari.

Yes, Vasir answers for them both.

We are quite content, but now we want to know more. What is our plan?

I can't tell which of the asari said that, as I'm starting to get a headache (which is a bit of a problem when you're in a meld).

Hmm… would that affect the two asari in my head?

Or is it me in their minds? A shared mind-space, composed of all of our heads combined? I genuinely don't know.

And for once, not knowing doesn't bother me. It might be the first time I wasn't bothered by not knowing something.

He's getting confused, one of the asari says.

Which one are you? I question slowly, the headache starting to 'fog' my vision.

He's been melding too long, answers the other asari.

We need to break the meld now.


Sluggishly, I prize my eyes open, a familiar pounding headache playing a conga beat on my skull.

The headache only gets worse as my senses start working again. My eyes seem oversensitive, while my nose is overloaded with the sweet smell of Vasir's perfume. The well-worn leather seems to be scratchy and painful beneath my fingertips, instead of the usual smooth and comfortable, but I know that this period of disorientating sensory overload will soon pass.

Luckily, the noise in the safe room is minimal, or my ears would be aching right now.

"Is…" I struggle to say. "Is… that normal?"

"I don't know, kid." Vasir admits slowly, from her position lying on Aria's Couch. "I've never –ooh – been under that long."

Vasir stretches, almost cat-like, along the length of the Couch. She groans, obviously feeling a headache herself.

"How long?" I mutter, testing each limb in turn as I rub and massage my muscles. "How long were we melding?"

"Looks like six hours," Aria groans, rubbing her temples along the faint lines of her tattoos. "I didn't think it would take that long."

"Six fucking hours?" I reply incredulously. "We've been looking over my memories for six hours? I was planning on talking about our plans while we had a little privacy, you know? The meld is the ultimate privacy; since we aren't actually speaking, there's no chance of being overheard, right?"

"Don't doubt my safe room." Aria grumbles, and I raise my eyebrows at the small glimpse beneath Aria's normally impenetrable façade. "A lot of money went into creating this room, I'd appreciate it if you didn't belittle it."

"Okay, darling." I deadpan. "But we still need to discuss plans. Any chance we can go back into the meld to get that sorted out?"

"Not unless… ugh… you want to fry your brain." Vasir groaned, sluggishly sitting upright. "If you were asari, then maybe. Our physiology can cope with the strain – but I'm not sure that yours can. If you'd like to test that, then we can go again."

"No, no – no no no," I quickly refuse. "I'm good with staying alive, personally."

"Then we're doing it here and now." Aria says, sighing. "So, what do you want to start with?"

"The Geth. Better guns might be useful, but we need to level the playing field, and for that we need the Geth." I say, as Vasir shakily stands up and treads over to the bar full of the exotic drinks, carefully cropped from Afterlife's finest selection.

"I managed to get a hold of three STG message probes," Vasir informs us, her experienced hands mixing a few quick drink. "They're designed to hold up large amounts of information, and should work for our purposes. We can preset them to transmit that information as soon as they enter the Tikkun system, to minimize the chances of the Geth shooting them down without hearing the message."

As Vasir moves back to her seat next to Aria, she pauses to hold out the drink in her hand, proffering it to me. I shake my head, but Vasir doesn't move.

"Drink it. It'll help with the post-melding aches and pains."

I don't like it, but I nod. Tipping my head back, I slam the drink back as quick as I can, thinking it is some kind of medicine.

It's not.

"Fuck, Vasir!" I splutter as my throat catches fire. "I thought I told you that I don't drink!"

"I don't care." Vasir said, shrugging as she knocks back her drink. "It'll loosen you up, help you relax a little. With how tense you've been lately, I wouldn't be surprised if you had a nervous breakdown."

"That's not funny!" I grunt, the alcohol's initial rough burning slowly fading away. "That's not funny, Vasir!"

"So you say," Aria says, her lips twitching slightly upward, while Vasir chuckles and plops herself down on the armrest of my recliner.

The chuckling and gentle ribbing (literally, as Vasir takes advantage of my seated position beside/beneath her) goes on for a few more minutes, Aria and Vasir doing a pretty decent job of making me feel at ease considering that I'd just downed something that tasted about as nice as moonshine.

