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 13
Shadow and Thought

"What remains is we still have a traitor on my ship." The Spectre said into her scotch. She had by this time lost count of how many drinks she had as did Ashley. But the bottle was near empty and it had been full before Shepard brought it the table. Liara had not touched a drop, her connection to Samantha was close enough to where she felt she had what might have been termed as a contact high…or rather 'buzz'.

They were even on their second round of sandwiches, brownies and bananas. Rather Liara and Shepard were. Being biotics burned a great deal of energy, in fact all biotics had a very high metabolism; they simply needed to eat more food than other people.

Ashley sat munching on a bit of 'zapped' popcorn. "All due respect to what you said in the briefing," she said trying to throw a kernel into her mouth but misjudged the trajectory and ended up hitting her nose instead. The kernel rebounded off her face and bounced onto the table. She picked up a second kernel, "Er…the briefing thing about not concentrating on the traitor and who sent them. I think we need to." The second kernel missed like the first. "I mean… it's like you said they won't give up." So did the third.

Both Samantha and Liara watched as Ash tried again and again to toss a popped kernel into her mouth without success. "You said you had a theory but no proof." Liara prompted her wife. "You were not simply inferring Ashley were you?"

The Spectre shook her dark head. "No. Not completely."

Williams nearly choked on the kernel that had managed to make it into her mouth. She didn't say anything nor did she look up. For her the pain of her lies and betrayal of friendship was still too fresh.

"Ash, I said before you have a great reverence for guilt. I played on that knowing you would come forward about… what happened." Shepard moved her hand slowly as not to startle the younger woman when she reached under Ashley's chin with long fingers and raised the head to that their eyes met. "It's done and over with. You hear me Lieutenant?" She gave a lazy smile and this time the comradely thing that had been missing before was back. "As for my theory, that's something all together different."

"You do not believe it is one of the new crewmembers do you?" Liara said. "They came over from the Normandy, or were a part of her crew and not new."

"What about Pressly?" Williams suggested. "He might have a bone to pick having been ousted from his position as XO."

"He's a stick-in-the-mud-wooden man but he is honorable. No, it isn't him. Hell he nearly wet himself with excitement when we stole the Normandy. I'd bet my next paycheck the last thing he stole was a cookie when his mother's back was turned when he was a rug rat. No the guy makes a terrible XO, no command potential; he just doesn't have it in him. On the plus side however, he is one hell of a navigator. You need someone to chart a course through an explosive asteroid field he's the go-to-guy, he could get a ship through with little damage. It was why Anderson chose him, and why we found the closest drop point on Ilos despite the risk in the first place. Like Anderson I trust his talents in navigation. Hell it was his skills as a navigator that got the fleet to Elysium in time… before… he got them there in time.

"Look, before you criticize me Ash for singing his praises I know he's a diehard Terra Firma party member, but he is also dependable. The military is his life, the chain of command sacrosanct. He won't betray it or me. I made sure he received a commission and anytime he needs a recommendation from me he has it because I believe in his skills as an officer and navigator. He simply wasn't the material for the second in command. He's good with a human crew and even he admitted he would not serve well in an integrated crew. He's honest I'll give him that. Like I said it wasn't him to turn on me… on us."

Williams frowned. "How do you know that for certain. Maybe by turning he believes he is serving the military, his Party?"

"Because Udina came to you Ash with your greatest desire - your grandfather's exoneration for a bit of 'gossip' or so says the man. If Pressly gave Udina anything the backstabbing bastard would never have tried to tempt you. I'm betting you weren't the only one to be tempted either. Udina more than likely approached others with their fondest wish, something grand for something seemly so inconsequential like a tasty bit of gossip."

"That's another thing that puzzles me." Williams shook her head "That makes no since at all. Gossip? All that rat-bastard has to do is tune into that bitch Al-Jilani's show and he's got all the gossip he could hope for."

"Ambassador Udina is not looking for a simple kill nor rumor-mongering and speculations from Miss Al-Jilani. He wants to destroy Samantha or rather the image of Samantha Shepard first human Spectre. He said it himself. 'Once you were useful. Now you are more trouble than you are worth.' If he makes you incriminate yourself, my love then your recommendation for Councilor Anderson is brought into question, your fitness to command and even your commitment to duty can and will be brought into question."

"He wants me to destroy myself from inside out." The Spectre agreed remorsefully.

"To push you, all your buttons, all they would have to do is make a hit on Liara." Ashley said. "That's kinda' obvious. I mean you're super protective over your girl, Skipper. Anything happens to her and you go high and to the right."

