Disclaimer: I own no part of Mass Effect or its storyline. Everything belongs to Bioware and whatnot.

A/N: So just to explain this new story: it is going to be a partial novelization of the series. The first four chapters are going to take place before the first game, but it won't take long to get to the meat of the story. I should warn that it will be faintly AU in that I'm disregarding parts of the canon timeline and have made significant alterations to the Colonist background. Anyway, I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1- An Awful Mistake

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xxXxx

Hourglass Nebula. Ploitari System. The Rayya. Nearest Celestial Body: Thegan

2174 CE, Span of Arleeha, 41st

GST: 21:33, Shipboard Evening Cycle.

As she lurked outside of her father's office, Tali'Zorah nar Rayya tried to think of a way to convince him that she had not, in spite of popular opinion, attempted to blow up a frigate.

It really was just a simple misunderstanding, and while she was certain that he would understand once she had a chance to explain, the fact that he'd summoned her to his office was making her nervous. It was an unprecedented request and she really did not know what to make of it. When dealing with an ordinary mistake on her part, her father usually waited until they were both in their cabin before launching in to one of his lectures. That kept things quiet, and he was very interested in preserving those types of privacy. Not even that unfortunate matter involving the hacked recycler unit had merited a trip to the Admiral's office, so Tali suspected that she had managed to truly upset him this time around.

She shifted from foot-to-foot and activated her omnitool in order to check the chronometer. A haptic interface materialized around her hand and forearm as a gauntlet composed entirely of orange light. The readout confirmed what she already knew: it was time for her to go inside. She really did not want to, but hiding in the hallway was hardly dignified and she knew better than to keep her father waiting. Lifting her omnitool, she waved it across the door's entry pad to transmit her ID codes. The lock whirled open a moment later, and she stepped inside as the door split in half and retracted into the floor and ceiling.

The office was sparsely furnished and oppressively clinical. Measuring about ten square meters in total, the compact room held only a workspace and three chairs. Her father sat behind an unadorned metal desk, typing furiously at the activated terminal that hovered a few inches above the brushed steel surface. Back when her mother was still alive, Tali could remember seeing a holophoto of their family next to the terminal. It was absent now, and aside from three dataslates, only a hermetically-sealed flask of Recaffe rested on his workspace. Her father drank that often, using the stimulant as a substitute for too many hours of missed sleep. If there was one luxury in the room it was the small observation port that was set into the far wall. Having a private cabin was an extraordinary thing in the Flotilla, but having one with a view of the stars was all but unique.

Rael'Zorah did not look up as she entered, not even when the doors slid closed with a pneumatic hiss. A single look told Tali that he was tired. Though every inch of his skin was concealed by an environmental suit and helmet, there was an unmistakable slouch to his posture that he would not tolerate were they in public. His suit was a skintight assortment of leather, rubberized composite, and durafiber weave that was broken up by section seals and reinforced segments where necessary. An adult quarian was entitled to customize his or her suit, and Rael had chosen to have his fashioned in an off-shade of white complimented by red accents. The faintly conical shape of his helmet was typical of all quarians, and he wore his suit wrappings in the reserved, masculine style that ended just before the crown of his head.

Tali stood near the doorway feeling awkward from the lack of acknowledgement. The only sound in the room was the muted clicking of her father's fingers against the terminal interface. After a painful stretch of this silent torture, Rael paused just long enough to point at one of the chairs that sat in front of his desk. Never once did he look in her direction.

She swallowed and walked over to sit down in the appointed chair. It was made for someone taller, so her legs dangled a few inches off the pristine deck. Trying not to make things any worse for herself, she folded her hands in her lap and stared down at them as she waited for her father to finish.

It did not take long for her nerves to get the better of her. On their own accord, her hands began to compulsively smooth the fabric of her suit where it had bunched at her hips and thighs. Like all childhood suits, hers had some extra room to accommodate a growing adolescent. Patches along her ribs, waist, and the inside of her legs were all designed to stretch without requiring a complete refitting. Until a quarian child was ready to accept his or her immuno implants, removing the suit was a risk better avoided. Clean rooms could always be contaminated even when all precautions were taken. Tali had not removed her suit in three years, and barring an explosive growth spurt, would probably go another two before she needed a replacement.

At long last, her father finished whatever he was working on and dismissed the terminal with a gesture. Rael turned in his seat so that he was facing her directly and leaned forward to rest his hands on the desk. The white headlamp positioned at the front of his helmet's filter vacillated evenly as he breathed in and out. Much of his face was concealed by the green glass of his visor. She could only just make out the vague silhouette of his features and the bright points of his eyes that winked at her like individual stars amid a galactic cloud. Tali tried to meet his gaze, but lacked the courage to hold it for even a moment. This was the worst part of his lectures. She almost wanted to blurt out a confession just to bring an end to the silence that was stretched between them.

