Torin - Torini plural. Male turian of the age of majority (15)

Tarin - Tarini plural. Female turian of the age of majority (15)

Verro - Husband, male bond-mate.

Derra - Wife. Female bond-mate.

The Aokigahara - Also known as the Sea of Trees or the Jukai. A massive forest on the northwestern slope of Mount Fuji. Sadly, known as the suicide forest thanks to hundreds of suicides that have taken place within its depths over the centuries.

91 Days ASR 1130 hrs (Normandy, approaching Shadow Sea relay to Local Cluster)

Stopping behind Joker's seat on the Normandy's bridge, Shepard took a deep breath. "Yep, still smells like funky armpits and sweaty asscheeks in here." She laid a hand on his shoulder, the warm muscle beneath her palm obscuring his fragility. "You haven't convinced them to upgrade you to leather? It breathes, you know."

"No. I've tried, but they're immune to my charms. You, however … you need to watch yourself, dead Spectre." He always did give just as good as he got. "If you get too close, I can't be held responsible for your reaction to my manly musk, and you're a married woman." He shot an exaggerated glance at the geth platform occupying the other seat. "Just ask my co-pilot how hard it is to resist my charms."

Shepard laughed and shook her head at Enid, warning the geth away from reacting to Joker's declaration. He didn't need the encouragement. At least he and the geth seemed to get along well enough. Stepping between the seats, she let out a low whistle and reached out, running the backs of her fingers over the beard covering his cheek. "This little experiment became a thing of beauty while I was dead."

He jumped, fending her off with a couple of pathetic, over-dramatic slaps. "No touching. Are you trying to get me killed? You have two huge husbands with long histories of yanking the sticks out of their asses and bludgeoning people to death with them."

Shepard scoffed, adding a little spit for good measure. "Them being the sticks or their asses? Because really, to bludgeon someone with your ass, you have to have a lot more in back …." Hazard lights began flashing further up the road, so she let the joke die a merciful death.

Joker shot a glare at her, then glanced behind them as if looking for said husbands. Cocking his head so his beard caught the light, gleaming with red highlights, he whispered, "It is sexy as hell, though, isn't it?"

Shepard chuckled and shook her head. Thank the blessed Enkindlers that some things never changed.

"We're just about to hit the relay, dead Spectre." Joker nodded toward the portal. The relay remained a diamond among millions, but grew larger moment to moment. "You need to quit fawning over me and get ready to go planetside."

"Yes, sir, Admiral Joker, sir." Shepard snapped off a salute sharp enough to decapitate the pilot. After giving the subject a moment to die, she said, "Do me a favour?" Her eyebrows climbed for her hairline when he merely glanced up at her, the question in his stare remaining snark-free. A little alarmed, but encouraged, she said, "Take a slight detour for me, and head for Enceladus on a vector to see the plumes?"

A soft snort answered that. "So now I'm a honeymoon tourist service?" He shook his head and waved a dismissive hand at her. "Go away, your unreasonable requests are disturbing my delicate constitution."

Shepard clipped him in the back of the head, just hard enough to knock his cap forward. "Behave yourself, Flight Lieutenant, I have the Spectre powers to extrajudicial the hell out of your ass."

The pilot scoffed and shook his head as he replied, "Right. Colour me terrified of your undead badassedness." He cleared his throat, the cough as uncomfortable a sound as she'd ever heard him make. "And congratulations, by the way. Becoming a mom … that's pretty huge." He glanced over his shoulder. "Good thing you've had all of us to practice on."

"Good thing I still do; I need all the practice I can get," she countered. "And thanks, Joker, it's weird and scary, but also … " She allowed some of the awe and terror to slip the leash. " … just a … a … miracle." Spinning on her heel, she gathered everything back under her control.

