Chapter One - Divergence
The lights were dim, and the terminals, which were bright in contrast, attacked her vision in short, angry bursts, leaving after-images at the edges of her vision. She grimaced and pushed away from the control panel, massaging her forehead with one ungloved hand, the other reaching futilely for the nearby coffee cup. She felt the cup pressing against her fingers. Startled, she looked up and met the gaze of an older woman, a touch of grey in her sun-kissed hair. She was taller than Liara with a strong jaw and eyes the colour of the sea. Taking a step back, she asked in a somewhat strangled tone, "How did you get past our defenses?"
"Your friend let me in," the woman replied jovially, continuing to appear at ease even as Liara's fists began to glow with biotic energy. Liara reached for an open comm. link but the woman placed a hand over hers and pressed it down towards the edge of the control panel. "I hope my daughter hasn't infected you with her paranoia," the woman continued, smiling slightly.
Liara's eyes focused on the crisp, military uniform the woman wore, the easy smile on her face, the crinkle of her eyes, her stance... So many things about this woman seemed to be familiar, as if she had seen some of these features elsewhere. "Rear Admiral Shepard?"
"Please, Hannah is fine," the older Shepard replied. "Rear admiral is a mouthful, don't you think?"
Liara relaxed visibly. "I take it, Shepard—I mean, Jules, gave you the IFF code?"
Hannah inclined her head. "She was very insistent that I meet you."
Suddenly unsure of what to do, Liara turned to her terminals and transferred control to Feron before picking up her coffee mug. "Would you like me to make you some coffee? Or tea?" Liara asked nervously. She swept the room with a critical eye and gave Hannah an apologetic look. "I'm sorry if this room isn't very accommodating. I haven't had the time to furnish it properly."
"I can see why my child might find you so endearing," teased Hannah. She paused and saw the uncertainty in Liara's body language, and her need to please the elder woman in her frightened expression. Hoping to put the asari at ease, she added, "Coffee with cream will do."
"Very well," Liara said, bowing her head slightly. She hurried towards the adjoining room, prompting Feron to look up at her in askance. She gave the drell a helpless smile and moved towards the coffeemaker, relieved to note that there was still enough left for the two of them. With steady hands, she poured two cups of coffee and added some cream in both. The coffeemaker had been one of their first purchases after Liara had taken over as the Shadow Broker. With the amount of intel that Liara had to sort through on a daily basis, there was very little room for sleep in her schedule. The coffee, while a poor substitute for sleep, allowed her to get through most of the day with very few slip ups. She took the two cups and, with one backward glance at Feron, who was hard at work, went back to the Intel Centre where Hannah awaited. "Forgive me for the wait," she spoke demurely, setting the two cups on the coffee table.
"Don't worry about it, Liara," Hannah replied cheerfully. "I was admiring the place while you were gone."
A heavy silence hung between them, made even more prominent by the thrum of the ship's engine. Liara, having taken a seat across Hannah, shifted uncomfortably. "How is Shepa—Jules?"
"Tired," Hannah supplied. "Overworked. I see that she has found a kindred soul in you."
Liara flushed. "The Shadow Broker's work is—"
"Very important, I know," Hannah interrupted, raising her hands to mollify the agitated asari. "Have you ever considered hiring an assistant? Someone who can help you with your most important work?"
Liara's frown deepened. "I'm sorry, but the Shadow Broker's work requires a delicate hand. I cannot just entrust this to anyone."
"I agree—which is why I must defer to Jules's wisdom." Hannah examined the Shadow Broker's expression carefully. "I heard that Miranda Lawson is a very capable woman and that she is a former Cerberus operative now."
Liara crossed her arms defensively. The mention of Shepard's former XO always made her feel unreasonably uncomfortable. Jealousy—she'd later name the gnawing feeling in her chest. The first time she had met the woman, Liara had been struck by how beautiful she was. But that wasn't why Liara was jealous of her, not really. Miranda had brought Shepard back from the dead. Miranda—not her. Oh, Shepard had been so gallant, thanking Liara for bringing her back, but Liara knew that it was Miranda's handiwork and not hers that allowed her beloved commander to live, laugh and love again. She was indebted to Miranda, and Liara did not like being indebted. "I also heard that she has gone dark."
"Yes," Hannah agreed though her determined eyes still held some argument in them. "But I believe that her sister, Oriana, can be easily found. Too easily, or so my daughter thinks." Hannah placed her coffee cup on the table and leaned forward, eyeing Liara earnestly. "Jules thinks that Oriana might still be in danger of being discovered. She would have contacted Miranda herself and said as much, but as you have so kindly pointed out, Ms. Lawson has dropped off the radar. We believe that if you take her as an apprentice, she will be better protected."
"The Shadow Broker's base has likely been compromised," Liara argued. "If Cerberus finds out that I have Miranda's sister here, they will have more incentive to attack us."
"Then move," Hannah replied simply. "Liara, your presence alone already endangers this entire place. Or haven't you considered that you're important to Jules? If Cerberus manages to get their hands on you, Jules will be willing to do more than just blow up a star system. Her moral compass points to your direction, Liara."