"Would you please explain yourself?"

Tali jumped in her seat at the sudden question. Her carefully thought-out explanation fled from her mind and she blurted out a response. "I didn't try to blow up The Caelrich."

"That is a relief." Her father's tone was flat and calm. Never once could she remember him raising his voice to her, but Tali would have preferred anger to the cold disappointment that lurked beneath his composure. "However, it is not an explanation. I want to know what you were thinking, Tali."

"I…I was trying to help." She stumbled over her words before reminding herself that she could handle this. If there was one thing she was confident about, it was shipboard mechanics. "While I was performing the routine assessments, I noticed that The Caelrich's drive core was bleeding energy every time the pilot diverted power away from the propulsion systems. I think it is a design flaw in the model, but it can be fixed by redirecting the way that the power arrives at the engines. The modification doesn't require any major hardware switches, and it helps manage the EEZO core's fluctuations without running the risk of overloading the system. My guess is that we can save up to 3% of the drive's total output depending on how the frigate is used."

She hesitated and glanced up to gauge his reaction. Tali knew that she was in trouble, but she had also discovered something that could truly benefit the Flotilla. Father was always telling her that every quarian must contribute to the survival of their people, and this was the first tangible thing that Tali could give back. Surely, he must be interested in what she had done?

Her father prompted her with a wave of his hand. "Go on."

"After I discovered this, I brought it to Mal'Raneer. He told me that he was not interested in the theories of children and ordered me to return to my assigned duties."

"Did you follow that order?"

Aware that they were about to reach the heart of the issue, Tali sat forward in her chair. "Father, Mal'Raneer is an idiot."

"Flight Instructor Raneer is a fifteen-year veteran of the Flotilla's Navy." Rael stressed the title with only the slightest inflection. "He was also the highest ranking officer on The Caelrich. Meaning, as you are well-aware, that his order was effectively that of the ship's captain."

"I know what I did was wrong, but I didn't think anyone would notice!" Tali immediately waved her hands in a panicked fluster as she realized how bad that sounded and hurried to cover the mistake. "What I meant is that I was not expecting the power surge. I had no idea that my modification was going to reset the entire electrical system."

Her father's mask dipped down as he lowered his chin. It was a rare shift in posture that took Tali by surprise. Rael'Zorah normally disdained the subtle body language that quarians used to indicate their mood, but right now, he was very clearly conveying his displeasure. "Inadvertent or not, you disabled the Caelrich."

"Only for a minute." Tali wrung her hands furiously together as she looked down at the whorled surface of her father's desk. "Nothing was damaged. It was just a reset."

Her father stood from his chair and walked over to the observation port with carefully measured steps. If she did not know him so well, Tali might have said he looked composed, but his fingers were trembling and there was a noticeably stiff set to his shoulders. He was more than disappointed, he was angry. "Tali, what is the approximate mass of a C-27 Frigate?"

The question was so unexpected that she almost asked him to repeat it. She had been ready for a lecture, not an impromptu quiz. "It's…uh, it's a little over 2,000 tonnes?"

Her father nodded. "And do you know what speed The Caelrich was maintaining when the electrical systems failed?"

"No," Tali stared at his back in confusion. "I don't."

"It was accelerating at 32 meters per second." Rael turned his head to look at her. "Two of the pilots were practicing their docking approaches. I'm going to assume that you are similarly unaware that seven ships of the flotilla were within 20 SSL's of the Caelrich at the time of the engine failure."

Tali's felt a hollow sensation settle in the pit of her stomach. "Father, I—"

"I'm not finished, Tali." Her father turned around to face her fully. His voice had taken on a sharp edge that made Tali want to shrink back into her seat. "I think it is important to note that The Rayya was one of those ships and that its EEZO core was idling. I'm sure you know that an average liveship takes one-sixteenth of a rotation to go from an idle state to a ready one. Had The Caelrich's course intersected with that of the The Rayya, there would have been no way for either ship to avoid collision or even activate shielding. So please tell me, Tali: what happens when a 2,000 tonne starship accelerating at 32 meters per second collides with something?"

Though he asked it directly, Tali knew the question was rhetorical. Her face was burning and a sharp, prickling sensation seemed to be running through her veins as she stared mutely at her father. Swallowing thickly around the tangled knot in her throat, she said the only thing she could. "I'm sorry."

"You were lucky." Her father walked back to his desk and sank down heavily in the chair. "Had there been any chance of collision, the standing order would be for our navy to remove the crippled vessel before it could damage another part of the fleet. Everyone on The Caelrich, yourself included, could have been killed because you needed to prove you were smarter than a flight instructor."

