Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

Interlude IX

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Normandy SR-2

"And this is our ship: The Normandy SR-2. For now, she's grounded until her upgrades are complete," Miranda pointed out. "Right now, we're changing out the armor and installing a more powerful main gun."

Thane simply nodded as he took in sights.

Shepard and the rest of the team followed closely behind. He noted that the armor removal was complete. Now the Cerberus workers were busy installing the new Silaris Armor. "Shouldn't be too long now. Armor looks to be well underway. Should be done in a couple of days. We should get the Thanix Cannon up in a few days after that." He turned to Thane. "You don't mind working with Cerberus?"

"I am working for you. If you wish for me fight alongside them, then that is what I will do. Rarely, the motivations of my employers have any impact with my trade."

"I see."

The entire squad entered the Normandy. This time, it was a simple matter of simply walking through the open airlock. With the ablative armor removed and the Silaris Armor being welded on the superstructure of the frigate, large gaping holes marred the ship, interspaced only with support struts, rendering decontamination procedures pointless. As they marched down the bridge, Shepard could see some of the workers outside jauntily wave at them.

Entering the Armory, Jacob stopped typing into his holo-pad and looked up at the newest squad member.

"This is Jacob Taylor, our Armory Chief. He'll be holding on to your weapons and storing them here. He's also in charge of maintaining or even upgrading your armaments as necessary," Miranda introduced.

Jacob gave a tight nod in greeting, but said nothing as he stared warily at Thane.

Everyone, save Miranda and Shepard, ignored the exchange, preoccupied as they were with their own weapons. One by one, they unequipped and placed their armaments in a haphazard pile on the center table, except Shepard, who placed his Spectre weapons inside his secure locker. Later, Jacob would tag and log everything and check to see if any maintenance would be needed as well as to see which weapon needs to be reloaded with a full stock of thermal clips.

Noting how everyone else seemed to be handling their equipment, Thane placed his Mantis Sniper Rifle and his twin Predator Pistols on an empty section of the table as well. Fingering his hidden pocket of knives, he turned and addressed Jacob. "Will I need to turn in all of my weapons?"

"Yes," Jacob answered immediately.

"Depends," Shepard countered. "What other weapons are you carrying?"

Thane drew one of his throwing knives and presented it to his employer. "I keep several on my person at all times. Occupational hazards and operational prudence, you understand."

Shepard nodded. "It's fine. After seeing you take out two mercs bare-handed, knives aren't that much more of a stretch."

Jacob had a small scowl on his face, but held his peace. He waited until the rest of squad left the Armory, leaving him, Shepard, Miranda and Thane alone. "I've heard impressive stories, Krios. Sounds like you'll be an asset to the team." Despite his words, there was definitely a tone of belligerence in his voice. He was watching the knife and Thane with no small amount of distrust.

"Jacob," Miranda said warningly.

Jacob crossed his arms defiantly. "This is, if you're comfortable having an assassin watch your back."

Thane pocketed the knife and stood tall with his hands clasped behind his back. If Jacob's words offended him, he showed no sign. "I've accepted a contract. My arm is Shepard's," he informed calmly.

"Uh-huh," Jacob responded disbelievingly. "Don't know about you, but I'm loyal to more than my next paycheck."

"Obviously, he is too. He's doing this mission gratis," Shepard interjected. "What's your concern?"

"I don't like mercenaries. An assassin is just a precise mercenary," Jacob shot back, his subtle insult directed at Thane.

"An assassin is a weapon," Thane corrected. He projected an aura of serene composure. "A weapon doesn't choose to kill. The one who wields it does," he explained, turning his gaze on Shepard meaningfully.

Shepard nodded back evenly.

Miranda cut into the conversation smoothly. "Do you have a place to stay in Nos Astra? If not, I can arrange suitable lodgings."

"I do," Thane informed. "However, I suppose it's best to determine what my quarters will be when the ship is underway."

"Any preferences?" Miranda asked.

"I'd prefer someplace dry, if anything is available."

"EDI? Recommendations?" Miranda inquired to the AI.

EDI's avatar popped up at the pedestal on the wall of the Armory. "The area near the life support plant on the crew deck tends to be slightly more arid than the rest of the ship."

Thane looked nonplused at EDI's presence. "Ah. An AI?" he questioned momentarily before nodding. "My thanks." He turned to Shepard again and engaged his omni-tool. "This is where I'm currently staying. Whenever you're ready to leave Illium, I will be ready."

"Actually," Shepard said, forestalling Thane's assumptions. "We're looking for one more individual here on Illium. According to a friend of mine, she's here on business, which might complicate things. I'd like everyone come with me when we find her. She's justicar named Samara."

"The justicar?" Thane asked. For once, he looked shocked.

"You know her?" Miranda questioned.

"No. I've haven't had the pleasure," Thane said, a tad too quickly.

"Is there a problem?" Shepard asked.

Thane shook his head. "No. No problem. I had thought to introduce myself to her after my business at the Dantius Towers was complete." He looked distinctly uncomfortable now. "If you'll excuse me, I must gather my things." He bowed respectfully to Shepard.

Confused with the sudden reticence, Shepard managed to sketch a small bow of his own.

Thane left without another word.

"He seems quite civil," EDI commented before vanishing.

Shepard and Miranda turned to the pedestal in surprise. Neither of them was expecting her to make any sort of comment since she never spoke up unless spoken to or had something important to say.

Jacob simply glared at the spot Thane was standing moments before.

Shepard cleared his throat to get his attention. "We need all the help we can get. He's not what I expected in an assassin. He may surprise you."

Jacob scoffed in return. "Yeah. And he may not."

"Well… I've been known to be wrong before," Shepard admitted. "But I got a good feeling about him. I think he's alright."

Jacob scowled again.

"Alright, Jacob. That's enough," Miranda said in exasperation. "You've done good work with the armor. I'll take over now." Taking the holo-pad with the progress of the installation from him, she poured over the contents. "Perhaps some time in the city might be good for you?" she suggested without looking up.

"She's right. You worked hard. Take a bit of time off while we stay here keep working, okay?"

"Fine," he replied curtly. He left the weapons on the table and quickly walked out of the Armory.

"So what's up with him?" Shepard asked Miranda when they were alone.

She shrugged in response. "I really don't know. If you're asking for my personal opinion, I think Jacob places quite a bit of his personal philosophies in loyalty. He tends to be rather… terse with people that don't have any real allegiances." She smiled cattily. "Such as mercenaries or assassins for example."

"Is that some of the reason why he doesn't like the Illusive Man?"

"It's more like the reason he doesn't like Cerberus. There are few people within that you would trust. But then again, his feelings for the Illusive Man aren't exactly secret anyway."

"And what about you? What are your thoughts on loyalty?" Shepard asked interestedly.

Miranda smiled again. "I'm probably more passionate about the subject than Jacob." She tapped on the holo-pad in her hands again before looking back up at Shepard. "Why do you think Krios wanted to meet Samara anyway?" she asked, abruptly changing the subject.

He frowned in response. "I don't know. According to Liara, justicars are supposed to stop criminals when they see them. Assassin's are practically the definition of a criminal, so you would think Thane would go out of his way to avoid her."

Miranda was about to say something when a loud noise, followed by several clatters echoed through the hanger.

Shepard sighed. "Duty calls. I'll ask him when I see him."

-oOo-

Garrus looked up from the report in his hand to see Thane disembark from the Normandy. He quickly turned back to the engineer. "This is good. Looks like we might've finally found a ship that can use this beast."

The Cerberus engineer took the holo-pad back from Garrus and saluted him before taking off. Garrus turned around and jogged to catch up to the assassin. "Hey. Garrus Vakarian," he introduced himself. "That was some impressive work back at the tower."

Thane glanced at him before turning his gaze forward. "Innocents were killed because of my actions."

Garrus offered a sympathetic look. "Nassana had a contract out on her. If you didn't do the job, someone else would've. I've fought an assassin or two and I know that most won't care about 'collateral damage'. You did the best you could and there's one less criminal to worry about."

"That is one way to perceive it," Thane allowed.

They left the hangar and walked together for a time in silence. Eventually, Garrus broke the peace first. "I don't think I've ever met an assassin quite like you," he commented off-hand with a side glance at the drell.

Thane didn't turn to face him, but he had a small smile on his face. "Indeed?"

"You went out of your way to help people. Most assassins I've taken out usually would've used the disturbance as a distraction or something to get closer to the target or get away."

"That is their way. I have mine."

"You mentioned wanting to make the universe brighter before you died. What did you mean by that?"

Thane looked down, but still had the awareness to avoid the morning crowds as they walked through Nos Astra. "I have committed… a heinous crime. I must atone for it."

"What did you do?" Garrus asked curiously. He found it strange that an assassin, a precision killer really, would actually feel remorse.

"I was taught to kill quickly in order to ensure as little suffering as possible. However, in the course of learning such techniques, I inevitably learned how to cause harm without killing," Thane explained before a haunted look entered his eyes. "Sadly, it was those techniques I exercised when I…" He trailed off when his head abruptly snapped up. His voice took on a sudden rapid tone that was unlike him. "/The knife, poised above my bound prisoner. His gagged mouth mumbling in fear and protest. The blade cuts deep into the muscle, missing the arteries and veins, prolonging his suffering. His muffled screams fill the room…/"

"Krios? Krios!" Garrus shouted, reaching out and shaking his travelling companion. The various people mulling about turned to them in confusion at the turian's shout.

Thane blinked and took a deep breath. Ignoring the looks around him, he continued walking toward his home. "My apologies, Mr. Vakarian."

"What was that?"

"Drell call it solipsism. Our species have eidetic memories. Often, it is quite easy to slip into a particularly powerful memory," he explained neutrally.

"So what you just said… You tortured someone?" Garrus asked, narrowing his eyes. Considering the discipline the assassin appeared to hold himself to, he hardly seemed the type to descend into something common thugs would resort to.

"I mutilated several individuals," Thane corrected, his voice taking a twinge of guilt. "I saw to it that their pain lasted hours, even days, before ending them."

"Why?" Garrus asked. He found himself appalled that Thane would admit to something like this. On Omega, this was the kind of criminal he would have hunted without hesitation. To the drell's credit though, he appeared to be feeling true remorse about it. That fact alone put him worlds above most.

Thane shrugged. "For perhaps one of the oldest reasons in the galaxy: revenge."

"Revenge for what?"

"They were afraid of me. They decided to take someone very precious to me instead."

Stopping at the carport, Garrus stayed silent. Krios' story struck a chord within him. He tried to convince himself that he and Thane weren't the same. That his vendetta against Sidonis was justice and nothing more. The thought still left a bitter taste in his mouth however, as his reasons seemed more and more disingenuous.

10 good men died because of one coward. I need to make it right.

"Mr. Vakarian?" Thane called out.

"Garrus," he responded automatically. "Garrus is fine."

"Garrus," Thane acquiesced. "Are you coming with me?"

"Oh. Um… no. I'm out to find a turian shop. It was good talking to you, though."

"Likewise. I will see you soon, I'm sure." Thane turned to gaze at the vista of the city. "I spent the last two years here. I had a purpose, a goal. Now that I've accomplished it, something occurs to me." He took deep breath of morning air. "In all the time, I never took the opportunity to look at the horizon. It is… spectacular." He turned to Garrus. "Something haunts you. I see that. You have the same look I had, years ago."

Garrus found that he couldn't meet his eyes. He frowned. "It's personal."

Thane had a ghost of a grimace on his face. "Of that, I have no doubt. In fact, the more personal the problem is, the more pain it can inflict." He stared at the turian, almost appearing to see through him. "If I may? Do not allow it to consume you. You lose more than merely allowing the simple pleasures to pass you by," he advised, gesturing to the sprawling city of Nos Astra. "You lose a piece of your soul." With that said, he entered the waiting taxi and took off.

