Fight for the Lost

Interlude X

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

"Armor looks to be done," Shepard commented as he and Miranda piloted the Kodiak into the hangar.

"We'll need to run a few tests to ensure there are no problems with the armor: sensor and engine calibrations, pressure seals, structural integrity, that kind of thing," Miranda reminded. "All things considered though, it's certainly one less thing to worry about."

"I just hope Tali has had luck installing the new cannon," Shepard said.

Gently guiding and landing the shuttle to its designated place, out of the way of the Normandy, her refits and the workers. It was next to the Hammerhead, off to one side of the hangar.. Shepard let Miranda shut down the shuttle while he stepped into the cabin. "Welcome to the Normandy," he said to Samara, gesturing to the frigate through the open doors.

She nodded politely and followed Shepard when he disembarked. "Thank you for taking the time to allow me to retrieve my things."

"No worries."

After leaving the police station, they had to make a quick detour so Samara could retrieve what little possessions she had. A few sets of clothes, her weapons, and a couple of knickknacks, all of which fit into only one bag.

"Right now, she's grounded until the refits are done. We're changing out the armor and adding a new cannon," he informed. "Armor is just about done, so she'll be space worthy again soon. I hope you don't mind the wait."

"Patience is a virtue I have learned to embrace as a justicar," she said.

"We've studied your profile extensively," Jacob revealed. "With your skills, I think you'll be an excellent addition to our team."

"Thank you," she graciously replied. "From an organization such as yours, that is high praise indeed."

Miranda debarked and approached the group as they continued toward the Normandy and their destination, the Armory. "We're still committed to gathering as much intelligence as we can on the Collectors, but I'm afraid our knowledge is still quite limited."

"We honestly have no idea what we're going to find when we hit the Collectors," Jacob admitted.

Samara nodded in understanding. "I will be prepared for whatever we encounter."

"We've booked a hotel for the duration of our stay here on Illium. If you'd like, I can arrange for suitable accommodations," Miranda offered.

"I would appreciate that," Samara replied.

"Is there any specific accommodations you would prefer on board the Normandy?" she asked.

"A room that looks out on the great empty void would be most comforting," Samara requested.

Miranda nodded. "The Starboard Observation Room on the Crew Deck should suffice."

The squad entered the Armory and followed the routine they established after a mission. Piles of weapons were laid on the table for Jacob to sort and log, with the addition of the bags of weapons Grunt had taken from the Eclipse. Shepard merely moved his Spectre weapons to his secure locker for maintenance later.

Samara raised an eyebrow, but said nothing as she followed their example. Placing her weapons on the nearest empty table, she patiently waited for everyone to finish and be led to her new lodgings.

"Considering your talent in biotics, I have to say that I'm impressed by your armaments as well," Shepard commented off-handedly.

"I trained myself in a variety of fields. Biotics was merely one discipline I've learned over the course of my life," she explained simply.

"Captain?" Chakwas called via intercom before he could voice another question. "If you're finished up there, I'd like to have a word with you down in the Medical Bay."

"Something up, Doc?" Shepard asked. He closed his locker and waited for the reply.

"There's someone here that would like to speak to you. Tali vouched for her and allowed her entry into the Normandy."

"Who is it?"

"Her name is Shiala. Tali told me that she, you, and Garrus have met before."

Garrus' head snapped up. "Wait, is she that commando from Feros? Here? Seriously?"

Shepard's interest increased as well. "Why is she in the Med Bay?"

"It has something to do with what she wishes to talk to you about. Professor Solus, if you're on board the Normandy as well, I would appreciate another trained eye."

"We're on our way," he said. Turning to Miranda and Samara, he said, "Could you lead Samara to the hotel? I need to deal with this."

"Of course, Shepard," Miranda replied easily. "Though maybe I should show both Samara and Thane their future living quarters? To better familiarize themselves with the Normandy." She turned to the two Illium recruits. "That is, if you would like?"

"A fine idea," Samara said.

"I would agree," Thane said.

"Alright, whatever you want," Shepard hurriedly replied. He spun on his heel and left the Armory quickly.

Mordin, Garrus, Miranda, Samara and Thane followed closely behind. Jack and Grunt didn't really care about Shepard's business and went about their own. Jacob merely stayed in the Armory to begin logging the piles of armaments.

Arriving on Deck 3, Shepard and Garrus made their way to the Med Bay. Inside, Dr. Chakwas and Tali were standing around Shiala. The Asari Commando was sitting on the one of the beds and talking on her comm., but stood up at his entrance.

"Shepard," she greeted in relief. She turned back to her call. "No, I haven't had any luck yet. She insists that it was legal. I managed to find a friend that might be able to help us, though."

He looked her over with a critical eye while she talked. She was no longer wearing her leather armor Asari Commandos favored. Instead, she was dressed more functionally, clothes that wouldn't seem too out of place on Illium, but definitely more suited for colonial life. What truly caught his attention was the fact that she had green pigmentation, exactly like the clones the Thorian had created, instead of her natural violet. "Shiala," he parroted. He turned to the other occupants. "What's going on? Is there something wrong with her? Or the colonists?"

Chakwas spun in her chair to face him. "As of this moment, I have no idea."

"She was just telling us about some problems that were occurring at Zhu's Hope before you came back," Tali said. "When that AI informed us that you were on the way, she said she needed to make a quick call."

Mordin walked up to Chakwas and peered over at her terminal. "Curious. Never seen green asari skin tone before. Natural occurrence? Unnatural occurrence? What would be the cause?"

Shepard diplomatically overlooked Tali's remark about EDI and Mordin's rapid-fire questions in favor of their new asari guest. "It's good to see you again," he added when she finished her call and favored the group with a smile.

Garrus walked up, his curiosity plain to see. "You're green again. Only those clones the Thorian made of you were green. Weren't you purple before?"

Shiala sighed and sat back down on the bed again. "That's actually related to what I wanted to talk about." She gestured to her face. "This is only one of many problems we're having on Feros."

"How is Zhu's hope doing?" Shepard asked politely, but with a hint of concern.

She smiled to offset some of his worries. "We've done a lot of rebuilding. We even salvaged some useful material from the geth ship you and your team destroyed." Her smile dropped at the next bit of news. "The ExoGeni researchers got called back to their headquarters, however… along with what was left of the Thorian."

"What's going on, Shiala?" he asked. He sat down on a bed across from her. "Is it ExoGeni pushing colonists around again or did the Thorian somehow survive our fight?"

"Oh, no. ExoGeni has been very supportive of Zhu's Hope. They actually want to help us survive," she said quickly. "And the Thorian is dead… though after all you went through to kill it, I understand your concern."

"I'll say," Garrus muttered as he fingered a part of his chest.

Shepard offered a sympathetic smile. In their efforts to see that no colonists were injured, Garrus had to run directly into the line of fire to lob the chemical grenades at a group of colonists. He was successful, but his shields had failed and a round had nearly penetrated his armor and into his heart.

"However," Shiala continued. "The Thorian is part of the reason why I'm here on Illium." She tried to smile, but it came out more like grimace. "I fear that after our adventure on Feros, my purpose will seem mundane by comparison."

"What's up?" Shepard asked.

"I've reached the limit of my diplomatic abilities and I'd prefer not the start trouble," she replied before fidgeting a bit. "Some of the colonists, as well as myself, has had health problems as a result of the Thorian control. We hired a colonial survey group, Baria Frontiers, to do some medical scans."

"A wise move," Chakwas commented. "Though given the reports I've read, perhaps these scans should have been done sooner. A creature as ancient and alien as the Thorian was bound to have some sort of adverse effect, even if you were feeling fine in the beginning."

Shiala winced. "In hindsight, that would have been the prudent choice. But we were so focused on rebuilding that we assumed we were fine so long as the Thorian was dead."

"So this group, Baria Frontiers, they're the ones you're having trouble with?" Tali asked.

"Yes. The medical contract apparently allows the company to perform invasive procedures without our consent," she answered. "That's why I'm here."

Chakwas turned to her terminal again and started typing. "And how long after the incident did you or the other colonists begin to feel ill?"

"A few months," Shiala replied. "Possibly sooner for the others though, since their problems aren't nearly as visible as mine. My changing skin pigment was the most obvious sign of a problem." She sighed morosely. "My biotic abilities are unstable as well." She started rubbing her arms as if to ward off a sudden chill. "I'm also having vivid dreams… about my time with the Thorian. It is… disconcerting."

Mordin started typing into his omni-tool as well. "Interesting. Must find out more about this 'Thorian' entity. Later though. Focus on current problems." He looked up at Shiala. "Symptoms for asari noted, but what of colonists? Human, I assume? Different ailments?"

"Headaches or muscle spasms similar to what they experience under Thorian control. Sometimes, the colonists near another former Thorian victim shared sensations like heat or pain," she explained. "It has to be a result of trace amounts of the Thorian's parasitic spores. You can see why we'd want it studied. And cured."

"Control? Parasitic spores?" Mordin repeated. He ran his omni-tool over Shiala, but frowned when he couldn't pick up anything. "Must have more data," he mumbled before turning to Chakwas.

"I'll give you the details later, Professor," she promised.

"Hmm…"

Startled, Shepard whipped his head around to see Miranda, with Samara and Thane, standing at the doorway.

Miranda looked thoughtful as she tapped her bottom lip. "I have some experience with contractual obligations. Would you mind telling us more?"

Shiala appeared uncertain as she stared between Miranda and Shepard.

"She's my second-in-command. It's all right," Shepard assured.

"Very well. Baria Frontiers was interested in our problem; they offered to perform medical scans and deliver treatment for next to nothing."

"That should have raised some flags," Miranda commented with a raised eyebrow.

"I know," Shiala said in frustration. "But we were desperate."

