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 20

Getting to the temple was far easier the second time around. The major obstacles such as geth insurgent squads and Cerberus strike forces had been neutralized. Now the only major dilemma was the terrain itself. Several firefights had not made the ruined world any easier to negotiate.

Still, it only took Shepard's team three hours to reach their destination. For the whole of the trip Liara had been exceedingly quiet. Gone was the enthusiasm she had displayed during the previous three days or in fact the first time they had come to Ilos.

After speaking with Ksad Ishan the young asari had become disillusioned with the Protheans. Ever since she discovered it was the Reapers not the Protheans who had constructed the Citadel (a place Liara had fawned over when she had seen it first hand for the first time), as well as the Mass Relays Liara had felt cheated. In fact she felt as if she had wasted fifty years of her life chasing after the Protheans.

Perhaps this was what her mother alluded to when she had told her daughter: "Chasing after ancient secrets best left buried will allow you to discover things you wished you had not, you will see truths you would prefer to be blind to. There is no ignorance there is knowledge, but in knowledge comes the griping hold of truth, facts, the unveiling of wondrous mystery and the unraveling of dreams. Make sure Little Wing that this is what you desire when you go exploring the past. Be prepared for heartbreak. I will not hold you to the course of Future Sight. The young do not always do as they are told. It is natural to rebel, it has always been thus with the young and always will be thus. Once you have your own daughter you will come to understand the value of the words I speak to you now. For in time you will repeat them to your daughter, even as I repeat now the words my own mother spake to me when I was but a century old. Have your rebellion then Little Wing, but if you do you shall do so alone."

"You are not alone." Samantha whispered to the brooding scientist. "And if it wasn't for the Protheans we wouldn't be together and … we wouldn't have a way to fight the Reapers. And I highly doubt any of our races would be exploring deep space as we are now. All of our technology is based upon what the Protheans left behind. They left a wonderful legacy even if they didn't construct the mass relays or the Citadel."

Liara smiled bashfully. Her beloved always knew when trouble stalked her mind and preyed on her thoughts. She shouldn't be surprised their bond was strong and powerful. Their thoughts streamed from one into the other with such ease there were times it was very difficult to discern who was thinking what. In this case the emotions taking hold of Liara had transfigured themselves into Samantha, just as Samantha had the day she and Ashley had their confrontation.

It was an inevitability that comes in any science you will always come up against something that is a disappointment to the study. Years of work can sometimes be obliterated when a new discovery is unfolded. Whilst it was true that the Protheans had not constructed the Mass Relays they had made them their own. They had not constructed the original Citadel, but they had made many others including Omega. They had bases all over the galaxy, whole cities that had been repurposed over several millennia. Yes they had experimented on the younger races but then these same races had in their turn experimented upon lesser forms of life.

Once Liara laid her blue eyes upon the temple her disillusioned disappointment in the Protheans had vanished. Once more she was in awe of what they had made. The seat of Ilos whole, presented, uncorrupted. No one had ever beheld the true Prothean cities in such an undefiled state and yet something profound and indelible resonated at the site. The canker of the Reapers was yet to befoul them. Where once the great doors were unmarred, the scars of the recent battle were clearly evident upon their surface. Rubble strewn in every direction, the 'dead' carcasses of the geth lay like macabre discarded toys. The decrypted remains of the geth's altar was nothing more than a strangled burned out husk. Ironic considering the geth turned organics into husks of their former selves. Liara however had eyes only for the great doors of the temple.

With almost pious reverence the asari archeologist approached the façade. Her trained eyes spotted almost immediately the glyphs etched in the surface of the marble.

"I have seen locks like this before, but never in this good a condition." Liara said. It was assumed she was speaking to Shepard; however she could have been speaking to the entire company. Her tone was that of a teacher as was her stance and mannerisms. She was once more in her element.

Engraved upon the surface of the door were concentric circles, one eclipsing the other. They were empowered with the essence of dark matter. "The door would only open via biotic power." She said - and this time it was very clear she was addressing her wife. "This will be easier if you were to assist me."

"What do you need me to do?" the Spectre asked.

"The sconces on either side are not actually used to hold torches but are 'harvesters' of dark energy. All you have to do is emit a small biotic pulse into it. The sconces will redirect the energy back into the lock and unbind it. It is a simple mechanism and very effective."

"Hold on, so only biotics can unlock these sorts of doors? What about the Prothean guys who weren't biotic?" Williams asked for the non-biotics in the party.

It was not Liara but Ksad-Ishan who answered. "All Protheans like the asari were naturally biotic Lieutenant Williams."

"Truly?" this came from Morwen. "I didn't know that."

"I suspected as much but I had no proof and only the experiences of locks such as these to found my hypothesis on." remarked Liara. "There were far too many ruins that required the use of dark energy to unlock sealed doors to be handled by only a handful of specialists. I theorized the Protheans were either naturally biotic or systematically generated, much like the gene alterations for all Alliance Military personnel as rudimentary practice. "

"If you knew this why didn't you mention it before?" Morwen pressed the issue.

Liara's expression became almost cool as she studied the older asari. "Actually I have. I've even written and published papers upon it, but because of my young age my theories, journals and papers have not been taken seriously by other Prothean scholars whether they be asari or other races. I think perhaps the human idiom of 'being patted on the head and being told that's nice dear, on your way now. It's time for the adults to talk.' is well suited for how often my theories were dismissed out of turn."

Having a very decisive Spectre for a spouse had had its effect on Liara. She was still awkward in social situations but she had turned the tables on her own previous timidity. Samantha once told her: 'You don't have the word welcome tattooed on your back, so why are you allowing others to walk all over you? Stick up for your beliefs and your knowledge Li. Don't let your colleagues push you around. Sometimes you have to push back.' By the Goddess it felt good to get that out!

Morwen was taken aback by the frosty delivery of the words and admitted if only to herself that the younger woman had a valid point. Liara wasn't even a matron yet - of course her theories would not have been given the merit that perhaps they should have been. Asari were not racist but they did tend to be ageist at least when dealing with their own kind.

