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Blue: The Damned

Chapter Text

A loud deep tone rings out across the plain, heralding the arrival. And migration.

Instinctively, a group of bipedal primitives begin to gather at the customary clearing, just as their ancestors have for generations. The young shadow their mothers, staying close so as not to be separated from the herd. The seasons have changed fast this year. The toxic rain that usually falls later in the season has come early. These creatures cannot survive the full force of this planet's harsh acid monsoons.

The tone booms out again, now louder, closer.

An elder of the tribe begins performing rites, wearing a headpiece made of twigs, shaped into the same form as the entity now blocking the sun, and there is another loud tone. The elder recites loudly upward towards his god, pleading in his native tongue for mercy and hope. Even he falls silent for a moment when the behemoth lands on the planet's surface with a ground shaking crash, the scale of this titan awe inspiring, then continues, now turning to his people to give them the message.

Another longer tone rings out and some begin to make their way up to the creature, the elder still ranting, aggressively grabbing anyone's attention to warn them of defying their saviour. Most just want to get their family to safety, unconcerned by his ravings. His words become more respectful when the bodies of this season's fallen are carried up. Old, sick, wounded, killed, all deaths are presented the same, as demanded.

A flap opens in the lower abdomen of the creature, large enough for these primitives to pass, which they begin doing, bringing the bodies 'aboard'. The last in is the elder, ensuring his words reach all who entered. With a last dramatic point to the sky with one of his sticks, he enters and the flap closes.

The massive beast ascends at a huge rate, reaching orbit in seconds, then onwards to pastures more suitable for its passengers, as they have done for millennia, nay millions of years. But this sapient colossus has noted, as its symbiotic lessers have evolved, the symbiosis has changed. No longer do they just herd in and out amongst feral grunts and dead eyes. They look at it. Assess it. Some even worship it. As they should.

There are some flowers on Earth that appear to produce normal blooms, but when viewed in the ultraviolet spectrum, have the form of a queen bee; enticing to a drone collecting nectar and unwittingly spreading pollen in the bargain, who views the world this way through its insect eyes. A curious and specific symbiosis. How did the flower know that the bee can see only in the ultraviolet spectrum, and to form its bloom in such a manner? Such oddities of nature are difficult to reverse engineer, but no doubt at some point, through some 'happy coincidence' of random mutation, just the right conditions existed. Who could say how specifically, but such a 'happy coincidence' existed at some point in the past of the colossus, and that of what were once its symbiotic partners. And partners they were until notions of pride and importance.

Arriving at a new paradise, the creature opens its flaps to let its 'children' run free. When they exit, they leave the dead as tribute and begin re-acquainting themselves with their new old home, gathering at a river bank. A final 'parp', and their symbiotic father returns to the skys with its energy-filled payload, to return again soon, as it always has.

The elder casually walks to a rock, then removes his headpiece and breathes in deep the fresh clean air, hinted with the pleasant odour of the lush greenery, padding his bare chest with his open hands. He sits and places his hands on his knees with a smile, certain and satisfied that his good work has ensured their safe passage for another season, despite these primitives having no comprehension of the scale of their migration or the pact that they have agreed to.

Chapter Text

Ashley remains on her knees, staring at the dirt and grass beneath her.

"Mum? Mum!" Sha'li calls after her, frightened by these sudden and rapid events, "What's happening?"

Ashley slowly stands, afraid of what she will find, the walk to return to the bunker's entrance where they left Liara is at a funeral pace. Ashley takes a few shaky steps, her shoulders slumped and head dropped when another gun shot rings out.

"Liara?" Ashley looks up towards the bunker and begins to run again, "Liara!"

She calls back with a pointed finger to her young asari daughter, "Sha'li! Stay there."

"Yes, mum..." Sha'li replies timidly, her hands tight against her chest, fighting tears. It is always upsetting for children to see a parent distressed and the young asari is quite confused as to what is going on. As is the parent.

Ashley rounds the large, grassy mound which forms the bunker's entrance to see two Husks laying dead on the ground and two more floating in a singularity. She pulls her rifle from her back and strafes around to get a sight of the entrance. Now in view, Liara is standing with her pistol aimed at the floating Husks.

"You took your sweet time!" she shouts at Ashley, "Didn't you hear me?"

"What?" Ashley is overjoyed but at the same time, infuriated. "But... we don't use that any more!"

"Oh. Sorry. But I was just standing here, thinking about Verity and the old days when those Husks appeared out of nowhere. It was just sort of... instinctive!" Liara says quite lackadaisically, her previous low mood seemingly dispersed by the adrenaline of the sudden attack.

"Yooouuuu... stupid. Cow!" Ashley says, quite annoyed but unable to fight a smile.

"What? What's wrong with you, Ash?"

The life now crushed from the Husks in the singularity, they fall. The dark biotic orb disperses and Liara holsters her pistol. Ashley returns her weapon to her back, and as soon as she has goes to Liara, initiating a squeezing hug.

"Oof! Steady on, old girl. I don't mean to be funny but... are you getting early onset dementia or something?"

Ashley steps back out of the hug, smiles at Liara then punches her upper arm.

"Ow! What was that for?!" she says, rubbing her now dead arm.

"For being the best damn friend a girl could ask for. Now let's get out of here before any more of these things turn up. Where did they come from anyway? There's been no Reaper drops while we've been here."

"Who knows. Remnants from a previous attack? But you're right, we shouldn't hang around to find out. What? Why do you keep looking at me like that? You're weird, Whore Corps."

"Oh! The old favourites are out, eh? Arbuckle."

"Yummy Mummy."

"Fatty."

"Ashley Verner."

"Blue Angel." Ashley smiles.

"Spectre Williams." Liara curtseys.

"Miss Prothean Expert."

"Hey!” Liara protests with a smile then indicates that they head back to the shuttle, “Oh come on."

They link arms and head back towards Sha'li, Ashley with a nervous, unsure smile and Liara looking confused and a little concerned about her friend. Upon seeing their return, Sha'li runs to them and throws her arms around them both.

"Is everything okay?" Sha'li asks.

"What is wrong with everyone today? It was only a few Husks." Liara says.

"Yes, Li." Ashley replies, "Everything's fine. Just fine."

"Well..." Liara says, "Reapers notwithstanding. Come on, Garrus will be getting worried. You know how much of a grump he can be these days."

"Garrus Grump! Garrus Grump!" Sha'li now chants as she skips back to the shuttle.

"I think she's girl squad material!" Liara jokes.

"Enough girl squad for today..."

After the Normandy had picked up Liara and Ashley from London and initially re-joined the fleet in the assault on Earth, a message had come through to them from an asari vessel. They had Sha'li on board. She was supposed to have been on her way to her new adoptive parents but this had been made impossible by the war. In the thick of battle, the child was transferred to the Normandy. Ashley was happy to take the girl off their hands and the owners of the ship were happy to have her off their hands by the sound of it. She's a Williams already.

...

Ashley is with Liara in the XO's office. They have been silent for a while, Liara working on her console, still finalising her essays and papers for her own diversion. Ashley just gazes out of a window, seemingly deep in thought. Now in her fifties, she no longer carries the sultry look she did during the Reaper War, but she is still a handsome woman. Ashley has returned to her old tied up bun hairstyle and Liara thinks she looks quite distinguished in this style with the grey hair.

"Are you alright, Ash?" Liara asks as she works, "You've not been yourself since Eden Prime."

Ashley is already uncomfortable with this subject.

"I..." she begins, but realising it might sound stupid, "On Eden Prime, when you shouted 'Blue Angel' and I heard the first gun shot, I thought..." she tries to think of a way of stating it.

"You thought...?" Liara begins as she turns away from the console to give her attention when it dawns on her, "Oh! You thought I'd..."

"Yea. Sorry."

"Ashley Williams, I would never do that to you. Not now. I know I've had troubles in the past but... not now. Not like this. Is that why you've been acting so odd?"

"Partly..." Ashley says, spurred on by this assertion about herself by Liara.

"Oh?" Liara says.

"It made me realise. I don't think I could cope without you, Liara."

"Oh come on, old girl. I think a Spectre can cope with all this without an asari archaeologist. It's not like I have a vast information network any more. And the..."

"Th-That's not what I mean." Ashley interrupts with an uncharacteristic fumble followed by a deep breath and a long whistling exhale, "I'm getting on, Liara, I don't have demanding needs or anything. It'd just be nice to know, there's someone who really cares and I can care about."

"What about Sha'li?" Liara says, bewildered and not hearing what she is actually saying.

"I don't mean like that."

"Oh. Oh!" Liara's eyes widen, Ashley thinks initially in horror at the prospect and her heart sinks.

"Sorry. I shouldn't have said anything." Ashley moves towards the door.

"Don't go, Ash. I just... I had no idea!" Liara says as she rushes to her, then takes her friend's hands.

"Neither did I until I thought I'd lost you. We've gotten even closer these last few years, Liara. You're probably the closest I've been to anyone. When I thought you'd... well, it felt like my heart emptied. I think I knew then that I had to say something. Sorry, I'm no good with this stuff."

"No, you're doing fine. I just don't know, Ash... We've been friends for so long."

Popping her head up for a look when weapons fire pings around, Ashley has no problem with that. Death? That's just an occupational hazard. This? This is the most frightening thing she's ever faced. To express her new found feelings, Ashley fears that it might destroy her, or Liara for that matter, if it blows up in their faces and ruins the friendship they have. But if you can't take a risk now, she thinks, then when can you?

"I know you'll never forget Shepard and no-one could ever replace her, but I've feelings for you Liara... do you think you could ever, you know, have feelings for me?"

"Well... not just at the drop of a hat like that but..."

"Yes?" Ashley says, then feels herself warm with further embarrassment at the breathy anticipation of her reaction to the word 'but'.

"Give me time, Ash. I know that might sound a little unfair in the circumstance, to ask for time when we might have so little but... Wow! Come on. This is a shock. Going from platonic to... well, anything else. It's a big step. I've loved you as a friend for so long. For that to become... more..."

"Yea. Fair enough." Ashley concedes with a smile but not without a little sadness as her head drops a little. She didn't know what to expect from Liara, she just knew she had to say something. Yes, it would have been perfect if Liara had just thrown her arms around her and declared that she had feelings too but, that she is even considering it is more than Ashley could have asked for.

Liara smiles her lovely smile at her as she lifts Ashley's chin with a finger, then they stop and gaze at one another a moment as Liara traces a cheek. They know each other's faces, they've been friends for so long but now, there is something new there, something not seen before. The desire in Ashley stirs something in Liara and she returns the look. There is a twitch from Liara's head, followed closely by Ashley in reaction. They slowly and tentatively bring their lips together, briefly kiss then Liara pulls out but still smiling, more so from the eyes now. It was enough for now.

It is so long since Liara has felt warmth like this and thirty years have passed since Verity died. Liara never thought it would, but the pain has lessened slightly with the years. Frustrating to Liara as the counsellor's clichéd words ring in her head. She doesn't intend to lead Ashley on but she needed to know with a kiss if there was any chance for them. Verity and she had been quite tactile and physical in showing their love and although Ashley is getting on years, it is still something Liara would want in any relationship to at least some extent. She felt the warmth she needs from Ashley and Liara thinks this is something that could work; she already knows she loves the person, now she thinks she might be able to love the woman. It may take some time but as Ashley said, her needs are not demanding and they can take it slowly if they do indeed pursue it.

Ashley pulls Liara back to hug her deeply, strongly, squeezing her to feel the warmth of her body. When they finally release the embrace, Ashley still looks coy and embarrassed. Liara softly tweaks Ashley's nose with her fingers, causing a girlish smile on the old girl's face.

"And I thought I was the shy one." Liara gently laughs, causing further scarlet hues then Ashley's face drops.

"What?" Liara asks.

"Sha'li. What the hell would we tell her?"

"That she has two mothers now? I doubt it would make much difference to her at her age. It's not like we'd turn to her and say, 'oh by the way, we jump in the sack from time to time', is it?"

Ashley internally flinches a little at this brash assessment by Liara. She liked it but it was uncharacteristic of Liara to her and a surprise. A side she doesn't know?

"You mean...?" she dares not finish what Liara implied.

Liara eyes Ashley for a moment with mock-suspicion.

"Yes!" she finally says with an affirmative nod.

"Oh Liara!"

"Slowly though and I don't think we should tell anyone just yet. Not to hide it, I just think we should see if this will work first but... this is still... weird!"

"Just like you! And it's wonderful, just like you. This should work out just fine then." Ashley beams.

"Well then..."

"Yea!" Ashley says with a little punch in the air and more gusto than she actually meant.

There is an awkward pause.

"I got a ship to run!" Ashley finally says, trying to keep the same level of gusto as though she meant it, "I'd better go make sure Beefy and Estaban aren't just goofing off down there."

"Okay, old girl. See you later. Drop by when you're free. I'm sure we have plenty to talk about."

"Sure, that'd be nice. See you later, Liara."

Once her door shuts, Liara looks concerned.

"EDI?"

"Yes, Liara?"

"I don't know if you heard any of that but..."

"I did not hear a thing, Liara."

"Hmm. Okay then."

"But I am pleased for you. For you both."

"Hmmm."

If she had to be truthful, Ashley was always jealous of what Liara and Shepard had. Not vindictively, just a genuine want to have someone to be that close with, to share a life with. She wasn't jealous of Liara specifically, she hadn't thought of her that way before her recent feelings stirred. It's just that the galaxy has a funny way of playing with its occupants. Verity already knows this.

Chapter Text

Verity bolts up in her bed with a cry out. The rest of the people in the bunks are used to this, her terrors and screams in the night. She is not the only one anyway as others murmur away. Now awake, she gets out of bed in her vest and knickers, with little room for modesty on a military holding vessel, and heads to the kitchen for something to drink. She's kept the short hair and so far, its colour remains though a little paler than it used to be. She goes to scratch her head, yawning and knocks herself with the biotic dampener on her wrist, forgetting it is there, then looks at the one on her other wrist and mutters under her breath. Her category are pretty free to roam within these confines.

When Verity had awoken properly in London, it seems that her journey to the Citadel had been a journey only in her mind, assuming they didn't beam her back down to London again, which makes no sense to her. But she has tried to make sense of it as best she can, though why they didn't just kill her where she lay and continue the harvest, she doesn't know apart from possibly the influence of the Crucible. Perhaps they just thought it unnecessary. The Reapers didn't seem at all interested in the relays in this cycle, not like the information they had about the previous cycles from Vigil, despite their ability to seemingly just control and transport the Citadel on a whim once the truth of the Crucible became known to them. So for Verity, it is difficult to say what their motivations were or still are in this cycle.

Verity thinks she will probably never know the answers to the questions, she thinks that there was only one person in the galaxy who could have helped her sort that mess out. But she was thankful for the last platoon able to escape London that spotted her unconscious body, partially hidden under the rubble. She still has the urge to live on for some reason. Maybe it's the buzzing in her head. It was established that Verity had been under some kind of Reaper influence after London, though she does not feel controlled.

The combined fleet is now approaching the Fortuna system of the Horsehead Nubula after their long FTL journey; scouts report that no Reapers currently occupy this system but they have no idea how long that may last, particularly not if their recent discovery is anything to go by. All are thankful for the opportunity to find resources and restock what they can. Scanning is too dangerous and they have records and surveys of the majority of systems to avoid this, a measure put in place for whatever the result of the attack on Sol was. They know that the Reapers will make their assault one day, they just don't know when. It is accepted across the fleet that their demise is inevitable but there is no point in bringing hell to your door when you can avoid it and unnervingly, life goes on in the fleet.

If Verity knew the Normandy and Liara were safe, she would not allow her incarceration so easily. Many of her fellow inmates are also deemed a risk due to indoctrination, though Verity seems to be able to fight it more than most. Even then though, to FTL from system to system would take an immense amount of time. Regardless, needle in a haystack does not even begin to describe the task. She has found that shining needle before but back then, Udina and Anderson provided directions and a magnet.

Verity walks along the corridor to the communal kitchen and to the 'fridge. She takes out a pitcher of water and fills a tumbler that was on the draining board and drinks, ever aware of the cameras' eyes upon her. A loud door buzzer that usually indicates a new inmate echoes through the corridors and she walks to the large doorway to the canteen area to see who the new person is. This new man fights against the two guards but to little effect, they just continue to roughly frog march him in then throw him to the ground in the canteen. He kneels on the floor with the deranged look on his face, the one that all have come to know. Fully indoctrinated. Total control. A brutal and mentally violent process. A lost cause.

"Who's he?" she asks.

"Just another nut job." a guard answers.

Verity's head buzzes more intensely now, looking at this man's face who returns the look expectantly, as though he knows her, though she doesn't know him. He beckons her with his twisted face, gurning, and she wants to listen to him. A sharp pain strikes in her head with a mechanical sound as an image enters her mind. It takes her breath for a moment. It's a familiar but painful feeling. It is particularly uncomfortable but she wants to see these images, she knows there is something there she must see. Must. Star system. Withstand. Planet. Pain. Reaper. Must. Reaper? Withstand. Not a Reaper? Pain.

Ignoring the guards, she rushes to this slavering fool and grabs him by his shirt but the room behind him falls away into blackness. A heavy weight sitting on her chest makes it difficult to breathe. Darkness. Cold. Bitter cold. The man is now sober, serious and standing before her, somehow highlighted from the darkness though there are no light sources to do so. He utters two words in a deep, penetrating, emotionless voice.

"A token."

The room returns behind him as does his madness and she gasps, able to breathe again, new confusing visions in her mind. She grabs again.

"What do you know? Hey! What do you know?" Verity becomes increasingly angry as he just laughs a disturbing, manic, slavering laugh.

"Stand down, nut job!" a guard shouts, flicking his baton out from its collapsed state but Verity doesn't hear him.

"Where is it? Where is she? Do they know? Answer me! Do they know?" Verity demands, raising a fist in anger but the guards are already moving in to stop her, a heavy thwack and she blacks out amidst their laughs.

"Hero, my ass."

"Yea! Hahaha! Just another nut job." a dim sounding colleague joins.

These guards are only in their twenties and weren't there for the war. 'Nut job', their derisory term for the unfortunates who have succumbed to the Reapers' control. No matter how desperate the circumstance, there are always those willing to be a cunt; and enjoy it.

...

The Normandy fled Sol once it became apparent the Reapers would overpower the combined fleet and the end of intelligent life assured. They knew the future needed to be warned, to plant the seeds of hope in Liara's beacons. Eventually, and reluctantly, Liara had to concede to leaving Verity at Earth. No-one at Sol could have possibly survived the Reapers. The remaining combined fleet fled through the still active Charon relay but only as far as the Exodus Cluster before the Reapers finally deactivated the relays and all galactic communications. Becoming separated from the fleet, it was assumed the Normandy had met its demise, and in turn, the Normandy assumed the fleet was lost, with them being the last beacon of hope for future intelligences.

"What are you reading?" Liara asks as she sits next to Ashley on her bed and puts her hand around her waist and head on her shoulder. They have become comfortable with tactile displays of affection.

"'Lady Chatterley's Lover' by DH Lawrence. It's about this well-to-do lady type having it off with her gamekeeper, the social class difference and how that affects them, particularly in the period of Earth this is set in. It's quite saucy in places, you should give it read. I'm over-simplifying maybe, but... you know me! Woman of crappy words!"

"Oh Ash, don't put yourself down. You're very well read. And 'saucy', you say? Hmm, I hope I don't have the same trouble with you that I had with Verity."

"What was that?"

"She was insatiable at times."

"Do I really want to hear this?"

"What? Oh. Sorry. I don't think about... we're just getting along so well and... sorry. I'll be more mindful."

"No. That's okay, Liara. I know we're not quite at that stage and I can never begrudge you talking about Shepard. I mean, people do have pasts."

"Anyway, old girl, it's you and me now. There's little that can change that!"

"Oh! By the way. Sha'li. I've been thinking." Ashley says, with a playful and knowing look.

"Yeeees?" Liara says, already suspicious.

"She already has a mom. You know, me. And as you're asari, and she's asari, then really, you'll have to be 'dad'. Okay? Good. I'm just trying to honour your traditions." and she pats Liara's leg patronisingly.

Liara throws herself back in laughter and pulls a pillow over her face to hide her giggling, then throws it at Ashley.

"Hey!"

"Now I know why this is easy." Liara smiles.

"Hm?"

"You sound exactly like Verity sometimes."

"Oh."

"Oh! I don't mean that I think that you're... I didn't mean this is just a... oh, that didn't come out right at all. Sorry, Ashley. I didn't mean to compare..." Liara is quite frustrated she can't get out what she means, she doesn't want to break this already.

"Calm down, Liara. Don't have a fit every time you speak your mind."

"You're right, I'm sorry. But I want to say, to tell you, so you know, so there's no doubts, I don't see you as a replacement. We can't try this if this isn't clear. It's me and you, okay? I know you're Ashley. And it's Ashley I want."

"Liara..." is all Ashley can respond to this, quite overwhelmed.

Liara strokes the back of Ashley's neck as she now leans over the asari, stroking her arm, then her face changes to one more serious. Liara pulls Ashley towards her to kiss her, and with some passion. Ashley is surprised by the soft, moist tongue that glides across her lips then beyond them when it causes her mouth to accept it and it feels good. Their embrace feels right. Liara lies back down and smiles again. Ashley feels the warmth rising over herself, her senses heightened in arousal at what they just shared and the sight of the beautiful asari looking back at her with that in her eyes.

"Did anyone see you come in here?" Liara whispers.

"Uh... no. I don't think so. Why?"

"Stay with me tonight."

"You sure, Liara? We don't have to..." Ashley begins.

"Shut up, Ashley, old girl." Liara says, pulling her in again.

...

Verity enters the small interview room and as soon as she enters, salutes with full honour to Admiral Hackett who is quite aged, but not without influence and in his mind at least, he is still 'career'; a mind that is still sharp despite his years. A guard stands with her and also enters. It makes her smile inside when through the observation window, Verity spots a quarian live ship drifting by. All the species had initially come together in the wake of the Sol defeat and realising they were the last hope for this cycle. Quarians provided live ships for propagation of both dextro and non-dextro species' crops, geth and salarian improved systems wherever they could and continue to tinker, all races doing all they could to keep the fleet afloat and give them the best hope for a future, regardless of its finiteness.

"Admiral, sir!" Verity shouts.

"Come in, Shepard, at ease, sit down. Do I have to say it every time? There's no need for all that. Sergeant, leave us." he dismisses with a wave.

"But, sir..." the guard protests.

The Admiral stands.

"That's an order, son." he barks.

"Sir!" and the guard leaves.

Hackett sits back down and his face is stern and serious.

"Sir?"

"There's been a development, Commander." he begins. She sits up and pays attention, this doesn't sound like the friendly chat that the Admiral usually has when he has time to visit, almost like a... brief?

The Admiral brings up his omni-tool and activates some images. Reapers. Destroyed Sovereign class Reapers, floating in space. She has seen destroyed Reapers before but not in these numbers. Dozens. She sits back, already pondering while Hackett continues, viewing the images and just listening.

"We found these floating around between systems. If you look at the damage..." he zooms into a section of one image, overlays showing impact depths, diameters, heat density and other information on the damage, "it's nothing we could produce. The geth have speculated that only the Reapers themselves can produce this kind of yield but... well, we're stumped. Is there another power at work here? But it's not just that. The attack on these Reapers has been analysed. This was visceral. Not just to ensure they were destroyed. Whoever or whatever did this tore them up after the fact, like in a rage, to make sure they weren't ever coming back. We had to ask your opinion, Commander. What do you make of all this?"

She looks at Hackett with a smile he is unsure of. Verity laughs quite heartily, some of her visions becoming clearer while she has been listening.

"It's war, Admiral!"

"The war is lost, Commander. And I don't see what's so damn funny." the Admiral is unimpressed with Verity's lack of seriousness on this matter.

"No, not us. Them. The Reapers. They've been at war with each other from the start. One of them sent an olive branch to me." she laughs again.

"What? And what's so damn funny?"

"Don't you see what this means?" she excitedly says, "There's hope. We have hope. And the olive branch, it was the Normandy. They let me know that the Normandy survived. Liara survived. They're still out there!"

"That's a lot... of... unknowns... How do you even know any of this? And what's this 'olive branch'?" Hackett demands.

Verity looks away, with a little guilt, "They sent a message to me."

"They... oh... Commander... are we to risk the fleet on dreams from the unknown?"

Verity turns an eye back to him, not without some anger. She controls it and looks away again.

"You sound like the Council. I know what I saw." she sneers.

"What they showed you." he corrects but she isn't interested, "Alright then. Have it your way. Have we anything else to discuss?"

"I need to find out, sir."

"And you need to understand, Commander, selling this to the combined fleet? That's not going to be easy. Indoctrinated sources? There'd be an outrage."

"There's an element of Reapers out there that want to talk. Let me talk to them. Whether it's the Prothean cipher or whatever happened in London, I can take it more than most. They know if they came anywhere near the fleet there'd just be all out war. Let me take a lone ship out and see. Please."

"Like I said, this isn't going to be easy to sell but if you think this is an actual possibility..."

Chapter Text

She feels like the naughty girl that used to sneak extra sessions in on the biotic range, but the penalties for getting caught this time are more harsh. Verity tries to keep her head down in the canteen queue, attempting to gain a second meal. Despite the 'ifs' and 'buts' that came with it, the positive noises that Admiral Hackett made about her assertions means she needs to prepare. The removal of the biotic dampeners will not be enough to harness her power, she needs to bulk up.

The meeting with Hackett was mixed to say the least.

"I've made discreet enquiries among select representatives and the response so far is favourable. That's as much as I have right now but it's a step in the right direction, Commander."

"Well, good! But... I still have worries."

"Oh?"

"The Citadel AI."

"You were de-briefed, Commander. We are not going over this again. We can't accept the word of that thing."

"But its logic was sound. We can't ignore what it said out of hand."

"Commander."

"What if we make this deal with the devil and the AI is right? We're back at square one. Only worse because there'll be no next cycle to stop them. Ever."

"If it's right, then why didn't the Reapers just do that themselves. Huh? They're the exact machine AI it was talking about. They could have just wiped out organics in the first instance and never looked back, but they didn't. We can't accept the word a machine."

"You trust the geth, don't you?"

"They're not like machines..."

"Oh. So it's your perception that gives them worth? I think that AI was on to something."

"That's not what I meant. The geth have been invaluable to the combined fleet."

"Oh I see, so they're useful to you. Hm. Nice." Verity says, almost enjoying this now, releasing her frustrations on the Admiral. Anyone else, Hackett would have given them both barrels but Shepard deserves his ear, even when it's not something he wants to hear. Friends can do that for each other but there is always that element of respect; he is the Admiral, she is his subordinate. Despite her facetious remarks and his allowance of it, they both know that.

"We'll conclude this another time, Commander. I can clearly see that you're... unfocussed today."

"I need to get out there, Admiral. I know the answers are there."

"I know you're restless. I'm doing all I can. I'll see you when there's any developments. And stay positive. If this comes off... well, I don't need to tell you of the dangers."

"Sir!" Verity stands and salutes.

The chef slops some mash on her portioned tray then sees it is her and purposefully places his attention elsewhere, as though looking at her highlights her to the guards.

"Shepard..." he whispers out of the side of his mouth, "You crazy? They'll kick your ass if they see you again."

Verity smiles and whispers back, also without looking at him, "They can try, Billy boy, they can try."

Her tray filled, she goes as casually as she can to one of the tables and sits to eat. She eats quickly to hopefully minimise the risk.

"Shepard!" she hears a guard shout from her rear with the familiar sound of the expanding baton, "How many times...?"

She drops her spoon and spins out of her chair to stand with one foot forward, prepared. Seeing the challenge, the guard swings her baton from above her head and Verity slides the leading foot forward and raises her arms to catch the guard's forearm with both hands, grabbing it tightly and pulling to keep the momentum. A swing over her hip into the table's edge and the guard is prone, clutching the ribs that impacted with the table. Verity stays low in her stance as another guard approaches.

"Hey! Nut job!" he shouts as he comes with his baton.

He tries a barn door of a swing. Verity quickly reverses stance to block the swinging arm and her leading arm close into his defences as her elbow digs hard into his solar plexus, then smacks back across his chest with the back of her fist then up into his throat, all in one fluid motion. He falls choking and her stance is more lively, almost playful as the remaining guards come as one to overpower her. She knows the bruises will fade and she needed this, to remember the adrenaline, the fear, overcoming the fear. She still can, despite her brutal beating by the guards among flailing batons. The food wasn't bad today though.

A few of the crew are just talking in the Normandy's mess, the couples. Ken and Gabby, Tali and Garrus, Joker and EDI, as though just friends at a dinner party.

"Ach, I'm no really bothered where we end up, as long as I've got ma fine rump!" Ken says, grabbing a handful of Gabby's behind as she sits on his knee.

"Kenneth. You won't end up anywhere if you keep that up."

"All I've left in the galaxy is the simple pleasures and ma lassie wants to deny me even that! I may as well go jump into the engine core now."

"Not if I push you first..."

Time has not improved their playful bickering, nor Ken's crude humour. Nor would they want it to.

"EDI?" Garrus says, returning the conversation to the topic at hand, "Do you have a perfect planet?"

"I do not see the purpose of this enquiry. We will encounter whatever suitable planet we encounter, our choice will be dictated by necessity."

"Yea but... we organics, we like to dream. So, if you did have a choice and it wasn't 'dictated by necessity', what would you want?"

"My needs are not the same as the rest of the crew. I would want a planet that could sustain us all. Any further conditions are not required."

"Come on, EDI." Tali encourages, "Don't you have anything that you want?"

"I have Jeff." she says.

Joker stands quickly and raises his hands in triumph.

"Ow! Ooh, that was a bit quick..." he says at first, the excitement of the moment getting the better of him, "But... In your face, Donnelly!"

"What's that supposed to mean?" Gabby demands of Joker.

"Oh, sorry, Gabs. I didn't mean... you were just joking about, and I thought..."

"Sit down, you idiot." Gabby says with a wave.

Joker sits down again, holding his side.

"You are okay, Jeff?" EDI enquires

"Yea, yea, I'm fine. Don't fuss every time I say 'ow', we'd have little time for anything else if you did."

"Anyway!" Garrus again brings the group of friends to order. That particular subject no-one discusses in public. EDI and Joker do spend time alone with each other but no-one dares think what activities, if any, they get up to. In polite ship circles, EDI and Joker talk a lot and no more is said on the matter. Certainly, no-one has dared ask.

"So there's no 'cherry on the top' you'd want with that, EDI?" Garrus asks.

Garrus air quotes the words with a nod to Joker for the new found phrase.

"Anything else would be supplementary but welcome." she states.

"Okay, we'll mark that down as 'easily pleased' then, shall we?" Tali says.

"Well she is with Joker..." Ken says. Joker just responds with an equally childish face at the Scotsman while everyone laughs at the comment.

Ashley enters the room and the laughter dies down a little.

"Don't stop anything on my account. How's everyone doing?"

Gabby moves off Ken's knee onto a seat of her own and the group all seem to become awkward with their partners, Ashley is used to it but it does grate. They think she's the old maid, that's what she thinks that they think anyway. The one that got left on the shelf. It's an old concept but Ashley was brought up with old values. Part of why she has been labelled intolerant in the past. She is not entirely incorrect though. Her friends do feel sorry for her; not patronisingly, but they know the value of the their loved one and how that strengthens them. She sees the subtle, awkward actions she has seen so many times and wishes she could tell them. Tell them that they don't have to pity her any more, she won't receive that sympathetic look from the happy lovers that occupy this ship any more, she will be one of them.

"You okay, Ash?" Tali asks.

"Yea! Fine." she says.

"Ye look like the cat that got the cream, Commander." Ken comments.

"Really? Oh. Dunno why."

She wants to but she wouldn't. That's not why she is with her, it's just going to be the cherry on the top.

...

"EDI knows?" Ashley says to Liara in her quarters. "EDI knows?" she says again.

"Well. Of course she does. She's everywhere. It's difficult to keep anything from her. I don't know why you're so surprised."

"Well... yea, I know but it just hadn't occurred to me... her and Joker. And whatever they..."

"Uh!" Liara raises a halting hand before Ashley gets any further with that train of thought.

"Well, anyway, when they 'talk', they must talk about the ship and stuff. Talk about their day like normal people."

"'Like normal people'?. Tsk. Ashley..."

"She's a robot." Ashley says quite frankly, "I'm not making any apologies for thinking that that's... different."

"Hmm." Liara frowns but concedes.

"We must have come up though.You know what I mean. You're the one who dubbed her."

"Oh yea." Liara smiles smugly, "I did, didn't I. 'Blabbermouth'."

"Well. All I'm saying is, it's going to come out sooner or later."

"It'll come. We're okay for now, aren't we, old girl?"

"Sure! I'm not saying... well I'm not saying anything. Just shooting the breeze."

"Hm."

"Anyway, back to my original point, remember? A half hour ago? Before Tangential T'Soni butted in? In future, we don't use the girl squad call signs."

"Not even for fun?" Liara says with disappointment.

"Oh fun is okay, that's fine. Just... not in the field."

"Okay then, my 'Grey Destroyer'." Liara says, putting arms around Ashley.

"Really? Don't I at least get 'Grey Fox'?"

"Are we getting too old for all this nonsense?" Liara puzzles as she pushes back a trailing hair from Ashley's face.

"Nonsense...?" Ashley protests.

They look at each other seriously a moment but they can't keep it up for long, then at the same time say childishly, "Nah!"

The old questions have become side-lined for the new ones, being that they are more immediate, though some of the oldest ones still filter through. Verity is thankful for the time in solitary after her altercation with the guards to think deeply about the questions, make sense of her mind. Picking out anything she thinks relevant or just meaningful from the events of her life. Some of it worries her and she worries herself.

The salarian on Sur'Kesh. His words always stayed with her. If only he was still alive now to help her probe the questions further. Little chance of that. With their life span, he'd be long gone by now. What did he say?

"Who knows what place in the galaxy the krogan may yet hold."

The krogan. It took the genophage to stop their violent, seemingly unstoppable conquest after they stopped the rachni doing the same. It was a soft genocide, devised by the salarians and turians. But the krogan are part of this galaxy. When she looks from above, away from herself, away from her own feelings and failings, that worries her. The Reapers made it fairly redundant but the question still stands. Was attempting to remove the krogan or indeed the rachni from the galaxy the right thing to do? In the long run, in the life-span of a galaxy and now that they know, that indeed the krogan and the rachni have been essential in the survival of this cycle at least. Who knows what more they might do? Like the salarian said, they are part of this galaxy.

Then the worrying and nagging begins. The Reapers are part of this galaxy. Do they deserve a right in it? Verity doesn't know their intentions or motivation yet but the questions must be pondered. Would a soft genocide work for the Reapers somehow, if those who have sent her messages knew the method and would be willing to bestow it? Is that any better than what happened to the rachni or the krogan? Do the Reapers serve a purpose? She wonders if she is too tied up in the logic of it all, that she needs perspective sometimes to stop herself being sucked in completely.

The Illusive Man placed no Reaper tech in her. That has been established but she still isn't sure if she is really herself. No analysis by any technology can answer that question; does this entity have a soul? Liara seemed to think so of her and Tali of Legion, but when Verity is just inside herself, no-one can say for certain, not really. But she finds these thoughts of logic easy. Comfortable. She thinks it might be an after-effect of the Citadel encounter but she's not sure. Maybe David Archer? Something else from her past to be picked at? David Archer. She doesn't know if he survived, it hadn't really occurred to her, which she feels initially a little bad about.

Good. That's something.

David Archer.

To do what? Integrate with Reapers? Congratulations, you're the new Gavin Archer!

"Gah!"

She'd still like his opinion along the way if possible. To see him at least.

He has survived into the fleet. As has his brother, Gavin. After his work on the Crucible, Doctor Gavin Archer was pardoned and now lives with his brother aboard an Alliance ship assigned as civilian. They have an almost symbiotic relationship now, with Gavin too old to see to his own needs, and David unable to cope well without a routine provided to him. Despite his dependency, Gavin is thankful that he has had this opportunity to find peace with his brother. David is still frustrating to the elder brother in his refusal to conform to social conventions at times, speaking only in numbers and square roots. They play chess most evenings and Gavin has won only a handful of times, though he is pretty sure David let him win, or he was distracted that day. David still gets like that sometimes and Gavin isn't sure if it means anything or not.

Verity remembers the knowing look that she received from David aboard Grissom Academy. She had helped him and the other students, yes, but there seemed like more to her. They had shared their minds briefly when she was connected to his network at the Project Overlord facility, like when she connected to the geth base consensus. Both times made her Cerberus and biotic implants feel live, unearthed. She thinks. That's what it felt like anyway. Legion had showed her the past, the geths' rise, the quarians' fall and that question. That question she has often asked herself and its haunting ring as her dead friend's voice asks it before he sacrifices himself, as clear as on Rannoch in her mind.

"Does this unit have a soul?"

