DISCLAIMER: Bioware owns the concept of Mass Effect and all of its characters. This fanfic is for entertainment and no profit what-so-ever.
AUTHORS NOTES: It seemed that Shepard would have been a bit more banged up than seen at the epilogue of the Paragon: saving the Council ending. I drew out the drama a bit more. Inspired by the Sam-bashing in SG1 episodes this pays homage to that as well.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Rising From the Ashes
By Elizabeth Carter


Chapter 12
Nothing Like It

"The bodies of the mercs have been removed from the alleyway to the municipal morgue. Closer examination revealed no further markings as to where they came from. It tells me they are professionally linked with something like the Cerberus mercenaries that killed Admiral Kahoku. But there are several merc-gangs following the same rule, the Syndicate for example." Shepard said addressing her senior staff, which consisted primarily of the 'golden' squad but also included Chief Engineer Adams and Captain Kirrahe and Shiala who happened to serve not only as Shepard and Liara's mentor as well a Prothean-technical consultant but as Victory's CAG or Captain of the Air Group.

"But I thought we neutralized them." Tali commented a little puzzled.

"The three main heads yes but that doesn't mean one of their little agents didn't slip away and are now attempting to reestablish a foothold." Williams answered.

"In the course of our mission to stop Saren, we have made several enemies that would want retribution. Administrator Anoleis is a prime example of a grudge holder. Certain members of ExoGeni would be another and certainly Cerberus as well as a few others who have an objection to justice interfering with their illegal and nefarious dealings," Liara said. "Not to mention - and forgive me for saying this - there were several bigoted members of the Terra Firma political party that frowned on interspecies relationships. They would think it a service to humanity to assassinate the human Spectre whom they believe is a race traitor." For a moment no one said a word. Liara's comment settled heavily on the minds gathered.

"What about the Shadow Broker? He wasn't happy that you turned him down to share the Intel on Cerberus." Garrus said. "The agent did say they would remember that the next time you wanted something from them."

"No. I doubt it. Technically the deal died with Admiral Kahoku. As far as remembering my reluctance to pass that information, I believe it will cost a lot of credits and possibly a great deal of Intel on a particular subject if I need something from them. The Shadow Broker might have been pissed about my decision but he or she respects integrity," Shepard said. She was in what had become her customary place leaning against the FTL comm system with her arms folded over her chest rather than in her seat. She looked at each face in turn gauging their reactions and words unsaid.

"Perhaps it would be prudent to do a bit of peace-making with the Shadow Broker and find out who sent those mercenaries." Liara offered in her sage way.

"You mean grovel." Ashley snorted.

Shepard gave her XO a reproachful look. "Sometimes being humbled isn't a bad thing. Especially when you are caught in something that could quickly rise over your head and you no longer have a way out."

Williams cast her eyes to the floor. "Yes ma'am that's a good point," she mumbled.

"Right now I don't think going to the Shadow Broker is the priority nor is finding out who sent the mercenaries. We can't forget our true mission, the Reapers. The information we need is about them not some thick-headed dull stone wanting paybacks. However, I won't dismiss the importance of who sent the assassins. They sought us… me… out on Elysium they won't stop now. They will keep coming; however I'm not going to stop my mission because someone somewhere wants my blood."

"Shouldn't we be concerned how they learned about us being on Elysium?" Tali pushed the issue as far as she dared. "It's not like it was broadcast. Of course once you were groundside you created quite a stir, Captain. But… but no one knew we were going there. Councilor Anderson, the crew and Dr. Sanders did of course, but no one who would betray you. Right?"

Shepard gave another small look to Williams who still wouldn't look her CO in the eyes. "I have a theory on that but no proof and I will have to let it play out its course. Right now no one is to voice their speculations in public. That's spreading discordance and I won't have it on my ship. As you said my appearance on Elysium caused a stir and the news spread quickly. The mercs might have already been there on another job and decided to take the opportunity when it presented itself. We don't know they were there for me specifically. We only know they were there."

"With all due respect to the Shadow Broker's net of informants, my infiltration team is well trained in espionage and better suited for your needs. While I respect your decisions Captain, this hidden enemy could prove to be a greater threat if only because it serves as a distraction. We need to find out who put a bounty on you, Spectre." Captain Kirrahe spoke for the first time since the briefing had begun.

