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rocketfic | heirs of destiny

Title: Heirs of Destiny (Mass Effect) by Rocketchick
Rating: 15+ Pairing: f Shepard/Liara T'soni
Notes: This story begins immediately after the final cutscene in the Xbox 360 version of the first Mass Effect game. This particular Shepard is a paragon/Earthborn/war hero/soldier, which is mostly relevant to those familiar with the game who may have played their character differently. Check here for more info.

And if you're at all curious to see what "my" Shepard looks like, you can take a look at a manip I made of her with Liara from screenshots of the game.

She walked away, leaving the politicians to their chatter. For a moment she regretted recommending Captain Anderson to the whims of the Council, but she knew he was the best possible candidate. He'd probably forgive her for it... someday.

Jane sagged a bit in the elevator back to the docking bay. Her injuries during the battle a week previous had been severe, and putting on the confident soldier routine was exhausting. She stepped out of the lift alongside Normandy, and spared a brief scowl for the Keeper still hard at work repairing the station. This one was trailed by five salarian scientists, all focused on studying their scanners as they shuffled a few paces behind the creature.

The Council had decided - against Shepard's own strenuous objection - to allow the Keepers to continue their work, but only until scientists had finally grasped their function and the true workings of the guts of the station's technology. Shepard's jaw set with familiar frustration, but ultimately she stepped past and into Normandy's airlock.

The ship's leashed power hummed beneath her feet, and she took in the telltale metallic scent of recycled air. It would be a few more days before the ship was spaceworthy again, but like the station and its inhabitants, she was starting to return to normal.

"Commander," Pressly said by way of greeting as he threw her a sharp salute.

"You're relieved," Jane replied, with a salute of her own. "Status?"

"We're making progress, ma'am. I think by the time our quarian friend is done tinkering with the engines we'll have even more power than we did before. Joker's already taking bets on new Alliance fleet speed records."

Our quarian friend, Shepard noted with a smile. That was a change. "Good," she said, nodding. "Carry on."

She hesitated briefly as she strode down the gangway and across the deck to her quarters. Her senses itched.

She shook it off and keyed the panel of her quarters, only to be confronted by an agitated asari.

"You need to get that armor off," Liara said, bustling forward and immediately grabbing Jane's arm, pulling the latches to disengage the seal on each individual component.

"You could at least buy me dinner first," Jane joked, even as she relented and let the other woman undress her.

"You're still healing, and you have no business carrying around all this equipment... and your weapons? You are impossible!" Liara exclaimed, as she stepped around to remove the small arsenal on Shepard's back. She paused. "Was that a sexual innuendo?"

"Nice of you to notice," Jane said dryly. "How do you keep breaking in here, anyway?"

"I have spent decades piecing together coded ancient texts from the dust of a dozen worlds. You think I couldn't guess that your security code is the date of the blitz on Elysium?"

Jane snorted. "Guess that is pretty obvious."

"Only to me," Liara replied, returning to her task of stripping her lover to her jumpsuit. When she was done, she stepped in front of the commander, raising a delicate hand to gently touch her cheek. "You're exhausted," she breathed.

"And you're worried," Jane said. "I can feel that, somehow." She cast a glance over her shoulder toward the door. "I could feel you before I even came in here." She looked back at the other woman and cocked a wry eyebrow. "You're going to have to explain the side effects of this 'joining' thing to me at some point, okay?"

"This is new to me as well, Jane," Liara said. "But you have no idea how much it means to me that you can feel it."

"I think I might," she replied with a smile, savoring the surge of joy that pulsed from her companion as it bounced around in her own heart and echoed back. "But I really do need some rest. Keep me company?"

"Always," the asari replied, as she tugged Jane over to the bunk, and stretched out alongside her. "I was watching the vids. Did Captain Anderson really just agree to join the Council?"

"Yeah. Has to be the first time on record someone got promoted for punching a politician."

"Ambassador Udina had it coming," Liara declared primly, then scowled at Jane's chuckle. "Well, he did."

"He did," the commander agreed, as she let her eyes drift shut. "Did you learn anything new from Vigil's data crystal?" she asked, her voice becoming less distinct as she teetered toward sleep.

"Quite a bit," came the low reply. "But it will wait." Liara took a moment to study Jane's face in the cabin's shadows. "I will be here when you wake, Commander."

Liara was very aware of the eyes peering at her across the darkened room, but she merely smiled to herself and kept working. Diagrams from Vigil's final data burst scrolled past on the computer's holoscreen, and she would occasionally select one to examine more closely. She felt inundated by the deluge of new information, as if she was nothing more than a first year student and not in fact the galaxy's foremost Prothean expert.

In some background portion of the scientist's perception, Jane's slow wakefulness uncoiled like a feline, gradually stretching to fill up the room around them. It was such an odd sensation, warm and soft and a bit claustrophobic all at the same time, making Liara want to curl up in it like a blanket. Finally she turned in her seat, casting a smile at Shepard's recumbent form.

Jane smiled back at her, a little sadly. "Your mother called you 'Little Wing,'" she said quietly. "Why?"

The reminder of her loss tugged sharply in Liara's chest. "Even as a child, I was prone to wandering. She liked to say that I was carried by the winds."

"I'm sorry."

"It is not your fault," the asari insisted. "Were it not for you, I would not have seen my mother that one last time. She was... tainted by Sovereign's Indoctrination, but I did see her for a moment. It is enough."

"Did you ever do the joining thing, with her?"

Liara exhaled a choked laugh. "No. The Matriarch is... was an extremely private person, and the Joining is considered extremely intimate, if not sexual. It is meant as an act of sharing so personal, it can bind the two consciousnesses in ways that are unexpected, and often long lasting."

Jane's eyebrows shot up. "Like how I can feel you from across the ship?" She watched Liara nod shyly in response. "You didn't bother mentioning that after Feros."

"No. I was not certain how you would receive it, and Joining was in fact the most expedient way to help you articulate the information from the Cipher." She shrugged a bit. "Besides, you would not have absorbed the emotional context of the act."

"But you did. You bound yourself to someone who might not have returned your feelings."

"I was prepared for that contingency."

"No you weren't," Jane whispered.

Liara shifted in her seat. "Perhaps not," she admitted. "Perhaps I was more inclined to believe that I wouldn't have long to live with the burden. At the time, I was not as aware of your penchant for extreme heroics, Commander."

"I couldn't have done it without you," Jane countered.

"That is not true," Liara scolded. She stood and crossed back to the bunk, then sat on its edge. "You carry the weight of great destiny, entirely on your own. The rest of us are mere accessories."

"Well, sure. I need someone to strip me out of my armor and tuck me in at night," came the flippant reply.

Liara grinned and shook her head, glad to finally recognize her companion's penchant for extreme sarcasm, as well.

"In any case, if this is a matter of 'destiny,' then I went to Therum for a reason," Jane continued. "I wasn't ready to take on Saren until you were with me."

The asari looked pleased, if a bit embarrassed by the sentiment. "Perhaps."

Jane sat up, ignoring the twinge from healing muscles. "And I'll need you with me if I'm going to find a way to stop the Reapers for good."

"Then I will continue to wander, with you," Liara promised.

"Okay," Jane murmured, a little thrown by the casual weight of the conversation. Her eyes tracked over to the computer screen, which still dutifully scrolled through the volumes of Vigil's data. "So long as you're not just using me for my security clearance."

"The thought had occurred to me," Liara said evenly, following her glance. "The crew of the first human Spectre is likely to get priority access to the new research sites we have to investigate. It would be foolish not to take advantage of that opportunity."

Jane cocked an eyebrow, studying the scientist's careful, disaffected attitude. "And you said you didn't understand human humor."

Liara looked back at her and broke into a bright smile. "I am learning."

Jane chuckled, and leaned forward to claim a kiss. Liara met her halfway, lifting a hand to sift her fingers through her lover's soft hair.

Captain Anderson's new office looked a lot like his old office, Jane noted, as she paced along the balcony that looked down over the station's Presidium. For all its size and technological wonder, the Citadel felt rather blandly uniform, as endless polished hallways led to more endless polished hallways, all of which belied the sinister nature of the original builders' intent.

"It's a little eerie, isn't it?" Anderson rumbled from behind her. He smiled when she whirled around at attention. "At ease, Commander."

"Sir. How are you settling in?"

"All right. Everything is still in such disarray that few people have even noticed that the Council has a new member. I'm staying under the radar while I learn my way around. In the meantime..." He paced out to the balcony, standing next to her. "I wonder if it's wise for us to stay here."

"The entire place is a trap," Jane said sharply. "Who knows what other secrets the Reapers have left behind?"

"But yet, it is the effective center of commerce and culture on this end of the galaxy," Anderson said. "And millions of people from a score of races still rely on it. It is a quandary." He turned to Shepard, lowering his voice. "This entire incident makes it painfully clear that the Council races have grown complacent. They will even admit as much in private - that once they found this station, and the mass effect technology to allow them to travel the galaxy, their own technology stagnated."

Jane's eyes narrowed. "That's why they've been so concerned about humanity's involvement in galactic affairs."

"Our ambition, and our occasional recklessness, have been under great scrutiny for many years," Anderson replied with a nod. "At times, the Council has deliberately held back aid to observe our independent growth."

"They could have helped us and chose not to?!" Jane cried, her temper exploding. Humans had long whispered about the Council withholding assistance which they would grant other species - technology, protection, research. To know that it was deliberate, and for the purposes of some kind of test?

Anderson smiled sadly. "But now they know they need us, Shepard. We have the power to reshape the galaxy, and they want us on their side."

Jane would have answered, except she'd stopped listening when the low, frantic buzzing sounded somewhere deep in her skull. A moment later she staggered, feeling as though she'd been punched in the gut. She grabbed the railing of the balcony, and struggled to catch her breath.

"Commander?" Anderson asked in alarm. "Are you all right?"

"I..." Jane shut her eyes, trying to sort out what she was feeling. Just as quickly as it came, the throbbing, urgent intensity dissipated, leaving her depleted in its wake. "I think I need to return to my quarters, sir."

"I'll get C-Sec to escort you..."

"No," she said, slowly straightening. "I'm all right, thank you." She excused herself, and Anderson frowned as he watched her leave.

She had to fight the urge to run back to the docking bay. Whatever had just happened to her, she was quite certain Liara was the source of it.

The scientist was in Shepard's quarters, where they'd parted company earlier that morning. She was seated at the small table in the corner, staring at the wall. On the table sat a small, faceted trinket. Jane recognized it as the gift from Sha'ira, the asari Consort.

Jane sat slowly next to the other woman, watching her. Liara looked pale and distraught. "What's wrong?" Jane asked.

"Where did you get this?" Liara asked, gesturing faintly to the item on the table.

"It was a gift. Sha'ira, the Consort. She said it was time for her to pass it on to someone else."

"It was my mother's," Liara whispered. "She wore it as a pendant."

Jane blinked. "I don't understand."

"It is Prothean," the other woman explained. "When I was a child, my mother would tell me stories of the long-extinct rulers of the galaxy, and how they left almost nothing behind, except 'little mysteries' like this one." She poked idly at the small object, pushing it across the table's surface. "This is why I chose to study them."

"Maybe it just looks similar to the one you remember," Jane suggested gently. It occurred to her that it was the first time since she'd met Liara that the other woman looked so fragile, so young.

"I have spent fifty years studying Prothean artifacts, long enough to know that this piece is unique. Once I was in school, I asked my mother if I could examine it more thoroughly. She told me she'd misplaced it, years before." She looked at the commander sharply. "You got it from the Consort? Here on the station?"

"Yeah," Jane answered, helplessly confused.

"Is she still here?"

"I don't know. She may have evacuated during the attack."

"I need to see her," Liara declared. She stood, casting off her earlier dismay with abrupt determination. She turned to stalk out of the room, but then hesitated awkwardly. "Will you come with me?" she asked, her voice small and plaintive.

Shepard pushed to her feet, smiling. "Only if you want me to."

"I... would like to have you there," Liara said haltingly. "Though I admit I am unused to relying on another's presence."

"I understand," Jane replied. "But I think Sha'ira owes us both an explanation." She stepped forward and took Liara's hand, giving it a tender squeeze. "Let's go."

The far end of the Presidium was still badly damaged; Jane and Liara had to scale a good deal of rubble before arriving at the Consort's chambers. Sha'ira's attendants were hard at work, dutifully clearing debris, and for the moment they looked far less like courtesans than common construction workers. Nelyna caught sight of the two newcomers and smiled in greeting.

"Commander Shepard," she said brightly. "I'm told we owe you and the Alliance Fleet our lives. We are most grateful." She dipped in a formal bow, the effect of which was only partially offset by the vivid smear of dust across her forehead. "Unfortunately, Sha'ira is currently occupied with matters of Council importance, but I am sure..." She looked over Shepard's shoulder at Liara and stuttered to a halt. "Oh."

Jane cast a glance back at Liara, seeing eyes that were wide with painful trepidation. "I think the Consort can see us now," she said firmly. She folded her arms in her most intimidating Spectre pose.

Nelyna gaped a moment longer, then shook herself. "I will... One moment, please," she stammered, then trotted off. The other attendants' glances grew increasingly curious, and Shepard could hear a building murmur among them.

"C'mon," Jane said, as she jerked her head toward the stairs in the rear of the chamber. Liara followed silently, averting her eyes from the now open stares of the other asari.

By the time they reached the steps, Sha'ira was waiting for them. With a single sweep of her hand, she dismissed Nelyna and ordered her attendants back to their tasks.

"Commander Shepard," the Consort said evenly, as she looked past the Spectre to her companion. "And Liara T'soni. I am glad to see you both."

It was a turian blend. Jane gave the mug of tea a discreet sniff, then set it aside. Sha'ira smiled faintly and took a sip from her own cup, while beside Jane, Liara sat in tense silence.

Shepard cleared her throat. "Sha'ira, we had some questions about that gift you'd given me."

"You knew my mother," Liara blurted. Jane made a helpless gesture meant to convey agreement with the other woman's assertion.

"I did," Sha'ira confirmed. She set down her tea. "And I am very sorry for your loss, Liara."

"When did you know my mother?"

"Over a century ago," the Consort answered quietly.

Liara sat back in her seat. Jane eyed her for a moment, then took the plunge. "You were Benezia's partner. Liara's 'father.'"

"Yes, Commander."

"Why?" Liara breathed.

"I loved Benezia," Sha'ira said sadly. "She was a remarkable woman. You carry much of her strength."

"No. Why did you leave?"

"Our relationship was not... appropriate."

"Propriety made you abandon her? Abandon us?"

Sha'ira shook her head, clearly upset. "No. I know you understand the complications of our respective positions, Liara. But I never stopped caring for Benezia, or for you. Please give me the chance to explain..."

"I do not think that will be possible," Liara said abruptly. She stood and bolted from the room. Jane jerked in her seat, caught between the sudden conflicting desires to leave and comfort Liara, or stay and extract some amount of payback from the asari Consort. For her part, Sha'ira made no effort to hide her disappointment. Her famed and well-practiced composure stood little chance in the face of her daughter's rejection.

"She will understand in time, Commander," Sha'ira said quietly. "Please take care of her."

The Spectre knew an order when she heard one. She nodded and hurried out.

Jane flew down the steps just in time to see Liara disappear from the chamber. The other attendants watched her retreating form, then swiveled in unison to stare at the human. Nelyna's sharp voice immediately scolded them, and a dozen asari eyes dropped to look anywhere else.

"Commander, please forgive our behavior," Nelyna said as she approached. "Most of us have been Sha'ira's disciples for many years, and yet we had no idea she had any children. The resemblance is quite striking."

Exhaling a weak laugh, Jane could do little more than shake her head. "I suppose so."

"And she has traveled with you, fought beside you, all this time? She must be quite remarkable."

However inclined she was to agree, Jane still didn't appreciate the acolytes' gawking. "I thought your people didn't care for 'purebloods,'" she snarled.

Nelyna winced. "That is true, but the matter is far more complex than that. The Consort and the Matriarch... they each wield extraordinary authority and respect. Their daughter would be revered among our people. She would be looked to for the combined guidance and wisdom of her ancestors."

"What, like some kind of prophet?"

"In a matter of speaking, yes."

Several things suddenly made a lot more sense. Jane had already seen evidence that Liara possessed unusual insight and sensitivity. If the star-struck reactions of the Consort's attendants were any indication, it was likely Benezia had expended a great deal of effort shielding her daughter from that kind of attention. "People would only seek her guidance if they knew who she was," she murmured.


"Fortunately, the Consort and her disciples are renowned for their discretion," Jane said simply.

Nelyna flushed a bit and ducked her head. "Of course, Commander. You have my word. Please convey my apologies to your companion."

Jane sighed and walked out, wishing more of her problems were the kind best solved with a few well-placed sledgehammer rounds.

She found Liara in the Wards, on an overlook that jutted out between the station's arms. Before her was a stunning vista of the Serpent Nebula, studded with ships heading in and out of the port. Liara wasn't seeing any of it.

The asari had her hands clenched on the edge of the low wall, as she leaned over and stared blankly at the deck. When Jane drew nearer, she could see the occasional tremor rattle through the other woman's limbs. She reached out and placed a gentle hand on Liara's back. "Hey," she said.

Liara gathered her composure and straightened. "How could any parent abandon her child?" she demanded.

Jane flinched. "I wish I knew the answer to that," she replied.

For a moment, Liara's wild eyes searched Shepard's, until recollection dawned. She'd read the commander's personnel file, and read about the childhood she spent orphaned on the streets of Earth. "Oh Jane, I'm sorry." Her face fell, her own agitation immediately discarded. "I forgot that you were..."

"It's okay," Jane assured her. "This isn't about me."

"I always say the wrong thing," Liara muttered in dismay. In response, Jane mustered a faint smile of forgiveness, and for a long moment they simply stood together against the backdrop of the cosmos.

"This has to be difficult for you," Jane said. She shrugged, helpless to offer any further comfort. "I'm sorry."

"You keep apologizing for things over which you have no control," Liara said weakly.

"Because you're hurting and I can't help," Jane insisted. She took a step closer and rested her forehead against Liara's. The contact immediately steadied them both.

"May I... share something with you?" the asari asked. She held up a delicate hand, offering it to Jane.

"Here?" Jane leaned away and looked around furtively. "Isn't this a little public?"

Liara chuckled. "I wouldn't dream of tarnishing a vaunted Spectre's reputation on the Citadel. Please."

The Spectre in question squared her shoulders, and finally reached out to take Liara's hand.

"Close your eyes," Liara whispered, smiling as she watched the other woman flex and will herself into relaxation. "Breathe deeply."

Jane did as instructed, recognizing the thrum of connection as it flared between them. Within the natural rhythm there eventually emerged a melody, the sound of a voice singing low and clear. The words themselves were alien, but the tenderness and love they conveyed were unmistakable. Warmth and safety amplified and reflected within the memory and within the bond between the two women sharing it.

Jane finally opened her eyes, taking in Liara's bittersweet gaze. "That was your mother," she said.

"Yes. Singing an ancient asari lullaby. It is one of my earliest memories of her. Also one of my favorites."

"She loved you," Jane observed.

Liara's voice suddenly failed her, but she bobbed her head in a shaky nod.

"I think Sha'ira loves you, too, in her own way." As she expected, Liara reacted sharply, trying to pull her hand away from Jane's grip. The commander held fast, gently keeping Liara close. "You always wondered why she never tried to get in contact with you, but she did," Jane said, holding up her other hand to reveal the fateful ancient pendant. "She sensed the touch of Prothean technology in my mind, and she gave me a tiny Prothean mystery to solve, knowing that eventually I would give it to you."

"She could not have known that," Liara protested.

Jane smiled, then reached out to fasten the pendant around Liara's neck. "Maybe not, but she found you anyway." She stroked Liara's cheek with the back of her hand, gratified when the other woman immediately leaned into the caress. "Better late than never."

"I was not ready for this," Liara said, taking a ragged breath. "I never thought I would actually meet her, and so soon after all that has happened? It is too much. And don't you dare apologize again, Commander," she ordered, stilling the nascent sympathy on Shepard's lips.

"Sorry," Jane said automatically, before breaking into an apologetic grin.

Liara chuckled and shook her head. "I have spent most of my life on abandoned worlds where nothing changes for thousands of years at a time. Then all of a sudden, everything changes at once. The geth, the Protheans, my mother, Sha'ira, you." She exhaled a frustrated breath. "Everything I know about the universe is unraveling, and I don't think I can keep up."

"Okay, so let's just stand still for a bit," Jane suggested philosophically, hoping to stem the tide of Liara's anxiety. "The universe can live without us for a few hours. C'mon." She tugged on Liara's hand, pulling the other woman into a corner of the platform tucked away from prying eyes. Then Jane stepped behind her, wrapping her arms around Liara's waist, and turned her gaze to the nebula. Slowly, Liara relaxed into the strong embrace, and began speaking of memories and regrets, wondering what the new shape of her life would be.

"Is this what it's like to be human?" she wondered aloud. "All I have time to do is react, not reflect."

"Maybe," Jane allowed. "Though I've been doing a lot more reflecting than usual these days. Is that what it's like to be an asari?"

"Perhaps. Or perhaps that is what it's like to be Joined."

Jane smiled. Sometime later, she realized she was humming the song Benezia had sung to her daughter, so long ago. And just this once, the bustling of the Wards passed them by, leaving the two women to themselves while the currents of the station's noise and life curled around them in gentle eddies.

Two days later, Jane paced slowly toward the bridge of the Normandy, inspecting the systems' holoscreens as she went. The ship, like her crew, seemed ready to pounce back into action, even if they were all still a little banged up.

Joker sat in the pilot's seat, as usual. His eyes were closed, and his head bobbed back and forth erratically.

"Joker?" she asked.

He snapped out of his little trance and looked back at her. "Sorry, Commander. Didn't hear you coming."

"What were you doing?"

He looked a little embarrassed. "I was replaying the battle, in my head. Trying to figure out what I could have done better."

Jane's eyebrows shot up. "You helped destroy the biggest threat our galaxy has ever known, you saved millions of lives, and you got the ship out of it in one piece," she said, as she took a seat at the scanner station. "I'm not sure it gets a lot better than that."

Joker smirked. "There's always room for improvement, Commander. And I know you agree with me. Bet you've been thinking about things you could have done differently, too."

Like Kaidan, she thought involuntarily. There had been no good choice on Virmire, but Joker was right; she couldn't help but wonder what she'd missed, and how she could have saved the lieutenant.

The pilot was watching her, and when she met his gaze again, he nodded sympathetically. "Gotta learn somehow, right? And that's why we're so damned good at what we do."

Jane laughed, unsurprised at his frank arrogance. "You know what I think, Joker?"

"No, ma'am?"

"I think it's time to abuse a little Spectre privilege," she said with a smile, then pushed herself upright. "Put me on comm."

Joker immediately moved to comply. "Yes, ma'am!"

"This is your commander," she said crisply, hearing her voice echo through the ship. She could practically feel the vessel snap to attention. "I would like to commend you all for your efforts during the battle, and in refitting the ship. She's been good to us so far, and it's never been more obvious that she's got the finest crew in the fleet." She paused, letting the crew's natural pride gain a bit of momentum. "In fact, while the Council decides what kind of medals we all deserve, I think a celebratory shakedown cruise is in order. Standby all stations."

The sudden energy in the air was palpable, as the crew shook off the malaise of their extended time in port. Shepard watched the status updates flow in, each department steadily reporting green across the board.

"Normandy, this is Citadel Control," came a voice from the comm. "We have received your request for clearance. Please advise route and destination."

"Wherever we damn well please, Control," Jane replied, letting loose a feral grin. "Let us know if anything interesting comes up."

There was a moment of stunned silence before the tower responded. "Understood, Spectre. You are cleared for departure. Good hunting."

The ship took a leisurely tour of the Serpent Nebula while her crew gingerly flexed one system at a time. Jane stayed on the bridge for hours, listening to internal comm traffic and gauging each department's progress. Occasionally she heard Tali's exotic accent relaying the engines' status, and she would nod with approval.

"The starboard stabilizer needs to be recalibrated," she murmured after a course correction.

"Thought I was the only one who noticed that, Commander," Joker said, impressed. "I'll let Adams know."

"It'll wait until morning," Shepard said, fighting off a yawn. "Good work today, Lieutenant."

"If it's all the same to you, Commander, I'd like to put her through a few more paces. It's good to be flying again."

She nodded and took one more tour of the duty deck before heading below. She stopped at the mess to pick up a couple mugs of tea, then wandered into her quarters. Liara was there, seated at the computer station and entirely absorbed by the diagrams and obscure symbols that flashed past.

"The starboard stabilizer is a bit off," the asari said absently.

Jane smiled, set one of the mugs on the desk next to her, and rested a hand lightly on Liara's shoulder. "I know."

Liara picked up the mug and inhaled the steam. "This is Salarian Violet - my favorite!" she exclaimed.

"I know that, too," Jane said smugly. She took a sip from her own cup and let her fingers trace idle patterns on the fabric of Liara's tunic while she eyed the records the scientist was studying. "Found something?"

"In a manner of speaking," Liara replied. "I believe there are possibilities, though I'm not sure I am prepared to discuss them."

"Okay," Jane said easily. She bumped a hip against the desk and leaned against it, taking a moment to study her companion's face. Her hand wandered from Liara's shoulder to braille light fingertips across a delicate cheekbone, then the contours of her forehead.

"Command suits you," Liara said quietly. "I can feel your power in this ship, in the crew. It's amazing."

"You inspire me," the commander replied. "You did from the moment we met."

"I remember that. This huge, heavily armed krogan mercenary shows up - with a geth escort, of all things - and you just stared him down and told him I would be 'staying' with you."

"One of my finer moments, I must admit."

Liara stood and lifted a hand to curl warmly under Shepard's ear. "I remember thinking, 'Who is this woman?'"

"'Why do I feel like I already know her?'" Jane added.

"And, 'Thank the Goddess that I've finally found her,'" the asari finished, before leaning in to kiss her lover, hard.

It was the last coherent thing either of them said for a long time.

"So, Doctor T'soni. As the most convenient Prothean expert, where would you suggest we start looking for our next clues?"

The senior staff had gathered in the comm room the next morning to hear the Commander's orders. Instead, Shepard looked expectantly at the asari scientist.

Liara hesitated. She was loathe to admit that her latest research had been far from comprehensive, and relied far more on instinct than scientific evidence. It was becoming a pattern of behavior, and it troubled her. "Eletania," she said, simply.

"Eletania? The place with the monkeys?!" Ashley snorted in surprise.

Jane sighed. "The place with the monkeys," she confirmed.

"What'd they steal now? Garrus' lunch money?" Ashley asked sarcastically.

Across the room, the turian started at the reference, and looked confused.

"Stand down, Chief," Shepard ordered. "We're looking for something Prothean."

"Prothean monkeys?" Ashley muttered, before being silenced by a sharp glance from the commander.

"A salarian research team recorded ruins on Eletania several centuries ago," Liara explained. "I believe we need to examine them further."

"Why?" Garrus asked.

Liara shrugged. "I do not know, exactly. I just have a feeling that there is where the next phase of our journey begins."

"The flagship of the Alliance Fleet cannot afford to be diverted across the galaxy because of a 'feeling,'" Garrus protested. He watched Shepard, fully expecting her to agree.

Instead, Jane's attention was still focused entirely upon Liara, who returned the regard evenly.

"Eletania possesses something of great import, Commander," the asari said. "I am certain of it."

Shepard reached over to activate the comm. "Joker? Set course for the Hercules system. The rest of you, stay alert and be ready. We don't know what's coming next, and I need you all at your best. Dismissed."

The senior crew slowly filed out, following Shepard and Liara. Garrus hung back for a moment, and gestured to get Williams' attention. "Have you noticed, Chief, that when the Commander and Doctor T'soni converse, it's like there is no one else present in the room?"

Ashley chuckled. "Sure. I think it's kinda cute." She shrugged and wandered out.

Garrus watched her go, then exhaled a troubled sigh.

The additional few hours' travel had further buoyed the spirits of the entire crew; they were back in the hunt for... whatever it was they were pursuing. By the time they parked in orbit over Eletania and hit their drop zone, Jane was even feeling indulgent enough to let Ashley drive the Mako. The Marine had a lead foot, and took entirely too much joy in throwing the vehicle over the rocky hills. For all her good soldier gratitude about being given the opportunity to join the Normandy, Chief Williams certainly had an affinity for solid ground and open sky.

A particularly steep drop down a hill ended in a bone-rattling crunch, and Ash muttered a brief curse as she steadied the vehicle. "Sorry, Skipper," she called.

"Steady as she goes, Chief," Shepard said wryly. She looked over to Liara, who was gazing out an observation port. "What is it?"

"The rings," Liara said, pointing up to the sky. "They are beautiful."

Jane shifted closer to look, and saw the edge of the planet's ring system glinting brightly in the alien sunlight. She hadn't noticed them the last time they were here, while on some annoyingly trivial "go fetch" mission for Admiral Hackett. Liara was right - they were beautiful.

"I think you missed them, last time," Liara said, smiling. "You were distracted by the monkeys."

"Stupid monkeys," Jane muttered. "Chief?" she called. "You are hereby ordered to run down any monkeys you see."

"Aye aye, Skipper!" Ashley replied with a grin.

Liara shook her head, giving her lover a fond look. "You are in a good mood, Commander."

"I am," Jane agreed, letting the jostling of the Mako return her to her seat. "I was getting a little antsy. The Citadel is nice and all, but I wouldn't want to live there, even if I wasn't worried about Reapers hiding behind every corner."

"Where would you want to live?" Liara asked curiously. "That is, after you've saved the galaxy several more times and decided to retire."

Jane thought for a moment. She'd never really considered the possibility of living long enough to retire, given the risks of her chosen career. "I don't know," she said honestly. "Some planet that has rings, I guess."

Liara laughed. "But no monkeys."

The commander grinned back at her. "Think you can find a place like that?" she asked. It was a moment before she realized the inherent assumptions in her own question, and when she did she had to fight off a wave of sheer panic. They might be Joined - whatever that meant - but maybe it wasn't as permanent as she suddenly wanted to hope. Maybe Liara didn't...

"I am certain we can arrange something," the asari said confidently. She flashed Jane a knowing smile and returned her gaze to the patch of sky visible above them.

"Skipper? It looks like Liara was right on target," Ashley called from the cockpit. "Sensors are picking up some kind of structure in that valley."

Jane rose and peered over Williams' shoulder to get a closer look. "Take us in, and be careful."

The chief immediately slowed, climbing the last few crests with steady sweeps. She found a reasonably sized clearing near the structure, and pulled the Mako to a halt. "Well, that's different," she said, staring out the viewport.

The structure was a circular platform, punctuated by large stone columns that shot into the sky. In the center of the platform floated a large, shimmering globe, apparently suspended in midair.

Shepard swallowed, and discreetly reached over to squeeze Liara's arm. "Suit up," she ordered.

"We've got about fifteen minutes before the planet's microbes compromise the seals in our suits," Ashley reported, as she hopped out of the Mako. Her voice sounded just a little tinny through the speakers in Shepard's helmet. "So let's make this quick."

The commander nodded and followed Liara, who had taken a few tentative steps onto the platform. This particular ruin was in better shape than the others they'd seen, likely protected by the toxic microscopic life that rendered this world so inhospitable to explorers like themselves.

Liara activated her scanner and swept the platform. "I am detecting low levels of radiation beneath the sphere," she reported. "It looks like a power source. If I adjust the..." Suddenly, the sphere jerked, and shot a couple meters further up from the platform. Liara looked around, alarmed. "I don't think I did that."

"Is it reacting to us?" Shepard asked. She took a couple steps closer, examining the perfectly reflective surface of the artifact. It seemed oddly familiar.

"To you, perhaps," Liara replied. "Your mind seems particularly attuned to Prothean technology." Her voice carried equal parts envy and fascination.

Ashley grunted and engaged her assault rifle. "Easy, Skipper. One wrong move could expose you to a whole lot of toxic stuff."

There was a single, solitary imperfection in the sphere's surface, on the bottom. "Liara," Jane whispered. "Did you bring that pendant?" The asari had produced it and held it out almost before Shepard had finished speaking. Jane peered at it, turned it a couple times in her hand, then slid it easily into place in the tiny slot on the artifact. The ball exploded in a brilliant flash of white light, momentarily disorienting her. She reeled backward, hearing Liara's voice as her consciousness flickered.

"Jane!" Liara cried. She surged to Shepard's side and immediately scanned for injuries. In the background she heard Ashley contacting the Normandy to request immediate pickup.

Jane's eyes blinked open, wide and confused. She sat up so fast she bonked her helmet against Liara's. "What the hell?" she blurted.

"Easy, Skipper," Ashley said. "There was a flash of light and you just sort of toppled over." She got a hand under her CO's arm and lifted her to her feet.

"Are you all right, Commander?" Liara asked. Her voice shook as she placed her hands on either side of Jane's visor, trying to get a good look at her.

Jane took a deep breath, then another. "Yeah, I'm okay. Let's get out of here." She shook her head a tiny bit, knowing Liara would see the gesture and understand her silent order:


"Hmm," Doctor Chakwas murmured for the fourth time as she studied the scans of Shepard's brain.

