DISCLAIMER: Mass Effect is the property of Bioware. This series is done purely for fun and I am making no profit off of this in any way. The series will cover the already known Mass Effect Universe with some (obvious) tweaking. While I will attempt to stay close to canon there will obviously be some artistic liberties taken to conform this series to my liking. This series is also going to portray love and sex between two or more women with minor references to some m/f pairings. There will be multiple f/f pairings and yes, this will eventually be a harem fic of sorts, so if that is not your thing then please move on. This story will also contain scenes of violence, death, and other content of dark nature (no rape however) further down the road.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Just a reminder here folks that some creative liberties have been taken with this story. My goal is to stay within the main thread of the ME storyline, but with some deviations that won't change the entire course of the canon. Thank you once again for all the feedback and emails! Glad you are enjoying the story so far.
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FEEDBACK: To xfiredancerx[at]gmail.com

Six Degrees of Separation Series
Book 1: Tangled

By Firedancer


Chapter 15: Burden of Proof

Shepard and Williams traded knowing smirks as they watched their new Lieutenant gape at the spectacle before them. In all honesty, they too were a bit surprised by how quickly the Marketplace had been cleared of wreckage and was well on its way to being restored to its former glory. The Ambassadorial wing was also nearly refurbished, and many businesses were up and running once more. A glance across the walkway showed that the Consort's establishment was open and Shepard smiled to herself. Sha'ira had been her first sexual encounter with an Asari, and it had definitely been an eye opening experience. One that had led to her increased interest in Liara after she'd come aboard. Maybe she would stop by the Consort's office later to thank her for opening her heart and mind to possibilities Alex once thought not possible for someone like herself.

The approach of Councilman Anderson brought her attention back to the present and she smiled at seeing her old friend decked out in his new official garb. She chuckled quietly, seeing him tug on the collar of the formal jacket in discomfort. But he smiled warmly in welcome, and bypassed the hand she held out to clasp her and Ashley on the shoulder in a less formal manner. Garvey's eyes widened a bit, but he remained silent, taking everything in.

Anderson stepped back and looked the two younger women over with a practiced eye and noted the difference in both of them. A smile of genuine pleasure lifted his lips and he nodded in approval. "It's good to see you both back on your feet and looking well rested."

"It feels good to be back sir. Glad to see that you made the cut for the new Council position. I would have hated to think what a slime ball like Udina would do if he managed to worm his way onto the Council," she said with a grimace.

Anderson winced. "Yes well thankfully that did not come to pass. Unfortunately for me however, the man has been assigned as my advisor because despite his backhanded dealings, he knows the system better than I do."

"Ouch," Williams remarked, her face conveying her sympathy. "Hopefully you won't have to deal with him for long."

"The man is reprehensible most of the time, but he does serve a purpose. There is a great deal of political maneuvering going on, and Udina is quick to spot it. He also knows the major players here, and has contacts that have proven extremely useful. As a former Alliance officer, much of this goes against the very principals we are instilled with, but these are critical times, and if I don't play the game, humanity could suffer greatly. I have no intention of seizing power like Udina wants, but this is our one chance to put ourselves in a position of equal power so that we can finally make a difference."

"I wish you all the best of luck with that then sir. I have faith that having someone with your honorable reputation on the Council will help humanity make a good and decent name for itself."

"Thank you Commander. Well, if you would accompany me to the new Council Chambers?"

"Lead the way Councilor."

Garvey hung back a bit while he watched Shepard, Williams, and Anderson chat amicably about recent events and mutual friends. He noted the undercurrent of familiarity and ease between the three, and realized that Shepard had close friends in very high places. It further instilled in him the need to respect just how much power this one woman had, and that he would do well to live up to her standards- however demanding they may be.

Once they reached the Council Chambers, Anderson looked at him and Williams. "I am afraid I have to ask both of you to wait here. There are a few things that the Council wishes to discuss with Spectre Shepard alone," he informed them.

After hearing Anderson refer to Shepard in her Spectre status, Ashley immediately nodded in understanding. Garvey, took no offense as he knew it was very rare that anyone ever saw the Council in person anyway. "We'll just be waiting right over there Skipper," Ashley said as she nodded towards a row of benches along the far wall.

"Hopefully, I won't be too long. Contact Wrex and Garrus and figure out a place to meet up with them."

"Aye aye, Commander. Good luck," she said with a hint of a smirk.

Shepard's lips lifted ever so slightly in response but she turned towards Anderson and nodded for him to lead the way. Once inside, she moved to the center of the room and nodded towards the three individuals that sat before her.

"Spectre Shepard, it is good to see that you have recovered from your injuries," the new Asari Councilor began. "I am Councilor Renara and these are my fellow associates, Councilors Talis and Velik Droth," she said by way of introduction and gesturing to the Salarian and Turian Councilors. Shepard nodded a greeting to them each. "Councilor Anderson I believe you are more than familiar with already," Renara added, with a hint of amusement in her eyes that Shepard matched as she nodded in agreement. The amusement faded however, and Renara looked at her companions who nodded for her to continue with the proceedings.

"I take it that you have been cleared for full and active duty?"

"I have," she answered simply.

Anderson had moved to take a seat next to his new fellow Councilors, and Shepard noted that his expression had gone extremely neutral. It was the only warning she had, that things were about to become unpleasant.

"You have been called here today to discuss the results of your actions during the Citadel Battle. Specifically, the willingness to sacrifice the former Council instead of protecting them," the new Turian delegate said tersely.

Shepard straightened to a proper military attention and raised her chin proudly. "Is this a court marshal hearing?" she asked evenly.

"While Spectres do not necessarily have a 'court marshal' as you refer to it, you are well aware of the Council's ability to revoke an individual's Spectre status. As a Spectre it is your duty to protect life….all life. This Inquiry is to review your actions during the battle and your willingness to sacrifice the thousands of individuals aboard the Destiny's Ascension, including those in key governmental positions."

"I see. May I inquire as to how many warships were involved in the Citadel Battle? I myself am not aware of just how many ships from the various fleets made it here to fight."

"Twenty Turian ships, including five of their battle cruisers. Twenty three Asari ships, including the Destiny's Ascension. Eighteen Salarian STG scouts and one GARDIAN starship. One hundred and fifty nine civilian ships with mentionable weaponry. And the arrival of the Terran Fifth Fleet: Sixty three ships ranging from scout class to battle frigate," Talis the Salarian delegate recited.

Alex quickly did the math in her head. "Two hundred and eighty four ships. How many Geth ships accompanied Sovereign?"

"Thirty three."

"Two hundred and eighty four ships against thirty four ships. The numbers SHOULD have been in our favor ladies and gentlemen. But even without the Geth fleet, we were barely a match for Sovereign. It took all of our combined forces to bring that creature down. You forget that I witnessed the destruction of an entire civilization at the hands of the Reapers. Every member of this Council willingly admits that the Protheans were far more advanced than any of our races are. And yet, even with all their technology, they were completely obliterated. If Sovereign had succeeded in sending the signal out that would have brought the entire Reaper fleet down on our heads, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I did not sacrifice the Destiny or the Council lightly ladies and gentlemen. But there was no time to divert forces to protect a single ship- no matter who was onboard. If we had done that, Sovereign would have had time to send the signal and we would have all been dead by now. I sacrificed thousands of lives, yes. But I did it to save the trillions of lives amongst all our races."

Silence reigned around the room after that for several moments as the Council digested the news. Finally, Renara spoke up. "You would make the same choice again?"

"If I am forced to choose between the few against the many, then yes. Even if that ship had been filled with nothing but humans, yes. Race has never been in issue for me, and I would think the make-up of my crew proves that. The Reapers are the greatest threat this galaxy has ever faced. No one before us has ever been able to stop them. It is going to take everything all of our races collectively have to stop them. My actions bought us the time we need prepare, because make no mistake ladies and gentlemen, they are out there, and it is only a matter of time before they come for us."

"You speak of these Reapers with conviction Spectre Shepard. However it should be noted that there has been no noted proof provided to this council of their actual existence," Velik declared.

