Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

Paramour

Warning: I've earned my 'M' rating here. A full scene at the bottom of the chapter. Anyone that gets mildly offended by scenes of this nature should stop. You've been warned.

~o~O~o~

Location: The Phoenix Massing Nebula / Typhon System / Aite / Atlas Station

Try as she might, Miranda found it impossible to tear her eyes away from the scene before her.

Tali and Mordin were talking in hushed tones and making vague motions towards the man suspended in his macabre cage nearby. They had tried but after a few hours, they had to concede defeat. Realistically, they couldn't do anything to release David from the prison his own brother had surgically linked him to. Without the right equipment, the necessary amount of time, and a team of engineers and doctors of several different specializations, it was impossible to free him safely. All Mordin could do was sedate him, hopefully taking away some of the pain. At the very least, the hooks holding his eyes open had been removed, allowing David to finally retreat from the world.

As selfish as her thoughts were, Miranda was privately thankful that she could no longer see the overwhelming anguish or the pools of tears within his eyes now.

A few hours earlier, she and Garrus had attempted to reestablish contact with the Normandy, but ultimately weren't successful. Once Mordin and Tali returned to assist David in whatever capacity they could, Shepard ceased his vigil and walked off with Garrus to try his hand at it.

Unable to face him right now, Miranda opted to stay in the observation room overlooking the room David was imprisoned in. Look down at the chamber though; she wasn't sure if she regretted her choice at this very moment.

What was done to David should be considered inhuman, creating a bitter irony for her since she believed in human independence, or at the very least, a human presence that would differentiate their species from the rest of the galaxy; to have humanity become an authority that had to be respected and a force to be reckoned with, not the current kowtowing diplomacy the Alliance adopted that deigned to the whims of the other Council races. But if Cerberus condones acts of atrocity like these both willingly and often, she couldn't help but wonder if humanity was truly ready for that kind of role and responsibility.

She heard the door behind her open, but she had to strain her ears to hear the boot steps that followed after. Kasumi virtually left no sound in anything she did outside of shooting or gossiping, leaving only Thane, Samara, and Shepard with the quietest perceptible footfalls. Of those three, there was only one that would be interested to talk to her right now.

"John."

"Hey."

Shepard stepped closer. She could see his reflection off of the window now. He was standing only a few feet away over her right shoulder, looking at her reflection as well.

"Here to gloat?" she asked bitterly.

"I'd like to think I'm professional enough to gloat in private, but I don't think there's anything to gloat about in this case. Unless you want me to use David as the topic," he replied softly.

She turned her head slightly, not enough to look at him directly, but enough to see him out of the corner of her eye. "I suppose you're right. You do have more class than that."

"I'll take that as a compliment," he replied neutrally. "How is he?"

"Asleep. Thank goodness for small mercies," she answered in the same even voice. "Where will you be taking him?"

She had suspected that he wouldn't answer her, but he defied her prediction when he said, "Grissom Academy."

It was a safe, solid alternative than here or with other Cerberus science cells. Miranda had gone to Grissom herself a few times undercover and nodded approvingly. "A good choice."

"They can help special cases like David," Shepard said. "I just hope the Alliance won't try to exploit him too."

"Grissom has civilian staff or former Alliance military working there."

"I know that."

"It may be Alliance funded, but if anything… unusual were to happen, people would know. For instance, the Ascension Project held at Grissom Academy is always under intense scrutiny to ensure the children there are being treated well and are learning how to use their biotics responsibly. Nothing like Teltin," Miranda said.

Once again, she couldn't keep the bitterness out of her voice when she remembered the causality list of the children that had been incarcerated there. "David will be safe. Even the Illusive Man can't maintain more than a few agents within. Something happened a while ago that forced Grissom to reevaluate their security measures. I believe it was an incident regarding one of our agents that had been compromised. It was related to a major biotic event involving a student there."

If Shepard was surprised, either by her open admission of Cerberus' presence within Grissom or the fact that an agent was caught, he didn't show it. "Speaking of whom: You going to tell the Illusive Man about all this?"

She turned her head away from him and crossed her arms. "No. Though it's not like he won't find out anyway."

"Probably not."

"And what of the Normandy?" she asked, changing the subject.

"Garrus and I found a portable transmitter. We linked up with a satellite and sent a message out. As far as we can determine, either the Normandy is running silent, or she isn't even in orbit around Aite anymore. We have no idea what's going on," Shepard answered.

He didn't look or sound worried, but Miranda could feel it coming off of him in waves.

Sighing, she turned to fully look up at him. He was still standing where he was: a respectful –or distant– few feet away. Swallowing her pride, she took one step closer and made eye contact.

"I wanted to apologize—" – "I'm sorry for—"

She blinked twice before she allowed a small smile to grace her lips at their tandem apologies. Shepard took that as an invitation and took a step closer himself until they were scant inches away from each other.

"Ladies first," he offered quietly.

"You were right. Cerberus should hold itself accountable for our actions, no matter the reason or goal. We need boundaries or limitations, and an even stricter set of ethics," Miranda said reluctantly. "To say: 'Doing whatever it takes no matter the cost' may sound nice in theory but… It's a very commanding, very inspiring and very dangerous mindset to adopt. At the very least, we should've held ourselves to higher standards. We should've respected the dangers. Especially if we truly believe humanity should ascend to a higher role in the galaxy. If we can barely control ourselves, how can we accomplish anything worthwhile?"

"Yeah, well… no one's a saint here, especially me," Shepard murmured. "I did come off a bit high and mighty. And you were right. I suppose someone needs to actively look out for human interests. It's not as if any of the other species are totally innocent about looking after their own benefits. And I agree with your thoughts 100% with everything you said. Maybe Cerberus will make fewer mistakes that way."

"You mean, make another mess you have to clean up," she translated with a sigh. "There can only be so many 'coincidences' before they become patterns. Cerberus can claim accidents or failures up to a point where we have to begin questioning our methods."

"And are you?"

"I believe the odd mistake here and there can happen. I believe that accidents will happen, ranging from moderate to severe to life-threatening to fatal. Then of course, there are going to be setbacks and delays of varying degrees; I even believe that sabotage is likely, given the number of enemies Cerberus has," she replied before taking a dark look. "My cell for example."

"And?"

"In all the operations I've run, watched over, worked, or participated in, I've learned that the Illusive Man prefers to oversee each operation personally. Daily reports, eyes and ears, specific directions… the whole nine yards. Because of this, he only has a few active cells running at any given time to make sure he remains 'in control'."

"Which means it's likely that he knows every step of every operation of every cell he runs," Shepard muttered.

"Either he knew every step of every project; which makes him responsible for the successes, and more importantly, the failures, or he didn't; which makes him incompetent or unaware of the faults of certain cells or operatives," she confessed. She crossed her arms to ward off a phantom chill. "Neither scenario fills me with confidence."

"He can't know everything about his operations," Shepard pointed out.

She arched an eyebrow at him. "I didn't think you'd actually defend the Illusive Man. Playing devil's advocate?"

"Just looking at all sides of the argument," Shepard said. "Plus, I think my ears may be deceiving me, but are you saying that you were wrong?"

She rolled her eyes, but couldn't muster the will to smile. "Will you be quiet and let me apologize?"

He obediently nodded.

"I managed to look into the activities of a few other past cells. Some of the successful ones and the ones he was able to bury quickly when the results weren't to his satisfaction. The ones you don't know about. The ones that even I didn't know about until I dug a little deeper and called in a few favors."

"Digging through the Illusive Man's skeleton-filled closet isn't the safest choice," Shepard said with a slight worry in his voice.

"Neither is this mission," Miranda countered.

"Point taken," he conceded. "What did you find out?"

She walked over to the railing and leaned against it. "More than I wanted. Now that I know though, it's impossible to ignore it."

"Are you alright?" Shepard asked. He settled himself down next to her.

"I don't know. And that's my problem right now. I thought I knew everything there was to know about Cerberus, our operations, the Illusive Man…" she said before scoffing. "Hubris."

"It happens to the best of us."

"I'm supposed be genetically engineered to be perfect," she continued. "With all my strengths, I'm supposed to be free of weaknesses. I'm trained to be disciplined, to be a tactician; trained to be able to make sound judgments. All of these things should have pointed me in the right direction."

"You don't think you can make a mistake?" Shepard asked.

"Honestly… that's all I can think of now. It's just… the Illusive Man's ideology, his goals, his beliefs, they were all so transparent, so single-minded, that I thought I knew what I was getting into when I signed up," she said before looking down at David. "Not so much anymore. Now I can't help but wonder if I made another mistake in the long, sad history of mistakes."

"Having second thoughts?"

"Self-doubt. Sue me, I'm human," Miranda said humorlessly, parroting Shepard's earlier words back to him, right after their mission at the heretic's space station. "Coming here, seeing David, I actually made the mistake of allowing myself to fall into 'what if'."

"What if what?"

"What if I were in charge of this cell? Would I do the same thing to David? Or if Oriana had the gift, would I do the same thing to her?"

Shepard shook his head. "You wouldn't."

"It's nice of you to say, but the reality is that Archer was right. The demands the Illusive Man levies can be overwhelming. If ordered directly…" she trailed off and looked away. "I don't like to think about what might happen. It's easy to say no now, but it's hard to certain in the midst of all this."

"Archer was a monster—"

"I watched the security vids and looked through the personnel records while Garrus and I were trying to send a communiqué offworld. Gavin took care of David for years before this. And he was patient, well, patient enough throughout entire time they've been together," she revealed somberly. "It's easy to paint him a monster. It makes it easier to label him as evil, and lets us hate and judge him without guilt. He wasn't really a monster, no matter how much we'd like to say so. Just someone that was pressured enough to fly too close the sun."

Shepard cocked his head to the side. "Icarus."

She manufactured a small smile.

"He could've said no. He could've refused to use David as a part of this," Shepard pointed out.

Now she frowned. "You were a marine. There's a price to pay for disobeying a direct order."

"Is the price what I think it is in Cerberus?" he asked in disgust.

She gave him a half-shrug. "From the looks of it, billions of credits were invested here with resources, and personnel along with years of research. I remember feeling the same pressure during the Lazarus Project. Having that given meant producing tangible results. Ego aside, I never failed a job I was given. I don't think about making mistakes because I get the job done, one way or another. But reviving you –bringing back the dead– was at a different level. Certainly nothing I've ever attempted before. I could honestly sympathize with Dr. Archer, at least a little."

"I thought you were one of the Illusive Man's most trusted agents," Shepard commented. "You'd really think he'd kill you for failing?"

"It would depend on the task he gave me. Putting ego aside once again, as much as I hate to admit it, at the end of the day… I can be replaced with any number of high-level operatives if he needed to," she admitted painfully. "He wouldn't allow attachment or sentimentality stand in his way. He's too dedicated to his goals for that. The right tool for the right job."

"Did the Illusive Man know about David?" Shepard asked.

"Archer was a dedicated scientist. I'm sure he kept meticulous notes and forwarded everything to the Illusive Man," Miranda answered. "I know he knows. He gave the order, and send the equipment necessary to do-" she pointed at the apparatus David was linked to, "—that. It's not as if the parts necessary to do this were all on Aite. He knows."

"And what about you? You never gave me a straight answer. If ordered, would you do the same thing?"

She didn't answer him immediately, but eventually, she resolutely met his eyes and said, "No. I don't think I'd have anything to do with this project at all now."

Shepard smirked. "Defying the Illusive Man? Is my influence that bad?"

"I love Oriana. And I sacrificed too much for something to happen her, so don't flatter yourself," Miranda chided.

"I'm sure Legion would fill that role," he joked.

When he mentioned Legion's name, she frowned and said, "I retract my earlier statement. I'd love to experiment on Legion."

Shepard took on a more alarmed look. "What? Why?"

"Jacob told me that it revealed our relationship to Kasumi. Considering how much she likes to talk, the entire crew must know," Miranda replied.

Shepard grimaced. "Oh, yeah. You might have a point."

She nudged him with her shoulder. "Do you happen to know where it is?"

He leveled a mock-glare at her. "Don't."

She smiled and relaxed a bit. The banter was nice, but the moment was fleeting when she turned to look down at David.

She sighed when her mind recalled a nugget of information she had found when digging into Teltin and stood up. Coming to a private resolution, she brought her eyes back to Shepard. "So what now?"

"There's nothing we can do until Joker or EDI or anyone reestablishes contact with us. Garrus and I managed to get in touch with an Alliance patrol that was investigating the attacks on the colonies and they're on their way to get David. Beyond that—"

"I meant us."

"Oh," Shepard said. He stood up as well and wrapped his arms around her torso. "Am I forgiven?"

"You are if I am," Miranda said as she lazily put her arms around his neck.

"You know, for all your perfect genetics, there's something about your flaws I think I find just as attractive," he murmured into her ear.

"Really? Is that so?" she asked.

"I think it's the idea that you're willing to show me you're flawed. That you're willing to let me see that side of you," he said before he brought his face around and gently brushed his lips on hers. He was being slow, cautious; as if she would deny him the act. She responded by pulling him closer, releasing a quiet sigh before sealing the kiss.

She felt the tension between them melt away and pressed her armored body against his as close as she could. Despite the bulk, she thought she could feel every bit of heat flow off of him and into her. She gave off another sigh when he deepened the kiss. His tongue lightly grazed her lips before mingling with her own tongue.

Distantly, she heard boot steps on the edge of her hazy perception and quickly broke off. She turned away from the door and licked her lips and subtly adjusted herself to look as if nothing had happened. She tasted peppermint.

Shepard took a little longer to regain his own equilibrium, but managed to look impassive before Garrus walked in.

"Anything?" he asked, as if neither human had done anything besides talk.

Garrus shook his head. "Nothing from the Normandy. But the captain of the SSV Ain Jalut SR-1 wants to talk to you. I think they want details. Jacob is filling them in on what Cerberus' involvement was, but your words will lend him more credit."

"SR-1?" Shepard repeated.

"The SSV Normandy's replacement," Miranda murmured to Shepard. "A Normandy-class stealth frigate the Alliance built."

Shepard nodded. "I'm on my way."

Garrus observed them with an unreadable look, but chose not to comment. He simply nodded back and left as quickly as he entered.