Jane looked up at Liara from the bed and twitched her eyebrows, trying to make the other woman smile. Given the circumstances, Liara wasn't in the mood to be teased. The doctor's examination was taking far longer than she'd anticipated, especially if the commander was as "fine" as she claimed.

"The activity in your brain has grown steadily since your encounter with the beacon on Eden Prime," Chakwas said. "Each additional contact you have with Prothean technology seems to cause a proportionate increase."

"Is that a problem?" Jane asked. She swung her legs over to the side and sat upright on the edge of the bed.

"I don't know, Commander. But there's something else." The doctor thumbed a control on the scanner, altering the view to show two scans at once. "The image on the left is your brain. The image on the right is Doctor T'soni's." The scans changed, progressing through a chronological timeline. Then Chakwas toggled another control until the two images were overlapping. "You'll notice the major centers of activity match up to corresponding locations of increased activity in Liara's brain, as well."

Jane and Liara exchanged an alarmed glance, and suddenly the commander could feel a blush crawling across her cheeks. "Yeah, about that," she began.

"Please, Commander. I know a Joined asari brain when I see one," Chakwas said, matter of factly. "That is hardly my concern. Unfortunately, the combination of Prothean-induced activity combined with the bond you share is doing unpredictable things to Doctor T'soni's nervous system."

"My lightheadedness," Liara said, faint with realization.

"Precisely," Chakwas replied. "And just as we're in uncharted territory for a human brain, we are definitely covering new ground for asari physiology, as well."

Jane's jaw clenched. "Is Liara in any danger?"

"Right now? I doubt it," the doctor said. "And neither are you, Commander. Fortunately, you are both in excellent health, and aside from the occasional dizzy spells, there seem to be no ill effects. It is entirely possible that over time the activity will stabilize or dissipate, though for the moment I would recommend not exposing yourself to more Prothean artifacts."

"I'll see what I can do," Jane muttered. "Are we done here?"

"Yes. And congratulations," Chakwas added with a faint smirk. "To you both."

Jane rolled her eyes and slid off the bed, then stalked out of the infirmary, knowing Liara was right behind her. Just outside in the mess waited Garrus. The tall turian was pacing impatiently, and he hurried over to intercept them.

"Shepard, may I speak with you?" he asked. "In private," he added, nodding politely to Liara.

"Comm Room," Jane replied. "Five minutes." She watched him walk away, then turned to look at Liara, who was quite plainly preoccupied, distracted by the unexpected news from Doctor Chakwas. "We need to talk," Jane told her, pitching her voice low to avoid the curious ears of the crew around them.

"I will wait in your quarters," Liara announced loudly, quite unconcerned about those same curious ears.

Jane heard a couple snickers coming from the mess, and sighed. "I'll be there soon," she promised, and headed off to meet with Garrus.

She was on the edge of complete exasperation by the time she burst into the Comm Room. "What is it, Garrus?" she asked, a little more sharply than she'd intended.

He blinked. "I have some concerns, Commander."

"About what?"

"About you, and your relationship with Doctor T'soni."

Jane could feel a headache ready to bloom right behind her eyes. "What business is it of yours?" she snapped.

"I am a member of your crew. Further, I am one of the billions of sentient people who are relying upon you to stop the Reapers for good. Your relationship may jeopardize your ability to carry out that mission."

"Excuse me?"

"One of the reasons the Council created the Spectre force was to allow their operatives to function beyond influence, both political and personal."

"Liara does not exert 'influence' on me, Garrus."

He canted his head to the side in puzzlement. "In fact, she does, Commander. Would you have come to Eletania were it not for her recommendation? A recommendation she herself admits had little basis in scientific findings? She had a 'feeling' and you diverted the most valuable Alliance ship halfway across the Traverse to investigate it."

"She was right," Jane pointed out.

He studied her for a moment, then decided to take another approach. "I am also concerned by your apparent lingering regret over Lieutenant Alenko," he said.

She grit her teeth as she stared at Kaidan's empty chair. "I had to make a choice on Virmire, Garrus. I couldn't save both him and Ash."

"Precisely, Commander. And you will undoubtedly have to make similar choices in the future. The Reapers are not burdened by such emotional entanglements, nor will they hesitate to attack any weaknesses of yours they might perceive."

"Liara is not a weakness," Jane spat, defensive. "No more than you are, or Tali, or Wrex. On the contrary; she is a strength."

"I am not disputing that," Garrus replied. "She has demonstrated herself to be a capable warrior, and an invaluable asset on our journey. I merely wished to warn you, Shepard - if I were your enemy, I would use her against you. Human emotion is easily exploited. It is one of the reasons the Council has been so hesitant to grant Spectre status to humans at all."

His point would probably have smarted a lot less had he not been absolutely correct. Jane straightened her shoulders, and gave him a nod. "All right. I'll take it under advisement. I appreciate your candor."

He still looked troubled, but seemed to accept her dismissal. Just before exiting, he paused and looked back at her hesitantly. "Commander, I apologize if... Rather, I meant no disrespect to you, or to Doctor T'soni."

"I know, Garrus," she replied. "This wasn't exactly part of the mission objectives."

The turian looked like he wanted to say more, but instead simply turned and left the room.

Jane let her eyes slide shut as she sank into Kaidan's seat, then she slumped and rested her head in her hands.

"If the odd behavior of the crew is any indication, our relationship appears to be quite public now," Liara said as she wandered into the Comm Room an hour later. She seemed entirely pleased by the revelation.

"Yeah," Jane agreed. "Sorry I kept you waiting."

"I could sense your distress, and I suspected you might like some time alone. I can leave if you'd prefer."

"No," Jane said immediately. "We do need to talk."

"Very well," Liara said as she sat across from the commander. "Can you tell me what it was you saw on Eletania?"

For a moment, Jane was confused by the request. They'd returned from the drop mere hours before, but it felt like days had already passed. "It was a vision," she began. "But not the same as the others. It felt like a memory."

The asari leaned forward curiously, and awaited further explanation.

"I was... some sort of primitive human, I think. And I saw that sphere, watching me, following my tribe."

"You think the Protheans observed early humanity?" Liara asked, astonished. "We must go to Earth and look for evidence."

"Trust me, humans have been looking for evidence of extraterrestrials visiting Earth for centuries," Jane countered. "I doubt that we could turn up anything new."

"It is the next step, Jane," the scientist insisted. "I am certain of it."

Suddenly, Jane looked wary. "What makes you so sure?"

"I admit, I do not know. I feel that we are being shown a path, step by step," Liara replied.

"That's what Saren thought," the commander observed.

For a moment, Liara only stared at her. "You believe that we... that I am under the influence of the Reapers? That I am somehow misleading you?"

For an instant, Shepard perceived herself at a crossroads, considering her two obvious options. It would be entirely too simple to agree, to give voice to her latent fears, and call an end to their fledgling relationship. She could leave Liara behind some place where the scientist would be safe, and she could hunt the Reapers without "emotional entanglements," as Garrus so delicately put it.

It would be simple to lie.

"No," Jane answered finally, her voice strained. "I don't believe that. I believe the Protheans have left a trail of breadcrumbs across the galaxy, and for whatever godforsaken reason, we need to keep following it. I believe you are the one thing I need with me to truly stop the Reapers. I believe that Joining with you has been the most profound experience of my life, and I believe that if anything happens to you I will be lost." She could feel the muted relief and joy Liara's mind broadcast with her admission, and it made her heart all the heavier. "I also believe that makes me unfit to continue this mission."

Liara made a choked noise of shock. "You are so human, sometimes," she declared, shaking her head. "You act like it is forbidden for a commanding officer to bond with a member of her crew."

"It is forbidden," Jane said. "Or at least seriously discouraged."

"Among the asari, it is expected. Why should a great leader be without the bond that gives her balance and strength?"

Jane began to reply, but the words died in her throat. "Humans see it as a weakness," she answered after a moment. "A liability that can be compromised."

"I am not a liability to you, Commander," Liara stated, unconsciously echoing Jane's exact sentiment to Garrus. "And if you perceive that I am, then I ask that you drop me off at the nearest port so you may continue your mission."

"No," Jane said. "I want... I need you here."

"Then what is the problem?" Liara asked, tilting her head.

"There are risks..."

"Inherent for any life form in the galaxy at this moment, as we are all endangered by the continuing Reaper threat," the asari interjected smoothly.

"The crew..." Jane tried again.

"The crew is unfailingly loyal to you, and they will act according to the expectations you choose to set. If they sense our relationship is a matter of awkwardness and unease, they will reflect that and amplify your discomfort. Likewise, if our relationship simply exists and it gives you happiness and stability, it quickly loses its titillation value."

"But Spectres..."

"Spectres are asked to do extraordinary things during extraordinary times to protect us all. That is why they are given the privilege and responsibility of functioning outside Council law. But that does not mean they function without oversight. The Council has final authority over your fitness to serve, Commander. And I am certain they are already quite aware of your Joined status."

Jane sat back, deflated. "That extra neural activity," she offered finally, and waited for Liara to rationalize that particular concern away, as well.

"That is somewhat worrisome," Liara admitted. "But it is a consequence of being Joined to you, which is an experience I would not trade. And so, it is an acceptable risk that we will negotiate together."

Jane stared at her in bemusement, and finally mustered a smile. "Benezia must have been proud of you," she said quietly. "You are an amazing woman."

Liara beamed, then shook her head in confusion. "Why would you spend so much time warring with yourself over something you know you desire anyway?"

The commander dropped her gaze again to stare at her hands. "Right. The thing is, I lost someone, during the Blitz," she answered. "Someone I cared about. She was a medic in my unit, and I gave the order that got her killed."

"I am sorry," Liara breathed, unsurprised at the deep well of feeling that opened up between them. They had not spoken of previous relationships, which she assumed had been deference to Liara's own inexperience. Now she knew the pain such memories brought to her lover.

"She was doing her job," Jane said. "And I was doing mine. And when I heard the explosion that took her down, I..." She paused and swallowed, hard. "Liara, I wasn't even bonded to her. Nothing remotely like what I have with you."

The scientist stood, and slowly crossed the room to stand in front of Shepard. "I had initially feared you lost, after the battle with Saren," she admitted. "I could not feel you beyond the boundaries of my own grief. Now I know every day that I risk feeling that agony again." Jane looked up at her with wide, haunted eyes. "But I refuse to stop living my life just because it might eventually cause me pain."

"Is that how the asari look at things?"

"That is how I look at you, Jane."

The commander pushed herself to her feet, slowly. "Would you understand if I told you there are times I wish you would go hide in a remote research station somewhere?" she said with a faint smile. She suddenly felt more exhausted than she could remember being.

"Would you understand if I disregarded that entirely, and asked you to show me around your hometown when we get to Earth?" Liara replied.

"Yeah, I guess I would."

"Then the next step in our journey awaits, Commander."

"I hear you're heading to Earth," Captain Anderson said.

Jane looked up at his holographic projection in the Comm Room. "Yes, sir. I've uncovered evidence that the Protheans were a bit more active in our early development than we previously suspected. Doctor T'soni believes..." she began.

He waved off the explanation. "The Council trusts you to proceed in your investigation as you see fit, Commander. I trust you. It's just that tensions are a little high on Earth right now."

Jane blinked. "I'm not sure I understand, sir."

"A lot of humans died in the battle at the Citadel. Many on Earth see that as being your fault."

"My fault," she breathed.

"You didn't make a lot of friends with the Terra Firma party, Shepard. They're asking questions about why human resources need to be dedicated to the Council at all. Of course it's all a bunch of thresher dung, but you need to know what you're walking into."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Jane replied, still taken aback.

Long after the transmission went dark, she stared at the holoscreen, deep in thought. She'd never been inclined toward politics, and had in fact eagerly hidden behind her rank and station every time such matters arose.

She was coming to realize that the galaxy was no longer quite so inclined to leave her out of its political dealings.

It was time to stop hiding.

"L4 Station has granted us permission to dock, Commander," Joker reported as she stepped onto the bridge. "And we already have a pending request to board..." He paused while he verified the contact. "From President Huerta."

"Good. Have her escorted to the Comm Room upon our arrival. And dust off your dress blues, Lieutenant." She stalked out, ignoring Joker's questioning look.

"That can't be good," he muttered.

Ten minutes later, the door of the Comm Room opened, revealing a petite woman in her sixties. She waved off her contingent of protection agents to face Shepard alone. "It is a pleasure to see you again, Commander Shepard," Engracia Huerta said in a low, melodic voice. "I understand the entire galaxy owes you a debt of gratitude."

"Madame President, thank you for taking the time to meet with me."

"It would be impolitic not to meet with someone who has brought such notoriety to her species," Huerta replied coolly.

Jane couldn't help herself; she burst out laughing. "Oh, cut the crap, Engracia."

"This is hardly a laughing matter, Jane. You single-handedly elected a human representative to the most powerful governing body in the entire galaxy. And you did so with no regard to established laws, customs, or even political experience. At least Udina has contacts within the Alliance parties..."

"Udina would have been a disaster. We have an immediate threat to address, then we can talk about elections and due process."

"Yes, because the military is so fond of ceding power it has successfully seized," Huerta countered. "I know you know better than that."

Jane sighed, feeling very much like they were back in Civics class at the Alliance Naval Academy, with then-Professor Huerta scowling down at her in disdain. Even as a young woman Jane had always been convinced of the inherent reasonableness of humanity, and her mentor had taken great pains to disillusion her of that pleasant fiction.

"Captain Anderson needs your support," Shepard said finally.

"Councillor Anderson will have it, just as soon as he resigns his commission in the Alliance Navy and takes an oath of public office," the President replied. "I do not contest your choice, Jane. Only the way you went about it. Anderson is an honorable man who has humanity's best interests at heart. And I know he understands the big picture better than Udina ever did."

"I'll talk to him," Jane promised.

"Good." Huerta picked a chair and gracefully sat down. "Now, let us discuss Terra Firma. You got them pretty riled, Spectre, even before several thousand humans died protecting the Council. The party's ranks are growing, and they have a lot of fodder for protest. There's even talk of a coup. I fear things are about to turn very violent."

"I know. I think we need to get them to see the bigger picture."

"How do you propose to do that?" Huerta asked.

"I want to show them exactly what we're up against."

The President's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure putting you in front of them is such a good idea."

"Not me," Jane countered with a smile.

"You want me to do what?!" Liara exclaimed.

"Explain to Earth why humanity can't hope to stand alone in the face of the Reaper threat," Jane replied calmly.

Liara stared at her. "I cannot do that."

"Yes, you can. You convinced me, and you can convince them."

"You are not a xenophobic extremist," Liara countered, pointing at the other woman. "Those people hate aliens."

"No, they don't. They just don't feel like they can trust aliens. That's why I want to introduce them to the people who saved their lives - human, alien, and Wrex." She chuckled a bit.

"How will that resolve anything?"

Jane sighed and perched on the edge of her bunk. "Liara, most advocates of Terra Firma live in poverty. They have too many problems of their own to be bothered by galactic upheaval thousands of light years away. But if the Reapers come, they'll be just as dead as the rest of us."

"So you wish to scare them into solidarity?" Liara asked, dismayed.

"No. They just need to shut up and listen for a little while. Huerta's administration has already made a lot of progress cleaning up the worst of the Blight, but she's not going to get any further if Terra Firma gets in the way." Jane could read the confusion and upset plainly on her lover's face. "If we can unite in this bigger cause, then our own problems don't seem so insurmountable," she continued. "And they need to see that the other races of the galaxy are fighting for them, too. It's not just the First Human Spectre selling them out for her own interests."

Liara considered the point, and sighed in dejection. "I have always deliberately kept my distance from political matters," she complained.

"I know. I have too."

"Then why become involved now?"

"Because they asked me to," Jane said with a shrug. "And because there are things worth doing right." With that, she grinned, exuding a seductive combination of confidence and strength.

Liara felt her skin tingle with an electric thrill of anticipation. She remembered suddenly why she had trusted this human from the first, and why she'd vowed to follow her to the ends of the galaxy.

"And because I want to be worthy of that look on your face," Jane added belatedly, a bit overwhelmed by the devotion and awe evident in Liara's regard.

"I find myself wondering if there's anything I would not do for you," the asari said, nearly under her breath. "I will help in any way I can."

Liara almost regretted her words when she saw the throng of anxious humanity waiting on L4 Station's promenade. The expressions directed her way ranged from disdain to outright hostility, and she had to fight the urge to shrink away and hide. Instead she filed steadily behind Ashley and Garrus, with Tali and Wrex behind her. Joker brought up the rear, making his way carefully on crutches.

They lined up sharply alongside a dais and holoscreen on a footbridge overlooking the crowds below. While they waited, murmurs of discontent rose and grew into a dull roar that buzzed along Liara's nerve endings with prickles of anger and distrust.

The atmosphere changed abruptly as Liara sensed movement behind them. She knew without looking that it was Jane approaching the dais with President Huerta, but she still had to fight the urge to turn and seek the reassurance of Jane's eyes.

Instead, Jane pressed a discreet hand to Liara's back as she passed by. The brief contact immediately soothed her; the noise of the human crowd dwindled and dissipated in her head as she focused instead on the other woman's composed presence. As Jane took the dais after a brief introduction by the President, Liara indulged in feeling the power and influence in the commander's words, and the sway they carried across the crowd. The mood of the place slowly turned like a tide, swelling in support of the human Spectre, hypnotic in its rhythm. Liara let her eyes drift shut as she let the sensation pour over her.

Maybe this was what Indoctrination felt like, she thought idly. With that, her eyes snapped open again in panic. She heard Jane's words falter suddenly, as the jolt of Liara's apprehension broadcast across the threads of their Joining.

The asari mentally scrabbled about to order what they knew of Sovereign's powers over sentient minds, and in the process realized that she could, in fact, think with perfect clarity; Saren and his ilk could not. She could set aside the thrum of deep awareness from the other woman and function freely, if bereft. Slowly the blind clamor of fear subsided, even as Jane eyed her in sidelong concern.

Still... The commander's impact on her audience was extraordinary. Perhaps an effect of the Prothean technology interacting with Jane's brain had augmented her innate charisma. It might even have been intentional, if somehow the Protheans wanted to purposely create a counterpoint to Sovereign's influence.

Suddenly Liara realized she was being introduced. She nodded and took the dais, launching into an abbreviated, scholarly, and thoroughly terrifying account of the Prothean demise at the hands of the Reapers. Behind her the holoscreen displayed fragments of the Beacon's distress signal as recovered from Vigil's databanks. "This is the danger we face," Liara said in conclusion. "Not just Earth, not just the Council, but every living being in the entire galaxy. This is the threat that destroyed the Protheans, likely the greatest civilization this area of space has ever known. They could not stop the Reaper invasion."

Now the holoscreen switched to footage of the battle at the Citadel, as entire fleets disintegrated in Sovereign's fury before its shields finally gave out. Jane stepped beside Liara on the platform. "The Protheans couldn't stop them," the commander reiterated, gesturing to the images behind them. "But we did."

The crowd was silent as they watched Normandy cut through space, dodging fiery geth explosions on its way to deliver a stunning death blow to the massive Reaper ship. Most humans had seen little actual coverage of the fight, and certainly had not previously experienced the visceral satisfaction of watching Sovereign tumble from its perch and crumple into pieces. It was mesmerizing.

"The people before you are heroes of the highest order," said President Huerta, who had also retaken the dais. "And their continued sacrifices are for all of us, human and non-human alike. To that end, I proudly grant the crew of the Normandy the Order of Terra, Earth's highest honor for her greatest defenders."

The crowd collectively froze in disbelief. This was the last thing any of them expected.

Ashley made a sputtering noise, and shook her head as Shepard approached and draped the medal around her neck. "Commander, I..."

"You've earned it, Ash. You've done your family proud," Jane replied quietly, and threw her a sharp salute.

The chief returned the salute, too choked up to offer much more of a response. The lifelong burden of the Williams' family disgrace lifted from her shoulders as the honor hit home. Jane bent close and handed her a small box containing another medal. "For Kaidan," she whispered, watching as Ashley nodded in understanding.

Garrus, Tali, and Wrex in turn all accepted the accolades graciously, if rather bemusedly. The human inclination for excessive pomp and circumstance was something of a joke to other species, but they were wise enough to recognize great respect when it was bestowed. At the end of the line, Joker managed to balance on his crutches enough to salute his CO, who grinned back at him.

Finally, Jane backtracked to the platform, where Liara watched with her wide eyes. The Spectre secured the medal around her lover's neck, then leaned in with a fond smile and kissed Liara's cheek.

While President Huerta expounded upon their individual acts of heroism, the assembly remained, to a person, stunned. To see aliens receive the most respected of human honors... To see the human Spectre herself express obvious affection for an asari... It was almost incomprehensible. Eventually, someone clapped, then another and another, until the promenade was overtaken by polite, if tentative applause.

Afterward, Jane had her best swagger on. It drew the press like a magnet.

"Commander Shepard, do you really believe this display will heal the rift between the Terra Firma party and the progressive government?"

The question came from Emily Wong, the one member of the press corps Jane disliked the least. For a moment Jane looked thoughtful. "No," she replied. "But we live in a galactic community, and we cannot afford to confine our view to our own backyard. This might help us remember that the galaxy needs us just as much as we need them."

"You expect us to believe this wasn't just some Council-pandering farce?" Khalisah Al-Jilani interjected, as she jammed a microphone toward Shepard's face.

Jane pointed at a holoscreen replaying the medal ceremony. "That image is going to be burned into the minds of humanity for generations to come. Ask your great-grandchildren if it was a 'farce.' We'll be the ones making sure your great-grandchildren are alive to see it." She turned and walked away, letting Huerta's protection detail restrain the eager reporters craving more sound bytes.

"Terse as always, Commander," Huerta said with a disapproving cluck of her tongue.

"I'm no politician, Madame President."

Her former mentor looked her over. "Yes. Reconsider that, won't you? I think we're going to need you."

Jane grinned and shook the President's hand. "To be honest, I'm not sure if this helped your Terra Firma problem or not."

"Time will tell. In any case, I'm convinced it was the right thing to do. You and your comrades should be careful, Commander. Certain factions will not take kindly to today's events."

It was a warning well-heeded, just as Jane was starting to feel a bit exposed on the station's promenade. She took her leave of the President and returned to Normandy's berth.

The traffic around the station after the President's little event was chaotic enough that it was relatively easy for Jane and Liara to get to a shuttle undetected. Swooping the Normandy down to Earth's surface seemed more dramatic than strictly necessary, especially if any radicals within Terra Firma decided to make a target out of the ship or her crew. Instead, Shepard was certain that she and Liara were likely to attract far less attention in the small civilian craft.

Jane set a standard course of descent, activated the kinetic barriers that would protect them from the debris in low orbit around the planet, and engaged the autopilot. With a pensive sigh she left the cockpit to lean against the fore bulkhead in the passenger section. For a moment she looked worriedly at Liara, who was seated and poking through her pack of research equipment. She had been clearly preoccupied since the medal ceremony.

"Can you tell me what happened back on the station?" Jane asked quietly.

Liara didn't look up, instead continuing to fiddle with her instruments, pretending they needed to be re-secured in her already meticulous organizational system.

"Liara, I felt you. You were terrified... of me?"

The scientist stopped fidgeting, but still didn't look up at Shepard. "You have power over people, whether you know it or not. Over me in particular. During the ceremony I was reminded of Saren, and how he was so certain he was doing the right thing." She finally turned miserable blue eyes on her lover. "I suddenly thought that I am equally certain, but what if I am also equally deluded?"

Jane reared backward, her face twisted in anguish. "You think I'm somehow controlling you?"

"No," Liara said miserably. "I don't think that. But I found myself wondering for a moment, and that's what frightened me." She sighed. "I am ashamed."

"Don't be. After all that's happened?" Jane shrugged. "After all we've seen? We'd both be foolish not to wonder. Maybe it would be best if..."

"It would be 'best' if we simply trusted what we know of each other. What I know of you," the asari argued forcefully. "We cannot let the Reapers take this from us."

Jane smiled, then slowly pushed away from the bulkhead and reached out a hand. Liara took it and let herself be tugged upright, close to her lover. Their bodies pressed together instinctively as they gazed into each other. "You have power over me, too," Jane admitted, her voice rasping at its lowest register. "That scares me, Liara, but I wouldn't live without it."

Liara's eyes immediately went black. Like each time before, Jane looked into them and felt like she was teetering on the edge of everything beautiful.

The shuttle's functional and cramped passenger compartment was definitely not designed with "embracing eternity" in mind, but they managed anyway.

Jane guided the shuttle low over the hills of the French European countryside, which remained surprisingly undisturbed by the global wars and climatic disasters of recent decades. It was there that early humanity had left some of its first traces of civilization, in the forests and caves that matched her vision on Eletania. Liara watched curiously over her shoulder, fascinated by the terrain.

"So, any idea what we're looking for?" Jane asked. She had held off asking, secretly hoping that their next step would become mysteriously apparent, as was so frequent in their recent experiences.

"No," Liara answered, not bothering to hide her dejection.

Jane nodded. "Human scientists have combed this region for centuries, and even then discoveries have been few and far between," she pointed out, banking the shuttle toward the south.

"I had thought it would be more obvious," the scientist admitted, echoing Jane's own thoughts. "If we are, in fact, being led by some Prothean design. Do you recall any useful landmarks from your vision on Eletania?"

The commander pursed her lips, sorting through the many seasons of primitive life that had been compressed and dumped into her brain. "Caves. Trees. There was a lake," she said, shaking her head. "But nothing distinct. It could have been anywhere within a two thousand mile radius. And the landscape can certainly change a bit over fifty thousand years."

Liara frowned, certain they were missing something. "The artifact on Eletania emitted a particular kind of muon radiation," she said, checking her scanner. "That kind of radiation would not be native to Earth, so if we can find evidence of it..."

Jane slowed the shuttle to hover in place over the treetops, then dropped smoothly into a clearing. "Let me tie you into the satellite network," she said, working the computer and blithely overriding the network's security with her Spectre credentials.

For a few minutes they worked in silence, as Liara struggled to filter out the sheer volume of electromagnetic noise detectable in the atmosphere. Even if there was a clear source of the Prothean artifact's muon radiation, detecting it without being virtually on top of it would be nigh impossible. Eventually she shook her head and admitted defeat.

Frustrated, Jane powered the shuttle down and clambered out of the cockpit. Liara followed, and the two women disembarked for a bit of fresh air, wandering tentatively into the surrounding woods.

Liara looked around as she stepped gingerly over roots and brush. "It is beautiful here," she observed. "And it does almost feel primitive."

With the profound sense of displacement warring in her brain, Jane had to agree. She could easily picture the fight to survive on these hills, and the bite of the winter that had ultimately doomed "her" entire tribe. She raised her hand and could almost see the larger, grubbier appendage of her ancestor, as it hefted a spear. She had to shake herself a bit to remain in the present, instead of sinking deeper into the memories that were not actually her own.

This was not the Earth where Jane had grown up. It was the Earth of history texts, of distant battles and untold struggles for survival. The trickling sunlight and the faint breeze carried back to them bits of ancient things, even as other shuttle traffic whizzed by overhead.

This was the Earth the Protheans saw.

"They were here, Liara," Jane said with certainty. "I know it."

"I can feel it too," the asari agreed.

"Then what are we missing?"

Of course Liara had no answer, so she simply looked back at her companion and waited. Jane was still looking down at her hand, flexing her fingers in apparent puzzlement. Liara found herself aching to reach out and grasp that hand, so much so that her body had simply moved and intertwined their fingers without her even being consciously aware of it.

Jane looked at the delicate gloved fingers tangled in her own, then looked up at Liara with a smile. The air itself seemed to go still around them in the ancient grove.

"Is it like this where you grew up?" Liara asked, her voice barely a whisper.

At that, Jane laughed. "No. Where I'm from? Let's just say we didn't have a lot of trees there."

"Show me?" Liara asked.

After the comparatively verdant and lush countryside of the European mainland, Liara was wholly unprepared for the Blight.

The western half of the North American continent was pockmarked with evidence of severe geologic shifts, accentuated by the radical climatic damage that had ravaged most of the native wildlife and left the soil brimming with toxins and pollutants. Yet somehow, a billion humans still lived there, eking out a living with moisture farming and fitful agricultural efforts amongst the decayed urban sprawl.

Even from far above, the land looked unforgiving.

For all they'd shared with each other, for all Liara thought she'd known about Jane Shepard, it wasn't until she set foot on the baked clay road of her dusty home prefecture that she truly understood the commander's soul.

"By the Goddess," Liara whispered, as she looked around.

It was a shanty town forged of castoff scraps of industrial metal and bleached wood. They had landed near the central square, where a market bustled in the heat of midday. The sunlight blasted down all around them, washing out the already weather-beaten buildings and soil.

"Home sweet home," Jane replied with deliberate irony. "Come on, I'll show you around."

They walked the streets for a while, and Jane pointed out some of the landmarks. The market was a few blocks from the school building, effectively turning the area into the center of commerce and social activity. It didn't take long for two young women in Alliance Navy garb to attract curious attention. Eventually Liara noticed that they had an entourage of small children trailing several steps behind them.

Jane had noticed as well, and she finally spun on her heel to face them. The small faces were stunned by her imperious regard, forgetting their intent to flee upon discovery. "Did school get out early today?" she asked, her low voice carrying easily across the street.

The children nodded quickly. "We were watching the Pres'dent on the vids," one young boy explained. "Was that you, with her?"

"Are you the Spectre?" another cried. Other piping voices clamored in curiosity.

Jane exchanged a smile with Liara, then stepped over to the boy who'd spoken up first. She held out her hand. "I'm Jane. This is my friend Liara."

The boy blinked up at her. "I'm Peter," he said with wide eyes as he shook her hand. "It's really you, isn't it?"

"What are you doing here?" another boy asked.

"Just passing through," Jane replied, taking turns to shake each little hand that reached up toward her.

Peter mustered his courage and took a few steps toward Liara. "You're asari, right? We read about them in school."

"That's right," Liara answered with a smile. "It's nice to meet you, Peter."

The boy blinked at her, surprised the sound of her voice was so gentle and inviting. The small group of children suddenly decided she was far more interesting than her human companion, and quickly clustered around her.

"I heard asari live to like, a million years old," a girl volunteered. "How old are you?" It set off a chain of curious questions in rapid fire.

"What're those things on your head?"

"Are all asari blue?"

"Is it true there aren't any asari boys?"

"You're a lot prettier in person."

That last one caught Liara entirely off-guard, and she laughed in surprise. From beyond the circle of small onlookers, Jane had to shrug and admit she agreed. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a group of young men and women pacing slowly toward them.

She didn't recognize the leader or the symbols on their clothes, but she damn well knew a street gang when she saw one. She shifted, putting herself between the approaching group and Liara.

The children noticed them, too, and quickly tore their attention away from the newcomer, falling silent.

One man stepped slightly out in front of the others. "You little ones get along home," he called. "It's dinner time."

The children let loose the standard complaints and whining objections, but ceded to his obvious authority. Peter was the last to go, and he made sure he had Jane's attention before he saluted her and ran off.

"Shepard," the man greeted, once the children had dispersed. "It's been a while. Thought you might have forgotten where you came from."

"Never," Jane said evenly.

He studied her for a moment, then spared an appraising glance at her companion. "Good," he said with a nod. "You come to check in on Sister Clara?"

"Figured I would while I'm in the neighborhood," she replied. "How is she doing?"

"You know how it is. She's getting on in years," he answered. "Think she'll be glad to see you." He tipped his head respectfully. "Safe travels, Spectre." Following his cue, the group moved on and quickly disappeared into the town's alleyways and shadows.

Jane watched them go and felt Liara draw closer to her side. "That went better than I expected," she muttered, low enough that only her lover could hear her.

"Did you know that man?" Liara asked.

"No, but I used to be him. Probably eight or nine gangs ago."

Liara frowned. "You thought they posed a threat."

"Only to outsiders. They take care of their own. Fortunately, I seem to still fit in that category. And that means you do, too." She took a deep breath and looked around. "Nice to know that hasn't changed." She shook herself a little, then pointed to a road that led up a hill. "This way," Jane said, and started walking again.

Liara skipped to catch up. "I do not understand the disparity of your culture," the scientist said. "How can so many humans live like this while corporations are sponsoring state of the art colonies on distant worlds?"

Jane sighed. "One of humanity's uglier facets. There is always a gap between those who have wealth and those who don't, and our increasing reliance on technology only widens it."

"But those resources could be used here, for the benefit of so many."

"Which is exactly why groups like Terra Firma exist," Jane pointed out as they crested the top of the hill. She turned and looked down the route they'd traveled. "This hill looked a lot bigger when I was a kid," she said idly.

"But how can you stand this?" Liara cried, clearly upset. "After all you've seen elsewhere in the galaxy? You look at this like it's just unavoidable."

"I meant what I said at the ceremony today, Liara - humanity really does have a stake in the galaxy's future. We have to look outward. That means needing money, and that means relying on the corporations who fund our exploration and development. We just have to find a way to take care of the ones left at home, too." She shrugged philosophically. "There aren't any easy answers, but we are making progress."

"And if you're wondering where she picked up these enlightened points of view, that would be from me," called a voice from the doorway of the ramshackle building behind them. They turned to see a wizened old woman ambling toward them. "Jane Shepard, you get over here this instant."

