At fifteen thousand words, this is the final chapter. I'm exhausted.

This story is dedicated to my wife, Alysha, and my friends, Charlene, Griffin and Lais. You know who you are.

If you enjoyed this story, I would request two things. First, please leave a review. I will always be interested in feedback, both positive and negative. If you enjoyed it, I love hearing about it, but I love knowing what exactly you liked or didn't like. If you think it sucks ass, at least tell me why, even if it's no more than "I hate Fshep/Liara" or "No Von Grath/Chakwas sex scene".

Progman, silence!

Second, if you have never written a fan fiction story … give it a try. The way is long and difficult, but you will find you enjoy it immensely. It allows you to build up and learn to think, write, and build on something while having a familiar universe to work with. There can't be any better way to thank an author for a story than to write one yourself.

This story is now completed. The series will continue. There will be a lengthy linking piece connecting the end of this story to the beginning of the ME2 story, outlining on that is completed. It should go quick.

The poem in this section is by Lord Tennyson, 'They Brought Her Warrior Dead'.

Vaya con dios.

O-Of Sheep and Battle Chicken-O

The Citadel Chambers had been the site of intense and focused repair work in the days after the defeat of Nazara. Shepard, in full dress whites, was carefully escorted by a pair of Spectres towards a side room off the main Chamber, while Systems Alliance Guard of Iron units, resplendent in their own dress uniforms, escorted her crew towards the main plinth.

She entered the room and the doors closed behind her, leaving her in a small, comfortable antechamber with five chairs of plush backing. Four soldiers stood along the back of the room – a turian in faintly glowing omni-armor and cybered arms and legs, an old asari in commando leathers with two warp swords, a grim looking black-suited salarian with a band of cybernetics where his eyes should be and belt literally full of large caliber pistols, and a smirking Alliance commander she vaguely recognized as Jack Iroidan, the famous Commissar biotic who created the Nova maneuver.

Seated in front of her, in neat placement in front of what could only be their personal bodyguards, were the High Matriarch of the asari, the turian Primarch, the salarian High Dalatrass, and President Windsor.

It was her president who spoke, his mellifluous voice as calming and rich as usual. "Have a seat, Commander. We are gathered to … discuss hard facts. And to lay out our plans."

Shepard sat, a bit nervously, with the four most powerful people in the galaxy facing her and four of what was most likely the galaxy's deadliest warriors looking on in boredom.

Matriarch T'Armal spoke first. "We have reviewed in detail the information you have gathered, both from your reconnaissance on Virmire and from the … data given to us by that offensive little AI-thing, Vigil. As a result, we've decided that the threat of these … Reapers is a clear and very present danger to both galactic society and quite possibly all life."

Primarch Fedorian spoke next. "Given the losses we've taken in the past few days – over thirty dreadnaughts, well over two thousand cruisers and destroyers, countless fighters, hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties and tens of thousands of military ones – we are in no shape to even fight off one additional Reaper, much less a fleet of hundreds, or thousands. Review of the military capacity of the Reapers is still ongoing...but the results are grim. We simply cannot beat them in the foreseeable future, even if we had a century to prepare."

Shepard exhaled, as Dalatrass Linron's thin voice echoed. "Every examination of Reaper technology is being done using remote robotics. We've set up quarantine blocks over any area of the Wards with wreckage from Nazara, and STG teams have begun a sweep of forward geth locations to acquire more … relics. We are taking this 'indoctrination' threat very seriously – debriefing the asari you found on Virmire confirms that Reaper technology can affect sentient beings in as little as nine to ten hours of exposure." Her eyes narrowed. "That makes research of what we have found … dangerous."

Shepard nodded slowly. "It certainly twisted Benezia and Saren. At the end she fought it off, just long enough to destroy herself, but it was given how strong she was..."

Matriarch T'Armal smiled sadly. "Benezia was stronger than almost anyone I know, Commander. If she could not resist such taint, then no mind could. I fear that is not the true worry we have. Even by researching what wreckage we can of the Reaper technology, we have no way to match their numbers or power. Vigil informs us of strange powers and abilities they have, to alter space and time itself. The Inusannon had far more powerful weapons than we could ever hope to develop, and numbers that made our combined fleets look like a pirate's squadron, and even they could not defeat the Reapers in open battle."

President Windsor folded his arms, eying the clock carefully. "There isn't much time before our little pageantry starts, but I wanted to … let you know what is happening, and why. We – and the quarians, Admiral Rael'Zorah did not feel a need to attend this meeting since he has little to add – will be working together to find methods and solutions to hopefully avoid the Reaper problem. Given rough estimates of the Reaper locations, based on surmises made by the Inusannon according to Vigil, we might have as much as five hundred years before they arrive...or as little as six. Given that researching the very thing that gives our enemies their superiority is very dangerous, our research will have to be conducted rather slowly and very quietly. We will slowly build up fleet numbers and phase in new technology where we can, adapting what we can to the threat."

Dalatrass Linron gave a narrow smile. "The danger of the geth will be used as our first excuse to ramp up our military. Humanity, along with the quarians, will be given more leeway to build dreadnaughts, and the Salarian Union will be sharing some of our more … delicate … technology with all of the Citadel races. I expect the asari and turians will also do so. We cannot afford to assume we have time to prepare, and must make ourselves as ready as we can."

Primarch Fedorian spoke. "But we cannot afford to let the public, or even most levels of government, know about the Reapers. There would be mass panic, a disruption of the economy when we need it the least, and it would achieve no positive goals. Given that if the threat comes before we are prepared, that we can do little but fight as hard as we can and yet probably die … letting this information out will only hinder any progress we will make."

Shepard frowned, but nodded, and the turian continued. "Rest assured, we are not ignoring any of this. It is a nightmare that I wish we did not face, but ignorance of the truth will only get us all killed. We, and I include myself in that number, have closed our eyes to many things for far too long."

Linron was more blunt. "Ignorance is death."

The President fixed her with a hard look. "We need your assistance in aiding us in keeping this quiet. The cover story is that Nazara was a sentient AI, an artifact of some race prior to the Protheans, and played a role in their destruction. Saren and Benezia found it and plotted rebellion and revolution, and the ship allowed them to dominate the geth. It is possible that the geth are working to create another ship like it, which will cover our continuing war on the geth to find any more traces of Reaper technology."

Shepard sighed. "I don't see I have a choice, Your Majesty. As much as I dislike lying about what I found – from my point of view, Saren and Benezia were both victims – I will follow orders. Just .. how many people know about this? If one of you die suddenly or leaves office, who else knows?"

The President gave a cautious smile. "The quarian high admiral, Rael'Zorah knows. As does the Citadel Council, including Udina. Captain Anderson knows, and will be placed in charge of a special unit to research defenses against Reaper attacks. You and your team knows, but we would appreciate it if they kept it quiet. It appears, although we are not sure how, that the Shadow Broker knows the truth as well – maybe even pieces we do not."

The asari matriarch folded her fingers together. "The Council of Matriarchs, the salarian STG Master, the Turian High Command and the Systems Alliance Commissariat have members who know as well. They will maintain the continuity of any information sharing required."

Windsor made a gesture with his hands. "For now, that is all. You and I will have a conversation after the award ceremony and your leave. For now, however, I can only offer you my sincere gratitude. Your actions have perhaps, with no exaggeration, saved this galaxy from darkness we can scarce imagine."

With that, he rose, and gave her a bow. The turian Primarch stood and gave a valor salute of warrior to warrior, the asari matriarch inclined her head graciously, as if Shepard were her equal, and the Dalatrass made a gesture of bowing her head.

With that, the Primarch touched his omnitool, and the door slid open. "Your audience awaits, Spectre."

Shepard shot the turian a sour look, and the leader only flicked a mandible in amusement as she rose. "I will always serve to the best of my ability as long as you are straight with me. I .. appreciate you taking the time to keep me informed."

With that, she followed the Spectres out the door, and up the silvery steps. Most of the damage in the fight was either repaired or covered over with haptic banners or more conventional cloth ones.

A line of Spectres stood to either side of the wide plaza at the top of the stairs, flanked by the SA Guard of Iron as well as honor units from the turian, asari, and quarian armed forces. She saw the President and Matriarch T'Armal moving on a higher balcony, before she reached the top.

The balconies were filled with spectators, and the entire ceiling was near to eclipsed by hovering camera drones. The lower tiers were equally packed, and through the broad windows looking down on the Presidium she saw crowds surrounding the Tower.

For all that, silence dominated the chamber, the somber click of footfalls on steel and the faint rustle of the cherry blossom trees the only sound. It reminded her of when they made her a Spectre in the first place, and she squared her shoulders as she advanced.

The Council stood at their normal places. Tevos wore a gown of white and scarlet, with a shawl of deep red covering her shoulders. Sparatus wore the uniform of a turian general, with a heavy brocaded sash festooned with medals crossing his chest. Valern wore a simple black suit with the rank insignia of a STG Unit commander, his bracers missing for once.

