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: I've gotten some extensive aid from a reader who has an excellent grasp on real-world science and physics and has helped me understand the real-world applications of a gravity leveler, which is a far cry from the cinema-effects of the same device used in Ultraviolet which I have borrowed. I have taken extreme liberties with real-world science but then so do many sci-fi writers, after all explosions as seen in Star Wars / Star Trek / BSG/ Star Gate/ Mass Effect can not truly happen in the vacuum of space. Oh yes and due to the events of ME2 obviously this is very much an AU. However some elements / scenes / characters of ME2 will make it into here so I guess there will be some spoilers.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Rising From the Ashes
By Elizabeth Carter


Chapter 43

Sam did like the fish tank. She lost practically an hour simply watching aquatic creatures swim back and forth and in and out of little plastic castles half hidden by wavering plant life. Chakwas and Shiala were right. There was a calming influence about the fish living their simple lives.

'You don't fear the Reapers do you little guys?' she asked them silently, tapping on the glass. She smiled as she watched them dart away from the reverberating sound. 'You go about your little fishy lives with no memories and the little plastic castles are a surprise every time. Sometimes, I wish I could take a furlough inside a simple life…'

"Are you going to confront the Council about this alleged signed document for your arrest? Liara asked putting her arms around her beloved. Her blue eyes drawn not to the fish but to the couples' reflection upon the glass.

And there it was hard hitting reality like bumping your nose into a pane of glass, with no little plastic castles to make it all go away. "And what proof do I have that it's true? And even if it is which wouldn't be that much of a surprise, what is there to do about it? No doubt the press will inundate me with questions concerning it. Maybe I should just play the politicians' game and talk circles around them."

"My love, you are too blunt and straightforward for such word games. They do not suit your demeanour."

Sam turned in her wife's arms and placed a smooth kiss on teal lips. "That's the beauty of it. No one will suspect it. It isn't that I'm not capable of word games it's just I never found them honest. Hell maybe somewhere in those Prothean memories I can find someone who was very apt at The Game and channel them. Wouldn't that be a kick in the head?"

Liara grinned. "You jest."

"Not entirely, no. I wish to see how The Council scrambles to excuse themselves from these accusations. I suspect Trace is already churning his gizzard believing I had something to do with it. No doubt he believes I went to that C-SEC officer who was on Tevos guard and Erlan Golta."

"One an asari the other a salarian, it is favorable to you that both writers are not human. Had they been The Council will have dismissed it out of turn and censured the Systems Alliance for their conspiracy theories." Liara said slipping from Samantha's hold to a take a seat on the black leather sofa in the 'den' area of their quarters. "Is it just me or is it suspicious that you haven't already been called by The Council to answer allegations that you aided and abetted these writers?"

"Very. Hopefully Anderson will give me a good defense, but I fear his power is only figurehead's charade. He can only do so much for me before they start questioning his dedication to the galactic big picture and have him replaced."

"So what are you going to do? I know you Samantha; I know you have something in the planning. You may not like word games, but I have borne witness to that silver tongue of yours charm even a krogan battlemaster into peace."

"What me plan anything? I leave scheming to the schemers. The Council, the Brass, the leaders, especially TIM, they all have plans. They all scheme. They like ultimate control. Me? I find improvisation better suited to my tastes and style."

"It is said Samantha Shepard: first human Spectre is a child of chaos and change." Liara smiled. "It also explains why there are so many explosions when you are near. It is also why 'Pulling a Shepard' had become quite the euphemism for improvised and chaotic solutions to a problematic situation."

Sam threw her head back and laughed. "What can I say? Still the best thing about chaos is that it's fair."

"Indeed it is." Liara studied the woman before her and said. "So. What are you planning? I know you. No doubt you will put on the charm."

"Oh, I can't tell you."

"Why not?"

"Spoilers." the Spectre answered cheekily. She crossed the room and gave her bondmate a sensual kiss. "I have to run. I'm meeting Tali for a walking tour of Normandy's hull to see how the armour is coming along." After a brief pause, she added. "You want to come?"

"I think I shall pass. There is much I need overseeing in the labs and I want to investigate our new sensors. There also a few contacts here on Illium specifically Nos Austra, still loyal to the T'soni Bastion. If we mean to catch Miranda Lawson we will need their information."

"What you becoming an information broker now? With contacts even, I'm impressed."

"Once the T'soni name was well respected on Illium, as you humans say I mean to cash in on it. Besides my love, the world of intrigue isn't that different from a dig site, except the bodies still smell."

Shepard made a face. "You know with a simile like that, I might have gone with. 'You have to dig deep for facts and carefully extract your finds'…"

"Perhaps two years ago that is something I might have said. Granted, I still prefer lengthier studies to all the explosions but you have a way of influencing others. I believe I have grown a bit bolder and stronger for it." she rose and pressed her body against Sam's, her blue hand cupping the caramel flesh of her cheek. "And that is not at all a bad thing."

"Just don't become too hard and ruthless where I don't recognize you any more." Sam said in a small voice.

The asari smiled confidently. "We will keep each other as soft and as hard as we need to be." she softly kissed her beloved and pulled away. "Now go and have your walkabout, I shall meet with my contacts."

"Take Wrex with you. An asari maiden with a krogan bodyguard strikes an imposing figure."

"I fear I can not. He's out in the field or have you forgotten and so is Garrus. And Ashley left three hours ago for her war games. Lay to rest your fears, I'll take a contingent of asari commandos, those who where close disciples of my mother, I think."

"Oohh! Good choice." Sam nodded thinking that few were eager to face off an entire commando squad of asari. From what the Spectre had heard, Illium was just like Omega but with better shoes.

Liara decided to wear her new armour. She had to admit she liked the sleek cut, the look of it: white, blue and gray. It was a striking and imposing. It fit Liara perfectly. She especially liked the way the tailed jacket fell from her shoulders and down the length of her back. She was grateful once more to her dear friends Ashley and Tali for designing such things. She stroked her hands down her length of her sides, with the memory of her bondmate helping her with greaves. Samantha's touch had been both loving and sensual. She looked to her reflection in the full length mirror that hung in the ensuite.

"You look good, T'soni." She said to her reflection smiling.