There was nothing Tali could say to that. She simply sat there, hands clenched so tightly together that one of her knuckles popped. Her eyes stung with the promise of oncoming tears, but she pushed back the urge to cry as she hunched forward and stared down at the floor. She had never even considered any of those things. A sickening wave of guilt stole over her and she suddenly wished that her father could have waited to have this conversation in their cabin. They might be alone right now, but she longed for the privacy that could only be found at home. At least then she would know if she was being disciplined by her father or by Admiral Zorah.

Once it had become clear that she would not respond, her father broke the silence with a tired sigh. "I am partially responsible for this. I made the mistake of assuming that an 11-year-old was ready for practical assignments. No one will doubt that you are incredibly talented Tali, but clearly you were not ready for the responsibility. Unless I give express permission, you are not to leave The Rayya for a cycle."

Tali rocked back in her chair, utterly stunned by the punishment. An entire cycle? She had been expecting to be grounded for a few spans, but never for a galactic cycle. She would be almost thirteen by the time she was able to leave the liveship. However, in the wake of her father's words, she could not find it in her to protest. "I…I understand, Father."

He visibly hesitated before speaking. "Good. You can return to our cabin. Your aunt dropped off dinner and you should eat without me. I won't be back for a few rotations."

Tali nodded miserably and hoisted herself off the chair. This had been much worse than she had expected, so any excuse to crawl off and hide in her bunk was greatly appreciated. Keeping her shoulders hunched, she turned and made for the door of the cabin.

"Tali."

She paused in the doorway. "Yes?"

"Everything we do has a consequence." Rael'Zorah tilted his head to the side in a gesture that stopped just sort of expressing sympathy. "Our people's future is at constant risk, and like it or not, you are the daughter of an Admiral and certain things are expected of you. We have to set an example, and when we act selfishly, we do so at the expense of everyone in this Fleet. Keep that in mind and let this be the last time we have this conversation."

Tali bowed her head. "Yes, father."

"I'll see you tonight, Tali."

She left his office without any further comment. In her blind haste to put some distance between herself and that conversation, she almost slammed headlong into someone waiting just outside of the doorway. Stepping back hastily even as the door closed behind her, Tali stammered out a rushed apology. "Oh! Sorry, I wasn't watching—"

She trailed off abruptly as she raised her head and found herself looking up at Captain Daro'Xen. As the youngest captain ever appointed in the Quarian Navy, Daro'Xen enjoyed a kind of celebrity. Her suit was an elegant affair of black and grey fabric that fit her very well, and the deep hood of her suit wrappings was embroidered with small patterns stitched from silver thread. Before becoming a captain, Daro'Xen had written seven papers that focused on personal shielding and the combat applications of cyber warfare. Tali had read them all and was of the personal opinion that Captain Xen was the smartest woman in the Flotilla. To think that she had almost slammed into her was embarrassing to say the least.

Daro'Xen gave no indication of being offended. She was looking down at Tali with a friendly tilt to her head. "Hello, Tali. Speaking with your father I take it?"

"Y-Yes, yes I was." Tali blushed hotly and privately thanked her ancestors that her visor hid it from view. "We were discussing….the uh, The Caelrich."

"Oh yes, I heard about that. It's been a rather popular subject lately." Xen's words brought back that horrible guilt she had felt in her father's office, but at the same time, the older woman's voice was warm and touched with a hint of amusement. "I hope your father wasn't too upset."

Tali clenched her hands into fists in order to prevent herself from rubbing them together. "No, he wasn't. I'm confined to The Rayya for the next cycle, but he explained why what I did was wrong."

"A galactic cycle?"

"Yes."

Captain Xen's shoulders twitched in surprise. After an awkward moment of quiet, she reached out and lightly clasped Tali's upper arm. "Ah…well, bear in mind that we all make mistakes. I found more than my share of trouble when I was your age. All that matters is that we learn from those missteps."

Tali blushed even more fiercely than before. "Yes, of course. Thank you, Captain."

"Don't worry, Tali, give it a span and no one will even remember this. Quarians love to have something to talk about, but we have short attention spans. " Xen withdrew her hand and laughed softly. "Now, I don't mean to be rude, but I fear that I have an appointment with your father to discuss fuel rationing."

"Yes, I'm sure. Fuel rationing is so important to the Fleet." Tali had no idea why she said that, but she had said it. Trying to leave without embarrassing herself further, she dipped her head deferentially and started making for the lift down the corridor. "It was a pleasure to speak with you, Captain."

Xen lifted a hand to stop her. "Before you go, did you hear that several captains in the Patrol Fleet have reviewed the modification you made to The Caelrich? I'm told they are considering the benefits of implementing your findings on their own vessels."

"Truly?" Tali froze in place, unsure of how to respond. "Even with what happened?"