To one side of the platform stood Councilor Udina, dressed in a dreadfully expensive looking silk suit and literally smirking his head off. On the other side the hulking form of Admiral Rael'Zorah stood like a pillar, dwarfing the smaller male quarian in a rather fancy looking environment suit by his side.

Liara, Wrex, Tali, Jiong – sitting in a lift chair – Joker, Chakwas, Garrus, Telanya, and Pressly stood in front of them, followed by the senior NCO's of the various ship divisions, Navigator Friggs, and Ashley Williams, also in a lift chair flanked by the heavy forms of Montoya and Rodriguez, her DACT.

Behind them was the rest of the crew of the Normandy in neat rows, along with her battered remaining marines and a handful of quarian marines, Kal'Reegar in front and standing tall.

She eased through the ranks of her people to stand in front of them, and saw the form of Admiral Mikhailovich standing in front of the Council in his dress whites. As she came to a stop, the admiral glanced to the heavy set sergeant standing at his side.

The man shouted. "Normandy. At-ten-SHUN."

Her crew fell in with perfect precision. Garrus came to a turian stance of attention, while Telanya mimicked the soldiers around her. The quarians and Tali straightened further and crossed their right arm over their chest, while Liara merely folded her hands together.

Wrex just rolled his eyes.

Mikhailovich shot the krogan an evil look, before lifting his jutting chin and speaking. "You have returned from the most difficult assignment that the Systems Alliance Navy has ever undertaken in our recorded history. A single battle frigate with experimental technology, you have taken down cruisers, destroyers, and heavy cruisers in combat. You have repelled assaults from enemies both foreign and domestic, and shown the entire galaxy that same honor, bravery, and commitment that the men who stormed ashore on Normandy Beach so many years ago first showed us."

"It should come as no surprise that once more, Commander Shepard, the Systems Alliance honors you with the Star of Terra. You risked your life to stop a threat to the entire galaxy, and your valor, courage, and leadership are an inspiration to us all."

He withdrew a black case from his pocket, taking out a blood red ribbon from which hung a single gold star. He draped it around her neck, complementing the one already there.

He then smiled, and turned slightly to address the crew. "Shepard did not act alone in her fight, and the valor of the crew of her ship is also noted. It is with vast pride that I present the Presidential Unit Citation for Gallantry to the crew and the ship Normandy. Additionally, every member of ship's company is hereby awarded the Medal of Valor and the Legion of Honor."

With only a slight hesitation, his face turned towards her non-human crew members, and the quarians. "And yet, the crew of the Normandy did not achieve victory merely through the might of human arms. Turians, asari, quarians, even krogan stood strong, stood fast, and stood together to defy an enemy that threatened us all."

"As such, His Grace, President Windsor, Prince of the House of Windsor, has authorized the Medal of Valor, a sizable monetary award, and honorary class II citizenship for every non-human member of the crew, and the entire Migrant Fleet Marine contingent who bravely aided our forces at Ilos, along with the crew of the All Due Caution, the volus cruiser who also aided us there." He paused. "That makes Urdnot Wrex the only krogan awarded such a citizenship."

As he finished, the color sergeant barked orders to the Guard of Iron. "Guards! Present arms! Systems Alliance, arriving."

Mikhailovich turned and saluted as President Windsor approached from the side, the Guard of Iron parting to let him pass. His dark suit had been augmented with white gloves and a belted sword, as he moved past the guard to stand in front of Shepard.

"Thank you, Admiral. Carry on. Commander Shepard. Attend us."

Shepard swallowed and took one step forward, and the President lifted his voice.

"This woman is humanity. She is our pride, and our failures. She is our hopes, and our sins. She has endured the very worst our race can offer, and yet shows the very best we can ever hope to achieve."

The president's smooth, grave voice took on a note of fierce, angry pride. "We have not honored her as we should. We have let her bleed for us, and suffer for us. While we sat waiting, she led her men to danger and battle we can scarce imagine. While we doubted, she acted. When we did not listen, she forged ahead. The very least we can do is correct our negligence in a manner more real than ribbons and speeches."

He turned to face her, meeting her gaze squarely. "Commander Sara Ying Shepard, kneel."

She did so, and he drew his sword, finely honed silver and steel with a basket hilt. He tapped it over her left shoulder first. "In the name of Saint Michael and Saint George, and in the name of the Blessed Martyr Victor Manswell, we grant thee a Name." The blade touched her other shoulder. "In the name of the Systems Alliance, the manifest hope of all mankind, we grant thee a recognizance of your valor, that shines above all others."

He passed the sword over her head. "You are no longer Sara Ying Shepard, but Baroness Sara Ying Shepard, Protector of the Systems Alliance as a member of the Knights of United Earth. By our authority we make you Major of Marines and Admiral-designate. By our blood we name you of the Families of Earth. By your deeds we do declare any and all restrictions on your rights and freedom annulled now and forevermore."

He broke his gaze from hers to stare almost challengingly around the vast chamber. "Let anyone who defies our will be marked our enemy."

"Rise, Major."

She stood, not quite believing everything she'd just heard. She was .. a noble. She was free of her Z2 restriction. The crazy bastard had made her a major and an admiral-designate, then made her a knight of the most restricted and noble order on the planet.

Windsor sheathed his sword, and did the unthinkable. He bowed to her.

For him to do so in private was one thing. For a leader of a major star-faring government, a Prince of the blood, a President to bow to a mere soldier in public, was something no one expected.

She nearly froze, before she felt Liara's soothing encouragement, and instead exhaled and bowed more deeply, hoping she did so correctly. She straightened a moment later, as he did so as well, his patrician features expressionless as he turned away.

Tevos then spoke. "We of the Citadel Council also recognize bravery when we see it. We gave you a vast charge – to stop both Saren and Benezia, to prevent their plans from coming to fruition and bring them back for justice or death."

Valern's voice was low, almost tired sounding. "If this body had listened to your words, perhaps the tragic loss of life we have endured recently would not have occurred. But we cannot undo the past, merely learn from it and prepare ourselves for the future."

Sparatus finished, meeting her gaze calmly. "And as such, it is the unified decision of this Council of Races to confirm your status as a full and unlimited Agent of the Citadel Office of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance."

Tevos spoke."To the brave sentients who fought alongside her, we can offer only our thanks and award a few things that will never match the cost you have had to pay. The Citadel Council will pay for your medical care and any rehabilitation, both now and for the rest of your lives, and you shall have top priority in acquiring accommodation on the Presidium. Each person standing before us will be awarded the Citadel Cross of Valor, the highest award any sentient can be given."

Sparatus spoke again. "Additionally, to recognize the valor and sacrifices of the many brave souls who saved this station and our very lives, the Council has elevated Donnel Udina and Thin'Koris vas Seya to the ranks of the Citadel Council, providing the humans and quarians with the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of a Full Member race of the Council. We will be meeting with the quarian High Admirals later today to discuss possibilities for colonization and subjects, such as the geth."

And then, Tevos, Sparatus and Valern each in turn bowed, not just to Shepard but to the entire group standing there. "Our gratitude cannot be expressed in mere words, gestures or objects. If you need anything, let us know."

Shepard nodded, exhaling, Jiong had carefully coached her on when to dismiss the crew. "Normandy. Mission complete. Fall out by watch sections and report to Dock Sixteen. Council Observers, Migrant Fleet Marine detachment – you are free to go."

With a stiff bow to the Council, she pivoted sharply on her heel, focusing all her attention on her posture and keeping her face emotionless and cool. She faintly heard wild cheering, but paid it no mind, walking straight and proud down the steps, cherry blossoms chasing her as she did so.

And once again, just as when she was made a Spectre, she saw Anderson waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs, a uniformed Kahlee Sanders at his side, his smile so wide and so proud he looked as if he might burst out laughing. Years of stress had lifted from his features, and he swallowed as she stopped in front of him.

"Well done, Sara."

"Thank you, sir. Nerves are now shot, sir. Permission to go get drunk, sir."

Anderson smiled wider and nodded to the Commissar detail she belatedly noticed at the bottom of the stairs. "Commissar Jiong has an aircar waiting, Sara. It will take you to the docks so you can talk to your crew. Get past that and a brief meeting with the Admiralty, and then you can fall apart."

She gave a grateful nod, and Anderson gave her a little push. "Get going. Media's already howling for blood, and the longer you take the more likely they are to figure out where to hunt for you next."

She snorted and walked, the Commissariat falling in around her, faces grim and hands on neural maces to clear her path.

It took a good twenty five minutes to get to Dock Sixteen, and another twenty for everyone from her crew to make it there. The quarian marines were nowhere to be seen, but they were probably having their own little award ceremony right now anyway.

Shepard took in the battered lines of her ship, the curve of it's hull, the sweep of the wings. The scars of battle were visible everywhere, and yet the proud name still leapt from the hull.

Shepard found herself curiously upset at the idea of losing the Normandy, but shook her head to clear it and turned to her crew. They stared back, fidgeting in dress whites or in hastily cleaned up armor in the case of Wrex, and she smiled.