She marched toward the threshold, stopping before she'd taken three paces. "Oh, and next time we're back at Omega, get someone to replace your seats. We can't have our best pilots chafing down … " She grimaced and wiggled her finger in the general direction of his ass. "... there, in the place I shouldn't have mentioned. Now I need to pour industrial cleaner over my brain."

"You're welcome!"

Shepard grinned and struck out for the stairs to the crew deck. Now, to get her verros rounded up and into the observation lounge; Joker wouldn't loop back around if they missed the sights the first time. Grinning, she answered the salute from the door guard, then raced down the stairs, a hound on the trail of turian prey. Bless the Enkindlers for the Normandy's size. Despite the vessel's exterior stealth, she offered nowhere to hide inside her bulkheads.

She asked Joker for the detour because neither spouse had spent any time discovering the amazing things the Sol system had to offer. Taking down rogue VIs on the moon didn't count, and who knew the next time they'd get a chance. The plumes on Enceladus made for a great start.

She found her verros in the galley, hunched over a laptop, head to head with Anderson. "Ah," she said, her tone slanting into playfulness, "that's where all the smoke is coming from."

Anderson rumbled in the back of his throat, but Garrus and Nihlus didn't even twitch. Of course, they could blame their translators scrambling her joke rather than their tech-nerd enthusiasm.

"Holy Blessed Enkindlers preserve us." She crept up on them from behind to get a glimpse of the computer screen. They waited for the geth to test their relay virus, no doubt. Somehow Vortash convinced the batarian hegemony to allow Archangel to test the relay virus on the batarian's 'Alpha' relay. In a million months of Sundays, she'd never have bet on the batarians would be the race most likely to cooperate. It begged the question: just who was Vortash?

"They set to go?" she asked, leaning in between her verros' heads to see the display. The relay spun in the black, building up to shooting the test ship into what should be a near-nil mass corridor. In fact, if the geth virus worked, the device would answer the reaper IFF with the opposite. She shuddered, but pressed a quick kiss to both Garrus and Nihlus's crests. "You two have fun smashing ships, but I need you in the observation lounge as soon as it's over." They grunted absently, agreeing without turning from the screen.

Her left eyebrow climbed toward her hairline as she asked, "What, we're already at the 'yes, dear, whatever you say, dear' stage? Wow, we hit that at FTL."

The flashes of the light on their faces began to speed up; she needed to get to the lounge. Her throat constricted, and her heart raced rabbit quick, leaving her breathless and dizzy. The lounge; she needed to prepare for the ground mission. She turned away from the table, her knees trembling. What the hell? Freaking out made absolutely no sense. A working defense against the reapers should have her giggling manically.

Lounge! Now! Before Garrus's SHEP-dar goes off.

True. If either of her husbands saw her reaction, they'd go all baby spider monkey, and she wouldn't be able to peel them off even using mineral oil and a spatula. At that point it might take the jaws of life. Finally, a shaky breath inflated her lungs, allowing her to count her steps as she walked away.

One … two … three … four … five. Stop reacting and figure it out. Why now? Why today?

At the end of the five steps, she turned back. She'd come down to tell them to meet her in the lounge then suffered a catastrophic loss of focus. After a handful more breaths, enough air squeezed past the constrictor wrapped around her neck to say, "Seriously, meet me in the lounge right after the test. I've arranged for a five minute honeymoon." Shaking her head again when their grunts came out a little closer to 'yes', she turned and walked away. Hopefully they heard her over the giddy, tech-nerd squeeing going on inside their skulls. At least their lack of attention gave her somewhere to focus her crazy long enough to get clear.

"You're not going to watch?" Anderson asked, popping out of the huddle, a ground squirrel from its burrow.

A shudder wriggled up Shepard's spine, the serpent looping around her throat and squeezing. "No, I'm going to prepare for the mission." She swallowed her gag reflex and hurried from the galley, counting the steps at double-time. Still, she heard the relay engage before she reached the elevator.