"Sister Clara," Jane greeted with a grin, as she immediately stepped over to give the woman a gentle hug. "It's good to see you."

"Yes, well, how kind of you to keep an old woman waiting. I heard you were in town hours ago," Clara scolded. She turned thoughtful eyes toward Liara. "And you would be Doctor T'soni. It is an honor to have heroes from the Battle of the Citadel here at my home," she said, nodding with satisfaction before she turned and headed back toward the house. "Come on, you'll join us for dinner."

"Us" consisted of Sister Clara and half a dozen grubby youth, all of whom looked significantly rougher around the edges than the children Liara and Jane had met in the street earlier. They stared at the guests with unmasked curiosity, but remained perfectly silent until Clara had settled herself at the head of the table.

"And who cooked tonight?" the old woman asked.

"I did, Sister Clara," said the teenaged girl across from Liara. "It's elcorian green root and fig stew."

Clara chuckled. "I hope for the sake of our guests it fares better than your last attempt at elcorian stew, Theresa," she said. One of the boys helpfully stuck his tongue out at the memory. "All right. It's been a remarkable day, and we're lucky to be together at the end of it. Dig in."

With that benediction and portions quickly doled out, Jane took a tentative taste. "Hey, this is pretty good," she said approvingly, causing Theresa to blush. Liara had to agree; most humans had little affinity for the delicate flavors of elcorian cuisine, but this particular dish was definitely an above-average effort.

"You probably don't get a lot of chance to cook in the Navy, do you, Commander?" Clara asked.

"No," Jane said amiably. "And I think my crew is thankful for that."

"Nonsense. I'm sure they'd all enjoy the disaster recovery drill if you ever tried to make vitarran custard again."

"That was you?" Theresa asked, eyes wide in disbelief. "You're the one who set fire to the kitchen?"

"You're still telling that story, Clara?" Jane whined.

"It's like a legend," another girl said, gaping. "I can't believe the Spectre didn't know vitarran berries were flammable."

"The recipe never said so," she answered defensively while the children giggled. Jane scowled and leveled a stern glance at Liara. "Now you know where I learned military tactics, Doctor T'soni. Never engage without double-checking the intelligence."

"Indeed, Commander," Liara replied with a grin.

After the meal Jane headed out to the field behind the large house with a ball, picking teams for the traditional nightly game. Liara stayed behind to help Sister Clara clear the table, and watched the game progress from the windows in the kitchen.

"They are all orphans," Liara observed quietly.

Clara nodded as she hefted a dirty pot into the sink. "Castoffs of the Blight," she confirmed. "But good kids, the lot of them. Just like your Commander was. They all deserve a place to call home."

"You have cared for many children here?"

"Dozens. Teach 'em the best I can, and hope they can fend for themselves when they're of age."

"How do you... forgive me, but how can you afford..."

"Was a time when we could barely scrape by. Nowadays, I receive a generous anonymous monthly donation that helps me keep my doors open," the wizened woman said with a smile. "Funny how it always seems to correspond to the Alliance pay schedule."

Liara could only look on in wonder. "I lived a life of privilege," she murmured. "I had access to the best tutors and the best technology my people had to offer."

Clara chuckled and patted the scientist on the shoulder. "And yet, you didn't turn out so bad after all."

She turned anguished eyes on the old woman. "I had no idea."

"Does it make a difference?"

The asari had returned her attention out to the field under a lone tree, where Jane gamely caught the ball and let herself be dogpiled under half a dozen laughing, happy children. "Yes," she breathed in reply.

"Good." Clara nodded in satisfaction before setting aside her sodden towel and toddling out into the waning light. "Bedtime, little ones!" she called.

Slowly the children let themselves be herded back inside, where they attended to their nightly rituals with only a little coaxing. One by one they stopped to give Sister Clara a hug before disappearing into their dormitory-style room. Clara followed them, making noises about a promised bedtime story.

Liara watched it all, then stepped outside where Jane was still tossing the ball into the air and catching it again. "Hey," Jane said with a smile, as the other woman drew closer.

Closing the remaining gap between them in quick strides, Liara kissed her, hard, and broke away only when they were both breathless. "I love you," she whispered, almost fiercely.

"Yeah?" Jane replied, a little stunned. "I love you, too." She leaned in for another kiss that was gentler, more tempered. "Thank you for coming here with me," she said when they parted, as she stroked delicate fingertips across Liara's cheek. "This is something I couldn't really explain any other way."

"This is what you meant before, about taking care of the ones left at home," the asari realized. "You've been supporting this place all along."

Jane shrugged it off. "Sister Clara does all the work. I'm just happy to help a bit."

Liara could only smile, and shake her head in faint amazement. Finally, she took Jane's hand and led her back into the house to bid Sister Clara farewell.

The town felt entirely different at night. Warm fragments of light spilled from the nearby houses, and they could hear convivial laughter as families gathered close for the evening. It was comfortable, almost welcoming, except for one small problem.

"We're being followed," Jane murmured casually.

"I had noticed," Liara replied, equally as casual.

The Spectre sighed. She had deliberately left her sidearm behind in the shuttle, not wanting to provoke tensions among the naturally suspicious townspeople. "Are you armed?" she asked.

Liara lifted a hand to reveal leashed biotic energy arcing between her fingertips. "Always, Commander."

"Okay," Jane said with a smile, relaxing instantly. It was an unusual feeling, being so secure in the presence of another. Her strict code of self-reliance was born of necessity and cultivated over long years of rigorous military service. For the first time in her life she found herself completely willing to hand over her safety to someone else's care.

Less than a minute later, her confidence was validated rather graphically.

Three cracks of pistol fire rang out in the still air, immediately followed by the sound of three forceful deflections off the barrier Liara had cast behind them. Using her honed biotic skill, the scientist located their assailant on a nearby rooftop and knocked him to the ground with a well-placed throw.

The man screamed as he careened into the road's surface, while his weapon went skidding away. Jane stepped over and picked it up, then trained it on the man as he whimpered pathetically. Liara circled around him, her implants still flaring and engaged for use.

"That was a bad idea," Jane growled. She kicked at the prone form, rolling him over so she could see his face. "I don't like getting shot at."

"I wasn't shooting at you," the man protested.

The voice was familiar. Jane looked closer, squinting at him. "Conrad?" she said in disbelief.

Conrad Verner looked up at her, his short blonde hair standing out in the faint light. "I wasn't shooting at you, Commander," he insisted. He looked over at Liara, and shrunk away from her determined glare.

"Then it was a very bad idea. I really don't like it when people shoot at my friends," Jane snarled. "What the hell is wrong with you?"

He jabbed a finger at Liara. "She's a danger to you!" he yelled.

"Really? She just saved my life, you idiot."

By then the town's residents were filtering out of their homes to see what the commotion was all about. Liara recognized a few faces from the street gang they'd encountered previously as they pressed to the fore. She shifted warily, unsure if Conrad was the only threat, or if the locals might support him.

She remembered him as obnoxiously persistent from their encounters on the Citadel, and maybe a little off-balance, but certainly not dangerous. Now, he kept glancing at her with a mixture of fear and suspicion that made her very soul hurt.

"You're too important, Commander!" he ranted. "Humanity needs you too much for you to risk everything on an alien!"

Jane scowled at him, seeing the wild look in his eyes. After a moment she dropped the aim of her weapon, deciding he wasn't likely to attack again. She looked over her shoulder at the intent faces of the watching locals.

The leader of the street gang she'd spoken to earlier that day caught her attention. "Pre-Sec is on their way, Shepard," he said quietly.

"Thanks," she answered. She wasn't sure the Prefecture Security division was the right jurisdiction for an attack on a Spectre, but it would get Conrad out of her hair.

"Don't you understand?" Conrad continued. "She's not one of us. She doesn't care about humanity. How could she?"

"She was at my side, fighting to protect humanity," Jane countered, gesturing disgustedly with the pistol. "Where were you?"

He looked stricken. "I was on a transport, coming back here. You told me to come back to Earth, Commander. You wanted me to protect my family and make humanity stronger. But I'd already lost everything."

"What happened?" Liara asked, her natural empathy overcoming the distrust she felt radiating from him.

All the fight left him abruptly and Conrad went limp, flat on his back on the road's surface. "My wife is gone," he said. "She left while I was on the Citadel." He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and began to cry. "She didn't even leave a note."

Jane sighed, and shared a look with Liara, who nodded. Both women turned to the circle of onlookers and quietly urged them to head home. The broken, pathetic man who had caused such a stir in their evenings didn't really need to be gawked at any longer.

Like the feeling of security she had in Liara's presence, Jane found her sympathy for Conrad was also a new development. He'd just tried to hurt the woman she loved, yet here she was trying to protect what little dignity he had left. As the days passed and their bond strengthened, Jane was increasingly aware of the changes in her personality wrought by Liara's influence, and found herself amused at the irony of an alien humanizing the human. If she could, she would have explained as much to Conrad. Even if he wasn't blinded by his own loss, she doubted he could ever understand.

Four Pre-Sec officers rushed toward them, quickly apprehending the man sprawled in the street and trying not to look too awed by the Spectre. Jane gladly turned over the pistol he'd used as evidence, then watched as Liara described her actions in taking their assailant down.

Unused to attacks in the Blight ending bloodlessly, and with such little apparent animosity between the involved parties, the Pre-Sec officers looked a little confused, especially when Jane and Liara simply started to walk away. "Uh, ma'am?" one of the officers called uncertainly. "We need you to come with us and give your statement."

"We're going back to our ship," Jane called back over her shoulder.

One of the Pre-Sec officers jogged past them, and stood directly in their path. "Ma'am, I'm sorry, but you can't just leave," the young man said.

"Watch me," Jane said amiably. "I imagine Citadel Security will be in contact regarding this incident. Try not to let them steamroll you guys."

He stood his ground. "It might not be safe for you to proceed unescorted," he said.

The Spectre lifted a single eyebrow. "Nice try, kid."

"You may reach us on the Normandy if you have any further questions," Liara interjected, sensing Jane's quickly fraying temper. "And please see that Mr. Verner receives the psychological care he requires."

With that, they stepped around him and proceeded to their shuttle.

"So, Commander," Joker said casually after they returned to the Normandy. "I noticed a lot of satellite comm traffic while you and Doctor T'soni were away, most of it encrypted under Spectre authority."

Jane frowned, and perched next to him at the scanner station. "Right. We were searching for evidence of Prothean technology on Earth."

The pilot nodded. "Figured as much. The sat comm network wasn't really designed for that amount of coordinated traffic, though."

She waited, knowing he was leading up to something.

"So I thought, hey - you know where we also have a bunch of satellites? Mars. And I then thought, how hard could it be to offload some of those encrypted sat protocols to the Mars Comm network? Turns out it's pretty damned difficult, but I managed it. Just in case you were considering putting me up for another medal or anything..."

"Out with it, Joker," she demanded, folding her arms.

"I got you a hit on that thing you were looking for," he said smugly. "Cydonia Mensae, a few hundred klicks outside of the Mars colony."

She inhaled sharply. It was somehow simultaneously the last thing she expected and the only thing that made sense. Humans had already discovered the Prothean cache of information in the ruins on Mars' South Pole, and there had long been the assumption that more ruins were hidden somewhere on the planet, if they'd only known what to look for.

"Recall the crew from the station," she ordered. "Get us to Mars. Now."

"Aye aye, Commander," the pilot said, grinning in anticipation.

Sneaking a Mako drop onto the surface of Mars without alerting the entire colony was a bit of a challenge - one Joker was happy to undertake. The Normandy swooped low over the red, rocky terrain and deposited the vehicle smoothly beyond the mesas. Immediately after landing, Liara started sweeping for the muon radiation source. It was a faint but exact match for the readings they'd detected on Eletania, and soon they were underway.

Jane had been on dozens of worlds across the galaxy, but there was still something special about Mars. The red planet had been the stuff of human myth and legend for so long, treading its surface outside the atmospheric dome of the colony still retained the thrill of pioneering discovery. As a kid, Mars had been the first celestial body she'd learned to spot in Earth's night sky. As an adult charged to represent her entire species and save the galaxy, it gave her a little shiver to look out the Mako's viewports and see Earth as a tiny blue dot so far away.

Ashley pulled the Mako to a stop in the Cydonian foothills, based on Liara's readings. Quickly, the three women disembarked to start searching the surface on foot. For several minutes it was slow going as Liara fine-tuned her scanner calibrations and took measured paces up the hillside.

"You know, from a certain orbital angle under certain lighting conditions, this rock formation looks like a human face," Ashley commented idly. "Some humans were convinced it was evidence of higher intelligence on Mars, though most said it was a coincidence."

Liara peered at her through the visor of her helmet. "The Protheans are not known for leaving large terrestrial clues lying about to be revealed by a trick of the light," she said, almost chidingly. A rough variation in the soil caught her attention, and she examined it for a moment. "Then again, I have never believed in coincidence." She looked up and sought Jane's form on the sloping mesa. "Commander? I believe we've located a pressure door."

"Good," Jane called in reply. She scrambled down the hill toward them. "Chief, place a geolocator beacon so other teams can find it later."

"Skipper, if we call the colony, they can have this place crawling with scientists in a couple hours," Ashley pointed out.

"They can have their turn," Shepard said firmly. "But Liara gets first crack."

Ashley looked like she wanted to protest further, but she recognized her CO's most determined expression. "Aye, Commander."

Jane didn't even hear the acknowledgement, instead kneeling next to Liara to clear debris from the portal set into the rock. "What do you think?" she asked.

Liara was studying her scanner readings. "I am detecting pockets of atmosphere. The substructure appears to be at least partially intact," she reported. "But it's hard to say how stable it is after thousands of years of tectonic stress."

"Oh, sure. You destroy one priceless ruin by blowing indiscriminate holes in things with a mining laser, and you get a lifetime of lectures about 'tectonic stress,'" Jane joked, referring to the day they'd met at the dig on Therum. "We'll be careful."

The scientist smiled back at her, though there was apprehension in her eyes.

Several minutes later, they had cleared enough rock and soil from the entrance to reach the door's controls. Thousands of years of disuse had seized most of the moving parts, though with judicious application of power tools and biotic force, the mechanism finally ground into motion and swung open.

"I've never discovered an undocumented Prothean site before," the asari admitted. "This is quite amazing."

The three women peered into the dark corridor beyond, only to see another pressure door that provided the other end of the installation's airlock.

"Doesn't look all that 'amazing' yet," Ashley said sardonically.

Jane smirked, and watched her lover's face as it lit with concentration and curiosity. Liara was absolutely in her element, here among the dust of an ancient civilization. Even without their bond, Liara's intense focus and reverent joy in discovery were contagious.

The second hatch opened far more easily, having been mostly protected from the elements. Beyond it, a stone tunnel disappeared downward into the rock.

"The radiation source is coming from that direction," Liara said, indicating the black void beyond. "The tunnel opens up into a larger chamber about a hundred meters in."

"All right. I'm on point. Chief, take up the rear. At the first sign of trouble we get the hell out of here," Jane ordered. She activated the lights on her helmet and cautiously took a few steps into the tunnel.

The walls around them bore the same abstract Prothean patterns they saw on Ilos, slowly forgotten and crumbling under the mesa. The three women shuffled lightly down the tunnel, impeded only by a few stray piles of rock and dirt that offered testament to the passage of time within the ancient structure. Finally, they approached an ornate door that groaned a bit in mechanical agony, then dutifully slid open. Beyond it, a large chamber flickered into view as the installation's own lighting systems wound back into operation.

Jane cast a glance over her shoulder at Liara. "They sure built these things to last, huh?" she muttered.

Liara was furiously checking the readouts on her scanner. "I believe - like the ruin on Eletania - the technology is reacting to your presence, Commander. The radiation signature has increased two hundred percent."

"That pose any hazard to us?" Ashley asked nervously.

"Not at this time."

Jane took a deep breath, then stepped into the threshold of the installation proper.

The chamber was a huge, hexagonal space with vaulted ceiling segments that met at a central shaft which shot upward into darkness. Unlike Ilos, where every surface had succumbed to the planet's lush vegetation, the low walls and platforms visible around the chamber were starkly naked. There was hardly even a layer of dust.

In the center of the room, ensconced in an elaborate housing, hovered a shiny metal sphere that looked remarkably similar to the one on Eletania. It simply floated there, poised under the gap in the ceiling, as if ready to be shot upward and outward into the solar system. Upon reflection, Jane realized that was probably its exact purpose. "Some kind of data collection device? A probe?" she asked Liara, who nodded.

"It's so clean in here," Ashley said. She had wandered off to look around. "Maybe someone's been visiting to maintain the place?"

"I do not believe so," Liara replied. "The readings I'm detecting show circulating currents in the room's atmosphere, and an elaborate filtration system. It is likely this was meant to be a sterile, uncontaminated space."

"A cleanroom," Jane said. "Like a lab used for experiments?"

"Quite possibly."

"So, we have a lab, and a probe I'm betting is capable of interplanetary flight," Jane said. "What were they looking for?"

"Uh, Skipper?" Ashley called, from the other end of the room. "I think I might know."

Jane and Liara rushed over to see what she'd found. On the far end of the chamber was a bay of what looked like sleeper pods, all connected to the facility's systems. Three of the pods were empty, but the fourth very clearly housed skeletal remains. All three women bent close to the pod, staring intently at its contents.

"That's human, Skipper," Ashley said, agitated.

"More precisely, it is Cro-Magnon, consistent with early humans from Earth's Pleistocene era," Liara clarified.

"Well, what the hell is it doing here?!" Ashley snapped in response. "What business did the Protheans have snatching humans and locking them in a tube to die on another planet?"

"Easy, Chief," Jane said. "We don't know what was going on here." She reached out and felt along the pod's exterior, seeking a latch or some other locking mechanism.

"Careful, Commander," Liara admonished. "You can't just..."

Jane turned and pinned an intense look on her. "Help me."

She sighed with dismay, but ultimately stepped closer to examine the pod as well. Her fingers skimmed the edge, then actually bumped into Jane's at a hidden notch in the textured enclosure. The pod's lid disengaged, and Jane pushed it fully open.

The Spectre bent to examine the skeleton close up, studying it and trying to place it within the context of her borrowed Prothean memory. Was this the same early human who had observed the silver sphere watching her tribe? Jane reached for the skull, roughly turning it to one side. Liara actually emitted a squeak of scientific protest, but her reflexive words of admonishment died unspoken.

At the base of the skull peeked out the faint sheen of metal. Jane gave it a tentative poke, then simply grabbed the object and twisted it free of the ancient remains. She held it up in the palm of her gloved hand for Liara to see.

It was a dead ringer for the Prothean pendant worn by Matriarch Benezia when Liara was a child.

Twenty minutes later, Jane was still staring at the small bit of alien metal, as if she could decode its significance by looking at it hard enough. Ashley headed back out to the surface to report in to the Normandy, and Liara focused her attention on the ancient computer consoles surrounding the enclosure of the silver sphere.

"The information we retrieved from Vigil will make deciphering these records a great deal easier," Liara said, mostly to ward off the ponderous silence. "As one might expect, many of the computer's cores are degraded, but I believe they will still yield volumes of new data." She cast a sidelong look at Shepard, trying to sort out her sudden confusion. Warring with her instinctive desire to simply tear the place apart and find the answers they sought was her well-trained scientific discipline that would compel her to scour every square inch of the place on a microscopic level. Part of her - the same part that was violently disappointed about the short time they'd been able to spend on Ilos - was ready, that very instant, to commit the next ten years of her life to studying this single room.

Another part of her - the part very firmly held in the heart of the preoccupied soldier so distant from her - wished she'd never heard of the Protheans, or the Reapers, or the Cydonia Mensae on Mars.

As if feeling the weight of Liara's gaze, Jane shifted and finally looked back up at her. "I can't decide if this helps or not," the commander admitted, indicating the tiny artifact she held.

"I know," Liara said quietly, before she looked away.

Jane immediately stepped closer to her. "What is it?"

"Something else that might not help," Liara admitted. She swept her hands over the computer controls and activated a protocol she'd seen tucked away inside the Prothean records.

Behind them, a platform in the floor split open, and a structure rose from it, projecting holographic fragments of Prothean communication.

"Another beacon?" Jane asked with a sigh. "Well, we'll leave it for the first research team who gets a crack at this place."

"But you have to activate it," Liara insisted.

"Doctor Chakwas said further exposure to Prothean technology was a bad idea," the commander reminded her. "For both of us, remember?"

"The clues about what this place is, and what the Protheans were studying about early humanity - they might be in that beacon," Liara argued.

"You think I care enough to risk harming you?"

"This is about far more than my health, Jane. Far more than our relationship."

Jane folded her arms, and stared implacably back at her. "No," she said. "I won't do it."

"Then I shall," came the determined response.

Before Jane could stop her, Liara had stepped up to the beacon and was immediately overtaken by its grip. Her eyes went dark and she threw her head back as the machine held her aloft in midair.

"Liara!" Jane yelled. She stood helpless for the long seconds until the beacon had delivered its payload and went dormant once more. The Spectre dove to catch Liara's body before she could collapse to the ground.

Jane sought her lover's face behind the shield of her helmet, calling her name over and over until she saw the tiny trickle of blood oozing from Liara's nose.

She stood, hefted the slack weight of Liara's body across her arms, and began to run.

"Williams! Fire up the Mako now!"

The last time Ashley heard that tone in her CO's voice, a huge chunk of Reaper ship was about to crash in on top of them in the Citadel Tower. It had made her jump then, and it definitely made her jump again. She immediately sprinted down the hillside to the waiting vehicle and scrambled inside, not even pausing to stow her weapons as she slid into the cockpit and thumbed the controls to spin up the escape boosters.

Out the fore viewport, she saw Shepard emerge from the installation, carrying an injured Doctor T'soni. Ashley felt a stab of dread in her gut, and hailed the Normandy for an emergency pickup. While the engines whined through their warm up procedure, she ducked back out to help the commander carefully load Liara's limp body into the passenger cabin. Joker was already on the comm, feeding them coordinates for a low-orbit rendezvous.

With the Mako buttoned up and the navigation computer tied into Normandy's, there wasn't much else Ashley could do to prep. She popped the seal on her helmet and waited, occasionally casting worried looks over her shoulder at her crewmates.

Shepard had very gently laid Liara across the Mako's deck, then ran a quick scan of her vitals. The scientist's hardsuit and support systems had kept her breathing, kept her heart beating, but could not have protected her from the overload of neural input from the beacon. Gingerly, Jane removed Liara's helmet, then her own. She shifted until Liara's head rested in her lap.

Ashley watched as her CO wiped the streamer of blood from under Liara's nose, and ever so delicately held the scientist's head still while the Mako lurched up into the atmosphere. "We'll be there in a few minutes, Skipper," she said quietly.

Shepard turned bright, worried eyes toward her, and nodded. "Thanks, Chief."

"What happened in there?"

Against all expectations, the other woman gave her a rueful smile. "She discovered another beacon, and had to activate it." Shepard looked back down at Liara and ran light fingertips across her pale blue forehead. "Stubborn," she whispered, then bent and pressed a kiss to Liara's brow.

Suddenly feeling as if she were intruding, Ashley turned back to the Mako's controls to oversee the docking maneuver. Shepard wasn't panicking, so she figured everything was going to be okay. Still, it unsettled her to see Liara taken down, and to see the Spectre's normal icy composure crack even just a little.

She had not understood what made Shepard care about this random asari scientist - not until after Noveria, where Liara had fought at Shepard's side to ultimately kill her own mother. Afterwards in Normandy's mess, she saw Liara sitting alone with a cup of tea, staring blankly at a wall. The rest of the crew gave her a wide berth, but something about the scientist's heartsick expression made Ashley casually stop and ask how she was doing.

The look of unabashed gratitude she got in return made her feel like hell. Here was a woman plainly suffering through an incredibly personal and complicated loss, and all Ashley could do was be jealous of her rapport with their CO. So she'd sat, had some tea of her own, and slowly coaxed Liara into sharing a few childhood stories. It turned out they had a lot in common - absent parents, the burdens of family history, the calling to serve in some capacity. Liara wasn't just a powerful biotic, a gifted thinker and a decent shot; she was nice, and she was hurting.

While Shepard was on her usual ship's rounds a few hours later, Ashley made a point to pull the commander aside and mention that Liara could use the comfort of a friend. Privately, she vowed she herself would be a better friend in the future.

For now that meant she had to get Liara home safely. She kept careful control of the Mako as Normandy's imposing silhouette cut across the thin sky in front of them, and set their wheels down on the ship's landing ramp as gently as possible.

Eight hours later, Ashley was at loose ends. She had helped get Liara to the infirmary, she'd put away her gear and done her post-mission checklist on the Mako. She had even tried to sleep, but ultimately ended up back in the infirmary, watching Shepard watch over Liara. The asari's head was immobilized in a halo scanning device, and the gentle twitters of Doctor Chakwas' instruments assured her that nothing had changed in Liara's condition.

The explosion of neural activity induced by the Prothean beacon had left the scientist incapacitated, much like Shepard herself had been after Eden Prime. Chakwas was cautiously optimistic that Liara would regain consciousness within a few hours, but in the meantime remained none too subtly exasperated that the scientist had managed to get herself hurt in the first place.

"Hey, Skipper," Ashley greeted quietly, not wanting to startle the other woman. "How's she doing?"

"She'll be all right," Jane replied. She tore her eyes away from Liara's face for a scant moment to offer the chief a grateful smile.

"Only because she's damned lucky," grumbled Doctor Chakwas as she approached behind Ashley. "Commander, I thought I specifically recommended avoiding contact with Prothean technology," the she said irritably.

"I did avoid it," Jane complained.

"I think I also mentioned you needing some rest."

"I'm staying," she said firmly.

With that, Ashley saw her opportunity to feel useful. "Commander, I'd be happy to sit with her so you can get some shuteye."

"Doctor T'soni still has a cot set up in my office," Chakwas added helpfully. "You'll be no more than ten meters away."

Jane sighed, feeling the pull of her own exhaustion and knowing the argument was already lost. "You come get me if anything happens," she ordered.

"Somehow, Commander, I suspect you'll know that before either of us do," Chakwas said dryly. Ashley blinked at the comment, but no further explanation seemed to be forthcoming.

"Fine," Jane grumbled, as she pushed herself upright. She took Liara's hand for a moment, gave her preternaturally still form one last look, then turned and disappeared into the infirmary's aft compartment.

"Thank you, Chief. I suspect they could both use a friend right now," Chakwas said, before she returned to her reports.

"Yeah," Ashley breathed, struck by the doctor's choice of words. She sat, and after a hesitant moment reached out to rest her hand on Liara's arm. "So, I hope you don't mind me keeping you company for a few hours," she said. "But I know if you were awake you'd want her to take care of herself." She smiled, thinking about their CO. "You know, I don't get her, most of the time. I mean - look at our crew, right? She takes in a bunch of strays and turns us into intergalactic heroes, all while making it look like she'd planned it from the start." She shrugged. "Hell, maybe she did plan it. If anybody could, it would be her."

She took a deep breath, trying to ease the lingering sense of wobbly fear in her gut. She couldn't shake the feeling that this had been a close call, especially for Shepard. "Anyway," she continued, leaning closer and dropping her voice. "You get better, Liara. Because she needs you, and we sure as hell need her."

When the door closed behind her, Jane almost staggered under the weight of accumulated tension and stress. For hours she'd been bombarded with random Prothean images, sounds, and memories courtesy of her bond with Liara. She knew her lover's brain was trying to tuck the new information away into compartments to be sorted later, just like her own mind had done before. It was terrifying to be on this end of the chaos Liara herself had faced within their joined consciousness.

With a bit of distance, the broadcast was a little less intense, though no less alarming. Underneath the bombardment of Prothean input, Liara was afraid of losing herself.

That, at least, Jane thought she could help with. She sat on the edge of the cot and took a deep breath. She'd never initiated deliberate contact between their minds before, but she was willing to try. During their early missions she'd spent hours here in Liara's makeshift quarters, and her recollection echoed with their moments of mutual discovery and fledging affection. Armed with those memories, she consciously reached out to the noise coming from the direction of Liara's mind, stalwartly beating back the Prothean racket until she found Liara herself, still and clear in the center of it all.

Jane still didn't really understand how they actually communicated when joined in this way, but she reveled in the exchange of feelings and impressions that drew them even closer together, intertwining until she felt entirely cocooned in the warmth of Liara's mind. It was that feeling she took with her as she drifted off to sleep.

In the dream, she was back on Eletania, though it looked a little different.

"No rings," Jane murmured, as she squinted up into the sky.

Liara appeared at her side, looking up with her. "The planet's rings were formed by a moon that imploded several thousand years ago." She stepped past Jane, over the small ridge that led to the Prothean ruins.

Jane jogged to keep up. "Wait, we're sharing dreams now?" she asked. "Is that typical?"

The scientist stopped in her tracks to consider the question. "I do not know. However, there is little about you that is 'typical,' Commander. I suspect our Joining is equally unconventional." Her smile belied the clinical dispassion of her words, and Jane couldn't help but grin back.

"So why are we here?" Jane asked.

In a flash, they had changed location. They were standing in the ruins that were somehow not ruins at all in this timeframe. The structure looked a great deal like the facility they'd seen on Mars, with the unmistakable silver sphere floating dead center.

"According to the beacon, this artifact - and its companion on Mars - post-date all records of the Prothean extinction by several hundred years," Liara said, as she paced around the sphere.

"How is that possible?"

"It is in fact one of the many contingencies Vigil predicted, that a few scattered groups of Prothean survivors would withstand the Reaper invasion, at least for a short time. Presuming they were warned by the last databurst across the beacon network, they could have taken measures to protect themselves. And while Vigil preserved the Prothean braintrust for centuries, the others did this."

"Did what, exactly? Set up observation posts to watch other sentient races develop?" Jane asked.

"They were not mere passive observers," Liara replied. "They actively influenced many worlds."


The scientist shrugged, and took a moment to sort through the new information provided by the Mars beacon. "They created conditions favorable for certain genetic adaptations to thrive. They even encouraged certain less-favorable genetic lines to fail." She cocked her head, looking curiously at Shepard. "Was there not a failed offshoot from what eventually became modern humanity? Neanderthals?"

"Okay, so they helped shape the modern human genome, and took samples of the population and tagged them for observation," Jane said, taking the conversation one species-shaking revelation at a time. "Why did Benezia have the same kind of artifact?"

"I do not know."

"But maybe Sha'ira would," Jane suggested gently.

Liara studied her lover for a moment. "Do you do that often?"

"Do what?"

"Decide upon a course of action, then convince those who follow you to think it was their own idea all along? I know the Normandy is already en route to the Citadel, and I know you have already placed a request to meet with Sha'ira. You are hoping that by leading me to this conclusion about the artifact, I will more readily agree to meet with the Consort." She shook her head. "You are shamelessly manipulative, Commander."

Jane looked sheepish. "People tend to like new ideas better if they think they came up with them in the first place," she explained. "Leadership 101."

"A sound psychological approach." The scientist smiled fondly at her. "I do truly enjoy learning to understand you better."

"So help me understand something in return. Why did you activate that beacon?"

Liara looked away. "I don't know. I am sorry."

"I felt it overwhelm you, Liara." Jane stepped closer and dropped her voice. Her fingers flexed involuntarily with the desire to touch Liara. "I felt you falling away from me. You knew it was a risk. Why?"

"Perhaps I thought it might make me more of a peer to you. More of an equal." She exhaled a faint laugh. "Which seems foolish, when I can feel your emotions the way I can now. It is overwhelming to be held in such regard, and I want desperately to be worthy of it."

Dreamscape or no, Jane gave in to the pull between them and reached out to Liara. Her arms wound around the asari's slim waist, holding her tightly.

"The beacon on Eden Prime changed you, and the Cipher only more so," Liara whispered in her ear, as she returned the embrace. "I wanted to share that with you."

Her words were hypnotic. Jane's eyes slid shut as she pressed even closer. "You could have asked. I would have given it to you freely," she rasped.

"It would not have been the same."

"I know," Jane admitted with a sigh. Like it or not, Prothean technology had fundamentally changed who she was, amplifying her strength and will. Liara had gotten a mere taste of it secondhand, and would be that much more formidable an ally now that she had directly experienced the same effects. Still, Jane was willing to admit she'd been scared out of good sense the moment Liara tumbled to the ground front of that beacon.

"I knew you would find me," Liara said, feeling the undercurrent of fear in the other woman's bearing. She pulled away only far enough to look into Jane's eyes. With one hand she reached up to trace the strong planes of the commander's cheek, lingering over a tiny scar. "We should both rest, now."

Indeed, the tenuous reality of the dream around them was starting to give way. The Prothean din encroached inexorably upon their connection.

"Okay," Jane conceded. "But you're going to be all right?"

Liara leaned in for a gentle kiss. "Of course, Commander. You're here to look after me."

A few hours later, the infirmary's instruments trilled loudly, indicating a change in Liara's condition. Ashley jumped, and immediately looked to Doctor Chakwas as the older woman hurried over.

"Looks like she's on her way back," Chakwas said.

The infirmary's aft compartment opened, and Jane strode out, looking entirely rested. She stepped to Liara's side, smiling down at her as the scientist blinked her eyes open. "Hey," Jane said tenderly.

