Hi All!

Happy New Year to each of you! I hope 2014 brings you all the goodies and goodness you're hoping it will! I had a crazy holiday season (didn't we all!) but it's great to get a breather and write again! (Plus, totally wasn't going outside, man, that Polar Vortex was CRAZY!) On a separate note, thank you to each of you for your reviews! I am so grateful to read each one, the feedback is awesome (not to mention motivating - thanks for the kick in the can, Lisakodysam &Gamine!) and I really appreciate the time each of you takes to leave one. That said, let me thank Lisa, for her careful beta, she keeps me flying straight :)

Happy reading!

Their New Truth

James exhaled slowly, adjusting the collar of his uniform as he fought against the urge to pace inside the conference room. He, Liara and Traynor were finishing preparations for the arrival of Admiral Hackett and two of his lead science advisors, their concept regarding the use of the Keepers having gained the head of the Alliance's immediate attention.

"I still can't believe he jumped on this so fast," James commented. "It's only been a few hours since I sent the proposal over!"

"Well, not to sound too proud," Liara began, her eyes on her omni-tool as she adjusted the overlay of the graph hovering over her wrist, "but I'm lead researcher for the Crucible Project, Sam's a rising star within Alliance R&D and you're the acting commander of the most prestigious ship in the human fleet. We are all endorsing an idea that could radically expedite the recovery of the entire solar system. If I were Hackett, I'd hurry over, too."

James shrugged, jerking at his collar again before adjusting his belt. "Maybe you're right."

"Lieutenant, perhaps you should wear your BDUs more often?" Traynor suggested softly, watching him fidget. "It is standard uniform."

"Why would I do that? This collar is choking me! Traynor, how do you wear this every single day?"

Liara smiled. "You are the acting CO of the Normandy, James, and upon your return from your training you will be its XO. A t-shirt may no longer be the most appropriate attire for a man in your… position."

"The only position I'm gonna be in is prostrate from lack of freakin' oxygen," complained the soldier sourly. "I swear this uniform shrank!"

"Perhaps you've put on a little weight?"

James' eyes widened as he stared at Liara. "I do not gain weight, Doc, I gain muscle."

"Of course you do."

Traynor's omni-tool chimed and she cleared her throat, fighting a grin over James' astonished face. "Hackett has arrived. His aide just alerted me. I'll go and fetch them."

The specialist hurried from the room to greet the arriving admiral and Liara cued up the projector in the center of the large table, biometric readings of a Keeper appearing alongside various graphs and charts.

"Alright James, if we adhere to our schedule, this should be simple. Greet, brief, questions and answers and, hopefully, the admiral's blessing to start testing our theories," the scientist said. "Are you ready?"

"As I'll ever be. I've got your bullet points memorized and I understand the concept. I couldn't have thought it up myself, but even I can tell it's a hell of a good plan."

The doors outside the conference room area opened and Traynor led Hackett and his small group through them, gesturing toward the glass-enclosed area.

"Well, let's hope the admiral agrees," Liara replied, standing tall as she moved around the table, ready to greet their guests. "Show time."

xXx

Kate stood on the porch, watching the darkened path that Kaidan and Marcus had taken for their return. It'd been nearly a half hour since they'd left her alone in the cabin and waiting was only building the anxiety tingling in her belly since she and Kaidan had arrived.

Lingering in the living room, she'd taken in the tall bookshelves that were filled with antique books, holo-novels and photographs. There were over a dozen different family pictures spaced between the reading materials, some of which featured Kaidan's grandparents and several of Marcus as a child, but despite the variety of images, she couldn't help but notice that Kaidan was only featured in two of them.

She sighed, wondering again just what her husband's childhood had really been like, the happier imaginings she'd had of it when they'd been in Likely now overshadowed by today's bizarre events. Standing on the front porch, her eyes on the dirt road, she considered the last few hours.

