Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

The Rite of Passage

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Proving Grounds

Present Time

Shepard grunted with the effort of his latest near death experience as he tried desperately to maintain control of his focus. His biotics was nearly strained to his limit to hold up hundreds of pounds of rubble from crushing him like a pyjack. His aura of dark energy flared brightly in response to his exertions. Looking up, he saw a single tunnel of light leading out to safety.

I can't believe I agreed to do this. What the hell was I thinking?

~o~O~o~

Location: Normandy SR-2, En Route to Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka

10 Hours Earlier

What was I thinking to go along with this?

Waking slowly, but surely, Shepard sighed. Eventually giving in to his body's needs, he opened his eyes and turned his head. And found his question answered.

Miranda was sleeping soundly next to him. Her soft breathing sounds whispered into his ear. Her arm was draped across his chest and one of her bare legs was entangled around one of his own. The blanket had dropped low enough to see the top of her chest. Her hair was mussed attractively and it seemed like she had a small smile on her face, punctuated with the occasional satiated sigh.

She looked beautiful.

Turning slightly, his hand found the way to her naked thigh and caressed her smooth flesh. He briefly indulged himself with the soft feeling of her skin and was rewarded with a contented moan from his bed partner.

Looking over her shoulder, he read the time off the clock on her bedside table and knew that he needed to get up and get ready to meet with Samara for his morning lessons. As much as he wanted to stay in bed and lounge, maybe even continue last night's activities, he knew that if Samara was willing to donate her time, the least he could do was be punctual. Feeling only slightly guilty, he met Miranda's lips and gave her a soft kiss to wake her up.

She sighed contentedly and sleepily returned the gesture before pulling away and opening her eyes. "Hi."

"Hi, yourself."

"Is it morning?"

"Very, very morning," Shepard answered as he reluctantly pulled away from her and yawned.

She nodded and stretched languidly.

He took the time to admire her form as the sheets fell away, reveal more of her naked glory.

Noticing his stare, she smirked and propped her arm on the pillow and rested her head on her hand as she presented herself to him. "See something you like?"

Feeling himself getting aroused again, he suppressed his groan of desire and shook his lustful thoughts away. "I do, but I need to get up."

Her smirk stayed fixed on her lips. "Your 'sparring' session with Samara? Awfully dedicated, aren't you?"

"Is that a bad thing?" he asked as he rolled out of bed and started searching for his clothes.

"Not at all. You were quite dedicated last night," she replied cheekily. "No complaints at all."

Shepard smirked back at her as he started putting on his clothes from yesterday. "You won't hear anything contrary from me, either."

"I should hope not."

Finding his clothes scattered about the room, he dressed in short order and leaned over the bed to kiss her.

"Mmmm…" she sighed before pulling away and lying back down. "It's just as well you're leaving. You're a bed hog anyway." She punctuated her remark by deliberately spreading herself out and taking up the rest of the space on her bed. She rested her head on the pillow he was sleeping on moments ago and inhaled his scent.

"I don't have to take that from a cover thief," he quipped. He leaned in one last time and kissed her in the temple. Taking one last admiring look at the woman laying before him, he turned away and opened the door and glanced around surreptitiously. Thankfully, no other crewmen were in the Common Area. They were either asleep or at their posts. He could hear Mess Sergeant Gardner working in the galley though, cooking breakfast judging from the smells wafting in the air. Utilizing all his skills as an Infiltrator, he slipped out, locked the door behind, and blended into the shadows.

"Morning, Miss Lawson," Rupert called out without turning around from his cooking. "Your usual?"

Shepard picked up the pace and darted toward the elevator.

Rupert finally turned around, fully expecting to see the executive officer, but looked confused when no one was around. "Huh… thought I heard her door open…"

The elevator opened immediately at the touch of the button and Shepard quickly walked in and rode it to his cabin to get a change of clothes.

Too close.

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Proving Grounds

Present Time

Too goddamn close… Come on…

Struggling to keep his concentration on the biotic bubble he erected and mentally thanking Samara for all her lessons, he started scurrying out to the light, his hands pointed at the rubble to hold the massive tonnage up as if he were Atlas holding the world up on his shoulders. Using his legs and pushing hard, he slid on his back, moving inches at a time as the rocks and debris continued to threaten his progress. The multitude of weaponry he normally carried became a hindrance to his movement, as they lifted his back from the ground and created an uncomfortable angle that slowed his ability to escape. Dust and smaller pebbles rained around his Barrier as gravity tried to reassert its control and bring the whole thing down on top of him. His HMWSR rested on his chest, since he was unable to hold it or holster it.

Acutely knowing that he needed to hurry, he carefully, ever so carefully, twisted his torso sharply. The M-90 Blackstorm Projector, the heavy weapon that saved his life on more than one occasion, was pulled away from his weapon's harness. He slid away from it, knowing it was the main reason he was slowing down. Regretfully leaving it behind, but able to move faster without the encumbrance, he pushed toward the light, hoping against hope that Grunt was still alright against the behemoth they were fighting to survive against.

Just focus, damn it! Grunt will be okay! Just focus!

~o~O~o~

Location: Normandy SR-2, En Route to Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka

7 Hours Earlier

I can't tell if my focus is getting better or worse.

Shepard picked himself off the ground after his umpteenth consecutive loss. After last night and this morning, his mood had perked up considerably, but it was hard to tell if it was proving a boon or a bane. He didn't mind losing as much as he did before, which might slow down his improvement. On the other hand…

Samara was gingerly rubbing her left flank while rotating her right arm from the two surprise attacks he made with his fists and his biotics, respectively. Taking a breath to ward off some of the pain she must have been feeling, she nodded in equal parts approval and respect. "Excellent work. You were bested a bit more quickly than usual, but you certainly made it much more difficult for me to attain victory." Touching her ribs again, she winced.

"Sorry about that," he replied. He wasn't sure how sincere his apology was since he was the one that kept picking himself off the ground. At least he managed to get two solid hits in.

"It is nothing unexpected. Your progress is quite remarkable." She turned away from him and started for the stairs. "Come. We must continue our lessons in a different manner."

Jogging up to her side, he glanced at her curiously. "Different?"

"If a trainee is injured during sparring, other lessons must be imparted to continue the training. Such is the same with the huntress that instructs the trainee; if the huntress is injured, the lessons do not stop, they are merely altered. Justicar training has no such restrictions since we are taught that pain is an aspect of battle that might lead to victory or defeat and an obstacle that must be overcome. However, while my injury is trifling, I do not wish to be a liability in any mission ahead. As such, I will teach you biotic techniques."

"I thought I was learning biotic techniques?"

She smiled at him. "You asked to fight like a biotic. I was teaching you as such. Consider it the physical aspect of biotic combat. Now I will expand on your knowledge of biotics and increase your repertoire of skills, the mental disciplines, if you will."

They made their way up one deck and to her designated room. Once inside, she sat down and prompted him to do the same.

Once settled in she began her instruction. "I believe we should start with Barrier. Jacob has informed me that you have excellent retention with new techniques. If so, then this should prove easy for you. Nevertheless, I still ask for your continued dedication."

Taking a deep breath, he nodded. "I'm ready."

Her eyes changed into that familiar, but still eerie glow as she entered her meditative trance. "Your perseverance is to be admired. Barrier requires intense concentration to ensure the very mass effects fields you erect to protect you won't accidently crush you as well. Now, call on your talents and do as I do…"

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Proving Grounds

Present Time

His perseverance paid off. Almost at the end, he slowly moved one of his arms and grabbed the sniper rifle off his chest and threw it out of the hole, taking great pains not to lose one iota of his focus. Poised at the threshold of safety or death, he took a deep breath and in one hard push, threw himself through the opening. The action forced him to drop his concentration and the Barrier along with it. Tons of rocks and metal hit the ground with a loud crash as he rolled away from the pile of debris that nearly crushed him.

Quickly, he grasped his sniper rifle and scanned the surroundings. He couldn't find the thing responsible for trying to bury him alive, but he did see Grunt.

The krogan was rapidly fiddling around with his shotgun. A high pitched whine was echoing across the killing fields.

The Kestrel Helmet automatically compensated for the high frequency noise and dulled the sound to protect Shepard's ears. Another function of his armor he was grateful to Miranda for.

A heavy rumbling joined the high pitched whine.