"So what did the 'fine print' say?" Miranda asked.

"We apparently agreed to let them perform invasive follow-up procedures if they deem it valuable," she answered angrily.

"And I'm guessing they're abusing that particular agreement."

"Can they actually force these procedures?" Garrus asked in disbelief.

"No," Miranda answered. "No contract would be legal if such acts were 'forced', but these things can be the groundwork for other nasty surprises. Extortion, blackmail, or a huge return of money." She gestured to the green-hued asari. "All Baria Frontiers has to do is declare the colonists in breach of contract."

"We would be responsible for the full price we would have paid normally," Shiala said.

"Which might not be normal for other colonies," Miranda guessed.

"I hate politics," Garrus groused.

"Zhu's Hope just got back on its feet. There's no way we can afford it," Shiala pleaded desperately.

"Okay. I'll talk to the survey group," Shepard offered.

"Thank you," she replied in relief. "The Baria Frontiers representative knows about the issue. She was the one that drew up the contract."

"Where can I find her?"

"Later tonight. She'll be at Baria Frontiers' offices."

"If you'd like, I can look over the contracts to see what might help," Miranda offered.

Shepard turned to her and smiled. "I'd appreciate that."

Shiala smiled as well and turned on her omni-tool. "I'll forward you a copy."

"I see that we managed to recruit the last of our squad," Tali commented as she pointed at the other asari present.

"Right," Shepard said. He stood up and gestured to Samara. "Tali. Justicar Samara." He pointed at Tali. "Samara. Tali'Zorah, my chief engineer."

"A pleasure," Samara greeted courteously.

"Likewise," Tali chirped. "You were really hard to find."

"I needed to keep a low profile in an effort to avoid unnecessary trouble," Samara explained simply.

"You were doing a good job of that," Tali praised. "Our friend, Liara, had a hard time finding you."

Samara turned to Shepard inquisitively. "Liara?"

"Dr. Liara T'Soni. She works as an information broker here on Illium. Two years ago, she was one of the people that helped me against Saren. Her help was instrumental," he answered

Samara looked attentive at that news. "I see."

"I should go," Miranda said as she looked over the contract on her omni-tool.

"Anything you can tell me now?" Shepard asked.

"I can tell you that this is very well-written," she distractedly replied. "There might not be any legal loopholes to exploit here."

Shepard frowned. "Keep looking and keep me updated."

"Of course," Miranda said. She turned to Thane and Samara. "I'm going back to the hotel. Shall we?"

"Please," Samara answered for both of them. "I must meditate on the day's events."

As the trio made their way to the lift, Joker stepped into the Common Area at that moment and sidestepped them as they passed by. He continued hobbling over to the Medical Bay, though he kept watching Thane and Samara over his shoulder. Once he was sure they were gone, he looked back at Shepard. "So… a couple more dangerous aliens on board. Thanks." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the elevator. "I mean, you get a guy that's an assassin, so you expect him to be one. But does your asari have to be a trained killer too? You get everyone at the same store or something?" He sat down on another bed near Shiala's and sighed dramatically. "Why don't you do something safe? Like collect coins or commemorative plates or something?"

Tali giggled while Garrus smirked. "Joker, that trained asari killer you mentioned?" he asked conspiratorially.

"Yeah?" Joker asked cautiously.

Garrus pointed at Shiala. "She's one too. Asari Commando."

Joker gulped and smiled nervously at her. "Um… what I meant was…" he hedged.

Shiala stared at him silently and expectantly.

"I meant it… um, I meant it in the best possible way," he finished lamely.

"I'm sure," she replied in merriment. "I take no offense."

"She's a friend of ours from Feros," Shepard explained with a grin. He was taking obvious amusement in Joker's agitation.

"Right, the zombie people," Joker said in remembrance. "Banging on the hull, screaming and shouting. Good times."

"Shiala is here on Illium to help out the colonists there," Tali revealed.

Joker's eyes widened before he clapped his hands over his mouth. "I meant that in the best possible way too!" he shouted from behind his hands.

Everyone laughed at his plight, forcing him to pull his ever present hat down lower to hide his embarrassment.

"You guys suck," he muttered.

"Okay, enough," Shepard ordered. "Sorry, Joker. Couldn't help it."

"Yeah, right," he continued to mutter, though he grinned all the same. "So…" he drawled out.

"What?" Shepard asked, totally clueless as to what he wanted.

"Admiral Hackett. His package. What's going on?" Joker asked in exasperation.

"Oh, right. That." Taking a deep breath, he turned on the bed to face Chakwas as well. "Admiral Hackett asked me to go visit the Normandy."

Everyone looked confused at his proclamation, though Shiala and Mordin simply had no idea at all of the subject matter.

"The Normandy? What do you…?" Chakwas started to ask before realization dawned on her. "Ah."

Joker looked lost for a moment longer before he finally reached the same conclusion. "Wait, wait, wait. The Normandy? As in our Normandy? As in SSV Normandy SR-1?"

Tali and Garrus immediately understood and fell silent. The room suddenly lost its earlier humor in a heartbeat.

Shiala bit her lip as she stared at the proceedings. Even Mordin was uncharacteristically quiet as they both allowed the others a moment of peace.

Joker was the first to speak again. "So, what's with the container?"

"A monument dedicated to her," Shepard said. "I'm supposed to place it at her final resting place."

"She was fine ship," Chakwas said.

"We're going there?" Joker asked apprehensively.

"I don't know," Shepard answered uncertainly. "When Admiral Hackett asked, I wanted to, but I'm also supposed to look for any signs of the others down there as well, so…"

The humans fell silent again. This time, Shepard was the one to break the silence. "Right now, we're not leaving yet. So let's put this out of our minds." He turned to Joker. "Can you see to it that the container is loaded into the cargo bay?"

"Yeah," Joker answered, though there was a slight hiccup in his voice. He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I'll get right on it." He stood up and hobbled out of the infirmary without another word.

"Well, I should, um," Chakwas said before trailing off. She looked around the room before grasping at her excuse. "I should probably talk to you about the Thorian, Professor."

Mordin nodded in understanding. "Yes. Would appreciate it. Sounds fascinating."

Shepard stood up as well. "Shiala, this is Professor Mordin Solus. He's a biologist, medical doctor, and a gifted genius. We're currently on a mission, but until we leave, he'll be happy to help you anyway he can until I can smooth things over with Baria Frontiers."

"Thank you," she responded gratefully.

"I'll talk to Miranda and the rep later tonight and I'll let you know how it goes, okay?"

"Of course."

Shepard nodded and turned to Tali. "How's the armor and cannon?"

"Armor is done. We're running checks now to ensure the installation went off without a hitch. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the cannon. Ken and Gabby are out shopping for the parts we need for the upgrades," she reported. "I'll keep you informed."

"Can I see the problem areas?" Garrus asked. "I need to know so I can do my duties effectively."

"Sure," Tali agreed. They left without a word as well.

Shiala looked around, trying not to appear intrusive, but her eyes eventually settled on Shepard again. She looked like she wanted to ask a question, but hesitated.

"The ship we arrived on Feros in," Shepard explained. "Two years ago, she was shot down and we barely escaped with our lives." He purposely left out the part where he actually didn't escape with his life at all. "20 other crewman died, however."

"I'm sorry," Shiala offered sympathetically.

"Yeah," Shepard replied automatically. "I have to go, too."

"I understand."

Chakwas turned away from her explanations of the Thorian to a thoroughly memorized salarian to face Shepard. "Are you going to be alright, Shepard?"

"I'm alright now," he replied. "Just shaking off some bad memories, that's all."

"If you're sure. My door is open if you want to talk about it though."

"Thanks."

~o~O~o~

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Trading Floor

Instead of going to his suite at the hotel, Shepard opted to go to his cabin. After a quick shower and a change of clothes, he logged onto his private terminal for any messages. He laughed softly at the surprise letter from Oriana and decided to forward it to Miranda.

Finishing his business, he left the Normandy and decided to take a walk to try and clear his head and rid himself of the sudden nervous energy that possessed him. He was so lost in his thoughts that he almost bumped headlong into another passerby.

"Sorry," he apologized automatically.

The woman nodded and was about to move on when she did a double-take. "Shepard?" she asked in disbelief.

Shepard turned and nodded before he recognized the individual in front of him. "You're… you're that undercover agent from Noveria." He snapped his fingers, trying to jog his memory. "You're… damn it… you're… Parasini. Gianna Parasini."

"You remember me. I'm flattered," she said with a smile. She looked him over from head to toe. "But what about you? Holy crap… the news said you were dead! What happened?" She shook her head. "No, wait, probably classified. Forget I asked. You'd just have to lie, anyway."

"No, not classified," Shepard corrected. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Just… really, really complicated."

"With you? I don't doubt it," she teased.

Shepard looked around and saw a café nearby. "If I recall correctly, Miss Parasini, you owe me a beer."

"Good memory," she praised. "Though, this early in the morning, you really want a drink?"

"Coffee will do just fine," he assured.

"Coffee it is then." She looped her arm around his and led the way to the nearby café. Settling in at an empty table, she brought up the holo-menu and ordered two coffees.

"So, what happened to that administrator… what's-his-name?" Shepard asked as he leaned back in his chair.

Gianna laughed. "I take back what I said about your memory."

"I remember the important things," he defended good-naturedly. "Pretty undercover agents and debts are important. Corrupt officials on Noveria? I'd need perfect recall for that."

She laughed again. "Okay, I'll give you that," she conceded. "Former Administrator Anoleis was charged with the one crime Noveria won't tolerate: taking money. He's doing a few years in a white-collar prison. More importantly, he won't work in the field again." She leaned on her hand. "Your turn. What brings you to Illium? You know, that you can talk about?"

"You know about the attacks on human colonies in the Terminus?" She nodded. "I'm going after the ones responsible. The Collectors."