There was a heavy silence in the room that lasted several heartbeats.

"Do it. " Was all Shepard said and then added. "Report only to me what you've discovered. Make sure your STG team is extremely discreet. I say this here and now no one is to speak of this to anyone or of their speculations as who they might think is behind it. I don't want paranoia spreading like a case of the flu. That's an order people. Now we have other matters that need our primary attention." The Spectre turned to her head of sciences. "Dr. T'soni, have you found anything?"

Despite the fact they were married both Shepard and Liara reverted back into the more formal and professional relationship when in front of the crew. It reinforced the idea that this captain wasn't slip-shod or lax on protocols.

"Captain," Liara said after the long pause. "My team and I came up with several possibilities for gathering intelligence on the Reapers by following the lead of the Protheans. Whilst we feel Ilos should be our starting point there are other locations that need further investigation, including the Dis system where Sovereign was found."

Several voices rose at once and most in questions. In the excitement of informing her senior staff of the assassination attempt no one had spoken about what they had discovered from Dr. Sanders. It took several moments for Liara to explain but she had clearly and distinctly laid it all out.

During the debriefing the Spectre found her seat in-between her XO and her wife, and sat back with her eyes closed listening rather intently and a bit indulgently to her wife's lyrically soft voice. She enjoyed listening to Liara speak even if it was what Shepard dubbed as techno-babble.

Liara had gone on to list the various places where there were significant finds of Prothean ruins according to the data her team had compiled.

First on her list was a small rocky ice-planet known as Klencoy in the Knossus System of the Artemis Tau Cluster. Jahleed, one of their four volus scientists, had told them of his uncle Kumum Shol apparently a billionaire of some eccentricities who had bought Klencoy after he had apparently had visions of a higher being telling him to seek out the 'Lost crypts of the Beings of Light'. The entities were supposedly created at the time of the dawn of time to protect organic life from synthetic 'machine devils'

Unfortunately the planet was unsuitable for any non-volus for long because of its very low gravity and chlorine and argon atmosphere. Still it was well worth a shot to investigate because 'machine devils' sounded an awful lot like Reapers. Beings of Light might be the Protheans or a civilization pre-dating them, considering the Thorian predated the Protheans.

Secondly, there was Quana in the Attican Beta cluster which was in the same system as Faros, Liara was eager to re-investigate its still intact necropolises which had the distinct possibility of containing still hidden secrets that could only be revealed by someone who held the cipher.

There was also Junthor in the Gagary System of the Armstrong Cluster. Here there were ruins of a technical civilization near the equator - apparently a colony of an ancient space faring race. The ruins had subsided to almost nothing, merely wind-hollowed husks of megastructures. However in the center of the ruins was a column with inscriptions that had defied translation for centuries until asari linguists finally managed to elaborate on the relief. In her search for a science crew Liara had drafted a linguist who had actually been on the site when it had been translated.

"The 'official' inscription, if you like translated as 'Walk among these works and know our greatness'; however on the reverse side of the column in a more crude and shaky hand there was another inscription: 'Beware the monsters of Id'. There were also pictograms of what looked like a great dragon." The skull had a striking similarity to one the crew had found on a previous Spectre mission. The question was: were the 'monsters of Id' these dragons or were they the Reapers?

On top of that there was Zaherux, a planet the intrepid crew of the Normandy had found in the Grissom system when they were hunting the Geth incursion in the Armstrong Nebula. The theory was that the reason for the numerous unmanned satellites and probes to have gone missing was that the entire planet was composed of dormant nanotechnology. Scans would misread nanotechnology for fine silica dust. The tiny robots would awaken to defend themselves against invasion and go back into hibernation. This technology was apparently more advanced than the Protheans. Shepard might have completely dismissed this as extranet hooey if not for the fact the theory was published by the asari sensationalistic author Delsae Drthysa.

There was Solcrum which had been the source of a number of geth transmissions and thanks to Tali's ingenious decryption software they had managed to decode those transmissions. The planet had gone quiet since the fall of Sovereign but it was worth a second look.

And apparently Ontaheter in the Colombia System in the Voyager Cluster had a crashed Prothean ship in its core which would explain its unusually high mass. This was still being debated however because of careful mapping done by several scientific groups had revealed the core was normal.