Shepard started violently. She'd been warned, but to hear it in person still shocked her to the core. "Are you fucking serious?!" she asked her voice raising in tone and volume.

"Shepard," Anderson warned, his eyes pleading for her to keep her temper in check.

Renara interrupted in calming tones in hopes of staving off an unpleasant confrontation. She threw her Turian companion a look that caused him to immediately fall silent. Shepard managed to reign in her temper enough to close her mouth long enough to hear what was to be said.

"What my companion here was saying, is that the situation with these so called Reapers must be handled…delicately. The fleet that attacked the Citadel was clearly Geth, and while the massive warship that you refer to as Sovereign, was foreign to our scans, there was nothing to indicate that it wasn't anything more than a highly advance Geth ship that has never been classified before. There was much chaos after the battle and it took several weeks before this new Council was put into place. By then, various…..entities had scavenged much of the unknown ship's remains. What little remains, are being studied by the top scientific minds of all our races. Until we have solid proof that Sovereign was something more than a new form of Geth, we are faced with trying to calm a panicked galaxy. Adding to that with unverified claims may only cause further unrest."

Shepard grit her teeth. "So just like the first Council you don't believe me or my crew either," she said flatly.

"It is not a case of disbelief Spectre Shepard. It is clear just how deeply you believe in this threat, and you went to great and painstaking lengths to save us from this creature's threat. I knew Lady Benezia well, and I know she would have never willingly followed such a dark path. Saren was a friend of hers, but not even he could have influenced her so deeply that she would turn from everything she believed and taught for all these centuries. Your report claims that Sovereign had the ability to enthrall people it came into contact with, this is the only plausible explanation for Lady Benezia's actions. I believe you when you say that whatever that creature was, it was a dire threat to our existence. But even in your human courts, the burden of proof rests on those making the claims. The people of this galaxy are going to want more than just the word of a few individuals…more than the fragmented memories burned into your brain by a device that was never designed to be used by humans. If this Council is to approve the united mobilization of our combined fleets in preparation for a war that we don't even know when it may start, we need to know for sure what we are up against. Right now, we have almost nothing."

Shepard's fight left her at Renara's words and she bowed her head in frustration. "Do we even know who took Sovereign's remains?" she asked after a minute of collecting herself.

Satisfied that her words of reasoning had gotten through to the young woman before them, the Asari offered a sympathetic look. "I know this is difficult for you to accept Shepard. But your patience and ability to see the reasoning behind our actions are commendable. The first Council did well in choosing you for this job."

"Your words honor me," Shepard forced herself to say as she bowed her head in respect. She didn't like it one bit, but she couldn't argue the logic of the situation. Inside, a small part of her idly wondered in some amusement, just how much of Liara was starting to rub off on her.

"In answer to your question," Anderson continued, a look of pride in his eyes at her restraint, "there are a number of groups we believe are responsible. We believe the Shadow Broker and Cerberus are amongst the top two however. While no one wants to admit to it, every race has its subversive or underground groups that are more than likely involved in this in minor capacities. But only the Shadow Broker and Cerberus have enough resources to pull off the large scale operations that were required to remove so much of Sovereign so quickly."

"Any solid leads?"

"Shadow Broker has many operatives and no known identity. Base of operations hidden for decades. Shadow Broker has too many ears. Three possible leads all ended with informants dead within hours. Having difficulty finding anyone who will talk," Talis said, his clipped tones a little more grim than normal.

"Alliance Command is working on turning up some intel on Cerberus operations. We have a few promising leads, but Command wants to be sure of their validity before they send you off on a wild goose chase around the galaxy. All viable leads will be forwarded to you immediately."

Shepard nodded. "I'll be more than happy to look at anything even remotely connected with those sick bastards. They need to be shut down and buried," she said adamantly.

"Working on these leads will be only a small part of your assignment. As you are already aware of, your primary concern for now will be to help put down any and all Geth incursions that the various patrols turn up. That is the immediate threat and every Spectre is being tasked with this assignment. While you may use whatever force is necessary to destroy any Geth strongholds you come across, information gathering is vital right now. So salvage what you can and then move on," Velik instructed.

"Is anyone following up on the Reaper threat?" Shepard asked in frustration.

"As the Geth worked for this Sovereign, would they not have the most intel on the Reapers? Start with the Geth, and see where the trail leads," Renara advised. "We have two more final bits of business to address and then you may take your leave Shepard. The first is that several Spectres were close enough to respond to the threat to the Citadel and gave their lives in the battle. Two more were following leads on the Geth in the field and have not been heard from in several months and are presumed dead. We need to fortify your ranks and we are taking recommendations."

Shepard blinked in surprise, having not expected this request. Her mind quickly went through the list of possible suggestions and the Council waited patiently while she weighed her decision. "Are these individuals expected to be …reviewed immediately?"

"At this time we are merely hearing out recommendations for possible future candidates. Not everyone is ready to become a Spectre right away, but our field agents work with a great many people and can help bring to our attention individuals that we should keep an eye on for future consideration."

Shepard took another minute and agonized over one in particular. She saw Anderson watching her carefully, and shoved her personal feelings back inside their box as her sense of duty reasserted itself. "I would like to put in a recommendation for three possible candidates. Two could definitely use a little more time and experience on their own and in commanding others, but one I feel has well proven her worth as a soldier on the battlefield and is capable of handling herself in any situation. My Gunnery Chief, Ashley Williams, would make an excellent candidate."

The Asari Councilor smiled and nodded. "Ashley Williams has indeed captured our attention. Councilor Anderson has also made us aware of the….issues surrounding her inexcusably slow advancement in your military ranks despite her incredible accomplishments. I would like to assure you that we have no such issues here, however for the time being, she is to remain assigned to you and the Normandy as we know just how invaluable her skills have been to you. If we make Ashley Williams a Spectre, she will be reassigned out of necessity, and this Council is not yet ready to break up the team you put together and which has performed so admirably."

Shepard let out a small silent sigh of relief. While she didn't want to be the cause of stalling Ashley's career any further, she was glad to know that the Council was going to allow the fiery Chief to remain by her side for some time to come yet. "The other two would be Garrus Vakarian and Tali'Zorha vas Neema."

There was a bit of stunned silence at that and then Velik shifted agitatedly. "You would recommend a….Quarian for such a position? It's bad enough-," his racial rant was thankfully cut off by the Salarian who was obviously as intrigued as the other two.

"Quarians considered outcasts. They have little military prowess and training. Fleet survival is everything to them. Once they return from their Pilgrimage, none leave unless banished. Spectres entrusted with safety of all species not just their own."

"You are correct in observing that most Quarians would not be fit for this kind of position of responsibility as it goes against the very grain of their society. I will also admit that Tali'Zorah is still quite young and could benefit considerably from further time and experience in the field. But I have fought side by side with her and it was her actions here on the Citadel when she was on her own that brought her to my attention in the first place. Tali was and is still able to look past her own heritage and is as convinced that the Reapers possess a threat to all life. This is about more than just humanity, or the council races, or the flotilla. She herself told me that she knew her people would have to join with the rest of ours if we were to face this coming threat with any hope of surviving it. As a soldier, Tali is both brave and fierce. During her time with my crew, she was attentive to the various fighting techniques of my diverse team and I watched in pride as she utilized and adapted them for herself. Her combat skills improved remarkably and her tech and engineering skills are remarkable. That she was able to utilize both on the battlefield made her a unique and invaluable asset to my team and I was sorry that she had to depart."

Velik thankfully remained silent, and Talis continued to look thoughtful. "As a former commanding officer, I have to say I too was quite impressed with Tali'Zorah's unique abilities. It is not often that you find an engineer who is comfortable on the battlefield, but she kept her cool under fire. I doubt she will ever be an out and out scrapper charging the front lines like Shepard here, but she would make an excellent spec ops operator…the kind of soldier who could get in, hack anything you needed and then could fight her way out if needed," Anderson remarked.