"Commander," Liara breathed in reply.

Chakwas disengaged the halo scanner holding her in place, and stepped back as Shepard helped Liara sit upright. "How are you feeling, Doctor T'soni?"

"Well rested," Liara answered with a faint smile, before rubbing her forehead. "Though I have a headache."

"Yes, well, that is what seems to happen when your brain suffers a great deal of neural trauma," Chakwas said pointedly. "Especially the Prothean kind of trauma I can't actually treat."

"I was well cared for," the asari assured her. "Thank you."

Jane hit the comm to hail the bridge. "How far are we from the Citadel, Joker?"

"ETA two hours, Commander," he answered. "The Council is requesting to see you."

"I bet they are. Tell them they can wait. Any word from Consort Sha'ira?"

"Aye, Commander. She has requested permission to board once we've docked," he replied.

"Good," Jane said as she eyed Liara, tacitly seeking agreement.

Liara nodded. "Perhaps she will address the Council as well. And I would like to run a molecular comparison of the two artifacts beforehand."

"I would like you to take it easy, Doctor," Chakwas admonished.

"She will," Jane said with certainty. She took Liara's elbow as the asari slid herself off the side of the bed. "Thanks, Doc," she said, then she pinned Ashley with an earnest, intense expression. "Ash. Thank you."

The chief blinked in surprise. "Anytime, Skipper," she managed. She watched them leave, then turned to Chakwas. "Okay, I know I was standing right here, but I still think I missed two-thirds of that conversation."

The doctor only shook her head with a chuckle.

Jane was counting spots.

Her fingertips traced the scattered pattern of tiny white marks across Liara's temple as they reclined together in the commander's bunk. The sharp, driving edge of Liara's lingering headache eased off a fraction at a time, relieved in no small part by her lover's soft touch.

"We should prepare for our arrival at the Citadel," Liara said, fighting off drowsy lassitude. "I still want to run comparative scans on the artifacts."

Shepard ignored her comment. "You know, from the day we met, I wondered what your skin would feel like," she murmured.

The asari smiled and let her eyes slide shut. "You are attempting to distract me, Commander," she chided.

"Maybe, but it's still true. I also wanted to see just how far down those spots went."

Liara chuckled. "Then I will admit I was also curious to see if the rumors I'd heard about humans were true."

"What rumors?" Jane asked, her curiosity piqued.

"You didn't think the sexual habits of the asari are the only ones whispered about in the galaxy, did you?" She could feel the shift as Jane leaned away and stared at her in unabashed interest. She kept her eyes closed, and pretended the flush crawling across her cheeks was not at all apparent.

"What do people say?" Jane asked.

"Nothing that is not immediately obvious. Human metabolism is a great deal faster than comparable asari biological function, for example. Your body temperature is higher, and you have substantially different 'appetites.'"

Jane blinked in amused shock. "Really?"

"Indeed. Many asari express curiosity and envy toward their counterparts with human mates. Or so I am told." She shrugged. "Idle adolescent gossip," Liara concluded, dismissing the notion.

"So you don't think it's accurate."

"You sound offended," Liara observed with a laugh. Giving in, she opened her eyes to see the distinct pout on Jane's face.

"I'm not," Jane protested. "I just... It's important to me that you enjoy this."

"Well, though I must point out that I lack any points of comparison, I admit I do find you to be breathtakingly carnal."

The commander snorted. "Now you're just trying to make me feel better."

"Much as you are doing for me," Liara countered. "You are deliberately impeding me from preparations for what we face next. Like before, on the Citadel. You are 'standing still,' forcing me to slow down alongside you."

Jane looked chagrined, but didn't deny it. "Liara, you just got your entire nervous system fried by powerful ancient technology," she said. "I want you to have the chance to recover before we go charging after the next piece of the puzzle."

"Which is hardly a luxury you have allowed even yourself," the scientist pointed out.

"So maybe I'd like to recover for a while, too." Jane smiled, though the expression was tinged with sadness. "You know, every time we head off to investigate some planet, some space station, some derelict ship... I wonder if we'll both be coming back in one piece." She inhaled deeply and resettled herself on the bunk closer to Liara's warmth. "You once said that the asari take a philosophical approach to love and potential loss. Care to teach me?"

"To be honest, that conversation was quite hypothetical," Liara admitted. "I was merely reciting the common wisdom of my elders."

"Common wisdom, huh?" Jane asked. Her mind's eye helpfully provided the image of Sha'ira, and the obvious sadness she still bore over losing Benezia. It occurred to her that the asari might not be as enlightened - or as detached - as they liked to pretend. "A couple weeks ago, you also said you believed you 'wouldn't have long to live with the burden' of us being bound to each other," she said. "That night before Ilos, I didn't think I'd live long with it, either." Her mouth curled in a sad smile. "I guess I wasn't taking you very seriously with the 'mystical life-changing bond' thing."

"I know," Liara said. "But you were hoping I was right anyway."

"I didn't know I could hope for something like this," Jane replied.

Liara smiled a bit and looked thoughtful. "I have never loved before, and thankfully I have not lost, yet. I am not certain I have it within me to be philosophical about you." With that, she pushed Jane onto her back and shifted until her weight rested across the commander's. She looked down at her companion with hooded eyes. "Though I can assure you, if I ever find myself in the company of young, curious asari, I will be happy to expound upon the many benefits of having a virile human partner." She offered a lascivious grin, while her hands wandered to find the gaps between their respective clothing.

"And what ever happened to that shy, virginal Doctor T'soni I used to know?" Jane asked with a growl. She tilted her head upward to meet Liara for a languorous kiss, which quickly turned more heated as Jane pulled her body even closer, sparking sweet friction.

"ETA twenty minutes to Citadel dock, Commander," came Joker's voice over the comm.

Jane pulled away with a groan. "He really needs to work on his timing," she complained, then smiled up at Liara, who smoothed their rumpled uniforms back into place and propped her chin in the center of Jane's chest. "Are you going to be okay meeting with Sha'ira?"

"I believe so," Liara replied in a small voice. "Though I will be grateful to have a Spectre beside me."

Sha'ira was late. Given the Consort's full calendar of appointments and the short notice of their request, that much wasn't too surprising. At least, that was what Jane tried to explain, before Liara glared at her.

The scientist was pacing in small, agitated circles around the comm room, radiating tension that Jane hardly needed an asari bond to feel.

Finally, Jane pushed herself upright and stepped directly into Liara's path. The other woman stopped pacing half a step away, and kept her eyes planted on a spot just below Jane's chin.

If Liara were a soldier, Jane would have given her an order to be at ease. If Liara were human, Jane probably would have offered some sort of comforting platitude. In lieu of either, she settled for reaching up to her companion's shoulders and giving them a friendly chafe, knowing her mere proximity did wonders for Liara's overall state of mind. She felt Liara heave a sigh and slowly relax.

Jane could see the door to the comm room over Liara's shoulder, and watched it open to admit Sha'ira. "She's here," the Spectre murmured before she stepped away. "Welcome aboard, Sha'ira," she called politely. "Thank you for coming." In her periphery she saw Liara straighten and turn to face the Consort.

For a moment Jane found herself breathless as she watched the two women study each other. Liara's graceful, approachable bearing had seemed so unusual for an asari, and it had drawn Jane's attention from the first. To see it mirrored so exactly by her parent was remarkable.

"Of course, Commander," Sha'ira answered. "I understand you have been busy since we last met." She cast a smile at Liara, then dipped her head in grateful respect. "It is good to see you again, Doctor T'soni."

Liara bowed in return, then looked away, flustered. Half a dozen polite greetings came to mind, then vaporized before her lips could form them. Thankfully, she heard Jane making appropriate pleasantries, which meant she could simply turn and duck into her usual seat. It was hard not to shake out of sheer frustration; she'd spent long weeks convincing Jane and the members of her crew that she was no longer a child, and here the mere presence of this Consort undid her efforts entirely.

"While I certainly do not object to meeting with you, Commander, I admit I am curious as to the source of your urgency," Sha'ira said, as she perched on one of the chairs.

Jane plunked down across from her. "You remember the pendant you gave me?" she asked. She held it up, then held up the matching artifact they'd found on Mars. "Seems we found another one."

Sha'ira's face went very still. "Where exactly did you find that, Commander?"

"On Mars, the next planet out from Earth in our local system."

"And are you aware of the significance of your discovery?" the Consort asked, now looking just the slightest bit rattled.

Liara shared a glance with Jane. "Only in part," the scientist replied. "That's why we're here."

Sha'ira shook her head in bemusement. "It is fortunate that you and your companions have already shaken the foundations of the galaxy's entire political system," she said wryly. "Because this would likely have caused great uproar among the Council." She leveled a gaze at Liara. "The artifact Benezia gave me has been a treasure of the asari for hundreds of years. It was entrusted to a Matriarch to serve as a reminder of our place in the galaxy."

"Your 'place?'" Jane asked.

"As one of the first civilizations to reach out into the surrounding systems, and as one of the very few species directly touched by Prothean influence," the Consort replied. "Our scientists found that artifact in our home system long ago, along with evidence that the Protheans had watched over us, subtly influencing our development." She sat back and studied the two other women for a long moment. "I see by your utter lack of surprise that you have already found similar evidence."

"I saw a vision in a Prothean ruin on Eletania," Jane said, choosing the simplest version of the story. "It seemed to be the imprint of a memory from an early human observing a Prothean probe."

Sha'ira looked impressed. "Remarkable, Commander. Our own scientists only gained fragments of understandable imagery from the probe they located."

"So the Protheans watched over early asari development as well," Liara said, thoughtful. "Why isn't this more widely known?"

"Too dangerous," Jane answered, before Sha'ira could reply. "Too many races in the galaxy would see it as a threat, or as a reason the asari would claim political superiority. Speaking of which, does the Council even know?"

"Each of the Council races have found identical artifacts within their own home systems, Commander," the Consort said. "It is partly why we have allied with each other."

Each of the Council races, Jane thought. That meant turians, salarians, and asari, all harboring secret knowledge that their people were shaped by Prothean hands long before their civilizations even had language to describe the silver spheres following them around. All three great races, all believing they had been destined to meet each other in the voids between worlds, all agreeing to formalize a pact of superiority over the backward peoples untouched by the galactic civilization's progenitors...

Jane found herself gripping the bit of metal from Mars tight in her fist. "Guess it's a good thing they've already admitted humanity to the Council, then," she murmured dangerously, as she stood to relieve a bit of her sudden frustration.

It did not take the Consort's many years of experience with the alien psyche to understand the human's anger. "Commander, you should know that your recent actions have not gone unremarked upon," Sha'ira said. "The ceremony you staged at Earth... it has sent ripples through Council leadership."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means they are re-evaluating their opinions of humanity, Shepard - because of you. You should consider that before you storm into their chambers demanding explanations, which I suspect is your current plan. This calls for delicacy, not military intimidation."

Jane had been scolded on as much previously, after setting off that massive nuclear explosion on Virmire. The criticism still rankled. "I'm not a damned politician," she muttered, acutely aware that she seemed to be apologizing for that fact a lot lately.

The Consort smiled. "You bear considerable authority beyond your role as Spectre, whether you know it or not. The balance of power in the galaxy is changing, which alarms the Council. That change is being driven by human momentum, which alarms them even more. It may be tempting to take their behavior and secrecy personally, but remember that it is because of you that humanity has this opportunity at all."

"The Protheans may have left keys to defeating the Reaper invasion buried in our collective genetic code," Jane said. "And the Council may have possessed the very information we need to survive the entire time."

"Indeed, Commander. But despite the great strides you have made, these are not secrets they are likely to part with easily."

"Then will you come with us? Explain what you know about Benezia's role in our discoveries?" Jane asked.

"Of course," Sha'ira replied. "Though scrutiny into the matter may expose Doctor T'soni's true parentage. I believe the choice should be hers."

Two pairs of expectant eyes turned to Liara, who shied away. "You said the artifact was entrusted to the Matriarch, as a reminder of the asari 'place' in the galaxy," the scientist said, finding her voice once more. "Why, then, did Benezia give it to you?"

"Also as a reminder," Sha'ira replied sadly. "But one of our mutual rank and station, and the reasons why our relationship was not suitable."

Jane grit her teeth at the implication that, to her own people at least, Liara's very existence was considered the product of some ill-advised dalliance. "See, I don't understand that. Just what was so unsuitable about it?" she asked.

"It is considered irresponsible to squander the genetic strength of two asari of such formidable stature on a single combined offspring," Liara answered quietly.

"Are you kidding me?" Jane asked.

"I do not expect you to understand, Commander," the Consort said. "I am certain many of our traditions seem inscrutable to other races."

"You're damn right it's inscrutable," Jane spat. "You and Benezia loved each other, and you had a kid together. There's not a single thing inappropriate about that, except for the part where you disappeared from Liara's life. Tradition and 'stature' aside, there's no excuse for that."

Liara sputtered, feeding off the commander's frustration. "Jane," she began, slipping from her customary formality of address, "Once in this very room you argued that our relationship made you 'unfit' to continue our mission against the Reapers," she cried.

"That was completely different," Jane insisted.

"In what way? You believe that your current station in life - your rank, your position, your responsibilities - makes a romantic liaison with one of your crew irresponsible. And I am quite aware that you still believe that, despite our continuing relationship."

"I've chosen my priorities. And I would sooner resign my commission than abandon my child."

"Such a choice was simply not available to either of us," Sha'ira interjected, quite certain the other women had not planned to formally announce the extent of their involvement to her in such a manner. "And despite your vehemence, Commander, I doubt you would so casually set aside your role in the galaxy's future."

Jane was breathing hard, angry about too many things at once. She whirled away from both women and clenched her fists, willing herself to calm down.

"In any case," the Consort continued, "You might say that Benezia's gift was an especially personal one. And it is likely she had foresight enough to realize that it would someday become quite important to her daughter. I treasured it for many years, but I also knew when it was time to hand it to another." She returned her gaze to Liara. "For what it's worth, I am sorry, Liara. You have never been far from my thoughts."

"I believe I am beginning to understand," Liara said quietly.

"I'm not," Jane grumbled, before being mollified by a kind glance from Liara.

Sha'ira could feel the raw emotion in the room dissipate in the wake of their shared bond and natural affection. She wondered if they even knew what a gift they possessed, and how they communicated so freely without saying a word. It was enough to make her decidedly envious as she thought of her beloved, strong-willed Benezia. "I believe it would be prudent to share what you've found with the Council now," she suggested.

Jane nodded, shaking off sudden, soul-weary exhaustion. "You're right. They're waiting."

Liara stood. "Lady Sha'ira," she began, crisp and formal. "You and Benezia... rather, your Joining." She sighed as her courage faltered. "Would you, that is... Could I..."

The Consort anticipated the general direction of Liara's request and smiled. "I would be honored to someday share with you what she shared with me, Liara. I think you might be surprised by the woman your mother was."

"Thank you," Liara replied, bowing her head in respect.

"You were with her, when she died?" Sha'ira continued. "Perhaps you would be willing to share that with me, as well." With that, she departed, promising to meet them before the Council.

High-minded ideals and "philosophy" aside, Jane could not help but be aware of the depth of the Consort's grief. She mentally added it to the list of reasons to stop the Reapers once and for all.

To their credit, the Council hadn't seemed all that surprised.

"It was only a matter of time," Councillor Tujen declared, folding spindly arms across his chest. "Humanity's trajectory was plotted long before you arrived here, Commander."

It was a rare closed-door Council session, in private chambers hastily prepared for the meeting. As usual, the salarian Tujen joined his turian counterpart Cheis, as well as asari Matriarch Donata. The Council had not yet adjusted to having a fourth species represented among their ranks; the extra chair for David Anderson at the end of the long table was an afterthought, far from the other delegates. The unintentional symbolism was not lost on Jane or her companions - while humanity now had a seat at the table, what they might have to say still didn't carry a lot of weight.

"You knew," Shepard breathed. "You knew that the Protheans had observed us." She chanced a look at Anderson, who shook his head once, indicating that he hadn't yet been briefed on this particular bit of Council business.

"Not explicitly," Donata said. As usual, the asari councillor was the one most patient with their new human charge. "A few centuries ago, salarian scientists discovered a data cache with tracking on the Prothean observations," she said, before hesitating. "There was a list."

"A list," Liara said. "Of species the Protheans had manipulated?"

"We believe so," Donata agreed. "The data storage was badly damaged. We had genetic descriptions of certain species, their approximate locations in the galaxy, but little else. Our scientists had to make a few calculated assumptions."

"And you've been governing by those assumptions ever since," Jane said, aggravated but unsurprised. "Turians, asari, salarians, humans. Anybody I'm missing? Volus? Hanar?" She sat back and studied them. "What about the krogan?"

That hit a sore spot. The turian councillor practically growled at her. "You dare to imply that we would attempt to exterminate a race known to be shaped by the Protheans themselves?"

"I'm sure the Commander meant no such implication," Anderson interjected, slow and cautious. It was the first time he'd spoken in the meeting, and Jane shot him a look of obvious frustration. With a subtle gesture he managed to indicate that she needed to keep her head - and hold her tongue.

"Still," Sha'ira said, as she stepped forward, out of the room's shadows. "It does raise the question - how many more species were on that list?"

"Perhaps the question we should be asking is why an asari Consort takes such an interest in Council matters," Tujen fired back. "Or what her connection may be to a valuable artifact entrusted to an asari Matriarch that ended up in the hands of a human Spectre."

Sha'ira merely folded her hands before her and smiled. "As I am certain you will recall, I am privy to many things, Councillor."

Tujen glared at her, quiet in the face of her subtle threat.

"Okay, look," Jane said, steering the focus away from the Consort and her potentially unsavory associations. "After the Reaper invasion began, scattered Prothean scientists across the galaxy started poking at all of our ancestors. They must have had a reason."

"They knew they themselves were doomed," Liara said, picking up the line of thought. "So they chose to influence the growth of non-spacefaring species still in their developmental infancy - ones the Reapers would ignore."

"To what end?" Cheis scoffed across the table.

"Exactly," Jane said. "We don't know. And we won't until we know everything they tried, everywhere they tried it."

Tujen made a disapproving noise. "You make many suppositions, Commander."

"Most of which have been correct up to this point," Jane said, not bothering to point out that her instincts had saved their lives. "So how about you just tell me who else is on that list."

"All sapient species described in the data cache have been accounted for," Donata offered with a delicate sniff. "Either they are represented in this room, or they are extinct."

"Or they would be, if she hadn't..." Cheis muttered, before stopping himself.

Jane stared at him. "If I hadn't... what?" She remembered Cheis' profound disapproval in the aftermath of her mission on Noveria. "Are you talking about the rachni?"

"Yes, Commander," Cheis said, not disguising his disapproval. "And now you see the fundamental flaw in your theory. Even if the rachni were influenced by the Protheans, they certainly possess no power against the Reapers now."

"I'm not sure I did you any favors, sir," Jane said a few minutes later as she walked alongside her former captain. They lagged several steps behind Liara and Sha'ira as they traversed the Presidium, though Jane kept a watchful eye on the animated discussion between the two asari.

"I'm not sure of that either, Shepard," Anderson said, bemused. "You know, I sent off my letter of resignation to Alliance Command this morning. Hardest thing I've ever done."

"I'm sorry, sir."

"Don't be," Anderson said, not unkindly. "I have work to do here." He watched Liara and Sha'ira disappear into the Consort's chambers, then strode over to a nearby balcony, knowing Shepard would follow. "We both have work to do."

"Yeah," Jane agreed. "I just wish I knew where to start."

He nodded. "How is the Normandy treating you?"

"Best ship in the Fleet," she replied, beaming with pride. "With the best crew."

"And the best commanding officer," Anderson countered. "In hindsight, I don't think I would have made a very good Spectre all those years ago. I know you have some strong opinions about the Council, but I think they made the right choice back then, just as they made the right choice with you."

Taken aback by the frank praise, Jane could do little more than stammer a thank you.

"Good hunting, Commander," Anderson said, giving her shoulder a friendly clap before stepping away to head back to the tower. On his way he passed Liara, and tilted a respectful nod her way.

Again Jane was reminded of the fundamental difference between being a Spectre and being a soldier. She had half expected Anderson to give her orders telling her where to go next, what leads to pursue, what evidence to investigate. Instead, she was left to her own devices, separated from the chain of command that had given her guidance for so long.

In fact, she realized that reporting in to the Council invariably left her with more questions than answers. She sighed and looked out over the flowing water that spanned the Presidium, wondering if the design was original to Reapers or if the Protheans and Council races had imposed their own aesthetic will upon the place. Like the very mystery they sought to solve, the Citadel itself was draped in layer upon layer of history that obfuscated its original intent.

Liara stepped to her side at the railing and hooked her arm around Jane's. "The only progress we seem to make is uncovering more secrets and more lies," she observed, as she too looked out at the peaceful vista of the Presidium.

"'Secrecy is the beginning of tyranny,'" Jane quoted.

The asari frowned. "A human idiom?" she asked.

"Something like that," Jane said with a sigh. "But I think human politics will fit in nicely on the Council. We're good at secrets and lies."

"I too am disappointed," Liara admitted. "I wanted to believe the Council did not resort to such tactics."

Somewhere, Jane was certain, a civics-professor-turned-president was chuckling at their willful naivety. She smiled and spent a long moment simply listening to the artificial rush of water around them. "So what did you and Sha'ira talk about?" she asked.

"Ah, about you, mostly," Liara replied, with a hesitant catch in her voice. "She has concerns."

"Uh oh," Jane muttered.

"Given her position, she has had a great deal of interaction with humanity," Liara continued. "She, like many of my people, finds your species to be charismatic, though brash and impetuous."

The commander shrugged. It was hard to dispute that assessment.

"And she pointed out that more than a few humans have viewed asari companionship as a sort of sexual novelty," Liara said.

That was also hard to dispute, considering they were only minutes away from Chora's Den, where young asari worked explicitly for the pleasure of the club's patrons. Jane winced. "Anything else?" she asked, wary of the potential answer.

"She seemed to imply that if you were to cause harm to my well-being, she would happily use her position to exact some form of revenge." Liara frowned. "It was a most unusual conversation."

"Not for a parent," Jane said, chuckling.

"No, perhaps not for a parent," Liara allowed. "But for me. Of course, I informed her that her opinions are irrelevant, and that you are a gentle, kind, honest person who would not use me in such a way. Then I sort of... stormed out, again." She looked sheepish. "Jane, I must apologize. I did not mean to speak out of turn about our relationship."

Jane laughed aloud, then turned and pulled her lover near for a sweet kiss. "Liara, you can defend my honor any day. Thank you." With that, she took the asari's hand and began the long walk back to the Citadel's docks.

"You are welcome," Liara said, a bit dazed. "Do you know where we are headed next?"

"I think we need to hear the beginning of this story," Jane answered. "At least, the closest thing we can find."

The planet's air had turned seasonally colder, but Feros still made her skin crawl.

It had been a couple months since Jane had last crossed the gangway from the docks to the colony, and since then ExoGeni's band of corporate stooges had made considerable progress rebuilding the place. The rubble had been cleared, the bullet holes were patched, machinery whirred in competent efficiency, and dozens of colonists bustled around, moving equipment and barking orders.

Despite all that, somehow Jane imagined she could still smell the stench of geth incursion and Thorian thrall. She wanted to grab her rifle and sweep the structure all over again.

"This place still creeps me out, Skipper," Ashley muttered, a pace behind her. "Why are we back here, anyway?"

Jane shrugged. "We need to know what was happening in the galaxy fifty thousand years ago. Who better to ask than someone who was there?"

"The Thorian?" Ashley guessed. "But we killed that thing. Didn't we?"

"Not all of it," Jane said, as she caught the eye of May O'Connell, the colony's chief mechanic.

May grinned when she recognized them, and wiped grease from her hands as she sauntered over. "Hey, Shepard. Thought that might be your ship shaking the rafters. Didn't think we'd be seeing you here again."

"Hello, May," Jane greeted with a smile. "How are things going?"

"Not bad, thanks to you. This place might turn into a decent colony yet. Two Spectres here at once is likely to spook the corporate brass, though."

"Can't say I blame them," Jane drawled, catching Liara's look out the corner of her eye. "We'll try not to make as big a mess this time around."

May laughed. "No skin off my nose. Keeps me busy. In fact - I gotta get back to work. Swing by later, and I'll buy you a drink." She waggled her eyebrows at the commander before disappearing into the forest of machinery off the docks.

"You did not know there was another Spectre here," Liara said quietly as they maneuvered around a crawler bearing large crates of scrap metal.

"Nope," Jane agreed. "And we all know Spectres are trouble," she said with a self-deprecating smile. "Split up, and start nosing around. If anybody asks questions, just tell them we're here on Council business. We need to know if that asari commando is still here."

With that, the three women separated. Ashley took the tower up to the Skyway, while Liara headed into the labyrinthine structure below Zhu's Hope, where the Thorian once grew. That left Jane in the colony proper, where ExoGeni had already bolstered their commercial interests with clusters of vendors and researchers.

For the first time in a long while, Jane found herself moving quite anonymously through the normal, everyday activity around her. People gave her armor and weapons little more than a sidelong glance, assuming she was just more corporate security hired by ExoGeni. She savored the rare moment of ordinariness as she simply went along with the tide of colony business.

"Ah, Earth clan," wheezed a diminutive volus at her from behind his stand. "Perhaps I can interest you in some new weapon modifications? Guaranteed to be fully compatible with Alliance military hardware."

Jane smiled, and leaned against the counter. "Sure, I'll look at what you have. What brings a volus trader all the way out here, anyway?"

"If your corporations have anything to say about it, this will soon be a massive hub of new commerce," he explained politely. "I believe you humans have an expression - 'follow the money?'"

Jane chuckled even as a tall shadow loomed behind her. "Don't humans also say, 'money is the root of all evil?'" asked a high, reedy voice that could only come from a salarian.

She cast a casual look over her shoulder. "Let me guess. Spectre?" she asked.

"Groot," the salarian said by way of terse introduction. "Sent here to look after the mess you left, Shepard."

Having recognized her name, the volus made a sputtering noise of alarm and announced that he was due a break. True to May's prediction, two Spectres around at once was a little taxing for his nerves.

"And from what I've seen, 'messy' is your standard operating procedure," Groot continued. "Like leaving an unstable asari commando behind, among innocent civilians." He heaved what could only be interpreted as a salarian sigh. "I'm surprised you didn't just drop a nuclear weapon on the colony and be done with it."

"Nuking Virmire wasn't my idea," she said dryly, certain he already knew it had been a salarian plan all along. "And Shiala wasn't a threat when I left here."

"Well, that's just the point, isn't it?" he asked. "You work fast, and you work sloppy. I suppose you thought you were being compassionate, letting her live. Instead you risked the lives of all of your precious humans on this dirty little world. Ironic."

"Where is she?"

"Why should it matter? You discarded her long ago."

She fought the urge to draw a weapon. "I don't have time to argue with you, Groot. Just tell me where she is," she said, through gritted teeth.

"Where she is now is not my concern, so long as she does not endanger the Council's interests in this colony." He gave her a pointed look, then turned and headed back into the throng of activity.

"Commander," came Liara's voice over the comm.

Jane glared at Groot's retreating form as she reached up to activate her earpiece. "Go ahead."

"I have located Shiala," Liara reported. "I do not believe she is entirely herself, Jane."

The flat tone of her voice and the flood of alarm borne with it sent chills down Jane's spine. "I'm on my way," she barked, as she turned toward the staircase that would take her below Zhu's Hope.

Only a few maintenance crews were working in this section of the ruins, and all of them were happy to stay out of Jane's way as she followed the pull of Liara's unease down the shaft that once housed the massive, ancient Thorian.

This part of the colony remained largely untouched by ExoGeni's cleanup efforts, so she found herself climbing over rubble and leftover creeper bits still smeared across the floor. In the distance, sections of the building shuddered and settled together, stirring up small storms of dust. Finally she spotted Liara peering at her with bright, concerned eyes as she paced outside a massive doorway. The scientist pointed silently into the stairwell beyond, and waited for Jane to step inside and take a look.

Shiala, once a formidable opponent in Jane's mission to track down Saren, now sat curled into a tight ball, nearly fetal in a corner on the landing up the rickety stairs. On the wall above her hung the rotting remains of one of the Thorian's neural nodes. Waves of fear, regret, and sadness poured off her trembling form, swamping Jane in their wake.

"She becomes agitated if I get too close," Liara whispered, pulling the commander from the sea of vicarious distress. Jane eyed the commando, then stepped back into the hallway and drew Liara with her.

"I think I can feel her," Jane said.

"That is not entirely unexpected, given the previous joining of your consciousness," Liara replied.

Jane puffed out a frustrated breath. "You people should really mention the side effects of this sort of thing," she muttered, annoyed. "Can I use that to help her somehow?"

"I do not know. Given your relative lack of experience with asari Joining and her current mental state, I think it is a risk. However, she might be more willing to trust you because of it."

"And by extension, less likely to trust you," the commander noted. "I can sense that much."

"I will leave," Liara volunteered. "Perhaps with adequate distance my presence will disturb her less."

Jane nodded. "Okay." She reached to touch Liara's shoulder briefly, and noticed the other woman wasn't actually going anywhere. "Problem?"

"No," Liara answered, before turning sheepish. "Though I am reluctant to leave you alone with her."

In response she got a full-fledged, feral, first-human-Spectre grin. "I'll be careful," Jane promised. She stroked gentle fingers along Liara's cheek, then watched as the other woman took reluctant steps away and eventually disappeared into the dusty ruins.

Jane took a deep breath, unholstered her pistol, and stepped back into the stairwell. By now, Shiala was speaking, blurting short, terrified sentences in her native language, rocking back and forth a bit. "Hey," Jane called. "Shiala? Can you hear me?"

The asari started, and uncurled just enough to stare back at her, watching as Jane carefully ascended the steps between them. "Have you come to free me?" she demanded.

"From what?" Jane asked softly.

Shiala pressed her palms to her forehead, keening in agony. "From Sovereign. From Saren. I can still hear them, clawing at my mind."

"They're both dead, Shiala. They can't hurt you anymore." Jane approached and bent closer, realizing too late she'd been lured into a trap.

Moving with all the alacrity inherent to a skilled biotic warrior, Shiala shot out a hand and hit Shepard's arm, knocking her weapon away. With her other hand, she got a hold of the Spectre's armor and used her greater strength to tug Jane downward, inches away. The asari uttered an anguished wail, and her eyes went black as she unleashed a torrent of misery through the faint connection they still shared.

Jane spun in the barrage of alien imagery for long seconds before finding a mental foothold and pushing back from the din. She fell to her knees before Shiala and reached out to claw her fingers into the commando's tunic. It was an odd game of telepathic tug of war, the contestants acting as mere proxies for the dead, ancient intelligence they each carried with them - Thorian versus Prothean versus Reaper, all whirled together in a single desperate merging.

Finally, they pushed apart, both women panting with exertion. Jane teetered and rolled to one side, then dragged herself to where her pistol had landed. With shaking hands, she hefted it and pointed it back at Shiala. "I'll free you, if that's what you want," Jane rasped.

"You came back for me," Shiala said in hollow wonder, having plucked the motivations from the human's mind. "You need the Thorian, and I am all that remains of it."

"So help me," Jane entreated her. "Keep fighting Sovereign, and help me."

Shiala slumped back against the wall, aching for the hope the human dangled in front of her. "I did not think I had reason to keep fighting," she admitted. "Forgive me, Commander."

Jane relaxed, letting her head loll until it thunked into the cool stone floor. "Sure, no problem," she said, still breathing hard. She closed her eyes after reseating her pistol in its holster, and tried not to think about the new and improved volumes of chaos that had just been dumped into her brain.

After escorting Shiala to the Normandy and ordering Ashley to keep an eye on their new charge, Jane appropriated a Mako and headed out onto the Skyway. She found Liara standing at the edge of the immense bridge, where it arched over the ruins below. Her eyes were almost shut in a state of dreamy contemplation.

Jane studied the asari's profile with a smile as she climbed out of the Mako and crossed the remaining distance on foot. At quiet, unguarded moments such as this, she could clearly see the softness of youth in Liara's face. It stirred a protective impulse dissonant from all she knew of Liara's ability to take care of herself, much less the woman's actual age. She was starting to get used to the conflicting desires to simultaneously shield Liara from the daily dangers they encountered, and keep dragging her along to the next perilous discovery.

"So, if you ever want to bail on this life of intergalactic intrigue and go back to being a scientist, I'd understand," Jane said, only half kidding. It was an offer she felt she had to keep making.

"There is spirit in this place," the scientist in question said, mostly ignoring the comment. Liara canted her head to one side, as if the rush of the wind past them bore echoes of ancient voices.

Jane had to admit the atmosphere out on the Skyway was a lot more pleasant than in the colony itself; out here, the Thorian's tendrils were far out of reach, and the air was lighter, more clear. She squinted into the pale blue sky. "'I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings,'" she quoted, then ducked Liara's curious glance. "Chief Williams has a penchant for old poetry," she explained. "It rubs off."

Liara smiled. "It fits. Old poetry in an old place," she said. She folded her arms and leaned against the low wall at the edge of the Skyway. "With old stories," she added, dipping her head toward her companion.

"Yeah," Jane said with a sigh.