No one said anything. They were all thinking the same thing. The shot fired in that Elysium back alley wasn't for the Spectre; it was an attempt on Liara's life. In that alleyway all Shepard had felt was rage, the desire to burn those who had dared tried to bring harm to her beloved. She felt again here in this room in that last moment when the held Ashley up against the wall by the throat.

Glasses were refilled; a handful of popcorn that littered the surface of the table was scooped up in the hand and shoved into the waiting mouth.

"So what now, Skipper? If we go on a witch hunt it will blow morale out the airlock. You have to have some idea who's the mole."

Shepard nodded. "Yes I do. Like I said I doubt it's one of the new crewmembers. It has to be someone that transferred from the Normandy. I know it's not Wrex, not with the battle oath in place and Udina wouldn't approach him anyway. The man's too much of coward to even talk to a battlemaster with anything approaching civility. Garrus is a cop, he was rough, rash and trigger happy but he is hundred percent law. And Tali is well Tali. She's too much in love with the ship's technology to even be tempted away from it."

"She is also rather found of you, Samantha." Liara added with a smile. "Other than Ashley there is no other I trust with your life and mine. She was after all my Trusted."

Shepard reached for her wife and cupped her chin tenderly. "Indeed. I know for a fact it isn't you." She placed a tender kiss on Liara's lips before she pulled back into the contemplation of who on the ship was the traitor. "That leaves the humans, and I'd wager it's an officer, maybe a non-com but an officer nonetheless. Kadien's dead, that's him out."

"The Ell-Tee wouldn't have…would he?" Ash frowned not liking the idea that Lt. Alenko would have turned on the Skipper.

Shepard didn't want to admit it was in the realm of possibilities. He had after all thought there had been more to their friendship than there was. Samantha hadn't thought that she had treated Kaiden any differently than she had treated Ash when they were off-duty. He and Liara had confronted Shepard in the comm-room and he demanded she choose who it was that she was interested in romantically. Apparently the lieutenant didn't know the Spectre was a lesbian. He might not have thought anything of passing on a bit of scuttlebutt if asked; he might not have even thought it was treachery. Officers gossip it's a fact of military life especially when they are wounded over romance. He was hurt, and said he'd get over the rejection, but doing and saying are two different things.

Shepard's silence was enough to tell both women her unspoken answer to the question. "Adams is out. He's like Tali too much in love with the ship's drive core to even lift his head out of the grease long enough to spread scuttlebutt and that was when he was looking after one, now he has three Tantalus drive cores to baby."

"That leaves Joker, Chakwas and…and the rec-officer…Merkerson." Ashley said.

"I do not believe Dr. Chakwas would betray a confidence. As much as the chain of command is sacrosanct to military personal, patient / doctor confidence is to her. And she is both military and physician." Liara pointed out.

"But she is privy to some highly confidential material and people speak openly to her." Shepard commented. "As much as I dislike the idea we must keep her on the list of possible suspects. The same goes for Joker, before now he had an open invitation to all security cameras and comm-systems. He could listen in on private conversations. He no longer has access to the security systems though he still has the comm-systems but he can't unlock the secure channels anymore. Given the right incentive he might pass on a bit of 'harmless' scuttlebutt. The same goes for Merkerson. Which reminds me he was a bit odd before the Elysium drop. It's mere speculation but he was on the planet when we were targeted in the alley. It might be a coincidence or he made contact with the agents hunting us. We need to keep our eyes open and watch them, see if we can't fish anything out of them or if they are acting a bit out of character."

"Skipper, I just thought of this but what about Chakwas's nursing staff? I mean they hear what the ol'doc hears and they are privy to records, charts and all sorts of confidential stuff. One of them might have said something to someone they shouldn't have. And what about Doc S'thasa she had access to all that stuff to."

Shepard and Liara looked at one another and back to Shepard's threat of going rouge if anything happened to Liara. There were two other people in that room. One was Chakwas the other was Private Marina Stevenson. The later had been in the lab/store room at the time and the door had been open. She could have heard everything during Shepard's check-up. The young nurse had actually requested to remain on the Normandy and her new crew when everyone else had transferred to the Victory.

"Perhaps we're not looking for an officer at all but an enlisted nurse. That Marina chic has no love loss for non-humans and she's a diehard supporter in Terra Firma. Hell I even rebuked and chastised for her bigoted views when she was drawing my blood for you, Skipper." Williams shrugged sheepishly. "Kinda ironic when you think about it, but there it is."