And of course there were the Prothean pyramids dotting several systems, the orb on Eletania which had unlocked with the key from the Consort and the identical platform with its orb missing on Antibaar.

"Klencory, Quana, Jartar, Junthor and Ilos," Shepard said. "These are the five primary planets we need to investigate and bear the heavier importance. As far as the others are concerned I would like to return to both Eletania and Antibaar but for the moment I want our full concentration on the primary five. I believe Ilos should be first. Expect heavy opposition from mercs, pirates, batarians and any number of thugs, we are after all going into the Terminus Systems. Our slipping in could be seen as an act of war, which is why we will be cloaked most of the time. We will need to move as shadow operatives, stay clear of places like Omega Station. Once we're on Ilos, I want two full ground teams on the picket and a sky patrol. We have a squad of turian vipers and raptors, I want to use them. Ilos will be a good test for them. I have no doubt there will be geth still there."

"My squad will be ready, Captain." Shiala said smartly. "Anti-synthetic armaments will be installed on both the gunships and the fighters.

Shepard nodded approvingly. "Liara pick your teams accordingly. Last time we were there we didn't have a full chance to look around now's our chance. Each team of scientists will have a six-person strike-team with them. Williams - as XO this is now your division. I want at least one tech, one sharpshooter, and a couple of tanks as well as guerrilla fighters to round it all out in each of the guarding squads. Those in the M36-makos will do the heavy patrol. The M35s will remains on patrol with the science teams to form a better defense. I'll be taking one of the M36 makos. Tali you, Wrex and Garrus will be with me and I haven't decided on who will fill the other two chairs. Captain Kirrahe your STG unit will be on a scouting patrol and report back to Lieutenant Williams at hourly intervals.

"I will want a seven day window…" she held her hand up feeling a protest building up in Liara. "Look I know it's not a great deal of time, but I will remind you we are going into hostile territory behind enemy lines. I don't believe I have to explain further. I'm sorry Dr. T'soni" again the formal use of title rather than the personal reminded everyone of their stations. Not even the captain's beloved wife was exempt from regulations. "This isn't going to be sniper's work your team of scientists will have to hit this like an assault rifle." She looked at each face. "If there are no further questions go and debrief your departments. Dismissed."

As one organism the occupants of the room rose and started to file out of the door one by one. The others had been growing aware of the mounting tension building up within the captain and her relationship with not only Liara but with Williams as well. Now was the time to make one's self scarce because somewhere in the gut it said: this isn't going to be pretty.

Williams had been telling the truth when she bared her soul to Shepard all those months ago. Words that now haunted her more and more as each hour turned into a day that passed.

'Skipper, I spent my whole life trying to get what I wanted. To get it done I had to bury a lot of things. During that whole time not even once did I feel I was worth what I was fighting for. You make me feel good enough.' The truth was Shepard had made her feel good enough, that she was worth something, worth what she was fighting for.

The words that haunted more than her own were those of Samantha Shepard - they became a soul-wrenching echo. 'You are one of the most remarkable people I've ever met. I meant what I said before. If I need an opinion from the heart I go to you. You keep me grounded, human. I love Liara - she is my soul mate and we will have a life together. But you, Ashley Williams are my closest friend.'

Ash took a good hard look at her quarters. More like a closet really but still they were hers and they were private. On her computer desk were pictures of her family she carried with her all the time. There was one with her and her father both in uniform, another of her granddad in his own uniform hugging a six year old Ashley who happened to be wearing the old general's cap. And another of Ash and Shepard in their mess dress uniforms at the Spectre's wedding reception. It had been a candid shot taken by Liara. But in it the two were arm in arm laughing over a private joke. Anther picture showed Ashley getting her Lieutenant's bars from Shepard who was beaming with pride to be the one that had promoted her. Her first official act had been to promote Ashley to a full commissioned officer.

"I've destroyed everything." Williams murmured to the pictures her eyes unable to meet those of the blue eyes in the photo of the woman she had come to idolize, love even. "I betrayed your trust Skipper. I've betrayed everything between us… nothing can go back the way it was. Not now. Not ever…"

Another scornful look at the computer or more specifically the OSD lying besides it. That infernal message… the thoughts, the act itself… all of it… there was only one thing for it. It was time to face the wrath of the Spectre; Williams owed that to the woman who once called her her closest friend at the very least.