Marcus Alenko had been so… odd. While he'd clearly been happy and relieved to see his only child, his demeanor had rapidly swung to a distant and gruff one. His subsequent delivery of the news of his wife's death had been so horribly casual, as if he were speaking of the weather, and not of his life-long partner and mother of his son.

"Who does that?" Kate muttered as she paced uneasily. Antsy, she spun on her heel and went back inside, the strong odor of the unclean home briefly distracting her from her thoughts.

Moving to the back of the home, she paused in the hall outside the kitchen, deciding on a whim that she could keep herself occupied by cleaning up a bit. Grimacing at the task, she settled onto her haunches and began to roll up the soiled runner, lifting it once it was gathered and quickly taking it outside. Dropping it on the porch, she then went to the kitchen.

The trash recycler was full, and opening it, she saw that its command board was damaged. A few minutes of work with her omni-tool later, the touchpad illuminated and with a small smile, she closed the unit and turned it on. Allowing it to do its work, she began to gather what soiled items of food and debris she could, eager to clear the smelly mess away.

"That's not how Janet would have done it."

Startled, Kate turned and saw Marcus in the doorway, a frown on his face.

"Did you hear me? Don't do it like that, she always put the food into the compost pile," he grumbled, pointing to the small mound of wasted food Kate had gathered next to the recycler. "That's not right."

"Oh, ah, I didn't know," she said quickly, looking around her. "I was just trying to – "

"I didn't ask you to," he replied, cutting her off. "That's not your job."

She stared at his hard eyes for a moment, nodding slowly. "No, of course it's not, uh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean – "

"Do you always go into other people's homes and do what you like?"

"Dad, she was just being helpful," countered Kaidan, his voice hard as he pushed past his father and came into the kitchen, moving to stand between his father and wife. "Don't be rude to her."

She watched their locked gazes for a moment and forced a pleasant smile, eager to diffuse the situation. "I fixed the recycler for you, I hope you don't mind? It's running fine now."

Marcus's eyes flicked from Kaidan's to her and he nodded. "Right. The guest room hasn't moved, you can stay in there. Good night," he stated before abruptly turning around and leaving them alone.

Kaidan sighed heavily, his shoulders drooping as he relaxed his protective posture. "I'm sorry about that," he said softly, turning to her. "I don't know what's wrong with him, he's normally not like this."

"It's fine, he's upset and I shouldn't have done anything in here without asking him."

"No, this place is a cesspool, Kate, and he acted like an ass."

Smiling softly, she stepped close, her fingers catching his in hers. "Are you okay? You were gone a while."

"No, no I'm not," he confessed as he shook his head. "He's a mess, Kate, he's acting like everything's normal, like you and I are here on leave or something. He spent half the walk down talking about the fields, what crops he wants to try planting and then started asking me if I remembered how my grandfather controlled grubs in the garden."

"Did he tell you what happened to your mother?"

"No, he changed the topic every damned time, acted like I'd never said a word about her and if I pushed, he bit my head off."

She studied him before glancing out of the kitchen, making sure Marcus had indeed left them alone. "Is he hurt somehow? Maybe he was injured when your mother was killed? Losing your mother must have been awful, but if he was injured too, then – "

"No, there's more to it than that. He's hiding something, I can sense it. Okay, he could still be in some sort of shock, but why would he be evasive about what happened to her? And I refuse to believe he had anything to do with her death, Kate, he adored her! He'd never hurt her, never."

"Maybe he just needs a little more time. If we're the first ones here, the first people he's spoken with since her death, then explaining it might be… " her words trailed off as she shrugged sadly.

He nodded, his eyes avoiding hers. "Sure, maybe that's it," he said softly before stepping back. "This is so frustrating, I don't get it. I wish I could understand what he's thinking, what he's doing," he said, shaking his head as he sighed. "Of course, not understanding my father is hardly something new but this, how he's behaving is just wrong."

Moving to him, she wrapped her arms around his neck, holding him close.

"This whole day... Jeez, Kate, I've been so focused on getting here and madder than hell with him for deserting. I knew this – finding them, confronting him – wouldn't be easy, I knew it could get ugly, but I never expected for this… for him..."