"My apologies Doctor T'soni." The matron bowed her head slightly conceding the point to the young archeologist. "Once we return to Victory, I shall endeavor to rectify my ignorance on your published work."

From behind the asari Liara saw Williams lick her finger and mark the air with what looked like a point mark. She was smirking as well. Liara made a mental note to speak with the young lieutenant about the significance of the gesture.

Turning her attention back to the door and the sconces Liara summoned the dark energy within her. Almost effortlessly she stretched out her hand emanated a small orb of blue energy and aimed it at the sconce on the left hand side of the door. To her right the Spectre with perfect synchronicity did the same action.

The reaction was instantaneous. The sconces flared to life in engulfed in purple-black 'flame' as if they were ancient gas powered Victorian lamps. The brass metal attaching the sconces to the doorframe were no ordinary fixture but a conduit by which the energy flowed into the door it self. The engraved concentric circles glowed with that same swirling surreal purple-black energy for the span of five breaths then dimmed to a slight luminescent purple humming-glow. There was an anticlimactic click of the locks.

"Is that it?" Williams asked for everyone.

"It is." Liara answered.

"With you saying it's easier with the Captain's help I guess I figured there be … more … I don't know just more," the lieutenant said lamely.

Liara smiled understandingly. She felt the same way the first time she had discovered how the locks were opened. Once simply assumed with the flare of light and power there would be some grand result instead of the normal pneumatic hiss of a door lock unsealing itself. "The sconces have to be lit simultaneously. You can imagine how difficult it is to do that by one's self. Where by lighting one sconce is effortless, lighting two is a little more troublesome. They must be carefully timed and the power balanced. I've learned by experience too much energy will burn out the sconces and you have to wait forty-nine hours for them to cool down. On the same token if you use too little power the sconces will send a biotic repulsive backlash into you and you have to physically and mentally recover, which any biotic can tell you is not an experience one wishes to experience very often. Last time it took me three days to recover from a biotic backlash created by one of these locking mechanisms."

It took all of Samantha's willpower and reserve not to place a comforting hand upon her wife's back. Liara however could feel the power of concern and sympathy emanating from the human woman.

'I love you too.' The young asari archeologist whispered into her beloved's mind.

"Everyone suit up – full face. This place hasn't been opened since it closed fifty thousand years ago. I'm not taking any chances with gasses, spores or microbes." The Spectre ordered as she engaged the pressure locks on her hardsuit that commanded the collapsible helmet to rise up over her face. Around her similar sounds of pressure locks engaging signaled that everyone of the crew had followed suit.

"Ready for this, Williams?" Shepard asked her XO. "It'll be the first time anyone set foot down here in a long time, could be easy to get caught up goldbricking."

Behind the full face helmet it was impossible to see the smile on the younger woman's face in reference to their old gunny back in basic. "As long as you don't kick my ass making me go face first in the muck, I'm ready for anything Skipper."

Both chuckled at the private joke. Then just as quickly as the joke was issued Shepard became very serious. "Liara, Garrus, flank left. Williams, Wrex. take the right, Morwen, Ksad-Ishan, and Kirrahe bring up the rear. The rest stay put until we secure the area. All right people light up and move out!" She switched on the helmet light allowing a small cone of light to illuminate a path ten feet in front of her.

Though adept at the assault rifle it was her Mark HMWP X pistol that Shepard had at the ready. She knew Williams and the other two from the flagship ground team had their own favored firearms mostly bearing on the HMPW X assault rifles, though Garrus had a predilection for the shotgun. Not that they were expecting dangers within a building sealed for fifty thousand years but one could never be too careful. After all who knows what other security measures the Protheans had within?

Shepard snatched a brief look at her right hand and smiled behind her helmet. God it was good to have Ash there once more. Garrus was fine but he wasn't Ashley Williams. He might be C-Sec but he was no marine, there was no deep connection between the turian and the Spectre as there was with Williams. Ash was her person. She was a marine and … human. Shepard was no bigot but sometimes it was great to have a fellow human covering your six. More importantly to the Spectre it was Ash who was doing it. Other than Liara there was no other soul in the galaxy Shepard trusted more.

"So Doc, what can we expect to face in this place?" Williams addressed Liara knowing almost instinctively the young Prothean expert would feel as if she'd been benched to play second fiddle due to the presence of Ksad-Ishan. Being an XO of a warship was something Ashley never allowed herself to fantasize about. Despite her outstanding tech scores and leadership abilities the Williams legacy hounded her career. But there was a down side to the position of being second in command: if Shepard was ground side that typically meant Williams had the deck. Right now it was like old times, she was at her skipper's right flank - exactly where she should be. Just as Liara was covering the skipper's left.

"I have never entered a fully intact ruin such as this, Lieutenant. Previous ruins I have explored have been very decayed, dilapidated by the destruction of the Reapers and time. Often the ruins I've found were repurposed so they no longer resemble their original function such as they were on Novaria. What I have encountered in my explorations were security measures like those on Therum."

"So watch what we touch or we end up in a floating bubble. Got it." Williams remarked referring to how they first discovered Miss Prothean Expert suspended in a stasis field.

"That is not an experience I wish to repeat." The asari jibed at her own expense. Then she added. "I presumed Ksad-Ishan would be better suited to answer this question."

"Yeah well where I trust you Miss Prothean Expert, I don't trust the clanker."

Liara smiled inwardly. She had long ago had transferred the 'nickname' the young human referred her as from insult to one of affection. It was all a matter of the tone in which it was delivered. "Thank you Lieutenant." She tipped her head slightly. She added in a whisper for Ashley's ears alone. "The feeling is more than mutual, my friend."

The clanker in question seemed to take exception to the referral as a 'clanker'. "Despite the metal shell I am encased, within I am still the AI known as Vigil, Lieutenant William, despite being given the name of my creator."