"Alright," Liara conceded. "I'll think about it." The asari tilted her head and gazed at Jules's mother cautiously. "Is this why she sent you here?"
"Oh no, Liara; that was my personal agenda," Hannah admitted. "Jules just wanted me to give you this." Pulling something from her pants pocket, Hannah gently took Liara's hand and placed it on her open palm. It was a leather cord necklace from which hung a silver ring, minute circuitry embedded within its surface.
"I don't understand," Liara spoke weakly after a moment of contemplation. "What is this for?"
"Has Jules ever told you about her brother?" Liara shook her head, continuing to gaze at the gift reverently. Hannah took the asari's hands in her own, prompting Liara to meet her gaze. "My son was a kind man with a compassionate heart and a kind of charisma that could put people at ease. John was simple and uncomplicated, a loving brother who wished only to take care of his family and his crew. Like Jules and I, he was an Alliance marine, never rising past the rank of Lieutenant. You see, he never cared much for violence, and so used limited tactics in order to protect his men and reduce bloodshed. But my boy was not known for thinking like a soldier. He lost the use of an arm while defending civilians in a pirate raid in one of our colonies in Terminus space. He eventually settled down in the colony of Mindoir with Lisbeth, a civilian he had met during one of his tours."
"The batarians—" Liara blurted. Biting her lower lip, she averted her gaze. "I am sorry for your loss."
Hannah patted the young asari's hand. "But I am getting ahead of myself." A nostalgic smile graced the older woman's lips. "When John was just beginning his military career, Jules grew anxious and would fret over him for days. She was still a child then, lost without her older brother." The smile widened into one of pride. "When he came back from his first tour, she had made him a similar necklace." Nodding at the ring that Liara still held, Hannah explained, "Jules made a ring that could transmit signals across the galaxy, piggybacking on any open comm. link it could find until it reached her personal terminal. It allowed her to track her brother's movements, and reassured her that her brother was still alive. Later on, her brother could send her short messages in Morse code, simply by tapping the side of the ring. He would say, 'I love you' to her every single night before she went to sleep." Hannah chuckled plaintively."She knows a little better now and has heavily encrypted protocols on your ring, so that anyone who might intercept the signal it emits would not be able to tell its origin or its destination."
"Jules can be so overly-protective sometimes," Liara murmured wryly, though she did slip the necklace over her head and adjusted the straps so that it hung perfectly around her neck.
"Indulge her for my sake," Hannah replied wearily and leaned back. "She is a worrisome child with the weight of the entire galaxy on her shoulders—whether she chooses to bear it or not—and it would make me feel at ease if I knew that someone was looking out for her."
"I will take care of your daughter," Liara promised resolutely.
"You make her sound like a toddler," Hannah teased, though she seemed to approve of Liara's promise.
Liara matched the older Shepard's grin with her own. "May I ask a favour from you, Hannah?"
Hannah raised an eyebrow at Liara's earnest expression—so like her daughter's. "Ask away, my dear."
"Can you," Liara hesitated, "will you teach me Morse code?"
A lifetime ago, Liara might have felt jealous at the sight of a distraught Shepard, hovering over an unconscious Kaidan. Then again, a lifetime ago, she had not known love or loss; she had not made allies—no friends, with Shepard's crew; she had not bartered information with known criminals; she had not fought tooth and nail to bring Shepard back from the dead; she had not felt Shepard's gentle touch, then, had not seen Shepard's adoring gaze, had not heard Shepard's declarations of love...
An aching desire spread across her chest, awakening old memories of shared pleasures. She shivered involuntarily and silently admonished herself for thinking of her baser desires when there were graver things afoot.
She leaned forward and tilted her head to get a better view of Shepard's face. "Kaidan needs medical attention," Liara spoke forcefully, hoping to get Shepard's attention. Leaning closer, she added, "We have to leave the Sol system."
Shepard's intense gaze faltered. "I know."
Liara rested a hand on top of Shepard's. "The Citadel is our best chance, Shepard. We can find help there."
She could see a flicker of gratitude masked by pain and frustration in her beloved's face. "Get us to the Citadel, Joker." To Kaidan, she murmured, "Hold on, Kaidan. I won't let you"—she grimaced from a ghost of a memory and touched her left shoulder—"I won't let you die," Shepard whispered fiercely.
The commander turned away from her friend's still form and flexed her gloved hand, the omni-tool appearing and glowing brightly on her right arm. "EDI, I'm giving you access to this thing's databanks. See what you can find."
"Shepard, don't you think I should take a look as well?"
Shepard opened her mouth and hesitated. Shaking her head, she beckoned the asari to follow her outside the med-bay. "We need to talk."
Cold fear pressed against Liara's spine, making her stand a little straighter. Her hands sought comfort in the other's presence as her mind raced past several possibilities, the majority of which were mostly permutations of the same thing: is Shepard going to leave me again? She hardened her gaze and resolutely trailed after her commander, her heart fluttering nervously, her stomach full of anxious butterflies, and her head light and abuzz with unanswered questions.
"Are you," Liara interrupted and cleared her throat embarrassedly at Shepard's questioning gaze. Shyly, she murmured, "Are you having second thoughts? About us?"
