Fight for the Lost

Interlude XIV

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Zakera Ward Docks, Normandy SR-2

"You ever miss those talks we had on the elevators?" Garrus suddenly asked.

"No," Tali answered shortly.

"C'mon! Remember how we'd all ask you about life on the flotilla? It was a chance to share!" Garrus persisted with a teasing lilt.

"This conversation is over," Tali said in a tone of voice that clearly said 'drop it or I'll hurt you. Again'.

Garrus either unwittingly missed it or bravely ignored it, though. "Tell me again about your immune system!" he teased.

Tali narrowed her eyes, though much of the effect was lost behind her mask. "You stay put. I'm going to the Armory and getting my shotgun."

Garrus held up his hands in surrender. "Maybe we'll talk about it again some other time," he said, drawling out the 'maybe'.

"Only if you want to be shot."

Shepard laughed and nearly choked on his breakfast he was currently trying to swallow. Miranda obligingly slapped him on the back to assist clearing his airways.

"I assume whatever problems the both of you have had yesterday have been resolved?" she asked politely.

"We're fine," Garrus assured. "Except the part where she wants to shoot me. There might be cause for concern."

Tali turned and slugged him on the shoulder, earning a yelp from him. Turning to Miranda she said, "Thank you for picking me up last night."

"It was no problem," Miranda replied.

"So where is Thane?" Tali inquired.

"Still on the Citadel," Shepard answered.

"Talking with his son?"

Garrus and Miranda both looked startled at that bit of news.

Shepard shot a warning look at Tali, but didn't bother refute her since it was too late. "Yeah. They have a few issues they want to clear up."

"Wait, Krios has a—" Garrus started to say before Shepard cut him off.

"It's his business. I don't want to talk about it unless he does."

"Wait a minute," Garrus protested. He jerked his thumb at Tali. "How come she knows?"

Shepard glanced at Tali, his eyes telling her to explain.

She shrugged embarrassingly. "I… um… sort of… eavesdropped."

"That sounds about right," Shepard said, sounding slightly disapproving of her actions. He turned back to his food and took a bite.

"I also picked up a Shepard VI," she dramatically revealed.

For the second time in as many minutes, the subject in question choked on his breakfast.

"Wait, are you serious? A Shepard VI?" Garrus asked interestedly. Maybe a little evilly.

"Yeah. I tested it a bit this morning. It's really buggy. I'll need a few weeks to iron out all the problems," Tali said before turning excited. "But it's so realistic! It's almost as if Shepard was really yelling at you!"

Miranda tried to hide her laughter behind a series of coughs.

Shepard glared at the quarian engineer. "This isn't funny."

"No, but the potential is there," Garrus jibed. He turned to Tali and staged-whispered, "Can see it?"

"Sure," Tali chirped.

"No!" Shepard shouted at the same time. He lunged over the table and grabbed at Tali's arm when she activated her omni-tool.

Miranda had the presence of mind to snatch her tray and Shepard's before his thrashing could cause a mess. She stood up and moved away, actually laughing at the sudden 'fight'.

"Come on! Let me show them!" Tali cried out as she tried to dodge Shepard's flailing arms.

"Don't you dare!"

"You're right, it does sound realistic!" Joker said from his seat nearby as he and the other crewmen laughed at the impromptu fight.

Garrus cackled as well while he dodged their struggling limbs. "Feels realistic too! It's almost as if Shepard was right here!"

It was to this scene that Samara, Kasumi, and Jacob saw when they entered. "I'm glad to see that you've recovered from this morning's lesson," Samara said, referring to their daily morning spar. Shepard had lost again, an event that was becoming the norm. She serenely walked past them and collected her breakfast before settling down nearby and ate, masterfully ignoring the chaos nearby.

"What's going on?" Jacob asked as he sidestepped the apparent fight and made his way toward the mess sergeant's table.

"It's about a Shepard VI," Joker supplied. "Tali has one and want's to show it off, but the Captain doesn't want her to."

Shepard and Tali were still struggling with Garrus unhelpfully adding his own efforts. It was unclear who he was undermining.

Tali finally surrendered. "Okay! Okay! I won't show him! Keelah!" she cried out.

Shepard plopped back on his seat, though he was sure she would show everyone at the first available opportunity. It was impossible to watch her all day, after all. "Maybe I should declare it contraband. Technically, it's illegal since I'm alive."

"Well that makes having it even more exciting, doesn't it?" Tali countered as she held her omni-tool close to her chest.

"It'll be a commemorative program. A rarity," Garrus said in agreement.

"I hate you both."

Kasumi walked up behind Tali. "I want one! Can I have one? Where can I get one?"

A couple of crewmen started calling out for copies of their own despite Shepard's earlier statement, with Joker being the most vocal. "I'd rather have a buggy VI of Shepard over my shoulder than that AI!" he shouted.

"It's like a Freudian nightmare," Shepard muttered. All he could hope for now was that none of them were serious about the issue.

"Come now, Shepard. Imitation, flattery; you know what they say," Miranda teased. She sat back down and placed their trays back on the table.

Jacob sat down and thoughtfully passed Kasumi her tray. "Come on, Shepard. A VI? This is nothing. Who knows? They might name an Alliance carrier after you someday. The SSV Shepard!" he said while theatrically sweeping out his arm as if to show the real scope of Shepard's fame.

"I think I'd rather die. Again," Shepard deadpanned.

Mordin choose that moment to enter, followed by Kelly. "Have you written autobiography yet? Post-mortem autobiography would add element of intrigue. Mystery. Drama!" He paused to take a breath. "Should consider writing autobiography myself given odds of current mission."

"I'm sure it'll be a fascinating read, Professor, though it'll probably be heavily omitted, what with your stint in the STG and all," Kelly commented.

Mordin sniffed and nodded in agreement. "Quite. Much of my work still classified. Shame, but for the best I suppose."

Kelly smiled before turning to Shepard. "Oh, yes, Captain? I bought you a present. There were some fish on sale at the Presidium, as well as some models of Alliance cruisers. They're being delivered to your cabin as we speak."

Shepard looked up at her and smiled back. "Thanks. Appreciate it."

"Oh! Right! Speaking of presents, did you try out that tux I bought for you?" Kasumi asked. "The window for the heist is coming and I need you looking like you belong."

Shepard looked at her in confusion before slapping his forehead. "I completely forgot about that."

"Well, try it on soon! I need to know if I got your inseam right!" She cried out.

Forcing down his gag reflex, Shepard visibly swallowed his breakfast before coughing from the effort. "The hell is up with today…?"

"There's a few minor details I want to iron out. So we'll meet back here later tonight and I'll fill you in, okay?"

"Why am I filled with this feeling of dread?" Shepard muttered, though loud enough for everyone to hear.

"Stop being so pessimistic! It's bad luck to be pessimistic before a heist!" she said playfully.

"I should've stayed in bed…"

As everyone settled down and returned to their business, Tali's head snapped up. "Oh! I just remembered. What's going on, Shepard?"

Shepard looked up from his breakfast with a questioning look. "Huh?"

"Dr. Michel said that she was coming by to the Normandy to help Dr. Chakwas with your exam."

Garrus stopped eating and looked up as well. "Dr. Michel? What?"

Shepard cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Well, it seems that bringing someone back from the dead isn't without a few… problems."

"What problems? Are they serious? Are you okay?" Tali asked in rapid-fire.

"Are you dying again? Is there anything we can do? How bad?" Garrus asked sequentially and at the same time.

Shepard looked at them both and tried to sort out their questions before shaking his head. "I don't know. None of us do. Yet. We're looking into it. As soon as I get some concrete news, I'll tell you both, okay?"

Tali fidgeted a bit, as if she was considering something before sighing. "You're not hiding anything?"

"This is kinda personal, so I have a right to hide this, don't you think?" Shepard countered, though he smiled to show that he wasn't offended. "Miranda, Dr. Chakwas, and Mordin all have a theory. Until they can prove it, I don't want to worry you. Besides, I'm fine right now."

"For a dead guy," Jacob said.

"Well, yeah," Shepard agreed.

Any further conversation about his health was put on hold when Matthews, followed by a bored looking Hadley, suddenly appeared. "Hey, Captain!"

"Crewmen. What's up?" Shepard asked.

"Tali told us that you met with Sha'ira!"

"Oh, Keelah…" Tali groaned. She turned toward Kasumi. "This is all your fault."

"Shhh! I want to hear this!" Kasumi said and leaned in to hear.