"Normandy 1. Crazy bitches, pointy faced bastards,and sick fucking terrorists 0." She smiled, pacing as she talked, moving in front of them.

"We set out to do a job. It was a lot harder,bloodier and uglier than I expected, but in the end we did it. A Presidential Unit Citation means each and every one of you, except myself and Pressly, just got promoted. It means you are always going to be paid and assigned as if you had maximum time in rate for your rank. It's clearance to pursue whatever you wanted in your naval career. For the marines, it's a surefire ticket into the N7 program."

She paused. "For all of us, it's a reminder that when everyone else fell down on the job, we were there. Adams, your engineering staff kept us alive and going where no one else could. Friggs, your nav people were always on target, and you stepped up to the challenge of being a department head with no training and aced it. Pressly, this is the single most badass ops team I have ever heard of. From CIC to keeping the guns going, you guys made this possible more than I did."

She turned to the small group of still wounded marines flanking a chair-bound Ashley Williams. "My marines. You bled, and bled, and suffered so much during this fight, and yet you never doubted me, or assumed I'd get you killed. You fought hard. We lost a lot of good men on this trip, from Jenkins and his stupid antics to Cole...and every one of them died fighting. They died fighting for something no politician can put into words, or award with a piece of metal."

"They died fighting to protect the innocent. They died fighting those who lost track of what it means to be alive. They died hard, and they died Marines, unbowed and unbroken."

She glanced over Wrex, Garrus, Tali, Telanya and most of all Liara. "And our guests aboard this cruise...thank you all. Without each one of you, at some point, this whole gig would have been over and us all dead in a ditch. Garrus, I don't know how the shit I can fight without you watching my back on oversight. Wrex, the next time you charge off by yourself, I'm killing you. Tali... I've got a stack of requests two inches thick from quarian ships asking for comms with you to offer you a slot on their crews. I think your Pilgrimage is pretty much done, you can't beat a better gift than a Council seat. Telanya...you gave me the chance to realize I can trust people again."

She met Liara's eyes. "Doctor T'Soni..."

She said nothing, and asari blushed, and the entire crew chuckled or whooped.

Shepard smiled. "Without you we wouldn't have known where to start. And in the end, it was you who stopped Benezia."

Shepard turned back to gaze at the ship. "In a few minutes I'm going to have to meet with the Admiralty. I already know what they'll say. That I need political and leadership training. That I have duties and responsibilities. That the Normandy needs downtime and the crew needs rest." She smiled faintly. "Our time together was a blast...but I will be assigned elsewhere, and so will most of you."

She folded her arms, eyes flashing, and squared her jaw. "But I will never, ever forget a single one of you. You are my crew. Mine. And if anything or anyone gives you shit, they can gaze into the fucking fist of Shepard."

She grinned. "And now, it's time, boys, girls, and Wrex. Pressly!"

The XO came to attention. "Ma'am. The Normandy is at dock. VI is standing by. The crew is accounted for."

She exhaled and spoke softly. "This is.. Major-Commander Shepard. I am ashore. Command is transferred to Citadel Fleet Command, Dockside Division. I relinquish the deck and the conn. VI … log the time."

Shepard turned to face the crew. "You have ninety-six hours of leave, starting in ...nine minutes. Report back to this dock when it's over for reassignment. It has been both a pleasure and an honor to serve with each of you."

She paused. "Flight Lieutenant Moreau, Engineer Tali'Zorah, and Doctor T'Soni. Meet me in room B, sixth floor, Citadel Tower in one hour." She exhaled, and headed back to the aircar. She felt a concerned pulse from Liara but sent back a calming one, and bit her lip.


Meeting with the Admiralty turned out to be a clusterfuck, just as she had expected. She arrived in a narrow room with both Admiral Hackett and Admiral Mikhailovich there, facing a wide haptic screen already filled with several Senators and other figures.

She sat down at the narrow metal table where her name was neatly printed in haptic imaging, picking up the padd on the table at her seat. "Co...sorry. Major Shepard, reporting as ordered."

The man on the screen gave an unhappy scowl. "I am Admiral Retham, commander, Alliance Manpower and Requisition. I've been given some … highly unusual orders regarding your billet and assignment, Major-Commander, and I'm not very happy about them."

Admiral Mikhailovich snorted. "I strongly doubt the President or the Joint Admiralty Board cares about your opinion. They didn't listen to me or Steven bitching about it."

The admiral rolled his eyes, and Shepard interjected. "Before we argue...can you please explain what my orders actually are, and this billet?"

Admiral Retham nodded, glaring sourly at Mikhailovich. "Of course, Major. You are being assigned to the command of the Fifth Fleet, Eighty-ninth Strike Flotilla. You are in command of battle-group Chiron.

She frowned. "I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that formation."

The admiral nodded. "That's because it exists only only paper right now. The final touches are being put onto the Chiron's flagship, a brand new heavy cruiser, the SCH Kazan. A totally new design, banded reactive armor, heavy center-line torpedo bank, triple mass accelerators, and a Normandy-style mass effect core."

Shepard smiled. That sounded like quite a ship. The Admiral, however, continued. "The battle-group you are being put in command of would have that heavy cruiser, three destroyers, and five frigates. Along with this you would be in command of a special Regimental Combat Unit of A-rate marines, reassigned personnel from fragmented RRU and RIU divisions, and a handful of AIS and N7 personnel."

Shepard remembered the Fleet Master mentioning this possibility in the hospital on Noveria, but didn't ever expect it to truly happen. "I … see. What exactly is the problem?"

Admiral Retham scowled. "It's bad enough we're assigning you a brand new state of the art cruiser when it's been made clear you are going to not be facing combat any time soon, but I've got to also resupply Fifth Fleet's other badly mauled flotilla under Admiral Mikhailovich."

The other admiral grunted. "Welcome to command, Shepard. Here's the issue – our ships are all shot to shit, and we urgently need to reinforce our losses. But the orders Retham has are instructing him to give you three brand new destroyers and the entire run of the new Normandy-class frigates as they come off the line."

Hackett spoke up. "Normally, as you both answer to me, this would be my call. But the Presidential directive is something I can't bypass. I'll actually need you to turn down this request so we can get those ships assigned to the front line where they properly belong."

Shepard nodded, and Retham scowled again. "It's not that simple, I'm afraid. The only ships available besides those are … not exactly new. You'd be able to fill your command, but the destroyers all need a good month or more of drydock time, and the frigates are old second generation models without modern heat sinks. No money to refit them,either."

Shepard nodded again. The usual problem with the SA – not enough cash. The President had apparently taken matters into his own hands to make sure she was getting the top equipment to do the job...but she didn't have orders yet, so she didn't know what her job was yet.

She groaned. "So I'm in a catch-22. If I take the ships, the fleet gets screwed. If I don't, I get junk and no promise of replacements down the line, and if my orders take me into the line of fire, my men and crews pay the price. And I can't really imagine the President gave me this pack of nifty ships because he planned on sending me to nice, safe locales."

Mikhailovich shrugged. "I'm sure he won't, but it will be a lot easier for you to get replacements than I will, and my men are slated for anti-geth operations next week. If my men go in those frigates they might as well blow themselves up. And my destroyers are in no shape for fighting off vorcha, much less geth."

Hackett sighed. "Unfortunately I have to agree. I can't order you to allocate your ships to Mikhailovich, but it's going to be … difficult enough getting you the kind of manpower and decent crews if we have to miss out on reinforcements to fill out your battle-group"

Shepard eyed all three of them before shrugging. "I'll tell you what. No matter what my orders are, my ships aren't going to move out of dock before they meet my standards. The older frigates – do they have any good points?"

Retham shrugged. "Heavier weapons load. Older stuff, but I suppose you could refit it. A lot better armor but less maneuverability. The electronics are a bit dated."

She nodded. "And the destroyers?"

He referred to a padd on his desk."Those are all modern spec, just banged up pretty bad from the fight at Terra Nova. One of them doesn't even have a drive core."

Shepard nodded again. "Alright...I will be happy to sign off on handing my destroyers and frigates to the Admiral if you do two things for me. First, when she's repaired, I want the Normandy in my fleet. I can't see needing five stealth frigates, but I do need one, and she's the one I know best."

Mikhailovich thought about this for several seconds and then nodded. "Fair enough. It will be months before she's ready to fly again anyway, so I'm not losing out on anything. What else?"

She turned to Retham. "I want to pick my own officers. I have my own idea for who I want as XO, engineer, navigator, and chief pilot."

Retham grimaced. "That will play holy hell with assignments. And Engineer Adams has already accepted a Chief Engineer slot on the Orizaba, so you can't have him."

She smirked. "That wasn't who I had in mind. I want no refusals,no bullshit. I say the names and they get assigned, no questions asked. Do that, and I'll play ball any way I can to make your job easier. Don't and I'll see how much pull I actually have with the President since I answer to him now, apparently."