"Alright, alright," Aria chuckles, allowing herself a rare smile. "That's enough joking around, let's get back to business. Nick, what info did you put in the first probe?"

"Uh, specific terms, really. The kind of stuff that only the Geth know, like what they call themselves, what they call the Geth Rebellions – the Morning War, they call it – along with similar stuff, like what the Reaper Sovereign introduced himself as to the Geth, as well as the Geth Consensus's ultimate plan, which is to create a Dyson Sphere to house the assorted Geth programs." I explain, as Vasir distractingly runs a hand gently through my hair.

"Stop that, please," I tell Vasir, briefly looking up and locking eyes with her. "It's distracting."

Vasir pouts, using her youthful asari features to try to guilt me into letting her continue.

"That's won't work on me," I continue without pause, smirking a little. "I grew up in a family with several Basset Hounds, so I am quite familiar with the puppy-dog-eyes routine. You'll find no respite in adorability and cuteness, not from me, anyway."

"Fine, fine." Tela Vasir says, leaning on my side as she sits on my recliner's armrest. "I'll stop the pouting."

"Good; it's hard to concentrate on plans to conquer the universe when you're doing that."

"Conquer the universe? Ambitious, are we?" Aria asks, her face holding slight grin at my words. "How did we go from 'defending the galaxy' to conquering it? Maybe you've a bit too much to drink, or maybe you're just not used to the kick of good asari drink."

"Aria, you know full well there's no way that the drink is already starting to affect me." I reply lightheartedly. "Besides, I've had some real drinks before. I might not like to drink, but that doesn't mean I haven't had a few drinks before."

"Oh, the kid finally shows some spine." Vasir teases playfully, pushing my shoulder. "Well, he didn't really have much in that, did he Aria?"

"No, I don't think so." Aria agrees casually, as she carefully stands up. "And while I'd love to continue this conversation, I think we're going to need some food before we discuss Nick's plan to conquer the galaxy."

"I'll agree to that," I nod, wincing a tad as my stomach starts aching. "But… only one of us should go out. Vasir can't be seen in Afterlife, and if both of us show up at the same time, people are going to start talking."

"Good thinking." Aria says. "We'll discuss what to do with Santiago while you're away. Massani is a skilled bounty hunter, and I want to keep him on my payroll as long as I can."

"Alright," I concur, nodding once as I get back on my wobbly feet. "I'll just be back in a minute, then."


Twenty minutes later, I strode back in through the security doors, carefully balancing a stack of covered trays. Glancing around, I automatically rule out the low coffee table and the chairs, because I don't want to risk spilling food on those. Not only would it be disgusting, but we'd also have to have them cleaned, and that would probably be a security risk.

"Over here, on the table." Vasir says, beckoning me over to a good-sized wooden (which is a fairly luxurious item on Omega) table in the corner of the dim small security room.

"That table wasn't there earlier." I note as I carefully set down the heavy trays onto the warm wood. "And I doubt it was hiding around the corner, folded up. Where'd you guys get it?"

"There's a few storage closets in the back," Aria informs me, gesturing to the other side of the room. "I keep a few useful items back there, and this old table's one of them. Why, would you rather eat on the chairs?"

"No, no, just curious is all. Thought it was a security risk." I admit while distributing the trays and opening them up, releasing the scent of warm food. "Plus, I haven't seen a wooden table since… well, Home."

I run my hand across the table, feeling the texture of the wood beneath my fingers as I trace the grain.

You can take the boy out of the logging town…

It was a small and plain table, capable of seating six, eight if you squeezed in. No polish or fancy gilt decorated it. It was there to be used, it's not there to be looked at.

It was, in short, the perfect table for me.

"He's getting sad again, Aria; do you think a meld would cheer him up?" Vasir optimistically asked.

"No, Tela, you know that'd just fry his brain." Aria dismisses the suggestion as she takes a seat at the head of the small wooden table. "Sit down and eat, Nick. It'll help."

"Dad always said that we got emotional when we were hungry." I muse softly as I take a swig of my bottled protein shake (thankfully, protein shakes in the future tasted positively divine when compared to some of the stuff I'd had back Home) and grab a plate.