"I think most of them are willing to overlook that in light of the fact that you found a cheap and convenient way to reduce energy expenditure. It was good work on your part, Tali." Xen folded her arms and tilted her head to the left. Behind her visor, her eyes glimmered with laughter. "Incidentally, I hear that Flight Instructor Raneer is rather peeved about the entire ordeal. My guess is that it won't be long before he withdraws his ridiculous claim that you attempted sabotage."

It took a moment, but eventually, Tali realized that a smile had spread across her face. "Thank you for telling me, Captain."

"Think nothing of it, Tali."

Daro'Xen gave her a short salute and then walked over to activate the door control for her father's office. Tali watched as she disappeared inside before starting toward the lift that would take her back down to the dormitory levels. It did not take long for her to remember the heavy weight of her father's disapproval, but for a few blissful moments, all she felt was a pleasant glow of satisfaction and the memory of Xen's hand on her arm.

xxXxx

Alpha Demeter Sector. Eidolon System, Eidolon-5

2174 CE, October 13th

GST: 18:13

….

By the time she reached Rodriguez's hab, Shepard was exhausted and dangerously lightheaded from hyperventilation.

She half-crashed, half-slumped against his door, hammering her fist against it with as much force as she could muster. The oppressive howl of the storm drowned out the sound of her knocking and she prayed that he was home and not in town. Finding his hab in the middle of a dust storm had been a near-impossibility even though the main road led directly to his doorstep. There was no way she would make it all the way into town without getting turned around or else smothered by the sheer volume of dust that hung thick in the air. A sandstorm on Eidolon-5 was like being lost in a blinding maelstrom that rendered the senses useless. Individual particles of dust stung as they bit at her flesh and clogged her airways in spite of the scarf she wore wrapped around her nose and mouth. She could hear nothing save the endless shriek of the wind, and on the rare occasion she risked opening her eyes, a wall of impenetrable crimson was all that greeted her. Sucking hard for breath, she slapped her hand against the door one final time and let it rest there as she fought to keep standing.

Then, her support abruptly vanished and Shepard tumbled forwards through the now open doorway. A male voice cursed loudly as a wall of dust and noise poured in along with her, and then hands were grabbing at her shoulders to drag her further indoors. The terrible voice of the storm faded marginally as Rodriguez wrestled his door closed, but Shepard hardly noticed in her haste to tear off the layers of cloth that covered her face. The scarf had kept her from choking to death, but it had also made every breath she took an effort. Her gasp of relief quickly became a hacking cough as her lungs buckled under the unlabored rush of oxygen.

"Shepard!" Rodriguez's growling bark of a voice sounded especially loud and she looked up to see him marching toward her with a scowl on his weathered features. He may have gotten the door closed, but the air in the room was still soupy with a haze of blood-red dust. It was going to cause a terrible mess once it settled, but Rodriguez was angry for a different reason. "Just what in the colorful hell were you doing out in….."

He came up short once he had gotten a good look at her face. As if it had never been there, his frown immediately softened into an expression of calm concern. He always gave her that look when he saw her like this. Shepard usually chafed under the implicit sympathy, but today was different and she grinned breathlessly up at him as though nothing was amiss. "Hey, Rodriguez, sorry about the mess."

"No harm done." He averted his eyes and walked over to the wall panel to activate the hab's ventilation system. The filters would take most of the dust out of the air, but it wouldn't do much for the thin layer that was currently forming over his floor and furniture. Shepard glanced around at the mess and felt a prickle of shame. Keeping a hab clean of the dust was a constant chore on Eidolon-5, and she felt bad about making it harder for Rodriguez. He barely seemed to give a second thought as he walked back to offer her a hand up. "Now, with that being said, there's no way this place is going to get clean with you looking like a sandcastle. Bathroom is in the back. I'll find you something else to wear."

Shepard took the offered hand, and with his help, managed to stand without too much difficulty. Her body felt like she'd been run over by a universal harvester, prompting her to casually lean a hand against the back of his couch in order to keep herself from toppling over. She steadied herself and then nodded appreciatively. "I'll try not to use much water."

Given the rationing, offering to let her wash up was no small thing. He lived alone, so his allotment would be tiny. Rodriguez just waved her concerns off. "Don't worry about it. My recycler works better than most. Use what you need."

She acknowledged this with a grateful smile before heading to the bathroom. Although she had never been inside his hab before, she had not needed him to tell her where it was. Habs were Alliance-issued accommodations for first-in colonists. They were ugly bricks of grey metal that had been designed with cost and durability in mind. Rodriguez had the standard model: a three-room variant composed of a living area, a bedroom, and a bathroom that could be more accurately described as a closet with plumbing. Still, it was a welcome sight as Shepard stepped into the cramped space and closed the door behind her.

