A/N: Well, I haven't been around for a while.

Short version – problems at work, injured relatives, personal situation going to shit, helping raise nieces, and exhaustion. The Story isn't dead, and neither is the supplemental material. I just had to find energy to scrape it all together.

Chapter's a bit short, and I apologize for that, but I've scrapped almost all of it and started over. Reviews are of course welcome.


O-SaBC-O

The trip back to the Citadel was somber and tense. Marines and sailors sat quietly in the mess, no one speaking much. Chatter on the ops alley was silent, the figure of Pressly stalking back and forth in agitated mute tension, snapping out course adjustments in a near growl. The whisper of prayers could be heard from some, as they knelt outside the medbay, watching the frail forms of the survivors within.

The grim figure of Emilo Vega stood in the cargo bay, his face hard as stone as he stood the Eternal Watch over the coffins there. They'd had to leave quickly, and they'd had to leave three of their dead behind. Those that remained would be honored. The steel coffins were hard and bleak in the dim light of the cargo bay, haptic flags of the SA and their nation or colony shimmering faintly over their surfaces.

In the medbay, Chief Haln's condition miraculously held, due to non-stop work by Chakwas, and Ashley was stabilized a short while after. Neither were even close to regaining consciousness, but Chakwas was sure they would hold out until they could reach the Citadel. Masterson was still in serious condition, his wounds more serious than they had initially seemed. Montoya, the second DACT, was also in serious condition, having taken nineteen direct hits in covering Team Vega's retreat.

Captain Kirrahe was also critical, but thankfully one of the surviving members of the STG unit happened to be the medic, and with Chakwas' help was able to stabilize him. The science lab was turned into a makeshift med-bay for the salarians, while the medbay itself was filled to capacity.

The ship itself was also wounded. Armor plating had broken in several places, and there was a slow atmosphere leak in Engineering that Tali was trying to fix. Joker kept having to adjust trim flows to the engines, and the number three engine was unresponsive. The GTS missile that hit the spine blew the secondary power conduit, knocking out power to the some of the ship's atmosphere controls, and the ship grew colder and colder. Eventually they turned on the IES system simply to heat things up.

Shepard sat in her cabin, staring at the profiles of the dead. Their pictures stared at her quietly from her hastily repaired terminal. Tali had fixed it after she'd smashed it upon viewing Kyle's OSD of horrors.

She was sorely temped to smash it again, simply to vent frustration. She looked at the terminal again, fists clenching on the small desk. Her jaw was so tight it ached, and yet she couldn't look away. She'd spent the night writing the letters she so hated, the ones telling a family that they would have to take down the silver star hung in a window or on a door, and replace it with a blue one.

The letters informing them of the death of their loved one.

Chief Sheena Hallis, A4, twenty year veteran. Up for retirement in nine months, left behind three children on Earth. Designated Marksman. Acted like the team mom for the marines, always puttering in the galley on snacks, or listening to their complaints. Her bright green eyes looked out from the profile photo almost sadly, and her smile was calm, accepting.

Sergeant Charlais Muse, A2, nine year veteran. Grenadier and scout-sniper, dual specializations, rare in the lower ranks. Her wife and family had just moved to Horizon, and after this tour she was scheduled to work planetside there. Killed by geth hunters. The woman in the picture looked almost impishly pleased with herself.

Sergeant Adam Jackson, A5, G2, fifteen year veteran from Massai III. Grenadier. No family, no children, no wife, thank God. No letter to write. Still, he'd be missed. He was always ready with jokes, always in trouble with Cole for some damn-fool stunt. His dashing good looks were a touch somber in his profile picture, unusual for him. Killed in the firefight at Vega's GTS tower, hit by a rocket.

PFC Julia Anders, A1, O5, an incredibly fast rising star in the ranks of the unit. Promoted to A1 just before Eden Prime, Julia was the youngest of the marines on board, her curvy figure and infectious smile a common sight in the CIC where she tended to stand guard with Haln. Single, with no parents, only a brother on file living on Bekenstein. Died when the MAKO was hit by the geth and came apart.