Her mother never used feminine wiles to achieve any goal. Dressing provocatively had never entered the Matriarch's mind it was simply the design of the holy robes of Athame. The garb had set tongues wagging sort to speak and it was a useful distraction. One the asari found quite amusing. Liara always thought the young males of any species always had an unhealthy obsession with her species. Looking now at her image Liara believed she understood the use of sensual power and intimidation. Her fellow asari respected power of the self, confidence of ones own spirit, strength of the soul and their own sensuality.

Liara loved how the armour made her feel. It was empowering. She loved how Samantha looked at her when she wore it. It was rather strange, the bond flared with more libidinous fire when Samantha saw her in the armor rather than the white lace teddy and thong.

Liara made her way down to the armory to collect both her guns and her commandos. Amongst their numbers were Nual, and Morwen who had accompanied Samantha on Ilos. They were to be members of the flagship team, but when Ash transferred back Morwen was sent to command the beta team. Nual became more a bench warmer, when one of the preferred members of team was left behind for one reason or another Nual took their place. Liara meant to talk with the Spectre about that, the young huntress deserved better than to be a reserve.

A squad of nine commandos all in black and copper colored form fitted armor followed their mistress in her gleaming white and blue. When they hit Nos Austra they drew several looks from the patrons of the Trading Floor to the police. Liara feigned not to notice all the stares. So far she had not broken any laws, nor was she required to register with the local authorities. Of course it would be a bit redundant since the crew of the Normandy had already registered with the port authority. In truth they had to be, the war games, survival training and weeks spent within battle simulations. As well as the refit required it.

"Where do we go now, Doctor T'soni?" asked Morwen.

"The nightclub called Eternity. The bartender there was quite close to my parents, especially my mother once. You might even know her yourself, Morwen. She left Thessia a little over century ago and took up residence here. She has been on Illium ever since. But I have established my own friendship with her apart from my mother's relationship with her."

'Or lack there of.' Liara's face flickered a brief flash of remorse. The journals she had taken from her mother's study had spoken of Aethyta with great affection. In another time, in another reality Aethyta would have been her dame not Shi'ara. And for a brief time Aethyta, Shi'ara and Benezia had shared what almost could have been called a trinity.

It was only after Shi'ara's coming out as her siring parent that Liara took to reading her mother's journals with great relish. She had discovered that not long after her birth there was a falling out between Aethyta and her mother.

From Liara's own encounters with the matriarch she found Aethyta held very different views on matters than other matriarchs and possessed a very free-spirited, laissez-faire attitude to life. She seemed to support the asari becoming more militant and active on the galactic stage. It all started with Aethyta's urgency that asari daughters should help improve society in their wild maiden years instead of becoming strippers or mercenaries.

When Liara had her own falling out with her mother she came to Illium before setting out on her first dig site in the pursuit of the truth about the Protheans. She knew the name Aethyta from her mother's disciples and from Shiala herself. Her former mentor had said seek out the matriarch if ever Liara needed aid or someone to simply talk to. All she had to do was tell Aethyta who she was and the matriarch would always be there for her.

There was even a time when Liara fully believed Aethyta to be her dame. Wishing didn't make it so. Still they had a solid and good friendship. In a way the matriarch had become a second parent. The older asari even admitted her proposal that the asari should try to construct new mass relays was met with ridicule, causing the other asari to as Aethyta said "laugh the blue off her ass". Realizing that no one wanted to listen to her arguments, she left Thessia for a less conventional matriarch's life on Illium. Indeed she became a bartender. In hearing Liara took after her in less conventional careers Aethyta was beside herself with glee. Back then Liara didn't fully see the joke. Now however she did. She was far more like her foster parent than the mother who bore her or the one who sired her. According to her mother's own words Aethyta was present during the Joining that led to the conception. Though it was Shi'ar's mind Benezia linked to Aethyta had linked with them both.

The last time Liara had seen Aethyta had been at her mother's funeral and her bonding ceremony to Samantha. The old asari had told Liara and her bondmate if they ever found themselves on Illium to look her up. The first round was on her.

"Now there's a sight I didn't expect to see again. A T'soni with a squadron of commandos at her heels." Aethyta's rich timbred voice called out to Liara as she entered the nightclub. "And ones I see still loyal to your mother's bastion." She recognized Morwen, Handir, Edrendil and Ahsuka from their time of being in Benezia's personal guard. That was of course before Benezia screwed up and dropped everything to chase after that turian fucker. What a kick in the quads that decision had been.

"A necessary precaution." Liara said dryly. She looked at this woman who might have become Muinthel to her had history played out differently. "And who better than the sworn disciples of my mother's teachings?"

Aethyta came around the bar and placed a hand upon the maiden's arm. "Who better indeed? I heard what happened on the Citadel. I'm truly sorry."

"Shi'ara told you?"

The matriarch shook her head. "Citadel News and the interview your bondmate gave. I am so very sorry."

Liara didn't trust her voice to speak at the moment. She pushed her pain down enough to recover her composure. "Thank you… Muinthel."

The honorific stunned the matriarch as it did the nine commandos flanking Liara.

"I didn't think to hear that from you again."

"There have been many new developments in the recent year. Including the truth of who sired me."

"How did you find out?" the Matriarch asked hesitantly. She saw the burning resentment behind the maiden's eyes. She knew Liara felt berated for her silence.

"Shi'ara came forward and spoke the truth to me after Mother's funeral. It was a great deal to take in. Perhaps when time permits you can tell me why in all the years I have known you, you never spoke of your relationship with my parents. Now however I need another sort of information."

"Let's not talk here." The aged asari led the host of ten back around the bar, opened a door leading to the back rooms, there was an intermediate storage area that had boxes containing packets of snake foods ready to fill either red bowls or blue, given different digestive systems. Further along were crates of booze, again ready to stack the shelves on a moments notice in preparation for the evening's clientele. The corridor ended with a door to the left and right, which were offices for the owner and head bar tender and the one directly in front which might have doubled as a meeting room. Within there was even another door to far right which was labeled in Asarian 'Security.'

Once the last of the guard was ushered in Aethyta turned and faced Liara. "So tell me, my young T'soni what kind of information does the Spectre want?"

"If you watched the interview then you know who we truly seek."

"Cerberus. An ambitious move and full of folly. You simply can not start capturing and detaining suspected operatives to interrogate them. In addition to the legal and political ramifications it will surely alert Cerberus that you are coming and they will relocate and evacuate."