"You are troubled about Shiala."

"I'm troubled about a lot of things," Jane admitted. "But... she's not doing very well."

"It had seemed she escaped the full effects of Sovereign's indoctrination," Liara said.

"I'm not sure anyone gets to escape it."

"We have."

Jane looked speculative. "I'm starting to wonder. We've both been thinking we could be under some kind of outside influence."

Lacking a ready denial, Liara could only reach out to curl a hand around Jane's arm. "So long as we are protecting people, then we are acting in the galaxy's best interest, Jane. Outside influence or not."

"And if I go too far? Do they send another Spectre after me?" Jane asked, shaking her head in bemusement. "From here it's easy to see the path Saren traveled."

Liara knew that was both figuratively and literally true; they'd raced down this very bridge once before, hunting Saren and trying desperately to decipher his motives. "You know I am with you, no matter the path you choose," she vowed, leaning closer. As usual, she was pulled in by the tenderness in Jane's eyes, and might have kissed her were it not for the movement she spotted over the other woman's shoulder. "There is a salarian walking this way," she said.

Jane winced. "My fellow Spectre. Of course." With a sigh she leaned against the wall and looked at the sprawling vista below, giving in to the petulant desire not to bother acknowledging his approach.

"I trust you will return the Mako to the colony when you are done with it?" Groot called as he drew within earshot.

"Sure," Jane replied. "Wouldn't want to leave any messes behind."

If he noticed her sarcasm, he didn't care. "Very well. I will be doing my normal rounds of the abandoned ExoGeni building."

"We'll be gone by the time you're done," Jane replied. "And we'll be taking Shiala with us."

"Fine," Groot said. "One less mistake of yours that I must account for." Disdain leaked from every syllable he directed toward her.

Jane finally turned and drew to her full height to glare at him. "All right, out with it. What exactly is your problem with me?"

"Nothing, except you are dangerously unworthy of your new position. That, and Spectres tend to die when you're around," the salarian replied.

"Really?" Jane drawled. "I only heard about the two."

Liara dipped her head to hide her smile. She knew full well that Jane was not really so cavalier about the deaths of comrades, but the oozing salarian disrespect had clearly gotten on her last nerve.

Groot glared at her in disgust. "Arrogant human," he pronounced, before looking over at Liara. "With an asari pet. Just like Saren. How coincidental."

That uncomfortable parallel - and its biting relevance to their earlier discussion - was not lost on either woman.

However, the sudden flare of anger Liara felt surprised her. Growing up, she had expected to be treated with derision around the galaxy. Her own people assumed she was young, incompetent, and ill-bred; other races assumed she was a mere object of sexual gratification. She found she'd grown accustomed to the new respect afforded her in Jane's company, because of Jane's own insistence upon it.

"You may be superior among your own puny race, but not here," Groot continued with a sneer. "Not in the Traverse."

"Yeah? So where were you when I was busy saving the galaxy? And the Council? And the Citadel? If I'm so inferior, I should have needed a lot more help." Jane folded her arms, then tilted her head to indicate Liara. "Oh, that's right. I had it."

He reared back with an odd hiss. "Complete your business here and leave, human. Your presence is no longer required." With that, he turned and stalked down the Skyway, off toward ExoGeni's former headquarters.

Jane exhaled slowly, venting the last of a combative impulse. Like him or not, Groot was technically one of the good guys. She turned to Liara, still feeling the sting of her sharp, sudden temper. "Hey. He's an idiot," Jane said.

"I had noticed," Liara replied. Her nostrils flared.

"So, what he said... it was just insecure garbage."

"My mother tried to stop Saren," Liara insisted.

"I know."

"And you and I are equals."

"Yes, we are," Jane said with a smile. She reached up to braille gentle fingertips along Liara's clenched jaw.

She instantly calmed, and looked somewhat abashed. "I am sorry. I had forgotten what that sort of contempt felt like."

"Good," Jane said simply. "Now let's get out of here. Hopefully Shiala will be more coherent with some distance between her and the Thorian." With that, they turned together toward the Mako, though Jane found herself inexplicably hesitating.

A couple hundred meters down the Skyway, she eyed Groot's silhouette as he strode quickly to his appointed checkup at the abandoned corporate headquarters. For a moment, time seemed to stretch as her heartbeat echoed in her ears, and Liara came to a stop at her side. The indistinct, lanky form of the far off alien Spectre was suddenly a whole lot shorter. Then it collapsed.

It was a curiosity of modern weaponry, a corner of her brain noted, that the devastating effects of massively supersonic ammunition could be seen long before you even heard the shot that was fired. Her instincts kicked in before she had conscious awareness of what was happening; she dove to the side, tackling Liara behind one of the large shipping crates that dotted the Skyway even as the distinct crack of the shot thundered past them.

Liara grunted with the impact as she crashed to the deck, and looked up at Jane, alarmed. "What happened?"

"Something just took Groot's head off," Jane snapped, as she reached over her shoulder to activate her sniper rifle. She scooted to the edge of the large metal crate and shouldered the weapon, using the advanced sight to peer far away into the mist that clung to the Skyway.

"An assassin?" Liara asked in dismay. She too had engaged her sniper rifle, and had shifted tentatively to the other side of the crate. "Firing from where?"

"I don't know," the commander said. She replayed the scene in her mind even as she scanned the ancient structures in the distance. The angle of the shot seemed nearly impossible, unless...

"ExoGeni's headquarters is too far away," Liara offered, anticipating her thoughts. "I do not believe there is a human weapon capable of such accuracy from such a distance."

Jane gave Liara a grim look. "Guess we'll find out, huh?" She cocked her head and activated the comm in her ear. "Ash? Secure the colony, and put Normandy on alert. We've got trouble out here."

"Aye, Commander," came the immediate response. "Need me on your six?"

"Negative. Stay put, and make sure nothing gets from the Skyway to the dock," Jane ordered. She cut the transmission and studied the terrain. "We have to get back to the Mako," she said.

Liara nodded, and spared a quick glance to where the vehicle was parked, several dozen meters away and far from cover. "I'll go, and drive it back here." Anticipating the commander's impending argument, she held up her hand and engaged a powerful personal biotic shield with little more than a gesture. "I will be fine, Commander."

"Yeah, okay," Jane said, swallowing any protest she might have wanted to make. On an unspoken cue, she swung around the edge of the crate with her rifle once more just as Liara took off running for the Mako. Long seconds dragged by as Jane listened to the footsteps behind her, waiting for any telltale stutter in Liara's progress. Her breath caught when the steps went quiet, but instead of the throbbing wave of high-powered gunfire, she heard the friendly growl of the Mako's engine. Liara pulled it to a stop next to the crate, and waited for Jane to board.

"Good work," Shepard said, as she ducked into the cabin. "Let's go." She clambered into the vehicle's turret mount, swinging the main gun around toward the end of the Skyway.

They paused for a moment at the site where Groot had fallen, but only long enough to verify that nothing could be done for him. Liara noted the apparent angle of the projectile's impact for Jane's benefit, confirming they were still looking for an assailant hiding out in the abandoned HQ.

This time, of course, the abandoned building was not crawling with geth, and their way was not blocked by alien forcefields. They snuck in to the main entrance with assault rifles at the ready and ducked into the collapsed hallway, just as they had the first time.

Jane paused at the opening to the large atrium, watching the flow of leaking water along the cracked floor while she considered their approach. "The shuttle bays," she said quietly.

Liara nodded. "That would be the most likely vantage point," she confirmed.

Jane checked her scanner, unable to resolve any contacts. The assassin had likely slipped away, hiding in the catacombs of the crumbling building, but her gut told her there was still a threat nearby. Finally, she looked at Liara, gave her a nod, then swung out into the atrium proper, while Liara moved to provide cover. After so long fighting together, their actions were practically reflexive as they moved in tandem to cross the large open space, sweeping it carefully to determine it was clear of hostiles. Repeating their tactics in a few stairwells and a few deserted hallways, they eventually emerged into the cavernous shuttle bays.

Here they slowed, taking small, quiet steps so as not to dislodge any rubble or shattered remnants of geth tech. Jane's scanner sweeps still came up clean, but she wasn't taking any chances as they crept along with their backs to the wall. Finally, they came to an open pressure door that let blinding sunlight and violent gusts of wind into the bay. Just inside the threshold lay the weapon that had killed Groot, now abandoned by its user.

It wasn't so much a rifle as a portable cannon. Jane walked up, swore, and kicked it off its tripod to send it clattering to the floor.

Liara sympathized with her frustration, but didn't let down her guard. After a moment, a blinking light on a panel across the bay caught her eye. "Commander," she called quietly.

Jane turned and spotted the panel. "I thought they'd severed all power to this building," she murmured, and exchanged a glance with Liara. Both women were instantly on full alert again as they stepped over, and Liara automatically watched the commander's back while Jane examined the blinking screen and activated the controls to the pressure door.

The massive metal doors nearby slid shut, blotting out the bright sunlight and revealing a message painted in a crude hand.

"LOOK OUT, SPECTRE," read the text, complete with a rough pictogram.

"What is that?" Liara asked, as she squinted at the ill-rendered figure.

Jane's jaw clenched. "It's a dog with three heads," she said. "Cerberus."

An hour later and safely back on the Normandy, Ashley was studying the rifle with a worried frown. "Well, this sure isn't Alliance hardware," she announced, straightening from her bench. "Without even taking it apart, I count at least six incredibly illegal mods."

Behind her, Jane stood in rigid tension, with her arms folded across her chest. "So they're branching out," she growled.

"Are we sure Cerberus is even behind this?"

Jane shrugged. "Murdering a Spectre is risky business. It would take a special kind of psychopath to take credit for that. Besides, it was a salarian Spectre on a human colony. That fits their MO."

"Yeah," Ashley said. "Thing is, this isn't just a weapon, Skipper. It's a work of art. And it cost a lot to put together. Why just leave it behind?"

"A message, just as clear as what they scrawled on those doors," Jane answered, her voice low and dark. "They're telling me they can get to me whenever and wherever they want." She sighed and turned toward the lift. "Break the damn thing down, Chief," she called over her shoulder. "I want to know everything about that weapon."

"Aye, Commander," Ashley answered, watching the other woman leave with a pensive expression.

Jane stomped into her quarters.

Liara could feel the crest of frustration and anger cascading from her lover as Jane brushed past. The commander kicked a chair out of her way and smacked a hand against the far bulkhead, all while Liara watched carefully. Jane was seething when she flung herself against the wall, breathing hard. It was impossible not to equate the commander's current state with the disillusioned, impotent upset she'd felt when they'd been grounded, when the whole of the galaxy seemed to be turned against them.

Then, like now, all Liara could do was reach out to her, seeking touch and comfort. Then, like now, Jane's temper and frustration evaporated in the face of Liara's stalwart companionship. She took Liara's hand, studied the delicate, alien fingers, then pulled the other woman close for a full-body hug.

The contact, and the feeling of Jane's strength literally wrapped around her made Liara's breath catch. She felt her companion's shuddering exhale against the side of her face.

"I have been wanting to do this all day," Jane admitted.

"I was not sure you would want company," Liara said softly.

"Yours? Always." Jane pulled away and favored Liara with a slow, sexy smile. "I'm glad you're here."

"Do you wish to talk about..." Liara began.

"No," Jane interjected, before leaning in for an abrupt, heady kiss.

With a bit of fumbling and tripping over hastily discarded clothing, they spun headlong toward the nearest horizontal surface. Their landing on the bunk wasn't exactly square, and a few limbs got tangled in the process, but it didn't matter. Jane was on a mission, and damned if she wasn't good at completing missions.

Liara found herself looking down at dark, desperate eyes as she bent over her lover in wanton need. She wondered if Jane knew how open she was at times like this. She could so easily read Jane's apprehension and worry for her crew, the subtle panic that she might not act quickly enough or decisively enough to save them all. For a moment, Jane's normal unbruisable confidence bled through with longing, which Liara couldn't help but return. It was beautiful, even in the midst of frenzied coupling that was probably more about mutual stress relief than love.

Afterwards, even as Jane panted the trailing end of her satisfaction against Liara's cheek, the commander was shoring up her composure once more, retreating within herself. Liara braced for the inevitable moment of loss of their contact, but instead felt Jane hesitate.

"I love you," Jane whispered, shutting those dark, desperate eyes against the vulnerability of the feeling. "So much, Liara."

The sensation behind the words hit Liara with telepathic force that spawned a climax of such intensity she couldn't help but share it. Jane cried out in surprise as they arched together and tremors overtook them both, violent enough that her vision throbbed in time with her heartbeat, and her ears began to ring.

Long minutes later, she was still quite depleted, with Liara sprawled bonelessly on top of her.

"That was different," Jane said, allowing herself a grin. She heard Liara make a weak noise of agreement, before the asari lifted her head and looked down at her in a daze.

"I... do not know what happened," Liara said.

"'Sokay, I think I can guess." Jane tugged a sheet over them and relaxed, already half asleep.

"I love you, too."

The commander chuckled, unsurprised at the sweet spasm of joy in her chest. "Yeah, I noticed."

Tucked in a compartment behind Normandy's sleeper pods, Shiala could feel reverberations in the remnants of her bond with Shepard, and she loosed a shuddering, grateful sigh. She hadn't meant to eavesdrop on the other woman's moment of intimacy, but the sensation was such a vast improvement over the residual psychic noise of the Thorian it left her almost dizzy with relief. She pulled her legs tighter against her chest and willed herself to go to sleep.

The sound of booted footsteps on the metal deck approached, pulling her from a meditative doze. Shiala looked up to see Chief Williams frowning down at her.

"How are you feeling?" Ashley asked.

It was hard to tell if the question was any more than the perfunctory courtesy humans tended to lob at other species. "Better, thank you," Shiala replied cautiously.

"We could find you a proper bunk, you know."

"I am fine," the asari insisted.

Ashley nodded and stared hard at a bulkhead, spending a moment in obvious internal debate.

"Is there something you require of me?" Shiala asked.

"No," Ashley snapped, before sighing. "Maybe. Asari commandos receive weapons training, right?"

"Among the most comprehensive training in the galaxy," Shiala confirmed.

"Yeah, I figured. Thing is, I have a pretty exotic rifle down in the garage that Shepard wants me to analyze. Some of the mods are alien, so I'm guessing you might be able to do more with them than I can."

Shiala blinked. Her mind dredged up an unhelpful Thorian-assisted memory of her clone hunting this human in the bowels of Zhu's Hope.

"Look, if you don't want to help, I can leave you to your sitting," Ashley said, with an impatient wave of her hand.

"No," the asari replied quickly. "I would like to assist. Thank you." She pushed herself upright, and allowed Ashley to lead her toward the garage.

In the elevator down to the engineering deck, Shiala studied the human's profile. "I must admit, Chief Williams - I was not expecting you to trust me. Not after..."

"After you tried to kill us?" Ashley snorted. "That actually happens more often than you'd think. Thing is, you wouldn't be here if Shepard didn't think you could contribute. If the Skipper says you're okay, then that's good enough for me."

Studying the tension in the other woman's bearing, Shiala knew differently, but appreciated the sentiment anyway. She figured Ashley Williams was not one to trust easily - alien, former enemy, or not. It was suddenly very important to the wayward asari to find a way to earn that trust, sensing it to be a treasure worthy of the effort.

The first step, she decided, was solving the mystery of a salarian Spectre's death.

"It had to be someone already within the colony," Liara murmured. She was still snuggled into the commander's bunk, enjoying the lingering warmth of their Joining.

Jane sighed. "Yep." She pulled on a boot, then peered around to locate the other one.

Liara frowned, feeling her way through the complex layers of the bond they shared. "You already know who the assassin is," she breathed.

"I have a damned good idea," Jane replied. "That rifle was using the power cells we pulled out of the tunnels off Zhu's Hope."

"The cells you gave to May O'Connell."

The commander nodded. "And I'm pretty sure that's no coincidence, which is why I'm having Ash dissect that thing for proof. In the meantime, we're rigged for silent running, and from our current position we'll be able to detect any ships leaving the colony. I've already got Joker tapped into the local comm buoy just in case she tries to signal anyone." She muttered a brief curse as she ducked to look under the bunk. "How the hell did my shoe get all the way down there?"

"We were rather energetic," Liara said with a sleepy smile.

Jane tugged on the stray footwear, then knelt by the side of the bed. "That we were," she agreed. She grinned, intending to crack the expected lecherous innuendo, but instead found herself caught by the shy, trusting expression on Liara's face. She leaned forward and planted a gentle kiss on Liara's brow. "Get some rest. I'm gonna go kick the Chief's ass."

Of course Liara wasn't about to let her get away without an explanation for the odd shift in her demeanor. "What is it?" she called, as Jane strode across her quarters toward the door.

Jane blew out an embarrassed breath that ruffled her bangs, then spun round on her heel. "You're too beautiful to make jokes about. That's all."

"And here I thought crewmembers in the Alliance Navy prided themselves on their frequent use of crude witticisms," Liara teased, looking no less pleased at the compliment. "You disappoint me, Commander."

"Yeah, well. I think Spectres are supposed to be a little more diplomatic, especially when we deal 'closely' with other races."

"I see. So in the interest of intergalactic 'relations,' it would probably not be appropriate for you to explore any of those fantasies you think I haven't noticed yet."

Jane's eyes widened, and she forced out a hoarse cough. "No. Not appropriate at all."

"Hmm. How unfortunate. A few of them sounded like fun." Liara shut her eyes and settled more comfortably into the covers.

Jane blinked at the other woman for a good five seconds before shaking her head and turning back toward the door. "God, I hate diplomacy," she muttered, unable to restrain a rueful smirk as Liara's light laughter followed her.

"Twenty credits on the asari," boomed Wrex's deep voice from the garage as Jane stepped off the lift.

Beside him, Garrus nodded primly. "I will take that bet."

"It is not a fair contest," Tali complained. "Chief Williams has gained the advantage by already familiarizing herself with the weapon."

Ashley snorted in disbelief. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "It took me three hours just to figure out the barrel mount, and I'm pretty sure I stripped the threads when I reassembled it. I'd hardly call that an advantage."

Jane hung back, unseen by the small crowd of unlikely weapons enthusiasts as they clustered around the chief's workbench.

"Very well," Tali concluded. "Fifty credits on Shiala."

Ashley gave her a wolfish grin. "I always like a challenge. You up for this, Commando?"

Bemused and nearly forgotten in the contest of collegial soldier posturing, Shiala could only shrug. "I suppose so," she said. "The task is simply to dismantle the weapon, then reassemble it in the quickest time possible - is that correct?"

"Yeah. It's an old marine training technique," Ashley explained.

Shiala nodded. "We practice similar rituals," she said. "As children."

Wrex barked out a harsh laugh, earning a glare from Ashley. The chief stepped forward, and cracked her knuckles in preparation.

"Fine," she said. "I'll even go first. Tali, go ahead and time me."

The quarian obligingly activated her handset and set it to function as a timer. "Begin!"

Self-deprecating patter not withstanding, Ashley knew exactly what she was doing. Her hands moved in economical, precise motions as she twisted the rifle's components apart, disengaged the tiny element zero impeller, and dismantled the complicated modifications that made the weapon ever more deadly. The group of observers grew progressively more impressed, even as she thumped the barrel down on the bench and raised her hands to indicate the first half of her task was complete.

"Thirty-two seconds," Tali announced.

Now came the hard part. Jane found herself leaning forward as Ashley reversed the process, rethreading the tiny, complicated bits back together. The mods may have been alien, but their unfamiliarity was belied by the confidence of her movements. If the weapon itself was a work of art, Ashley was the artist who innately understood its intricacies, and how to put them to use for lethal purpose.

Finally, Ashley hefted the weapon and swung it out toward the garage to clear the chamber and prep for a dry test fire, inadvertently catching Shepard in her sights. She faltered, even as Tali declared the final time. "Sorry, Commander," Ashley said, wincing.

Jane waved her off with a dismissive gesture before stepping closer and giving her senior crew an appraising glance. "That was nice work. But I think I'll be covering the Chief's bets from now on." With that mild admonishment, they dispersed in a hurry, leaving Ashley and Shiala behind. Jane jerked her chin at the weapon still in Ashley's hands. "What have you found out?"

"Prototype mods stolen from at least three different companies," Ashley reported. She set the rifle down on her bench. "The serial numbers are conveniently missing, but Shiala recognizes some of them as tech developed by the Armali consortium. I've also identified microstabilizers from a turian research firm, and a heat sink from the volus."

Jane scowled. "Stolen alien tech on a human isolationist weapon," she said. "Maybe they think they're being ironic?"

"It is a most impressive design," Shiala offered. "Logically, the weapon was built for function, not as a political statement."

"Maybe," the commander allowed. "And with the influx of trade into Feros, it wouldn't be hard to smuggle this stuff in, piece by piece. But why kill a Spectre?"

"That too could be a matter of function, and not of politics," Shiala said, hesitating when Jane's sharp gaze swung to hers. "This organization likely wishes to exert control over you by distracting you from your own objectives."

It made a great deal of sense, Jane thought as she leaned closer to the rifle, studying the swirls of element zero in its power core. Cerberus was all about covert, subtle pragmatism, which was why they'd flown under the radar of galactic security for so long. They would not recklessly attack. They would not do something strictly to gain attention, unless it diverted attention from something else.

Joker's voice broke in over the intercom. "Commander? Just got orders from the Council. They want us to report back to the Citadel ASAP."

Jane didn't bother acknowledging the page, instead continuing to turn over the scenario in her busy mind. "Cerberus has at least two agents on the colony," she said abruptly. "One was the shooter, but killing Groot wasn't their main mission."

"How do you figure, Skipper?" Ashley asked.

"They waited until Groot's patrol took him outside Zhu's Hope," Jane said. "Maybe they originally just meant to get his attention, so he'd find the rifle and the message in the shuttle bay."

"But suddenly there are two Spectres around, and they need to keep you both from spending too much time in Zhu's Hope," Ashley said, carrying the train of thought forward. "Why?"

Both humans turned curious eyes to Shiala, who could only shake her head. "I was indisposed, Commander," she said, embarrassed. "I did not notice anything unusual."

"Yeah. And maybe that was intentional," Jane said. Her brow drew together in a dark, menacing scowl. "Though I think their plan to distract me just backfired. I'm tired of being manipulated by these thugs."

Two hours later, the Normandy was once again roaring through Feros' atmosphere, this time gliding low over the terrain with its stealth systems engaged. The garage ramp dropped, letting air rip through the belly of the ship in angry gusts.

Jane walked toward the ramp, watching the trees in the valleys below blur into an indistinct mass of yellow-green foliage. She slung her helmet over her head and clamped the seal to her hardsuit, then just stood and let the wind tug at her limbs while she listened to to Joker's steady, ongoing reports of their position.

Ashley stepped to her side. "You sure about this, Skipper?" she yelled over the noise.

"Cerberus went to a lot of trouble to divert our attention down there," Jane called back. "I want to know why."

"I meant the part where we leave you here without backup," the chief said. "It's too dangerous."

Jane smiled. "I'll have Tali and Garrus. We'll be fine."

"I meant..." Ashley stopped and sighed. "Commander, I'd feel better if I was the one watching your back."

"I know," Jane replied. She looked over her shoulder, unsurprised to see Liara hovering in the back of the garage, watching her. "But I need you here," she continued, returning her attention to the chief. "Keep an eye on things while Liara briefs the Council."

"You mean, babysit the semi-coherent asari Commando hiding behind the sleeper pods?" Ashley asked with a snort. "Yeah, I can do that."

At that, Jane turned to face the other woman with a serious expression. "No," she said, her voice menacing and low even as it rumbled above the wind noise. "I mean, look after my ship and my crew, because I know I can trust you with their well-being."

The chief's typical sarcastic reserve fell away under Jane's gaze. Such bravado was a convenient shield for someone who carried the infamy of family dishonor everywhere she went. She tended to forget that Jane Shepard had never cared about that ancient history; she only demanded the best her people had to offer in the present.

Ashley lifted her chin, and snapped off a smart salute. "Aye, Commander," she said. Jane nodded a dismissal, and tried not to smile as the chief marched off.

Over the comm, Joker reported they were drawing nearer to the colony, and he was slowing the ship's approach. Jane flexed her fingers in anticipation. A storm front had settled over the colony at twilight, turning the sky an eerie dark green, and buffeting the ship. It was the perfect additional cover for a stealth vessel darting through clouds, as no one was likely to notice their engines over the rumbling thunder.

It occurred to her that on some level she was taking this all very personally. Cerberus' activities across the galaxy were neither her fault, nor her responsibility. The Council had not called upon her to take them down, nor to uncover their motivations for murdering a Spectre.

Even knowing that, she could not resist the desire to hunt the people responsible and make them pay. It was self-righteous vigilantism, it was dangerous, and it was completely intoxicating. A corner of her brain kept wanting to remind her that maybe she really was the great hope of all humanity, the best and brightest her species had to offer. Maybe she really did have a responsibility to redeem her kind all over the galaxy, especially the renegade offshoots like Cerberus and Terra Firma.

Even as she thought it, another part of her mind scolded her hubris. Maybe she was just beginning to believe her own hype.

The notion made her instantly, intensely uncomfortable. She was just a soldier. She had taken an oath to protect her planet, her people, and the innocents she encountered - that was all. She was not some sort of savior. She sighed, noting that Garrus and Tali had stepped to her side, suited up and ready to follow her.

Just like Liara was ready to follow her to hell and back.

Just like Kaidan was willing to die on a distant alien world.

Just like Wrex was willing to forego finding the salvation for his people.

Just like Ashley was willing to be the soldier she never thought she actually could be.

All because Jane asked them to.

She couldn't specifically remember it, but she might have once harbored dreams of being a hero - perhaps as a child in the dusty streets of her home prefecture, looking up at the stars. She certainly had never imagined the true weight of such a burden.

In her head, a voice that was not her own reverberated gently. I love you. Be safe.

Jane grinned, feeling the familiar warmth of Liara behind her. For a moment, heroism was not quite so daunting. She echoed the sentiment in return, squared her shoulders, then ran and jumped off the edge of the ramp, tumbling headlong into the gathering storm.

Garrus had taken point, eager to mete out a little aggressive justice against the renegades hiding in the colony. They scaled the rises and ledges leading to Zhu's Hope, following Tali's direction as she scanned for anomalies. It stood to reason the perpetrators had smuggled in other contraband besides the weapon mods, and that they'd tucked it in a cache away from the colony, which had so recently been under Spectre scrutiny.

They made a subdued, efficient team. Jane found she rather missed Ashley's smartassed remarks, and Liara... well, Liara made a lot of things a lot more bearable. What surprised Jane most was how she felt like she had one hand tied behind her back. Long before they'd ever joined, Liara had served almost as an extension of Jane's own cognizance; they anticipated each other and shared tactical information without effort. In Liara's absence, it became even more obvious that they had changed each other in subtle, profound ways.

Still, instinct had led Jane to divide their resources this time around, and she'd relied on her instincts far longer than she'd relied on Liara. Even knowing how hampered she felt by the loss of rapport with her usual team, she was certain it was the right call.

"Commander, my scanner has been scrambled," Tali reported, calm and quiet as always. All three immediately stopped and dropped low to the ground, using the scrubby trees and tumbled rocks for cover.

"That's not likely to be a natural occurrence," Jane said.

"No, Commander," Tali agreed, while offering a valiant attempt not to appear nervous. During geth incursion, sensor readouts dissolving to snow was usually the first sign of impending ambush.

Jane stared into the darkness. There might have been a flicker above them, like a campfire, but it was gone too quickly for her to pinpoint.

A rifle shot cracked loudly across the valley, and the impact caught Jane in the shoulder. Her shields slowed the round, but it smacked solidly into her armor and smarted like hell. A shadow took off from hidden shelter up the hill as Jane and her team ducked behind more secure cover.

"If there are multiple agents, one would likely be left behind to destroy evidence," Garrus said, eyeing Shepard while she clenched her teeth against the pain of the bullet's impact.

"Right," Jane said, panting. "You two head up and find their camp." Not bothering to wait for a response, she rolled away from her cover and took off after the lean form disappearing in the brush. The encroaching darkness worked against her as she ran, and she concentrated on keeping her footing while she pursued her quarry. Lightning split the night wide open, leaving bright, glaring imprints on her vision, even as she got a clear view of the scrambling figure for the first time. It was Ethan Jeong, the only ExoGeni stooge to survive the initial geth invasion.

"Jeong! Stop!" she yelled. She reached over her shoulder to grab her assault rifle. Roaring thunder punctuated her order as the storm finally broke overhead.

He hesitated on top of a jagged ridge, then stumbled and disappeared. Jane repeated her command as she pelted up after him, blinking against the rain and barely skidding to a halt in time to prevent plunging into the cavernous void beyond. Lightning flashed again, revealing Jeong's broken body sprawled a hundred meters below.

With a sigh of resignation, Jane stowed her rifle and pressed a hand to her sore shoulder. The rain rolled down her face while she caught her breath, and blurred her vision as she retraced her steps down the ridge.

Shiala entered Shepard's quarters at Liara's invitation. "Thank you for agreeing to see me," the commando said, with a gracious dip of her head. "I wished to speak with you. To apologize, for my role in Benezia's downfall."

"Benezia's choices were her own," Liara replied, gesturing for Shiala to join her at the table.

"They were not," Shiala insisted as she sat. "Not entirely. Sovereign had influence she could not begin to predict or control. I admit I find it remarkable that Commander Shepard was able to resist it at all."

"She has a very unique mind," Liara said with a smile.

"One more Prothean than human, it seems."

The scientist had no ready answer for that, so she merely folded her hands on the table and waited, knowing they had reached the real reason for Shiala's visit.

The commando leaned forward, looming large and imposing in Liara's field of vision. "She gave you the Cipher." It wasn't a question.

"Yes," Liara replied.

"Does she know what you intend to do with it?"

Liara exhaled a nervous laugh. "I do not even know what I intend to do with it."

"Hey, Doc? We'll be at a comm buoy in twenty," Joker announced over the comm.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Liara replied, casting a polite look upward.

"Won't the Council object to receiving a report from a Spectre's surrogate?" Shiala asked.

"I am not a 'surrogate.' I am a witness to Groot's murder."

After a moment, Shiala leaned away, looking troubled. "Forgive me. I have presumed."

"You haven't," Liara countered. "You are as much involved as we are. Without you, the Cipher would have been lost."

"It is almost as if the Protheans planned this very chain of events."

"In a way, they did." Liara stood and crossed to the computer, pulling up schematics of the artifact she'd found on Mars. "They seeded the worlds of infant races with the genetic propensity to use the technology they left behind. It is why those of human, asari, and turian physiology are able to use the beacons even in limited fashion. The Protheans planted the seeds of their own rebirth."

Shiala remained quiet, studying the profile of the younger asari as she worked the computer's controls. "Benezia knew something like this would happen," she said finally. "She knew your fate to be tied to the Protheans from the start."

It had been a while since Liara had really even thought about her mother, and the realization saddened her. "You served her for a long time?" she asked quietly.

"Since I completed my training," Shiala confirmed. "I admired her a great deal. Enough to forego Spectre selection and remain in her service." She offered a small smile in response to Liara's startled look.

"I always thought Spectres were comparatively rare," the younger woman said. "Instead I seem to be surrounded by them these days."

"Like your mother, you attract greatness," Shiala said, with utter sincerity. "It gravitates toward you because of who you are."

Reflexively, Liara wanted to deny it, to claim that greatness gravitated toward Jane Shepard, and she only happened to be in proximity. Instead she sighed, then looked down to study her hands.

"I am deeply grieved by Benezia's death," Shiala continued. "Just as I am grieved by my own role in Saren's crusade. I hope you will let me continue to serve here, to make right my mistakes. As you say, I am as involved as you. I would like the chance to earn that honor."

"That is Commander Shepard's decision," Liara said. "Though I suspect your presence here is indicative of her choice."

"Of course," Shiala replied, as she stood and directed a rather pointed look at their surroundings. "Though I suspect you underestimate your influence upon her, and the events that unfold around her." With that declaration she ducked out of the commander's quarters, leaving a discomfited Liara in her wake.

"You're under arrest," Garrus barked, as he hauled May O'Connell bodily into the fitful firelight that illuminated her ramshackle hideout. The colonist swore and kicked at him before stumbling to her knees.

"At ease, Garrus," Jane called, her voice low and foreboding. She stepped into the shelter, and shook some of the rain from her head. She folded her arms and looked down at May's sullen glare. "Who do you work for?" she asked the prisoner.

"The human race," May snarled.

Jane let loose the reins of her temper and surged forward, catching May by her throat and hauling her upward until the woman's feet dangled well off the floor. The servos in the joints of her hardsuit helped, but the feat of strength was mostly borne by Jane's own seething indignation. Her eyes narrowed coldly as she watched May's face turn purple. "All right. We'll do this the hard way. You tell me what Cerberus is hiding on this planet, and I won't toss you into the ravine where your friend Jeong just broke every bone in his body."

"You can't!" May cried, garbled around Shepard's grip. Her body writhed, suspended too far from support and losing oxygen rapidly.

"Wanna bet? I'm a Spectre. No rules, May. And not a goddamned person will miss you."