Master Chief Petty Officer Greg Cole, A7, D4, M4, P4, V2. Shepard had been surprised to read his many qualifications, as well as the fact he had been awarded five Medals of Valor and was a junior squire of the Knights of Christ Triumphant. The heart of the marine team she'd built, he'd survived Eden Prime and Saren, only to die on Virmire. His letter, perhaps, was the hardest to write, as he had a large family, and twin grandsons that were five years old. His picture was stern, unyielding. She'd never met any NCO as nearly perfect as Cole, and she doubted she would again – it was as if the man stepped out of a recruiting poster, bigger than life, indefatigable even in death.

And of course, Kaidan. She exhaled, shaking her head sadly. Kaidan was the worst of all. So young. Maybe the Noverian treatments would have worked, and maybe they wouldn't. Maybe he would have died in two or three years. Maybe he would have –

She cut the thought off. The letters were written, and sent. All that remained was to avenge them. The deaths had been senseless, a waste of her best people, in trying to take out Benezia. They'd barely even seen her, the bitch had fled and her people died because she was too arrogant to back off and call for help. Perhaps Kirrahe was right and she made the right call going in, but it still galled and hurt. Perhaps Liara was right and she had no choices, but it still left her feeling empty.

She'd lost track of how many faceless marines she'd gotten killed in her years, but she had always prided herself of taking care of her people, her crew. She'd fought as hard as she could to protect Neutron, and they fought equally hard to protect her. And she had fought to protect her marines. She'd lost Jenkins on Eden Prime, lost more on Eingana, and now this.

Stop fucking thinking about it. Get out of this goddamned room and let your people see you aren't dead. Stop worrying the shit out of Liara.

She shut down the files on her dead, closing the viewscreen. She still had to make her report to the Council, and to High Command. She had just gotten up to try and figure out which to do first, when the ship trembled slightly and alarms blared on her haptic ship display, mounted over her desk. She cursed. "VI, status report."

The VI's voice was as calm as ever. "Tertiary plasma conduit rupture, port-side fuel assembly. Engine capacity reduced to sixty-four percent."

She sighed, tapping the comm to Engineering. "Adams, this is Shepard...what just happened?"

The tired voice of her Chief Engineer spoke. "With an engine out, there's too much stress on the remaining three, Commander. It's minor damage – in dock I could fix that in fifteen minutes – but it's adding up. We'll have problems getting her space worthy again if we don't stop for drydock."

Shepard grimaced. "I want to head back, get the fleet, and go after that bitch at Ilos first thing, Adams. Our turnaround will be rapid. How much endurance do we have left, and how long will it take to make sure the Normandy can make the fight?"

Adams was silent for a few moments before speaking. "I need at least four hours, preferably six, in dock. I can get things mostly back together with that much time. Any less and I can't guarantee we wouldn't lose FTL propulsion entirely given another transit, ma'am. "

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose, nodding to herself. "Six hours. That's it. Make sure you make it count. Shepard out." She clicked off the comm, blinking tiredly at her room, before stretching her back. She couldn't sit here focusing on the dead, and she couldn't put off reporting to her superiors forever.

Exiting into the mess decks, she was slightly surprised to see the battered figure of the salarian medic, Govu, sitting at one of the tables, watching the ANN news that was filtering in from the comm-sat lane. The salarian, a slender fellow with pale skin and scars over both horns, turned to face her with smooth agility. "Good evening, Commander. Captain Kirrahe and Lieutenant Juru will both recover. Lieutenant Bato is still critical, but Captain Kirrahe has regained consciousness and would like to speak with you. "

She nodded. "We're making the best speed we can to the Citadel, and when I make my report here to the Council I'll alert them to have salarian medical teams prepped. I'll go see Kirrahe now." She turned, grimacing as she headed into the medbay.

Two storage lockers had been folded away to allow for more medical beds, but even so the med bay was overloaded. Haln and Masterson were laid out on one side, while Chakwas was working over Williams on another medical bed as she came in. Montoya was in another bed in the corner, reading an infopad, his left leg missing mid-thigh. Haskins and Ownby lay side by side, Haskins covered in burn-gel and very still, Ownby's thick form occluded by medical monitors. Florez, her other DACT, was tucked into a temporary med-unit bed behind Chakwas' desk.

"Commander?" Chakwas looked up from working on Williams, a tired look on her features. "Come to see the injured?"