"That is very distinctly possible and it clears Chakwas. However we still have a traitor on board this ship…a collaborator. The very fact you were approached Ash, supports this theory. If Stevenson is the culprit she had someone on this ship acting as a middleman between her Udina and who he's working with. That person is an officer. Someone who knows how to work the system and around them: in my books it's either Joker or Merkerson. I wouldn't be surprised if Terra Firma has their hands in this quagmire too; both Udina and Stevenson are affiliated with that Party." Shepard said her voice growing colder. "This stays between the three of us and Shiala." Blue eyes looked to a second set of blue eyes and then to a set of brown. "We watch, we listen then act. Get close to Joker, Ash see if he slips up. Use your rank and position as XO as a cover. Besides I think it's time you started to learn the other systems on this ship, you're the XO now and you you'll have to do it sooner or later. Better now than latter. Liara keep your eyes open for Chakwas and S'thasa for that matter. I'll handle Merkerson. He wanted newer more elite licenses so I have my perfect cover."

"And when we do find this mole?" Williams asked.

"I'm a Spectre. I'll do what need to do to insure the safety of the mission and my crew. If I have to I will terminate them but not before I use them to follow the path to the source. This whole thing could be petty revenge or it could be bigger than we suspect, until I have answers I will not act precipitously."

"There is far more to this than we are seeing. If a human political party is involved this will not bode well for the infancy of humanity's role in the Council. Should we not inform Councilor Anderson?" Liara asked.

"And tell him what? Right now all we have is that we were attacked by mercenaries on Elysium. Until we have hard evidence all we have is speculations, nothing more not even circumstantial evidence. We need to know who sent them if the attack was indeed related to Udina or just an opportune time, don't forget Cerberus has no love for us. This incident and Udina's agendas could very well be independent of each other."

"It's that's the case then maybe we should take a closer look at some of our new crew members. Schells wasn't happy about his casino-rigging went bust. And both Chorban and Jahleed admitted to stealing technology from their former work in medical-tech development to build that scanner to take readings of the keepers. And they both lied to you about their motives and tried to off the other by lying to you. Who's to say they wouldn't do the same now to you.

"Personally Skipper, I don't see why you hired any of them. One's a hacker and the other two are self-admitting thieves even if what they did was pretty remarkable what with the keepers and all. And then there is that asari woman Mallene Calis. She wasn't very happy to have her industrial espionage opened up by you with Binary Helix. I mean she didn't seem to hold a grudge while we were on Novaria but not all asari are like Liara here--all noble and honest almost to a fault. Mallene might be looking for payback. She did say you have a devious mind."

"You gave yourself the answer to that question. Jahleed and Chorban developed a tool to do what no one since the Citadel was re-discovered by the asari could do--they managed to scan the unscanable. They have compiled a great deal of data on the keepers. I need that data; I need their skills to do similar things with other found Reaper technology we come across. We now know thanks to their data the keepers are cyberneticly enhanced organics. Jahleed and Chorban are too eager in their thirst for the science of the keepers and thusly the Reapers to try anything as stupid as to turn on me even if they have a history of doing to each other.

"As for Schells, that salarian might have been pissed about me turning over his device to Doran but he's not the type to hire mercenaries. He was eager to land this stint with us, putting his skills to good work, besides it was either that or be prosecuted by C-Sec for hacking into quasar machines in the casinos. Doran was going to sue him into the next spiral arm, but Detective Chellick gave him a choice: serve with me in Victory's science corps or serve time in the clink. Schells wouldn't screw with his meal ticket and get-of-jail-free card.

"Right now we have two possible viable suspects, Udina with or without the Terra Firma Party's involvement and Cerberus. No we proceed as planned. Keep your eyes and ears open for others, but I don't want to start jumping at shadows and making enemies where there are none. That includes Mallene. She isn't a suspect in this. Her actions might have been underhanded but she not going to hold a grudge over what happened.

"She asked me during her interview if BH had approached me as she had done would I have done the same thing to them as I had done with her and out their agenda despite they are a human company? I said yes, of course. The law is the law, it's blind and binding. What she wanted me to do was against the law, I even gave her the opportunity to back out when I asked her did she know who I was. Instead of acknowledging me as an officer of the law she called me a dull stone. I think that was a pretty dumb-arse thing to do, she could have walked away free and clear right then and there. Hell she could have found another to do her dirty work and get the information she wanted. She even admitted that, and said she botched handling me as much as she did that BH guy.

"I have no love lose for Binary Helix; I think their scientific ethics are highly suspect. We know BH had doing very questionable things with the rachni queen and when we shut that runaway project down the execs and investors couldn't have been very happy. My report did lend to them being sanctioned by the Council for it. Of course anything Saren had a part in now is being carefully scrutinized by other Spectres.

"Mallene and the Armali Trade Guild are not out for my blood or Liara's, BH might be because of the sanctions on their corporation but the Guild isn't. Mallene told me she respects my ethics which was why she said she'd help us out when we have to play hardball with corporations and politics. Like I said we stick to the plan. If we start suspecting everyone pretty soon paranoia springs up and runs rampant and then you believe everyone has an agenda against you and conspiring. I won't live like that and I won't run my ship that way."