"I know," she whispered, cupping his cheek tenderly when he didn't finish his thought.

"He's not talking to me, and yeah, maybe that's not all that different, but he's not… he's not right."

"What do you want to do?"

"If he won't talk to me, then I'll have to start to figure this out on my own."

"Okay. How do I help?"

"We're going to have a good look around the house, the barnyard, everywhere we can. Maybe we can piece together some of what went on here, something that I can use to understand what may have happened to my mother."

She nodded. "He did say there were mercenaries nearby, didn't he? When you mentioned where the truck was?"

"He did, you're right, and we already know from the folks in town that there were Reapers in the area at one point. Maybe there're some clues here, something I can confront him with, see if I can't get him talking."

"Okay, whatever you want to do, I'm there."

Sighing, he squeezed her tight. "Thanks," he said, his breath against her ear, his voice heavy with emotion. "What would I do without you?"

"You'll never find out."

xXx

They awoke early the next morning, Kaidan dressing in silence and leaving the small guest room as Kate laced her boots. Marcus wasn't in the house, or in the yard, and while he'd left nothing to indicate where he'd gone, the kitchen was cleaner than when they'd gone to bed.

"He cleaned up," Kaidan observed, shifting a dirty plate, gesturing to the now smaller piles of trash.

"Do you think he slept? There's actually a lot of trash gone," she asked quietly, standing beside him.

Shaking his head, he sighed and walked out of the room. She heard the screen door drop closed a moment later. She followed him outside, where they spread out, Kaidan going to search the barn, while Kate looked around the garden and small area behind the home. It didn't take very long for her to notice the subtle signs of a firefight.

"Kaidan!" she called out, running her hands over a small section of log wall at the rear of the home. "Kaidan!"

He jogged around the side of the house. "What's up?"

She pointed to what she thought were fresh logs in the otherwise weathered wall. "Does that look new to you? Younger, at least?"

His eyes narrowed as he touched the area in question. "Yeah, as a matter of fact it does," he agreed before pointing to the outside corner. "Look – there's a change in the color of the chink, too. This whole section is new, or at the least, it's been repaired."

"Can you tell why? Because when I'm looking at it, and then over here," she gestured, walking quickly to a small tool shed about twenty feet back from the house, "at this? I think this shed looks like it took a few rounds, see the way the wood is splintered?"

He remained quiet for a few moments, his eyes taking in the cabin wall and then darting to the damaged shed. "Yeah, it does," he agreed, walking slowly around the side of the house as she followed. "And that's not the only place the house has been repaired: look down the side here, and here too," he continued, moving more quickly down the building. "The rest, up higher, that looks original," he noted, pointing up to the porch's roofline.

Studying the various places that had been repaired, she nodded. "I didn't see anything like this near the front of the house, but we weren't looking for it, either. I'll go around and see."

Kaidan didn't reply but cued up his omni-tool, waving his arm over one of the repaired areas at eye level. "This reading says the work is only a few weeks old, Kate," he announced as she returned.

"There's repair work all around the cabin exterior, though this side seems to have gotten the worst of it, whatever caused it," she reported. "And if it's that recent, then Marcus must have made the repairs, right?"

Nodding, Kaidan placed his hand against the log wall. "That'd be my guess," he rasped before backing up a few steps so he could see the width of the house fully. "There are a lot of little spots that have been fixed. The damage is too random for it to be something like storm damage, or a tree falling;, those kinds of fixes would be broader, not a section of a single log here and there. I think you're right, it's from gun fire, it has to be."

"Small weapons, but nothing too big."

"Yeah," he breathed, realizing she was likely correct. "Dad did say there were mercs in the area, he's mentioned them a few times, actually," he agreed, crossing his arms as he turned to look around the yard again. "So if that's what went on, if my parents were attacked by someone – or something – like the Reapers, then we should be able to find more evidence."