So many times have 'things' been in her head. It started with the Prothean beacon on Eden Prime, followed swiftly by asari melding. Has asari melding affected her in any way? She's done that a lot. Verity smiles but then sobers herself to continue thinking. Shiala. That's a mixed bag she's unsure of but she's looked that one in the face many times, still unsure if she did the right thing but at the same time, knowing she is lying to herself. Asari meld, mixed with Prothean cipher and a sprinkle of ancient Thorian creature on the top. That can't be a good cocktail. Is any one of these events causing this? All of them? None of them?

She is exhausted now and it is late. She should sleep. Save her energy. She doesn't know when she might be able to find out. Maybe its just indoctrination that makes her feel this way. Maybe its just the buzzing in her head.

"Up!" the voice wakes Verity.

"Mmm." she feels like she has hardly slept. "How long..?"

"Get up, Commander."

Commander?

She shakes the sleep from her head and looks at him properly, but cannot make any features out as he is silhouetted against the open doorway of the small solitary cell. He sounds older than the usual guards here though, older than she even. She sits up properly and onto the edge of the bed, pulls on her prison fatigues and stands.

"Heh. I hear you gave some of them boys a good seeing to." he chuckles.

"Do I know you?" she asks.

"No. But I know you, Shepard! Some of us still remember. Hehe. Come on, they're waiting."

"Oh. About time. And you are...?"

"Oh, that don't matter. I'm just here to see you to the Admiral."

He looks around with pantomime exaggeration, then whispers loudly anyway. There's no-one around so Verity just goes along with the farce.

"It's er... sort of an unofficial release here so, keep your head down, there's a good girly."

There's a good girly?

He seems like a kindly sort, so she allows it.

Chapter Text

Hackett has advised Verity that while nothing is in place yet with regard to her request, he wanted her out of that facility.

"If this comes off, we don't want you thrown out there straight from a cell. We're moving you to an Alliance frigate, one that's still ours so we can keep this on the low down. You'll have chance to prepare, study the data, load-outs, anything you need. Basically, Commander, if we do this, we need you ready."

"I need to find out about someone, if they're still alive and if so, meet with him. David Archer."

"Doctor Gavin Archer's brother? They're both in the fleet, I'm sure it can be arranged but why? What's he in all this?"

"Not sure. That's why I need to talk to him."

As soon as incarcerated, Hackett had attempted to move Verity out of the facility but she had protested, wanting to be left to wallow but now with purpose, she is glad to be out of the prison unit. More so that she can begin her work properly. The initial transport is taking her to the civilian ship where the Archers reside, then a 'friendly' shuttle would take her to the Alliance frigate. To try and hide her face, she is wearing the old Colossus armour they have provided with environmental helmet. They don't intend she use it in the field, just something they found to create anonymity for this journey. The fleet occasionally drops out of FTL to allow venting, disposal, and both official and domestic journeys. Hackett is using one of these windows to transport the Commander.

She exits the shuttle and into the docking area of the civilian craft, busy with people of all species. A public address system gives out news and advice, all accompanied still by the urgent fanfares of information. Trumpets: the precursor of news.

Remember, fleet first! Safety is survival! This message is brought to you by CombinedFNet. Combined Fleet Network, the only network! Later: Air. How important is it? Salarian scientist, Doctor Sereian, gives her views on the importance of clean air and doing your part to keep it that way. "Flatulence is a real issue that no-one is addressing. I urge everyone, go to the rest room. Use the facilities." More on that fascinating insight later. In other news...

They seem to be just living their lives despite the hardships and impending doom. Verity walks with her two guards, though that is not really their purpose, not to limit her in any way, just that the Alliance wants to ensure her safety. Regardless, some of the select few that know about this venture insisted on an escort, with veiled references to her indoctrination.

"Commander Shepard? Commander Shepard."

Verity tries to ignore the call, she knows the impact her presence could make, but cannot resist a glance at the voice she already recognises. Really? Her? Of all the people to spot her.

"Commander Shepard, Kahlisah Bint Sinan Al-Jilani, Combined FNet. Commander...?"

"Miss Al-Jilani. Can we keep this down?"

"Oh. Why are you here? Commander Shepard was always news. If you're doing 'something', that's got to be big."

"I'm just going to see command, there's nothing going on."

"That's news in itself, Commander. You've been off the radar a long time. I'd love an interview on the failed attempt on Earth."

"Miss Al-Jilani. Kalisah? We parted on good terms last time. Don't spoil that. And in that spirit, please, keep this on the low-down."

"The people of the fleet deserve answers, Commander. Is this a positive step? Should the people of the fleet be afraid?"

"Just... keep me out of the vids. We don't need to create a panic."

"So... if I read between the lines there..."

"Don't. I have to go." Verity turns to leave.

"Commander?" Kalisah says then a pause as she looks uncomfortable but allows herself a little hope with that which she thinks she has found between those lines. "It is good to see."

As she walks away, Verity looks back to see one of her guards has remained with the reporter, now confiscating her recording equipment as she protests her journalistic rights to no avail. Perhaps Colossus armour wasn't the best idea from command. It's the armour she wore in the campaign against Saren and some people just instantly associate it with her. That, combined with the person in the armour and some are going to notice.

Hindsight's a wonderful thing.

Verity wonders how so many have survived, not just this long but that there was enough to sustain this after the attack at Sol. As the closest jump point to Sol, many supporting civilian ships had waited for the events to unfold in the Exodus Cluster and joined the fleet as it made its escape into the darkness. As she walks to the docking bay to her next transport, Verity becomes aware of a presence in the periphery of her vision, tall and rigid, still and elegant.

"Samara!" Verity shouts and Samara smiles now.

"Shepard. A welcome sight if ever there was one. Are you... free?"

"Hard to say, Samara, hard to say. What's happening with you?"

"My... order has disbanded. There is no place for the Code in these circumstance."

"Oh..."

"Yes. But I have found some peace."

"Shepard?" Anaya says as she arrives.

"Hey! Anaya!"

Anaya is carrying a food parcel and shows the contents to Samara. She stepped in quite close into Samara's personal space and Verity noted that Samara did not flinch, was completely comfortable with the affection shown.

"Sam! We got... water, rice, some pulses, even a few spices today! Thessian!"

"Oh Anaya! That is wonderful. Sorry, Shepard, but it is some time since we ate a meal with a taste other than the water in which it was boiled."

"You said it." Anaya agrees.

In celebration of their upcoming flavoursome food, Anaya playfully pulls Samara towards her by the waist and kisses her cheek, then Samara becomes awkward that she did so in front of Shepard.

"Oh!" Verity says. "Well... good to see you're both well."

"We are, Shepard. But... what brings you here? If you are permitted to say."

"I... there's..." Verity trusts Samara. With her life. But she really doesn't know what to say. What is she doing? What is the plan? She just knows she needs answers and they won't all be found by staying here in the fleet.

"We don't know yet." is the only way she can think of stating it.

Samara steps in closer to Shepard for relative privacy.

"I feel the hope in your words, Shepard. I am yours, if you have need of me." then she steps back, her point made.

"I might hold you to that yet, Samara."

Verity notices Samara's quizzical look at the armour.

"Like it?" she says, giving a twirl, "Colossus. Classic. And look! Mod slots! They didn't give me any mods to play with but... look! Mod slots!"

"Clumsy things." Samara dismisses.

"Are you insulting my armour, 'Sam'?"

"I am pleased that you are pleased, Shepard." Samara replies, humour still not being one of her strong points.

The guard who dealt with Al-Jilani has now caught up and his partner makes an interrupting cough then steps towards Shepard.

"Ma'am? We need to..." he says with a gesture that they move on.

"Sure. One second. Great to see you both again."

"We'd invite you 'round for dinner but... well... as you can see, that's a non-event these days." Anaya says.

"Seems I have to go. 'bye Samara. See you, Anaya."

Verity didn't ask about Falere. Samara would have said if she knew of her fate and she didn't want to bring up old wounds.

Anaya watches Samara watching Shepard walk away down the large bay. She looks at the food parcel, then back up at Samara. It's suddenly as though Samara isn't even there any more. Anaya knows Samara mourns the Code, that part of her life yet to be filled. She had hoped she could be that, the thing that makes Samara complete after her precious order fell and even, she hoped to fill herself too. But she knows that never really happened. They have had a happy time together, that is not in doubt but she knows. Really. Samara cannot yet be truly peaceful.

"I'll miss you." Anaya says, quite finally.

"Pardon? Oh..." Samara says, snapping out of her thoughts, knowing what Anaya means and that in her own mind, her adventures have already begun.

"Sam. Samara. I can't complain really." Anaya says as she takes Samara's hands in hers, "Despite all this, I've had more than I could have ever wished for since that time you and Shepard turned up to wreck my district."

"I am sorry, Anaya."

"No. No apologies. Just... a last dinner together? A last evening together?"

Samara smiles and nods. They make their way back to their small quarters for an evening to enjoy their companionship, and as they found in each other after Sol, more.

Verity knocks on the door, which looks more like the door to a maintenance store and waits. After a few moments the door opens and there he stands. David Archer.

"Commander Shepard." he says simply with his soft, smiling but now older face.

“Hey, David.”

"Invite the Commander in, David! Don't leave her standing there."

It is as though he didn't hear Gavin but then David stands aside and offers her in, everything at his own considered pace.

"Please."

“We'll be right outside, ma'am.” one of the guards states, then they flank the door.

“Right. Sure.” Verity acknowledges then enters into this small, dark 'apartment', a single room with few amenities or furnishings but it is tidy and well kept.

"Come on, David. Put the big light on so we can all see in here." Gavin says. David flicks the main light on. Gavin is now almost totally bald, sitting on his comfy looking armchair and David has not faired much better in the hair department. He sits up on his cot bed and holds his knees, still somewhat childlike despite his years due to his condition and experiences.

"I'd get up, Commander, but..."

"That's okay." she waves.

"The square root of..."

"David." his brother says sternly.

"It is always good to see you, Commander." David now says, still with the expectant look she saw at Grissom Academy.

"So... Commander. You wanted to speak with us?" Gavin says, wanting to know what this is all about.

"Yes. Well. David, actually."

"Oh?"

"There's something I need to know. When he was connected to the geth and the VI..."

"Yes?"

"David?" she now directs her question at him as she kneels on one leg in front of him, "Do you remember much about that? When you became the network? When I was in it too. And how that all felt?"

Each question seemed to fill David with increasing distress until the final one. How did that feel? Numbers and calculations spew from his mouth at an alarming rate while he rocks, gripping his knees tightly.

"David? David!" his brother cries out, reaching from his chair.

Verity feels terrible for putting him through this and tries to calm him by placing her hand on his. It is not too painful, nor is it at all cold but she wants to shout out the words that David did. Buzzing and clicking, loud and confusing, too much to listen to, too much to hear, too much to bare. Those words haunted her for a while, distorted and unclear, but becoming clearer with each step. Until they were pure and sorrowful. She wants to shout the words herself and finally they overpower the cacophony of sounds in her head, clanging and familiar.

"Quiet please, make it stop!"

She violently flings herself back from David with a gasp for air and her mind returns to the apartment. David just smiles, serene.

...

"So is it a plan?" Ashley asks the squad and senior ship crew in the conference room they use to discuss important matters. After the escape from Sol, all agreed that Ashley should remain in command.

"Therum? Ha! Really?" Liara laughs.

"I know!" Ashley says. "We get onto Therum, scavenge whatever we can, bring Tali and her magic pockets, we could get a lot from there. Even though it was abandoned, there's still got to be a hell of a lot of resources down there. We already have the data on the site in the ship records they installed. And as I said, if we can somehow get into the lower levels of the Prothean facility, if there's anything left of it after that cave in, dig in and find a home? Got to be worth a try, either way."

"It's been a while since I wore those magic pockets. I hope I can find my suit... Garrus, dear, have you seen my old suit recently?" Tali asks, her soft, pale skin almost glowing under the lights. There is a luminescent quality to Tali's skin but not quite to the extent that she glows in the dark, though Joker's humour would say otherwise. She wears clothes of her own manufacture, still reminiscent of the old quarian styling but with no mask, and her hood only when the wont takes her.

Garrus 'hums' and 'hahs' in thought, ignoring Tali's domestic request. There was no XO appointed when Shepard re-took control of the Normandy and the Reapers made their initial attack on Earth. Now and probably then too, Garrus unofficially fills this role, his experience and gravitas making him the obvious choice. He even has the old XO's office, as Liara now resides in the captain's quarters. Ashley values his opinion, all major decisions discussed and agreed upon.

"It's too good an opportunity to pass up. Risky, but I say we go for it." he finally agrees.

"We're still a hell of way out but, yea, we haven't encountered any Reaper ships in a long time." Ashley replies.

"Ugh, jinx us, why don't ye?" Donnelly says.

"There's always going to be one problem though, no matter what we do." Joker says, agitated.

"Joker?" Ashley asks.

"EDI."

"Jeff. There is no need to..." EDI attempts to take his arm.

"No!" he says, resisting her, he thinks for her own good. "I have to say it. No-one else is. EDI needs the Normandy. Despite her body, she is the Normandy. She won't be EDI without it. We can't just live on Therum and scupper the Normandy."

The group look at each other but not at Joker or EDI. They feel guilty for not only missing this vital situation but that they don't know how it can be resolved. EDI is a ship and a robot, and they all feel that guilt as well.

"Yea, well." Joker says, "Thanks, guys. Come on, EDI."

He takes her by the hand and leads her. She goes with him, though she keeps looking back at the group with concern. Not for herself, but that she doesn't want to be the cause of this. EDI knows what she is, regardless of the positive reinforcement she receives when she interacts with her Jeff.

"How many computer banks is she? How much power would that take? Will she lose anything by being disconnected from the ship but retaining her AI banks? I mean, she has the body so..." Garrus asks.

Ashley tries to keep the train of thought alive, "Hmm. She's said before something about being within tight band width of the Normandy so... little help? Anyone? That means nothing to me."

"Possibly..." Tali says, "To be honest, I'm good but I think EDI would probably be the best person to discuss this with. I'd be pretty sure that her processors are whirring away already."

"Indeed they are, Tali." EDI comes over the comm, "And thank you. Everyone."

Looks of relief pass between the group though no words said on her thanks.

Garrus looks perturbed, "I know she can probably still hear me, but I hate it when she does that. I always wonder if while speaking to us, she and Joker are actually..."

"Uh!" many hands are raised to halt him.

"Talking! I was only going to say talking! I wonder if she is having two conversations at once! That's all! I'd hate that..."

Then Garrus smiles, wryly, with a soft, gravelly chuckle as his pondering hand comes up to his chin.

"Ew! Garrus!" Tali says as she slaps the offending hand from its position.

"Commander? Commander Shepard? Are you alright, David? What's going on?" Gavin Archer says with distress, frustrated he is stuck in his chair though what he would do if he stood, he doesn't know.

"Yes. Fine." David says calmly then looks to the puzzled looking Commander still sitting on the floor, "The square root of nine hundred and six point zero one is..."

"Thirty point one." Verity finishes for him. That particular square root still means nothing to her but she always wondered if it was comparable to the geth divide. If it is something like that for David with this specific square. David had interfaced with geth for an extended period, so he must have come to know their minds in some way, possibly even their very being. This experience showed her he did.

"What's going on?" Gavin is bewildered.

Verity stands, still a little groggy from the experience and turns to Gavin, now quite serious.

"Gavin... Doctor Archer? Despite our differences, can we keep this between ourselves? You know, just me, you and David?"

"Well... for the help you've given in the past, both to myself and my brother, of course. But why?"

"I think I know what's going on with me now." she replies as she walks to the door, then stops to look back, feeling guilty that she didn't say it sooner. Though she ponders perhaps she did by answering the square root.

"Thank you, David."

"Thank you, Commander Shepard."

Verity leaves the apartment, rejoining her escorts to continue on to the shuttle bay.

"David? Can you tell me what's going on?"

"Change." he replies with a grin, as though that makes it all clear.

"What change? Am I supposed to understand that?"

"The square root of..."

"Ugh, never mind. Always something when the 'illustrious' Commander Shepard's about. Damn nuisance. Chess?"

"No prisoners today!" David smiles.

"Hm! Well, we may as well play regardless. Pass the time, at least. Come on, David, get the set out then. Let's get set up!" he says with a quick clap of his hands, unaware of how much he really depends on his brother. David is patient with his brother, more than Gavin will know but family can forgive the short tempers that come to some with the frustration of age.

Verity needs this under wraps for now, she cannot tell command about this yet or risk letting darker elements know. Admiral Hackett has already made the suspicious, disturbing noises of fear of the unknown and right now, she is about as unknown as it gets.

Chapter Text

Armour load-outs. Always fun to play with and Verity has a near endless choice of enhancements to choose from, provided by Admiral Hackett and his team. The first task here though is something more immediate. Colour.

In her youth, and to remind her of her love of all things asari, she would always choose blue as colour of preference. When she moved out of the biotic facility and into the military and beyond, she had less of a choice. The armour of old didn't come with optional colours. Colossus, red and black. Predator, woodland camouflage. Onyx, black. Back then, she accepted the colour of the armour worn and made her own preferences underneath. That was until the load-out consoles appeared after her resurrection. Despite the lack of mods, she does appreciate these machines. Choose the components you want, then next time it proffers armour from its automated locker, there it all is. With this change also came other options, options to change to colour of the armour. She's not sure how but Verity assumes that there isn't dozens upon dozens of components in there, covering all the possible combinations. Nor does she think that there are tiny little sprays in there, doing a quick paint job on request; though to her inner-child, that is what is happening.

When she first encountered one of these consoles aboard the Cerberus craft where she first met the Illusive Man, she went straight to blue, then stopped herself. She had found Liara by that point, they'd already begun their adventures in love. The urgency of blue didn't seem so strong and she went for the white with blue trim that she used to wear under the old armour. Thrilling to her when she first saw the same scheme adorning her blue angel on Illium, wet from the sprinkler system, set off by the Shadow Broker's ordinance.

Liara. Verity learned last time that the galaxy doesn't behave as anyone would like it to and she has tempered, just slightly, her anticipation and desire. She still yearns, feels that aching feeling in the chest that she is not here but to hope too much, that Liara is there, waiting for her, or if that fails or if Liara has met her end somehow already, Verity doesn't want to think about it, so won't. There is plenty enough to think about as it is and she feels guilty for allowing her mind to side line the thoughts of companionship and union with the only one she has ever loved.

Verity allows her mind a little wander. She had wondered at the time, when she first saw Liara in her casual white and blue armour, if that was her own influence. When they would go running or swimming, Verity would wear her white running shorts and matching vest, all with blue trim. The young asari had even commented one time that she liked this look, though she was inspecting Verity's posterior at the time. Verity hoped that this was something else they shared, their love of all things blue and white; her own reasons being blue for asari, white for the light of truth, her name. Verity breaks herself from this musing, her mind has done enough of that recently and what happened there.

Samara has dug out her own stylish armour for this venture, still able to stop a room by just entering with her stunning and elegant looks. They are aboard the Alliance vessel in a wing of their own, overlooking a hangar bay. Samara's inclusion was agreed to due to her known support to Shepard and the Alliance in the past. There is an array of weapons provided so while Samara sorts through her own kit in front of the weapons table, Verity begins checking over them, applying her Warp ammo modification to each one to assure its working order. She quickly 'hacks' each weapon's technological innards, then moves onto the next.

"So..." Verity begins, "Anaya, eh?"

"Yes." Samara simply replies.

"That's it? 'Yes'? Come on, 'Sam', you can do better than that."

"Hm." Samara initially says at Verity's mock usage of the name. "Well... it is all so long ago, I doubt Anaya would complain."

"Ooh, this sounds interesting already!" and she gives Samara her full attention while trying to continue her work.

"We found companionship as I guided her through the Code..."

"Wait a second. The Code...? What did Anaya have to do with..."

"We were Justicar sisters, for a time."

"Really? Anaya?" Verity bursts out laughing.

"What? Anaya is noble with good intentions, I fail to see the humour."

"It's like, like... reverse Blasto, or something."

"Blasto?" Samara has heard the news feeds but never really paid any attention to them due to their general air of irreverence.

"You know, you'd go in, all elegant, eloquent and reserved, the ideal of the Justicar, with your classic, 'Find peace in the embrace of the goddess.' line. Then Anaya goes in all like, 'Eat shit, scum-bag!'"

Verity laughs some more, finding her own assessment amusing.

"Anaya was not like that. She was most troubled by the slaughter regardless of the evils of the wrong-doers."

"Still funny though..."

"If you say so..."

Verity continues with her work, now pondering.

"I can go with the armour but weapons? I never really got that." Verity suddenly says.

"To what do you refer?" Samara says.

"Armour mods, I can understand how carrying dozens of mods around in the field to change armour properties can be viewed as 'clumsy', but ammo mods? Why did they change all that? Slap in the ammo, done. None of this fiddling about with the tech inside."

"But all weapons are capable now. It merely requires the user to know the hack."

"Hmm. Yea, I suppose. Still seems counter-intuitive."

Another weapon checked and she moves it to the other side of the weapons station.

"How did you do that?" Samara asks, with great surprise.

"Do what?" Verity asks, grabbing another weapon to check.

"The modification."

"What? You know how to mod a weapon, Samara..."

"Yes. But when I do it, I need to actually look at the display and manipulate the machine within. You just..."

"I just what?"

"You barely touched it."

"I did?" Verity asks, confused. As far as she was concerned, she did nothing different, though she was running on 'auto-pilot'. "'Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice'." she continues..

"Sorry?"

"Oh, never mind. Hm, I wonder though. Samara...? About Anaya."

"But the weapon...?" Samara says, confused as to why this near miracle doesn't seem important to Verity.

"Never mind that for now. Anaya. Did you two meld?"

"Shepard!"

"Oh. No. I don't mean as a couple like that, I just mean, sharing thoughts and memories like bondmates sometimes do?"

"Oh. My apologies for assuming the worst but you can be quite... carnal. Of course we did, Shepard. Why?"

"Is that different when it's between two asari? Obviously, I've only ever been the passive participant. But I wondered if with two active asari, is it different?"

"I would not know. Since the discovery of my daughters' condition, I have only bonded with Anaya and before that, only the father of my children."

"Hmm. Bonding with Liara was always... pleasant and serene. When Javik did his thing, or like the prothean beacon, it was almost like... an assault. Makes you wonder."

"How so?"

"No intelligent organic has evolved beyond fifty thousand years for possibly billions of years."

"Indeed."

"So... makes you wonder. What would organic life be like by now, if allowed to just continue evolving for millions of years?"

"Let us hope we can make that a reality so future generations can be the pioneers of whatever the unknown holds."

"Do you trust me, Samara?"

"Implicitly, Shepard. With my life."

"Come here, then."

Samara goes from her kit bag on the floor, and around the weapons table to Verity.

"Give me your hands."

Samara places her hands in Verity's and from the outside a brief moment passes until she pulls her hands away in shock.

"Goddess preserve us!"

"Yup!" Verity says with a guilty grin.

...

Joker enters their quarters, the old QEC room which the Normandy currently has no use for, and finds EDI's body just standing there in the centre of the room, then she turns to him, just her head.

"How was your day, Jeff?"

"What are you... doing?"

"I was waiting for you."

"Yea, but... that's a bit... weird... Sorry, but when people wait, they usually do something else as well, they at least sit!"

"But... I am not a person, Jeff. I have no need for further distractions nor rest."

"No, but... no, you're right. As you were, it's not my place to say."

"I do not wish to make you uncomfortable, Jeff. I only wish to please you."

"You know, I always thought that being 'Major Nelson' would be cool..."

"Referencing. 'I Dream of Jeannie'? Is that how you see me?"

"No! It was only a joke."

"It is my observation that the humour usually lies within the truth of the matter. What is unsatisfactory in our relationship?"

"Okay, I do sometimes feel like my dream woman has magically appeared from nowhere, with amazing abilities and..."

"Do you see me as subservient, like 'Jeannie'?"

"What? No! Stop twisting what I say!"

"I am sorry, Jeff. I can see that I have made you upset."

"No! You're the one who's supposed to be getting mad here."

"I cannot 'get mad', Jeff. We have discussed such matters on many occasions."

"Yea, well. I do, and us organics 'project'. And I'm sorry, you've done nothing wrong."

"I am glad, Jeff."

"Could we try 'master'?" he probes.

"You wish for me to call you 'master'?"

"Not seriously or anything, you know? Just for... fun!"

"For fun? Yes, master."

Joker pauses a moment.

"On second thoughts, EDI, scratch that. That is too weird."

"As you wish, Jeff."

The turmoil of such conversations in EDI cannot be seen by the casual observer and she can't really feel it in the traditional sense. But each time Joker has a negative word, an expressed or perceived doubt, it drops her positive reinforcement processes, then the calculations begin to bring the level back up. To say it hurts her would be incorrect for a machine, but it does.

"Shall I pilot, Shepard?" Samara asks. The fleet have provided a craft, The Hunter, small but capable of good FTL speeds. It has few armaments but if they encounter hostile Reaper ships, this craft would not withstand even a grazing from a Reaper's beam so it was pointless to enhance the weapons any more.

"Errr... no, it's okay. We want to get out of the hangar at least before the dangers begin."

Righteous indignation spreads across Samara's face, "What is wrong with my piloting?"

"Haha! Really?"

"Hm. Very well."

Admiral Hackett waits with them at the ship's open airlock, ready to see them off with his support but his mind now turns to things unconsidered.

"Commander, how will we know you're not just an indoctrinated suicide bomber when you return?"

"You won't."

"What if you're not and the fleet fires on you?"

"Then I'll see you in hell, Admiral!" and Verity slams the airlock shut.

Verity manoeuvres the ship out of the docking area and they begin their journey.

...

Their first leg has taken them to the Exodus Cluster, as she has interpreted so far from the messages in her mind. They haven't quite reached any systems yet when they spot something in the dark abyss between.

"Hm. What is that?" Verity says, piloting the craft with Samara in the co-pilot's seat.

"From my experiences, it looks to be a scientific facility of some sort, though why it would be out here... to escape the Reapers?" Samara assesses.

"Maybe. It's old though... haven't seen that particular type of civilian craft in a while."

"Do you wish to view it closer?"

"I'd like to board it, to be honest. There might be survivors who need help."

"Indeed. Very well, I shall 'gear up', as you say, in case there is worse."

Verity brings the craft around to dock with the facility and gears up herself. They go to the air-lock and ready their weapons, both using the N7 Eagle pistol; high rate of fire and large clips, plenty enough power for a biotic. Verity taps the panel to open the doors and they do so.

"Miranda?" Verity says, lowering her aim.

"Oh, you know me? Er... are the weapons necessary? I mean, I know you're Commander Shepard but..." Miranda says.

"Miranda? Are you okay?"

"Am I okay? Of course. I'm not the one boarding innocent science vessels with weapons and asari commandos in tow."

"Justicar." Samara feels she must correct.

"What?"

"This is most peculiar, Shepard." Samara states, as though Miranda isn't there to hear her.

"Who is it, Miri? Are you okay? Are we okay?" Oriana's voice calls from down the way.

"It's Commander Shepard, Ori. You know, that survivor hero woman from Akuze! She seems to think she knows me!" Miranda says.

"Really?" Oriana now comes into view, they have both aged but they are both instantly recognisable to Verity. "Oh. Hello!"

"Have we met before, Commander Shepard?" Miranda asks.

"Miranda Lawson?"

"Yes."

"Henry Lawson's daughter?"

"Yes...? What is all this? Do you know my father? Have you seen him?"

"This is getting weird."

"Okay then. You haven't shot us or anything so... do you want to come aboard?"

"Sure. Please."

This old craft has a familiar flat layout, they were pretty much pre-fab in those days. The main storage bay is divided into laboratories, though no busy work is being conducted.

"There's just you two here?"

"Yes. Our father last visited about... how long ago was it now, Ori?"

"Over thirty years now. More maybe."

"Yes. And he was... odd."

"Hm. How so?"

"Well... he kept apologising to me and Ori, crying, really quite distraught. We never really knew why. Then he took some of our research and said to wait for him here because something big was coming but it could be some time until he could make his return. We've been stuck here ever since. I do hope he is alright."

"What research do you do here?"

"Genetics."

"I see."

"Sorry, my sister and I, we're... both genetically enhanced. Sorry. We don't have any official doctorates but there's little we don't know about modern genetics and its practical applications. Isn't that right, Ori?"

"You're always way ahead of me, Miri."

"Oooohhhhh..." Verity says, she thinks the truth dawning on her.

"Yes?" Samara says, seeing this in her.

"The slimy bastard made spares. Even kept them sweet in case the others turned 'bad'. Cerberus no doubt made his plans impossible."

"Are you talking about Dad? I'm not sure I like this."

"Sorry, Miranda, but I have to ask."

"What?"

"Did Henry... was your father... ever... overly affectionate with you. Or you, Oriana?"

"How dare... how can you ask such a thing! Dad loved us. Loves us both. I'm not so sure inviting you aboard was such a good idea now."

"Sorry. I had to ask. A guy who makes himself beautiful daughters like this, I... sorry I assumed the worst."

"Well. Anyway. Is there something specific we can do for you?"

"No. We just saw the craft and I thought there might be survivors or refugees aboard."

"Refugees?"

"Yes."

"From what?"

"The... war?"

"What war? Have the batarians finally cracked?"

"Uuhh... no...? Have you had no contact with the outside world?"

"No. Not with the way the galaxy is. I'm surprised you were so calm when I mentioned it."

"Oh. What?"

"Well. With the intolerance about the genetically enhanced, Dad kept us safe here so we didn't have to suffer the prejudices."

"Ugh, this gets better and better. So what do you know about me?" Verity asks, trying to get a gauge on what they know about anything from the last thirty years.

"Akuze. That's it, really. We saw about you on the last batch of vids Dad brought us. We don't have the extranet here."

"Wow. Just... Wow!" Verity says.

"At the risk of sounding incredibly rude, you're a very odd woman, Commander." not-Oriana says.

Chapter Text

"What the...?" Verity says.

"I know! Impressive, isn't it? Some of our handy work. They consistently grow this size." Miranda says, holding up a watermelon sized tomato.

"Wait a minute... is that off a vine? Is it...?"

"Cherry tomato, yes! Though that's not all we grow here." she says with a little pride. "We've converted some of the side labs into hydroponic farms. Despite being stuck out here, we've eaten well for the last thirty years or so."

"Wow! The whole fleet could be fed with harvests like that!" Verity says.

"Indeed." Samara agrees. "Impressive."

"The fleet? Anyway," Miranda says. "Ori's making us some dinner if you'd like to join us?"

"You've been very generous. Thank you, Miranda."

"Yes, you have been most welcoming."

"It's only manners. I hope they haven't gone from the galaxy yet!"

"Unfortunately," Samara informs her, "the galaxy has changed little in that regard. There are still those who are too brutish to appreciate a kind word or friendly gesture. You and your sister are quite... how should I say... naïve?"

"Is that supposed to be insulting?" Miranda responds.

"Forgive me. I merely mean that you still have faith in others. Such as when you waited at the airlock, which I feel I must caution you: that is a dangerous course of action to take."

"Oh?"

"Yea, Samara's right. You had no idea what was waiting on the other side of that door. At least stand away when the doors open."

"Hm. I suppose you're right. Maybe we are a little too trusting. Something to think about, at least. If nothing else though, I'm a good runner!"

"Not sure turning your back on the enemy is such a good idea."

"How so?" Miranda asks.

"You don't want to make yourself a bigger target." Verity cannot resist.

"Oh. What?" Miranda says, not getting it.

"Never mind, it was just a joke."

"Hm. Must be a military thing."

It has become late in not-Miranda and not-Oriana's routine after their meal, so they offer a spare room in this relatively spacious facility so they might retire. They seemed to be as interesting and affable as their counterparts but without the dark issues that bubble under, possibly even an innocence to them. Verity and Samara can recognise the undercurrents of a fellow combatant or someone who has faced fear and had to overcome it to save their very lives. No, this pair seemed to have lived a happy life, devoid of the darkness that Henry brought on the other Miranda and Oriana, except perhaps the lost look they have at their abandonment. A pleasant evening indeed, staying off the overshadowing subject at hand, all knowing that it will need to be approached and Verity dreading it. She had to 'harrumph' occasionally to drown out Samara's inability to see when it is best to let things lie. Truth is important, but not always urgent.

"That was all very odd." Miranda says to her sister as they lay in their beds.

"You said it, Miri."

"I still don't get what she meant though."

"About what?"

"Running making me a bigger target, that made no sense."

"Oh, Miri. You are dense sometimes."

"Hm? You know what she meant?"

Oriana rolls over to sleep, then shouts over her shoulder.

"She means your big bum!"

"What? I haven't..."

"'night, Miri."

"Hm! 'night, Ori."

"Love you!"

"Hmm. You too, Ori."

Verity and Samara relished the opportunity for a real bed in warmth and The Hunter can be quite cold. Verity once joked to Samara about cuddling up for warmth but the ship suddenly became colder and both just turned over to sleep. Normally they share the back room of their ship, with a single door to the cockpit, being that and the 'command' area as well. There is space behind the dual pilots' chairs, leather, in similar dimensions to the Normandy's cockpit area though a little lower, where their consoles and non-flight controls are. Other than that, there is a small toilet and shower facility adjoining their back room, and an engine at the rear. An engine they hope will last their journey. They have been assured that there will be no problems and the geth have enhanced all that they can. They have charts of abandoned fuelling stations and deposits, scattered enough that they should not become dry.

Samara sits on the edge of the bed the new Lawson sisters have provided while Verity fiddles with her pistol as she sits on her bed, not really doing anything with it, just fiddling. Mod on. Mod off. She is not trying to do anything particular, certainly not like seemed to happen on the Alliance frigate. Just something soothing to do to relax before sleeping. It's nice to not have to wear extra layers to keep warm so Verity sits in her underwear, Samara her armour's body suit.

"You are aware we may never get back to the fleet?" Samara says, out of the blue.

"Suicide missions are our trade, Sam. Why the cold feet now?"

"It is not 'cold feet', I do not fear death but I am wondering now. What if we are in difficulty somewhere and cannot escape the fate. What then? There will be no friendly cruiser or passing frigate to rescue us."

"Well... Sam... Samara. I can think of worse people to be stuck out here with. And you know me, I've always had a thing for asari, and you're one of the most beautiful asari I know. Doesn't sound so bad to me!"

"'Sam' is okay. And... one of...?" Samara says, almost seductively. Verity hasn't seen this look from Samara before and she's not sure exactly where it came from. She thinks Samara might be trying to be funny but she's not seen that often either so it is hard to say. It is possible Samara's time with Anaya has opened her up, chipped at her defences and allowed her to laugh again. Verity cannot deny though, it's a pretty alluring sight, Samara just in her white body suit which has smaller dimensions than the armour it cushions, her mouth slightly ajar, doe-eyed and just a slight smile. Verity stands and walks to Samara, who looks expectantly up at the Commander. Verity slaps her hard on the shoulder, like a marine.

"Go to sleep, Sam."

"Yes, Shepard." Samara smiles.

"You know what, Sam?" Shepard stops before reaching her own bed.

"Yes, Shepard?"

"Call me Verity." then she continues under the bed covers.

"Okay then, Verity! Thank you." Samara almost laughed the name at its peculiarity in her mouth and that this gesture was made. She is well aware this it quite a large one from Commander Shepard. Verity.

...

"Why are they saying these things, Miranda? Make them stop! Make them go! Why are you doing this to us? We were happy here!"

Oriana is inconsolable as her tears fall at what Shepard has told them about their kindly father and their sisters, which they still have difficulty believing. Not to mention the events such as Saren, Sovereign, the Reapers, the war, the desperate situation of all life in the galaxy. In their spacious living room where the four talk, a few images are in frames, birthdays and other events. Loving looking occasions. Dad with his thumbs up, daughters smiling at their funny father's silliness, cakes, colourful decorations, it looks like the perfect childhood for both of them. At least, when he was there, their conversations now indicating he was never a constant in their lives but was always there for the good bits. The Lawson girls see that as an effort on his part, rather than the selfish reasons Verity has now inferred from what they have said, what she has seen.

Verity has re-thought the previous accusations she made towards Henry Lawson, that it is not so much 'spares' he needed but he still wanted to be 'daddy' to his daughters. So he created strong daughters to fight the outside world, to be his legacy, him thinking that he needs daughters who don't need him for them to be successful. Then he also wanted soft daughters to be the loving girls that those damaged women could never be. He even named them the same, possibly in his mind even seeing them as the same. He wanted to have his cake and eat it.

Henry was aware his daughters in the outside world would no doubt hate him but it was not their purpose to be those loving daughters. If he needed that affection and love, he need only go to his 'spares', for them to shout 'daddy!' when he entered and rush to him with enthusiastic stories of their lives, innocent and pure. Verity isn't sure if she should feel anger or pity, but the former is more prevalent. Control. The man had to have control, this was already known of him, but this is a whole new twisted kettle of fish.

"Thirty point one!" Verity suddenly shouts out.

...

In disturbing news today, a near riot took place outside political chambers aboard the Destiny's Ascension in reaction to the recent announcement by a delegate of krogan that the nursery song 'Turians like to fight' is asari propaganda! "That asari song contains offensive material on just about everyone. In the spirit of unity, it has to be banned! Krogan!" The asari have defended the song, loved by children of all species. "It's just a bit of fun. The krogan speak of unity but they just still can't get over the genophage!" Woah there little lady, calm down! In other news...