Running out as she had on her staff Liara had made things a bit more difficult with the other scientists. They all had their ideas why she dashed out as she had; some had even gone as far as to question amongst themselves her fitness to lead them. She was very young relatively speaking, and some thought she was head of the Science cores only because she was married to the captain. Yes the young woman was very intelligent, and an expert archeologist on the Protheans but did that merit her role as leader of the division?

Sheila could see a very rough road ahead for Benezia's daughter. Young T'soni not only had to prove herself in the eyes of her counterparts but in her own abilities when dealing with other people. Liara was introverted not because she lacked self-confidence it was simply she was more attuned to scientific theory than other sentients. Liara was a genius even to asari standards. It was her mental gifts that made it awkward when dealing with others because she didn't articulate well when not compiling theses on the Protheans and other ancient space-faring civilizations. Simply put Liara wasn't a people person, not like her mother who could dominate a room by simply walking into it.

Liara was very self reliant, a powerful-biotic and a survivalist, she had to be. Where other young huntresses lived in communal areas as they trained or served the Asari Republic, Liara lived alone for fifty years in the most remote locations known to asari…to Citadel Space. Her half-century exile into archeology was broken not by other asari, but by a krogan battlemaster and a squad of geth trying to kill her. No, Shiala thought not by them…in truth it had been broken by a Spectre---a human female, who later became the love of young T'soni's heart.

They made an odd pairing and as Shiala thought about it, a perfect match. Shepard was a pure warrior. She knew war, she knew battle. Her mind raced with unconventional ideas and yet stuck to idealized notions of right and wrong and justice and duty. Liara was very much the same. And yet they were vastly differently Shepard was a brooding quaking storm; Liara was the serenity of a clam sea and the majesty icebergs. No matter how fierce the storm it could not demolish the great icebergs. Nothing is as soft as water, but no one can withstand the raging flood. They were both the elements of water: one calm, one turbulent together they made a whole.

Whatever storm brooded in Shepard in the past hours had been pacified by Liara's presence, her influence. Shiala worried for both of them. She did not have a matriarch's words, wisdom or strengths, but she had been at Benezia's side learning from her for more a more than two centuries. She hoped she could pass on such gained wisdom to the daughter now denied them. She prayed to the Goddess, her words, her guidance was enough not only for her two young charges but herself as well.

What she had suffered in the bowels of Sovereign and the Thorian had made long lasting marks upon her body and soul. Being close to Shepard and even Liara had eased the torment in Shiala's own wounded physique and in her soul. There times when she felt lost inside herself. Being close to Shepard helped to ease that disorientation, that fragmented self that floated in the either of being everywhere and nowhere. It had been more the Thorian than Sovereign that left Shiala broken as she was. Its omnisentient presence all over the planet of Faros had leached into Shiala when she was in its thrall in its chrysalis. It was old, so very old, so filled with memory and anger. Everyday was a long as a life's age on the world of the Thorian. It filled Shiala and in it was the cipher: the fullness of understanding the Prothean mind. It haunted her mind just as it now haunted Shepard.

Shiala watched the milling scientists with an almost contemptible air. "You all have been given your orders and little time to prepare for planet fall. Yet you have not disbanded to carry out those orders. You will do so now."

Remlap one of the volus astrophysicists looked to his counterparts then back to the violet skinned asari. "Can you tell us why Dr. T'soni fled as she did?" his vacillator clicking and hissing as he spoke. "It seems very peculiar."

"If you are to know such things you will be told. It is reasonable to believe she received a private and emergency hail from our captain which she answered without hesitation. Now you must carry out our division leader's orders with that same swiftness and no hesitation, do as you were ordered." Shiala turned and headed for the door.

"Huntress Shiala where do you go?" asked Chorban his large red almond shaped eyes blinking several times.

"To carry out my own orders given to me by the captain, I am after all the CAG. I need to see to my crew. Also do not forget your standing orders to report for basic defense training tomorrow morning, our Division Leader, Dr. T'soni will be most displeased if you do."

Shiala left but she did not immediately take the lift to the hanger deck but rather up several decks to where she knew to find Shepard and Liara. Something had indeed caused great distress in Liara, something affecting the Spectre deeply.

Walking the halls the huntress Shiala first disciple of Benezia witnessed the other asari commandos turning to her, questions reflecting in their eyes. Yes they had felt the storm rising around them, threatening to take the ship and drown it. Then as suddenly as it rose the storm was silenced where not even a whisper of that terrible force remained. Only the asari knew the cause: biotic emotional projection. They had felt it before though at the time it was a far different emotion running amok. Then it was deep love and desire, it took four priestesses to calm and settle the waves and tides of emotions. Fortunately for all aboard the Victory the tide was dealt with swiftly. Still the echoes of what happened in that moment remained lingering in the crew of the Victory. Had she not seen it in the labs just now?