"Yeah? Clanker body, clanker posotronic brain. Do as you're told we won't have a problem. Shift one rivet out of place and I'll put a bullet in that metal skull of yours the same as any other clanker. Get me 'Ksad-Ishan'"

"I believe I do, Lieutenant Williams. However I do wonder what your captain has to say about such a proposition." Ksad-Ishan said its tone bordering on defiance.

"I trust the judgment of my XO. You may have the data files of a Prothean scientist, his personality and the downloaded knowledge of your creators, but that clanker brain shifts into geth personality, I'll back my lieutenant's actions without hesitation, question or provocation. She wouldn't be my second-in-command if I didn't trust in her abilities to lead, make military judgment calls, know the battlefield, or carry on the mission despite all odds." Shepard answered without hesitation.

"Yes ma'am." Williams saluted proud at the great compliment from her C.O.

Passing the threshold of the grand entrance, the troop halted. Their helmet lights revealed seemingly endless arcades going deep into the temple. Through all her travels Liara had never before seen anything like this. Oh she had been in countless ruins, ancient settlements, and long forgotten fortresses. They all held the silence that was found in these vaults, but even there, it was the silence of nature, the silence of solitude. This was wholly unnatural. She shuddered despite herself; she could feel the same uneasiness take her wife, though in Samantha it seemed far more oppressive, lingering in her heart like a viral infection. That was something else with this quiet …this cold.

When they entered the dark tunnel, small pools of lights came on automatically, triggered by their movement. The Reapers had never found the retreat; whatever happened here came by the touch of time's decaying hand. Like the lifts in the fortress proper time had no affect on the power source. The machinery was still operational.

'Must be a separate power source than the one that sustained the cryo-pods. Like on a ship. The life support and gravity are wholly autonomous to the general power and engines.' Shepard thought. She didn't know what was more disturbing: the silence of the grave in this place or the whispering wails of the ghosts that still haunted the edges of her mind. Worse still was the thudding beneath the feet, this wasn't the familiar pulse of an engine room this was something very much very different.

'It's a heartbeat!' Shepard's mind identified the pattern. She felt it running through her, trying to merge with the staccato beat of her own heart. It was more than disorientating, for she could feel it and yet not hear it. Her mind tried in vain to make a sound out of the thumping, imagining it to be so. But then her mind told her she'd been here before, she recognized it, felt it in her bones, she was really beginning to hate this permanent state of Prothean déjà vu.

"I hate this place It's the land of the dead and it should remain…dead." Wrex barked out what Shepard was feeling. "This whole place aint right."

"If the ghosts are too much for you, you can always request to go back to the ship, krogan." Garrus jibbed.

"You'd like that wouldn't you, that way you get all the glory..."

"Shut it both of you." commanded the Spectre. "I want your eyes open not your mouths."

"Aye, Captain." Garrus replied chagrined, "my apologies."

From Wrex she got a rumbling grunt that was a krogan's equivalent to an apology.

The corridor stretched on for a further thirty feet before it opened up in what might have been the nave. What they discovered was something far far different.

"Skipper this isn't a temple." Williams said. "It's … it's a warehouse."

It was. Or at least it was the best description to be had. There were crates, dozens, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them.

"Perhaps when the end was drawing nearer to when they went into hibernation, they gathered all their belongings, their equipment, tools and weapons and placed them in one of the most secure buildings on Ilos." Liara offered an explanation. "What wealth of knowledge is stored here!"

"Like the cache back on Mars," the Spectre said.

"Can you read what is on the crates, Captain?" Kirrahe asked trailing his long tapered fingers along the strange writings.

Shepard moved to the box the STG captain was standing. The cipher had given her an innate knowledge of the written and spoken language of the Protheans. Her mind registered the markings as quickly as it would have Earth standard. "Broken and dysfunctional hardsuits: various. To be recycled."

"No way!" Williams stared. "Seriously?"

Shepard nodded a bit amused. "That's exactly what it reads."

"We're not in a warehouse, we're in some Prothean version of storage sheds or," the young lieutenant laughed, "garage, attic and basement all rolled into one."

"Here's another: 'winter wardrobes: various'." This came from Liara. "'Children's toys: various' and another: 'templar robes: various'."

"See I told you attic, basement and garage." Williams said. "Bet anything the wives told their hubbies the same thing all wives do. 'What are you doing with all of this crap? You should throw it out.' Then he says. 'But dear it may come in handy one day. It just needs a bit of tweaking, a little repair and duct tape and it will be as good as new. You never know, we made need it someday.'"

The humans and Garrus laughed. Finding this rare gem of levity preferable to the oppressing silence they had been welcomed with. With their laughter the others followed.

"Mark my words if you find a box that has stuff just tossed in haphazard, it's because some Prothean teenager got the job of cleaning out the garage and she did by chucking everything into empty boxes and then hid them behind other boxes." Williams snickered.

"Sounds as if this is the voice of experience." Liara smiled.

"Clearing the garage or the basement was a favorite discipline action of my Mom's. I think she hoped we'd chuck the lot and Dad's junk would be significantly reduced." Ash said chuckling.

"It was the same with my mother when I was a youngling." Garrus put in. "She would send me into the storage units to clear them. I could not believe the things my father accumulated over the years!"

"What about you, Shepard?" Wrex asked for all of them.

Shepard shook her head. "I grew up on starships and space stations. I wasn't permitted in the cargoholds and storage bays though I did my share of knuckle pushups, laps and pull ups. Though there was one time I had to clean our quarter's head top to bottom with a toothbrush. So Liara, did your mother make you do anything like clearing out the garage?"

The asari actually nodded her head. "Yes there were similar punishments such as you speak of. Once or twice I and few of my classmates were commanded to clean the storage units under the bastion, though my mother's favored form of punishment was to scrub clean the statutes in the gardens with a toothbrush."

Shepard allowed another round of laughter before she brought them back to business, "Enough reminiscing, back to work people." She activated the radio in her helmet. "Ground team, the immediate area is clear, prep for extensive salvage. We've found things that … may come in handy some day."