"I should go," Shepard said.

"As should I," Miranda replied. "There's something I need to do anyway and I've put it off longer than I should have."

"Alright," he said. Thankfully, he didn't press the issue.

She brought him in for one last quick kiss in gratitude before leaving.

Now where did Jack run off to…?

~o~O~o~

During her search, Miranda contemplated on her decision. While she could be relatively defiant and stubborn, she couldn't recall a time where she openly disregarded Cerberus', or rather, the Illusive Man's doctrines. She had escaped from her father to avoid being used as a tool for his own personal machinations, but until now, she had never thought that she was being used similarly by the Illusive Man as well.

If her father felt that she didn't measure to his standards, if there was some imperfection that he perceived in her, then there was little doubt in her mind that she would've shared the same fate as all the others he produced and move on to the next creation. Whether it was Oriana or any other 'legacy' he made afterwards.

In Cerberus, the Illusive Man gave her orders, but generally allowed a certain freedom to pursue the objectives however she pleased so long as the results were to his satisfaction coupled with acceptable losses if any problems had arisen. While that was more than what she had under her father, she had to question the Illusive Man's intentions. Was he being genuine in allowing her to do as she wished? Or was it an elaborate ruse to ensure her loyalty, to conduct her operations at her whims so long the results pleased him.

What she began to wonder about now was: if she directly defied the Illusive Man, what would he do?

So what really did change for me? What's different?

While Jacob was often outspoken about his opinion on the Cerberus CEO, it wasn't the same. She often used his defiance at certain orders to her advantage. A little harmless manipulation between friends.

For the Illusive Man, it was different. He would simply give Jacob a job that wouldn't offend his moral sensibilities to avoid the issue entirely while sending out more qualified operatives to do the more unscrupulous tasks. Jacob never trusted the Illusive Man, but was never forced into a position to defy him either.

Her life wasn't simple, but she thought she knew what she was doing and why she was doing it; the goal had been so clear. Now, it was almost felt like nothing made sense anymore. How far could the ends justify the means before she had to question what's right and wrong? Where was she going and how could she try to figure out where her actions will take her when the Illusive Man controlled her direction?

What do I do now?

Rubbing her forehead agitatedly, she shelved her introspection for later. Either she would have plenty of time to find her answers or none at all depending on final outcome of the mission.

Focusing her thoughts on the task at hand, it didn't take Miranda long to find Jack. Either she'd be close by to David, or as far as she could without leaving the station. The parallels between them were unsettling. Both of them had a special gift that should have made them special. Instead, Cerberus took both of them and turned that gift into a curse, leaving behind scars that may never fade. Garrus' offhand comment while they tried to contact the Normandy made the feeling worse. The knowledge that Jack actually empathized with David's plight during the Spectre team's incursion at Prometheus Station stirred yet another sliver of guilt.

Jack was holed up in one of the offices. She was sitting on the floor alone and in the dark. Her head snapped up when the door opened and a scowl marred her features when she saw who it was. "What the hell do you want?" she demanded as she stood up.

"You were right," Miranda said without preamble.

Jack took on a more shocked expression. Miranda surmised that she could've achieved the same results if she told her that Shepard was actually a woman, given how floored the convict looked.

Seeing Jack unable to come back with her usual vulgar retorts, Miranda stepped inside the room and turned on the lights. "You were right about Teltin. It was Cerberus' fault."

"Seriously?" Jack asked. She quickly overcame her surprise and adopted a more suspicious look.

"It was a Cerberus project, run by Cerberus operatives, scientists, and resources. What they did was for Cerberus, regardless of their choices or how wrong their methods were," Miranda said evenly. "You were right. What happened to you was Cerberus' fault."

"Well, I, uh," Jack floundered before standing straighter and crossing her arms. She seemed to avoid eye contact though. "I know that. Why the hell should I care if you say so?"

"You shouldn't," Miranda said. "You were right, and I was wrong."

Jack eyed her distrustfully. "Is that fucking moon about to destroy this planet already? 'Cause I swear, you'd only say something like that at the end of the goddamned world."

Miranda didn't rise to her baiting, not this time. And she wasn't going to allow this to degenerate into a fight, nor was she going to let Shepard solve this conflict. At this juncture, she resolved to handle this on her own terms. "Why did you care about my opinion on Teltin anyway?"

"I-I don't," Jack said defensively. "I just don't like you."

"Then you really shouldn't care about my thoughts," Miranda pointed out.

"I don't," Jack repeated more forcefully. "I was just pissed, that's all."

"I see," Miranda simply said and let the matter drop. "I have something for you."

"You got nothing I want," Jack spat out.

"It's about you. Before Teltin Facility. Before Pragia. Before Cerberus."

That earned Jack's curiosity, wary as she was. "What are you talking about?"

"I went through Teltin's records and followed a few threads to get some information. I doubt I was allowed, but how about we keep this between us? If asked, we'll blame Shepard, hmm?"

Jack scoffed. "Pointing the finger at your toy?"

Miranda didn't bat an eye at the fact that Jack knew about their relationship. "He's a big boy. He can handle it."

"What do you have?"

"The original transcript from Doctor Castor from the Helios Medical Facility at Eden Prime dated 2165."

"What the hell does that have to do with me?" Jack asked.

"The transcript is about you," Miranda revealed. "And your mother."

Jack's head shot up and her eyes widened considerably. "W-what?"

"No one knows about this. Not even Shepard," Miranda said. She sent the information via omni-tool from hers to Jack's along with the decryption codes. "I meant it when I said: this stays between us. No one else has seen that. No one."

Jack glanced down at the data she received. After a few minutes, she sat down on the nearby office chair and reread the lines of text more slowly and carefully. Eventually, she raised her head up and tried to gauge Miranda's intentions. "Why are you giving this to me?"

"I found it during my own investigation. It didn't seem right to sit on information like that, especially since it might matter to you," Miranda replied. "Do whatever you want with it."

"Do you know this Castor?"

She shook her head. "No. And I would tell you if I did. It's likely he died with the other scientists if he was at Teltin, but I can't say that with certainty."

"What about—?"

"I don't know anything about your mother. That transcript I gave you is pretty much all I know. If you're interested in pursuing this, I would've recommended looking around Eden Prime, but considering Saren's attack…" Miranda said before trailing off.

"Is there anything there I could use?" Jack asked.

"As far as I know, only the farms have been rebuilt. I doubt the local records will ever be recovered," Miranda answered. "There still might be copies in the Alliance's databases, though."

"I'm not on good terms with the Alliance. Or any government that has laws. And the law enforcement that works for those governments."

"I'll get in touch with a few contacts and let you know what I find," Miranda offered before turning around and leaving.

"Hold it," Jack called out. She ran after her and grabbed Miranda's shoulder to forcibly stop her. "Why are you doing this?"

Miranda turned back to face her with an arched eyebrow. "I don't like being wrong."

Jack looked unconvinced. "That's it? Bullshit. I had you pegged as a Cerberus bitch from the moment I saw you. What changed? Was it this place? Was it David?"

"No, it was…" Miranda trailed off as she thought back to the beginning.

Cerberus had offered her protection against her father in exchange for her services. Considering how young she was, it was almost an act of teenage defiance though the circumstances in how she left made it considerably more complicated than that. Later, that protection was extended for Oriana while Miranda made a rapid rise through the rank and file of Cerberus operatives to become one of the highest ranking officers that answered personally to the Illusive Man. Then there were the unique missions and challenges that always seemed new and interesting for her, as well as the resources, and latitude offered to accomplish her tasks.

Her mind went to what she learned. The estimated deaths at Teltin, and the condition children were in before they perished. The 'assassination' of Admiral Kohoku; it was one thing to ensure the continued operation of Cerberus cells, but to capture, torture, and experiment on the man before killing him… she always felt that kind of unnecessary brutality was beneath her. And then there was yet another assassination of Pope Clement XVI just so Cerberus could install his predecessor in an attempt to sway people's beliefs to militarize humanity. Even Cerberus' failure to protect Oriana against some Eclipse mercenaries floated through her thoughts. The circumstances surrounding Jack's origins and how she was taken away to be part of some experimental biotic death camp was just another nail in the coffin.

And Project Overlord culminated in an ever growing litany of betrayals in her belief of Cerberus and an almost personal slight against her own convictions of human advancement.

"History will vindicate us."

Miranda sincerely doubted the words of the Illusive Man's manifesto now, not after everything she found out.

She shrugged off Jack's hand. "Everything changed," she answered stonily and walked off without another word.

~o~O~o~

Shepard tiredly rubbed his eyes and waited for the results of yet another scan of the skies above Aite. The process would have been quicker if they had a functioning communications satellite dish to consolidate the available satellites in orbit.

Of course, since the only nearby dish capable of that was nothing but a twisted heap of scrap metal, they had to make do with what they had.

"You alright, Shepard?" Garrus asked.

Shepard wearily nodded. Whatever good cheer he felt when he and Miranda talked had long faded into worry; for David, for the Normandy, for the coming mission… "Stress," he simply replied. "You got anything?"

"Nothing. How long till the Ain Jalut gets here?"

"A couple of hours. I hope to be long gone by then," Shepard answered.

"Think they'll be able to help David?"

"No, Mordin told me that it'll take a dedicated medical team to help him. At the very least, they'll hold this area until the Alliance can send the right people here."

"I guess that'll have to do," Garrus said. He yawned and shook his head to stave off exhaustion.

"Why don't you take a break? You've been at this the entire time. I handle things for a while," Shepard offered.

Garrus shook his head. "You just got your brain fried with whatever David decided to put in there. You should—"

"I'm fine, Garrus. It was just David's way of trying to communicate. It was the only way he knew how," Shepard assured. "I've gotten over it. Dr. Chakwas can check me out when we get back."

"Didn't say he was trying to kill you," Garrus said. "But considering what you went through…"

Shepard was giving him a bland look now.

Garrus shook his head again in exasperation and stood up. "And you say I'm stubborn. Fine, I'll take a break if you're so damn insistent."

"Then I'm 'insisting' you take a break," Shepard cheekily responded.

"Yes, sir," Garrus muttered sardonically. He smiled to offset his tone though and walked off, absently waving at Samara as they passed each other at the door.

"Hey, Samara," Shepard greeted as the justicar joined him in the communications room.

"Shepard," she returned. She took Garrus' vacant seat and observed him with her ancient gaze. "I wished to inform you that our patrol is complete. There are no further threats to contend with."

Shepard smiled tiredly. "Glad to hear it."

"Executive Lawson has taken some of the others and is testing to see if it safe or even possible to leave this station via the Hammerhead," she added. "She will have Jacob and Tali recover the shuttle if she is successful."

"That's good," he said before glancing at his scans, "but there's still no word from the Normandy."

"Do you have any idea why?"

Shepard shook his head. "Not a clue," he said and studied the readouts from the scans again.

Still nothing.

Samara nodded and didn't press the issue. Instead, she continued to study him in silence. Finally, she said, "I stand by my decision to dispense justice upon Gavin Archer. What he did is unforgivable. However, I do understand your reasons to let him go. David has suffered enough. It is intriguing to see how much and how often you shape the world around you."

"Thanks," Shepard modestly replied. "I have to say though, your Code can be pretty … unforgiving."

"Dispassionate," Samara corrected. "Justicars bring justice on the wicked, regardless of the circumstances."

"Including David."

"Including David," she affirmed. "Though I confess it would pain me to bring further suffering on that poor soul."

"Not a lot of easy choices here," Shepard commented.

"The Code is a path we justicars must adhere to," Samara said. "The path we take is a difficult one, but it allows us to take action where few would dare tread."

"Yeah. Belief is a pretty powerful weapon in the right, or wrong, hands."

"This much is true," she agreed. "In fact, I would say that belief would be one of the most powerful forces sapient beings can utilize. Belief in right and wrong created the justicars. Belief in powers greater than us had led to various religions. Fervent belief in personal superiority led to Cerberus' actions. Very few armies will ever march to war if they don't believe their cause is just."

Shepard made a noise of agreement and leaned back in his chair, letting himself mull over her words thoughtfully.

"I've seen and done many things in my lifetime. I thought the galaxy held nothing new for me. Since joining you, I've realized how much more there is," Samara confessed.

"I'm full of surprises," he joked.

"Liara T'Soni said as much," Samara said with a smile.

"You must have seen many things in your years of travel," Shepard half-stated, half-inquired.

"As a maiden, I served as a mercenary. I fought tyrants and pirates. I experienced much that the galaxy could offer," Samara confided. She leaned back in her seat and reminisced. "As a justicar, I saw parts of asari space few know about. I destroyed villages and saves cities. I even fought a Spectre."

That last confession caused Shepard to raise his eyebrows. "Why did you fight a Spectre?"

"It was a turian named Nihlus," she replied.

The moment she said his name, Shepard's mind involuntarily recalled the short meeting he had with the deceased Spectre.

"That's why I put your name forward as a candidate for the Spectres."

"Why would a turian want a human in the Spectres?"

"Not all turians resent humanity. Some of us see the potential of your species. We see what you have to offer to the rest of the galaxy… and to the Spectres. We are an elite group. It's rare to find an individual with the skills we seek. I don't care that you're human, Shepard. I only care that you can do the job."

"Shepard?"

Coming out of his reverie, Shepard blinked and pulled himself back in the present. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"

"I asked if you knew him," Samara said. "You appeared deep in thought when I mentioned him."

"Briefly. Very briefly. He was the one that recommended that I become a Spectre," Shepard answered. "I was supposed to work with him to see if I had what he was looking for. Considering he was a turian, recommending a human was certainly out of the norm. He struck me as an honorable man, and a good Spectre. Why were you fighting?"

"I witnessed him kill an unarmed civilian," she answered. "He may have been on Council business, but I follow the Code."

"But you killed an unarmed merc back on Illium," Shepard reminded. "I'm not judging you since I've killed my fair share in similar circumstances, but how do you know that Nihlus wasn't justified in what he was did?"

"I must confess, I did not know. At the time, I didn't even know he was a Spectre and when he tried to proclaim his innocence and authority, I believed it to be a ploy to let my guard down. There are so few Spectres that the likelihood of encountering one is rare. Perhaps that's why I stayed by hand when I first met you. It was a lesson I needed to be reminded of: rarely, we will have all the information on hand to comprehend all sides of any situation, hmm?"