"We do not hunt the full organization. They are an infestation that spreads like a disease, it would difficult if nigh impossible to completely eradicate the infection. The one we truly seek is beyond our measure for the moment but not one of his most trusted operatives."

"Yes you gave me her name… Miranda Lawson and you mean to take her. When you do what then my little archeologist? Will you bloody yourself with her murder?"

"Not murder. A Spectre holds to no law, therefore there can be no murder. Samantha serves to protect the galaxy; she is justice of the Council. Cerberus and all who pledge loyalty to them are the avowed enemy of the Citadel Space."

"And just how much of this is this vengeance?"

Liara's sapphire eyes became cold burning fire. "Much. There are debts to pay, and they will be paid."

"Can you turn your heart hard, and see only black and white as a Justicar?"

"If I must."

"A Justicar will die to protect an innocent. And kill to do the same."

"The Code compels her very life, I know this." Liara crossed her arms in a very Shepardesque manner. "What are you getting at?"

"I know a few names and they are innocent of the crimes against you Little Wing, your bondmate and your lost daughter. But they have connections to the one you want."

"What sort of connection?"


"Family, then."

The matriarch nodded. "The first name is not, the second name is. It is the second name you truly want and the first will get her for you."

"Name the first then." Liara demanded it.

"Lanteia." Aethyta said softly.

"That is an asari name." Morwen said with a deep frown upon her face and a deeper one in her eyes. "What is an asari doing working with a Cerberus whore?"

"That is something you will have to ask her." Aethyta answered.

"We are asking you." the matron practically snapped.

"Cute. You think you can intimate me, girl? I was in battle long before your mother was in dippers. Don't mistake my current choice of career for lack of skill. " She waved the other off imperiously. "As for Lanteia's motives I have no wish to tell you. It'd spoil the fun of asking her yourselves. What I will do however is arrange for a meeting to take place here in Eternity. One of the backrooms will do nicely. You pick the room."

Liara looked at the door marked security. "All the rooms are monitored?"

"Of course. You wouldn't believe the amount of idiots that stroll fresh off the transport and have no idea how things are run on Illium. A while back we had a handful of Alliance soldiers on furlough. They all had crap for brains and were naive enough to believe that we were running red sand. I tried to tell them red sand which we don't sell, isn't illegal on Illium, if you have the licenses for it. Of course they claimed that an undercover cop told them about it and 'they should do something about it.' Turns out that so called undercover cop was using them as 'do-gooder- Shepard-would-do-it muscle' trying to force us to sell the deed to the place. We had the whole thing recorded and handed the OSD over to the authorities."

"Detective Anaya came in with a few of her badges and put the idiots in the cooler until their sergeant came to collect them and hauled their sorry asses back to Alliance Space. Me? I wanted to slap one of them with a singularity hard enough to shatter spines. But customers get to twitching when they see something like that and don't drink as much. Well the krogans do, but bar fights are a practical sport for them."

"Human males are not so dissimilar to krogan ones. They see an asari with a smile on her face and they practically beg to serve her," Nual said contemptuously. So few humans had ever impressed her. Shepard was one. The young huntress held deep admiration for humanity's first Spectre. Then again Shepard wasn't a male. "Young males are so extraordinarily easy to manipulate."

The bartender gave the maiden a sly look.

"This is Illium." Liara said nonchalantly, ignoring Nual's comment. "I'd be very much surprised to believe that things were not being recorded, especially clandestine meetings in the back rooms of bars. Nevertheless we will require the ODS of our meeting after it is concluded."

"It is yours." Aethyta said.

"What no price?" Morwen frowned. She might have served Benezia since she was a maiden but she was born on Illium as was her mother. She had lived here as a youngling. She knew how Illium worked. Nothing was ever free…

"And what matter of it is yours huntress? Is it your task to protect Dr. T'soni or to interrogate me?"

"Sometimes to protect, questions must be asked and answered. Especially the ugly ones." the warrior countered. It was a common enough statement amongst those serving within the asari military. "An observant huntress is a live huntress."

This gained an appreciated and approving look from the matriarch. She might have put to this matron a question was it the fear of the Spectre's wrath or duty that so motivated such protective action. Perhaps a little of both? Good. Let it be both. In equal portions.

"Now this second name?" Liara commanded in her mother's tone. "The blood? Who is she?."

"When you sent me the holo of this Lawson woman, I saw another face. One nearly identical, save for the years that separate them. Her name is Oriana, a child of nineteen. I had to card her when she first came here with a few of her university companions. She looked to me a child of maybe sixteen years, if that. Having made extremely good counterfeit IDs in the past I know how to spot a fake. Of course any bartender worth her salt can. The ID the girl carried was legit, from the University of Illium no less. Apparently genes are very good in that Lawson bloodline, I'd say nearly tailor made."

"More than you know." Liara said. "Lawson was created in a laboratory. No true womb carried or gave her birth. It stands to reason this Oriana was too. Her family...I had thought Lawson to be estranged from them."

"I do not believe Oriana's family to be the same as the one Lawson ran from." Aethyta said, "Or those hounds of hell would more closely guard the child, if only to place a choke chain on their operative rather the spiked collar she willingly wears. That being said, be assured there are eyes watching that family. And they will report all to Cerberus' bitch."

"I'm counting on it." Liara said. "This Lanteia is she one of yours?"

"She is. She has told me she maintained an acquaintanceship with Lawson over the years. And she is the only way you'll get Oriana. As I said ask her your questions. I think you will be more satisfied hearing them from her sweet purple lips than mine." The matriarch said, her eyes twinkling. Oh how she loved to tease maidens to gauge their reactions. Matrons were still more amusing to her when roused. How they circled like the firaxon when conventions were stirred like chum in the waters. Oh how the matriarch hated fundamentalist conformity.

It was habit no doubt that had Liara touch her brow and cup her hand forward in the traditional salutation of a maiden to an elder. "Thank you, Muinthel." she said.

"You want to thank me Liara? Just remember this: If you parlay with darkness make damn sure you do not become what you hunt. A shark never loses its hunger and the riptide will always drown you."

Liara said "Says the matriarch who thinks maidens should become more militant."