Grunt recognized the sound and immediately started running away from his current cover.

The thresher maw that was responsible for nearly burying the Spectre erupted from the ground, meters away from where Grunt was seeking refuge. It instantly tracked the source of the screeching whine. With a roar, it angled its head down toward the fleeing krogan and attacked.

Shepard raised his rifle at the monster. He only had enough time to fire once and one shot would be inadequate. His mind already knew it was too late. He was too exhausted to try to use biotics, the explosive rounds in his sniper rifle would not be enough to deter the giant worm from its course, and even if he still had the Blackstorm, the heavy weapon would not be powerful or fast enough. He watched helplessly, almost as if everything were happening in slow motion.

At the last possible moment, the krogan leapt into the air, turned his torso mid-leap and aimed his screeching M-27 Scimitar at the mouth of the maw bearing down on him.

Just moments before the giant worm consumed him.

"GRUNT!"

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Normandy SR-2, in Orbit Above Tuchanka

4 Hours Earlier

"So what's the plan?"

Shepard leaned back in his chair as he thought hard about the question. Jacob had a point. Flying down to the krogan homeworld without a plan was nothing less than a foolhardy move, even if he had clearance from the Council Demilitarization Enforcement Mission, or CDEM, to land.

He, Jacob, Miranda, Garrus, Mordin, and Grunt were in attendance. They were all gathered in the Briefing Room to discuss their next move.

"I'm debating whether I should bring everyone down with me or not," Shepard admitted.

"I don't recommend it," Miranda advised. "If we go down in force, the krogan might take it as a sign of hostility. I understand the need to protect ourselves, but bringing everyone is liable to cause more trouble than prevent."

"I think we should bring everyone," Garrus countered. "Tuchanka is definitely not the safest place in the galaxy, even before the krogan nuked themselves to the stone age. I agree with Lawson, though. If we show up in force, we're asking for trouble. Just leave a few people back with the shuttle, just to be safe. If something happens and we end up getting into a firefight, despite Wrex's presence, they'll hold the shuttle long enough for the rest of us to get the hell out of there."

"I'm with Garrus on this," Jacob said. "You go and take a few people to talk to your old krogan teammate, the rest hang back in case there's trouble."

"Maybe have the Normandy bomb Tuchanka from orbit a little for trying to kill us," Garrus added jokingly.

"Garrus," Shepard said in a faux-warning tone.

"What?" he asked, trying to look innocent. "It's Tuchanka. It's not like it'll make much of a difference. No one will notice."

Jacob barked out a laugh.

"Someone down there should tell me if what I'm feeling will get better or worse," Grunt said, steering the conversation back on track. Everyone could hear him grinding his teeth and see him clench and unclench his hands.

"Would also like to know about Maelon," Mordin added. "Hope he's okay. Always lacked backbone."

"The different clans are always at each other's throats. They probably spy on each other constantly," Garrus said. "Wrex is smart. He'll have his own people reporting anything unusual and a salarian on Tuchanka definitely counts."

EDI's avatar popped up in the middle to the table. "To answer your query Professor, I have been accessing the Urdnot databases. Clan reports use weak encryption and I see references to a captured salarian in the logs of the chief scout."

"Good. Talk to scout, then. Or chief. Either one acceptable," Mordin replied.

"Also, I have been unable to access local medical records due to the fact that such records are almost nonexistent. I suggest asking the local clan leader for assistance with Grunt's problem," EDI said.

"Thanks, EDI. And I agree with Garrus," Shepard finally said. "Better to be safe than sorry. We'll go inside the camp with only a few people. The rest will stay with the shuttle. Grunt, I assume you're coming with me?"

The krogan nodded.

"Mordin, I'd like for you to stay at the shuttle." Before the Professor could protests, Shepard raised his hand. "I'll talk to Wrex and see if we can't get some information. Until then, I don't think a salarian's presence will do us any favors."

Mordin calmed down immediately. "Yes, of course. Makes sense, rational, logical. Will wait for news."

"I'd like to come with you," Garrus said.

Shepard raised an eyebrow at the request. "Chakwas clear you?"

"No, but I'll beg and plead if I have to. It'd be good to see Wrex again. I'm sure Tali would feel the same."

"Fine, if she clears you, and against my better judgment, you can come, though I'm not sure how welcome turians are going to be," Shepard said uncertainly.

"I'm thinking little to not at all," Jacob said seriously though he was smirking at Garrus.

"I'll take my chances," the turian confidently said.

"That'll go down well with Chakwas."

"Enough," Shepard said before they could continue. "Miranda, you'll have the Normandy. Jacob, you're in charge of the shuttle and the others."

"Who else will be with me besides Mordin?"

"Kasumi, Thane, and Samara, I think," Shepard answered after a moment's pause. "I'll take the rest."

"Understood, Captain."

"Any other questions?" Shepard asked.

Miranda looked like she wanted to say something, but strangely remained silent. The other's shook their heads and made to leave.

"Shepard? A word, if I may?" Miranda requested.

Obliging her, he stayed seated until everyone left. "Something up?"

"About our…" she trailed off, trying to find the right word.

"Relationship?"

"Yes. Our relationship," she acknowledged, finally putting a label on their complicated association. "No doubt, after what happened last night, there will be a significant paradigm shift. I was wondering-"

"Why I'm leaving you on the Normandy?" he finished, guessing to what she might be getting at. "Or if I'll be shooting down your ideas? Or treat you differently?"

She nodded in time at the points he listed. "All of the above."

"Look, as far as I'm concerned, you're one of, if not the, most capable, professional, and brilliant officers I've ever worked with," he said honestly. "You're also the XO. You're in charge while I'm away. Our relationship isn't clouding my judgment. I made a decision and I'm standing by it. It was completely professional. Our personal life is a different story and one I'm willing to set ground rules for later."

She looked a bit more assured as his answer.

"Look, I'm just going down to chat with an old friend. Everything we're doing is just as a precaution. I'll talk to Wrex about Grunt, see if there's anything we can do to help him out a bit. Then, I'll ask about Mordin's assistant. Since the Blood Pack has him and this is their homeworld, chances are likely I'll be bringing in everyone, including you. Until then, no sense in risking everyone."

"Of course. I just wanted to be sure, that's all," she said.

He grinned. "Yeah. I thought you wouldn't be the type to be treated like porcelain or something."

Uncharacteristically, she snorted at the thought. "Hardly. And I would take whatever measures to prove to you that I'm not should you even think as such."

"I'm having a hard time being intimidated when I find you threatening me rather sexy."

She smirked at him and shook her head in exasperation. "And I still think we're crazy," she said before turning serious again. "One last thing…"

"Yes?"

"This is… I'm not sure I want to… 'advertise' our relationship to the whole crew," she said.

He nodded in agreement. "I don't either. I actually had to sneak past Rupert this morning to get to my cabin."

"He asked me if I had come out of my room because he had sworn that he heard my door open."

"Oh, good. I'd hate to see all my training wasted because I got caught by the cook."

She couldn't help but laugh at him.

Turning serious as well, Shepard said, "I'm not going around blabbing about what I do and who I do it with. I think we're entitled to some privacy." He sighed. "But… this is a small ship, so word is bound to get out eventually."

"I know," Miranda said. She rose from her seat and stood over him. "But until then, it's really not anyone's business, is it?" she said with smile before leaning in and planting a less-than-chaste kiss.

~o~O~o~

Grunt fiddled with his shotgun again in a vain attempt to calm his unfocused rage. It was a strange thing to do, considering that rage was something he often embraced during a battle.

He'd seen Shepard check and recheck his equipment from time to time and seemed calmer afterwards. It was another strange thing. For someone so strong, he rarely saw the human fall into a battle rage. Instead, he acted more like the asari: distant, calculating, and focused.

It frustrated him to wonder why Shepard was so strong, maybe even stronger than him, and still not know.

He had thought he could learn about the source of Shepard's strength through the extranet, or through human history and literature. Some of the human wars were certainly epic, though a bit primitive and not nearly on the same scale as krogan wars. A couple of audio books he found from a guy called Hemmingway were interesting, but revealed no insights.

In the end, he was no closer to answers as to why he followed Shepard than what his purpose was outside of Okeer's desire to hate and fight.

Not knowing his place in the galaxy made him feel… lost, maybe even alone.

Weakness.

He snarled to himself and forcefully shoved his thoughts away.