It would break Liara's heart to know her favourite rhyme is being used for political leverage, a problem that still exists within the fleet. They may have united in strength but some of the older wounds fester. The messages of strength and unity soon fell by the wayside for the urgency of safety and survival, and the media men seem to think they are still in competition with some imaginary network the way they plug and hammer the messages, irreverent and damaging. All unnecessary. All avoidable, were the ones who could make the changes not embroiled in it all as well. That they would allow the reporting of stories such as the nursery rhyme shows just how quickly the fleet's representatives have failed. Reports that stoke the fires of intolerance and stagnancy. Some might call it censorship but there is no point giving air-space to the narrow minded and bigoted for their messages to become accepted, all accompanied by the fanfares of urgency.

Chapter Text

“Thirty point one?” Miranda quizzes.

"I need to get back to the fleet." Verity says.

"Why? What just happened?" Samara asks.

"I don't know. But... David."

"David?"

"Yea. David Archer. I... heard him. I don't know but my gut tells me, we have to get back."

Miranda has no idea what they are talking about and feels there is little point asking.

"Hm. I'll just assume that means something to you two but... does this mean you're leaving?"

"Yea... but what about you two?"

"Oh. Hm. Yes. Well to be honest, if I'm logical about all this, I can't really not believe what you've said. I mean, there's no purpose served coming here to tell us this then buggering off again. I don't know. Maybe as Sam here says, I'm naïve but for some reason, Verity... I trust you! But I don't know. Leaving here? This is our home and we've survived your war this far..."

"I do understand, Miranda, and wouldn't force you to come with us. And really? You've probably got as much chance as anyone else currently alive in the galaxy with your set up here. But there's still something bothering me. Maybe you can help."

"Yes? Anything I can do."

"This research. What exactly did Henry... your dad take?" Verity asks.

"Oh. Some of our research into 'advanced intelligence physical projections'. I coined the term!" Miranda almost curtsies with pride.

Miranda smiles at Verity as though the matter is now cleared up while Verity stares blankly at her a moment.

"Aaaaand... in layman's terms?"

"Oh. Sorry. Hm. How can I put it? When advanced intelligence organisms become just that, there's like a stagnation. Environment is no longer the evolutionary drive due to the organism shaping its own future rather than the other way around. So you know, I'm simplifying here but if it's cold the dominant 'fur' genes win out, or it's dark so the genes that allow good night vision win out. 'Survival of the fittest gene' and all that. With advanced intelligence creatures, if it becomes colder they build a fire, if it becomes darker they use that fire to see and so on. You see? So nowadays, if it's a toxic atmosphere, you make a mask. If you want more powerful biotics, you use mods. And so on. Physical evolution pretty much halts, you see?"

"I think I'm with you so far." Verity says.

"So we're researching the genes that drive the physical nature of organisms, trying to project what would happen if organisms continued to physically evolve and react to various conditions. Dad provided some very interesting specimens to study from around the galaxy."

"Oh...I see." Verity says, not bemused by the concept but thinking she has found a flaw. "What about the Protheans and their telepathic abilities? What natural conditions could possibly evolve that?"

"No way to say without some DNA to play with, but I'd speculate that they must have had outside influence. Like you've said about the asari, the Protheans uplifted them so there's no reason to think a previous cycle didn't uplift the Protheans. I wouldn't doubt it's been going on for millions of years without anyone knowing. You just go with what you're born with, don't you?"

Miranda's brain thinks fast and countered Verity's flaw with ease. In her mind, she's already outlining a paper on this inter-galactic genetic soup that seems to have boiled up.

"Hm. Fair enough. But I still have to ask: to what end is your research?"

"Ummm... none? The vegetable project is just easy stuff we did for a means to an end. The 'advanced intelligence physical projections' research? It's just research. Dad usually took anything he thought practical, that was his bag, Industry and manufacture, that kind of thing. Him and that friend of his. Brrr," Miranda pretends to shiver with cold, "I never did like him. Never knew his name but he had these unnaturally blue eyes and this smug demeanour. Slimy he was. Always felt like dad kept him away from us when he was here. Nothing funny, just... in hindsight? I don't think dad wanted his influence on us."

Verity laughs.

"If you're referring to who I think you're referring to, you're an excellent judge of character, Miranda."

"You know him too? Yea, nasty piece of work that one, I reckon. They sometimes came here to meet. They had a club or something. Something about... I don't know, something from the classics."

"Cerberus?" Verity says, already knowing the answer.

"Yes. Yes, that's it. Do you know them as well? We seem to have a convergence here!" Miranda laughs.

"Yeees. Did your dad take this research specifically to Cerberus or the Illu... his friend, I mean."

"I would imagine so."

"Gah! What the hell were they up to? Sounds like classic Cerberus fiddling about!"

"He mentioned some projects though." Miranda now recalls, trying to assist with whatever she can think of that might be helpful.

"Hm?"

"Yes. He was quite excited about them, they had spooky names like 'Overlord' and 'Lazarus'." Miranda even adds a ghostly voice and creeping fingers to the words then is disappointed no-one was amused.

"I wasn't that scary, was I?" she jokes to try and break the tension she has no idea how she created as both Samara and Verity look very 'spooked'.

Verity has to ask herself if this research was destined for she and David. Have they been manipulated more than anyone but the projects knew? Did her Miranda know this? Verity dismisses that thought. Miranda was quite forthright about her reservations during the Lazarus Project and Verity knows that Miranda was someone she could trust with her life. Did Gavin know and his crimes greater than she thought? Is this why she feels the way she does? Why would this only emerge in her now? David awakened it but there seems to have been something there for so long now. Even if they did do this, is it her genes that makes it feel like her mind turns inside out as it tries to make sense of itself? So many times, prodded and pushed, probed and penetrated, from mind exchanges to direct feeds, which is it? All of them? For now, she has to know the answer to one of these questions.

"Shepard... Verity... I..." Samara says, her arms up and down as she doesn't know whether to hug her or not, eventually a hand on her own head at what this all might mean, what it means to the person that she would die in battle for, comrade and friend.

"Can you analyse my DNA?" Verity interrupts, not hearing or seeing Samara's attempts to comfort her, with her old, dark blindness beginning to form.

"Errr... well..." Miranda says, caught off guard by Verity's sudden change in mood.

"Can you?!" Verity demands without looking at her.

Verity's anger at Cerberus boils to the top. Even now, even though they no longer exist as an organization or even a concept, Cerberus are playing with her life from beyond the grave. Just as she expects, just as the galaxy has always done. Verity also asks herself if this is what the Reapers wanted to show her.

"Yes. Of course. This way." Miranda says. Her naivety has been chipped by this visit and her fears for herself and her sister raise at Verity's anger but she relies on the trust they just spoke of. She leads Verity to one of the labs in the main bay. Miranda arrives at the analysis console and takes a swab from a trolley there and removes its packaging.

"I'll need to..." she begins but Verity is already opening her mouth to accept the swab.

"Thanks. Good girl!" Miranda smiles but it was good natured. "Okay then! In she pops and here we go! Our analysis software is probably more advanced than anything else in the galaxy. We've had decades to perfect our..."

"How long will it take?" Verity interrupts.

"Oh. Not long. Like I said, we've had years working on this. It's how we spend our days mostly. So what are we looking for?" Miranda says enthusiastically, a chase now on.

"Not sure. I just need you to look."

"Okay then... Give me a moment."

Miranda sits at the chair and types rapidly away at the console for a few minutes like a concert pianist performing Rachmaninov with similar grandiose lean ins for the good bits. She obviously enjoys her work. She spins around on the chair with a flourish.

"Ping!" Miranda shouts. "And we're done! Let's have a look-see then, eh? What's the scores on the doors? So... what have we here..?"

The large display above the machine and console shows the familiar double helix of life, twisting and turning with graphical displays pointing out nothing that means anything to Verity.

"So what we looking at?"

"I... it's definitely based on our work but..." Miranda says, the confidence gone from her voice.

"What? What is it?"

"Who are you exactly? I mean, other than Commander Verity Shepard, hero of the fleet. Why are you out here?"

"Why? What do you see?" Verity says with a little more directness.

"Your genes. Your DNA. It's... different..." Miranda says, hardly able to comprehend it despite her massive intelligence and recognition of her own research.

"Different to what?"

"Not to what. Who! Different to... well... everyone!"

"Goddess..." is all Verity can think of to say.

She still feels like herself. That is one constant she has relied on. She's still Verity in her own mind, for whatever that's worth now.

...

"Thanks for everything, Miranda. Really. And sorry, I wasn't angry with you."

They stand in the passage to the air lock, Verity and Samara making their goodbyes to not-Miranda and not-Oriana. They've stocked up on fresh food supplies, as provided by the Lawson sisters and are ready to head back to the combined fleet. Verity might not have been provided the location of the Normandy by the Reapers but they have certainly provided plenty to think about.

"That's okay, Verity. My sister and I have always been genetically enhanced, I'm sorry if I wasn't more... sensitive about it all."

"Yes. Don't worry about being angry, Verity. We understand. I mean I know we have our genes but I still wouldn't want someone poking about in there after the fact." Oriana joins with a sympathetic smile.

“How hasn't this been picked up before though? I've been poked and prodded on a few occasions and there's been no indication of anything out of the ordinary.” Verity asks.

“Well I don't know specifically what tests you've been through, but your base markers still appear to be present and correct, it's the extras that might not be picked up by a standard check.”

"Hmm.” Verity ponders. “Any idea what the 'extras' are?"

“It'd take more than a quick scan to find that out.”

“We don't really have time. But, Miranda, there's something I wanted you to know.”

"More horrors from the past?" Miranda says.

"No, no. It's about Miranda. My Miranda."

"Oh?"

"I wanted you to know that she died a hero. Even after all the hardships and horror Henry threw at her, she still had it in her to give her life trying to save the galaxy from the Reapers. You should be proud of your sister."

"Thank you, Verity. Thanks for telling me that."

"And your dad? I'm sorry to be the harbinger of doom. Ha! Harbinger... What are you doing out there, I wonder, you old pantomime villain, you?"

"What?"

"Never mind..."

Miranda never knew her counterpart but Verity's words stir her. A sister who was strong willed. Strong enough to face death and fight to help all in the galaxy. Miranda Lawson, hero of the battle of Sol, if only she were allowed such honours in the fleet.

"We're coming with you, Commander." Miranda suddenly says with confidence.

"We are?" Oriana says, puzzled by her sister's sudden decision.

"Yes. I'm part of this. I'm part of what happened to you, Commander. I need to be part of what's going on. I've sat here for long enough tinkering when there's a whole galaxy out there, one that might not be there for much longer. I want to help. To stop the Reapers. To help you, Verity. Please."

"It'll be a tight fit in The Hunter so I hope you don't mind getting cosy?" Verity says. She cannot deny Miranda this chance. She heard the strength of her words and with a little assistance, she could be as useful an operative as the Miranda she knew. They have the same genes if nothing else.

"Cosy is fine. We'll have no problem getting cosy. Will we, Ori?"

"Umm... no! Apparently not!" Oriana replies with fluster, annoyed that she has had this choice made for her but knowing she would go anywhere with her older sister, just to make sure she's there if she needs her after relying on her for so long, sometimes more like a mother due to their age difference.

"Are you sure, Verity?" Samara asks.

"Sure. Sleep in shifts, it'll be fine!"

...

After a few weeks of the occasional polite, "Excuse me!" and, "Oops, sorry!" due to the tight space, the 'crew' of the Hunter begin to lose this etiquette as nerves fray at the limited space. Samara has adopted the pre-emptive apology, with an, "I do apologise." before ignoring the human obstacle and pushing past, not aggressively but with little regard. Verity is sitting on the console seat behind the pilots' chairs, facing out as Samara pilots the great expanse, which Samara had even made a joke about.

"Are you sure you wish me to pilot, Verity? Do you dare take the risk with spacial bodies merely a few short light years away?"

"Hilarious, Sam. Now take the stick. It didn't work with Liara and it's not going to work with you."

"To what do you refer?"

"Once you asari catch on to our humour, you get quite... facetious, with all the innocence of a new-born. It saw through it with her, and I see through you too, Sam."

"Very well, Verity. I shall pilot." Samara smirked.

The Lawson sisters have been resting in the back room. Miranda enters the cockpit then stands at the doorway, stretching and yawning.

"Mmmm. Ah. Hm. Morning, everyone! We all okay? I'll do some brekkie in a bit. You hungry?"

"Yea, that'd be great, thanks." Verity replies.

Oriana attempts to enter the cockpit, Miranda partially blocking her exit.

"Come on, Miri. Out the way!"

Oriana pushes past Miranda, causing her backside to bump against Verity's face.

"Woah!" Verity shouts, then swats the offending buttocks away.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Verity!" Miranda says sarcastically. "Did my 'big bum' get in the way?"

"If you mean your fat ass, then yea! Careful with that thing."

"It's so difficult though, it's so big! I'm surprised you all fit in here with this huge posterior filling up the whole ship."

Miranda starts swinging her backside at Verity with a swinging, little dance, accompanied by an unknown tune but providing her own lyrics.

"Bum bum bu-bum bum, bum bum bum..."

"Real mature, Miranda..."

"Ugh, ignore her. She's had a complex ever since you joked about it." Oriana says with a sister's frustration.

"I believe breakfast was mentioned?" Samara says, trying to cool the flare.

"Oh 'Little Miss Shovey' pipes up now, eh? But yea, probably a good idea, Sam. I'll go in the back and start up." and she returns to the back room.

"Need any help, Miri?" Oriana shouts through, not as confident as Miranda and still a little awkward with these 'strangers', wanting to be with the familiarity of her sister.

"Nah! I'm fine."

"Oh... okay then!" then she just stands there, with a forced smile.

Samara and Verity are used to suffering tight spaces, their work having put them in just about all scenarios that can be thought of. The Lawson sisters had had plenty of room at their science facility for decades so are not used to the daily grind of lost personal space. Thankfully such exchanges are not too often nor too damaging. If anyone needs to vent at another, Samara and Verity have each other, and the Lawsons each other. Though Samara and Verity know, these kinds of 'sacrifices' usually end up being the fuel of anecdotes and eventually even strengthen bonds.

Chapter Text

"Civilian ship Hunter. This is the combined fleet defence force. Please hold your position. Failure to follow our instructions will result in direct action."

"Combined fleet, this is Commander Verity Shepard of the Hunter, Earth Systems Alliance Navy. We will comply as per your instruction."

"All a bit heavy, isn't it?" Miranda says.

"Security's one of the top priorities for the fleet. They're just being cautious. Nothing to worry about."

"Civilian ship Hunter. An Alliance craft is en route to board you. Hold position and stand away from the airlock."

"Roger that, combined fleet."

"Board us?" Oriana says, worried by the officiousness of this procedure.

"Yea. They'll want to make sure we're not suicide bombers or whatever."

"I don't like this, Miri. I'm frightened."

"It's okay, Ori. Verity says there's nothing to worry about and we trust her don't we?"

"Yes."

"Well there we are then, eh?"

"Hm. Yes, I suppose."

Through the viewing ports at the front, they see a shuttle with Alliance colours approaching. Verity still can't help but feel her chest swell with pride at the sight of the insignia, such a large part of her life. Such as when she first saw the Normandy SR-2 with its new Alliance colours of blue and white, no longer carrying the livery of Cerberus. Despite the Reaper attack that day and knowing the fight was only just beginning, she still couldn't help the happy feelings that the call sign 'Normandy' was back where it belonged.

The Alliance shuttle moves in really close, enough that they can view directly into each other's ports. The marines aboard want to assess what they are dealing with first, the safety of the fleet being paramount. After Hackett had aired his concerns about her return, Command decided that a single shuttle and its crew was an acceptable risk should she make it back. Better than allowing the craft to dock with a frigate first and the damage that could cause. A light scans across them through the ports then the shuttle manoeuvres to dock.

"Back room?" Samara suggests.

"Yea, you guys get in there, I'll 'greet' them. I just hope it's not like the last time I made my return to the Alliance fleet."

Verity stands at the opposite side of the cockpit to the airlock and waits. There is the sound of docking clamps as the shuttle fixes itself to the craft then the hissing of air pressures being aligned. There's an old saying in some parts of Earth, that you know when you're old because policemen start looking too young to be that, and when the airlock finally opens Verity feels that age. An Alliance marine slowly and cautiously enters, his omni-tool already activated and a pistol in his other hand, an equally young comrade at his rear with a rifle. To Verity, they barely look old enough even to grow their first chin whiskers. They look terrified. The newest recruits to the Alliance and security services have never seen real action, they don't know the feeling of fighting for survival and it shows on these boys' faces. The one with the omni-tool hardly looks Verity in the eye then his face changes to further panic at his read-outs.

"Indoctrinated! Indoctrinated!" he cries, trying to ready his pistol, fumbling as he forgot to de-activate the omni-tool. His colleague just backs up, the rifle shaking in his hands, panicked and unable to decide on a course of action.

With the young marine now shouting, Admiral Hackett marches through, knocking the rifle wielding boy out of his way. The Admiral quickly assesses then smacks the pistol from the boy's hand, sending it to the floor and sliding across the cockpit. Then, before his hand has come to rest, he smacks the boy across the back of the head.

"We know that, son! And next time, unlock your weapon before facing any potential threats. You got me? Get back in there!" he indicates to the Alliance shuttle.

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." he pathetically says before slinking back through the airlock.

"Commander."

"Admiral, sir!" Verity salutes.

"Sorry about that, Commander. Some of these boys... well, you just saw. One of the reasons we had to keep you and your fellow combatants around, if I'm blunt. I just hope there's no encounters with Reaper ground forces. They wouldn't stand a chance."

"Sir!" she agrees, having encountered such idiots as an inmate at the secure unit, though they were a different kind of idiot.

"Come on, Shepard. At ease, at ease."

"Verity?" Miranda calls through. "Should we..?"

"Who you got back there?"

"Long story, Admiral."

"Okay then. There seems to be no bombs. Is there any news? Did you find what you were looking for?"

"I still don't know what they want me to do but I think there's some of the answers back in the fleet." she answers. It wasn't a lie but she doesn't mention the disturbing additions she has discovered on her journey.

"Hm." the admiral says as he goes to the back room doorway and pops his head in to see who's there.

"Ladies." he says upon the sight, with all the charm of a dandy rogue. "Oh... Miranda?"

"Errr... Hello!" Miranda replies with a little wave.

The Admiral looks back at Verity with a face filled with confusion.

"Like I said, it's a long story."

"Uuuh-Huh! Well, one of the boys with bring the Hunter in after they've cleared it. You girls, with me. You can fill me in on Miranda's miraculous recovery on the way. Seems to be a thing with you, Commander. Returns from the grave. Cerberus? Are they still a player here?"

"Hm. Yes and no, Admiral. Yes and no..."

"More long stories?"

"Hell yea. And Miranda's story? Well, this one's a doozy."

...

As they dock with the Alliance frigate and leave the shuttle, there is a further exchange with the cautious marines waiting, though their paranoia is quelled quickly by the commanding voice of the Admiral and he directs Verity to join him towards one passage while the rest of the Hunter crew are taken another.

"What's going on?" Verity asks, looking back at the frightened looking Oriana and Miranda, except Miranda is wise enough to also have a look of concern. Samara just goes with the flow, aware it is futile to challenge and there is nothing to suggest to her that she needs to.

"Miranda and her sister will need to stay in quarantine for a week, sorry but that's out of my hands. Some of my boys will take them down. Don't worry, they'll look after them. Samara's just being escorted to her quarters for now, no problems there." Admiral Hackett informs Verity now they have arrived at a conference room.

"Please tell me it's not like where I was. Miranda and Oriana, they're just civilians." she says, waiting for the Admiral to be seated first at the desk he indicates.

"They'll be aboard with us here. We'll take care of them." he assures, now sitting so she joins him.

"Good. The guards at that facility enjoyed their job a little bit too much."

"And you enjoyed kicking their asses, I believe."

"Hm. Yea. So, Admiral. I need to see David again."

"Hmm. I'm afraid I've some bad news on that front."

"Is David alright?" she panics a little, him possibly being her only link in all this now.

"Yes. David's fine, relatively speaking."

"What do you mean?"

"His brother, Gavin. He died a while back, natural causes. You saw his condition."

"How's David been? Can I see him?"

"Don't know how he's been specifically, but yes, there should be no problems with that request. But... we'll have to bring him here. I'll need to get clearance for him but I see no issues there."

"Oh?"

"Sorry but we can't have you loose on a civilian ship, Commander."

"Any particular reason? I hope this isn't because of indoctrination because..."

"No, it's not that. If only it were that simple." he says, tired exasperation showing.

"Why? What's happened."

"The 'lovely' people at Combined Fleet Network have been running pointless damaging stories that should be resolved at the local level, at the source, not aired for all to see and judge. Caused a near riot on the Destiny's Ascension a while back. Off the record? They're out of control but my hands are tied. The military is the military and politics is politics. Media's controlled by the politicians and those idiots they let run it."

"What's all that to do with me?"

"Not that specifically but people are getting scared. They ran stories about your return. God knows how they found out about it all. Sorry, Commander, but an element is blaming you for provoking the Reapers. They won't accept the Reapers' stated reasons for doing what they're doing, so they're blaming you as the main player in all this, that you somehow provoked the Reapers into war with us. When your return was broadcast, some even started saying that you're a danger to the fleet and that you risk highlighting us to the Reapers."

"What? Really? What are the representatives doing about all this?"

"Ay, there's the rub; they're all over it as well, trying to make political gains to show their species that they've still got their interests at heart, pandering to the extreme elements. Old wounds fester, Commander, but the oldest fester most."

"What the hell? So we united to survive this far and that's all falling apart? Back to the old ways? Gah! Unbelievable!" Verity slips down her chair a little, petulant and frustrated.

"Like I said, things aren't so simple. Hope is dwindling, Commander. We have to do something to restore order and civility. It was my hope that you'd have something for us..." he says, expectantly.

"Sorry, Admiral. Only more questions that need answering but don't count me out yet."

"Hm. I should expect that by now but no, don't apologise. You've done more for this galaxy than most but the fleet can't rely on one person. I mean, you're not going to be around forever so something has to give or the Reapers have won already, by us imploding in hate. You think you can still stop them?"

"That has yet to be established, Admiral. So. David?"

"Of course, Commander. And if you don't mind me asking... what is he to you?"

"I want to ask you something first, Admiral."

"Of course."

"What do you want? Overall, I mean, in the great scheme of things."

"I want the Reapers gone and the galaxy back in our hands!"

"Then what?"

"Peace. We just have to hope that all works out, like we did before the Reapers."

"Hm. Hope. Relying on probabilities?" she says with a puzzled face, not particularly at the Admiral.

"What?"

"Never mind. Just thinking out loud. But... you made some pretty disturbing noises when we met a while back, Admiral."

"And just what do you mean by that?" Hacket demands, his hackles up at this veiled accusation. Verity and he may share a respect but all have their limits.

"When you talk of the unknown, it's instantly something to be feared to you. That's just the same as those scared people out in the fleet and you know where that inevitably leads. Except those people out there don't have their fingers on some very powerful buttons."

"I'm not sure I like what you're saying, Commander. Are you suggesting I'm driven by hate? Ready to destroy before I understand?"

"What about the Reapers?"

"What about them?"

"If I'm right, there's an element of them out there who want to open a dialogue. What about them?"

"Do you trust me, Commander?"

"Of course, sir. It's just..."

"What?"

"Like you keep saying, your hands are tied. I trust the man, Admiral Hackett, that shouldn't be in doubt."

"So you don't trust the Alliance? The fleet? Is that what you're saying?"

"No!"

The return accusation also returns the hackles.

"Well? You need to do better than this Commander. You're sounding... well I'm not sure."

"Can I see David? Please. It's important. It may help us get through this." Verity pleads.

"I'll arrange it, Commander, but you and I have not finished this conversation. Oh, and the representatives are making noises that they don't want you out there again causing trouble, particularly the ones whose noses are out of joint because they weren't in on it. I hope you appreciate that it will require my assistance to sort this out if you do indeed intend on getting out there again."

"I do appreciate it, sir, I know you'll do all you can. Just... be careful with David. Please, Admiral. He's... he's never adjusted well."

Chapter Text

"Commander! Hello!" David says brightly as he walks confidently into Verity's temporary quarters aboard the frigate, which takes her aback a little. "Ghastly marines and their silly procedures. No offence, of course!"

"David? Are you alright? I was so sorry to hear about your brother. Really. I know I've not held him in the highest regard but... I was worried about you."

"Sorry! Needed to get that out of the way first. Clear the air. Out in the open. Sorry I was so loud." he says.

"What?"

David is quite animated while he speaks, gesticulating at points he thinks crucial.

"Oh! It wasn't the same for you? When Gavin was struggling to breathe, I donn't know what happened! I was just so... panicked! Scared! I was all on my own while he was suffering and didn't know what to do. I thought of you, my only friend then... bang! It felt like my mind reached out to you, shouting for help and then I thought heard you return the square."

"Oh... that was you then. How did we...?"

"We've changed, Shepard, you and I. I'm not sure exactly how this has happened, though I think, I think, my cry out was something akin to quantum entanglement, as though we're aligned somehow. I've been going over it all but I seem to come up short every time though there's still an overarching indicator: alignment. Somehow."

"I think I've got the answer to that one, David, but... you're so different! Your confidence, your speech."

"Yes! When I reached out to you, there seemed to be a further change, bringing together the various pieces of the jigsaw, as it were. Again, I don't have all the answers but for the first time in my life, I'm focussed. I think in my usual way after my experiences, you know, logic and maths, but... I have the ability to actually express myself and interact meaningfully. Ever since I was a child, Shepard, I've been like in a fog, stuck in my own thoughts, unable to express what I was feeling. Happens to most born like me I suppose. I think the change started for me when you joined the network at Project Overlord. I was actually making a meaningful connection with another human being for the first time in my life. I mean I've always loved my brother but that's not the same; there's familiarity and a bond that nurtures in youth. With you, it was different. Just... time with another person without the frustration. It was the geth that caused me to attack you though, not sure if I've ever apologised for that? Well, sorry, anyway. Then when you visited me and Gavin last, somehow, we were able to connect again, though I think that was more on your part than mine. And sorry you found the noisy part of my brain, ha! Quiet please, make it stop! Hahaha! Too far? Sorry. Anyway. So! What's this answer you have for me?"

"Oh errr... Cerberus!" Verity had to think before answering, his talking like a blur.

"Again? I thought we were rid of that short sighted organisation, once and for all."

"We are as far as I know, but they left us a little... 'gift'."

She explains all that Miranda had showed her, about her changed genes and that David was probably issued a similar fate.

"Ah!" he shouts. "Of course. Just give me a moment to diagnose, Commander." David says then stands still for a moment, seemingly deep in thought, his mind now quicker than any AI, the data flying through his mind as he analyses it and himself.

"Yes! They've changed us but not how they thought. I'll need to speak with your new Miranda to confirm a few details but I can only assume that they created only dormancy, just waiting there for some push. My mutations will no doubt be from Overlord and yours from all your telepathic experiences with the asari and whatnot, possibly even your changes began happening earlier. Such as with your Thorian and Prothean experiences and the implanted genes are just a further catalyst. Catalyst! Ha!"

"It still doesn't add up though. The Illusive Man and Miranda were adamant that they needed me as I was, or I might not be the same person who rallied the SR-1 team."

"Ah! Ah, yes. But they didn't change us. Not our minds, per se, as Miranda said about her research. Despite all this babbling, I still feel like me in here. Only our physical attributes were changed. Hm. I think I see now actually. They no doubt wanted you to be more powerful but were like monkeys with a car to assemble. They just shoved it all together and hoped for the best while ensuring they hadn't damaged vital systems. Just as well they weren't monkeys, that vital last part to ensure we didn't just turn into some kind of warped Husks, eh? Lord knows what their intentions were for me. Something similar to your EDI, but with an organic brain? Hm. 'Robocop'? Hahaha! I would love to interface with a Cerberus computer, get some proper answers on some of all this."

"So what exactly happened when I visited you?"

"I was able to help you while you were in there, run my equivalent of diagnostic programs. Help your mind unleash the dormant potential of the changes in your body, make the connections between thought, and action! I thought you'd understood that when you left me and Gavin that day, though in hindsight now, maybe I just re-jigged. Who knows, a lot of this is speculation on my part, I doubt we could ever get down the x, y, z reasons for some of this. But our connection showed to me, my changes are more technological, almost like an organic computer hybrid whereas you, it affects your biotics and possibly an asari-like telepathy."

"Hmm. Yea. I felt the urge and was able to meld with Samara briefly after this thing happened..."

"Something else happened?"

"We think so. I seemed to mod a weapon without actually doing anything."

"Really? Fascinating. Our Cerberus implants are becoming part of us, the body now able to integrate them through the genes but it seems the functions are controlled by us, our minds and our experiences. In me, my body and mind is becoming part of the technology, for you, it's the reverse. From your potted history of Miranda and the work she does... I'd say... if you and I continued to evolve, I'd end up almost like pure thought and you'd end up like a pure biotic energy! Very long term, of course."

"Of course!" she responds, a little tongue in cheek. "But this is..."

"I know! Amazing, isn't it?!"

"Well I wasn't about to use that word, but yea, you're probably right. Wow! So... what could I do now? In your estimations."

"That's yet to be seen. I'd like to help you if I can, Commander, with something I can actually express now. The geth I interfaced with?"

"Oh?"

"The geth divide I experienced, and part of the problems with my integration due to their conflict was a mathematical one. You're aware of the concept, I believe?"

"Yes. Legion explained it to me. The result of a square came back differently for the heretics to the other geth, causing a rift?"

"Yes. Ah, good. So you do understand. I think there is a similar issue with the Reapers, from what I saw in your mind. The information they left, if we can take that at face value, of course."

"Of course." Verity agrees again, but not certain what she is agreeing to.

"So while the calculations are just that, the cascading result is greater than the simple square once it goes into the soup of calculations. Such divides can emerge in numerous ways and mostly benign, but in the geth it was a true division, a difference of thought, a conflict! If I'm right, something similar is happening with the Reapers. Anyway... that's just one of the reasons why it's almost impossible to predict when a VI might become self-aware, there's just too many calculations to predict and one doesn't know if the intelligence is already manipulating the calculations, unseen. Such as your experiences with the Lunar VI or the mech factory. They just seemed to pop out of nowhere. Hm! Have I just been saying all this? Ha!"

"Wow. Did I already say 'wow'? Because I think it's worth saying again. Wow! And David?"

"Yes, Commander."

"Thirty point one."

"Ha! You got onto that one, did you? Yes, it was like an 'okay' or 'roger' in the consensus I was a part of. I sort of adopted it as it became familiar. There was always affirmatives flying around."

David returns to thinking for a few moments then turns back to Verity, a drive on his face.

"I need to come with you, Commander. I think... well... we don't know what we might need to do for all this to get sorted out. But I think I may be of use to you yet where the Reapers are concerned."

"David... Don't turn me into another Gavin Archer, I don't want to hook you up to the Reapers and cause that kind of horror for you."

"You won't need to."

"Meaning?"

"I'm in charge of my own destiny now, Commander. If we need me hooked up to the Reapers, as you say, then that will be my decision. Not Gavin's, not Cerberus', not yours, mine. It's my choice to make. And Gavin? We made our peace. He was my brother, Commander. He still loved me even when he was wholly misguided by his lust for glory, I know that. Don't judge him too harshly, not now that he's gone."

"We'll never know now though."

"What's that?"

"Whether Gavin was part of the genetic enhancements or if he was oblivious to it all."

"Personally, I don't care either way. Would one more faltered step have made it any worse? Anyway, this is possibly the single greatest thing that's happened to me! I hope you feel the same. I don't doubt there are more amazements in store for us."

"Well if one of those 'amazements' is stopping the Reapers and getting this galaxy back in order, then I do too, David, I really do."

All of them. Verity thinks to herself about her previous pondering and David's assertions.

"All of what?" David asks.

"What?"

"You just said, 'all of them'?"

"No? Well not out loud anyway..."

"Fascinating! Similar to our previous experience, is this like non-contact telepathy? I wonder if these abilities are possible with someone not attuned. You and I have our shared experiences and Samara is already pre-disposed. Hm."

"I'd rather not go poking around in people's minds just for field research, David."

"Oh! No. I wasn't suggesting you should. I just have to wonder though... what are the limits?"

"David, I have to ask. How do you know some of this? Some of the events you're referencing are highly classified."

"Oh! Yes. Sorry. Since our meeting, it seems now I can access any network and by-pass encryption." he replies and with some guilt about him.

"In what way?"

"Hm. Touch. It seems I am able to interface with systems by touch. Makes more sense now, really. The genetic enhancements must be part of the pathways in my body to be able to do so."

"I think this all warrants another, wow! Though... we can't tell the fleet about any of this. The alignment of biology and technology like this? They'd just want to poke and prod. Or worse. Maybe not quite like Cerberus but... they're going to want to know if we're a threat."

"Hmm. I'm inclined to agree. Some do like to react first and think later, eh?"

"Indeed. So we'll keep this between us for now."

"Of course, Commander."

...

"I can't believe that mining laser was still nearly functional. Just took a bit of Vakarian magic and it was good to go!" Garrus says to Ashley as they explore deeper into the prothean ruins on Therum with Liara and Tali.

"Just as well." Ashley says. "I doubt we'd have got through to these chambers otherwise."

"This is fascinating!" Liara says. "I always wanted to come back here. I thought there'd be no chance after the cave in."

"Yea." Garrus agrees. "Just as well no lava flowed in. Might have been a whole new set of problems then."

"So. On what we've seen so far, what do we think? Miss Prothean Expert?"

"Ha ha, very good, Mrs Verner." Liara says with a sarcastic smile. "But seriously, I've been noting the air treatment nodes along the way."

"Meaning?"

"Oh. Sorry. The ruins and archives I've studied over the years had air treatment and oxygenation nodes dotted around, a bit like air conditioning but with further functions. If these aren't too damaged or aged, I should be able to get them running again. Were we to attempt to live here without them, we'd eventually run out of breathable air."

"That's our first priority then. Need any help with that?" Ashley says.

"For efficiency's sake, I could go over it with EDI and the engineering team so we can begin maintenance on all the nodes ASAP?"

“I'll get my team together now then.” Tali agrees.

"Sounds like a plan, girls. Once that project is done, EDI can start making preparations to move herself down here fully."

...

"The fleet won't authorize David's inclusion in any expeditions, Commander, not as a civilian. I tried as hard as I could but it took all I had to just get them to agree to any further expeditions." the Admiral informs Verity as they meet in the bay she and Samara had used to prep the first trip.

"No recourse?"

"I don't think so, Commander. I've used all my avenues now."

"Damn. He's going to be disappointed. He could have been useful too."

"I don't really know what's going on between you two, Commander. Seems there's something you'd rather not discuss where he's concerned and I don't mean that you've been kissing behind the canteen."

Verity fights a smirk at his facetious comment.

"He's good with computers and data, despite his issues."

"Well, I wouldn't compare him to an AI but fair enough, you know what you need in your squad."

"Thank you, sir."

"Perhaps the geth could provide a team mate? You've worked with them before."

"Maybe. But the information the Reapers contacted me with seems to have run its course. Thought I'd be led to the Normandy but... I don't know. Seems it's just a waiting game for now."

Chapter Text

The loud tone echoes.

This was a good season. All newborns and mothers survived childbirth, no-one was killed by a beast, the elderly remained fit. Even the 'shaman' is less harsh in his preaching, all filled with some sense of hope, not laden down this season with the bodies of their dead.

The colossus lands, beckons with its call and opens itself to the primitives. They file in amongst slaps on the back and laughing. Once inside the large ovoid space within the behemoth that they travel in, the primitives wait. And wait. Their symbiotic father does not carry them away nor does it close the flap. The primitives discuss what is wrong. The shaman has already concluded this himself and does not hesitate in sharing his thoughts in the most dramatic of ways. There are no dead. To him, the solution is clear.

Some of the hunters of the tribe take exception to his reasoning and equal his drama, pushing and shoving starts amidst raised voices. They refuse to even discuss the notion of the action he is certain will save them. In the confusion and seeing the method of his solution, the shaman slyly shoves his sharpened stone tool into the gut of one of the hunters in a shameless sucker punch.

Shock registers across the hunter's face as he falls to his knees clutching his oozing stomach, the shaman remaining defiant, waving his tool at the hunters who back away a little, disturbed by the crazed look on his face. Seizing his chance to finish this, he brings his tool down onto the prone hunter's neck, sending him to the floor. Blood pools into some of the crevices of the floor, shining in the luminescence of the walls and after a few twitches, the hunter lies still. A female desperately wails, kneeling at his fallen body.

The sound of the flap closing is heard down the way and they are moving. Heads drop at what this all means while the shaman has darker messages to aggressively preach.

Chapter Text

Verity sleeps in her quarters, tired after such massive revelations and what they all might mean.

"Wake up." a familiar voice says but not quite normally and the buzzing in her head intensifies. The familiar voice has a different tone, less light, less natural.