As the others left, Liara heard Aethyta utter in the whispered sounds of pure grief. "Don't become your mother, Little Wing."

Shepard found the biggest difference between grav-locks and mag-locks in working gravity was the lack of head rushes. There was only a slight vertigo not so dissimilar in Zee-Gee. The Spectre and her Chief Engineer were walking the underside of Normandy's hull taking a casual inspection tour of the warship.

There were times when Shepard missed the old ship even if it was a smaller class of frigate. The wavecrest class had wings like a metallic pterodactyl. It was a beautiful design, Sam had always thought so. Back on Thessia she had the opportunity to see their living namesakes. The animals were stunningly and marvelously beautiful. The true wavecrest was very much like pterodactyls with long sailed tails and skin of brilliant patters and colors. Shepard fully understood why the asari chose the wavecrest for the design of their frigates. It was fast, mobile and very deadly.

Of course all asari starships had their living counterparts in the oceans of Thessia. Cruisers took their design from fraxon sharks, the fighters resembled dolphins. The dreadnoughts were designed after the giant manta ray. Where the massive rays were utterly benign plankton and krill eaters, their dreadnought counterparts was one of the deadliest ships patrolling the stars.

At first Shepard had begrudged the Council in forcing her to change the name, but now she wasn't so sure. Normandy

"Shepard and the Normandy," Tali's voice crackled over the headset breaking into Shepard's thoughts, "should never be parted."

"What?" The Spectre asked a little startled the other woman's words had mirrored her thoughts so exactly.

"Oh! Sorry was that aloud?" The young quarian asked, her body language suggested her blush.

Shepard chuckled at that. "Yeah, you're right. Why do you think the Council made me change her name, even if they were the ones to first christen her the Victory? You know back in the day when ships were still wood and iron and sailed the waters it was considered bad luck to change a ship's name."

They were speaking while inspecting the hull.

"Maybe that's why the Flotilla has had its share of problems; we change our ships' registries all the time. There are a few exceptions like a ship called the Qwib-Qwib."

Shepard cocked her head and laughed. "You have a ship called a ship called the Qwib-Qwib? Really? Qwib-Qwib? Oh that's hilarious."

"If you ever chance to meet her admiral please don't ask about it. It's a sore spot for him. Zaal'Koris vas Qwib-Qwib. He say's he's proud of his ship, but I don't believe him. He has faced too much ridicule over it."

"So why call it the Qwib-Qwib, in the first place?"

"As you probably know some of the ships in the Migrant Fleet

are previously owned vessels from other cultures and that changing their registry information is not always possible. Sometimes you get stuck with a name. I'm sure he'd like to have a valiant ship's name like the Defrahnz or Iktomi."

"Iktomi? That's actually worse."


"Iktomi sounds like vasectomy…"

"I hesitate to ask but what about Defrahnz?"

"To humans it's a lot like the Latin word for a part of a male anatomy." Shepard coughed, uncomfortably. Had there been dirt to kick at she would have done so.

"It has something to do with reproduction doesn't it?"

"Ah Yeah..."

"Quarians have a different word for that. I don't think I'll ever look at those two ships the same again." She chuckled.

"Sorry." there was a shrug.

Tali turned to her captain. "You're pretty good with medical terms."

"Didn't study medicine in any real sense, I had to take a course in advanced anatomy in my last year in high school. I used all sorts of tricks to help me remember inner squishy bits, they always gave me trouble. Some of them stuck in my brain like Commandant von Defrahnz and the ejaculating schnitzel brigade." She scrunched up her face grimacing. "I know, I know it's bad. But hell memory tricks work. Sometimes the dumber sounding the better."

"I used to do the same thing when my father wanted me to memorize facts about a certain system or planet. My mother helped me do so with little nonsense jingles." Tali cocked her head in an expression of curiosity. "So why anatomy? I'd figure you'd something more aligned with your interests like stellar cartography."

"Oh I took that in my junior year. I needed the whopping five credits the biology class offered if I wanted to get into Atris after Macapá. I don't know how it works in the Flotilla but with the Alliance, spacer kids don't have the schooling of an accredited institute; the majority comes from online tutors. You have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. So I took a lot of difficult courses, tried to keep my grades way up, and pushed myself harder each year. I wouldn't allow myself to fall into mediocrity, to be just another grunt."

"You've succeeded then, Spectre." there was a smile in the voice. "It is not the same for us considering for the past three hundred years, we've been 'spacer kids.' We have structured classes. Each ship has schools, both primary and secondary. Then we become apprenticed to our chosen fields until our pilgrimage. After the pilgrimage, our apprenticeship continues on our new ships."

"Good point. So back to why we're out here. How's the refit coming?"

"For the most part exceedingly well. But it might go a bit faster if we had some more hands."

"Who do you need? Lab-coats or grunts?"

"We have all the techs we need, its more laboring hands I have need of. Those who can pilot a ROSE without doing damage to the ship will be very helpful."

"You got it." Shepard knelt down examining a panel on the port side wing. "These are new right?"

"Very good." Tali's engineering voice praised her captain. "Those junctions are part of the Argus Scanner array. It's already been integrated into the ship's systems. The array will greatly speed up planetary scanning."

"Yes I remember." Shepard nodded. She pointed to what looked like embedded paint flecks on the hull. Now on closer inspection she could see that the ship was littered with them "The Cyclone shields, I assume."

Again the quarian nodded. Long before they were installed, Tali had told Shepard of the rapidly oscillating obstructions of CBT or Cyclonic Barrier Technology was a must if they were going to face off against Reaper main gun batteries. Of course the Spectre said the Normandy was Tali's baby and she was to do whatever it took to protect her. Whatever the cost, they'd find the money and the resources.

Sam proceeded to lie down on the wing and press her naked ear to the structure. This did not seem at all queer to Tali. She was after all an engineer; she had done similar actions herself. Simply listening to the creaking bulkheads, the hum of engines and she knew within a micro-fraction if something was off. What the younger woman hadn't expected was to see someone who was not a technician do such a thing.

"You can almost feel the pulse of her." Shepard whispered. "Feel her heart beating. Even here in the wing."

Tali smiled behind the lavender-pink visor. "Aye, you can."

"I love that sound."

"Are you sure you weren't meant to be an engineer, Shepard?"

"Tali my dear you know me by now. I'm good at blowing shit up, not building it. I leave that to pros like you."