She paused, one hand buttressed against the bulkhead. Really, though … what the hell? Why the sudden panic attack? The relay test meant a step forward in the war prep. It might even give them a chance to kick some serious reaper ass and slow the fuckers down. So why wasn't she pressed between her husbands, squealing with her entire tech-nerd soul?

That's easy. That device … that defense… makes the war real. It's horrifying, and it's real, and it's close enough to make everyone and everything all too fragile. There are trillions of corpses walking around, timers ticking in the backs of their heads, because you won't be able to move fast enough or hit hard enough. That's a bitch of a thing.

Shepard scoffed, kicking a wad of phlegm into the back of her throat. She gagged, but then squared her shoulders—spine set against the tide—and swallowed. Blessed Enkindlers, of course she wasn't ready for the war. Sovereign and Saren seemed like making a cup of warm cocoa compared. Hell, the war looming on the horizon turned even Elysium into high tea with scones and little cakes and cucumber sandwiches … maybe even teeny berry tartlets and beaten cream for dessert.

"All killing diminishes the whole," Tashac whispered through Shepard's thoughts. "All of it."

Reality slapped her hard enough to sting, hard enough to shove her away from the bulkhead and down the corridor toward the lounge. In her naive arrogance, she believed that if she defeated Saren and Sovereign, she could prevent the harvest. Or at the very least, put it off for another couple of centuries. Even at reaper speeds, traversing dark space made for a considerable commute.

Shepard palmed the door control, practically leaping over the threshold when the portal slid open. Sugar. She needed sugar, and she needed to sit down with Izzy for a few minutes before the briefing. Yeah. She sighed. Sugar and Izzy … just the recipe to center herself. The base on Earth—if they found it—would present a nightmare. She needed her head screwed on straight to lead her people through it.

She grabbed a soda from the fridge and sat on the sofa facing the vast emptiness, finding it soothing rather than terrifying in the moment. "Oh yeah, baby girl," she said after guzzling orange soda until her sinuses and throat burned, "that's the stuff. We just need a few minutes to pull it all back together."

Looking down, she pressed her palm over her hard, flat stomach, the incongruity not lost on her. Most mothers would be starting to show by that time. Most mothers would wake each morning feeling something … wouldn't they? Shouldn't she be feeling the miracle of it? She guzzled down the rest of the can.

"Sorry we haven't spent any time with you over the past couple of days. We're not adjusting to the whole parenting role very well." She patted her belly. "I promise, if you were growing in here, we'd never forget to factor you into our plans."

"You wouldn't be going groundside in a few hours." The voice from the door snatched Shepard's attention off the small, quantumly-entangled connection to her daughter. Sparky shrugged when their gazes met. "You're way too much of a mama bear to risk her that way." He grinned and wandered over to sit next to her. "It would drive you insane to stay on the sidelines, and then, of course, you'd punish us for it—driving us insane—but you'd suffer through the confinement for her."

Shepard nodded. She sure hoped so.

For long moments, she stared out, her thoughts weaving random threads between stars. Damn the reapers. And damn the leviathan to an even deeper ring of hell for creating them. It might be nice to spend her days preparing her daughter to enter the universe. No, it would be. It really would.

"They're out there," Sparky said, his words dropping into the still, deep well between them. "It's easy to forget with Sovereign and Saren gone. Thousands of those monsters wait out in dark space while the collectors weaken us for the kill." He stood and walked to the window. "Most days it's hard enough to believe we'll beat the collectors." He punched the glass with the side of his fist, leaving it there, maybe trying to hold the truth at bay even as it wormed through the glass. "How in God's name are we supposed to defeat their masters?"

"We take it one step at a time, Sparky." Shepard shrugged. He needed answers she didn't happen to have shoved in a back pocket. Her hand itched to reach back and check; hell, it couldn't hurt. "All we can do is keep our eyes on the road ahead, our screaming meemies under control, and our imaginations engaged."