"I too am intrigued by your recommendation," Renara admitted. "And you make a solid argument in her defense. We shall take your recommendation of her under advisement and continue to keep an eye on her progress. Your second recommendation?"

"Garrus Vakarian."

"Vakarian had an outstanding record with C-Sec, performed admirably with your team and yet you would recommend holding him back. Why?" Velik demanded.

Shepard sighed to herself, noting she was going to have as much fun with this Turian Councilor as she did with the last. "I trust Garrus with my life and he was a vital part of my team. However, he has spent most of his career as a cop, bound by far more laws, red tape and political bullshit than any soldier ever has to deal with. I believe Councilor Anderson will tell you that the transition from being a soldier to a politician has not been easy. Playing by the rules has gotten people killed under my Command in the past. I willing throw courtesy and orders out the airlock if I think it might get people needlessly killed. Garrus has always been told what to do and has not yet had to bear the weight of leadership yet. I feel he could benefit greatly from learning how to take on such a responsibility and it was my plan to work on that to help him grow into the soldier I know he can be."

Velik backed down slightly at this. "You, a human, would help a Turian?"

"I would help a friend," Shepard answered without hesitation.

There was another pause and then Velik nodded, satisfied. "With your guidance we expect to see excellent results then Shepard," Renara commented. "The final matter we need to discuss, is your continued tenure as an Alliance Officer. We realize that this is most likely a sensitive issue, but all of us, including your former Commanding Officer, feels it is something that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later."

"You want me to resign my post," Shepard stated flatly.

Renara looked towards Anderson , deferring to his expertise and familiarity within this area. "Shepard, I know how hard you worked to get where you are. And Admiral Hackett is a personal friend of mine, which means I was well aware of your struggle to fight your own personal past to become the woman you are now. Trust me when I say that I truly do understand the dilemma you are now faced with. Life is filled with choices to make and some paths require sacrifice if we are to fulfill our ultimate destiny. Your actions as an Alliance Officer brought you to the attention of the Council in the first place and they offered you the chance to become something far more than soldier."

Shepard was silent for a few minutes digesting this. "Then….you really think I should resign my post sir?" she asked, the mere mention of it tearing at her.

"That is a decision only you can make Shepard and it is not something this Council will force upon you for now. But consider this, you are a Spectre now, no longer bound by the rules and regulations that the rest of us are. If you continue to retain your status as an Alliance Officer, you will be expected to adhere to their requests, and you will be faced with conflicts between your assignments. As the saying goes, one cannot be a slave for two masters."

"And if I resign my post? What will become of my crew?"

"There are several possibilities," Anderson admitted. "The Normandy will be officially turned over to you as your own ship. Command may see fit to allow some of the crew to remain as a special detachment, but the majority will most likely be reassigned. However, if any of them wish to resign their own commissions, they can put forth a personal request to you to remain aboard as your crew. The choice will be left entirely to you, but you alone will be responsible for their well being. They will be under your employ so to speak."

Shepard exhaled slowly. "I see. How long before you all are going to force this issue?" she asked bluntly.

"We are not setting any deadlines, however, be aware that if and when the day comes that there is a conflict of interest, this Council expects you to make a clear choice one way or the other. We respect your talents and all that you have accomplished Commander. There is no doubt that you are worthy of the title of Spectre and it is this Council's wish that you will see the greater good you could do if you continue to remain one. However, we will not begrudge you if you feel your first duty comes to those who helped you become what you are today," Renara answered in an understanding tone.

Shepard nodded. "Thank you for giving me some time to consider my choices. Is there anything else?"

"That is all Spectre. Good hunting."

Shepard snapped to attention and saluted them, a gesture of respect that was not necessary, but was not lost on any of the Council members. They nodded to her in return and then stood and began to exit the room, leaving Shepard alone with Anderson. "I apologize Shepard. But the Council needed to not only hear your words but to see your personal conviction."

"I understand sir, and it wasn't completely unexpected. I have to say, asking for more Spectre recommendations was though. They really need Spectres that badly?"

"There are several critical positions that do need to be filled immediately, and those candidates are already being checked out in various field assignments by several other Spectres who were able to accommodate validating their readiness. Don't be surprised if we toss one or two your way over the coming weeks. But while the Council is not committing all of our resources towards a united military front against the Reapers, they are willing to expand the Spectre ranks to lay the groundwork that will be necessary if and when such an action is needed."

"How so? I mean in general, Spectres work alone. We need armies, not lone wolves."

"True, but every Spectre has an extensive network of contacts and command the respect of nearly every race. A small army of Spectres can carry a large amount of influence. They also have their own ships and loyal crew…usually containing some of the best and brightest minds. A Spectre is also skilled in intel gathering, which is what the Council's main focus will be on in the coming weeks and months. As much as I hate to admit it, they are right about one thing. We have very little information on the Reapers, let alone being able to verify that Sovereign is indeed a Reaper and not an advanced Geth warship. Which is why I have a special assignment for you. This is not sanctioned by either the Council or Command, but there are a few people in both that agree with me on this and have agreed that it would be a wise course of action."

Shepard raised an eyebrow at that. "Risking the new job already sir?" she asked with a smirk.

"Hardly. This is not something you have to keep off the records, but some…discretion in the matter would be appreciated."

"I'll see what I can do. What's the job?"

"The Quarians are the only race with advanced knowledge of the Geth, and they have shared little of what they know with the rest of the Council races. We have learned a great deal over this past year from our own combined studies, but their assistance in this would help tremendously. Unfortunately prejudice and pride on both sides have prevented us from asking for their help and from them in offering it. The President and several key members of Command are interested in securing a better relationship with the Quarian Flotilla, and I know that Councilor Renara is aware of the need to start mending the fence so to speak. Unfortunately, most other races either don't care, or are blaming the Quarians for the return of the Geth and don't see their potential as Allies. You not only accepted one of their people as a member of your crew, it is well known that you befriended Tali'Zorah. Add the fact that she is the daughter of one of their top Admirals, and you alone have a chance in opening diplomatic talks between our people and theirs."

"Whoa, whoa whoa," Shepard said holding her hand up. "You want me to go in as some kind of Ambassador? Councilor, I am soldier…not a politician."

Anderson chuckled. "I know that Shepard. But we would like you to break the ice with a peace offering of sorts. You are being entrusted with several pieces of Sovereign in hopes that the Quarians will be able to confirm that it isn't Geth, and perhaps tell us more about its make-up than we were able to figure out. When you deliver it, all you need to do is simply relay a message that the Alliance is interested in an exchange of information, and hopefully more. If we can open diplomatic relations with them, I believe the Asari will be quick to follow, and once that happens many of the others will at least start to listen."

Shepard sighed. "Alright, I'll see what I can arrange. Tali was about to head out on an intense training mission with their new Marines. I doubt she'll be available for the exchange, but I should be able to get close enough to their fleet without drawing too much attention while we're chasing geth around and make the delivery."

"That's all I ask. Do you have any questions about your orders?"

"The Normandy has barely been put through her paces and I want to make sure my crew has been allowed a proper shakedown before we head back onto the frontlines. I also want some time to train with my new squad before we all just head into another Geth infested cluster-fuck."

"What did you have in mind?"

"A week maybe two. Pinnacle Station can provide us with a chance to become familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses. As for the real thing…well I can think of one or two planets that could do without a Thresher Maw or mercenary stronghold."

Anderson snorted. "You don't like to do anything easy do you Shepard?"

"I just like to keep my people on their toes," she smirked.

"I'll put a call into Admiral Ahern to let him know to expect you. Don't push it past two weeks though or you can expect a call from both the Council and Command."

"Understood sir. When can I expect that intel?"

"It should be uploaded to the Normandy for Your Eyes Only, by the end of the day. Everything else will be forwarded as soon as it checks out."

"I'll have Joker file a flight plan for tomorrow. I need to take the new kids shopping for some gear," Shepard said with a smirk. "I hear they've all been drooling since they found out I was gonna spring for some Spectre grade weapons for each of them. There are a few other errands I need to run as well."