"Oh look," I continue, deadpan. "I'm a moody bastard. I guess he was right."

I chuckle, but there's no humor in it.

Maybe that's the booze starting to kick in? Residual effects from the six-hour Marathon Meld?

Fuck if I know, at this point. If I wasn't worried about my control, I'd have another shot of that asari drink, if only to dull the loneliness. Of course, that wouldn't help.

Sighing, I reach for a slice of the homemade pizza that I'd pilfered from the kitchen, cursing one more time that Afterlife's human cuisine was comprised solely of the most 'popular' human dishes. Pizza, of course, was one of them.

At least, I reflect, it's proper thin Sicilian pizza. Call me a purist, but I just prefer it that way.

Without another time-wasting thought, I unhurriedly take a bite of the warm pizza.

Huh?

What?

I pause, and look at my slice in confusion.

My lips purse as I inspect the seemingly plain cheese pizza, which at first glance contains no extra ingredients.

"Steak pizza." I mutter under my breath, while Aria and Vasir dig into the other dishes. "Huh. Well, score one for the future."

The food is warm and good, and I take a few minutes to sample some of the asari cuisine that I'd brought for the ladies.

I'd always liked trying different cuisines, but I cautiously avoided sampling the squid-looking bits. As a rule, I don't eat any seafood that isn't salmon or clam chowder. Instead, I pluck an oddly colored biscuit away from it's stack.

Biting into it reveals a curious wealth of tastes, starting sweet and ending sour. I wince again as the sour taste slowly fades.

Personally, I'm good without one of those taste-changing treats. I'll stick to meat, bread, and nutrient shakes.

We eat in comfortable semi-silence, only talking when Aria or Vasir tried to get me to eat various bits of asari food, all of which I politely refused after tasting that biscuit.

The room may be small (not quite cramped, but close), but the friendly behavior of the two asari beside me makes it seem warm and welcoming. The décor is inviting, a mixture of expensive and plain, and the room itself seems inviting.

That seems to reflect Afterlife's employee's section quite well. The grey metallic walls might be cold and dull, but the friendships that are slowly starting to build up are making it quite hospitable to me.

I pull duty shifts with Anto, and we talk quite amicably while working. Zaeed works me into the ground in the gym, but there is comradeship there. Hell, even Len, the turian bartender I work with, is starting to get a little friendlier.

I eat with them, work with them, and sleep under the same roof as them. It shouldn't be any surprise that I'm becoming friends with them… but…

Perhaps, I think as I polish off my sixth piece, I might find another home here.

It wouldn't be the first time. Boarding school for four years, then off to college (which barely counts because I ended up here after the first year)… I hadn't had a home; I'd had a dorm.

Perhaps… I might like it here.

Heh.

Yeah, I might like it here on Omega, home of criminals and scum, land of opportunity and chaos.

I chuckle at the absurdity of that thought, and Vasir raises an eyebrow in askance as I do.

"It's nothing," I dismiss.

"Now that we've eaten, let's get back to your plan, Nick. Tell us, what other grand plans do you have for our little galaxy?" Aria questions, a tinge of mockery in her voice.

"We're gonna need an army if we're gonna fight the Reapers. Well, a navy, 'cause we've already got a few armies."

"The Reapers smashed through our fleets in a few months the first time." Vasir says, taking another sip of her drink.

"Even with Thanix Cannons, we lost three dreadnoughts for each of theirs," she continues, "Obviously we need more ships, but aren't they going to be thrown away anyway? Even if we could get rid of the Treaty of Farixen and get every race to start stepping up their dreadnought creation, how useful are those ships going to be?"

"You people love your dreadnoughts…" I murmur, thinking hard.

Hmm... Dreadnoughts are basically battleship analogs, right?

"What about carriers?" I suggest thoughtfully. "Humanity went through a similar problem before World War Two, with battleships. Aircraft carriers took charge, replacing battleships easily. Developments in planes made aircraft the dominant force, and made battleships obsolete. What if we could apply that here? How viable are fighter-bombers for naval operations?"