She slowly turned in a circle, carefully looking at everything in the yard. A bird darted above her and she lifted her gaze to the mountains behind the barn. "Kaidan? That ridgeline, the one above the upper orchard? Would we be able to get a better view of the house and work yard from there?"

"We would. Come on, let's grab our gear. We're going on a hike."

xXx

James waited quietly, trying not to pull on his still-too-tight collar while Admiral Hackett studied the final data slide hologram.

"Let me make sure I understand, Lieutenant," the admiral began. "You three are suggesting that we modify the Keepers via an as yet unspecified type of radiation pulse in hopes that doing so will reprogram them? Am I correct?"

"Yes, sir, that's the crux of it," James confirmed. "If the exact method of energy can be determined then we may be able to task them."

"Making our priorities theirs and potentially harnessing workers who would instinctively know how to best repair the Citadel," Hackett clarified. "If this concept is sound we may be able to address not just the needs of the Citadel, but perhaps the relay system itself."

"Correct, Admiral," Liara said, bracing her hands on the table. "As you say, if we're successful, we might completely alter the timeline of the entire galaxy's recovery for the better."

Hackett nodded, tapping his chin with his forefinger. "The Keepers aren't going to just let themselves get corralled for experiments, though. We know that they'll self-destruct, for lack of a better term."

"That's true, sir," James agreed. "But Specialist Traynor has an idea about how to handle that."

"Specialist?" began Hackett, looking to her. "Would you care to share?"

Traynor stepped forward, blinking rapidly as she cleared her throat. "Ah, yes sir, of course, right." She forced a nervous smile as Liara gestured her attention to the console where Traynor's environmental data was now projected, "Thanks," Traynor resumed. "Yes, well, as Lieutenant Vega briefed, this is the final reading of the general environment within the Citadel before the Reapers took control of it. You can see the details we noted, the energy signatures that drew my attention."

"I do," Hackett said slowly. "That's the point you believe the Reapers 'signaled' the Keepers to enable their control of the station, correct?"

"Correct, sir, yes. If we're successful in isolating that signal, if we pinpoint it exactly, then we'd begin our conversion with a controlled sampling of Keepers. Now, their numbers have always remained steady: if one dies, another seems to simply take its place, which is as much a positive as it is a negative. That observation is based upon an individual Keepers being disturbed and self-destructing, so if our efforts are somehow seen as a threat, then it's possible that the Keepers could react collectively."

Hackett arched an eyebrow. "I believe we can agree that scenario is to be avoided, though it is the reason for my question. What was that solution Lieutenant Vega mentioned?"

"Yes, sir, ah, sorry," stammered Traynor, blushing brightly. "I don't mean to ramble."

"You're doing fine, Specialist," James said encouragingly, and Hackett nodded.

Taking a quick glance at Liara, Traynor resumed her explanation. "To your question, Admiral, the Keepers' form of communication is primitive, and by limiting their proximity to one another it should make it very difficult for them to maintain that communication. I believe that by selecting Keepers that are working in the more remote areas of the Citadel and then attempting our modification only on that single, isolated subject, we limit our risk a great deal."

"And if you inadvertently tell it to turn off the gravity, rather than to start a desired repair, there's no chance that all of them will obey and suddenly have everyone floating to the ceilings," the older officer surmised with a nod. "That makes sense, Specialist, but I'd like you to go one step further. We've perfected the shields used to contain Reaper tech. I'm going to require that when you proceed, the Keepers are surrounded by those shields, at least until you can confirm you're accurately directing them."

Traynor smiled broadly, Liara doing the same. "Of course, sir," the asari readily agreed. "If we erect the barrier around the room the Keeper is in, we should be able to avoid alerting it to our efforts."

"Not to mention, keeping it from becoming goo," added James with a grin before his eyes widened. "Ah, excuse me, sir," he mumbled, embarrassed he'd been so flippant in front of the admiral.