When she arrived at the Spectre and Liara's private chambers Ashley was just leaving on rather water legs and listing to the wall. Shiala noticed the welt around the girl's neck but made no comment on it. So there was the source such a powerful reaction in the Spectre that had transferred itself into Liara and the crew. Shiala's quick mind deduced the events on Elysium, the storm of emotions and the welt on William's throat were closely related. As guide and mentor Shiala's prime concern lay with Shepard's growing influence on those around her and more specifically the influence on Liara. It was time to strengthen the meditation exercises.

From the appearance of Victory's XO there had been a fair amount of drinking of hard alcohol. It would make meditation a bit more trying but not impossible. Tomorrow's biotic lessons would prove interesting if the Spectre was sporting a hangover.

Liara answered the door the expression on her face one of worry, tiredness and concern. "Samantha is in the shower." She said as she moved aside to allow her mentor into the quarters. "It has been…a long day."

"I know." Shiala said gently. "It has affected you very deeply, Little Wing and in many different ways. I am concerned for you, and for Samantha." She was here as an age long friend, and companion—a confidant. Shiala was the only one other than Benezia who ever called Liara by the pet name she had gained when she was four years old. "What has happened, child?"

Liara shook her head "Words cannot describe what haunts my spirit."

"Then Join minds with me."

The younger asari nodded and closed her eyes; she could feel Shiala stepping closer to her. "Relax Little Wing, slow deep breaths. Let go of your physical shell. Reach out to grasp the threads that bind us one to the others. Every action sends ripples across the galaxy. Every idea must touch another mind to live. Each emotion must mark another's spirit. We are all connected, every living being united in a single glorious existence. Open yourself to the universe. Embrace Eternity."

Two sets of eyes one blue, one green went complexly black.

Their minds touched molding together with Shiala's touch being maternal and guiding as it always had been when Liara was a youngling.

In their joined minds a landscape of mist, great crystal formations and ocean flowed in a blur of forgetfulness. From that mist rose a great bird of pray; a raptor of fire and shadow. Her cry went out as a swan's song though this was no death knell. It was the song of war, of battle. In her claws lay the dead: human, turian, salarian, asari, volus, rachni, Reaper; all who dare to strike against the one life she treasured above all others, one she found pure, innocent, one she beloved more than her own mortal soul.

'They strike against Liara. They will burn. They will burn!'

In flash of mist and lighting they saw Ashley being tossed about the room, held by her throat by great red flames by the phoenix and suddenly dropped. Sea mist, blue fog coiled around the phoenix.

'Calm my love. Let this storm pass, there are no enemies here.'

'They will mean to hurt you. They will burn…'

The memories drifted as the matron took hold and converted the meld into deeper thoughts, deeper emotions. Her voice wafted into Liara's mind as if she were speaking aloud.

"You fear this Little Wing."

"If I should fall in battle she will turn from the light to the dark. She will become more than rogue, more than a renegade. Her rage will consume her Shiala. How do I protect a protector? I can not always be there to calm her storm."

"She will learn this, and she will trust in you. Her rage comes from the images left behind by the Prothean beacons. In you, she sees all that represents all that is good and pure in life. She clings to this as she clings to hope the Reapers can be stopped.

"There is an echo I feel that surrounds her and you. It is not a natural thing. It speaks of great pain, not of the body but of the spirit. It is as if you both once felt the essence of the all creations, of all that binds us flow through you then it was torn away, brutally and quickly. The echoes comes from the hollows were it once flowed through you both, it is an unusual wound my Samantha carries and it touches you as well. Mistress Shiala I feel her suffering even as I feel yours now. If fills my senses with such intensity. It is a plant's worth of pain I do not know how she endures, how you do."

"It is because she has no choice nor do I. Samantha has touched the minds of the Protheans, she felt whole worlds die and she carries that echo within her. The pain—the galactic death is too much for anyone soul to endure and it is a wonder she did not die when she felt billions parish. She felt all their deaths, more than that, through the cipher she felt as if she had fought along side them, struggled with them until the end. Those ancient battles would have deafened her but through the cipher she how hears. She was broken and now made whole, she was blinded and now made to see. She had come to finely understand the fullness of the cipher. Now she carries all their deaths from the Reapers within her and it has left a hole, a hurt that can not be filled.