Retham gave a long sigh. "Fine. I'll lock down the berths for officers on the Kazan until you send me your candidates, and run them through approval without a second look."

Shepard nodded. "Now, you said something about my orders?"

Retham touched a control on his desk, and the padd in front of Shepard lit up. "For now, your orders come from the office of the President directly. For Spectre activities you answer to Councilor Udina, I guess, but while you report to Admiral Hackett for reporting and logistics purposes, your orders only come from President Windsor."

The padd in front of Shepard decrypted itself as she nodded,and Retham continued "Your first orders are pretty simple. Ninety six hours of leave, followed by a briefing at Arcturus, 0900, Monday morning. Since you don't have a ship, the light cruiser Accra will be taking you to and from Arcturus. I believe you will be meeting with your Presidential Liaison and whoever else you will be working with, but we have no details."

The padd finished decrypting, the orders matching what Retham said except for one line, printed in bold red text along the bottom.

"All orders are classified at the highest level of security. There is reason to believe additional personnel with goals similar to Cerberus are in Fleet Command. Via Presidential Directive 4493-X-91, you are hereby ordered to ignore all orders from any and all SA or human personnel other than President Windsor or his attache d'affairs, Elizabeth Windsor-Turham. Anyone attempting to violate or alter this directive is to be treated as hostile and executed forthwith."

She reread that then shut off the pad. Wonderful. "I understand. I have a small meeting with my own people here shortly, so if there's nothing else I can head out on leave..."

Hackett nodded, and Shepard, taking the padd with her departed. Once she left the room, Retham's voice sounded from the view-screen. "She seems fairly reasonable."

Mikhailovich snorted. "No, she just could care less about logistical bullshit. Mark my words, she'll find a way to get those ships repaired and refitted in no time flat, even if she has to hire quarians to do it. She won't endanger her crews if she can help it."

"Pity the SA itself won't take that lesson."


Shepard arrived at the small meeting room where she told Joker and Tali to meet her, along with Liara, and got there just in time to see Liara enter.

With a deep breath she entered, triggering her omni as she did so. The room was lined with windows looking out over the Presidium, and Tali stared outside, Joker reclining in a chair by the corner, and Liara still glancing around as Shepard entered after her.

"Hey, gang. This shouldn't take long. Jiong is on his way."

Tali tilted her head. "Why is he coming? What did you need to talk about?"

Shepard shook her head, even as the door slid open to admit Commissar Jiong. He looked a trifle worse for wear,one arm in a sling and confined to a mag-lift chair, but was otherwise unhurt. "Ah, Shepard. I see we are all here."

Liara gave the Commissar a curious look "Yes, but what for?"

Shepard turned to Tali first. "Tali. You've been … a huge help to us so far. Without you, none of this would be possible. Everything would be in ruins and Saren would have won. I and everyone else literally owe you their lives."

The quarian girl ducked her head before shaking it. "We all helped, Shepard."

Shepard snorted. "Yeah, but you got the ball rolling. I'm pretty sure I hammered that point in to the Council in my final report, and I hope it's what lead to you guys getting a Council seat." She exhaled. "But right now, my own future is kind of .. up in the air. I've lost the Normandy, and she is going to sit on a dock and be fixed up for several months."

Tali nodded, and Joker looked depressed. "Great, nothing to do."

Shepard smirked. "Not true, Flight Commander. I just got done dickering with Fleet Manpower. In return for me giving over some ships I could care less about, I get to pick my own crew for the brand new heavy cruiser I'm now in command of."

Joker gave her a grin. "A heavy cruiser? That's … two pilots and a chief pilot?"

She nodded. "I believe so. And I want you as my Chief Pilot. I don't and won't trust anybody else to pilot my ship."

Joker gave a little cackle of laughter. "That is sweet." Then he paused and frowned. "But..."

She shook her head and focused on Tali. "Tali...the award the President awarded us, as he said, included citizenship for each member of the crew. Including you. I know you probably are eager to go back home to your family and fleet. But I would still like to ask you to be my Chief Engineer. And since you are a citizen of the SA, they can't stop me from commissioning you and giving you that position."

Tali was literally speechless. She didn't know what exactly to do. She had dozens of ships asking for her service, but the truth was, even as homesick and lonely as she was, she didn't want to just go home yet. Even if Shepard and others laid the quarian Council seat at her feet, she didn't feel like she had achieved anything worthy of going home. For her to be offered such a position was flattering, but more than that, it gave her something to be proud about – that she was held that highly not by a bunch of quarian ship captains seeking her only for her name and influence, but because she – herself, and her skills – were truly wanted.

She also had to face reality, in terms of just what she would be going back home to. She was finally winning over her father, gaining his grudging acceptance that she could handle herself – all of that would be lost if she just went back home. Her father would stick her in the safest position he could find, and she'd be lucky to ever leave the Fleet again.

Finally, maybe most importantly, there was Jeff. For him to go from piloting proud warships to the broken wrecks of the quarian fleet, especially now when most of them would be doing little more than scouting for a planet to colonize, wasn't something he could do and enjoy. She might be able to get him to agree to come with her to the Fleet, but he would regret it – and her – in the long run.

Jiong spoke into the silence, taking off his hat to place it in his lap. "I've already approved it with the Commissariat , Ms. Zorah. While there were certainly concerns about having foreign nationals in a serving capacity on a SA warship, those mostly applied to Mr. Urdnot, Mr. Vakarian and Ms. Telanya. You would be offered the nominal rank of Lieutenant Commander, albeit a staff and not a line commission since you don't have SA command training and regulations don't permit a non-human CO..."

She didn't look at Jeff or Shepard, instead she swallowed. "I...need to think about it."

Shepard nodded. "Joker, why not take Tali out and walk around a bit. Liara and I have a few things to discuss ourselves."

Joker looked almost as dazed as Tali sounded by Shepard's suggestion. "Sure. I'll...be on my omni if you need me." With a gentle hand against Tali's back, he left, following her out the door.

Shepard exhaled when it shut, before glancing at Liara. "So."

Liara could feel Shepard's nervousness. "I can only presume that you wish to make the same offer to me?"

Shepard nodded. "Yes ... and no. A heavy cruiser has an entire science department. No matter what else, I'm sure part of my duty will be hunting Reaper activity and artifacts, and that means I need a good scientist and archeologist. Lucky for me, my girlfriend fits the bill."

Liara smiled, and Shepard continued. "But...I had a conversation,with both Matriarch Suliasa and Aethyta. The whole thing with your people blaming you for Benezia's sins may or may not die down, but the Justicars are retarded about things like this, and the only way to shut them down and stop them from hassling you or your family...is to take you out of their jurisdiction."

Shepard gave her a long, careful look. "If you join me in marriage in the SA, your granted citizenship upgrades to my new level. And if you are no longer an asari citizen, the Justicars cannot come after you."

Liara nodded. "And the asari matriarchy will agree, because it prevents me from being leader of my own House..."

Shepard sighed. "That's not what I wanted in the long run. I don't want to detach you from your family."

Liara sighed. "And you are not, Sara. They did, with their actions. And even if things have changed somewhat now … the greater asari society has not. I mean what I said back on Noveria. The duties of being a Matria...are something I am not yet ready to perform. And I will live a very long time, there are many years ahead of me in which I can return to my House. I am more concerned that you may feel forced into this..."

Jiong interjected. "This is a conversation I had with Shepard back on Noveria, Doctor. The politics of this situation are going to be tricky as it is. I understand that things such as marriage and the like are not usually something where one considers galactic politics, but in this case I fear the ramifications factor more into events than emotions. Whether or not she and you are forced into this isn't the question. I can only assume you two love each other and wish to be together. The way you go about it will determine how much of a hassle you go through to do so."

He steepled his fingers. "I assume you are unfamiliar with high human culture?"

Liara nodded uncertainly, and he continued. "In the aftermath of the disruption of our culture during the Days of Iron, the SA created tiers of citizenship for all citizens. Most people are class I, II, or III citizens. With the recent events, Shepard is now a Class V citizen. The closest analogue I can get to your culture is that Shepard has been raised to a rank equivalent to that of the Thirty."

Liara absorbed this slowly. "So there...will be a great many people seeking to use her, regardless of what she feels or chooses to do. Few commoners have risen to the ranks of even adopted members of the Thirty...and most who do so are still looked down upon. She will face the same?"

Jiong nodded. "Precisely. Because she is, to put it mildly, both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with such society, she will be exposed to a great deal of scrutiny. Given the fact that most chosen for the honor of Class V citizenship come from vastly wealthy families with some relation to existing noble houses, for a commoner with a criminal background to ascend will be seen as insulting by some."

Jiong smiled. "However, if she is paired with a Princess of the Thirty, this sends many messages. It, as she has stated, prevents any further discommodation from the Justicar Order, who will be forced to let the issue of mother-guilt drop. Given that you are yourself of ancient linage, if asari, few can complain that you would be joined with Shepard. There will be screams of protest from bigots and the like, of course, but the most important thing is that there would be no … scandal, as would happen if you continue your current liaisons as you are."