She blinked before shaking her head. "Damn, Shepard. For me, a tough job involves more paperwork."

He shrugged and grinned at her. "That sound like my nightmare."

She laughed again and shifted her chair so that she could lean in closer to him.

She was in such close proximity now that Shepard could smell the perfume she was wearing. He blinked in confusion until he saw her expression. It was focused, intent. Playing along, he leaned in closer as well, noting that he was using his body to effectively hide her. "On the clock?" he whispered.

"You are good," she whispered back.

"So who's the unlucky bastard now?"

"Bitch," she corrected. She held her position for a few more seconds before leaning back in her chair. "And she's just arrived for work."

Shepard turned head enough to see out of the corner of his eye. He spotted a purple-hued asari standing at her a kiosk not too far away.

Their coffee was served. Gianna picked up her cup and took a sip. "Feel like helping?"

Shepard mimicked her actions. "Do I have a choice?"

"Come on, it'll be fun," she said encouragingly. "I remember that smirk you had when I dragged Anoleis out of his office."

"Maybe I was just trying not to laugh at you trying to move in those high heels."

She leveled a mock-glare at him. "Very funny."

"I thought so," Shepard grinned. "What do you need me to do?"

"I don't want to break my cover yet. Hopefully, you'll make this job as easy as you did before." She took another sip. "Hermia, over there, has been smuggling schematics from Noveria. I need you to talk her into showing you the good stuff."

"You owe me. Again," Shepard said. Taking one last sip of his coffee, he stood up and sauntered over to the kiosk. He stood next to the target and pretended to browse through the selection.

"Welcome," Hermia greeted in a friendly voice. "You look like someone who needs high-quality equipment!"

"Serrice Tech," Shepard commented pensively.

"That's right," she chirped. "We have the best tech and biotic equipment on Illium."

Shepard schooled his face to look bored and unconvinced. "Not the first time I've heard that," he replied in an uninterested tone.

"I can assure you, we carry the latest in biotic upgrades and omni-tool modifications. Very high-quality."

Shepard continued to stare at her dubiously.

Hermia looked and leaned in. "Sometimes I even get special items in. No promises, of course."

Gotcha. Knowing better than to charge recklessly, he continued to play his charade and make her think he was a big-spending and difficult customer so as not to tip her off. "How do I know this stuff is any good? You're an asari. Maybe your stuff is no good for humans."

"I carry nothing but the best! I offer a money-back guarantee!" she said defensively.

His face continued to look impassive, but with a hint of interest. Inwardly, he was smirking. His tactic was simple. Instead of trying to earn her trust, he was creating a situation where it seemed like she had to earn his trust.

Works every time.

"That doesn't help when I'm dead due to equipment failure," he bartered. "Look, I'm dropping too many credits to screw around here."

She squirmed in place at his verbal assault. "Well… perhaps I could give you a preferred rate at the kiosk," she offered. She tapped some commands into the terminal. "Here. A small discount – and when I get special items in, you can take a look."

Nodding in approval, Shepard pretended to browse through the kiosk, though he was sure that either Tali or Miranda had already picked up whatever equipment they'd needed. All on Cerberus' credit too.

"See anything you like?" Hermia asked.

"Nothing that catches my attention," he said imperiously. He sighed impatiently before turning to face her again. "What kind of special items were you talking about?"

"Oh, you know, schematics, designs. Nothing illegal, but I may not have all the licenses to sell them."

"I don't care for details like that, so long as the product is good," Shepard said with a bit more interest injected into his tone. "What do you have?"

She looked around before leaning in again. "Well, there is one thing," she whispered. "Very advanced design. Not publicly available yet."

Gianna strolled in from around the kiosk from where she'd been eavesdropping. "That's because it's still in development on Noveria. And illegal for export." She stopped and smirked in front of the paling asari. "Hello, Hermia," she purred victoriously.

"Parasini!" Hermia gasped. She looked between both humans. "You set me up!" she shouted in disbelief. "This isn't Noveria! You don't have the authority to arrest me!"

Gianna shrugged indifferently. "I don't care whether you go to jail or not. I've got all the evidence I need to fine you out of business."

"Does this mean you don't have the authority to seize the schematic as well?" Shepard asked.

"Hermia was already under suspicion. We leaked a faulty device to her. All this thing will ever do is blow up in your face," she explained with a wicked smile.

Hermia gulped. "I… I need to go. I have to talk to my lawyer." She pushed past both of them and walked away quickly.

"Talk fast, Hermia! When the fines hit, you won't be able to afford him!" Gianna taunted before facing Shepard with a self-satisfied smile. "Ah, that was good. Shall we get back to our coffee?"

"After you," Shepard offered.

"Why, thank you." Sitting back at their table, Gianna opened the holo-menu again. "Breakfast? It's on me."

"Debt repaid," Shepard said in lieu of answering.

After placing their orders, Gianna relaxed in her chair. "Hermia is going to be a very poor woman very shortly. Thanks for the help." She smiled again. "I love nailing asari. So ageless and superior – then you get them and they squeal like schoolgirls."

Remembering his newest squad member, Shepard decided not to comment. "How long were you after her?"

"Only a few weeks, plus transit time. Not nearly as long as Anoleis."

"So, are we actually eating or is there someone else you want me to talk to?" he joked. He exaggerated looking around.

"Nope. That was it," she assured. "You know, I have to hand it to you. If you weren't busy saving the galaxy, you'd do well as a corporate spy. You were damn convincing."

"I'll take that as a compliment." After their orders arrived, Shepard took a few bites before saying, "It must be nice having a job that you really enjoy."

Gianna poked at her food a bit before replying. "I actually wanted to be a cop or C-Sec, but my family had bills. I needed the money a corporate job brought in." She glanced at him from the corner of her eye. "Besides, in this job, you don't see things that make it hard to sleep at night. White-collar crimes tend to be nice and clean."

Shepard nodded in understanding and took a few more bites.

"At least this time, I didn't have to wear heels and a dress," she joked.

"Too bad for me," he bantered. "So how did you end up on Noveria, anyway?"

She chewed thoughtfully before swallowing. "Scholarship program and a competitive internship."

"Yeah?" he asked with mild surprise.

"Yeah, but it turns out I was only middling at the science, but I could always ferret out secrets," she elaborated. "You grow up poor and surrounded by rich kids, you get good at hiding yourself. Helps with going undercover."

"So, it's not hard for you to go undercover so often?"

"Not too hard, really," she drawled out, mulling over his question. "Go new places, be new people. The only weird part is when you go home and try to talk to familiar faces and you forget how to react. Like it's another cover, y'know?"

Shepard looked at her shrewdly. "Deep down, some part of you likes fooling people. That's what makes you so good at it." He paused to take a sip of his coffee. "Hell, you fooled me. Twice."

She only had an unrepentant smile at that. "Only because it's fun to mess with you, Shepard." She took another bite of her breakfast before speaking again. "I guess there's a part of me that likes doing this, yeah. I grew up poor and working class." She nodded at him. "But you know all about that, right?"

"Yeah," he agreed wholeheartedly.

"Now I walk around the rich and powerful," she said. "Taking notes, getting evidence." She grinned confidently. "And they never see me coming." Taking a sip of her own coffee, she asked, "And what about you? 'First human Spectre'. How do you like your job?"

Shepard paused at her question. He covered his hesitation by eating a bit more, though he doubted the act would fool her. "There are days when I like it and days I don't," he enigmatically said.

"Nice and vague," she noted.

"When I actively help someone and make their lives a bit better, then I'm glad I'm making a difference," he explained. "When I have to make the hard choice, I'll make it, but I don't have to like it. That's when I hate the job."

"Sorry," she said contritely. "Yeah. That's me putting my foot in my mouth. And I just said that your job had to be hard."

"Its fine," he assured. "So, I told you what my immediate plans were. What's yours?"

"Nothing as extravagant as yours, not that you expected it to be," she joked. "Just some research. We've had some hacking attacks lately and I want to make sure they're external." She had a slight frown on her face. "A lot of people are suddenly interested in dark energy. My bosses want to know if it's something to worry about." She shrugged it off. "That'll hold me over until I have to go back undercover, anyway."

"Dark energy, huh?" Shepard muttered, almost to himself.

Gianna raised an eyebrow. "Know something?"

"Not as much as I'd like," he said. "You might remember that I was travelling with a quarian back on Noveria?"

"Vaguely, yeah," she said, uncertain where he was going with this.

"I just met up with her in the Dholen system. The star there is getting too old, too fast. The quarians think it might have something to do with dark energy," he explained. "Now you're telling me that a corporation on Noveria is interested in dark energy. No offence, but the last time I was there, I had to clean up a pretty bad mess."

Gianna narrowed her eyes. "Tell you what, I'll keep a lookout and see what's up," she offered. "You said 'Dholen'?"

"In the Far Rim Cluster."

"I'll check it out." She made a note in her omni-tool. "At the very least, it's someplace to start."

"I'd appreciate that," he honestly said. His comm. beeped.

"Shepard? It's Miranda. Cerberus xenobiologists has finally sent us some information about the Collector troops. I thought we should go over this information with the rest of the team."

"Understood. I'm on the way."

"On the clock?" Gianna asked humorously.

"Always," Shepard said seriously. They finished their breakfast and stood up. "It's been a pleasure, Gianna."

She left the appropriate credits on the table and smiled. "Hang on. A little something extra for you. For all your help." She tapped into her omni-tool and sent something.

Shepard glanced at his own omni-tool. "What is this?"

"Something Noveria Internal Affairs gives to all undercover agents," she said. "Not all locks are electronic these days. Some have a few physical components to bypass as well. They're lauded as 'unhackable'," she explained with a shrug. "One of the corporations on Noveria developed this little baby that introduces something called 'quantum threading' which provides the physical part of a bypass."