"What was she like?" Matthews asked before blinking and shaking his head. "No, wait, scratch that. I have an appointment in three months with her. I was wondering if you might put in a good word for me?"

"Captain," EDI called. Her blue, spherical avatar appeared at his elbow. "Captain Bailey wishes to send his gratitude for the capture of Mr. Harkin, AKA, Fade. He promises he will do anything he can to assist Kolyat Krios in return."

"Kolyat Krios? That's Thane's son, right?" Tali asked.

"Krios has a kid?" Jacob asked in shock. "Cold-blooded assassin like him?"

"Jacob," Miranda chided.

"Thane has a son? Really?" Kasumi said in shock. She looked confused, intrigued, and delighted at all the gossip occurring around her.

Even Samara paused from her meal to better hear this news.

Joker shook his head. "Hard to imagine, isn't it? I mean, he seems like the strong, sensitive, murdering type. You know, those are always great to have around. A real cuddler."

"You see," Jacob said to Miranda and jerked his thumb at Joker. "It's like he's reading my mind."

"Also, Captain Bailey would like to speak to you regarding the condition Mr. Harkin was found in. He would like a brief statement from you to ensure that C-Sec was not involved in the mistreatment of any suspects in their custody," EDI continued.

Shepard glanced at Garrus.

He shrugged, but didn't look at all sorry.

"Um, Captain? About Sha'ira…"

"Give it up, Matthews. Geez, all you've doing is talking about her since yesterday!" Hadley said in exasperation.

"If you can spare a moment of your time, Captain Bailey would like to meet with you at his precinct," EDI continued.

"What's he like? Is he like Thane?" Kasumi asked, still talking about Kolyat.

"You know, I didn't peg Krios the family man type," Jacob commented thoughtfully.

"Didn't peg Wrex as the type to sit on a throne all day either, not when there are still things to shoot and kill, but there it is," Garrus countered. "Stranger things have happened. It's like the galaxy is ending. Oh wait; we still have to worry about the Reapers, don't we…"

"You know, I'm not real broke up that Wrex isn't coming," Joker confessed. "I'm good with our current amount of head-butting. I'd say we're at head-butting capacity."

"Oh, Captain, I should probably let you know that a Dr. Chloe Michel will be by this afternoon, so be sure to check in at the Med-Bay!" Kelly reminded.

"Mr. Krios has reported that he will be returning to the Normandy tonight, unless you call for his services sooner," EDI added.

"I told you, she's not like that!" Matthews argued in annoyance at Hadley.

"What the hell is going on?" Jack asked as she walked by and saw all the people loitering about.

"I don't know; I lost track," Rupert answered bluntly. He passed off two trays to her. "You wouldn't believe me, anyway. Or care."

"So you actually could've slept with the Consort, Shep?" Kasumi brazenly probed, switching topics as quickly as switching a light.

"Oh, yeah! You really had a shot at her, Captain? !" Mathews' excitedly asked.

Miranda raised a perfect, slender eyebrow at that and turned her eyes at him questioningly.

Shepard groaned and put his head in his hands, his breakfast completely abandoned.

This might be a long day.

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Zakera Ward, C-Sec Precinct

"There are many human refugees, Terminus orphans, and former slaves abandoned by batarian raiders. For most, the adjustment is difficult. But one man, Conrad Verner, wants to help. Verner is organizing 'Shepard's', a charity that helps human refugees, orphans, and former war prisoners. In a prepared statement, he said that this new charity is his way of showing his support for the people who protect the galaxy."

Shepard and his party all paused and looked surprised at the news report broadcasting overhead.

Huh. Now I'm really feeling guilty about shooting him. I suppose everything worked out for the best, though.

He was of mixed feelings. The way he treated Conrad wasn't exactly civil, or even decent, but the tough love did get him to open a charity. Smiling to himself, Shepard continued toward his appointment.

After leaving, or escaping, the mad house his ship had transformed into, he walked into the Zakera Ward precinct and looked for Bailey.

"Do I really need to be here?" Garrus grumbled.

"If I have to be here, you have to be here," Shepard mildly rebuked. He turned his eyes toward Tali. "What I'm curious about is why you're here. You got a broken leg. You should on the ship; take it easy for a few days."

"I will. I just wanted to ask Captain Bailey something. It'll be quick," Tali replied.

"Just tell me and I'll tell him," Shepard offered.

"Thanks, but this something I'd rather do personally," Tali said.

Shepard shrugged and turned to the last person in their little troupe. Miranda had been on the Normandy all day yesterday. It was only fair to allow her to leave and get some R & R herself. "What are your plans?"

She shrugged. "No plans really. I think I'll just take a walk and see what piques my interest. You and I have to go back to the Normandy for those tests in a few hours though."

"I remember," he said.

"Morning. Is there something I can do for you?" a passing officer asked.

"Bailey called me. Tell him Shepard is here."

"Agent Shepard! Of course! Just one moment, I'll fetch him for you." She saluted and left quickly toward the interrogation rooms.

They stood around a few minutes until Bailey finally stomped out. "Turn up the air conditioner in there and leave it on at full blast until we can see his breath fogging up the windows. See if he'll be more cooperative then!"

"Yes, sir!"

Bailey was still muttering angrily to himself all the way to his table.

Shepard followed closely with a raised eyebrow. "Hoping to make your suspect 'scream a little'?" he asked casually, recalling the words Bailey used when the C-Sec Captain was lecturing one of his officers.

Bailey slammed his hand on his desk and turned around. "This isn't the Presidium! All they have to worry about are protestors outside their 'free speech zones' or—or someone's poodle crapping on the grass!"

Unbidden, Shepard was instantly reminded of this one preaching hanar that was up at the Presidium two years ago.

Bailey shook his head in disgust. "Down here, we have drugs, organized crime, and murder! Policing a Ward is like—it's like policing New York City!" He sat down, rubbed his eyes, and sighed. "Sometimes, you have to work outside the Council's rule book."

"He sounds like a certain turian we know," Tali said. Any mystery of who she was talking about was dispelled when she stared directly at Garrus.

"C-Sec has changed," Garrus commented, though he almost sounded approving of it.

"I didn't mean anything by it, Bailey. Considering I shot a suspect in C-Sec custody, I'm not one to judge. Look, you called me about Harkin?" Shepard inquired.

Bailey took a breath and calmed down. "Yeah, sorry about this, but unless we get a statement from you, Harkin could just say he was roughed up and shot while in our custody. A bullet wound isn't something we can hide, y'know?"

"Garrus?" Shepard called.

Garrus grumbled. "I thought I was done with that miserable bastard…"

"You did it?" Bailey asked.

"I'll sign off on his statement and take responsibility," Shepard assured.

"That'll do. So long as I can get his attorney to back off about this," Bailey said. "You can take a seat over there and punch it up."

"I hate paperwork," Garrus muttered, but sat down at the nearby terminal and got to work.

"Sorry about before. Sometimes, this job…" Bailey tried to explain, but sighed and shook his head again.

"There are a lot more human C-Sec officers here," Shepard commented as he looked around. "I don't think I even heard of a human C-Sec captain."

"C-Sec took a lot of casualties when the geth boarded the Presidium. The Special Response Division was hard-hit. They stopped turning their noses up at human resumes. They needed bodies in uniform and we had the most experienced bodies."

"And how did you end up on the Citadel?"

"I started with the Alliance way back when, but the traveling was killing me," Bailey explained with a wry smile. "It's a shitty life if you're trying to raise a family, seeing your kids every six months."

"I hear you," Shepard said. He sympathized with him since he heard all manner of stories from other marines.

"I joined C-Sec so I could stay in one place. Put down roots," Bailey said.

"How do you like it here?" Miranda asked politely.

"Life isn't bad. Helluva lot different than life back on Earth," Bailey replied. He suddenly looked wistful. "I miss the food mostly. You just can't get Sockeye Salmon here on the station."

"You ever get back there?" Shepard asked.

"Earth? Every couple of years. Less and less all the time," Bailey answered regretfully. "But when I finish my stint with C-Sec there's a nice little place in the foothills I'm going to retire to."

Garrus walked up to Shepard with a holo-pad.

Shepard signed off on it and passed to Bailey.

"Not that I'm retiring any time soon," he said dryly. He took the pad and quickly read the contents before nodding. "Thanks. Appreciate this."

"Are we finished here?" Shepard asked.

"Yep. Won't take any more of your time," Bailey said.

"Good luck to you, then," Shepard said.