As soon as she was alone, she braced herself against the sink and took several shaky breaths. There had been no report of dangerous conditions when she left the house this morning, but everyone on the planet knew better than to trust the weather feeds. Things could change quickly on Eidolon-5, and though she'd started running as soon as the winds had picked up, making it here had never been a sure thing.

When her heartbeat finally slowed to a normal rate, Shepard lifted a hand to palm the wall panel and a single overhead illuminator bathed the room in chilly florescent light. Her reflection stared back at her from the depths of the tiny mirror set above the sink. Twenty minutes in the middle of a dust storm had not been kind to her appearance. The iron-rich dust of Eidolon-5 could be as coarse as sand or as fine as confectioner's sugar. A layer of the reddish grit covered her hair and exposed skin like a chalky mask. Even the parts of her face that had been protected by her scarf were stained a dull crimson. Against the dirty backdrop, her eyes stood out even more than usual. They were a cold, pale shade of green that Shepard had once heard described as "arresting", which was a polite way of saying unsettling. It did not offend her, they were her father's eyes and she knew the feeling.

Shepard frowned and dropped her gaze from the mirror. She shrugged off her grandfather's flight jacket, the tough leather had held up against the dust and larger grit without showing too many signs of wear. Her denim pants were in worse shape, but most of that damage had come from working on the farm rather than the storm. Shepard peeled them off before adding her shirt to the pile of clothes at her feet. She felt somewhat uncomfortable about being in Rodriguez's bathroom in nothing but her underwear, but she got over it and started to clean up. Not wanting to ruin one of the meticulously folded washcloths by the sink, she took the battered scarf that had saved her life and wet it underneath the tap.

She was forced to rewet the cloth three times before she'd finally washed the dirt from her face and hands. After a brief deliberation, she unwound her hair from its tight braid and set about cleaning it as best she could. Her success was limited, but she got the worst off and that made her feel more like a human.

By the time she was finished, she'd unearthed an actual person. Her features were handsome rather than pretty, a heart-shaped face punctuated by high cheekbones and a defined jawline. Her lily-white skin had a sickly cast in the florescent lighting, and now that the dirt was gone, the bruises on her cheek and at the corner of her mouth stood out like pools of dark water. They were still tender, the one of her cheek had a sizeable cut in center, but she did not mind them as much as she did her split lower lip. That hurt every time she moved her mouth and she could not stop worrying at it with her tongue as though under a compulsion.

A knock sounded at the door. "Shepard?"

She paused and abruptly remembered that she was standing in someone else's bathroom. "Yeah?"

"There's a change of clothes out here and a bag. Toss your dirty outfit in there and we'll figure out what to do with it once the storm dies out."

She waited until she heard his footsteps lead away from the bathroom before opening the door just long enough to snatch the things that Rodriguez had left her. It was nothing fancy, just one of the countless sets of Alliance fatigues that he apparently owned. She'd never seen him wear anything else and had a sneaking suspicion that was due to personal choice rather than regulation.

It did come as a great surprise to find that the clothes fit rather well. Rodriguez was only a few inches taller than her, and thanks to her chores around the farm, she was lean and broad-shouldered. The shirt hung off her frame a bit loosely and she could have really used a belt, but overall, it worked.

She stuffed her dusty clothes in the plastic bag provided, but replaced her jacket over the fatigues as she stepped out of the bathroom and back into the living area. In the few minutes she had been gone, Rodriguez somehow managed to clean up the dust she'd tracked in. Her eyes darted around the hab and took in the details with no small amount of interest. This was only the second time she had been to his apartment, and she had not even stepped past the doorway on the first occasion. What stood out to her was that Rodriguez was freakishly neat; there wasn't so much as a single bit of clutter on the coffee table or on the sofa. There were few personal items either. An inactive terminal sat in one corner of the room and a high-end vid screen took up the entire west wall, but there were no decorations or holopics to be found. Even if she had not known him personally, Shepard would have guessed that Rodriguez was a bachelor. The entire room just felt a bit lonely.

He was waiting for her in the attached kitchen. He stood by the sink, a tall and wiry man with black hair that was starting to turn grey. His skin was as dark and tough as treated leather and on the rare occasions that he smiled, his white teeth always stood in wonderful contrast. No one would ever call him handsome, but his plain, honest features were appealing. Shepard liked his eyes the best. They were black and always conveyed a sense of kind intelligence that she envied. Everything else about Rodriguez from his haircut to his polished shoes screamed military, but his eyes could have belonged to a softer man.

He was the Alliance liaison for the town of New Swansea, and as of three years ago, the only history teacher in the Swansea School System. It was volunteer work, but he was still the best instructor that Shepard had ever had. Enthusiastic, interesting to listen to, and when the mood struck him, very witty.

Feeling sheepish in her borrowed clothes, she walked over to join him, Rodriguez nudged one of the two chairs away from the kitchen table with his shoe. "Take a seat. You thirsty?"