Shepard's brow creased in confusion. She reached for Liara's chin with a calloused hand and raised it, peering into Liara's eyes, threads of silver and light blue weaving across the deep ocean colour of her irises, captivating the brilliant tech specialist. Shepard blinked and unconsciously took a step forward, continuing to stare at Liara as if examining a very complex puzzle. She caught Liara's uneasy stance at the sudden lack of space between them and finally probed, "Liara, if this is about Kaidan—"
The asari involuntarily froze. Realizing she had given her concern away, Liara's body slowly loosened as she silently chided at herself for being so transparent. "Y-you said that we needed to talk and I assumed..." She trailed off and looked at her commander sheepishly. "I assumed wrong, didn't I?"
Shepard pulled her in a sudden hug, burying her face against her beloved's shoulder, her smaller frame shaking uncontrollably. Liara, who had tensed a second time, relaxed in Shepard's tight embrace, an exasperated smile gracing her lips at the tinkling sound of Shepard's laughter. "Perchance, were you going to talk about—"
"Commander, I am receiving a signal over the secondary QEC. I believe it's Admiral Hackett."
"—the Prothean weapon?" Liara finished, shooting the ceiling an irritated look.
Shepard pulled away and sighed. Sliding her hand into Liara's, she admitted reluctantly, "Something like that." They headed towards the elevator, the air once more tense between them. "Liara, I wanted to ask you if I could trust you."
It was now Liara's turn to appear confused. "Shepard, there was never any doubt."
Shepard grimaced at her words as if disheartened by Liara's steadfast confidence in her. "I am about to do the unthinkable," she growled unhappily. "I—promise me that you will have my back no matter what choices I make."
Those sharp eyes turned their full attention towards Liara, unnerving her. "I respect you, Liara. And I think your research has its merits. I hope you understand that I value your opinions as a friend, as a lover, as the Shadow Broker, and as a Prothean expert." She left that declaration in the air as she purposefully marched towards the comm. room, Liara following a step behind.
"Shepard, are you reading me? Commander!" Admiral Hackett's voice exploded through the static, making Shepard grimace.
"EDI, can you clear this up?" asked Shepard wearily.
"I'll do my best," the disembodied AI replied.
"Did you get to the Archives?"
Liara and Shepard shared a look of apprehension.
"I was there," Shepard replied cautiously. "So was the Illusive Man." Liara watched her commander from the corner of her eyes and felt, more than saw, a sudden wariness in Shepard. Her stance reminded Liara of the majestic hunting beasts in her home-world, the tas'ren with their sun-gold eyes, copper-coloured scales, their proud jaws, and their powerfully-built bodies that could explode across a clearing, their mastery of the biotics giving them an unnatural speed. Liara was almost glad that Shepard didn't possess any biotic talent at all; the mass effect build-up of an agitated biotic user, especially a powerful one, could have a serious backlash to her immediate surroundings.
"I was worried Cerberus might try something. Did you get the data?"
Shepard remained silent for a moment longer than was necessary. "We've recovered most of the data, sir, but I believe that the Illusive Man has a more comprehensive copy in his hands."
Hackett cursed. To Liara, he asked in a quiet tone, "What did you learn during your stay in Mars, Dr. T'soni?"
Liara hesitated and briefly glanced at Shepard's direction. "Preliminary evidence suggests the data is a blueprint for a Prothean device, Admiral, specifically, a Prothean weapon." She turned on her omni-tool and uploaded a general set of the weapon's schematics for Admiral Hackett to see. "Massive in scope and size, I believe that this weapon is capable of unquantifiable levels of destruction."
Hackett's gaze hardened. "And now Cerberus has a copy of this device."
Shepard stood a little straighter, her body instinctively moving to parade rest. "If I may speak freely, Admiral Hackett?"
Hackett raised an eyebrow and matched Shepard's resolute expression with his own sombre frown. "Very well, Commander. You may speak, but know that my patience is running thin."
"I believe that it is to our advantage that Cerberus also has a copy," Shepard declared confidently.
Hackett leaned forward and angrily retorted, "You believe that giving them a super-weapon is in our best interests, Shepard? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't accuse you of collaborating with the enemy right now."
Liara felt her heart clench. Was this what Shepard meant when she wanted to confirm Liara's loyalty?
"Because if I was with Cerberus, sir, I would have never returned to Earth for my trial," Shepard replied simply. Before the admiral could interrupt her again, she continued, "Frankly, sir, Cerberus is an unknown quantity right now. The Illusive Man's desire to control the Reapers is our only certainty. It is highly possible that they will be a thorn in our side as we try to rally the other species together. However, as you can see, this Prothean device is going to be a massive undertaking. If we do not build this device ourselves, the Illusive Man will be forced to focus his resources on the construction of the Prothean super-weapon, resources that he might have used to hurt our chances of winning against the Reapers."
"From what I have seen during Shepard's time with Cerberus, the Illusive Man's agents are very capable when it comes to the innovation of new and more powerful weaponry," Liara added, the confidence she normally reserved as the Shadow Broker coming to surface. "Considering our own resources, we have a good chance of forcibly taking the weapon from them in due time."