"You too," Bailey replied before nodding his head to Miranda politely. "Miss."

"Captain," Miranda returned before leaving together with Shepard.

~o~O~o~

Tali watched Shepard and Miranda walk off, eventually disappearing into the crowds. She found herself insanely curious as to why he would choose to spend his free time with the Cerberus operative. Alone… together. A sudden surge of jealousy bloomed in her chest, but she pushed it down and mentally scolded herself.

They're probably just going in the same direction or something. Though they have been spending a lot of time together… Probably talking about his condition. He wouldn't want to get involved with anyone from Cerberus.

She narrowed her eyes and found herself wondering about that last point though.

Would he?

Tali adjusted her crutches a bit to get comfortable, and drew Bailey's attention to herself.

"Whoa. You alright?" Bailey asked. He was looking at the cast that engulfed her left leg.

Blinking back to awareness, Tali stopped staring at the direction Shepard and Miranda walked off to and nodded automatically. "Yes, I'm fine. Considering the alternative, this is nothing. Capturing Fade proved to be a little more difficult than we thought," she answered casually. Looking around, she finally noticed that Garrus had left as well.

"Still can't believe it was Harkin," Bailey said with a disdainful snort. "I didn't even think the man was smart enough to type his name, let alone get past our secure networks."

"That's actually what I wanted to talk to you about," Tali said.

"Hold on a moment," Bailey said. He turned to a nearby officer. "You! Get this young woman a chair, will ya?"

"Yes, sir!"

In no time at all, a chair was produced and placed next to Tali.

"Thank you," Tali courteously replied to the officer. She sat down and sighed in relief.

"Of course, ma'am." The officer said. He saluted to Bailey and left.

"Well, what can I do you for?" Bailey asked.

"Um… I… well… First, I wanted to know what you thought of quarians," Tali asked.

"I don't," Bailey bluntly admitted. "People, same as anyone else. Wait, does this have anything to do with Tammert? I already reprimanded him and put a note in his file. If he's causing more trouble, I'll handle it."

"No, well, not exactly," Tali said though she smiled in gratitude. "Thank you for that, by the way."

"Shepard let me know that one of my officers was making trouble. I handled it," Bailey assured. "Don't worry; I don't got anything against your kind. That geth thing started 400 years ago. It's not like you, your dad, or even granddad did anything wrong. In my opinion, if the Council did something rather than ignore the issue, the geth might not have been a problem now. What did they do? Nothing. Told your people that it was your problem and that you had to deal with it. Same as us. We got attacks on human colonies and they tell us it's our problem and we need to fix it while they sit on their lofty thrones. What a life…"

Tali nodded knowingly. "So you don't hold it against us?"

"It's bad enough that I have to deal with all sorts of anti-human campaigns. I tell ya, it's just not worth going on any sort of anti-species thing after that. Hypocritical, y'know?"

"Thank you for your candor, Captain," Tali said gratefully. "About the quarian your officer harassed, though. I was wondering if you would like to hire her as a freelance IT specialist."

"What'd you have in mind?"

"If someone like Mr. Harkin is capable of penetrating your secure networks, then perhaps an upgrade is in order. My friend, Lia'Vael, is one such woman that can help with this. She's just looking to make enough money to buy a used starship to take back to the Migrant Fleet," Tali said.

Bailey sat back in his chair and considered her offer. "You vouch for her?"

"Yes. Definitely," Tali answered.

"Well…" Bailey drawled as he thought about it. "Why not? I guess I owe you for this Fade thing. And you did get hurt helping out."

Tali sighed in relief. "Thank you, Captain. I'm sure she'll be of help to you."

"It's not permanent, right? I can't afford to have her on permanent retainer," Bailey said.

"No, just long enough to make some money," Tali replied. "We quarians prefer to earn our way."

"I can respect that," Bailey said. "I'll give her a chance and we'll see what happens."

Tali stood up, though it was a bit of a struggle. Bailey kindly got out of his chair to give her a hand.

"Thank you," Tali said politely. She gave him a firm handshake. "And thank you on behalf of Lia'Vael."

Bailey smiled kindly. "Of course. Don't mention it." He looked at something over her shoulder.

Tali turned around to see on his officers waving him over near the interrogation room.

"Ah… Duty calls. Back to work," Bailey said. "Good luck on whatever you and Shepard are up to. And take better care of yourself, y'hear?"

"I will."

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Presidium, Citadel Security Executor's Office

"The recent attack on Horizon has other Council species looking to their own security. The turian fleet is reportedly bolstering its crew complement, while the Salarian Special Tasks Group is reportedly investigating the colony attacks."

"Garrus Vakarian. I didn't think I'd ever see you again."

Garrus stood tall, proud, and collected. To many this would be seen as a measure of respect, discipline, or honor. Given their history though, the man sitting behind the table would see it as a gesture of defiance. He stared down at the man in charge of the Citadel Security Force. "Executor Venari Pallin."

"After all this time, I was expecting you to be dead by now," Pallin rumbled without preamble. He was never a man that cared for the niceties.

"I'm not here to hash out the past Pallin."

"Then I doubt I'll be hearing an apology from you," Pallin said dismissively as he read some report or other on his table.

"We're both want the same thing. Order, justice, peace," Garrus calmly said. "Difference between how we do it is irrelevant."

Pallin finally looked up. His eyes flashed in anger and disgust. "There's a right way to things—"

"I don't need you to lecture me on right and wrong, Pallin," Garrus shot back. "If it weren't for us, you wouldn't even be alive to sit at that table, much less have a Council to protect and a government to serve."

"Always the same, aren't you? Thinking that you can cast aside the rules and nothing else matters. Still pretending you're a Spectre. Wake up and look around—"

"I was right about Saren. If I didn't go behind your back and conduct my own investigation, you'd wallow in your ignorance and your rules. Somebody needed to stand up and do what's necessary, more importantly, what's right, regardless of the consequences. I may not be a Spectre, but I can say for certain that I have my own convictions and I stood by them," Garrus countered. "Personally, I thought you'd be the bigger man and admit when you were wrong."

Pallin looked like he was more than ready to continue before taking a deep breath and leaned back in his chair. "I thought you weren't here to talk about the past."

"I'm not. I need you to sign off on an admission."

"Into C-Sec?"

Garrus nodded.

"Not you?"

"A friend of mine."

"You're asking me for a favor?" Pallin said derisively.

Garrus didn't rise to his baiting. "The way I see it, you already owe me," he replied with a nonchalant shrug.

Pallin's laugh was acerbic and biting. "You've got a lot of nerve…!"

"Do I?"

Pallin glared. "I've got half a mind to see you dragged out of this office in chains."

Garrus shrugged again but didn't say anything, which served to only infuriate Pallin even more.

"What makes you think I'd do anything for you?"

"Because you do owe me. And you owe my father. He was one of your best. If it weren't for him, you wouldn't be sitting at that desk. All I'm asking for is that you let someone into C-Sec for training and see what happens then."

Pallin narrowed his eyes.

"You're a man of the rules; by-the-book, through and through. You're not the kind to leave debts unpaid. I'm calling mine in."

He was baring his teeth now, which were slightly clenched. His mandibles are opening and closing rapidly in anger, didn't argue against the point. "Fine. Who is it?"

"His name is Lantar Sidonis."

"Sidonis? Isn't he the one that confessed to 10 murders?"

"On Omega. I was there. He didn't murder them. He was talking in a bar and accidently let slip the location of this merc base on Omega to the wrong sort of people. Based on that intel, they did a raid and people died. Some kind of merc war or something," Garrus explained. "He felt responsible and guilty, that's all. Wants to make a difference, but doesn't know how. I'm hoping C-Sec could help with that. It was stupid to try and turn himself in, really. Noble, but stupid."

"And why the hell would I want someone like that in C-Sec?"

"Because he's driven now. Wants to do the right thing, make a difference, fix his screw-up. Take your pick," Garrus listed off irritably. "Make him a patrolman or part of the Special Response Division, whatever you think or whatever he earns. He's not the worst you got in C-Sec. I know you've seen worse on the force."

"And if he can't handle the training?" Pallin pressed.

"That's his problem. And yours. Handle it however you want. I'm just here to see that he gets a fair shot," Garrus answered neutrally.

Pallin's face remained stony and unconvinced.

"People are thinking that C-Sec is getting a bit human-centric. They're assholes, but sometimes, we have to play the politics," Garrus negotiated. "Getting another able-bodied turian can't hurt and it'll make your department look good."