Garrus turned around and walked back to the hustle and bustle of Nos Astra. He still tried to shake the sudden feelings that welled up in him. An assassin that sought revenge and now conducted vigilante missions. And Liara… a former archeologist that seemed hell bent on chasing one of the galaxies most notorious figures and killing him. As much as he tried, he couldn't remove his apprehensive feelings of what he wanted to do when he found Sidonis and what would happen if he did.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Normandy SR-2

"Command… I mean, Captain?" Kelly called out when Shepard left the Normandy.

"What was that noise?" Shepard asked as he approached her.

"It was Grunt. He seems… um… agitated?" she hedged. Looking over her shoulder, she was watched the krogan stomp around the corner of the hangar and snarling at the mess at his feet. "I think agitated is a bit of an understatement, but something is clearly troubling him."

"Great," Shepard groaned. "Okay. I'll see what's wrong." Approaching the krogan as casually as he could, he stopped a short distance away and waited until Grunt finally noticed his presence.

Grunt turned to glare at him before pacing again, clenching and unclenching his fists.

"Is… um… is something wrong, Grunt?" Kelly timidly asked from behind Shepard.

Shepard and Grunt both looked surprised at her presence. Shepard, because he didn't know Kelly followed him and Grunt, because he never even interacted with the yeoman at all.

Grunt quickly overcame his shock and snarled again. "Yes. Something is wrong. I feel wrong." He started pacing back and forth again.

"How so?" Shepard asked.

"I feel tense. I just want to kill something." He stopped pacing and glared at the two humans. "With my bare hands," he stressed, holding up his fists. He turned away from them and stomped toward the wall. "More so than usual, like it's not my choice. Like I just want to, I don't know…" He suddenly rammed his head against the metal wall, creating a clanging sound that sounded painful.

"Grunt!" Kelly shouted out in alarm.

Grunt didn't even seem to notice. He quickly stomped right up to Shepard with a wild look in his eyes. "See? Why do that?"

To Shepard's credit, he held his ground, even when Kelly recoiled a bit at his approach.

"It's just like at the towers. When I rushed the bridge. I knew I should've waited. I knew we should've held high ground and just shoot them all dead. But I wanted to… I don't know… grab one of those mercenaries and rip one apart. Limb from limb," Grunt painfully admitted. "Or toss one off the bridge and hear him scream, like what you did."

Shepard could almost sense the bit of shame in Grunt's voice when he recounted his mistake at the Dantius Towers.

"What's wrong with me?" Grunt growled to himself. He started gnashing his teeth, further proof of his agitation.

"Okeer didn't imprint anything to help you figure this out?" Shepard asked.

"No. I see picture of old battles, voices of warlords," Grunt answered. He put a hand to his head as he tried to focus. "But this is… a blood haze in my head."

"Oh my…" Kelly squeaked out nervously.

Grunt glared at her and turned his back at both of them. "I want control. When we're moving, fighting, I can focus." He paused and shook his head. "For the most part. But here, my blood screams, my plates itch," he ranted before turning back around and stabbing a finger at Shepard. "And even you are just noise!" He took a breath and shook his head again. "I'm tank-born. What is this?"

Shepard shook his head as well. "I honestly have no idea, Grunt." Bowing his head in thought, he snapped his head back up when Kelly started tapping his shoulder.

"Um… This actually looks like, um…" she hesitated, before glancing at the krogan.

Obliging her, Shepard bend his head lower so Kelly could whisper in his ear.

"This seems reminiscent of… um… puberty. In most species anyway," she finished.

Oh, hell… Shepard thought worriedly. "For all our sakes, I really hope not. What do we do?" he whispered back.

"This isn't something we're equipped to handle, Captain. Perhaps we could consult a specialist?" she suggested in hushed tones.

"Like who?"

"I doubt Dr. Chakwas can help. Perhaps another krogan?"

Shepard nodded and turned to face Grunt. "We'll need to have one of your kind look into this. But it's probably just you… um… catching up on your…" Shepard trailed off, unsure how to finish his sentence.

"Growing pains," Kelly supplied.

"Sure. That works," he quickly agreed.

"Growing pains?" Grunt repeated in confusion.

"You're born fully grown up, but Okeer failed to give you any reason to care about, well, anything. Perhaps he failed in other aspects too," Shepard reasoned. "Like properly growing into yourself, I guess."

Grunt growled and started pacing again. He was muttering to himself, though both humans could detect the words, "Okeer," and "weak," and "idiot." He continued for a few moments longer before speaking again. "Most off-world krogan are warriors. Shamans don't leave the homeworld: Tuchanka." He was still pacing. "I won't ask you to go there," he declared. "I will control this."

"I recommend that we do, Captain. We don't know anything about this. Whether this is the worst we can expect or when he'll get better," Kelly advised.

"Agreed," Shepard stated. He met Grunt's eyes, even as the krogan kept pacing. "There's an old friend there I can visit. He'll help us and you. I need everyone at their best."

Grunt finally stopped pacing and nodded slowly. "Thank you, Shepard," he said gratefully, surprising both humans again. "I don't like this. Fury is my choice, not a sickness."

"Okay. For now, how about we keep working?" Shepard suggested. "Try to keep your mind off of this until we're able to fly again."

Grunt nodded and started collecting the materials around him.

Shepard nodded his head at Kelly, silently indicating that they should leave. She agreed all too readily.

Once out of earshot, she sighed in relief. "That was intense," she breathed out.

Shepard only shrugged. "You didn't have to come with me."

"I thought that my psych report was inaccurate with regards to my observations of him. I suppose I wanted to double-check myself," she said defensively.

"Well, for what it's worth, I think you might be right about the whole 'puberty' thing," he said.

"I'll need to update this," Kelly said. She suddenly giggled. "Grunt and Thane's psych reports are as different as can be," she commented out loud.

"I'm sure they are."

"Mordin mentioned how religious Thane was when you finally met him. I was surprised to hear he even had a spiritual side at all, considering his profession. The Cerberus psych profile mentioned little of it and when I saw him and Garrus leave, he carried himself with such cold confidence," she elaborated before taking on thoughtful look. "I'm not sure if I find him scary or sexy," she admitted.

Shepard let out a small laugh. "A lot of women like bad boys," he said teasingly.

"That is a dirty stereotype," she said in mock indignation before smiling. "In my case, it happens to be true, but still." She turned toward the exit out of the hangar. "I need to update Thane's psych profile and I might have to look over Grunt's again. Good day, Captain."

"Hold on, Kelly. If you're going out to the city, see if you can find any krogan out there willing to talk to you. Be discreet about your inquiries and see if they can't help out a bit," he requested.

"That's a good idea. I'll try my best," she promised before snapping off a salute.

"See you around, Kelly," Shepard said as he left to check on the status of the armor.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Commercial Spaceport

Within the morning crowds of Nos Astra, an asari garbed in deep red leather armor glided smoothly through the throngs of people. She moved with grace and dexterity, born of years of discipline and training. Her eyes took in everything around her with a serene and tranquil gaze, but her movements suggested a definitive purpose.

Thus far, despite Illium's reputation, Samara had yet to encounter any illegal activities that forced her hand to intervene. The police presence was quick and efficient to bring justice to the unjust well before she could act. For this, she was privately glad about. She had a mission, but she knew she also had her Code.

It's just as well. My window of opportunity grows smaller with each passing day.

Patience was a virtue she had long since embraced. Her quarry, however, had no such discipline. Samara searched as quietly and discreetly as she could, but knew that time was running out. Sooner or later, her prey would either mate, taking a life of an innocent or be able to find a way off-world, continuing a chase that has lasted for over 400 years and littered with the bodies of the innocent.

Knowing the habits of her target, she sought out nightclubs, hallex dealers, and news of anything that would indicate where her opponent might be, any associates, or recent activities. Unfortunately, all her investigations bore no leads. Unsurprising, since Illium prided itself on its strict law enforcement policies.

She's careful now. Nos Astra's police force would not be kind to an Ardat-Yakshi.

Still, her quarry would find the thrill of danger exciting, an added flavor in their long dance. To hunt and to be hunted; it would provide a challenge that an Ardat-Yakshi would use to prove that her power was growing from their lethal unions. Another example of her twisted hedonism.

Samara found herself recounting the victims she had come across during her four century old pursuit and a profound sadness welled up within as she gazed around the district she was in. Shaking those thoughts away, she refocused on her mission. She had given herself to the Code now and with it, all the consequences involved. There was no turning back from her course.

Will this be my moment to confront her? Or will our dance continue?

She watched the space ports now, waiting for her prey to try to escape her. Whatever happens, patience was virtue she had long since embraced.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Normandy SR-2

"How is it now?" Tali yelled from the Tantalus Core control panel.

"It's still no good ma'am," Gabby answered in frustration from Ken's station. "Power draw is more than what the conduits can handle."

"Aw, bugger me sideways! I can't get this damn thing working!" Ken shouted up from the Tantalus Core. "The power delivery system is all bollocksed Boss! We can't get the damn gun to shoot sparks, let alone fire off a shot!"

Tali sighed tiredly. After an evening out fighting with mercenaries, saving civilians, and chasing an assassin, she wanted nothing more than to sleep. She steeled herself and pushed through her weariness. Earlier, she spotted Shepard still up and about and working hard despite whatever exhaustion he might be feeling.

If he even feels fatigue at all, Tali thought jokingly.

"Alright. Start diagnostics and let's try to see which conduits need replacing," she ordered. If he could keep functioning, she had to prove that she was just as capable.

"Aye, aye, ma'am!"

"You got it, Boss!"

EDI's avatar popped up next to her on the pedestal. "If I may make a suggestion, Ms. Zorah. Perhaps we should take all the weapons systems off-line as well, to better test the full ramifications of the Thanix Cannon."

Tali whipped her head around and narrowed her eyes at the glowing blue orb. "If I wanted an opinion from you, I would ask for it."

"I am simply trying to create a working relationship with you, Ms. Zorah. Shutting down the other weapons systems might be able to show where the problem areas are."

"I don't need your help!" Tali snapped back, glaring at the AI. "Now leave me alone before I take up Joker's suggestion of flashing your core, you bosh'tet!"

"Whoa, Tali. Language."

Tali turned her head to glare at the new arrival before she realized it was Shepard. Already, she could feel the heat rise to her cheeks in embarrassment. Clearing her throat and silently thankful for her mask, she quickly regained her composure. "Sorry, Shepard."

"It's fine. I know how you feel about AI's," he replied. He smiled sheepishly. "I asked EDI to be civil with you Tali. Like it or not, she's going to be around all the time."

"That may be, but I don't have to like it," Tali snapped back angrily, before catching herself again. "Sorry," she mumbled.

"I'm not asking you to like her. I'm asking you to try to work with her," he suggested carefully.

"You really trust an AI?" She spat out the word 'AI' with no small amount of disgust.

"Yeah, I do," Shepard replied instantly, surprising her. "You may not know it, but she saved our lives a few times. Including yours." He leaned against the rail and crossed his arms. "It was actually thanks to her that we were able to find you on Haestrom as quickly as we did."

"That may be, but it's a Cerberus creation," she argued stubbornly.

"And the geth is a quarian creation," he pointed out. "Look, this mission is dangerous enough. We need all the advantages we can get. EDI is one of them. Can you work with her? Just for the mission at least?"

Tali made a noise of annoyance. She put her hands on her hips and glared. "Fine. But don't expect me to become friends with it. I'm with Joker. The less I interact with it, the better."