"Really?" Shepard said reflectively.

"Yep. You need a bit of skill with it though. Kinda like picking those old school locks with a lock pick, but I'm sure you can handle it," Gianna stated confidently. "There's a bunch more improvements in that bypass module too: scanners, auto-correction software, VI assistance… Y'know, in case you need to break into something, somewhere."

"It'll definitely come in handy," Shepard agreed. "I can definitely see why you'd have it."

"What can say? You never know when you need to bypass a lock to get at some incriminating datapads," she said.

"It's all right for you to give me this?" he asked with a hint of concern. "You won't get in trouble?"

"I won't say anything. So long as you don't, I won't have any problems. If my superiors find out somehow, I'll just drop your name to smooth things over, since you're a Spectre and all."

"Thanks," he gratefully said.

Gianna nodded and moved closer to Shepard. "Ah, the hell with it." She leaned in and gave him a modest peck on the cheek. "Much better than an autograph. Take care of yourself, Shepard," she said with a smile before parting ways.

Shepard had an amused smile as well. "You too."

~o~O~o~

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

"So what's this about?" Jack asked impatiently from her seat at the Briefing Room table. "I hope we weren't called just to show off the new chairs here."

Jacob shrugged. "I don't what going on any more than you do." He swiveled in his chair a bit. "I gotta admit though, this was a nice touch. Better than standing all the time. Thanks, Tali."

She accepted the praise modestly. "The old Normandy had chairs for debriefings. I don't know why this Normandy lacks chairs."

"It was for the life-sized holographic projections. The table retracts into the floor and allowed for easier conversations," Jacob explained. "Not to mention a full face-to-face meet with the Illusive Man."

"I took that into consideration," Tali defended. "The chairs will retract into the floor with the table."

"Hold up," Jack said, sitting straighter in her chair. "You mean we can talk to the Illusive Man from here?"

"Only if he wants to talk," Jacob said. "Sorry. No cussing out the big man."

"Damn."

Shepard and Miranda entered the Briefing Room then and took their seats at the head of the table and the right hand side, respectively. "Right," Shepard said once he confirmed that everyone was present. "Cerberus intelligence has just forwarded their findings on the Collectors."

"We got a mission?" Garrus asked.

"Not yet," Shepard said. "They analyzed the Collectors and husks we fought on Horizon and categorized them. I called us together to learn about our enemy so we can be better prepared to engage them." He gave a pointed look at the team, sans Tali, Thane and Samara. "I'm sure we all remember that particular mission."

Everyone involved winced and nodded in agreement.

"Miranda will brief us from here. Go ahead."

"Thank you, Shepard," she graciously said. "Right, while most of us are aware of the Seeker Swarms, for the benefit of Tali, Thane and Samara, I will reiterate quickly."

The hologram in the middle of table changed from the Normandy to an image of a single Seeker. "Coming in large numbers, they emit mild disruption fields. With sufficient enough numbers, even individual, short-range radios will cease to function. Long-range communication with the Normandy is definitely out of the question."

The image zoomed in on the stinger of the Seeker.

"Their stingers are strong and sharp enough that it will penetrate armor. Mordin's countermeasure makes us invisible to smaller swarms, but against significant numbers, I would advise retreat." Gesturing to Mordin she continued. "Thanks to Professor Solus' efforts, we know they inject nanomachines to paralyze their prey by attacking the nervous system. So far, this has only been tested on humans. For the non-human members of our squad, I can't say what the nanomachines would do."

The image changed to a Collector.

"This is the standard shock troop of the Collectors," she pointed out. "As far as we know anyway. They've been classified as 'Drones'. They don't have any real significant gifts. Some might be able to protect themselves with Barrier occasionally, but for the most part, they're only equipped with something akin to assault rifles. These particular troops will rely on numbers to win, but regardless, they shouldn't be underestimated. They're lightly armored, smaller than the others, and don't appear to exercise any advanced tactics besides brute force and numbers."

"Cannon fodder," Grunt dismissed.

Miranda ignored his comment and moved on to the next image. This Collector appeared more armored and equipped with a bigger weapon than the Drone.

"Collector Assassins, the long range marksmen of the Collector forces. As Jacob and Grunt are aware, these particular Collectors use some kind of particle beam weapons as their preferred armament."

An image of the heavy weapon appeared next to the Assassin.

"It's a rapid fire weapon capable of burning through shields and armor quickly and efficiently. The Assassin's have more moderate skill in biotics and are able to defend themselves with Barrier to supplement their armor, though no offensive biotic capabilities were noted."

The image changed to a large, well-armored, and well-equipped Collector.

"Let me guess, this is the worst of the lot?" Garrus sarcastically asked.

"You would be right," Miranda agreed. "Classified as Collector Guardians, they're the elite Collector combatants and a force to be wary of. In addition to having a superior class of assault rifle, Cerberus researchers noted that they are able to give their weapons some kind of ammunition modification that gives it similar properties of Warp. They've dubbed this ability Warp Ammo for simplistic purposes."

"Whoa," Jacob said. "They got some kinda biotic weapons?"

"It would seem so," Miranda said gravely. "We're attempting to reproduce this effect, but we've less than successful since Collector weaponry self-destructs after a period of time."

"What do you mean by 'self-destruct'?" Shepard asked interestedly.

"Nothing dramatic as a grenade or some such. The internal components just… decompose… for lack of a better term."

"Decompose?" Mordin queried.

"No one can explain it yet, so I can't even begin to speculate."

"What else can you tell us about the Guardians?" Thane asked.

"I'll be honest. We actually didn't fight any Guardians yet," Miranda revealed. "They weren't present on Horizon. Whether it's because we took them by surprise or that ship wasn't carrying any elite forces, I can't say. We learned of them through other sources. What I can tell you is that they have some knowledge of biotics. What offensive abilities they have, we still don't know, though Warp is definitely a possibility. We can also expect Barrier to be part of their repertoire if the trend continues." She looked around the room and noted that she everyone's full attention. "Last, but not least…"

The holographic imaged changed to Harbinger.

"That thing," Shepard muttered.

"It called itself 'Harbinger'. We're assuming it's a Reaper capable of communicating to the Collectors all the way from dark space. How it does this is something we're trying to unravel as we speak."

"Really?" Tali asked in shock. "Communication from that distance? With no lag at all?"

"I really hate that son of a bitch," Jack growled.

"An enemy to be respected then," Samara concluded.

Miranda nodded in agreement. "It seems that Harbinger can 'possess' any Collector it wants. Upon doing so, any dormant biotic power a Collector has is fully awakened and at its disposal. What we've observed on Horizon so far wasn't even the extent of its full ability if the researchers are interpreting the data correctly. Warp, Throw, Barrier, even Singularity appears to be at its command, though there were incredible differences with Harbinger's biotics in comparison to ours."

"Like burning out my shield in one hit with some kind of Warp fireball or something," Shepard said.

"Or its ability to affect us regardless of whatever protection we utilize against biotics," Miranda stated. "Its own Barrier is prodigious, requiring only our strongest weapons or attacks to even begin to fight it. Then we must get through its armored carapace, which is another matter altogether."

"You said it 'possesses' any Collector it chooses?" Thane asked seriously.

"Correct. This means that even if we were to defeat an incarnation of Harbinger; if there are other Collectors on the battlefield, it would easily make a reappearance."

"Great," Grunt muttered in annoyance.

"Okay," Garrus said. "What about those husk-like things we were fighting on Horizon?"

"Especially that big one at the end," Jack demanded.

The image changed to the top heavy husk. Its left arm was missing and in its place was a biological weapon of some sort. The head of the husk was dangling around the right shoulder.

"The husk that attacked us and struck Mordin has been called a Scion. As far as our xenobiologists could determine, it appears to be three different husks fused together with a biotic weapon for a left arm. The sac on top contains element zero to provide power for its unique shockwave. They're heavily armored and dangerous, but not too difficult to defeat."

"Concussive rounds work well enough to bring it to the ground," Garrus noted. "After that, we just toss a krogan on it and let him go to work."

Grunt grinned.

Finally, the image showed a large beetle looking husk.

"The Praetorian. The mobile tank of the Collectors. As far as our researchers could surmise, that thing is around 30 husks fused into one."

"30?" Shepard repeated incredulously.

"Yes. It is equipped with powerful twin beam weapons and capable of sustained flight, giving it some mobility. It's Barrier is comparable to our shields on mobile vehicles and has armor to match." Miranda paused to smile at Shepard. "Cerberus was impressed with how you managed to fight this creature on Horizon. It was certainly unorthodox, but effective."

"Well, when you're good…" Shepard started to say.

"You mean desperate," Garrus interjected.

"Ha, ha," Shepard said sardonically.

Tali shook her head wearily. "I missed a lot."

"Okay. That's about it for this briefing," Miranda stated. "If anyone has any further questions?"

No one spoke up. They were still absorbing everything they were told.

"I've forwarded a copy to everyone to peruse at your leisure," Miranda informed.

"Alright. Dismissed," Shepard said. "Garrus, Jacob, Mordin. I'd like a word."

After everyone else filed out, he turned to face the trio. "Alright. Something is going on."

All three shuffled in place and shot figurative glances at each other.

"If you'd like, we can speak privately…?"

"Yes, would like that," Mordin said first.

"Thanks for speaking up," Shepard said. He turned to the other two. "Both you, wait outside. That's an order."

Garrus and Jacob glanced at each other before turning around and leaving.

"What's going on, Mordin?"

"Remember speaking about work? Time with Special Tasks Group. Studying genophage."

Shepard racked his mind before remembering the conversation he had with Mordin and Chakwas not long after he'd joined his crew. "Something you wanted to add?"