Shepard shook her head, glancing around. "Heading to talk to the salarians. But...I should ask. How is everyone?"

Chakwas's face twisted into a thin grimace. Carefully moving a medigel injector along Williams' stomach, she sighed. "Not good. Haln and Masterson are still unconscious. Haln's liver is near-septic, and he'll need a kidney replant or cyberware. Masterson took a lot of fire, Commander, and I'm not sure if he'll walk again, several shots chipped his spine."

She paused, adjusting something on her omni for a moment. Her voice was tired. "Montoya is alright, the amputation went well and I've already placed the lining for a cyberlimb. Haskins is suppurating from her burns and I really need a burn unit to assess her injuries. Ownby hasn't been able to breathe on his own yet. Florez...stable, but still hurt too badly to fight."

She looked down at the form of Ashley. "On the other hand, we may have a minor miracle on our hands with Williams. As I said she took that shot right in the gut and her uterus was … well damaged. Fetal mortality in such instances is high, usually around 90%. I went ahead and stabilized everything as well as I could and did as much work in the stasis field as I could."

Shepard nodded, and she continued. "This afternoon, I did the secondary work up on Ashley. I'm still getting enzyme emissions that indicate pregnancy is ongoing, and I'm still getting a faint fetal hearbeat. I'm estimating the level of fetal oxygenation , but nothing seems compromised by trauma."

Shepard blinked, hard, before she felt a smile erupt over her features involuntarily. "You're saying the baby is fine?"

Chakwas sighed. "No. There could still be complications. Bradycardia or tachycardia, a decrease in the oxygenation of the embryo, all sorts of things. Williams is still shocky, her body has taken an enormous amount of damage and I can't use some of the stronger methods to patch things up without risking the fetus, so I will have to monitor things very closely." She paused, pushing back her hair. "Right now, I'd give the baby a 40% chance of survival."

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose and exhaled slowly. "That's .. a fuck of a lot better than yesterday, doc. Has she regained consciousness yet?"

Chakwas shook her head. "I've kept her under sedation until the regenerators finish working, but I've had to do the work in her torso mostly by hand – regenerators and fetal development don't work well together."

She sighed again. "Despite that bit of good news, everything is still very touch and go. I've treated everyone else as best I can, but we're already getting low on medical supplies. This medical bay is as good as the Systems Alliance can make for it's size, but we aren't equipped to handle these kinds of injuries, much less salarian injuries. It was only luck that since I never knew what aliens you'd bring aboard next that I laid in three bags of frozen salarian blood plasma."

Shepard rubbed her eyes wearily and nodded. "We'll be to the Citadel soon. I've already sent ahead the crash EMT and hospital clearance requests you wanted. Just keep them going until then, Doctor. That's all you can do."

Chakwas nodded. "I know. I don't mean to pry, Commander...but will you be alright yourself? I know you dislike losing troops."

Shepard gave a small, sad smile. "Seems to be the story of my life, sometimes. That operation didn't go anywhere near the way it was supposed to go. And we didn't get the target."

From his med, Montoya snorted. "We scared the shit out of her, though." He set aside his infopad, his slenderly handsome Hispanic features dark and serious. "Commander, Jack and I knew the score when we volunteered for this gig. What went down on Virmire was some seriously bad shit, but things mainly went to hell because we went up against an army with two tanks and not even a fucking company of soldiers."

He gave a pained shrug. "We killed off more than a thousand of the enemy, blew up their barracks and comm center and killed off more, blew up their monster-making factory, and even if she survived having a building dropped on Benezia had to hurt her, ma'am. Plus, she ran, and something happened to the black ship when the bomb went off." He looked at her intently. "Master Chief Cole wouldn't want you kicking yourself, ma'am. He went out like he wanted to."

Shepard shook her head. "He should have been able to go out surrounded by his family, Sergeant."

Montoya gave a bitter smile. "We can't always do that, boss lady. Every jump-boy knows from the minute we put on the Icarus battle armor what happened to Icarus in myth. We all end up flying too high, getting too far into the fight, and buying it. I'm not saying it's not a hard thing to lose him, or the LT. But I've also seen shit like that go out with everyone dead, more than once. This wasn't no situation where you sent us off to distract the main force while you did the command in. We just got caught out."