Shepard sighed, but nodded in acceptance. "I'll take what I can get. Maybe she'll grow you." Judging from the standoffish stance she was displaying told him how likely that was. "Or not…"

She growled a bit before pointedly turning her back on him. "I'll just pretend that it's a VI or something. That makes it a bit more tolerable."

"If you wish, Ms. Zorah," EDI stated.

"One step at a time I guess," Shepard muttered good naturedly. "So what's going on here? I noticed that we're a little behind on some of the tests," he asked. He moved out of the way when Gabby stepped past both of them and climbed into the core with Ken.

"Attaching the cannon directly to the core is fine, like we tested earlier, but installing it properly into the ship's systems…" She sighed at gestured to some of the conduits that she suspected were faulty. "Some of the existing conduits can't handle the increased power draw the core uses to create the necessary mass effect fields the Thanix Cannon utilizes. We need to replace them with more superior components," Tali explained distractedly. She made another sound of annoyance laced with impatience. "We should shut down all the weapons systems to see which conduits need replacing."

Tali found herself annoyed when Shepard tried his best to hide his smirk. "EDI's suggestion?"

"I have everything well in hand," she retorted defensively.

Shepard held up his hands in supplication. "I know, I know. I wouldn't have placed you in charge if I didn't think you could do it," he soothed while smiling disarmingly at her.

Tali rolled her eyes, but felt her earlier frustrations melt away in the face of his charm. Completely unfair…

"I'll leave you to your work then. Please, be civil?"

"Fine. But only because you're asking," Tali reluctantly agreed.

"Thanks," Shepard gratefully returned before leaving.

Tali leveled a glare at the avatar on the pedestal before shaking her head. "Begin diagnostics and shut down all the weapons systems. Once those tests are completed, we'll restart everything one by one to ensure no further problems."

"Understood, Ms. Zorah. I will coordinate my efforts with the rest of the engineering staff," EDI dutifully complied before vanishing.

A quarian working with an AI… I can't even imagine what father would say about that. Keelah.

As she turned back to the console in front of her, Ken's voice floated up from the base of the core. "So Gabby, what do you think of our new quarian boss?"

Tali leaned over the rail to better eavesdrop on them while Gabby leveled a glare at her friend. "Hush. She's right up there."

"Ah, she can't hear us with her head in that bucket," Ken dismissed.

Tali narrowed her eyes at him and turned toward the ladder that led into the core.

"Don't get me wrong; it's a beautiful bucket. The whole suit is lovely. Quite snug, in all the right places," Ken listed off, apparently oblivious to Tali's presence just behind him. She had climbed into the core while he was speaking and was standing a few feet away with her arms crossed.

"You know I can hear you," Tali said.

Ken jumped up in fright and banged his head on an open panel. "Ow! Damn it!" Rubbing his head, he turned and smiled sheepishly at her. "Um… You know I meant everything I said in the best possible way, right, Boss?"

"I'm sure. However, flattery will get you nothing but trouble with me," Tali answered ominously. "I believe it's your turn to clean the vents and filters."

"Wha? It's Gabby's turn!" Ken feebly argued. He looked completely dismayed at the task handed to him.

"No, I'm quite sure it's your turn now," Tali countered. "Get to work."

He looked to Gabby and saw no sympathetic looks. "It'll take all day!"

"Then you'd better get started," Tali ordered with finality before turning around and climbing back up to her console.

Gabby's laugher could be heard throughout the deck.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Azure Spire Hotel

"Dr. Solus! Mordin!"

Mordin looked up from the holo-menu to see a salarian wave at him. Waving back, he looked back down at the menu and perused the contents quickly. He could hear his friend settle in across from him.

"I was surprised to receive your call," Jedra Kirosa commented. "I'm sorry I couldn't answer you sooner," he apologized before taking on a dejected look. "I was busy trying to calm the rest of my family down. We've had an accident with our records."

Having decided on his lunch, Mordin tapped the button to vanish his menu and nodded to his friend. "Yes. Aware of problems," he said in his usual rapid manner.

"You are?" Jedra asked in surprise.

"Left this in Dantius Towers," Mordin said. He pulled out the OSD he found and passed it over.

"You found it!" Jedra exclaimed happily, accepting the disk and checking it to see if it was damaged. "The Kirosa Generational Archive! Thank you, Mordin. This means everything to me. To us."

"Indeed," Mordin agreed. "Ready to order?"

"Order? Oh! Um…" Jedra realized before activating a holo-menu of his own and glancing through its contents. After a minute he vanished the menu as well. "Ready."

Mordin tapped a button to call for service and waited for a waitress to arrive.

"My whole family has been worried. This data is irreplaceable! I really didn't think I'd get it back from Nassana's corporate building," Jedra said.

Mordin nodded absently as he looked around for their waitress. "Interesting. No backups were ready?" he asked conversationally.

"We did have some," Jedra deadpanned.

Mordin turned back to his friend and tilted his head. "Oh?"

"A rival family introduced a computer virus and our techs were sloppy," he explained in frustration. "The virus managed to destroy all our data."

"No hard copies then? Back up OSD's? Separate networks to prevent such occurrences?" Mordin asked.

Jedra looked embarrassed. "Not as such, no. Lesson learned."

"Why was OSD in Dantius Towers?" Mordin asked. "Data recovery? Reconstruction? Yes, yes. Paid to retrieve data before records were lost, correct?" he theorized before Jedra could get a word in.

Jedra seemed to be used to Mordin's unusual mannerisms if his amused smile was anything to go by. "Yes to all of the above, Mordin. I had to spend a fortune too. It was just bad luck that Nassana went crazy at that moment."

Mordin nodded knowingly. He turned and smiled at the asari waitress that had arrived and placed his order.

Jedra did the same. When the waitress left, he shook his head in exasperation. "I heard from the news reports that she was killed last night too."

"Yes. Heard that as well," Mordin said with a straight face.

"We live in a world of infinite data redundancy," Jedra griped as he patted his pocket to ensure the OSD was still there. "To lose something so important because of one crazy asari…"

Mordin smiled. "Glad to have helped."

"If there's anything I can do for you…" Jedra offered.

The waitress came back with their drinks and placed them on the table before bowing to both salarians and leaving.

Mordin took a sip and nodded. "Lunch is on you."

Jedra looked confused for a moment before bursting out laughing.

Mordin smiled again and was about to say something when his omni-tool beeped. "Excuse me," he said as he looked over the message. For once in his life, he felt mind freeze up as he regarded the encrypted message in front of him.

"Something wrong?" his friend asked worriedly.

Mordin looked up before twisting his head around frantically. He spotted the person he was looking for at the restaurant bar. "Wait… wait one moment," he hesitantly said.

Jedra looked gobsmacked at the sudden halting speech. "What's going on?"

"Business. Personal. Must attend to it immediately. Be right back," Mordin fired off, faster then he usually spoke. He abruptly stood up and walked quickly to the bar. He stopped next to the lone salarian sitting on the stool at the far end. "Why are you here?" he demanded.

STG Captain Kirrahe took a small sip of his drink and shook his head. "Too many ears." He slid a holo-pad over to Mordin discreetly. "Meet me here after you finish your lunch. We need to talk."

"Message you sent me. Utilized STG encryption protocols," Mordin whispered fiercely when he was sure no one around was listening. "Similar encryption was used during project."

"That's precisely why I'm using it," Kirrahe calmly replied. "What I want to talk about has everything to do with you and your work." He looked up and glared meaningfully. "We'll talk later." He stood up, left some credit chits on the counter and walked away.

Mordin stared at his retreating back. His mind worked in overdrive as he considered and disregarded dozens of scenarios as to why Kirrahe and the STG wanted to speak to him. His feet automatically carried him to his table and he sat down as if he was on autopilot.

Jedra noticed the signs his friend was giving off and opted not to ask any further questions. "So… what brings you to Illium?"

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Normandy SR-2

"We're making good time," Shepard commented as he gazed at the new armor attached at the aft of the frigate.

Miranda nodded in agreement. "I'm a bit surprised myself. We might actually finish tomorrow, two days at the latest."

"I'm guessing two," Shepard replied. "Don't forget about the paint job."

"Men. Always needing to satisfy their egos," she teased.

"Director Lawson, Captain. I have your lunches here," Rolston called out as he and Patel jogged up to them with bags on their arms.

"Great," Shepard said enthusiastically. "I'm starving."

"Thank you, Roltson," Miranda gratefully said.

"No, ma'am. Thank you," Rolston empathetically returned.

"Have you heard from your family?" Miranda asked as she poked through the bags for her order.

"Yes, ma'am. You managed to get them out of there in the nick of time."

"How are they doing?" Shepard asked before taking a bite out of his meal.

"They're resting in San Francisco as we speak, sir."

Patel gave Rolston a friendly pat on the back. "One less thing to worry about, right?"

"It's good news," Shepard said neutrally. His thoughts wandered at the probable losses of yet another colony.

"Yes, sir… but I knew a lot of good people in New Canton."

"We'll stop them. One thing at a time," Patel said optimistically. "The captain is in charge. We'll be alright."

Shepard smiled. "I appreciate the vote of confidence."

"We should get back to work. If we're going to succeed, we need everything up and running as soon as possible," Rolston said to Patel.

"Right."

When they both left, Shepard saw Miranda giving him a searching look. "What?" he asked after he swallowed a bite.

She shook her head in exasperation. "It's nothing."

"It's something."

"Maybe later," she said, before chewing her food thoughtfully.

Shepard looked confused before shaking his thoughts away and returning his attention to his food. Women.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Azure Spire Hotel

After eating his lunch quickly and giving a very brief goodbye to his friend, Mordin almost ran to the hotel room Kirrahe had told him to go to. He felt a little guilty given how distant he was acting to Jedra throughout their meal, but his thoughts were consumed with worry as to why the STG wanted to get back into contact with him. After finally reaching his destination, he knocked twice on the door. It opened immediately, revealing another STG soldier. He nodded and granted him entry. Stepping inside, Mordin looked to see five STG soldiers cramped inside the small room. Each of them was on their guard and were scanning and rescanning the room for any eavesdroppers, active, potential or otherwise.

Kirrahe stood up from his chair and nodded. "Dr. Solus."

"Captain. What is the meaning of this?"

"We couldn't afford to send any messages in case they were intercepted and we can't afford anyone overhearing our conversation," he explained shortly. He gestured to the chair across from him.

Mordin nodded slowly and took the offered seat. "Why contact me?"

"Our intelligence indicates that you're working with Cerberus. More to the point however, you're working with Spectre Agent Shepard, correct?"

"Yes, but-" Mordin tried to explain before Kirrahe cut him off.

"I don't know why you're working with Cerberus, but if you're working with Shepard, then that's enough for me," he said. "I'll get right to point, then. One of your team members working on your project has been captured by the Blood Pack."

Mordin's eyes widened. "Blood Pack? Are they aware? What news do you have? Who was captured? How long ago? What are-"

"We don't have details," Kirrahe calmly interjected. "As for who: it's your assistant, Maelon."

If possible, Mordin's eyes widened even more. "Maelon…" he whispered.

"You can see why we're concerned," Kirrahe said. "He was involved in your project from start to finish. He knows everything." He took a breath and looked Mordin in the eye. "He disappeared only a few days ago. Unfortunately, he had a copy of the project details with him."

"Copy? Why? What purpose would he have with-"

"We don't know," Kirrahe answered with frustration. "We don't have a lot of intel on this. All we know is he requested a copy shortly before his disappearance. Given how much he was involved, the information was made available to him without question."

Mordin looked around and saw a lot of surly faces. The Salarian Special Tasks Group prided itself on knowing much more than what most would believe. The fact that they didn't have any information at all right now was a slight against that pride.