"You okay, Grunt?"

He looked up to see Shepard walk up to him, the turian and the quarian following close behind. "We leaving yet?" Grunt asked.

"Just waiting for the other's to arrive," Shepard answered.

Grunt nodded and returned to his shotgun. While he liked what Jacob had done to improve on the original specs, some of the safety features annoyed him. Then again, everything seemed to annoy him these days.

Thankfully, Okeer's implants gave him some knowledge of weaponry besides shooting. In short order, he had long since removed several safeguards to increase the power of his weapons without damaging any of the internal components. Or at the very least, not have his gun blow up in his hands.

Finally, the rest of the team arrived. One by one, everyone filed into the Kodiak.

When the shuttle began taking off, EDI's voice was heard throughout the ship. "The Captain is heading groundside. Executive Lawson has the deck."

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Urdnot Clan Camp

3 Hours Earlier

Approaching to what might be the only ship dock in Wrex's camp, the Kodiak flew through one of the many torrential sandstorms that blew across the war-torn planet and approached a repurposed missile silo that probably once held one of the dozens of nuclear missiles that contributed to current decrepit state of Tuchanka.

Hawthorne piloted the shuttle expertly over the entrance before smoothly descending down the shaft and touching down at the bottom.

The door to the cabin opened, allowing Grunt to step out first and survey the krogan homeworld for the first time.

What a dump.

He'd read about the state of Tuchanka and seen pictures of the planet from extranet sites, but physically standing groundside hardly changed his outlook or brought about any sense of attachment. If anything, his opinion fell several notches.

Shepard stepped past him and toward the approaching trio of krogan. All three had their weapons drawn and ready, but not in a hostile manner. Yet.

"Stop right there, alien. You're Shepard of the Normandy," the Overcaptain stated.

The human in question nodded silently.

"The clan leader wants to speak with you."

"I thought as much," Shepard said.

The Overcaptain glared at Grunt, prompting the vat-grown krogan to glare back. "Keep your rutting pet on a short leash."

"Pet?" Grunt growled out. He took a menacing step forward.

The two guards responded by pointing their shotguns at him.

The Overcaptain seemed unimpressed. "Get him the Rite soon or put him down."

To Grunt's surprise, Shepard didn't order him to stand down. Instead, he glared at the Overcaptain as well. "We have business with Wrex. Out of our way."

The Overcaptain snarled at the demand, but looked over Shepard's shoulder to see Jacob and his team stand outside of the shuttle and holding their weapons casually, but with a hint of warning.

Seeing no point in starting a firefight over a few petty insults, or Grunt, the Overcaptain turned away and stomped elsewhere with the other two krogan guards following.

Grunt was privately glad Shepard didn't order him to back off. Acknowledging him would've probably been perceived as a show of weakness.

Probably why he didn't say anything.

Splitting up into their assigned groups, Jacob, Kasumi, Mordin, Samara and Thane remained with the Kodiak. Shepard, Grunt, Garrus, Tali, and Jack boldly ventured deeper in.

A long, poorly lit hallway led deeper into the repurposed military bunker. A few krogan were loitering within.

"Someday we'll get off this rock and show those turians who's boss."

"Damn right. Tear their scales off and let the pyjaks feast on them while they're still alive."

The two krogan laughed amongst themselves as the group passed them by.

"This isn't a good idea, Garrus," Tali whispered worriedly.

"It's just bravado. We're, or rather, I'll be fine," Garrus replied confidently.

Grunt saw that the turian was discreetly fingering his pistol all the same as they walked. It reminded him of the time when Shepard had his pistol out and ready when they first met. The human talked calmly, but was prepared to execute him on a moment's notice. Considering how close Garrus and Shepard were, if Grunt had to bet, those two krogan probably wouldn't stand a chance against either human or turian.

After enduring many glares, disparaging comments, and muttered threats, they reached the door at the end. It opened to reveal a massive room that resembled the rest of Tuchanka: broken down, littered with rubble, and filled with armed krogan.

"This is it? This is the great krogan homeworld? This is the land of Kredak, Shiagur, and Veeoll?" Grunt said in disgust. "This chunk of rock is barely worth standing on."

"You might feel that way, but most krogan have a sort of reverence to Tuchanka. Even krogan that aren't necessarily fighters or warriors return on occasion to pay their respects," Garrus said. "Never knew why though. I always assumed it was a krogan thing."

Grunt didn't know if Garrus was just admitting his ignorance or was making a subtle slight against the tank-bred krogan's origins.

On a raised dais slightly off to the right, two aged krogan were arguing behind a ring of guards. Shepard, Garrus, and Tali appeared to recognize one of them because they started walking as soon as they saw the pair.

Must be this Wrex they talk about.

Grunt was pretty sure Wrex was the one in Warlord Armor and sitting on the throne since the Spectre mentioned that his old teammate took charge of his clan and was trying to unite the rest of the krogan people. As well as the fact that the one pacing around in front of the throne was bitching and whining about something or other which seemed to be boring the hell out of the clan leader. And Grunt was pretty sure Shepard would never work with such a belly-aching varren and still have so much respect.

"Halt!" one of the guards called out as they approached. He moved to block their path and held out his hand to stop them. "You must wait until the clan leader summons you." The guard turned to glance at the progress of the meeting. "He is… in talks," he informed though he sounded like whatever 'civil' negotiation taking place may not be civil for long.

Grunt noted that he and the other four guards were holding their weapons and watching the proceedings warily.

The krogan in Battlemaster Armor was pacing in front of the clan leader angrily. "You know what tradition demands! Clan Urdnot must respond! Your reforms will not go unopposed! You risk appearing weak at a critical time!"

Wrex looked completely disinterested in what the complaining krogan had to say. Instead he turned his head toward the alien group and instantly, his face lit up. Rising quickly from his throne, a genuine smile lit up his face, a rarity among the krogan species. He stepped down and stomped toward them. "Shepard!"

"Good enough?" Shepard rhetorically asked the guards.

Wrex shoved his 'guest' out of his way while Shepard stepped around the guards, muttering, "Excuse me" as he moved past them. The rest of the group trailed behind with Garrus and Tali in the lead.

"Shepard!" Wrex greeted happily. He reached out and grasped Shepard's arm. Making a cross between grunting and chortling, the joy in his laugh was unmistakable, a definite rarity among the krogan species, more so than smiling. "My friend!"

Shepard grinned back at the enthusiasm in his old squad mate's greeting. "Good to see you too, Wrex."

Standing back, Wrex noted the others that were in attendance as well. "Vakerian, Zorah. You're traveling with Shepard again?"

"Pretty much," Garrus replied. He walked up and shook hands with Wrex. "Good to see you."

"You too. Glad to hear you're still alive. Especially since you've been giving the Blood Pack hell on Omega."

"You know about that?"

Wrex smirked at the turian. "I suspected. Some of the stories I've been hearing sounded familiar. I thought of you immediately."

Tali walked up and shook hands with Wrex as well. "I see you're doing well for yourself, Wrex. I'm glad to see you again."

"Zorah." Wrex looked at her from head to toe. "Huh. Looks like you've grown up a little since we last saw each other. Harder. Stronger," he observed before nodding approvingly. "Good for you."

"Thanks, Wrex."

The Urdnot Clan Chief took stock of the Spectre's appearance next. "And you look well for dead, Shepard. Should've known the void couldn't hold you."

"Looks like helping me destroy Saren and the geth has worked out for you. Glad we didn't have to kill each other on Virmire." Shepard replied.

"Ha!" Wrex barked out. "You made the rise of the Urdnot possible. Virmire was a turning point for the krogan." He waved his arm at the room around them. "And Clan Urdnot is just the start. When I'm done, we will be one people again."

Grunt saw the other krogan stomp around in the background.

Wrex apparently noticed this as well because he turned his head to glare at the offending krogan. "Though not everyone is happy about it."

"You abandoned many traditions to get your way. Dangerous," the krogan growled.

Wrex turned around to fully face him. Rearing his head back, he gave the krogan a solid head-butt that nearly put the dissident on his ass. "Speak when spoken to, Uvenk," Wrex warned. He turned away and marched back to his throne. "I'll drag your clan to glory whether it likes it or not."

Grunt grinned at the action. He could see why Shepard respected Wrex now.

I like him already.