"This wound is my own as well. It has changed us. It is as if we can feel the ebb of all life and yet can not feel ourselves. We have become a cipher. Samantha more than I can form bonds, siphoning the will of others dominating them; she had become symptomatic of the wound created by the Reapers. She has felt the terrible burning of the Reapers cleansing of the worlds, their fears, their sleepless malice, of all tragedies that scream across the galaxy.

"By the Prothean beacons she has seen the galaxy through their eyes, from the bacons she has walked the dark places of the galaxy and faced death on such a scale and has traveled further than any before her. Saren waited for the echo to reach him, and so he was taken by Sovereign's fear mongering. Samantha rebels against it, rushing to protect, clinging to the hope. You have become the symbol of that hope. A great burden you bare, Liara but one you must. This is why she seeks to destroy those who bring harm to you, she knows you are her lifeline to the light, to hope and to life and to love. In her there is a great love for you, I have felt and touched its bounty when I melded with her.

"In Samantha I see my own hope that I can endure, I can survive and overcome what Sovereign and the Thorian did to me. The clones actions are my sins to bare, their deaths had been my own, their creation my own again and again. I will never be completely whole again, but I can endure as Samantha does because I have no choice. She lends me strength in continuing battle of the Dark-unknowing and in her ability to survive, even as you lend her peace, serenity and undying love. From the ashes of fire shall be woken, from light a shadow shall spring, renewed the life that was broken."

The images drifted as two minds separated. And Liara understood.

She was a lifeline to Samantha in more ways then one, she was yes her wife's personal icon of hope and all that is the goodness in the universe. But Liara was Samantha's link to herself lest she lose herself in the echo of that great wound in creation. Liara was not only the clam to the storm, but the soothing healing touch against such great pain that was now apart of the Spectre.

Liara knew more of her mentor as well. The Thorian had left her with more than scares, memories and nightmares. The link between the two had been so very strong, so unified the matron's nervous system had interpreted that link as a Union.

"You are with daughter!" Liara uttered in an astounded whisper.


"But the Thorian is unlike any lifeform…how…I don't understand."

"It was sentient, its mental capacities vast, and its memory far older than ancient starlight. The conception was not of my willingness or wants but an aftereffect the Thorian linking to me to create the clones."

"What are you going to do?"

Termination of a pregnancy was something an asari would never think of doing because of the very nature of how they procreated. It was not unheard of, but there had been no chosen terminations in the last five thousand years. Yes there were times when the body suffered such great damage that it naturally aborted the fetus in miscarriage in protecting itself.

"I will give birth and raise my daughter. I will pray to the Goddess that she suffers not the pains of my wounds or the nightmares of the cipher. I will tell Samantha in due course as will you. I have already seen Doctor S'thasa about my pregnancy. I have also spoken with Priestess Kerubiel. Perhaps it is something you should consider before too long, Little Wing." She held up a purple hand to silence the younger asari. "I understand your fears daughter of Benezia and I will respect your silence as you will mine. Are we in accord?"

"We are, Matron."

It was at this time that Shepard came out of the ensuite rubbing a towel over her black hair to dry it but wearing nothing. One of the few luxuries the asari ships had were the hydro showers as the sonic variety irritated their very sharp hearing inflicting terrible migraines on most. Shepard simply took advantage of the luxury of the hot steaming water; of course she tended to enjoy it more when sharing it with her wife.

"Beloved we have a guest." Liara announced grateful for the distraction.

Samantha shifted the towel that was over head to take a look and saw it was Shiala. She didn't move the towel to cover her nudity, she was comfortable in own skin. This was not because the matron had seen her naked form before but being linked to an asari wife; the Spectre was adapting more and more of their instinctual nature. Whether this new comfortableness with her sexuality was by a strange form of osmosis or simple adaptation it was hard to say.

Samantha padded slowly to the alcove where the bed was and took from a chair a simple robe. "No doubt you've come to check up on us." She said slipping the garment over her muscular frame.

"I have, yes. Samantha, Liara cannot alone be expected to always calm the storm within you. You must learn to do this for yourself I will guide your way. We will meditate and center ourselves. Tomorrow instead of during your typical PT we will begin proper training in the asari forms of biotic martial arts to further your control."

The three sat on the floor palms almost touching each other as they linked and allowed the energies of the universe to flow one from the other.

"This exercise is more about control and awareness." Shiala said as she stood facing Shepard in the middle of one of Victory's three training gyms. "It is not as remedial as the rose petals but it is a foundation exercise that even the most talented of asari commandos continue to utilize as it can be very challenging. It's called the Echo game."

The Spectre, Shiala and Liara stood in a ring of twelve drums which were suspended in the air by a long narrow pole that towered just over two meters. Each drum had an asari minder who held the drum in place. There was a small gap between the two ends of the circle were a pile of tumbling mats had been staked and upon that a small ceramic bowl filled with what looked like dried kidney beans. A second circle ran around the first and here twelve more asari commandos sat lotus style each with what looked distinctly like Japanese taiko drums.