"And what's going to stop them from using the weapon to attack us?"
"The Catalyst," Shepard answered.
Liara, who instantly picked up Shepard's train of thought, explained further, "The Protheans were close to finishing this device, Admiral, but they were missing a vital piece—the Catalyst."
"As long as they don't get their hands on the Catalyst, sir, the weapon won't be much of a threat against us."
"You're taking a big gamble here, Commander Shepard," Hackett drawled, folding his arms uneasily.
"I know," she agreed plaintively. "And it's not the only gamble I am willing to take." Shepard turned to her companion, "Liara, I believe it's time we tell him about New Ilos."
Liara nodded after recovering from her initial surprise at the mention of Shepard's pet project. Closing her files on the Prothean super-weapon, she typed in a set of security codes to open a second, larger file containing blueprints of a modified asari dreadnought, New Ilos, currently anchored to the planet Virmire in the Sentry Omega cluster. "During her brief alliance with the Cerberus organization, Shepard scoured the galaxy for potential allies. Amongst those whom she recruited were some of the best and brightest in their respective fields. From xeno-biologists to tech specialists—we have over three hundred working under Shepard's leadership."
"We also have temporary facilities in Virmire," Shepard continued, "training ground support personnel and retrofitting ships with experimental tech. It's not much, but if used with the right tactics, we believe we can use these frigates to disable the Reapers and slow them down. We can't outright destroy them, sir, but we can sure as hell make things difficult for them to manoeuvre around."
"And you've been keeping this from me?" asked Hackett in a neutral tone.
"Begging your pardon, sir, but at the time of New Ilos's inception, I was still part of Cerberus. If the Illusive Man found out what I was doing besides scanning planets for mineral resources, he would have tried to undermine my project and take it over for his own ends. Afterwards, when I returned to Earth and was grounded, with my ship taken from me, and my crew disbanded, I realized that the Alliance would have probably done the same, albeit for more benign reasons. However," Shepard continued, giving Liara a sidelong grin, "I was fortunate enough to know someone whom I could trust to keep my best interests at heart."
"Very well," Hackett said, pinching the bridge of his nose and letting out a heavy sigh. "In any other circumstance, I might have had you court-martialed for your insolence by now." He gave his young protégé a wry half-smile. "But considering we're at war with a sentient machine race, I think we'll just call this 'New Ilos' an initiative. I hope you know what you're doing, Shepard."
"On the bright side, sir, if it turns out that I have made all of the wrong decisions, the Reapers would have probably killed me by then; court-martialing me would be the least of your worries."
Hackett snorted. "I see that your time with the Council has made you cheeky."
"It's part of the Spectre status, sir," Shepard replied amicably. In a more serious tone, she said, "Major Alenko was critically injured during our fight with the Cerberus agent. We're taking him to the Citadel now. I also have to talk to the Council and ask for their support on the war front back home. Is there anything I should ask them on your behalf?"
"Even if I were to focus my resources on aiding your scientists in New Ilos, it wouldn't hurt to have Council backing as well. Don't look at me like that Shepard; I can take a hint." Hackett teased casually. "I also suggest that you keep mum about letting Cerberus build the Prothean super-weapon. Let them think that's what we're building. If we do get support, leave it to me to get them properly caught up with your plan."
Shepard frowned. "Are you sure we should keep them in the dark, sir?"
"Politicians are a nervous bunch, Shepard. They're not about to take uncalculated risks, not if they want to keep their seat of power in the Council." Hackett leaned forward, waving a finger at Shepard. "Do whatever it takes to get them on board. We need all the help we can get."
"Sorry to hear about Major Alenko," the admiral added as an afterthought. "I'll keep in touch. Hackett out." His silhouette disappeared in a flash of static.
Liara stared at her lover's hunched back, the weariness of the day's events finally catching up to her.
"I'm sorry, Liara," Shepard finally intoned. "I know you have a deep fascination with all things Prothean. I hope you don't feel like you wasted your time on Mars, researching on a device that we pretty much handed over to the Illusive Man."
"I told you I'd have your back no matter what, didn't I?" Liara reminded her, placing a comforting hand on Shepard's shoulder.
"And for that I am grateful."
Liara tilted her head and anxiously eyed her commanding officer. "If you don't mind, I'd like to know the real reason why you didn't want Hackett's team to build the Prothean device."
Shepard leaned into Liara's touch, drooping against the asari's taller form. "Remember Ilos?" She felt Liara flinch and sighed. "Liara, about that..."
Liara pressed her cheek against Shepard's soft, dark hair, remembering the night before Ilos when Shepard had spurned her clumsy advances, a mistake that Shepard still regretted even now. "I have forgiven you, haven't I?" she whispered, tightening her hold of the smaller woman.
"It doesn't change the fact that I hurt you," Shepard insisted, breathing in Liara's unique scent and shivering involuntarily. "I'm always so scared of losing you. I—"
Liara hushed her with a chaste kiss. "What about Ilos?" she inquired, fighting the urge to smirk at Shepard's blushing expression.