Shepard smirked at Uvenk as he followed behind Wrex. Uvenk balefully glared back while rubbing his head.

Sitting back down in his throne, Wrex looked back at new arrivals. "Now, Shepard. What brings you here? How's the Normandy? Is it as bad as I heard?"

"Afraid so," Shepard said. "I ended up spaced along with her."

"Well, you look good," Wrex observed. "Ah, the benefits of a redundant nervous system."

"Yeah." Shepard sighed while rubbing the back of his neck. "Humans don't have that."

"Oh," Wrex replied simply before shrugging. "Must've been painful, then."

"More than I care to remember."

"Looks like you've gotten stronger from it," Wrex pointed out. "You're standing here and you've got a strong new ship."

"Just like old times, eh?" Garrus said with a smirk.

"Going up against the unknown, killing it with big guns," Wrex said in agreement before grinning back. "Good times."

"Keelah, what is it with you men?" Tali asked exasperatedly.

"As much as I'd like to reminisce, I'm here on business," Shepard said, turning serious and getting to the heart of the matter.

"We don't often allow aliens to do business on Tuchanka," Wrex warned. "But you're an exception."

Shepard jerked his thumb at Grunt. "I have a krogan in my crew. He's having a bit of trouble dealing with his… 'nature'. We wanted to learn some details about it."

Wrex leaned forward in his throne to get a better look.

Grunt obliged the clan leader by stepping closer and fearlessly stood before him.

"Where are you from, whelp? Was your clan destroyed before you could learn what is expected of you?" Wrex asked.

Outwardly, Grunt maintained an unreadable look. Inwardly, as he faced Wrex, something twisted in his gut. He felt a trickle of… heat? "I have no clan," he admitted before realizing that he was embarrassed… ashamed. He mentally shook the thoughts away. "I was tank-bred by Warlord Okeer, my line distilled from Kredak, Moro, Shiagur-"

"You recite warlords, but you are the offspring of a syringe!" Uvenk interrupted harshly. He stomped up and glared before turning away in disgust.

Grunt kept his eyes on Wrex. "I am pure krogan. You should be in awe." His voice lacked confidence or conviction. It was a statement of fact more than a belief. At this point, Grunt didn't know if he was trying convince them or himself.

Even Wrex didn't look impressed. He did look contemplative, however. "Okeer is a very old name. A very hated name," he said, overlooking Grunt's origins.

"He is dead."

Wrex stepped down from his throne to stand in front of him. "Of course. You're with Shepard. How could he be alive?"

"The thought did cross our minds about what to do with Okeer when we met him," Garrus said. "I was of the opinion that we should've shot him ourselves."

"Good instincts," Wrex said approvingly.

"Does that name mean anything to you?" Shepard asked.

"A vicious warlord responsible for many deaths." He glanced at Grunt. "And who apparently toyed with genetics," he muttered. Sighing, he rubbed his crest in thought. "A clone undertaking the Rite…?"

"You are considering it?" Uvenk asked in disbelief. "Tank-bred allowed status as an adult? This is too far!"

Wrex ignored him. "There's nothing wrong with him," he finally said to Shepard. "He is becoming a full adult. It will take him time to adjust. Or he'll do something stupid and die."

"Puberty? Awww… is Grunt growing up?" Jack cooed teasingly.

"Jack…" Shepard warned.

Garrus sighed. "Can't we just take him to Omega and buy him a few dances and be done with it? I hear asari are pretty flexible."

Jack and Tali snickered.

"All of you, shut up," Shepard ordered sternly as he glanced around to see if any krogan around them were taking any personal offense.

"I don't care what aliens call it," Wrex said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Krogan undergo the Rite of Passage."

Uvenk had apparently heard enough. "Too far, Wrex! Your clan may rule, but this thing is not krogan!" he declared, jabbing a finger at Grunt before stomping away.

Wrex watching him go with a look of loathing etched on his stony face. "Idiot."

Grunt liked Wrex even more. His respect for the aged chief rose several notches.

Turning back to face Grunt, Wrex regarded the younger krogan critically. "So, Grunt? Do you wish to stand with Urdnot?"

Despite the impression Wrex made on him, Grunt was still a bit surprised that he would even offer. He considered the proposal carefully.

"You'll really let a tank-bred krogan join you?" Tali asked, before raising her hands at Grunt. "Um… nothing personal."

"Only because he's with Shepard," Wrex answered. "After all, the four of us killed thousands like him." He smirked at Grunt. "Not quite as big, but many."

Thousands? Grunt stared at his companions. He'd considered them a bit capable, maybe a little weak, with the exception of Shepard. To hear that they fought enough krogan that would make a battalion tremble…

"Wouldn't this cause problems for you, though?" Garrus asked.

"Clan Urdnot is strong and the others will do as I say," Wrex stated confidently. "They see the benefit of my vision."

"So what happens if he doesn't do this 'Rite of Passage'?" Shepard asked curiously.

"If he was left here, he would be killed," Wrex bluntly said. "The clanless are not respected. A tank-bred, probably less so."

Another pang of loneliness hit Grunt, though he made no outward sign of it. He stood there and watched the proceedings as they unfolded.

"His disposition is what it is, Rite or no. That's just him, being a krogan." Wrex smirked at him again. "Okeer didn't tell you that in the tank, did he, boy?"

Mentally, Grunt cursed Okeer's name for the umpteenth time.

"What does the Rite of Passage require?" Shepard asked.

"Not for me to say, Shepard. The shaman will discuss that."

"Alright." Turning to Grunt, Shepard nodded. "Your choice."

Grunt turned away and studied the massive room they were in. For all intents and purposes, Tuchanka was a dead world. There was nothing here.

Nothing except the krogan warriors that desired to be stronger. Warriors that earned their place, instead of being created for it.

"You might feel that way, but most krogan have a sort of reverence to Tuchanka. Even krogan that aren't necessarily warriors return on occasion to pay their respects."

Tuchanka wasn't a world for the weak. It was a place where only the strong can endure. A place where he would earn his strength. What it looked like or what amenities were lacking was irrelevant. What mattered was that this was a place where he could finally prove himself.

That realization prompted him to look at the krogan homeworld in a different light.

After a moment's thought, he reached his decision. "It is in my blood. It is what I am for."

"Good boy," Wrex praised.

Grunt felt a sliver of pride. Even when Wrex called him 'boy', it didn't feel like an insult. It almost sounded like… acceptance, or the first step to one.

"Speak with the shaman," Wrex instructed. He pointed at the room above them. "He's up on the second level. Give him a good show and he'll set you on the path."

"Thanks for helping him out, Wrex," Shepard said.

"How many times have you stepped in a mess for your crew, hmm?" Wrex asked rhetorically before turning back to his throne.

"Including you?"

Wrex laughed appreciatively.

"I'm also looking for a salarian," Shepard said. "He was captured by the Blood Pack and brought here."

Wrex glanced at the pit not too far from the dais when Shepard said 'salarian', but relaxed when he heard that the Blood Pack was involved. "I heard about that. My scout commander can direct you, but he's out doing some recon right now. Should be back later today or tomorrow." He leaned down from the throne and brought his face closer. "I'll get him to help you, but don't take too much of his time. I need a constant watch on the other clans," he whispered.

"Got it."

"And you watch yourselves," Wrex warned. "Tuchanka isn't safe and homey, like Feros and Illos."

Grunt didn't know those planets, but judging from Tali's sigh and Garrus' head shaking, they had vivid memories of their time there.

"I'll keep that in mind," Shepard said. "We'll talk later?"

"Looking forward to it."

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Proving Grounds

Present Time

Grunt had no idea if Shepard was still alive. The wreckage that came down on top of the human was enough that he doubted even he could've survived it. Crouching behind some broken columns, he started readying his shotgun. The safety programs and components would've made what he was planning impossible, but thanks to his modifications, he knew he had a chance to do more than just survive the requisite five minutes given to him.

The ground vibrated, but not as heavily as before. The thresher maw was still deep underground.

If Shepard was dead, then the maw would pay with its life, Rite or no.

If Shepard was alive, then he'd probably want a piece of the maw that tried to kill him, which would mean the worm was going to die anyway. Grunt was just looking to expedite that.

With less than two minutes left, Grunt looked up to see the telltale signs of dark energy filtering through the cracks of the rubble that had come down on his krantt.