Like the Japanese back on earth the Asari practiced their own version of Kodo. These ancient instruments covey a duel meaning for the asari, the first is the 'heartbeat'—the sound of the mother's heart-beat as felt in the womb. The second was a reflection of the asari's desire to play their drums simply, with the heart of a child. In the echo game the drums served as a diversion as one might expect in the battlefield turning the huntress away from her true target. The trick was to concentrate on the one sound and tune out the distractions.

Shepard looked to Liara who was smirking playful. "I've always enjoyed this game. Matron Shiala is correct when she says it is most challenging. The object of the game is to echo the bean as it hits one of the drum heads using a very mild biotic strike. You must hit the same drum using a biotic pulse wave without destroying the drum or hitting its minder."

"Huntress Liara, you will demonstrate." Shiala ordered. "Spectre you are with me." She looked over her student to the milling crowds now gathered intrigued by this new development. Amongst them were the sisters Williams and the science cores. 'Perfect. Now let them see the true power of the T'soni command over biotics that has gone undimmed before the braking of the words. Let them question her strength now.'

Instinct and old habit caused Liara to cup her hands touch her forehead and then turn them palm side before her chest as gave a slight bow of her head to her mentor in the form of respect a student offers their mistress. The gesture was symbolic of filling one's sprit and mind with the knowledge of an elder with open hands and open mind.

It was only a moment's hesitation but Shepard mimicked the bow of respect to Shiala for now she wasn't the captain of the ship she was in fact a student of a grandmaster of martial arts.

Taking the blindfold from Shelia's hand Liara wrapped it around her eyes and tied it at the back of her head. She stood in a near aikido/viper-style Kung-fu battle stance: her left arm stretched out before her, her hand forming a knife's edge. Her right arm was bent and raised to the level of her jaw parallel to her chest and again the hand was in a knife's edge though palm side up. All her weight was placed on her bent right leg while her left was nearly parallel with her left arm albeit at a slight angle. The stance could instantly be switched to the left side as it was one of the more perfect offensive and yet defensive stances in the asari or for that matter any martial art forms. Her head was cocked to the side to catch the sound of a drum being hit by a bean and not a drumstick.

Shiala took a bean from the bowl and flicked it at a drum; it bounced off with a dull thud and landed on the floor. The taiko drums thundered, Liara spun on the balls of her feet and struck the exact same drum that the bean had struck.

Shiala picked anther bean and made it bounce off of three drums adjacent to each other. The distractions sounded but were gone unnoticed by Liara. She spun into an aerial butterfly kick sending a plus into to the first drum, flipped backwards into a back walkover to hit the second and third drum. She circled around to land once more into viper stance. Cheers erupted the loudest was Samantha's voice that caused the young asari to smile.

Take note of the distraction govern by the Spectre, Shiala took hold of the bowl and flung its entire contents, more than one hundred beans at the circle of drums. They bounced off each other, off each of the dozen drums multiple times before raining down. Liara snapped into battle readiness. Shepard's pride in her, the taiko drums thumping could not distract Liara from her course from displaying her quality. Her body flipped from cartwheels, butterfly twists, aerials front and back walkovers, side flips, body punches with leaps of feline grace, avian elegance, and the swiftness of the firaxon shark. They were hers to command she slipped from one maneuver into the next seamlessly. Each technique lent itself into the next. Her hands, her fingers shifting from knife hand blows to cocked punches each sending out a pulse of biotic power into the drumheads, not a single drum in sequence was missed. She landed as she had begun in the viper stance.

The whole of the training room erupted in applause and cheers. She felt her body being picked up and twirled around, her lips soundly kissed.

"That was brilliant!" Shepard proclaimed hugging her tightly, her libidinous desire filling Liara in waves.

"Set Liara back to the ground Spectre, for now is your turn." Shiala's voice was firm, but she was glowing in pride over her student's accomplishment. Liara had always been masterful at the echo game. The fact Liara overcame Shepard's presence—the distraction she offered was a coup d'état.

"Wow, Dr. T'soni that was something!" Abby Williams said amazed at what she had witnessed. "I've never seen anything like that."

Liara was breathing heavily, the smile on her face filled with inner-pride. "It has been sometime since I've played the game."

"Well you certainly didn't lose your touch, Liara. I knew you kicked ass with your biotics but damn girl!" Ashley echoed her sister's sentiments. "So Skipper you're going to give it a go." It was not a question necessarily. Williams knew her captain was a powerful biotic but power and sheer eloquence were far and apart from each other.