The colonist struggled a moment longer before relenting, knowing even in her panic that the Spectre would get her answer regardless of whether her prisoner lived through the experience. "The Thorian. We were taking samples."

"For what?"

"I don't know," May rasped. Her eyes bulged in patent fear as Shepard's fingers closed tighter. "I swear, Shepard. They didn't tell me."

Summoning one last burst of brute strength, Jane flexed her arm, then tossed the renegade's body backwards, into the crumbling wall.

May slid heavily to the ground, coughing and gasping loudly for air. Jane listened to the harsh, wretched sounds, and could feel Garrus and Tali watching her. Their wide-eyed, fearful respect settled heavy and sick around her chest.

She hadn't wanted to do it this way.

"Where do you get your orders?" Garrus asked after a moment.

"Jeong got them from ExoGeni brass," May said. She hung her head and didn't bother looking back up at her captors. "Cerberus owns them. Or maybe it's the other way around, I don't know."

"You were taking samples of the Thorian. I thought the thrall broke after the thing died," Jane said.

"It did. But Jeong thought the neurotransmitters that thing secreted were still worth collecting." She looked up at Jane with dull anger. "Is he really dead?"

"Yeah, impact trauma from a hundred meter fall will do that to a guy," Jane answered.

"You killed him."

"Nope. I didn't have the satisfaction."

"You killed him," May asserted again. "Just like you killed the salarian. Just like you're killing humanity."

Jane dropped to one knee before the renegade. "Let's pretend I'm even stupider than you think I am, and you go ahead and explain that to me. Just what does Cerberus want?"

"We want humanity to be strong. Unpolluted by alien influence."

Jane snorted, thinking of the evidence they'd already discovered of Protheans interfering with early human development. "If you only knew just how long ago that ship sailed."

May wasn't paying attention, lost in the litany of Cerberus' dogma. "The other races are weak. They will hold us back." She cast disdainful eyes up at Tali and Garrus, before looking back at Jane. "Then there's you, Shepard. You want us to rely on them. That makes you more dangerous than any alien."

"I keep hearing that. And I keep noticing that aliens aren't the ones shooting at me these days."

May tossed her head in disgust. "I should've taken out your girlfriend instead. Maybe that would make you see reason." She smirked one last time before reddish foam flecked at her lips. Jane lunged forward and grabbed the woman by her collar, but it was too late; the fast-acting poison had already eaten through most of the renegade's internal organs. She went slack in Jane's grip, though her eyes remained open, looking straight ahead in a taunting, glassy stare.

Garrus leaned in and pried open her mouth. "A biotic capsule implanted in her teeth," he said, having seen such devices frequently among smugglers on the Citadel. "Typical capture failsafe. Nothing you could do, Shepard."

Jane released May, feeling ill as the renegade's body drooped lifelessly to the ground. "What a waste," she muttered, referring to May, to Jeong, to all the lives lost on Feros in the name of corporate greed. She pushed herself to her feet, then looked to Tali. "What were they hiding?"

"Shipping containers," the quarian answered. "The same kind the colony has been using for general freight."

Jane stepped past May's body and ducked into the small storage space she and Jeong had been guarding. One of the crates was still open, and she could see dozens of tiny capsules for biological samples.

"They were packed and ready to move, Commander," Garrus said. "Another few hours and this all would have disappeared into ExoGeni's corporate inventory." He shrugged. "They might even have a ship in the system already."

"They might," Jane agreed, distracted. "Tali, did you find their scrambler?"

"Yes. I was about to disable it."

"Don't," Jane said. "We take the samples, but leave the rest. Make Cerberus do some guessing for once."

Liara stood in the comm room, waiting for the Council's transmission to resolve. Despite her claim to the contrary, she knew the Council would not be pleased to hear from her in place of their appointed Spectre. She took a deep breath, mentally ordering her thoughts to give a concise, accurate report.

Beneath her feet, the deck lurched with a sudden impact, tossing her across the room and slamming her into a bulkhead. She struggled to retain consciousness and failed, watching the stars twist out the viewport as she drifted into darkness.

Down in the garage, Ashley swore as she picked herself up from the deck, then smacked at her comm relay. "Joker! What the hell was that?" Nearby, Wrex was on his back, blinking in vague bemusement, like a turtle that had been flipped onto its shell.

"We're under attack!" Joker yelled in response. The ship yawed wildly as he initiated evasive maneuvers, and Ashley swallowed against the dizzy pressure that spun through her vestibular system.

"I thought the stealth systems were on," she barked.

"They are."

It was an abrupt moment of clarity, when so many coincidental events lined up in front of Ashley at once, and she could see exactly why Shepard had left her behind. "Shit," she said, before grabbing her sidearm and heading for the command deck.

Ashley swore again as she stumbled on the stairs up to the CIC. She finally burst onto the deck with gun drawn, aiming at Navigator Pressly. The security guard stationed at the door started, and drew his own weapon.

Across the deck, the other door from the stairs slid open, revealing an armed asari Commando. Shiala deftly stepped around the nearby guard and delivered a sharp elbow to his nose, directing her attention to the rest of the CIC even as the man behind her slid unconscious to the floor.

It was a tense tableau, with entirely too many drawn weapons. Ashley stepped forward. "Pressly, step away from the console."

"Can't do that, Chief," he replied. Sweat beaded on his brow. "In case you haven't noticed, we're under attack."

Out of the corner of her eye, Ashley watched Shiala, unable to decipher the Commando's stern, unyielding expression. Whose side was she on?

The guard behind Ashley looked helplessly confused, and finally came to a decision. "Chief, you need to drop your weapon," he said. The order might have been more authoritative if his voice hadn't cracked.

The deck buckled again as they took another direct hit. From engineering, panicked reports flooded in of imminent containment failure of the element zero module. Finally, Shiala swung her rifle around to point at the guard. "Stand down," she ordered, her own voice and aim steady while the ship rumbled under their feet.

That broke the stalemate. The guard relented and dropped his weapon, and Ashley advanced on Pressly.

"Step away from the console, sir," she growled.

"Not going to happen, Chief." The hissing sound of ruptured coolant lines underscored his defiance.

"We don't have time for this," Ashley said. She dropped her aim, pulled the trigger, and shot Pressly in the thigh. As he yelped and crumpled to the deck, she stepped over him and studied his panel.

The rest of the CIC stood frozen in shock, held in place by the periodic sweep of Shiala's assault rifle.

"Thought so," Ashley muttered. She keyed in a command sequence, then hit the comm. "Joker? How are we doing?"

"I'm a little busy, Chief," he replied, his voice tight with concentration. "Who the hell is shooting things back there?"

Ashley looked down at Pressly's writhing form on the deck. "Just a little pest control problem. Can you shake 'em?"

"Think so," he said. "They're not anticipating me anymore."

Already the ship seemed to be under less duress, as the shots to the hull subsided and Joker's erratic flight leveled out. The rest of the officers on the CIC returned to their work, keeping one eye on Ashley as she dragged a whimpering Navigator Pressly away from his station. She glared at the confused security guard, and ordered him to get Pressly to the infirmary.

Shiala had holstered her rifle and settled into a ready, watchful stance. She dipped her head toward Ashley, indicating she had the situation well in hand. With that, Ashley took a deep breath and stalked up the deck to the bridge. Feros loomed large in the ship's windows as they swooped toward the surface.

"We've lost them," Joker reported. "The stealth systems have been damaged, but I'm using the atmosphere to hide our exhaust."

"Who was it?" Ashley asked.

"They weren't broadcasting ID codes. Looked like a pirate corsair." He looked back at her. "Someone on board laying breadcrumbs?"

"Looks that way," she replied. "Get us to the rendezvous point."

"Yes ma'am," Joker answered, as he returned his attention to the controls. He wondered which would piss Shepard off more - a traitor hiding on board, or the damage he'd done to her ship.

Jane was ashamed of herself for being relieved the blood on the deck was human.

Ashley stood in the CIC at parade rest, flanked by sheepish security officers, one of whom had a bandage on his nose. Shiala stood off to one side, still armed but otherwise appearing quite unconcerned.

The commander approached with slow steps, taking a moment to process what she was seeing. "Report," Jane ordered, quietly.

The security officers looked to each other in confusion. For several seconds the only sound on the deck was the steady dripping of rainwater from the commander's armor.

"Someone better give me a goddamned report," Jane growled. She yanked off her helmet and tried not to wince at the resulting jolt in her injured shoulder.

"It was Pressly, Commander," Ashley volunteered. "Working for Cerberus. He sabotaged our stealth systems."

Jane's jaw clenched. "Pressly," she said. "Are you sure?"

From the far end of the CIC, Adams looked up from a panel. "Uh, pretty sure, ma'am," the engineer said. "The starboard stabilizer was deliberately misaligned, probably during our refit. It leeched off our heatsinks while the stealth systems were engaged. Left a trail a mile wide, if you knew what to look for."

"So you shot him," Jane said, returning her attention to Williams. It wasn't a question.

"We were under attack, and he would not surrender the CIC," Ashley said.

"Probably saved our asses, Commander," came Joker's voice from the gangway to the bridge. He crutched forward and stopped at the ramp. "We got hit fast and hard, with no shields. No time to figure out why they could detect us."

Jane cast a sharp look at Shiala. "What about you?"

"She helped, Skipper," Ashley volunteered. She chanced a smile, but wiped it off her face when Shepard glared at her.

"Navigator Pressly will survive," Doctor Chakwas announced, blithely stepping into the thick tension in the CIC. She eyed the pool of congealing blood with disdain. "He's lucky Chief Williams has exceptional aim."

Jane watched Liara approach in the doctor's wake, and blew out a sigh of profound relief. She easily spotted the dazed, disoriented look on her lover's face, but when Liara nodded to her, her anxious agitation immediately fell away. She could deal with traitors and a dinged up ship so long as Liara was okay.

"I'll need to speak with him," Jane said. She spoke to the doctor, though her focus was clearly occupied still by the scientist behind her.

Chakwas lifted an eyebrow in wry amusement, but did not comment on obvious relaxation in her CO's demeanor. "Of course, Commander. He'll be conscious in an hour or two."

"Fine. Garrus and Tali are delivering some biological samples to the infirmary," Jane continued. "Please analyze them as soon as possible." As an afterthought, she eyed the security guard with the bright white bandage across his face. "Sergeant, stand down, and accompany the doctor," she ordered him. "Keep an eye on Mr. Pressly."

He snapped a salute and hurried off to follow the doctor so closely, Jane could hear Chakwas complaining about him stepping on her heels as they headed down the stairs below deck.

Jane stepped over to Liara, and they indulged in a look heavy with understanding and comfort. It was hard not to touch each other, but they managed to maintain the veneer of professional decorum. Instead, the commander let Liara's proximity steady her equilibrium while she issued a barrage of orders, then watched in satisfaction as her crew snapped to. Joker was to get them off the surface and out of the system just in case their pirate friend sought a rematch. The senior crew was to gather in the Comm Room for an immediate sitrep. Finally, the other hapless CIC security guard drew the unpleasant task of mopping up the deck.

"Let me get this straight. You just stormed onto the command deck and shot my XO?" Jane barked as she stalked into the comm room. Liara followed her, joining Ashley and Engineer Adams where they stood near the comm station. Shiala sat in Kaidan's old seat, which Jane noticed, but mostly only because Ashley noticed.

The chief cleared her throat, and tore her gaze away from the asari commando. "It wasn't exactly like that, Commander. If he'd stood down, I wouldn't have had to shoot."

"What made you suspect he was the culprit in the first place?" Liara asked.

Ashley sighed. "He and I would talk, sometimes. About politics, about the Council. He had some pretty strong opinions about aliens... and about you, Commander. After I disabled him, I found that he was actively modifying the exhaust that leaked from our heatsinks, leaving a trail for another ship to follow." She peered at Jane with a curious expression. "You didn't know?"

"I suspected we might have a sympathizer aboard," Jane said. "Events on Feros seemed a little too convenient." She shrugged. "It was a hunch."

"Well, Pressly was my hunch," Ashley replied. "Turns out we were both right."

All eyes in the room turned to focus on Shiala, who had remained silent. Finally, she leaned forward, addressing Shepard. "I am unfamiliar with human 'hunches,' but I suppose I suspected the ship had been compromised from the highest level of command, which is why I went to the bridge when we were attacked."

Jane snorted. "Right. So, as a personal favor to your commanding officer? In the future, let's try to gather some actual facts before we start shooting people, okay?"

"Yes ma'am," Ashley said with a chuckle. "Sorry about that."

"On the upside, Commander, if they'd wanted to destroy the ship, none of us would be standing here right now," Adams interjected. "So chances are, they just wanted to disable her and get aboard."

Jane tossed a hand in frustration. "Small favors."

"What is our next course of action?" Liara asked.

"We got what we came for," Jane said, nodding to Shiala. "So now we go quiet, and drop off the face of the galaxy for a while."

"And maybe when we resurface, we won't have such a big target on our backs," Ashley said.

"Maybe," Jane answered. "But first we fix the ship." She gave Adams an expectant look, and he winced.

"We got pretty beat up, Commander. I'd really like to set her down in drydock to get a good look at her," he said, raising his hands to preempt her protest. "But I know that's not likely to happen. Give me a few hours to tally the damage."

"Take what you need," Jane replied. She eyed him for a moment. "You and Pressly are friends."

Adams made an agitated noise. "I swear, Commander, I had no idea. And if I did, I certainly wouldn't have let him endanger my... your ship. I'm sorry."

Jane smiled, knowing that to be the truth. Above all, Adams respected the engineering marvel that was the Normandy, and would not have risked it over mere politics. "Understood. Dismissed."

An hour later, Jane strode into the infirmary. She passed Chakwas and Shiala as they stood at the scanners with the samples from Feros, then stepped up to Pressly's bedside.

"I suppose you're going to tell me how I weaken humanity by relying on the Council races," she said, waiting while he shook off his grogginess enough to focus on her.

Pressly inhaled sharply, and he shut his eyes in embarrassment. "Something like that, Commander."

"That the Normandy had no business being appropriated by the Council, and should have remained in the Alliance Navy," she continued. He didn't answer. "And that you think you're some kind of damned patriot by trying to reclaim 'human' technology."

"I am a patriot," he insisted, meeting her eyes again. "And for the record, I think you are, too. But you're leading us down a dangerous path."

"So to stop me, you were going to scuttle the ship to a bunch of mercs?"

"Yes. But no one was supposed to get hurt," he said, quite aware of how pathetic it sounded even as the words left his mouth. "The plan fell apart when you decided to go back to the surface. That's the problem, Shepard - you're unpredictable. That's why Cerberus wants you out of the picture."

"They murdered a Spectre. They endangered the lives of everyone on this ship," Jane growled.

"It wasn't supposed to go that way," he complained. "I'm sorry."

She leaned very close, mere inches away from his face. "You're a bigot and a fool, Pressly. And you're lucky Williams was the one on the trigger, because I'm not sure I would have let you live."

His jaw clenched, and he stared up at the ceiling.

"I know you were there, at the Blitz," Jane continued. "But you weren't on the ground. Maybe if you were, you'd understand." She pushed away from the bed and called to the security guard. "Lock him in a sleeper pod until I decide where we're going to leave him," she ordered, ignoring Pressly's faint protest.

Chakwas looked disapproving, but did not argue as the guard hauled the older man out of the infirmary.

Jane moved over to where the doctor was working and gestured to the canister under Chakwas' scanner. "Doctor, two people died today, others got hurt, and my ship got shot up, for that," she said, frustrated. "Tell me it's something important."

"I don't know about 'important,' but it certainly looks familiar," Chakwas replied. She bent over the computer station to call up recent scans of their newest crewmember. "Our asari commando's neurotransmitter signatures match this sample more or less exactly." She stood upright and gave Jane a wry look. "Looks like you've got Thorian thrall in a jar, Commander."

Shiala stepped closer, eyeing the samples with obvious apprehension. "They were using that to keep me in a state of delirium."

"That, and a sizable dose of narcotics," Chakwas confirmed. "It was a convenient way to keep you out of their hair."

The commando looked to Shepard. "You can use this to re-induce thralldom. I might be able to recall the information you sought about the rachni."

Jane frowned. "I'm not so sure. Melding with that thing drove you nuts," she said. "Or are you forgetting the part where you tried to kill us, repeatedly?"

"In controlled doses, and without the influence of Indoctrination, it could be less dangerous," Shiala said. Both she and Shepard looked to Chakwas, who sighed.

"We might be able to modify delivery to control the effects," the doctor said. "But I'd advise against it."

"Look into it," Jane ordered. "We might have no other way to proceed."

"Aye, Commander. In the meantime, I don't suppose you're going to let me take a look at that shoulder?" Chakwas asked.

"I'm fine," Jane said, even as she flexed the joint in question with an absent look of pain.

The doctor snorted. "You are plainly not, Commander. Though I would appreciate if you refrained from sharing your stubbornness with Doctor T'soni. I practically had to restrain her to treat her concussion."

Distracted, Jane didn't even acknowledge the jibe. "Let me know when you're ready to try a test with that stuff," she ordered, as she wandered out of the infirmary.

Liara carefully peeled off the layers of Jane's armor and clothing, hesitating when the commander hissed in pain. Finally she eased Jane's shirt up and over her head, and sighed at the vibrant, mottled bruise covering Jane's shoulder. She reached up to run gentle fingertips across the blemish. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Mostly," Jane said. "I'm lucky they didn't still have the rifle they used to kill Groot. At that range it would have cut me in half." She gave Liara a gentle look. "How's your head?"

"I am a little disoriented," Liara admitted. "But Doctor Chakwas did not seem overly concerned."

"Maybe I should have mentioned this particular occupational hazard before," Jane said, chagrined. "Soldiers get hurt a lot." She settled back against the cushion of her bunk with a grimace.

"In that case, I might suggest you investigate the possibility of recruiting a less abrasive ship's physician," Liara said, following Jane's movement to recline at her side. She rested her head against Jane's undamaged shoulder and sighed in a combination of relief and contentment.

Jane chuckled and wound her arm across her lover's back. She inhaled deeply and closed her eyes as the rush of connection echoed between them. "I missed you, down there. More than I thought I would."

"Yet your instinct was the correct one. You needed allies to remain aboard. I only wish I could have been of more help."

"You helped," Jane replied, her voice faint. "Just knowing you're here, that helps." She turned to rub her chin across the warm, soft contours of Liara's forehead.

The depth and complexity of Jane's feelings right then were intimidating at best, but Liara held her ground, and held on to the woman she loved. Something had happened down on Feros, something that had threatened Jane's self control and left her shaken.

Unfortunately, Liara felt obligated to shake her up a bit more.

"You will need to deal decisively with Navigator Pressly."

Against Liara's back, Jane's hand drew into an involuntary fist. "I know."

"And you cannot afford take the betrayal of Cerberus personally."

"Is that what I'm doing?" Jane asked, in stark dismay.

"Their agenda is not a referendum on your choices as a Spectre," Liara said. "Their motivations are their own." It occurred to her she'd made much the same argument in regard to her mother earlier that day.

"I know," Jane whispered. Seeking a bit of distance from the topic, she asked, "What happens to traitors on asari ships?"

Liara paused. "With adequate proof of their actions, they are executed. A military command structure cannot allow itself to be threatened in such a way. It is my understanding that the Alliance functions much the same."

"There's usually a court martial, but yeah, that's the general idea. Thing is, we're sort of out of Alliance jurisdiction. Pressly is complicit in the murder of a Council Spectre." She let out a short, dark chuckle. "For not having any rules, being a Spectre sure gets tied up in a lot of bureaucratic technicalities."

They were quiet for a moment before Liara spoke again. "Jane, would you share the Blitz with me?"

Jane tensed, and probably would have lurched up and off the bed if not for Liara's gentle weight splayed across her. "I... why?"

"Because the Protheans left a Cipher behind, a key to understanding the fundamental aspects of who they were. The Blitz is your Cipher. It's the key to you."

When Jane didn't immediately reply, Liara sat up a bit to look down at the other woman. She ached for the trepidation and pain evident in Jane's eyes.

"I'm not sure I'm up for that," the commander replied, her voice hoarse, strained.

"I have read the logs. I watched all the unclassified debriefings I could find. But none of the records can tell me how it made you into the woman you are."

"I'm not some sort of ancient secret to be decoded," Jane protested, flinging out anger as a last defense.

"No, you are not," Liara replied, unfazed. "And yet, I cannot resist the urge to understand as much about you as I can." She bent to press a gentle kiss to Jane's lips, then settled against her shoulder once again. "Forgive me for pushing."

Jane clenched her teeth and stared at the ceiling. Unbidden, snatches of memory surfaced in her brain: the scorching smell of heavy artillery fire, the screaming of injured civilians, the unyielding sunlight that revealed the destruction around her.

She could feel Liara beside her, tethering her to the safety and warmth of the present. Finally, she loosed the flood of recollection, grabbing hold of Liara's consciousness and pulling her along for the ride.

Elysium was aptly named. The city streets sparkled under bright sunshine as the galaxy's inhabitants mingled freely, engaging in the usual barter and commerce of any port.

Jane Shepard was only a junior lieutenant, on leave with a platoon of freshly-minted Alliance Navy officers that were soon to be deployed across the galaxy. It was their last hurrah as a unit, and they fully intended to enjoy it.

For her part, Jane was mostly enjoying the cut of Lieutenant Naima Santos' uniform.

"You're leering, Shepard."

"So what if I am?" Jane drawled.

Nick Thorsen snickered, and cuffed her shoulder. "Now I know why you got hurt so often in Basic."

"Coincidence," Jane said to the other junior officer. Across the square, Naima caught her eye and waved, then went back to chatting with her fellow medical trainees.

"Right," Nick said. "Just like it's 'coincidence' that you both pulled duty on the Aquitania."

Jane shrugged. "Hey, if there aren't any advantages to being first in your class, what's the point?"

"Wait," he sputtered, coughing a bit as he choked on his coffee. "You did all that work, busted all that ass, for a girl?! Damn, Shepard. And I thought I was desperate."

Naima parted from her group to trot over to the cafe where Jane and Nick were sitting. "Are you teasing her, Thorsen?" she asked, giving him her best scowl. "Because if you are, then I'd have to hurt you. And then I'd have to patch you up again, which is just nine different kinds of awkward. So you'd better not be teasing her."

Nick chuckled, then graciously stood and offered Naima his seat. "Just call me 'Lieutenant Third Wheel,'" he said. Before he left, he threw Jane a wink. "You keep being the model officer, Shepard. No fraternizing in public."

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," she said, throwing him a mock salute. She watched him go with a grin, then looked over at Naima, who moved to sit in the vacant seat. Jane gave her a shy smile and leaned a little closer. "Hi."

"Hi," Naima whispered, as she met Jane halfway for a kiss. For weeks, they'd both taken their training seriously enough not to distract themselves with the attraction they felt. Now, in the late afternoon sunlight on Elysium, it seemed impossible to resist the pull. After a moment, Naima broke off and smiled. "Didn't Thorsen say something about not fraternizing in public?"

Jane blinked, quite dazed. "Huh?"

Naima laughed, the light sound practically dancing in the air between them. "Let's go for a walk."

A few minutes later they were shoulder to shoulder as they strolled down the banks of a bright, peaceful river, indulging in idle chitchat.

"I'm surprised you accepted the post on the Aquitania," Naima said. "I didn't think a security detail would be your first choice."

Jane shrugged. "Knocking around with the marines will be fun."

"But why didn't you take a command assignment?"

Jane drew to a halt, and tucked her hands into her pockets. "I wanted to be with you."

"I know. And that's sweet, but I don't want to hold you back."

"Hold me back from what?" Jane yanked her hands out of her pockets and spread them wide.

Naima only shook her head in that way that said it was an old argument that she never won anyway. She reached out to tuck her hand into the crook of Jane's arm, and steered the other woman reluctantly back on course. It took her a few minutes of coaxing, but eventually Jane was smiling again.

She'd quickly found that Jane Shepard was a woman of singular focus and determination, possessing an intensity that Naima found intimidating. During their first year, Jane had quickly risen to the top of the class and stayed there, dominating each subject and easily outshining her classmates with each passing term.

It just wasn't supposed to be that easy for some orphaned kid from the Blight. Naima suspected no one had ever mentioned as much to Jane herself.

"This place wasn't what I expected," Jane said, oblivious to the other woman's scrutiny. She had cast her eyes toward the bustling avenues beyond the river, where the mass of life rendered individual species indistinct. A flash of blue could have been an asari, or a turian, or even the uniform of an Alliance officer. From their vantage point, the differences between the peoples of the galaxy blended together so much as to be made meaningless.

"What were you expecting?" Naima asked, following Jane's gaze.

"I'm not sure." Jane shrugged. "Sometimes I'm surprised when aliens don't seem all that 'alien,' you know?"

Naima chuckled. "We're all pretty different underneath, though. Look at the parasites in a krogan's digestive tract and tell me that's not 'alien.'"

With the expected grimace, Jane looked away from the busy streets and back to her companion. "But biology aside, we all seem to have pretty familiar motivations. We want to explore the galaxy, learn about the universe, take care of the people we..." She was cut off by the press of Naima's lips against hers. All high-minded philosophy promptly fled her brain, chased away by soft heat and roaming fingertips.

Jane abandoned herself to the sensations flooding her system, cataloging every gasp, every clench of muscle against her touch. She was so lost to the moment that she almost missed the low-altitude roar of poorly tuned engines that blasted through the air overhead. In a haze, she pulled away from Naima, tearing her gaze from flushed cheeks and kiss-swollen lips and casting her eyes toward the sky.

"Did you hear that?"

Naima blinked. "Hear what?"

"Only Alliance and Council vessels have clearance in city airspace."


Jane considered explaining that the noise she'd heard was most likely from engines on a rapier class vessel, the aged standard used by pirates and batarian raiders in the Terminus Systems. Instead, she spun to face the direction of the Alliance base. True to her instincts, two Alliance fighters had scrambled and were in hot pursuit.

"Jane, they've got it under control." Naima clearly thought she was overreacting, but something in the breeze still bore a warning.

While Jane watched, half a dozen more rapiers buzzed into view, flying low, haphazard routes over the city, until one swerved off its course to take a turn almost directly over their heads. Her eyes narrowed as she watched it hover, then nose over at a treacherous angle. She swore, grabbed Naima's arm, and pulled the other woman away from the river at a flat run.

The explosion from the suicide impact lifted them off their feet as they fled, pelting them hard into the paved street. Jane sat up, looking back to see the river crest its banks and flood the nearby neighborhood. Her chin was bloody from where it had scraped against the road's surface, but she didn't even notice. She stood, pulled Naima upright, and grabbed her by the shoulders.

"Gather everybody from our unit and get to the turian embassy," she said firmly.

"What?" Naima asked, dumb with shock. Around them, the panicked residents of Elysium were running away, but from what? Her brain felt stuck, unable to shake off the roar of that explosion.

Jane leaned in close, putting her hands on Naima's face. "Listen to me," she said, willing the other woman's eyes to snap back into focus. "We're under attack, and you need to find our unit and get to shelter. People are going to need your help."

"What about you?"

"I have to get to base, find weapons, armor..."

Naima lurched upward, pressing her lips to Jane's. "Okay," she said when they parted, having shaken off her fear. "Be careful."

"You too," Jane whispered, then she turned and ran back toward the riverbank. By then the aerial bombardment had begun in force, as the crash had taken out most of the base's means of self-defense. The pirate ships whizzed by above, dropping charges and firing indiscriminately into buildings. She weaved in and out of the crush of civilian panic, and grabbed a petty officer by his sleeve as he tried to shuffle past her. "You! Come with me!"

"But ma'am..." he protested, as he twisted in her grasp. Instinct had won out over his own training, and he was squirming to get away from the explosions Jane herself was running toward.

"We need to activate the defense cannons," she said.

"Those are supposed to turn on automatically!" he shrieked back, still trying to escape her grip.

"Except that crash just severed the umbilical from the planetary detection grid to the base," she said, twisting her fist in the fabric of his uniform and shaking him. "Come on!"

He was probably a few years older than she was, but accepted the obvious authority of her bearing without question. "Yes, ma'am," he replied, as he sucked in a breath to settle his nerves and follow her into the firefight.

Dangerously exposed without the familiar weight of training armor and weapons, Jane charged down the avenue back to base, dodging fleeing people and the occasional burning debris. The aerial assault was already waning, leading her to suspect ground troops had been deposited so the bulk of the ships could return to orbit and fend off the inevitable Alliance counterattack. That meant her window of opportunity was closing, fast.

Finally, near the main bridge leading to base, she ducked into an alley, dragging her new friend with her. He collapsed against a wall, panting heavily. "Haven't run this much since Basic," he muttered, then wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve. "Kyle Mikhailovich," he said by way of introduction.

"Jane Shepard," she replied, shaking his outstretched hand. "Sorry to conscript you for this."

He shrugged, co-opting her own attitude of nonchalance. "The only other plans I had for this afternoon were gettin' drunk and gettin' laid," he said dryly. "Where exactly are we headed?"

"We need to manually activate the defense cannons to take out a few of those ships. If we can stop them before they leave the atmosphere, that softens up their perimeter so our guys in orbit can get to us that much more quickly."

Kyle stuck his head back out from the alley, visually scanning the route left before them. "They won't leave the bridge undefended," he said.

"No, they won't," she confirmed, knowing he understood the risks of what they were about to attempt.

"Right." He hauled himself upright again, and dipped his head in a respectful nod. "Nice knowing you, Lieutenant," he said, before he bolted back out the alley and headed straight for the bridge.

She heard the rattle of automatic fire engage before she stepped out behind him, and could feel the burn of hot metal in the air around them. A few meters in front of her, Kyle grunted and stumbled, clutching at his thigh. Jane ran to his side, slung his arm over her shoulder, and dragged him the rest of the way across the bridge, using emergency Alliance codes to open the base's outer doors and stumble inside.

Kyle pulled his belt off his waist and tightened it above the bullet hole in his thigh. "All things considered, Shepard, I'd still rather be getting drunk or laid right about now," he muttered.

She spared him a quick grin, then headed to the nearest computer station. As expected, the base was on lockdown, but most personnel were still out in the port. In reality, Elysium was a soft target; the Alliance presence was casual at best, relying on the sheer traffic of the place to maintain its own order. It was a perfect place for a pirate to rack up a reputation on an indiscriminate body count.

With sharp motions she flicked through the base schematics to figure out the quickest path to a defense turret and the armory. She committed the layout to memory, then logged out of the computer and knelt next to her companion.

"So what's our plan, Lieutenant?" he asked.

"I get you to a cannon, you shoot these bastards out of the sky, then I get to the armory and requisition my unit some firepower."

"You're going back out there?!" he asked, alarmed. "Are you nuts? Let port security take care of it."

"Port security deals with krogan bar scuffles, not large-scale pirate invasions," Jane countered. "They'll need all the help they can get."

He sighed, and let her muscle him back to his feet. "Who do you suppose is behind all this, anyway?"

"Some idiot warlord looking to make a name for himself," Jane guessed, tugging his arm across her shoulders once more. "I'm kinda hoping we can ruin his plans."

"Been out of the academy a week, and you're already looking for a medal?" he asked with a smirk. "Damned over-achiever. You make the Navy harder for the rest of us, Shepard."

"That's what you think," she countered, as they shuffled together down the hallway. "'Getting laid' was top of my priority list for the day, too."

Twenty minutes later they had hotwired a defense turret and started blasting warning shots across the city. If nothing else, they'd bought Alliance forces some time as the pirates backed off to regroup.

Jane eyed Kyle at the cannon's controls, where he swung the reticle back and forth across the sky in deadly, efficient arcs, even as he grew more pale from blood loss. "You okay here?" she asked.

"I've got this, LT," he barked. "You go take out the bastards on the ground."

The continuing thump of the turret behind her was even more comforting than the secure pressure of her borrowed Naval armor and assault rifle. So long as Mikhailovich could keep shooting, the attackers were off-balance. They clearly had not accounted for anyone at the base being able to restore any viable defenses.

Jane smiled to herself. They were probably not expecting a fresh-faced Academy grad to come at them guns blazing, either. And yet that was exactly what she did, charging down the bridge and laying down sweeps of cover fire. Within seconds she was back in her alley refuge, reloading and untouched. There was an almost feral burn in her gut, one she knew well from her days scrounging for scraps in the alleys of the Blight. The Academy's training may have tempered it, but that flaring instinct for survival and combat had never left her. She knew their attackers, even though she'd never seen their faces. She knew the motivations of a roughhewn band of wanderers with more weaponry than sense. She knew why they had so brazenly attacked a civilian port so deep in the Verge. The driving force was so base, so low, so human, that it could not be anything more than simple greed and lust for power.

After catching her breath she skittered back out of the alley and toward the port's center, where the turian embassy stood. It was a stronghold of a place, welcoming and easily defensible. Once she got there, she could share some weapons with her unit and hole up until the calvary rode in.

The streets were nearly empty. Occasionally she would come across bands of raiders, or looters. She gave them a choice; they could run, or she could take their legs out with sledgehammer rounds. Most bolted away into the gathering twilight.

When she was a few blocks from the embassy, she could tell it had become the focus of the ground battle. Raiders had set up an assault front, cobbled together out of bits of their own ships and rubble from the surrounding buildings, all to provide cover as they bombarded the building.