He smiled. Shepard could only be using his biotics if he was alive. If he was alive, then everything depended on the next minute or so to complete the Rite.

Have to time this right…

His preparations complete, the M-26 Scimitar Shotgun started vibrating and emitting a high-pitched whine. The safety measures that usually prevented the shogun from overcharging its shot into a dangerous concussive blast no longer present, his weapon now shook dangerously in his hands.

Instead of a concussive blast, he was looking for a decisive and final blow. Something definitively more explosive.

The ground shook perilously now, signaling that the thresher maw was coming. It was almost enough to cause him to lose balance.

One of the maw's tentacles broke the ground first not too far from his position. Knowing that the rest of the beast would follow soon, Grunt abandoned his cover and ran.

The ground exploded in a shower of rocks as the thresher maw erupted into the surface and roared aggressively at the fleeing krogan.

Grunt dodged the larger debris and ignoring the smaller bits that hit him. His sole focus was the shadow under him as he ran. He observed the size of the shadow, using the setting sun to judge the distance of the maw at his back. He listened carefully, the worm's challenging roars dulled, signaling that it was rearing back to strike.

His survival, his victory, his existence, depended on this moment.

The maw roared again, sounding more victorious in its intent, before charging. The shadow beneath him grew quickly.

Seizing his moment, Grunt leapt into the air and twisted his torso to aim his charged weapon right at the mouth of his enemy.

Rows of razor sharp teeth filled his vision. Caustic acid and spittle was everywhere. In the next heartbeat, the thresher maw blocked out the sun and darkness surrounded him as he was engulfed.

He smirked and pulled the trigger.

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Urdnot Clan Camp

2 Hours Earlier

The group heard Uvenk long before they saw him.

Grunt suspected that Uvenk was speaking, or rather, protesting to the shaman to disbar him from the Rite.

They entered the room to see Uvenk and three other krogan guards arguing their case to what may be the oldest krogan in the galaxy. Unlike most krogan, the Shaman wasn't in armor or armed with any weapon. Instead, he was dressed in deep reds and browns. In other cultures, the closest similarity would be ceremonial robes or some manner of religious garb.

"You go beyond yourself, Gatatog Uvenk! The Rites of Urdnot are dominant!" the Shaman warned, his face inches away from contesting krogan's.

"How do we know it will challenge him? ! He's unnatural! The beasts of the Rite could ignore him like a lump of plastic!" Uvenk argued.

"They know blood, no matter the womb. Your barking does not help your case."

Grunt stomped forward and glared at Uvenk. "I'll speak for myself!"

The Shaman turned away from Uvenk and stepped closer to Grunt. "This is the tank-bred?" He studied him carefully. "It is very lifelike." He paused to sniff Grunt's scent next. "Smells correct as well." Stepping back, he glared at Uvenk. "Your protests ring hollow, Uvenk."

Shepard moved to stand next to Grunt. "I don't care what this idiot says. Grunt has the right to be here."

The Shaman smirked at Uvenk. "There's some fire – and from an alien! Oh, the shame this heaps on those who whine like pups."

Uvenk snarled. "If this must stand on trial, then I invoke a denial! My krantt stands against him! He has no one!"

The Shaman growled, but nodded his head in agreement. "My patience is tested, but Uvenk invokes correctly." He turned to the candidate. "Grunt, who is your krantt? The allies willing to kill and die on your behalf?"

"Hold on," Garrus interrupted. "How do you test candidates if they're allowed to bring backup to these things?"

"Not every krogan can be the strongest warrior, but each must inspire his peers to battle at his side," the Shaman explained to Garrus before turning his Grunt with his ultimatum. "If the ones who know you best can find nothing worthy in you, then you should wander the wastes and die alone before you weaken my clan."

Grunt felt another uncomfortable feeling of shame. He always kept to himself on the Normandy; away from all the fleshy, weak, crewmen. He barely interacted with the other squad members except Jack and Shepard, preferring the solitude of the cargo hold.

He knew Okeer had plans to create more like him. Brothers, maybe even sisters, his very own krantt. But the chance was gone and there were no other krogan he could call on. Krogan he could count on. With all his 'superior' genes, there was no one; No one to tell him that he had something in him worth fighting for, worth killing for.

No one to say that he was worth dying for.

"I'll fight with him."

Grunt turned to Shepard in surprise.

"Grunt will strengthen Clan Urdnot. Tell us what we're going to kill and watch it die," Shepard stated confidently.

"Spoken well!" The Shaman praised. He appeared uncaring that an outsider was prepared to engage in a krogan tradition. "Most aliens-" He paused a beat to glance significantly at Uvenk. "And some krogan-"

Uvenk growled.

"Do not understand our ways," the Shaman continued over Uvenk's glowering expression. "I believe this human does."

"Aliens don't know strength! My followers are true krogan! Everything about Grunt is a lie!" Uvenk argued.

"Are you afraid of him?" Shepard taunted. "Does your krantt comfort you while you tremble?"

"You dare slander me in such way?" Uvenk growled out.

"Put it to you this way," Shepard said before suddenly launching a biotic punch into Uvenk's face.

Uvenk shouted in surprise and pain as he stumbled back into the arms of his krantt.

The Shaman laughed uproariously. "I like this human! He understands!"

"Damn," Jack whistled appreciatively. "That takes some balls."

Uvenk got back to his feet and snarled, but made no threatening moves. "I withdraw my denial." He stomped toward Shepard, but kept his distance when the human allowed his biotic aura to manifest around him menacingly. "This will be decided elsewhere."

"I'm sure it will."

Uvenk growled, but he and his krantt left without another word.

"You have provoked them. Reason enough for me to like you," the Shaman said. "They're your problem now."

"Is that krogan going to try anything?" Shepard asked.

"He is forbidden to interfere," the Shaman answered. "Will he? During the Rite of Passage, you both must be ready for anything." He smirked. "From what I've seen, you will not disappoint."

"What do we need to bring?" Grunt asked.

"To begin the Rite, only you and your krantt are required." The Shaman stepped closer to and stared with piercing eyes. "You love battle, don't you? The last gasp of a dying opponent?"

Grunt nodded without hesitation.

"Embrace it. Use it during your trial and you will succeed. Hesitate, and your weakness will cost you your life."

"I've waited long enough," Grunt said. His blood itching for battle. "How does this work?"

The Shaman laughed. "How eager the young are for the Rite! Still your impatience, whelp. Know that you will be tested and you must adapt."

"I'm ready." Grunt looked at Shepard, who nodded back his acceptance.

"Excellent." The Shaman nodded decisively. "We will leave soon. I must prepare the Rite."

After the Shaman left, Garrus sighed. "Now we're going to participate in krogan traditions? What, the Collectors not enough challenge for you, Shepard?"

"By 'we', if you mean Grunt and me, then apparently not. If you mean: all of us? Forget it," Shepard said.

"What?" Tali asked. "Just the two of you?"

"Shepard-" Garrus tried to protest.

"No," Shepard interrupted. "Chakwas made it clear for you. You're not combat ready."

"What about us?" Tali asked indignantly.

"Us?" Jack asked skeptically, though she looked a bit worried for him.

"You're all staying behind. It'll be just Grunt and me."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Jack said. "While I'm glad to get a pass on this, are you sure this is how you want to play it? This is a krogan thing. They're not going to be throwing bunnies at you. You need some kind of backup for this."

"I bring you, Jacob and others will want to come too. Between all of us, whatever this Rite is, it might not be that much of a challenge. Grunt is already suspect because of his origins. He'll need to be tested harder than any other krogan before him to earn his way. It's about respect."

Grunt watched quietly and marveled over the command Shepard had with his crew, his krantt. He knew that Garrus and Tali would die for the Spectre. Voluntarily joining on his mission had already proved their loyalty. What surprised him was that fact that even Jack looked like she was prepared to fight on his behalf.

"I don't like this, Shepard," Garrus said worriedly.

"It's for Grunt."

Grunt began to truly understand what the Shaman wanted of him, of what he meant about his krantt. The faith Shepard was putting in him was something he wasn't going to forget or forsake. He only hoped that one day, he could inspire loyalty like him or Wrex. "We can do this."

"You sure about this?" Jack asked one last time. She tried to act aloof and uncaring, but the worry was still unmistakable in her body language.

"We got this," Grunt said confidently.

We got this.