The others who waited just outside the temple come warehouse heard various sounds of laughter. The joke was lost on them. The entire landing party were part of the salvage operation and all four makos were utilized.

Four days in, the euphoria of the discovery was almost waning in those accustomed to action. The scientists however were positively ecstatic, practically buzzing in their excitement. Yet Shepard became more withdrawn, almost sullen. She threw herself into the work, often working longer hours than her crew, including Liara.

Several trips were made back and forth to the Victory with hauls of their 'treasures'. The biotics who were able to use their powers to telekinetically lift heavier loads moved the majority of the crates while the non-biotics shifted them in the storage areas on the makos as well as on the Victory. Before this however each crate was opened, thoroughly and critically inspected for all possible contaminants. They were also opened to insure the fact what was within was indeed what was labeled on the outside. No one wanted a nasty surprise.

Data chips, armour, weapons, data pads, even books were discovered. Mesh inlays for hardsuits, and mods for weaponry were recovered and immediately placed in Liara's lab for study as were scanning and survey equipment.

Williams placed another crate on the mako and wiped sweat from her brow, like Shepard she had given up wearing her helmet. "Do you think the Protheans ever threw anything out?" She asked her skipper who was placing her own crate into the rover's storage locker. "You know I wouldn't be surprised if there was a box labeled used apple cores: various."

Shepard laughed heartedly. "Yeah no kidding right? Liara's in her element though, she's like a kid on Christmas morning, she's absolutely bubbling with giddiness."

Williams nodded. "I bet." She grunted as she shoved her crate further into the storage locker but it wasn't budging. "I don't think I've seen that grin leave her face in the past four and half days." She turned to that her back was now against the crate and she was pushing with all the strength in her legs. She grunted once more trying to push but to no avail. "I think something's blocking this one. The others went in easy enough or maybe the day's just catching up to me, what we've been at this for the past ten hours?"

"Something like that, yes." Shepard looked at the problem her junior officer was having and saw that lip of the locker bay was impeding the process. Without thinking the Spectre simply stretched out her hand and commanded her biotics to gently lift and push the crate into place.

Williams who was using all her strength to push toppled over with the sudden give in resistance. "Shit!" she yelped.

"Sorry about that Ash." The Spectre snickered under her breath.

"You could give a girl a warning, Skipper." Ash chastised.

"How about a hand instead?" The Spectre lowered her hand to help Williams hoist herself back onto her feet. Almost effortlessly she pulled the other woman onto her feet and nearly into the Spectre's arms.

Williams caught her breath not trusting herself if she met her skipper's eyes. She quickly moved back and made a show of dusting her hands and backside from imaginary dust of the mako's floor. She didn't want to admit how much the sweet warm breath of Shepard affected her, or the steady gaze of blue eyes.

"So … um… break?" Shepard said her voice huskier than normal, betraying that Ashley hadn't been the only one affected by the accidental embrace.

Williams nodded. "Yeah, sounds good, Skipper."

Liara found the two of them twenty minutes later hunched over a deck of cards around one of the crates that was posing as a makeshift table. Before them were stacks of pebbles doubling for poker chips as they played Texas Hold-'Em. There was a massive amount near Shepard and a steadily dwindling pile next to the lieutenant.

"I wondered what became of you both." The asari said approaching her wife to place a kiss on her lips.

"We've been moving crates for the last ten or so hours; we decided to take a breather." Shepard answered the kiss with another.

"Sounds like a divine idea." Liara agreed.

"You want to be dealt in the next hand?" Shepard asked already starting to divide her very large mound of pebbles into two piles.

"Belay that Skipper, she can have my spot. You've nearly wiped me out any way. Besides you two haven't had much time for yourselves." Williams said graciously giving up her place to Liara.

"Subtle, Ash." Shepard winked.

Williams shrugged. "I think I'll go see what sort of trouble those science geeks are up to, especially my sister."

The other two women watched as the young lieutenant disappeared out of the mako and further into the temple warehouse before turning their attention back to one another.

"I have a much more tempting offer than poker, my love." Liara murmured in a sultry voice dripping with want. "Our friend is correct, we have had so very little time for ourselves. Perhaps we can be selfish, just for a little moment." Her hands running across the hardsuit's smooth surface, unlocking the seals as she went.

Samantha swept her up into her arms, raining kisses along Liara's neck, cheeks, lips and eyelids as she began to remove Liara's own armor. "You're beyond incredible Li. A single touch, a kiss, a look and you have me fixated … entranced - my senses overwhelmed for the want of you. Every single time, every time."

Possessively Liara held onto Samantha as she walked backwards to the mako's bunk. Twin blue eyes glittered in the dim light. As Samantha bent forward to remove Liara's tunic her black hair touched a blue cheek. Delicate fingers rose touching the softness of the strands then clutched it as teeth and tongue began to work their magic on her.

One pair of blue eyes became solid black, the other nearly so. Breath hissed in excited panting sighs. Their bodies touched, the sensations building within them both, shared through their link.

"Stop… teasing me Samantha." Liara demanded. "I want you now!"

Samantha's hand slipped between blue thighs, sliding two fingers within her warmth easily. Liara arched her back against her wife, pulling her ever closer. Her own fingers seeking out her beloved's core, teasingly as she entered her.

Their minds were now completely merged, each of them experiencing the other's pleasure mingled-dancing with their own. Their shared climax ebbed like currents of electricity flowing through their bodies, and minds.

Afterward as Samantha lay with her head resting on Liara's stomach she could feel within her mind a tiny third presence join them. The human sought out the presence feeling the tiny flicker of life and filled it with her love, her acceptance.

Liara almost wept when she felt the paternal sendings of her beloved Samantha. In that touch was poured all the purity, the protectiveness, the undeniable love of a parent.

"This is amazing Liara." the Spectre whispered almost as if her voice might disturb the life growing in the womb. She lifted her head to see her wife's steady gaze filled with awe and thanksgivings. "I felt our daughter!"