"We don't know if the krogan are aware of the project. Yet. It's probably only a matter of time though. What we do know is that Maelon is being held on Tuchanka," Kirrahe revealed. "Originally, we were going to stage a rescue op. However, I heard that Shepard was alive, you were working with him and an old krogan teammate of Shepard's was making some pretty big changes planet-side."

Mordin nodded in understanding. "Instead of deploying STG force, you wish for Shepard and me to look into the matter."

Kirrahe nodded back. "Shepard and I worked together before. I know he'll get the job done," he stated with respect in his voice. "I also know about Urnot Wrex, the krogan Shepard worked with two years ago that helped me-"

"Destroy cloning facility on Virmire. Yes, heard about that. Even talked about it with Shepard. He remembers you."

Kirrahe smirked. "With the Urdnot's help, Shepard should be able to get on Tuchanka without too much fuss. Far less than what we can do, anyway," he said. "We want to you find out where Maelon is being held. If you and Shepard can get him off-world, we'll pick him up and take him to a secure location. Otherwise, just transmit his location and we'll try our luck," he briefed.

"Will speak to Shepard. However, likely he will ask many questions. Will need to tell him about project. Need to convince him." Mordin paused to take a breath. "Won't lie to him."

"STG is authorizing you to do what needs to be done, Dr. Solus. As a Spectre, Shepard understands how important galactic stability is more than most. We'll trust that he'll keep his discretion about your project," he answered.

"Will do what I can," Mordin stated resolutely. He got up to leave.

Kirrahe stood up as well and offered his hand. When Mordin shook it, he smiled. "And when you see him? Tell him: I'm glad we held the line."

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Eternity Bar

Garrus walked into Eternity, fully intent on getting a drink or two. He spent his day searching for a turian shop that could restore his clan markings on the right side of his face. After successfully applying the missing face paint, he ate lunch alone and took a brief nap in his room at the hotel. However, no matter what did or where he went, thoughts of Sidonis and his conversation with Thane and Liara still haunted him. Stalking up to the bar, he was surprised to see Jacob sitting alone on one of the stools. Sidling up next to him, he ordered a drink from the nearby kiosk and greeted him. "Jacob."

"Garrus," he returned tersely, but not coldly.

It was clear that something weighed heavily on his mind as well. The asari bartender placed Garrus' drink in front of him before moving off to serve another patron. "You look preoccupied. Something you want to talk about?"

"Not particularly," Jacob replied.

Garrus wasn't dissuaded though. "What happened to bartender therapy? Since I'm here, how some barstool philosophy instead?" he joked, trying to lighten the mood.

Jacob snorted into his drink. "Have you heard the bartender talk yet? I think she's worse than my old drill sergeant."

"No kidding?" Garrus asked skeptically. He turned his attention over to the asari bartender and watched her for a bit. "What did she say?" he asked as he reached for the nuts in the red bowl, the ones meant for turians and quarians.

"That she had a krogan for a dad," Jacob said simply as if that explained everything.

In Garrus' mind, it actually did in some ways. What caught his interest was how Jacob's earlier mood returned with a vengeance the moment he said, 'dad'. "You got family problems or something?"

Jacob leveled a glare at him for before sighing. "It's really personal, Garrus."

"I'm sure it is. Believe me, I know," he agreed whole-heartedly.

"You got problems too?" Jacob asked interestedly.

"Yeah. Tell you what. I spill first, then you. Deal?" Garrus offered.

"Deal."

"My father is pretty damn disappointed with me. I haven't spoken to him in over two years," Garrus started.

"He still alive?"

"Yeah. On Palavan. He used to be a famous C-Sec detective, y'know? One of the best." Garrus took a drink before continuing. "It's pretty much because of him I went to C-Sec, but I hated it there. I told him that too. Too many criminals knew how to exploit the system."

"By-the-book kind of guy, I take it?"

"Describes him perfectly."

"How did he feel when you quit?"

Garrus scowled into his drink. "He said I was being impatient, stupid, that kind of thing. Told me that I shouldn't get mixed up with Spectres or Shepard." He took another drink and narrowed his eyes as he remembered the last time they spoke. "'Do it right or don't do it at all'. He always said that to me." He barked out a sardonic laugh. "'Do it right' he says. I did the right thing."

"Stopping the Reapers from killing us all?" Jacob rhetorically asked. "Yeah, I'd say so." He raised his glass and tapped it against Garrus'.

"We haven't talked since. He didn't even send me a message telling me that he was proud or wrong or anything at all. I doubt I'll hear from him for a while too; not after my stint in Omega," Garrus said. He shook his head to free himself of the memories and turned to his drinking companion. "Your turn."

Jacob sighed. "I never mentioned this, but my old man is dead."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Garrus honestly said.

"Thanks," Jacob replied automatically. "Thing is, I haven't seen or talked to him in 13 years."

"You're not close either, I take it."

"Nope," Jacob affirmed. "Thing is, I just got a message that the ship he was on, the Hugo Gernsback, just activated its distress beacon."

"He's in trouble? Right now?" Garrus asked in alarm.

"He's supposed to be dead. That ship was reported missing 10 years ago."

Garrus tilted his head in confusion. "10 years… then why?"

Jacob shrugged. "I don't know. I'm not even sure I care."

"Considering that you're here drinking alone, maybe you do, just a little anyway."

"It's just bothering me, that's all."

"You aren't going to check it out?" Garrus inquired.

"We got a mission. I don't want to waste Shepard's time with this when there are bigger things at stake."

"What if-"

"He's alive?" Jacob finished for him. "I thought about that. I don't know though. 10 years…"

"For what it's worth…" Garrus started before falling silent.

"What?"

Garrus stayed silent, searching himself for the answers. Eventually, he came to a decision. "If it was my father, I think I'd like to know for sure. We might not be close, but family is still family."

Jacob stared at him for a while before nodding. "You think I should talk to Shepard about it?"

"I would."

"Alright. When he's not busy or when the Normandy is up and running again, I'll…"

Anything more Jacob wanted to say was interrupted by a man in last generation N7 armor stomping his way up to the bar. The man had short cropped blonde hair and a trimmed mustache and beard. As soon as he reached the bar, he slammed his hands on the countertop and glared at the bartender. He was apparently going for a menacing look, but lacked the right presence for it. The asari looked at him in amusement and annoyance. "All right!" he shouted. "I want the deed to this bar! Now!"

Jacob looked confused at his request. His confusion grew even more when Garrus started chortling. "You know him?"

Garrus nodded. "Not particularly, but I've seen him before," he vaguely said, still laughing at some unseen joke.

Both men watched as the owner of Eternity walked out of the back room and started speaking to the stranger. However, minutes later, both parties were engaged in a shouting match.

"Hey, Jacob. You want some entertainment?" Garrus asked mischievously.

"We gonna get in trouble for it?" Jacob asked.

Garrus noted that he didn't specifically say no. "I might, but you won't."

"In that case, what are you planning?"

Garrus chucked again and activated his com. "Hey, Shepard. There's an emergency in the Eternity Bar. You better get down here quick." There was a pause as Garrus listened to Shepard's response. "Yeah." Another pause. "No, I don't think I can handle this one alone. Gonna need you here." Pause. "See you soon. I'll keep you apprised of the situation when I can get a better handle as to what the hell is going on."

"You're crazy. You think Shepard can do something with that marine?" Jacob asked.

Garrus grinned. "What makes you think he's a marine?"

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Liara's Office

Not long after lunch, Shepard found himself in Liara's office, sitting across from his former teammate. An urgent message from her prompted him to leave the refits of the Normandy to Miranda and travel quickly to her office.

"Before we talk about my business, we should speak about yours," Liara started when he made himself as comfortable as he could. "My contacts at Thessia have come back with news that Samara is after a specific individual. This particular asari she's after is dangerous. Very dangerous."

"What's she done?" Shepard asked involuntarily.

"She's… she's a killer," Liara hesitantly revealed. "Of sorts."

Shepard got the impression that she wanted to say something else, but decided to maintain his silence.

"She's been killing for more than 400 years. All throughout asari space," Liara continued.

Shepard let out a low whistle. "Do I even want to guess how many she's killed?"

"Whatever your guess is, I doubt you'll hit the mark," came the deadpan reply. "Whoever Samara is chasing is very good. Even I didn't know her kind was here until now. And this is the kind of information I should be aware of more than most."

"Her kind?" Shepard repeated.

"It's an asari problem," Liara answered vaguely. "If Samara desires to tell you, then that is her choice. I do not wish to become involved."

He noticed Liara becoming more and more uncomfortable as their conversation continued, so he decided to change the subject. "Alright, your turn then. What do you need me for now?"

"The Shadow Broker has several contacts here on Illium. The most powerful is someone called the Observer."

"Interesting moniker."

"Taking down the Observer will put me closer to the Shadow Broker," she continued, ignoring Shepard's remark. "I could use your help identifying him."

"What do I do?"

"The data you uncovered helped me find logs kept by Shadow Broker agents. The logs were deleted, but it may be possible to reconstruct some of it."

"So you just want me to fetch more data then?" Shepard skeptically asked.

"This data will more substantial than the data you got before," she said before frowning. "The Shadow Broker is cautious…"

"I would be too if you were after me," Shepard mumbled to himself, though Liara still heard it if her raised eyebrow was any indication.

"His agents are referred to only by their title and race," she explained, tactfully overlooking his comments again. "If you can refine the list, I'll know where to strike."

Nyxeris stepped up next to Shepard. "My inquiries have narrowed the Observer down to one of five operatives: a turian, a krogan, a batarian, and a vorcha."

Shepard narrowed his eyes at her. He noted that as she spoke, her statement had the most emotional inflections since he'd met her, rather than her usual distant speech patterns. "What? No human or asari?" he joked in an attempt to cover his unease.

"No," she answered shortly and quickly.

Shepard felt his hackles rise again. While his question was made in jest, she seemed oddly serious.

Something really isn't right here…

Liara was staring at Nyxeris as well, her gaze oddly penetrating. "This is all the information we have. Nyxeris was lucky to get as much as she did."

Nyxeris smiled and bowed. "I was happy to help, ma'am."

She got the information then. I wonder…

Liara voice interrupted his musings. "The data is our only hope of determining which on is the Observer. And if we wait too long, they'll all disappear."

"Alright. Where can I find the data?"

Tapping on her console, she transmitted the locations of the terminals Shepard needed to access. "Each of the agents uses these areas to leave their information. These 'dead drops' should have what I'm looking for. There are five of them."

"Okay. I'll try to reconstruct the data and tell you what I find," he agreed.

"Thank you, Shepard. When you find something, call me on the radio channel we used in the old days. I can't risk handling this in person," Liara instructed.

"Right. I'll be back soon, then." Standing up, he nodded his head and left.

Stepping out into the trading floor, Shepard stretched and looked around before engaging his omni-tool to see where he was supposed to go. He groaned to himself when he read the details.

Why did I agree to this?

The data he went after two nights ago was relatively close to each other. This time, the data he was after seemed much more spread out, seemingly all over Nos Astra.

Sighing to himself, he made his way to the carport through the transit station.

This might take a while.

As much as he didn't want to help Liara, he still trusted her on some level. Plus, there was still whatever secret she was keeping from him. Until he had the full story, he knew that he shouldn't judge her. Though, with his dwindling patience, it was becoming harder and harder to help her like he was currently doing. Banishing those thoughts from his mind, he approached the taxi stands and prepared to leave when he noticed that Seryna wasn't at her station, though her coworker, Tana was. Changing directions, he walked up to her and cleared his throat. "Excuse me. You know where Seryna is?"

"She's not here anymore…" she answered distractedly. She typed a few more things into her terminal before looking up. "Oh, you're the one she was helping out."