"Neither fighters nor bombers have been capable of turning the tide of a battle for thousands of years." Vasir says, doubtful. "There just isn't enough of a technological edge for a fighter to pierce a larger ship's kinetic barriers."

"What if we arm the fighters with Thanix tech?" I speculate, mind racing. "We already know that the Reapers can take out dreadnoughts nigh-instantly with their massive tech advantage, so we can't match them blow-for-blow. Why not take the opposite route? Massive fighter-bomber swarms that dodge hits instead of taking them."

"Lack of pilots, lack of skill, lack of coordination." Aria ticks off, looking unconvinced. "The more ships we put out, the more we have to coordinate them. That'll mean dedicated coordinators, the best electronic warfare specialists in the galaxy, and large numbers of pilots to begin with. There are less complications with a dreadnought, at least to the bureaucratic fools that run the militaries. Besides, can a fighter even mount a Thanix Cannon?"

"So we built the fighters a little bigger." I shrug, pressing my point on. "The Geth can do that easily enough. We don't need any life support or cockpit for a Geth, and their reactions are going to be a lot faster than a pilot's, so that frees up a lot of space for weapons or engines. The only real problem is the lack of skill."

"We could get around that." Vasir agrees, putting a finger to her lips as she thinks. "The problem with machines is that they fly predictable routs, with predictable flight paths. When we fought the Geth – the Heretic Geth that Saren had, anyway, the fighter kill ratios were always in our favor. But V.I.'s are always improving. We just need to improve the Geth."

"Good idea." I agree warmly, as Vasir nears my idea. "But the Geth are still just V.I. linked together. Would a full A.I. do better? A true A.I. can learn, can adapt, and Legion turned into a full A.I. simply by interacting with Shepard for a few months, by being isolated from the Consensus, and by thinking of itself as a single unit, rather than a collection of programs. Is that a line of thought we want to pursue?"

"I don't know." Vasir sighs. "But if we're going to try to figure this puzzle out, then we'll need experts: true tacticians, not two asari and a kid. We'll need engineers, and scientists, and all manner of experts. At the moment, we have none of those."

"Well, we need to get on that. Since we can't do that until the Shadow Broker is gone, that's our first goal." I murmur, glancing briefly at my twitching left hand.

It's been twitching a lot lately. I used to think my hands twitched because of my psychological problems after killing, but Aria and Vasir have been helping me overcome those.

It's nerve damage, then.

I remember hearing a doctor tell me that nerve damage has six months to fix itself, once the doctors finish up. After six months, it won't grow/heal any more. That might mean that I could never shoot again.

It can wait, I decide. I need to focus, now more than ever, and the condition of my arm is not as important as the fate of the galaxy.


"So you can fix it, right?" I ask Holly, glancing at the now-exposed skin on my shoulder, as if trying to see the nerve damage.

My hands twitch, and I tightened my lips in annoyance.

"Roughly speaking, yes." Holly answers, directing me to sit down on top of the operating table as she disposes of the used medi-gel patch.

"The specifics of the operation are quantum – not literally, of course – but it's possible. I'll need to have Marsh procure a couple things for the operation but it should be a fairly easy procedure," she explains.

"That's the best news I've heard all day, doc." I reply earnestly, with a happy grin. "So, when can we get this out of the way?"

"I'll need to talk to Marsh to be sure, but at least a month." Holly informs me solemnly with her bizarre British accent, laying a gentle hand on my good shoulder.

"A month?" I repeat incredulously. "I understand that it takes some time to get your instruments, but – but this is an advanced society, surely we an get these things faster?"

Holly's weary face looks unamused by my question.

"Nick, to regrow and re-connect a nerve isn't a small operation." Holly explains. "It isn't exactly something that can be with a scalpel and some thread, you know?"

I nod slowly, looking once more at where Holly had peeled away the medi-gel patch, revealing a mess of scar tissue.

"What does this mean for me in the short term, doc?"

Holly sighs.

"It means no more training. You have no doubt noticed the infrequent tremors by now; I can't let you put any weight on that arm. If you were to have another tremor whilst you were training, then God knows what could happen; a weight crushes your windpipe, Mr. Massani breaks your nose, et cetera," she explains seriously, locking eyes with me.