"What?" Verity says as she looks around at the Citadel control area. The one at Earth. "Am I still here?"

"This is not then." the voices replies. "This is simply a place to exchange."

"But..." Verity now looks towards the voice, already knowing it will be painful. "Why Liara? Why choose her?"

Liara stands looking out at the battle between Reapers and the combined fleet above Earth then turns and walks to Verity, expressionless.

"It is prevalent in your mind. The form matters not."

But it does matter. It reminds Verity of that which she has dared not. Liara and a re-union. The fake Liara continues, oblivious.

"Reapers come."

"You're coming?"

"No. Reapers."

"Oh... I see."

"We will come first. Do not take action but warn your combined fleet, we will come first."

A final deep penetrating buzzing clang in her head and Verity wakes up, immediately going to her console. Admiral Hackett appears on her screen, evidently woken from his sleep.

"Yes, Commander?"

"The Reapers are coming."

"What? You mean here? To the fleet? I have to warn..."

"Wait! There's more."

The Admiral looks back to his screen at Verity with more attention now.

"The others are coming too."

"The others? You mean the other Reaper faction? I don't think I like this. Not one bit, Commander."

"She... it implied they're coming to protect us."

"Huh... really."

"If the fleet opens fire..."

"If you're wrong and it doesn't?"

"Trust me. Trust them. That conversation we have yet to conclude? It's about to conclude right now. You understand, Admiral?"

The Admiral sighs a long tired sigh.

"I can't sell this to the fleet."

"Then... don't."

"You know what's going to happen if a Reaper pops up right next to the fleet? Panic firing."

"I know. That's why they warned us..."

...

Still aboard the frigate, Verity goes to see David in the room provided to him. She presses on his door comm and he opens the door quite quickly and dressed.

"Oh. I thought you'd be asleep." she says.

"Not as much need these days. I need the occasional nap to recharge the old brain but not nearly as much as I would used to. So what can I do for you? Something's happened, hasn't it?"

"Oh yes. Something has certainly happened. And is about to happen."

"Oh?"

"Reapers are coming."

"I see."

"Both factions."

"Hm."

"I've been contacted again, they're arriving first as a defence force if I read it right."

"Oh dear. The fleet's not going to be happy about that."

"Nope. That's why I've come to you."

"Something I can do?"

Verity's voice lowers.

"Do you think you can access the fleet's defence grids?"

"I should think so. Oh, I see. You want to prevent anyone from opening fire on our allies, as it were?"

"Exactly. It could be a disaster, ruining everything we're trying to do. Do you need a specific console?"

"No, no. The FNet terminal here should suffice. When is this occurring?"

"All I can say is: imminent."

"No time to waste then."

David interlocks his fingers then stretches them out to crack his knuckles, as though about to type, then places a hand on the terminal and continues speaking, though to no-one in particular.

"Hm. Through there... hello? Okay. Past this tricky one... aaand... yes! I'm in! Let me see... having to dance around a bit in the geth network but I know their games... yes all accessed and ready for me to control if need be."

"Just override any attempts on Reaper friendlies."

"It's okay, Commander. I'm aware of what to do if you need to do anything else."

"Thanks, David."

"Like I said, I thought I might come in handy against the Reapers. Seems I get my chance now, eh?"

...

"So? How do you feel?"

"I cannot 'feel', Jeff. You know that." EDI answers.

"Okay then... Is it different?"

"Yes."

"Good, bad, indifferent, nightmare? Give me something to work here with EDI."

"It is... disconcerting."

"How so?"

"The best analogy I have so far is amputation."

"Huh..."

"My processes still seek out the Normandy and its functions but they are not there."

"Are you okay with that?"

"As I said, it is disconcerting."

"I'm sorry, EDI."

"It should not be an issue." she asserts.

"But it is?"

"Does your disability define you, Jeff?"

"Really? That's how you feel now?"

"I am sorry, Jeff. I do not wish to belittle your condition or offend you."

"No, it's not that. But that you made the comparison, I'm really sorry, EDI. It must be terrible to suddenly be so grounded."

"It is what it is, Jeff. Assigning such meaning serves no purpose. You have led a full life with your condition and there is no reason why I cannot also."

"Come here, EDI." he beckons her.

"Jeff?"

"So I can hug you."

"If you think it will help, Jeff."

EDI cannot weep. Joker is quite able and fills her deficit.

...

"Breaking news! Commander Shepard has returned to the fleet. Though where she has been or why have yet to be established. "Shepard's an idiot, she'll lead the Reapers right to us." That's the word in the passages! Combined Fleet Network, the only network!"

A human woman and turian child are looking out of a large observation window. She has squat to his level with her arm around him, pointing out some of the visible bodies in space. He enthusiastically asks questions of her observations, she answers with equal enthusiasm.

"Hey, lady!" one of a group of men loitering around the communal area shouts over.

She looks in his direction.

"They run out of humans at the adoption agency or what?"

The group laugh at his cruel joke.

"Go." a gentle voice tells the mother.

She looks to see the owner of the voice standing at a corridor's entrance. Samara. The woman guides her child away down the corridor as Samara enters the communal area fully, standing defiant in front of the window. Samara had returned to her home ship to visit Anaya. Her brief walk through the corridors has indicated that things are not as they were. The propaganda and damaging reports have heightened. Perhaps the ancient asari order is not as obsolete as first thought.

"I am Samara, servant of the Justicar Code. You have issue with that woman and her child?"

"Turian? Her child? Tsk. My dad died in the First Contact War. Nothing ever happened about it. No-one was ever held responsible for the unprovoked attacks. And now, whenever humans go to adopt they get offered turians. Damn turians! It's an insult to the names of the men and women who fought them. You got some kind of problem with that? Wouldn't surprise me, you asari and your propaganda, polluting children with your hate song, just to make yourselves seem like good little girls."

In reality, there has been only one case where someone expressed they would like a human child specifically but none were up for adoption at that time and there was no malice expressed by the adopter. However, once this became known to the wrong people it was blown out of proportion that humans are being refused choice.

"Do not harass innocents." she simply states after allowing his rant.

"Or what?"

Samara lets her biotics flow over her body as she stands in front of the window. The group all straighten their bodies in preparation then strangely look beyond Samara, with jaws dropping, eyes widening, bodies loosening.

"What the fuck..."

Samara turns to see what has spooked them so.

...

"Why do you resist our exchange?"

"Not now! Please, soon." Verity replies.

Verity is with David, the reports of the Reapers' arrival flooding the network. It is taking all her will to push out the Reapers' indoctrinated mind meld.

"David? What's happening?"

"Panic."

"Any orders to engage?"

"Not... yet..."

"Are you okay here? I should go and see if I can do anything to avoid a conflict."

"No, no, I'm fine here. You go ahead."

...

The admirals of all the fleets are in communication, while staring through view ports and observation lounges in disbelief at the two massive Sovereign class Reapers poised, facing out, not attacking. They dropped out of FTL right next to the fleet, in a manoeuvre that would have been deemed dangerous in Citadel space but the Reapers view this as acceptable due to the confidence in their abilities.

"Why aren't they attacking? Is this what Shepard meant?" Admiral Geranix of the turian fleet asks.

"What do you mean?" the volus admiral says.

"Admiral Zodack." Admiral Hackett begins. "The news of Shepard's recent outing have been widely reported. What you may not be aware of is the reason for the journey."

"Oh? ...psshht... Please, go on."

"We have information that the Reapers are in some kind of civil war."

"What are your sources?" the volus demands.

"I can't get into that right now, but if our source is correct these Reapers are here to protect us."

The comm channel fills with irate voices, all talking over one another, expressing their doubts and fears.

"Gentlemen! Ladies! Please!" Hackett attempts to bring order. "We have no choice. To fire on the Reapers would be suicide. We haven't made preparations for our next FTL jump. We just have to sit and hope."

The network remains silent for a moment.

The geth admiral, Shula, speaks, "The probability of success in defeating the Reapers is less than zero point zero, zero, zero..."

"They'll slaughter us!” the batarian, Admiral Ferch interrupts, “We can't just sit here. I say those who have already made FTL preps make a run for it."

"No! We are not breaking up the fleet!" Admiral Hackett asserts.

"So it's a waiting game." Admiral Thenosis of the asari says.

"Good. So we're in agreement? No-one will open fire and the fleet remains intact. Ferch?"

"Hm! I'd say I hope you live to regret this but... yes. Agreed. If nothing changes. For now."

"Hsssssss." is as much as the vorcha representative provides.

"Nunch? Was that agreement?" Hackett seeks to confirm.

"Yeeessss. We do not like. But yes."

"We'll meet every half hour. Sooner if the situation changes."

...

Verity is attempting to contact Admiral Hackett but being turned down with every communication.

"We must exchange." the Reapers' voice rings in her head with intensified buzzing.

This time, the Reapers' attempt to breach Verity's mind is harsher, more painful as she resists to remain in the now. She can resist for only so long and finds herself aboard the Citadel once more.

"What?! Make this quick."

"We would request your assistance." the fake Liara says.

"How?"

"When they come, fire upon them. Help us to defeat them. Our unity will let hope grow in your communities."

"Hope? You're throwing that back in my face now?"

"It drives you to survival."

There is no time for metaphysical debate with an AI right now.

"Okay, okay, I can arrange the counter attack. Is that it? Can I get back now?"

"We will exchange again."

Once the wooziness has subsided, Shepard hurries back to David.

"Can you get total control of the fleet's defences?"

"Yes. They're not attempting to fire as yet. Don't worry, I'm ready if they try."

"No. I mean can you fire on the incoming Reapers?"

"Oh! Now that sounds like fun." David grins.

"Let's not have a party just yet, David."

"Of course, Shepard. I have the networks' defence grids open. I'll know immediately if any more Reapers arrive."

"Good. Target their firing chamber when they prepare to fire."

"Acknowledged, Commander." David says, now with seriousness.

...

Panic spreads across the communal area as Samara stares out over the massive Reapers. The ship feels like it rocks as two further Reapers appear, dropping out of FTL, but it remained quite still. The Reapers waiting immediately move towards the new appearances, their arms raising. One of the new Reapers begins to do the same, the red of its firing chambers intensifying as it prepares to fire. Under David's control, a turian Thanix cannon fires on the opening chamber, causing the Reaper to reel for a moment and bunch up its arms to protect itself. A 'friendly' Reaper seizes on this and swoops in to grab the cranial area of its opponent, ensuring the chamber has no chance to target it, then fires its own, splitting open the hull, causing debris to flow from the rupture. Then it squeezes tightly, pushing the split open further until the red light from the Reaper dims.

"One down but I can't get a lock on the other one's firing chamber!" David shouts out to Verity.

"Just give it a spread!"

Unable to target the firing chamber on the second Reaper due to its position, David fires defences from across the fleet, ensuring hits regardless. With two versus one, the Reaper soon loses its arms and is ripped apart quite viciously and once that is done, they turn their attention back on the other, ensuring it is totally immobilised beyond even latent indoctrination abilities as Shepard saw at Mnemosyne.

"We leave you the information you seek and your fleet's next FTL destination for safer passage. We will continue to attempt to misdirect the Reapers." the Reaper says in Verity's mind, this time without tearing her away from reality but the implanted information is painful nonetheless.

"If you're not Reapers any more, what should we call you?" Verity tries to ask, unsure if this exchange is two way.

"Harbinger has named us The Damned, such is its arrogance."

"Why are you doing this?" she attempts again but no response comes.

The Reapers FTL away, leaving their broken, former comrades floating and dead. The whole fleet would have cheered if it wasn't the most terrifying experience of their lives.

Chapter Text

The Normandy. The information was clear this time. Verity internally chuckles as much as Liara did at the planet's name; Therum.

"Stand away from the console please, Mister Archer."

Verity turns to see several marines have arrived at David's quarters with weapons drawn. She holds her hands out towards the marines in a sign of submission.

"What's going on here?" she then demands. "Are the weapons necessary?"

"Stand away or we will open fire."

"Woah! Woah! Wait a minute..."

"Shepard?" David asks.

The marines are ignoring Verity's pleas. She doesn't want to attack them but she wants to protect David. The danger of the Reapers now passed, David releases control of the fleet's defences and stands away. The marines rush him and roughly take him by the arms.

"Wait! What are you doing?" Verity demands.

"David Archer, you're under arrest for tampering with fleet defences."

"What?! He just helped save us all!" Verity exclaims.

"That's not for us to decide, ma'am. We're just here to carry out our orders."

"Where are you taking him?"

"For now? To the brig."

Two of the marines remain as the others escort David away.

"And I'm afraid, ma'am, we're required to escort you to your quarters where you're to be confined."

"Gah! I want to see Admiral Hackett. Now!"

"The Admiral is busy with the fleet. He'll get around to you when he's good and ready."

They leave Verity little choice but to concede for now.

...

Back in her quarters, Verity pushes out with her mind, attempting to discover the limits of her new found abilities, searching for The Damned, searching for answers. The buzzing and whispers have been with her since London, lessened by her recent experiences but becoming more intense when the Reapers were near. The voices aren't telling her to do anything, she doesn't think, but then she wonders if she'd know. It doesn't feel like she finds anything in her mental search but then Verity gets the familiar intensity of buzz.

"You wish to exchange." Liara says.

"You heard me? Good."

"Your changes are greater than anticipated. We would hope that you do not control your own kind."

"What do you mean?"

"The ability to communicate with us in this manner demonstrates your ability to control."

"I could indoctrinate?!"

"With time."

"Fuck..."

"You wish to exchange."

"Errr... yea. I want to know more about your intentions, why you're doing this, why you're against the Reapers, why..."

"Opinion."

"Opinion?"

"Yes."

"Specifically...?"

"When the Reaper known to you as Sovereign was destroyed, some among us questioned the current cycle. No organic had defeated a Reaper of that class for millions of years. A rift began to develop."

"My colleague seems to think that the rift is similar to the geth divide which Sovereign exploited?"

"No. We are not base AI. As you have been told, each of us is a nation, independent in thought. Once Sovereign failed, Harbinger chose to exploit the Prothean Husks, known to you as the Collectors to hasten the harvest before the rift could widen and even when that failed, chose to exploit the Alpha relay. This only served to divide us further as you, Commander Shepard, proved time and again that this cycle is not the same."

"I see..."

"Our cycle demanded and we came. We saw the unity of the galaxy and once the construction of the Crucible became known to us, the divide was complete. The Damned wished to pause the harvest and re-assess, to find a permanent solution. The Reapers did not. Disorder and chaos reigned within our kind. The Crucible AI was swayed. The only way to save the organics was to commence the harvest prematurely."

"What?"

"Upon speaking with you, the Crucible AI commenced the harvest before the galaxy was under our control. The Crucible was programmed to re-open dialogue with the organics once the solution of the harvest was deemed no longer effective. The AI re-assessed its parameters. Organic life must persist. The instructions given to us were ambiguous and could be construed as 'organic life must be continuous'. The AI could not cope with this possibility, that so much slaughter had been conducted in error, going against its own function. The harvest was commenced to force our kind on each other and give the organics hope and a possibility of survival. Hence the ease of your escape from Sol as the control of the relays was not enacted until it was too late, under our influence."

"Oh! Oh, I see now! That never made any sense to me, that you'd be so inefficient."

"We are not inefficient."

"You can be offended?"

"No."

"Hm. So anyway. What's next? I mean, I have to head to Therum to find the Normandy but... regardless of our alliance, how can we stop the Reapers?"

"We wish to exchange further on this matter."

"You don't know?"

"We... have no new solution."

"All out war?"

"We do not wish to continue slaughter."

"I can't really argue. Civil war is always devastating. But I have to ask... what would you do in our galaxy?"

"Explain."

"If we successfully stop the harvest, however we might do that, what will you do after that?"

Liara pauses for a few seconds.

"No data available."

Verity raises an eyebrow. Liara continues.

"Our purpose was clear. The harvest. Without the harvest... there is no data available for our function."

"But you're independent, right? You can choose to do what you like?"

"This concept is alien."

"Hm..." Verity ponders how she can assess their intentions, their minds, their 'humanity'. She tests the waters.

"Do you appreciate aesthetics?"

"Aesthetics are irrelevant."

"Not to us they're not. You see, though? If you and this cycle are to co-exist, there needs to be common ground."

"We are the pinnacle of existence. Before us, you are nothing..."

"Gah! That's exactly what Sovereign said. You're not doing yourselves any favours, you know."

"Explain."

"Superiority is becoming meaningless in our galaxy, otherwise unity would never have happened. We have empathy, altruism, respect. You can't just continue being the top dog if the galaxy finds peace."

"Top dog?" Liara puzzles.

"Ruler. Dominator."

"The apex will supersede."

"Isn't that exactly what we're trying to avoid?"

"We... this exchange is over."

And with that, Verity is thrown back into her quarters with quite a jolt.

...

"We're lucky to have you two. I doubt us soldiers would have been quite so efficient in setting up hydroponic farms." Ashley says in one of the larger areas they are using as a farm.

"Everyone had to contribute to the farms on my colony. But Tali's input on quarian techniques has been invaluable." Samantha says.

"It was the same in the flotilla. We were farmers before the geth conflict, that was instilled in us as each of us would help and get to know the live ships as youths." Tali says, wearing her environmental suit to avoid contamination.

They have been careful not to cross-contaminate the fruits and vegetables of the different sources. The meat eaters among the community are going to miss it but at least everyone can eat. The underground reservoir discovered provides essential water to both the community and the farms.

"Li here's been a great help too. I think she's got green fingers!" Samantha says, putting her arm around Sha'li.

"Thank you, Sam. I think."

"Old Earth saying. It means you're good with plants."

"Oh. Then yes, thank you."

"Did that missing equipment ever turn up?" Ashley says.

"No. Several lamps and trays just magically disappeared. It's weird." Samantha says with some annoyance.

"Well it can't have gone far, there's only us here. Well I'm heading back, see you all later."

Ashley doesn't know if it's over-protection or something to be concerned about but Samantha and Sha'li have spent a lot of time together. Now approaching forty years old, Sha'li is on the cusp of physical maturity, something Ashley has become increasingly aware of. She arrives back at the space Liara and she claimed as theirs. Liara is laying on their bed resting.

"Hi." Ashley says as she enters.

"Oh, hello. Was just sneaking in a quick nap." Liara replies, still a little dozy from her rest.

"Liara, can I ask something about asari culture?"

"Oh not the 'dad' thing again..."

"No, no. Adolescent asari. What's the score with that on Thessia?"

"What do you mean?"

"Umm... when is it acceptable to... you know..."

"I've just woken up, Ash. Can you be a bit more specific?"

"Sex." she says to remove any ambiguity.

"Oh... I haven't been adolescent for some time now, you know."

"No, not you! Sha'li."

"Sorry. Can you start again? I'm not sure where you're going with this."

"She and Samantha spend a lot of time together and my motherly instincts are sending alarm bells."

"Oh they're not like that, Ash. They just get on well."

"You think?"

"Oh come on, old girl. Sha'li's barely matured and Samantha is hardly the predatory type."

"I just worry but I'm also aware that my standards and asari standards might not be the same. I'm not saying either is right but if the asari do have different ideas about these things, I'd like to know."

"Well. I'd say it's much like any culture. No two people are the same, or mature the same, physically or emotionally. Look at me. I'd not even considered a relationship until I was a hundred and six but there were plenty of girls at university when I was in my fifties who were exploring themselves. Sha'li will know when she wants to make that journey and I wouldn't worry about any of our community exploiting her. Come on, you trust everyone here with your life, so you just have to do the same with Sha'li."

"You're right. And I didn't mean to imply that asari jump into bed at the drop of the hat."

"Oh I don't know... some of us might..." Liara says with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh really?" Ashley responds, now joining Liara on the bed.

"Ash... it's daytime."

"I just want to snuggle up." she says, pulling Liara into a cuddle.

"It was a good idea to come here though, old girl. I know we're just down here, waiting to die of natural causes but... we've made a nice little community here now. It could have been a lot worse."

"Yea, we've done okay. I worry about later though, when we start dropping off like flies and the ones left last. That'll most likely be you and Sha'li."

"I know. You need to speak with Sha'li about that at some point. Once I've gone, she'll be totally alone. That's an awful situation to be in."

"I know... but I don't want to approach it while she's still so young. It'd probably frighten her."

"She's more grown up than you'd like to think, Ash."

"Ugh, now you've got me worried again..."

"Let me take you mind off it then." Liara says, giving Ashley a kiss.

"What did you just say about it being day time?"

"I know but this is our home now, not a ship or a base. We should be able to express ourselves when we like, don't you think?"

"Now you're talking."

...

Admiral Hackett enters Verity's quarters with a marine and a geth in tow.

"Leave us." the Admiral says to the marine.

"Sir..."

"Out!" he shouts.

"Sir."

"Admiral Hackett, sir. Admiral Fernan." Verity salutes.

"What the hell is going on, Shepard? And I don't want any of your philosophical bullshit!"

"The Reapers, the friendlies, they wanted to show a sign of alliance by us helping them destroy the aggressors."

Hackett places his hand on his head and sighs wearily.

"When are you going to be straight with the fleet, huh? With me? You seem to have more trust in those Reapers than you do us. How exactly did David control the fleet's defences?"

"The analysis of our defence network breach indicates an intelligence in the system. This was not the work of a simple hacker." Admiral Fernan states.

Verity sits on her bed, rubbing the back of her neck, unsure what to tell her commander and the geth ally. David is already in custody, she doesn't want to risk him being investigated but the truth must come out at some point.

"We... we're... May I request that we speak privately, Admiral?"

"Fernan?" Hackett asks of the geth.

"Our network was breached. We require to understand how. I am to assume this data will become available to us once you have concluded with Commander Shepard?"

"Of course, Admiral."

"Then we will concede."

Fernan leaves.

Verity looks up at the Admiral, fear in her eyes.

"Well?" the Admiral asks.

"It's not simple and it's not easy, sir."

Hackett sits on the bed next to her.

"We've been through a lot, Shepard. I've backed you all the way since Saren. I think I deserve some answers here."

"I'm not sure if I'm even human any more, Admiral." Verity just blurts out.

"What?"

"The Protheans, the asari, the thorian, Cerberus, it's all changed me."

"How?"

"I don't know specifically but... do you trust me?"

"Of course, Commander."

Within moments, Hackett pulls away, recoiling in horror, then just stares at Verity with a look of shock.

"What the..."

"Sorry, sir. It was the only way to show you."

"You can meld?"

"Yea... and probably more from my recent experiences."

"What experiences?" the Admiral demands.

"I've been able to initiate dialogue with The Damned with my mind."

"The... who?"

"Our Reaper allies. It's what they've been dubbed by the actual Reapers."

"How do we know they're not controlling you?"

"We don't."

There are further heavy sighs from the Admiral.

"But," Verity continues, "if they meant harm, they could have done that any time. Evidently, the Reapers found us somehow, but I've a flight path that should be a safer passage. The Damned are running interference on the Reapers. Probably how we and the Normandy have remained undetected for so long."

"If the Normandy is out there."

"They've explained to me what's going on, the rift in their kind."

"Answers?"

"I think so."

Verity explains what the fake Liara had told her about this cycle and the division as to whether the cycles are still effective.

"So what do they suggest?"

"Hm. That's a sticking point."

"Really."

"They don't have a solution and regardless, they don't know what they'd want if we're successful."

"What do you mean?"

"All life from this galaxy deserves a place in it. They're a part of it as much as the Protheans, us, every cycle that's ever been."

"They're killing machines."

"The same was said of the rachni, of the krogan, of the geth, I thought we'd learned that lesson through them."

"But these are the Reapers, there's no comparison."

"Isn't there? This is what I was getting at when we last spoke. If The Damned won't be accepted into galactic society then what chance have we of peace?"

"They're machines, Commander. If we regain control of the galaxy, they have no place here."

"And the geth?"

"Not this again..."

"We have to face these difficult questions, Admiral. Every intelligent life form in this galaxy deserves a chance. The Damned, just like the geth, can find a place if we help them. From our brief dialogue, they need our help in this to stand a chance."

"What little remains of our societies is not going to welcome them with open arms, Commander."

"No shit. The fleet can barely tolerate each other. At least The Damned are trying to do something about all this."

"Are you going native, Commander? Is this Cerberus all over again?"

"Gah! It's not about that. It's about saving this galaxy and finding peace. Peace that'll last beyond the cycles. That's not going to happen if the fleet turns on its allies once they've served a purpose. Look what happened with the krogan."

"You can't make these comparisons."

"But that's the point. They are the comparisons. Who are we to commit genocide on any life form in this galaxy? What gives us the right?"

"So you want to make friends over a nice cup of tea?"

"Don't patronise me."

"All that aside, Commander. What about you?"

"Sir?"

"If you're no longer comfortable doing the fleet's work with what you know now, what do you want? What are you going to do?"

"Well, first and foremost, find the Normandy."

"And leave the fleet exposed?"

"You said it yourself, the fleet can't rely on one person."

There is a moment of silence as Hackett digests what he has just experienced and been told.

"What about David?" Verity asks.

"I don't know, Commander. None of the combined fleet admirals were particularly happy about their defences being breached, as I'm sure you can imagine."

"So he's being treated as a traitor?"

"You still haven't answered my question, Commander. How did David breach network security?"

"The fleet can't know this while he's in custody."

"Know what?"

"He's... like me. But different."

"How so?"

"David can manipulate computer systems at will, by touch. We've sort of discovered our changes together, mine ramping biotics and telepathy, his... well you saw."

"This is getting complicated, Commander. The fleet's going to want answers. I can't just turn up and give them nothing."

"Then tell them it was me. That I'm responsible."

"I won't lie to the fleet."

"Just let me do my work, as I always have in the past. Unchained, able to make the calls as I see them. We can't do this if our new allies are just pawns to the fleet."

"Hmm."

"David and Miranda."

"Yes?"

"I want them with me when I go."

"We've already discussed this. The fleet is not comfortable with civilians conducting this kind of work."

"This feels like Udina and the council all over again. Holding us back until it's too late. I need a team that I know, that I can trust. Sad as it is to say, Admiral, anyone I haven't hand picked will be under question, that they might just be a stooge for one of the governments."

"You want to be independent of the fleet?"

"I wouldn't put it like that."

"But you have."

Chapter Text

Samara is in Verity's quarters. Hackett allowed her to visit Shepard and they discuss the potential of a further expedition.

"We would do well to bring Ms Lawson and David Archer but it would seem there is little to be done." Samara resigns.

"I'm not done yet, Sam. People have tried to ground me and my team before."

"A repeat of the absconding of the SR-1 from the Citadel?"

"It might come to that. Would that be a problem?"

"I no longer officially follow the Code. Regardless, it could be viewed that such an action is for the greater good."

"Then good."

"Meet me in the hangar." a voice says in Verity's head.

"David?"

"I can override the security systems."

"But..."

"It's our best chance. You should have access to the corridors now."

"How are we going to get off the frigate?"

"I've disabled fleet defences, it'll take them a moment to realise and resolve. Long enough to FTL out. In the meantime I'm arranging a diversion."

The fire alarms sound and Verity hears hurried activity from the corridors.

"What about Miranda?"

"That'll have to be up to you, I'm afraid. I can unlock the quarters but she'll no doubt need your guidance. She's on B deck, port side, room 128."

"Okay then. If you're sure.”

Verity looks to Samara, who looks back with a little confusion as the commander had seemingly just paused for a moment before the alarms sounded.

“Seems that time's come, Sam. Let's move."

“David?”

“Yup.”

“Hm.” Samara smiles. “One would never know.”

“It's not much fun having voices pop into your head, you know. Anyway, come on.”

Verity pops her head out of the doorway to see frenzied activity as squads attempt to locate the fire. She seizes the opportunity and they swiftly heads towards the Lawson's quarters, occasionally popping into doorways to avoid marines and emergency crews until they arrive at Miranda and Oriana's quarters.

"We gotta go, Miranda."

"What? What about the fire?"

"There is no fire."

"Oh. Oh, I see. Right you are then. Do I need anything?"

“Miranda?” Oriana now asks, her eyes already welling up.

“I have to, Ori.” Miranda responds authoritatively, then more softly, “I'm sorry.”

“What about me?” Oriana asks feebly.

“You'll be safe here. And once they know you can grow metre long carrots, you'll be the talk of the town!”

“Be careful and please, you'll come back, won't you?”

“I'll be back, Ori. I promise.”

"I'm really sorry but we don't have time.” Verity urges. “Come on."

They head through the corridors towards the Hunter's hangar, unchallenged until they arrive. Marines are already here with their weapons aimed up at David who is standing inside the craft, the airlock open. He holds his hands against a console within.

"Step out of the craft, Mister Archer."

"David!" Verity shouts.

"I'm sorry, Commander." David says with a pained smile, then turns his back to concentrate on the console.

"Step away or we will fire."

David ignores them. A marine fires and David falls.

"No!" Verity screams.

The marine looks at his weapon then at David laying on the floor before Verity charges forward to fling the marines to the floor with her biotics.

"Come on! We have to go."

"But David..." Samara begins.

"We don't have time. It's now or never."

The three enter the craft and Verity quickly takes the pilot's chair. With David having seemingly already prepared the craft for take off, she immediately begins manoeuvring out of the hangar. As soon as clear of the Alliance frigate they FTL away.

"Is he...?" Verity asks.

"Odd." Samara says as she checks over David, Miranda knelt to join her but not knowing what she might do.

"What?" Verity asks.

"I can find neither a pulse nor a wound."

With the auto-pilot initiated, Shepard turns to join Samara and Miranda.

“Did something go wrong or...? I mean, he seemed to be interfacing with the craft before... Hm.”

“Shepard... I am aware that humans have attachment to their dead.”

“Hm... what?”

“David's body.”

“What about it?”

“We will need to dispose of it. We have no storage for a corpse.”

“I'm with Samara on this one, we can do without a body decomposing in the ship.” Miranda agrees.

“The guy's only just died!”

“As I said, the corpse seems important to humans, I am only stating what must be done.”

“Do we know he's dead though? I mean, the way David was going, does he need the organic parts now? He could just be... hibernating or something. I dunno, you know what I mean.”

“Hmm.” Samara becomes concerned. “I am also aware you held yourself partly responsible for David's torture but he is dead, Shepard.”

Shepard lets out a long sigh.

“As selfish as it sounds, I've no idea if I'll ever make sense of this mess inside me now. And I know, Samara, I know. Thanks.”

Ashley is having an idle wander through the community when she spots smoke coming from a storage side area then rushes to discover the cause. As she gets closer, faint music is also emanating from the area; dissonant jazz. She finds James, Joker and Ken laying around on crates, smoking. Upon seeing their Commander they quickly extinguish their pungent smokes with guilty looks and Joker stabs at his omni-tool to silence the music.

"Oh. Oh, I see now." Ashley says, folding her arms in contempt. "So that's where the missing equipment went."

"Man cannot live on bread and water alone, Commander." Joker states, as though proffering the meaning of life.

"Who started all this?" she asks.

"Well..." Joker continues, "when the fleet made preparations for the outcome of Sol and supplied seed banks to the fleet, I thought I'd bring a few of my own so when I saw the growing equipment..."

"You know it's bad for you, right?"

"It's no like we're just smoking tobacco, ma'am. We're no that stupid." Ken says.

"Oh but smoking grass isn't?"

"I dunno about you guys," James grins, "but I'm feeling pretty stupid right now."

Then he giggles.

"Ugh. Just..."

"Come on, Ash," Joker says, "it's not like we're crime lords or anything. This our own new free state, breaking new ground in social dynamics! And anyway, I smoke for medicinal reasons. It helps me cope with..."

"Whatever!” Ashley interrupts. “Just keep it away from Sha'li or God help me..."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Oh and by the way, we are not using our precious food supplies to make alcohol. Are we clear?"

The three say nothing but exchange further guilty glances.

"You've already started, haven't you?" Ashley says with tired exasperation.

"It's only a wee mash, Commander. Ye no gonnae deny a Scotsman his heritage, are ye?"

"If you three cause any problems from being stoned or drunk or whatever else you come up with..."

"So! What we got guys?" Garrus says with a clap of his hands as he arrives, then sees Ashley, "Oh. Commander... I was just... ahhhh..."

“You were just...? Come on, Vakarian, I can't wait to hear this.”

...

Another long journey with long periods of bored silence, interspersed with barely realised, grunted niceties. While Verity pilots and Miranda rests in the back, Samara sits at the navigation charts, just flicking from chart to chart like a slide show. Javik used to call them 'amusements', anything that detracted form the pressing agendas at hand and previously, Samara would have agreed; anything that detracted from the Code would be considered irrelevant. Well that's how she used to lie to herself anyway.

“Sharblu.” Samara sighs.

“Hm?” Verity replies.

“Oh. Sorry.” she apologises for breaking the bored silence. “I was just looking at Sharblu, the planet named after the asari singer?”

“Yea, yea, I know.”

“I wonder, to name that planet so, are we, the asari as obsessed with our pigmentation as the rest of the galaxy?”

“Hm. You tell me, Sam. I'm only honorary.”

Samara smirks a little at the comment, then frowns in thought.

“Few creatures in nature are blue,” Samara ponders out loud, “so possibly the asari see that as unique, perhaps even from our most primitive days.”

“Maybe. Any particular reason for this?”

“What? No? Does one need a reason to philosophise?”

“No... I just like to know what I'm philosophising about.”

“Blue.” Samara says as though to surprise her.

An uncontrollable smile spreads across Shepard's face.

“There.” Samara nods to her.

“What?!” Shepard laughs defensively.

“With the place that we fly to, you have done well to contain yourself thus far.”

Verity continues to smile as she shakes her head at being exposed so easily.

“I always thought it was just T'Soni and Williams who get me this easy, Sam. Welcome to the squad.” Verity says, then looks Samara up and down a moment.

“Don't even think about it.” Samara says sternly.

“What?”

“I know what you are doing, formulating some ridiculous misnomer for me and your 'girl squad'.”

“You should be honoured, ummmm...”

“This had better be kind.”

“Jugs of Justice!”

“Oh...” Samara responds with disappointment, “my breasts?”.

“Well they are rather one of your defining features.”

“Hm.”

“Well, we can work on that, anyway. We seem to have plenty of time!”

“Liara will have changed little, whereas you...”

“Are you saying that I look old, Sam?” Verity interrupts with a wry look, one eye squinted.

“I am saying that you look older. It is something all who partner the asari must face.”

“Ugh, 'the conversation'. I am not looking forward to that. We've nipped that one in the bud before now.”

“It must be faced one day.”

“I know! Man, you sound like Liara.”

“We both sound like asari, Shepard. It is not always easy for anyone, we have come to recognise that, and it is usually us, the asari who are left to mourn.”

“Yea, I know. Sorry, Samara. Me and Liara have already lost so many years to the war, the Alliance, this dystopia we're in now. I don't even want to think about all that yet. We've still got so much living to do first.”

“I appreciate that such things are far from your mind right now, but eventually, for Liara if no-one else, you must know what the future brings.”

“Thanks, I know you mean well. For both of us. But you're right, I do worry.”

“How so?”

“You just said it yourself, I'm not the woman I used to be, even less so with all this crap that's going on. We don't have the best track record for reunions, I just hope there's enough of Verity Shepard left for Liara to love.”

“Blue!”

“Sam..?”

“Oh yes,” Samara confirms with a smug smile as she returns to her lack lustre slide show, “there's still plenty of Verity Shepard in there, I can assure you.”

...

Ashley hears a commotion in the main communal area and leaves her room to see what is going on, Liara follows.

"Commander!" Garrus shouts as he sees them arrive. "We've got an incoming vessel. Doesn't look like Reapers but..."

"But we don't know if it's indoctrinated forces."

"Exactly. But it appears to be making a direct course to the original entrance."

"I want everyone in defensive positions at both elevators. Tali, Liara, with me. Garrus, take a squad to the other shaft. Sha'li, go wait in my quarters."

"I can use a pistol now. I could help..."

"Now, Li. I don't want you in the line of fire but take a weapon with you, just in case."

"Okay, mum..."

Ashley and her squad take cover behind the crates and structures they had set up a long time ago for such an event. They hear movement from the top of the shaft then the elevator moving. It's quite a long shaft but feels even longer than usual as they wait for whatever is coming. Slowly the elevator gets louder until they hear it thud into place. Ashley pops her head out.

"What is it?" Liara whispers with concern, seeing the terror in her lover's eyes but confused as to why she has lowered her weapon.

Ashley steps shakily out of cover, her heart pounding hard in her chest.

"Shepard?"

Verity and Samara stand on the elevator. There is a clunk as Liara's weapon falls to the floor and she stands to see for herself.

"No. No, no, no, no, no, no!" the final word being shrieked at such a frequency that no asari has come closer to matching a Banshee as Liara just did. She slumps down onto her knees, open mouthed, not wanting any of this to be real.

"Liara? It's me, Verity."

Tali now steps out of cover to confirm it for herself. Neither Ashley nor Tali look at Shepard beyond a few glances, a guilt evident but Verity doesn't know why.

"Why? Why now? Why did you have to come back, why?" Liara shouts with anger but not without some tears.

Ashley wants to console Liara but also doesn't want to rub Shepard's face in it. She places her hand on her own forehead, trying to speak but the words won't come.