Shepard closed her eyes. "That was the day we found out that the Citadel was a mass relay from Vigil; that the reason why the Citadel purposefully became our galaxy's seat of power was because it was the fastest and easiest way the Reapers could subdue us: by killing our leaders first." There was a storm brewing in Shepard's normally placid, cloudy grey eyes when she opened them to regard Liara with a pained expression. "That was the day I promised myself that I would never again take for granted another civilization's technology. For too long our lives have been shaped by the Reapers. Let's face it: much of our progress was in part due to Reaper meddling."
"You think this weapon is another Reaper invention?"
"It would be a very clever ruse on their part, Liara," Shepard admitted. "I mean, don't you think it's a little too convenient that we discover a super-weapon at the start of this war? A super-weapon that could potentially destroy the Reapers once and for all? I don't know about you, but if I was part of an advanced race hell-bent on annihilating other civilizations, and I had the chance to leave behind technology that looked like remnants of the last civilization I razed to the ground, I would certainly leave a red herring for the next civilization, because not only would it be hilarious to watch them struggle for a lost cause, but I would not have to worry about them trying to do something I hadn't anticipated. Now consider that I am also an advanced synthetic race. I would probably try to address every possible error that might go wrong, because it is against my very nature not to do so. Giving my enemies this 'Prothean super-weapon' minimizes my chances of stumbling into an error that I haven't considered, because my enemies would be thinking inside the dimensions that I have established."
Liara chuckled. "You're doing that again."
"Doing what again?"
"Talking too quickly," Liara teased. "It's quite endearing."
Shepard childishly huffed and pouted. "I was being serious. Besides, it reminds me of our creed."
"Your creed?" Liara asked disbelievingly. "Like a prayer?"
"Rule no. 1 of tech school: if you didn't build it or know how to take it apart—don't use it. Better to use your own than tech that'll bite you in the ass someday." Shepard grinned. "Funny story that."
Talking to the Council proved to be less productive than Shepard had hoped. Now that the Reaper threat was here, the other Councillors were too busy worrying about the defenses of their home-worlds to consider sending aid to Earth where the brunt of the Reaper attack was, and although she had foreseen that this would happen, the Council's cold shoulder attitude towards her requests still felt like a heavy blow to the chest.
What is the use of a multispecies council if everyone is too preoccupied with their own self-interested needs? Shepard's grip on her beloved's hand tightened, unintentionally drawing Liara's attention. Perhaps it would not hurt to strong-arm them into working together...
No. Violence would not solve anything. Besides, the point of a Council was to have distinct voices that represented the entire galactic community. If Shepard took over and forced the Council to direct their combined army to aid Earth, then she was no better than them because she was also acting in her home-world's best interests. Besides, these Councillors were merely representatives of their species. Even if she could get their support, there would be someone else along the chain of command, questioning her motives and denying her the resources she needed. If she was going to get them to work together, then they needed to be convinced that she was the best solution to the Reaper problem.
Easier said than done.
"You look like you are about to murder someone," Liara observed lightly.
"Already considered that possibility," Shepard admitted absent-mindedly.
"Should I start looking for the Citadel's blueprints then, my love?"
Startled, Shepard turned to her smiling companion, sputtering, "N-no! I don't mean that we should—you know," she leaned forward and whispered, "kill them."
"I was merely teasing."
"No comment," Shepard grumbled darkly, but was inwardly pleased to see Liara in a brighter mood. Though Shepard had already apologized to her, Liara had seemed disappointed earlier when they were presenting the Crucible's plans to the Council. Liara's current job might be as the Shadow Broker, but Shepard could see that Liara was still a Prothean archaeologist first. "Liara," Shepard began uncertainly.
"We have as much information as Cerberus when it comes to the Crucible," Shepard said quietly. "If you still want to study the Prothean super-weapon, then I will not stop you." Shepard grimaced. "What I mean is, I think that it is a good idea if you wish to study the blueprints in more detail. Not that I mean that I disapprove of it. Hell, you can even ask my people for help—"
"Shepard, I'm fine." Liara tried to reassure her. "If you don't believe that the Crucible is the answer to this war, then that's fine too. I will follow you whatever you choose to do."
Shepard shook her head furiously. "I know you love studying the Protheans, Liara, and I don't want to take that away from you. Besides, studying the Crucible can be to our advantage as well. If Cerberus is going to make this super-weapon, then we damn well better know the destruction that it is capable of inflicting. I am not about to hand Cerberus a weapon that I don't know how to defend against."
Liara's gaze softened. "You are always thinking about me."
"Well, you're always on my mind."
The asari laughed and playfully bumped hips with her partner. "And you wonder why people keep chasing after you, Commander. You are such a flirt."
They entered Udina's office and, with collective nods, went to the opposite sides of the room, turning on their omni-tools and scanning the area for listening devices. As a former 'agent' of Cerberus and as the Shadow Broker, they had both gotten used to the prerequisites of secrecy, and that included sweeping an area where they wished to discuss in private.
"Is there a reason why you're waving your omni-tools around my room?" Udina inquired mildly upon entering.