"Just try not to stir up too much with the press," Anderson said with an exaggerated sigh.

Shepard's smirk turned into a full blown grin. "I'll just take Wrex with me. He seems to have better luck keeping them at bay."

Anderson laughed and shook his head and then clapped her on the back. "Go on, get out of here. Say hi to the crew for me and I'll be keeping in touch."

Shepard nodded and smiled back at him, even as she gave him a salute. "Yes sir." Then she spun on her heel and marched out of the room.

Outside, Williams and Garvey were both relieved to see Shepard leaving this meeting in decent spirits. They stood and joined her side, the three making their way out of the new Council Chambers and back towards the Presidium. "Wrex and Garrus?" Shepard asked after they had finally boarded one of the rapid transit vehicles.

"They are throwing back a few drinks at Flux waiting for our call. Garrus promised not to let Wrex start too many fights," Ashley added with a smirk.

Shepard snorted. "Wrex can hold his liquor. Garrus on the other hand hasn't learned yet that he can't out drink a Krogan. Let's go rescue him before Wrex tries to challenge him again," she said with a grin.

They made their way to the newly rebuilt Flux, ignoring the stares and whispers that followed them, and entered the neon-lit club. The club was packed, but it didn't take Shepard long to find her two comrades, who were quietly drinking in the back of the club, the other patrons giving them a wide berth. Both males stood and smiled at Shepard's approach, and Garvey had to stifle his nervousness at seeing a Krogan Battlemaster smiling.

"Shepard," Wrex grunted in greeting, as both he and Garrus looked her over with a critical eye and then nodded to themselves, apparently pleased with what they saw.

"So you two just going to stand there all day making sure the Doc put me back together properly or you going to buy your Commander a drink?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"That depends Shepard. Are we going to find ourselves on the receiving end of the good Doctor's wrath again? Because let me just say, you might be insane, but that was almost scary," Garrus asked, his flanges moving in amusement.

Shepard laughed and shook her head. "Sadly I have to behave, so you boys are safe from the Doc," she promised as she slid into a seat across from them. Everyone else followed suit and a few minutes later they were all enjoying a beer, though Garvey was visibly uncomfortable with drinking while he thought he was on duty.

Shepard and Williams paid no attention though as they caught up with their comrades for a few minutes before Wrex turned to look at the newcomer. "Who's the pup?" he asked in his usually blunt manner. Shepard hid a smirk behind her beer as she watched Garvey sigh almost imperceptibly.

"Guys, meet Lieutenant Garvey. He and a new squad of Marines were recently assigned to the Normandy to join in all our fun and excitement."

Garvey nodded and forced himself to smile politely. "It's a pleasure to meet you both."

They didn't smile back at him however, and as one they looked from Ashley and then to Shepard, with what appeared to be scowls on their faces. At least he thought that was the expression- it was hard for him to tell as he hadn't had very much contact with either race before. Whatever the expression, the sudden tension was immediately palpable.

"I follow you or Williams, Shepard," Wrex stated flatly.

Shepard watched as Garvey shifted uncomfortably and felt her lips lift just a tiny bit in pride. Next to her, she could feel Ashley sit a bit straighter in pride with that statement. "Don't worry Wrex. That isn't going to change anytime soon aboard my ship. The good Lieutenant and I have come to an understanding of how things are to be run on my ship. He's young, and inexperienced, but he's got a good record so far and I think we can mold him into the kind of Commanding Officer that our militaries are going to need. I'm counting on both of you to help him and the squad learn how we fight and to work with us."

Wrex turned and stared at Garvey, who forced himself to sit still and straight under the appraising gaze. The large Krogan seemed to find something redeeming as he snorted and then looked back at Shepard. "He'll do."

"I take it your promotion hasn't gone through yet then Chief?" Garrus asked in a sympathetic voice.

"Not the officer promotion that everyone was hoping for. But Hackett assures me I'll finally reach Operational status soon," Ashley answered with a shrug. After her initial disappointment, she more than anyone else had seemed to make peace with the decision and had moved on. That she had managed to balance Shepard's orders to take the lead in helping the new squad integrate and yet still show the respect Garvey deserved as an officer, had impressed most of crew- especially Garvey.

"So where's the next fight Shepard?" Wrex asked, getting down to business.

"Pinnacle Station for starters," she answered as she downed the last of her beer. "Normandy still needs a week or two to finish her shakedown, and I insisted on being allowed some time to make sure our new Marines are given a chance to get a feel as to how we run and fight while on mission. We had too many close calls there in the beginning of that whole Saren mess. Now that we have a little breathing room, I don't plan on repeating that. After that, we'll be doing more of the usual. Chasing down Geth, and looking for intel on the Reapers. The rest I cannot say until we are back on board."

Both males nodded in understanding. "When do we leave for Pinnacle?" Garrus asked .

"Midday tomorrow. It has been recommended that I try and bond a little better with my new crew," she said with a sideways smirk towards Ash who just rolled her eyes. "So instead of letting O'Malley pick up the gear, I'm going take the kids shopping."

Garvey nearly spit his beer as he watched both males sit up with an excited gleam in their eyes. "Mind if we tag along?" Garrus asked hopefully.

"Cuz you guys don't already have the best gear?" Shepard chuckled in amusement.

"Wrex gave his shotgun to Tali as a parting gift, and besides, I heard Devlon Industries just came out with some cutting edge new weapons…including a top of the line sniper rifle they've had in development for a few years," Garrus sad in their defense.

Ashley was grinning into her beer, Garvey was trying not to smile at the males' obvious enthusiasm in shopping for new gear, and Shepard continued to look amused. "Yes you can tag along," she finally said with a theatrically long suffering tone. "Just try not to break the Normandy's bank this time," she teased as they all finished their beers and prepared to leave.

"Is that even possible?" Garrus asked in mock surprise.

Wrex grunted in amusement. "Never seen anyone horde gear and then trade it for profit like you do Shepard."

"Yeah yeah…. you all bitched when I made you lug back all that crap from every mission, but look at what it got you. I better not hear any whining this time around when I come back with a Mako full of loot," she grinned as they left Flux behind. She paused before they reached the nearest lift Rapid Transit station that would take the group back to the ship. "There's something I need to do. You guys all head back to the ship and I'll catch up with you later."

Ashley looked over at Alex, a silent question in her eyes. "It'll be okay Chief. I'm not looking for any trouble…just want to check in on a friend."

"Aye Commander. See you in a bit."

Shepard watched them leave and then headed off in the other direction, a bit surprised to find herself eager to see how Sha'ira was faring in the wake of the attack.


Chapter 16: Propositions

Shepard walked up to the entrance of the Consort's newly renovated establishment and allowed a small smile to show as she greeted the young asari acolyte that was at the front. "Nelyna, good to see you came through that battle okay."

The young asari smiled in return. "Commander Shepard. I am pleased to see that you have recovered from your grievous injuries," she said as she discreetly tapped a button on the screen of her podium. "I must admit I was not expecting to see you back on the Citadel so soon."

"Can't keep a good soldier down for long," Shepard responded with a smirk. "Besides, the new Council wanted to have a few words with me."

"Well you don't seem any worse the wear. Is there something I may assist you with today?"

Shepard shrugged as she looked around. "Just wanted to stop by and see how things are."

"Ahhh. You wished for some reassurance that Lady Sha'ira was well."

Shepard chuckled quietly to herself at the maiden's perceptiveness. "I did. Sha'ira gave me some words of wisdom that I didn't fully comprehend at the time, but they certainly became very important during my mission. I wanted to thank her."

Just then a tone sounded on Nelyna's computer and she looked down at it. "You are in luck then Commander Shepard. It appears the Consort wishes to receive your thanks in person." The asari gestured to one of the other acolytes who approached immediately. "The Consort wishes to speak with Commander Shepard. Please escort her to the Consort's private chambers."

"Certainly Nelyna. Commander? If you would please follow me."

"Good to see you again Nelyna. Keep taking care of yourself."