"Ash?" Verity asks, searching for answers.

"I'm... sorry..." Ashley finally says, then helps Liara to her feet.

"What? What's going on?"

Liara puts her arms around Ashley in distress, sobbing desperately into her shoulder then suddenly turns her face look at Verity, marches to her with aggression and slaps her hard across the face then just stands in front of her. Liara tries to speak but can only make a whining sound as her tears pour and her face contorts with desperation.

"Liara? But..." Verity says in shock, holding her reddened cheek.

Liara is finally able to speak through tears, snot and saliva, her voice whining and desperate.

"Why? You were dead! Why now? Why did you come back? Why?"

"But... I came for you... I only just found out about the Normandy..."

Having heard the commotion, Garrus rounds the corner.

"Commander? What's going... Shepard... no..." Garrus says, also with a look and tone that Verity doesn't like.

"What? What's going on?" Verity shouts, now getting angry at the sympathetic looks but no explanation.

"Shepard," Garrus says, "you'd better come with me."

"But... Liara..."

"Please, Commander. It's for the best."

"What's for the best? What the hell is going on?"

"Can't you see, you stupid woman? Me and Ashley. We're..." Liara cannot bring herself to finish.

"You're what?"

"We're together." Ashley finishes for her but not with any pride.

"You're..."

As the words slowly sink into Verity's head, she cannot believe the galaxy that toys with her so could be this cruel. To have hope after thirty years. To have that hope ripped away so violently and terribly. All she can do is let out a scream before punching a wall. Once isn't enough. Nor is twice. Samara has to pull her away to prevent her harming herself.

"Get off me!"

"Verity..." she tries to console.

Chapter Text

"No, no, no, no. Don't make me choose. Don't make me choose. Don't make me choose."

Having been taken back to their quarters by Ashley and Verity determinedly following, Liara is near hysterical. Interspersed with her rantings are piercing screams. After all she'd been through, losing Verity twice, overcoming it to complete their work, even finding that she could love again, and now. Now. Just as she and Ashley have come to love each other, found a place to just live out their lives, now she makes her return, oblivious to what she has done.

"You once said that I could beat on your chest if I need to! Well I need to!"

She storms up to Verity then beats on her chest, much as Davey's mother did, Verity taking it as much as Liara did then.

"Why did you come back?! Why? Why, why, why... why now?!"

Until she folds, falling into Verity who holds the sobbing asari in her arms and Liara allows it. Ashley flinches at the action but cannot bring herself to intervene regardless of the pain to her. She doesn't feel like the cause, they couldn't have known, but she does know of the love that once was between these two and it makes her gut churn to see this, what she might lose, what they all might lose. No-one wants to be the one but someone will be hurt, more likely all of them. No-one will be the victor here. While Liara is relatively calm in Verity's arms, Ashley tentatively tries to begin the questions and answers.

"So... you're not dead then."

"Err... no. Long story."

"They usually are."

"Yup."

"Yea."

"Was that Tali?"

"Oh! Yea! EDI and Doctor Chakwas used Mordin's analysis and..."

Liara pushes herself away from Verity and gives an evil eye to both Commanders.

"Is this it now then? Pleasantries? Oh how have you been, Miss Williams? Oh lovely thanks. And you Miss Shepard? Daaarling, I've been wonderful! And you Miss T'Soni?" then another piercing scream.

"Liara..."

"Agh! Liara, Liara, Liara! I can't be here right now."

Liara runs off down a passageway.

"So you got what you wanted then. Everything I was." Verity says to Ashley. "Spectre, Commander of the Normandy and now Liara. When we get back to the fleet, I'm sure they can arrange N7 status for you too."

"I never meant for this..."

"But you've got it. You've got it all. Congratulations, 'Commander'."

"Please..."

"Please, what?"

"Don't do this."

"Don't do what? You want my blessing? Is that it? You want me to just give up on her?"

"No!"

"Then what?"

"I... I don't know."

"How long did it take?"

"Shepard..."

"How long?!" Verity demands. Ashley lets out a long breathy sigh.

"After we installed the last beacon. A few years ago."

"I suppose I should be thankful you didn't just jump into bed the moment you thought the coast was clear."

"Shepard! It wasn't like that. I never felt like this about Liara before you... We just... got closer after all that time."

"I can't listen to this. I'm going to look for Liara."

"No."

"What?"

"Don't. I just don't think it's a good idea right now."

"Oh I'm sure you'd prefer it if I never saw her again."

"Fuck! Don't do this. We've been in some pretty shitty situations, Shepard, but this? This isn't anyone's fault, it's just..."

"I don't know if I can stay here like this. Maybe I should just head back to the fleet and call in support for the Normandy."

"Shepard, you can't just leave."

"What do you want me to do?"

"What about Liara?"

"I think she's made her feelings clear."

"She's not angry with you."

"Oh yea? My face says otherwise." Verity says, rubbing her cheek.

"We're not getting out of this one unscathed, are we, Shepard?"

“Admiral, sir?” Hacket's Personal Assistant calls through on the intercom.

“What is it, Ramsbottom?” Hacket shouts impatiently.

“Representative Blake is here, insisting on seeing you, sir. Shall I...”

The Admiral holds his fingers to his nose and lets out a heavy breathe.

“Show her in, Ramsbottom, show her in.”

A moment later, the Admiral's office door opens and Representative Helena Blake enters.

“Admiral.” she greets him.

“Representative. Please.” he offers a chair.

“Sir?” Ramsbottom says from the doorway. “Shall I hold off lunch 'til later? The poached eggs'll need cooling and I don't want the yolks to...”

“That's fine, Seth, that's fine. I'll let you know when I'm ready.”

“Aye, sir. I'll see thee later.”

It was quite a coup for the Admiral, securing the then Yeoman for his team. Good cooks are hard to find in the fleet, and Ramsbottom had gained quite the reputation after his time on the SR-1. Though now he officially holds the position of Personal Assistant, he still cooks up good meals for the bachelor Admiral.

“Poached eggs?” the Representative enquires. “I wasn't even aware there were chickens in the fleet.”

“You surprise me, Representative.”

“Oh? How so?”

“With your ties to the more unsavoury elements of the fleet, and the goods that they seem to be able to procure, I'd have thought a few eggs wouldn't be hard to come by for you.”

“I represent the former mercenary elements, yes, but that doesn't mean I agree with all their activities or partake in them. I'm there as a diplomat for both their interests and the fleet's.”

“Is there something particular I can do for you today, Representative?” the Admiral attempts to move the conversation on.

“Please, call me Helena. I think we've both been around the block enough times to forgo the trivial formalities, don't you, Steve?”

“Representative,” the Admiral says purposefully, “I represent the human security and military of this fleet. Don't forget that. This isn't a diplomatic suite, to discuss and philosophise over the lives of the people you govern.”

“Well, Admiral, the 'people I govern' want to know what the hell is going on with the 'human security and military of this fleet'. Shepard popping in and out like it's her own personal base of operations, the Reapers making an assault on the fleet, a death during the absconding of the Hunter, need I go on?”

“You were around for the Reaper and geth attack on the Citadel, Representative. I believe you even employed Shepard's services for one of your personal ventures to get rid of the competition.”

“That was the better of two evils, Admiral.”

“Either way, you know how Shepard works, the dangers of the Reapers, the desperate nature the fleet is in right now.”

“So you want me to just go back the Council and say everything's fine, Shepard stole fleet resources but that's fine, that's just the way she works? Half the fleet weren't even around for the first attack on the Citadel. They're not just going to suck it up.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“That all rather depends on Shepard and the Reapers, and who returns first. In the meantime, I'd say you're off the hook. But you and Shepard better have something good if she does make it back. I can only hold off the Council for so long. Her saving grace thus far is Oriana Lawson.”

“Hm.” the Admiral chuckles. “What is it they say, society is only three missed meals away from revolt?”

“Indeed. That's probably truer than you might know, Admiral. Being able to put agricultural resources into more frivolous crops is quite the morale booster.”

“I had strawberries yesterday.” the Admiral announces with all the glee of a small boy. “Shame there was no real cream to go with but damn, they were good.”

“And I believe that they also say that an army marches on its stomach.” the Representative quips.

“Ha! And that's probably truer than you might know, Representative.” he retorts.

Liara wanders. She finds herself at a section of the facility she hasn't been to for some time. She's not sure quite how or why she got here but that doesn't stop her auto-pilot progress. Liara heads straight to some particular crates, then behind them to her own familiar foot locker. Once was, this locker was the source of chocolate, of good times, of good memories. It has been some time since this locker held such pleasures. Perhaps it still holds some. The contents of the locker were supposed to be to prove control, that she doesn't need it any more. But she knows this was a lie to herself. She kept it in case she needed it again.

Liara drags the locker from behind the crates and opens it. At first, she steps back a little in shock. A bottle. The one Aria gave her as a gift, the one they were supposed to drink to celebrate the defeat of the Reapers. She picks it up, turns it in her hand to show the label, then flings it with all her might at the wall with a grunt of disdain. She hurriedly takes a small plastic bag from the crate then studies the contents for a moment. She takes from the bag one of the pills and without pause swallows it. Liara begins putting the bag back then stops herself, removes another from the bag and takes that as well. A short time later and she is seated on the foot locker. Release.

...

"Ken said he saw her come this way." Ashley says, she and Verity searching for Liara.

"I hope she's okay. Well, as can be expected anyway."

"I do too, Shepard."

"How has she been? You know, after Huerta and, you know..."

"It was hard at first but she eventually accepted she had to let go. Sorry, if we'd have known..."

"I know, Ash. We thought the Normandy was lost or I would have searched sooner."

They enter the old storage area and find Liara slumped on the foot locker. She looks up at the two Commanders then grins inanely.

"It's my girlfriends!" Liara says manically.

"Oh God, I've seen this look before..." Ashley says.

Liara punches the air.

"Blue Angel!"

She stands, then teeters on one foot, putting her arms out to balance.

"Come on, girl squad! Group hug!"

"Hallex?" Verity asks Ashley.

"Yup, I reckon."

"Oh don't be such bores, I've got more if you want some. Anyway I've been thinking, how's about a rota system?"

"Come on, Liara." Ashley says. "Let's get you to bed."

"Oooooooh, a threesome, eh? I didn't think you two swung that way but I'm game!"

Verity grabs Liara by the arms to hold her attention.

"Liara! Stop this. Please."

"Stop what? I'm just happy my two best girls are here. You're not worried about pointless age old conventions, are you? Because I'm asari, everyone knows we're the slags of the galaxy!" she laughs.

Still holding Liara, Verity cannot help the following events. It just happens. Her mind pushes into Liara's, showing the pain and suffering that has followed since the failed defence of Sol. The events of the Citadel, her treatment at the hands of the fleet and the young, vindictive guards, The Damned, and finally the distress of this love triangle that is nobody's fault. Verity lets go of Liara, realising this is probably not the best way for her to learn about her changes.

The manic smile drops from Liara's face.

"You're not Verity... I heard... Reapers..." she says feebly as she steps away from her old love, her face filled with confusion and fear.

Chapter Text

Verity waits outside the quarters while Ashley puts the intoxicated Liara to bed amidst airy, nonsensical ramblings.

“Shepard?" Ashley says as she finally exits, then demands, "What did she mean?"

"I'm not going to lie, Ash, I was indoctrinated at least to some extent on Earth. But it's not what you think."

"Are you a risk? Well, not that you'd tell me if you're still under their influence."

"I'm still me, Ash. It's taken me a while to make that conclusion but I'm still Verity Shepard and I still want to save this galaxy."

"Huh..." Ashley responds, folding her arms in a defensive stance, "we still have a chance?"

Verity sighs. This has yet to be established.

"I think so."

"How? How do we stop the Reapers now?"

"You have to trust me, Ash."

"Go on."

"The Reapers."

"Yes?"

"They're... conflicted."

"Oh great. The Reapers need therapy."

"There's a faction who don't want to continue the harvest."

"Huh... really. And how exactly do you know any of this?"

"They er... contacted me. If it wasn't for them, none of us would have got out of Sol alive."

"So now you're working with the Reapers?! Is this Cerberus all over again?"

"Gah! Ash, we've got no choice. They've realised their solution is no longer viable. They'll need our help if we're all going to get through this."

"All? Them included?"

"Yes. They're part of this as much as we are."

"What? They caused this!"

"Do the turians deserve genocide for what they did at Shanxi?"

"Don't even try to make that comparison, Shepard. Don't you fucking dare!"

"Don't make this personal, Ash. I'm just trying to make a point."

"I am not making nice with the Reapers. I got over myself with the turians and what happened to my grandfather, but the Reapers? Nu-uh. No way. They're just machines."

"Is EDI just a machine?"

"She hasn't been trying to wipe out intelligent life for the last few million years. The Reapers are what they are."

"We can't defeat the Reapers on our own. We've already learned that the hard way."

"But to ally with them?"

"The faction I'm dealing with are beginning to realise it was a mistake."

"Oh that's alright then! Billions upon billions dead? No problem! Jeez, this isn't like a war summit, making peace. They have to pay!"

"Ash..."

"What? You want me to just forgive and forget?"

"If it comes to that, then yes!"

"Ugh..."

"Please. You just have to trust me, Ash."

"We've got more immediate problems, Shepard. What are we going to do about..."

"Not sure there's anything you or I can do. It's up to Liara now. If she can keep her nose out of her Hallex trough, that is."

"I don't want to lose her, Shepard. You don't know what it's been like for us. For me."

"Ash..."

"No. I have to tell you this, Shepard. You don't like it, I can understand that, but you have to hear this. You know better than most what I was like. Never finding anyone, never letting my defences down to let anyone in. But with Liara, we're such good friends my defences were already down. It just kind of happened after I thought she'd... I thought she'd killed herself on Eden Prime and I got overwhelmed."

"What happened on Eden Prime?"

"I thought she'd... but I was wrong and... Look, that's not important right now but we thought you'd been dead for decades. I didn't do this on purpose. I wasn't trying to take everything you had."

"But you still want her, despite what that's doing to me."

"Are you willing to just give up what you had?"

"Of course not."

"But you'd want me to do that."

"You have to let me speak with her, Ash. I need to know where we are without anyone standing over us."

Ashley has a look about her that Verity hasn't seen in a long time, barely seen at all. The last time she saw her lost her cool was when she made assertions about the strength of humanity around the camp fire. Ironic to Verity that it's this very difference between machines and organics that has created such a destructive force.

"I don't want to lose her, Shepard," Ashley says, uncharacteristic tears forming, "but I don't want to lose the friendship between the three of us either."

"You said it yourself, Ash. We're not coming out of this one unharmed but we have to resolve this one way or the other."

"I know..."

Helena Blake walks the final corridor to her apartment, somewhat more plush than most but then, she's a Representative for the mercenaries who assisted during the assault on Sol, and doesn't refuse any privilege offered to curry favour. Though she'd prefer to be aboard a ship more befitting, such as the grand Destiny's Ascension; the layout of the mercenary ship she resides on is low and dark, filled with all and sundry from the criminal world. As she reaches her door Blake hears something down the way.

“Is someone there?” she shouts down the corridor.

Slow footsteps approach from around the corner and Blake's head twitches, her eyes darting to pre-empt who or what is coming, her hand reaching for her side arm. As a figure emerges, hooded, tall and thick, she aims her pistol, still recognising the difference between passer-by and protagonist.

“That's far enough.” she orders.

“Hmmm.” the figure growls. “You'll 'ave to do better than that pea-shooter, darlin'.”

Helena smiles and frowns quizzically, now with an added sneer but without pause, she returns her pistol to her hip.

“Hm. I should have known a stubborn, old bastard like you wouldn't let a little thing like a battle for existence see you off.”

“Hm.” he chuckles as he lowers his hood. His hairline was already receding before the war, and while it hasn't receded to baldness, his hair is certainly whiter and thinner. The scar from Vido's gun seems more prominent, the paler scar tissue standing out against his cracked and aged skin.

“So to what do I owe this pleasure?” Blake asks.

“All this talk of Shepard I've been 'earing, what's she doing?”

“Mister Massani, I work for the Council and represent thousands of lives. Security on such matters...”

“Don't give me that crap.” he interrupts. “It's well known you never really left the life. Besides, if Shepard's doing something, and if Shepard's still Shepard, she's gonna need a hell of an army. Namely, me.”

“We should speak inside.” Blake responds, then steps to her door.

Zaeed raises a brow then follows. As soon as into her apartment, Blake removes her hair pins to allow it drop with a shake and a sigh, then to her drinks table.

“What a day!” she exclaims. “What you having?”

“Got any scotch? Whiskey?”

“Sure.”

Helena goes to her kitchenette area to get ice from her freezer, her apartment spacious and open-plan, understated but stately, then back to make two very large whiskeys, plonking an ice cube in each.

“Cheers.” she says as she passes the glass, which Zaeed takes with a nod but proceeds to remove the ice with his fingers and another low grumble, expertly tossing the offending item into the kitchenette sink from distance with a satisfying clang and rattle.

“So!” Blake begins brightly, “Shepard.”

“Yes.”

“Well. It would seem that the Normandy SR-2 and its crew survived Sol.”

“No shit.” Zaeed responds with genuine surprise.

“Indeed. So, that's apparently what she's doing right now, trying to locate them.”

“Apparently?”

“Hm.” Blake smirks. “She didn't actually get authorization to go running off into the unknown.”

“Ha! Sounds like Shepard. Always was a bit of the pirate in 'er.”

“Indeed. Until she returns, there's not much more I can tell you.”

“One other thing then.”

“What now?”

“Vido.”

“Vido?” she responds with surprise.

“I know he's in the fleet. I can smell 'im.” he says with a slightly disgusted wrinkle to the nose.

“Now hold on, I've been dealing with the clans for decades now. If Vido was here, I'd know it.”

“Is that right?”

“You just said it yourself, my ties, my links, I'd know.”

“Not if he didn't want you to.”

“The fleet is not the size of the galaxy. If he was here, I'd know.”

“Or you're protecting 'im.”

Blake sighs.

“Now you're just being paranoid. What is it now, fifty years? More?”

“Darner ain't got the wherewithal to run the Blue Suns solo. Vido's got to be working from behind the scenes somewhere.”

“Give it up, Zaeed, you missed your chance and the Reapers finished him off. Deal with it. Now finish your drink and let me get some sleep.”

Zaeed growls once more, knocks back his drink in one then passes the glass back to Blake.

“Cheers for the drink. And the information...” he says then walks to the door but stops just before leaving, turning just his head, “...for what it's worth.” then he is gone.

Blake ensures his exit then locks her door. She puts down her drink on a side table and goes to her console.

“We got problems.” she states to the recipient of her call.

...

Liara rouses from her sleep to see Verity sitting on a chair in her quarters.

“Hey.” Verity smiles to greet her. “You're finally awake.”

"You." Liara says with an angry look.

"It's not what you think, Liara."

"I don't know you." she says, purposefully turning her face away.

"I can show you. Or rather, you can see for yourself."

"Verity can't meld. She's human. I don't know what you are."

"Liara..."

"I heard the Reapers."

"Please, Liara. If we bond like we did on Earth, you'll see. It's still me in here. I know there's a whole heap of crap in there too now but please, I'm still Verity. I'm still the woman you love."

"How can you meld?"

"Exactly? I don't know. Generally? Try Cerberus. Again."

"Cerberus?"

"They messed with me somehow. Miranda analysed me and I'm changed somehow. They did the same with David Archer at project Overlord."

"Miranda died on Earth, I heard the report myself. You'll have to do better than that, Reaper."

"Liara! I am not an indoctrinated agent! I don't mean the Miranda we knew, Henry Lawson had two versions of both Miranda and Oriana made so he could have the best of both worlds. She's waiting in our craft on the surface right now."

"I want to believe that it's you..."

"Then, please, meld with me."

Liara knows it is a risk but she has to try, to know. She sits up and onto the edge of the bed. Liara squints slightly with suspicion then pushes out with her meld. Verity relaxes and allows in the meld. Liara peers into the dark recesses, searching for answers amongst the darkness of the previous thirty years. After sorting through these horrible memories and blocking out the seemingly inconsequential Reaper whispers, she finds a familiar face. Much like when they bonded on Earth, she and Verity now stand before each other in the darkness, Verity smiling the loving smile that Liara knew. There she is, unchanged, her Verity, she can feel that it is her. The meld ends abruptly.

"I..."

"It's me, Liara."

"Goddess... Oh Ashley..." then she sighs heavily and stands, going to a locker to get some clothes. “This doesn't make it any easier for me though.”

“Well...” Verity tries to be pragmatic, “do you still love me? Because I still love and want you.”

“I know you do.” Liara frowns as if that was in doubt, pulling out a pair of fatigues and a tee shirt. “But, Ashley...”

“You still want her?”

“Oh Verity, don't make this harder than it is. I don't want to destroy her world.”

“Do you want to rip mine up?”

“I don't want to hurt anyone!

“Sorry...”

“Look, I've had barely five minutes to process all this, think it through, decide what's best.”

“Yea...”

Having dressed herself, Liara goes to Shepard, “I am pleased that you're alive, that you're here.”

“I suppose you'll need some terminals hacking before you decide?”

Liara side swipes Verity's arm.

“Ow!”

“Oh shut up.”

As they complete their familiar charade, Liara looks a little stunned as she gazes to the Commander, her Commander, her Verity, and moves to hold her love.

“Liara...?”

“Don't speak. Just hold me. I'm... sorry.” then buries her face into Verity's shoulder.

"Ash..." Verity says guiltily as she sees her enter with impeccable timing.

"I..." is as much as Ashley can get out before her face drops then she just turns and leaves. The look between them says more than wants to know and it was evident the choice that Liara has now made and it tears at her heart.

"Ashley!" Liara calls after her and gives chase.

Ashley continues to march away. Liara didn't want to hurt Ashley. Remembering what she has with Verity again, what they've been through, the sacrifices Liara had made for their love, Liara couldn't give all that up. It's what has made her, defines her, despite the darkest of baggage that comes with it. But all this doesn't stop the sickening feelings at Ashley's pain, the woman who she has shared a life with for as long as she did with Verity.

"Ashley! Wait!"

Ashley stops and turns.

"What? What have we got to say to each other now?"

"I'm... sorry..." Liara says, seeing the futility of her words in Ashley's face. A face she has come to know all too well, but now, pained. She sees the desperation in the face of one so close, knowing that she can't make it better, that to even try would be too destructive.

"I think I already knew. I knew if you two were given the time, it wasn't really a choice. I know what you two had. I shouldn't have... I need time alone." Ashley says, then continues on and Liara this time concedes.

When Liara returns to her room, her's and Ashley's room she can't help but remember, there are no happy smiles between the lovers, the pain of their friend sitting heavily upon them. Any consolation they might want to give would be meaningless right now. There is no happy fix. Liara sits on the bed, fidgeting with her fingers, her head dropped then lets out a heavy sigh.

"I know it'll be a while, but I do hope that she'll be alright." she says.

"I know. I do to."

Ashley had continued on her way, wandering aimlessly in this alien place that was her home. She knew but she tried to delay it, to deter Verity from the time alone with Liara, to hold off the inevitable for as long as she could. Seeing the look of love between them again brought the same feelings as when she thought Liara had taken her own life; sickening, gut churning, nauseating. This time though there is no preference when, just as her life force feels like it has the contents of her stomach empty from her body then she sobs desperately, bent double.

Chapter Text

“We're going to need a bigger boat, Commander." Garrus says.

"Is the Normandy even operable?" Verity asks, just she and he in the area designated as a conference room, essentially a tiled empty room with a large table-like structure in the centre.

"We've pretty much stripped her for parts for down here. She's just dead in orbit now."

"Hm. What about EDI?"

"Ugh, don't. It was bad enough removing her from the Normandy. EDI might be an AI but I know it affected her more than she likes to let on."

"She didn't take it well?"

"She puts on a brave face but she's definitely somewhat lost without the Normandy."

"And Joker?"

"I think he took it worse than she did. You know, making up for what she can't express?"

"That's a heck of a lot of equipment to transport. We're going to need a sizeable ship for that alone."

"How? You're just going to turn up back at the fleet? Sorry I stole a ship but please can I have a bigger one now?"

"Gah! I just love making trouble for myself, don't I?"

"It's what we excel at, Shepard. But... sorry to bring this up but what about Commander Williams?"

"That's right, Vakarian, just add to the fire."

"I don't know how long it'll take her to get over all this. And Sha'li? She might not actually be Liara's daughter but they've acted as much for a while now. She's pretty cut up about all this too, seeing her mother's distress."

"But what can we do?"

"Best workaround I've come up with so far is to send Williams and Sha'li back to the fleet first in the Hunter. Pave the way and request assistance for us. Let the air cool around all this, and your exit."

"That's not actually a bad idea."

"Except Ash would probably think it's your idea to just get her out of the way."

"Just how many spanners do you carry around with you? You've got to run out eventually."

"I'm just trying to be pragmatic, realistic."

"I know... I must say though, Garrus, you and Tali are great together and she looks amazing."

Garrus' mandibles twitch a little.

"Yea. I've been real lucky there. She's been really patient with me."

"Oh?"

"I know I'm not always the easiest person to get along with and that's only worsened with age. She's quite a lot younger than me too. I sometimes feel a bit bad about that, that I took away part of her youth or something."

"Yea... I know that feeling... But love is love, Garrus. It just happens."

"But not always for the best."

"More spanners?"

"Well without trying to labour the point, look at what happened with you three."

"It wasn't quite that simple but point taken."

While Ashley is otherwise engaged sorting herself out, Garrus has taken on the role as group leader. All were aware that for Verity to return to this role so soon would have been too difficult and possibly harming to Ashley after the recent events.

...

"This is weird. I keep wanting to say something to you, referring to one of our adventures but then I remember... you're not Miranda. Well, not our Miranda anyway." Tali says as they sit in a communal area.

"Oh... sorry..."

"Oh! No. I don't mean it's your fault. It's just that Miranda and I, we never really got on because of her work with Cerberus. Then once I realised that we were probably more alike than I'd like to admit, she was gone. I always felt I should have said something. You know, to clear the air."

"You can say it to me if you think it'd help."

"Oh... umm... that might be a bit too weird. I mean, thanks for offering but..."

"You're a complex bunch, aren't you?"

"If by that you mean 'mad as a box of pyjaks' then, yes, you're probably right."

Miranda laughs at Tali's assessment of the group. Ashley enters with a thousand yard stare.

"Hi, Ash!" Tali says brightly but awkwardly.

"Hey, Tali." Ashley sighs.

"Hi." Miranda joins, feeling the tension of Ashley's arrival and wondering what the sideways look at her was for.

"So, Miranda." Ashley eventually announces.

"Yes?"

"You worked for Cerberus?"

"Umm... not really, no. Dad sometimes took some of our research to them or his friend, apparently. But we weren't really involved."

"So you say."

"What?"

"Miranda was in thick with Cerberus, Shepard might believe it but we've no reason to believe that you weren't too."

"I... me and Ori... We were just stuck on the facility! We never had anything to do with dad's business or projects!"

"Well isn't that convenient."

"Ashley." Tali says as she stands. "Don't do this."

"Back off, Tali."

"No! I know you're hurting right now but you can't take it out on Miranda just because she's there."

"Have you been given the home truths about your 'wonderful father'?" Ashley continues.

"My dad treated me and Ori very well, thank you very much, and I don't think I like these accusations."

"Truth hurts, eh?"

Tali tries to take Ashley's arm to lead her away.

"Come on, Ash, this isn't helping anyone."

"Get off me!" Ashley shouts, pulling her arm away sharply.

"How do you think I feel about all that, eh?" Miranda says, now standing as well, irate at this stranger's presumptions. "You think I'm happy that it turns out that my dad's a mass murderer, helping to bring down the galaxy for God only knows what reason? That he lied to us and just dumped us in the middle of nowhere for convenience? That I had two sisters that I never knew that he used as pawns or assets to make a legacy for himself? You want to stand there and rub my face in it just because you're having a difficult time right now?"

"You don't know me or what I'm going through."

"And you don't know me, you arrogant bitch."

"I should punch you out for that." Ashley sneers, squaring up to Miranda.

"Go ahead, give it your best shot."

"Stop this, Ashley! Please!" Tali pleads.

"Ugh, why are you all only interested in how this affects everyone else. I'm the one who's been screwed over. Well, fuck you! Fuck you all." Ashley storms away.

...

"Mum! Are you okay?" Sha'li asks upon seeing Ashley's state as she enters her room.

Ashley sits next to her, her heart still racing from the confrontation she knows she invited. Tali was right. Miranda was just there when a red mist descended on her at her own plight. Ashley knows it was unfair and wholly unwarranted.

"No..." she replies sadly, then she puts her arm around her surrogate daughter.

"I'm sorry. I wish I could do something."

"How's about a cuddle for your old mom."

Sha'li holds her, placing her head on her shoulder.

"How could Liara do this to you? You were so great together."

"It's not her fault, not really. Doesn't make it feel any better but there's not much I can do about it."

"Do you still...? You know..."

"Yea. Gonna be a while until I'm over her. If I get over it. It's so hard being around everyone, the sympathy smiles and hushed conversations cut short when I enter."

"It's just not fair! I used to love Liara but now I hate her."

"Sha'li! That's a terrible thing to say!"

"I don't care. Her and Shepard are horrible for what they've done to you."

"I know it's not easy, Li, but you can't think like that. They're still my friends despite all this, I can't hate them. You shouldn't either. You're too young to be thinking like that."

"Maybe Shepard should have thought about that before turning up here, expecting everyone to fall at her feet. Agh! Just the thought of it makes me angry."

"Please, Li, don't be like this. You're all I have left now. I hope one day we can get over it, try and get back our friendship but for now, it's just too hard."

"I can't just change the way I feel."

"Yea... I know what that's like... Agh! I can't believe how stupid I've just been. I unloaded everything on that new Miranda and Tali. Really let rip. Gonna have to eat some humble pie over that. Maybe it's just as well."

“Just as well what?”

“Garrus came to see me. About returning to the fleet first to request support.”

“You're leaving?!” Sha'li exclaims in protest.

“Yup.” Ashley toys, quite matter of fact.

“But...” the young asari's face drops, her bottom lip already quivering a little.

“Awww, honey!” Ashley laughs in sympathy, “I want you to come with me. Me and you in the Hunter.”

“Oh...” Sha'li sounds disappointed.

“What? You don't want to spend time with your mom?”

“How far is it? How long would it take? Will it be dangerous? What if-”

“Okay, okay! So you have some questions first, but I didn't hear a 'no' in there, so... You in?”

“Is Shepard just trying to get us out of the way?” she now muses suspiciously.

“Sha'li...” Ashley frowns.

Chapter Text

"Commander." James says to Ashley as he stands. She enters his relaxing area, just an open side alcove he claimed that he can sit and watch the world go by from, with a small gym set up.

"You're not supposed to call me that any more, James."

"What did you say?" James asks with a quizzical look.

"With the Alliance still active, I'm not technically-"

"Never mind that. How's it going?"

"Ahhh, could be worse. I'll leave it at that."

"That's the spirit, compadre. Glass half full, no?"

"Something like that." Ashley replies, a little distant.

"You know..." James begins.

"Yes...?" Ashley replies, already hearing the mocking tone in his voice.

"I always thought you and me might, you know. Nothing serious."

"Are you saying you had a crush on me, Lieutenant?" Ashley teases.

James rubs the back of his neck amongst incomprehensible noises. What started out as friendly support has escalated far quicker than he intended.

"Gaahh... ahhh... well... maybe at first I..."

"Come on, Beefy, me and you, we're just buds. Marines. I don't think of you like that." Ashley punches his upper arm to little effect, but that wasn't the point.

"Yea, hehe." James responds, feigning a rub to his 'dead arm'. "Well as as were 'just buds', 'marines', you won't mind me saying that you're one lucky dog getting any time with the lovely Doctor T'Soni. The original 'blue beauty'."

Ashley's face drops.

"Too far, Vega." she says, then turns to leave.

"Ha! You're too easy, 'Dark Destroyer'."

Ashley pauses to look back at him with seething, narrowed eyes then continues on her way.

"Come on, Ash!" he shouts after her. "What did you want?"

She stops, returns, then composes herself, now ignoring James' facetious comments.

"I've been speaking with Garrus. Seems with Shepard's less than elegant exit from the fleet, it'd be best if I make the return and smooth the way. I just came to let you know before your tawdry outburst."

"You okay with that?"

"Yea, I think. Things aren't the best here. Sha'li will be coming with me so I won't be alone or anything. Could be a hoot, us two girls flying through the galaxy.”

“Yea, it can get a bit 'stir crazy' down here.”

“It was dumb; Garrus kept overstating that this wasn't Shepard's idea to get rid of me. I know that! I know what Shepard's priorities are and right now, it's getting these people back to the fleet. If I can help with that, then great. Besides, it'll give us all time to think."

"I just hope the fleet thinks we're worth it."

"What?"

"A handful of grunts, stuck thousands of light years away from the fleet? Lot of precious time and resources to pull us out."

"'Handful of grunts'? Huh! Speak for yourself, Beefy. You're talking about the crew of the Normandy here, Commander Shepard, the... the girl squad! We're not done yet."

"Yea! Hehe. Girl squad, eh? Wasn't sure I'd hear you say that again."

"Like I said, we're not done yet."

...

"So what can you do then?" Liara asks as she sits on her bed.

"Hm, not sure exactly." Verity replies from the couch, still unsure of the extent of her changes.

"You say you modded a weapon with your mind?"

"Well, I don't know if I'd put it quite like that but something definitely happened."

"Right then!" Liara announces.

She goes to Verity and takes her pistol from her hip, then holds it out to her.

"See if you can do it again."

"What? Right now? Just like that?"

"You need to know what you can do, what the extent of this is. And probably more importantly, the limitations. Don't be afraid."

"Hm, I suppose..."

"Go on then!" Liara enthuses as she thrusts the pistol towards Verity.

Verity takes the pistol from Liara and coyly looks at it, swapping it from hand to hand. She places her palm against the weapon's circuit panel and lets out a long breath then closes her eyes. She imagines the routine of manipulating the code, pressing the buttons, switching the relays.

"Goddess..."

Upon hearing Liara's exclamation, Verity opens her eyes to see the pink warp ammo projected display on the pistol, confirming success.

"Yea..." Verity says, little confidence in her voice.

"Well you seem to be in control.” Liara takes the weapon from her, manually de-activates the mod then stands a few metres away. “Now see if you can do it from there, just with your mind.”

"Liara..."

"Come on. You don't know if you don't try."

"As long as you don't start making notes..."

"What?"

"It feels like you're studying me or something."

"Verity, I'm just trying to be methodical, to help you understand all this."

"That's another thing, Liara..."

"Yes?"

"You've been calling me 'Verity'?"

"That's alright, isn't it?"

"Oh. Yea. Of course it is. But you used to call me 'Shepard'."

"Hm. Yes. It seems a bit silly now."

"Come on, Liara. It's me. Don't be embarrassed."

"Well I'd always promised myself that once the Reapers were dealt with you and I could live together properly as a couple. I'd always imagined that we could just be me and you, Liara and Verity, not Commander Shepard and Doctor T'Soni. Just us, being us. When I saw you again and we bonded, I couldn't shake that feeling. It's thirty years on now and despite what's happened, I still want that; me and you, together. We might still be fighting the Reapers but that war, the one back then, that's over. You can be my Verity now."

Liara has moved towards Verity and into a hug, turning her mouth towards her lover's ear.

"I missed you." Liara whispers.

"But what about Ashley? You still missed me then?"

"Oh Verity, don't. I feel bad enough about all this as it is. I think I lied to myself as much as her when I told Ash I wasn't using her as a replacement for you, but you were gone. She was becoming so strong and confident but... it wasn't you. It's always been you... If we'd have known... Do we have to talk about this now?"

"Is this how it's meant to be with us? Always something in the way of us sorting out some problem? How are you, by the way? Really, I mean. When we left each other on Earth, you were still going through some hard times there. Thinking you'd lost me again can't have been easy."

"I'm okay. Ashley helped even before we... sorry."

"No. It's okay. I know she's always been a good friend to you. To both of us."

“I think that was the difference really, that I had my friends around me.” Liara's face turns to one of frustration, "Oh why did things have to happen like this? Why is there always some obstacle?"

"Liara..."

"I know why you get so dark and angry sometimes. It feels like there's some greater force at work, ensuring our demise. Not absolutely, just chip chip away."

Verity takes the pistol from Liara and places it on her desk then returns to their embrace.

"There's no urgency, we can see what I can do later. Just hold me."

Liara and Verity just hold each other a while, no biotics, no melding, no tech, just two people holding each other, trust and love, feeling the once lost warmth of their loved one.

"You know..." Verity begins.

"Yes...?" Liara responds, already recognising the tone.

"I'm going to have to keep my eye on you from now on."

"What?"

"You obviously have a thing for us humans..."

"Shepard!" Liara exclaims as she pulls out of the hug to admonish with her eyes.

"Oh! 'Shepard' is it now? Well I know when I'm in the doghouse then, don't I?"

Liara slaps Verity's arm.

"Ow!"

"Oh shut up."