Shepard sighed. "I'm not very good at being romantic, Jiong, but thanks for reducing this to the most boring and unexciting result possible."

He chuckled. "I live to serve, Baroness."

Shepard shook her head and turned back to Liara. "I don't want to force you into anything. But I am NOT being forced into this. I ... I want to have a life with you, more than anything. I've never had the chance or option of saying 'I want to do this' or 'I want to be this'. Now I do. If doing it helps protect you … even better."

Liara gave a somewhat light sounding laugh. "I ..".She shook her head. "Sara. I have no problems with binding my life to yours. In many ways, I already have. I cannot go home, and even if I did, I am not ready to be a part of my family, much less lead it. If the choice is that or to spend my life with you, I choose the latter. And like you said, the fact that it will also protect you from the stupidity of your own people simply makes me happier about it."

She paused. "But once we make the decision, we cannot … back out. I am not saying no by any means, only that I do not think it is something we should do immediately, until we know more about what your President has planned for you."

Shepard exhaled. "Agreed. I'm still in the dark myself. We'll need to talk about this more, later. I … I am still pretty overwhelmed."

Jiong smiled gently. "For now, you should go onto leave, I think. Captain Anderson and Lieutenant Commander Pressly have arranged the crew to have a celebration at Flux at nineteen hundred hours tonight. And I took the … liberty of engaging a suite at the Senthas Hotel. The entire ninth floor is reserved, and Commissariat security will ensure there are no media or other disturbances of your rest."

Shepard blinked. "An entire floor?"

Jiong shrugged. "You two are very loud." Both Shepard and Liara flushed at that, and he chuckled. "If there is nothing else, ladies, I will see you tonight." He placed his peaked hat back over his head and turned his chair to the door, smiling as he did so. He paused at the doorway to speak one more time.

"General Von Grath also wished to speak to you sometime today, but I told him to show up at the party, so you can speak with him there."

He left the room, and Liara merely stared at Shepard a long moment. "Sara...are you doing this because you want me near you...or to protect me...or-"

Shepard reached out a hand to take Liara's. "I'm doing this because I'm lost without you. We were worried we'd be forced apart. Now we won't. I love you, Liara. And … "

She paused, staring at the windows. "That last fight showed me I wasn't invincible. We hit her with everything we had, after she fought her way through Ilos, the Citadel, and your dad. You hit her with enough biotic power to take out a frigate and she still got up. If she hadn't found herself at the end...we'd all be dead."

Shepard looked at her hands. "The … President and the other leaders of the council races don't think we can win a fight if the Reapers show up. They don't know enough to figure out how much time we have. Might be centuries. Might be six years. Shit, they're guessing. The fuckers could show up next week with party favors and fireworks for all I know."

Shepard looked back, squeezing Liara's hand more tightly. "If that happens, I'm sick of regrets and shit I didn't get done. I'm tired of letting myself get used up and getting nothing for it. And … I want this. I want to life a life, even if it's only for a little while, and just be a person. Not Commander Shepard. Not the Butcher. Not 'Baroness Shepard', and Jesus fuck that sounds strange. Just me. And you."

Liara smiled, and nodded. "I would like that as well." She leaned over to kiss Shepard, gently, and then smiled wider. "We have some time before the party starts, and Jiong was … rather forward in his explanation of why he got us an entire hotel floor."

Shepard smirked. "You have something you'd like to do?"

Liara flushed. "Six hours of listening to my aithntar give me 'tips' was not something one sits through without getting some ideas, Sara."


As it turned out, most of the ninety-six hours of leave Shepard had was split between Liara, parties, and crashing at Anderson's apartment. Chakwas showed up the second morning, and Shepard and her had a long talk about the sort of things she and Liara did in bed and medical issues that would come up as a result.

Chakwas took the news with much better grace than Shepard expected, although she didn't seem very approving. Still, Shepard felt better with Chakwas fixing up any minor injuries, warp burns or cuts the two had than going to a medical clinic – that would have started all kinds of rumors she didn't need, now or ever.

She spent a bit of time with every member of the crew, down to the lowest comm tech or engineer, and made sure everyone knew she appreciated their service. She was happy to see Garrus and Telanya back in C-SEC, both having been promoted into Special Response, with Garrus charged to train a new cadre of C-SEC snipers and tactical officers. Executor Palin had been broken by his near death experience in the Citadel Towers, and Garrus felt the man was near ready to step down and hand his duties off to someone else, either one of the new human officers joining C-SEC in record numbers or one of the senior salarian detectives.

She spent several hours with Ashley, talking about many things. Ash had been tapped to attend Officer Candidacy School, and many of the forces that had kept her career in limbo seemed impressed that Shepard herself recommended her for such. Shepard laughed when she told Ash just how brutally direct she'd been in her recommendations for Ashley to be allowed to go to OCS, admitting she enjoyed being able to make sure Ash's career was going to continue on. Given the stigma over the Williams name, Ash had a tough road ahead, but for the first time, as Ash put it, she had no roadblocks on it.

Eventually, they came to the topic of Kaiden. Ash was still torn up over his death, but even through her tears she smiled. "Skipper...Kai never knew what tomorrow would bring. He'd be the first person to say that we couldn't change what has already happened, so beating ourselves up over it is stupid. I have to believe he's in a better place now, a place without headaches from his L2, or worries about his parents."

Her voice softened. "In a way, he's not gone. What I have within me is part of him, to carry on to tomorrow. That's all we can do sometimes. When we lose the people close to us, whisper our anguish to God, and miss them, and keep going."

Shepard nodded. "I'm ..I don't even know what to say. How you deal with it. I try to imagine Liara dying and I just want to curl up in a ball." She grimaced and looked away. "Never tell yourself you aren't strong, Ash."

Ashley had gone still, then given a little smile. "Piece of poetry just popped in my head." She glanced out the window of the hospital, biting her lip.

"Home they brought her warrior dead:
She nor swooned, nor uttered cry:
All her maidens, watching, said,
'She must weep or she will die.'

Then they praised him, soft and low,
Called him worthy to be loved,
Truest friend and noblest foe;
Yet she neither spoke nor moved.

Stole a maiden from her place,
Lightly to the warrior stepped,
Took the face-cloth from the face;
Yet she neither moved nor wept.

Rose a nurse of ninety years,
Set his child upon her knee—
Like summer tempest came her tears—
'Sweet my child, I live for thee."

At that, Shepard found she had no words, merely holding Ashley's hand as she wept anew and felt her own eyes burning.

The day after, she saw Wrex off, after a short farewell. He wasn't going hunting for Okeer, just yet. He was headed back to Tuchanka, to tell his mate of the death of their son, and to wander the wastes for a bit. He claimed he needed to find himself again.

"Fighting Okeer...made me wake up, Shepard. For all my talk, I've done nothing but hide the past few years. When I'm ready to get him, I'll call you."

She nodded. "Make sure you remember to do it before you fight him this time, dumbass." Biting her lip, she shook her head. "I'll miss you."

"Bah, don't go soft on me now, Shepard." Still, he knelt in front of her. "I bow to no battlemaster, and I serve no other, krogan or alien. But if I had to name one that is my equal, it is you." The red, bulbous eyes sought hers. "Don't trust your people, Shepard. They smell off."

She only nodded, turning to the black-armored figure of Beatrice Shields. She had shown up unexpectedly, to help see Wrex off with a big package of dried jaaki, and hung around even as Wrex's ship departed.

Her ex-teammate had been coolly polite to Shepard, telling her that the Shadow Broker had taken her in and paid for the many surgeries it took to repair her body. Rather than turn down his offer of employment, she had taken the job with pleasure.

Shepard had asked if she was okay, and Shields had given her a small smile. "I helped your people out, She-bitch. I didn't have to, didn't really want to, but I did it. And that makes us even, as far as I'm concerned. I know that we all make our own choices, and the one I'm making is to find my own way. Good luck."

And with that, she'd simply departed.

Shepard didn't know if that hurt or if it was a relief. She didn't think Shields would forgive her for being with Liara after she said she wasn't...but Shepard had her own life to live. She was thankful Shields had stepped up to help her crew, but Liara's anger at Shields for betraying Shepard had never cooled, and Aethyta had not been impressed with her former teammates either.

Shepard spent the rest of the time dodging the media. The media had gone absolutely insane, with Shepard being forced to take on two Commissars and a young comms tech just to manage her messages and requests for meetings and interviews. Udina spent several hours with her in his new offices, going over in testy language exactly how she was expected to comport herself.

They argued, he called her a neanderthal, she laughed at him, and he grumbled. But she knew how busy Udina was trying to manage his new offices and duties, and appreciated him spending the time to give her coaching on how to deal with the avalanche of media attention falling on her head.

It was the third day of leave when she was summoned to meet privately with President Windsor, a Commissariat aircar picking her up from Anderson's apartment.