"Under no circumstance can you participate in any physical activity that uses that arm. No training, no shooting, no duty."

"No shooting?" I repeat, horrified and protesting. "But if I shoot with a rest, I don't need my other arm!"

"Fine," Holly allows, with the slightest tinge of a smile at my childish antics. "But don't complain to me if your accuracy is shite."

"Thank you, Holly!" I say quickly, enveloping her surprised form in a hug.

"I thought that I might not be able to use this arm any more... You've helped me massively; if you ever need anything, please, just say the word."

"Yes, yes." Holly chuckles, amused as I pull back from the hug. "Don't fuck up your arm any more that it already is, and we'll get along just fine."

Grateful, I thank her one more time and politely duck out of the infirmary.

Slowly, taking my time, I amble down the dull grey corridors of Afterlife's secure sections (man, we need to come up with a better name for the base), thinking about the situation.

Zaeed was going to be pissed.

The only reason he wasn't getting paid a ridiculous amount of money for his usual contracts was because he was supposed to train me on Aria's orders. Now that I can't train, he's going to want to get back to his contracts.

I'll go explain to Aria, then. Hopefully, Vasir's intel on Vido Santiago's location will be a good enough bonus that Zaeed'll come back when I've fully recovered.

I may bag on the old man's borderline abusive training habits, but they've helped me come a long way from the panicking boy that I was.

Granted, I'm still a panicky kid, but at least now I have the discipline to pull the trigger on another being, however sick it makes me.

Leaving the infirmary behind, my old worn runners silence my steps as I walk slowly through the dull grey corridors of Afterlife, glancing at the occasional cable or interface to break up the monotony.

"Hey, Nick!"

Glancing over my shoulder, I smile as I see Anto jogging up to me.

"Hey, Anto." I greet. "What's up, man?"

"Not much. I'd heard you got out of surgery, but when I went to see you, you'd vanished." Anto replies, as we keep walking.

"Yeah, Aria had a few questions for me." I shrug off.

"Questions that took six hours?" Anto asks perceptively, nudging my good shoulder as he barks out a quick laugh. "C'mon, Nick. We're not blind around here."

My blood runs cold for a minute, and I realize what I've done.

"Tell me," I start carefully, watching Anto's reactions. "What do they say about Aria, now that this has come up?"

"They say she's finally taken another to her bed. It's been a while since Aria publicly had someone in that position." Anto informs me bluntly.

Our conversation halts briefly as we squeeze past a couple of armored turians coming off duty as bouncers, and we nod in respect to our coworkers.

Oddly enough, the turians give me a nod of respect alongside Anto, something that most of them usually didn't do, given my status as a young, unproven, non-military human.

Neither of us speaks until the noise of the turian's boots clanking fades away.

"Let me know, eh? If there's any trouble with kind of stuff." I murmur to Anto, looking eyes briefly to let him know how serious I am.

Of course, then I realize that I don't know with set of eyes to look at. Batarian problems, eh?

"Aria can't handle this on her own?" Anto questions shrewdly, lowering his voice as the topic turns more serious.

"Of course she can," I deny. "She's Aria. But if… associating with me causes any problems, then…"

I trail off, not knowing how to finish that statement.

Anto nods, and my respect for him goes up a notch.

"I just… well, this isn't to say anything about you personally, but this is Omega; I don't want there be any trouble amongst the guard, ok?" I mutter to him, the words tasting like ash in my mouth.

Anto's features tighten, completely justified given that I just doubted the loyalty of everyone we work with.

"We're working for the ruler of Omega. Everyone here knows just how ruthless she can get. If any of Aria's enemies try to get to her through you, we'll kill them." Anto says brusquely.

"Dump the bodies in river, things like that?" I muse idly.

"More like out the airlock, but yeah." Anto shrugs. "Nobody told me that we had to play fair."

"Yeah… same here." I respond slowly, unwilling to let my mind wander down that dark and depressing path again.

"You're off-duty, right?" I ask Anto, deliberately turning the corner to the club rather than heading towards my room. "Let's get a drink, relax a little."