"Wasn't entirely honest. Lie of omission. Also other kinds." He stopped when he realized that he was going off topic and took a breath. "Work on genophage was more than just study."

"I had a feeling you were holding something back," Shepard commented knowingly. "You once said that we wouldn't have called on you if it wasn't important. I doubt STG would call on you if it wasn't equally important."

"Assumptions correct. Apologies. Classified information," he explained. "However, circumstances have changed. Met with Captain Kirrahe recently. Allowed me to speak finally."

"You met Kirrahe? As in, here on Illium?"

"Yes. Preparing for mission. Utilizing available assets. Me, you, whatever necessary to get job done."

"What mission?" Shepard asked.

"To understand, need full story. Need to know me. What I can do." Mordin turned away. "What I did," he whispered.

"I'm listening."

"Wasn't lying completely. STG initially just did recon. But uncovered data. Troubling." He turned to face Shepard fully. "Krogan population as increasing at faster rate than expected. Krogan were adapting to genophage. Overcoming disease."

Shepard was floored. "You're sure of this?"

"Ran exhaustive tests. Social, environmental concerns accounted for. Population spike caused by adaptation to genophage. No other possibility."

"How did this happen? Did the krogan evolve or did some of their scientists develop a treatment?" Shepard speculated.

Mordin blinked before shaking his head. "Krogan scientists? Hah. Never met krogan scientist worthy of term," he scoffed.

Remembering Okeer's vision of 'science', as well as the krogan that worked with Saren on Virmire, Shepard privately agreed.

"No. Natural evolution," Mordin confirmed. "Krogan physiology incredibly durable. Organ redundancy, backup systems, cellular regeneration." His voice had taken a respectful note as he listed the krogan attributes. "Genophage like any other natural hazard. Krogan evolved past it."

"What did you do when you learned about this?"

"Was chosen to lead a science team. Geneticists, chemists, sociologists, mathematicians," Mordin said with a hint of pride. "Created new version of genophage. Released it on Tuchanka, other krogan-centric areas. Restabilized krogan population."

"This was the only option?" Shepard asked. He had mixed feelings about the whole idea, but without seeing the evidence for himself, had no way of forming an opinion.

"Considered hundreds of options. Thousands," he said. He paced around the table. "Modified genophage offered best outcome. Stabilized population. Avoided publicity that could incite krogan anger. Averted potential genocide or devastating war. Best solution for whole galaxy, krogan included."

It made sense in a way, but it was still unfair to the krogan species as a whole. Shepard shook those thoughts away and leaned against the wall. "How did this new genophage work?"

"Krogan evolution attached garbage genetic code to genophage attack sites. Modification created other areas for garbage code to connect. Left sites clean, capable. Running smoothly," he explained as simply as he could.

"How did you distribute this thing?"

"Covert drops. Hospitals, clan centers, water supplies," he listed off. "Very difficult. Few salarians on Tuchanka." He frowned. "Team got caught a few times. Had to fight free. Messy. Better when things went as planned."

"So what does this have to do with this new mission of Kirrahe's?"

Mordin nodded his head. "Yes. Mission. Still processing data, analyzing likely scenarios. Not sure how to begin. Too little intel!"

"Easy, Mordin. Just tell me what Kirrahe told you."

He took a deep breath to calm himself before speaking again. "Blood Pack mercenaries captured former team member. Maelon. STG intel says he was last spotted on Tuchanka. Might torture him. Make an example." He bowed his head and swallowed the lump in his throat. "STG is preparing to rescue him, but aware of your friendship with krogan chief, Urdnot Wrex. Will allow us to conduct rescue mission before they try." He looked up. "Recovering Maelon would be a personal favor to me."

"Do you think they found out your team updated the genophage?" Shepard asked worriedly.

"Unclear. STG is still gathering intel. Aware that he possessed a copy of our project before disappearance. Best course of action is to go to Tuchanka ourselves."

Shepard nodded in understanding. "It's your lucky day, Mordin. I promised Grunt that we'd go to Tuchanka anyway. I was hoping to talk to Wrex, so with luck, he might know something."

"Appreciate it." He hesitated before talking again. "My assistant. My student," he admitted. "Want to see him safe."

"I'll see what I can do," Shepard promised.

"Must contact Kirrahe," Mordin said. He turned to leave, but stopped and faced Shepard again. "Also, needed to pass message along. Kirrahe said, 'Glad to have held the line'."

Shepard smiled somberly in remembrance. "Thanks. Tell him that I was glad too. And ask either Garrus or Jacob to come in."

~o~O~o~

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

After leaving the Normandy and the hangar, Samara made a few discreet inquiries. Finding the location was easy, since it appeared that Dr. Liara T'Soni was quite an important figure on Illium.

She entered the building where Liara's office resided and prepared to announce her presence when the door opened automatically.

Liara was seated at her table, watching the justicar expectantly. She beckoned her to enter.

Samara accepted the invitation and approached the table. "Dr. Liara T'Soni, I presume?"

Liara stood up and bowed respectfully. "Justicar Samara. It is an honor to meet you, face-to-face."

"You as well," Samara politely returned. "I understand you once worked with Spectre Agent Shepard."

"I did," Liara proudly admitted.

"Then perhaps you are someone I can trust," Samara said.

"You would like for me to track the whereabouts of the AML Demeter," Liara said before Samara could state her request.

Samara's only response was to raise single eyebrow.

"Or perhaps you would like for me to track a specific passenger aboard? A Morinth, I believe she's called," Liara astutely said.

Samara's other eyebrow joined the first. Her respect for Liara grew as she nodded.

"I told no one of this, Justicar. Not even Shepard. I will find her for you and relay any information I have. It would be my honor to do so."

Samara allowed a small smile to grace her features. "I thank you. If I may, I would also like to offer my condolences for the passing of your mother, Matriarch Benezia. May she find peace in the embrace of the Goddess."

"Thank you, Justicar," Liara replied neutrally. She sat down and gestured for Samara to do the same.

Taking her seat, she looked up at the younger asari. "What do you know of Morinth's whereabouts?"

"The AML Demeter stopped at an Eclipse outpost, most likely delivering illicit goods," Liara disclosed. "Morinth was spotted changing ships. She's now on the AML Valkyrur. It is my belief she will continue changing ships as to mask her real destination. Until then, she probably won't spend more than a few days at any given location."

Samara nodded, fully expecting this. "It is not the first time she used such methods to elude me."

"I will continue tracking her until she finally finds a place to settle down," Liara assured.

"I appreciate what help you can offer," Samara gratefully said.

Liara had a small ironic smile on her face. "Of course, Justicar. We purebloods must stick together."

Samara blinked in surprise. She was about to question Liara when she changed her mind.

Some things are better left unsaid.

"Thank you for your help," Samara stated. She stood up and nodded respectfully. "In return, I will do all I can to protect Captain Shepard."

Liara had a small, amused smile on her face at her declaration. "If I might be so bold? I think you should ask Shepard for help with Morinth," she suggested.

"That is quite bold," Samara stated evenly.

"With all due respect, this is someone you've been chasing for 400 years," Liara pointed out. "As personal as this is for you, I believe you will need a fresh face in this. Shepard is someone I trust. He is someone you can trust. And above all else, you will learn that he is a man doesn't need protecting and that he always full of surprises."

"You hold him in high regard," Samara observed.

Liara merely smiled again, this time with a hint of mystery. "Good luck in your mission, Justicar Samara," she dismissed politely.

Samara studied the asari maiden before her smiling courteously. "Good day to you, Dr. T'Soni."

~o~O~o~

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

"This is something you should've told me as soon as you found out, Jacob."

"I didn't want to waste our time if it turns out to be a wild goose chase, Captain."

Shepard shook his head. "Any distress beacon needs to be answered and verified. You know that."

"It's been ten years," Jacob argued. "I don't know if my old man is even alive."

"I wasn't talking about your father. Not exactly," Shepard said as gently as he could. "Someone activated a distress beacon. Maybe it was broken and it took a decade to repair. Whatever the story, someone needs help right now and they've been waiting for 10 years for it."

Jacob turned to Garrus for support, but the turian shrugged and could offer no words. "It's not normal procedure for distress calls to be routed to the Normandy. This was passed to my personal log through Cerberus," he explained.

Shepard crossed his arms as he considered the possibilities. "Who sent this to you?"

"I have no clue. They covered their tracks. I'm guessing they're high-level. That's all I've been able to tell."

"Why would they send this to you anyway?" Garrus asked.

Jacob shrugged. "Someone fishing for favors or someone trying to get under my skin. Who knows?"

"Well, at this point we're aware of the distress call. Either we call the Alliance to assist or we wait for the hull and armor checks to be completed and leave a little earlier than intended," Shepard summed up.

"The cannon isn't working yet," Garrus reminded. "None of the weapons are."

"This is rescue mission. I doubt we'll need orbital bombardment," Shepard said. "Besides, the main body of the cannon is already installed. Tali can replace the components in-flight. She assured me that none of those systems will interfere with standard ship operations." He turned to Jacob. "What do you want to do?"

Jacob went silent for a while. He made eye contact with Garrus who nodded back at him. "I want to know. With your permission, I'd like to conduct the rescue operation."

"Pass the coordinates to EDI. We'll head there straightaway. If whoever activated the beacon lasted for 10 years, they can hang on for a few more days," Shepard said.

"I appreciate this, Captain. And I'm sorry for keeping this from you as long as I did. I should've come clean from the start," Jacob apologized.

"It was personal. Let's leave it at that." Shepard turned to Garrus. "So what's your story?"

"I'll leave you two alone," Jacob said. He saluted to Shepard before leaving the Briefing Room.

"It's not something that'll affect the mission," Garrus stubbornly said.