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Proving Grounds

1 Hour Earlier

Despite the additional protests from Jacob and the rest of the squad, Shepard remained adamant with his decision. Grunt shared the same viewpoint and added his own arguments.

Eventually, they quelled their objections and followed the Shaman into a Tomkah. The krogan infantry fighting vehicle left the Urdnot camp and drove deeper into one of the many ruined cities of Tuchanka.

After 30 minutes of driving, the finally stopped and disembarked inside a tunnel.

The Shaman led the way. "This is Tuchanka's most recent scar, the last surface city to fall in the rebellions. The Keystone was at the heart."

Grunt kept pace alongside the Shaman while Shepard brought up the rear. Four other fully armored krogan warriors flanked them to provide protection for the Shaman, who was still unarmored and unarmed.

"It has survived wars and the passage of centuries," the Shaman continued explaining with a hint of veneration. "It endures – like the krogan."

Leading them up a ramp, the hatch at the top opened to reveal a massive structure. Amid the ruins and remnants of the devastated city, a spire still stood tall. Three support structures led to a series of rings that held the towering edifice upright. The setting sun, fragmented by the swirling sands prevalent in the air, only added to its majesty.

Grunt took in everything with hushed silence.

"If you wish to join Clan Urdnot, you must contemplate the Keystone and its trials," the Shaman said as he led to them to the base of the structure.

A single green button was there, tantalizing Grunt to begin his test. "What will happen?" he whispered as he absorbed everything he was told.

"Who knows?" the Shaman enigmatically answered. "You must adapt. You must thrive. No matter the situation." He walked back to the entrance. "Any true krogan will," he called out over his shoulder. Within minutes, only Shepard and Grunt remained in the Proving Grounds.

"You ready?" Grunt asked impatiently. He marched toward the keystone, anticipation running rampant in his veins. "Let's get started." Receiving no answers to his questions, he glanced back at Shepard.

He was still standing on the platform. His head was swiveling side-to-side.

Grunt was about to shout again when he noticed Shepard's eyes. They were moving rapidly, taking in everything around him. It took him a moment before he finally understood what his krantt was doing.

He's studying the battlefield.

Shepard appeared to take significant interest in the size of the field, the metal and stone columns, and the few dead krogan that either failed the test or died so that others could succeed. He moved toward one of them and checked the body.

Grunt found himself mesmerized by the action and started looking around too. He started judging distances, tracks on the ground, possible angles to attack and defend. After a few minutes, he realized what he was doing and shook his head.

This is what he kept talking about.

Grunt had always been annoyed at the briefings Shepard had always insisted on having. Always talking about the enemy instead of fighting them or making plans instead committing to a course of action. Now, standing with only a human at his back, it suddenly made sense. Preparation, knowledge, everything that he should've known and tried to do. He always considered himself a warrior, but now…

This is what a warrior should do. Think and act. The difference between victory or dying in battle.

To the krogan, a death in battle was a good death. But a warrior can't fight if he's dead, so survival had its own importance. A lesson he was beginning to understand.

One krogan corpse caught his eye. Half of him was still identifiable, the other half looked like it melted, leaving only the bones behind.

"You ready?" Shepard asked, interrupting his musings.

Grunt looked up and shook his head. Just minutes ago, he would've have been brash and started the Rite without thinking of the consequences, but now, he knew that whatever the Rite was, he needed to be prepared. For anything.

They were on a raised platform, wide, but still constricting. There were some more grounds beneath them, with only two ramps lead upward.

Chokepoints.

On the far end, on either side, were two broken down stairways. What lay beyond was outside their field of vision. If anything was coming down those stairs, they'd be on the lower portion of the Proving Grounds and would have to take the ramps up to fight them.

Beyond that, they were completely surrounded by crumbling rocks and walls. In order for anything else to approach, besides the two obvious openings, whatever that needed to attack them would have to fly.

His examinations complete, Grunt nodded his readiness to his krantt. Shepard unclipped his helmet from his belt and put it on before nodding back.

Grunt hurriedly followed his example.

Approaching the Keystone again, more prepared than he was minutes ago, he pushed the button and watched as the pillar in the center of the spire rose past its supporting rings.

The Shaman could be heard over the intercom. "First the krogan conquered Tuchanka… and mastered a natural world only we are fit to hold."

The pillar slammed into the ground. A strange sound was created, a cross between a vibration and a rumbling.

Shepard and Grunt held their weapons up and watched the battlefield closely.

Barks and growls could be heard over the howling winds.

"Here they come! I'm ready!" Grunt shouted out.

Scores of varren rushed from the tunnels and charged at them. Both Grunt and Shepard had their shotguns out and divided themselves to each side of the platform to wait at the ramps.

The varren mindlessly rushed the chokepoints, only to be cut down in a hail of gunfire.

"Ha! These beasts will know I'm worthy!" Grunt crowed. Shepard remained silent, not that the krogan expected anything else. He chanced a look and saw that his krantt was focused on making each shot count and not make any wasteful movements.

Grunt knew that was important. Their ammunition was limited to only what they brought with them. Everything needed to die, and that could only happen with whatever ammo they had on hand. He paced himself carefully as the charging varren fell one after another, emulating Shepard's actions.

After five minutes of continuous killing, the flood of varren stopped.

Both turned around at the sound of the Keystone scratching against its supports as it rose to the air again.

"Then the krogan were lifted to the stars to destroy the fears of a galaxy, an enemy only we could chase to their lair."

The same vibrations rumbled across the fields.

"Harvesters!" Shepard shouted.

Grunt looked up to see the harvesters fly toward them. Clutched in their arms were klixens.

Turning off his Incendiary Ammo Convertor, he knew that the fire-breathing, fire-resistant klixens were nothing to scoff at. Exploding upon death with the force of a grenade and possessing a multitude of sharp, pointed limbs capable of rending armor and flesh alike, keeping his distance from them was the smart move.

The added hazard was the flying harvesters the might decide to munch on a krogan snack if he allowed himself to be too distracted.

The first harvester landed and dropped its young just outside the platform they were fighting on.

Grunt changed to his M-8 Assault Rifle and opened fired on the harvester, only to jump back as it snapped at him. It flew away, allowing the klixens to rush at their position.

The crack of a sniper rifle blew through the insects and bought them a moment's reprieve. More screeching could be heard all around them, the harvesters hidden within the cloudy skies.

"Come to your death!" Grunt yelled out in defiance.

Two harvesters obliged his challenge and flew in. One was turned away from a precise shot from Shepard while the other landed near Grunt and snapped at him. Grunt dodged the attack and opened fired on the insectoids. The klixens blew up easily, right under the mother.

The harvester screeched and angrily attacked Grunt. This time, he couldn't avoid it and the mouth closed on his shoulder. He roared in pain and tried to fight it off. He could feel the needle-like teeth puncture his armor and dig into the muscle underneath as it tried to drag him to the air.

All of a sudden, its eye and the back of its head blew open from an explosive round.

Grunt pried open the limp mouth and nodded gratefully to Shepard.

Shepard nodded back before he was attacked from behind when the other harvester dropped its load and allowed the klixen to attack.

Shepard fell to the ground with a shout and fought off the limbs that tried to impale him. Using his biotics, he managed to push the klixen away and scrambled out of the line of fire.

Grunt picked up his dropped assault rifle and chanced the shot. The klixen exploded and unfortunately caught Shepard in its final attack.

The human was blown off the platform, but managed to roll with the impact when he hit the ground. Shaking his head, he staggered to his feet and pulled out his own assault rifle and fought back against the horde of klixen descending upon him.

Grunt roared and vaulted over the railing and into the fray. The klixen turned and engaged him by belching out flames. Allowing his armor to mitigate the worst of the fire and enduring the burning sensation, he physically rammed into the nearest klixen and pushed it against the others. With tremendous effort, he created a pile of thrashing bugs that were trying to untangle themselves from one another.

"Clear the area!" Shepard ordered. He readied a grenade and tossed it into the pile.

The both of them ran from the resulting explosions. Bits of dead bug remains rained around them.

They ignored the gore in favor of the harvester that flew in and nearly landed right on them.

Shepard's next series of shots easily dispatched the klixens while Grunt decided the direct approach was necessary. He ran right at the harvester and ducked under its flailing head. Planting a grenade right against its chest, he ran as far as he could before he was suddenly struck by its tail and propelled into the air.