The ride to the Wards was interesting – Shepard had presumed the President would be in an upscale Presidium hotel, but instead they arrived at a heavily fortified building not far from the docks. Commissars and X personnel guarded the building, weapons drawn, and two MAKO tanks flanked the entry tunnel.

She was escorted inside by grimly silent Commissars and ushered into a large, if somewhat plain, briefing room. President Windsor sat in a reclining office chair behind a wide desk covered in haptic panels and screens, staring out the windows at the Wards skyline. The room had five or six comfortable chairs and a large haptic display screen on one wall, and that was it.

He turned to face her as she entered, gesturing to a seat. "Baroness."

She remembered Udina's hasty lessons and bowed deeply, still feeling awkward. "Your Majesty. Thank you for … taking the time to see me. I am aware of your many duties and will … try to not waste your time."

He gave a small chuckle as she sat. "Someone has been touching up your courtesy, Shepard. But I rather find plain speech appealing. There is no royal 'we' in this room – speak at ease. You are of little use to me if you overawed by my presence."

Shepard exhaled sharply. "Bluntly? Sir, you're the President. You are royalty. I'm a jumped up thug that was lucky enough to survive a lot of fights that should have killed me."

He laughed again, the faint lines along his cheeks bending. "No, I am a man, Shepard. I am no greater than you for my blood, my family history, or my position. Few of my rank and status believe those words, but I do. If my duties are heavier, my trials more tiring, that does not make them any greater than the tasks you have overcome."

He sat forward, eyes intense. "I had vast wealth, every advantage and benefit, and the backing of a huge family and entire nations, with every hurdle in my path removed. You had nothing, came from privation, and fought every inch of the way. And yet now we are peers. Which of us, then, should really be in awe? You of me, or me of you?"

He smiled. "I did not pick you to be my sword arm out of mere gratitude, or because of what you did against Saren. I choose you for the same reason I gave you the Star of Terra – because you overcame. That was not empty propaganda, no matter the intent of the Navy. It was not a method to hush you. No one should have had to endure what you did at Torfan, and that was the least I could do to show you that your service mattered."

He folded his hands on the desk in front of him. "And I have elevated you to your current rank and privilege not only to reward your unfailing and unflinching service and bravery, but to put into the grave any thoughts you – or anyone else – may have that you are somehow not good enough. This entire galaxy owes you. Never forget that. Never doubt your right to what you have been given."

She swallowed slowly. The words almost hurt as bad as Anderson telling her how he saw her as a daughter, almost as bad as Liara saying she loved her. They were words that said her fuckups and past didn't matter, that her criminal acts were not something to hang over her head forever. Once again, she had to step past her own pain and focus on moving on with life.

It was terrifying. And yet, there was no give in Windsor's voice. No give in Liara's, or Anderson's, or Von Grath's.

She nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty. I won't let you down."

He snorted. "Such an occurrence has not even crossed my thoughts. Now, to business. I have several tasks I need for you to accomplish, and unfortunately idiocy of a political nature has forced my hand. As President my influence and control over the SA government is limited. This is an artifact of the fear we have of overwhelming political leaders, as well as by design."

He tapped a control on his desk, the display map on the wall lighting. "We have a number of grave situations that, due to the incompetence already demonstrated by the incoming administration and new Admiralty figures, I am loathe to assume will be handled properly. Some of these issues" – he tapped batarian space – "involve a mix of tactics, diplomacy, and intelligence work. Others, like the geth, require aggression and stealth. And still others are … more dangerous."

He turned to look at her directly. "The AIS is sure that Major Kyle gave you some kind of information before his … passing. They do not know what it is, and I find myself fearful of what horrors would drive a man strong enough to survive his past and Torfan to commit suicide on such a grand scale."

Shepard nodded slowly. "Sir... he lost his faith in the SA."

Windsor closed his eyes. "Whatever he uncovered must indeed be truly vile. He was the Lion, in many ways he was everything the SA was supposed to be." He gave a thin exhalation, eyes meeting hers. "Tell me."

So she did. She told him of compromised military 'research' teams, who kidnapped L2 biotics and used a bio-mechanical process to turn them into living tuning forks, somehow using these unfortunates to boost the powers of newer biotics in a special, secret program. She told him of the connections between the Manswell Foundation and Cerberus, how they sponsored and hired pirate attacks on colonies on the fringe and then had Cerberus defeat them, to win over colonists. She told him of the corruption in the administration that siphoned fees from citizenship tiers to fund black labs that took the vile research Cerberus pioneered and turn it into usable military applications, which they in turn had Cerberus front-companies market and profit from.

She told him of the connections Kyle found between the tech-gangs infesting the arcologies and a mysterious crime syndicate that was really a cell of Special Operations, answering to 'retired' generals, using the violence to disillusion the people of Earth against the government.

And finally, in a tired, dead voice, she revealed what had truly broken Kyle – that the Coleman administration had known about these things, many of them. That the Prime Minster signed off, that the Admiralty signed off, that they eventually planned to reshape the SA into little more than an extension of military and business interests, and that they had crippled many SA military operations to siphon funds or materials to Cerberus or other, still unknown 'black cells' that could still be operational even with the destruction of Cerberus.

When she finished, the President looked physically ill.

"Who else.. knows this?"

She shook her head. "The Silver Prince referenced it, but no specifics. I destroyed the OSD after backing the contents up on my omnitool with an encryption code only I know – I based it off some of the crap from the Beacon in my head. Liara knows. Liara's father knows. That's it."

He steepled his finely boned hands, closing his eyes almost wearily. "All my life I have striven to lead our people in honor, in peace. To avoid the mistakes of the past. To unify humanity and move into a brighter future, not of bigotry, hatred and ignorance but growth. And now I find, to my disgust but sadly not shock, that I have been duped."

He shook his head and firmed his jaw. "When the time is right, Major, will you purify these criminals, if I give you the order?"

She nodded. "I would be delighted to, Your Majesty."

He gave a wan smile. "Then we shall act, but not, I think, in haste." Exhaling, he tapped the desk, triggering another haptic panel. "First, you will need a more complete grounding in command. Once you are done with your leave period, you will report – briefly – to Arcturus. The Admiralty should have covered this, but if they failed to do so, you will be transported on the cruiser Accra."

He brought up a picture of a young woman with a distinct resemblance to Windsor himself. "Once aboard, you will take formal command of your new cruiser, and your battle group, and meet with my niece, Elizabeth Windsor-Turham. She is acting as my attache d'affairs and secretary. I will make it clear that you only answer to me, or to her when she conveys my orders."

Shepard nodded and he continued. "Once your cruiser is crewed and outfitted, you will conduct a very brief shakedown run, and then head to Pinnacle Station, where you will meet Admiral Tradius Ahern. He has been tasked with commencing your command training. Pinnacle station will also be where the rest of your battle-group will be assembled and outfitted."

He tapped a control on the desk and the haptics all went dark. "Once that is complete, you will report to Arcturus once more for .. your first task. Obviously, the Council may have some kind of Spectre tasks for you, but I have been lead to believe they will wait several months before they begin assigning such to you, so you should have time to train and prepare."

Shepard nodded again, and the President stood. "Then our conversation is complete, Major. The commissars outside will be taking you back to the Presidium so you can continue finishing out your leave in peace. You are dismissed."

She bowed, as Udina had instructed her, rather than salute, and left the office. It wasn't until she got in the aircar and was on the way back to the Presidium that it all hit her, and she decided then and there to talk over all this with Anderson the first chance she got.


As with all good things, her leave came to an end. Tali had agreed to join her as an engineer, and Liara as a science officer. It took a call to both Udina and the President to browbeat Personnel into compliance, but Tali and Liara were both granted the rank of Lieutenant (staff) with an upgrade to Lieutenant Commander (staff) upon assignment to a ship.

Tali kept her hood covering the traditional Zorah purple, but had her suit tinted to Alliance white. They followed her as she went through her final goodbyes, stopping with Garrus and Telanya.

Both were already back at C-SEC, Telanya helping move boxes into the office with biotics while Garrus chatted with his old partner Forlan. Both stopped when Shepard approached, and Garrus was the first to speak.

"So. I guess this is it, Sheep. Sorry, Baroness Major Sheep." Garrus's voice was wry, the fading scars from his battle to stop the geth now lighter marks on his carapace. Behind him, Telanya smiled widely, before bowing to Liara in the background.

Shepard laughed. "I'm glad you guys made out of this mess okay, Senior Detective Vakarian. I have no clue how Telanya puts up with you."

The asari shrugged. "He's finally agreed to stop letting other women chase him all over the Citadel and settle down with me. I can let him pop off at the mouth once in a while."

Shepard grinned. "Congratulations. But the girls from Ops Alley will be crushed, especially Specialist Sharna."

Garrus rolled his eyes. "Ha fucking ha." He paused. "This … trip. This whole thing. It made me focus on what's important to me, and why it's important. Taking down the perp...is needed. Necessary. And red tape does get in the way. But I can't help but wonder if there was a little more red-tape and eyes on the scene with Saren would this whole thing have blown up in the first place?"