"But it's affecting you," Shepard countered. "And that matters to me." He narrowed his eyes at him. "This is about Sidonis, isn't it?"

Garrus narrowed his eyes in return and said nothing.

Shepard shook his head in exasperation. "I knew it." He looked back up at Garrus. "Was it Liara? It was Liara, wasn't it?"

Garrus subconsciously clenched his teeth, inadvertently giving all the confirmation Shepard needed.

"Damn it," Shepard said. "What are you planning?"

Garrus turned away and snarled. Whether it was at himself or Shepard, the Spectre couldn't tell. "You humans have a saying: 'an eye for an eye'."

"And a tooth for a tooth."

"A life for a life," Garrus finished. "He owes me ten lives. I plan to collect."

"And in the end, we get a lot of blind, toothless, dead people." Shepard was prepared to lecture Garrus about his course of action before remembering that the turian had little patience for such things. Taking a deep breath, he regarded his friend carefully. "Are you sure that's what you want?"

"It's not about what I want!" Garrus shot back. His mandibles and head crest flared, giving him the look of a dangerous bird of prey. "It's about what's fair! And it isn't fair that one coward lives, while 10 brave men are dead!"

"I'm not trying to…" Shepard started before he stopped and rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I don't want you making a mistake."

"If there is a mistake, it's letting that bastard live. Me, I'll deal with the consequences," Garrus retorted defiantly. "He betrayed us and he betrayed me. There's a price for betrayal. It's the one thing all species agree on."

"I don't like this and I don't like what it's doing to you," Shepard stated.

Garrus growled and unexpectedly, he grabbed Shepard by his shirt and pulled him close. "You weren't there! I held two men in my arms while they died! I trusted Sidonis with my life!"

Shepard held ground while he let Garrus vent. Calmly, he reached up and grasped the turian's wrists firmly. "I just want to help you," he said. He met Garrus' eyes unwaveringly.

Coming to his senses, he let his friend go and staggered back. "Shepard. I… I…"

"Where is he hiding?" Shepard asked slowly. As much as he didn't like what the issue what doing to him, leaving it alone and letting time run its course wasn't an option. There was already too much at stake.

Garrus swallowed and turned away.

"I want to help," Shepard asserted. "What can you tell me?"

Ultimately, Garrus gave in to his subtle demands. "Liara told me that he's hiding on the Citadel. There's a specialist named Fade that Sidonis contracted to help him disappear."

"So what's the plan?"

"Some of Fade's people work in a warehouse in the Zakera Ward. I want to check it out and stop Fade from tipping Sidonis off. Then…"

"Then we arrange a 'reunion'," Shepard finished quietly.

"Yeah," Garrus muttered quietly.

"We'll go when I can find the time. For now, I got this distress beacon to deal with, then Tuchanka."

"I know. Sidonis isn't going anywhere. Not if he thinks he's still hidden. I can wait," he assured. He swallowed again and bowed his head guiltily. "Thanks for helping me with this and… and I'm sorry."

Shepard gave him solemn nod, but a friendly pat on the arm to show he forgave him, before leaving the Briefing Room and Garrus to his thoughts.

~o~O~o~

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

The rest of the day was spent organizing the hangar. The old ablative armor was placed in large crates and was prepared to ship out. The multitude of Cerberus workers trickled out slowly as their various jobs was finished. The physical mechanisms of the Thanix Cannon were successfully installed beneath the Normandy. The internal workings were still under construction by Tali's team as well as a few remaining Cerberus engineers, but all the weapons were expected to be functional soon.

After getting a late lunch, Liara called Shepard for another meeting, to his surprise. He was bit apprehensive at first, but she assured him that it would be worth his time.

"Shepard," Liara greeted when he entered. She smiled a bit more compared to their previous meetings, but still carried herself slightly distant.

Whether it was because of her position on Illium or because of what she went through in the last two years, Shepard couldn't tell. "Hey, Liara. What did you want to talk about?"

"I regret not being able to help you personally," she started slowly. "As badly as I want the Shadow Broker to pay for what he's done… I don't like the thought of losing you for a second time."

Shepard said nothing. He was already painfully aware of the odds without the reminder.

"To that end, I finally managed to get into contact with someone that can help you with your mission."

"Really? Who is it?"

"Her name is Kasumi Goto. Human. A tech expert, specializing in sabotage, infiltration and stealth."

"Wow," Shepard said, impressed the litany of skills. "An Infiltrator for the Alliance then? Or is she a freelancer?"

"She's a civilian, not officially affiliated with anyone and most certainly not a mercenary," Liara corrected. She had a playful expression on her face.

"What's with the look?" he asked.

"You're not guessing anymore?"

"Assassin," Shepard guessed next, humoring her.

"Close. She's perhaps a step removed from assassin. She's a professional thief."

"You're putting me in contact with a thief?" Shepard questioned skeptically.

"Don't underestimate her. She's quite skilled in hand-to-hand combat and small arms. I'm sure she'll be an asset to your team."

"How do you know a thief?"

Liara shrugged. "She paid me for information a few times. I got her the information she requested. And yes, it tends to be about security and unique and expensive objects. As a precaution, I personally look into my clients, particularly new ones."

"For any connections to the Shadow Broker?"

"You know that he's watching me," she reminded pointedly. Her expression became predatory. "Or watching out for me."

"Alright, I'll give her a chance." He glanced at her. "So what's the catch?"

She smiled indulgently. "Very good, Shepard. She's willing to join you immediately, but wants something in return for her services."

"What? Money?"

"Help on a job. Once I dropped your name, she jumped at the chance to work with you."

Shepard frowned. "What kind of job?"

She shrugged. "She wouldn't say. I'd assume with would have to do something with her 'occupation'. If you want, I could dedicate some of my resources to find out if you don't want to deal with any surprises."

"I'm sure I'll find out from her. Where is she?"

"Right here on Illium. She has to make a few arrangements, but assures me that she'll be ready to leave in two days. She also requests a brief stop at the Citadel to pick up some equipment."

Shepard nodded. "I'll be heading that way soon." He stared at Liara with a significant look. "Garrus has a problem over there that I have to help him with," he hinted heavily.

Liara's expression betrayed nothing. "I'm sure you'll do the right thing. He needs a good friend now."

"Where do I meet her?"

"The transportation hub. I should warn you, the meet itself is something a little… unconventional."

"What do you mean?"

Liara sent the information to Shepard's omni-tool. "Find a specific ad terminal and give the password, 'silence is golden', to identify yourself. Everything is up to you and her after that."

Shepard scoffed and rolled his eyes. "Very cute."

Liara shrugged again. "If it helps, I think you'll like her."

"We'll see."

~o~O~o~

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

"May I join you?"

Shepard looked up from his dinner to see Miranda standing expectantly over him. "By all means."

Taking a seat across from him she opened the holo-menu and placed her order immediately. Turning her attention back to him, she looked all business. "I've finished looking over the contract. The asari that wrote it up, Erinya, is no amateur. There aren't any real loopholes or clauses to use to turn the situation around."

"So Feros is screwed?" Shepard asked in frustration.

"I don't know," Miranda replied apologetically. "There is one thing, but I don't know if it'll help."

"We don't have a lot of choices here, Miranda."

"It appears Erinya is quite controlling. The only way Zhu's Hope is released from this contract is only if Erinya allows it. She's pretty much in charge of all the medical examinations."

"So in other words, I have to convince this Erinya to toss this contract out," Shepard translated.

"I'm sure you can do it. You can be very persuasive when you want to be," Miranda praised encouragingly. She thanked the asari waitress when her dinner arrived.

"Thanks," Shepard muttered to Miranda, lacking the same confidence. He poked at his dinner, considering his options when his ears perked up when he heard the name Erinya from a pair of asari gossiping a few tables over.

"… Erinya, though. I feel like I need a shower."

"What do you expect? She's a pureblood. They're all like that."

Shepard listened more intently.

"Shepard, you sent me a message that I wanted to address…" Miranda started saying.

"Shh!" he hushed.

Miranda frowned and listened to what Shepard was so focused on.

"You know Erinya won't even talk to the non-asari customers? It's like she's turned pureblood into her religion or something."

"I heard she lost her daughters when the geth attacked the Citadel."

"Right. I'm sure she was a pleasure to deal with before that. She's the last of a dying breed. Won't be many pureblood asari left in a few generations."

"I feel kind of sad for her."

"Don't. I heard she married an asari herself, had pureblood kids. She's part of the problem. Purebloods are a waste of genetic material. That's how we get throwbacks like the Ardat-Yakshi."

Both humans took a renewed interest into the conversation.

"I don't like purebloods either, but that's going a little far."

"They should be prohibited from breeding."

"What was your father again?"

Shepard turned to Miranda. "I think I might have an in."

"Ardat-Yakshi… that merc spoke of that was well," Miranda reminded softly.

"Know anything about it?"

"No. It's the first time I've heard of it," Miranda admitted.

"Well, right now, it doesn't matter. I'll speak to Erinya and see if I can't get her to change her mind. I think I'm getting a better handle on her now."

"Because of some gossip?" Miranda asked doubtfully.

"It fits. Zhu's Hope is a human colony. We have someone that's apparently xenophobic. She did business with Shiala, which opened the door. It's more than what I had before. And I've succeeded with less." Almost finished with his dinner, he looked back at Miranda. "So. What did you want to talk about?"

"Oh! Yes. Um, you sent me a message earlier today."

Shepard laughed. "And?"

"I wanted to let you know that I haven't been looking at your messages."

"Really?"

"I might've if I thought I could get away with it," she confessed. "With you though, I'm not entirely confident in my abilities to peruse your messages without tipping you off. You might not be an engineer, but you are cagey and not without resources." She took a sip of her wine. "Honestly though, I didn't want to violate your privacy. Not after all you've done. It didn't seem right."