Shepard silently nodded.

"She took a job off-world. Didn't say where." She poked around her desk, looking for something. "She gave me something for you. Looks like a message."

"She didn't say anything else?"

"Nope. Just gave me that and left – not even a goodbye." She handed him a holo-pad.

Shepard thanked her and took the holo-pad from her. Stepping out of earshot, he tapped on the pad and listened to Seyna's message.

"Hey, Shepard. I was preparing to leave to my new life when the news burst arrived. The bitch is dead," she vindictively crowed. "I assume that means our mutual friend is alive and either he or you did the job. Tell him if I ever see him, I'll buy him a drink."

Scoffing humorously at the message, Shepard put the holo-pad in his pocket and got into taxi.

He spent most of the day cursing Liara, another first time occurrence, as he went about his business of hacking into terminals he had no business poking around in. He was forced to abuse his Tactical Cloak to hack into the hidden data servers for the information dead drops the Shadow Broker's agents used without drawing unwanted attention. Specifically from either the Observer or his agents. After hacking one and retrieving the data, he had to jump into a taxi and practically drive from one end of Nos Astra to the other just to download more corrupted or deleted pockets of data.

A few hours later, twilight fell on the city when he finally got into the fourth terminal.

Almost done.

His musings were interrupted when his omni-tool beeped. "Shepard here," he called into his com. He paused when he heard Garrus' report. "Is it bad?" Another pause. "Can you handle it by yourself?" Pause. "Alright. I'm on my way. Just sit tight and let me know if anything more happens, okay?"

Cursing to himself, he looked over to where the last location of the data server he needed to hack. His sigh of relief was plain to hear.

Finally, some good luck. Last one is at Eternity.

"Miranda? Get Tali and meet me at the entrance of the Eternity Bar. Garrus says there's trouble," Shepard called into his com.

"Is it bad?"

"He says he can't handle it on his own. Beyond that, I'm waiting for him to call me with more info."

"Should I get the others?"

Shepard furrowed his brow in thought. "No… just the three of us for now," he decided. "Four when we meet up with Garrus. We'll look into the situation and go from there."

"Understood. Tali and I will be there soon. Miranda out."

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Eternity Bar

Shepard met both ladies at the designated rendezvous. The humans were still dressed as civilians and Tali in her Colossus Armored environment suit. Shepard was still armed with his pistol, but his trained eye caught the slight signs that Miranda had her pistol as well, though he couldn't tell if Tali was armed or not.

If Miranda left the Normandy armed, Tali would've equipped her pistol too, he reasoned.

As nonchalantly as they could, they prepared to enter when a well-dressed asari stomped out, muttering angrily to herself. "I'm going to have that asshole arrested…"

She almost bumped into Miranda before having the presence of mind to look around. "Are you going into my club?"

"Of course," Miranda answered without missing a step. "Just us ladies, going out with a handsome man, taking in the nightlife of Nos Astra." To emphasize her point, she looped her arms around Shepard's right arm and smiled. "Right, Tali?

"Oh. Yes, of course." Catching on quickly, she did the same around Shepard's other side.

"Is there something wrong?" Shepard asked, feigning confusion and pretending to be a concerned patron.

"No, of course not," she quickly replied before regaining her earlier frustrated look. "Just watch yourself if you go in there. Some idiot human is causing trouble."

"Not too much trouble, I hope?" Miranda asked sweetly.

"No. Like I said, he's just an idiot. He's demanding that I sign the place over to him!"

"We'll avoid him," Shepard assured.

"Or you could kill him," the asari joked. "You know, legally. In self-defense. I'd make a really good witness."

"I'll keep that in mind," he deadpanned.

The asari smiled back. "Oh well. Failing that, I'm going to get security cameras installed now." Her smile became predatory. "If he or anyone else causes trouble, I'll have their asses arrested."

"Good to know," Tali said.

"Well, please. Enjoy yourselves."

"We will," Miranda sing-songed as she dragged Shepard, and by extension, Tali, into the club. Once inside, she let him go and started looking around for Garrus. "Do you see him?" she asked, all business again.

Shepard let Tali go and took a few steps in, observing the club and seeing if anything was amiss. After a few seconds, he started groaning to himself. "Oh, that son of a bitch. He set me up."

Tali noticed Shepard's look and turned in her head in the direction he was looking at. She broke out laughing. "I remember him!" she gasped out between giggles.

Miranda looked completely lost. Looking in the same direction, all she saw was Garrus and Jacob sitting at the bar, completely relaxed. Near them was a man in last-gen N7 armor, ranting at the bartender. "I'm not following here."

Shepard sighed in annoyance and stalked toward the bar. He leveled a glare at Garrus and Jacob, but both men just raised their glasses in salute and grinned.

"You really holding out on me? I'm a man on the edge! I've got nothing to lose!"

The asari bartender looked amused and annoyed at the same time. "Uh-huh," she said patronizingly.

"I'll do anything to get the job done! I'll go all the way without a second thought!"

"Uh-huh."

"You want to see how far I'll go?" The man leaned on the bar. "I learned how to shove gun in people's faces from-"

The bartender turned her body to better see Shepard's approach. "You want something, hon.?"

The man turned around and paled. "Commander Shepard?" he whispered disbelievingly.

"Hey, if you know this idiot, can you rein him in before I slap his ass with a singularity?" the asari called out.

Shepard held a hand up to placate her before turning his attention to his 'number one fan' Conrad Verner.

"Shepard? Is it really you?" he asked, staring at Shepard's face. He started grinning. "It's me, Conrad Verner! We met on the Citadel? I wanted to become a Spectre?"

"You know him?" Miranda asked skeptically.

Her question was answered when Garrus broke out laughing uproariously. He had to grip the counter to prevent himself from falling off the stool. Jacob and Tali joined in moments later when Shepard glared at the turian, who missed the look, lost as he was in his mirth.

"Oh! Uh, and then you shoved a gun in my face!" Conrad exclaimed, oblivious to the stares and laughs around him.

Miranda raised an eyebrow at that and took a seat at the bar to watch the show unfold. Tali sat next to Garrus and observed the proceeding with undisguised amusement.

"Man! You showed me what it meant to be truly extreme. I learned that lesson well," Conrad continued. "So you're alive, huh?" he tried to growl out, but failed miserably.

The bartender rolled her eyes at his attempts at playing the 'tough guy'.

"I hear it goes like that in the biz," he said in an off-handed tone. He puffed out his chest. "Why don't you sit back and watch how it's done? I've got some asses to kick."

Shepard sighed. "Conrad, let me make this perfectly clear." Reaching behind, he drew his pistol and pointed it at his face.

Conrad backed up with his hands in the air.

Lowering the pistol, Shepard expertly shot the side of his boot, grazing his foot.

Conrad went down with a shout of shock and pain.

"This is not acceptable," he finished with a lecturing tone.

"Aaah!" Conrad shouted. "My foot! You shot my foot! Aaah!" he screamed out pathetically.

The bartender leaned over the bar to inspect the damage before snorting inelegantly. "That shot barely grazed you, you big baby. If it was me, I'd go for the quads."

Shepard, Miranda, and Tali turned to her in surprise.

She shrugged. "Sorry. My father was a krogan."

"Told ya," Jacob said to Garrus.

"Alright. I believe you."

Conrad inspected his foot before realizing that it only stung, but not much else. He stood up and looked embarrassed. "It still scared me!" he argued defensively. "I'm new at the badass mercenary thing! People don't usually shoot at me!"

Miranda looked at him as if he were a nuisance. "Obviously, no combat training then," she said acerbically.

Conrad turned to her. "Hey! I'm saving the galaxy!" He ignored the laughs from Garrus, Tali, and Jacob. "I don't have time for training!"

"I'm sure," she replied in a disinterested tone.

Shepard pinched the bridge of his nose in an vain attempt to hold back his headache. He turned to Garrus. "I hate you."

Garrus took a drink and tried to look innocent.

"There! You see!" Conrad suddenly shouted out. "You were a big jerk back then, but you were still a hero and you saved the galaxy. You showed other races that humans mattered… and then you died!"

"Shepard! How could you! You died! For shame!" Tali shouted out in mock ire.

"Funny," Shepard deadpanned back at her, though he grinned all the same. He turned back to Conrad. "Any decent security system will detect that you aren't in the military. Running around like this will land you in a lot of trouble."

"I just say I'm in deep-cover and don't appear on systems," he explained. "I'm doing the best I can, okay?"

Shepard crossed his arms and glared.

"Look, the galaxy needed someone like you, Shepard. We all did. I had to do something."

"So… what? You just wander the galaxy righting wrongs or something?" Shepard asked, driven with only sheer morbid curiosity.

"And hopes that he doesn't get shot," Garrus unhelpfully supplied.

"Hey, don't say it like that!" he complained. "I talk to people, you know? Ask if they have big problem that only I can solve. You'd be surprised how many people are just waiting for someone to talk to them!" He looked around surreptitiously. "Sometimes I poke through crates, too. You know, for extra credits."

"How did you get that armor?" Tali asked interestedly.

Conrad smiled at her and patted his chest plate. "The right people can make some pretty convincing replicas these days, if you're willing to pay." He shifted the armor a little, before turning back to face Shepard. "Getting the whole getup was pretty expensive, but my wife was really supportive. She even paid for my shuttle fare off-world!"

The asari bartender rolled her eyes and put her head in her hands in disbelief.

Miranda turned away from the kiosk she was browsing to stare at Conrad incredulously. "You're actually married?"

Before he could answer her, Shepard asked, "Why were you trying to get the deed to this place?"

Conrad looked confused before he slapped his fist in his hand. "Oh, right! Hey, Shepard, this place? It's actually a front for a red sand dealer. I need to take it over to crack the ring!"

"What? Who the hell told you that?" the asari asked.

"The owner of that weapons store near the carport! She's an undercover cop! She told me about it when I introduced myself!" Conrad stated confidently.

"Listen, crap-for-brains," the asari said. "First, we don't sell red sand. Second, red sand is legal on Illium! You just need a license!"

Running a hand over his face and reining in his temper, Shepard nodded. "Okay. How about I talk to this 'undercover cop' and figure out what's going on?"

"Thank you," the bartender said appreciatively. "If I kill annoying customers, it usually causes property damage. That comes out of my pay."

Shepard gave her a nod before turning to leave.

"Just let me know if you need my help, Shepard!" Conrad shouted at his retreating back.

Suppressing a groan, he left the bar to find whoever it was that (re)introduced this irritation in his life. Unsurprisingly, he could hear several footsteps jogging to catch up to him. He turned around and pinned Garrus with another glare. "You're sick, twisted man."

"Glad to see you remember him," Garrus retorted with a grin.

"He certainly remembers you," Tali piped up.

Shepard rolled his eyes at their comments and continued toward the carport. Still, he couldn't repress the smile at their antics. Tali took the liberty of informing the Cerberus Operatives about their history with Conrad Verner.

"So why are you helping that man?" Miranda asked curiously after Tali finished with her explanations.

"Two reasons. First, if he keeps doing what he's doing, he'll get himself killed. Second, I'm feeling a bit guilty for shooting him. Maybe if I just hit him…" Shepard paused as he thought about the ramifications of that choice. Eventually, he shook his head. "No, I think I'd still feel guilty."

She shrugged. "Well, it's not as if you were doing anything more productive with your time, such as helping me with the Normandy."

Shepard offered a sheepish grin and managed to avoid cringing. "Sorry. My meeting with Liara took a little longer than I thought."

She took a side-long glance at his profile. "How did your meeting with her go?"