'Our daughter'. Liara allowed the words to caress her heart. "Her essences is a whisper, but to feel her, to know she is there, she is a part of you within me… is more than I have words to tell you how grateful I am we have her, that she….exists."

Samantha propped herself up on her elbow gazing into the cherub face of the asari. She kissed Liara softly tenderly then pulled back so she could look into those large blue eyes. "Er…this is a very stupid question but when we make love she isn't aware of it is she? I mean our melds are extremely intense."

Liara smiled. "No, I shield that part of us from her. It is a naturally instinctual aspect of my people."

"Good. It would be very bad for our wife moments to slip into the mommy moments."

"Indeed." Liara reached up and kissed the tip of Samantha's nose. "Have no fear the two parts of our bonds never cross. Our little one is only aware of the 'Mommy moments'."

For a long moment Liara simply stared into the blue eyes of her Samantha. "You are glad to be leaving this place tomorrow, aren't you?"

"Sorry Li, but yeah I am. This place is …filled with too many memories and none of them my own. Everywhere I look I see evidence of death. This place personifies death to me."

Liara sat up properly, her hand stocking the light caramel flesh of Samantha's cheek, then moved to the diagonal scar running from shoulder to hip. "I know the dreams are worse for you here. Every night … I feel you locked in them. You barely sleep as it is and you're not eating properly. You use your biotics extensively for extended hours. Meditations can only sustain you for so long, Samantha, it makes me feel so helpless that I cannot do more to lift you out of it." Blue fingers traced the dark circles under her wife's eyes. Her skin was pale as it had been when she gained the cipher and Liara knew Samantha had lost more weight.

"You do plenty." Samantha tried to reassure the young asari. "Though I do wonder why your dreams aren't filled with these same terrors. I don't mean to say I want you to have nightmares it's just …"

"Why am I not haunted also?"

The Spectre nodded.

"I have the visions from the beacons indirectly though our bond-sharing you however have had them implanted by the beacons. Dr. Chakwas said a part of your brain is now marked by the Protheans, the beta waves shifted to match theirs."

"Yes but she said you also changed due to the gestalt that kept me alive."

"Samantha, I can only repeat what Dr. Chakwas said and what we already know. I am so sorry these terrors take you as they do. If I could make them stop altogether I would."

Sam leaned forwarded kissing her distressed wife. "I know. You do enough already, babe. This isn't your burden to bear."

"But I do bear it, Samantha. Until now I didn't know what it was. It lingers in you I know, it but I was too blind to my own excitement, forgive me." Liara stroked her beloved's cheek.

"There is nothing you need to be forgiven for. It's just this place. That's all. It seriously damages my calm. And that constant thumping, it never goes away, it's become a part of me like my own heartbeat but I can't possibly ignore it. I feel like I'm on the edge of having a migraine. Even the meditations haven't been working like they should. I feel like I did when Udina grounded the Normandy and stripped me of my command. It's like I should be doing something, fighting and I can't … or don't know how. I've never not know how to fight, how to wage battle."

"You are doing something, Samantha. You face the demons that linger here daily …nightly. This ancient city of the dead, filled with dead secrets. You've found the keys to our quest. It may feel as if we are making little progress but that is not true. Do not forsake hope, Beloved. What we've recovered here is invaluable if only for Ksad Ishan."

"This is a bold move, Spectre." Councilor Lei'cree said through her holographic transmission. "Are you positive this is wise?"

Seven days had passed and Shepard had recalled her team back to the Victory and pulled out of the Terminus Systems. All that had happened on the planet, the discoveries both good and bad had been diligently documented and sent to the Council. Now Shepard stood before their holographic projections in a verbal debriefing.

"You ally yourself with the geth. This is what Saren did; do you now follow his path Captain?" Trace all but snarled.

"I ally myself with the last remain remnant of the Protheans. It just happens to reside in a geth body. The posotronic brain has been painstakingly rewritten by my scientists. Ksad Ishan not a geth controls it. It no longer has any connection to the geth nor is it possible. Believe me I grilled my people on this, they assured me the geth will never be able to connect it again." Shepard snapped back. "I am the only one who can access its command center. You have the full files on it, Councilors; you can see we went to great pains to set up security measures."

"I am sure Spectre Shepard has thought this out before she made the command order to take Vigil with her." Anderson defended his former junior officer. "I'm more concerned over Cerberus's presence on that planet. Fortunately you've managed to stop them, but I doubt this Illusive Man will be waylaid for long. Whatever it is he is planning goes beyond what happened on Ilos. We have reports that there was an incident on Grissom Station involving a biotic child. There was also an attack on a young quarian on his pilgrimage. Be careful Captain, this Illusive Man is very dangerous individual, and he's got a lot of covert connections. We believe he is behind Cerberus. "

"Indeed." Lei'cree cautioned. "Considering he has placed a bounty on Dr. T'soni, would it not be prudent for her if she were to remain either on the Citadel or Thessia?"

"She will not be parted from this mission." The Spectre shook her head.

"You mean from you, Spectre. You bring danger to the one you claim to love. Though not policy you should understand Spectres do not attach themselves so closely to others. It is better to live a solitary life." Trace said not keeping the condemnation out of his voice.

The asari councilor held her hand up to forestall the argument about to erupt. "There are other Spectres who have mates, Councilor Trace."

"Yes and they have the wisdom not to take them on missions. They are not so reckless, nor do they needlessly bring others into Death's embrace. "

"Liara is a Prothean expert; her presence has been more than beneficial, it's been crucial." Shepard countered.

"Now with your geth bodied Prothean AI, her presence is redundant is it not? Or perhaps like Saren you covet the T'soni's control over biotics, or is it simply having one at your side that you desire?" the turian continued his attack. "Her presence weakens you and could endanger the mission."

"I'm not going to have you rake me over the coals, judging all of my decisions in hindsight. Is it simply I'm the newest to rank with the Spectres or is it something else, something hanging over from the First Contact War?"