"I shall endeavor to do so Commander."

Shepard then turned and followed the other acolyte through the new visiting area, noting that the place was not quite as full as it was before. There were also quite a few new faces. They walked down a long hall, past a row of private rooms, and then up a staircase that lead to a single doorway at the top. The acolyte pressed the chime plate next to the door and then turned and bowed respectfully to Shepard before quietly retreating back down the stairs.

The doors opened and Shepard entered the Consort's renovated room, glancing around in admiration. "I like what you've done with the place," she remarked as she came far enough into the room that the doors closed behind her.

Sha'ira set down the data pad she had been reading when Shepard entered and approached the human with a warm smile on her face. "Commander Shepard. It is very good to see you standing before me…healthy and whole." She paused in front of the blonde human and looked her over with a very careful eye, her smile growing wider. Then she leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on Shepard's lips.

Alex froze, having not expected such a…friendly gesture of greeting. But Sha'ira merely chuckled softly against her lips and did not press for anything deeper. "Relax Spectre. I can sense the change in you, and that your heart finally belongs to someone else. I merely greet a friend - one whom I owe my life to now."

Alex blushed, and rubbed the back of her head a bit self-consciously, but couldn't help the grin that lifted her lips. "It's a good thing Ashley isn't here or she might have a few words with both of us about that kind of hello."

"Ah yes… Chief Williams. She was the young woman that had accompanied you on both your previous visits correct?" Shepard nodded, and Sha'ira smiled. "I sensed an intensity between you both back then. She was none to happy with either of us when I invited you to stay longer for a…'private' session with me," the asari matron laughed.

"She was in a pissy mood for a week after that," Shepard admitted with a laugh of her own.

"It is good to see that you have come to an understanding though. Love suits you Shepard. It has controlled the fire within you, without tempering it."

"Thanks…that's actually why I came by. To thank you for what you told me. And for opening my mind to new possibilities….with those of other races as well."

At this Sha'ira eyes widened slightly. "So there is another?"

Shepard blushed again. "There are two actually…a third if circumstances had allowed it. But I guess it wasn't meant to be."

"My you have been busy during these last few months," Sha'ira teased with a scandalous grin. "Come sit, and tell me all about it."

And Shepard did, even if it surprised her at how comfortable and open she could be with someone else. Alex confided everything to the matron, knowing that she could trust this woman with all that she had to say. She confessed how deep her feelings were for both her lovers, her worries of how things would work out, her fears of them being in harm's way, and her doubts in all that had been tasked to her once more.

Sha'ira had merely listened patiently the entire time, offering bits of advice sparingly, and asking pointed questions in order to draw Shepard's own thought process out further. When Shepard finally fell silent, Sha'ira stared hard at her for several long minutes. Shepard saw the almost distant look in her eyes, and knew that some great power was at work with the matriarch. Normally the hardened veteran wasn't a believer in the mystical. But after this past year, she wasn't quite as rigid in some of her previous beliefs. Besides, she'd been subjected to this same look almost a year ago, and the words that had followed had come to have critical meaning to her life. She didn't dare break Sha'ira's concentration now, because she'd come to value whatever the asari would say.

After an eternity, Sha'ira's gaze came back to reality and she looked almost troubled. "Shepard, your life has never been an easy one, and it never will be. You will have moments of respite- like the one you just enjoyed- and though you may doubt it, you will have more to come. You have been tested and found worthy to be the galaxy's Champion. But a Champion must fall in order to find the strength to pick themselves back up. You have a hard road ahead of you Shepard, and it is one that only you alone can navigate. You have the strength to find your way, but you must never lose faith in yourself, or else all will be lost."

Shepard sighed as her head dropped. "That's not very reassuring Sha'ira."

"I know Shepard, and I wish I could offer you something more positive. But you are destined for great things, and a hero's life is never an easy one. Just know that no matter what, you will always have places of refuge. I owe you my life, and I have seen all that you are and can be. You will always be welcome here when you need a moment of respite Shepard."

Alex looked up, a look of pure gratitude on her face. "I thank you for that Sha'ira. I have come to value your counsel very much…it's not easy for me to open up to others. Not even to Ash or Liara."

"I know, and I am honored that you trust me with such intimate concerns," Sha'ira replied sincerely. She reached out and cupped the human's cheek. "I worry about you Spectre. So much of our fate has been placed on your shoulders, and I can feel that this is far from being over. If you were anyone else, I fear that the burden would be too much. There will come times when you feel the same, but if you open your heart in those moments and believe, the Goddess will give you the strength to carry on."

"I don't really believe in-,"

"I know you are not a spiritual person Shepard. And everyone ascribes to their own beliefs and deities. With a life such as yours you have come to only believe and rely in yourself. In those dark moments when you feel like you have lost your way, forget everything else and open your heart and mind. Whether it be in a god or goddess or yourself….just BELIEVE."

Shepard was silent for a moment and then exhaled slowly. "I will try and remember what you have told me Sha'ira. Thank you for receiving my visit."

"It was my pleasure Shepard. Congratulations on your newly mated status, and may you find many joys and pleasures in your mates loving arms."

Shepard blushed hard and smiled a bit. "I do…they make sure of it," she admitted with a chuckle.

"Given what I could sense of young Chief Williams I don't doubt it. Now, do not fret over what is to come, for there is little any of us can do about what destiny has chosen for us. Enjoy your life now, focus on success in the coming battles, and when difficulties arise, you will have many good things in your past to dwell upon."

The truth of her words struck deep within Shepard and she nodded. "You're right. No sense worrying about what could happen tomorrow, when I haven't even finished out today. Thank you for your insight Sha'ira."

Both women were standing, knowing that the visit was drawing to a close. "It was good to see you again Shepard. Take good care of yourself while you are out there fighting for all of our lives. I look forward to when our paths will cross again."

"Me too. May the Goddess continue to bless you," she said, repeating a common asari farewell she'd picked up from Liara. Then with a final nod she left the Consort to her business and headed back towards the ship to collect her Marines and alien friends for a little shopping before the day was out.


"Alright, listen up everyone. I know you are all excited to get some new gear, but let me lay down some ground rules here. Normandy has a fairly substantial account right now, but this does not mean I am willing to blow everything on new gear for everyone. So here is how it's going to work. You each get ONE new Spectre grade weapon. Pick whatever your specialty is and upgrade that. All armor has to be approved by either Ashley or myself. I want it rated high enough for two upgrade modules, but keep it within reason. Also do not bother wasting any money on ammunition or armor upgrades. Our Requisition Officer has an entire storeroom full of those. We are just here for weapons and armor. Understood?"

"Five by five Commander," the Lieutenant answered for the group.

"The Chief and I have extensive knowledge in armors and all weapons. Garrus knows snipers forwards and back, and Wrex specializes in shotguns. Feel free to ask any of us for our opinions on anything you have your eye on before you commit to buying it and don't take it personally if we don't have anything good to say on your selection. Trust me when I tell you that this year we have probably tested just about every weapon there is out there and can tell you with certainty how well it will perform." She paused and looked the eager group over and almost rolled her eyes. She doubted they heard most of what she'd just said because they were anxious just to start shopping. With a shake of her head she looked over at her teammates who were smirking back at her.

"So how substantial of an account does the ship have?" Ashley teased.

"Given the gleam in their eyes, I think we are about to put a serious dent in it," Garrus observed.

"So long as THEY haul around all the loot you find to make up for what you're about to spend Shepard," Wrex added.

Shepard rolled her eyes and turned away from her teasing comrades and lead the group towards the markets. It was going to be a long day.


Shepard sank into a chair at the mess table and dropped her head onto folded arms with a groan. There was some noise nearby as a chair was pulled out and a quiet chuckle. "Rough day Commander?" Chakwas asked in amusement.

"You have no idea. How can shopping for a few weapons and armor be so exhausting and trying? Thank god Ash and Garrus were there because I was about to kill someone."

"Yes, well I don't imagine haggling with the local sales people is really your forte," Chakwas remarked with a gentle grin. "But I trust everything that was needed was procured?"