"Oh, you're finally gonna have a drink?" Anto smirks. "Try not to puke all over me, alright? It's bad for Afterlife if one of the bouncers can't hold his drink down."

"You know, I have has a few drinks before." I return, as we near the door to the club. "I can hold my drink down, and besides, I won't be drinking anything heavy. Aria'd have my guts if I embarrassed her; I don't need any more incentive than that."

Anto chuckles warmly, his deep batarian voice rumbling through the empty corridor.


"What's your report, Kenn?" Aria questions, swirling the glass of Noverian Rum in her off hand while she reclines on the Couch.

The music pulses loudly in Afterlife, but the intensity dims in Aria's loft, whether due to acoustics or some kind of generator I don't know.

The flashing neon lights up the skin of exotic dancers as they twirl around on stage, making the crowd roar.

It's a good night for the club, drinks are pouring liberally, and there's only been a few problems (or so Garka told me), so everyone's happy.

"I've managed to incorporate wedge-firing mechanisms in almost every shotgun in our armory, Captain." Kenn tells her, his helmet's light flashing brightly, before pausing. "S-sorry, old habits are… hard to break."

"Just Aria, Kenn." Aria permits him, smirking slightly at his uneasiness.

"Relax, buddy, she's not gonna bite you, unless you ask real nice." I chuckle from my position on Aria's left, waving at Kenn with an easy reassurance. "So, what's up with the rifles we just got?"

"I know the basic idea on what to do with the Mattocks, but a basic idea isn't going to get me far." Kenn says, shaking his helmet slightly. "I can rig up a few up with heat-sinks, but the firing rate is going to have be limited; I know the idea is for semi-automatic, but firing too fast into a jury-rigged system risks detonating the rifle, and that's not good."

I nod, having followed that stream of babble easily enough.

Tentatively, I take a sip of the Noverian Rum that Aria'd told me to drink, saying that I was 'too tense' and that I needed to 'mellow out a little.'

I haven't had the chance to experiment with alcohol as much as some of my former schoolmates have, so this is the first time I've had rum, but so far, it seems pretty good.

Unconsciously, I was expecting a gargle-blaster, perhaps unfairly, but this rum is a smooth, semi-sweet concoction that's actually damn good.

Given how tightly Aria's holding her own drink, though, I think she might be talking to herself a little.

I don't know how well she's taking all the new info that I've dumped on her, but hopefully she doesn't shatter the glass in her hand.

"Is this a resource problem, or an expertise problem?" Aria probes, her eyes narrowing slightly as Kenn stands nervously at attention.

"A bit of both, I'm afraid." Kenn admits. "Marsh got us a dozen Mattocks, and I've already taken apart two without any significant improvements in the prototypes. As well… I-I'm not as good with rifles as I am with shotguns."

"Hmm…" Aria murmurs, taking a swallow of her rum as she thinks.

Kenn tries to hide his hands behind us back, but from where I'm sitting I can see that they're shaking.

Dammit, he's no good to us if goes through a nervous breakdown, I recognize.

"Kenn, it's alright." I assure him. "We're really happy with the work you've done on our shotguns. Aria understands how hard you're working, so don't worry about that. If anything, I'd say you should get a bonus for working so hard. It couldn't've been easy to modify all those guns by hand."

Kenn nods back, and the shaking peters out as he slowly relaxes.

Aria nods, having listened to my encouragement.

"I am very happy with your work, Kenn." Aria tells him, her tone smooth. "But as you said, rifles aren't a specialty of yours. I supposed we'll have to bring in some other experts to help you figure it out. That'll be your job, Nick."

A little surprised by the order, I nonetheless nod in confirmation.

"Alright, but, there's the matter of me returning to the Flotilla, and-" Kenn starts to chatter quickly, his confidence coming apart.

"Kenn, I'm not firing you." Aria calls out, a slight undercurrent of amusement in her tone. "You're going to work with these experts, and I see about contacting the Quarian Fleet for you."

"You keep this work up, Kenn, and you'll be helping the Fleet gain a big advantage over the Geth, and earn a tidy paycheck in the process." I say amicably to Kenn. "And you don't need to worry about your work harming the Fleet; so long as the Quarian Fleet leaves us be, we'll leave them be. I don't see the Admirals deciding to attack Omega any time soon, so we're good, eh?"