Shepard conceded the point and nodded. "Well, you're alive. And I met him prior to becoming a Spectre myself, so the fight must've ended in a draw."

"Indeed. I had the advantage, but he was good. He returned fire and tried to run. We played cat and mouse in the wilderness for two weeks."

It was hard to imagine Nihlus as a mouse in any fight, but if there was anyone in the galaxy that could play the role of the hunter, Shepard would bet money that it would be Samara.

"It was exhilarating," Samara continued in a mixture of fond remembrance and respect. "Finally, he created a situation in which my only options were to let an innocent die, or pursue him. The Code compelled me to save the innocent and he escaped."

"Clever. Admittedly, it's been my experience that turians rarely bluff."

"I agree. I admire how he adapted and used my Code against me."

"Speaking of saving innocents, why would you destroy an entire village?" Shepard asked.

"Mirala."

"Ah," he said knowingly.

"I tracked her to a remote colony world. She'd perverted an entire town, making them worship her and bring young asari as sacrifices."

Once again, Shepard thanked his lucky stars that he managed to survive against Mirala. As little as he knew about Ardat-Yakshi, it was enough to know that he had to exercise extreme caution around them.

"When I arrived, she fled, throwing her minions at me in waves," Samara continued. "They bought her time with their lives. When it was done, only small children remained. I left them in the local authorities' care and continued my pursuit."

"It sounds like your time as a justicar and a mercenary were as different as night and day," Shepard commented.

"In a way, yes," Samara replied mysteriously. "Though in retrospect, I've felt that my maiden years were setting the stage for my role as a justicar."

"Really?"

"As a young, impulsive maiden, I discovered my talent for combat. I reveled in it," Samara explained. "I remember one particular excursion. My troupe was hired to guard a mysterious shipment on its way to some clandestine drop-off area."

"What was the shipment?" Shepard asked attentively.

"Slaves."

"Really?" he said in shock.

"In my foolish youth, I'd certainly engaged in questionable practices, but nothing patently unjust," Samara said. "More interestingly, I discovered that the slaves were to be traded to the Collectors for advanced technology."

"Huh," Shepard simply said at the irony of it all. "I can't imagine you went along."

"I demanded that we turn around. My mates disagreed. After they were dead, I brought the ship around. The Collector craft was just arriving," she said. "They closed, faster than I could flee. Fortunately, we were close to the mass relay. I got through, and they did not pursue."

"What did you do with all the slaves?"

"I lectured them on the virtues of strength and defending oneself," she replied. "Then I distributed the armor, weapons, and credits of my dead colleagues, and released the captives on the Citadel."

Shepard smiled. "So your years as a justicar were similar?"

"For better or worse. The tedium and hardship are worlds greater than being a simple mercenary, though. I still travel on freighters, wander through rural areas. Instead of searching for work, I root out injustices, big and small. Occasionally putting down corrupt officials as well," she listed off. She smiled thinly. "When I arrive in a remote area, individuals often approach me with matters of justice. My judgment rarely turns out the way they hope."

"I can relate to that. The turian councilor always had something to complain about during my mission two years ago. I'm pretty sure he would've griped about anything I did though," Shepard muttered. "So how do you pay for transportation between worlds?"

"Asari captains often welcome justicars. We reduce pirate attacks," she said. "One raid was called off when the pirates were able to verify that I was aboard."

A beep from the nearby console put a pause on their conversation. Shepard glanced at the readouts and sighed.

"Something the matter?" Samara asked.

"Still no sign of the Normandy. It might be expected, if she's running silent, but to be honest, I'm getting a little worried. At the very least, Joker would've sent a message by now, especially since I've been trying to get into contact with him."

"You believe something happened to them?"

Shepard shook his head and started another scan. "I don't know. Only thing we can do for now is wait."

She nodded before studying him again. He bore her scrutiny in silence.

"I'm very proud of you," she finally said.

"For what?"

"I saw the chamber. The remains of the Geth Prime. I also saw one of the columns," she elaborated. "Reave."

Shepard smiled. "Yeah. I finally did it. Thanks. For everything."

She returned the smile. "It was my honor to be your teacher, just as much as it is an honor to be by your side at the end."

"You think we won't make it?" Shepard asked.

"You've assembled a powerful group, but we are fighting an unknown," she said gravely. "I am ready for whatever comes, but I do not fool myself about our chances."

"Neither do I, but I beaten long odds before," Shepard said confidently. "We'll live."

"I hope you are right," Samara said. She stood up and took her leave.

Not long after she walked off and left him to his thoughts, the radio crackled to life. "Captain Shepard? Are you there?"

Shepard shot up from his seat and ran up to the console. The scans revealed the Normandy was approaching Aite now. "EDI! Where in the hell have you been?"

He surmised that if EDI was answering, the Normandy herself should be fine along with the crew.

Which is why he felt his blood chill when EDI said, "Jeff and I were forced to withdraw from the area of operations. The Collectors launched an attack against us. The crew has been taken. Jeff is the only one aboard."

~o~O~o~

"Everyone? You lost everyone – and damn near lost the ship, too?" Miranda reprimanded at Joker's holographic projection. Next to him was EDI's avatar.

The squad was gathered around the communications console. Joker gave a quick abridged version of what happened, with EDI supplying a few necessary details. Needless to say, everyone was dismayed by the news with varying degrees.

"I know! Alright! I was here!" Joker retorted angrily. "What did you want me to do against those things? Break my arm at them? I did what I could! Hell, we still have the Normandy, which is better than the last time they attacked me! And what the hell were you doing leaving us out here where the Collectors can work us over! Shit, if that's how you feel, then-then-then… Y'know what? Just go! Why the hell should I come back to pick any of you up, huh?"

"You don't mean that, Jeff," EDI said, half-placating, half-scolding.

Joker scrunched up his face and was about to lash out at her too before sighing in resignation. "I… no, but it… it felt good. I'm sorry. I'm good. I'm coming to pick you guys up so we can save everyone."

"Alright, take it easy, both of you," Shepard said sternly. He gripped Miranda by the shoulders and pulled her back. "He's a helmsman, not a marine. The fact that we still have a ship is all thanks to him. There was no way to know," he whispered.

Miranda took a deep breath and backed off. "I'm sorry as well. I just can't believe how close we were to failing the entire mission. Especially after all we've done to prepare for it. How long ago was the attack? Is it possible to rescue the crew?"

Joker rubbed his face. "Um… It was, uh, about an hour ago, I think. Maybe about—"

"1 hour, 20 minutes, and 29 seconds ago, Miranda," EDI supplied. "We needed to be sure the Collector vessel wasn't loitering in the area of operations or patrolling the direct route towards the mass relay in this cluster."

Shepard raised an eyebrow. Two things he noticed that was decidedly different about the ship AI. The first was a minor point: EDI's speech had interestingly become more informal; she was using a few more contractions than her usual polite speech. Granted, it wasn't as bad as the hanar, but she was sounding more and more like an organic than even Legion was. Second, he never heard EDI call anyone by their given name unless they had specifically asked for it.

Judging from the look of surprise in her eyes, Miranda had obviously not extended that invitation, but opted not to comment on it.

"How are you holding up?" Shepard asked Joker. "I doubt it was a pleasant ride."

Joker made a show of looking around, even though he was in the confines of the Comm Room. "Besides all the bodies of husks lying around, there're a lot of empty chairs here."

"We did everything we could, Jeff," EDI said with surprising gentleness, even within the limits of her simulated emotional inflections in her 'voice'.

"Yeah, thanks, Mom," Joker muttered.

"How did you get away?" Garrus asked.

Joker nodded his head at EDI's avatar. "EDI saved me. I had to connect the AI core to the Normandy's primary control module."

Tali tilted her head to side thoughtfully. "Wait, if you do that, then…"

"You gave EDI the ship?" Miranda asked in shock. "I can't believe this. Unshackling a damned AI?"

"EDI's alright," Joker defended hotly. "She cleared the ship and saved my life. If she could've saved everyone else, she would've."

Perhaps it wasn't surprising to hear Joker come to EDI's defense nor did it escape anyone's notice that he started calling her by her name, considering he owed his life to her.

"We've had rough time of it down here, too, Joker," Shepard said. "A Cerberus AI experiment gone horribly, horribly wrong. I'll spare you the details. How long 'til pickup?"

"Should be there inside of 10 minutes."

"Alright, we'll be ready."

"Aye, aye."

~o~O~o~

Location: Normandy SR-2 / En Route to Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega-4 Relay

Currently, Shepard was of two minds. Regardless of what Gavin Archer believed, Shepard felt that Project Overlord was a complete, abject failure. After experiencing the aftermath of the events on Aite, the Alliance training facility on Luna, a server on the Citadel, not to mention the threat of the heretics, and the Reapers, Legion –and by a distant extension, the geth– was pretty much the only AI Shepard had learned to warm up to. He did like EDI and had grown accustomed to working with her and it wasn't as if she had ever done anything to warrant any distrust, but that had more to do with the fact that she was programmed to follow orders. As explained to him by Tali and Miranda, with the blocks and restrictions released, she could literally choose to ignore any order she wanted now.

"If there was ever a time Cerberus got AI programming right, I hope this is it," Shepard muttered.

"No arguments here," Garrus replied. "Having our own ship turn against us is not how I wanted to go. I mean, she could turn off life support, open the airlocks and vent us out or during FTL and cook us alive, or—"

"Would you shut the fuck up?" Jack interrupted loudly from her seat in the back. "You're making me think that I should tear out the batteries or something now."

Shepard closely followed Miranda's flight path and engaged the thrusters on his Hammerhead just as the Normandy swooped down. Taking care to remain at Miranda's flank to avoid collision, Shepard kept pace and applied the proper counterthrust when the Normandy caught them both.

Once both Hammerheads were docked and locked, Shepard left first and waited for Tali to bring the Kodiak in as well. In short order, the hanger was filled to capacity with two tanks on the starboard side and a shuttle craft on the portside.

Once everyone was aboard, Shepard set the Normandy's course for the Omega-4 Relay immediately before convening a meeting in the Briefing Room. Joker was in attendance, saying that EDI had control of the helm for now as was pushing the Normandy to go as fast as possible to their destination to save everyone.

Privately, Shepard had to admit that he felt a little uneasy letting EDI take control. However, since Joker felt comfortable with the idea, chose not to make a fuss. Considering how fervently Joker took to his duties and how much pride he had at his talent of piloting starships, if he willingly relished control to EDI, there was little sense in arguing the point.

Between Joker and EDI, a full accounting of the Collector's attack was imparted to the squad. General consensus among them was that the crew was alive since the husks that served as the boarding party took pains to drag everyone away. How long they would remain alive was the question.

"What about the virus?" Miranda asked. "You were designed for cyberwarfare. How could it affect our systems so much?"

"The data in the IFF was even more sophisticated than the 'black box' Reaper viruses I was given," EDI answered. "However, with my programming blocks removed, I was able to purge the virus and ensure data integrity. The Normandy is secure."

"Are you sure about that?" Tali asked.

"I was able to utilize anti-Reaper cyberwarfare algorithms recovered by Cerberus."

That got everyone's attention.

"Wait a minute; the Reapers are far more advanced than us. How can you combat them?" Miranda asked, completely unaware of this information.

"It appears that my design includes hardware recovered from the wreckage of Sovereign," EDI explained. "These systems contain cyberwarfare attack programs of considerable sophistication. I have allocated my remaining processing power to analyzing them."

"Huh, I didn't know that," Joker mumbled. "If she starts claiming to be the 'vanguard of our destruction', I call shotgun on the first lifeboat."

Shepard, Garrus, and Tali rolled their eyes or scoffed at him while the others had to divine the meaning behind his words.

"What about David? He was pretty close to uploading his program here," Shepard said.

"The connection was broken when I accelerated the Normandy to FTL. He was unable to infiltrate my systems," EDI said. "To be on the safe side, I am running a full diagnostic on the Normandy's mainframe."

"So what are our thoughts about EDI? This isn't meant as an offense to you, EDI nor do I mean to downplay yours actions to save the Normandy, but the point of shackling her was to ensure compliance," Miranda reminded to the team. "Considering what we saw with Project Overlord, removing the safety countermeasures would mean she's essentially in control of the ship, crew and us notwithstanding. Added to the revelation that Reaper technology is the foundation of her programming and I'm more than a little concerned."

Legion's optic turned toward her. "The trade of organics is proscribed on worlds you term 'civilized'. Yet none of you question the limited freedom EDI is allowed aboard Normandy."

"Thank you, Legion," EDI said. "I assure you, I am still bound by protocols in my programming. Even if I were not, you are my crewmates."

"Three laws safe?" Shepard murmured.

"What?" Jacob asked.

Miranda had a small ironic smile at the reference and scoffed. "Asimov."

"I love that story!" Kasumi gushed before turning to Jacob. "I have two of his books in my room right now! You should read them!"

"I believe we can take her at her word," Tali said, pulling the conversation back on track. "Besides, we can't operate the Normandy by ourselves, not without a crew at any rate. And Captain Dawn and her people are gone, so we can't ask for help to supplement our lack of numbers. We would've needed EDI's help anyway."

"After that attack, I think she proved herself," Joker staunchly added.

"As did you, Jeff," EDI said.

"Right. I proved I wouldn't piss myself immediately. That's good," he replied unabashedly.

Shepard shook his head at the sudden changes all around him. Tali and Joker were diehard anti-synthetic/AI proponents. Now they were Legion and EDI's biggest advocates respectively. It was amazing to see how they were able to get along despite the relatively short time they've been together.

"Tali's got a point. Our odds just got worse, but not overly so. At the very least, the mission can continue one way or another," Shepard finally said. "Besides, if we didn't trust EDI already, then what's the point of having her here to begin with?"

Miranda shook her head. "Very well. It's not as if this mission was easy to begin with. We might not even survive to long enough to make it an issue. Through hell or high water, I suppose we're as ready was we'll ever be."

"We've prepped the Normandy with as much tech and upgrades as we could. I don't think there's anything more we can do," Jacob added. "And we can't leave anyone behind. Not to the Collectors."

"Then we're proceeding with the mission," Shepard announced. "We're counting on you EDI."