"I have to make it right. Whatever the cost I have to make it right."

"The plan failed because you underestimated her." The reverberated voice said to the one who called himself Lieutenant Christian Meier. "You won't be able to get that close to her again."

Meier sat alone in his VIP quarters aft of the Cord-Hislop Aeorospace starship. "I won't have to. We have other agents who can get close. I'm not out yet. This Spectre has greater enemies than you sir." The last words were a hiss of contempt at having to at least make a show of respect to a man to Meier felt deserved none.

"I'm well aware of Cerberus' thoughts on the woman." The voice growled. "She was instrumental in shutting down several facilities and imprisoning several wills of the aliens. She is at their beck and call and turned from humanity. This is a sin unforgivable. But more unforgivable is the sin of being a race traitor by accepting a union with the space-whores. It is one of the reasons we agreed to end that wench's miserable life."

There were those who would call what Cerberus did criminal. Unethical. Amoral. But the Illusive Man was right; history would vindicate them all, but until it did Cerberus were forced to live in hiding, working towards their goal in secret.

"Speaking of miserable lives what of your informant on her ship any more news? It was a close call on Elysium and shorter notice that she was even going to be there at all. Your informant isn't that reliable, but you can never trust a traitor can you? If they are willing to betray their CO, they would easily turn again. If it hadn't been for our agent on Grissom Station we might have missed our chance."

"Might have been better if you had. Now the Spectre is aware of being hunted, her protective nature over that… that… concubine of hers will be ten-fold now."

"We have our methods, renege on the deal you made with Cerberus and you will find out how effective those can be." He cut the communications off before his client could utter another word. He needed time to relax after the close encounter with the Spectre. She was quick he'd give her that. Saw right through the ruse. If it wasn't for that bloody-babbling idiot of a lance-constable it might have gone far differently. At least his meddling gave Meier time to slip away.

The room he was in bore no resemblance to the simple often crowded sleeping-rooms of long-distance masstransit shuttles. Now he had at his disposal a luxurious bed, state-of-the-art vid screen, private shower and hot tub, full wet bar, and just about every other conceivable amenity, comparable to the most opulent suites in high-end hotels, including an on-site-call-girl.

The look in the Spectre's blue eyes had been terrifying Meier was loath to admit. He hated himself for feeling such weakness in the presence of a race-traitor. It was as if beyond the blue eyes there were flames of rage burning beyond red into white heat. He had to calm down.

He opened a baggie and carefully poured out a small pile of fine dust. Enough to take off the edge that was all. Just to take the edge off. Besides he deserved to have a moment of peace. He sealed the plastic bag, tossing it on the tabletop. He then took the blade from the antique cut-throat razor and with the edge he divided the pile of red sand into two long, thin lines. Plugging one nostril he bent down and inhaled first one line, switched one side of his nose for the other and repeated the move.

He wouldn't have to wait long for the drug to enter his system. In a matter of seconds the world blurred into a haze of red mist. He no longer felt the waves of terror the Spectre had filled his veins with. Red Sand - there was nothing like it.

Shepard leaned on her elbows staring at the computer monitor. Five planets, just like before in the war with Sovereign. Five planets each one crucial to the quest, how ironic most of them were graves, crypts, necropolises, lands of the dead and gone. "Look to the dead to save the living," she whispered to the empty room.

Klencory, Quana, Jartar, Junthor and Ilos. Or rather Ilos, Klencory, Quana, Jartar, Junthor: Lost city of the Protheans, Crypts of the Beings of Light, Prothean Necropolis, Sovereign's hibernation spot and the ruins that warned of the Monsters of Id.

Monsters. It seemed they were always chasing after monsters. If not monsters of the enemy, monsters of rumor speculation and discord. There was a traitor on board, the Spectre was sure of it. But who? Ashley lied to her, Liara was keeping something from her, Joker was brooding and sulking over his lack of control over the comm-systems. But these in and of themselves were not acts of betrayal or treason. Perhaps one of the new crew members had slipped in as a mole - a sleeper agent. How deep did the treachery run? How thin had the list of allies become that they were now turning to… to… what? Blood money? Petty revenge? Politics? … a mixture of all three probably. Why did everything have to come down to politics? By the Goddess Shepard hated politics. Politics always bred deceit, war and idiocy. On the other hand politics made the military necessary. Made being a Spectre necessary. Without politics, Shepard wouldn't have a career and without her career Captain Samantha Shepard first human Spectre knew she would never have met her beloved sweet Liara. Liara who she would protect until her dying breath.