Her throat felt like she had been gargling sawdust. "Parched."

"All I have is beer and water, so…" Rodriguez plucked a bottle off the countertop and tossed it to her. "Water it is."

She caught it as she fell into the chair. Unscrewing the seal, she drained half of it and then saluted him with the bottle. "Thanks."

Rodriguez grunted an acknowledgement before moving to take the other chair. He sat a small medkit down on the table and unfurled it to remove a small bottle of alcohol and a package of butterfly bandages. It was clear what he meant to do and Shepard should have seen it coming, but when he lifted a hand toward her face, she jerked back out of reflex. Rodriguez dropped his arm back to the table and an awkward silence fell as they stared at one another. Clearing her throat, Shepard tried to push past the weird moment. "Um, sorry."

"No, I should have…" He paused and seemed to search for the correct thing to say before visibly giving up. "Well, it would be best if we got that cut cleaned up."

She nodded and leaned forward. "Alright."

Rodriguez wet a cotton swab with some of alcohol and raised it up to her cheek. She winced at the sharp sting of the disinfectant, but kept still and let him work. His big, rough hands were surprisingly gentle when he applied one of the narrow adhesive strips over the cut. As he pulled away, he started asking questions. "Mind telling me what the hell you were doing out in a dust storm?"

"It wasn't storming when I left the house."

"That doesn't mean much in autumn. You know better."

"I wasn't thinking straight." Shepard murmured softly. "And my house wasn't a particularly safe place at the time."

He accepted that with nod. "So I see. Is there any point in me asking what happened or are you just going to tell me that you ran into a door?"

Shepard smirked at him, the cut on her lip throbbing as the flesh pulled taut. She could not remember when she had fed him that particular line of bullshit, but it hadn't been one of her best. "Nothing so scary. Dad just started the day off early and breakfast got out of hand. I needed to leave."

Rodriguez paused in the act of fishing a second strip out of the package. His eyes flicked up to hers and Shepard could see that she had surprised him. It was the first time she'd ever admitted to what went on at home, and it looked as though Rodriguez had grown used to the excuses. Slowly, as though not to startle her, he returned to his work. "You ready for me to do something about that?"

"Nah, it doesn't work out when people try."

"Kid, I could—"

"I appreciate it," Shepard cut him off so he wouldn't waste his breath. "But trust me when I say that you aren't the first teacher who's offered. I know how that goes."

And she did know. Her father was a popular man who volunteered as a referee for the high school Thrashball team and drank with the sheriff every other night. It took repeated complaints from her sixth grade teacher before anyone even made an effort. That first time the local police had shown up at her family's hab, Shepard remembering being hopeful. She remembered telling the truth to one of the deputies and then watching as her father joked with the same man a few minutes later. She remembered listening as her mother agreed that yes, sometimes our daughter does make up stories, and of course, she remembered what happened after the officers had left.

It wasn't the last time someone tried to help, but it was the last time she ever asked for it.

Rodriguez pursed his lips. "I may not have much jurisdiction on an established colony, but the sheriff will find it harder to ignore an Alliance representative than a principle. All I need is a formal complaint from a victim to intervene on behalf of a private citizen."

"Not interested."

A flicker of frustration passed over his face before he could lock it down. Taking a deep breath, he leaned in and folded his hands on the tabletop. "Look, I doubt I would be very trusting if I were in your position, but I promise that I can help you."

"I know." She nodded agreeably. "You can help me get into the Alliance."

He did not immediately respond to that. Instead, he gave her a perfectly level stare that gave no indication that her request had surprised him. Shepard began to trace little designs on the tabletop with one finger just to give herself something to do. After several long moments, he finally grunted out a response. "Minimum age is eighteen."

"So?"

"So, you're about two years shy."

"C'mon, Rodriguez, you've given me more recruitment brochures than the rest of the school combined." She gave him a tight smile that he did not return. "And I seriously doubt that you go around offering to teach everyone Alliance CQC. You're pushing me toward the military."

He shrugged. "That doesn't mean I want you to run away from home. Part of my job is to distribute recruitment materials and I just thought you could benefit from some self-defense instruction."

"I did benefit. That's part of the reason I can't go back home."

"Meaning what?"

In answer, she twisted her hand around to show him her knuckles. Two of them were skinned raw and swollen. "I told him what was gonna happen if he didn't back off. Not my fault he wouldn't listen."

A very grim smile carved its way on Rodriguez's face as he motioned her to extend her injured hand. Shepard held it out and felt a rush of warmth blossom in her chest when he took it in both of his and began to examine the damage. "I seem to remember telling you not to punch someone in the face for precisely this reason."

"Yeah, but would you believe that it was worth it?"

"I might at that." Rodriguez glanced up at her and his expression became serious. "Is he hurt bad?"