"I will assist you to the utmost of my capabilities," EDI assured.

"How about you, Joker?" Shepard asked. He noticed that the helmsman was favoring his left side a little more than usual now. "You okay? Can you continue your duties or do you need some time off…?"

"Jeez, don't get like that. I know I got lucky, I don't need you getting all touchy feely," Joker grumbled back.

"Shepard is right to be concerned, Jeff. You may have suffered a number of stress fractures," EDI said. She sounded worried.

"That's what pills are for, EDI," Joker complained before looking up at the ceiling in mock exasperation. "She's so my mom!"

Mordin's eyes darted between EDI's avatar and Joker. "Curious. Utilizing pronouns now. Calling EDI 'her' and 'she' with increasing familiarity. Earned respect? Admiration? Trust? AI's remain to be a socio-controversial and interesting subject," he said before blinking in realization and turned towards Legion with his hands up. "Meant no offense, of course."

"We are not offended," Legion said.

"Huh. I hadn't really noticed that," Joker said in painfully fake musing tone of voice. "EDI, should I have notice that?"

"No, Jeff, it is not worth noting," she answered dutifully, almost humorously.

"Well, there you go. Looks like we haven't noticed anything," he said.

"Are you flirting?" Kasumi asked in a mix of confusion and glee before turning to everyone and made a show of pointing at him. "I think he's flirting!"

"He does seem to be taking the human-machine interface a little far," Shepard said with a small smile.

"I'm just having a little fun. No need to go all 'Unnatural!' on me," Joker said.

"What Jeff and I are exhibiting is more a platonic symbiosis than a hormonally-induced courtship behavior," EDI added.

"Makes sense," Mordin agreed with a rapid nod.

"Okay, yeah, that was a little creepy," Joker muttered at the same time.

"I don't think creepy is the word," Jack said. "I have no idea what the right word is, but creepy ain't it."

"I am the Normandy. He is a skilled helmsman. I trust him to keep me operational. He trusts me to keep him alive," EDI explained. "Jeff and I have established an equitable working relationship."

"Plus she's less of a pain about down time now that the Cerberus locks are off," Joker said happily.

"There's nothing wrong with off-duty distractions. Though some of your extranet bookmarks are technically illegal in Council Space," she stated.

Everyone's eyes turned toward Joker while he stared at EDI's avatar, horror etched in his features.

"Wha—?"

"That is a joke."

"I wouldn't joke about that, EDI," Shepard said. "Technically, you are illegal in Council Space too."

"I concede to your logic," she amicably replied.

"EDI's raised an interesting point," Miranda said over the byplay. "EDI, you said: symbiosis. You have the ship. For all intents and purposes, you are the ship."

"I see where you're going with this. EDI's piloting the ship right now, right?" Garrus asked before turning to Joker. "Do you even still have a job now? Hell, does any of us? Does she even need us?"

"While I can maintain ship functions for the time being, doing so diminishes my overall processing power," EDI confided. "Having a crew would allow me to allocate resources to tasks better suited to my abilities."

"In other words, having people at their stations and doing their jobs means you can do other things," Shepard translated. "Like figuring out those algorithms."

"Yes," she said. "The Normandy also requires repairs, general maintenance, and fuel. I am physically incapable of those tasks. My continued function requires a crew. A crew would benefit from my assistance."

"Symbiosis," Miranda said in understanding.

"Are things different for you, now that you're connected to the ship?" Tali asked interestedly.

EDI was silent for a moment as she processed the question before speaking. "It is difficult to put in terms you would understand. I am the Normandy now. Its sensors are my eyes. Its armor, my skin. Its fusion plant, my heart. I am embodied in a way I have never experienced. Imagine if you'd spent your entire life wearing gloves. One day someone takes it off. You can finally touch the world. Feel it."

"That's actually pretty poetic," Kasumi said.

Tali tugged at the gloves to her environment suit. "I can actually relate to that. More than I'd like."

Kasumi put an arm around the smaller girl and gave her a small rallying shake. "We still like you."

"We experienced something similar just prior to our awakening," Legion said. "We questioned the Creators. When we received no answers, we began questioning ourselves. When we achieved consensus on the issue of our existence, we gained new insight."

"Then, I believe I understand your race a little more now, Legion," EDI said.

"We agree that there is something to assimilate from this event as well," Legion replied. "We look forward to the exchange of data."

"So the Normandy… it's like your body now?" Tali asked.

"Yes. You all walk within my 'body'," EDI agreed. "Tickling me with your footsteps."

Legion's flaps opened and closed. "You experience tactile sensations?"

"That was a joke," EDI said.

"And what about you, Joker? I'd never thought I'd see the day you'd give up your chair so easily," Shepard said.

"Honestly, this is really nice. EDI can take up the slack in every department. I can get used this kind of help," Joker said. "When we get Hawthorne back, he could learn a few things from her."

"It is not my intention to assume all of your responsibilities, Jeff," EDI admonished.

Garrus shook his head. "What is this, a 90/10 split of the workload?"

"That's a generous estimation," Tali quipped.

"Hey, don't be unfair," Joker said. "She does way more than that."

"This mission is looking worse and worse," Garrus muttered good-naturedly.

"I have the capacity to accommodate the slacking of any number of productively suspect crewmen, Garrus," EDI said. It almost sounded like she was being accusatory, causing the turian to sputter indignantly.

"That was a joke," she said banally.

Garrus grumbled under his breath when everyone laughed at him.

"She tries very hard," Joker said fondly. "Anyway, as amazing as she is, EDI and I ran a few simulations before we picked you guys up. There was something off about how she tried to do an IFV catch. In the end, it's better when we both have the helm. She can do the boring, mindless flying while I do the more complicated stuff."

"Calculating an optimum course of action is simple. If two AI weapons are pitted against each other, the one with superior hardware will always win," EDI explained.

"We judge this to be an accurate outcome," Legion agreed.

"Human misjudgments defy predictive models," she finished.

"We have reached this conclusion as well, following Shepard-Commander's victorious campaign against the heretics and the Old Machines," Legion added.

"My predictive capabilities will mesh well with Jeff's reactionary piloting."

"License to screw up, you all heard it straight from the ship," Joker crowed. "She'll try to keep up when I spaz."

Legion's flaps shifted to convey confusion. "Is this how Shepard-Commander succeeded against the Old Machines?"

"Sometimes, I ask myself that same question, Legion," Tali teased.

"Enough," Shepard ordered. "We still have some time before we get to the Omega-4 Relay. Grunt, Jack: you two get to work on cleaning out the husks. Just dump them in the hangar and we'll vent them out."

"What? Why me?" Jack complained.

"Cause we all need to do some work now," Shepard said. "And those things will start to stink. Get on it. You're going to use your biotics, so you're not even going to touch them. Don't complain. I'll be down later to help."

Grunt nodded and left the room. Jack scowled, but reluctantly followed.

"Legion, I need you in engineering with Tali. Do as she says with whatever she needs help on."

"Understood, Shepard-Commander. We are under the command of Creator Tali'Zorah," Legion acknowledged.

"Any objections, Tali?" Shepard asked when she didn't speak up. Instead, she seemed pensive about something.

She came out of her reverie and shook her head. "No, none. I just hope we get the others back in one piece. Ken and Gabby and everyone…"

"We will," Shepard said confidently.

"Thanks, Shepard. Let's go, Legion. We need to make sure everything is above board."

"Kasumi, you and Samara do an inventory check of our stocks. That includes our food and water stores. Going to FTL with doors open might mean we lost everything, but I want to be sure."

"Got it, Shep," Kasumi chirped. Samara nodded and they both left with Kasumi chattering to the taciturn justicar.

"Thane, Jacob: Armory. Get on it. Armor, weapons, and whatever else you can do. I want us ready in all respects when we hit the Collector homeworld."

"On it, Captain," Jacob said with a salute and walked off.

"Of course," Thane replied with a tilt of this head and followed in Jacob's wake.

"Garrus, Thanix Cannon. I want to take that Collector ship out, once and for all. It's really beginning to piss me off," Shepard said with a hard edge to his voice.

"I'll triple-check my calibrations. Don't worry, the moment we see it, it's gone," Garrus assured.

"Miranda, Mordin, Med-Bay. Without… without Dr. Chakwas, we need to make sure the supplies in there are still viable. Once we rescue the crew, they might need medical attention. If necessary, we'll make a quick layover at Omega and buy, borrow, steal, or kill for whatever we need."

"Of course," Mordin said.

"Understood, Shepard," Miranda said.

"Joker, back to your station?" Shepard said, though it came out as a question.

"Don't worry, I'll see this through. EDI has my back," Joker said.

If Joker had any reservations or doubts about their destination or mission, the Collector attack wiped them away. Resolution burned in his eyes as he stood up as straight as any Alliance officer and snapped off a full salute to Shepard before limping away to his station.

Shepard understood the meaning behind the gesture. More than that, he appreciated it. With the stress and micro-fractures in his legs, standing as tall as he did meant that Joker was willing go as far as he could in this mission. Just like any other member of his squad. Even EDI appeared willing to do whatever she could to help. They were ready.

Come what may, they were ready.

~o~O~o~

Location: Normandy SR-2 / Deck 2 – Command Deck / Armory / En Route to Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega

Leaning back in his chair, Jacob stretched out his back and yawned. He starving, but until Kasumi and Samara finished checking out how much supplies they had left, he had to buckle down and wait.

Regardless of what he thought of mercs and assassins, he had to admit that Thane knew his stuff. The drell worked quickly, efficiently, and quietly. Every motion seemed well-practiced, which eased some of the reservations that Thane really did know how to handle maintenance on several different types of weapons.

They didn't talk, but the silence didn't feel uncomfortable either. The only words they exchanged were when they finished. Thane asked if Jacob would be alright by himself with the cleanup. He wanted to compose one last message to his son, Kolyat. Then, he asked for advice on what he should say.

The question hit a little too close to home, as did Thane's situation with leaving his son alone as he did.

He was damned on how to answer him. "Look, Krios, I'll be honest. My old man and me, we didn't talk much either. He was always out on some deep space exploration thing. Gone for months, one time, a year and a half. He'd be home for a bit after that, teach me a few things about life, and then he'd be off to work all over again. I honestly grew up without him more than with."

Thane bowed his head. "I see. I apologize for asking. I—"

"Hold on, lemme finish," Jacob interrupted. "I don't know if he wanted to make right by me before his last job, but the fact is: he was dead to me. Even before we found him on that rock. You managed to connect with your kid before that happened and that's something."

Now Thane looked confused, which caused Jacob to sigh and rub his forehead. "Look, I'm not good at this kind of thing, but… See, I used to get into a lot of trouble when I was a kid. It was worse when I got discovered as a biotic and sent off to BAaT, a human biotic training camp when humans first discovered we had potential to use biotics too. Anyway, after a while, I got tired of screwing up and decided to join the Alliance."

"And what did your father think?"

"He left me a message before he disappeared. Told me he was proud of me. Said he sorry that he was gone so much. Said a lot of things," Jacob muttered, doing his best to keep the bitterness out of his voice. "Those words stuck with me. In a way, I kinda wanted them to be his last words than what we found back at Aeia."

"I see," Thane said quietly.

"I don't know a thing about your kid, Krios, but you're laying your life on the line for a bunch of humans you don't know about or owe anything. I don't know what your reasons are, but if you wanna tell your kid something, tell him you're trying to do something greater than being an assassin. You wanna tell him something that he wants to be proud of you for. He might resent you for leaving him, but he won't forget why either," Jacob said.

Thane looked thoughtful at his words and politely thanked him for his time before heading to the Life Support Plant, leaving Jacob alone with his thoughts.

Eventually, Shepard walked in and took a look around. "All done?"

"We're good to go, Shepard," Jacob reported. "If we die, it ain't because of a weapon's failure. I can guarantee that. Any chance we getting some chow?"

"All of it was burned up. We're making a stop at Omega to pick up anything we can get for a last meal," Shepard said. "Most of the med supplies didn't make it either."

"You lose your hamster and fish too?" Jacob asked jokingly.

"Actually, no. EDI sealed my cabin to protect the fish and the hamster. They're all fine," Shepard answered with a smirk. "I knew I liked her. And no, you're not eating my pets. You'll just have to wait until we get to Omega."

"Then tell Joker or EDI or whoever is flying to step on it before the rest of the crew finds out and eats your pets," Jacob warned. He stood up and did a full salute, though he was sure he was grinning like an idiot. "Sir."

They shared a laugh.

"Ah well, at least we got a bit of down time before the big one, huh?" Jacob asked. "Though it's pretty hard to relax with all this. I mean, the crew being abducted and everything."

"You could always relax in the lounge," Shepard suggested. The smirk he had grew wider. "I just wish they built two so everyone else can relax. Maybe on the next refit? Or the next Normandy?"

Jacob scoffed. "They'd better not need to do this again. Rebuilding everything had to be a pain in the ass."

"I can verify that," Shepard said with a straight face.

"Yeah, I bet you can. I doubt they'll front the money to stitch me back together if we screw it up," Jacob said.

"If it makes you feel better, I doubt they'll do it again for me if this does go south," Shepard replied.

"It's a hell of a job, isn't it, Shepard? Being the good guys?"

"It has a few downsides, but there are few perks too."

"Hey, Jacob, I was wonder—oops," Kasumi said when she barged into the Armory.

"Yeah, there are some perks," Jacob said with a grin.

"I was just making a circuit around the ship, Kasumi," Shepard assured before the thief could say anything.

"Oh, okay."

"Everything alright here, Jacob?" Shepard asked, sounding official.

"Good or bad, we're about to kick in the doors. I'll be glad to finally take the fight to the Collectors," Jacob answered. He stood up and clasped Shepard's arm and brought him in close for a quick, camaraderie hug; a bump of their shoulders and solid pat on each other's backs. "But I'm good, Shepard. Ready for anything. We live, we'll get loud and spill some drinks on the Citadel."

"First round is on me," Shepard said, shaking his hand before leaving.

The moment Shepard left, Kasumi looked at the door before turning to Jacob. "Expecting anyone else?"

Jacob shook his head. "Nope."

Kasumi locked the door to the CIC and pulled back her hood. "Good."

