A sudden tremor reverberated through the walls and other surfaces of the Dark Star Lounge.

The human bartender Celeste paused in mixing the next drink order from behind the bar, her shapely pink lips pursing as she tucked a strand of long brown hair behind her ear, as if she could listen. A brief second of collective silence descended as everyone else stopped what they were doing to glance at each other, perplexed. Then, without further warning, a series of explosions shook the entire building from the ground level, sparking numerous screams and gasps. The lounge immediately broke out in confused chaos when alarms went off throughout Zakera to signal a state of Ward-wide emergency. Those who weren't already running for the exit were booting up their omni-tools to search for any broadcasts reporting on what was happening, but all other transmissions had been cut.

Celeste dropped the mixing equipment she'd been holding when a strong quake rocked the floor, and she braced herself against the liquor shelves to keep her legs from buckling. Green eyes wide with terror, she spotted the turian manager Brillus desperately trying to bring about order even as patrons and half the staff attempted to flee, stumbling and trampling over each other in a panicked stampede toward the doors.

"Spirits, why the hell are you people heading toward the sounds of a hostile attack?" he yelled over the uproar.

No one paid him any mind until gunfire went off a few levels below them, and soon everyone was rushing right back in to escape whatever was going on outside. The enemy was still unknown, but the numbers sounded frighteningly overwhelming if the multitude of staggered fire was any indication. Three of the other bartenders bounded over to the doors and sealed them shut, locking them all in. The thin sheets of metal wouldn't hold up against multiple explosives or even a barrage of weapon rounds, but there was little else the staff could do in the way of protection. Upon realizing this, part of the crowd dissolved into hysterics.

At that moment, the music spiked to a deafening volume. People cried out while clamping their hands over their ears, and when the sound system cut off completely, the burly human bouncer's voice boomed over the noise.

"Now I have your attention," Raphael bellowed, a scowl deepening the lines of his weathered face as he secured his armor and the visor around his cropped salt and pepper hair. "This way. Follow me through the evacuation route."

No one dared to step in his path as he trudged toward the rear of the lounge. He felt around the wall and then drew back his arm.

Brillus vaulted over the bar counter and jogged over, with Celeste right behind him. "What evacuation route?" the turian demanded. "I've worked here for six years and there's never been an evac—"

The crash of Raphael's fist going into the wall drowned out his words. Celeste jumped back as the plaster blew apart on impact, revealing what appeared to be a large abandoned vent wide enough for two krogan to walk through side by side.

"This evacuation route," the bouncer replied smugly. Looking back toward the astonished individuals staring at him, he growled, "Well? Get the fuck over here or start praying. Your choice."

They didn't need a third invitation. The flow of bodies instantly surged in the direction of the new way out, and he flicked on the light of his omni-tool before turning to Celeste. She peered up at him and made gestures with her hands. His face darkened when he realized he would need to keep her close.

She was a good bartender, but with her complete hearing loss, she would perish if left to fend for herself.

He seized Celeste's hand and led the way through the dusty vent, Brillus at their heels.

"How did you even know this was here?" the turian inquired above the echoes of their footsteps.

"Commander Shepard," Raphael answered, and Celeste suspected that his run-in with the commander several days back was a heaven-sent meeting.

They proceeded through the damp space until coming upon a grate that led to a wide steel bridge outside. Celeste's breath caught in her throat when she peered through the railing and witnessed the combat on the ground below. Piles of civilian casualties littered the pavement in pools of their own blood as numerous robot-like figures marched through the burning streets, wielding top tier weapons. The remaining forces of C-Sec had formed a wall of shields near the shuttle bay to the right, and they fired relentlessly at the advancing synthetics; a futile effort, for the enemy vastly bested them in size and firepower.

"Geth?" she signed.

Raphael nodded grimly. "Shepard warned the Council of a possible invasion, but they didn't listen. Now the rest of us get to suffer for their carelessness."

She had no time to mull over that, however, because she felt the vibrations from a wave of shrieks suddenly resonating throughout the vent.

"We hear them coming behind us! Why have we stopped? Please move forward!" someone cried from the other end of the line.