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose. "I'm more beating myself up over the fact that people died than how they died, then?"

Montoya nodded. "Ma'am, every one of your marines has seen videos of your battles. Heard the stories. Talked to some asshat who knows a guy who said he survived Torfan. I'm not telling you that you didn't make some ugly choices in the past. But you told us yourself we might all die getting this job done. And if it comes to that, well..."

He looked down for a moment, then nodded, almost to himself. "I'd rather die for something I believe in, following a leader who actually hurts when she loses her men, than die on some battlefield to send a message, because some REMF didn't bother to read the intel properly. Ain't scared of dying. Lost suit control on Horizon once and damn near bought it, burned all the fear out of me." He looked back up. "I'm scared of not mattering. And no matter what people claim about you, I know you are a good person, ma'am."

He gestured around the medbay. "You're upset that your marines got killed and hurt. Most of the CO's I served under didn't."

Shepard's expression showed shock, then disbelief. Slowly, it darkened, turning into a mask of fury. "They didn't care? How – " She cut herself off, shaking her head. "Doesn't matter. I appreciate the vote of confidence, Sergeant. And you matter. All of you do."

He only nodded, picking up his infopad again. "Didn't mean to butt into your conversation, just thought you should know, Commander."

She smiled faintly, and Chakwas chuckled. She moved past him, towards the science lab, and stepped through into the smaller room.

Of Kirrahe's twenty man team, only he and six others had survived. The medic was fine, as were the salarians who'd ended up under Williams' command, but two of the other salarians – Kirrahe's own team – were not. They were laid out on temporary medical beds, bags of green plasma hung from hooks driven into the bulkhead, one of the med-status units from the MAKO removed and acting as a med support unit. Kirrahe himself was sitting up on the third medical bed, grimacing as he read an infopad. His shoulder and right side were heavily bandaged, his face drawn and tired looking.

He glanced up. "Commander Shepard. I … I am sorry. My plan got most of my people and many of yours killed. Did not expect such monstrosities at the landing site. My reports will reflect that I was the one who made the call."

She held up a hand. "Now's not the time for figuring out who fucked up, Captain. We didn't kill Benezia...but we know where she's going, and we have at least some kind of idea of her forces now. She's headed to Ilos, beyond the Mu Relay, and we have the exact coordinates. We also know she plans to attack the Citadel. "

Kirrahe's eyes widened slightly. "Her fleet was … formidable. If she plans to attack the Citadel..."

She shrugged. "I'm not going to let it happen, Captain. We're going for the Citadel as fast as we can. We know where she's headed, and I plan to be in front of the fleet we send to take her completely the fuck out. That bitch cost me …"

Shepard clenched a fist, tensing her jaw.

"... I don't let people go after my team and live."

Kirrahe gave a shallow slash of a smile. "I will stand with you, Commander, when you make your report. I doubt I'll be healed enough to go with you for the assault, but I can guarantee some of the STG will want to come along." He glanced down. "We haven't lost this much manpower in a single day in centuries. We are not a highly emotional people... but we know the need for revenge."

She matched his smile with one of her own, cold and terrifying. "Good."

O-OSaBC-O

"I do not have any information for you, Aethyta. And if I did... I do not know that I would allow you to proceed with whatever plan you have."

Aethyta smiled, her tired features only dimly visible in the shadow of her robe's hood. She swirled a glass of churza in one hand, reclining easily in the lavish quarters of the Consort, the hilt of her warp sword an ugly shape in the robes.

Across from her, Sha'ira was tense, her closed fists on the rich fabric of her dress, atop her knees. The ancient asari had strode in, brushing aside her secretaries and putting her two krogan guards into the hard metal walls with a single pulse of biotic power. Sha'ira had seen many strong matriarchs, but there was something icy and almost unnaturally lethal about the figure in front of her.

Aethyta took a sip of the expensive turian brandy and smiled wider. "Little girl, you seem to think I'm fucking asking you for what I want. As much as you think you are a player of the Game, you're still little more than a kid. So I'm going to be kind and explain a few things and give you a second chance."