Hitting the ground and rolling, he took shallow breaths as the pain his chest flared up. The harvester took to the air only to explode seconds later.

Grunt stood up quickly and retrieved his gun.

Shepard scanned the area with his HMWA before running and picking up his dropped sniper rifle.

Both of them could hear one last harvester flying about.

Regrouping at the platform and keeping a wary eye out, they waited for the beast to show up.

It didn't disappoint.

Flying in with startling speed, the harvester tried to consume either one of them. Both dove to the ground and felt the rush of wind as it past right by them.

Grunt got to his feet first and used a Concussive Shot before the harvester could pull up and fly into the sandstorm. The shot struck its wing and brought it down.

The familiar startup whine prompted Grunt to run back as Shepard aimed his Blackstorm at the fallen insectoid-reptile and fired.

The harvester groggily got up from its impromptu landing only to screech in pain when one of its limbs was consumed by the moving singularity. It thrashed and tried to escape, but Grunt started shooting at its wings, damaging the thin membrane and preventing its escape.

The black hole moved on, tearing and ripping everything in its path as the harvester tried desperately to flee. The boom of the sniper rifle and the gaping hole in its chest ended any chance it had before the black hole exploded.

Grunt poked and prodded his shoulder wound. It was deep, but nothing he couldn't heal from in a day or so.

Shepard was rotating his right arm and hissing in pain.

Grunt could hear the human breathe heavily as he prepared to press on with the Rite.

The Keystone grinded again as it prepared to unleash next challenge.

"Now all krogan bear the genophage, our reward, our curse. It is a fight where the only goal is survival!"

For some reason, the resulting boom of the Keystone sounded ominous to Grunt's ears.

"The Rite will end if you are able to survive the next five minutes! We shall see if you are worthy!"

A strange vibration rippled along the ground, long after the Keystone fell and called whatever challenge would present itself.

"Feel that?" Grunt asked.

"Yeah," Shepard bit out through whatever injuries he had.

"Everything is… shaking."

"I know. It seems awfully familiar…" Holding his sniper rifle up, Shepard carefully looked around. "Wait… I know what this is!"

Three tentacles shot out of the ground all around them.

"Thresher maw!" Shepard yelled.

The tentacles retracted into the ground, but the shaking intensified.

"It's coming from the right!" Grunt shouted.

The giant worm burst from the ground. Without fanfare or warning, it spat out a giant ball of acid.

"Move!" Shepard ordered.

Grunt didn't need to be told twice. They split up and took refuge behind anything that might be able to hold up against the caustic substance the maw was spitting out.

They stayed down as the thresher maw tried to use its acid. Great globs covered the platform, causing steam and smoke to rise up as the acid ate away at anything it came into contact with. When the thresher maw realized that it wasn't working, it dove back underground.

"Wait for it to come out," Shepard advised. "Its weak spot is its open mouth. You can hurt it from there. If we can hit its acid sacs, it'll burn from the inside out."

Grunt really wanted to know how Shepard knew that and resolved to ask after they got out of this alive.

Suddenly, the maw erupted near the Spectre and used its massive body to ram the tower he was hiding behind. Metal and rock buried him immediately.

"SHEPARD!"

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Proving Grounds

Present Time

The resulting explosion tore apart the head of the thresher maw. The rest of its massive body that was actually above ground was blown several meters up before falling off to the side with a resounding boom.

Amid the blood, entrails, and gore, Grunt picked himself off the ground and stood proudly amid the carnage. He was covered from head to toe in the remains of the thresher maw, but was unbothered by it. Looking down at his shotgun, the barrel had melted and several warning lights were flashing. He tossed the useless gun away and calmly walked back to rejoin with Shepard.

Even though his face was completely masked by his helmet, Grunt could feel that his krantt was extremely impressed with what he done. He looked at his chrono. "22 seconds left. He said survive, but what about winning?" Shepard asked casually.

"Ha!" Grunt barked out. He turned to face the entrance. "Is that it? ! Is that all you want me to do? ! Survive? ! Krogans do more than survive! Krogans do more than endure! Krogans are warriors!"

Grunt stood proudly in front of the Keystone. "I AM KROGAN!"

A shuttle flew overhead. Stamped on its side was the emblem the Uvenk proudly wore. Gatatog.

"Company," Shepard said.

"Good. I want more," Grunt replied in anticipation.

~o~O~o~

The shuttle landed nearby. Uvenk and his krantt, all five of them, walked out.

Uvenk jumped up on top of a fallen pillar and looked down on Grunt and Shepard. "You live and you brought down the thresher maw. No one has done that in generations. Urdnot Wrex was the last."

"I knew he had to have faced one those things before," Shepard muttered under his breath.

Now Grunt was really curious, but focused on Uvenk first. He'd get the details later. "My krantt gave me strength beyond my genes. Which are damned good."

Uvenk leapt off the column and approached the both of them warily. "This will cause discussion. I wonder… you say you are pure? No alien meddling in your construction? Just the warlord Okeer?"

Grunt remembered an asari that was present when he was forced to absorb the imprints, but didn't bother to mention it.

Shepard stepped up. "Come on, Uvenk? You want take shot at him? Let's see what happens."

Uvenk didn't rise to his baiting. "Not yet. This deserves… consideration."

Now Grunt was suspicious as well as wary. "Why? I'm not getting any more 'natural'."

"You are powerful. You are a mistake. But your potential could tip the current balance of the clans," Uvenk explained.

"You spit on my origins! On Shepard's name! But now you stop ranting because I'm strong?" Grunt growled out.

"With restrictions. You could not breed, of course. Or serve on an alien ship. But you'd be clan in name," Uvenk said.

Like I'm a rutting pet.

Grunt felt his blood boil. He wanted nothing more than to rip Uvenk's spine out and ram it down his throat.

"You talk like he's a thing. You're after his power. You don't really want him in your clan," Shepard summed up.

"Of course not," Uvenk admitted freely. "I didn't really want to cooperate with Clan Urdnot either, but I had to. Clan Gatatog is on the verge – either of greatness or of joining the dust. I get traditionalist support if I fight you and reformer support if I back you. Your Rite of Passage tipped that balance, too."

Shepard scoffed. "If I know Grunt, your answer's is coming at muzzle velocity."

"Good answer, Shepard," Grunt said with nod. He turned to Uvenk. "For someone who thinks he's smart, you're really stupid," Grunt said to Uvenk. "Like I would agree to be your slave. You're dead meat, varren." Before Uvenk could defend himself, Grunt rushed and tackled him to the ground.

The other krogan drew their weapons, but Shepard took the opportunity of Grunt's distraction to toss a few grenades before running. Grunt got up and followed, hot on his heels.

They leapt behind a fallen column as the first of a series of explosions tore through their enemy's ranks.

The surviving three krogan fired immediately while Uvenk got back on his feet. "Kill them!" Reaching behind, he tried to draw his weapon only to grasp air.

Underneath his helmet, Grunt grinned as he held up his new shotgun.

M-300 Claymore. Nice…

He popped out of cover and put his new gun to use.

Uvenk staggered from the first shot before a Biotic Barrier appeared around him.

Hump. He's biotic.

Grunt turned to see Shepard had vanished, probably using his Tactical Cloak to flank them. The other three krogan appeared to be distracted and fighting elsewhere, leaving him to fight Uvenk.

Good.

Grunt stood up from his defilade and tried to use brute force to break down the Barrier, but Uvenk merely smirked at his futile efforts. He suddenly thrust out an arm and used Throw to knock Grunt back.

Grunt shouted in surprise as he sailed through the air and landed roughly on his back. He rolled onto his chest and quickly stood up to face Uvenk again. He thought furiously on what to do. Or in this case, what would Shepard do.

He'd outsmart him. I have to be smarter than him… How…?

Inspiration struck at the last moment as he reached into his grenade pouch. His preparation was complete when he was suddenly lifted into the air, courtesy of Uvenk's biotics. He dropped the shotgun as he was held helpless in midair.

"You are a mistake," Uvenk snarled as he picked up the fallen shotgun with one hand, while the other was pointed at Grunt to hold him aloft. "A mistake that will be corrected."

Grunt said nothing as Uvenk raised the shotgun to aim at him. Just as he hoped, Uvenk kept all of his attention on him and on his biotics to hold him in the air.