"His old ass was still on the floor when I walked out, but a broken nose is the worst of it" She closed her eyes and smiled at the thought. It was going to be a memory she cherished for some time. When she had walked out of the house this morning, she felt like she just gotten off the world's fastest roller coaster. That sensation of dizzying excitement and triumph was the best she had ever felt.

A surprised exclamation left her lips as Rodriguez pressed another alcohol-soaked cotton swab on her skinned knuckles. He pointedly ignored her accusing look as he drew out a length of gauze from the medkit and started wrapping it around her hand. Shepard rolled her eyes but found herself watching him with a curious sense of longing. He was a good man, his fingers warm as they brushed over her palm, and that slight contact sent a shiver along her spine. She glanced away as he finished, worried that he might catch her looking. Rodriguez secured the bandage with a metal clip and released her hand. "Alright, why today?"

"Huh?"

"We've been working on the CQC for four months now, and after two weeks, you already knew enough to drop most people. So, what made today special?"

Shepard toyed with the water bottle before lifting it to take a sip. "Gwen is going to the academy."

"No kidding?" Rodriguez sounded genuinely pleased by the news. "Your father signed the waiver?"

"Hell no. I got him drunk last night and Mom signed the damn thing. It might've come about ten years too late, but she finally grew a backbone." The plastic bottle crinkled as her hand tightened around it and Shepard forced herself to ease up on her grip. "Anyway, Gwen was on the shuttle to Central before he even woke up. She'll be breaking atmo in a couple hours."

"That's great."

"Yeah."

She drained the rest of the water and set the empty bottle aside. Rodriguez was staring at her with the same expression he wore after posing a tough question his class. After a moment of quiet, he folded his arms across his chest and settled back into his chair. "The Alliance isn't easy. Once you sign that contract, there won't be any turning back. They need recruits and they don't let go of the ones they have."

"I can handle that."

"It's six months of Basic and then an additional two of shipboard acclimation. Standard contract is for five years of service at minimum." Rodriguez continued as if she hadn't spoken. "A lot of people find that has a way of turning into a lifelong career. Depending on where you end up, that could be a very dangerous career."

Shepard snorted. "What's my alternative? Staying here with the same people I've known my entire life? Anything is better."

"Don't be so quick to say that. Give it some thought. You're in rough situation, but you've still leaving a lot behind." He paused as the storm battered against the windows loud enough to interfere with the conversation. Once it had died down to a reasonable roar, he continued. "You got a brother, right? Aaron?"

"Adam." Shepard's jaw clenched tight around the name. Hostility flared in her mind and she spat out her thoughts on the subject. "Fuck 'im."

Rodriguez's only response was a swift furrow of his brow that vanished after only a few beats. Shepard half-expected him to ask about her mother, but it looked as though he was thinking better of it. "Alright, let me be blunt. I like you and I really do want to help, but I'm worried that you're jumping into something for the wrong reasons. I don't want this to be a moment you spend the rest of your life regretting."

Shepard felt her stomach twist unpleasantly. She wasn't good at asking for help; didn't really know how when it came down to it. The sudden, paralyzing fear that he might say "no" made the skin of her face tingle. Anxious, she fought to keep her voice steady. "Look, Rodriguez, I'm pretty desperate over here. I've dealt with everything so far, but I'm not up for it anymore. I came here because I didn't know where else to go, but if you don't help, then I'm going to find another way. The one thing I know for certain is that I am never going back to that house. Not for any reason."

Getting that out into the open cost her. Ashamed for reasons she could not even begin to describe, she averted her eyes and waited for something to happen. The kitchen was silent for entirely too long before Rodriguez cleared his throat. "You can stay here tonight. It's late and there's no telling how long that storm will last. Tomorrow, we'll head over to Central and get you processed. Come nightfall, you'll be in the Alliance."

Shepard turned back to find Rodriguez watching her with a sad sort of smile. Her shoulders dipped inwards as relief ate away at the tension that had kept her going thus far. She was so incredibly tired, and before she could stop it, a harsh breath that was almost a sob rattled out of her chest. There was no way she would cry in front of someone else, so Shepard bit down on her lip and brought up a hand to lightly clasp her forehead as she waited for the feeling to pass.

Rodriguez's chair squeaked as he pushed it back from the table, and a moment later, a hand settled on Shepard's back as a comfortable weight. Composing herself, she looked up at him. "Thanks. I mean it, thanks."

"Don't mention it. You eaten today?"

"Not since breakfast."

"C'mon then, I'll get you dinner. I'm a terrible cook, so unless you want to get behind the stove, don't set your expectations high."