"She found out a little more about Samara and why she was here on Illium. I got the impression that she didn't want to talk more about it, though," Shepard replied, purposefully omitting the rest of their conversation. His mind started analyzing the best way to take the data at Eternity without everyone wondering what he was doing. He absently dodged an excited salarian talking on his com.

"You'll never believe what happened. I've got the data! I'll tell you to the details later. Just spread the word. The family will be okay…"

Upon reaching the carport, Shepard glanced around. "Where the hell is this shop…?" he muttered to himself.

"This way," Garrus said. He led the group toward a shopping stand on their left. "I went here to buy some stuff," he informed.

The merchant in charge of the shop turned at their approach. "Can I help you with something?" she asked in a dull tone.

"I talked to an old friend," Shepard started. He ignored Garrus' chuckle at his back and privately vowed to get revenge on him as soon as he could think up something suitable. "Conrad Verner. You told him that the Eternity lounge was selling red sand."

The asari wore a predatory smile. "Oh, you're Conrad's friend," she replied in a tone reserved for small children and the mentally impaired. "Yes, that place is really dangerous. I should know. I'm an undercover cop." She pretended to look around for any signs of trouble before leaning in conspiratorially. "Did you get me the deed to the bar? I need the deed to, uh, stop the red sand dealers."

"Put it to you this way," Shepard replied neutrally, before pulling out his pistol and holding it up for her to see. "Unlike Conrad, I actually know how to use a gun. More importantly, I don't have a real problem shooting you with it, either."

The merchant's eyes widened in fear when she saw the weapon and she paled when she saw that he was being deadly serious. "Wait! Wait-wait-wait," she pleaded quickly. She looked around, trying to see if anyone would help her. "This place is under video surveillance! You can't shoot me!" she shouted in an attempt to stall him.

"I don't give a vorcha's ass about your security cameras or the laws here," Shepard growled. "Spectres have that luxury."

She paled even further. "Spectre…?" she whispered disbelievingly.

"Conrad Verner is an idiot, but he doesn't deserve to be manipulated like that. You're going to make this right," he ordered.

"Okay! I'll go tell him the truth!" she said quickly.

"No," Shepard said. "You're going to tell Conrad that he did a great job and then you're going to leave. That's all." He took a step closer and glared. "Are we clear?"

"Yes, sir! We're clear! Crystal!" She turned around and started typing into her terminal. "Look, I'm even letting you have whatever you want at the kiosk, okay? Free of charge! I'll talk to Verner and then I'm gone. I swear! After she finished typing and babbling, she turned around and ran for the door.

"Aw, damn it," Garrus griped. "Why the hell couldn't you do that sooner? Then I could've gotten everything for free instead."

"Too late for you," Jacob agreed. "But not for me." He stepped up to the kiosk and started browsing.

"Subtle," Miranda remarked.

"Thanks," Shepard said as he leaned on the nearby railing. He decided to wait a few minutes to allow time for the asari to get to Eternity and speak with Conrad. It was then, that he heard a krogan nearby, shouting something about blue roses.

"What is that awful noise?" Tali asked.

The group as a whole turned to the source of the disturbance.

"Oookaaay. Now I've seen everything," Garrus remarked.

It was the krogan and he was spouting poetry, of all things. From the looks of it, he was attempting to woo the asari that was in charge of the souvenir shop nearby.

"That's certainly different," Tali said in agreement with Garrus.

"Different yes, but it's probably not our business," Miranda said as she continued to observe the surreal situation in front of them.

"I don't know," Tali responded. "I think we should help."

"Why?" Jacob asked without looking up from the kiosk.

"I think he really likes her," she answered. "At the very least, he should get something for his effort."

"I never pegged you as a romantic," Garrus teased. Shepard laughed.

"And why not?" Tali said sharply at Garrus. She put her hands on her hips and glared at the turian. Shepard laughed harder.

"Um… well… it's you," Garrus argued weakly.

"And what does that mean? !"

This time, everyone laughed as Tali tore into Garrus, who was unsuccessfully trying to placate the quarian with no luck.

"I'm with Miranda. I'd rather not get involved with a krogan's love life," Shepard said after Garrus was properly subdued, much to Tali's satisfaction. "Although, I could use more variety of fish for my aquarium. Maybe another ship model for my display." He was about to say something more when he spotted Kelly getting out of a taxi nearby. He watched as she turned her head toward the krogan and the asari and observed the affair in front of her. Apparently interested, she walked up to the asari and started chatting with her. "Wonder what she's up to…?"

"I'm guessing that she's about to make it her business," Miranda observed.

The group watched the proceedings for another minute before Shepard stood up. "I'm going to get some more stuff for my cabin, then, I'm going to deal with Conrad." He started for the souvenir shop. As he passed Garrus, he turned his head and said, "Somewhere along the line, I'm going to kick your ass too."

"You can try," Garrus retorted good-naturedly.

"I'm pretty sure I'll succeed after watching you get brought down by someone half your size," Shepard countered.

Everyone could tell that Tali looked smug underneath her helmet.

"That's not fair," Garrus grumbled. Everyone laughed at his plight.

While Garrus was trying to salvage what was left of his male pride, Shepard walked toward the souvenir shop. Tali opted to follow, curious as to why a krogan would try reciting poetry.

"Oh, hello, Shepard. Tali," Kelly greeted when they reached the kiosk. She turned back to the asari. "Is it really that bad?"

"Krogan live long lives, y'know? It's not like dating a human, where you just stick it out for a century until they die," she said before realizing who and what she was talking to.

Shepard stopped looking through the kiosk and raised an eyebrow at her, while Kelly tilted her head.

"Uh, no offense," she quickly said, her tone contrite. "Anyway, it made me wonder if he really likes me or if he just wants kids. He can't have them any other way, you know, because of the genophage."

"Did you talk to him about it?" Tali asked.

"Yeah, but I don't think he realized that our kids would always have been asari," she answered.

"Are you sure about that?" Kelly asked.

The merchant shrugged. "Most non-asari don't always get that we're not taking alien DNA, we're just using it to randomize some of the genetic information."

"What did he say when you explained it to him?" Tali asked curiously.

"Charr got quiet for a long time. Then he said he'd love our girls no matter what color they were."

Kelly sighed dramatically. "That's really romantic."

"Maybe you should talk to him again?" Tali suggested. "Krogan can be really stubborn. He's probably not going to go away until you give him a definitive answer."

"I know. I know! But it's tough!" she said in frustration. "I like him a lot. Hell, I love him! But I don't know if he's permanent bond-material."

Kelly turned her head to look at the krogan before facing the asari. "It's pretty obvious that he has strong feelings for you."

"Yeah, but what if he just wants to have kids? Am I his baby-making machine?" she fretted. "He said I wasn't, but…"

Shepard sighed. He couldn't believe he was letting himself get drawn into this. "Look," he suddenly said, interrupting the asari's rant. "If he said that, then you either trust him and you have nothing to worry about. Or you don't and you've already decided."

All three women looked at him in surprise.

"So…" he said, slightly uncomfortable with the stares. "How much for this stuff?" he inquired, pointing at his selections on the kiosk.

"I… I guess I hadn't thought about it like that. And I do trust him. If he said it…" She turned her head and met Charr's eyes. And then she smiled. "I'm going to talk to him." She turned back to Shepard and turned on her omni-tool. "I'll give you a discount. Thanks for the help."

Shepard nodded. "No problem. Thanks for the discount."

After she left, Kelly and Tali turned to face him.

"That was really nice of you, Shepard," Tali praised.

"And I have to say, that was sound advice," Kelly added. "Much better than what I would've said."

Shepard rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. "Thanks," he simply said. He quickly made his purchases and rejoined the rest of the group waiting at the weapon's shop.

"Women," Jacob said from the weapon's kiosk when Tali and Kelly were in earshot. "Why do they always try to fix things that don't need fixing?"

Miranda and Tali rolled their eyes at his childish behavior. Kelly just smiled at him. "Because it makes us feel all warm inside," she stated.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Eternity Bar

"Hey! Shepard!" Conrad shouted when the group reentered the bar. He ran up and grinned proudly. "The weapons merchant said that we took care of the red sand dealers! I guess I really helped!"

Shepard grabbed Conrad by the shoulder and led him away from his team. Part of the reason was to make it look like a private debriefing, but mainly, it was for the fact that his squad were trying and failing to hide their amusement. "This was a dangerous mission, Conrad," Shepard said in a worried tone. "You could have been killed. I'd feel terrible if anything happened to you."

Conrad blinked in confusion before looking at his feet guiltily. "I… I didn't know." He looked up and nodded. "I can't risk you being worried about my safety." He sighed before managing a small smile. "I'll stop pretending to be something I'm not. But thanks for letting me help, at least for a little while."

"I appreciate that, Conrad," Shepard said.

"It's really good to have you back," Conrad said with a grin. "Good luck with whatever you're doing."

After he left, Shepard breathed out a sigh of relief and settled himself at the bar.

Miranda sat down next to him. "That was devious," she commended. "Well played."

"I just hope he doesn't get himself into more trouble," Shepard grumbled.

"Ah, well," Garrus said as he sat down on Shepard's other side. "I'm sure I can find someone else to annoy you."

"Sick and twisted," Shepard simply responded, echoing his earlier words.

The asari bartender leaned on the counter across from Shepard. "Hey, thanks for taking care of that crazy idiot. Saves me having to beat him to death with his own spine. That makes the other customers nervous."

"Definitely like my old drill sergeant," Jacob said as he sat next to Garrus.

"Anyway, this is Eternity and I'm Aethyta, asari matriarch and bartender. Get you anything?" she said with a straight face.

Various looks of disbelief were directed at her.

"Wait, what?" Garrus asked.

"You're an asari matriarch?" Shepard questioned.

"I was under the impression that matriarchs served as honored advisors on Thessia," Miranda said.

"I advise fine, right here at this bar," she replied. She started pouring everyone a drink. "I know, not what you'd expect. But nobody on Thessia wanted to listen to my wise counsel, so here I am."

"Why won't anyone listen to you?" Jacob asked, sipping his drink. "And why are you here mixing drinks?"

"Because it's better than what most other matriarchs are doing," she angrily said. "Look at that screw-up with Saren and his geth a few years back! Our ships were hanging bare-assed in space when Saren started shooting. If not for you humans, we would've bought it right there." She snorted. "And I warned them! Told people on Thessia what was coming and they didn't want to hear it."

"What didn't they want to hear?" Shepard asked interestedly.

"That art and philosophy and political prowess wasn't going to cut it," she said confidently. "Hell, we can't go a single asari lifetime without some big war breaking out." She started pacing. "We need to get our daughters working earlier, not spending their wild maiden years stripping or in merc bands." She stopped pacing and scowled. "When I started talking about making new mass relays ourselves, they laughed the blue off my ass. So now, I serve drinks."

Shepard blinked a couple of times before raising his glass at her. "For what it's worth, I think you're the best damn asari matriarch I've ever met."

"I'll drink to that," Garrus agreed.

"Damn straight," Jacob added.

"Thanks, boys. By the way, you humans? Don't drink anything for turians and quarians. It does nasty things to your insides." She started wiping down the counter. "Once saw a krogan drink a liquefied turian on a dare six or seven centuries back. Nobody came out of that one looking pretty."

"That's revolting," Miranda said in disgust.

"You ain't getting any argument from me." She turned her head. "Hey, hon.?" she called out to Jacob. "Read the warning signs. Don't eat the nuts in the red bowls. They're for turians and quarians. Wouldn't want you to get cramps."

Jacob pulled his hand away. "Oh. Thanks for the warning."

"No problem." She turned to Shepard and smiled. "Anything else I can get you? No sex though. Just cleaned the bar."

"I'm good, thanks," Shepard replied with a small laugh.