Pallin snorted. "Are you actually trying to be subtle, Vakarian? That's a new trick for you."

"Is that a yes or a no?"

"Fine. He'll have his shot. But don't expect any—"

"—special treatment," Garrus finished. "I'm counting on that."

Pallin turned to his terminal and started typing. After a few minutes, he looked up to see Garrus still standing there. "Something else?"

"I was waiting for you to dismiss me," Garrus said evenly.

"Don't push it," Pallin threatened.

Garrus gave one last hard look at him and left.

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Presidium

"The Systems Alliance Parliamentary Subcommittee for Transhuman Studies has awarded reparations for biotics suffering complications from L2 implants. Subcommittee Chairman Burns thanked biotics everywhere for their patience and understanding and promised more help for 'those forgotten by the system until now'."

"Something up, Miranda?" You've been quiet," Shepard observed.

"Sorry? Oh, I'm just thinking," she replied distractedly.

"About what?"

"You," she replied without thinking. Catching his sly smile, she opened and closed her mouth a few times before rolling her eyes. "Tell me that didn't sound as poignant as I think it does."

"All right, I won't."

"What I meant was: I was thinking about your element zero nodules. Your problem sort of makes it mine as well," she elaborated. "I just… I just hope that you're okay."

"What kind of equipment is Dr. Michel bringing?" he asked.

"Just some scanners. Much more powerful and accurate than the ones the Normandy is currently equipped with. We're going to borrow it for a while and map out your nodules over a period of time to see if there's any cause for concern," Miranda lectured. She suddenly laughed to herself and took his hand in hers. "I don't think I've ever been on a date quite like this. They're usually much more… upscale."

"This is date?" Shepard asked dubiously. "Because I think I can do much better than this."

She slyly looked at him from the corner of her eye before facing forward. "I'm certain you can." After another few minutes of silence, she turned asked, "You're not worried about this?"

"The way I see it, the only way my condition makes things worse is that I end up crippled or dead before going through the Omega-4 relay. It's really hard to trump a suicide mission."

She sighed. "You're probably right."

"What did the Illusive Man say, anyway?"

Miranda paused. Since her arm around Shepard's, he was pulled back when he didn't realize she stopped.

"Miranda?"

"I-I, um, I didn't tell him about it," she confessed quietly.

"You didn't?"

"I wasn't exactly sure what to say," she said.

"What do you mean?"

She sighed again. "What I mean is, I don't want him to know about, well, us."

"Oh."

She smiled and pulled his arm, continuing their walk through the Presidium. She knew he understood. It wasn't wise to advertise their relationship, though for her, it was for decidedly different reasons. A former Alliance Marine, now Council Spectre, and a Cerberus Operative, allied with an organization that was declared an enemy to the Council, together in a relationship.

There was a certain thrill in it, she had to admit. A touch of the forbidden…

Quite a pair we make.

They strolled for a little in companionable silence until she spotted the embassies in the distance. "You're not going to visit Councilor Anderson?"

Shepard shook his head. "Nothing to talk about. Not yet, anyway."

"I would've thought you'd talk about Horizon at least. Offer your side of the story in conjunction with Chief Williams' report."

"Anderson knows the truth, even if the rest of the Council denies it. He'll have gotten the uncensored version from Ash in private. The best I can do is say 'hi' as an old friend and it's not worth bothering him like that. Especially since he knows I'm up to something much bigger," Shepard explained.

"And since we're still waiting on the IFF, there's nothing to report or as you said, 'talk about'," Miranda deduced.

"He knows I'm on the Citadel. There's no way he doesn't. If he wanted to talk, he'd call. He's not shy about it."

"And what of the Consort? Are you planning on 'visiting' her any time soon?"

"I'm smart enough to know that whatever answer I say will have grave repercussions, so I'm maintaining my silence on that."

"I do have ways to make you talk, Shepard."

"I'm trained to resist interrogations."

"Not against me."

"We'll see."

"So what's our next move?" Miranda asked.

Shepard blinked and turned to her questioningly, a half-smile on his face. "Is that a euphemism or are you being serious?"

She jerked his arm and smiled. "Business first. We'll get to pleasure soon enough."

"Kasumi needs some help and her window of opportunity is coming. I don't want to brush her off," he answered. He led her into a secluded area of the Presidium, near the entrance to the Wards, and brought his head down close and brushed against her raven locks lightly. "Now, about our next move…" he whispered.

She shot him a coquettish look and blew lightly into his ear. "Tonight?"

"Sounds far too late."

"You have an appointment."

"We can push it back." He drew her close and lightly kissed her neck.

Her eyes fluttered closed as she tilted her head, giving him more access. "Doctor's orders. You shouldn't keep them waiting…" she whispered breathlessly. She gripped his head and pulled him away from her throat, only to pull him into an intense kiss.

"Are you trying to convince me or yourself?" Shepard asked when he managed to pull back and look her in the eyes.

"That depends on how strong our resolve is," Miranda said with a darkening look of desire in her eyes and drew him in for another kiss.

"Mister Shepard, a man as ruggedly handsome as you deserves the finest in biotic technology," an ad terminal called out, startling them both, and ruined the moment.

"Oh, bloody hell," Miranda cursed.

"The next time you're out on the town with Miss Lawson, the new Sophist biotic amplifier from the Serrice Council is the perfect accessory. Power. Precision. Elegance. It's not just an amplifier—it's an expression of your masculinity. Sophist."

"Okay, like the handsome part, but the biotic part is just plain ironic," Shepard stated.

Miranda laughed and looped her arm around his. She dragged him again, back into the Presidium and toward the Shopping District. "Just as well. As tempting as it was, we do have to meet with your doctors and evaluate your condition." Leaning in close to whisper, she said, "Take it from me, you don't need any amplifiers."

She decided to let him stew on whether she meant his biotics or not and continued browsing.

Shepard followed her without complaint.

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Zakera Ward, C-Sec Precinct

"Mr. Krios," Bailey greeted.

"Captain," Thane cordially returned. Kolyat stood up and walked beside him to meet with the human captain.

"Sorry to have to cut into your talk like this, but I gotta put your boy to work. We just got some intel from this identity forger and now there's some people I need him to watch for me," Bailey explained.

"Of course. Have all the arrangements been made?" Thane asked.

"It's all been taken care of. Legally. He'll be working under me for a while and 'pay of his debt to society' and all that."

"Thanks," Kolyat said quietly.

"Are any of his assignments dangerous?" Thane asked worriedly.

"No, nothing like that. Small timers, really. Probably less harmless than Mouse," Bailey assured. "I'm hoping to use your boy to make life a bit better for the kids around here, that's all."

"A noble task," Thane said. He couldn't meet his son's eyes. There was no story he had in his life of which to brag about or use as an uplifting lesson.

Yet.

"Yeah. Sorry it's not perfect, but then, what is?"

Thane shook his hand. "Once again, I—We are in your debt."

"Well, you helped out with this Talid business and you got Kelham to back off without implicating me. Least I could do," Bailey said. He started chuckling. "Shepard's got some good friends. I just took on a quarian as my IT girl to upgrade C-Sec's networks on the recommendation of his quarian friend, Tali."

"I see," Thane simply said, though a small smile tugged at his lips.

"Right. I need you to check these people out." Bailey handed Kolyat a holo-pad. "Just talk to them for now. Report back to me and I'll see what needs to be done, okay?"

"Got it," Kolyat said. He turned to Thane. "Um…"

"We'll speak again soon," Thane promised.

"Sure." Kolyat took one last look at him before leaving.

"Good luck in your ventures," Thane said to Bailey.

"You too. Oh yeah, I hope you don't mind, but I also told your boy to keep talking to you. Life's just too short to miss out on these kinds of things, y'know? Don't know if it took, but we'll see."

"Thank you again, Captain. Good fortune to you," Thane bowed deeply from the waist as a gesture of respect before leaving himself.

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Zakera Ward, 618 Blocks

"Oh, you didn't have to do this for me, Tali," Lia'Vael nar Ulnay protested.

"Of course I did. Its times like this that we have to stick together," Tali said.

Lia laughed to herself, but it lacked any feeling behind it. "I remember how excited I was for my Pilgrimage. I was thinking it was going to be like an adventure or something. How naïve is that?"

"It isn't," Tali replied staunchly. "I did the same as well. I was questioned by C-Sec for hours before I was allowed on the Citadel, probably like you."

"Really?"

"Yes. And I was injured at that time. I was lucky," Tali said wistfully. "But I managed to make some very good friends. The best really."

