WRITER'S NOTE: Characters are not mine. I simply play with them for my own (and, hopefully, others') enjoyment.

Chapter 1

In the twenty-three years since the Reaper War, Admiral James Vega could count the times he had been this worked up on the digits of a single hand. Anticipation slithered uneasily over his stomach and under his chest. It hadn't taken long to decide on his tactics, but even so, he found his fists clenching and jaw grinding as he waited for the vidcom to connect. It was middlewatch aboard the SSV Damavand and - James had checked - a similar time aboard Quilla Station, though the cruiser and colonial habitat were at opposite ends of the spiral arm; he wasn't sure precisely what hours she kept when working at the Institute, but had gambled on being answered promptly. None of this could stop him from worrying his omnitool, calloused fingers absently keying the access code that had raised the alarm. Its orange glow blinked on and off in his dimmed quarters.

Hope I'm not wrong banking on this, James thought as he paced. I've only seen them a couple of times since the Pulse - one time with my ass hanging out of a hospital gown. Back then they'd have saddled up and shipped out with no hesitation. Now - they're more domesticated. But I sure hope I'm right. I have no Plan B.

He had taken to pushing himself though a set of dips when the vidcomm pinged and a familiar face began to resolve himself onto the QEC. Popping himself upright, James assumed military posture as the woman crossed her arms and smiled a greeting. Despite the passing of two decades, the woman facing down the camera had barely changed, though the corners of her eyes were gently creased with laughter lines. He fought down his agitation, nodded hello.

"James Vega." The smile widened into a grin. "We have to stop meeting like this."

"Miranda. Sorry to call you this late - or early."

"I guess no-one told you - calls at oh-three-hundred won't make you a hit with the ladies. You needn't worry, though - I was late finishing a procedure. Just enjoying a nightcap, actually."

"That's good. I was afraid I'd catch you all grizzly. Dissolve the exotic Lawson mystique, you know."

James had never been quite as captivated as others seemed to be by Miranda Lawson. Her singleminded, almost psychopathic resolve chilled him from the start. He attributed this to the way they had first met. Within minutes of laying eyes on her, at Sanctuary during the darkest days of the war, she had hurled a family member to his death with clinical detachment. It was more disturbing to discover that calm masked a gut hatred that had never broken the surface. On the other hand, the protective zeal with which she protected the family members she actually liked was just as strong. And he needed that quality now.

Lawson rolled her eyes, her smirk widening. "Still a flirt, Vega. Twas ever thus. You're still aboard the Damavand, then?"

"Si. Kaidan's recently been assigned to the Malakoff. He's a Corporal now. Determined not to acknowledge my existence. And Jane's still studying - mass effect physics on Sur'Kesh. No idea where the clever came from. Not from me or Ash, that's for damn sure." James pushed back the unpleasant tendrils of memory that accompanied mention of that last name. "You?"

"Oh, I'm fine," Miranda replied. James silently observed the woman avert her gaze to smooth a crease from the shoulder of her lab jacket, waited.

"Francesca's dismayed by her total lack of biotic tendencies. I'm trying to coax her out of an obsession with the Maestros. Aside from the absence of head crests, it's just wishful thinking. Bashir, on the other hand, has just come back from training with the asari on Chalkhos. He's started as a teaching assistant at the Academy, planetside."

"With Jack?" James asked.

"Not directly. As the Principal, Jack has less hands on interaction with the students." Miranda's brow creased. "Unfortunately, that's increasingly a necessity more than a proactive decision on her part."

This was new to James. He didn't want to pry. But he hoped it wouldn't spike his plan. "I didn't know there was anything wrong."

Miranda shook her head and the apology away. "She's doing fine, considering. But while exchanging pleasantries with you is - well - nice, we digress. How can I help you?"

James involuntarily stood up a little straighter, rolling his shoulders to release the nervous energy building in his breast. He glanced down at his omnitool's haptic interface once again, then faced back to Miranda.

"It's not me that needs the help. But this could be something big, Miranda. Really big. An Alliance research vessel surveying the Teletskoye system picked up an encrypted message pinged from a QEC comm buoy approximately sixteen hours ago. The timestamp istwenty seven hours old. All decryption attempts failed, in spite of the big brains aboard. It was a quarian observer to the mission who finally hit paydirt." He had to squeeze his hands together to keep from waving his arms.