Shepard closed her eyes and saw the flashes of death, war, destruction, the wrath of the Reapers coming down upon the Protheans. These were the images that haunted her nightmares. The cries never left the back of her mind. Flesh being torn open, worlds burning…dying… obliterated. The words, the terror of the Protheans became the Spectre's own. The peril of the Reapers belonged to all organic beings and yet greed, lust for power would be their undoing. The lives of all organics stood on the brink of destruction; they were united by one fate, one doom, one great enemy. They will unite or they will fall. Voices cried out from a distance, "Doom is near at hand! The Bane of Organics comes from the Dark! The evil in the Dark Space does not sleep. It hunts, it comes - it comes…it destroys! The citadel…the keepers, close shut the gates to Oblivion."

Samantha jumped awake at the buzzing of her door chime so quickly that she had knocked over her chair upon rising. She had fallen asleep but she didn't recall closing her eyes. "Come." She snapped without meaning to as she picked up her chair and set it to rights.

The door swooshed open with the pneumatic hiss, a heartbeat later Lieutenant Ashley Williams stepped forward. She knew that her skipper had been dozing; you could see it in her blue eyes.

Still dazed from the dreams Shepard tried to shake the fog of the Prothean's presence from her mind. "We're bound to the fate of the Ancestors if we cannot defeat this petty evil festering in the hearts of those who wield the power to move the masses. I will not let that happen. I can not."

Ashley frowned. There were times when she heard her skipper murmur to herself on waking when they had to make camp groundside. But the words were so hushed she never made them out and Liara always was there to soothe the terrors from the deep places of nightmare and forced Prothean memory. Ashley knew that the dreams had grown worse since the skipper gained the cipher. She also knew that only Liara helped ease those dark dreams. Now the Spectre sounded like an asari or like Vigil the Prothean AI. It scared Williams to the core.

"I wonder if it is only shadow and thought."

"Skipper?" Ash took a hesitant step forward. Was it always like this for her captain?

"Oath keeping, loyalty, duty, dedication - are they meant only to be bits of heroic fictions, stories of old? It is a thing unheard of to rely on a krogan battleoath and know it true and unshakable and mistrust the heart of one called…friend." Shepard shook her head and walked back into the shadows of the room.

The fog of the nightmare finally let loose its hold her as did the heavy presence of the Protheans. They were always a constant in her mind but never as loud as when she woke from the nightmares given to her by the beacons and cipher. It wasn't as if she were indoctrinated for the meaning behind the words were her own, but not the delivery. She was never as eloquent as an asari; she was far too blunt for that. She wasn't crass or uncouth but Shepard was never one for poetry when she spoke. It was one of the reasons she enjoyed listening to the asari speak, their words were always… so… so… Shakespearean if not that at least Tolkien-ish.

"Skipper?" Ashley asked again wondering if she should summon Liara. 'Don't be a fool, Miss Prothean Expert probably already knows about the skipper.'

In the dim light Williams saw the Spectre pick up some sort of rectangular package from the small dining table in the center of the room. She tossed it to Ashley who managed to catch it albeit clumsily. "When we were groundside I was given a couple of these as gifts. Funny isn't it that we've become toys?"

Ash looked at the package in her hand and saw that it contained six, seven inch action figures all of them molded in the black and red Colossus armor. She took a few steps forward so now she stood near the dining table.

"Look at our models. Your figure is at my miniature's right hand. I wonder if that is just an accident of packaging or is it indicative of anything, a metaphor perhaps. Thoughts?"

Williams took a second to look at the toys. The Spectre was dead center. To the doll's right hand the newly minted Lieutenant Ashley Williams, to the Spectre's left Dr. Liara T'soni. Tali and Garrus filed after Liara and following Ashley was Kaiden and Wrex.

"I thought it was very interesting they chose your figure to be at my right hand."