"I noticed. I'm actually quite envious," Lia said.

"Things will look up," Tali said encouragingly.

"I hope so. I can't help but wonder if I made a mistake coming here, though," Lia confessed quietly. "Maybe Illium or Omega would've been better…"

Tali remembered a pair of quarians she'd met since rejoining Shepard's crew and managed to avoid cringing for Lia's benefit. Kenn was robbed on Omega and was forced to try to sell salvage to make enough money to leave. He was lucky to have Shepard intervene before he could get robbed again, or worse, killed. And Saya almost became an indentured servant on Illium, if it weren't for their combined efforts to free her of the contract. Shaking the memories away, Tali said, "Trust me, you're doing fine. If Pilgrimages were easy, you'd already be back with the Flotilla by now."

Lia nodded her head and stood up. "I should talk to Captain Bailey and report in, then." She made a show of flexing her fingers. "Gotta show him what I can do."

"As far as I could tell, he seems to be a decent man. Tough, but fair," Tali encouraged. In some ways, Bailey reminded her of her father. "You should be fine."

"I hope so." Lia stepped forward and gave Tali a brief hug. "If you get back to the fleet before me, give my family my love, would you?"

Tali returned the gesture warmly. "I will. Take care of yourself."

"You too."

~o~O~o~

Location: Serpent Nebula, Widow System, Citadel, Zakera Ward Docks, Normandy SR-2

"You're looking awfully chipper, Garrus. How'd you sleep?" Jacob asked.

"Like the dead. Only more peaceful." Garrus looked up from his rifle and saw that Jacob was favoring his left arm. "Looks like you can't say the same."

"I accepted a challenge from Kasumi. We sparred for a bit this morning."

"You win?"

Before Jacob could answer, Shepard appeared out of nowhere and sat down. "Hell no. He got his ass kicked, same as me, only without the biotics. Samara and I watched his crushing defeat."

Jacob pretended to be busy working on some random gun, but didn't say anything to the contrary. "After your own regular beat down, you mean."

Garrus found himself confused and looked at Jacob from head to toe. He looked fit, for a human anyway. Considering size difference he had over the petite woman, he found it hard to believe. "So… what? You hold back or something?"

Jacob shook his head. "I threw everything I had at her and then some. Still got my ass kicked."

Garrus swiveled his stool to better talk to him. "Shepard getting beat by Samara, I can understand."

"Hey!"

"Well, she's tall and physically, she's built well. I wouldn't be surprised if she could go toe-to-toe with a krogan," Garrus elaborated. "But Kasumi seems, I don't know, smaller?"

"Yeah, but she has some crazy ninja skills," Jacob replied in way that should have explained everything.

At the very least, Shepard seemed to understand. He even looked interested. "Yeah. Never saw someone move like that before. Even Samara was impressed. Maybe I could talk to her for some tips. Anything to get one over Samara."

"Is it sad that we're getting beat up by the women on this ship?" Jacob mused.

Shepard laughed. "On this ship, not a chance. There's a reason why they're on this mission, y'know."

Garrus was lost. "Wait, ninja skills? I don't get it."

"Let's just say she's fast, agile, and crazy flexible. Leave it at that," Jacob explained simply.

The moment Jacob said flexible, Garrus suddenly remembered this scout that was really flexible. She certainly knew how to take care of her body…

"How are you feeling, Garrus?" Shepard asked.

Snapping back to the present, Garrus smiled. "Better. Much better."

"Glad to hear it."

"Whatever happens with the Collectors or the Reapers or whoever else comes after us, I know you'll get the job done," Garrus said confidently.

Jacob scoffed. "Hold on, you think we'll find something worse than Collectors or Reapers?"

"It's Shepard. With him, who knows?" Garrus deadpanned. "I like to expect the worst. There's a small chance I'll be pleasantly surprised," he reasoned, quoting something he heard. One of his old squad members used to say that. On Omega, it held a lot more wisdom than most would expect.

"I couldn't do this without you, Garrus," Shepard sarcastically said.

Garrus grinned. "Sure you could. Not as stylishly of course."

Shepard barked out a laugh. It sounded almost challenging.

Garrus decided to let it slide. "You know, it's strange going into a suicide mission on a human ship. Your people don't prepare for high-risk operations the way turians do."

"But you're used to high-risk ops, right?" Jacob asked.

"Couldn't be any worse than tracking Saren to Ilos," Shepard added.

Garrus shrugged. "Sure, but that was quick. We raced out, landed, blew up some geth, and saved the galaxy."

"Is that all there was to it?" Jacob asked.

"It was a bit more complicated than that," Shepard replied.

"This time we've got Cerberus, that AI, just about everyone telling us what we're up against," Garrus continued. "I think I preferred blind optimism."

"I thought you liked to prepare for the worst?" Jacob asked.

"I'm complicated."

Jacob paused from his work and sat up. "I gotta ask, how do turians prep for high-risk missions?"

"Violence, usually," came the blunt answer. "Turian ships have more operational discipline than your Alliance, but few personal restrictions."

"You mentioned that," Jacob said. "No rules on fraternization, right?"

"Not particularly," Garrus confirmed. "Our commanders run us tight and they know we need to blow off steam. Turian ships have training rooms for exercise, combats sims, even full-contact sparring. Whatever lets people work off stress."

"Kinda like us," Shepard mused.

"Yeah," Garrus replied distractedly. His thoughts went back to that scout…

"What's up?" Jacob asked when he saw the Garrus' had drifted off. "Something you wanna share?"

"I was just remembering something," Garrus answered with an amused shake of his head. "There was this one mission, we were about to hit a batarian pirate squad. Very risky."

"Yeah?" Jacob pressed. He and Shepard were both facing him with interested looks.

"This recon scout and I had been at each other's throats. Nerves, mostly. She suggested we settle it in the ring," Garrus continued.

"You take her down gently?" Shepard asked.

"Actually, she and I were the top-ranked hand-to-hand specialists on the ship," Garrus corrected with a grin. "I had reach, but she had flexibility."

"Where did I hear that?" Shepard said with a pointed look at Jacob.

He grinned and shrugged.

"It was brutal. Worse than any of your sessions you had with Samara actually. After nine rounds, the judge called it a draw." Garrus suddenly chuckled. "There were a lot of unhappy betters in the training room."

"Ever finish the fight?" Jacob asked.

"Actually, we, ah, ended up holding a tiebreaker in her quarters. I had reach, but she had flexibility," Garrus said before coughing lightly into his fist. "More than one way to work off stress, I guess."

"Still no clear victor, I take it?" Shepard wickedly asked.

Garrus coughed again. "Well, she was pretty hard to keep up with. I decided to give it to her in the end… Wait—that came out wrong."

Shepard and Jacob broke out laughing. Garrus got over his embarrassment and joined in moments later.

"Chalk up another victory to the fairer sex," Jacob said.

After they calmed down, Shepard shot Garrus a challenging look. "Seriously though, I didn't know you had that much hand-to-hand training, Garrus."

"You didn't ask," Garrus replied with a shrug.

"I'd like to square off against you, see how you stack up," Shepard said.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. Well… except I'd feel bad after kicking your ass. Then, I'd have to explain exactly how I kicked your ass to Dr. Chakwas so she can put you back together again."

Garrus grinned. "Awfully confident, aren't we?" He stopped when he remembered an important detail. "Hold on, no biotics. That's just cheating."

Shepard grinned back and said nothing.

"Say, I've been meaning to ask, you ever regret leaving C-Sec or the turian military?" Jacob asked. "I mean, after seeing you and that other C-Sec officer butt heads yesterday, I kinda got that vibe that you really hated it there. More than you told us."

"Not for a minute," Garrus said instantly. "When it comes down to it, I don't think I'm a very good turian."

"Really? You're as stubborn as any turian I've met," Shepard quipped.

"Ha-ha, very funny, Shepard."

"So what makes you a bad turian?" Jacob asked.

"When a good turian hears a bad order, he follows it. He might complain, but he knows his place," Garrus explained.

"I think I see where you're going with this," Jacob said understandingly.

"I figured you'd know, Jacob," Garrus said. "I just don't see the point of staying quiet and polite. Not when the stakes are as high as they are."

"That's pretty much along the same lines of why I quit the Alliance," Jacob said.

Before Shepard could add his thoughts, EDI popped up on the nearby pedestal. "Captain, Dr. Michel has arrived and her equipment is currently being installed in the Medical Bay. Dr. Chakwas requests your presence."