Shepard shrugged. "Nazara was going to find someone. From what bits the AIS has put together after deciphering the computers we found at his base on Noveria, Saren had been researching this for years, following leads his brother found in the First Contact War. If Nazara had managed to coopt someone else, or gone about things another way, we might have never known about the shit until a jillion Reapers flew out of the Citadel." She shrugged. "He's dead. We won."

Garrus nodded. "Being introspective about justice and crime isn't really my thing anyway. I've been assigned a very satisfying case … going after that sick bastard Dr. Saleon. And now I have the reach and ability to leave the Citadel and chase him down and stop him."

Shepard nodded. "If you need some help doing it...let me know." She held out her hand, and he took it, firmly. "Be safe, Garrus."

He nodded, mandible flickering with emotion. "You too... Sara." He turned to Liara. "Keep her out of trouble, Liara? She gets carried away."

Liara made a gesture at her SA uniform. "Unfortunately, I have to follow orders now, Garrus."

The turian only shook his head. "And you had the gall to call me whipped." He grinned, only to shiver when Telanya flared her biotics slightly. "Uh..."

Shepard snickered. "I'd stay and help you out, chicken, but I should go." She turned and departed, bursting into full out laughter as Garrus gave a yell when Telanya lifted him from his feet to glare at him.

The rest of the day she simply spent relaxing with Liara, ending with dinner at Anderson's apartment with Kahlee. Joker and Tali had wandered off somewhere, and Shepard, after eating another delicious meal, was stretched out on Anderson's comfy leather couch, Liara snuggled up against her, staring into the fire burning in the wide stone fireplace.

Anderson sat on his recliner, a glass of scotch in his hand, while Kahlee curled up on a smaller sofa, this time wearing a Blasto T-shirt and sweats. The dimmed sounds and flashing lights of aircar traffic outside were muted by the soft music playing over the sound system.

Shepard sighed, a relaxed sound that left her feeling tired and warm. "Thank you so much for dinner, Kahlee. I wish I could cook …. well, anything."

The other woman gave an impish smile. "Five years ago I couldn't even make oatmeal, and David once told me that steak wasn't supposed to be cooked with plasma grenades. You pick it up as you go."

Shepard shrugged. "I still don't even have a place to live, much less a kitchen. Course, it's nice that I can get one now. The SA won't give me all the pay I should have earned as a Z2, but they did advance me three months salary – as a major. Nice chunk of change."

Anderson nodded. "Planning to buy an apartment, then?"

She shrugged. "I have no clue. Jiong is looking for me. Who knew having a political officer would be so handy?"

Anderson shook his head. "I would be careful how far you trust any Commissar, Sara. If you really needed help with that, Kahlee and I would have been delighted."

Shepard smiled. "I would have, but Jiong is more concerned about media bothering Liara and I, starting scandals and all that crap." She leaned her head back, letting her eyes close. "I don't want to think about anything right now except how damned good that hamburger was."

Liara smiled, then glanced at Anderson. "If you have time tomorrow, David, my aithntar would like to speak with you about … our plans."

Anderson arched an eyebrow. "Well, that is likely to be .. interesting."

Kahlee snorted. "Or awkward."

Shepard grinned. "Or involve lots of cursing."

Liara merely quirked her lips. "As … eccentric as she may be, she is a good person, Sara. I am blessed that, even if I was not what my mother wished me to be, that my aithntar is proud of me."

Shepard snorted and wriggled around to kiss Liara. "I'm proud of you too, marazul. Just don't let her corrupt you too much. Hot, kinda nerdy and innocent biotic badass is still what attracted me in the first place. I have enough hard-ass warrior types in my life."

Kahlee snickered. "Smooth. I think your sweet talking could use some work, Sara."

Liara merely smiled. "I find her charming as she is."

Anderson glanced at the clock. "Big day for everyone tomorrow. Kahlee has to head off to Grissom Academy to do in-brief on the first selection of biotic students. I get to start my new job as Military Advisor to Udina, starting off by hashing out what the Council wants from the SA fleet. And you head off to Arcturus."

Shepard nodded. "Yeah. Bit nervous...Pressly still doesn't know he's tapped for XO just until I can talk someone into making him CO of the Normandy." She looked up at Kahlee. "What exactly do you do at your job, anyway? How do you teach biotics if you aren't one?"

Kahlee smiled. "I'm just the administrator. I've had a lot of experience with biotics in combat, and lots of experience in planning programs. In theory, I'll be advising the instructors how to shape the graduates to perform well in the SA – the military ones, at least. The Academy will also host non-military students. In practice...I push paper and keep snot-nosed biotic kids from tearing the place up."

Shepard grimaced. "That should be fun."

Kahlee shrugged. "It's a challenge, but I like challenges, and it gives me lots of free time to get back to the Citadel and David." She shifted positions, bright eyes fixed on Shepard. "Turnabout time, what do you do in your new job?"

Shepard's eyes closed again as she grinned. "Work for the President. Go interesting places. Meet interesting people. Beat them up." She paused. "Some other stuff, but that's the gist of it."

Kahlee gave her an incredulous look. "Beat them up? Really? Ugh, could you be any more macho?"

Shepard smirked. "I hate to steal snappy comebacks from my crew, but to quote Joker – don't hate, appreciate. You get to push papers and watch snotty biotic kids, while I and my girlfriend cruise around space, righting wrongs and beating people up. The only way my job could be better if my title was 'Major-Badass' instead of 'Major-Commander'."

Anderson groaned, and Liara dissolved into laughter.


At the ground level entry of Anderson's apartment building, a media crew tried to gain entry but came up against the smiling visage of Commissar Alfred Jiong, still in a lift-chair but with a neural mace in his hand and a squad of Commissariat soldiers behind him. "I'm afraid the Baroness isn't receiving visitors tonight. If you'll leave your OT or TTG codes with the nice troopers here, however, she'll get back to you when she can."

One of the reporters, a human female with long brown hair, scowled. "You can't stop us, this is the Citadel and a public building."

Jiong examined his fingernails and sighed. "Wrong. As human citizens, you are always under the jurisdiction of the Commissariat. Council Code Section 1453-B, subsection six. As for public buildings, I'm afraid that C-SEC has granted us a forty-eight hour injunction against all media figures, and kindly delegated enforcement to the SA Commissariat."

The woman balled her fists. "She'll be gone by the time that expires!"

Jiong yawned. "Amazing! You can comprehend basic English and tell time. I would love to continue this conversation, but I'm still recovering from wounds and it has been an exceedingly fatiguing day. Lancer Grassi, please escort the media off the premises."

A trooper pushed his grav chair away, even as the commissariat troopers all drew neural maces. "You can walk away...or crawl away. Choose wisely."


In a soaring office tower on the south side of Vancouver, Richard Williams continued his work.

He'd been examining the Reaper artifact for days now, along with a cadre of other scientists Lord Maxwell had put on the task. It's powers were subtle, and the radiation it emitted of a type they were unfamiliar with, but Richard was sure he would unlock it's secrets soon.

He straightened as the ancient leader of the Manswells flickered into view on the haptic screen across from his work station. "Have you made progress yet, Richard?"

The former Shadow Hand gave a shallow bow. "Not yet, but I am still in the initial stages of my review. The scans we've taken are … contradictory and confusing, so more time is needed."

Maxwell Manswell nodded, a wisp of soft white hair falling down from the fringe around his temples. "You will need to accelerate your efforts. Despite the insipid assertions of Adkins and DeRous, my sources tell me Shepard knows more about our projects and goals than we thought."

Richard curled a synthetic lip. "If she's only aware of what Kyle knew, she's going to be barking up the wrong tree, milord."

Maxwell gave a grunt of amusement. "Quite. That does not change the fact that we cannot afford arrogant presumption. Such has already cost us precious time and effort."

To this, the big man only nodded in agreement. "Do you have additional orders for me?"

Manswell gave a rattling exhalation. "For now, begin working on plans for a replacement for Cerberus. The organization was too loose and too febrile in structure to survive long, and we can still use what fragments of the older networks and facilities of the last iteration to start with. Codename, Hades Group."

Richard nodded. "Who will be in command? Myself with others?"

Maxwell shook his head. "This time, you will be in sole command. We do not have to cater to the SA or existing forces this time, so it will be a much cleaner operation in terms of exposure. A facility is already being prepared at Horizon, and I have our first … interesting subject for you."

Richard arched an eyebrow.

Maxwell gave a wintry smile. "The Shadow Broker's agents on the Citadel managed to subdue and capture one of the Prime units leading Benezia's attack, or at least it's core processors. We also managed to capture several geth vessels and many war-frames from Noveria. We've constructed a lab on Planet Aite where we can research if our original goal with Project Benedict is still achievable."

Richard tilted his head. "Scope?"

Manswell shrugged weakly, his clawlike hand gripping the chair-arm tightly. "Unlimited. Funding will be streamed from three completely new front startups, as well as a tap from Blue Stars No More. The goal is to bring geth under our control, both to act as a foil for Citadel races and increase human dominance."