"And then some. Speaking of which have you seen Joker around?"

Chakwas winced. "Ah…he had a bit of an accident earlier. He is resting in the Infirmary."

Shepard sat straight up, concern in her eyes. "What? Damn it we are scheduled to depart tomorrow. What happened?"

"Relax Commander. Jeff will be fine after a full night of rest. He may look a little worse for the wear for a few days, but he'll be able to perform his duties without a problem tomorrow. Someone spilled something on the floor here earlier and it was still damp when Jeff came in for his lunch. When he went to get up his foot slipped and he fell forward. He sprained his wrist and suffered a broken nose and a fracture to his right orbital socket, but nothing serious."

"But he's okay?" Shepard double checked.

"Loaded up on Medi-gel and painkillers and blissfully ignorant to the Universe," Chakwas assured her.

"All right…well I guess I'll just have to give him his new present tomorrow then. Ashley was actually the one to find it. There's a new assault rifle out with zero recoil. He's already got a top of the line side arm. Figured it'd be nice for him to add this to his collection considering the man can shoot...even if he doesn't hardly get the chance to use that skill. Never know though, it might come in handy some day right?"

"I think it is a very touching gesture that Jeff will appreciate dearly Commander. It not only shows that you acknowledge his ability, but you want him prepared to be able to cover your back should that moment ever arrive."

Shepard cleared her throat, somewhat embarrassed and shrugged. "So what's on the menu for tonight Doc?"

"Some surprisingly decent Mexican from what I hear. O'Malley said to stay away from the beans, but that everything else was fairly spot on."

"Well the kids are downstairs polishing their new toys and I suspect they'll be drooling over them for a little while which means we can enjoy a nice quiet dinner for a bit. Shall we?"

"I could use a little peace after today's excitement. Liara is in the back office doing some research. Would you like for me to fetch her as well?"

"You go ahead and get started and I'll go drag her away from her computer."

A small knowing smile played along the older woman's lips but she merely nodded and stood to head over towards the galley counter. Shepard walked into the infirmary and paused next to the bed that held her helmsman. She winced in sympathy at the mess that was Joker's face. He had obviously broken his fall with it. His nose would never be the same and both eyes were black and swollen…the right twice as much. There was bruising all along his right jaw as well, and his wrist was wrapped in a Medi-gel brace, discoloration apparent around the edges as well. Shepard didn't think the pilot would be up for flying the next day, but the Doc seemed confident that he would be well enough.

With a shake of her head she moved on to the small office in the back and got a look at the newly renovated room. It was twice the size that it was before and was partitioned off to double as a small bedroom for any attending medical personnel that needed a bit of rest but couldn't stray far from their patients. There was only a small nightstand and a set of bunk beds attached to the wall, but it was much better than the field cots that the Doc and others had been forced to use during long patient watches.

Liara was so engrossed in her research that she didn't even hear Shepard approach. The Commander took a moment to look down at her lover in amusement and then allowed herself a small bit of indulgence as she leaned down to wrap her arms around the maiden and tenderly kiss the back of her neck. Liara shivered in her arms and Shepard was hard pressed to push down the desire that flared to life within her. She did allow Liara to turn in her grasp and kiss her slowly and thoroughly back.

"Hey," she said with quiet affection once they parted.

"I have missed you," Liara admitted, savoring the moment.

"I know….me too. Once we get underway tomorrow, I'd like to spend some time with you and Ashley…just the three of us."

"I would like that very much."

Shepard grinned. "Good, then be sure you set some kind of reminder Dr. T'Soni. Wouldn't want you to be so buried in your work that you miss out."

"Trust me, I would not miss this opportunity for anything my love."

Shepard leaned in for another kiss that left both of them slightly flushed and breathless. "Are you at a stopping point?"

Liara quirked an eyebrow of amusement at her. Shepard flushed more. "I just got back from the longest shopping trip ever and am starving. Chakwas is waiting out in the Mess for both of us."

"I do not think she would mind if we were a little late."

"But she would most definitely mind us christening HER bed over there. So as tempting as you are, I am not going to risk catching all kinds of teasing and hell from her. Come on…let's go enjoy a quiet meal before a bunch of hyper Marines realize they are hungry."

Liara sighed dramatically, but offered her lover a teasing smile to let her know she wasn't truly upset. Frustrated, certainly. But Shepard did look tired, and her stomach had made itself known several times in the last five minutes. She saved and shut down her work and then gracefully stood to follow Shepard out to the Mess area where Chakwas was already digging into some delicious smelling food.

The two women loaded up their trays and then joined the doctor. Companionable silence reigned for a bit while everyone focused on their foods and then Liara finally looked up from her meal. "Ashley returned without you for awhile. She said you had an errand to run?"

Shepard swallowed her food then nodded. "Wanted to check in on a…friend."

Liara nodded, knowing that a lot of the crew - herself included - had been trying to establish contact with acquaintances that had been on the Citadel during the battle to check on their well-being. "I hope you found them in good health?"

"She was yes. Her business has even been restored already…although I noted several new faces and a few of the old ones missing. I didn't ask, but considering she is located in one of the hardest hit areas on the Presidium, casualties were expected."

"Presidium? And her business is already up and running again?" Chakwas remarked, somewhat amazed.

Shepard flushed, knowing she would never be able to hide anything from her asari lover, and Ashley by extension and figured it was best to get it out in the open now. "Well considering who she is, it's no real surprise. I went to visit the Consort."

Liara, who knew of Shepard's previous dalliance with the asari Matron was a little surprised by the news, but Shepard saw no concern there and let out a silent sigh of relief. Chakwas however was staring at her in mid-bite.

"You just dropped on by the Consort's place and she saw you? Without an appointment?"

Shepard cleared her throat and pushed her food around. "Yes well, I had some dealings with her last year and did her a bit of a favor. In return she gave me some words of advice that made no sense at the time, but became clearer as things began to unfold." She left out just how friendly they had gotten during that visit. "Anyway, she feels indebted to me for stopping Sovereign and wanted to be assured of my well-being also."

"Did she offer any more advice?"

Shepard looked down at her food once more. "She did. She knows things are going to get worse before they get better." Here she looked up and then over at Liara who held her steady gaze. "She reminded me that no matter how bad things get, to never forget what means most to me."

Despite the fact that they were in the middle of a very public area, Liara slid her hand out cautiously to Shepard, who allowed her to take it and squeeze it gently before she focused back on her own meal. "Something I believe our shore leave did for all of us. Gave us a chance to remember what we are fighting for," Chakwas remarked in agreement. "Well that was part of your morning. So did your Marines break the ship's bank?" she asked turning to lighter subjects.

Shepard groaned again and then chuckled ruefully. "They weren't the only ones. They can complain all they want, but Garrus and Wrex are going to be doing their fair share of hauling loot back to the ship after our upcoming missions."

"So much for keeping everyone in check eh?"

"Thank god Ash is in love with her own gear right now. She was the only voice of reason I had behind me the whole damn day. I'd give her a pay raise…..but I don't think I could afford it right now!"

Chakwas laughed and pushed her empty plate aside. "Well at least our Marines are all properly outfitted. I hear we have been given leave to train this bunch properly for a couple of weeks."

Shepard nodded as she finished her last bite. "Honestly Doc, I can't believe we didn't lose more people last mission. We caught more than a little bit of luck. I don't intend to push that this time around. We know what we're up against, and I plan on making sure everyone is in top shape and on the same page before we throw ourselves in front of Geth fire and who knows what else. The Council gave us two weeks. I could probably get away with pushing it more if I really felt we needed it, but I think that should be enough time for us to get everyone in fighting sync."

Liara looked up at this bit of news and Shepard noticed a speculative gleam in her eyes. "What?"

"Where were you planning on training with the new squad?"

"The Alliance set up a state of the art combat simulation station out in the Phoenix system called Pinnacle Station. It's earned a reputation amongst several species as offering advanced and realistic battle simulations. The Turians, Salarians, and Asari have been known to use the station for training of their infiltration and spec ops teams."