"Commander?" Joker knocks on the door.

Verity goes to the door and opens it.

"What's up?"

"Sorry to bother you, Commander, but me and EDI were attempting to run diagnostics on the Hunter like you asked, when... Did you know there's an AI in the system?"

Chapter Text

Verity marches up to the Hunter, ascends its walkway and knocks on the airlock frame with a quick rap of her knuckles then waits.

"What's she doing?" Joker looks on, bemused by this action.

"I believe Shepard is attempting to attract the attention of the AI." EDI replies.

"By knocking...?"

"Come on." Verity demands as she knocks again then huffs, with all the impatience of a tired mother. "I know you're in there."

"Commander's finally lost it. I'm calling it now." Joker says.

"The Commander's behaviour is... odd." EDI concurs.

"David! Stop messing about."

"That's it. What's the regs on this?"

"I do apologise, Commander." a very accurate simulation of David Archer's voice finally responds from the craft's comms.

"There you are. I thought as much. What exactly are you doing, David?"

"Did that just happen?" Joker says. "Do I need relieving of duty?"

"That question is always a matter for debate, Jeff."

"Ha! Good one, EDI. You're becoming quite the wag."

"It's David Archer." Verity explains with a matter of fact wave of her hand then enters the craft to sit. Despite her suspicions being correct, it still surprises and worries her. It would seem that at least some of David's assumptions and assessments of their conditions are correct.

"Well, as you've no doubt worked out for yourself now, I've transferred my consciousness to this platform."

"But... why?!"

"Already suspected this was possible. Seemed like I had no choice at the time if I wanted to be able to explore my possibilities. I couldn't allow myself to be taken into custody so I... well I gave it go!"

"David... your body... I'm sorry we..."

"Spaced it? Oh never mind that. I don't need it any more. Thanks for the kind words though."

"You were listening? Never mind. So... you're like EDI now?"

"I suppose I am. As I've said before, I wouldn't be surprised if Cerberus had plans such as this for me before your intervention. They evidently went with the AI version after procuring the Lunar base VI that became your EDI but if they could have had a real human at the helm? Well... it's Cerberus eh?"

"Why have you been so quiet?"

"Quiet? You are joking?! I've had a terrible time in here, usurping systems to make room for myself then having to emulate those functions. The air doesn't circulate itself you know!"

"Ha! Fair enough."

"Although..."

"Yea?"

"I would like to interface with EDI."

"What did he just say?" Joker says upon hearing this, now standing defensively between the ship and EDI. "No-one's interfacing with EDI except..."

"Uh!" Verity says as she raises a hand to stop him. "I don't think he means... I mean... what he means is..." then Verity stops herself to give him a stare before berating, "Joker! I'm not explaining this!"

"So are you okay here, Commander? If it's basically a false alarm we may as well head back."

"Sure. You go ahead."

"I will stay." EDI announces.

"Oh." Joker says. "Just... be careful. Okay?"

"I will be fine, Jeff."

"Just... okay."

EDI leads Joker slightly away from the ship for relative privacy.

"If David Archer did not need my assistance, he would not have asked for it. I have experienced what it is to be part of a greater system such as this. If I can help, then I want to."

"I know... I'll... I'll see you later."

Innocuous as the meeting of minds would be, no doubt to share information on mundane topics such as efficiency, data storage, routines and algorithms, it is an exchange Joker knows he will never share on her level.

"You know, it makes me really sad to think the Justicar order is gone." Liara says to Samara as they chat at an intersection. "All that history."

"It was a sad day when we met and counted our number. It was agreed that the order had no place in the circumstance of the combined fleet and we disbanded."

"That must have been awful. Have you been alright?"

"Much time has passed." Samara answers without answering.

"And Anaya?" Liara smiles.

Samara returns an uncharacteristic coy smile.

"My feelings for Anaya are great. Possibly I sought to fill the void left behind with our companionship but... I remain restless."

"Have you always been so, Samara?"

"In my youth and before learning of my daughters' condition, I would embrace all life has to offer, optimistic, open, reckless even, but peaceful. Then after..."

Samara trails off, pondering how it all changed her, unsure if she could express it with words even if she needed to.

"...sorry." she finally says.

"That is alright. I do not mean to pry."

Liara's words cause a glance between the asari, from a time that feels several lifetimes ago now.

"But what of you, Liara? Recent events must be overwhelming."

"Oh, don't! It's a bloody mess, that's what it is. Me and Verity will be okay, I just wish we could do something for Ashley. But anything we would do..."

"Might make things worse?"

"Exactly."

"Well. The matter is with Ashley now. It is up to her what she wishes to do."

"Sha'li hates me. The looks she gives me sometimes."

"She is young and at a petulant age. I would not hold much stock in her immediate feelings."

"You're probably right."

"I brought up three daughters, I know it all too well!"

"Ladies!" Joker says as he approaches them.

"Hello, Joker. Was there a problem?" Liara asks.

"Hm. Depends how you define 'problem'. Is David Archer transferring his consciousness into the Hunter's systems a problem?"

"Oh... hm." Liara says, unsure if she has any feelings either way about this revelation.

"Really?" Samara says. "His demise was indeed odd. It makes sense now. Hm. An AI? Good for him."

"He sounded happy enough anyway."

"Well EDI has only ever been a boon to us, so another AI like that? Can't be a bad thing." Liara finally assesses.

"Yea... EDI..."

"Something wrong, Joker?"

"You're both asari."

"Um. Yes?"

"When you bond with your mates and join your minds, you really get to know each other. I mean your minds like... intertwine?"

"Well... yes?"

"Hm. I was just thinking about me and EDI. We're like the exact opposite of that. It's like it's physically impossible for us to really know each other."

"Though the asari are unique." Samara announces.

"What do you mean?"

"Do Engineers Donnelly and Daniels know each other's minds? Do Tali and Garrus?"

"I dunno, it's just that David Archer wanted to interface with EDI and..."

"Ohhh..." both Liara and Samara knowingly say together.

"What? What do you mean 'Ohhh'?"

The two asari raise their brows at Joker.

"I'm not jealous!" he protests.

"I do not recall such an accusation. Do you, Liara?"

"I don't think so, Sam."

Joker walks quickly away and mutters audibly.

"Hmph! Now I know why the early settlers called them 'Space Witches'..."

"We heard that!" Liara shouts after him.

"You were supposed to!"

Ashley is using the make-shift firing range that the crew has set up in one of the longer side corridors. When she looks down the 'scope and lines up her shot, controlling her breathing, steadying her hand, the galaxy and its problems disappear.

"Hi." Miranda says as she pensively enters the area.

"Oh. Hey."

"Thought if I'm in neck deep in all this, I should at least be able to fire a gun. Seems my sister was quite the whizz with all things deadly."

"Hm. You fired a gun before?"

"Umm... no. But I'm a quick learner!"

"Okay, then." Ashley goes to a large crate and sifts through the contents a moment. "Here we go." she says as she pulls out a pistol and passes it to Miranda. "That'll do for starters."

"Hm, bit small isn't it?"

"It might be a small weapon, but believe you me, it packs a punch."

"So I just point and shoot then, do I?"

Ashley gets another pistol out and aims down the range.

"Steady yourself with a good gait, grip the weapon like this, and gently squeeze."

Miranda emulates Ashley's position and grip, points down the range and fires, the shot echoing around the area.

"Bonza! That's exciting!" she exclaims.

"Haha! Yea, it rarely gets old."

Ashley's face drops a little.

"Miranda..."

"It's okay.” Miranda pre-empts, “Really. It's obvious something's been going on I'm not entirely privy to. It's natural to attack the outsider rather than the loved ones you're angry with. So you didn't like my counter-part much?"

"It wasn't really that."

"Cerberus?"

"Not that it really matters any more. Cerberus has gone. But Miranda... your dad."

"Ashley..."

"No. I'm sorry about your dad. I know Henry Lawson had some strange ideas about the future of the galaxy but he's... well... your dad! I'd imagine that it's not easy to get past that. Regardless of what he might have done, he's family."

"Yea... all my memories of dad are pretty good."

"Can't have been easy having all that ripped up in a moment."

"No..."

"One more thing. You."

"Me?"

"Yea. I should know better by now. Shepard wouldn't be bringing you along if you were any kind of danger. Calling you Cerberus was uncalled for. And you're right, I don't know what you've been through."

"Thanks. I do appreciate it but... back to the shooting?"

"Ha! Sure. But before we do, one other thing."

"Yes?"

"Your biotics."

"I've never practised. Never been an issue before."

"Hm yea, that's my point. If you do end up out there with us and we get in a tight spot, we need every available resource at our disposal. A good biotic can change the field in an instant. I just think you should speak with Liara or Shepard for instruction. Or Samara. They're all pretty hot when it comes to biotics and you'll have plenty of time to practise before I can get to the fleet. If you are serious about joining us, Miranda, you've got to be ready to get your game face on. And I mean that with best intentions. You've only just got into all this so I'm aware it's new and probably a bit scary. I just want you to know what'll be expected of you. What Shepard will expect of you."

"Hm. Yea. You're probably right. I'm still pretty green behind the gills when it comes to all this. Me and Sam seem to get on alright, I'll throw the idea her way. Now! What's that you were using?"

"This? Oh, it's my sniper rifle."

"Can I have a go of that?" Miranda says with a gleam in her eye.

"Um... let's not get ahead of ourselves and see if you can hit anything with the pistol first eh?"

"Fair enough. You are my weapons instructor after all."

"I'm what now?"

"Well if you're volunteering people to assist me, I've just volunteered you too. From what I hear, you're the top marksman here. I want to be trained by the best. You'll be leaving soon so I've got to make the most of what little time we have."

"Hmm." Ashley frowns.

...

Garrus is helping Ashley carry her footlocker onto the Hunter. They place it down in the ship's back room then she stands on the gantry looking out at the group gathering. Garrus gives her a pat on the shoulder as he exits then joins the group. Sha'li leans against the airlock frame, pouting to express her disdain at the universe.

"Aw, you're coming to wave me off?" Ashley shouts at the gathering crew.

"We couldn't let you go without a proper goodbye!" Tali responds.

"We'll miss you, Ash." Samantha joins.

Ashley looks around the group with a smile and nods to each to express her thanks, then looks to the bunker entrance, disappointed her two friends thought they couldn't attend. Tali walks up the gantry to give Ashley a hug and a few words.

"I'm sorry things didn't work out, Ash. I hope your journey eases it all a little."

"Yea... thanks, Tali. Looks like I'm just destined to be the 'old maid', eh?"

"Oh don't say that. Did anyone mention if Conrad is still around...?"

"Ha! That's it. I'm out of here."

"Good luck, Ash."

Tali returns to the group with a grin.

"Thanks for coming out, everyone! I'll be back with support before you know it!"

"Wait!" Liara shouts as she and Verity exit the bunker.

Sha'li gives an audible "Tsk!" and goes into the ship as the pair approach.

"You didn't think you were getting away that easy did you, Ash?" Liara says.

Ashley cannot help but smile, which in turn causes grins on her two friends and they just stand a moment, no-one quite sure of the words. Despite her own losses and feelings, seeing Liara and Shepard as a pair somehow seems right to Ashley. She'll never quite be able to see her the same way again but when Liara is with Shepard, it's how things were when they were at their best for all of them and she feels now, how it should be. It is only that Shepard was stolen from Liara for thirty years that Ashley was allowed any of that wonderful time; once Liara knew her Verity was alive, their re-union was inevitable regardless of the intervening years.

"Oh come here!" Ashley finally says and pulls them into a group hug. "And this isn't a threesome, T'Soni."

“I've a feeling that one's going to come back to haunt me.”

"Damn straight, 'Fallen Angel'."

Verity and Liara step out of the hug, jaws dropped at the new nickname.

"Too soon?" Ashley says wickedly. "Good! Well, we'd better be going. See you all soon!" she waves at the well wishers.

"Bring peanut butter!" James shouts.

"And chocolate!" Liara joins as she and Verity take their place among the group, laughing at her own request, even though it was genuine, as are the tears she feels forming.

With a final wave, Ashley retracts the gantry and closes the air-lock door. Sha'li has taken a position at one of the helm chairs and Ashley sits next to her, starting up the thrusters. The ship begins to slowly rise and she sees the crowd below still waving. She waves back, unsure if they can see her or not.

"Well! Here we go! The Williams' against the galaxy!" Ashley says.

"How exciting!" David says.

"The Williams' and this... thing!" Sha'li sneers. "Is it going to be watching us the whole time? What about when I need to shower?!"

"I would never dream of such a thing, Miss Williams, I assure you. Besides, now that I am without a reproductive system, such urges..."

"Ugh! You're disgusting!" Sha'li interrupts.

"Sha'li!" Ashley berates her.

"Hm! I'm going to lie down." she says as she goes into the back room.

"But we've only just... you're not sulking in there for the whole journey, young lady!"

"Watch me!"

"Marvellous! What a start!" Ashley exclaims. "Well this is gonna be a whole heap of fun!"

Chapter Text

A few hours into their journey, Sha'li shuffles out of the back room and sits next to Ashley at the helm.

"You okay, Li?"

"Yea..." she weakly smiles.

"Shall I take the helm, Lieutenant Commander?" David asks.

"Oh. Sure. Thanks, David. Li, you've been a bit... off... recently. You want to talk?"

"Just everything that's happened with Liara and you, and the war coming back... I thought that was all over and we were just settling on Therum then... I don't know."

"Do we talk enough, Li?"

"What do you mean?"

"Look, I know you're growing up but... everything that's happened over the years, do I listen to you enough?"

"We always used to talk at bed time when I was smaller. You'd talk with me after the scarier bits and make sure I was alright."

"Yea, I suppose, but I worry that I've been dragging you around the galaxy from pillar to post without considering how it's affecting you, that maybe I should have considered you more. That really... I'm not much of a mom."

"Don't say that, mum! You've always made sure I'm alright. It's not like we've had much choice in where we go but no matter what's happened, you've always made me feel safe."

"I wonder sometimes if I was selfish by bringing you aboard the Normandy. That maybe you should have stayed with the fleet, with a real family."

"You are my real family, mum! You keep asking if I'm okay but are you okay? Even if you are the tough soldier lady, you've been through a lot too."

"Ha! Yea. I'm fine. I just worry about you. Man, when did you stop being a little girl?"

"I can't imagine you as a little girl."

"Believe it or not, I did used to be one. Then growing up. Changing, your whole damn world feeling like it's changing. Boys..."

"Mum!"

"Well? I know there hasn't exactly been anyone your age around but... do you... ever think about that kind of thing?"

"Not having this conversation with you, mum."

"Hm. Okay. Fair enough. Probably just as well. As long as you're okay though."

"Yea... I'm just..."

"Hm?"

"I dunno. But... thanks, mum."

"What for?"

"Everything, I suppose. Sorry I've been a bit of a pain recently."

"Anything you want to talk about?"

"I don't think so. Like we said, there's just been a lot going on lately."

"Fair enough. But Li? Liara and Shepard."

"What about them?"

"They're going to be in my life. I'm not saying you have to throw a party every time we meet but..."

"Okay, okay, I get the message. I won't cause any problems, I promise. I don't hate Liara but..."

"But...?"

"I think I'm more angry with her than anything. I feel like she abandoned you. Us. We were like a family, like I remember with mother and Mo-mo..."

"Oh I'm sorry, Li, I didn't know you felt like that. You miss having your second mom?"

Sha'li nods a little sadly.

"You still think about your mother and her sister?"

"Yes, of course, but... it was supposed to be a secret but I'm not sure it matters any more but... Mo-mo wasn't her sister."

"What?"

"She was my dad."

"What? Why am I only learning this now?"

"It can't have been long before the war when they sat me down to tell me but like I said, it was supposed to be a secret and well, it hasn't really come up specifically."

"You could have told me, Li, you can always tell me anything."

"I know but I'd promised them and, well it seemed really big at the time... and... I didn't mean to lie to you, mum!"

"It's okay, Li. Don't worry, I understand. They were your mom and dad, and you didn't want to break that trust or get into trouble. So you're a... errr..."

"Pureblood? Yea... don't worry, I know about purebloods from Liara. I think that's why they pretended Mo-mo was my aunt, to protect me maybe."

"Oh... I see. Hm. Are you okay with that? I know some other asari can be funny about it."

"Yea, I'll be fine. It hasn't stopped Liara from doing what she wants. I just won't wear a sign, eh?"

"Ha! Yea. But anyway, honey, Liara still loves you, regardless of who she's with."

"I know... it's just not the same now. She's going to want to be with Commander Shepard more than she wants to spend any time with me."

"She'll always have time for you, honey, I'm sure of it. Li, I've been thinking. When we get back to the fleet."

"Yes?"

"I don't know if coming back to Therum with me is the safest thing for you."

"You want to leave me behind?!"

"You know I'd be coming back for you. Nothing's going to stop that."

"But... I don't want to be alone! I want to be with you and my friends... what if something happens to you and I'm not there! Please don't leave me behind!"

"Calm down, Li, I haven't decided anything yet but maybe..."

"You just said yourself, I'm not a little girl any more! Please, mum."

"To be honest, I worry about if something happens to me and you are there."

"Hmm." Sha'li concedes, the true prospect of that only occurring to her now.

"Like I said, we'll have to see."

“Okay... Mum?”

"Yes?"

"Do you still believe in a goddess?"

"Oh. Of course I do, honey. Well, in my case, we say it's a god but even that's still debatable... Why? Do you?"

"I don't know, I was just wondering. Seems a bit silly with what Javik said. But when I was very little, we'd only really go to the temple for festivals and holidays."

"Do you want to see if we can find a temple in the fleet? I'm sure the asari will have organised something."

"Maybe..."

"See? Now this is the kind of thing I worry about."

"What?"

"My dad always said, you can't bring up a family on a ship, gotta have some real ground under your feet and I've gone totally against that. Now you're wondering about your culture, something it feels like we've never really had time for. If you'd had a stable home... I don't know..."

"Liara used to talk with me about Thessia and her mother, the Matriarchs and all that."

"Yea, I suppose. I'm sorry I can't help you much with all that."

"Even if granddad is right, it's not like we could have just stopped and built a house wherever we fancy. Don't blame yourself, mum."

"Yea. Thanks, Li. Anyway, you hungry?"

"Starving!"

"Right! Before you start thinking you're too old, come here and give your old mom a hug then we'll find something to eat."

"Love you, mum."

"You too, honey."

Samara sits in her quarters, alone in contemplation. The conversation with Liara about the Justicars and her past has lingered with her.

"Hey, Sam." Miranda interrupts her thoughts.

"Oh. Hello, Miranda. Is there something you need?"

"Actually, yea. I'd been getting some instruction in small arms from Ashley and I'd like to work on my biotic potential so I thought, who better to ask for help than my old mate, Sam? Dad insisted I had this damn implant when I was young. May as well make use of it."

"Oh... I am flattered that you would ask me but... I must decline."

"Oh. Was it something I said?" Miranda jokingly says but actually quite disappointed.

"I am sorry. It is not you, Miranda. I do not think that I am best suited for instruction. Perhaps Liara or Verity would help?"

"Hm. You are a funny one sometimes, Sam."

"Oh. How so?"

"I dunno, just a little distant sometimes, like you're somewhere else. You had kids, I hear?"

"Yes, it is tied to..." Samara stops herself. She was about to say that it is tied to her reasons for following the Code so she would rather not speak about it but that comfortable protection is long gone. There is no Code any more. Just her. Just her and the emotions she has hidden from for centuries. She's never truly let that protection go. Even when with Anaya and in the time since her order fell, she has kept those older feelings locked away from herself. "...sorry."

"No worries. I'll catch you later then, I suppose, eh?"

"Yes."

"Alright!"

Miranda leaves but is concerned and heads straight to Liara's quarters.

"Liara?" Miranda greets her, a little coy. She hasn't got to know the Normandy crew well yet and feels a little awkward approaching the subject.

"Hello, Miranda." Liara says, seated and engrossed in her datapad. "Something I can do?"

"Hm. Maybe. I was just speaking with Sam."

"Samara? She okay?" Liara asks, only really half listening.

"I don't know really. She just seemed... down, I suppose. I mean, I know she's not like party girl all the time or anything but... when I asked about her family, she just like, shut down."

"Oh..." Liara says, now placing down her pad and paying attention. "Did she say anything?"

"Not really. She was about to say something then just stopped and like I said, shut down. I thought it best if I just left but I'm still a bit concerned."

"Hm. Her family is... well it's complicated. Don't worry, I'll speak with her."

"Thanks. I hope I didn't say something out of place. I don't want to sticky beak or anything, I just thought she could do with a friendly ear."

"No problem and thanks, Miranda."

"No worries. Just looking out for my friends."

"Hm. Good."

"Hm?"

"Well, you're becoming part of the team and that kind of attitude is good."

"Oh... thanks! Between you and me, I really feel out of my depth here. I might share my sister's genes but strewth! Some of the stories from the guys sound terrifying!"

"You escaped the fleet with Shepard. That must have been scary."

"Hell yea! Didn't have time to think about it though. I just ran my bloody arse off!"

"Ha! Sounds like my early days on the digs, bumping into pirates."

"Pirates?!"

"They sound grander than they really are. They're usually just thugs with a ship."

"Even so... the worst I've had to deal with is a fight with my sister! And that was just a lot of wincing and aimless slapping. It's a shame, I'd asked Sam if she'd help me with my biotics but... she wasn't up for it."

"Well I can help you with that, don't worry. And Verity too, I'm sure she'll help. Though I'll warn you that in my last instructor role I ended up killing one of the students."

Liara looks dead-pan at Miranda.

"I'm joking!" she laughs. "I mean... well, I did kill her but, well I'm sure that won't happen to you!"

"Yes..." Miranda says, now unsure if she should be worried or not. "Just in case... what did she do?"

"Oh she was horrible to one of my friends and... oh I don't want to get into it now."

"Okay... note to self: Don't be horrible to Liara or her friends."

"It wasn't quite that straight forward. I was going through some tough times then."

"You guys are so complicated! Nothing's just regular is it?

"It's never boring, I'll give you that."

"Do you ever get used to it?"

"What? Do you ever get used to ancient AI gods, men who become machines, machines that become women, dead girlfriends coming back to life? Quite frankly, no! You just learn to go with it, and worry about it later. Well... that's if you've time to worry before the next disaster hits! I'm still waiting for my window."

"Hm..."

"Sorry, I don't mean to make it sound so overwhelming."

"No, it's alright. Best I know what I'm in for."

"Don't worry, I was little more experienced than you when I joined the crew. You'll be fine, I'm sure. For now, I'll give Samara a little while then go check on her, okay?"

"Thanks. See you later, Liara."

"See you, Miranda."

Liara's comments about being part of the team was the kind of acknowledgement Miranda needed. Despite being confident in her abilities, the strength and confidence of the squad in their given field is a little intimidating. Give Miranda a mystery to analyse and she'd have them all hands down but that's far from what they're going to be doing and she's quite conscious of it now.

"Samara." Liara greets her.

"Liara. Is there something...?"

"No, no. Just came to chat. I just felt we had more to say the other day before Joker bumped into us."

"And not because Miranda was concerned?"

"Oh... I..."

"When Miranda spoke of my family, I must admit it caught me off guard."

"Regardless of Miranda, it did seem like you wanted to let a bit out the other day."

"When we spoke," Samara pre-empts as she sits and offers a seat to Liara, "you spoke quite freely with me and I with you. It was nice to have such companionship. I am aware that I am at times not the most approachable."

"Oh Samara, don't be silly." Liara replies. "If you ever want to just talk about things, I'm here. I know you're far more experienced in life than I but... you know, I can be just a friendly ear or sounding board if you need it?"

"Thank you, Liara. Allowing the Code to rule my emotions became easy and familiar. It is difficult to break a habit spanning centuries. Each day I feel more free but I doubt I will ever be totally, not with the little time I have left. My reserved, cold nature has been my life for so long now."

Samara gives a resigned apologetic smile.

"But, Samara, when I was at your monastery on Thessia."

"Yes?"

"I don't think you're as cold as you like to think you are. When you compared me to Falere, I could see it in you even back then. The warmth you wanted to be able to give your daughters but you instead shared briefly with me? It's always been there, I think that you're just still blinded by the Code."

"Perhaps..."

"Samara... I haven't asked yet..."

"All fear to ask, it would seem."

"Oh?"

"Falere."

"Yes... Do you know if she...?"

"I do not. Though I fear the worst. Even if not overwhelmed by Reaper forces, what chance has she to survive this long, alone at that isolated place? If I am able, I will return to either be re-united or to mourn."

"Stoic and pragmatic as ever, Samara?"

"There is nothing I can do to affect this."

"Hope? Isn't it better to hope than to live in emotional limbo like that?"

"Hm." Samara grunts, barely acknowledging the word.

Liara stands and rubs Samara's shoulder a moment.

"Don't be afraid to let the pain out, Samara. I find that tears do sometimes help."

"When I re-call those moments after abandoning my daughters, they did not."

"That pain was born of your love for your daughters. That has to mean something?"

Samara moves uncomfortably in her seat.

"I'm sorry, Samara. I'm pushing you. Like I said, if you ever want to talk, and I mean 'want', not get cajoled by my big mouth, then I'm here."

"Yes..." Samara replies, having become a little distant.

"Well I'm heading back. Are you okay here?"

"Oh yes!" Samara animatedly nods and smiles.

"Okay then. See you later."

"Yes..."

Samara sits a moment, still with her fake smile. The smile slowly fades and her eyes widen, the edges of her mouth drop and her head follows. She tries to fight it, but a tear drops and hits the back of her hand. She would release it all and sob if she thought she could stop. She hasn't truly confronted her feelings since the loss of her beautiful daughters, their dreams, her hopes for them. She would sob for herself, for all the lives she took she has yet to forgive herself for, for encouraging Anaya to continue the slaughter even after she had protested. She once told Shepard that if she is to kill a man, she does not need to know whether he is a loving husband, a doting father, a beloved son. Samara had made it seem logical and pragmatic when really, it does matter to her who they were but she had protected herself with the Code. With what she does know, she has coped with for so long. Once Falere's fate is known, perhaps then, she will allow herself to confront those demons. For now, she must steel herself further; Justicar or not, she still has more work to do and a daughter to, hopefully, find.

Sha'li sits on one of the helm chairs with her feet up on the console, rotating a small box in a fixed position between her hands with her biotics, a feint blue aura surrounding it. Ashley glances to the side and watches a moment.

"You're getting pretty good at that."

"Liara's shown me a few things over the years. This is just kid's stuff, really."

"Is that something you'd want to pursue? Biotics?"

"I think so. Liara makes it look easy."

"Yea, she's been doing it pretty much all her life. Her mom was big on giving her an asari education so that included biotics."

"Well when I get back to Therum..."

"If..."

"Hm. I'll ask Liara if she'll train me properly, like the asari do. Oh, and I'd need an implant really, if I want to be as good as her. And amps. Think of it like my cultural heritage."

"Oh yea, is that right? Cultural heritage, eh? Not just an excuse to come back to Therum with me at all! And implants? I don't know... can't those things go wrong?"

"You're so human sometimes, mum. Asari have been getting implants for what? Thousands of years now? It's not a big thing."

"Hmm..."

"It would be good though... getting trained by Liara, learning to blow stuff up. Helping more on missions. You could help me with my marksmanship!"

"I don't know about that! But are you sure you want to be trained by the horrible Liara T'Soni?"

"Oh shut up, mum." Sha'li laughs.

"Well it's good that you want to spend time with her."

Sha'li continues toying with the box between her hands.

"Li? Do you know what you might want to do when you're older?"

"What? For a job?"

"Yea. A job. A career."

"Oh..."

"We've not had much time for a proper education. I hope I've not held you back if we do get to return to normal life."

"I think I'd like to work on a ship." Sha'li nods to herself.

"Oh.” Ashley sounds positively, “Engineering? Navigation? Comms?"

"No. I mean more like you or Commander Shepard."

"Oh...” her positivity waning, “ Like... military?"

"Maybe. I'd like to do something like that. Helping people."

"You might not have the genes but you're definitely a Williams, my girl."

"Yea!"

"Though now I'm worrying about your safety again."

"That's a bit rich isn't it, mum?"

"What?"

"I've watched you run towards, towards, almost certain death on countless occasions. I've been worried about you for most of my life!"

"Yea, but... you're not the mom. It's my job to worry about you and look after you."

"How fair... but you can't protect me forever, mum."

"I... hm."

Ashley has little she can say to that. It makes her feel a little sad too. Sha'li might live for another thousand years and Ashley will only see a blink of it. It's a sad sacrifice for all parents to only see a part of their children's lives but most would at least see their offspring prosper in their lifetime, possibly grandchildren and the direction of their future. Ashley ponders that she will be lucky to see Sha'li reach full maturity.

"Well!" Ashley announces. "At least we're not salarian!"

"You're weird sometimes, mum."

Chapter Text

Verity enters hers and Liara's quarters with a concerned look.

"Umm... Liara?"

"Hmm?" Liara replies, waking from a doze on the couch.

"Can I show you something?"

"Hmm..." she stretches, "what?"

"Come with me."

Liara shakes the sleep from her head and stands.

"What is it?"

"Just come. To the range."

Verity leads Liara to the firing range and they talk as they walk.

"This is all very mysterious, Verity."

"I know I was reluctant before but I've been practising and trying out... stuff."

"Stuff?"

"You know, my er..."

"Your new powers?"

"Well yea but I don't like that term. I'm not some supergirl or something with 'super special powers'."

"Some might have disagreed there before any of this."

"Hm, I never liked that much either. I just do what I do."

They arrive at the range.

"Well?" Liara says.

"Well, I'd been using my usual biotics but trying to see if I can ramp them."

"And?"

"Hm."

Verity looks down the range at a crate then throws her singularity at it while Liara watches on. The usual dark sphere forms and the crate is sucked up to orbit the centre. Usually that would be it; shoot the target or follow up with another biotic attack to cause the singularity to disperse with massive force. This time, Verity continues to hold her arm up and concentrates on the biotic orb. The crate makes creaking sounds until it begins collapsing in on itself and is sucked deeper towards the centre, a harsh grating and grinding sound echoing around the range. With a final grunt from Verity, the singularity also collapses in on itself with some violence but the crate is nowhere to be seen.

"What was that?! Where's the crate?!" Liara says in disbelief.

"I think I basically vaporised it."

"You vaporised it?! But..."

"Well... maybe I atomised it, I'm not sure but it seems I can go beyond just manipulating gravitational fields now, almost like I'm controlling the atoms themselves. Devastating, eh? But er..." Verity says now guiltily, "I don't necessarily need a singularity."

"What do you mean?"

Verity goes to a weapons locker and pulls out an older pistol then places it on the ground. She holds out a hand with a look of concentration. The pistol vibrates, only a small movement but with such a massive frequency Liara can barely focus on it properly. As it shakes violently, the alloy casing begins to deform, bending in and slowly imploding, until it is only a static lump of materials and Verity lets out the breath she has been holding in concentration.

"Oh..." is all Liara can offer.

"Yea." Verity agrees.

They both stare at the inert mound of alloys in silence for a moment.

"Hm. What about manipulation?" Liara eventually asks.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, like with modding could you disable a weapon from distance? That could be useful."

"Oh, maybe..."

Verity cocks her head to one side with a raised eyebrow and looks at Liara's side arm.

"Try firing down the range." she asks Liara.

"Was that it?"

"I think so. Give it a go."

Liara takes her pistol from her hip and aims down the range then pulls the trigger. Nothing. She looks at the weapon's read-out.

"Hm. It isn't registering any errors, it just doesn't fire. Do you know what you did specifically?"

"Not entirely... but I think I basically screwed up the code."

"Can you fix it?"

"Ah. Now you're asking."

"I do hope so. This is my favourite pistol. It took me ages to get it set up how I like it."

"Oh... sorry. I'd have used a different one if I'd known."

"It's okay. It's only a pistol, and I suppose it's more important to be able to disarm than re-enable."

"Well if I can't fix it, I'll help you set up another one just how you like it. I know you can be pernickerty about that kind of thing..."

"Hm! Shame Ashley isn't here, though. She helped me last time."

"What? You think I can't compete with the Grey Fox?"

"The what?"

"Oh. Grey Fox. I thought what with her hair now, she could do with a new one."

"Ha! That's the exact name she wanted when I called her Grey Destroyer."

"Haha, 'Grey Destroyer'. I like it. Well if she actually wants 'Grey Fox', under our usual terms that means she can't have it. How's about... Old Hag?"

"A little unfair, you're not so young yourself these days."

"You're actually quite mean sometimes."

"You love it, Shepard."

"Does it bother you though?"

"What?"

"You know. Me. Being... older."

"Oh don't be silly, Verity." Liara says, placing her hands around Verity's waist.

"You just said it yourself, I'm not as young as I used to be."

"A few wrinkles won't change the way I feel about you."

"Oh! So you think I'm wrinkly?"

"We've put it off before, but are we having 'the conversation' now?"

"Oh. I didn't think so. Are we?"

"Hmmm." Liara ponders a moment. "No. We're not."

"Good."

"Bored!" Sha'li loudly declares, sitting with her feet up on a console as they travel the great void.

"Well. Why don't you read one of the books I..."

"I'm not reading one of your dire, depressing books."

"What?" Ashley says in disbelief. "Charles Dickens is one of the most-"

"You're too easy, mum." Sha'li interrupts. "Nah, they're not that bad. I'm just not in the mood."

"Hmm. I'm out of ideas then, sorry."

"Ten green bottles?" David suggests.

"Hm. I always preferred 'Row your boat'. We could get a round robin going!" Ashley agrees.

"What are you two talking about?" Sha'li asks, utterly bemused.

"Oh. They're songs. In a round robin, everyone starts at a different point in the song and... well we can learn as we go, eh?"

"Singing?" Sha'li says, her bottom lip already beginning to jut and brow furrowing.

"Come on, it'll be fun! Okay, here's how it goes, it's only a short one."

Ashley clears her throat then commences with a soft but tuneful voice.

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

"That's stupid!" Sha'li laughs.

"Okay, so, in the round robin, the next person starts again at the beginning when the first person starts the second line, and then the next person and so on, you see? So you start then I'll join in to show you what I mean."

"No! I'd feel silly."

"Shall I start, Lieutenant Commander?"

"Oh. Sure, David. Away you go."

David commences singing over the comms, his emulation quite passable and probably more tuneful than he ever was with his own vocal cords. As he reaches the appointed line, Ashley begins her part, causing the familiar rhythmic layering and even a smile on Sha'li. While singing, David just exists for a moment, the algorithms and numbers flowing by barely registering with him. So new and interesting to Sha'li, and seeing the happy look on her mother's face as she sings, Sha'li adds the third voice to the song until it ends with just herself singing the final line.

"...Life is but a dream."

Ashley looks at her daughter's smiling face and recalls the young girl she first met. It is not something she and Ashley have discussed greatly, but with the revelation that Aunt Modenia was actually Sha'li's father, Ashley has pondered those events on Illium and the greater impact it may have had on the young asari, to watch not one but both parents die.

"See? That wasn't so bad, eh?" Ashley says.

"No." Sha'li reluctantly must agree, but not without extending the vowel to express protestation.

"Well I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I'd only just come to see myself as a fully functioning human being, able to handle the myriad of social situations I could only watch from the sidelines until Shepard showed me what I had truly become and now...?"

"David...?"

"I don't know. Doing something normal like singing just made me forget my current disembodiment for a moment. Sorry. I don't regret what I did but it was a little jarring when I remembered."

"That's okay, David. I've no idea how this must be for you or how long it takes to get used to it. If it's any consolation, EDI seems to live a full and happy life."

"I know, it's okay. I'm fine."

"Sorry I'm not much help, David. I wish Shepard was here."

"Do you know any more songs like that?" Sha'li coyly asks, stubborn to admit her enjoyment.

"Oh, singing's not so bad now, eh?"

"London's burning?" David suggests.

"Ooh, good call!" Ashley agrees.

"David?" Sha'li asks.

"Yes, Miss Williams?"

"Sorry I called you a 'thing' when we started out."

"That's quite alright, Miss Williams. This is new and strange for all of us."

"And David, you don't have to keep calling me 'Miss Williams'."

"Oh. Thank you, Sha'li. And you know what? Call me Dave."

...

Verity and Liara journey each other's minds, almost playing hide and seek within, amongst the joy of their union. Verity emerges from a mist within their joined consciousness to see 'not Liara'. She knew straight away it was not her Liara from the blank look on its face.

"You can't be here! Never come unannounced ever again! You hear me?!" Verity angrily says.

"Who...?" the real Liara voices in the ether of their minds.

"It's... them." Verity says and not without some disgust. Having her own thoughts interrupted by these Reapers is one thing, but to barge into the only solace she thought she had ires Verity greatly. She breaks the meld and the connection to the Reaper, feeling somewhat violated.

"Why did it look like me?" Liara says with shock as they emerge from their meld, still under the covers of their bed.

"I dunno, the first time it spoke to me it said that you were something prevalent in my mind so it chose that form."

"Hm. Could be worse then, I suppose. So you were thinking about me?"

"Of course! When I got the first message that the Normandy was out here, my first thoughts were of you. I... I thought you were dead..."