She could hear the telltale fire of high-velocity Alliance munitions, and as she drew closer, she could see the occasional blue uniform in the embassy's windows as they spread out to hold off the attackers. So far she had remained unnoticed at the raiders' backs, and she stopped in a doorway to get a good look. She'd just decided that few well-placed grenades would likely take out their cover and disrupt their attack long enough for her cohorts to repel the remainder when she spotted a shadowy form moving away from the embassy wall.

A closer look through her rifle's scope showed what the form had left behind, even as the man himself was taken down in the crossfire. It was a mine, wired to the load-bearing outer wall of the building, and it was armed.

"No," she said, though the sound barely escaped her mouth. "No!"

Her cry was drowned out in the explosion that followed, obliterated by the bellow of blown apart bricks and mortar that disintegrated the entire face of the building.

Before the dust even stopped cascading outward, she was running, attacking the raiders at their flank, gunning them down without mercy. Movement flickered in her periphery and she whirled, shredding the twitching limb of a fallen raider with bullets, then scaling their own manufactured walls to gut their resistance from the inside. They never saw her coming as she cut them down, one by one.

When she realized nothing was left moving, and the stench of human and batarian blood was thick in her nostrils, she stopped, and looked toward the ruins of the turian embassy. With clumsy, exhausted steps, she scaled the rubble, looking for anything at all to tell her there could be a survivor in the brokenness. There were bodies, almost entirely obscured by the dust and smoke, but her brain didn't see fit to process whether they were human, or turian, or Alliance, or civilian. All she saw was death. All she saw was Naima, who was so good at following orders, who had almost certainly done as Jane had commanded, and gathered their friends at this place.

Weapons fire from a few blocks away drew her attention, reminding her that the battle was not yet over. She hefted her assault rifle to her shoulder and skidded down the mound of rubble, back into the fight. Along the way she picked up an entourage of port security officers and civilians who had taken arms to repel the invaders. She hardly noticed them. Instead she was consumed by the hollow sickness in her very bones that reminded her that her unit had been in that embassy under her orders, and that she had never told Naima how beautiful she was.

Off in the distance, the thump of the base defense turret had ceased.

Sometime after the orbital battle turned and the Alliance ships swept in to stabilize the port, Jane found herself in the cargo hold of a freighter that had been converted into a makeshift morgue. Half of her unit lay around her, shrouded by Alliance flags, and she knelt by each one in turn, alternately paying her respects and begging forgiveness. Somewhere among them also lay Kyle Mikhailovich, who had bled to death at his makeshift post, defending the base to his very last breath.

Finally, she came across Naima, her fragile form bent and broken beneath the honorary flag. Jane tugged aside the fabric to look at her face. There was still a smudge of dried blood on Naima's chin, trace evidence of that last kiss they shared under the Elysian sky. In a heartbeat grief overwhelmed her, and she slumped to the deck and shook with silent sobs until Nick Thorsen found her and pulled her back out of the cargo hold.

He'd made it through the attack - barely - and though he told every member of Alliance brass who would listen that Jane Shepard was the only reason any of them had survived, he had never been quite able to look her in the eye again. No one was particularly surprised when he mustered out after his first tour and went back to a nondescript life on Earth.

In the end Jane never actually set foot on the Aquitania. Instead, she was given the Star of Terra and fast-tracked to command. She soon found herself facing the riskiest assignments all over the galaxy, all with the practiced cool she'd shown under pirate fire on Elysium. Eventually the battle was dubbed the Blitz, and she was dubbed humanity's hero, a symbol of her species' preparedness to take on the true challenges of the Verge.

"I was just a kid," Jane whispered, as the memory receded in the space of consciousness she shared with Liara, then winked out completely. She exhaled a shaky breath and blinked back tears. "We all were."

Liara fought tears of her own, and clung to her lover. In the memories she saw that which Jane herself could not, like how Kyle Mikhailovich so willingly followed her into hell the second they met. Like how so many soldiers and civilians alike had panicked, which got many of them killed. Like how Naima had truly cared for her, and yet seemed to be resigned to their eventual separation.

She could also see the shame Jane kept so carefully tucked away, the knowledge that she would carry the pall of the Blight with her everywhere she went, and that it would somehow cast a shadow over everything she would ever do, no matter how much she distinguished herself in service to her people.

Nevertheless, to the humans on Elysium, Shepard had been the victor in a spiteful, unprovoked battle. To the dozen other species on that world, she'd been little more than another upstart human who had brought danger and destruction in her wake.

It was, all in all, a typical day in the life of a human Spectre.

Shiala was standing at a console off the sleeper deck, pulling up schematics of the ship and analyzing damage reports.

Of course, it wasn't so much what she was doing, as where she was doing it.

"Why the hell are you..." Ashley began, trailing off when the commando turned to look at her. She huffed in frustration.

"Can I be of assistance, Chief Williams?" Shiala asked, cocking her head.

None of the questions Ashley had would make any sense. Why did Shiala sit in Kaidan's chair? Why was she working at his empty station? Why wasn't he standing there, giving her a polite and puzzled look while Ashley could feel her emotions boiling over and out of control?

"You appear upset," Shiala said. She set aside her work to give Ashley her full attention. Just like Kaidan would have done.

"This was Kaidan's station," Ashley blurted.

"Kaidan? Ah yes. Lieutenant Alenko, presumed killed in action on Virmire," Shiala recited. "I have read the log files regarding that incident. He was a gifted biotic, and a capable soldier."

"He was a good man," Ashley said, emphasizing the person from the disembodied skill sets. "And he was a friend."

Shiala dipped her head. "I mourn for your loss."

"You're working at his station," Ashley said again.

"Am I? I chose this station because it is tactically central on the ship. I imagine he chose it for much the same reason."

She slumped, deflated by that logic. "Oh. Yeah, probably."

The commando waited, quite certain there was more to Williams' discomfiture.

"You sat in his chair, too. In the comm room. He sat to the right of the Commander's seat."

"Which is where I sat in relation to Matriarch Benezia," Shiala said. "It is an old habit. Forgive me if I have presumed."

"You haven't," Ashley whispered.

"Lieutenant Alenko meant a great deal to you," Shiala said, pointing out the obvious since the human would not.

"Yes. Sort of. We were friends. Maybe we would have been more." Ashley shrugged and stared off into space. "Maybe not."

"Saren's madness robbed many of us of those we cared for," the asari said. "We will best serve their memories by ensuring that the Reapers fail."

Ashley snorted. "That even sounds like something he would have said." She cocked her head to one side, shaking it in rueful embarrassment at her own behavior. "I'm sorry, Shiala. It's just weird to be reminded of him by someone who is so different than he was."

At that, Shiala cracked the tiniest of smiles. "Perhaps we are not as different as you think."

"Maybe not," the other woman allowed. "Kaidan would have had my back on the CIC, too. Thanks for that, by the way."

"It is not asari custom to accept gratitude for the performance of one's duty," Shiala said. "Though you are welcome."

Ashley chuckled and walked away, leaving a bemused Shiala to her work.

Sometime much later, Liara was watching Jane as they stayed huddled together on the commander's bunk. Jane's eyes were still closed, though Liara could tell she wasn't asleep. As the minutes dragged on, Liara was practically itching to say anything, to somehow begin to address the depth of insight she'd just gained into her companion's mind.

Instead she kept quiet, sensing that her sometimes-taciturn lover would find the words more of a burden than the act of sharing itself.

Eventually Jane heaved a sigh, and dragged her eyes back open. "So, how about you?" she whispered. "Have any deep, dark secrets you want to share?"

"Not today," Liara said, exhaling a faint, forced laugh.

Jane heard the catch in her voice, and shifted far enough away to get a good look at the other woman's face. "What? What is it?"

"I will tell you," Liara said firmly. "I'll tell you everything. But it can wait."

Any temptation Jane had to linger in self pity over her dredged up memories fled, pushed away by the protective, angry realization that something had happened to the woman she loved, something that had caused her pain. She tensed, ready to leap out of bed and tear apart the bastard responsible.

"Jane," Liara murmured. "Please." She laid a gentle hand on Jane's cheek, gazing into intense eyes, which calmed immediately.

"I love you," Jane said, quiet but fierce.

Liara smiled. "I know. And I love you, more with each passing day."

She could feel the certainty of that declaration deep in her bones. Even after what had just happened on Feros. Even after sharing the Blitz. The roughest, most basely human bits of herself peeked out and Liara only drew closer, only cared more deeply. She relaxed, allowing herself an uncertain smile as she sank back against the bunk. "You'll tell me," she said, somewhere between a request and an order.

"Soon. But neither of us needs to fight another battle today."

Jane didn't want to let it go that easily, but she could see Liara's point. The Reapers, Cerberus, and the various other hostile forces of the galaxy were not going to simply wait while they swapped tales of old burdens. As she watched, Liara's face remained untroubled, even serene; whatever lurked in her past was comfortably stowed away, unlike the constant, gaping wound that the Blitz had left behind for Jane herself. Still, if the Blitz was Jane's Cipher, she couldn't help but wonder what would decode the mysteries of Liara's own personality. She reached up to find Liara's hand still on her cheek, pressed a kiss to the palm, then tucked it against her chest.

"I have been thinking," Liara said after a long moment, only partially changing the subject. "About our mission. About the forces that have driven it thus far, and the cycle of civilization upon which the Reapers rely. It all appears to be very tenuous."

"It does seem like a hell of a gamble," Jane said slowly, allowing herself to be pulled back into the tide of their quest. "Just leaving bits of technology lying around and hoping sapient lifeforms will evolve and learn to use it, so they'll trigger a doorway that lets in hordes of inter-dimensional beings to harvest on the products of their development?"

"And yet, the Protheans did much the same, with similar results," Liara said. "They exploited the same cycle the Reapers did, the very ebb and flow of civilization that has marked the untold eons of galactic history, influencing developing races to be able to use the technology they left behind."

"And if any of our respective civilizations evolved to the point of galactic exploration, the Reapers would target us. So the Protheans made sure we had the ability to fight back." Jane shrugged. "If we ever needed it, they skewed the path of galactic development just enough to help us help ourselves."

"But, I believe there is a factor for which we have not yet accounted," Liara said, hesitant. "According to what we have seen, the cycle relies upon the interaction of antithetical energies - like the explosive growth of galactic technology and civilization and its ultimate destruction. The Reapers and the Protheans. Sovereign and the minds it enslaved."

Jane pushed herself up until she was sitting, gazing back down at her lover with an intense expression. "And that all plays out on a much smaller scale. Saren and Benezia. The Council and Cerberus," she murmured.

Liara nodded, and sat up as well. "Exactly. In this cycle that has repeated over the course of millennia is a necessary pattern of contention, of conflict between two opposing forces."

The underlying meaning teased her, hovering just outside the limit of ability to consciously perceive it. "So what are we missing?" Jane breathed.

"I think Ilos was not the only location of its kind," she replied slowly, as if testing the validity of her theory as she said it out loud.

Jane scowled. "We know that, right? Like the outpost on Mars?"

"But Ilos was far more than an outpost. It was a repository for the collected Prothean intellect." She paused, frustrated by the difficulty of expressing the truth she had finally glimpsed. "But in the vision from the Beacon..."

"... there was a second planet," Jane breathed. She met Liara's intense gaze with a look of triumph. "One that somehow served an opposing function to Ilos?"

"I do not know," Liara said, exhaling a faint laugh of odd relief that she did not have to justify her hunch. "The records provided by Vigil make vague allusions, but offer no specific reference to a companion repository."

"Well, they wouldn't, would they? That was the point - to hide those places away so that the Reapers couldn't find them. Then they encoded the information into the Beacon, which no one would be able to understand without the Cipher."

"But Saren had the Beacon and the Cipher," Liara countered. "Which means the Reapers know everything we know. And if the Protheans did build another repository, perhaps with another backdoor to the mass relay system, the Reapers could find it."

"So it'll be another race to the finish," Jane said, letting a feral grin split her face. "And we're gonna win."

Engineering was a mess, but less so than Jane had expected. She found her chief engineer dangling precariously over an open access conduit and waited until he came up for air before getting his attention. "How's my ship?" she asked.

Adams sighed and got to his feet. "Not as good as I'd like, Commander. Weapons and stealth systems are still down. Those bastards knew exactly where to hit us."

"The engines?"

"Limited," he said ruefully. "We're not going too far, or too fast."

"So we need to set down somewhere."

"The sooner the better, Commander. I know you're wanting to keep a low profile, but..."

Jane nodded. "I know just the place."

Several days later, Ashley sighed as she stared out the wide windows of the Port Hanshan Hotel lobby. "Do you think it ever stops snowing here?"

"This hemisphere of the planet experiences a kind of warm season once every several years. It becomes slightly less frigid," Liara replied. "Though I do not believe it actually stops snowing."

"But of all the places to hide out, we end up back on Noveria," the chief muttered. "Couldn't Shepard have dragged us to some pirate planet with sunshine and a nice beach or two?" Even as she said it, she remembered kicking through the gentle surf on Virmire, and bit back a sigh.

"We do not seem to collect allies in such locations."

Ashley turned and leaned against the wall, flexing her arms as she looked around at the tense, suspicious faces that glared back at them. "These people aren't allies," she said, darkly.

Unable to argue the point, Liara merely folded her hands and waited, knowing Jane's meeting with Gianna Parasini was likely nearing an end. When the commander emerged, she strode across the lobby with confident steps, drawing the resentful eye of every local business operator in the room. Liara watched appreciatively, and did not bother pointing out to Ashley that Jane Shepard knew exactly what they were doing on Noveria, and "hiding out" was not on the agenda. Not with that strut. Not with that brazen, bold Spectre authority held out for all to see. She stepped forward, drawn closer on sheer instinct.

"Let's go," Jane ordered, cocking her head toward the exit with a smile. Once in the elevator back down to the port proper, Jane relaxed, giving her crewmates a wry look. "So, after she remembered that she owed me big for helping clean up the corruption around here, Investigator Parasini very graciously transmitted all sensor data they acquired from Peak 15 during our last visit."

"To track the rachni?" Ashley asked, uneasy. Her CO's decision to let the captured queen go free still burned anxiously in her gut.

Shepard nodded. "She might have hitched a ride off this rock already, but I doubt it. She was too badly injured. In the meantime, I may have very subtly disclosed that I've acquired some industrial secrets from one ExoGeni Corporation, and that I'm shopping them around for bids from their competitors."

Ashley barked out a surprised laugh. "Oh, now I get it. You're calling Cerberus out. That's why we're stomping around here like we own the place."

"Seemed like a good spot for it," Jane agreed. "We're outside Citadel space, so they're more likely to come running." She smiled at Liara, and was warmed by the look of impressed approval she got in return.

"That's ballsy, Commander," Ashley said. "Those people aren't shy about killing Spectres."

"Well, neither am I," Jane muttered, standing up straight once more as the elevator drew to a halt. She stalked out with her officers taking their usual flanking positions, then made her way across the expansive reception area.

Now that she understood the nature of their second mission on Noveria, Liara indulged in a little strutting of her own, mirroring the graceful, rolling power of the two soldiers as they walked. It felt awkward, unnatural. She'd spent most of her life deliberately avoiding the notice of others, sliding in under the threshold of cultural expectation and her mother's own notoriety. But just this once, with her head held high, she ignored the annoyed glances from the ERCS guards and allowed her own confidence to bolster Jane's formidable presence in the port.

At one point, Jane cast an amused look over her shoulder. "Having fun, Doctor?"

"Indeed, Commander."

As they approached the docks, a tall, well-dressed salarian stepped in their path. "Commander Shepard," he said, with a nod and a cursory look at her companions.

"That was fast," Jane muttered.

"I do not know to what you are referring, Commander. I have been commissioned to deliver this on behalf of the Shadow Broker." He held out an OSD, which she took.

"What's on this thing?" she asked.

"I do not know that, either. I am merely a courier. Good day, Commander." He spun and wandered off, quickly disappearing in the flow of traffic around the port.

"How did the Shadow Broker even know you were here?" Ashley asked.

Jane shrugged. "Information is his stock in trade, right?"

Still, she couldn't suppress the shiver of trepidation as she pocketed the OSD and led her crew back to their ship.

Leaving tactical analysis of the Peak 15 sensor data to Ashley and Shiala, Jane stopped in the comm room and fired up the contents of the OSD. It was an odd mishmash of information, including her mission reports during her race to stop Saren, and scans she herself had taken of the Keepers back on the Citadel.

Jane scowled, and shuffled through the the data with impatient motions. "What are you trying to tell me?" she asked aloud. It was nothing new; not even the ease with which the Shadow Broker uncovered the most classified intel surprised her anymore.

But why go through the trouble of sending her what she already knew?

She changed the view on the holoscreen, arranging the discrete data files chronologically. It was, more or less, a map of her entire mission from Eden Prime onward, with each new revelation and complication revealed by Saren's treachery, all the way up to Sovereign's ultimate demise. Along the way there were the odd diversions she and her crew had taken as they'd tracked Admiral Kahoku's killers, and dealt with assorted enemies of the Alliance. It struck her how much data even their smallest activities had yielded, as if - at least in the Shadow Broker's estimation - even the Normandy's "minor" missions weren't so minor at all.

And maybe that was what the Shadow Broker wanted her to know. That nothing escaped notice. That everything mattered. That every step she'd taken even before her arrival on Eden Prime rippled with consequence across the galactic political landscape.

An abrupt flick of her fingers closed the contents of the file, and she heaved a frustrated sigh. The mysterious figure lurking in the background of so many species' affairs seemed to have a clear view of the Big Picture, and wanted her to know it. Once again it was hard not to feel like she was being tugged along according to some unknown design.

She stood deep in thought for some minutes more before the door to the comm room opened behind her and Williams and Shiala filed in.

"We think we've found it, Skipper," Ashley announced.

"Beyond Peak 15, there is a network of caves fed by underground hot springs," the commando continued. "According to the sensor data from the research facility, it is likely that the rachni queen took refuge in that area."

"Good work," Jane noted, with a nod to their efficiency. She straightened, ejecting the Shadow Broker's OSD from the reader and deliberately shaking off the disquiet it had provoked. "How extensive is this cave network?"

"Several dozen kilometers long," Shiala replied. "Most of it remains uncharted."

Ashley scowled and folded her arms. "With lots of nice cozy hiding spots for a big bug to nest, no doubt," she said sarcastically.

"A big telepathic bug capable of spawning millions of deadly offspring that could wipe out sentient life in the galaxy," Jane said. "I am well aware of your feelings on the subject, Chief." She crossed the room and exited, knowing the other two women would be right behind her.

"Aye, Commander," Ashley replied, chastened. She and the asari commando followed Shepard's lead as she crossed the CIC and headed below deck.

"The problem is, we just don't have a lot of information left over from the Protheans to work with, much less any kind of map to their old empire," Jane continued as she emerged from the gangway and stepped into the open door of the infirmary. "So the ancestral memory of a big bug might be our best bet." She walked up to Doctor Chakwas' station and drew to a halt. "That, and the neurotransmitters left behind by a giant sentient plant. Right, Doctor?"

Chakwas straightened, and called up her latest tests on a holoscreen. "Without the Thorian itself present to exert conscious will upon its thralls, I rather doubt that, Commander. However, I believe I've discovered a more interesting use for the samples you recovered." She turned to the screen, pointing out the brain scans she'd run on Shiala. "Given our commando's experiences, I think the Thorian actually cured her of Indoctrination. It was not a case of Sovereign willingly giving up a subject of control."

"A mere trade of one form of slavery for another," Shiala countered.

"But yet, here you are, a slave to no one," Chakwas said mildly. "The Thorian neurotransmitters seem to interfere with the signal Sovereign emits. If the suggestibility of the Thorian remnants can in turn be mitigated, we could potentially block the effects of Indoctrination in organic beings across the galaxy."

"Making the Reapers' job that much harder," Jane concluded. "That is more interesting."

"But what about recovering the Thorian imprints I might still possess?" Shiala asked.

Chakwas shrugged. "It may be possible, but not even other asari have the telepathic finesse that the Thorian did. Our attempts would be blunt, crude. The damage could be extensive for any information you would be likely to recall."

"You must try." Shiala turned to Shepard, dismay apparent on her face. "Commander, I want to offer whatever assistance I can."

"You will," Jane said. "By helping me track the rachni queen. Get Liara and go to the Port Hanshan garage with our extreme weather gear. I'll meet you there. Williams, you'll have the deck."

"Commander," Ashley objected immediately, even as Shiala nodded acknowledgement of the order and left to carry it out.

Jane stopped the chief's impending argument with a forestalling hand. "The queen is telepathic. She knew immediately that our intentions were different from Saren's. We're going to be asking her a lot of intrusive questions about her ancestors and their explorations in the galaxy, so we need her to trust us and not sense any hostility."

"I'm not hostile," Ashley complained.

"No. You just think I should have annihilated the last of her species," Jane countered, ignoring Chakwas' answering snort. "Besides. You heard what the Doc just said. We don't have the telepathic skill to reach whatever bits of the Thorian might still be rattling around in Shiala's brain."

"And the rachni does?"

"You saw it yourself," Jane reminded her. "And if she recognizes the 'Old Growth,' maybe she can interact with it."

Ashley may have recognized Shepard's logic, but it still didn't sit right. "Skipper, the last time I wasn't watching your back a Spectre got killed and someone tried to shoot us out of the sky."

Jane smirked, and gave her a friendly clap on the shoulder as she stepped past on her way out of the infirmary. "Well, what are the odds that would happen again?"

The chief shared an exasperated look with Doctor Chakwas before spinning on her heel to follow her CO.

The drive across the treacherous roads out to Peak 15 was tense and quiet. Jane sat hunched at the controls, struggling to see out the Mako's viewport as the relentless snow pounded down around them. When the silhouette of the remote facility finally materialized against the gray sky she drew the vehicle to a stop, struck by regret so sudden it took a moment for her to realize the feeling was mostly not her own.

Shiala rose from her seat to look out over Jane's shoulder. "Benezia remains here, still."

"I can feel her," Liara agreed. Her voice was small, lost in a way that made Jane's heart hurt.

She waited, allowing the two asari a moment in their mutual grief, before nosing the Mako over a steep ledge and off the road toward the caves hidden in the valley beyond.

It took another four hours of patiently unstranding the Mako from massive snowdrifts to get to the break in the rock that led into the cave system. Jane was glad of the excuse to get out and move around, even as she clambered out of the hold and sank into thigh-deep snow. Liara followed while Shiala secured the vehicle.

With a subtle wave of her hand, Jane drew Liara's attention, pulling her aside. She leaned close and let her mind reach out to her lover's, broadcasting her sympathy along with her concern. Liara's response was immediate and certain, as reassuring warmth passed between them as effortlessly as thought. Satisfied her crewmate was focused on the task at hand, Jane nodded and looked back at their companion.

"These conditions are dangerous, even properly equipped," Shiala announced as she launched herself through the snow toward them. "The cave will provide some amount of shelter."

Jane agreed and took point, scrambling over the snow piled at the cave's entrance and into the primary chamber. The harsh whistling of the wind dissipated as she stepped further inside, lending the space a surreal, peaceful quiet at odds with the planet itself. She flicked on the lights on her helmet, and adjusted her scanner to detect heat and motion. "If the queen's gone into hibernation, this is going to be a long search," she said. "We should..."

She trailed off as Shiala stepped past her. "The queen is not hibernating," the commando said, faint with wonder. "I can hear her song." With that, she walked heedlessly into the constricted darkness of the passage ahead.

Jane watched her go and scowled. "We should just wander in on blind instinct without a systematic approach to mapping the place," she muttered. "That's exactly what I was going to suggest."

Liara stopped at her side with a smile. "I will track our return route, Commander."

"Right," Jane agreed, however reluctant. She waited for Liara to follow the commando, then unholstered her pistol and took up the rear.

"How are the diagnostics going?"

Joker looked back from his station and gave Ashley a sardonic look. "Same as they were five minutes ago, when you asked Adams in Engineering."

She nodded, clearly preoccupied. "I heard the new heatsink has a slightly different center of mass."

"Eh, shouldn't be a problem. Unless it is a problem. Which we won't really know until our first relay jump, when the ship disintegrates." He shrugged, and acknowledged a few of the simulation reports scrolling across his screen. When he looked back, she hadn't moved, and was still staring absently over his shoulder at the incomprehensible flood of engineering readouts. "Uh, Chief? Don't you have guns to clean, or something?"

She shook herself a bit. "Shepard left me here to oversee the ship's repairs," she said. "So I'm overseeing." When he snorted, Ashley glared and reached past him to activate the comm. "I'll just check in with Adams again."

He grabbed her hand before she could toggle the control. "Chief, if you ask him for another status report, I'll let him beat you to death with my crutches."

She yanked her fingers away, blushing as she tried to decide whether to be angry or embarrassed. She settled on the latter with a sigh and flopped into the seat at the starboard station. "Sorry. Guess I'm a little wound up."

"You think?" He managed to ignore her for a full three seconds before giving her a sideways look. "Look, I'm pretty sure Shepard can take care of herself."

"Yeah," she answered, then cast her eyes toward the cockpit windows. Even at its worst the snow didn't tend to breach the sanctuary of the port, but the menacing cold was evident all the same. "It's this place, you know? All the corporate secrets and backroom deals and money and politics. It's ugly, and the Alliance shouldn't have to be involved. I guess I never really thought about the dirty work Spectres have to do to get their jobs done." She turned and eyed his profile when he didn't respond. "It doesn't bother you?"

"You may not have noticed, but I'm not all that cerebral," he said dryly. "Ship go fast, bad guys go boom. Shepard can handle all the politics and intrigue."

"But the ship itself is all politics," she said. "How many credits did the Alliance blow to make nice with the turians so we could 'work together' to build this thing?"

"Who cares, if it pays off?" he fired back. "We saved the galaxy. You, me, Shepard, a bunch of aliens, and a shiny, expensive, political ship. I'm just not seeing the downside."

"Shepard shouldn't have to play politics and compromise her values just to protect the Council, is all."

"Her values, or yours?" Joker asked, with a raised eyebrow. Then an indicator on his screen lit with a beep, and he blew out a sigh of relief. "Oh thank God," he muttered, not bothering to hide his gratitude for the distraction. "We're receiving a transmission from the port. Directed to you, Chief."

"To me? Not the CO?"

"'Williams comma Ashley, encrypted priority channel,'" Joker recited. "Maybe you won the Noverian lottery so you can stop driving me nuts."

She snorted and hopped out of her perch at the scanner station. "Neither of us are that lucky. I'll take it in the comm room."

"Sure, whatever," he muttered, even though she was halfway across the CIC and no longer listening to him.

When she got to the comm room she set aside her curiosity to put on her best soldier posture, then reached for the screen to engage the transmission. "Williams here," she said crisply.

The man on the other end appraised her with steely, cold eyes. "Williams, Ashley. Gunnery Chief. Granddaughter to General Williams, the Coward of Shanxi," he said.

She fought off her instinctive anger at the jab at her family and glared at the screen. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"I am a loyal human citizen. And what I want is to know whom you serve, Ashley Williams."

"I'm stationed aboard the SSV Normandy, commanded by Jane Shepard," she replied, with a confused blink.

He laughed harshly. "Indeed. But do you blindly heed Alliance dogma, or are you loyal to humanity?"

"I don't blindly follow anyone or anything," Ashley growled. "Who are you?" she asked again.

"A soldier, and a patriot. Like yourself," he said. "And like your grandfather."

She blew out a disgusted breath. "Another Cerberus goon," she translated, and reached for the screen to activate a trace on the transmission. "What do you want from me?"

"I am in the Port Hanshan hotel," he said, anticipating her intention. "You'll find I have little need for subterfuge. I'd simply like the chance to meet with you."

Her eyes flicked over to the trace, which had already completed. Indeed, he was sitting in the hotel lobby, in a public comm booth. The hotel's surveillance feed confirmed it, and even helpfully provided his name. "Randall Grissom," she murmured. "Any relation?"

"If you are thinking of Jon Grissom, he is my uncle," he replied. "Another soldier, and patriot." The flaring of his nostrils subtly broke his air of detached disinterest, as if it pained him to invoke the name.

She smirked, certain that the man famous for being the first human to attempt mass relay travel had little regard for his nephew's affiliations. "So we both have our share of family history," she said, not bothering to hide her derision. "Good for us. But why should I meet with a criminal?"

He cocked his head. "Surely you of all people know that the difference between 'criminal' and 'hero' is often merely a matter of politics. Would your grandfather have been vilified had it not been expedient for our government to blame him for their own failures on Shanxi?"

"Cerberus murders soldiers and undermines the Alliance," she snapped. "But you go ahead and rationalize that away, too."

"We regret that our enemies have left us no choice but to resort to violence," he spat, blunt anger chasing away his blandly civil tone. "But Cerberus only fights for the humans sacrificed at the feet of the Council because the Alliance itself will not. And we need patriots to help us. People like you."

"People like me," she repeated, flatly.

"Foot soldiers in our battle against the weakening of humanity," he asserted. "You are in a unique position of influence. This could be your chance to redeem the Williams family name, Chief."

She felt hot and cold all at once, sick and angry and sad. "Influence? You want me to betray Shepard," she said, barely above a whisper.

"We want you to follow your conscience and do what is best for your people," Grissom countered, forcefully. "But such things are best discussed in person." He flicked his eyes off to one side, likely checking the time. "Fourteen-hundred hours, in the hotel bar," he said, dispensing with any courtesy that might make it sound like an invitation.

The transmission winked out before Ashley could muster an acknowledgment.

Only Liara's steady reports of distance and direction broke up the ice-blue monotony of the caves. The floors and walls were slick and frozen, while deadly icicles hung from the ceiling above. Still they ventured deeper into the tangled network of underground passages, following Shiala's instincts toward points unknown.

After a couple hours of tedious exploration, Jane called for a break. They paused within a comfortably large chamber, where steam rose from gaps in the floor. Jane cracked the seal on her helmet and lifted it off to take in some fresh air.

"It's getting warmer as we get deeper in," she said, even as frigid pinpricks of air stung against her exposed skin.

"We are nearing the source of the hot springs," Shiala agreed, as she disengaged her own helmet. "It is likely the queen sought refuge there."

Jane scowled. "Can you still 'hear' her?"

The commando hesitated, looking frustrated as she sought words to match the noise at the edges of her perception. "It is not a fully conscious sensation, Commander. More like a kind of familiarity."

Liara was off to one side, calculating their position and likely routes of escape. "Commander," she called, sounding hesitant. "I am detecting additional heat signatures within the cave system." She frowned, studying the readout. "At least, I believe I am."

Jane checked her own scanner, and could see immediately what had provoked Liara's uncertainty. The readings were irregular and scattered, unable to fully resolve. "Maybe we're echoing," she speculated. "Depending on the makeup of the ice, our own heat could be bouncing around in here."

"Or we are being followed," Shiala pronounced. "By enemies possessing stealth technology not unlike the Normandy's."

"Mobile personnel heatsinks?" Jane asked. She had seen early Alliance prototypes, but the technology was far from perfected - which might explain why they were seeing the anomalous heat readings at all. She sighed and watched the resulting plume of vapor drift away from her face. They were chasing a giant telepathic bug down a frozen hole and in turn being chased by ghosts. The Normandy was too far away to provide viable backup, and their enemies - if they were more than scanner static - would likely possess significant firepower. With a frustrated glower she eyed the walls of the cave around her, and decided it would probably be a bad time to give in to the latent trickles of claustrophobia gathering in the back of her brain. "Weapons hot," she ordered, exchanging her pistol for her assault rifle. "We find the queen and get the hell out of here, ASAP."

"Aye, Commander," Liara acknowledged. She removed her own helmet for the sake of visibility, then engaged her rifle. Shiala complied as well and had already started ahead down the next narrow passage.

As Liara squeezed in to follow, Jane forced a chuckle, drawing the other woman's curious gaze. "I was just thinking it's a good thing we didn't bring Wrex along," Jane explained, picturing the ungainly krogan getting wedged in the tiny space. The attempt at humor did little to lift the obvious concern from Liara's brow as they pushed forward.

The anomalous heat signatures still danced across their scanners, adding to the commander's considerable tension as they patiently picked their way across the endlessly dark and icy spaces between cramped passages. Jane often could not seem to get sufficient purchase against the frozen floor, and she bit back a curse every time she slipped, every time she lost ground against the forces pursuing them.

All told, it was a relief when their followers finally made themselves known. The concussive wave of an explosion rattled past, sending alarming crackles through the ice and rock around them. Jane didn't even bother stopping to look behind her. "There goes our escape route," she muttered, as she skipped ahead of her companions. "Where the hell is she?"

The question was mostly rhetorical, but Shiala answered anyway. "She is here, Commander."

Finally, Jane did stop, skidding a bit as she turned to follow the commando's gaze.

Across the large chamber, burrowed into the rock and nearly invisible in the pervasive dark, huddled the rachni queen. Shiala holstered her weapon and stepped forward, captivated.

Jane's eyes shifted between the commando and her scanner, as she tried to determine just how long they had before those sensor ghosts became a lot more real. "Can you communicate with her?"

Shiala smiled in a dreamy, unfocused way. "Yes, Commander. Her song... it is beautiful."

"Does she know we're being followed?"