"Hmmmmm?" Shepard asked, trying to prompt her lover to give her some indication of what she was thinking.

"The station is open to anyone who wishes to train there?"

"Well, they have to be granted permission by the Station's Commanding Officer, but so long as they aren't enemies of the Alliance or Citadel races I don't see why not. Why? What are you thinking?"

"Tali and her team have been on the move looking for more places to provide proper training grounds. Might be nice to see her again, and you could run your Marines against hers."

Shepard's eyes widened and then a grin lifted her lips as a sly look filled her eyes. "Tali's supposedly trying to prove her worth to the squad she's been assigned to right?"

"With little success...though not through her own fault. They have no real training grounds so they have been looking for actual Geth outposts and have been coming up with little right now. She says they were barely challenging - even for the squad's new recruits. I know that look Shepard," Liara said with a small chuckle. "What are you thinking?"

"Maybe we could give our new Marines a display of what we expect of them and prove to Tali's squad that she can kick ass and take names, all at the same time. Hope you've been keeping up on your biotic exercises Dr. T'Soni," Shepard answered with a smirk.

"I have been looking forward to something that might challenge me," Liara responded with an almost predatory gleam in her eye.

Chakwas chuckled and shook her head. "Looks like I'm going to be busy in a few days. Well if you ladies will excuse me, I think I will double check my inventory and make sure I have enough supplies to treat any Quarians that may visit my infirmary in the coming week. Liara…Alex," she said with a smile and a nod before she stood with her empty tray and retreated back to the Infirmary. Shepard looked over at Liara and grinned. "Come on, let's go talk to Ash, Garrus and Wrex and see if they are up for an exhibition fight."

They made their way down to the hanger bay that now doubled as the Marine's barracks and motioned for their three squadmates to join them. Shepard couldn't help but chuckle over the fact that the new Marines were still fawning over their new gear. "What's up Skipper?" Ashley asked as they all settled into relaxed stances around the workbench.

"Liara here had a pretty good idea about our upcoming assignment and it gave me an idea. We are going to head to Pinnacle Station for our shakedown cruise and training with the new squad. Liara says Tali's team has been hard pressed to find anything challenging to train her own team as the Geth seem to be laying low. Was wondering how you all felt about a small exhibition fight. Us against the Quarians and our Marines."

"Stick Girl is going to be on our team right?" Wrex asked much to everyone's quiet amusement.

"I think her team would be able to see better just how quickly she can work on the field if she's fighting against them, rather than with them. Besides, it would round out our team to an even six fighters…two teams of three if we needed to divide forces."

"Throw in a full compliment of Geth just to raise the stakes and lower safeties to minimum settings for us and I think it might just be a fair fight," Garrus remarked with a smirk of his own.

Shepard chuckled. "I take it that's a yes all the way around then?"

Ash looked around and then answered for the group. "Count us all in Commander. Now the trick is….can we get Tali's team out to Pinnacle too?"

"Liara do you know how to get in contact with them?"

"I do. However, I have noted all her messages have time stamps with hours slightly at odds with our own. I believe if we tried to contact them right now, it would be in the middle of their tertiary shift. Perhaps we should wait until the morning?"

"Sounds like a plan. I have a ton of paperwork still waiting for me to finish out before we leave, so carry on and enjoy the rest of your evening. I will see all of you back here at say 0800?"

"Aye aye Skipper," Williams answered as she straightened to attention and saluted her Commander Officer as she prepared to leave. Shepard's lips lifted a bit but she nodded back in response and left the team to their own devices for the rest of the evening as she prepared herself for the final stack of reports that she had left to wade through before they could leave port the next day.

The team ended up meeting in the mess area as everyone had congregated there around the same time for breakfast. They spent a half hour relaxing and teasing a weary looking Shepard who had been up most of the night finishing out her reports, for procrastinating on her paperwork. Chakwas joined them halfway through the meal and reported that Joker had been released back to duty looking a little rough, but functioning well enough to do his duty. Once they were all finished, the group crammed into the elevator to head up to the bridge. A few of the crew looked their way in mild interest as they all moved towards the helm as an entire squad, and not a few wondered if Joker had pulled another prank that had him in hot water with the fighters.

Joker looked over his shoulder as he heard their approach and raised an eyebrow. "Commander?" he asked looking a little nervous.

Shepard raised an eyebrow back at him. Chakwas wasn't kidding when she said he looked a little roughed up. Both eyes were still blackened and swollen from the broken nose and cheek, and his wrist was still supported by the brace, but he appeared to be comfortable enough to be working efficiently. "Glad to see you back in your chair Joker. Not up to anything I'm going to hear about are you?"


"That doesn't instill confidence in me Lieutenant. Whatever it is, I had better damn well not be hearing any complaints from the Docking Master again. I have already played the 'he was testing your security firewalls' excuse twice now. I doubt a third time is going to cut it…Spectre status or not," she warned.

Without looking he punched a few buttons on his panel and the screen cleared. "Aye Commander. But bringing the whole team with you as backup…isn't that a little overkill?"

"Actually, we wanted to put a call in to a friend. I expect you know how to get in touch with Tali?"

"Oh sure," he said, trying not to be obvious at how relieved he was. He turned back to his panels and began typing in a series of commands and typed in a comm request and sent it off. "Should only take a couple of minutes. Tali's kept me informed of their assignments so it'll make sending a signal easier. So what's up?"

"Going to see if her team wants to join up with us on Pinnacle for a little combined training."

"Really? Wow…that would be pretty cool if they could. Bet Tali would love to see everyone again too. Adams will have a mini-gasm if she visits since, besides me, Tali's the only other one who would appreciate the work that's been done on the Normandy."

Wrex grunted, Liara and Ashley grimaced, Garrus shook his head, and Shepard sighed. "You seriously did not just say that to your commanding officer."

"What? It's the truth!"

Thankfully, everyone was saved by the chime of a response back from Tali's ship and Joker turned away from the groaning group and focused his attention back on his panel. "This is Lt. Moreau of the SSV Normandy requesting direct communications with Tali'Zorah vas Neema."

"Copy Normandy. Shall I direct this to her personal quarters?"

Joker looked back over his shoulder at Shepard who waved that she wished to take over the conversation. "This is Commander Shepard of the SSV Normandy. If your Commanding Officer is available we would like to speak with them both."

"Copy Commander Shepard. Both just went off duty for lunch, but it shouldn't take them long to return to the bridge. Please hold."

"Joker, we'll take the call in the Briefing Room. Forward it as soon as they call back."

"Aye aye Commander. Mind if I listen in?"

"Like you don't always?" Shepard asked archly.

Joker had the good grace to look somewhat chagrined. "Since it's not classified yes, you can listen in…until I tell you not to. Understood?"

The last word was spoken with clear warning and Joker nodded. "Yes Commander."

Shepard nodded, satisfied and then the group walked back to the Briefing Room and made themselves comfortable around the room as they waited to hear back from their young Quarian friend. After a relatively short wait, Joker's voice came over the comm. "Receiving visual Commander," he announced as the screen came to life.

Tali was standing proudly next to a Quarian male, and Shepard noted that her body armor was new…and rather striking. She couldn't stop the smile that lifted her lips at the sight of Tali. "Tali'Zorah vas Neema. I would like to congratulate you on your appointment," she greeted warmly.

Tali's head dipped. "Thank you Commander Shepard. It is good to see you and Chief Williams fully recovered and back on duty. It is good to see the rest of you as well," she said turning her head so that her unseen gaze took the rest of the group in. "May I introduce you to the Commanding Officer in charge of our training mission, Commander Kal'Reegar."

Shepard nodded towards the Quarian Marine. "Commander, a pleasure to meet you."

"And you as well Commander Shepard. I have heard a great deal about you from Tali'Zorah. It seems I have very large shoes to fill," he said wryly, but with enough humor in his voice to keep the comment from being caustic or resentful.