Shepard smiled and rose to help him with the food. They did not revisit their conversation as they worked, instead preferring to settle on the more comfortable topics of action vids and the novel she was reading. True to his word, Rodriguez was not much of a cook. Their meal consisted of protein noodles and steamed ipicius. Considering everything else that had happened today, she didn't really care one way or the other. Besides, it was oddly comfortable to prepare a meal with him. There was none of the tension that was pervasive whenever she was at her own house.

By the time they had finished and put away the dishes, Shepard was completely worn out and liable to fall asleep on her feet. He must have noticed, because he led her out into the living area and pointed toward the bedroom. "We might as well turn in. You get the bed and I'll take the couch. I guess you already know where the head is, and you are welcome to anything here. Just don't open the bedside table's drawer. There's a handgun in there."

Shepard nodded, but then frowned as a thought occurred to her. "Hey, you aren't going to get in trouble for helping me, right? It is a bit illegal."

"Don't worry about that. Believe it or not, there have been other kids in your circumstances. The Alliance has ways of working around the legal requirements of recruitment." Rodriguez paused, and then shot her one of his rare smiles. "Plus, I got a friend over at Central who doesn't mind muddling a birth certificate for the right cause. For all intents and purposes, you'll be eighteen by the time you leave the planet."

"I really do owe you one."

"I said don't worry about it. Now, get some sleep."

He turned away, but Shepard reached out a hand to stop him. A crazy impulse had seized her, and without giving it proper thought, she said something she shouldn't have. "You don't have to."

"Sorry?"

"Take the couch." She dipped her head and stared at him through the curtain of her hair. "We can share. The bed, I mean."

The living room was too dark for her to make out Rodriguez's expression, but based on how still his body went, she guessed that her meaning had come across clearly. A mixture of nervous anticipation and excitement filled her as she waited for him to react. Each second stretched into a minute as Rodriguez turned back to face her. He drew himself up and then shook his head. "No, kid, we really can't."

"Oh." Shepard felt as though the bottom had dropped out of her stomach. Mortified, she nodded quickly and stammered out an apology. "Oh god, sorry. I…uh, I don't why I said that. Look, just forget it. I didn't mean—"

"Okay, it's alright. Don't lose your head." Rodriguez surprised her by resting his hands on her shoulders. He then gave her a little shake as if to get her attention. "Listen: I think today has been pretty rough on you and you're a little turned around right now. I don't blame you, but that's something that just can't happen, okay?"

Shepard would have cheerfully died in that moment. She looked everywhere but at Rodriguez as she struggled to respond. "Right. Sorry."

"It isn't what you want. Whatever you might think right now, I promise you that."

"Right."

"Okay. I'll see you in the morning, yeah?"

He released her and stepped back. Shepard muttered another apology and practically fled into his bedroom. Once she had put the door between them, she slumped down on the edge of the bed and buried her head in her hands. Tugging at her hair until it hurt, she groaned under her breath and silently cursed herself for being so goddamn stupid. Why in the hell had she said that? She might have entertained a few dumb fantasies about Rodriguez in the past, but she'd dismissed them as just that. It was never something she would act on.

Miserable, she flopped back on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. The dust storm thumped against the polarized glass of the bedroom window, but the noise didn't do much to drown out her internal monologue. She had one friend on this entire planet and she might have just messed things up between them. She didn't even want to guess what Rodriguez must be thinking right now.

The thought was too humiliating to entertain. Turning on her side, she stared off into the darkness of the room and waited for exhaustion to work its magic. It had been such a good day up until this point. Sure, getting caught in a dust storm was a bad time, but Gwen was safe and now she was free as well. After so many nights spent lying awake and picturing this exact moment, it felt strange and a bit underwhelming to be experiencing it. What surprised her was the lack of doubt. She was excited, nervous, and even a touch afraid, but there was not a shred of uncertainty in her mind.

If she were to guess, it would be because there was nothing for her on Eidolon-5 except a life she did not want and a family she would rather not have. There was no telling what the rest of the galaxy was like, but anything that large had to have something better in it. At the very least, it should be more interesting.

Shepard took a deep breath and noted that the pillow had a masculine smell. Sighing deeply, she closed her eyes in complete and utter despair. How could she have possibly said that to Rodriguez? Even if she lived as long as an asari, she had a feeling that she would never, ever forget that particular embarrassment. But rather than let the wound fester, she tried to focus on what lay ahead. Come tomorrow, she would be able to put several thousand light years between her and any painful memories. She would not spend the rest of her life farming ipicus and waiting for her liver to give out. No, she was going to be a soldier, and even if that was not an easy life, at least it would save her from becoming as lost and hopeless as her mother.

A smile crossed her lips even as her overtaxed brain finally began to shut down. Whatever else happened, she promised herself that things would be better from here on out.

After all, how could they get worse?

...

xxXxx


A/N: Next chapter will be out in a week. If you enjoyed reading, please consider leaving a review!