Liara gave Shepard the 'go ahead' signal and moved to stand near the doorway. "I'm here to let you in on a secret, Udina," Shepard answered earnestly. "And we had to make sure that your room was clean."
The human Councillor shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other. "Well?"
"We're not building the Crucible, sir."
"I'm sorry, but was I supposed to laugh at your pathetic attempt at mockery?" Udina paused and painstakingly set aside the datapad he was carrying on his desk before turning around to stare at his subordinate. "You're not lying, are you?"
"At this point, I am inclined to ask, 'Would I lie to you?' but I fear you would answer that with a straightforward, 'yes'."
"Shepard, in the name of all that is holy, can you stop being pert with me for a second?" Udina commanded through gritted teeth. "You are giving me a headache."
"I'll try, sir."
"Now, tell me again why you're not building this Crucible."
Shepard regarded the former human ambassador with cool, grey eyes, tempered with steel. "I'm afraid Cerberus succeeded in acquiring most of the data on the Prothean super-weapon before we could stop them and take the data for ourselves. Fortunately, Liara had some general schematics of the Crucible to show to the Councillors. We had hoped that they would take our bluff and send Earth aid."
"That was a very risky gamble, Shepard," Udina stated simply.
"I know, sir." Shepard admitted. "But we need them on our side. This war cannot be won unless we stand together against the Reapers. And what better way to draw everyone together than to let them fight under a banner of hope?"
"Shepard," Liara called her commander's name quietly in warning just as the door slid open and the turian Councillor, Sparatus walked in.
"Was I interrupting something?" Sparatus asked upon seeing their grave expressions.
"We were simply talking about you, Councillor," Shepard said calmly.
"Do I even want to know the specifics of your conversation?" Sparatus asked dryly.
"I believe the words 'self-concerned jackasses' are a sufficient summary, sir."
The turian representative snorted. "I suppose I should be thankful that you have not yet sent assassins to kill us for being so ungraciously unaccommodating."
"Fortunately for you, Councillor, we are not so barbaric," Udina replied acidly, having recovered from the turian's sudden intrusion in their conversation.
"We are fortunate, indeed," Sparatus acknowledged solemnly. Looking past Udina, he regarded Shepard coolly, "I can't give you what you need, but I can tell you how to get it."
Shepard straightened and moved to parade rest, sizing Sparatus quietly. "I'm listening."
"Primarch Fedorian called for a war summit, but we lost contact with him when the Reapers hit Palaven," Sparatus began, his tone grave. "These meetings won't proceed without him." He bowed his head slightly in deference. "The Normandy is one of the few ships that can extract Primarch Fedorian from the Trebia System undetected."
"And if my crew extracts him, I would gain an ally for this war summit of yours." Shepard added, her expression remaining impassive.
"Exactly. The leaders of this summit will be the ones deciding our future: the fate of our fleets, where they fight, and with whom." Beckoning to the screen besides them, he continued, "Our latest intelligence says that the Primarch was moved to a base on Palaven's largest moon. If you can get him..."
Shepard's jaw muscles clenched, as her expression hardened. "I hope, for your sake, that you are not sending me on a wild goose chase, Councillor."
Sparatus blinked dumbly. "There are no geese in Palaven, Shepard."
"I believe it is a human idiom, Councillor Sparatus," Liara supplied helpfully. "A wild goose chase, in this case, means a futile pursuit. That is, she hopes that you are not going to waste her time with a mission that does not help our cause in the long run."
"I cannot promise you anything," Sparatus spoke ambiguously.
Shepard smirked. "At least I am reassured in the constancy of your character, Councillor." With a nod, she walked past the turian councillor and left Udina's office.
Leaning against the wall adjacent to the door, she heard Udina say, "That was sarcasm, Sparatus," as Liara left the office to follow after her.
"You really like cutting your superiors off, don't you?" Liara asked wryly.
"It is my only joy," Shepard answered mock-seriously. "Well, besides being around you."
"And now you are just flirting with me again," Liara said, punching Shepard's shoulder playfully. The dark-haired woman caught her lover's hand.
"Only because I like seeing you flustered," Shepard admitted boldly. "Now, why don't we visit the Spectre's office and see what's so grand about this new addition to the Human embassy wing."
Liara already had Shepard pinned against the wall before the door to the Spectre's office had fully closed. "So I heard you like seeing me flustered, Shepard," Liara whispered in a sultry voice. Shepard, who hadn't realized that her invitation had a double-edged meaning to it, whimpered against Liara's touch.
"I r-really think that now isn't the time," Shepard protested weakly and gasped at the tickling sensation of Liara's soft lips against her scar.
"Oh, don't mind me, Shepard," Kasumi added helpfully, disabling her stealth cloak. "I'm just here for the show."
Liara had her pistol drawn—where she had managed to hide it, Shepard did not want to know—and pointed at Kasumi before Shepard could even regain what little dignity she had possessed. Shepard slid on the floor and cradled her head instead. "Liara, meet Kasumi. Kasumi, meet our mutual friend—"
"Your beloved Shadow," teased Kasumi. She bowed dramatically. "The pleasure is all mine."
"You didn't tell me you were meeting with someone here," Liara muttered, scowling at Shepard.