Her lips warmed into a smile as she watched him. He'd changed since her death. She should have noticed. "What's up with you? You're different." Narrowing her eyes, she tipped her head to one side, trying to scry beneath his skin. "You beat the headaches?"

Kaidan returned to sit at her side, folding down onto the sofa so he faced her, one leg tucked under him. "Yeah. A couple of months after the funeral, I took all my vacation time and had my amp changed out to the latest model." He shrugged, his particular, sweet brand of bashful radiating off him, heat waves rising from cement. "I was a lot weaker for a long time, but it was worth it to go a month between headaches." He stared into her eyes, a cocky glint sparking in his.

Ah, there he is. That's our man, right there.

She grinned, the warmth spilling down her throat and spreading through her belly, out to her limbs. Sweet baby Jesus, she'd missed him. "Spill it."

The spark went nova. "I can reave now." A grin lit up his handsome face. "I'm trying out one of Archangel's prototype amps, and I'm stronger than ever. I can shred an asari vanguard's barriers in seconds." The words slowed as he reached the end of his sentence, his grin folding into something more complex and thoughtful. It remained that way for long seconds before he said, "Collectors use barriers."

Her reply chased a sharp nod. "Yeah, so do the reapers." Where was he headed?

A soft grumble tumbled from his lips, detritus falling away as he sculpted his idea. "Vanguards and krogan battlemasters have far weaker defenses when I use biotic attacks rather than electrical-based attacks. When you overload a vanguard, you can get their shields down, but not as quickly as I can with reave or even warp."

Shepard blew a long, noisy breath out her nose and turned in the seat to rest her arm along the back. "Agreed. They're a constant pain in my ass because of it." She winked. "And you wondered why I kept you close."

He acknowledged her but kept a tight grip on the subject. "If the reapers are weaker to biotics than they are to technology, we need an amp big enough to shoot reave at them in a strength to make a difference." The thoughtful frown sizzled into a wide grin as he held up a hand, his biotics crackling around his fingers. "A ship. Can you imagine? A ship with fifty or a hundred powerful biotics all connected through a communal amp."

"Take it to Samara." She grinned and shook her head. "She had some ideas for biotic weapon applications. If she agrees there might be a way, take it to Legion and see what he and the chia think."

Kaidan nodded, suddenly as serious as he was animated the moment before. "You know, you were right when you told me that you weren't as crazy and reckless as before you died … but you've gained rather than lost on balance." He shrugged and turned to look out into the black before continuing, "The things that have changed, they're the reason that you're our only hope to reach the end of this war, Captain." He glanced at her, scarcely making contact before turning back. "You don't look at things the way everyone else does. Thank God for that."

Melting down into her chair, Shepard lifted the datapad, already a paragraph in before she nodded at the door. "Let's hope my luck holds. Get the rest of them in here, Sparky. We've got a mission."

"Yes, ma'am." Strong strides crossed to the door and out.

Okay, the mission, glory hallelujah and shake an angry fist at the Enkindlers. Once they reached Earth, they'd drop smack into the middle of a protected world heritage site on the northwestern slopes of Mount Fuji. The site promised to add thirty layers of complication to a mission already doomed to the land of FUBAR, because it was based on intel as sketchy as a toddler's stick figure: is it grandma or the cat? Of course, if she smashed her way through the Sea of Trees, a diplomatic incident awaited at the other end.

The Aokigahara. Damn but didn't it make sense? Indoctrination signals warping minds for thousands of years from somewhere under the mountain. As a kid, she'd owned a book about the most mysterious places on Earth, and that forest—that beautiful, sad, haunted forest—both captured her imagination and terrified her. She'd never been able to guess at what drew people there for such sad purpose, and the idea that it might be linked to reaper signals leaking from their base tied her gut in knots.

Nothing exists that the reapers can't poison.

Familiar footsteps approached the door, drawing her from her thoughts. "It works," Nihlus announced, stepping through the door. "The Aratoht Protocol crushed the test ship into a three meter blob. The relay simply dropped it at the origin for the tow ship to cart away."