"Shepard!" Tali shouted out through the din of the bar. She pushed her way through the crowds and grabbed Shepard's arm. "I need your help! Come with me!"

"Wha…? Hey! Tali!" Shepard shouted back in protest as he was dragged out of his stool.

-oOo-

"Come on! This way!" She pushed her way back through the crowds, uncaring of the shouts and complaints her haste generated. Finally, she stopped just short of an asari and a quarian. "There," she said, pointed at them.

"I'm not following," Shepard responded bluntly. He watched the two interact for a few more seconds when he finally heard over the din what Tali had wanted him to hear.

"We'll figure something out. Stop worrying," the asari said.

"Stop worrying? ! This is my life you're talking about!"

Tali didn't know the quarian personally, but she guessed her to be a few years younger than herself. No doubt on Illium for her Pilgrimage.

"You signed the indentured service contract. You gave over your responsibility to me. So don't worry," the asari assured.

"Oh, hell no," Shepard said in a disgusted tone.

"Exactly. Can you help her?" Tali pleaded. "Please?" She was confident that Shepard would help, but knowing that a quarian on her Pilgrimage was about to enter slavery filled her with worry.

"Alright, let's see what we can do," Shepard said.

Tali suppressed a sigh of relief and started making her way to them.

Both of them approached the pair while they were still engaged in conversation. "It's okay. I'll think of something," the asari said.

"You said Synthetic Insights would buy me! You said it was an easy sale!" the quarian accused.

"I assumed they would want an AI tech," the asari argued.

Tali marched right up to her and glared through her helmet. Shepard put a restraining hand on her shoulder and she forced herself to let him take over. Silently, she prayed that he would be able to do something.

"Hello, can I help you with something?" the asari asked, her question directed to both of them.

"What's going on here? Did you make this quarian your slave?" Shepard asked harshly.

"We prefer the term 'indentured servants'," the asari corrected.

"I'm sure the play on words helps you sleep better at night," Tali stated angrily.

The slave broker raised her hand in a gesture of peace. "Wait one moment, please," she requested calmly, her attitude all-business. "Before you do anything hasty, know that this quarian signed the agreement voluntarily and her servitude contract is completely legal on Illium."

"Oh, really?" Tali sardonically asked. "You didn't just trick her to into signing herself over or something, did you?"

"Tali," Shepard said in a soothing voice. "What were you two talking about?"

"I was trying to get her employment with Synthetic Insights," she said before giving Shepard a shrewd look. "Since you're so interested in helping her, why don't you help me convince the representative to purchase her contract?"

"What if we take the contract?" Shepard asked. "I could let her go and everyone would be happy."

She smiled patiently. "A gallant offer, but with three problems."

Tali growled, but held her peace when Shepard put his hand on her shoulder again.

"First, her technical skill merits a contract of several hundred thousand credits."

Shepard raised an eyebrow at the price.

"There's also a fee for freeing me before my service period ends," the quarian said miserably.

"That's point two. Finally," she said, looking over both Shepard and Tali. "The both of you are clearly travelers – her service contract stipulates that she remain on Illium."

"I didn't want anyone to take me off to a mine somewhere," she explained.

Tali stared at her fellow quarian. "Tali'Zorah vas Neema," she introduced herself automatically as per tradition. "So why did you sign that contract?"

"Tali'Zorah?" she whispered reverently. "The daughter to Admiral Zorah? You were the one that brought back that geth data…"

Tali nodded. She avoided looking at Shepard, though she could feel his gaze on her.

"Saya'Kiri nar Medai," she introduced herself before sighing glumly. "I, um, I tried to play the stock market. I'm good with numbers and I thought I had a way to make unlimited money," she admitted embarrassingly. She sighed again. "I lost everything. Then I got a credit line and lost that. Then I took out an illegal loan…" She trailed off when she realized that she was rambling. "Um, you get the picture."

"Oh, Keelah," Tali said sympathetically.

"I know," Saya replied, utterly mortified with herself.

The broker cleared her throat to get everyone's attention. "As part of our agreement, I paid off her debts. Five years from now, she'll have a fresh start and excellent work references," she said as if she was doing Saya a favor.

"And what happens when you back out of your contract or lie to hold on to her longer?" Tali asked with a biting tone.

"All contracts are monitored by Illium Law Enforcement," she answered evenly. "In a case such as you describe, the burden of proof would be on me. No system is perfect, but safeguards are set up to protect all parties."

"Tali," Shepard whispered into her ear. "Be civil. As angry as you are at the situation, getting angry at her doesn't help us or your friend at all." Standing tall, he glanced between the asari and the quarian. "We overheard your conversation. Why are you trying to sell Saya?"

"I don't keep any service contracts myself. I'm a contract broker. I see to it that indentured servants are put to work in safe, steady environments. After all, if they don't work, then their part of the contract is unfulfilled. In our case, our young friend here would owe me a great deal of money." She nodded toward someone on the other side of the room. "I had assumed that Synthetic Insights would jump at the chance for a skilled AI tech, but they won't even make me an offer."

"After the Battle of the Citadel, I'm not surprised," he responded.

"Yes, I suppose you have a point," the broker said frustratingly.

"Do you need to sell her, though? You said that she had valuable technical skills."

"Quarians' strict health requirements and diets make them expensive to house and feed," she informed. "I run a minor profit at best. I don't have the money for constant suit repairs and clean-room facilities."

"So what happens if Synthetic Insights won't take me?" Saya asked worriedly.

"A solution always presents itself. I will take care of you," the broker confidently said.

Tali found herself unsure whether she should be disgusted with the asari for her business or thankful that she somewhat cares for her charges.

Shepard sighed. "Fine. I'll talk to the rep and see what I can do, alright?"

"Thank you. We'd both appreciate whatever help you can offer," the asari graciously said. "She's sitting over there in the booth. The one in the gold dress."

"Let's go, Tali," Shepard said.

The moment they were out of earshot, Tali rounded on him. "So we're just going along with this?" she asked angrily.

"She's in debt, Tali. She's was in trouble to begin with." He stopped and looked her in the eyes. "Look, I don't want to invoke Spectre privileges carelessly. And just because we're friends doesn't give you carte blanche to do whatever you want," he explained neutrally. "Let's see what happens first, and then we'll discuss what the next move is. She owes a lot of money already, so we'll have to try to help her out that problem as well as her current one, okay?"

Tali wanted to argue more, she really did, but Shepard had already started wading through the crowd. She bit her lip and followed, hoping that he'd come through for her on this.

"Evening," Shepard greeted in a friendly manner as he approached an asari sitting alone, drinking a glass of wine while looking over a holo-pad.

She looked up and smiled. "Evening."

"I was wondering if I might have a minute of your time."

She raised an eyebrow as she looked him over. "Hmm… Business or pleasure?" she asked in sultry voice while leaning her head on her hand.

"Business, I'm sorry to say."

She sighed and shook her head. Adopting a more businesslike look, she gestured to the seat across from her. "What can I do to help you?" she asked in a neutral tone as soon as Shepard and Tali seated themselves.

"I was wondering if you were hiring. I know of an expert quarian AI programmer," Shepard pitched.

The rep glanced at Tali.

"Not me," she hurriedly said. "A friend of mine."

The rep sighed again. "If you'd like to submit a resume, I… wait. Is this about that slave?"

Shepard raised an eyebrow of his own. "It's about time we talked to someone who sees it as it is: slavery."

"This isn't about a slave. It's about my friend," Tali corrected firmly.

"I'm sorry about that, but Synthetic Insights has no interest in purchasing slave labor. We're under enough scrutiny from the Citadel without engaging in practices the Council disapproves of." She took a look around and leaned closer in. "To be frank, we're hardly hiring anyone. The geth attack on the Citadel didn't engender much love for artificial intelligence."

"I'm sure it didn't," Shepard commented with a glance at Tali.

Tali bristled at his look. She knew he was talking about that thing on the Normandy.

"It sounds like Synthetic Insights is worried about its reputation. Hiring this quarian would help," Shepard stated.

The rep gave him an unconvinced look. "Buying a slave helps our reputation?" she scoffed. "How exactly do you figure?"

"Purchase the contract, minus the fee for early emancipation. Then free the young woman and garish wages for reimbursement," he explained matter-of-factly.

Tali grinned underneath her helmet and nodded. "I know the Migrant Fleet would be very grateful. And more likely to make purchases from you," she added, hoping that this gamble would pay off.

Please, please, let this work…

The asari gave Shepard a penetrating look as she mulled over their words. "Interesting…" She took a sip of her wine and gazed at Shepard with a friendlier expression. "We look good for hiring a quarian and we can say that we freed a slave out of the goodness of our hearts."

"So you'll hire her?" Tali asked.

She nodded. "You've convinced me. I'll run up a contract. The board might wet its pants, but we could use the good publicity." She shot both of them a pointed look. "This quarian had better be good, though."

"She is, don't worry," Tali quickly assured.

"Thanks for helping her," Shepard gratefully said.

"Send them over and we'll hash out the details." The rep took another sip of her wine and gave Shepard another look over. "Next time? Let's make it pleasure."

"We'll see," Shepard enigmatically replied. He picked through his pocket and left several credit chits on the table. "Drinks on me."

She raised her glass at him and took another sip.

Shepard smiled at her and left without another word. Tali glanced at the rep before quickly turning around and following Shepard's retreating form. "What was that?" she asked while they made their way through the crowded bar.

"What was what?" Shepard said as they dodged another table.

"What you were doing. You were flirting with her."

"She was flirting first. I was flirting back. We needed to convince her and we did. Driving her away would just make things more difficult for your friend. Now, she's in the clear," he patiently explained.

"Yes, but…" Tali said before trailing off.

"But what?" Shepard asked, turning to face her.

"Um, nothing," she replied. She shook her head and took a breath. "Now what?"

"Now, you break the news to your friend. Me, I'm off."

Tali smiled. "Thanks for your help, Shepard."

Shepard graced her with a smile before going back through the sea of people.

Tali shook her head again to remove the sudden torrent of feelings she had when she watched Shepard talk to that asari.

I'll deal with it later.

With that resolved temporarily, she rushed to tell Saya the good news. "We did it," she happily said when she was in earshot. "Best news is: Even though you're legitimately hired, you have a bit of a debt to work off. She's waiting for you at her table."

Saya sighed in relief. "Thank you, Tali."

"We both thank you," the broker said with a nod.

"I didn't do this for you. I did it for her," Tali retorted.

The rep appeared unbothered by Tali's tone. "Regardless, a kindness is her is mine to repay. Consider this a gesture of honor." She used her omni-tool to electronically transfer 2,000 credits to Tali. "And a finder's fee." She turned to Saya. "We should meet with the representative."

Saya nodded to her and faced Tali. "Thank you again. I'll stay out of trouble this time."

Tali nodded and gave her a quick hug. "Good luck on the rest of your Pilgrimage."

She returned the hug. "Keelah se'lai and thank you."

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Commercial Spaceport

The sounds of concerned and anxious chattering reached her ears first before she saw the source of the commotion. A large crowd had gathered, gawking and gossiping at something. What really caught her attention was the presence of Nos Astra Law Enforcement. They had cordoned off an area with holographic tape line.

It was bound to happen, she knew that, but it still didn't change the tiny feeling of frustration that welled up in her. Pushing the feeling aside forcefully, Samara embraced the Code as only a justicar could and approached the crime scene calmly. One of the officers moved forward to stop her when another officer grabbed her partner's arm.

"It's the justicar," she whispered fiercely.

"What? Seriously?" the other officer asked in shock.

Samara ignored their exchange and stepped past them and the holographic police line. She moved purposefully toward the body of a volus, her gait steady and graceful.