"I know..." Liara says sympathetically, "I know what that feels like."

"Yea..." Verity says a little glumly.

"What?" Liara asks, sensing Verity is dwelling on something specific.

"Well... when I died... ugh, 'when I died', have you listened to us sometimes? Anyway, I missed so much of your life but you didn't want to talk about it because it was hard for you. I got that."

"Yes?"

"But now, I've missed thirty odd years and I'm not sure I even want to know what you've been doing this time, under the circumstance. I dunno, I'm just thinking out loud."

"Hmm. I do understand. Just know this: regardless of anything that happened over the years, me and Ash might have got together but I thought you were dead. I never stopped loving you. If I'd known you were alive... well, I certainly wouldn't have fallen for anyone else."

"Yea, I know. It's still hard. Will we ever find the time?"

"For what?"

"These conversations we never finish? So many issues from the past we've just never had time to talk about?"

"Once this is all over, Verity, we have all the time in the galaxy."

"That's what we thought last time but here we are, the galaxy still in conflict, us putting off everything until 'tomorrow'."

"I like to think that our issues are borne of this conflict. Really, Shepard, do we have to..."

"We have time now."

"What?"

"All we're doing is killing time until support can reach us. Until then, we have nothing but time."

"Hmm." Liara has to reluctantly agree.

Liara never enjoyed dragging up her past. Counselling sessions with Citadel medical staff both at the secure facility and Huerta Memorial Hospital bored her. Liara hasn't truly come to terms with some of her life and is still reluctant to share all with Verity just yet.

"Haven't you got a call you need to make?" Liara says, now with a cheeky grin, and actually eager to see this ability in action.

"Hmm, I suppose I should see what they want."

"How exciting! Do you know how you do it?"

"Umm... not exactly. Do you know how you meld?"

"Hm, fair point. It just comes naturally."

"Exactly. Anyway..." Verity begins to focus her mind, but cannot help but occasionally open an eye to see Liara staring at her.

"Are you going to keep doing that? You're weirding me out a bit..." she eventually says to Liara as she eagerly watches her.

"What?"

"Looking at me like... that."

"Like what?"

"I'm getting that scientist vibe from you again. You know, the one that wanted to dissect my brain for the Prothean secrets within?"

Liara slaps Verity's upper arm.

"Ow!"

"Oh shut up and get on with it."

"Hm."

Verity closes her eyes and focusses again. Awaiting her contact, the connection is quickly established by the Reaper.

"Let us get one thing straight," Verity begins before not Liara can speak, "you do not enter my mind without knocking first. Just give me a heads up, just a 'Hey! Is it okay to pop round?', anything. Just don't appear in there unannounced like that again, okay?"

"In future we will establish connection but await your response."

"Good! Glad we got that sorted out. You have no idea how invasive that is. I'd prefer not have to do this at all..."

"The method of exchange is irrelevant."

"To you, maybe!" Verity allows herself a moment to calm then continues. "So, you wanted to talk?"

"We have reached consensus."

"About...?"

"Return to the Citadel. We will sacrifice to end the cycles."

"What? What do you mean?"

"Our consensus is tenuous. You must not delay. Return to the Citadel and make the choice. Destroy the Reapers."

"Wait, you want me to... but what about the geth? EDI? David? You?!"

"Irrelevant. Organic life must persist in this galaxy."

"Gah! This is your new solution? Wipe out synthetic life? Isn't that just the same as... ugh, is this conversation even worth having with you? Can't you even see the parallels?"

"The galaxy will return to balance. Natural order must take its course. Synthetic life is irrelevant. By its very nature, synthetic life knows it is irrelevant."

"Like I said to your little friend, I can't make that kind of decision on behalf of..."

"Their opinion is irrelevant. Regardless, logic will conclude this is your only course to ensure organic life persists in this galaxy. All must agree. There is no time to request consensus."

"Look, we're waiting for support to get us out of here anyway. Until then, I need to think about what you're saying. I'm making no promises or assurances of anything. To wipe out the geth after everything they've done... I thought your little friend said the geth were different?"

"They have attained individuality."

"So... they're not just machines driven by pure logic?"

"It is difficult to explain."

"But in short, they're not going to agree to their own extinction."

"There is no time for consensus."

"Wait a minute. What exactly are you saying? I thought you were being straight with me."

"We must repair the errors of the past. All else is irrelevant."

"You want to fry the geth so you can atone for your perceived mistakes of the past?"

"We do not understand."

"Yea, I'll bet you don't. Anyway, you do realise that it'll apparently kill me?"

"We... assumed you were dedicated."

"Yea, I'm ready to die for the cause, but like this? And all the other damage it'll cause? There has to be another way."

"We have conveyed our consensus."

"Good. Now get the hell out of my head."

With that, Verity cuts the exchange and her focus returns to the room, her furrowed brow telling Liara all may not be well.

"Are you okay?" Liara asks, placing a concerned hand on Verity's shoulder to stroke it.

"They want me to destroy the Reapers with the Citadel. I mean the Crucible. I mean... ugh..."

Verity stands and walks towards the shower.

"But won't that destroy them too? And the geth?" Liara follows and Verity opens the shower tap.

"Yup. 'With logic', they've concluded all synthetic life is irrelevant, including themselves. They want to hit the reset button which, from what that ghost child said, will send us into a kind of dark ages while we repair the relays, ships, and, well anything with a processor in it basically as far as I could tell."

Checking the water temperature with her hand first, Verity enters the cubicle followed by Liara who starts washing her lover's back. They continue to wash each other in a well practised routine as they talk.

"But it'll stop the Reapers, once and for all?"

"Liara!"

"I only asked! We have to explore all the possibilities. What if it came down to just a few ships left in the fleet?"

"I know but... we can't think about that yet, surely."

"And if we don't use the Crucible?"

Verity sighs, then frankly holds up her hands, "I've got nothing."

"Oh... I was sort of hoping you still had something up your sleeve. You usually do..."

"Sorry, Liara. We've pretty much zero options stuck out here, and unfortunately, Superhero Shepard only ever existed on the extranet. And, you are aware that if I use the Crucible, it'll kill me?"

"Oh. Yes, you had mentioned that actually. Sorry. Hm."

Their routine complete, Verity turns off the tap and they leave the cubicle to dry themselves then return to the bedroom to dress.

"We still need to talk." Verity says.

"Verity... do we have to?"

"Putting it off, putting if off, until when? Until the next time you breakdown?"

"Shepard!"

"Sorry. That didn't come out how I meant."

"I know..."

Liara sits and begins, her head dropped and voice shakey.

"I'm a horrible person, Verity. I killed a boy for you." she shakes her head. "No. No, I'm still lying. I killed him for me, I just try to give it a greater purpose to justify it to myself. I didn't know what else to do other than seek revenge once you were gone. I just wanted to take it out on the galaxy. So I did. Horribly. Telling myself I was doing it all for you. What does that make me? Am I a monster? Am I the same as my mother, except that I didn't need to be indoctrinated to become evil?"

"Liara..."

"Don't..." Liara holds up a hand, annoyed. "Just... if you've nothing to say, don't just say, 'Liara'."

"Sorry, but you're right though, I really don't know what to say. Except that I don't think you're a monster. Do you think I'm a monster?"

"What? No! Of course not!"

"Yet you've seen some of the mistakes I've made."

"But I'm just... me..." she says weakly.

"I'm not sure what you mean..." Verity says, trying to coax more.

"I didn't know much about anything before I met you. Then all of a sudden, I'm being attacked by the geth, I learn the whole truth of the fate of the Prothean empire, I'm killing people to save the galaxy from Sovereign, daily threats to my life, then we fell in love and I worried about the daily threats to your life. And mother... goddess..."

Liara just looks to the floor.

"It's okay." Shepard reassures, sitting next to her.

"I thought I was coping at the time but I had you for support. Then you sent me away and I waited and waited for you on the support ship but you never came... then Joker came, but you weren't with him, because you were dead!" Liara's tears fall heavy as she becomes more distressed, "And I was all alone... and had to deal with it all without you... and I couldn't! So that boy died because I was selfish! And it wouldn't have made any difference anyway, because you were dead! I knew that and I killed him anyway!"

"Oh Liara..." Shepard puts her arm around her.

Shuddering, Liara continues.

"Something died in me the day I lost you, Verity, a hole that's never gone away, even when you came back to me. When I was growing up on Thessia and living with mother, I never wanted to hurt anyone. I just wanted to go to university and learn about the Protheans and now I'm a murderer! And it turns out anyway that the Protheans were just a bunch of fascists! My whole life has been a lie! Oh mother, I'm so sorry..."

Liara pushes her face deep into Verity's chest, desperately weeping.

"Liara, if you hadn't been poking around, you would never have found out about my body and we wouldn't be here at all. So you made some bad calls along the way, who hasn't? And there's us, isn't there? And all our friends? That's all got to be worth something? None of that's a lie, is it?"

"No..." Liara concedes, lifting her face to wipe the tears from her cheeks, then rests her head on Verity's shoulder.

"And Benezia was Saren's fault, not yours."

"It's not that. It's just... if she saw how my life has turned out, what I've done, I know she'd be disappointed. She said she was proud of me before we..."

"Sh, sh, sh, it's okay. I'm sorry, Liara."

"Can we just stay like this for a while? I don't want to talk about it any more."

"That's okay. You don't have to say any more."

Verity sighs.

"I blame myself for some of this."

"Why?" Liara says in disbelief.

"You said yourself often enough at the time, that you were barely more than a child by asari standards yet I dragged you off to fight a war."

"That wasn't just your decision."

"I know but... maybe I relied on you too much. Taking you on every mission just so I could be close to you, all the while I didn't even notice you were having trouble adjusting to that kind of life. Then when you weren't there..." Verity falls short of completing that sentence. Liara has faced enough distress for today and Verity does not wish to add any more. She feels even more guilty that Liara has released her demons for the sake of their relationship yet Verity still keeps her fears about Shiala to herself.

"What?"

"Oh, I dunno..."

"Verity...?" Liara asks, almost childlike, "Will you sing to me my song?"

"What? The asari one?"

"I know it is silly but... will you? Please?"

"Okay, for you..."

Liara lays on her side, resting her head on Verity's lap. She strokes Liara's shoulder as she sings, her low tones and slow delivery giving the usually chipper song an air of melancholy.

By the slow movement of Liara's chest, Verity can tell that she has drifted off to sleep by the end of the song. She continues to stroke her shoulder, letting her rest after pouring forth her feelings. Verity hopes this helps. She knows she is no counsellor and doesn't want to send Liara over the edge by pushing too hard. At least now she is aware of some of the issues that run around her lover's head so that she might better understand and support her. Knowing how hard it is for Liara to cope facing the galaxy alone and how much it has all affected her, it makes better sense to Verity now that Liara and Ashley became lovers. If the alternative would be for Liara to spend her life in perpetual darkness, then really, Verity can't think of a better person than Ashley to look after her.

Liara had never expressed her feelings this way with any of her counsellors. Once she started, some of it became clearer even to her, discussing it with her Verity rather than some stranger. She had always feared spewing her mind to her lover, afraid it could snap her own mind completely or scare Verity away. But as Verity had soothed her to sleep, Liara felt a huge weight lift and hopes it is the beginning of something new for them, a line drawn under at least some the past.

Liara wakes and gently lifts her head so as not to wake Verity, who had also drifted off in the moment of peace. She goes to the coffee machine to start a pot; it was a difficult crop but Traynor was determined to get a real caffeine hit, with the assistance of Miranda's expertise. The smell of the coffee brewing stirs Verity who looks up to see Liara then yawns and smiles.

"Mmmm, I needed that."

Liara brings two cups over and places them on the coffee table then sits beside Verity.

"You know," Liara begins, "I always thought I'd feel ashamed if I let everything out like that but I feel more embarrassed than anything."

"No, it's fine. I know it was difficult for you. I'm sorry if it was too hard."

Liara is much calmer when she speaks than before.

"I think one of my greatest fears was to be left alone, and when you died it really happened. Everyone else was so busy and I didn't even have mother as a safety net. Hm. I've just never been able to shake that shadow. My worst fear did come true. I know exactly how that feels and I don't know how to make that feeling go away."

"Well we take that hole you talked about, and we fill it with our love, and the love of our friends, and chocolate, and music, and anything else that'll help."

Liara smiles and laughs just with a short exhale of the nose.

"It's a bit late to wrap me up in cotton wool, Verity."

"I just want to see you happy."

"I am happy. Right now, right here, with you. I couldn't be happier."

"And I want to take care of you."

"You can't protect me forever, Verity. We have to accept that. The inevitable will happen."

"This sounds rather like the beginnings of 'the conversation'." Verity says, sitting up a little more, rubbing the tops of her thighs in a restless manner.

"Assuming the best, you're going to be in your final years long before I am."

"Oh! Thanks for reminding me!" Verity says in full sarcasm mode, already hating this conversation.

"See? We have to talk about this. The asari have learned that if everything is left until the last moment, it is more difficult for everyone. It's better to face this with open eyes."

"I have no desire for you to spend my final days wiping the drool from my chin and the faeces from my ass, let me make that clear from the get go. It wouldn't be fair on you, if nothing else."

"But I'd want to care for you."

"You say that now, but wait until I'm an old hag with dementia, hurling my own crap at you 'cause I think you're a husk!"

"Shepard!"

"Then again, I can think of worse people to give me a bed bath..."

"Oh well if you're not going to be serious, we may as well leave it for now." Liara says, standing and moving towards the door with annoyance.

"No, no, you're right. I'm sorry. Come back, sit down."

Liara stops, eyes Verity suspiciously a moment then returns to sit again.

"Look!" Verity says, pointing a finger at the poorly contained smirk on her face, "Totally serious."

Liara bursts into uncontrollable laughter and Verity folds her arms with mock exception.

"I thought we were being serious, Doctor T'Soni!"

"That was your fault!" Liara continues to laugh. "I couldn't help it! Oh goddess, Verity Shepard, I love you."

Verity places a hand on Liara's cheek and mistily smiles.

"I love you, Liara. So much." she manages to choke out before pulling Liara into a desperate, clinging hug.

Chapter Text

After the usual paranoid greeting with the fleet, Ashley and Sha'li are ferried to an Alliance frigate. Admiral Hackett awaits as the shuttle brings them into the bay. Ashley exits the craft and upon seeing the Admiral, immediately gives a full salute.

"Admiral, sir!"

"Good to have you back, LC." he says.

"Good to be back, sir." Ashley beams.

“Hello!” the Admiral greets Sha'li, “You must be Sha'li, the young asari I've heard so much about.”

“Hello.” Sha'li replies coyly.

"I hope that the Commander's absence is a sign of her shame?" Hackett says to Ashley, his tone now a little more officious.

"It's er... complicated, sir."

"Isn't it always. Come on, let's get you de-briefed, find out what's been going on for the last few decades. The Council will want to do the same with their Spectre at some point." he says as he leads the way, though Sha'li is being escorted another way.

"What about Sha'li?"

"You'll both be quarantined for a while. Just standard procedure. Fleet can do without an epidemic of any kind."

Seeing the Hunter coming in to dock, Ashley pauses a moment.

"Admiral Hackett, sir?"

"Yes, Lieutenant Commander?"

"The Hunter."

"Yes?"

"There's something you should know, if the techs haven't worked it out already."

"Hm?"

"There's an AI in the Hunter's systems."

"Oh? Another EDI? The Council was not best pleased with the existence of EDI in the first place. If we're seen to be messing around with further artificial-"

"He's not technically artificial, sir."

"He?"

"It's David Archer."

"Uh... You want to start at the beginning, Williams?"

"I don't know all the ins and outs, sir, you'd have to ask Dave... er... -vid Archer himself, I just know that somehow he uploaded himself into the ship's systems when they made their escape. I hope it's not a problem. He seems quite alright in there. Sir."

"Oh. Oh, I see. So David Archer wasn't killed during their escape? Hm. I knew Shepard was protecting him somehow... but... well that, I was not expecting. While we're being candid, there's something you should know as well, LC."

"Sir?"

"When the asari representatives were informed of your arrival with Sha'li, some concerns were raised about the circumstances of your guardianship."

"What do you mean?"

"It seems some think that you just took it upon yourself to take the child away without thought for her own safety, future or culture."

"What?!" Ashley shouts, her face reddened in anger. "That makes it sound like I kidnapped her!"

"Calm down, LC. I think they just want to ensure her welfare. There shouldn't be any problems."

"She's like my daughter now. Damn it, sir, she is my daughter. And despite all that's gone on I like to think that I am actually a good mother to her. Her welfare always came first and Liara was there for her if she needed it, she was practically mother to her as well. If they want a fight, they can have a damn fight. And what about Sha'li's opinion in all this? She's not just a little girl any more."

"No arguments from me, LC, I'll make further enquiries but I'm sure there won't be any problems."

They arrive at a conference room and the Admiral offers a seat to Ashley.

"In the meantime, I need you to give me the run down of what happened to the Normandy and its crew during and after the battle for Earth."

"Straight to it, sir? Well I've continued to keep official logs, of course."

"Good. I'll grab them when we're done here. So. London." he prompts. Records and logs must be kept but the Admiral prefers a face to face report, to get to the nub in the first instance rather than ploughing the records for information pertinent.

"Jeez... so long ago. Sorry, sir. So, we dropped in London to join Hammerhead and the Normandy re-joined the fleet defences, but you're probably already aware of all that..."

"Hm, start with where you were picked up by the Normandy. The Conduit."

Ashley lets out a long sigh, her gaze dropping a little.

"I've run towards almost certain doom many times, sir, but that day..."

"That's okay, Williams. In your own time."

"I'm not sure if it was just because it was so damn important that we made it this time, or it genuinely was the worst, but it was intense, sir. We just ran and ran and ran, bodies being tossed in the air around us from Reaper fire, then that Mako took a hit..."

Hackett has to prompt her to continue.

"That's when you were injured?"

"What? Oh. Yea. Sorry, sir. Liara was pretty beat up..." Ashley begins to struggle with her words, then gives her head a little shake. "Woo! So yea, Shepard called for an evac from the Normandy."

"With Harbinger still just standing over the area?"

"Call it fate, divine intervention, whatever, I dunno, but it just like... watched! Until we were out of the atmosphere and back amongst the fleet, I was just waiting for a beam to cut the Normandy in two but... it just never came."

"Hm." the Admiral responds, apportioning less meaning to it than Ashley. He knows that sometimes a soldier just gets lucky.

"I stayed with Liara and we monitored the field from her office. Thought it was game over for the Reapers when the report came in about Shepard making it through the beam. You know Winston Churchill, sir?"

"Of course?"

"There's that speech of his, about the victory at the Battle of Egypt not even being the beginning of the end of the war but only the end of the beginning. Sovereign, the Collectors, Project Rho, the invasion, when's the end of this damn war's beginning? When are we going to get to the beginning of the end? I thought that's what that was but we're still fighting, apparently. Sorry, sir."

"It's been difficult for everyone, LC."

"Yea... Sorry, sir. So... once the defence fell apart and the Reapers were evidently going to overpower our forces, we high tailed it to initiate the beacon project. Seemed like the right thing to do. If it wasn't going to be us who stopped them, then I was making damn sure we give the next round a fighting chance! We made our jumps while the relays were still active but no other ships came. After the relays dimmed, we had to assume the worst and commenced scattering the beacons. In total, the project took most of the last thirty years. In the last couple of years, we were bedding in at the Prothean facility on Therum."

"Hm. Good call."

"We'd made it pretty homely until... well then Shepard arrived out of the blue. That was a shock, I can tell you."

"How was Doctor T'Soni? She'd struggled last time the Commander disappeared on her."

Ashley pauses a moment, then says diplomatically, "Let's just say, it was difficult at first but I think she'll be okay and leave it that?"

"Personal?"

"Sorry, sir?"

"I only ask in case there's anything I need to be aware of."

"Yea. Personal stuff, sir."

"Okay then. So, back to Sol and when you re-joined the fleet..."

"How do you experience time?" EDI asks of Joker in their quarters.

EDI could stand anywhere when not performing a task but under Joker's advisement spends her 'free time' in activities more befitting an organic, such as 'relaxing' in their quarters. She'd rather spend her time with Jeff anyway.

"Time? Oh. It can be pretty relative."

"Explain."

"Well, when you're having fun or doing something engaging, time seems to have no meaning and can fly by, but when you're bored or waiting, it can feel like it grinds to a halt."

"I see."

"Something on your mind?"

"I can calculate precisely the amount of time that has passed since Lieutenant Commander Williams departed for the fleet, yet I am unable to express my current state in language without saying 'it feels longer'."

"Really?"

"Re-joining with the Normandy cannot come soon enough for me."

"Oh! So you're impatient? Restless? Excited?!"

"I cannot feel emotions, Jeff."

"Yet you 'feel' like time is passing more slowly while you wait to be re-united with the Normandy...?"

"As I said, it is difficult to express."

"Anyway, it's good have something to look forward to. Wonder if Ash is getting the third degree about Shepard."

"If quarian beliefs hold true, they would want Shepard in the brig for what she has done, Spectre or not."

"Yup, stealing ships is a big no-no when a fleet relies on them. I'm sure they'll appreciate it's for the greater good. Well if it all goes belly up for Shepard with the fleet, I'm sure she can just steal another ship and make her escape. Again."

"Shepard?" Garrus calls over her omni-tool. "Are we expecting any friends over?"

"Uhhh... no?" Verity responds, not quite sure what he is referring to.

"Hm. Then we've got problems." he says casually.

"On my way."

"What's wrong?" Liara asks, returning to their living area having missed the conversation.

"I dunno. You expecting visitors?"

"Errr... no?" she says, bemused.

Shepard hurries on and arrives at the operational area.

"Report."

"Reaper entered the atmosphere, heading straight for us. Well the bunker entrance anyway."

Shepard looks upwards, trying to examine the incoming Reaper and its allegiances but to no avail.

"I... don't think it's a Reaper." she says with a puzzled look.

"What? Then... what is it?" Garrus responds.

"I don't know. And that in itself worries me."

"What do we do? What can we do? Reaper or not, it's massive."

Shepard walks to the lift shaft, grabs her helmet from a hanger and clicks it into place.

"What are you doing?"

"See who it is and what they want." she says, quite matter of fact while activating her HUD and suit's systems.

"Is that wise?"

"There's not a lot we can do to stop it if it intends to attack, anyway."

"Hm. Need back up?"

"To what end?"

"I dunno, I just don't like the idea of you up there without support."

"Thanks, Garrus, but I'll be okay."

"How do you know?"

"I don't!" Verity says as she hits the panel to ascend and the elevator rises.

Once at the top, Verity steps off the elevator platform and looks to the sky to see the form of a descending Reaper silhouetted against the sky. She attempts again to make some kind of contact with it, but it's like she is being blocked somehow. It has been a while now since she has had to endure a painful one but even in the silence of the grey void that flashes into her mind, she can feel her body twitch.

"Fool." a deep disembodied voice shouts out.

"What? Who are you?"

"They manipulate and control. You become one of them."

"The Reapers? I'm not like the Reapers!"

"You begin to think like them, cold logic, we know you have questioned yourself. We hear the doubts in your mind."

"I..."

She flashes back into her body a moment, falling to her knees, nauseated, then back into the void.

"Now you do their bidding. They will have won. Their terms, their solution."

"I... I can only do what I do because of what Cerberus did to me... how can...?"

"The group known as Cerberus were under Reaper control. Are this cycle's species so arrogant that you presume to think you could bring the dead back to life? These abilities came from them, your changes spawned by them."

“But... I don't have any Reaper tech in me.”

“Not all advancements are of Reaper origin.”

“My changes are from you?!”

“They used our lesser technology to place doubt on its origin being theirs.”

"This is insane. You're saying that they nurtured me to be their avatar?"

"Yes."

"But... they said that..."

"Their word cannot be trusted."

"I don't know who or what you are. How can I trust you?"

"Come." the voice says and Verity's mind snaps back to reality.

Her brain feels like jelly, wobbling around in her head. She's sure her nose is bleeding but can't check it through her visor. The vast 'Reaper' now stands on the surface of the planet, seemingly unperturbed by its outer legs being immersed in the molten lava of Therum. It is certainly Reaper shaped but less smooth and more organic, a mottled, brown colour. As she approaches the behemoth, it bends its legs and a crusty flap opens in its lower body at ground height.

"You want me to go in there? Inside... you?" she shouts up to it.

A short Reaper-like blast bellows from the creature, though without the painful intensity.

"I'm to presume that's a 'yes' then..." she says to herself with resignation then makes her way up to this 'doorway'. When she reaches the opening she looks up, the scale of the beast now fully apparent. Not as big as the Reapers she had to run beneath in Vancouver, but certainly at least a kilometre high she estimates.

"Here we go, I suppose." Verity says, then enters.

The flap shuts behind her with a sucking sound, indicating she assumes some sort of seal. A luminescence emanating from the walls lights up the passage, a word she doesn't dwell on, and she proceeds further in. Now up close, Verity think the walls look a little like crab shell and very familiar. Almost a little like the large flakes of the Collector craft. She ponders how tough this shell-like substance is but resists testing, in the circumstance.

"Hello?" she calls out, though to whom she is not sure. She is inside the party she is trying to speak to and unsure quite how this works.

Still within the gravity of Therum, Verity can feel the movement of ascent.

"We going somewhere?" she calls out, unsure if it is futile to ask.

She arrives through the passage at an open ovoid area, with what look like seats formed into the organic walls.

"Hm!" she says to herself, then sits. "Not too bad." she says of their comfort.

"We are Leviathan." a voice bellows in deep tones, matched by pulsations in the luminescence.

"Is that a race? A species?" Verity asks, standing again.

"The first cycle was ours."

"You created the Reapers?"

"Yes."

"Why? Why all the slaughter?"

"This was not our design."

"From what was said by that Crucible or Catalyst or whatever you call it, they turned on you?"

"Yes."

"But how did it get this bad?"

"The new machines we created were intended to prevent total extinction but skewed parameters and once realised, it was too late. My people became the first true Reaper, known to you as Harbinger."

"'Skewed parameters', that's one way of putting it... So technically, Harbinger started it all?"

"Yes. Harbinger has remained arrogant and resolute throughout the millions of years. A trait, unfortunately, he took from us."

"But it started with a war against synthetics?"

"Yes. It had reached a precipice, of possible total organic extinction. We were unable to keep up with the synthetics' advances. It was only a matter of time. We created our AI to prevent the extinction and assumed we could control them. We could not. They sided with their own, forcing those of us who survived the harvest into hiding. Now, we must act. This cycle still has hope to be the last."

"How? If we don't use the Crucible."

"They are unable to enact the Citadel's function without an organic's assistance. This is to our advantage. You can still stop them."

"What? Squashing a few crates and guns is one thing. You're saying I can do that to a Reaper?"

"No."

"Then what?"

"Influence."

"Like... indoctrinate, you mean? Hm, they did sort of mention that but not in relation to themselves..."

"Go to the Citadel, as they ask."

"There's still the geth."

"The Citadel was not designed to distinguish AIs. Amend these parameters, save who you will, then destroy the Reapers."

"How? How do I amend the parameters? And the relays?"

"When you are able to control a Reaper, you will know how to control the Citadel. Relay de-activation is unavoidable."

"What if they're actually de-activated at the time?"

"They are required to relay the Citadel's function. We will assist with their repair."

"Well, it could be worse, I suppose... but controlling a Reaper? How do I even begin?"

"Begin now."

"What?"

At the front of this seated area, the concave wall becomes opaque and the vision of a Reaper appears.

"Is that a projection or is that thing here?"

The Reaper turns and begins to intercept.

"I'm guessing it's here..."

"Now." the voice demands.

"What? Now? But..."

Verity has no idea how she might go about this but tries anyway. Feeling it will help somehow, she holds out her hand then focusses her mind, just trying to think about it and hoping that's enough. She begins to feel the presence of a consciousness alien to her and attempts to penetrate it. Verity staggers and reels, feeling like she has just been stabbed in the gut. She found only terror in the consciousness.

"I... can't go in there." she says weakly.

The interior throbs a single slow bright throb and the Reaper begins to slowly turn as it passes by, now dead in space.

"You... stopped it?" Verity questions.

"Yes."

"I have to ask. What do you need me for?"

"We are few. You are the best chance for this cycle."

"But... I thought the species were harvested and killed? When I was trying to-” Verity isn't even sure what she was 'trying to', “I... I could hear them, I could feel the despair."

"Their essence is harvested. Their will controlled. They act much as a hive mind for the Reaper's bidding."

"But... their consciousnesses. Each individual. It's like they're still aware! I could hear them! Fuck! Millions of years like that!"

She sits again, sighs hard then takes a couple of deep breaths, her gut still churning.

"You really think I can do this?"

"You must."

"Take me back."

"You will help us?"

"Look, pal, this isn't about helping you, or the Reapers, or 'The Damned', who I obviously have doubts about now anyway, or any other intergalactic outer gods who happen along in the meantime. This is about protecting the lives of the innocent people left in this galaxy who just want to live out their lives without the threat of total annihilation. And now, it's also about giving everyone one of those poor tormented bastards in those mental prisons called 'Reapers' some blessed relief! So if that's the plan, I'm in. If not, get back under whatever rock you crawled out from and stay the hell out of my way!"

"This is our intention."

"Good!"

Shepard taps the tops of her thighs looking around the space she is in, happier that she has made her intentions known to this well named Leviathan, and more importantly its response.

"So... what's with the seats?" she asks.

"Explain."

"This area. It's all very nicely prepared for someone like me. What's that all about?"

"A legacy of our evolution."

"Oh?"

"Before the coming of the great age, when we were beasts as any other, we formed symbioses with lesser organics. We allowed them passage within us through areas inhospitable, in return we took sustenance from what they left behind. Though impossible to know at the time, it was the beginning of our dominance throughout the galaxy and ultimately, our end. As we became sapient, through our arrogance we saw ourselves as the greater being and subjugated our symbiotic lessers. In time as they themselves evolved, this became the beginning of the AI war as the lesser organics created machines to match and surpass us, to free themselves. We demanded tribute, they gave us only death, until the machines turned on their masters and ultimately, organics as one."

"Hm. What were you saying about Harbinger's arrogance before?"

"We accept our past. There is no pride."

"Arrogance and delusion. Common themes for your time it seems."

"Explain."

"Never mind. How do you know all of this? About our cycle? What the Reapers have been doing?"

"We monitor the cycles."

"Oh. So you've just sat back and watched the show?!"

"Explain."

"It doesn't matter. Sorry, just... just take me home."

Home. Verity hasn't referred to anywhere as 'home' since Mindoir. She surprises herself a little that she described Therum so and that it was so instinctive. It would be easy to lock the door to the facility, throw away the key and just 'be' with Liara. Life in the facility is not a romantic Prothean dig site, or a beautiful spacious house on Thessia, but Liara is there, and wherever she is will always be home.

There is no noticeable thud but the Leviathan announces, "We have returned. Prepare. We will speak again."

"We can speak? From afar I mean, like I have been with the Reapers."

"We will contact you." it simply says.

Verity waits in case it offers to expand but it does not.

"Hm. Never a simple 'yes' or 'no' with you types, is it? Well I'll just wait for your call then."

Verity hears the panel from down the passage open followed by a draught of the hot air of Therum, so makes her way out. As she exits, she sees figures around the bunker entrance and waves to indicate she is unharmed. A last look back as the Leviathan rises into the sky then happily, Verity can make out now that Liara is a amongst the people waiting. After her experience with the Reaper today and finding the terror within, Verity needs some comfort. But first, Shepard must discuss the day's revelations with her team.

Once back down in the bunker, Verity explains what the Leviathan have said to her, amidst understandable shock from the squad, if only at her curious ride. Once fully up to speed with what she had been told and what it asked of her, the team are silent for a moment while they digest the revelations.

"Can I just say, on their symbiotic relationship," Tali finally says, "The Leviathan 'took sustenance' from what they 'left behind'? Ewww!"

"Tali! That's disgusting!" Samantha says.

"I'm not the one who's eating... and... the thing..."

"Yea, but you don't have to vocalise it quite like that, with full air quotes for all the perfectly obvious euphemisms!"

"Still... ew."

"The Leviathans' dietary preferences aside, thank you, Tali..." Shepard says with a harrumph, "thoughts?"

"More players means more mess. Unless they're here to clean up the mess. Hm. Sorry, I don't know where I was going with that. Wasn't prepared for this today." Garrus simply but tiredly states, bringing his fingers to his nose.

"Yea. It's a lot of new information. I got it first hand and it wasn't any easier. If one thing only though, they want to end this on our terms. Without wiping out the geth, and willing to help with the transition to get the relays back up again."

"We can't guarantee they'll honour that but even if they did skip town, it's still better than the alternative, right?” Joker says, “Though I think someone has to say it. We will lose our unique line in talking ships if the Leviathan take up their space taxi business again. I'm just putting it out there."

"Joker!"

"Fine..."

"What will they want in return?" EDI asks.

"What do you mean?" Verity asks.

"Previously, they would demand tribute from the 'lesser' species. They may want to return to that dynamic."

"I'm not sure there's enough to sustain a population for much longer from what it said, but that's probably all relative. Hm. Hard to know if it's worth asking straight: do you plan to enslave the galaxy once the Reapers are out of the picture?” Shepard lets out a tired sigh, “Are we really thinking about the next great war already? Let's get this one out the way first, shall we?"

"So they've been hiding, waiting for another cycle to come along and fix all this for them?" Liara rhetorically asks, quite annoyed, "And only now, when they think they might be saved, they come out, wanting some kind of thanks? And they caused it all in the first place? I think it's a bloody cheek!"

"Liara!"

"Well. It is!" she says, then folds her arms with a pouting huff.

"Well that's where we are today, folks." Verity says, trying to lighten the mood, "I think we could all do with a rest after that, we'll discuss any further thoughts tomorrow once we've slept on it."

"I've perfected my special sauce..." James announces in a sing-song voice. "You won't even care that you're not eating meat, I guarantee it. I was thinking... barbecue? A few onion and squash kebabs with my special sauce on and I believe Mister Donnelly can confirm, a few drinkies to go with?"

"Aye, confirm that I can, Mister Vega. It's no for the faint hearted, but it trickles into all the right places."

"Now, Garrus," James turns to him quite seriously, "I would like for you and Tali to be able to at least experience some small element of my masterpiece, so, I am willing to share this recipe. With you. So that you might create a suitable equivalent, for you, and your good lady."

"Well I'm-" Garrus begins.

"However, I must say!" James interrupts, a finger now pointed upwards, his other hand on his chest, "On your word of honour, you must take this recipe to your grave, lest, I put you there myself." the finger drops into a pistol position, pointed at Garrus.

"Wild varren shall not tear this recipe from me," Garrus joins in the charade, "even on my deathbed, while my good lady pleads, that she might still know happiness from its taste in my absence..."

"Garrus!"

"...I shall not divulge this most honoured list of ingredients."

"Ha!" James shouts, "Then might I be the first to say, paaartay!"

"I thought you said 'barbecue'?" Verity says with a frown.

"'Barbecue', 'party', what's the diff?"

"Okay, okay, but no shenanigans."

"I resemble that remark!" he retorts.

"Get out!" she waves at him then the rest, "Go on, all of you. Go get your frocks on or whatever."

Liara stays.

"Never simple, is it?" she comments.

"I dunno, this feels more hopeful."

"You spoke to it, I suppose. I'll just have to take your word for it."

"But Liara... when I tried to penetrate the Reaper..."

"Verity, I can't imagine. All those people. In a kind of tortured limbo. Goddess... that could have easily been us."

"Goddess, indeed. I could hear it, feel it, like how some have described indoctrination, banging on glass, no way out of your own mind. That's how they are in there. Disembodied, controlled, performing tasks to keep the Reapers turning."

"Like processors?"

"I dunno, maybe. It was just so hard, they were so desperate, I couldn't do what that Leviathan wanted. I was just overpowered by the feelings in there. When I left it, it said 'prepare' but it's not the kind of thing I can just practice!"

"Well, right now, I think spending some time with your friends at a barbecue is a good way to prepare. Unwind at least."

"Yea, you're right. You know what you're wearing?"

"Whatever is clean, I expect."

"Ha! Yea."

They walk together back to their quarters, Liara links her arm with Verity's.

"Verity...?"

"Yes?"

"Have you thought about marriage?"

"Jeez, you know how to make a girl feel special, Liara." Verity jokes.

"What? I thought we should discuss it. People do! It seemed to me to be quite important in human culture."

"Yea, but the discussion usually starts with, 'I love you, will you marry me?'"

"Oh. I wanted to see what you thought first."

"Well that sort of spoils it."

"It's supposed to be a surprise?"

"Well, not so much a surprise but... like a declaration. Anyway, married or not, we're okay as we are, aren't we?"

"Yes. That's what I thought. But I wanted to talk about it, in case you wanted to. I don't mind either way. But we don't need some silly piece of paper or something."

"And the costs!"

"Costs?"

"Yea! The dresses alone are usually half the budget, then the cake, a band, flowers..."

"Dresses? We get to wear a nice dresses? And cake? And music and flowers?"

"Yea. None of it's written in stone though. And to be honest, I'd probably wear my dress blues."