Kenn seems to nod (I'd say smile, but I can't tell under that helmet) at that, at least, and bows awkwardly to Aria.

"Oh, no need to be formal." Aria dismisses, hiding her smile with another sip of her drink. "That's all Kenn; Nick will stop by later to follow up."

Kenn nods, then hastily bids an nervous retreat.

Aria gazes at his retreating form for a moment, then turns her head to me.

"Remind me to get that boy a dance, Nick." Aria instructs idly. "It'll help him unwind a little."

"Aria, is your approach to everything just to – to get them a dancer?" I inquire jokingly, the good buzz from the rum loosening my tongue.

"Why not?" Aria asks rhetorically, glancing at the dancer twirling around on the circular stage. "Everyone needs to relax now and then; why shouldn't I earn a little money off that?"

I laugh once more and take a slow sip of my drink, noting that I should probably get some solid food in me if I'm going to be sitting up here for the rest of the night.

The crowd cheers, and on a whim I stand, surveying the bizarre and eccentric floor of Afterlife.

Gazing out over the crowd, I watch humans toast turians, batarians reminisce with krogan, and more.

Hell, what's wrong with enjoying the sights for a few minutes?

It's a beautiful day to be alive, I've got a challenge to keep me busy, and things are only going to get more interesting.

Silently, I hold up my glass, toasting the club and taking another sip. Behind me, Aria chuckles, and I let out a little smirk.


x

x

x

Omake time!

Ghost Nappa gives Advice or Shut Up and Take It (Jomasten)

Nick.

Nick.

Niiiiick.

This is a voice in your head speaking. More than likely a manifestation of your fractured psyche trying to compensate for all the shitty things happening to you, but not something that'll turn your brain into a BROB.

Fuck you and get bent, lucky bastard. Just shut up and take the mind tentacles like a true man.

That is all.

x

x

x

A Date with Asari or How to not Fuck up a Date with Aria T'Loak or Tela Vasir(Xeno Major)

Original Statement by Vaermina: "Just what would people like Aria and Vasir consider a good Date?"

My Response is as Follows:

Eh...

For Aria, instead of showing up with flowers, you show up with blackmail on her or on a high-ranking government member.

You take her to a good restaurant, where everyone (patron, staff, and paparazzi) are in your pocket.

Then you lace her food with a harmless flavoring that could easily be poison.

You finish it off by melding with her and showing that you can manipulate the meld efficiently (which is apparently the sign of a good mate).

As well, you need to show that you can keep your secrets from her, specifically in the meld (all while revealing that you could have killed her if you had wanted).

Aria respects strength, as well as the knowledge that she is just as powerful as you. She's very alpha in that way, so you have to be a mix of alpha/beta. Show that you are alpha enough to play the Great Game, while being beta enough to submit to her ultimate authority.

In that regard, I fail on the second, third, and fifth counts.

For Vasir, you show up apologizing that you have to cancel the nice dinner, because you found some critical information about a threat to the galaxy (note: it has to actually be a threat, not a made-up situation for the occasion).

Then you say that you don't need her help, but she's welcome to tag along if she wants.

Impress her with your critical thinking skills by either ferreting out where the threatening group is located, or by having a pre-set information network which gathers the necessary info for you.

Show that you can handle yourself with some action (either blackmailing or fighting).

Finish it off with a firm reminder that you are sorry about the date, but galactic safety comes first.

Then round it off with an admission that it's not too late to catch a bite to eat and a quick meld.

Vasir is, first and foremost, a Spectre, and she has one goal, which is the safety of the galaxy.

Showing her that you already plan on handling it yourself shows that you have a similar mindset to her, but you still have to be different enough in attitude/temperament.

The information shows you are independent enough to not need Vasir to pull all the weight.

Fighting well means Vasir doesn't need to protect you (though you never know, she might get off on that kind of stuff).

The reminder tells her more about your mindset, your philosophy (since the previous parts of the date should have gotten her interested enough to inquire).

And the last bit about food and melding informs her that you are casual about both galaxy-threatening situations, and about casual sex (or the equivilant).