"Alright, thanks, EDI," Shepard said.

"Logging you out."

"Gotta go," Shepard said. He stood up and stretched.

"You going to be okay?" Garrus asked, but trying to sound nonchalant.

"We'll see soon enough," Shepard said. He nodded to both men and left.

~o~O~o~

Shepard suppressed the urge to yawn and tried to ignore the sudden itch on his nose as he lay completely still on the new chair inside the Med-Bay. It was reclined, almost horizontal, forcing him to stare up at the ceiling. His arms and legs rested comfortably on the provided supports. The scanners at his sides hummed and geometric lights shined up and down the length of his body constantly.

According to Dr. Michel, the machine she brought was called the Simultaneous Mediated Axial Radiation Tech Scan, or SMART Scan for short. Using specialized nanites and directed radiation along XYZ planes, high resolution 3D images can be made of just about any place in his body. The nanites can cluster in specific tissues of interest for increased scrutiny and absorb any radicals produced during the procedure, lowering the health risks.

The downside: the nanites must be passed in the urine. And according to Michel, "That might hurt a bit. Sorry."

Upon hearing that Dr. Chakwas was the one administering the nanite injection, he did mental check for anything he might have done recently that might have upset her.

A few inches above him was a full, perfect, life-sized, three-dimensional holographic projection, showing his image the scanners and nanites were picking up. Miranda, Drs. Chakwas, Michel, and Solus were all in attendance, manipulating the holographic images and studying the information carefully.

The SMART Scan first displayed his body in its totality, sans clothes. Shepard had to swallow his embarrassment and was thankful that the women conducted themselves as consummate professionals.

The specialized skin weave was highlighted and shown to be strategically implanted throughout his flesh. A flick from Dr. Chakwas' omni-tool and the skin was removed, showing his muscular system. Once again, the implants within were painfully obvious to see, though they were much larger than the other implants in him. His muscles disappeared, showing his internal organs and skeleton. Throughout his entire body, the technology Cerberus funded towards the Lazarus Project was emphasized by the scanners. It was everywhere, attached to everything, supplementing and assisting all of his functions.

Shepard had to resist the urge to pick his head up and stare at what Miranda had done to accomplish this medical marvel.

Drs. Michel and Solus displayed even more curiosity and fascination with the implants. Often they would be seen muttering to themselves or to each other as they openly studied the artificial constructs within Shepard's body.

Miranda used her omni-tool and changed the image, this time showing the cardiovascular and nervous system. Another flick of her wrist and only the nervous system was seen.

As disappointed as they were at missing their chance to study the previous images, Michel and Mordin continued to be amazed by the tech found inside Shepard with each passing display.

"Here," Chakwas said. Moving closer, her hands surrounded by golden rings generated from her omni-tool, reached out and manipulated the hologram, rotating it and zooming in to certain parts. "You can see the eezo nodules clearly."

Miranda stepped forward and watched as the scanner highlighted the miniscule nodules that were entwined with the nerve bundles throughout Shepard's body. "Are you recording this?" she asked to the others.

Mordin looked at console and nodded. "Recording, measuring, and calculating."

"So what now?" Shepard asked from his chair.

"We're recording the size of the nodules and will use that as an accurate point of data to compare with my notes from the Lazarus Project. We'll do this periodically to map out the growth, if any, of your nodules and determine if there's a problem," Miranda patiently explained.

"I thought you already had some data," Shepard asked, turning his head slightly to see her.

"Don't move, Shepard. I don't want any mistakes," Chakwas scolded.

"Sorry, Doc."

"That was preliminary data. The results from that aren't as accurate as this one. The Normandy's Med-Bay wasn't equipped with more sophisticated scanners," Miranda said.

"Before you ask, Shepard, I'm used to treating battlefield wounds, injuries sustained during ship-to-ship combat, or any other stresses associated with flying a military warship. The equipment in my Medical Bay reflects this. The machines we're using are reserved for dedicated clinics or hospitals. Safe, static areas where gunplay or violence is far less commonplace," Chakwas added.

"Oh."

"I believe we're almost finished," Michel announced. Her accent, as always, sounded intriguing and sensual. "This is fascinating. The placement of these nodules…"

"We estimated that Shepard had the potential to become a talented biotic," Miranda said.

"I can see that," Michel replied as she stared at the results. "The size of these nodules though… I didn't think that they can grow to this size and not cause neurological complications."

"It's possible," Chakwas said. "There are very few children with nodules of similar sizes. It's shouldn't come as a surprise that they're also the more talented ones that the Ascension Project have ever produced."

"What about Jack? Isn't she powerful?" Shepard asked, still keeping as motionless as possible.

"Hers nodules are just as interesting as yours, Shepard," Chakwas said. "Though for decidedly different reasons."

When Chakwas didn't explain after a minute or so, Shepard arched an eyebrow. "Such as?"

"Such as nothing, Shepard. I can't say anything. She has no condition that can affect the ship. Therefore, I can't divulge any details, even to you."

"Unless, of course, you wish to count possible chances of aggressive and volatile behavior and potential to do significant damage to ship and crew," Mordin offered, pragmatic as usual. "Then, as captain, his responsibility, his problem."

"She has more than three times the amount of nodules intertwined with her nervous system," Miranda revealed. At Chakwas' scandalous look, she shrugged. "Shepard can access the databases on the Normandy. When I received Jack's records, they were uploaded into the mainframe with restricted access. Since he's the commanding officer, it'll hardly be a secret to him. He'll look it up anyway once we're finished here."

Chakwas sighed irritably. "Oh, very well. What you have, Shepard, is an increase in the size of your nodules, though the amount is more or less the same as most biotics. Perhaps a bit higher, but nothing significant or noteworthy. That's the source of your sudden surge in power. In Jack, it's the opposite. While the size of her nodules is within the upper range of the average, she has many more nodules within her than any other human biotic currently recorded. As you may have guessed, the amount of nodules a biotic has can also yield an increase in talent and power," she lectured, though she sounded a bit tetchy. No doubt revealing her patient's medical details was galling her.

"Is she in any kind of danger?" Shepard asked worriedly.

"Yes, but that's definitely not going to be in any database you search, Shepard," Chakwas answered. "She hadn't seen a doctor for a long time until she was recruited for this mission. She asked that everything I've uncovered be held in the strictest of confidences. Not even for a medical consult."

"I didn't know this," Miranda said. "Is this going to be any sort of problem?"

"I don't know for certain," Chakwas confessed. "I'm planning on using the SMART Scan on her to see if I can get some details." Before anyone could ask more questions, she shook her head. "And that's all I'm saying about it."

Shepard sighed and wondered if he could ask Jack for any of the details.

"Done," Michel announced. Pressing a few commands, the hologram vanished. "You can stand up now, Captain."

"Shepard is fine, Doctor."

"Then I must insist that you call me Chloe."

"Thanks for your help, Chloe. And for letting us borrow this equipment."

"Borrow?" Michel asked. She scratched her head in confusion. "I thought…"

"We need to discuss the details of your latest scans, Shepard," Miranda interjected. "If you'll excuse us."

Without further fanfare, he was almost literally pushed out the door before he could get another word in edgewise. "What the hell?" he mumbled before calling out to EDI. "Hey, EDI? What's the deal with the SMART Scan?"

"Executive Lawson recently used Cerberus funds to purchase the SMART Scan from Dr. Chloe Michel. Dr. Michel used those funds to purchase a new one from Sirta Foundation, though it will take several weeks for it to arrive at her clinic. In the meantime, she has agreed to allow us the use of her SMART Scan and will need to go without one of her own for some time."

Shepard sighed and asked EDI to let him know when everyone inside the Med-Bay was finished so he could properly offer his gratitude to Michel for her sacrifice. Next, he started making preparations to leave. He sent the call to all crewmen to report back the Normandy, made sure all supplies were inventoried and stowed away, made time to test the Thanix Cannon once they were well and clear away from the Citadel. After he was finished, he trekked to his cabin to use the facilities there.

Once there, he walked into his private bathroom and used the toilet. Immediately, he could feel the pain and had to prop himself against the wall as he strained to urinate. Groaning with the effort, he closed his eyes and willed himself to finish his business quickly. Michel understated herself when she warned him that it would hurt. It almost felt like pissing glass.

And I have to have regular scans for the foreseeable future. Goddamn it…

~o~O~o~

Dr. Michel accepted Shepard's earnest appreciation for the 'loan' on her imager with her usual cheer. He also led her on a quick tour of the Normandy, during which she met up with Garrus and Tali.