Shepard leaned forward readying herself for battle. She was almost unaware her body had started to shimmer in the cyan glow of dark energy.

Jorg quickly intervened between the turian and human. "I am sure Council Trace's intention is not to antagonize you Spectre, but simply point out the dangers of such close ties. As you no doubt know Spectres generate a great many enemies, as is evident of the bounty on your wife's head. The danger is not simply to the life of another but that life threatened could compromise an otherwise noble mind and heart and turn them to dark intent."

"I haven't turned traitor. And I won't."

"I pray you keep that vow." Trace said relenting at last. "We will have other agents seeking out and neutralizing Cerberus. However it maybe prudent to remain every vigilant in your hunt for this Illusive Man or rather information upon him. Find out whatever you can on Cerberus, the Illusive Man and what if there are any ties there are between this rogue human organization and the quarians. I believe you have the daughter of one of the admiralty on board your ship. Use her ties to speak with their leaders."

"Shepard." Anderson spoke "This traitor you mentioned, I contacted Admiral Hackett concerning this; he gave the green light for you to immediately render the sentence of court martial. He requests that you hold him until he can be transferred to another penal colony. He will want a full report on the proof of evidence and a reassurance beyond a shadow of doubt there were acts of conspiracy and treason." After a moment he spoke again, "Sam, the other Councilors are right, this organization is extremely dangerous. They are not simple crime bosses selling red sand and slaves. If they can't corrupt you they will corrupt the image of you. And they will do it by taking that which is most precious to you. Don't let them."

"What about Udina?" Shepard demanded.

"He no longer serves as humanity's ambassador." Anderson said. "If he has linked himself with Cerberus as you suspect then use him to lead you to the Illusive Man. Lieutenant Pressly maybe compromised, so assume everything he knew about the Normandy and you in particular have been surrendered. So far there hasn't been any proof he betrayed either his oath as an officer or the Alliance, especially if he had been ordered by Udina to report all. Considering Udina knew all about the Normandy, I doubt Pressly would have thought twice about telling anything about the ship in general. However he is suspect to acts of conspiracy as you are now a Spectre, the rules change. If he has any remaining loyalty to you, use it to get to Udina and ultimately to the Illusive Man."

"There is much defiance in that one." Trace said once the transmission was cut.

"There is defiance in all of our Spectres." Lei'cree answered back. "You challenged her at every turn, why?"

Anderson folded his arms over his chest. "I'd like to hear this as well Trace. It is because of her, her orders you all live."

"I have not forgotten that, David. Saren was one of our best operatives, his loyalty to the Council was unwavering …until he discovered Sovereign. You were there, twenty years ago when it all happened. Both Dr. Shu Qian and Edan Had'dah were indoctrinated as was Saren and tragically Matriarch Benezia T'soni became so as well. I do not say Samantha Shepard has been indoctrinated by the Reapers but have you considered she may have been by the Protheans?

"We've all seen her medical files, those changes that happened to her with the first beacon, the cipher and the merging with Liara T'soni. Where Saren was drawn to Sovereign and gave into it, Shepard seems to have done the same with the Protheans. Yes they are the progenitors of all of our technology but her bond to them can we trust it? She now has a Prothean AI as an adviser and her bond to young T'soni mirrors too closely to that of Saren and Lady Benezia. I tested her resolve to her bond to the young doctor. She was nearly volatile. We all saw how she summoned her biotics without a second thought, and they are more powerful now than ever before. I put this to you should one of those bounty hunters even come close to harming Liara T'soni, what do you think Shepard will do?"

In the private hall of the Council there lingered a heavy pressing silence. All knew the answer.

"She will not go rogue, she will become far worse." Anderson whispered in that silence. "She will become an unstoppable force, an avenging angel."

"One filled with reckless hate and inconsolable rage." Lei'cree consented. "But we presume much and place too great importance on what may be - not what is. If she has been indoctrinated by the remnants of the Protheans as Saren had been with the Reapers, it will be to our advantage. If she becomes an unstoppable avenging angel over one life, think how those many deaths of the Protheans linger in her and set her on her course to stop this cycle of destruction. Yes we have seen her dedication to Liara T'soni and it is as equally potent to this mission to stop the Reapers. Through the beacons and the cipher she has felt the death of all Protheans it echoes in her like a great wound. Her vengeance for their extinction is great indeed.

"I have born witness to the dreams she carries with her when I melded with her prior to her induction to the Great Hunt on Thessia. Whole worlds, whole star systems utterly obliterated, people torn apart and converted into husks, or far worse. These images haunt the Spectre constantly."

"Do not forget she isn't the only one. Two others have the cipher and from it the visions from the beacons. If Shepard has been indoctrinated by the Protheans surely Dr. Liara T'soni and Huntress Shiala are also touched." Jorg pointed out. "And only Shiala has remained sane and miraculously freed from the Reaper's touch on her mind after her capture by the Thorian. I realize we've discussed the huntress's connection to the Thorian before as well as her inclusion in Shepard's crew. If the three of them are bound by constant melds what war they will make on the Reapers. They will strike such a blow that will leave their enemies shaken and broken."

"There is another who isn't bound by the mind melds or marriage but dedicated to Shepard as fiercely as any other: Lieutenant Ashley Williams. Whatever war Shepard fights, she will not leave her side. Next to Shepard, Williams is one of the most dedicated soldiers in the Alliance fleet. She is extremely devoted to her skipper." Anderson said. "Shepard won't stop and she will do whatever she can to stop the Reapers and so will those like Lt. Williams and Dr. T'soni. They will fight whatever enemy Shepard sets them on without question. For that matter so will those that belonged to her flagship ground team."

"Then we should hope that unlike Saren, she does not turn against the Council. For like he was, she is powerful, charismatic and those that follow her believe in her and see her cause as right. She even turned those that would hunt her into dedicated disciples." Trace said with admiration in his voice. "And she does so without indoctrinating them. How many others will join her, will flock to her?"