"Teletskoye's an unexplored system. Strange thing to find a comm buoy of any kind there. Was it a relic? Prothean or something else?" When Miranda's curiosity was piqued, her Australian twang resurfaced, James noticed.

"No. New. Sophisticated, new tech. But it goes deeper. The message the quarian pulled was an artificially generated voice, untraceable. The real message was locked down tight. However, it made very clear that the real message could only be opened by a Normandy vet. They sent it straight to me."

"It sounds like an elaborate ruse, Vega."

"I agreed it sounded sussed, until I got it to open sesame. Here," James' thick fingers stabbed at his omnitool, "transmitting to you now. No idea how it works, just know it seems keyed to our DNA or...something."

Miranda accessed the file as soon as the transfer was complete. Seconds later, she shot a thunderstruck look at Vega as they both listened to the unmistakable, crisply enunciated contralto in silence.

"... This is an automated distress signal intended for members of the Normandy SR1 and SR2. This is Liara T'Soni. If you are listening to this, know that this signal has been triggered by the compromise of my compound and broker network from external assault. My location is 22 Sinchi, in the Baikal system's outer asteroid belt. I need your help. I request armed assistance. I may not have survived an attack, but if this message has transmitted successfully it is almost certain my child is alive. Her name is Naya. Her location is 22 Sinchi. Please help her. T'Soni out."

After a short pause, the message began a new loop. Miranda muted her omnitool, eyes closed. It struck James she was finding it difficult to pull enough air into her lungs. He watched her process the information as she groped behind her for something to lean against.

"Holy Christ, Vega. Holy. Fucking. Christ."

"I know. First anyone hears from her since Shepard's memorial. Personally, I thought she was probably dead. Sounds like she could be now. But the last part is a hell of a kicker."

"That's a bloody understatement. Does she mean - is it -"

James folded his arms. "- Shepard's kid? I don't see her making such a big ask unless it was. And having dropped off the face of the galaxy for the past twenty-something years, she wouldn't be loca enough to gamble that we'd still feel any personal obligation to her."

"Actually, it also explains why she dropped off the grid when she did." Miranda was thoughtful. "Any Normandy spawn has it bad enough. Shepard's child would be perpetually endangered and constantly mobbed."

"Yeah. Now, Miranda" - she had vaulted over her initial shock quickly, and James could see her mind racing ahead, connecting the dots - "before you say anything else, I know that you have paid your dues to the Alliance. I know your family and the Institute need you. I know that. But we're Normandy people. That asteroid is less than fourteen hours' FTL distance from Chasca. You and Jack are about the most deadly human biotics around, and you've had experience with damaged biotic kids. I don't know anyone better qualified than the pair of you to respond to this."

"And by sheer serendipity, we're in the neighbourhood," muttered Miranda. She raked a hand through her hair. "What about Ashley? Or the asari? Any asari?"

"Ash is on Council assignment in the Krogan DMZ. She's trying to broker a ceasefire between Clan Gochek secessionists, Clan Urdnot, and the asari worlds the Gocheks were stupid enough to invade. Inner Council Space is fubared right now. Ash and the asari are out of the running - not to mention on the wrong side of the galaxy."

"I get it. I'm the right girl, in the right place, at the right time. Great."

"I would ask you to sleep on it, but we both know this could be time-critical. I'm sorry, but I do need an answer from you." James replaced his hands behind his back. In response, Miranda squeezed her eyelids shut, and pressed her palms to both temples.

"We both know there's only one answer I can give. Of course I'll go. I'm not happy about this, though. Jack is going to throw a bloody fit. And I'll need some decent backup."

"You'll get it. I thought Jack would go with you."

"I'm not risking both of us getting killed at the same time. Under normal circumstances, Jack can only walk using a cane. She's mobility impaired and in near constant pain, despite what I do for her. There's no way I'd allow her to come."

A surge of relief washed over James as the reality of Miranda's cooperation sunk in. "Well, you're her physician. And she's your wife," he replied. "Your call."