Ash set the box set of action figures on the table almost reverently. "Skipper…"

"You wish to speak to me?" Shepard folded her arms over her chest in her lazy relaxed mode as she had so often did when they had their one on one chats. "You know I keep an open door policy for all my officers. That hasn't changed even if we are on a bigger ship with more officers and crew."

Williams winced at the Spectre's lazy smile that once was filled with warmth and camaraderie they had shared only a week ago. Now the expression was nothing but a mask. Without a word Ashley placed an OSD on table next to the toys. Just as silently the Spectre picked up the small data stick and placed it into her computer.

The voice of a very familiar male started to speak: 'Chief Gunnery or should I say Lieutenant Ashley Williams. Congratulations you're the first Williams since Shanxi to become a commissioned officer. That can be remedied for future generations. I can insure it does. In fact I have the authority to push through actions the family Williams have been struggling for, for decades. Your grandfather's exoneration is in your grasp, more so than you can ever imagine. I simply need in exchange a bit of information on Shepard. I do not speak of treason my young Lieutenant. Simple common knowledge that only shipmates might know, might have heard. Gossip for your grandfather's exoneration, he will be raised up from the shadows of Shanxi for surrendering his garrison, to be recognized as a man who did the only thing he could to save countless lives. I will ensure that the public, the people that matter understand this. Exoneration for a few little words, what do you say? If I were you I would weigh in everything, your family, your legacy, consider the offer very carefully before you make a knee-jerk reaction you will regret if it isn't the one that benefits us both.'

"Get out." Shepard said slamming the computer off.

Ashley shook her head, "No ma'am."

"I said get out." the Spectre hissed. She raised her hand as to wave off a fly and sent Ashley biotically slamming into the bulkhead near the door. There was grunt of pain, a woof of air and a thunk of a body tumbling to the floor. "If you don't leave… now… Williams…"

Ashley found her feet and managed to stand. Her voice shaken. "No. I won't leave. You have to know… I never betrayed you! I never…"

Again she was slammed into the wall with a mere wave of the hand. "Is this how you will exonerate the Williams' name by following the path of Arnold and Quisling? A path you said you would never let happen, that you'd never let the Williams name go down? I am sure your father will be happy to hear his beloved daughter fell to the siren's song where Ulysses did not. What's the matter didn't stop up your ears fast enough?" Shepard growled, advancing on her prey, her teeth locked together in a sneer.

"I said no! I told Udina no!!" Ashley tried again. "I told him no."

Another wave and again Williams was picked up biotically and slammed once more against the bulkhead. Ashley struggled to catch her wind which was robbed from her lungs. Anger had taken her captain but she knew she had to suffer it. She deserved it, they both did. The Spectre needed the release of her anger, her pain at the thoughts of betrayal. "Why couldn't you just have been having an affair with another officer? Why couldn't it be as easy as breaking regs and fraternizing? I made myself believe that's why you lied to me. I wanted to believe that was what it was. Why couldn't it have been that ?

"I trusted you Ash! You were my fucking Trusted at my wedding. I trust you with Liara's life! I called you friend!" Anger had poisoned the Spectre's mind, overcome her senses, her reason. Her hand clutched Ashley by the throat, dragged her against the floor and using the wall near the door as leverage she hoisted the other woman into the air.

White flashed before her eyes and she saw Ashley's wounded body near the mushroom shaped nuke, her leg broken her body bleeding. Saren dragging Shepard's own body through the water of the aqueduct. She was being savagely strangled by Saren; she could feel her life draining from her…

Ashley fell to the floor coughing and gasping for air, Shepard stumbled back, tripped over her own feet and crab-walked backwards shocked and disgusted by what she had just done. On the threshold of their quarters was Liara, pity and sadness awash in her ever expressive sapphire eyes. 'Oh my Love, silence your rage. Dark have been your thoughts of late, do not let them poison your heart. Let your storm be stilled, Beloved.'

"You have no enemies here in our quarters my Love. There are no traitors in this room. None that you have ever called friend betray us here and now. Hear the truth of my words." Liara whispered soothingly. She touched Ashley's back to ensure she wasn't too seriously damaged before she moved to her beloved. She was the calm to the storm. Only now did Liara understand what that purpose was, and why it was so very vital that role was played out. Liara T'soni had done what Matriarch Benezia meant to do with Saren. She tempered the river and changed its course.