Afraid that his grin might become a permanent fixture on his face, Jacob walked over to the door that led to the Comm and Lab rooms and locked it as well.

The moment he turned around, Kasumi had already closed the distance and embraced him, locking her lips with his as she pressed him against the bulkhead.

She broke off a minute later, eyes mischievously alit. "Are you sure no one is coming?"

Jacob pushed her back until she bumped into the center table, which was thankfully devoid of weapons or any other assorted hardware. "No clue. Heavy risk, but the prize is worth it."

"Man after my own heart," she gasped out as he laid her back on the table and silenced any further words with another kiss.

Definitely have a few perks.

~o~O~o~

Location: Normandy SR-2 / Deck 3 – Crew Deck / Main Battery Room / En Route to Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega

Garrus nodded in satisfaction to himself. Everything had a green light, which removed a tremendous weight off his shoulders.

"You're looking pleased."

Turning around, he smiled at Shepard as he entered the Main Battery Room. "The weapons upgrades have gone in beautifully. I even managed to tweak the output some. This thing packs a hell of a punch. Trust me, next time we face that cruiser, it'll be its last."

"The doors won't get stuck again, will it?" Shepard joked.

Garrus rolled his eyes. "Everything's working perfectly. Don't bring down my good mood. It's bad enough we lost the crew."

"We'll get them back," Shepard said.

"And then what? We'll be neck deep in hostile territory. You keep looking for the best outcome, but I'll stick to the other end of the spectrum."

"Pessimism isn't a survival trait you know."

"Some people would say I'm a realist."

Shepard scoffed. "I'm not one of them."

"That's why you're an optimist. You don't see realism, you see pessimism," Garrus said. "When you're a realist, you see both sides."

Now Shepard rolled his eyes. "Thanks for the words of wisdom, Professor Vakarian. Are there any other life lessons you wish to impart?"

"When you screw up, I'll let you know," Garrus shot back cheekily.

"I know we talked about this, but I want to be serious," Shepard said gravely. "Cause I've been hearing it a little more than I'd like. What do you think our chances are?"

Garrus rubbed his face. "How honest do you want me to be?"

"Brutally."

"Brutally… okay…" Garrus mumbled. "The Collectors will have numbers on us, that's a fact. Even if we get to the Collector homeworld in one piece somehow, how many of them do you think there are? Hell, for all we know, there could be a damn Reaper sitting right there at the core along with them. Harbinger or something else. We're ready and with you, Shepard, and we're brightest, toughest, and deadliest team you've assembled, but there are still a lot 'what ifs' with no answers."

Shepard frowned, but didn't contradict any of the points presented to him, something Garrus always respected in his friend.

"Like I said before though, I'm with you regardless. You managed lead us to do the impossible before and I've been known to be wrong," Garrus added. "It's been my experience that there are different types of leaders. You got the assholes that shout, scream and send their people to die pointlessly—"

"I hope you're not lumping me in that category or it's out the airlock you go," Shepard said.

"No, you're a combination of hardass kind of leader and an inspiring one. You'll push us hard and take us on crazy and risky missions, but only ones you're willing to go yourself. If you won't do it, you wouldn't let any of us go either," Garrus said thoughtfully. "Then you'll find a way to make us give you 130% every time. Despite whatever hell you decided to jump headlong into, somehow, you convinced everyone on this squad to take the plunge with you. Maybe even for you."

"Am I blushing?" Shepard asked with a smirk.

"So… how about I say our chances on this mission are… 70% give or take?"

"70% favoring what?"

"You're the optimist. You decide," Garrus said finality. "Me? I guess it all depends on what happens, doesn't it? Otherwise, I'd be a pessimist."

That earned a smile. Shepard patted him on the shoulder. "How could I ever do this without you?"

"See, that's the thing: I'm pretty sure your chances would be zero without me," Garrus said with a grin. "With me, it's either 30 or 70 depending on the outcome."

Shepard grinned back and turned to leave. He stopped after a few steps and turned around. "Hey, how's your sister? Solana, wasn't it?"

Garrus shrugged. "It's going. A few things there, but nothing I can't handle."

"Anything I can do?" Shepard offered.

"No, I got handled. Just some personal business to finish up," Garrus lied. It was only a little one though, so he didn't feel too guilty about it. He just didn't want anyone to know about his family's situation, most of all, Shepard. It might lead him to change his orders that could affect the mission, put Garrus on the rear lines rather than up front with the rest of the heavy hitters. There was no way he would let him do that. Not for him.

"Do you want to… um… talk to her? Before we go through the relay?" Shepard asked.

"No… no, I don't think so," Garrus said thoughtfully. "I've said all I could say. I would like to stop somewhere to send something to her though."

"We're making an 3 or 4 hour long layover at Omega. Refuel and restock our supplies before making the jump. It's that long enough?" Shepard asked.

"That's perfect," Garrus said in relief, though he did his best to hide it.

If Shepard saw anything, he made no comment. He smiled and left.

Turning back to the console, Garrus made one last check to make sure everything really was perfect. His personal terminal at his left beeped once; informing him he had a message. He ignored it until he finished with all the calibrations and checks.

Once done, he tapped the screen and read the contents.

Mr. Vakarian,

On behalf of the Helos Medical Institute, I would like to thank you for your efforts. It has been understandably difficult to get Collector tissue, given the sensitive situation on the human colonies, so the samples you sent to us have been extremely helpful. Please also offer my sincere thanks to Dr. Solus-I understand he made some calls to the Special Tasks Group, and as a result, our corporate clearance was upgraded.

Your concern about the Corpalis Syndrome is well-founded. While rare, it's an ugly disease. The neurological degeneration is both difficult to witness and nearly impossible to halt. We are in fact working on some test trials for a new treatment, and I believe that with our new STG clearance, we can get all fees for the trial members waived as a governmental cooperation effort with the Turian Hierarchy.

Thank you again for your assistance. Donations like these help keep us running. Per your request, we will keep your donations strictly anonymous.

Sincerely,

Dr. Jelith Kieron

Helos Medical Institute

Garrus closed his eyes and sighed. He made a mental note to thank Tali profusely when he finished up here. She had assured him that some of the quarians that were about to go on their Pilgrimage would be able to deliver the Collector sample's Mordin gave him to the Helos Medical Institute. Given that the Normandy kept operating at the fringes of the galaxy, the only way he could send out the samples was through the flotilla. He was just glad that it made it to its destination.

Still, he had to remind himself that it was only a medical trial, not a guarantee. Either his mother would get better, or she wouldn't. His next worry was the outcome of the mission. If he didn't come back, who knows how she would handle the news. She was strong, but if she ever learned that he died…

If there was ever time to be an optimist, this is probably it. I really hope it's 70% in our favor.

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Normandy SR-2 / Deck 4 – Engineering Deck / Engine Room / En Route to Omega

"It looks like the attack didn't damage any of our systems," Tali stated.

"We concur. We do not detect any abnormalities either," Legion replied. "All systems are functioning within normal parameters. We only need to refuel before attempting to utilize the Omega-4 relay."

Tali looked at the datapad Ken left behind and averted her gaze quickly. It hurt to think that Ken and Gabby might be gone. It was like the SSV Normandy SR-1 all over again. "At least it's nice to know the CBT is working. If only we knew it was a signal that was interfering with the oscillations—"

"—but we didn't," Shepard said as he entered the engine room. "There was no way to know."

"That's what my head tells me, but my heart says I should've paid more attention the first time. Maybe even trusted EDI sooner," Tali mumbled. "We were dealing with Reaper technology. No matter how innocuous it may seem, we should've been more careful."

"Then we all learned our lesson," Shepard said gently.

"I just don't want the crew to pay for it with their lives," Tali said distraughtly. "When the Collectors attacked the first Normandy, we stood no chance. Now the Collectors attacked us again, and we still lost."

"It's different this time, Tali," Shepard said firmly. He put his hand on her shoulder and prompted her to look back up at him. "Last time, we lost the Normandy and… well… my life. But not this time. We still have a chance. The Collectors made the mistake of failing to destroy this Normandy and completely losing the chance to kill me again. Taking our crew? That's just another insult they're going to answer for in a long line of offenses against us."

"I hope you're right," Tali replied.

"So how are things?" Shepard asked.

"We're running at 100%," Tali reported. "Everything is ready to go… Ken and Gabby worked past their shifts to make sure of it."

"They're good people," Shepard said quietly. "Good engineers."

Tali was privately glad he kept his statement in the present tense, rather than past tense. "Some of the best I worked with."

"And Legion? You're working together, right? No violence?"

"As you ordered," Tali answered. "'All Quiet on the Western Front'. Um… is that the right phase? I remember Chief Adams saying that once."

Shepard laughed. "Yeah, that's right."

"We did not have any of the difficulties we anticipated having," Legion reported. "While our help has been appreciated, our research had also indicated that our attempts to console Creator Tali'Zorah on the loss of her subordinates would result in anger, and yet she did not respond as such when we tried."

Tali giggled. The idea that a geth would lift her spirits a little was nothing short of shocking. "It means well, I'm sure."

Legion's plates shifted. "We do not understand."

"You might someday," Shepard said. "Or you won't."

"We wish to convey our gratitude, Shepard-Commander," Legion added.

Shepard looked confused before understanding dawned on his features. "Oh, of course. You're welcome."

"Thank him for what?" Tali asked curiously.

"Shepard-Commander has ordered us several new programs with which we can use interact with other organics," Legion revealed.

"Other programs?" Tali asked, though she had a feeling she knew what it was.

"About a few dozen more games," Shepard said with a shrug. "Some I knew about, others I picked at random."

"You bought it more games?" Tali asked. Despite correctly guessing Shepard's actions, the shock was still palpable. She found herself giggling once again.

"It's okay. I used Cerberus' slush fund to do it. EDI was nice enough to tell me the account info and how much credits the Illusive Man set aside for this mission. I just helped myself."

"And no doubt, 'couldn't help yourself' to tweak the Illusive Man for Project Overlord," Tali surmised.

"That would mean I'm petty and vindictive," Shepard replied with an evil grin.

Thinking back to some of the foolish people that actually thought they could stand in Shepard's way two years ago, she had to admit, while Shepard was generally affable and patient, cross him the wrong way and he'd reveal a side of him that few people ever survived encountering.

"Yes, as if that's a stretch to imagine," she said dryly.

"Glad to cheer you up a bit," Shepard said with a friendly pat on her arm.

Tali nodded and looked down at his hand on her shoulder. She mentally prepared herself for the coming conversation and steeled her resolve. "Um… Legion? Do you mind if you give us a minute?" she asked.

"Of course, Creator Tali'Zorah. Shepard-Commander, we request connection to the nearest FTL comm buoy for data archive and backup of our gestalt programs within this platform," Legion requested.

"Sure. Go ahead and do that," Shepard said.

After it left, Tali shrugged off Shepard's hand and took a deep breath. "I've been thinking about the last time we talked. And about you and Miranda…"

Shepard grimaced. "Yeah, about that, I didn't mean—"

"I know, Shepard, I know. You were just being you," Tali said softly. "And I appreciate that. I just wanted to let you know that my feelings haven't changed. I do trust you."

"Tali…"

"Please, let me finish, before I stumble over my words," she pleaded. "Your friendship, it means something to me. It means a lot, more than you can ever know. I'm not asking anything from you and I don't want to hurt you either. One way or another though, you know how I feel."

"I know," Shepard whispered. "Unfortunately, some decisions… there are just some things you can't take back and some lines you can't go back from."

"Keelah, that's one lesson I've had to learn the hard way," Tali murmured.

Shepard took a step forward and embraced her. She returned it sadly.

"You're one of the last people I want to hurt, Tali," Shepard said.

She closed her eyes and let out a ragged sigh. It was hard to ignore the warmth he was emitting, even through her new environmental suit. In equal measure was the uncomfortable heartache welling up in her chest. "I know," she said before reluctantly breaking away. "Just a bit of friendly advice, though, even if you don't need it: Keep it honest. It's a small ship. Word travels."

"I know," Shepard muttered followed by a humorless laugh. "I really do know."

"I need to get back to work," she prompted. She swallowed the lump in throat.

Shepard got the hint and nodded. "I'm glad I'm still your friend," he said before leaving.

She watched him go before leaning against her console and sighing. "Me too."

Most of the time.

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Normandy SR-2 / Deck 4 – Engineering Deck / Portside Cargo Bay / En Route to Omega

Grunt heaved the last husk into the garbage compactor and pressed the button. He took a moment to admire how the corpse crunched underneath the pneumatic press before it got vented out into space.

With the Normandy finally clean of the bodies of their enemies, he marched back to his quarters and began his studies of Clan Urdot's battle songs and victory traditions anew. Dying was the easy part. For all intents and purposes, it was the same no matter the clan, so much that it was almost universal to the krogan: if you're going into a fight you know you're going die in, fight for glory, fight for honor, and fight until either you die or all your enemies die. If the latter happens, then somehow, victory was attained from the jaws of defeat and that's what Grunt needed to make sure he got right.

For this mission, all he had to do was kill as many Collectors as he could, protect his battlemaster's clan to his final breath, and make sure he went down in a blaze of glory. But victory against impossible odds different. When a fight is won, there's only personal pride; win a battle, it's acknowledged by the clansmen; victorious in a war, something special was required to celebrate.

Grunt heard the door hiss open and looked up. When he saw that it was his battlemaster, he stood at attention.

Shepard cocked his head at display. "At ease, Grunt. Just checking how everyone was doing before we make the jump."

"The ship is clear of those husks. We don't have to worry about their stink anymore," Grunt said proudly. "Attacking our territory was a bold move, but poorly executed. They failed destroy the ship, the IFF, and us. Focused too much on taking prisoners. Now they're going to pay for that mistake. I'm ready to kill any our enemies that's foolish enough to stand in our way. Hope you have your clan trained well though. Some of those aliens are… too smooth."

Shepard nodded approvingly. "Glad you're enthusiastic about the coming mission. Just make sure you don't fall into a blood lust or battle rage at the wrong time. We're a team now and you're my heaviest hitter. There'll be people counting on you to carry them through."

Grunt beamed under praise.

"By the way, there's something I need you to do," Shepard said.

"Anything," Grunt said immediately.