"You didn't give me the chance to," was the sullen reply.
Liara gave the master thief a curt nod. "I take it you'll be joining us in the Normandy?"
Kasumi nodded. "If you don't mind."
"As long as you speak of this to no one."
"That's unlikely to happen," Shepard said dryly, finally getting to her feet. She took the pistol from Liara's raised hand and pulled her in an unexpected kiss, guiding Liara's hand to rest against her hip. "Kasumi's an incurable gossip," Shepard explained breathlessly after breaking the kiss, leaning her cheek against Liara's shoulder.
"I am not," Kasumi denied lightly.
"And you're my beloved information broker," Shepard continued, ignoring Kasumi's pouting expression. "I'm sure you two can work together to make things difficult for the rest of my crew."
"I'll think about it," Liara ceded, pulling Shepard close to her, a possessive glint in her blue eyes.
"Shiala is waiting in Bay D24, as you've requested." Kasumi grinned. "Talk to you later, Commander." The stealth cloak flared and hid the smiling thief once more.
Pulling her irritated lover towards the two terminals in the main area of the Spectre's office, Shepard took a moment to synchronize her omni-tool with both of them, giving her access to Spectre-only intel and Spectre gear. They both chuckled at the absurd prices of the different weapons being sold and exited the office after sharing another lingering kiss by the doorway, instigated by an apologetic Shepard.
They moved towards the elevator in companionable silence, interrupted only by an insistent reporter Shepard had crossed paths with before. Shepard remained unnaturally quiet as Khalisah al-Jilani assaulted her with questions concerning Earth. When the woman had run out of steam, Shepard subtly used her omni-tool to turn the camera off and pulled al-Jilani to the side, murmuring her condolences to the reporter. She understood the importance of the media in winning this war—after all, she did allow that Allers woman to join her crew despite the predatory sidelong glance the reporter had given her. Encouraging al-Jilani to "keep asking the hard questions," Shepard felt supremely pleased with herself as she and Liara stepped into the elevator.
"You look like you've swallowed a canary, Commander," Liara observed lightly as the door to the elevator closed.
"Oh, did I not use the idiom correctly?"
Shepard shook her head, clearing her disordered thoughts, and gave Liara a reassuring grin. "No, no. I was just surprised that you'd say that. Brushing up on our idioms, are you?"
Liara shrugged carelessly. "Well, if I am to spend the rest of my life with a human, I might as well learn a bit of their language."
"If that were only true," Shepard said wistfully. "I would love to be with you until the end of your lifetime."
"We'll make the most of it, Shepard," Liara promised. "Ah, I believe this is your stop?"
Shepard nodded and gave Liara's hand a gentle squeeze. "Make Shiala feel at home in the Normandy, will you?"
"Of course, Shepard."
Shepard passed through the hospital's lobby, listening keenly to the various conversations buzzing in the air. Her eyes swept across the room, taking note of the fraught faces among the loitering bodies. She walked past the reception desk and found herself grinning at the sight of two familiar faces. "Dr. Chakwas, Dr. Michel," she greeted the two doctors standing besides the broad windows overlooking the rest of the Citadel.
"Shepard," the two replied in unison.
"Ah, I see now why you turned down my offer, Dr. Michel," Shepard said, eyeing the younger of the two genially. "You've moved up since the last time we saw each other."
Dr. Michel dipped her head. "It is nice to be needed, Commander."
"And Dr. Chakwas, it's been, what, six months now? I heard you were working on an Alliance R&D lab in the Shalta Wards."
"That is true, Shepard. I heard that you escaped Earth and that someone was critically injured, so I came here as fast as I could. With Dr. Michel's expertise, I'm sure Major Alenko will be back on his feet in no time."
"You flatter me, Dr. Chakwas."
"I speak only the truth, Doctor."
They talked idly for a while, simply basking in each other's presence. Dr. Michel tried to take her leave several times, wishing to give the two friends a bit more privacy, but Shepard kept reeling her back in to the conversation, asking after some mutual friend or some new medical treatment that she might have heard about. Eventually tiring of their conversation, Shepard implored Dr. Chakwas to join the Normandy once more, easily winning the older woman over.
Watching Dr. Chakwas retreat to the elevator to pick up her things, Dr. Michel said, "She is a very capable woman herself, Commander. I am sure her expertise will be missed down in the Wards."
"I agree," Shepard said sombrely. "But I need a medical officer on board. I don't want to lose people if I can help it. Dr. Michel?"
"I understand if you feel that your place is here, helping these people," Shepard began. "I will not ask you a second time, though I would like to help you."
"Commander Shepard, you are already doing too much for the rest of the galaxy. I am sure I and my staff can get by on what we have."
"This is just the beginning, Dr. Michel," Shepard warned her. "It will not be long before this place can no longer accommodate everyone."
"And you can find them accommodations?"
"If you trust me," Shepard said quietly.
"This has to do with New Ilos, doesn't it?" Dr. Michel crossed her arms. "Why are you really offering this, Commander?"