"Oh Goddess, Liara what did I do? Ash…" Tears clouded in Samantha's blue eyes. "I killed her!"

"I'm okay Skipper." Ash croaked out her hand rubbing the welt now forming at her throat. She crawled to her captain. "I never betrayed you. I lied but I never betrayed. I could never, would never do that to you…to us. You mean too much to me, you both do. I lied…but I didn't betray. I swear it."

For a long moment Shepard could only stare at the younger woman.

Moments ago

"One standard week? That's preposterous. There is no way we can compile a full study of the site in just seven days. She asks the impossible!" Palon, the former toxicologist for Binary Helix spluttered.

"He's right." echoed Schells. "She expects the impossible. What can she possibly know about the delicate art of science?"

Liara ground her teeth and pushed back the oncoming headache. She thought she had rebuffed the attitudes of her team but apparently it was going to be an ever-present battle of wills. She had to prove to them who was in command, who lead. By the Goddess She was suddenly very appreciative of Shiala making young maidens run laps or having seen Williams bellow out soldiers and making them give her fifty knuckle push-ups for an inappropriate remark or insubordinate attitude. Right now Liara was tempted to make the whole lot do both.

"You will address 'her' by rank. She is Captain Shepard, or Spectre. Do not make the mistake again. And yes the Spectre is a military woman and thus sees things in another light. Perhaps you have forgotten the geth very likely have a foothold on the planet, and there will be the very high probability of raiders from the Terminus System. We are going into hot territory.

"To insure our safety she has gone to great lengths, the Victory will be minus most of it's military might as she will have several assault teams engaging in battle with all geth, any raiders so that we can do what we need to do. She herself will be at the head of the assault teams to ensure we have these seven days. I suggest we make the most of what we can. This is why I want several teams engaging in several divisions of research to maximize our efforts."

Shiala watched in silence as her pupil leaned against the bulkhead attempting in vain to ward off a wave of dizziness. Something must be off with Shepard the older huntress thought. The expression in the young T'soni's eyes was one of compassion and regret. It was fleeting but it had been there, the older asari was sure of it.

"Doctors Lizbeth Boyaham, Williams, Palon and Leda will be one team concentrating on exobiology, toxicology, geology and the Protheans.

"Doctors Juliana Boyaham, Shi'ar and Mr. Jahleed will form the second team which will include myself. We will handle investigations into the Prothean archives and Vigil.

"Doctors Ororo, Remlap, Misters. Schells and Chorban will investigate other found Prothean technologies.

"Doctors Margali, Lehnsherr, Translan, McCoy, will head the last team you will…" Liara wavered unsteady on her feet. She moaned as if in pain.

Instantly Shiala was at her side holding onto the young huntress. "Liara?"

"Samantha…the storm…" she shook her head trying to clear the images of red waves crashing over entire worlds Without making an excuse or explanation Liara bolted from the laboratories out into the corridors nearly bowling over Aleena who was on her way to med-bay in the hopes to reach the elevator in time.

The Progenitor be damned--the lift never took so long to reach the upper desks where her quarters were. Liara swore she could have climbed the maintenance- tube faster! Once on deck three she sprinted past other crew members going in one direction or the other without a word of apology.

Tapping in the code to her shared quarters with her wife she bounded in and saw Samantha had Ashley by the throat up against the wall. All Liara could feel was inconsolable sorrow, pain, and rage. Unquenchable rage.

There was no way to do this kindly. No sugar coated words could break the barriers of storm filled rage. Liara pulled in the depths of memory of their shared Unions and focused a memory into her lover's mind. She was not so gentle but she was loving in her intentions. She forced the memory of Saren strangling her lover in the viaduct.

It worked, better than Liara could have hoped for. Ashley was immediately dropped, Samantha all but bolted to the other side of the room terrified no horrified at what she had almost done to Ashley.

Now was the time for calm. The rage passed, guilt was setting in. Ever the calm center, ever the soothing dulcet toned Liara slipped into her wife's mind and cooed the words that needed to be heard. She repeated them aloud for all to hear, for Ashley needed to hear them as surely as Samantha.

Ash had regained some of her strength and managed to convince her skipper that she wasn't dead.

No one said a word.