Hackett inclined his head, a small smile playing on his lips. "Of course, Lieutenant. And I agree, 'goo' would be bad," he said before resuming his professional countenance. "Alright, you've got my attention with this. Get me a list of what type of resources you'll need to get this project off the ground and I'll see to it that you get them. Specialist? What is your assigned report date for your new posting?"

"Ah, I believe that's tied to the new CO's appointment here, sir."

"This is now your new job, Specialist. I want you leading this for us, not leaving your work to another's interpretation. This effort is too critical. Unless you'd prefer otherwise?"

Traynor shook her head. "No, sir! I'd very much like to see this concept through, sir."

"Good, because I can't imagine what you'd do in R&D that could possibly be of more value to humanity or the galaxy than this," the admiral stated. "Dr. T'Soni, the Alliance would be grateful to you, and to the asari people, if you'd further lend your efforts."

Liara smiled softly. "I have always been happy to assist the Alliance wherever I could, Admiral."

"It's settled, then. Lieutenant Vega, I'm going to task one of my junior officers to report to the Normandy and to begin assuming Traynor's role as your aide," Hackett announced. "In the meantime, Traynor, get me those details and my team will begin clearing a path for this."

"Yes, sir! I'll have it to you by morning!" the specialist eagerly agreed. "Thank you, sir, thank you very much."

"Don't thank me yet, Specialist, you've got a hell of a lot of work ahead of you. I'm very impressed, you've all come up with something extraordinary here. Now let's just make sure you can bring it home. Lieutenant? I've a few things I'd like to discuss with you before I leave."

James stood tall, nodding once. "Yes, Admiral. Dr. T'Soni? Specialist? Was there anything further?"

Liara shook her head as Traynor replied. "No, Lieutenant, we've nothing else to present."

"Then thank you both for your time," Hackett said politely and both women left the conference room, allowing James and the admiral to finish the meeting in private.

Walking quickly to the small armory that had once served as the checkpoint to the War Room, the women stepped inside, the doors closing behind them as Liara clasped Traynor's hand.

"We did it!" the asari breathed excitedly. "You were wonderful, Samantha!"

Traynor pulled Liara close, hugging her. "I cannot believe we get to proceed with this! And no trudging off to R&D for me!" she exclaimed happily. "I can't wait to tell Garrus!"

Smiling brightly, Liara placed a quick kiss to Traynor's lips. "I'm proud of you, you have no idea how much."

Traynor slowly leaned in and kissed her soundly in return. "Let's hurry now, we've got so much to do!"

xXx

James stepped off the elevator and into the Hangar Bay a half hour later, the collar of his BDUs already unbuttoned and open. Walking quickly toward the Kodiak, he walked around it until he spotted Cortez, who was snapping shut his footlocker.

"Esteban! Hey man, you all packed?" he called out to his friend. "Hackett's gone and Garrus just sent me a note, he'll be free in about an hour. Joker too."

Cortez stood, closing the compartment door that secured cargo within the Kodiak and nodded. "Yeah, that's the last of it, I think," he replied, sighing. "Talk about mixed feelings though, James. I'm excited as hell, but I don't want to actually leave the Normandy."

James shrugged. "Yeah man, I get it, it's like the end of an era, you know? First Shepard and the major, then Tali, now you." He paused, popping his knuckles. "Hell of a command you got handed, amigo, a chance of a lifetime, pioneering shuttle combat techniques. Still, it's gonna be weird with you gone, too. Never thought I'd hear myself saying it, but I'm glad that I'll still have Joker around."

Cortez laughed and together they stepped toward his console. "What's Garrus going to do? Did he say yet?"

"Nah, I'm guessing he'd like to talk to Shepard first, but with everybody going their own way, I gotta tell ya, I'm pretty sure he'll head out on his own soon enough," the bulky marine replied. "Although Hackett just told me that if the girls' Keeper idea pans out, he thinks Garrus should head up recovery on the Citadel, you know, take command of the thing once it's running again."

"Well, he was C-Sec, so he definitely knows the ins and outs of the station, and he's pretty far up the turian food chain, so the politics won't scare him. Sounds like a good plan to me, even though Garrus'll hate it. So, hey, how'd Traynor and Liara's ideas go over with Hackett?"