"Oh and what about the dozen or so models I saw in your quarters?"

"Pft. Those toys don't count. Remember 'Speak Captain Dummy?' Besides what you do is a hell of a lot more complicated than put tab A into slot B and glue."

Tali squeezed her thumb and forefinger together. "Perhaps just a little."

Both women shared a laugh.

As she pushed herself up, Shepard looked to her young friend with deep admiration. She didn't think Tali knew just how truly valued she was to her. "You know the Normandy could never run without you."

The girl shuffled a little her body revealing her embarrassment at welcomed praise. "Sure it could, just not as well."

Shepard smiled warmly and placed a hand on the other's shoulder. "I'm dead serious Miss Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. You're the heart of this ship. Truly. The Goddess was good to me the day we crossed paths. Oh and both Liara and I want to thank you for the gift, by the way. We love it."

It was hard to tell but under the mask Tali's pale lavender skin hit an all-time burning blush of bright blue. She bit her lower lip just before she leapt into Shepard's arms hugging her tightly. "You are my family, Sam." Tali used the rarely if not near forbidden first name of her captain and hero. "I'd link suits with you any day."

Sam's hug was that of an older sister before she set the young woman back down on the ship's surface. "I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the phrase." She was a little worried she had sent the wrong signals to Tali. There was no denying she found the young quarian attractive and charming and she cared deeply for her. And perhaps in another life, in another reality there might have been something between them, if Liara wasn't in the picture. But the deep love she held for the young woman was not romantic.

Tali backed away quickly terrified she might have overstepped her bounds. Sometimes human culture still stymied her. It was why she had downloaded a copy of an education vid, "Understanding Body Language: Human Edition' she also upgraded her translator for all human languages. "It…it means the highest form of trust that two quarians can share. To link suit environments is a bonding of sorts. Not like you and Liara share but it is just as important and sacred among my people."

Shepard was touched. To link suits wasn't just about being physical with another; it was allowing yourself to become vulnerable. So vulnerable it might easily lead to severe sickness if not death. "Tali…"

The girl shifted. "I…didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. It isn't always sexually. My mother cared for and loved my aunty Shala'Raan. They are…were not related by blood any more than you and Ash are but they were sisters nevertheless. Just as you two are. My aunty was there for my birth. She said she was sick for two weeks afterwards but it was worth it."

"You haven't made me uncomfortable. Don't be silly. I feel the same way. You are family, you are Liara's Trusted. In a sense that is linking suits…isn't it? And you will when the time is right be my daughters' aunty: you and Ash. As for sisters, you are as much my sister as Ash is. Don't go thinking that you're not. I'd link suits with you too."

Tali nodded, grinning widely.

Sam put her arm around Tali, "Okay now…if you and Ash are as my sisters, tell me, what the hell's going on between you and Garrus?"

Tali wavered. "I…I…I….really don't know."

"Oh come now you can do better than that." Shepard slipped her arm free and crossed it with the other over her chest. "You're what twenty-four? I know you sure as hell don't need the sex-talk so what's going on there?"

"Really, I don't know. Sometimes he acts if he wants to pursue a personal relationship. I wouldn't mind that. But and other times he looks as if he wants to flee. I probably should have downloaded a book on turian body language as well as the one I did for humans."

"Might help. But have you thought of simply asking him?"

"WHAT? I can't do that?"

"Why? Oh please don't tell me you're the damsel waiting for her knight sort of girl. The princess should always save her own damn self and leave the puffed-up-prancing-prince to his horse!"

"Nothing of the sort." Tali might have made a face of displeasure beneath the hood but it was difficult to tell. "And I'm not one of those swooning girls on Fleet and Flotilla either. Um…though I do like that vid."

Shepard snickered. "I'm little partial to Vaenia. Love the sound track Blue Azure." A small blush kept up on the human's face knowing that Tali would not get the innuendo. Unless you were an asari or had one as a lover, azure was just another name for blue. "But I'll tell you what, Ash secretly likes that Fleet and Flotilla. I caught her watching it a few times with her sister."

"It was written and directed well. And it got an award for the love scene…" Tali said defensively. "And they have good music too. 'Fire in the Courtyard' was written by one of our finest contemporary composers. It's one of my favorites."

Shepard only smirked. 'Note to self, tell Garrus about her musical tastes.' "Right…so….Garrus? Want me to find out what's going in that thick skull of his?"

"No! No that will make matters worse. I think he's actually terrified of you. Or rather what you will do to him if you find out he's skulking around your 'little sister'."

"Okay no questions. Look how about this then? Ash and Wrex are mucking around in the woods with their teams and you need people. His team is the closest to us; they are still in the city. I'll recall him and his group they come back here and help out as needed. When your shift ends and I do mean ends Tali, no extended hours this time, I'll simply drop a hint to him that hitting a nightclub say a place like Eternity might be just what you need to do to relax. I'll tell him to do it as a favour to me and you need to be forced away from work before you burn yourself out."

"I don't know…"

"Fine then I'll just tell him 'Look Tali doesn't seem to mind your infatuation of her, so ask her out on a damn date will you?'"

"No. No." Tali shook her head frantically. "The first option is better. I pick that one."

A sly grin appeared on the Spectre's face. "I thought it might."

"You are truly slick you know that? I always admired the way you are able to manipulate and charm others with that silver tongue, never did I dream it would be done to me."

"I have my moments." Shepard winked.

The two moved along the hull down towards to the stern of the ship from there to the smaller secondary wings. "Tali tell me is typical for Cee-Bee-Tea to look like metallic paint flecks? Or is this new tech?"

"It is typical but what you're seeing is because of the Weareth'Bol. They improved the Cee-Bee-Tea with a greater proficiency to withstand blasts that came from Sovereign. They mean to do the same to the Silaris armor. The Weareth'Bol can scuttle a ship or in this case refit it but they aren't so good at heavy labor."

"Right, they work on the molecular level. By changing the molecular composition of something they can demolish it at an accelerated pace or in this case apparently strengthen it."

Tali nodded. "The Cee-Bee-Tea is perfectly infused with the hull of the Normandy; and I do mean perfectly. Flawlessly. The Weareth'Bol didn't exactly change the molecular composition of the shields but made sure that there was a perfect blending between them and the ship. Now the shields work at a far greater proficiency. I'd go as far to say not unlike the nervous system of a biotic."