"It is not the geth that will beckon to her call but those of true free will and they will serve as those who do now until their dying breath." Lei'cree spoke with a seer's voice. "Only Saren had such control over others. Shepard bears watching for we can not afford to make another error as we did with Saren. But in our diligence we must take care not to push her into the very path we fear might be taken. The nightmares drive her to whatever means that will put an end to them. Her loyalty maybe ours, but her devotion belongs to another: this piece on the game-board now belongs to the Protheans."

As soon as she had vacated the comm room, Shepard headed directly for the CIC to order the ship to their new coordinates: the rocky ice planet of Klencory in the Newton system within the Kepler Verge.

Jahleed's uncle the enigmatic billionaire Kumun Shol was expecting them within the month. The volus male was eccentric to the extreme or so the Council viewed him. His bizarre fascination to the vision he claimed to have received from a 'higher being' were not taken seriously by any governing factor and since no government had valued the world enough to evict his small army of mercenaries, he was left to his two decade excavations in relative peace.

Having seen all that she had in the beacons and the cipher, Shepard found herself compelled to take the claims of this slightly mad volus at face value. Crypts of beings of light created to protect organics from synthetic machine devils harkened too close to the visions within the beacons. What if it were true?

Just what were these entities that had been created at the dawn of time, and whose dawn of time did this refer to? After all if the Reapers eliminated those like the Protheans that had achieved such wondrous advancements then the dawn of time had happened countless times over and over again. Time after all was relative. Ksad-Ishan may have knowledge on the subject and if not at least it was another brain working on the theory of whom or what the beings of light were.

'We've cleared the mass relay, captain. Engaging drive core, ETA to Klencory forty five minutes.' Joker's voice called out over the com system.

"Once we arrive take us into a synchronous orbit above the main continent of Mr. Shol's base camp, until we open negotiations." Shepard said into the inner-ear headset.

'Aye, Captain.'

"Lieutenant," the Spectre turned to Williams, "You have the deck."

"Yes, ma'am."

It was a slightly surreal moment for both of them. For so long Williams had been head of ammunitions and firearms, now her station was within the CIC. It was something both were going to have to get used to. Shepard had no doubt in her mind that the younger woman would soon adapt just as she had adapted to life aboard a starship versus her previous groundside stations.

"Skipper, may I ask what was the reaction of the Council to our newest … recruit?"

"Pretty much similar to mine at first, they baulked and I can't blame them for it. Though Councilor Trace was a little more brazen." The jaw set hard a sign to those who knew their captain well that she was becoming increasingly pissed off. "The shutta dared compare me to Saren." She leaned close to her lieutenant so the words would only be shared between them and no other. "I have a 'geth' at my side as well as a T'soni. So he questions my loyalties and my judgments."

"Skipper …"

Shepard waved her hand dismissively. "As much as his comments pissed me off, I can't blame them either. Saren was their best, and deadliest of Spectres of course they're going to be suspicious of me considering the connections that lay between us - the beacons and the cipher. Not to mention I do have a T'soni at my side."

"They're jumping at shadows like children, now that their lofty eyes have been opened to the dangers of the Reapers. First they wouldn't believe you, now they accuse you. Didn't Cap…Councilor Anderson defend you?"

"He did, but he's in a precarious position. He's no longer a captain in the Alliance military any more than I am. He had to resign his commission to serve as a Councilor, just like I had to do to become a Spectre. He can only defend my actions to a point or be accused of favoritism."

"Just like the Council did with Saren?" Williams scoffed.

Shepard grinned. "Something like that yes. More importantly our former captain has to prove himself in the eyes of his counterparts and the Citadel as worthy of leading humanity in the Council; just I still have to prove myself in the eyes of my Spectre peers as well as everyone else. He and I are back being raw recruits despite all of our training, skills, experiences and abilities." A smile brightened on the Spectre's face. "Much like a NCO becoming second in command of a Council warship. It's a whole new set of rules, responsibilities and duties, those who are capable do the job those who can't don't stay in the job for long. The three of us have new roles to play. Either we do it or we get out of the game."

"I copy that, Skipper." Williams tilted her head. "So if I have the deck, where can you be reached if necessary?"

"Li and I have an appointment in med-bay with Chakwas and S'thasa." There was a bashful smile rarely seen on the Spectre's face. "It will be the first time we'll see our little one."

"I remember seeing my sisters' holo-ultrasound pics when I was a kid. They were cool. Skipper …"

"Hey you're going to be my kid's godmother. Of course you'll see them."

Ash stood up straighter, yes she had been asked to be the unofficial 'aunty' but godmother... was something more to the young woman. "Sam…" she whispered softly.

"I meant to ask you, so um…do you accept?"

"You have to ask twice?" She went to hug her CO but stopped short and saluted crisply. "It'd be my honor, Skipper!"

"Actually it's Liara and me who are honored." The Specter took Ashley's arm in an ancient warrior's grasp. "Our little one could have no better guardian." A smile shared. "Now if you excuse me I have a date to keep."

Chakwas met them as Liara and Samantha arrived in med bay. "Serrice Medical updated our data-banks with detailed files of asari physiology considering the number of asari crew members we have. Apart from the obvious physical differences between our species, there are several developmental ones." The doctor said ushering them into a private examination room. "I know for asari the gestation period it is approximately fifty-two weeks. Typically I would take a scan to measure the size of your daughter's head. Once I had that, then I would make a responsible prediction as to when she'll be born. But with asari it's simpler, I still want to take a scan however, considering your youth Liara there are some concerns. Alright up you get." Chakwas patted the exam-bed.

Liara obeyed without hesitation, she further laid down and laid her hands protectively over her belly. It was now Shepard felt her lover's dread. She placed her hand upon the asari's shoulder.

"Don't fear Babe, we're just making sure our daughter okay. Besides it will be good to know when she will be born." She remained at her wife's side still holding her hand as Chakwas reached up to swing the scanner over her.