Garrus awkwardly acknowledged her thanks for saving her life two years ago. Sensing his discomfort, she kept it brief and to the point, and asked that he take care of himself. She also offered that should he ever need medical attention or a friendly face, her clinic would always be open for him.

To Tali, Michel exasperatedly chastised her for getting injured, to which the quarian protested, citing that, "I didn't get shot, at least!" in her defense.

Michel had a laughed good-naturedly and wished her a speedy recovery and pleaded that she be more careful in the future.

"I'll try," Tali said.

Accepting that as the best answer she'll get under the circumstances, Michel turned toward Shepard next. "Thank you for the tour of you ship, Shepard. I certainly hope that your results will be good news."

"So do I, Doctor—I mean, Chloe," Shepard returned amicably. With the tour over, he led her toward the bridge and airlock. "It was good to see you again."

"You as well. Garrus. Tali." Michel offered a demure smile to everyone, well-wishes on whatever mission they were undertaking and left.

"Well?" Tali asked immediately after Michel's departure.

"I need a few more tests to know for certain, Tali," Shepard said, knowing exactly what she was asking.

"They wouldn't do tests if they didn't think there was something wrong to begin with," Tali argued.

"They have a few fears. They just looking to see if it has any merit," Shepard replied calmly. "There's no need to worry about me. I'm fine."

"Why is it when people aren't 'fine', that's the word they use?" Tali asked in annoyance.

Shepard shook his head, but didn't bother to offer more on his condition, if there was anything wrong to begin with. He marched back toward the CIC. "Has everyone returned from leave?" he asked toward his XO.

"Just," Miranda answered, standing near the galaxy map. "We're ready to leave within the next two hours, at your word."

"Joker, ready at the helm?" Shepard called into the intercom.

"Ready, Captain."

Looking at the map, he pulled it away from the Citadel and the Widow System until he was on the Serpent Nebula. Moving the icon to the next system over, he selected their next destination: Boltzmann System, Bekenstein.

"Coordinates locked in. Course plotted. Be there inside of 14 hours," Joker reported.

"As soon as the Normandy is ready, then," Shepard said.

"Aye, aye."

~o~O~o~

"Shep! Heard we're leaving! I need to square away the last minute details of our heist!" Kasumi cried out as she ran into the Common Area.

"Hold on, Kasumi. I think I've been more than patient with you," Shepard said, looking up from his dinner. "We're going to Bekenstein soon. Just in time for the party, like you wanted. What's the plan?"

"You have been patient, haven't you?" Kasumi said thoughtfully. "I mean, if it were me, I'd be asking every day until I learned what I needed to learn," she teased, drawing out the conversation on purpose.

Shepard gave her a withering glare. "I've been busy. What's the plan?"

Jacob, Garrus, Tali, Mordin, and Miranda listened in with undisguised interest, as did some of the crewmen that were enjoying dinner. Thane and Samara held some mild attentiveness, but not so much that they would integrate themselves in the conversation.

"Bear with me here," Kasumi cautioned. "This will sound simple, but it rarely is in practice."

Shepard nodded. Having his share of plans, strategies, and assaults, he knew the difference between discussion and action.

She walked over to Jacob nudged him a bit to the side so she could sit down. He moved willingly. "We're going undercover into a party Hock is throwing for some of his 'closest' friends. Obviously, you can't go as Spectre Agent John Shepard. That'll shut this down faster than you can draw your gun. I've taken the liberty of creating an identity for you already. Solomon Gunn."

"Will that pass?" Shepard asked.

"After Liara got in touch with me and ask that I help you out, I started creating your new identity, complete with background. It'll be like you've existed for the last five years."

"Okay. What's my background?"

"You run a small, but talented band of mercs out in the Terminus Systems—"

"Does that seem a bit too close to the truth to you?" Garrus asked Jacob.

"We're less than a dozen and we're talented, so I agree on those points. It's being labeled a merc I got trouble handling," Jacob replied.

"Guys," Shepard said warningly.

"Well, it's precisely the type of person Hock respects," Kasumi explained, smiling at the assembled team. "You have quite the reputation now, Mr. Gunn. Papers, witnesses, you were even in an article published in 'Badass Weekly' last week."

"Shepard was on that a couple of years ago," Garrus informed cheekily.

"So were you, 'Archangel'," Jacob shot back.

"Just don't start talking business with him and you'll be fine," Kasumi assured.

"Unless he talks business first," Shepard countered. "Then what?"

"Name drop a few of the people here and embellish a few of your previous missions or something. Instead of… say… Samara the asari Justicar, you say Mara, asari commando. You were there on Omega, killing Archangel. All the mercs died, but you lived and got paid. Little white lie sprinkled with a bit of truth. Keep it simple and you should get by."

"Oh yeah… you never did get paid for 'killing' me, did you?" Garrus mused.

"I think the Blue Suns frown on freelancers that kill their boss, even if he was an asshole," Shepard replied.

"Anyway, we're going to steal from the man, not make friends," Kasumi said.

"Speaking of friends: Hock. What should I expect, beside the stuff you told me back on Illium?"

"You know he's a weapons dealer, smuggler, killed my partner and stole his graybox…" she muttered. In the end, she simply shrugged. "Other than that, he's not so bad. He thinks he's a 'businessman'. Ignoring the fact that his business usually involves the death and destruction of people's lives, he'll be dressed to the nines, talk politely, walk with a swagger, all as if he's really innocent and just doing the galaxy a favor or something."

"Rich and charismatic. I've met that type before," Shepard said, recalling the Illusive Man.

"And willing to crack open a man's skull to get at the neural implants inside," Kasumi added. Though her voice sounded as teasing as ever, there was a certain hardness within her eyes that he only saw back on Illium.

"Hey, Shepard. Why don't we just assault the place?" Jacob suddenly asked, all traces of his earlier humor gone. "Just take out Hock and get what we're after?"

"No can do, Jacob," Shepard said. He had a guess as to why that would be appealing to him, if the smile Kasumi sent was any indication.

"Why not?" Jacob asked in annoyance.

"They're going undercover in a party, Jacob," Miranda answered. "Even if most of the people there are criminals in some form or fashion, they'll bring dates or escorts. Civilians, innocent ones."

"Exactly. We go in shooting, innocent people might take the first bullet," Shepard said. "Or worse, we get a hostage situation."

"And the final point: Hock will have a few escape plans just in case he needs to leave in a hurry. Not necessarily from us, but he's made a few enemies I'm sure. It's standard practice, really. But if he takes Keiji's graybox, I might never find him or it again," Kasumi finished. "Thanks for the offer though."

"Environment?" Shepard asked.

"Hock's party will have some of his closest 'friends' on hand. A couple dozen of the worst liars, cheaters, and mass murderers you'll ever want to meet, all bringing gifts as a tribute to the man himself," Kasumi said.

"Not to sound overly cliché, but with friends like that—" Tali said.

"—who needs enemies?" Miranda finished. "I was thinking the same thing."

"Our tribute is a lovely statue of your old friend, Saren—" Kasumi informed.

Shepard couldn't keep the frown from his face at the mention of his name.

"—rendered with loving detail and soon, filled to the brim with our weapons and armor," she finished. "That's what I came to talk to you about. I need to load the statue up and have it shipped before we leave."

"I'll gather my equipment after this," Shepard promised. "So we're going in unarmed?"

"You can have a pistol. They won't hassle you over a sidearm," Kasumi said. "Once inside, we'll make our way to the Hock's vault door, somewhere in the back of the ballroom. We case the security and start peeling away the layers. The statue should be there, waiting for us to crack it open and arm up, if we need to. If it isn't there, then in it'll be in the vault. The main point is to waltz into the vault and take back Keiji's graybox."

"Wait," Miranda said. "I have a few questions."

"Yes?"

"You said the vault was 'somewhere in the ballroom' and you have to peel away the layers of security. What does that mean?" Miranda asked. "You don't know the details of the vault? I thought you'd have all the details when plot your heists."

For once, Kasumi looked abashed. "Yeah, I know. I had Liara look into Hock, but that's when you guys showed up on Illium, and, well, she wanted to help her friends. Kinda put my request on the backburner. All I know is: It's an underground, heavy duty vault. The smaller entrance is somewhere in the ballroom, inside the house. The loading entrance near his private hangar."

"So there are two ways into his vault," Shepard mused.