The look of surprise on Uvenk's face was priceless when he finally noticed the present left for him on his own weapon. The grenade attached to the underside of the shotgun beeped once before exploding.

Grunt fell and landed on his feet. Uvenk was some distance away, missing an arm and a great deal of his face. There was little doubt that his secondary organs were active and that the armor protected him from the worst of the explosion.

Before Uvenk could even think about getting up, Grunt mounted him and drew his knife. Poised above his head, he brought it down and rammed the blade into Uvenk's primary heart before ripping his dagger free and stabbing it into the secondary heart.

Grunt viciously twisted the dagger, ensuring his death. He watched as the life faded from his enemy's eyes and grinned. Tearing his dagger free, he raised it above his head, intending into tear into the lifeless body further when he simply stopped.

Panting lightly from the exertion of battle, he was confused as to why he didn't ram the dagger back into the body. He was still straddled on top of Uvenk with his blade poised above him. After a few seconds more, he lowered the knife and merely cleaned it off on his victim before standing up and surveying the bloody battlefield.

Shepard had won against Uvenk's krantt, not that Grunt ever had any doubt. If the human could survive getting buried alive or kill off a few thousand krogan, any backup Uvenk brought would've been inadequate. He was gingerly making his way towards him, stepping lightly over the rocks and bodies.

Grunt just stood there, staring at Shepard before he realized what he felt. Nothing. The blood haze he was afflicted with was gone. He could summon the rage to fight, but once over, everything was his choice again. He just choose to not to waste his time with that gutless varren.

He continued to stare at Shepard, even when he started staring back. Privately, he always respected and admired the way the human carried himself into battle. He was dull and boring outside of a good fight, but when the shooting started, the man threw himself wholeheartedly into the fray like any krogan.

"Grunt, you okay?" Shepard asked, his tone in complete contrast to how he addressed Uvenk moments ago.

Grunt grinned. He was in control of his battle rage again. He could turn it on and off, just like Shepard and he could hold himself proudly. Most importantly, he learned the true value of being a part of a clan and what it means to fight alongside a krantt. "I'm fine," he rumbled. "Uvenk is meat. Let's go and leave him to rot."

If possible, the feeling of elation he felt at his revelations matched the sense of victory he had against the thresher maw.

As they left the battlefield, Grunt glanced at the human's profile. Despite today's victory, he held himself to a higher standard. No strut or swagger of arrogance.

It might have been the thought that their mission might eclipse even what they did on the Proving Grounds, but Grunt thought that Shepard simply accepted victory as it was and moved on.

Another lesson to learn.

Despite the positive outcome of his test, Grunt vowed to hold himself even higher. If Shepard or Wrex could do it, then he needed to match. He found himself wondering how much he could learn from Shepard… and how much more there was to learn.

~o~O~o~

Location: Krogan DMZ Cluster, Aralakh System, Tuchanka, Urdnot Clan Camp

The Shaman was enthusiastic about their triumph. He told them that word had already spread through the clan about Grunt's victory over the thresher maw.

The drive back seemed faster than before, though it could be attributed to the lack of anticipation from the Rite. Or the exhaustion both warriors felt.

In what seemed like no time at all, the Shaman brought Shepard and Grunt before Wrex at his throne. Garrus, Tali, and Jack were waiting for them. The krogan they passed by were murmuring and pointing at them.

"You hear that the tank-bred and human killed a thresher maw on foot?"

"Everybody's heard. Hasn't been done since Wrex himself."

"That takes a quad."

"I barely survived my own Rite."

"You ever hear of a human serving as part of someone's krantt?"

"No. Can't argue with the results, though. We'll be eating thresher steaks for months!"

Upon reaching the dais, Grunt got down on his knees before his new clan leader as the Shaman moved to stand next to Wrex. "You have passed the Rite of Passage, earning the honor of clan and name," the Shaman stated formally. "Many survive, but it has been years since a thresher maw fell!"

"Guess none of them know about Edolus," Garrus muttered. Tali and Shepard nodded in agreement while Wrex smirked at them.

"Hmph. You just can't help making trouble," Wrex said to Shepard. "No one has killed a maw here since my turn in the Rite." He pointed at Grunt. "Next, you'll tell me he's quint and craps dark matter."

Shepard shrugged and grinned up at him.

"Guess that's what it takes to replace me," Wrex finally said after staring down at Grunt. He scratched his chin while the younger krogan awaited judgment. "You are Urdnot Grunt," Wrex formally stated. "Welcome."

Grunt kept his face impassive, but the swell of pride still filled his chest. Looking up, he nodded respectively toward his new clan chief. Nearby, Shepard nodded to him encouragingly.

"Your names shall live in glory!" the Shaman praised. "Grunt, as a part of Urdnot, you may now own property, join the army, and apply to serve under a battlemaster."

Serve under a battlemaster…?

Grunt looked up and considered his options. Shepard was standing nearby looking calm and collected as usual. What was the most interesting comparison was that Wrex sat in his throne with the same attitude. Grunt had seen Shepard in action and he had little doubt that despite the face he presented currently, Wrex was a fearsome sight to behold on the battlefield as well.

It was then Grunt understood. The differences between the two experienced warriors were plain to see, but it was the similarities that he finally saw. It was the driving force of their lives. It was what made all the other human warriors he read about stand out. It was difference between what makes a krogan a fighter to be feared and an animal.

It wasn't rage or blood lust or the ability to kill.

What set Wrex and Shepard apart from the common soldier was discipline. Shepard kept his focus no matter how difficult or chaotic events may seem. Wrex was the master of his own rage, choosing to unleash it by choice alone.

Grunt knew this was a lesson that he needed to learn. The rage he felt was only him being a krogan. The rite gave him an outlet, but to truly control his urges, he needed to study under the best.

"Shepard is my battlemaster. He has no match save our clan leader."

Shepard looked startled and turned to Wrex.

"Hmm… an alien takes part in the Rite and now assumes the role as a battlemaster?" the Shaman murmured to himself before turning to Wrex as well.

Wrex laughed. "I like this one!" He nodded his permission to the Shaman. "Let him. There's no one on this rock that could help him better than Shepard. Any traditions or other Rites he needs to learn, he can get elsewhere. A battlemaster imparts strength, honor, and loyalty. Shepard has that up to his hump."

"Understood," the Shaman agreed. "Congratulations, Urdnot Grunt." The Shaman held out an M-300 Claymore Heavy Shotgun. "Accept this token as a gift for your success in the Rite."

Rising to feet, Grunt accepted the weapon respectfully. He needed to control his brash arrogance. He needed to accept outcomes as they came. But there was one lesson he needed the most if he would ever be able to call himself a warrior.

Discipline.

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

I decided to try a new writing style, In medias res (into the middle of things). Wow, I'm learning new things all the time!

I know I changed the renegade interrupted from a head butt to a punch, but I'm looking at the bony crest on a krogan and thinking, "That's no joke." Either Shepard's skull is as tough as a krogan's and can feel no pain, or I better write it in such a way that's believable. I couldn't. As funny and cool as it was, I couldn't really do it.

It seemed a bit strange to me that if krogan puberty could be cured with a series of crazed fights, why does Grunt need it? He gets in more fights than most of the other krogan will ever get. You'd think he'd be cured already. So I decided to add a life lesson that will give him a reason to control his rage. Something he'll learn during the rite. Blood rage won't always get him everywhere, so other skills are needed.

When I first started this chapter, I thought, "This should be easy." And I was wrong. I thought Grunt would've been the easiest character to write up, because his character seemed simpler than the others. As I got into his motivations and desires though, the chapter evolved into something that radically changed my outlook of Grunt. That's the interesting thing about these loyalty chapters and doing it from the POV of the relevant character, I really have to understand their mindset and find out what makes them unique and what really drives them. The main thing I wanted to convey in this chapter was Grunt's youth and experiences evolved as he moved on. Being tank-born, all he really knew about the galaxy was through the imprints. After that, it was a series of missions with Shepard or looking through the extranet. Tuchanka was the place where he could 'grow up' and finally see his people properly with the final lesson of learning where he belongs.

To answer to what might be the next set of questions: There will be a few repercussions with Shepard and Miranda's relationship. Some are minor, others… not so much. I'm certainly not ignoring the other characters and will have some deeper dialogue with them when the time comes.

As Ian McKellen once said, "There is drama in conflict."

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