"We were victims of circumstance Commander. Unfortunately, failure was not an option for us, and we pushed ourselves beyond what any of us thought we were capable of."

"And yet Tali'Zorah is adamant that those days are not yet passed. So much so that the Admiralty listened to her warnings enough to initiate special training programs for our military forces. We are still in the initial trial phases, but as a soldier I find wisdom in their actions. One can never be too prepared."

"Tali wasn't exaggerating when she spoke to your people of the dangers that still lay ahead. I fear that even if we had several years of preparation, we would still not be prepared enough to face the threat of the Reapers."

"Well let us hope for all of our sake that we have the time to prepare all of our races for what is to come. How may I help you Shepard?"

"I have a proposal for you Kal. I understand your team is on assignment to actively seek out any Geth bases that are too close for your Fleet's comfort, and use these missions as training for your newly integrated Marine squads."

"That is correct. Our soldiers are mostly used to small skirmishes that involved quick infiltrations. In and out, intel gathering missions. The Admiralty feels it is time to make our soldiers more prepared for full scale battles. There is even talk of the possibility of war with the Geth to reclaim our home world- though I think a decision in that direction is still some years off. Unfortunately, most of the Geth outposts we have come across are either abandoned now or minimally manned. It has been a nice warm-up for our newest…recruits. But nothing to challenge them."

"I too have been assigned a new compliment of Marines and frankly, I don't want to head off onto the frontlines without training if I can help it. I had a good team last time around, but I think even Tali will agree with me in that we got lucky…..and we had far too many close calls there in the beginning. We have been given leave by both Alliance Command and the Council to take two weeks to train on Pinnacle Station. How would you feel about joining us for some of that to give your squad the challenge it needs?"

Kal'Reegar's head had tilted to the side in interest at that. "They would welcome us?" he asked in disbelief. Tali had told him that Shepard was a tough but fair Commander who was not adverse to interacting with aliens. But he had been around the galaxy during his own Pilgrimage several years ago and had seen first hand just how poorly his race was treated by most. He couldn't quite believe that an alien would be so open and willing to extend his entire Marine compliment such a courtesy.

"Tali was part of my team originally, and if I want to invite you to share the time with us, there is really little they can do to object. Especially since I have both Command and the Council requesting that I be given priority clearance for training," she added with a slightly smug look. Sometimes it was good to have a lot of pull.

Kal'Reegar looked over at Tali who nodded once and then looked back at the screen. "We would be honored to join you Commander. I look forward to meeting you in person and putting my team's skills up against yours."

"My squad here and I would like to make another proposal. An exhibition match of sorts."


"I would ask that you loan us Tali for a day so that she can join my squad here, and the six of us will go up against your team, my Marines and Garrus wanted to throw some Geth in against our team as the icing on the cake."

Kal'Reegar's head reared back a bit. "Isn't that a little…ambitious? Even for the Hero of the Citadel Battle?"

"Commander, what we lived through just to get to that battle was nothing compared to what I fear lies in wait for us when the Reapers show up. This exhibition match that I am proposing? We faced dozens of fights with odds like that or worse. If anything, this match will show you what we are up against, and what all of our people need to be prepared to handle. It will also prove just how lethal a highly trained small group of soldiers can be, despite overwhelming odds."

Kal'Reegar looked at Tali. "Is this something you wish to participate in?"

Tali looked back towards the screen and they could all hear the excitement and determination in her voice. "Very much so Commander. I know many of the crew have their doubts that some of our techs and engineers are not cut out for battle…myself included. I believe this will show them that in a fight, manpower and weapons are not the only tools that determine victory."

Kal'Reegar, who knew that he too had to be included in Tali's comment about the crew, nodded. "Commander Shepard we accept your offer." He turned to someone off screen. "How soon can we be to Pinnacle Station?"

"Two days if we travel at top speeds sir."

"We will be heading out today as well, but I want to give my crew some time to run the ship through a few paces while we are in open space. Shall we plan on meeting in three days time?"

Kal'Reegar nodded. "We look forward to it. I take it you will inform them of our arrival so we don't have any problems?"

"I'll notify them before we head out."

"Excellent. I suppose since you already have us on the line, you would like to chat with my engineering specialist?" he asked with an amused tone as he looked back at Tali.

"If you wouldn't mind?"

"Not at all. See you in three days Commander." With a nod the Quarian Marine took his leave.

"Do you wish to continue this conversation in private Commander?" Tali asked with a tilt of her head to those that were still left on the bridge.

Shepard wanted to say yes and then haul Liara and Ashley back with her to her quarters. But despite all their gruffness, she knew that Wrex and Garrus had become friends with Tali too and since they were all here it would be rude. "We can catch up when we meet up Tali. For now, I think there are a couple of people who would love to say hi that haven't talked to you since you left," she said looking over at the two males.

Garrus took the initiative and leaned forward. "Landed yourself in the middle of another group of marines huh? Bet you weren't quite expecting that when you got home did you?"

Tali chuckled and shook her head. "Not quite. I was figuring that I would be locked away in some debriefing room for the next year and then be assigned to help my father with his research. But as Kal mentioned the Admiralty felt it was time for all our people to be ready for bigger confrontations now that the Geth have moved beyond the Veil. It's going to be tough proving to our people that not everyone needs to know how to fire a weapon well in order to be able to make a difference. The techs and engineers who volunteered for this assignment aren't even sure themselves that they can be of any use. It will be good to fight by your sides once more and prove to them that they can make the difference."

"Will be just like old times," Garrus grinned.

"You get to use that shotgun yet Stick Girl?"

Tali chuckled quietly and shook her head. "Not as much as it deserves Wrex. But perhaps with our upcoming training I'll get to feel her warm up properly in my hands."

"Shepard took us shopping. Wait until you see the new model I picked up," he told her with what passed as a grin.

"And my new sniper," Garrus piped up.

"Might want to be careful taking them up on that offer Tali. I spent an hour cleaning the drool off of my armor last night," Ashley piped up with a teasing grin in the direction of her fellow squad mates.

Garrus threw her a gesture he'd picked up from the humans, and Wrex just simply ignored her. Liara giggled and Tali couldn't help but chuckle. "I am looking forward to meeting with all of you again soon." She paused and then looked down sadness filling her tone. "I did not know if I would ever see any of you again my friends and it had saddened me a great deal."

"We look forward to spending some time with you again as well Tali. I need to sign off soon so we can begin preparations to get underway. We will see you in three days time."

"Keelah Se'lai, Alexis Shepard."

"Keelah Se'lai, Tali'Zorah vas Neema."

After a moment the transmission ended. "Commander I have already taken the liberty of forwarding the request for the Quarian ship Shivala to be granted permission to dock at Pinnacle Station so that her crew may join ours in combat training," Joker announced over the comms.

"Thank you Joker. Have we been granted clearance to leave?"

"Control has us slated to undock in two hours Commander."

"Excellent. Have all departments begin final checklists and turned into Pressley within one hour. Once we have made the jump and are in the clear have all hands prepare for some battle simulations to put our girl through some of the paces for the rest of the afternoon."

"Aye aye Commander."

Shepard turned to her squad. "Chief Williams, I want you to take Garvey and run him through final preparations. As of right now we are going to go battle ready. Garrus see to it that at least one of their techs knows how to rundown the checklist for the main weapons battery. Wrex, I'll have you check over the Mako and make sure it's launch ready. Liara, you're with Chakwas. The new squad has two trained medics, I'll have Garvey send them up to you so they can become familiarized with how the Doc runs things during combat. Tell her I might randomly pick crew members to become 'injured' just to shake things up a bit and so the kids can have some ship-board triage practice."

Everyone acknowledged their assignments and headed out to prepare for the upcoming days of training. Shepard could feel their anticipation building and thought to herself that seeing Tali at least one more time before they headed off to the frontlines would be a good morale booster for her squad. She knew she was looking forward to it a great deal and found herself wishing they would have more time together. Unfortunately, duty called for both of them so they would all just have to make the best use of whatever little time they had left together.

Part 17

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