Richard nodded slowly. "And the artifact here?"

Manswell smiled again. "I suspect, young Richard, that if Saren was able to dominate the geth using the Reaper's technology, that we can do the same if we are careful." He gave a racking cough, and wheezed, his eyes narrowing. "In either case, I fear I have few years left to me. You must be ready for whatever comes."

The big man folded his arms. "Will Aloxius support this venture should you die, milord?"

Manswell nodded. "He will devise an excuse for retirement if that happens, and take my place atop the organization." He coughed again, more violently, but exhaled and managed a grim smile. "Individuals may live and die, but Humanity will live on forever."

With a shaky motion of his hand, Manswell tapped something on his chair. "I am transmitting the files you will need to begin your new assignment, along with instructions for your medical staff to alter your facial features. Richard Williams is dead, my boy. From now on you will be Richard Manswell, a younger cousin from the cadet branch, back from the colonies."

Richard arched his eyebrows again. "Thank you, milord."

The old man merely nodded. "Do not fail, Richard. We will speak again once you reach Horizon. And keep a mindful eye out for that snake Jack Harper. He's survived...and we have no idea what he is up to."

With that, the screen blanked. Richard Williams spent several seconds considering his next course of action, before smiling faintly and departing the research lab.

The black and red pyramid in the center of the room pulsed quietly. Waiting.


As Shepard was saying her farewells to her crew and allies, a slender figure in a loosely cut jacket with silk slacks tapped a cigarette as he reviewed the information in front of him, in a room of mirrors and haptic screens.

"Shepard was very successful. I must admit she even outperformed my expectations."

He tapped the cigarette, a few ashes falling from the tip, and ground the edge until the fire was a pointed cone. "Yet, I can't help but ponder if she did the right thing, or merely the expedient one."

The woman standing across from him wore a skin-tight black outfit, set off here and there with matte black armor plates and high boots. She raised an elegant eyebrow, pushing back a mass of raven hair before speaking. "Shepard did everything to perfection. Saving the Council, stopping Saren and Benezia, even diluting the power of the asari and salarians. And now she has the ear of every leader in Citadel Space. What more could she do?"

The Illusive Man's handsome features didn't shift in the dim lighting. "One could argue that saving the Council wasn't the best course of action. No matter how committed they seem to recognizing the Reaper threat, they are politicians. They will convince themselves they have time to act. That they can profit from this and leave the problems to those who come after."

Miranda Lawson gave a small frown. "Surely they will see the threat as one that could destroy their own power, not to mention their people."

The Illusive Man gave a wry chuckle, a wintry smile crossing his features as he puffed on the cigarette before exhaling a cloud of blue smoke. "Unlikely, Ms. Lawson. The Council is not a monolithic creature, and those who compose it are either puppets or grasping at power beyond that of the Chamber. Sparatus has shown surprising insight, but his words about recognizing honor and valor were mere smoke and mirrors. He acted to stymie the asari and salarians, not out of any real gratitude. The situation will remain much the same, the dynamics changing only a little. All of what Shepard has achieved will fall by the wayside in months, if not sooner."

Miranda frowned again. "Surely she will try to counteract that."

The Illusive Man nodded, sipping his drink thoughtfully. "She may. And yet if she does, I strongly suspect she will be neutralized. Richard and Rachel answered to someone, and I was never able to determine who. That means I could not finger them in my little gift of information I sent Shepard's way. And they are still out there."

He rubbed his chin. "There are several possible actors, and they all have the capability to ensure Shepard never gets a chance to interfere with their plans. If we can corrupt a Commissar, so could they. If STG has spies in the AIS, could the real force that Richard answered to not also have them? She will be outmaneuvered and killed in some clever manner in short order if she isn't careful."

Miranda sighed. "You think they will assassinate her?"

He shook his head. "No. They will let her grow soft, and then send her off to die. Perhaps to fight geth, or pirates. They will dress it up in some courageous bunting, and she will be overjoyed to be of service, and die a martyr." He puffed on the cigarette again. "That is... if we do nothing."

Miranda folded her arms. "If we act while we are so weak, what little remains of Cerberus could be discovered and destroyed. Is she valuable enough to be worth that risk?"

Jack Harper stood, stubbing out his cigarette. "Have a little faith, Ms. Lawson. I'll make sure Cerberus is around to protect Humanity. You focus on making sure Shepard is around to help us protect it."

Miranda's expression became confused. "She'd never work with us, surely."

The Illusive Man's glowing blue eyes narrowed as he grinned. "When the time comes, she won't only work with us, but join us." He left the mirror-panneled status room, with it's view of a blue super-giant and the still form of Miranda Lawson, to fall into darkness.


In the silence of the command room of the Broker, Tetrimus and Tazzik waited for their master to speak.

The big salarian rubbed his shoulder, wincing. The Prime he'd defeated on the Citadel had put up a better fight than anything else, and the scars of the battle were still visible over his large frame. He glanced around the dimly lit room, his eyes narrowing.

Finally the sepulchral voice of the Broker reverberated across the room. "The situation remains perilous. The Council is not in possession of the most recent intelligence we have gathered from the dig site on Setharom."

Tetrimus shook his head. "I do not think so. If they were they wouldn't be so sanguine about events. The records we found were fragmentary and incomplete, but our translation VI's are giving 92% confidence on the result. The race that fell under Reaper attack some nine hundred thousand years ago did so after they destroyed the monitoring Reaper hiding out near the galaxy's core."

Tazzik grunted. "What happened?"

Tetrimus sighed. "If the records are correct, roughly eight years after the found and destroyed a hibernating Reaper, several thousand Reapers and tens of thousands of support ships erupted from the edge of the Galaxy. They stormed towards the Citadel, shut the relays off and killed everything. The Ulo managed to record this record by hiding it in volcanic lava flows."

The Broker flexed massive shoulders. "It was discovered by chance, as we mined for supplementary materials for our planned evacuation from the region. It is a critical piece of knowledge. The Council foolishly thinks the destruction of Nazara has saved us. Instead, it will only accelerate our demise. The only possible message the Reapers can take from Nazara's destruction is that we are a threat."

Tazzik let his thoughts wander along the patterns until he grunted again. "How would they know? If they had some method to communicate across all that distance, then why would he go to the trouble of recruiting Saren and Benezia once the Citadel failed to spring it's trap?"

Tetrimus flicked his talons out in a flourish. "There may be other circumstances in effect. We are still gathering data. But to assume they don't know is foolish. We recorded an anomalous spike of energy just before Nazara's destruction that defies the laws of energy conservation as we know it. For all we know, that was an alert...or a cry for help."

Tazzik shrugged. "Alright, so we have a problem coming down the river. Null shift, from my point of view. I thought the plan was to evacuate anyway – what does this change?"

The Broker's multiple eyes gleamed faintly. "The Council is no longer the prime power in this Galaxy. To continue to proffer our services to them is to join in their eventual destruction. A new course is required."

"Tetrimus, continue with the evacuation plans as already being worked. Do not relent on our time-line. Expend reserve funds if you must, but ensure we can be ready to evacuate no later than three solar years from this date."

Tetrimus sighed. "That will be very, very expensive, Shadow Broker. It might raise suspicions."

The Broker's meaty fist uncurled to tap two thick fingers on the desk. "Survival trumps profit. If there are suspicions, then the six Spectres we have on the payroll can make themselves useful." The horned head turned to Tazzik. "Tazzik. I have a more difficult task for you. Cameras in the Council Chamber recorded a conversation between Matriarch Benezia and Commander Shepard that I believe, in the trauma following her victor, the latter has ignored or forgotten."

He tapped a control, a grainy image of Benezia muttering confusedly to herself while walking towards the plinth playing.

Benezia's image flickered, her movements sluggish, her voice a drone. "Protect...the people. If we...serve well, the … Nazara will elevate us. Make us one of the great ones. Or at least allow us to live."

Shepard lay on the floor, bloodied, beaten, her armor scorched and dented. Her voice was raspy, angry. "You have proof of this?"

Benezia's expression was confused, almost lost. "I...yes. Collectors. Used to be Protheans, now work for … Nazara's people. Safe . Alive. Have to protect..."

The Broker killed the feed. "The Collectors...used to be Protheans. And worked for Nazara."

Tazzik and Tetrimus traded glances. "You want them taken out? That's very difficult, given where they hang out."

There was a long moment of silence, and then Tetrimus and Tazzik both shuddered, because the Broker was laughing.

"No, Tazzik. I have no doubts that given enough time you could indeed destroy whatever you put your mind to, I have a different idea in mind. You will scour the Traverse and other locations for hints of where the Collectors are doing their next little collection of genetic oddities. And you will reach out to them with a message."

The Broker leaned forward as he folded his hands, the dim light from above casting his nightmare visage into sharp relief. "Tell them I wish to deal."

The story will be continued in the next Book :

OSABC: And Then There Were None