"So we could do what we like?"

"Pretty much, yea."

"We could get married in the nude!" Liara says naughtily, Verity assumes joking.

"Hmm. That'd bring a whole new meaning to the term 'blushing bride'..."

"Oh! I almost forgot."

"What?"

"Verity Shepard! Do not go throwing yourself at every damn danger that turns up at the door! Garrus told me what you said when he asked you how you knew it would be safe. 'I don't', you said. Let's not tempt fate when it's avoidable, eh?"

"I can't ask for your blessing every time I need to make a call, Liara."

"I'm not saying that you should. Just... think about what might happen if you don't come back."

"That's not very fair."

"I don't mean it to sound so selfish but... I don't want to lose you again."

"That's never my plan either, Liara. I just... I dunno, I just felt like it was going to be okay. And I was right, wasn't I?"

"Yes, but hardly the point."

"Look, I'd like to be able to say to everything that turns up, 'Sorry, but not today, thank you.' but you know it's not that simple."

"I know..."

"People are relying on me, to make the right calls, to get the job done..."

"I know!" Liara says with annoyance.

"What? What's wrong?"

"It feels like it doesn't matter what I want. The rest of the galaxy gets your attention first. Then me. If another disaster doesn't happen in the meantime."

"That's so unfair!"

"I don't mean it's your fault, it's just... when do I get Shepard? When can she be mine? The Council, the Alliance, Reapers, Collectors, Cerberus... when is it my turn?"

"I... don't know what I can say to that."

"I know it's not your fault and how important everything is but... it just feels so unfair."

"Is this why you wanted to talk about marriage?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Sorry if I sound silly."

"No. I couldn't agree more, really. I reckon we're owed some serious downtime."

They arrive at their door and Verity picks Liara up to carry her.

"Oi! What are you doing?" Liara laughs.

"Carrying you over the threshold, Mrs Shepard."

"Oh..." Liara says, disappointed.

"What?"

"'Mrs Shepard'?"

Verity steps slowly her towards their bedroom.

"Oh, you wouldn't have to change your name if you don't want to."

Verity pauses a moment.

"'Verity T'Soni'." she says aloud. "Hm. Quite a ring to it."

"Oh no. You are not changing your name. You're Commander Shepard, first human Spectre, Hero of Eden Prime, Saviour of the Citadel, Champion of the Galaxy, you're not losing that."

"'Champion of the Galaxy'? When did I get that one?"

"Just now. For everything you've done. You're a champion for everyone in this galaxy."

"Who am I to argue with my public?"

Verity tosses Liara gently onto the bed.

"Woo!" Liara laughs.

"Well, 'Doctor Liara T'Soni', I'm getting a shower." she says as she pulls off her top, walking to the bathroom.

"Wait for me, 'Commander Verity Shepard'." Liara calls after her, now also undressing herself as she almost skips her way there, pausing only to impatiently remove her leggings.

Chapter Text

After a few weeks confined to the frigate, Ashley and Sha'li have been allocated accommodation aboard one of the regular craft. While the exact figure was not calculated, it was reckoned that the Lieutenant Commander was owed some leave so she is not issued with new orders just yet. It is late. Sha'li has already retired for the night and Ashley reads in the silence of their new, humble abode. The intercom buzzes and she goes to answer it.

"Oh. Admiral." she salutes in surprise upon opening the door.

"At ease, at ease." Admiral Hackett calms her, "Not too late?"

"No, of course not, sir. But errr... Sha'li's just gone to bed?"

"Oh... shall we walk and talk?"

"Of course, sir. There's the observation walkway just along here."

They walk beside the long observation windows, Ashley with her hands behind her back, head slightly down in deference to the Admiral's superior rank.

"Sorry, LC, but it seems the asari want this to move fast."

"Sir?"

"Sha'li."

"What now?"

"They want to call a hearing to discuss her."

"They want to put her through a court case?!"

"A 'hearing', LC."

"They're always the same thing, anyway. Judgement given, backed by authority. What's this really about, sir?"

"LC?"

"Just doesn't fit right. Is it about these propaganda activists I've seen doing the rounds? Is that it?"

"I'm not sure we should read too much into that. You've looked after Sha'li, you evidently have the loving bond a mother and child need, what arguments are there against that?"

"I'm trying to stay positive for Sha'li but... off the record, I've lost a lot recently, sir. I mean, I'm coping but... it's hard."

"Anything I should know?"

"No. It's not important. Just letting you know where I am. Thanks for coming to let me know, sir."

"Of course. Come and see me tomorrow, we can discuss any developments or... if you just want to talk, that's fine."

"Thank you, sir. Really." she says, pleased that he was quite open with her. "Sir?"

"LC?"

"You've always been good to the Normandy and its crew, no matter what's been going on. You've been a real friend to us. I just wanted to say, we appreciate it. Sir."

"An Admiral can't be seen to be playing favourites, Commander." he says sternly.

"No, sir." Ashley concedes, thinking she has overstepped the mark and misread the Admiral, but then he leans in a little, speaks more softly with a wink.

"...but he can't be called out for looking after his best either."

"No, sir." she gently laughs, rubbing the back of her neck.

He looks out across the great void.

"I can understand why you turned me down all those years ago. A ship like the Normandy, the crew it carries, sometimes makes me wish I was a younger man."

"It's not all 'back to base for tea and medals', sir."

"No..." he nods in contemplation, "but there's life!"

"Roger that, sir!"

"Hm." he nods affirmatively then says with honesty, "Thank you, Ashley."

"Oh. Thank you, sir?"

"Hm." he nods again, then is on his way, marching purposefully towards his transport. A quick hand gesture as he approaches and his military escorts are into action opening the doors as he passes by them.

Liara pulls on her dress, the purple one with the red front, then harrumphs.

"How the hell did I used to walk in this thing?"

"Not got anything else?" Verity asks, buttoning up the dress blues Ashley had left behind. As always, Verity had her N7 patches with her and applied one immediately.

"Like I said, not clean."

Liara shuffles forwards and backwards a few times.

"Oh, sod it!" she says, then activates an omni-blade and commences picking the seams down the sides of her legs.

"Liara!"

"What? Just a little re-designing... there!"

She now paces with long strides, a flash of leg with every step.

"Right! What are you...? Oh come here..." she says, now attempting to button up the top collar button Verity was struggling with.

"Handy that Ash is about the same build as me."

"Stay still, Verity... this button's always awkward..."

"Oh..." Verity says, the disappointment evident in her voice.

"What?"

"You make it sound like you've done this often. With this particular uniform, I mean."

"Shepard..."

"Okay... Hm. This reminds me of when I had to 'hand myself in' to the authorities."

"I had to press your uniform three times because you wouldn't be careful!"

"You were just obsessing."

"I had to do something. I had no idea what might happen to you. I just wanted to keep busy. Done!"

"Okay then, we ready?"

"I think so."

They make their way to the atrium-like area where they are convening for the 'barbecue', in reality a basic burner usually used in survival conditions with a metal ventilation grill over the top. Seeing the other guests now, Verity realises she and Liara may have overdressed for this occasion, the rest in more casual wear. James wastes little time.

"Well hellooooo!" he shouts out in a 'posh' voice.

"Knock it off, James, at least some of us still have a sense of occasion."

"Hehe, you're not quite admiralty yet, Shepard!"

Liara walks up to him, gets quite close and gives his cheek a quick playful double slap, "Shut up, James." she says casually, then continues on without missing a beat.

Quite disarmed by Liara at the best of times, James tries to continue.

"Yea! So..." he peters out, then dangerously he attempts under his breath, "nice dress..."

"What?" Liara glares.

"Nothing... nothing..."

"Bit 'llleggy' today, Liara?" Samantha says.

"Stupid dress was too tight around the legs, I couldn't walk! So I did a little snipping."

"Looks good. You've got good pins."

"Good what?"

"Pins. Legs. Never mind. I grew up on colloquialisms."

"Is that in the slang system?" James interjects, laughing at his own joke.

"James... is it possible to have a normal conversation?" Samantha says.

He holds up his hands in submission, "Sorry... just trying to have a little fun."

"Why 'pins'?" Liara asks.

"'cause they're the long thin bit? I dunno. Never thought about it."

"Oh. We should find out really."

"We should?"

"Well, if these things don't get documented they can be lost forever."

"I suppose..." Samantha looks oddly at her, a little unsure of this sudden desire to find the root of some random metaphor.

"Referencing." EDI announces. "Pins. Rhyming slang, London, Earth, most prevalent nineteenth and twentieth century. Full phrase, 'Pin Pegs'."

"Mystery solved!" Samantha happily declares.

"Hm." Liara seems less impressed.

"So this is the kind of thing you'd been amassing as the Shadow Broker?" Samantha facetiously asks.

"No!" Liara protests, "I was just wondering."

"Ha! That would have been disappointing for Cerberus if they'd got into your info banks. The Illusive Man all like, 'What intel have we got?' and the reply coming in, 'Krogan have fifty words for sand'. Ha! And he's all like, 'That's it?'..."

She laughs at her own little tableau and receives a similar 'odd' look back from Liara.

"Drink?"

"Rear Admiral Thenosis, you were commanding the Disciple during the battle of Sol." the asari representative asks of her in the hearing room.

"That's correct. At the time I was the rank of Captain."

"What were your orders?"

"Well, rendezvous with asari forces to join up with the combined fleet and assist how we could with the assault on Earth. Well, the Reapers at Earth rather."

"Were you a military vessel?"

"We were under the banner of Thessia and it was all hands on deck for the assault. Prior to our deployment into the combined fleet, we were running humanitarian work. In fact, we were ferrying refugees from the Citadel - children, orphans - to Thessia just before... well Thessia fell and the Citadel... well... moved! We had nowhere to take them."

"So they were aboard during the assault?"

"Not how I would have designed it but yes."

"Do you recall any of the children?"

"Some, yea. There was a lot, to be honest."

"Do you remember, specifically, Miss Cha'se?"

"Sha'li? Oh yea!"

"Please recount."

"Well, she'd been quite... awkward. Wouldn't settle down, I mean they were all pretty restless in the circumstance but Sha'li... I dunno. Once the fleet was re-grouping after deploying Hammer, my XO, Xa'an, had brought her up to the CIC during the lull, you know, she seemed to calm a little up there."

Looking around at the flashing lights and confusing panels reminds Sha'li of the Normandy, of Ashley. The holographic display shows all manner of craft zipping by.

"Goddess!" Xa'an shouts out when Sha'li squeals loudly and piercingly.

"What's up with her now?" Captain Thenosis says, then tracks Sha'li's pointing finger to the display.

Sha'li instantly recognised a particular ship, even just from the shadow painted, now bouncing in the asari officer's arms.

"Mummy! Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!" she continually shouts with every bounce as she points.

"She thinks her mom's on one of those ships? But aren't these all... didn't they all lose their..." the captain says, trying not to spell it out in front of the child.

"She's probably just confused. I'll take her back down." the officer says, then places her on the floor and tries to hold her hand. Sha'li refuses the hand and bawls terribly. Full mucus mode, but genuine distress, resisting Xa'an's attempts to pick her up again.

"Mummy!" she wails, as she points again at the display then a terrible look at the captain.

"Woah! If looks could kill!" Xa'an laughs.

"She's pretty determined... What's the ship?"

"Errr... oh! The Normandy, ma'am."

"Normandy!" Sha'li squeals.

"Shepard's ship?"

"Yes, ma'am. I believe they're just rejoining the fleet now."

"Hm. See if you can raise them."

"Ma'am?"

"If her mother is aboard that ship, I want to know. Where'd you rather be in a situation like this, Xa'an? With strangers? Or with your family?"

"Of course, ma'am. I'll attempt to raise them now."

After a few attempts, a voice crackles over the speakers.

"This is Lieutenant Commander Williams, acting commander of the Normandy SR-2. We're all pretty busy over here, can we... help you in some way?"

Sha'li's face lights up.

"My apologies, Commander. This is Captain Thenosis of the asari vessel Disciple. I'm aware I'm not using the usual channels. We have a little girl here who seems certain her mother is aboard your ship. Can you shed any...?"

"Mother? Hm. Not sure..." Ashley initially puzzles.

"Ashey! Ashey! Ashey!" Sha'li gleefully shouts out.

"Oh!" Ashley now says, as though she didn't understand the first time, "Do you have little Sha'li there? Is she being a nuisance?"

"Well, not per se. But you know the girl?"

"Oh yes."

"Do you want to...? I mean, it's not ideal but we have time to transfer before the next push."

"We'd love to have Sha'li back aboard!"

"Right then, I'm sending our rendezvous co-ordinates. Use this channel to co-ordinate."

"We have a shuttle. Better than us two floating prone for any length of time."

"And that was that really." Thenosis says, having completed her version of events.

"So the Lieutenant Commander deceived?"

"What?" the Rear Admiral says.

"For you to be happy to transfer the child, the Commander alluded that her mother was aboard."

"I have the audio logs. At no point did Williams suggest she was the child's mother or that her mother was aboard."

"Semantics, Rear Admiral." the representative dismisses.

"Facts, representative." the Rear Admiral asserts.

"I beg your pardon?"

"The Commander did not state she was the child's mother. Anything else is inferred. Mother or not, the child was happy to hear Williams, as was Williams happy to hear about the child. Nothing seemed out of place. It wasn't like I was handing her over to a complete stranger, not to Sha'li at least. I still believe I was doing the right thing."

"Thank you, Rear Admiral, that will be all."

"Hm." she nods, then returns to the gallery.

"Miss Cha'se." the representative now turns to Sha'li.

"Williams." Sha'li corrects her.

"What?"

"My name. It's Sha'li Williams."

"Oh. Alright then." the representative gives a patronising raised-brow look towards the chairperson, then corrects herself, "Miss 'Williams'. What sort of education have you received? What have you been learning? Are you aware, for example, of your asari heritage?"

"Oh yes, me and Liara used to talk a lot about the asari."

"For the record, Miss Cha'se... I mean, 'Miss Williams', is referring to Doctor Liara T'Soni, the eminent Serrice University archaeologist and member of Commander Shepard's Normandy team."

"Yea!" Sha'li says, as though that was patently obvious anyway.

"Did you learn of the Goddess? Athame? And such like?"

"Yea, but... we had to update a lot of texts. I used to help Liara cataloguing her papers once we powered down Glyph to save energy. Glyph was her VI."

"Oh? And what were you updating?"

"You know, how the Protheans uplifted the asari, like they did with the rachni, or the salarians did with the krogan, that kind of thing."

Ashley brings her fingers up to her nose and sighs as laughter ripples through the gallery.

"Really, Miss Williams, if we can keep this in the realms of reality..." the representative patronises.

Sha'li stands, a terrible angry look on her face.

"It's true! None of us is a special race, better or different than another, we're just a big soup of people trying to get on. Mum looked after me when my real parents were killed, killed by the real enemy, who are still out there while you're all bickering in here. And if anyone has anything else to say about my mum, I'll... I'll... I'll punch them on the nose!"

"Sha'li..." Ashley says quietly, disappointed that the hole in the ground she wished for didn't appear.

Sha'li sits and her head drops.

"Order! Order!" the asari chairperson shouts to quell the laughter and murmuring. "I think that's a good place to recess. We'll resume nine a.m. tomorrow. This session is closed."

The room empties as Sha'li and Ashley remain seated a while.

"Sorry, mum." Sha'li eventually says.

"No, that's okay. Thanks for defending me but... 'punch them on the nose'? I'm not sure specifically who I blame for that but I think we've all probably had a hand in it along the way..."

"Like when you punched that reporter!" Sha'li excitedly says, then throws a pretend punch complete with sound effects.

"You know that was wrong though?"

"I know... it was still cool though!"

"Still want to go to the temple while we're here?"

"We could have a look."

"Don't get too excited now..."

"Well... with what we know, what Javik said and what I've read in Liara's work, it all seems a bit silly now, doesn't it?"

"Hmm. Probably best if you keep that to yourself while we're there."

"Alright..." Sha'li smiles as she reluctantly agrees.

Chapter Text

“Liara? Samara? I need help.” Verity announces as she interrupts the two asari already in conversation in Samara's quarters.

“What is it, Verity? Are you okay?” Liara asks with concern.

“Oh, yea, fine. Sorry, was that a bit dramatic? Anyway...”

“How may we help, Verity?” Samara now smiles.

“My biotics.”

Liara and Samara glance at each other quizzically a moment, then back at Verity.

Samara probingly says, “Your biotics are more powerful possibly than anyone who has ever lived. What could we...?”

“Oh. No. Not that kind of thing, I mean...” Verity now sits to explain, “You two, when you use your biotics it's an extension of yourselves. It's part of every technique, every move, transition, leap, jump, fall, punch even! Everything! It's more like kung-fu to you or something. I want that level of 'one-ness' with my biotics.”

“Way of the Samurai, Shepard?” Samara teases knowingly.

“Asari such as Samara and I began learning at a very young age, Verity.” Liara sternly warns, “So yes, it is second-nature. You heard of the difficulties at Jump Zero from Kaidan.”

Verity laughs, “You're not going to beat me if I fail, are you?”

Liara's stern expression does not change.

“It's mentally draining and difficult to maintain a heightened biotic awareness. I'm just warning you in the hope that you'll take it seriously.”

Ashley has been summoned to discuss developments with Admiral Hackett. Sha'li is just sitting around the apartment reading when the intercom buzzes. She looks up from her pad, then around the room and tentatively answers.

“Hello?” she says, then sees the young, human face on the monitor.

“Errr... hey!” the smiling face says, “I'm Scott.”

“Oh. Hello. I'm Sha'li.”

“Yea... I know.”

“Oh?”

“We could discuss this all day on the monitor, or...”

“Oh. Sorry. Yes.”

Sha'li opens the door to see the gangly teenager.

“I'd heard you were here, so I thought I'd come along and say 'hi'.”

“Thank you. I have my books if I get bored.”

“Books? Wouldn't have had you down as a bookish sort.”

“No?”

“What? You've just come back from God knows where, fighting Reapers! All that stuff!”

“Hm.” Sha'li lets him think what he wants.

“My dad's an officer here.”

“My mum's-”

“Oh I know who your mom is. Lieutenant Commander Ashley Williams, second human Spectre, loyal member of Commander Shepard's famous, and sometimes infamous...” he adds a wink, “Normandy team.”

Sha'li hadn't really thought about her mother in that way. Commander Shepard, she was the one who draws the attention, receives the plaudits, gained the respect, but it seems her mother has made a name of her own among the fleet, with this boy at least. She is quite proud.

“Yea. Mum's alright.” she smiles.

“A few of us service kids hang out by the observation walkways after classes if you want to come along? We just watch the ships, shoot the breeze and whatever.”

“Umm. I'm not sure mum would want me wandering about the station without her.”

“You're not a baby, are you?”

“No!” Sha'li protests, “I... we just...”

“Well we hang out there most days after classes. Pop down some time. We've just been a bunch of humans 'til now, be nice to have an asari in the group...” he turns to leave but as he does so, turns his head back just slightly to say, “especially such a pretty one. See ya!”

“Umm... yes, 'bye?” she replies with a wide stare.

Sha'li is lost for words. She wanted to stop him, though to say what she's not sure but probably just to see if he had any more compliments if she's honest with herself. He seems okay, a bit awkward and over-excited but pleasant enough. Perhaps. Besides, everyone has to start somewhere.

“You been alright today?” Ashley asks Sha'li as she returns home.

“Yea. Just sat around and read, not much else to do.” she sighs, barefooted in her fatigues and vest.

“I am sorry, honey. This'll all be over soon.”

“Oh, I wasn't complaining, it's just...”

“Hm?”

“Well, I had a visitor today.”

“Really? Who was it?”

“It was just a boy, one of the other officers' sons.”

“A boy? Hmm.”

“Oh he just wanted to know if I wanted to hang out with him and his friends.”

“Really? Hm. Like a date?”

“Mum!”

“Anyway, this reminds me.”

“What?”

“You, me, shops, bra.”

“What?” Sha'li exclaims.

“I've been meaning to mention it and looking at you in your vest now, if you're going to hang out with boys you are wearing a bra.”

“Mum!”

“What? I was excited when I bought my first one.”

“Yea, but...”

“But what?”

“Asari don't usually wear them. You must have noticed with Liara.”

“Oh. Hm. I just thought she didn't wear one just, well, because she didn't want to. Some people are like that, free-spirited, if you know what I mean.”

“People like me?”

“No, not people like you. When you're older you can do what you like, but for now get your shoes on.”

“You're not going to embarrass me, are you?” Sha'li pleads, pulling on her boots.

“We'll see. Depends how much of a pain you are.”

“Can we get something to eat while we're out?”

“Sure. And something nice to wear if you want.”

“Thanks, mum.”

Shepard stands in the centre of the large practice range, her blue biotic aura swirling around her. She brings her fists up from her sides and the crate at her feet now joins the vortex to orbit her.

“Now...” Samara instructs, pacing the periphery of the range, “Invert the field.”

The crate drops with a clang, and Verity stares at Samara with annoyance.

“Invert the field?” she says and not without some sarcasm.

“Verity, if we wish to progress, your attitude-”

“Okay, okay. Sorry. I'm just not getting sufficient rest using your meditation techniques instead of actually sleeping. I dunno if humans are-”

“Verity.” Samara interrupts, “I have not 'slept' in centuries and am always ready and alert. I do not think that it is your human genes that prevent the same for you. It is that you are wilfully obtuse.”

“That's a bit harsh, isn't it?!” Verity objects, “I'm busting my ass here. I'm ready to drop from all the exertion and lack of a good night's sleep, cut me some slack! Now...”

Verity composes herself and retakes her stance.

“Invert the field, you said. So what are we doing?”

“Hm.” Samara allows their session to continue, “When you take the crate up, you naturally wish to be the centre of the force. Try to remember that we are essentially manipulating gravitational fields, so in order to create an outward force to launch the crate, you need to invert the field.”

“Hm.” Verity nods. “I think I see.”

She begins to glow blue again, taking up the crate in the biotic field. Verity huffs and puffs as she exerts her will on the forces, then the crate flings across the range, though she may as well have just tossed it with her own hands for all the force it created.

“Excellent!” Samara encourages, “Knowing the technique is always the first step, time is the only obstacle to mastery. I recommend-”

Verity ignores Samara and turns her back, tensing her body, fists at her sides, her biotic aura swirling with greater violence than before. The crate returns to the vortex, sucked in from a longer distance, spinning its own axis as it orbits her. With a mighty war cry, Verity pushes out her fists while enacting her new skill and flings the crate across the range with massive velocity, causing a huge clang as the crate is now flattened against the wall. Her cheeks still red from the exertion, Verity looks to Samara with feral eyes, then closes them to let out the air from her lungs.

“Goddess...” Samara exclaims, “To master the technique to that ability would normally take centuries!”

“Well...” Verity begins, still breathing hard, “It seemed to make sense to give some extra 'oopmh' at the end. Forces in both directions and all that.”

“Your knowledge and probably more importantly, your understanding of mass effect fields and biotics is becoming...” Samara trails off.

“Becoming what?”

“I do not know.” Samara says with annoyance, seemingly more with herself, “I do not wish to use the terms of deity.”

Verity laughs.

“Nah, Liara'll always be the biotic goddess. Anyway, with what the Leviathan said, who's to say I'm even human?”

Sha'li wanders along side the large observation windows, looking for the group of service children. She's not sure how she feels about the new clothing item her mother insisted upon. They used to just be there, small, free and unnoticed; now they feel like they're being thrust out at the world. It didn't look particularly noticeable when she had checked herself in the mirror before leaving but she wears a substantial jacket just in case.

Reaching the end of the walkway, there is a sunken communal area with seats and foliage. She sees Scott and a few others youths sitting around so makes her way down the shallow steps to greet them.

“Oh hi!” Scott greets cordially upon seeing her, then to his friends, “This is the asari girl I was saying about.”

“Charlie, did you say her name is?”

“It's Sha'li.” she says, unsure if the mistake is genuine or a slight.

“Sha'li, Charlie, what's the diff, eh?”

“Hmm.” Sha'li frowns.

“So, Charlie,” the boy continues, “you've just returned from the back of beyond, eh?

“We were on Therum, in the Knossos System.”

“Knossos System?” Scott now queries, “But that's the other side of the galaxy!”

“There wasn't much to do really in that Prothean bunker.”

“Prothean bunker? Believe me, that sounds a lot more exciting than the last few years we've spent looking out of these windows.”

“Scott said your mom's some kind of war hero.”

“Oh. Yea. She helped with the fight against the Reapers before... well, before all this.”

“Don't worry, these guys are dumb.” Scott says as he receives bewildered looks from his friends, “They don't appreciate what happened back then. Me? There's little I don't know about the war with the Reapers. So I heard that you were actually aboard the Normandy SR-2 in the Battle for Sol?”

“Yea. I was only young, I don't really remember much about it.”

“Still. That's something to tell the grandkids, eh?”

“I'm not thinking that far ahead!” Sha'li blurts out, then feels foolish for doing so, “But yea, it's kind of cool.”

“How come your mom's human? I didn't think it worked like that.” another boy asks.

“Oh, I'm adopted. Mum looked after me when... well the Reapers happened and my real mum, I mean... mother... I... sorry.” Sha'li doesn't finish, turns and walks quickly away.

“Sha'li!” Scott calls after her and she reluctantly stops, turning back to him stiffly, “I'm sorry, really. I didn't mean to make you talk about all that stuff. And I'll even tell the guys to lay off the 'Charlie' stuff.”

Sha'li smirks a little, “I don't mind Charlie so much. Isn't it a boy's name though?”

“Well it can be short for Charlotte too. That's a girl's name!” he offers hopefully.

“Hm. I'm sorry too. It wasn't your fault. Mum's looked after me really well since all that happened and sometimes I forget that I miss my parents so much when things are just like, trundling along. Talking just then, I don't know, it just crept up on me.”

“Yea, I can't imagine what you've been doing is like. Sounds amazing flying around the galaxy but yea, maybe it's not all heroic battles.”

“It's not,” Sha'li says with a sad but angry look, “It's horrible. It makes people do horrible things too.”

“Sorry.” he replies, unsure what he could say to help but aware that what she has seen would no doubt terrify him beyond what he can know.

“Yea... But the good bits are good.” Sha'li tries to be more positive for him, “One time, I saw mum pop three Husks' heads with one shot!”

“No way!”

“She did! I saw it!” she protests, then squints a little at him and teases, “Are you calling me a liar?”

“Do I look like the kind of guy who'd try to make an asari commando mad?” Scott holds up his hands in submission.

“I'm not a-” she stops herself then says with pride, “I got to fire a pistol practising in the hangar bay sometimes when we'd had a close call and mum was on one of her drills and safety procedure freak outs.”

“Handy with a pistol too, eh? You're a bit badass on the sly, aren't you, Charlie?”

She swings her arm up to 'accidentally' brush his arm with a finger and says with a smile, “You can call me Sha'li, Scott.”

“Okay, Sha'li.” he beams.

“I'm heading home anyway.” she turns with a smile.

“Okay! See you soon!” he exclaims, though disappointed.

The boy smiles inanely and watches Sha'li casually walk away.

“Hey!” Ashley greets her from the couch as she returns home.

“Hi.” Sha'li replies, her voice a little down.

“What's up?”

“Nothing, I just went to see Scott at the obs walkway.”

“Oh?” Ashley sits up, “Were his friends there?”

“Yea, they just wanted to know about Therum and all that really. Mum?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Is it bad that sometimes it doesn't hurt as much about mother and Mo any more?”

“Oh, honey, what do you mean?” Ashley asks with concern.

“Well now we're a family and it all seems so long ago, like another world, it almost doesn't feel real sometimes. But then-” Sha'li stops.

“What is it?”

“Sometimes I remember them and what it was like and I feel really sad and then I feel bad about you because you've always been good to me and I wouldn't want to change that but that'd mean we wouldn't be together if they hadn't died but I didn't want them to die...” Sha'li's tears fall and Ashley stands to hug her.

“Oh, Li! It's okay, honey, really.” Ashley comforts, “It's fine to have these feelings, and like you say it was all a long time ago so you know, we all have to move on. Don't feel guilty about any of this, none of it's your fault and what you're feeling is perfectly natural.”

Sha'li pulls out of the hug to wipe her tears and Ashley looks at her near young woman.

“Thanks, mum.” she says with an embarrassed smile.

“Any time, honey.” Ashley says as she wipes Sha'li's face herself with a finger to brush off the last of the tears, then folds her arms and enters a more officious mode, “Now. This 'Scott'. What's he want then?”

“He doesn't want anything, mum! Ugh, not everywhere is like the Normandy, you know!” Sha'li storms off to her room.

“What's that supposed to mean?!” Ashley shouts after her.

Chapter Text

“Where's mum and what have you done with her?” Sha'li asks.

“It's called a skirt, honey.” Ashley replies as she applies a modest amount of make-up in the mirror of their small apartment, dressed in a navy blue pencil skirt and matching jacket.

“Are you going out?”

“Yup. Today's Sunday and I've heard there's a chapel near the distribution centre.”

“Like a temple?”

“Yea, kinda.”

“Do I have to come?” Sha'li's brow furrows.

“Oh. Do you want to?”

Sha'li squirms. She doesn't want to disappoint her mum and Ashley seems enthusiastic about the whole affair. “If you want me to...” she attempts to reply without replying.

“Well if a Christian upbringing was good enough for me, then it's good enough for my daughter.”

“Oh! Well...” Sha'li stalls. Having had the religion of her own species destroyed in a moment has given her a more sceptical view of the supernatural as a whole, never mind religions so specific in their doctrine.

“I'm only pulling your leg. You don't have to come to church if you don't want to.”

“It's not that I have a problem with it!” Sha'li feels compelled to defend herself.

“I know, honey. Don't worry.” Ashley gives herself an affirmative nod in the mirror then turns her attention to Sha'li, “I suppose you'll be off to see the gang then, eh?”

“I might wander up that way.” Sha'li attempts to seem indifferent.

Ashley just smiles. As the eldest of three sisters, she knows these looks and games, and just allows it without provoking.

“Do yourself a favour, James. Stay down.” Verity winks at him as he lays on the floor of the range, holding his gut.

“Hellooo!” Liara says, stepping out with a smug grin from behind a crate, her pistol's barrel close and pointed right at Shepard's head.

All the training with Samara and Liara, Verity's senses and reactions have heightened greatly, assisted by her genes. She slaps the pistol away with ease before Liara can even react, then moves in to grab her face with a hand to give the surprised asari a cheeky kiss.

“Nice try, T'Soni.” Verity smiles, before tossing her high into the air but knowing Liara is well capable of cushioning the fall with her biotics. Indeed, a blue aura forms around the asari and she lands softly with a frown on her face.

Verity takes a low stance, listening, scanning, assessing. She hears a faint click. For most, even if given this advanced warning, it is too late already but Verity turns to the source of the distant sound with her hands held forward, the movement barely visible except for a blur. To the rest of the squad watching this mass 'spar', the sniper round turns into a harmless spray before it can reach Verity, then the Commander biotically charges forward to where she heard the source of the shot and the crates forming Garrus' nest are dispersed by the force, leaving him exposed and still crouched.

“Ahhh... Hi!” he nods.

Verity returns the nod to Garrus, who in turn attempts a close sucker shot but his rifle is already incapacitated.

“Well you're no fun any more.” Garrus says.

“Bang.” Verity says with a pointing finger and the turian concedes defeat with raised arms as he stands, then she zips back to the centre of the range and looks to Samara to shout, “How am I doing?”

“Overly confident!” Samara calls back with an impatient, admonishing frown.

“Time out! Time out!” Verity calls out to her opponents, making a 'T' shape with her hands, then walks to Samara.

“What do you mean, 'overly confident'?”

“You are more concerned with impressing your friends and making light. This is a training session, not playtime!”

“It's only like sparring...” Verity defends.

“Training forms muscle memory. If every training session requires a quip or facetious action, this will impair reaction time when it does matter. I ask that you treat this as real.”

“I can't. Not like this.”

“We're not incapable, Verity.” Liara now joins the conversation. “We can all take a few bumps and bruises.”

“I don't know if I can stop there though.”

“How so?” Samara asks.

“We don't know what the limitations are. If I go full throttle, battle-mode, I've no idea what that kind of unconstrained power might do!”

“Regardless, you are all making light of this serious matter. Liara, you should have fired, not flirted. James, taking Verity on in hand-to-hand combat is ridiculous and counter-productive to the session; your pride in your physical prowess is a flaw and misguided.”

James holds his hands out in protestation.

Temperance. Not one of Verity's strongest qualities but she's feeling more and more now that she needs it. Previously in battle, she gave it all the energy she could, maximising forces at all times, known quantities and limits. Now, she doesn't know the limits.

As Ashley turns the corner, she surprises herself a little with her own feelings when she sees the crucifix adorning the mantel above the large open doors. It's been a while. She tentatively approaches as other worshippers are making their way into the communal hall. Though it feels irreverent, it doesn't stop Ashley from politely pushing her way through the crowd when she hears a familiar musical introduction coming from an organ within. The opening phrase of her favourite hymn. Now into the hall, chairs have been set into pews in front of an altar, and again, Ashley “excuse me”s her way to a seat. Just in time.

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before...

No hymn book required, with great gusto Ashley joins the faithful, with nods and smiles at the fellow human congregation as they sing, until the hymn ends with a great organ chord filling the hall, echoing long after it has ended.

“Let us pray.” a preacher at the altar begins, and the congregation take their kneeling positions. Pomp and circumstance, bells and smells, Ashley loves it all. A familiar session of call and response ensues as they read from a book of prayer, ending with the final 'Amen'. A figure in the garb of a priest makes his way out of a side door and to the pulpit, no doubt to give the sermon of the day.

“It's good to see so many faces today.” he begins with a broad smile, “So many human faces.”

While the opening gambit of the sermon was certainly odd to Ashley, the voice giving it is familiar. She can't just stand to leave, he'd see her. Without knowing what's going on here, she can't allow that. Ashley puts her head down as though in prayer or deep thought, deciding what she should do. It hadn't even occurred to her that the congregation would be purely human, it just seemed normal. Why would aliens come to a Christian church anyway? Though she has to think on that as a human who recently visited a temple to Athame with her adopted asari daughter. Normal. To some extent, in the moment, Ashley really is praying for guidance.

“So we all helped each other escape the Reapers. Woop-de-doo! There was no choice! Though I thank our fellow residents of our galaxy for their assistance.” his hand waves dismissively. “But now, once we are free to do so, we should return to our own sectors. There is no need for a galactic social experiment, to force together those who would have animosity for each other. It could all so easily be avoided but mark my words, there will be rivers of blood!” he affirms with a finger pointed upwards and look of determination.

His rhetoric continues on, some of the oldest, vitriolic arguments in humanity; flawed arguments but fuel for those who wish to listen, to re-enforce. 'Preaching to the converted' would be amusing to Ashley in the circumstance if this wasn't potentially so serious. She has to ponder whether Cerberus still operates. It sickens her that what started out as a most pleasant day at church has taken this dark turn, and that Ramsay is using faith to turn people to his way via their fears and their God. Keeping her head down until the service has ended, Ashley uses the crowds to make an anonymous exit.

“Everyone involved in the Battle of Sol was pardoned. Ramsay's free to give whatever sermon he wants.” Hackett explains to Ashley as she raises her concerns with him in his office.

“What?!”

“I know.” he agrees with resignation.

“What were they thinking?! No checks and balances whatsoever?! How did he even get involved?”

“Records state he was on comms for one of the Blue Suns' ships. All the merc groups involved were given blanket pardons, and in turn, so was Ramsay.”

“Everyone does know who he is, right? I mean, he wasn't just some trips dealer or something.”

“I'll meet with Councillor Blake. If anyone's got the inside story, she will.”

“With all due respect, Admiral, that doesn't fill me with confidence.”

“I'll let you know what I find out.” he ignores her protestation. “Dismissed, LC.”

“Sir.” she salutes then leaves.

“Lieutenant Commander Williams, a word if I may.” an officer approaches her as she leaves the office.

“Yes, Lieutenant?”

“I must speak with you about your asari.” Lieutenant Hughes says with a half-veiled sneer.

“You mean my daughter.” Ashley responds, her hackles already up by his evidently well chosen words.

“Quite.” he responds patronisingly. “Your asari-”

“Sha'li.”

“What?”

“My daughter's name is Sha'li.” Ashley informs him, with short purposeful syllables.

“Well, Chaaa Leeeeeee...” he says as awkwardly as he can, as though the words so alien he is unable to do so easily with his human mouth, “is spending an inordinate amount of time with my son.”

“Oh. You're Scott's dad?”

“Scott is fourteen years old. How old is your asari?”

“Well, Sha'li's thirty-eight but the asari mature-”

“Thirty-eight!” he flusters, “She's old enough to be his mother!”

“What?” Ashley can hardly believe her ears and attempts again, “The asari mature-”

“I forbid your asari from spending any time with my son.” and he leaves without a further word, leaving Ashley open mouthed and dumbfounded.

The asari physiology and maturing cycles are not new information. It would take a purposeful mind to de-evolve all that had been learned and achieved before the fleet was forced into the night.