James moved over to the weapon bench and started sorting a small pile of spare parts. "Great, it went real good. He gave them the go-ahead, so they get to chase the concept down, at least. Plus, Traynor got reassigned to the project full time, said he wasn't sending her to R&D anymore, he wanted her on the Keeper thing and nothin' else."

"That's fantastic! They must have been really excited," Cortez said happily.

"They were, you could see Liara tryin' not to bounce on her toes when Hackett green-lit the thing," James shared with a chuckle. "The admiral's sending somebody off of his staff to take over Traynor's duties, so there'll be another new face around here soon too."

The pilot turned and crossed his arms, a small smile on his face. "What were you saying about the end of an era?"

James sighed, dropping a small soldering tool back onto the bench. "Hey, Esteban? In case I haven't said it? I'm gonna miss you."

Cortez crossed the small space and clapped his long-time friend on his back. "Me too, brother," he replied, his voice tight with emotion before he cleared his throat. "But hey, look at it this way, I hear my replacement is a very cute blonde. Your luck might just be turning around."

James grunted. "She is a girl, right? You're not setting me up to get all excited about some hot chick and it's really some hairy dude, right?"

Cortez laughed, punching James in the shoulder before stepping back. "Now, would I do that to you?"

"Yeah! Or did you forget about Purgatory? Had me all worked up about that red-head you said was checkin' me out and when you finally let me take a peek, it's a freaking guy!"

The pilot waggled his eyebrows, grinning. "Yeah, well, that one was easy, besides, the look on your face was priceless!" he joked, but then shook his head, seeing James's frown. "Alright, alright, nah man, it's definitely a woman. I've met her, and if the scuttle is true, and it is who they're saying it is, she's a cute little blonde number. Happy?"

"Damn right I am, besides, I've always had a thing for blondes."

"Well then, just imagine a good looking beauty who's at your beck and call, ready to fly you into any hot zone you can imagine."

Arching an eyebrow, the marine nodded appreciatively. "I can think of lots of 'hot zones', my friend. Maybe she'll be willing to help me outta my gear after."

"Dare to dream, my brother," replied the pilot, checking his omni-tool. "Come on, let's grab Joker and get over to Yogi's. Garrus will catch up and the girls are already headed that way."

Together they walked to the elevator, James looking lost in thought about the Normandy's new Kodiak pilot.

"Still thinking about the new pilot?"

James grinned. "Sorry, man, it's been a while for me," he confessed. "It'll be nice to meet a new chica, you know?"

"I bet," Cortez replied slowly, trying to repress a grin. "Although…"

James glanced at Cortez, frowning when the pilot didn't finish his sentence. "What?" he prodded.

"Well, I mean, Shepard got away with it, 'course, Alenko only reported to her for a little while, so you know, no one really knew until later, but still… " he explained, his words trailing off again. "Never mind, forget I said anything."

"Shepard got away with – " James began and then his face fell, understanding descending upon him. "I'm the XO. Shit, I'll be her XO," he cursed before he shot a look at Cortez. "That was just wrong, dude! Settin' me up like that! Damn, I was getting an image in my head, too!"

Cortez grinned, laughing. "Sorry, I couldn't resist, you're so easy!" he confessed. "Hook, line and sinker!"

James chuckled, jamming his thick hands into his pockets. "Alright, fair enough, ha ha," he replied, rolling his eyes. The elevator doors opened and they began to step out into the CIC, James pausing and pulling Cortez to a stop. "Hey, let's go have a hell of a night, okay? One last hurrah."

Cortez nodded, clearing his throat. "Yeah."

"One that doesn't involve me getting hot and bothered over a guy."

Chucking, the pilot agreed. "You got it," he said softly, offering his hand. "You've been a hell of a friend, James. You're one of the best."

"You too, Steve, you too," James replied, pulling his friend into a quick hug.