This intrigued the Spectre. "Really? How so? "

The quarian pointed to the hull. "Just look. All those 'paint flecks' are a lot like Ee-Zo nodules in a biotic's body. They harmonize together, working in tandem just like your nervous system does when you summon your biotic abilities."

"That's great." Shepard grinned. "Only hope the Cee-Bee-Tea is working at an L-five capacity and not an L-two."

Tali frowned behind her mask. She didn't find that at all amusing. "Shepard…about the… your treatments…"

"You want to ask me about the Cyan Syndrome? I'm fine and on the mend. It's the reason why Dr. T'Shyn is here. I'll tell the rest of the team, but I know you're concerned. The bond Liara and I share is more Prothean than it is asari, and my biotics have greatly changed. They were unstable for a time, before the new implants because of the flux in metamorphosis. Dr. T'Shyn says the gestalt was the catalyst to activating the memories within the Prothean cipher, especially those concerning biotics."

"Prothean?" Tali uttered softly. "Your biotics are Prothean?"

"Because of the gestalt so are Liara's. It's a little more technical than that, but that's the gist of it. It's why I was diagnosed with CS and part of the reason why…why we lost the baby. Liara was suffering from my CS just as much as I was."

Tali put a hand on the Spectre's arm. "I'm so sorry."

Shepard shook her head. "It's not your fault. It's the harsh reality of war. It's brutal, it's cruel, hard and it sucks. And sometimes it has very unforeseeable events. Like this whole mess with the cipher. I wouldn't change that, the beacons; the cipher, all of it will help me…help us fight the Reapers. The only thing I would have different is the death of my daughter."

"We'll make them pay, Shepard. Cerberus will burn for what they have done. And they have done a lot believe me."

"Hunting down Lawson and Cerberus isn't just about me getting vengeance. Cerberus must be stopped. They have their hands deep into something. I have a gut feeling it's connected to what's going on in the Terminus Systems. Getting Lawson will alert them, alert TIM, but we have to do something.

"Then there are the Collectors. Tali, you saw it in the memories of the vinculum. The Collectors and the Protheans are connected. They were living at the same time. Yet over fifty-thousand years the Collectors haven't changed. I don't even know how that's possible but we saw it!

"Now Cerberus has a connection to the Collectors, I don't know how I know, I just do. Like I said I feel it in my gut. The Collectors are big, enigmatic, powerful extremely secretive and nearly impossible to catch. The Illusive Man is an amoral creature of envy, rage and pride. He is intelligent, arrogant and xenophobic. He craves power not simply for humankind but his chosen humans…for Cerberus…for himself. I think he fancies himself the new messiah. And if that is true then Miranda Lawson plays his Mary Magdalene."

Tali cocked her head, "Who?"

"His alpha bitch."

"What are we going to do once we have her?" Tali asked. It was a question that seemed to be on the minds of everyone in the crew. What do you do with the enemy's top lieutenant?

"She will be treated accordingly as a POW." Shepard said stiffly. "In preparation for that I need you do something Tali. It will not be a pleasant task."

The quarian only shrugged. "Clearing out the heat sinks is not a pleasant task but it needs doing. What would you have me do?"

"Make a compilation of all the more intense confrontations we have had with Cerberus. The monsters they made, the justification that their scientists tried to make, even the one who tried to buy me off. I want footage of Rear Admiral Kahoku's body, the transmissions from the distress call from his men where that damn thresher maw was, and our confrontation with Corporal Toombs and that slime Dr. Wayne who tried to deny it all. I'll get you the recordings from Toombs' unit when they were Akuze as well."

"Weren't you on Akuze?"

Shepard shook her head. "Not until the second team: Toombs' unit failed to report in. The threshers were practically dead by then. All we did was reclaim the lost bodies of our troopers. A few had gone missing but it was assumed they were destroyed by the threshers, not taken by Cerberus."

Tali's head tilted a little. Being with the quarian for more than a year now, the Spectre was becoming quite adept at reading the young woman's body language. It was the expression of distress and apprehensiveness.

"What is it, Tali? If you don't want to do this I'll have another…"

"It isn't that."

"Then what is it?"

"Do you recall a while back when we heard there was some issue with the Flotilla?"

"What is it? Has something happened?"

Tali nodded.

Shepard took the girl into her arms, "Tali if we need to go find them we will. Just tell me what happened."

"My father sent word to me that Cerberus attacked one of our ships, boarded her and killed several of my people. They were hunting for a young human biotic: one from the Alliance's Ascension Program. The girl was with two people we met back at Grissom Station, Dr. Kahlee Sanders and that security chief Hendel.

"Father said that a young man named Lemm'Shal nar Tesleya, though now his ship name is nas Ideena, came back with Dr. Sanders because it was believed she had information on the geth. Her knowledge was Lemm'Shal's gift to the captain of the Ideena.

"The Head of the Ascension Program?" Shepard frowned. She knew the woman had a connection to Anderson and Saren. Her former captain allowed her to see reports that had been buried for the past twenty years, shortly after she became a Spectre. Highly confidential and controversial the Alliance Brass wasn't going to release it but then Hackett had become involved as had the Council. The Alliance had no choice but to acquiesce to the request or face the censure it had narrowly escaped two decades back. The information was believed to be about Saren and Qian and their connection to the geth. But reading deeper and between the lines, combined with the Intel Sanders had given the Spectre; it was revealed not to be about the geth it was about Sovereign.

But how did Dr. Sanders become involved with the quarians in the first place? It's not like Grissom Station is a major calling port for commerce or intergalactic travel. Its primary function was a school for the gifted and biotics after all. Well Elysium might be an attraction but certainly not the station. And what was Cerberus doing hunting down a young biotic? "More abominations committed by Cerberus. That biotic kid….I bet you anything Cerberus had a lot invested in her, they are not about to allow their asset to slip through their fingers." The Spectre faced the younger woman, appraising the quarian's reactions to the turn the conversation had taken. "Tali, why didn't you tell me your people…your home was attacked before now?"

"I…there wasn't time."

"You know better than that, I'd make the time for you. You know that. Right?" she put a hand on the engineer's shoulder.