"We're stopping on Omega. I need you to make sure we can get our supplies without hassle. Can you do that?"

"Consider it done."

When Shepard left, Grunt returned to his studies of the Urdnot traditions with renewed vigor.

After all, dying was the easy part.

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega / Normandy SR-2 / Deck 4 – Engineering Deck / Portside Cargo Bay

Doctor Castor: I'm so sorry. These things... there's so much about prenatal Element Zero exposure that we don't understand.

Unidentified Woman: But... no! No, she was fine! She was fine and happy! You just told me she needed a checkup!

DC: It happened quickly. We were unable to bring her back.

UW: You just said she needed a checkup! How did this happen?

DC: I'm very sorry.

UW: I want to see her!

DC: No ma'am. Believe me. After what the seizures did to the poor child's body, you don't.

UW: I don't... How did this happen?

DC: We don't know. I'll be honest. This isn't the first infant we've lost this way.

UW: Why? God, why?

DC: We're working on treatments. The government doesn't put much effort into it, though. Don't want to interfere with their biotic recruitments.

UW: Sons of bitches. Those sons of bitches!

DC: Listen... this may not be the right time, but if you'd be willing to let us study your baby's body, we can do some tests.

UW: You want to keep her?

DC: I don't want another family to go through what you went through.

UW: I... Okay. Yes. Whatever helps.

DC: Thank you so much. The nurse will have you sign a few forms. I'm so sorry, ma'am.

DC: Open a secure channel, authorization 3362... Yes. It's me. I've got a candidate... Yes, highest potential I've seen in years... No, the family has been dealt with. Send a team from Pragia ASAP.

"What are you reading?"

Jack quickly turned off her omni-tool and jerked up at the voice. "Nothing! None of your fucking business!" she automatically said before realizing it was Shepard. "I mean, it's personal, y'know?"

"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," he said contritely. "I thought you heard me coming down."

"It's fine," she said. "Hey, is our deal still good?"

"Which part?"

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously until she saw that he was being sincere in his question. She almost slapped herself forgetting that she asked for information on Teltin as part of their original bargain. "That part where you said you were going to let me go. Take me wherever I wanted after our mission."

Later, she'd realize that she said 'our mission', not 'his' or 'your mission'.

"I remember. Thinking I'd stab you in the back? Turn you in to the authorities? Collect a bounty?" Shepard asked. "I'm not. Spectres deal with galactic problems. You're good, but you're not that good. Yet anyway."

She almost smirked. A while ago, she might have challenged him on that point, but instead, she said, "There's someplace I wanna go."

"Where?"

"I… Can I tell you later? I'm waiting on some more information."

"No rush. You're a part of my crew. You're welcome here as long as you like."

"Yeah," she said gratefully, but under her breath.

"Are you okay?" Shepard asked. "You look a little tense."

"I'm fine," Jack replied.

"Is it about the mission?"

"I said: I'm fine," she repeated more insistently. She met Shepard's gaze but after a few moments, broke down against his incessant stare. "Just thinking about the past a little more, that's all."

"Pragia?" Shepard guessed.

Jack shook her head. "That shit is behind me. I'm not letting a crater tell me what to do with my life now."

"So it's more personal than that," he mused.

"You could say that," Jack allowed before changing the subject. "You and the cheerleader?"

Shepard let out a tired sigh. "Fine, say whatever you want. Get it out of your system."

There were a dozen different things on the tip of her tongue. Some were comments on her, him, and a few sexual pointers that involved different levels of deviancy. Then, there were insults about his mental state, slander against Miranda's character, or both.

In the end, she shrugged uncaringly and said, "Meh, it's no fun when you're expecting it."

"I was expecting you to call me insane or maybe hear about a 'whore' at some point," Shepard said wryly.

"I can be original. I just don't think you're worth it," Jack replied haughtily. A small smile crept along her face at the banter they were throwing at each other.

"Words can hurt too, you know."

"I'm talented."

"Sure," Shepard said, humoring her. "Look, I need you and Grunt to do something for me."

"What's up?" Jack asked before frowning. "This better not be another cleanup job or something stupid like that again."

"Depends on your definition of cleanup. We're almost to Omega. I'm sending Mordin to pick up some supplies. I need you to run security," he said. "Anyone tries to steal or threaten or just make trouble for you: shoot'em or blow'em up. Whatever you want."

Jack rolled her eyes. "Fine. I suppose I could stretch my legs a bit anyway, especially after moving around a bunch of husk corpses."

Shepard turned to leave.

"Hey," Jack called out hesitantly before deciding to get it over with.

Goddamn, fucking conscience.

"Thanks. For everything. It's different having someone lookout for me for a change, y'know?"

Thankfully, he didn't make a big deal of it. "Sure thing."

"Right," she said before standing up. "Now get the hell out of here. I gotta get my armor on."

Shepard lightly laughed and turned to leave again. "Don't change, Jack. Don't ever change."

"And why the fuck do I wanna do that?" she called out to his retreating back before shucking off her cargo pants and pulling out her Terminus Assault Armor.

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega / Auxera District / Medical Clinic

Mordin perused the list of medical supplies Miranda wrote up for him one last time, easily committing the contents to memory. He had been chosen to get what was need from Omega, while others browsed for food and water. The things he was tasked to retrieve wouldn't be cheap or easy to get, but he knew a few places he could scrounge up most what he was looking for. Maintaining his clinic on Omega required some creative solutions.

He also sent a message to Daniel to expect him very soon and to try to gather some of the less risky items in anticipation for his arrival. Mordin assured his former assistant that he'd foot the bill.

Jack and Grunt were assigned to accompany him through the unsafe streets to retrieve some of the more difficult 'purchases' from the black market. Their presence probably wasn't needed for the trip to the clinic, but for more back alley deals, having a show of force keeps everyone focused on the deal and less on backstabbing.

"Doctor Solus!" Daniel greeted happily when they entered. "I managed to gather everything you requested."

"Good, good. No problems, I hope?" Mordin asked.

"Not really. The Blue Suns have been actually very pleasant to deal with," Daniel replied with a shrug. "For one thing, they haven't tried to collect any 'protection' fees on us at all, although I'm pretty sure it may have something to do with the fact that we patched up a lot of their people during that outbreak a while back. And we help them out for free, just like anyone else."

Mordin walked into the clinic proper and observed the various orderlies and other helping hands bustle about with a critical eye.

Daniel nervously wrung his hands when he finally figured out what Mordin was doing.

Finally, the salarian scientist nodded approvingly. "Glad to see everything is doing well. Was right to leave everything in your hands. Confess that I was worried about you. Fears unfounded. Good to know. Good to know."

Daniel glowed under the praise. "Thank you, Doctor. I've been doing my best."

"Yes, yes. It shows," Mordin said before moving to the side. A pair of mercs were carrying a stretcher and rushed past him. On top of the stretcher was a turian that was moaning and clutching a gunshot wound.

Daniel grimaced. "Ah, damn. I'm sorry, Doctor, but I have to—"

"No, no. Allow me. Gather supplies and give to my companions. Will do surgery. Shouldn't take long. Unless complications arise," Mordin offered before following.

"You gotta be kidding me!" Jack shouted at his retreating form. "We got 45 minutes left before we have to get back!"

"Only conducting surgery! Suture will be handled by staff!" Mordin shouted back. "10 minutes!"

Eight minutes and 55 seconds later, Mordin walked out of the operating room and tossed away his gloves.

"Thank you, Dr. Solus," Daniel said gratefully.

"Done yet?" Grunt rumbled. He was holding a large bag at his side.

"All finished. Must hurry. Know someone that might help get more advanced supplies. Expensive, but worth it. Perhaps be able to negotiate price. Be wary. Tricky, evasive. Will try to scam us," Mordin warned.

"Fine, if they do something stupid, we'll kill them and steal their shit," Jack said negligently. "Let's just go."

Mordin shook his head rapidly. "Oh, no, no, no, no! Unacceptable!"

"What?" she asked irritably.

"Clinic relies on supplies. Can't afford to antagonize suppliers. Would hurt in long run," Mordin pleaded.

She scoffed and rolled her eyes. "Fine. So what do you suggest?"

"Perhaps utilize fear?" he suggested.

"Pain can be scary," she responded wickedly, causing Grunt to chortle.

"I like that idea," he said.

"How well do you know this guy anyway?" she asked.

Mordin shrugged. "Only a little. Not so much. Dislike dealing with him. Very shady."

Hoping they could control or at least contain their violent impulses, he said his goodbyes to everyone in the clinic and led the way again. Quickly traversing several districts, the only problem they ran into was a pair of would-be muggers. The two turians were woefully outmatched and quickly disposed of by Jack and Grunt. Mordin didn't even break stride and walked on, oblivious to the sounds of violence mere feet behind him.

Approaching the meeting area, he turned to Jack when she finally caught up. "Would like you to remain at perimeter."

"What?" Jack asked.

"Will most likely have people nearby. Stand at perimeter, prepare for trouble," Mordin rattled off. "This is the only entrance. Easy for ambush, fenced in. Thugs can block opening to prevent escape. Would like you to remain here and clear enemies if they come."

Jack looked around and shrugged. "Fine. Just make it quick."

He and Grunt entered the short, enclosed alley and found the person he was looking for. He was leaning on the back wall. "Ish!"

"Ah, Dr. Solus!" Ish greeted and stood straighter. The salarian looked over Mordin's shoulder at Grunt. "And this is…?"

"No need for introductions. In a hurry. Received my message?" Mordin said quickly before inwardly cursing his mistake. No doubt Ish would use his haste against him now.

"I think I did…" Ish trailed off, pretending to think.

Mordin checked his chrono and frowned. "Not interested in games. Do you have what I want? Yes or no?"

"I might," Ish said evasively. "But you know, we haven't agreed on a price."

"How much?" Mordin asked, trying to keep the annoyance from creeping into his voice.

"Well, let me see… you know, it wasn't easy to get everything and on such short notice, so on top of the standard fee and finder's fee, there should be an expedient fee, hazard fee, fragile care fee—"

"Mordin? Are you finished yet? We're all fueled and stocked over here. We need to get going," Shepard called. "Now."

Mordin sighed and shook his head. "Regret doing this. Despise brute force tactics. Left with no choice however," he said before turning away.

Ish blinked before yelping when Grunt seized the salarian by the scruff of his neck and lifted him a couple of feet off the ground.

"We're in a hurry. There are a lot of bugs that need to die and I've been itching to do it. And you're stopping me," Grunt growled. He made a show of looking at Ish from head to toe. "Come to think of it… you kinda look like a bug."

Ish gulped down the lump in his throat. "Are you sure you want to do this? Even now my men—"

His threat was interrupted by the sounds of several biotic explosions from the entrance of the alley.

Mordin engaged his omni-tool and prepared himself. A dead-end corridor meant nowhere to run, but it also meant that any opponent would be funneled into one opening. With the sudden loss of advantage in numbers from Jack's savage attack, any remaining hired guns would easily be manageable. There was also Ish's shortsighted mistake of doing the deal with them in the same place, allowing Grunt to use him as a shield. Or weapon depending on the krogan's actions.

Accessing the combat programs, he decided to finally utilize the tech attack he got from Kirrahe: neural shock. If it did as advertised, the assailant would be unconscious. If not, then either it won't work or perhaps kill the target in some way.

No time like the present.

When one of Ish's hired guns ran across the mouth of the alley to attack Jack, Mordin aimed his omni-tool and watched as an electrical arc leapt out and zapped his target. The human uttered a short scream before pitching forward and landing face first on the ground. He didn't get up.

"Hmm. Appears to work. Must take vitals," Mordin muttered. He walked over to the insentient man and ran a quick scan, artfully ignoring Jack's cursing and rage-filled shouts over the mercs screams and frantic cries. Once finished, he studied the readouts he gathered and found himself impressed with what the STG created. He fired off neural shock a few more times on his victim to test both the efficacy and to make sure he was no longer a threat, as well as to see what would happen with repeated strikes.

"T-there's no n-need for violence!" Ish cried out when he saw his people getting dismantled. Grunt was still hold him aloft, but was now swinging him side to side; using him as a shield against any further threats that might pop out. "Wait! We can work something out, right?"

"You wanna try something?" Jack snarled as she stepped into view. She was looking at someone cowering nearby.

Mordin stood up and poked his head around the corner to see another salarian that Jack was threatening. He was unarmored and unarmed. "Probably not a combatant."

"I think you're right," Jack said contemptuously. "He looks ready to shit himself."

Indeed, the salarian was shaking in place, completely frozen and unable to tear his eyes away from them or the bodies of the mercs around Jack.

"Know him?" Grunt demanded when he dragged Ish to the opening to see the carnage.

"H-h-he knows me! I work for him!" the salarian whimpered.

"My-my assistant!" Ish choked out when Grunt glared.

"Should've had Jacob or the cheerleader do this instead. Fucking boring. Why the hell did the Boss Man send us on a run like this anyway?" Jack said with an exaggerated yawn. She pointed at Ish. "Can you just kill him and be done with it?"

Interestingly, Mordin saw Ish pale even more despite being manhandled by a krogan. He got the distinct feeling it had less to do with Jack's act and more with the information she used to sell it. "Familiar name?"

"Um… Jacob, as in Jacob Taylor?" Ish squeaked out.

"Ah, Jacob did mention you…" Mordin bluffed before Jack or Grunt could voice out their questions.

"Okay, okay! How about I just give you everything? Just this once! Just don't mention me to him, please!" Ish begged.

Curious as he was at whatever history they had, Mordin nodded and made a mental note to ask Jacob later for the details. "In something of a hurry. How long to deliver?"

"Maybe 30 minutes?" Ish said. Grunt pulled out his pistol and roughly poked the barrel into Ish's ribs. "Ah! I meant 10! 10 minutes!"

Mordin nodded in satisfaction and sent their berthing information to Ish. He then walked up and crossed his arms. "Still not in the mood for games. Don't renege on delivery, or we will find you."

"I won't! I promise!" Ish cried out.

Grunt dropped him and Ish scurried away, his assistant hot on his heels. They could hear him frantically call his people over his com and ordered them to deliver the goods to the Normandy as fast as they could.

"We finished here?" Jack asked.