"Yeah, but both will have heavy security. The loading entrance near the hangar is much larger, just so he can get his larger, more personal possessions to fit inside."

"What about the hangar?" Jacob asked.

"It's where he loads or unloads his 'merchandise'."

"Why not go in from there?" Shepard asked.

"Because I don't know what security measures he'll have in place at either door. If any of the locks are biometric, it's better to be near the man that can unlock it, don't you think?" she replied.

"And during a party, he'll be much more talkative and let down his guard a bit," Miranda said.

"That's the hope," Kasumi said quietly. "This isn't my best plan for a theft, which is why I'm smuggling our armor and weapons in. And which is why I'm asking for your help, Shep. I just want Keiji's graybox. A chance to say goodbye."

"You obviously want it bad if you're willing to break into a guy's fortress without a real plan," Jacob said sympathetically. "He must've meant a lot to you."

"Was I that obvious?" Kasumi said, trying to inject a bit of cheer back into her voice. "His graybox holds a lot of… personal memories. It's all that remains of who he was."

"What about what he discovered?" Miranda pressed.

"Dangerous, I know that for a fact. I wouldn't ask someone like Shep to come if it wasn't. This could very well be my messiest heist yet."

"But you don't know?" Miranda asked.

"The graybox holds Keiji's memories. It has everything about him. Wrapped up in those memories is the secret he stole. He never told me what it was, but the information got him killed. All I know is that it meant bad news for the Alliance and humanity. That's it."

"So are you coming with me?" Shepard asked.

"Yep!" Kasumi chirped. "I hope you weren't thinking that I'd sit on the sidelines for this. Between the both of us, I'm hoping we'll be quick enough to get the graybox and get out before Hock is any the wiser."

"I'd like to come along," Miranda suddenly said.

Everyone turned to her in surprise.

"Really?" Kasumi asked with a tilt of her head.

"Cerberus is dedicated to protecting humanity. If that information comprises our species, then we have an obligation to retrieve it. I'm certainly not about to let the future of humanity rest in the hands of some low-life criminal," Miranda said.

"Hmm… I suppose that can work…" Kasumi muttered.

"Why not?" Rolston said, speaking up for the first time since the impromptu briefing began. "If Solomon Gunn is so badass, having two ladies on his arms won't be anything unusual."

"That's true," Patel said. "I bet there'll be all sorts of things going on that it'll probably look natural."

"Good point," Kasumi agreed. "I was planning on coming along as a date, but if I come in as an assistant instead, Hock will probably ignore me outright and put his focus on Miranda instead."

"I'm guessing you have experience in undercover work?" Shepard asked with a knowing look at Miranda.

"A fair few," she modestly said.

"Right, the next problem is, my face is pretty well-known by now," Shepard said. "If I go, Hock might recognize me."

"I really doubt it," Kasumi said dismissively. "The galaxy has you reported as dead for the most part and the fact that you're alive isn't exactly spreading since people don't believe it. Hock might think 'Solomon Gunn' looks like you, but he'll never really think you're after him. After all, why would a dead Spectre help out little ol' me?"

"Conrad Verner recognized you," Garrus reminded.

"Yes, but he's always been a little obsessed," Tali argued. "It's not that hard for him to see what he wants to see. Someone like Hock won't believe it."

"Sad day in the galaxy when the fan-obsessed freak sees the truth and the ruthless, paranoid smuggler doesn't," Jacob said.

Kasumi looked at them curiously and looked like she wanted to press for details. Instead, she shook her head and turned back to Shepard. "Any other problems you'd like to know of?"

"Hock's muscle. Do you know how many he has?"

"He has Eclipse mercs working for him at a low price. Figure he's smuggling for them or something," she answered. "A small army, I think."

"So if we get caught…"

"We might have a small problem on our hands. That's why you're coming and why I'm taking care to bring our equipment along. Just in case, you know?" Kasumi said.

"Oh boy… Can I make a few revisions to this plan?" Shepard asked.

Kasumi shrugged. "Sure."

"If we get caught, the hangar is our best bet for escape. We'll need explosive charges to blow the other door open and make our way out."

"I'll stash them inside the statue," Kasumi assured.

"Distractions: Garrus, you take Mordin, Samara and Jack and hit the front entrance to Hock's mansion. Enough to make some noise, exchange a little gunfire, but not enough to put innocent people at risk. I want you to draw the mercs out to you."

"Got it."

"Jacob, you take everyone else and secure the hangar. Clear out the mercs stationed there and work your way to us."

"I got your backs."

"Remember, this is only if we get caught. If we manage to break into the vault, get the graybox, and leave without causing a fuss, all the better for us," Shepard reminded.

"And Hock?" Jacob asked with a slight edge in his tone.

"If he engages you, take him down. If he runs, let him."

"Well! Looks like we have a plan. Not the best, but sounds like it'll work," Kasumi said gratefully.

Shepard finished his dinner and stood up. "I'll get my stuff together for you, then."

Miranda stood up as well. "I'll come with you, I suppose."

"Great. Meet me in the hangar so I can load everything into the statue and get it sent out," Kasumi said. "And… Thanks."

~o~O~o~

Location: Widow Nebula, Normandy SR-2, En Route to Boltzmann System, Bekenstein

Up in his cabin, Shepard looked at the suit Kasumi had bought for him with a critical eye. It was expensive looking, most likely custom tailored, black with white trim. In some ways, it reminded him of the suits the Illusive Man wore. Certainly nothing like Shepard had ever worn in his life.

The door to his cabin opened. Looking up he saw Miranda standing at the doorway. This time, she walked in without hesitating and stood in front of him. "Checking out your evening wear, I see."

"Not sure if it suits me. Never had anything like it to be honest."

She took out the tux from his closest and held it against him. He bore her scrutiny with an amused smile.

"Not bad. I think you'll look splendid in it," she finally said with an interesting glint in her eyes.

"The only problem is acting like I belong. The only high society dinner I ever went to was—"

"There were four high-profile military dinner programs you attended ever since you graduated from the N7 program," Miranda said knowledgably. "All of which you were outfitted in standard Alliance dress uniform."

Shepard opened and closed his mouth his few times before shaking his head and smiling. "That's impressive."

She smiled back and put his suit back into his closet.

"So? What are the results?" Shepard asked.

Miranda sighed and sat down on the leather chair near the coffee table. "This is preliminary, but I think one or two nodules might have grown. However, we were using an inferior scanner before, which means that your nodules weren't accurately measured the first time. That mistake might actually be ours."

"Time will tell, huh?"

She bit her lip and averted her eyes.

He raised an eyebrow and cupped her face to make eye contact. "What?"

"I'm sorry, John… I didn't think that this might happen…" she said apologetically.

"Bringing people back from the dead was supposed to be impossible. You managed that. I'm sure you can help with this. For now, we don't know anything yet. Now that we got some new medical hardware, we'll do the tests, and we'll see what happens," he said gently.

She nodded in agreement. "Yes, you're right. We should make sure everything is all right before jumping to conclusions."

"So…"

She stood up and pressed herself against him, lazily wrapping her arms around his neck. "There aren't any ad terminals here, are there?"

"Absolutely not," he answered. His arousal soon became apparent as it indiscreetly strained against his trousers.

Far from pulling away, she grinded her hips against him sensuously, causing him to breathe a bit heavily from her tantalizing movements.

"I understand that you gave me full access to your cabin," Miranda 'innocently' commented.

"I did," Shepard confirmed evenly, trying to get his himself under control.

"Was that an invitation, 'Captain'?" she asked in a seductive voice.

"It's whatever you want it to be," he answered before pulling her close and capturing her lips with his.

They stumbled towards his bed, divesting their clothes while letting their hands roam all over one another; exploring, massaging, teasing…

As they began their passionate lovemaking, an idle thought passed through Shepard's mind.

A Council Spectre and a Cerberus Operative. What a pair…

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

Kudos to sandman7734 and SgtPotato for guessing my thoughts on this chapter with regards to Kasumi's loyalty mission.

The real credit for the inspiration for the new premise of Kasumi's LM goes to Havoc-legionnaire. He actually took the time to PM me about the idea all the way back in August. I hadn't actually considered it until he put up the idea.

The SMART Scan was actually inspired from Firefly, Episode 9. The 3D Neuro-Imager. The nanites were inspired by the movie, The Island.

Poll Results:

Both – 85

Shepard – 26

John – 9

So both it is, though it will be used sparingly.

Sorry. No R-rated scene yet. Soon though. I think. I hope.

Review if you want it though!l\/

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