Shepard nodded but didn't look back. "Excellent. We'll get at least a few of them before they can cause trouble."

Her verro stepped between Shepard and her view of the void, his shadow slipping over her datapad. "After the demonstration, Liara said that she and her entourage are on their way to meet us at Earth. Apparently, they've discovered something too sensitive to discuss, even over the QEC." Crouching, he settled his hands on her knees, a welcome invasion of her borders. "We just closed the channel to her when Fedorian contacted us to say that he, a Matriarch Saela S'aris, and Dalatrass Linron are on Earth for a meeting with the AoN."

Shepard looked up, her stare abandoning the stars outside the portal for the ones in Nihlus's eyes ….

Dear, sweet baby Enkindler Jesus, what part of farmland grows that variety of corn? Corny on the cob, coming right up.

... finding his gaze warm and bright. "We should book a couple of rooms in Vancouver, see if we can elbow our way into Hackett's schedule, get everyone together."

Nihlus nodded and leaned in, his brow gentle and solid against hers. "It sounds like a good idea. I don't think the war will wait much past our destroying the collectors."

"Yeah." Shepard sighed, her eyes closing. "Once their most obvious agents are dead, the less overt ones will scour every corner of the galaxy looking for the keys."

The soft rumble of a cleared throat pulled them apart, turning Shepard's attention to the door. Kaidan stood there, face glowing bright red. "Do I have to throw water on you two again?" he asked.

"Everyone else better be right behind you, Alenko." Shepard grinned, then touched her brow to Nihlus's before sitting back. She watched Sparky cross the floor to sit on the couch facing them. His biotics weren't all that became stronger in her absence. He was a good choice for one of the other team leaders. She sighed; as much as she hated to do it, she'd have to use Miranda as well.

Leaving her without enough time to talk herself out of using Miranda, the door opened, Garrus ushering Jack and Sol into the room. He held his mandibles high and tight, telling Shepard the contents of their conversation prior to the door opening.

Ah, little sisters: even when they love you, you want to kill them.

"Believe me, even though a human couldn't hear it, he squealed when the test ship dropped out of the relay." Sol walked backwards, fixing a smartass grin on her brother. "He's such a complete nerd."

Jack nodded, looking very sage as she did. "I know, I've caught him making out with the thanix cannon more than once." A long breath bled between dark red, pursed lips. "I haven't had the heart to tell Shepard that she's actually his mistress." The biotic aped wiping away a tear. "It's just sad."

"All right, you've had your fun." Garrus spun Sol around and pushed her toward the seats, his expression rigid, but from trying not to grin rather than annoyance. "Go away. Now."

"Such a grouch." Still, Sol stomped off and perched herself on the edge of the couch, all feigned angles and spikes. After a moment of stiff-plated silence, she grinned at Shepard, pretense evaporating. In the moment, Shepard understood how much hurt Garrus's separation from his family had created, and how much his finding them again had healed.

Garrus crossed behind Shepard to sit on her right side. He ran his talons over her hair, the touch soothing. "Did Nihlus fill you in?"

Closing her eyes, she leaned into his touch. She nodded, but didn't get a chance to answer before the rest of the ground team filed through the door and began the noisy process of settling in. Maybe, after they completed the mission, they'd manage to wrestle a little alone time from life's tight-ass grip.

Right. Keep dreaming, Sister Shepard-Vakarian-Kryik.

Darkness. Shepard fumbled her way forward, a captive beating at the air, groping to find the walls of her cell. Despite flailing and falling for several minutes, no cement or bars blocked her path. No walls! How could she be imprisoned without walls?