"Indeed. She can sense our pursuers' intent. Their colors are dark." On the last word her voice dropped lower, reverberating oddly against the cave walls.

Jane looked to Liara, who also recognized the telltale change of timbre that accompanied their last telepathic interaction with the rachni queen.

There was precious little time to learn more. In the passage without, they could hear the scrambling of booted feet, and terse, low-spoken orders. In concert, Jane and Liara dropped behind meager ice-glazed cover, waiting for the inevitable attack.

"We don't want to hurt you, Shepard," called a female voice from the dark rift outside their chamber. "We can all just walk out of here. Give us the queen."

"So Cerberus can use her to build an army? I don't think so," Jane spat. She swore she could hear a sigh of resignation.

"Think about it, Shepard. We're giving you and your girlfriend the chance to leave here alive. All we want is the bug."

Jane grit her teeth, remembering Garrus' warning about her relationship with Liara as it echoed in the back of her head: "If I were your enemy, I would use her against you." Cerberus' offer was tempting, even if it rang utterly false.

"We will not serve their sunless death," Shiala blurted, now firmly pressed into service as interlocutor for the rachni. "We would rather end."

That settled that.

"You want the queen? You'll have to come get her!" Jane yelled.

By way of reply, a grenade lobbed lazily out of the narrow chamber entrance and bounced to a halt next to her cover. She barely had time to duck before it exploded in a flash of concentrated radiation that obliterated her shields, taking her off her feet. Jane crashed to the ground with a grunt, stunned both by the force of the impact and its collateral shorting effect on her suit's systems.

Five mercenaries burst in, loosing feral yells as they rounded on Jane's team. Liara fired off a biotic throw that flung one of the operatives into the cave wall, even as another knocked the assault rifle from her hands and shoved her backwards with the butt of his own weapon.

Uncharacteristically distracted, Shiala found herself apprehended with ease. She merely placed herself between a mercenary and the rachni queen, and waited for Shepard's cue.

When she finally managed to roll to her back, the barrel of a very large, very deadly rifle loomed in Jane's vision. It occurred to her to wonder just where Cerberus was getting the funds to pay for Spectre-killer weapons, even as the bearer of the rifle crunched a heavy boot onto her chest. "I told them you wouldn't listen to reason," the woman snarled, behind the foreboding faceplate of her helmet. "Good riddance, Commander."

She watched mercenary's finger tighten on the trigger and cast a mental lifeline toward Liara, reaching out within their bond to share one last moment of love and regret. As she looked upward, everything went white, then dark.

Jane said goodbye.

Later, she would be hard pressed to explain what had transpired in that instant when she hadn't quite had her head blown off. One second she was sprawled on the ground, with the heavily-armed Cerberus operative standing over her, then there was a mind-numbing flash, and the rifle and its owner were gone. Jane managed to sit up, able to hear only the harsh sound of her own breathing.

Across the icy space, Shiala looked around in much the same kind of daze. Behind her, the rachni queen's antennae twitched nervously, but otherwise she appeared unharmed. The Cerberus mercs who had been attacking them were simply not there anymore, replaced by a fizzle of energy and an acrid smell that hung in the air.

It was then that Jane realized that their equipment had all overloaded, and the cave was instead lit only by the surging charge of Liara's active biotic implants, as they arced uncontrollably at her fingertips.

Liara herself stood against a wall, and was utterly, alarmingly still. Her eyes were deep black and fixed straight ahead, as if focused on some unseen horror.

"Liara?" Jane called, struggling to get herself upright. With its electronic components disabled, her hardsuit fought her, making her movements on the ice even more clumsy and awkward. She found her footing for a moment, slid and crashed painfully to her knees, then eventually lurched to her lover's side. "Liara?" she said again. She reached out to take Liara's hand, heedless of the active implants. The energy burned, skittering up her arm in painful waves, and she hissed and let go.

Fighting off panic, Jane stepped directly in front of Liara, searching her sightless black eyes for anything recognizable.

"She retreats from the jagged places," Shiala pronounced, before shaking off the queen's voice to speak on her own. "She is in shock, Commander."

"What happened?" Jane asked, barely able to tear her gaze from her lover's.

The commando looked awed, but grim, and only shook her head.

Jane ripped off her gloves before reaching out to cradle Liara's face gently with both hands. "Liara?" she whispered. "Liara, come back." After a long, agonizing moment, the cave faded into darkness as the biotic overload leashed by Liara's implants dissipated, and she went slack against the other woman's tender grasp.

"Jane," Liara whispered. She turned her face into the caress of her lover's fingertips even as she drooped toward bodily collapse.

With careful urgency, Jane wrapped her arms around Liara, and eased her to the cave floor. Off to the side, Shiala rebooted her hardsuit's memory core and activated her lights, bathing the chamber in a fitful glow.

"Are you all right?" Jane asked. Her eyes darted over Liara's form, taking in her pallor and bleary, unfocused expression, and saw nothing life threatening. She reached out to key the sequence for rebooting Liara's suit's support systems, then fired up her own.

"I am fine," Liara was saying, even as Jane initiated a full diagnostic scan.

Jane didn't bother taking her word for it; she stared hard at the medical system until it returned a favorable result, then she blew out a relieved breath. "What the hell happened?" she asked quietly. In lieu of a response, Liara gave her a sad, utterly vulnerable look. It scared Jane even more than her unresponsive blankness from minutes before. She ran gentle fingers over Liara's forehead, then pushed back to her feet and crossed the chamber.

The rachni queen was slowly emerging from her hiding place, a burrow calculated to provide healing shelter as well as concealment. Once free of the tiny space she unfurled her long, spindly limbs in a grand stretch that made her look all the more terrifyingly large. Jane tried not to flinch.

"We are grateful," Shiala said, in that odd, borrowed voice. "You have saved us, again."

"Wasn't me, this time," Jane countered. She folded her arms and looked at her own reflections in the queen's compound eyes. "Those mercenaries won't be the last ones trying to find you. But if you help us, I'll get you out of here safely."

"You seek that which has passed," Shiala intoned. "This one remembers. We will travel with you and sing of it together."

Jane agreed, and they set off to find an alternate route out of the caves. Liara took up the rear of the procession, remaining pensive and withdrawn.

As usual, they had defied the odds and accomplished their mission. Jane couldn't help wonder what the toll would be, this time.

"Do you dream?"

Ashley started, and turned to look at Tali, who stood watching her just off the ramp to the sleeper deck. "What?"

"I have never undergone induced hibernation," Tali explained, in her crisp accent. She stepped up the ramp to stand beside the other woman in front of Pressly's active sleeper pod. "I have often wondered if I would dream."

"I did. Nightmares, anyway," Ashley admitted. "Not my favorite part of basic training." With a sideways look, she considered her quarian crewmate. "You know, I never stopped to wonder if other species were even capable of dreaming."

Tali might have smiled behind the darkened faceplate of her environment suit. "Why would you? But we are not so dissimilar, which I suppose is no longer surprising in light of the Prothean influence upon the galaxy." She shook off the philosophical tangent in favor of her assignment. "Engineer Adams has requested that I deliver a status report," she said, before listing the systems under repair and concluding that they would be ready for departure within three hours.

"Good, thank you," Ashley replied absently. "And tell Adams I'll stop pestering him," she added, with a sheepish grin.

Tali nodded and turned to depart. Ashley watched her go, then scowled up at Pressly's unconscious form a moment longer before coming to an abrupt decision. "Hey, Tali?" she called, after the retreating quarian. "Think Adams could spare you for a while?"

She was twenty minutes late, and hadn't even bothered donning her armor. Ashley wandered in to the hotel bar, nodding politely to the other patrons, who seemed far less annoyed by her presence now that she wasn't trailing a heavily armed Spectre. Randall Grissom waited at a far table, glaring at her. Ashley made no move to hurry over, instead stopping to order a cup of coffee and look around a bit.

By the time she settled in the seat across from him, he was bristling and indignant, and she had to take a sip of her drink to hide a smile. His summons had been designed to catch her off-balance. She knew it, and she'd let it get to her anyway - at first. But a good marine adapted to a changing situation, and she was never on her heels for long.

She'd had a good long silent argument with the unheeding Pressly, sorting out her opinions from her duty and weighing both against the reality of their mission since Eden Prime. Her conclusions were far from clear, but she did understand that her long-held worldview had been directly challenged, and that it wasn't holding up very well. She also knew that she trusted Jane Shepard with her life, and that she'd learned a great deal from her CO. Finally, she decided she wasn't about to be manipulated by a smarmy little punk like Randall Grissom.

So she waited, staring him down in the politest possible way, feeling a sense of confidence and power that was surprisingly comfortable.

"We should discuss our expectations," he said, watching her warily.

"We should," Ashley agreed. "I was surprised that Cerberus would be interested in me. It's flattering, I guess."

"Your development has not gone unnoticed," he allowed. "We've been watching you for some time."

Ashley loosed a cold, dark smile. "At Pressly's recommendation, right? Probably pegged me as the disenfranchised, emotionally exploitable granddaughter of a disgraced general." She shook her head a bit, then contemplated the snow through the window. "I'm actually annoyed that I'm that predictable."

Grissom looked around furtively, unsure what to make of her tone. After a moment he leaned forward, summoning his most intimidating gaze. "So you'll join us."

"Hell, no," she snapped, loud enough to draw attention from other nearby patrons. "Look, I might not agree with Shepard all the time, but she's the only reason we're not all Reaper bait right now. You're not using me to hurt her." She dropped her voice and leaned closer, punctuating her speech with a single finger jabbing into the table's surface. "And let me make this very clear: she doesn't need me to protect her from anything, but I'd stand between her and a bullet any day. Just like I would for any other member of my crew - human or not - because they've done the same for me."

Grissom sniffed, looking at her with pity. "Another victim of ignorant Council brainwashing. We had such high hopes for you." He finished the last of his drink, then pushed the cup aside and moved to stand. "Well, I suppose our meeting is over. Good day, Chief Williams."

"Sit down. We're not done yet," she barked.

He sat again, taken aback by the steel in her voice. "We're not?"

"Nope. I had Tali'Zorah nar Rayya help me do a little research. Do you know her?"

Grissom affected disinterest, picking at a bit of lint on his sleeve. "The quarian on your ship. Another of Shepard's pets."

"She's a brilliant engineer," Ashley said, ignoring him. "Has a talent for hacking and decryption. Had no trouble digging up the records of your activities here on Noveria, including the illegal arms deals you've been brokering to the Terminus Systems."

His jaw worked in suppressed anger and alarm. "Which matters little. The Council has no jurisdiction here," he spat.

"No, it doesn't. But you've also committed at least fourteen separate acts of corporate espionage and securities fraud. Gianna Parasini said the executive board would be very interested to receive the OSD with the evidence I'd gathered. As of right about now, I'd guess your ship's been impounded and your travel visa revoked. So have fun with that."

Grissom sputtered in impotent fury, turning red and white in alternating fits of rage.

"And your man Pressly? Tell your superiors that I shot the bastard when he tried to scuttle our ship. He'll face court martial, and probably trial by the Council as well. Cerberus is about to be shoved into a very bright spotlight. I hope you guys are ready for it."

In her ear, her comm link chirped to get her attention. "Chief, Commander Shepard has requested pickup," Joker's voice informed her. "We're set to depart in ten minutes."

"Good," she answered. "I'm finished here. Enjoy the rest of your stay on Noveria, Mr. Grissom." She gave him a pointed smirk, then pushed herself out of her seat and strolled away.

"You've made the wrong choice," she heard him growl behind her, but she didn't even break stride or bother to respond.

After summoning the Normandy and leaving Shiala to commune with the queen, Jane ducked away from the cave's entrance to find Liara holed up in a convenient cleft in the rock. She looked small, bent over as though carrying an unseen burden. Jane was having trouble sorting through the compound feelings of shame and distress scattered in the emotional ether they shared, and simply waded right through to lean lightly on the outcropping beside the other woman. "Talk to me," she whispered, desperate.

Liara shuffled a bit, turning toward Jane though her head remained bowed. "That should not have happened," she admitted.

"The biotic explosion?" Jane guessed. "I had no idea you could do that."

She uttered a tiny, pained noise. "That is because I failed to..." Then she lapsed into silence once more, while the anxious tide between them churned.

"Liara," Jane rasped, rough with worry.

"It is called acrataia," Liara said finally. "I'm not sure there is an equivalent term in your language."

Certainly not a term that carried the equivalent weight of bitter regret, Jane decided.

"It has happened only once before." Liara kept her eyes averted, while her fingers wandered aimlessly in the air. "Several years ago, I was exploring a Prothean ruin on Chasca. A band of pirates closed in on me, with two especially powerful biotics. They overwhelmed my own abilities, took my tools and my research notes, and brought me back to their camp." Sensing Jane's sudden alarm, Liara looked up. "I was not terribly concerned. I figured they would simply take what they wanted, then send me on my way."

Jane felt a knot of dread tighten in her gut. "But that's not what happened."

"No," Liara replied. "One of the biotics decided he was curious to see if the rumors of asari sexual predilections were true. When I insisted they were not, he grew violent." She saw Jane's jaw clench, reflecting the blast of anger on her behalf. "I believe he would have killed me," she said. "Had I not... stopped him."

It was a polite euphemism for the focused discharge of biotic energy so astonishingly powerful it had vaporized their foes where they stood. "Like you stopped the Cerberus mercs," Jane said.

Liara bobbed her head in a slow, absent nod.

"You were defending yourself," Jane insisted. "There's nothing wrong with that."

"You misunderstand, Commander," Liara replied, her frustration obvious. "What happened then, what you saw just now," she said, gesturing to the depths of the cave behind them. "That kind of loss of control... that is the reason asari are discouraged from mating within our own species. The combined biotic potential is too dangerous, too unpredictable."

Jane blinked for a moment before exhaling a faint, humorless laugh. "Of course. Social control through reproductive fear."

"It is difficult for me to admit. No asari would openly discuss it. But there are always whispers of fear about... people like me. And incidents like what you saw today only make it worse."

Her heart broke all over again. Jane pushed herself away from the wall and stepped closer, stopping short of hugging Liara when she saw how much the other woman had withdrawn into herself. She settled for resting her hands on Liara's shoulders. "Listen to me. We've been through a lot together - a lot more than most people ever will - and I've never seen you lose control." Liara's gaze shot up to meet hers, and she pressed ahead. "Not even today. Today, you protected your team. You protected the mission. You protected me."

The other woman released an anguished groan, and fought off tears. "You still do not understand."

"Maybe not," Jane allowed. "But I still trust your judgement, and I still rely on your strength." She could feel her heart hammering in time with Liara's upset, and made certain to hold her lover's gaze steadily. "All of your strength, Liara," she whispered. "Even the parts that scare you."

Liara looked down once more, and heaved a sigh. "It is not easy to believe that."

"Try," Jane said, with gentle insistence. She smiled when Liara's eyes swung back to hers, and smiled more when Liara mustered a tiny nod. A moment later they both looked up at the telltale rumble of Normandy's approach. The moment they'd stolen together would end soon enough, but that didn't stop Jane from leaning forward to claim a sweet, consoling kiss. When Liara responded, the accompanying sense of peace and comfort soothed them both.

Finally back on steady footing, Jane pulled away and stroked gentle fingertips across the chilled skin of Liara's cheek. "Besides. What you are? Where you came from? These aren't things you can control," she said philosophically. "There's no point in being ashamed of them."

"For either of us, Commander," Liara returned, with a knowing look.

Jane hesitated, but nodded after a long moment. "For either of us," she agreed. "We'll talk about this more later, but a lot of that is going to be me telling you how proud I am of you for saving all our lives today, okay?"

Finally, that teased a tiny chuckle from Liara's lips, which was so satisfying Jane simply had to kiss her again.

Over the comm they could hear Joker announcing the ship's arrival. The two women donned their helmets once more, then followed Shiala and the rachni queen into the blowing snow toward the Normandy, leaving the caves behind.

Normally, the quiet would have suited Joker just fine. He'd been ordered to "get the hell away from Noveria" and find a nice lonely corner of space where they could remain unnoticed. He picked a spot in Argos Rho, just outside the sensor range of Pinnacle Station, where he found a binary system buried in a pile of electromagnetic interference and spent hours on end wheeling the ship around gravity wells and solar flares.

It was practically a vacation, except that everyone else on the ship seemed pretty miserable.

He didn't know what had transpired on Noveria. Shepard wasn't talking, and neither was Williams. He hadn't bothered sneaking a glance at the transmitted reports to the Council and Alliance Command. He hadn't asked why they had yet another guest aboard, this one taking refuge in the ship's garage. He didn't know what extraordinary and unlikely thing they would be expected to accomplish next. All he could do was wait and fly, playing the Normandy's engines like a symphony, like the maestro he was.

Down in the garage, a symphony of another kind was slowly taking form. Since their departure from the planet Shiala had remained steadfastly bound to the rachni queen, and soon they began trading old tales neither of them consciously remembered. Within the asari commando's mind the Thorian had emerged slowly, unfurling like the bud of a young flower, testing the sunlight of exposure to fresh memory. It teased at the buried ancestral awareness of the queen, and together they began to weave the history of a much younger galaxy, the one tamed by the Prothean Empire and gutted by the Reapers. Eons blossomed between them, describing the rise and fall of worlds and peoples neither could give name to.

From her station, Ashley watched it all, discreetly keeping the massive Cerberus rifle from Feros within arm's reach.

At the beginning of every shift, Shepard would show up, look over unchanging tableau of alien communion, give Ashley a nod, then head back out.

Finally, after half a dozen repetitions of the same cycle, Shepard wandered in as usual but did not immediately leave. She just stood there, staring into space, looking more tired than Ashley could remember seeing her.

And all at once, Ashley had had enough of the ship's collective melancholy. She stepped over, cocking her head at her CO. "Skipper?" she asked. "Everything okay?"

With effort, Jane managed to focus on the other woman. "No," she admitted.

Ashley nodded. "Yeah. I get that." She shifted until they were standing together, both looking across the bay at the commando and the queen. "What do you suppose that's like?"

Jane snorted. "You could ask Shiala. She'd probably share it with you." She sighed. "Just be sure you really want to know."

With no idea what that meant, or how to respond to the sadness evident in Shepard's voice, Ashley just stood in silence, hoping the strength of her presence was enough.

"I read your report," Jane said after a long moment. "You did good, back there. You put Cerberus on notice."

"Just following your lead, Commander. You would have done the same."

At that, Jane smiled, the expression slowly lighting her face in a moment of peace. Unmentioned were all their previous disagreements, each heated exchange in their ongoing argument about how humanity should interact with the galaxy. She knew full well that Ashley had been offered the opportunity to carve her own path, to seek her own glory among these new zealots, but instead she'd staked her banner at the side of a Spectre. Not for the first time, Jane realized that the honest respect of a fellow warrior meant more to her than any medal she'd ever been given.

"Grissom had been on Noveria for weeks," Ashley said, just as the silence between them had turned ponderous. "Do you think they were just waiting for us all that time?"

It was the very question Jane had been asking herself since they'd left the frozen world. "I don't know," she replied. "But that courier for the Shadow Broker had been waiting, too. And maybe that's what he was trying to tell me - that my choices had turned predictable."

"Or that you have another traitor aboard," Ashley pointed out.

Jane eyed her for a long moment, then heaved a sigh and turned back to the lift, leaning against the wall. "No. I miscalculated," she admitted. "I thought they'd go after the ship again. Or wait until we'd retrieved the queen and then come after whatever intel we got from her." She clenched her fist against the comforting strength of the bulkhead. "I didn't think they'd make it personal."

Ashley was shaking her head before Jane had even finished speaking. "Not your fault, Skipper. Those bastards aren't playing by the rules. Even the geth went after strategic assets, not personal ones."

"Still, it was a costly mistake." Jane straightened and stepped into the lift, then dipped her head toward Ashley. "Thank you, Chief. As you were."

"Aye, Commander," Ashley replied, shrugging before retaking her post as ordered.

Like she had half a dozen times since leaving Noveria, Jane came back from her tour of the ship to find Liara at the computer in her quarters, reading more from Vigil's databanks. As had also become coinciding habit, she sat alongside the desk, reached out to grab Liara's hand, then wound their fingers together with a sigh of contentment.

It was all very familiar, except this time Liara noticed Jane was smiling.

"You spoke to Chief Williams regarding her encounter with the Cerberus operative?"

"I did," Jane answered. "How did you know that?"

"You are a great deal more relaxed," Liara answered with a sidelong grin. "Though I would be surprised if you and she exchanged more than twenty words on the topic."

Jane chuckled, caught and unable to deny it. "I think we understood each other."

"Of course. You two are very much alike," Liara said gently. She untangled her hand from Jane's fingers to reach up and brush the back of her knuckles across the other woman's cheek. "Though I think you are still surprised she did not betray you."

"No. This isn't about me. I'm surprised because she didn't seriously entertain Cerberus' offer. The Alliance hasn't done her or her family any favors."

"It is about you," Liara insisted. "You gave her the chance the Alliance never would. You offered her trust, when she herself trusted nothing. Because of that she has grown strong enough not to be vulnerable to passing ideologues." She pressed onward, anticipating it when Jane ducked away from the praise. "You haven't just saved the Council, or billions of sentient lives, or the colony of Elysium. You saved Ashley Williams. Just like you saved me." The incident on Noveria still darkened the space between them like smoke, so Liara decided to sidestep it entirely. "I would be still stuck in a Prothean barrier curtain if it were not for you," she said lightly. "Deliriously hoping for a beautiful human soldier to come rescue me."

Jane managed the expected laugh, and shook her head. "You could have busted yourself out of there eventually."

"I would not have risked destabilizing the ruin," Liara replied. "Besides - until that beautiful human soldier arrived, I lacked proper motivation."

"Okay, okay. Fine. I'll take the credit for the competence all of you had before we even met," she said wryly as she raised her hands in surrender and changed the subject. "So listen, the mess resupplied while we were on Noveria. Care to join me for dinner?"

Liara didn't bother hiding her surprise at the request. She had grown quite used to their circumspect habits while on the ship, which didn't overtly hide the depth of their relationship, but also didn't let it wander far beyond Jane's quarters. "I would like that, Commander," she said slowly, before taking Jane's proffered hand and following her lover out to the mess, where they were greeted by the energetic buzz of the crew gathered for their evening meal.

With a faint groan, Shiala collapsed. She would have crumpled hard to the deck had Ashley not been standing by, watching for that very moment. Instead the commando swayed in dizzy disorientation, her knees buckled, then the strong arms of a waiting marine closed around her before she lost her balance entirely.

"Easy," Ashley ordered, as she helped Shiala to a sitting position. She cast a look up at the rachni, but the queen seemed to slump as well, likely struggling with her own exhaustion.

"Thank you," Shiala breathed, blinking at the canteen Ashley thrust into her hands. She sipped at the blessedly cool water and willed the garage to stop spinning around her.

Ashley eyed the faint greenish tinge that pulsed across Shiala's skin. "You okay? You've been at that for nearly forty hours straight."

"Really?" She'd felt largely removed from the passage of time while wrapped up in the alien bond, but her body had paid the toll anyway. Every part of her ached, and even Ashley's concerned gaze seemed to be coming at her from a very great, dim distance. She took a deep breath and tried to center herself as her body rebelled in nauseated misery.

When the marine ducked away from Shiala's field of vision, she was simultaneously relieved and annoyed at the absence. When Ashley came back bearing a plate of standard, bland rations, Shiala could barely stammer a word of gratitude before snatching the plate with ravenous intent. She paused after a moment when she realized the food was comfortably heated, and cast a questioning look toward the marine even as she greedily consumed everything on the plate.

"I always keep a pile of rations warm on the Mako's reactor housing," Ashley explained with a smile as she leaned against the vehicle and watched the asari scarf down her meal. "Makes them a lot more edible."

Shiala nodded, still too preoccupied to give great consideration to the human's solicitude. With nourishment, some order returned to her mind, but it did little to clarify the tiny slivers of understanding she and the rachni had shared.

"So how's it going?"

Shiala considered the question as she set aside the remnants of her meal and sought words to match impressions. "It is difficult to say. Our progress is sporadic, discontinuous - much like the nature of memory itself. I believe the early rachni, much like early asari and early humanity, were just on the cusp of massive sapient development when the Protheans chose to intercede in their growth. And I believe they were the first species the Protheans altered in this way."

"Think that was just a matter of proximity?" Ashley asked. "They come from the same general area of space."

"It is very likely," Shiala replied. "The relationship was initially one of convenience. With their early success, the remaining Prothean scientists eventually expanded their studies to include bipedal species more like their own."

"Sure. They wouldn't want to hedge their bets. Lots of bad things can happen to a species in fifty thousand years. Any of us could have gone extinct." At that, Ashley made herself look the rachni in the eye, hoping her own conflicted views on the matter were apparent.

The queen only settled a little more comfortably on the garage deck, twitching long appendages into place across its thorax, clearly not feeling any sense of impending threat.

It made Ashley blink when she realized she didn't feel any particular threat, either. Behind her, a turian stood at his usual computer station, pretending he wasn't hacking into C-Sec databases. Across the garage, a krogan bounty hunter idly polished his family's armor. And here she was chatting with an asari commando who had once tried to kill her, next to a rachni queen who could produce enough offspring to overrun the entire galaxy.

She almost wished Randall Grissom could see her at that moment, just so she could enjoy the look on his face.

Shiala pushed to her feet with a huff of frustration. "We possess too few of the pieces," she spat. "There is not enough to connect the fragments together."

"You might be putting a bit too much pressure on yourself," Ashley said reasonably. "Maybe Shepard or T'soni could help you..."

"Would you assist me?" Shiala asked, looking at her with sharp eyes.

"M-me?" Ashley asked. She felt the blood drain from her face. "But I don't have any of that Prothean stuff in my head."

"Precisely. It is all a jumble for me, but it may make more sense to fresh perception."

For a long moment, Ashley's sense of duty warred with her inclination to be entirely creeped out by the thought of participating in an alien mind meld. "I guess so," she said, hesitant.

Shiala nodded, though her immediate intensity waned. She sat again, then closed her eyes and settled into a meditative pose. "I will need some time to recover before we can proceed."

"Hey, take all the time you need," Ashley said, practically tripping over herself as she backed away and took refuge on the other side of the garage.

Morale had eased considerably once the crew had the chance to see their CO relaxed and happy. Unbothered by the human and asari so plainly sharing their personal space as they sat together on one end of the mess, several members of the crew instead took time to express their relief that the two women had escaped yet another Cerberus ambush. With each answering smile and gracious nod, the atmosphere progressively lightened, until the Normandy no longer felt desolate and lost.

Jane was not used to being the bellwether of an entire ship's mood, but she filed the notion away for future reference.

She and Liara stayed in the mess for a few hours, mostly just observing the crew's camaraderie as shifts changed and individuals shuffled past. More than once, Jane found herself smiling at Liara's profile as the conversation wound around them, usually after Liara offered some polite response to a question, or after Liara laughed.

Bit by bit, Jane felt a renewed sense of power and purpose rolling in her gut, one that chased off the lingering worry about Cerberus, and about the Reapers themselves.

It was easy to get lost in the big picture of their quest; billions of lives counted on their success, in a fight millions of years in the making. The staggering scale of everything they had to lose overwhelmed her if she thought about it. Instead, Jane decided she could focus on her crew, on their hopes and expectations. She could focus on Ashley's trust and Liara's laugh, knowing that they represented everything else worth fighting for.

Jane leaned in, pressed a kiss to Liara's cheek, then stood and wandered away to attend to her usual tour of the deck. She felt Liara's eyes following her as she departed, and without words to explain her rush of confidence, Jane only cast a grin back over her shoulder before heading up the steps to the CIC.

Shiala opened her eyes when she heard the light approach of Ashley's steps across the garage deck. "I am ready," she announced. "Are you prepared?"

"How would I know if I wasn't?" Ashley asked, with an apprehensive look.

The commando smiled. "A valid question." Offering no answer, she rose in a graceful motion and pinned her keen, unsettling gaze on the human before her.

"So do I need to 'embrace eternity' or something?" Ashley asked. She rolled her shoulders and tried to make herself relax.

"Just try to remain open," Shiala replied. "I will share with you the combined raw ancestral knowledge of the rachni, Protheans, and the Thorian."

"Then what am I supposed do with that?"

"Allow your mind to dwell on it, to detect the patterns and commonalities. Afterward, we can examine our conclusions together."

It all sounded perfectly safe and reasonable, Ashley thought. Still, she was unable to shake her unease as Shiala moved to stand directly in front of her.

A moment later the commando's eyes went black and Ashley felt herself yanked beyond the boundaries of her own consciousness into a chaotic, howling space shared by millennia of history and violence and extinction. It blasted against her mind in relentless noise, punctuated by a rhythm she could not readily interpret.

Just as quickly, the roar receded, leaving her back in the Normandy's garage. She tilted unsteadily and tried to catch her breath as equilibrium danced around her.

Garrus called her name and took a few steps toward her, but Ashley held up a hand to stop him. "I'm okay," she said, then looked back to Shiala. "What the hell was that?"

Shiala gave her a tired, speculative gaze. "I am unsure. Your mind is very different than Shepard's."

"I'm guessing that's a bad thing," Ashley muttered. She pressed her fingertips to her forehead, verifying that her aching skull was actually still intact.

"She has been radically changed by her exposure to Prothean technology, and by the Joining," Shiala explained. "I suspect you are ultimately more... human." She cocked her head, as if listening to something Ashley couldn't hear. "And yet, you sing like the rachni."

"'Sing?'" Ashley asked, alarmed. "I don't think..." She gasped when the words and patterns of old, familiar poetry surrounded her, bleeding through her senses. It all sounded wrong in some way she couldn't quantify, as if the words had been translated poorly by a foreign speaker. As it took shape within her mind, it thrummed and spun and in a confusing refrain that seemed to sound like her father and the rachni queen all at once, ringing together in an alien chorus.

We too hear the song of voices long gone.

"Chief, are you sure you're all right?" Garrus asked. After his years in C-Sec and more than a few broken up bar fights, he'd learned to recognize that pale, bilious kind of human expression that usually meant his boots were about to be soiled.

"Fine," she bit out, swallowing hard as she kept her eyes fixed on the deck.

We too shape the past in story and song.

"It will take time for you to assimilate this new information," Shiala said, mostly oblivious to the human's discomfort. "When you are ready, we may continue."

Ashley nodded, then lurched back toward her station and tried not to puke all over the garage.

Garrus folded his arms and frowned. "If you broke her, Shepard's gonna be pissed," he said pointedly.

Jane's buoyant mood lasted until she hit the Engineering deck, where her crew had apparently not gotten the memo that everything was going to be fine. Anxiety hung thick in the garage, even though the rachni had curled up in some semblance of sleep, and Shiala was off in a corner meditating. After a moment, Garrus caught Shepard's attention with a little cough, then pointed toward Ashley's station.

Intrigued, Jane crossed the garage. "Got a minute, Chief?" she called.

Ashley didn't hear her. Instead, she fidgeted with a broken trigger assembly and tapped her foot restlessly against the deck, while her mind spun in a convoluted mostly-alien mess, mostly centered on one bare line of familiar poetry:

I am a part of all that I have met.

"Ash, you okay?"

I am a part of all that I have met.

I am a part of all....


Ashley sucked in a breath and spun around. Shepard was standing behind her, looking concerned and just a little annoyed.

"Sorry, Skipper," Ashley said. She ran a shaky hand across her brow. "I'm a bit distracted."

"More than a bit," Jane observed, aware that the apprehensive stalemate in the garage had broken. Across the deck, Shiala rose from her meditation, and the rachni queen twitched back into consciousness. "And you look like hell," the commander continued. "What's wrong?"

"She is having trouble assimilating after the Joining," Shiala offered, as she stepped closer.

"What Joining?" Jane asked sharply.

"Uh, I took your advice, Commander," Ashley said. She hoped her white-knuckled grip on the edge of her worktable wasn't too obvious as she tried not to wobble. "To find out what it was like."

Jane shut her eyes and sighed. "That wasn't advice, Chief. And it certainly wasn't an order. It wasn't even a friendly suggestion."

"Yes, ma'am," Ashley agreed. "It just seemed..."

"You were trying to help," Jane supplied, cutting her off. "I get it." She looked over to Shiala. "Why was it so traumatic for her?"

Shiala clasped her hands behind her back with a speculative look. "I do not know, Commander. Every Joining is different, and the combination of multiple consciousnesses may have been overwhelming."

Jane restrained the urge to make a sarcastic retort, and turned back to Williams. "All right. Let's get you up to the infirmary."

"I'm fine, Commander," Ashley protested.

I am a part of all that I have met.

"I'll just assume you haven't looked in a mirror lately," Jane said dryly. She stepped forward, got a steadying grip on the chief's elbow, and steered the other woman toward the elevator. "Once you get some rest you can tell me all about it."

"Yes, ma'am," Ashley replied, pathetically relieved to cede the burden of control to her commanding officer. The clamor in her head was starting to overwhelm her, with collisions between alien notions leaving her own thoughts bruised and indistinct.

I am a part of all that I have met.

Before they entered the lift, Shepard paused to level a stern glance at Shiala. "Make sure you talk to me before you put the whammy on any more of my crew," she ordered.

The commando blinked in confusion, but nodded her assent.

To be continued...

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