A detective was squatting next to the body, attempting to see the clues to identify his killer while the medical examiner was poking and prodding the body for any evidence that needed to be catalogued. The detective looked up at the sound of her footsteps. Apparently, she recognized her as a justicar, if her sigh was any indication. She stood up and faced her. "Detective Anaya," she introduced herself curtly. "Don't worry, Justicar. I have this under control," she tried to assure her.

"The Code compels me to investigate this crime, Detective," Samara stated.

"I can handle this," Anaya asserted.

"I have much experience in these matters," Samara calmly countered. "You are welcome to continue your own investigation, but I must follow the Code."

Anaya looked liked she wanted to argue more before she closed her eyes and visibly forced herself to calm down. "Very well, Justicar. I need to report to my superiors about this anyway."

They both knew that she was talking about Samara's presence intruding on a police investigation, rather than the investigation itself.

Samara didn't let it bother her. Justicars live for the Code and never for personal gratifications. Often they would be revered and feared all at once, leading toward much conflict with both peace keepers and criminals alike.

"Thank you, Detective," Samara courteously said. Nodding respectfully to Anaya, she knelt down to examine the volus corpse herself. After a few minutes of inspection, she recognized the type of rounds that killed him. More importantly, she knew what mercenary group favored these kinds of rounds.

The Eclipse Sisters.

She suppressed a sigh, knowing that she couldn't ignore this crime. Her code obligated her to find and bring the murderer or murderers to justice, despite her own mission. Standing up, she nodded once more to the detective and left to locate some of the Eclipse Mercenaries, to find out where and most importantly, who or whom was responsible of injustice.

Though, perhaps given Eclipse's reputation on Illium, I will be busy for quite some time. Our dance will have to last just a little while longer.

-oOo-

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Eternity Bar

Come on… come on…

Shepard hacked the terminal as quickly as he could. For some reason, this one proved more difficult than the last. Though, it could be his own frustration warping his sense of reality. Cloaked in the middle of a nightclub, surrounded by people and his own friends added to the challenges. He was just thankful that Tali provided a suitable excuse for him to leave the group to help her with Saya's problem.

"The asari are how advanced? And this is what they do with it?" Jacob complained nearby. "Money is still power. Same old, same old."

Aethyta shrugged. "This is what we do to relate to the rest of the galaxy, hon. The other species know clubs, bars, drinks, and good times. Why not asari?"

"She's right. Humans aren't any better, Jacob. We'd do the same if our positions were reversed," Miranda chided.

"Besides, as advanced as the asari are, they still live life the same way any other species does," Garrus added, before taking a sip. "If they want to live like this, who are we to judge?"

Shepard breathed a sigh of relief that was lost in the din of the bar. Moving to the shadows in the nick of time, his cloak deactivated, but his presence remained unnoticed. He quietly slipped out of the bar and started typing on his omni-tool. The data he retrieved started compiling and reconstructing. After a few minutes, his omni-tool beeped, signaling that it was finished. He looked through the messages.

Data Point 1:

trader tried to kill the batarian. Claims it was because he hates slavers, but the men were more likely fighting over money. Watch for now…

Data Point 2:

Smuggler and assassin have refused to work with the vorcha due to lack of trust. Odd to see scruples from the men at this point.

Data Point 3:

The turian's asking too many questions. Observer recommends terminating him and framing assassin or salarian contact.

Data Point 4:

Turian contact working well with the trader. Observer has rescinded kill order against him, given difficulty in securing contact with the trader through other methods.

Data Point 5:

Vorcha trader has requested no further contact with the salarian. Salarian is becoming more trouble than he is worth. Observer recommends a kill, but she may have a grudge.

Shepard looked at the last data point. Wait a minute… 'she'? His eyes widened. "No…" He tapped into his old radio frequency as he started sprinting for Liara's office. "Liara!"

"Shepard. Is something wrong? Did you get any information on the Observer?"

"All of the suspects were male! One of the data points says the Observer is female! You said that Nyxeris gave you this information? !" he shouted frantically into his radio as he ran as fast as he could through the crowds of Nos Astra.

"Yes… she gave me the information… Nyxeris… I'll talk to you later."

"I'm coming, Liara! Just wait!" Shepard yelled, but the line was already cut. "Damn it!"

After 10 heart-pounding minutes, Shepard panted lightly outside of the building Liara's office was in. He drew his pistol and held it ready before opening the door slowly. Inside, he saw a krogan hefting a large bag over his shoulder next to the reception desk Nyxeris worked at. He turned and paused at the sight of a human pointing a pistol at him.

"And please, be discreet," Liara's voice floated into the room from her office.

"Of course, Ms. T'Soni," the krogan rumbled, still staring at Shepard and his gun.

"Liara? Are you alright?" Shepard called out, still pointing his weapon at the krogan. He had a suspicion as to what was in the bag, but he needed to be sure.

Liara stepped into the reception room and saw the scene before her. "I'm fine, Shepard. Just cleaning up." She turned to the krogan. "You can go."

"Yes, ma'am."

Shepard lowered his weapon and moved out of the krogan's way as he left the building.

He hurried across the room and entered the office as well. "Wow."

It was a mess inside. Chairs were overturned, a coffee table was crushed, paintings had fallen off their hooks, and there was a noticeable humanoid indentation on the wall next to the door.

Liara was sitting at her table, unharmed and apparently unaffected with the condition of her office. She was typing away at her terminal. "Nyxeris had some hidden interesting data hidden away." She looked up and smiled. "Thank you. I wouldn't have caught her without you." She tapped a few commands into her terminal.

Shepard's omni-tool beeped. Glancing down, he saw that she had sent him 5,000 credits.

"I'm one step closer to the Shadow Broker, thanks to you. Nyxeris was very well-compensated. You need it more than I do, I'm sure."

"Not really, but, um, thanks," Shepard mumbled, trying to get a handle on the situation. "So… I guess that krogan was carrying out your former 'assistant'?"

"I told you that I had some hired muscle, Shepard. That is one of the reasons I have them," she explained. "I'm flattered that you were worried about me, but I can take care of myself." She took on a thoughtful expression. "I must admit though, she was very talented. I imagine that had she been ordered to assassinate me, I'd never have seen her coming. With your efforts though, it's no longer an issue." She viciously smirked. "Her barriers needed practice. Practice I'm afraid she won't be getting."

"So what now?"

"You continue with your mission. As for myself, I gather more information, peel away layers of lies, and shine light into the shadows." Her face took on a dark look; one seemed reminiscent of her late mother. "And when I find the Shadow Broker, I hit him with a biotic field so strong that what's left of his body will fit into a coffee cup," she snarled.

Shepard suppressed an urge to shiver. "Alright. Enough, Liara," he snapped back. "I tired of the secrets. I'm tired of all these jobs, the sneaking around. I want answers." He stalked forward and slammed his hands on the table. "What is going on?" he ground out.

Liara slowly stood up and walked around the table.

Shepard stood straight and waited.

Stopping next to him, she seated herself on the edge of her desk. "Did Cerberus ever tell you how they recovered your body?" she asked.

"What?" came the confused reply.

"The Illusive Man or Miranda, did either of them give you any details?"

"Miranda," Shepard answered, trying to collect his thoughts. "Miranda once mentioned to me that the Shadow Broker hired the Blue Suns to get me. She didn't tell me why he was so interested though."

"That much is true," Liara confirmed. "The fact is: I was looking for your body as well. And I recovered you from the Shadow Broker, kept you away from his clutches." She shook her head and took a shuddering breath. "Miranda Lawson was the Cerberus operative I met during our race to find you. We worked together for a bit. She told me… she told me that they could rebuild you. Bring you back to life. And I… I gave you to them."

"I see…" Shepard said evenly. "Why didn't you tell this before now?"

"I screwed up," she admitted angrily. "I barely escaped with my own life." She turned her head away to avoid making eye contact. "And when I gave you up to Cerberus, I told myself that I was doing it for you, for a chance to bring you back." She forcefully wiped a tear from her cheek. "Despite their experiments, despite the history we have with them, I gave you up. I knew they would use you for their own ends. And… I let it happen." Finally, she turned her head to look at him. "You were one of my few friends. One of my closest friends. I couldn't let you go." She turned away and whispered, "I'm sorry."

"Liara…" Shepard said. He put a hand on her shoulder. "You did the right thing."

Her head snapped up to gaze at him.

"I'm not fatalistic, but I know the stakes. There's always a chance that the worst could happen. I don't want to die, but if it happens…" He trailed off. "It's something I've accepted." He gave her a reassuring smile. "But, I'm back. And my mission is important. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you."

She gave him a watery smile in return. "Thank you. I… I was afraid you'd hate me."

"No," he said, shaking his head. "It was either you or the Shadow Broker. I'd rather place my fate in your hands than in his." He frowned as a thought occurred to him. "Why did the Shadow Broker go after me anyway?"

Liara's face took on a dark look again. "He wanted to sell you to the Collectors."

"The hell…?" Shepard cursed. "They were still after me, even when I was dead? Why?"

"I'm sorry, but that's something even I don't know anything about," Liara responded.

"So this is why you're after the Shadow Broker, then?"

"It's the truth, all of it. He defiled you, he hurt my friend, the dealings with the Collectors… This is why I must destroy him," she stated.

"Okay," Shepard said in acceptance. He took a deep, cleansing breath. It felt as if whatever wall that was between them had finally dissolved. "If you need any more help…"

"You've done enough. You have your own mission to undertake, as do I." She smiled at him. "But I appreciate the offer and everything you've done for me. I know I put you in a difficult situation, but I'm glad that we're getting past it, now."

"Just be careful. I don't want you turning into the thing you're hunting," Shepard advised worriedly.

"Says the dead Spectre working for Cerberus," she retorted, but with a hint of humor; it was the first time Shepard had heard her speak like that since he got back into contact with her. "Don't worry, I'm not my mother. Everything I'm doing, I'm doing of my own free will… for better or worse."

They sat in silence for a time. Each were lost in their own thoughts, before Liara stood up and walked back to her chair. "Is there anything you would like to know? Something I can do?" she asked, but in a more approachable attitude.

"Actually, there something I'd like to ask. About Samara," Shepard said, moving away from their earlier conversation.

"What about?"

"I have a former convict on my squad. I just hired Thane, an assassin. Will this cause a problem for me when I recruit Samara? Y'know, being a justicar and all."

Liara smiled, seeming much more comfortable in his presence now. "No, it shouldn't, I think. There is an oath: The Third Oath of Subsumation. It's exceedingly rare for a justicar to swear to that particular oath. Basically, a justicar would swear a temporary allegiance to someone, thus overriding the doctrines of the Justicar Code. In essence, she would defer to you for right and wrong, rather than the Code." She tilted her head. "The Code is very strict. To a justicar, the Code defines right and wrong, with no grey area in between."

"So… she needs to swear that oath to me before I take her on in my squad."

"Yes. Otherwise, the Code would dictate that she would have to attack anyone on your squad that is less-than-just." She was about to say more when her terminal started flashing. Liara typed into her terminal rapidly before smiling triumphantly. "Shepard. I found Samara."

-oOo-

Author's Notes:

Holy crap, that was long. I actually had a lot of fun writing it though.

I hope that I did the Liara arc to everyone's satisfaction. With the new DLC coming out, I didn't want to make it too AU, but since there is DLC coming out dedicated to her, I wanted to write in a bigger role. Not too big, but just a tad more significant than before.

Garrus, Thane, and Jacob were interesting character studies during the course of this chapter. I actually never considered this part of them until I started writing and tried to get into their heads. A very interesting POV than just Shepard alone.

Overlord poll is still up on my profile page and needs votes. Make yours count!

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