There was a shy nod from the hooded head. "I know. That's not what I meant. I know I can always rely on you, Shepard. Ever since you saved me that day in the alley, I knew. When I spoke of not having the time, I meant that I got the call when you were in surgery. You're barely recovered, Shepard. You're already dealing with so much, the war to come with the Reapers, the Council and the Alliance admiralty not believing the truth about Sovereign. They are dismissing and debunking everything you say. The battles with the geth and Cerberus, the loss of your….your baby… It seems so unfair to lay the attack on the Flotilla on your shoulders as well. My people fought and won over those hounds. We took our losses, but we won.

"If you knew…even as you entered the hospital to get your cure, I know you would have stopped the procedure and charged off to face Cerberus for me. Because that's what you do. Shepard….Sam…. you're out here protecting the universe and you protect us, but you have so little protecting you. When the opportunity comes to us, you have to allow your friends…your family to protect you. There are times when I feel that I haven't left the Flotilla. And one day I will return. But I'm needed here now at your side.

"In the Flotilla, on a ship, quarians live as a family." there was a hint of a smile behind the mask. "Often times a dysfunctional family, but a family, nonetheless. On the old Normandy it was the same. We became a family. Now we have new members to integrate into the clan, and maybe it will work. I hope that it does. It's already starting-- that sense of community is growing and we are becoming stronger for it. You hold us all together, but sometimes I think you forget we're here to help you hold together. But you can't help those who don't want to be helped. So let us help you."

Shepard was dumbfounded by the younger woman's words, rendering her utterly speechless for the next few moments.

"Shepard?" there was a note of hesitance in the quarian's voice.


"So…what happened to your hair?"

Shepard gave a look that said 'Not you too.' but nothing issued from her mouth.

"It's not bad. I'm sorry I didn't mean for it to sound that way it's just….different… But in a good way! Keelah I'm rambling."

The Spectre shook her head smiling "It's alright. Liara happened."

"Oh! Right. She um…did a fine job?"

The human shrugged. "She could have made it look as if I have the mange. I guess looking like a thistle isn't all bad." A snort of laughter followed. "And yes I can go and have it re-styled. But then I'd have to live with the 'you kicked my puppy' face until it grew out long enough to allow her to cut it again. I'll just stick with it."

"Is that was a real marriage is?" Tali asked wistfully. "Doing things for your lover you'd never do for anyone else?"

"Oh yeah!" Shepard grinned. "And you know what? It's well worth it. One of these days you'll get there and you'll see what I mean. What - your parents didn't do things for one another they probably wouldn't have otherwise?"

"I was still pretty young when my mother was alive. I don't recall a lot of what passed between them in our quiet family moments. My mother tolerated the fact that my father never smiled, never laughed and she was actually very jovial. I always thought they made an odd pairing. I think she was trying to make up for his abysmal lack of a sense of humor. He always put the Admiralty and the Fleet above family. As it should be but it would have been nice to see him make Mother smile or laugh…just once."

"Yeah. I actually get that. Though my dad did smile it was rare, I grew up thinking he was a professional grump." Shepard smiled. "When he did smile it was over shiny new engineering toys but hey you take what you can get. And as for guys who laugh, I happen to know Garrus has a very good sense of humor. I'll bet he'll have you in a fit of girly giggles."


"Ohh look at that blush. It's so bright I can actually see it behind that visor of yours. So where did you're mind just go? Humm?"

Tali playfully shoved the Spectre in the arm. "Come on…we have work to do."

"Aye, aye." Shepard flipped a playful salute.

The forest was vast and thick. The gully offered plenty of hiding places. Dozens of ambush sites. If you knew how to use them. It seemed the enemy, quite unfairly, had displayed an unforeseen tactical originality. Okay, not unforeseen, but Ash felt a little insulted. Tactical originality was supposed to be her department. Okay Shepard's department but she was the Spectre's protégée. She had learned a few things about improvising and she wasn't too bad herself.

And neither was the enemy.

They were pulling Shepards left right and center. And they were better at it. The enemy position sat smack in the southwest quadrant, beautifully chosen because it covered both fully negotiable ground entrances into the gully. Her commando teams were moving into position, quickly and quietly. Gunnery Chief Phineus Ragnos led his mixed crew of four converging on the northern entrance cutting off enemy reinforcements. Special tactical officer Kex of the STG held the southern entry point with his team of six.

Both squads were well camouflaged, yet even this was a distraction from the true hidden teams of Naga'sadow and Russan Vos high within the trees. She couldn't see them but she knew they were there. The enemy would attempt to hold either side thinking to overwhelm them and become ambushed themselves by the clandestine teams of biotics, techs and elite commandos. Perfect.

From her vantage point within the trees Ash peered over the bough. Waiting for the signal. The enemy down below still were blissfully oblivious. They'd have a rude awaking.


Ash raised her hand, thumb, forefinger, and middle finger extended, and slowly began to count down, folding down her middle finger, index and then…

A whirl and a whoosh, five, eight, times over, zooming down from higher limbs from the very canopy of the forest.

No! Goddammit, no! She was monumentally stupid. In a terrible instant she knew her people had pulled the screw up to end them all. Goddamn dumbass stunt. In her arrogance she hadn't bothered to check above. Just like the enemy below. She felt too damn sure of herself, of her troops.

Dumbass. Dumbass.

"Fucking brilliant Williams." she snarled. 'Won't that make for a great epitaph: Here lies LT 1st class, Ashley Madeline Williams, smug bastard got her people killed and was a disappointment to Shepard.'

"Take cover!" she roared.

But it was too late. Even equipped with the new GLs finding cover from enemy fire coming from within the trees was difficult at best if you weren't a squirrel. Mottled green hardsuits and shielded helmets, they scuttled on GLs like so many spiders and moved with the same eerie speed, instantly opening fire. Thin red lasers sights ripped through the thick cloying scented air like some whacked lightshow, hit trees and boughs and bodies. One painted her, and Ash rolled away, brought up her own weapon, fired. Missed. Somewhere behind her rose a cry. Russon. Russon's group was down. Hit by a dozen pulses biotic. Her squad was now five down.

The gunfire from above was just distraction! Noise to scare away the monsters. Enemy biotics and techs with drones were the true threat. Drones hunted Kex's team. By now there was a near constant barrage his corner. Chances were he was going to lose them all.