Raphael drew his Phalanx from its holster and kicked the grate open in one swift movement. The geth below them were still preoccupied with wiping out the C-Sec unit, so he turned to Celeste and jerked his head toward the bridge.

"You have to stay as close to me as you can," he told her, cupping her cheek. "Are you ready?"

She fought down the wave of panic that threatened to cripple her and signed, "We're going out in the open?"

"Maps show an impenetrable shelter over at the other side. We have no choice but to try to make it."

Her heart pounded violently against her chest as raw fear hit her like a bludgeon. In one minute, she could be lying facedown on that bridge, finished, done. The endgame was the bottom line, and it beckoned from the glint of the steel structure. But at the same time, she wasn't petrified by the prospect of staring certain death in the face. She would either make an effort out there or perish in here. Even though horror coursed through her and sent her mind reeling with turmoil, she wasn't ready to die.

Summoning the last of her courage, she prepared to sprint. Her hands spoke her resolve. "Let's do this."

"Wait, what's the plan now?" Brillus asked in alarm.

Raphael stepped up to the mouth of the vent. "Run like hell."

That wasn't exactly what the rest of them wanted to hear.

"Oh, okay. Spirits, I am so deceased."

After ensuring Celeste was right behind him, Raphael burst into action. The bridge clanged beneath the weight of his boots as he propelled himself at full speed toward the other side. She dashed after him with everything she had, keeping pace and praying that they'd make it. They progressed fast across the structure, but about halfway through, the geth detected them and opened fire. Their highpoint was their only advantage, as most of the rounds bounced off the steel rails. Celeste inhaled sharply when she felt the impact of several bodies dropping and hitting the floor behind her. She braced herself and pushed on, deciding to mourn the dead later.

And when her line of sight lifted to lock on the scene at the Presidium in the distance, she nearly faltered.

The entire Citadel Fleet had engaged a colossal, squid-like behemoth perched atop the Citadel Tower. Larger than any dreadnought in existence, it staved off the allied assault with its shields and powerful main gun, which fired from its central red orb and decimated entire starships with a single shot. The precise targeting system and swaying motions clued Celeste in to a chilling fact.

It was alive.

She narrowly dodging a new wave of bullets flying up from the left side. Raphael was shooting back at several geth that had begun climbing up a side ladder at the base of the bridge. She sped up to close the distance that had stretched between them, grateful that she had maintained her physical fitness. As soon as they reached what appeared to be the rooftop of another building, Raphael rushed toward a ramp that led down to a hidden entrance. He quickly keyed in a code on the access panel, and once the door slid open, he and Celeste stepped aside to allow the rest of the surviving group to hurtle themselves onward and into the dark area.

"Wait! We need help! Like, now!" a female voice wailed.

Celeste saw the owner of the voice rather than heard it, and she blanched when she spotted a human girl and an asari struggling near the back of the crowd, the latter gravely injured. When she recognized them as acolytes of the Consort, she took a step in their direction.

"Celeste, no!" Raphael barked, clamping tightly onto her arm. "Get inside!"

She turned to him, desperate as she signed, "It's Nelyna. Go get her, please."

Instead of responding, he bolted toward the asari straight away. She watched as he took Nelyna from the other acolyte and hoisted her against his chest, snapping at everyone else to hurry it up. Celeste ushered more people in before entering the shelter herself. The only luminescence came from their omni-tools, but from what she could make out, the space looked like an old world bomb shelter. Finally, the last of the group poured in with Raphael and Nelyna taking up the rear. He deposited her next to Celeste and called for Brillus to help him close a massive iron door designed to swing shut over the external one. It locked in place with a resounding bang, and Raphael secured all the bolts before starting up his omni-tool, taking no time to rest.

Heavy breathing and sobbing penetrated the stillness of the large room, but no one else appeared to be seriously injured. Celeste was holding Nelyna against her as the other acolyte, a normally sharp-tongued girl named Violet, trembled at her side. She looked over at Raphael, who had pulled up a live holographic image of the battle at the Presidium.

"It's called a Reaper," he declared, gesturing toward the gigantic construct still combating the Citadel Fleet.