"I appreciate that," he genuinely said. "Your sister is really something."

"She is," Miranda agreed. "And she's worth fighting for."

Finishing his dinner, Shepard pushed his plates to the side and leaned on the table. "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course."

"Why are you helping me with this? The contract and colonists of Feros, I mean."

Miranda considered the question carefully. "Three reasons. One, Zhu's Hope is a human colony and it's actually doing quite well, in no small part to you."

Shepard nodded. It was an answer he was expecting.

"Second. Remember when I said Oriana wanted to work on colonial development? I suppose this is my way of…" She tilted her head to the side, searching for the right words. "Supporting her. Even if she never knows."

Shepard smiled approvingly at her, while making a mental note to write to Oriana about this. She's probably predicting that I'll do that, anyway. "And the third?"

She cleared her throat and turned away, seemingly embarrassed. "It was important to you. I wanted to help."

Opening and closing his mouth several times, Shepard cleared his throat as well before raising his glass and saluting. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

~o~O~o~

Location: Crescent Nebula, Tasale System, Illium, Nos Astra, Baria Frontiers' Offices

"Yes, what can I…?" The asari started to say before she turned her head saw Shepard. "Oh, a human," she spat out in disgust.

"A human," Shepard confirmed mockingly. "I'm here on behalf of the colonists of Feros."

Erinya snorted. "Leave," she snapped. "Your life is short enough. Do not waste what time you have left by bothering me." She brushed past Shepard to go to her desk.

Shepard turned and followed closely, unbothered by her rebuff. "I want to know about these tests. More importantly, I want to know what use they can possibly be."

"Their use is not your concern. A legal, binding contract was signed. Nothing else matters," she waspishly said without turning to him.

"That's it? That's all it is to you? A contract?" Shepard asked in disbelief. "These are people's lives you're hurting."

Reaching her table, Erinya threw the datapad on the desk and whirled on Shepard. "What do I care?" she snarled. "All of you, humans, salarians, turians… You come to our planet, then complain that our laws don't suit you." She jabbed a finger into his chest. "The galaxy would be a better place if nobody but the asari had ever dragged themselves out of the primordial muck."

"Why are you so prejudiced against aliens?" Shepard asked evenly.

She scoffed again in disgust. "Where do I begin? Perhaps with salarian explorers unleashing the rachni upon us, then unleashing the krogan to correct their mistake? Or the turians, so eager to bomb every problem away?" She jabbed an accusing finger into Shepard's chest again. "Or humans, the new arrivals who already think they should be in charge?" She panted lightly after her small tirade. Turning away, she shook her head. "Every war that has plagued this galaxy has been cause by all the other aliens. My people's deaths are on your hands."

Shepard looked past Erinya to see a picture frame on her desk. He licked his lips and forged on. "Whose deaths are we talking about, exactly?" he asked carefully.

She turned her head to see what he was looking at. "The mother of my daughters was killed on the quarian homeworld during the initial geth uprising," she confirmed. "My daughters died on the Citadel when the geth attacked. One worked in the Embassy. The other was a greeter for the Consort." When she turned her head to face him again, tears were running down her cheeks. "I'm not speaking in hypotheticals, human. The aliens will never be my allies. The best they can do is give me useful medical data."

Shepard sighed and rubbed his eyes. He racked his mind for the names of both asari he met on the Citadel. "Saphyria and… Neynla. They were your daughters?"

Erinya eyes flashed in recognition.

Accepting that as a yes, he pushed on. "Can I ask why your bondmate was on the quarian homeworld?"

Erinya swallowed as she started to lose herself in her memories. "Studying the quarians. Not their technology, but their music. She loved all their art. Said they had old souls," she answered distantly, wistfully. "I think that's where my daughters got it from. Both of them loved talking with people, exploring new cultures."

"They sound like wonderful people. The galaxy is lesser for their loss," Shepard replied sympathetically.

"Yes, it is," she agreed despondently.

"I can tell you loved them very much," Shepard said.

"I do."

Mentally preparing himself, he suppressed the sudden rise of guilt and continued. "I have to ask though: Is this how you show that love? By despising their passions?"

Her expression looked like she'd just been slapped.

Already, Shepard felt like an ass, using her losses and her guilt to manipulate her. "Saphyria met and worked with all the Council races at the Embassy every day. Neynla interacted with a host of aliens at the Consort. They loved what they were doing. And here you are, casting aside everything they loved."

"No! That's not what I…!"

"You've suffered. I understand that. But these colonists were trying to live peacefully. They've suffered too," Shepard pressed. "They lost family to the geth and the Thorian creature. Do you really want to hurt them more?"

"No… I… I…" Erinya stammered before her legs gave out from under her. She fell into her chair, covered her face and sobbed quietly. "My daughters… what am I doing?" she cried out softly.

Feeling as guilty as her, if not worse, Shepard grabbed a tissue from the desk and offered it to her.

She accepted it and dabbed at her eyes. "I'll… I'll write a new contract and dismiss the old one. No more tests. No fees." She swallowed the lump in her throat. "There's enough grief in this galaxy. I don't need to add to it."

"Thank you," Shepard said quietly. "And I'm sorry." He turned around left without another word.

~o~O~o~

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

"Ah, Shepard. You're back," Chakwas greeted.

Shepard nodded and turned to Shiala and Mordin at the far side of the Med Bay.

The asari was besieged by Mordin as he continued typing away at a terminal while running a battery of tests. He was muttering to himself the entire time, but was speaking too low and too quickly to understand.

"He's been like this ever since I told him all I knew of the Thorian." She shook her head in amusement. "Not that I can blame him. A new, practically undiscovered intelligent being…"

Shepard frowned as he recalled the events on Feros.

"Not that there were better outcomes, Shepard," Chakwas quickly said. "You did what you had to do. If the Thorian didn't wish to release the colonists, it was a hostile act. It was intelligent enough to know this."

"Thanks, Doc."

"Shepard!" Shiala called out.

"Shiala," he greeted. He turned to Mordin and Chakwas. "Can we have a moment?"

"Of course," Chakwas said. "Shall we adjourn for some dinner, Dr. Solus? You've been working hard."

Mordin nodded. "Yes. Would be best. Must go over data. Extrapolate. Theorize. Confirm. So much to learn." He bowed to Shiala. "Thank you for opportunity. Truly fascinating. Will forward any findings. Good night."

"Thank you for your help, Doctor."

Shepard laughed lightly as the Chakwas and Mordin continued talking all the way to the elevator.

"They're quite knowledgeable," Shiala praised.

"They're good at what they do," he agreed. Sitting on a bed opposite of her, he smiled to offset her worries. "I talked to the rep, Erinya, and she's agreed to rescind the old contract and draw up a new one. A better one, I think."

Shiala sighed in utter relief. "Thank you, Shepard. It goes without saying, but you've saved Zhu's Hope again."

"Glad to have helped."

"I don't think I could have…" Her smile faltered. "Is it always like this? Yesterday's problems lingering in some new form? Isn't anything ever just fixed?"

Thinking about the new Reaper threat, Shepard shook his head. "No. Life's always full of problems, I think. More optimistic people would call them 'challenges'." He stood up and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "You've got the power to make a difference, Shiala. Not everyone does. If people like you and me ever quit, what'll happen to the people that count on us?"

She nodded resolutely. "You're right. You gave us a chance by saving the colony. I can't let them down. I won't." She stood up as well and stepped closer. "Thank you for what you've done here, Shepard. I'll keep doing what I can." She took a deep breath. "Maybe sometime when I'm not organizing the colony and you're not… doing whatever it is you're doing…" Smiling, she placed her hand on his arm and gave it a gentle squeeze.

Clearing his throat, Shepard managed a small smile of his own. "We'll see what happens. Shall I walk you out?"

After escorting Shiala out of the Normandy and hangar, they were about to part ways at the transportation hub and she stopped and faced him. With surprising quickness, she leaned in and planted a lingering kiss on his cheek before she pulled away and hopped into her taxi and left for her hotel.

Shepard smiled to himself before climbing into a taxi of his own.

Sitting comfortably, he allowed his mind to drift and reflected on the past couple of days. Unbidden, his mind acutely recalled his conversation with Liara and her connection with Cerberus. He sat straighter in his seat and frowned.

"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.

His brow furrowed as he continued to piece everything together.

"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."

Aw, hell.

~o~O~o~

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

"Coming," Miranda called out through the intercom.

Shepard waited patiently at her hotel room door. A few seconds later, she opened it and blinked in surprise. "Shepard. Is there something I can do for you?"

"There's something I wanted to talk about. I wanted to earlier, but with Samara's recruitment, it slipped my mind."

Seeing the serious look on his face, she stepped aside. "Come in."

Accepting the invitation, he entered and moved to sit on one of the couches in her suite.

"Wine?"

"Sure."

She picked up the open bottle and her half-full glass from the table she was working on and placed it on the coffee table in front of him before retrieving an empty glass and settled herself in another couch adjacent from him. "What did you want to talk about?" she asked while she poured him a glass.

"Liara and I talked. She told me everything," Shepard said as he took the proffered drink.

"Define 'everything'."

"She told me that the Collectors were after me, even after I was dead. They hired the Shadow Broker to 'retrieve' me." He frowned. "You knew about this, didn't you?" he accused.

Miranda leaned back in her seat. "Of course I did," she said. "I'm surprised that you didn't. Or at the very least, figure it out sooner."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because there's nothing more to tell. As of right now, you know as much as I do," she said. "All I know is the Collectors, and by proxy, the Reapers, have a vested interest in you. They evidently don't care if you're alive or dead and what plans they might have for you is something we can't possibly even begin to guess."

"Why? I was dead. What possible threat could I have been?"