"Hey, ladies! We're late for meeting Liara and Traynor!" yelled Joker from the front of the CIC. "Get a move on! You can snuggle later! Preferably when I'm not looking!"

With a laugh, James threw his arm over his friend's shoulder as they hurried to the airlock.

"We're comin' Joker, we're comin'!"

xXx

It was hours before Kaidan and Kate returned to the cabin. They'd hiked nearly six miles by the time they'd chosen to circle back, and had eaten lunch on the ridgeline, quietly sorting through and discussing what physical evidence they'd discovered along the way.

Now, as the midafternoon sun was beginning to form long shadows around them, they entered the rear of the work yard, rounding the corner of the barn hand-in-hand. To their surprise, Marcus was seated on a bench at the edge of the garden, his rifle across his legs.

"Dad? Hey, where'd you go this morning?" Kaidan asked as they approached.

Marcus shrugged. "I had work to do. You two hike the north ridge? Thought I saw you heading that way."

Kaidan nodded, helping Kate take off her small backpack. "We did."

"Find what you were after?"

"Not really," the younger Alenko replied slowly. "I wanted to show Kate the view."

Marcus looked up at her, his eyes lifeless. "And how was the view, Commander?" he asked dully. "Beautiful, isn't it?"

Nodding slowly, she smiled sincerely. "It is. Your family has an amazing place."

"I never wanted to be a farmer; that was something my parents enjoyed wasting their lives on, not me. Janet, though, now she loved it up here. Of course," Marcus paused, his eyes shifting to his son's, "she always did see the positive in even the bleakest of things, didn't she, Kaidan?" he said, his tone heavy with implication. "She had a knack for that kind of thing."

Kaidan ground his jaw but he didn't reply to the intended insult, refusing to take the bait from his father's obvious hook.

"I suppose she must have found that to be a very helpful quality, Mr. Alenko," Kate snapped, her eyes flashing with anger. "Probably the key to happiness."

"Kate, don't," her husband said in a low tone, his hand catching hers and squeezing it lightly as he again spoke to his father. "Dad, we've been looking around today, not just here, but all over. It's hard to miss there was a skirmish here. Who attacked this place and why?"

Marcus sighed, shifting his rifle, lowering the butt of it to the ground as he slowly got to his feet, walking silently past them.

"Don't walk away from me, not again," Kaidan said, his tone calm, even though the tension he felt was obvious in his features. "Dad!"

Marcus stopped short. "Kaidan, she's dead and it was awful. Leave it at that, do you hear me?"

"No, I can't, you've got to tell me. She was my mother, and no matter… no matter what we think of each other, I have every right to know what happened to her! Am I right? Is that how Mom died? Mercenaries?"

"You have every right?" Marcus repeated with a mirthless laugh, turning around to them, his eyes wild as his voice began to climb. "I have every right to mourn her without you asking me a thousand questions! You show up here – after all this time – and you want answers?"

"You're damn right I do!" barked Kaidan, dropping Kate's hand, marching toward his father. "I want to know what happened to my mother! And what happened here, to you!"

"Anything else you want to know?" Marcus rasped. "Since you've got rights and all?"

"How about why you left that kid alone on the battlefield? Why you left him alone to hold the line against God only knows how many Reapers?"

Marcus raised a pointed finger and jabbed at his son's chest. "You ungrateful little shit! She was here, alone and sick with worry about you! I left Vancouver because those monsters would have slaughtered her! I left to keep her safe!"

Carefully, Kaidan curled his fingers around his father's wrist, his grip deliberately loose and his voice soft. "Then why… why is she dead, Dad?"

With a shiver, Kate watched as Marcus's haunted eyes filled with tears, Kaidan's horrible question finally pushing him over the edge. A sob choked him, but he didn't pull away from his son's touch as his whole frame began to tremble.

"'Cause, because of me," he whimpered, falling to his knees, his face contoured with agony. "It was my fault, Kaidan. I killed her."

And, with his confession made, Marcus wrapped his arms around his son's legs and cried.