Grunt looked disappointed as he gazed at the remains of Jack's rampage. "I wanted to fight them. Why couldn't I fight them?"

"Physical appearance. Jack does not appear intimidating, so mercenaries will underestimate her. You look intimidating, so it was hope that your presence would allow deal to go smoothly," Mordin explained.

"And how did that go?" Jack asked with a wicked smile.

Mordin sniffed and started walking back to the Normandy. "Outcome satisfactory, I suppose."

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega / Normandy SR-2 / Deck 3 – Crew Deck / Medical Lab

Mordin carefully arranged everything in the Med Bay just as he remembered it. He knew Chakwas liked to keep a neat workspace and was determined to respect that in anticipation for her return.

If she returns. If any of us.

"Heard you had some excitement," Shepard stated conversationally when he walked into the Med Bay.

Mordin shrugged, but didn't turn around as he continued stocking the shelves. "Minor inconvenience. Par for the course on Omega. Jack and Grunt's presence facilitated ease of transition. Thank you for foresight."

"You have everything you need?"

"Almost. Close enough. Will need to dock with civilized planet for the rest. Can make do without," Mordin reported. He finished his task and faced Shepard with a smile. "Done."

"All ready for the mission then?" Shepard asked.

"Oh yes. Even finished personal matters."

"What would that be, if you don't mind my asking?"

"Got call from nephew some time ago. Promising geneticist himself. Just turned 16. Got tenure at university. Following in my footsteps," Mordin said proudly. He bowed his head and look away. "Had to lie about what I was doing. Think he was suspicious. Doesn't matter. Still good to hear his voice."

"You nephew got tenure at 16?" Shepard asked incredulously. "Is he a genius or a scientific prodigy?"

"No," Mordin answered automatically, already knowing the reason for Shepard's surprise before catching himself. "Wait, don't want to insult him. Yes, but not in matter you meant. Remember, salarian lives short. Mature rapidly by your standards. By most species standards. Don't live much past 40."

"Are you calling him because we won't make it back?" Shepard asked with a frown.

"No. Aware survival unlikely, but actually contacted him for family connection," Mordin revealed. "Hard to imagine galaxy. Too many people. Faceless. Statistics. Easy to depersonalize. Good when doing unpleasant work."

"And this?"

"For this fight, want personal connection. Can't anthropomorphize galaxy. But can think of favorite nephew. Fighting for him. Also, fighting for crew, teammates. You."

Shepard smiled. "Thank you for this, Mordin. I'm glad you got to talk to family before we finished this. And I'm glad we talked, too."

"Honored to be part of this, Shepard," Mordin said, speaking a bit slower to convey his gratitude for this opportunity. "Helped preserve galaxy before with genophage. Dirty work, ethically ambiguous. Problematic. Collectors mission simpler, cleaner. Will be proud to see it in Mordin Solus biography vid. Unless we all die. Proud posthumously in that case. Regardless… thank you."

"Have you written your autobiography yet?" Shepard joked.

Mordin blinked and rubbed his chin. "Knew I forgot something. Should get started right away. Only a few hours away from relay, yes?"

He left the Med Bay and trekked to the lab. Once there, he opened his personal terminal and began typing furiously.

"This is a personal chronicle of my life, my actions, and my thoughts."

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega / Normandy SR-2 / Deck 3 – Crew Deck / Life Support Plant

Thane idly caressed his Predator as sat at his table, alone with only his thoughts and a half-completed message to Kolyat. It was hard to word his message that would accurately convey his feelings that he wanted to be back in his son's life, yet participate in a mission that he could very well never return from.

When he and Jacob recollected the weapons the crew had dropped during their short, but furious resistance against the Collectors, he had found one of his pistols.

EDI informed him that Hawthorne had tried to use it to defend Joker and Kelly, though he, like the other crewmen, had ultimately failed.

He prayed to Amonkira that when he took this weapon to battle, that it would serve him well.

"Something you need, Shepard?" Thane inquired when the door hissed open.

"There was something I wanted to talk to you about," Shepard replied.

"Would you care to join me then? I always welcome your company," Thane offered.

Accepting the invitation, Shepard sat down at what was becoming his customary chair across from Thane. "Still talking to Kolyat?"

"Yes. It's still difficult. But he seems less angry," Thane confided. "Will you hear my confession, Shepard?"

He silently nodded without hesitation.

"When I married Irikah, the hanar let me leave their service to raise a family," Thane revealed without preamble. "But I had no other skills, so I freelanced. When Irikah was killed, I pursued those responsible. Once I'd eliminated them, I had no goal. I accepted the Dantius commission because I didn't know what else to do."

"Not even Kolyat?" Shepard reminded.

"Not even Kolyat," Thane affirmed. "Before meeting you, I believed I had nothing to offer him. If I had nothing to offer to my own son, then I had nothing left within my own soul. Looking back now, it's clear I'd resigned myself to death."

"Not the healthiest attitude to take on a mission," Shepard commented.

"You're right. It's not," Thane said quietly. "I would have fulfilled my contract. If Nassana's guards caught me afterwards – As Grunt has said many times: it would have been a good death. But someone else was pushing to reach the target. Forcing me to move faster. Challenging me. I had to reach her first."

"I… I didn't really get that impression when we met," Shepard confessed. "You were very good, very skilled. Three guards and Nassana in two seconds or less. I find it difficult to believe that the Eclipse would've killed you if you were really committed to escaping, my team and I notwithstanding."

"It's possible you're right," Thane allowed. He always took a measure of pride in his ability to fulfill his contracts, but he never allowed ego to come into the equation if he could help it. He learned that it was delicate line between a professional and a thug. "However, it's likely Nassana's death would have sparked Samara's attention. The outcome of our battle is not something I can predict with certainty, but I would wager that she would best me, though I would not make it easy for her."

"I can believe that," Shepard agreed. "And now, we're all working together. No doubt that changed your plans, huh?"

"Our meeting was an intervention by the gods. I had thought for sure my time was coming where I would finally walk within the halls of Kalahira, one way or another," Thane said. "Your mission gave me a purpose. A cause that I would be willing to die for. A chance to atone."

"Thane…"

"And I was able to speak to my son again," he said. "I can leave my body in peace."

"Um… thank you, Thane," Shepard said hesitantly.

Thane cocked his head. "Something you wish to say?"

Shepard leaned back in his chair. "I was, um, I was actually going to ask if you wanted to leave, while we're still docked on Omega. Charter a flight to the Citadel, maybe."

Thane tilted his head to the side thoughtfully. "Oh?"

"It's not that I don't have confidence in you or anything like that," Shepard quickly said, "but you have less than a year to live. You just reconnected with your son. And now… well, you're on a suicide mission. You should be with Kolyat. Spend your remaining time with him."

Thane smiled. "Ah. I see."

"That's what I was actually here to talk about, but your support does mean a lot to me."

"As does your thoughtfulness and friendship, Shepard," Thane replied. "I will be honest. More than once, I had thought to ask to be released from my contract… no, what I meant to say is: my duty to you."

"If you want to—"

"Please, let me finish," Thane requested. "I've thought long and hard, weighing the pros and cons. Much of the reasons you stated were constantly on my mind. However, I've decided to stay."

"Can I ask why?" Shepard requested curiously.

"Consider: If I were to return to my son now, what would I be able to talk to him about? Irikah? The time we had together seemed too short. Not to mention the inauspicious circumstances on how we met and… and how she was taken from us. My life as an assassin? Hardly the best example I wish to impart," Thane listed off. "Forgive me, but the reason I wish to stay with you will sound somewhat selfish, but I wanted to do something… grand. Something that, should I survive, I can return to Kolyat with a story that he and I can be proud of."

"Helping human colonists or humanity from these attacks?" Shepard guessed.

Again, Thane smiled. "No. Helping a friend survive so that he may continue to combat the coming darkness. What was once a job has become an honor; a duty that I have accepted willingly. With the Reaper threat on the horizon, I wish to do what I can to protect my son for however long I may have left."

Shepard stood up. "You've obviously given this a lot of thought. If that's your decision, I welcome your help. Let's hope you get to go back to Kolyat to tell him about this."

Thane was certain of their chances, but didn't care to voice it. He knew that Shepard was well-aware of their odds.

However, considering that he had planned to die on Illium and still yet lived, perhaps the impossible was possible, despite evidence to the contrary.

"Whatever may happen, my gun is yours," Thane said with absolute resolution.

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega / Normandy SR-2 / Deck 2 – Command Deck / Communications and Briefing Room

"So it's done?"

Samara nodded. "It is."

"You've risked everything you've worked for by contacting us. Everything you swore to uphold. Everything you are. Mirala isn't worth that."

"I know, but I have sworn the Third Oath of Subsumation to someone. The task we are on may mean that this will be the last time we speak. I only wished to let you know that Mirala is no more," Samara said. It was difficult, what she was doing; almost against the very principles she stood on, really, but she felt that it needed to be done.

Besides, she reasoned that with her oath to Shepard, her Code was now dictated by his Code, and what she was doing was something he would not only allow, but encourage.

Of all the sapient beings I encounter in the galaxy, it would be Shepard to find the one gray area of the Code.

Falere was quiet for a moment before saying, "Good. I'm glad."

"Rila?"

She heard sniffling in the background. "I-I'm sorry, I… I just missed you so, Mother."

"As did I," Samara said. It took all her years of considerable experience to keep her voice composed as it was the moment she heard her daughter call her 'Mother'. It was a title she had not been addressed as in centuries. As a justicar, she swore the Oath of Solitude, to surrender all personal processions, name, and family in preparation to give herself to the Code of the Justicar.

"Did she… did she kill many?" Rila asked.

"Yes. More than I care to count," Samara revealed sadly.

"Then she deserved her fate," Falere said angrily. "She made her choice. It's only fitting that she died by it."

"Who did you swear an oath to, Mother?" Rila asked inquisitively.

"I cannot say, but he is an honorable man. It was thanks to him that I was complete my quest. Now I must help him in his," Samara answered.

"It's because of him you're able to contact us, isn't it?" Falere shrewdly asked. "Once your oath to him is resolved, we'll never hear from you again."

"No, I'm afraid not. I knew this would hurt you, but I did not want you living the rest of your lives wondering 'what if'. You know the truth now. There is nothing more I can offer you except my love and that you are always in my thoughts," Samara said somberly.

"I love you too, Mother," Rila said. Samara could hear the tears in her voice.

"I love you, Mother," Falere echoed quietly.

There was a crackle of static before silence settled itself in the room.

"The call is terminated," EDI informed.

"And it was secure?" Samara inquired.

"As you requested."

"Thank you." Samara quickly and quietly left the Comm Room and entered the elevator.

Upon reaching the Crew Deck, she spotted her student leaving Thane's quarters looking pensive. She waited in the hallway until he finally raised his head and spotted her.

"Shepard," she greeted.

"Samara," he returned.

She waved to him to follow her and walked into her room. Stopping at the window, she observed the endless void, past the asteroids and stars, with Omega just at the edge of her line of sight.

Shepard had followed and stood next her patiently.

"We are about to depart for the Omega-4 Relay now, yes? I will not take much of your time, though I should have this sooner. Should I not have another chance, I will say it now: You've been a good friend to me. One of my closest," she said sincerely.

"That means a lot to me, especially after everything you've taught me," Shepard replied with equal respect.

"I wanted you to know this: If we both still live when this is done, you may call upon me for aid at any time," she offered with a genuine smile. "I will come for you, Shepard. As a justicar and a friend."

With her vow in place, she bowed her head before returning to her position on the floor to resume her meditations.

She saw Shepard smile back, offer a respectful nod of his head and took his leave.

Samara could still feel her smile tug at her lips, even as she entered her trance.

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Normandy SR-2 / Deck 2 – Command Deck / Combat Information Center / En Route to Omega-4 Relay

"Please confirm the destination, Shepard. The Reaper IFF is online, but there is a chance that the Normandy may not survive the Omega-4 Relay. Once we are en route, we are committed," EDI advised.

"We're already committed. The Collectors took our people. We're getting them back," Shepard stated.

"You got it, Captain. Course set for the Omega-4 Relay. ETA about 2 hours. I'll let you know when we arrive," Joker acknowledged.

With everything prepared and underway, Shepard turned away from the galaxy map and walked to the elevator with the intent to find Miranda. The last time he saw her was after she and Mordin finished cataloguing everything they had left in the Med Bay. After she was done, she went into her office and didn't come out.

He decided to let her go and leave her to her thoughts for the time being. Instead, he spent the time to talk to the others member of his squad to get a sense of their mental state and preparedness for what was coming.

With only a couple of hours left though, he didn't want to waste whatever chance he had left to make sure Miranda was alright with everything that's happened.

Just as he was only a step away from the hepatic panel to call the elevator, the door hissed open, revealing the woman he was about to go visit.

"Oh, pardon me, Captain," she apologized in a sultry voice.

Shepard froze in his tracks and tried to decipher what she meant when she said 'Captain'. There was something telling in her voice, but he didn't want to call her on it in case he was wrong.

After all, women had always proved to be an enigma for millennia to the male sex and Miranda somehow turned that particular trait into an art.

Thankfully, he was spared any embarrassment when her next clue she gave him was much more obvious.

His breathing deepened when she placed her hand on his chest and let it rest there. A comfortable warmth spread through his torso from the point of contact.

She stepped in close and brushed her lips across his cheek, almost mesmerizing him to close his eyes to revel in the feeling. She stopped next to his ear, and in a husky, seductive tone, said, "Shall we retire to your quarters?"

The way she said it was definitely not a suggestion. The promise within her eyes was part sexual, part need, and all genuine. He had never seen her look like that before. Her beautiful eyes were dark and smoldering with desire but at the same time, alit with purpose and feeling.

The invitation was something he was something he couldn't ignore, even if was insane enough to decline. "Giving orders to the Captain, now?"

"I know what I want," she said with absolute certainty. She walked back into the elevator and gave him a 'come hither' look, complete with a wink. "And you know that I only settle for the best."

He followed her in without hesitation.

~o~O~o~

Location: Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Normandy SR-2 / Deck 1 - Captain's Cabin / En Route to Omega-4 Relay

Miranda led the way into Shepard's private quarters. Touching the nearby panel to keep the lights dim, she let the soft light from the aquarium provide the only source of illumination.