She tossed the empty glass away, unheeding as it shattered on the expensive tile floors behind her. Leaning forward, she stared into Sha'ira's eyes. The Consort could literally feel the oppressive power of the matriarch's biotic field, the simmering white-hot rage so carefully concealed behind a mask of amused indulgence.

"You see, little girl, my ex has gone a bit salty in the crest for some reason. I blame myself. I shouldn't have left. Should have been a better bondmate. But because I was a coward, she fell in with bad people, told them some things she shouldn't have, and now millions of people and two planets are fucking dead, the geth are running around, and my daughter is in the middle of it."

Aethya's smile grew, and Sha'ira found herself trembling uncontrollably. The biotic energy in the air was visible as warped shimmering air and gusts of wind. The voice was icy. "If I don't find a way to stop her, Benezia is going to end up trying to do something very stupid. And then Liara, my daughter, is going to try and stop her. I love my daughter. I'm a shitty aithntar, a crappy person, a coward who hides behind bars and sex, but I still care for her."

Aethya's calloused blunt fingers traced a delicate line across the Consort's cheek, a mockery of the tender sensuality she usually employed on her own clients. "So when I say I need information, girl, it isn't a matter of confidence, or your rituals, or whatever bullshit you've made up in your empty little head to equate your call-girl scheme with real intelligence work. It's a matter of you tell me or I rip it out of your mind, and butcher this pack of whores you've gathered on my way out. C-SEC won't stop me, because I already paid off the Broker to cover my tracks, and you'll be dead by the time they show up."

Sha'ira tried to control her shaking. "If you have the Broker, why come to m-me?"

Aethya's finger tapped the hilt of her sword. "The Broker says you had a. . . guest not too long ago. Someone who worked for Saren, who needed a way out. I know you dabble in the old rithurai techniques, so that you can sift the memories of those stupid enough to bond with you. I know that he knew something vital that you tried to sell to the highest bidder."

Sha'ira swallowed. "He was … a systems engineer. He said Saren was asking questions about the hydraulics arrays that allowed the Citadel Wards to move and seal the Citadel. He was paid an enormous sum to sabotage two of them, to make sure they could not close as rapidly as they were supposed to." She closed her eyes. "I .. I told the C-SEC and the Broker, but neither of them found anything."

The older asari nodded. "She's coming here, then. The Citadel is her target. Interesting." She redirected her gaze onto the Consort before tossing her a credstick. "There's enough on there to pay the hospital to patch your krogan up." She rose to her feet smoothly, striding out of the chamber and ignoring the frightened gazes of the whores Sha'ira employed, instead tapping her omni.

"Your information was good, I appreciate the tip."

The rumbling voice on the reply sounded amused. "Her information could have been sold to you for a fair price, rather than you interrogating her yourself. You must have a reason for such a bold act when you know it will draw attention."

Aethya laughed. "Didn't have the cash for that, and besides, I wanted to put that little tramp in her place." She paused. "None of this makes any sense. I know Nezzy. She is in love with the stream no one fucking swims in. And neither she or Saren are stupid enough to do something like that and then let the fucker survive. No, she wants people to think the threat is coming from outside the Citadel. Something they can handle. Ships, invasions...bullshit."

The voice of the Broker sounded almost interested. "And instead..."

Aethya shrugged, walking out of the Consort's complex and into the fake sunlight of the Presidium. "I have no clue, except that if she's drawing people's attention to the exterior, that's exactly where the blow won't fall. Nezzy is a bit crazy like that."

She paused. "If I were you, I'd get out of the Citadel, assuming you're based here. She's definitely coming here. I suspected but it doesn't fit who she is..."

The Broker's voice was flat. "Take the Citadel, and you have a great deal of power..."

Aethya shook her head. "She's never been interested in power that way. She preferred to mold, shape and twist people, to make her views their views and have them willingly give in. And taking the Citadel doesn't mean a damn thing. She can't hold it, even with the geth. No one will negotiate with her, and we don't even the know what the fuck Saren was planning in the first place. But she thinks taking it for a short time will let her … win."

She could almost feel the answer on the tip of her tongue.

The Broker merely spoke seven words, and cut the connection, leaving Aethya to curse her own blindness. It had been the one thing she hadn't considered possible.

"Unless she plans to destroy the Citadel."