The three of them sat on the floor emotionally and physically exhausted.

"I need a drink." Shepard said suddenly rising to her feet. Still silent the remaining two women found their feet and for the lack of a better thing to do sat around the table.

Feeling the need to fill the uncomfortable silence, Liara spoke picking up the set of action figures. "It's a good likeness to all of us." She peered closer at the central figure. "The modeler's even managed to depict with some accuracy the crescent shaped scar under your eye."

Shepard with her back turned to the table only shrugged. She opened a small footlocker and took out a rather dusty looking hand blown brown bottle filled with what was probably twenty-year old scotch. She placed three glasses on the table but Liara placed her hand over her glass.

"I think I would prefer tea. I'll get it." She rose from her spot just was the Spectre sat. Her blue hands trailed a line along the human's shoulders before she headed for the synthesizer.

The first shot was downed so quickly it made Shepard hack a deep chest cough and caused her eyes to water. The second went down smoothly. At the third she raised the decanter and saluted Williams with it. "To one hell of a fucking day."

This time Ashley joined her in the drink. "Yeah. That's….yeah…one hell of a fucking day."

A fourth shot.

""What now?" The Spectre asked watching as Liara reclaimed her chair with a small pot of tea and a saucer as well as a tray of ready-made sandwiches, soup and sprigs of grapes and cheese wedges.

"We eat." The asari commented. "We expelled a great deal of energy while groundside and …recently. That amount of exertion topped with the way you are drinking is a formula for disaster."

Three women started to eat their meals in silence, the tension being redirected as the food was going mechanically hand to mouth.

"How badly are you hurt?" Shepard said looking to Williams.

"Not bad."

"Why don't I believe you? I slammed you up against that wall. I heard your pain."

"Skipper…it was nothing. Really."

Shepard started at Williams hard.

The other woman sighed. "It's not some martyr crap. It's the truth. I took harder throws from you on the matt during PT if you want to know the truth. You were holding back, Skipper. I've seen what you can do with a biotic throw. Hell I saw the effects on that one mother of a shark. You more or less did the mamma bear thing to me."

Liara cocked her head to one side the expression of puzzlement on her face evident. "Mamma bear thing?"

"Err…yeah. Guess you haven't seen any Earth wildlife documentaries. Bears are about twice the size of a varren or around the same size as an alpha male kath hound. Anyway the mamma bear will punish her cubs by giving them a swat with her massive paw which happens to have three inch claws." Ashley stretched out her hands to indicate the size of a grizzly bear's paw. "Now she can smash a tree in two, gut a deer and tear a human in half with her claws and the force of her blows can snap a spine of a horse like a dried out twig. But when she wallops her cub, all he does is go for a tumble. There is barely any force used at all. She pulls all her strength but the cub knows he's been thwacked for doing some dumb ass thing mamma bear doesn't like. What happened here was a bit like that. I sure as hell knew I was hit I lost my wind a couple of times, but there was no real force in it. None. Like I said it was more like being tossed in a throw in martial arts drills."

The Spectre wanted to believe her friend, but she knew the extent of her anger, she had been blind to it. In that fury how could she have been conscious enough to pull her punches as it were?

'Because you had no true desire to harm Ashley my love. You were angered, hurt and disappointed. You lashed out, but you did not intend to kill'

"Yeah? Then explain why I had her up against the wall ready to snap her neck just as…Saren was going to do to me?" Samantha challenged her wife's theory vocally. Shepard pointed with her sixth glass of scotch at the reddened mark on Ashley's neck. "Explain that."

"You already have," Liara said firmly. "which is why I stopped you Samantha. I made you see Saren, so that you would not become as he. The rest you did. You are no monster, Samantha. The reaction you had when you thought you might have killed our friend proves as much. Perhaps this martial action had to be played out between the two of you and now it is over and let it be done with." There was an authoritative finality to Liara's words.

For a moment no one uttered a word. What was there to say, to add?

Shepard picked up the box-set of action figures. "It really is a good likeness of all of us. They even got your cocky grin when you're holding that 'boom-stick' of yours Ash."

Silent tears fell down the lieutenant's heart shaped face. She had been forgiven! "Nothing like nice stroll on the beach shooting the bad guys with it ma'am."

"Nothing like it." The Spectre repeated.

Part 13

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