"Perhaps they don't think of you as a threat? Perhaps they might consider you a resource. After all, that's what the Reaper's consider us to be," she theorized. "Harbinger has an interest in you after all."

"A dead body as a resource," he replied skeptically. "They're going through all this trouble to bring in the colonists alive, what use could I be when I'm dead?"

"Who knows?" Miranda shrugged. "If Cerberus developed the technology to bring you back, it's probably safe to say that the Reapers and Collectors would have even superior tech to do the same."

"Maybe they might put a 'control chip' in me this time?" Shepard suggested.

Miranda coughed lightly into her fist at the reminder of one of their earliest meetings. "Yes, well, there's also indoctrination to consider. In the end, you were, and still are, an important individual. Perhaps they were planning to use you for their own ends, much like Saren was used." She had a ghost of a smile on her lips. "You did best Saren after all. Perhaps you would be a 'superior' resource."

While Miranda was merely speculating, maybe even kidding, but both humans suddenly reconsidered her last statement.

"That… makes a lot of sense, actually," Shepard commented.

"I didn't even think of that until now," Miranda admitted.

"Do you think the Illusive Man knows?"

"I don't know. Maybe, maybe not."

Shepard leaned back in his seat as well and rubbed his eyes tiredly again.

"When was the last time you slept?" Miranda asked.

"Two days ago."

"You need sleep," she said.

"Thanks. I wasn't aware of that," Shepard teased.

Miranda looked like she wanted to say something more, but hesitated at the last moment.

Picking up on it, he sat up straighter and waited patiently for her to say something.

She licked her lips and tried again. "I… I wanted to apologize," she finally said.

"For the control chip thing? That's water under the bridge."

"No. I have to admit that I didn't fully believe you'd be up to the task," she confessed softly. "And it seems I was wrong."

"Why didn't you think I could handle this?" he asked.

"Because we had to ask you to work with Cerberus and the Illusive Man," she said. "And then there was your background. Even after studying your achievements, there might have been a small part of me didn't believe you did everything they say you did." She sighed. "Not to mention your past. A kid from the slums of Earth, no family, little formal education..." She looked back up at him. "Frankly, based on what I've seen, I wish Cerberus had recruited you earlier."

"I've always appreciated your candor, Miranda and I trust you," he stressed. "But I don't trust Cerberus. Several of your experiments cross the line."

"A great many of them perhaps, but I recall a Spectre who crossed a few lines while hunting down Saren and the geth."

Shepard shrugged. "I did what I thought was right."

"Believe it or not, so does Cerberus," she pointed out. "Though not everyone shares your judgment. We'd be lucky to have you. Too many join us out of simple xenophobia. We need more people here for the right reasons."

"Maybe I'm being a bit obstinate here, but I remember your bases like it was yesterday for me. Rachni, Thorian creepers, husks?" Shepard shook his head. "You were playing with fire and I had to put it out."

Miranda ran a hand through her hair. "The husks were already dead and worse, the Thorian creatures were mindless creations, and the rachni were abandoned once we understood their intelligence," she defended. "We were just trying to understand what uses we might've had for them. Expendable shock troops for high-risk scenarios."

"Husks and Thorian creepers? There's something wrong when we have to use… things like that for combat. And the rachni have proven to be intelligent. It was borderline torture," Shepard argued.

"How many soldiers died in Saren's attack on Eden Prime? How many would have lived if we'd just had a dozen rachni soldiers on our side?"

"And what about Jack? What was Cerberus trying to prove by experimenting on children?" Shepard shot back.

She narrowed her eyes. "A mistake. No question. Not mine. And one that was corrected once we discovered the extent of the experiments being performed," she snapped. "I would never resort to anything like that in any of my missions." She scoffed in derision. "Bullheaded scientists trying to use brute force for results, it's despicable. Even Wilson had a bit more tact when we were working on you."

"And Admiral Kohoku? Corporal Toombs?"

She shifted in her seat uncomfortably. "I had nothing to do with either of those incidents. But yes, I don't agree at all about how that was handled. But the Alliance isn't innocent either. They've conducted black ops that cross the line frequently. You were part of some of those missions, I recall."

Shepard sighed and nodded in agreement. He let the argument drop since he couldn't blame Miranda for all of Cerberus' dealings just like he or the Alliance weren't saints either. Leaning back in his chair and taking a sip of wine, he studied the woman in front of him. "With your intelligence, you could have landed any job you wanted and still disappear entirely from your father. Why choose this?"

She took a breath to calm down and think about the question. Sipping her wine, she leaned back as well. "I envy the time Mordin spent with the Special Task Group, working with people as smart as he is. Cerberus never tells me that something is impossible. They give me my resources and say, 'Do it'." She took another sip. "And they've given you even more. A new life, a new ship, the Illusive Man's personal attention..."

"A suicide mission against impossible odds to save countless lives," he joked, hoping to ease the tension from their earlier argument.

She rolled her eyes at his attempt at humor, but smiled all the same. "There's something about you," she said. She stared at him as if answer would be plain to see. "Something special. A fire that makes someone willing to follow you into hell itself."

Shepard found himself extremely flattered by her words and was inexplicably drawn to her cobalt eyes. She was still studying him, probing him, trying to solve whatever mystery that eluded her. He had to force himself to remember to breathe.

"You've done more than I ever could." She sighed and turned away, freeing Shepard from her gaze. "Despite everything my father did to make me perfect, you're... you're the best humanity has to offer." Abruptly, she stood up and walked to the window, looking through it, but not really seeing the Nos Astra vista.

Standing up, he followed her and stopped at arm's length away. He was able to see her reflection in the window clearly. She had her arms crossed, as if to ward off a chill, despite the comfortable temperature the room. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Everything I did… everything I did was because I had the drive to see it all through." He took a step closer. "Your father doesn't deserve the amount of credit you're giving him. He gave you an advantage, but everything you did, including me, that was all you. You made the choice and then you had the drive to see it through."

She turned around and faced him. Her head was tilted, but she no longer appeared despondent.

"I think you should be proud of your accomplishments just as much as you judge your mistakes."

"The real difference between you and me is that you're born to greatness long before. I was engineered for it," she reminded, echoing her words from several weeks ago. The argument sounded half-hearted, however. This time, she took step closer so much that had to look up to meet his eyes. "You're practically the perfect human specimen."

"Perfect human specimen, huh?" Shepard repeated with a roguish grin.

She narrowed her eyes at him. "Don't get cocky. I'm the one who put you back together remember? And I do damn good work."

"I can attest to that," he freely acknowledged. "You were working on me for two years, after all. I doubt I was modest at the time."

Challengingly, she took another step closer until they were almost nose-to-nose. "Careful, Shepard. Your ego is showing."

"Really?" he drawled out.

"Really," she affirmed.

Neither of them could explain what happened next. If asked later, they wouldn't be able recollect who instigated the next move.

Shepard had his right arm around Miranda's waist. His other hand was resting between her shoulder blades, pulling her closer and holding her in place.

Miranda had her left hand splayed on Shepard's chest. Her right hand was behind his head, pulling him closer and holding him in place.

Their bodies were pressed against each other's as they kissed passionately. It was an interesting duality between romance and dominance as they were lost in the moment. It was unclear if they were discovering any latent feelings or were simply daring to push each other's boundaries.

Miranda moaned lightly as the kiss deepened. Shepard moved until he pressed her against the glass window. They ventured as far as they were able, until the need for air prompted them to separate.

The moment was lost.

Panting lightly, Shepard stared wide-eyed at his XO. Hesitantly, he took a few steps back to create some space between them.

Miranda was no better. For once, she had an obvious flush on her cheeks and was completely unprepared for what had happened, leaving her a bit open and vulnerable.

He tried to say something, but felt the words get caught in his closing throat.

She managed to speak first, though it sounded like she was a bit dazed. "What… what the hell was that?"

"I have… no idea," he admitted. "We just…"

"We just..." she said at the same time. Shaking her head to regain her senses, she couldn't meet his eyes anymore. "God, I need to think. And work. I need... I need to go. I'll talk to you later." She started walking quickly to the door.

"Yeah. I need to get some sleep. I… Wait. I'm in your room. I need to go."

She stopped in her tracks and turned away from the door. "Oh. Right. Um… good night."

"You too."

Now it was Shepard's turn to make for the door as quickly as possible. On the way out, he passed right by Miranda and an involuntary smile crept across his face. He tried vainly to suppress it. And failed miserably.

"And stop smiling, damn it!" were the last words he heard before closing the door and taking a deep breath to calm himself down.

He moved next door to his room and entered. Taking another deep breath, he swallowed the lump in throat and prepared to either go to bed or take a cold shower when his comm. beeped.

"Captain Shepard?" EDI called.

"This better be important, EDI," Shepard warned as he tried to get his heartbeat under control. A small sense of guilt racked up in his mind as his thoughts suddenly went back to Ashley. What the hell am I doing…?

"It is."

"Sorry, EDI. Stressful night," he apologized. "What is it?"

"The Illusive Man wishes to speak with you. He has new intelligence to offer on the current location of the Collector vessel."

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

Hahahaha! I did it! A full blown Shepard/Miranda scene! Woohoo!

That final scene was perhaps the hardest scene to write. At this point, feedback would be greatly appreciated. If you find anything lacking, leave a review I'll take it into consideration for any changes necessary. Credit will be given where it's due.

Remember: This is the first time I've actually written romance (Or the beginning of one at least. Or anything at all.) Here's hoping that I'll do you all justice.

As promised, Kasumi will be added to the fic. The votes were: 108 to 15.

The Overlord poll remains open and more than three quarters of the way there. Make your opinion heard!

Edit: After going through my outline, I realized that if I want to add Kasumi in some meaningful way, I needed to do it sooner. I took the liberty of having her travel to Illium, rather than having Shepard travel to her.

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