"I won't be any where near Liara's skills. But yes I am going to."

Liara turned to Shepard with support and confidence. In the Spectre's eyes she saw desire still reflected in her dilated eyes. 'Later my dearest.' She sent her promise. "Concentrate on the single sound that matters, shut all else out, all thoughts, all distractions, concentrate only on the target, on your goal. Use finesse, stealth; bind the raw power coursing in you into a subtle strike. Sometimes the smallest cut can cause the greater damage then the mightiest reckless of blows."

Liara tied the blindfold around her beloved's eyes but before she pulled away she placed a soft kiss on the lightly tanned skin. Shepard took the stance she had seen her lover take and waited.

The beans had been recovered and replaced back into the bowl which was handed to Liara. She took her place on the stacked tumbling mats and chucked the first bean making it ricochet once. The drums sounded, Shepard spun and sent a biotic pulse to it. And missed. The pulse hit the edge of the drum spinning it 360 degrees twice and went right passed its minder and slammed into the far wall.

"Center yourself." Shiala commanded. "Do it again."

The Spectre took in a slow deep breath, and reclaimed her stance. The bean bounced hitting a single drum, the taiko drums thundered, this time Shepard's strike was true. And it was so with the second bean as it hit two drums and the third as it rebounded off of three drums. Shepard spun into back flips and butterfly kicks, aerials just to keep up with the echoes. Her movements clumsier than Liara's but her strikes were true. By the time she was up to twenty-five beans thrown at the same time she was breathing harder and harder, her muscles moaned as she moved from one flip to the next. Liara had made it seem so effortless; Shepard longed to move as her beloved had. Concentrating on the gracefulness of Liara she played the game, Shepard pulled into herself the actions, the moves, and the memory of it all. She willed herself to perform them precisely as Liara had. Drawing in on herself the Spectre pulled on the energy of those around her siphoning it into her own body fuelling her needs.

Shiala gasped as she felt a wave of dizziness hit her as she felt energies being leached from her. Twenty-five asari commandos turned their attention to the matron all of them with questioning eyes. Shiala tuned back to Liara who was glowing a radiant blue with biotic power sending it into Shepard through their bond almost unaware she was doing so.

"Hold! That is quite enough for today."

Shepard spun out of a butterfly twist to land near the matron. Still blindfolded she spoke: "Why? I've gotten my second wind."

"That is all for today, Spectre." Shiala said again. "You and the Matriarch Council bade me to teach you and so I am. In this you must heed my commands or the teaching will not be successful."

Shepard reached up and took the blindfold from her face and bowed her head slightly in respect to her mentor. "As you wish Matron."

Only a matriarch held the kind of power to draw from others to empower herself. Granted she generally did it from enemies faced in battle and she in turn sent that wave of power into her commando squad. There were times however when a matriarch would pull the energy force from others---allies to fuel herself. Benezia had done this during her last confrontation with the human Spectre. A human no mater how powerful a biotic has ever been recoded to have this ability. Yes the Spectre had siphoned her will into others, now she drew from others strength in a symbiotic link.

Before she could speak of this to the Spectre, Shiala needed time to ponder it. Perhaps even to seek the wisdom the Matriarchs. One thing was certain in the matron's mind this ability Shepard possessed was tied to the Protheans, to the gestalt that bound Liara and Samantha so completely.

The room roared with the cheers of those watching the Spectre perform the echo game. Liara hugged her beloved pride in her own eyes reflecting deeply in blue eyes. Reflected there also was her own wanton desire for her wife. Their hands touched sharing in the moment between heartbeats the shared want of each other.

Stepping up to Shiala were a few of the commandos in her flight crew, their eyes following the Spectre as she moved past the others in the training room.

"She has an amazing command of biotics for a human." Naga'sadow said. "For a moment I thought I felt her touch upon my mind. It was the touch not of a human but of an asari."

"It was as the touch of Matriarch Benezia in battle." Spoke Odan-urr candidly. "The Spectre's biotics are not the clumsy attempts of non-asari but those of a young maiden in her first years of training to become a Huntress. That touch we felt was as our lost Lady's before the fall. You know that touch better than any of us Matron Shiala. Where comes this ability in the Spectre?"

"Awakened by the Protheans and enhanced by her bond to Liara T'soni. The link they share that joins their minds is like that of Matriarch Dantius to her hand-fasted mate Rakata in ages past. They have shared more than memories and experiences; they can trade them between each other knowledge. How else do you think the Spectre speaks our tongue as if she was born to it, it is because it was transferred into her during their Unions. More than this I can not say." She looked away from the Spectre to her flight crew. "Come we have matters of greater importance we must attend. There is much to do before Ilos and not a great deal of time to do it in."

Part 14

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