A light. There needed to be a light switch or a window. She shuffled forward five or six steps … or what amounted to steps taken on one's knees. Her right thigh caught on something, the flesh screaming as a sharp—but un-bullet or blade-like—object sank into the meat between plating. A hard, painful grip latched onto her shoulder. Twisting, she fell, slapping at the darkness and stabbing fingers or talons that held her, knocking it away. Wood? She slid a hand down her thigh, cursing the tiny slits of murky fog that promised sight and revealed nothing.

Her fingers discovered wood. Yeah, definitely wood. A branch. She snorted softly. Fantastic, the infamous Captain Shepard brought down by branches. Wait, branches? Where the hell was she?

Surely somewhere so dark had to be an underground cell or crypt.

The last word stabbed through her gut to wrap gelid fingers around her spine. No, stop it. It's not a crypt. Sweet baby Jesus, she needed to breathe and calm down. A trembling breath tightened the grip on her spine rather than relieving it. Where the hell was she? Last thing she remembered, she'd been on the Normandy, briefing her teams on the mission.

One hand clawed at the ground, coming away with a handful of loose matter. Particles of the stuff stabbed her nostrils, setting off what Garrus called her fully-automatic sneeze. Mold … damp earth … she closed her eyes and took a deep, purposeful sniff. Leaves. It was dead leaves and loamy soil … and rotted wood … and blood. The ground in her hands whispered; tar-black vapours boring through her gloves, wriggling between material and skin, then beneath. It climbed up her arm and slithered along her jugular to form the suzerain's familiar barrier around her mind.

That meant a reaper signal. Where the hell was she that the spiders felt the presence of an indoctrination signal? And … and why couldn't she remember?

No. Shepard threw herself up onto her knees, clapping and wiping at her hands until the sensation of the slick, black vapours faded. She needed to assess real injury and real danger, not let her imagination run wild.

"Where am I?" She whispered, not certain she wanted anyone to hear her. Not until she remembered how she got there, and that—she rubbed a trembling fist over her eyes, ragged edges of torn skin catching on her glove—would have to wait until she got her back against something and her gun out front.

Vision not improving for the extra dose of pain, she heaved one foot under her, arms flailing as she fought for balance. Once stable, she shoved the pain behind a door and locked it up tight. Nothing felt broken, just bruised, sliced, and bent. She reached up to her ear, triggering her implant, but then thought better of sending shouts out on the airwaves before she knew her location.

Note to self: Screaming in hostile territory never a good plan.

Footsteps approached, a barely audible whisper of movement in the moss. "Shush, now." Hard fingers caressed Shepard's cheek, the touch gentle despite leaving behind searing contrails of agony. The specific brand of pain felt familiar, raw and scorched. Burned … she'd been burned? How? Where …? Panic surged up her throat, heavy and slow, cooling lava or treacle, scalding and bitter. Definitely lava.

No. Stop it. Holy fucking Enkindlers, control yourself. What are you? Ten?

Taking a deep breath, she reached up, grabbing the thing as it touched her face again. Her fingers closed around a hand. But hard. Metallic? She searched the mist for the face behind the unrelenting grip, but couldn't make out anything more than a dark shape. She slapped the hand away. "Who …?"

"It's okay, I won't hurt you."

Shepard spun on the soft, very uneven, floor. Her actions filled the air with a cloud of rotting vegetation and musty earth. It burned all the way into the center of her head, demanding that she sneeze. Instead the pressure tunneled out her tear ducts. Scrambling, she backed up, finding refuge in the solid bulk of a massive stump.

"I … I can't see." Bolder for having cover at her back, she tested the sound of the words, finding them altogether too credible. Electricity sizzled along her veins until it stabbed into her heart, jolting it into a full gallop. All the gentle forest sounds from a half-breath earlier warped, insidious: every susurrus of leaf against loam the stalking paws of a predator, every bird chirp a warning, every snapping twig the intractable tread of death.

"Easy now, you're going to hurt yourself."