Red streaks rippled, searching, hunting, targeting.

Ash found her target and drilled him from a hundred paces. Rolling away from the great ithiliend tree bough to the truck she found new cover. She gave a new look to the massive leaves with a dubious eye. Until she had returned to the ship she had no idea the leaves had such a reaction to humans. But then again the whole time she was out here she had been fully armored in a hardsuit. No unexposed skin had ever made contact with the irritant within the foliage. She got to her feet, found another target. He sagged and remained suspended 'upside down' by the GL harness. There was a certain satisfaction to seeing it.

Drones whizzed through the air, letting off flash bangs. More noise. More distractions. Giving biotics time to do their thing. Singularities tore into Gunnery Chief Phineus Ragnos's team decimating them.

The enemy was using more and more distractions; their strikes were meticulously carried out along side crushing biotic blows. The terrifying thing was it was exactly what Shepard would have done if she was out numbered and outgunned. She'd use a hell of a lot of distractions then use assassin strikes with biotics.

Naga'sadow had bunkered down. She and her group took out three attackers in quick succession. Ash's own team clocked up two more. If they could keep up with them maybe, just maybe—

"Naga'sadow!" Ash barked over the radio. "Target those biotics, neutralize them!"

"Yes ma'am! Idirl deploy the drones---"

The asari toppled as the trees blew outward. The same thing happened in two other places, behind Kex and Ash's teams. A piece of wood ricocheted off William's head, clanking loudly against the metallic surface of the helmet. She reeled back into the truck of the giant tree. A second biotic blast tore Ash off her feet and flung her against the tree bough and plunged her twenty feet down.

There was an endless, weightless momentum. There was a strange Dopplered effect of her name being called out by her sister. Gravity kicked in then it kicked her ass. There was the sound of a dry hacking cough and it took more than a few moments to realize that it was her making that sound.

"I just had my ass handed to me by a bunch of geeky labcoats." She closed her eyes. "Fuck."

Aleena's first aid tent had adopted all the atmosphere and civility of an open bar at a raider's rally. People were guzzling coffee, tea and protean drinks of every description.

Naga'sadow had eviscerated an MRE pack to get at the candy bar and sat on a square shaped rock, a happily munching nucleus at the heart of mayhem. Empty calories or no, you couldn't discount the curative properties of chocolate. The young helmsman was the only satisfied customer in the compound. With the mock battle over; everyone including the female contingent was squirting testosterone.

"That stunt could have killed us!" Ragnos growled. "You nearly killed her!"

"We only did what was expected of us," Chorban snapped back. "You're just pissed off that we won this ordeal. Besides what happened to Lt. Williams was an accident."

"Accident my ass, you egg-head fuck ups."

"Fuck-ups? I don't know what they teach you in boot camp human but we took the necessary precautions with our explosives, and biotics. We had everything calculated.

"Precautions my ass!" Russon butted in.

"I can spell it out for you, jarhead." Chorban pushed the marine.


"Muscles are required, intellect not essential. You can string the initials into a word, jarhead."

"You want to take that up with Williams?" Ragnos pushed back.

"She's the one who set the order to do what we were fully capable of to outmaneuver the stronger foe and we did!"

"No sniveling labcoat bested me."

That did it. A little healthy social exchange between the department branches of the Normandy's military and sciences was fine, but this was getting a little tactile The barely contained mayhem was threatening to become full out anarchy. Aleena made a move for the sneering combatants, pushing a scrambling lab-tech who had been desperate to get out of arms reach of the two bickering heads.

. "Shut it! That's an order!"

The bellow stalled arguments, made marines and scientists flinch, provoked ducked heads among colonists and caused Naga'sadow to choke on her candy bar, and trailed blessed silence in its wake. Inevitably, really. Most mouths hung open. No one would ever accuse Aleena or as the crew knew her as Dr. Mal'dicta S'thasa of having a build associated with the volume of famous opera singers—alive or long dead. A good diaphragm had its perks.

"Ladies and gentlemen! Now that I have your full and undivided attention, listen up. We have a job to do. Unless you are doing said job, get the hell out of my tent!"

There was a scramble of sound as several of Normandy's crew hastened to obey the directive. The rest of the delinquents still gawking at her though mouths had started to close.


"Of course doctor." Naga'sadow said having forced the misbehaving bite of chocolate down her throat. She slipped off her perch and led the exodus out of the habitat. Two minutes later the tent had cleared of nearly all personnel.

To her left there was a strangled moan and a slight ruffle coming from her left. Without even turning Aleena snapped. "Not you."

"I was just…um…trying to get comfortable."

"Right." She meant liar of course. She activated the medical app on her OMNI tool and ran it over Ash's body. "The marines who pulled you out said you had trouble breathing."

"You try falling three stories without your handy biotics to float you down."

Aleena smirked. "Well there is that." she ran the OMNI tool over the Williams' body. "Nothing broken, but you've got severe contusions, and I don't have to tell you those are no fun."

"Yeah no kidding. Just shoot me up with some medigel and send me on my way. I've got a debriefing to hold. Shepard's going to want to know the results, especially for this last one."

"I think she'll be impressed. The crew is coming together."

"Yeah and only moments ago they were going for each other's throats like rabid varran."

"Just wait. When Shepard gets a hold of the helm-cam feedback, she'll say some smooth words out of that silver tongued mouth of hers and suddenly they'll realize they are all on the same side and the enemy is truly and fully fucked." a sly grin crept on the bounty hunter's face that startled Ash to the core. Either that or it was the fact an asari had used such an ill-elocutioned word as fucked.

AN1: Liara in a white teddy by masterulukai

found at Deviantart as a reminder Liara's armor is the one she wore in LotSB.

AN2: Quotes taken from mass effect novels and yes there IS some influence from 'Little Plastic Castles.' cookies to anyone who knows the reference. Tali is 25 in ME2 so do the math.

AN3: recap: the wavecrest in my head looks a bit like the Ikran or mountain banshee more especially the Great Leonopteryx of the Naavi's planet Pandora without tails. (see movie Avatar) Oh and by the way on deviantart you can see all sorts of artwork of unmasked Tali…to me I think the quarian faces may look a bit like the Naavi though perhaps bald and with silver eyes rather than gold or amber, and of course no tails.)

Part 44

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