Celeste shuddered at its sheer power while one of the Dark Star patrons, a salarian, stomped over.

"What the—how are you getting communications?" he demanded.

"Thanks to Shepard's tip, I set up spy cams around the Citadel the past few days," Raphael replied. "This cam is the only one still working."

Brillus had taken a seat near the entrance, bracing his forehead against his knees. "So what do we do now?"

Raphael ignored the imploring looks that drifted his way. "We wait."

"For what? For those things to barge in here and make mincemeat of us?" the salarian exclaimed.

"Have faith in Commander Shepard." Raphael pulled up another set of blueprints to show the defensible grade of the fort they were currently occupying. "I'm not the reason you are all still alive. He is."

No one had a retort for that. Nelyna stirred and gasped for breath, and Celeste gazed down at her in distress. She had taken several bullets to the abdomen, and although Celeste had been applying pressure to the wounds, she was very weak. Violet came over to awkwardly clasp Nelyna's hands, her glistening eyes the only sign of her sorrow. Celeste had met them during different visits to the Consort's Chambers, and Nelyna had been the kind greeter who had lit up the room with her radiant presence. She had begun visiting the Dark Star Lounge on her free days, and Celeste secretly considered her one of her favorites. Eyes half closed, the asari spoke in what Celeste imagined to be an inaudible voice, but she read her lips clearly.

"I hope… Sha'ira and my sister are all right. Please tell my father on Illium… I love her." Selfless and worried for others, as always.

Celeste blinked back tears at the gentle smile that floated up toward her before the one bestowing it passed away in her arms.

-x X x-

The Battle of the Citadel ended with Shepard's victory over Saren Arterius and the Reaper known as Sovereign. However, none saw the price as clearly as the citizens who had lived through it. The entire station had taken widespread damage, with all five Wards needing extensive repairs. Celeste and Raphael's group had been found and rescued in the aftermath by a unit of C-Sec sent from the Presidium. They were fortunate to return to their homes and find their respective apartments still intact, but other residential complexes had been demolished. In the following months, they worked as volunteers to help rebuild various locations in Zakera Ward, including the heavily damaged Dark Star Lounge.

Raphael had been awarded a medal by the new Council after several patrons stepped forward to report his heroic actions. Since this Council had replaced the one that died during the destruction of the Destiny Ascension, he grudgingly accepted their gratitude, but reiterated that they all owed it to Shepard. Celeste had taken to visiting Raphael during their free days since they wouldn't resume work until the Dark Star Lounge was repaired.

The Presidium Commons had been one of the first areas of the Citadel to be restored. Celeste wandered over to Apollo's Café, garbed in the fashionable robes worn by Presidium women instead of the usual shirt and pants outfit she wore to work. Raphael sat in his customary Ariake Technologies armor, looking uncomfortable and out of place at a table overlooking the ponds. Once he caught sight of her, however, the set of his square jaw softened, and he shot to his feet in an awkward gesture of welcome.

Celeste grinned and waved him down. "Relax. It's just me," she signed.

He nodded and returned to his seat as she took the one across from him. "I guess it's your dress. Makes you look formal and all," he grunted.

She read the words on his lips and beamed. "Just wanted to try something different, especially since we decided to meet for lunch here," her hands said for her.

He nodded again, understanding her signing perfectly. He was too self-conscious with his bulky and clumsy hands to sign back, but he knew she didn't mind. "You been all right? Considering everything, I mean?"

Celeste tilted her head from side to side to indicate so-so. The asari server brought them each a glass of wine, which he'd ordered before her arrival. She smiled her thanks and turned back to him, raising an eyebrow.

"Figured the bartender needs a drink of her own now and then," he explained gruffly.

"That's true," she signed. Her eyes wandered over to the repaired Citadel Tower behind him. After a few seconds, some of the light faded from her face. "So… what now?"

Raphael fingered the stem of his wine glass, peering up at her from beneath his thick brows. "We keep going."

One corner of her mouth quirked as she raised her glass and signed with one hand. "To Commander Shepard, the Hero of the Citadel."

His glass came up to clink with hers. "To Shepard."