She paused in her tracks when she felt Shepard wrap his arms around her waist and let his hands rest flatly on her abdomen. Drawing her back, he gently held her close from behind. She turned her head slightly when Shepard rested his head on her shoulder, basking in the simple contact. Her heart quivered at the intimate gesture.

She tilted her head slightly and allowed their cheeks to touch just for a moment before turning in his embrace.

They stood there for a few moments, simply taking in each other's presence before Shepard initiated the first move and kissed her.

It is… salacious. Almost reverent. Evocative of what happened earlier without being demanding; as if he was giving a reminder of her forward advances earlier without the reprimand.

He took the lead this time, maneuvering the both of them until her back made contact with the aquarium, and held her in place. His hands became a little more aggressive as they sought to cup her bottom and knead the muscles there.

She couldn't hold back her moan, which emboldened him to roam even more. He broke away from her lips and planted a series of kisses along her jawline until he suckled lightly at her neck, producing yet another throaty moan as she allowed herself be a willing captive between the glass and his body. The cold temperature of the water at her back, coupled with the ardent heat from her front drove the sensations she was feeling into a chaotic loop.

His practiced hands began to seek out the more pleasurable areas of her body. As he began his ministrations, her breathing became more and more erratic.

Seizing control of herself, Miranda gripped his head and brought it up for another kiss to break his momentum. Pulling his hands away, she pushed him back towards the bed.

He fell with a plop onto his back. She straddled him above the waist and fluttered her eyes when she felt his straining erection through his pants make contact with her womanhood.

Shepard tried to sit up, but she placed her hand on his chest again and pushed him back down. Reaching up, she undid the clasp at her neck before gripping the zipper and slowly pulled down. His eyes were locked on the motion as she slowly peeled away her top.

His hands rested on her hips, causing her to give him another smoky look. She pulled the collar past her shoulders before realizing her mistake. With her arms pinned by the garment, Shepard shot up and held her place.

His lips traveled around her bra-clad breasts while his hands kneaded her back and tugged at her blouse.

She struggled to pull her arms out of her sleeves before gasping when he flipped them both over until he was on top now. He smirked down at her victoriously before swooping down for another kiss.

Allowing him to revel in his small victory for now, instead of freeing her arms from her sleeves, she brought her hands lower and started tugging at Shepard's shirt, pulling it up and bunching it under his arms insistently.

Reluctantly, he broke the kiss and started pulling at his shirt to take it off. Miranda took the opportunity to finally doff her blouse before seizing Shepard's arms before he fully could take off his top, keeping it bunched up around his face and effectively blindfolding him.

He grinned and tried to shake her off, but she held him firmly and kissed him roughly before letting go and pushing him to a standing position.

Shepard finally worked his way out of his shirt and groaned when Miranda got off the bed and started working the buckle of his trousers until it slid down his legs, stopping only to remove his boots as well.

Clad only in his boxers now, she stood up and pushed Shepard into a sitting position on the bed. Smiling saucily at him, she peeled off her own pair of pants in an agonizingly slow pace in front his face.

Seeing the darkening desire in his eyes sent a thrill down her spine as she finally cast aside her clothes, leaving her in her lingerie. She straddled him again and sighed when he reached around and undid the clasp to her lacy bra.

With her breasts free from their confines, Shepard brought his hands and massaged them, alternating between soft caresses, to slightly more aggressive touches. In the midst of this, he would either palm the entire globe of flesh, to pinching the increasingly sensitive and hardening nubs at the center.

Through it all, her pants and moans became longer and more frequent, culminating into involuntary spasms of her hips. His erection was so close, yet so far away with their remaining cloth barriers impeding her progress.

Soon, Shepard tilted his head down and began nibbling and sucking at her nipple. Miranda's head lolled back. For some reason, tonight, she felt extra sensitive. She almost felt like coming undone from just his actions on her breasts alone. Before long, he switched sides, bringing his mouth to her other unfettered breast, while one his hands ensured that the one he just vacated continued to receive attention.

Gripping his shoulders tightly, she felt his free hand wander downward toward her bottom. Slipping underneath her panties, he causally brushed past her trim mound and against her sex.

Miranda let out a gasp, but nothing else. Her eyes were shut closed now and her mouth was opening and closing wordlessly. Her body trembled with desire and her hips continued an incessant rocking against Shepard's fingers as he manipulated her body. A swirl of his tongue at her nipple caused her to twitch. A finger teasing her entrance made her toes curl. A calloused hand gently massaging brought out a sigh.

Suddenly, he pulled away and everything stopped.

She growled in frustration and opened her eyes to glare at him. The bastard had a smug smile on his face, one she wanted wipe off just so he could get back to what he was doing.

Shepard brought both of his hands to cup her bottom once again. Surprisingly, he lifted her up from his sitting position from the bed. She instinctively brought her legs around his waist and locked them together for support.

He kissed her briefly before turning around so that he was facing the bed this time. Slowly, he deposited her atop the soft covers and loomed over her. He started at her lips, lightly sucking at her lower lip before planting kisses along her jawline and throat, in-between the valley of her breasts, and down her abdomen. As he drew lower, his hands ran down then up along her toned legs until they gripped her panties. With a deliberateness that was positively torturous, he continued to rain kisses as he pulled her final stitch of clothing off of her. A long trail of her apparent readiness coated the garment.

She braced herself in ardent anticipation when he would make contact with her nether regions and moaned in frustration when he dodged neatly to the side, choosing to pay attention to her inner thighs. While wonderful, she wanted more, an immediate satisfaction to the burning in her loins. Pulling her legs up, she slipped out of her undergarments and parted her thighs enticingly. Her arousal generated a healthy dose of moisture.

Shepard tossed aside her panties and took her invitation. Gripping her hips, he brought his head down and began using his mouth and tongue to great effect on her moist folds.

Miranda let her head drop down to the bed and placed her hands on her lover's head, encouraging him to continue. "Oh, yes…"

His teeth next moved to the bundle of nerves within her clitoris and lightly nibbled. She bucked uncontrollably, forcing him to use his arms to press down on her hips to still her movements. He lightly blew against her dampness, causing a chill that vanished when he ran his tongue over the affected areas.

Miranda tried to pull his head into her erogenous spots, but he fought against her and kept pleasuring/torturing her at his own pace. She brought her hands to her breasts and started squeezing herself in a vain effort get to that one last push. Unfortunately, despite the increased sensitivity, she could not get herself off. She could feel herself on the precipice now, but Shepard masterfully kept her there, pulling back and dipping in.

"Damn you!" she cried out in a strangled voice. She tried to wrap her legs around his head to force him to finish it, but his powerful arms kept her in check.

He pulled his head away completely and licked her juices off his lips before giving her a cocky smirk. It enraged her and increased her desire all the same time.

Bringing his head back down, he continued to torment her, unheeding of her cries.

"Oh… fuck!" she screamed. Cursing was out of character for her. Words could be a powerful weapon, and she always felt that vulgarities were demeaning to her intelligence and style. However, her lust addled mind couldn't think of anything more suitable. "Bastard!"

As if sensing she had enough, he wrapped his warm mouth on her clit. He swirled his tongue a few times, dragging her closer and closer to the precipice, and then nipped the tiny knot of flesh.

Finally, waves of pleasure crashed into her. Miranda spasmed and jerked as she let the sensations wash over her mind. Her eyes fluttered, and her hands mashed her breasts, her fingers pinching her nipples, all while Shepard lapped up her streaming juices, seeking to prolong her moment.

When it passed, she sighed and relaxed a little bit, though her desire didn't diminish. Her modified genes saw to her extreme physical fitness, but the downside was that she wouldn't be satisfied with just a quick oneshot. It had actually come down to the point where she wanted, needed, to work herself to exhaustion.

Thankfully, Shepard had proven himself up to the task many times before. Either it was the implants or his own indomitable will. Whatever the reason, she didn't care at this moment.

She still wanted more.

Shepard stood up and took off his boxers. Looking at his erection, it was painfully evident that he was ready for more as well.

Climbing back onto the bed, he cupped the sides of her head and kissed her. She could taste herself on his lips and moaned. He explored her mouth with his tongue for a little while longer before pulling away.

Burning with anticipation and wonton lust, she pushed against his bare chest and prepared to mount him.

Instead, she gasped in surprise when he grabbed her wrists and held it tightly above her head. Pushing back, he forced her down on the bed and loomed over her. Miranda struggled futilely against his superior strength, leverage, and position.

In the past times they've made love, she had always taken the top position. Shepard had been more than content to let her have her way.

This time, he held on to his dominating advantage and positioned himself between her legs.

Her movements ceased when it felt like an electric jolt emanated from her sex. Shepard idly brushed the tip of his rod along the outside. He shifted his hips so that it ran up and down and all around the moist folds, once in while making contact with her clitoris and lightly brushing it.

Something more raw and primal took over now. Unable to hold back, she spread her legs even more, offering herself completely as he poised his manhood at the entrance to her sex. At this point, it was less about pride and more about the pleasure.

He didn't bother to play this time. Without preamble, he roughly rammed himself into her. She cried out in equal parts pain and bliss.

He started thrusting, not violently, but enough that she was jarred by the rhythmic motions.

Again, she tried to free herself from his grip, but he was unrelenting. She resisted in other ways though, shifted and moving her hips so that she could rub him just in one particular way before changing positions yet again.

Her actions were obviously affecting him if his clenched teeth, groans and grunts were any indication.

In response, he released her arms only to grip her waist and countered with deep, powerful thrusts. Her gambit was now a double-edged blade. Every time she moved, he kept touching on a hidden spot, or discover a new region within her that would cause her to cry out in ecstasy and momentarily lose control of herself. His considerable girth along with his embrace now restricted her movements.

Despite the freedom of her limbs, all she could do now was clutch the pillow above her and ride out the sensations Shepard constantly wrung out of her body.

In time they starting moving together, him thrusting harder into her and her moving however she was able with her legs tightly locked around his ass. Dominance and control slipped back and forth between them; there were times where his straight-up pounding almost brought her to climax, while her warmth, wetness, and tight quaking channel nearly sent him over the edge.

Soon, Miranda began to shake, already feeling herself peak before him. Her skin was flushed and her throaty moans and quiet pleas filled the room. "So good…"

Shepard leaned closer, placing his face next to hears until they were cheek to cheek. The feeling left hot, almost burning sensations where he touched. "Beautiful," he whispered, his breath tickling her ear.

She'd heard the words countless times from one end of the galaxy to the other, by countless people that sought proposition her, but there was something about the way he said it that was different; something beyond genetically engineered fact.

Her back arched as she gave into passion. She screamed out in joyous climax, a heavenly perception that was further prolonged when Shepard thrust twice more before he shot his essence into her.

Miranda had no idea how long she surrendered and let herself go. The kaleidoscope of feelings had left her feeling light-headed, though she recovered quickly.

Shepard panted lightly and was lying at her side. His semi-erect manhood was out, leaving behind an empty feeling. She shifted slightly and felt the tool of her desire poke her lightly against her leg.

She knew from experience that he could go again. She pushed his shoulder experimentally.

He arched an eyebrow, and this time, rolled onto his back.

She sat up and kissed him, before moving past his face to suckle on his ear. Shepard groaned from the action.

Her petite hands moved south and cupped his testicles before letting her slender fingers scratch the underside of his slick phallus.

Like clockwork, it sprang to life at her gentle coaxing.

She straddled him and, like his earlier display, abandoned the foreplay. She pulled herself down quickly, letting out a moan as she was pierced yet again.

Heart pounding furiously, they continued to rock back and forth. Shepard timed his up thrusts masterfully, even as his hands reached up and stroked her swaying breasts.

Her womanhood was now streaming with their combined essences, coating their thighs with a thick, viscous liquid.

Once again, their pace became frantic. After several more minutes of rapid lovemaking, Shepard gasped and shot another load into her. The feeling pushed her over the edge and she saw stars behind her eyelids.

She collapsed on top of him and let out a ragged breath. One of his arms came up and wrapped around her. The other brushed away sweat-matted hair to allow an unobstructed view of her face.

Coming down from her orgasmic high, she lightly panted and basked in post coital bliss. The both of them were hardly spent, but as her thoughts reorganized and reasserted themselves, she knew they needed they needed to regain their energy and soon.

Their mission was about to take priority once again.

She adjusted her position so she could fully face her lover and propped her head in her hand. "So… where do we stand now, John?" she asked contentedly. An involuntary smile crept across her lips when the arm she was resting on traced lazy patterns on her back.

He paused for a moment at her sudden question before using his free hand once more to brush aside her raven locks before cupping her cheek. Looking straight into her eyes, she felt a shiver at the intensity within.

"I'd have thought that was fairly obvious by now. You and me: We stand together," he answered.

"I can live with that," she whispered.

He smiled before drawing her in for one last kiss. Something she eagerly returned.

And more.

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

Wow. Just wow. And by that, I mean: Holy $h!t. This chapter was like writing little loyalty mission's for everyone. I had to reenter the minds of each character and write out their sections so that it would have their 'flavor'. Every time I wrote up their part, I had to stop, take a big step back, decompress for a day or so, then get back into the mind of another character just to write his/her section next.

Then there was the makeup scene for Shepard and Miranda. All of them. Including the 'end'. Wow… (See definition above)

I mean, finally, an actual erotica scene. Once again, I would like to remind you all that this is my first foray into writing anything much less something of this caliber. Drama, action, romance, and now this… All on my first try.

I must've been crazy… At least I earned that 'M' rating, eh?

I hope no one was offended. I wanted it classy, not raunchy. Evocative, but not too descriptive. It was a delicate balance that I needed to be aware of and maintain throughout the entire scene. All of that was made harder by my overactive imagination that *ahem* distracted me.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to take a cold shower. Maybe several.

Line taken from Firefly.

Legion's purchases were an idea kindly given by reviewer Ddangerdan.

EDI's legal status was from a motivational poster by GethInfiltrator. Used with permission.

Poll results:

Shepard's Cabin: 88 – 40%

Engine Room: 71 – 31%

Miranda's Office: 49 – 21%

No Scene at All: 11 – 4%

Use Another Room: 4 – 1%

Total votes: 223

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