Liara lay there, looking at the narrow bar of light as Chakwas moved over to her monitor. Liara's hands moved instinctively to clasp over her stomach. As Samantha's hand followed, icy fear swept through her. Fear not of her daughter but for Samantha's reaction once she noticed their child bore only a passing resemblance to her, as much as any human bore a slight resemblance to asari.

Picking up on Liara's fears, the Spectre leaned over and kissed soft lilac lips. "If she looks anything like her Mommy…her Naneth, she'll be gorgeous," she smirked. Liara saw her wink briefly before Samantha continued to speak. "It doesn't matter to me Babe if our little girl has 'head fur' or not. I know she will look purely asari, Li. I know it's my own ignorance but I can't tell the difference between …well a daughter born between two asari and one conceived with another species like your half sister." She would never say it aloud but the differences of the 'father' species seemed almost anecdotal to her.

Shepard laid her hand on Liara's belly, they closed their eyes together both of them concentrating their focus on the child.

"She moved!" both women said together. What might have been too soon for a human the slight movement was right on schedule for a three month asari foetus. Asari were pregnant for a full year as their minds developed faster than humans, though their bodies within the womb developed at a slower rate. However by their first year of life asari daughters had astounding motor skills: they can talk, walk and even dance.

For the first time since her pregnancy Liara felt a wave of calm surround her. Samantha was positively giddy with the idea of a child. A new wave hit the asari next, one she had hoped to feel and had never thought to feel the brunt of pure protectiveness. Overprotectiveness if one wanted to be accurate. Samantha was exuding this emotion from every pore of her emotional self. Given her lover's demeanour, Liara couldn't say she hadn't been surprised by the prospect. After all the Spectre had offered to protect her even if Liara wasn't looking for a protector. She soon learned that was who Samantha was - a protector, she didn't know how not to protect. Now that Liara was pregnant with their first child, the young woman accepted joyfully that inborn nature in her wife.

Samantha sent waves after waves of her love, affection and acceptance into the child growing in her beloved's womb. She needed to instil into her little girl that she was wanted, loved and accepted. No doubt the weeks after her conception the child had, at least in the Spectre's mindset, experienced apprehension from her mother. The entity that would become her first born child had to know she was loved and further more wanted, even if she was unexpected.

"She flitters about in your belly like a little sparrow." Samantha jibbed.

"Little Sparrow?" smiled Liara. "I think I rather like that name."

"It was in jest." the Spectre said a little surprised her pet name for their child had been taken seriously.

"Even still my love I like it … Sparrow. Flitting and darting about she is after all the daughter of a Spectre." Liara laughed. "And you rarely are still."

"And don't forget she's the daughter of a rebellious asari Prothean archeologist. So Sparrow it is, or at least until we find something a little more suitable … Little Wing."

"Until such a time." Liara agreed.

"If you two are done chittering about names would you like to see your baby as she is now?"

"YES!" both women chorused.

"I thought that would be the answer."

Dr. Chakwas tapped in a few commands into the amber holographic interface calling up a neonatal holographic image "Sparrow." The image of a fetus was similar to that of a human of the same developmental age. Instead of the familiar translucent ruddy skin filled with red blood vessels Sparrow had translucent cyan skin and blue blood. The slight swooping curve of her barely defined crest was distinctly asari. But she was their daughter. Even if she didn't look at all human, Samantha Shepard would know her daughter.

"Can you make a …"

"Print of her?" Chakwas grinned "but of course.

"How did you know she was going to ask that question?" Liara asked dumfounded.

"You think you and Captain Shepard are the only expecting parents I've treated in my long service? Please. I've seen dozens and all want the same things: reassurance their tiny one is healthy, that new mommy is healthy and a print of the little one, not to mention to hear this very precious sound." Chakwas typed in a new command into the scanner and instantly a rapid flittering thump filled the exam-bay.

"Is that Sparrow's heartbeat?" Liara asked this time her voice filled with wonder and astonishment.

"That's an amazing sound." Samantha uttered equally agog.

"It is." Chakwas grinned. Yep soldiers with piercing eyes and deep souls always became mush at the sound of their child's heartbeat when they heard it for the very first time. "Yes you can have a recording as well." the gray haired woman laughed. She held up a hand forestalling the question she knew was coming. "Doctor. Remember I've treated expecting parents to be before. And they wanted the same thing, pictures of growing baby and the heartbeat recorded. You marines are the worst. Suddenly when you become an expecting parent a part of your heart simply melts and becomes very soft and squishy. Just like a marshmallow. I don't know how many marines I've seen do that. I'll tell you the same thing I've told them. Of course you can."

"So how is she?" Shepard asked anxiously holding onto Liara's hand.

"Both are healthy. As when you will see your Little Sparrow, Liara can better answer that." Chakwas said. "As I said asari are pregnant for fifty-two weeks. Just do the math."

Puzzled by this response the Spectre turned to her wife, who was beaming at her with a slight cyan flush to her freckled cheeks.

"Asari are pregnant for year from the time we conceive our daughters. Our daughter will be born on the anniversary of the gestalt." Liara didn't say 'the day you died twice, the day we destroyed Sovereign.'

Samantha smirked a little. "You know she will have to share her birthday on a holiday. You know they've turned Sovereign's defeat into a celebration."

"Yes I suppose she will have to celebrate her birthday on a holiday." Liara conceded the point.

"You should know Captain, asari do not celebrate the day they are born as the day they came into existence but rather they day they are conceived as the day of their existence. Such a day is celebrated." Chakwas explained. "As I said I had a lot of time to study non-human physiology and customs. It helps when treating non-humans."

"Doc, if asari daughters are born a day to the year they are conceived then they do celebrate the day they are born as a birthday. It becomes the same thing." Shepard said feeling proud of herself for pointing this out.

"I think it's a point of philosophy that is celebrated, my love. As a daughter is given to a mother because she deliberately wills it to be." Liara explained further.

No one even dared to point out that this little one had been conceived by accident because of the gestalt which was the result of more than six hours of prolonged meld.

Part 21

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