Stumbling back onto all fours, Shepard jumped around to face the voice. It sounded synthesized. "Who did you say you were?" Her right hand slapped her hip, coming away with her sidearm's reassuring weight resting in her palm. "What happened? Where am I?" She spat the questions along streaks of ice-cold venom. Knees wide, she managed to balance enough to hold the pistol in both hands, the barrel lunging at every sound.

One footstep rustled through the moss. "It's okay. My name is Marion, and I won't hurt you."

Shepard held her breath, tracking the woman despite her reassurances. "What happened to me? Where are Garrus and Nihlus … my crew?"

The woman's armour grated—metal and ceramic grinding against one another—as she crouched at Shepard's side. "You were in an accident. I believe your eyesight will return in time. It's simply a reaction to the explosion's glare."

Shepard drew back, wincing away from the metallic edge to the woman's voice. Something felt off, and more than just the whispers caressing her ears, burrowing through her implants and into her brain. "Who are you? You sound …." She waited, expecting to hear a sharp intake of breath or a sigh … some reaction to pointing out what was likely an implant to correct a disability. Instead … nothing but a protracted pause. "Are you geth?"

"I'm Marion Whittaker, and I pulled you from the wreckage of your shuttle." Gentle but hard hands gripped Shepard's arm, lifting.

"My crew?" Shepard's heart seized as the word 'wreckage' registered. Right, the shuttle … the mission to find the collector base under Mount Fuji. "Where are Nihlus and Garrus? Sol? Thane?" She pushed against the woman's support, managing to scramble to her feet. "There were four people in the shuttle with me."

The woman—Marion—wrapped an arm around Shepard's waist, providing much needed support and balance. "I don't know what happened to them. I'm sorry. Your shuttle was hit by several missiles. I found you in a small section of cockpit, but located no one else, alive or … otherwise." She let out a faint, chittering sigh. "As far as I can tell, it's just you, me, and the trees."

Speaking of … what was a lone woman doing in the middle of the Aokigahara? "What are you doing out here?"

"That's a long, strange story that I don't understand myself." Gentle hands guided Shepard across the ground. "Here, sit down and we'll take a look at your eyes." The unyielding grip eased her down onto a large, flat surface.

Shepard kept her sidearm held tight against her, shielding it from being snatched away while her other hand reached up to her aural implant. "Shepard to Normandy. Come in, Normandy?" Nothing, not even static. Damn, the explosion blew out her implants. How the hell was she going to find her people?

"I'm not sure how I ended up here," Marion said. "One minute I was eating breakfast in my apartment in Singapore, and the next I woke up in a nightmare." Her teeth chattered, betraying a heavy shudder. "It looked like a laboratory straight out of Frankenstein … or something Clive Barker dreamed up … mechanical monsters everywhere."

"May I touch you?" Shepard asked, her voice shattering into a croak.

"Of course." The woman shuffled closer, dropping her shadow over the thin slit of light that made up Shepard's vision.

Shepard tugged her glove off and reached out, her hand rough as she groped her way up Marion's arm to her shoulder and neck. It all felt the same, cold, hard, and rough rather than the smooth softness of flesh or even clothing.

"Is it okay to touch your face?" the captain asked. Her hand hovered, waiting for a reply … hell, dreading it.

The woman moved to meet Shepard's hand. "It would be unforgivably rude for me to be able to see you and deny you the ability to see me." A synthesized chuckle followed.

Shepard's heart lifted, clinging to the hope that Marion owed her voice to a prosthetic. Husks couldn't speak and geth didn't show emotion. A second later, as Marion's cheek impacted her palm, the battered organ splashed down into her guts. Hard, desiccated, papery skin. As her fingers explored, they discovered the reticulated cable that stabbed into the woman's cheek, the smaller one that invaded her mouth.

Dear lord, she's a husk.

(A-N: So sorry if this chapter sucks. I've been so off my game lately that I really just needed to stop picking at it and hating on it and get it out there. Thanks for your patience with me. You know I love you guys. *hugs and kittens*)