"I don't trust the Citadel," Shepard explained in that same quiet tone. "I believe that it is only a matter of time before the Reapers manage to include the Citadel in their machinations once more. When that time comes, I want to get as many people out of this place as possible."
"Your dreadnought is a formidable ship, Commander, but it cannot possibly house everyone there."
Shepard inclined her head. "True—which is why my people are building liveships modelled after the ships the quarians possess. Unfortunately, I don't have the resources to build another Citadel."
"And all of these expenses are coming out of your pockets I hear."
"Ha! Yes. Even my resources are not as bottomless as others presume. If not for my patents"—Shepard shrugged helplessly—"well, I'm sure my people can get by."
"I will think about it, Commander."
"That is all I wanted to hear."
Shepard excused herself and moved towards the hospital room where Major Alenko was staying. Watching the rise and fall of the man's scarred chest, Shepard was at a loss for words; the speech that she had prepared earlier for the dozing major had vanished from her thoughts. She cautiously stepped forward, even as her eyes memorized every bruise, every cut, every mark in Kaidan's body that his armour had hidden from her just hours before.
When she had first met Kaidan, she had instantly taken a liking to the man. He had a softness in his eyes and a kindness in his stance that reminded her of John, her brother. He wasn't prejudiced as other humans were when it came to the other species, and when she had confessed to him that she only saw him as an older brother, he had taken it in stride. He even remained on good terms with Liara, though Shepard could see that there was still a tense air between the two whenever she was around.
And then Horizon happened.
She would never tell Kaidan that, but their meeting on Horizon had awakened a fiery anger in her, a monstrous hatred that would have consumed her if not for her friends' companionship and Liara's forgiving eyes. They had filled the hole that Kaidan had drilled in her heart; they had given her a family to protect again, when she thought she had none.
Still, she missed Kaidan. She knew that it was mostly because there was so much of John in him, particularly in their loyalty towards the Alliance and in their genuine desire to aid others. She knew that it was because it was easier to miss him than to grieve Ash's death. There were plenty of reasons. In the end, she knew that she would not stay angry at him for too long—could not, because she believed that he would eventually come around, and she would have a brother again.
Don't let me down now, Kaidan.
Taking a deep breath, she gently picked up his hand and held it for a long time.
Specialist Samantha Traynor fidgeted near her work terminal besides the CIC's galaxy map, wishing she had something better to do than feel like a glorified secretary. As a comm. specialist, she had been working on the Normandy's upgrades when the Reapers attacked Earth. Now that most of the upgrades were finished, she felt like a redundant piece of machinery. Oh sure, she had her work cut out for her when it came to dealing with quantum entanglement, especially when there were several incoming resources and you had to do networking and extrapolations and so on, but she heard that the commander was a combat engineer and a brilliant tech specialist to boot. Heck, she heard that half of the protocols currently embedded in their system were the commander's own handiwork. My God, how I would love to pick at her brain, she thought wistfully. Would she be open to the idea of playing chess with me sometime? She shivered in anticipation, imagining Commander Shepard's slender fingers lightly stroking the queen's figure as the woman considered her next move. And those dreamy grey eyes and dark curly locks and that earnest expression... I could just eat—
The sound of the airlock opening from afar broke her out of her reverie, making her stand still. Had the commander returned from the Citadel already? Specialist Traynor hoped so. She planned on giving the commander a tour of the Normandy and get on her good graces, if she could. She heard that the woman was very nice and easy-going with a talent for making everyone feel at ease.
She could ease me in all sorts of ways, a seductive voice crooned in Specialist Traynor's ear, making her shiver yet again. Damn it! First she gets a crush on a VI's voice, and now she's lusting over the commander. I am not a fickle creature, she told herself firmly.
"This is the Combat Information Centre where Shepard decides the Normandy's course of destination," a voice floated from just a few metres away. Specialist Traynor found herself grudgingly saluting Shepard's XO, the asari archaeologist and Shadow Broker, Dr. T'soni. She was lightly conversing with a green-skinned asari, a rare sight for the comm. specialist.
"You make it sound like I'll be staying here for a while," the other asari noted jokingly.
Dr. T'soni hesitated. "I'd like that."
Specialist Traynor almost raised an eyebrow but averted her gaze instead, staring at the terminal before her with unfocused eyes. The commander had only been gone for a few hours, and already Dr. Tsoni had the gall to flirt with another asari?
"It has been three years since Mother died, and I feel as if I have not properly grieved for her death," Dr. T'soni admitted in a hushed tone.
"We are at war, Liara," the other asari reminded her coldly. "It will do you no good to summon old ghosts now."
"I don't need ghosts," Dr. T'soni replied as they entered the elevator. "I just need some resolution."
Well, perhaps not, Specialist Traynor amended reluctantly, a sigh escaping her lips.
"Do you know where I might find this ship's requisitions officer?"
Specialist Traynor almost jumped out of her skin at the sudden intrusion of another woman's voice in her thoughts. She looked around her immediate surroundings and felt her blood run cold. Where the hell was the voice coming from? Had Dr. T'soni brought a ghost on board?
"Ah, sorry about that," the disembodied voice said in an amiable tone. A moment later, a hooded woman appeared next to Specialist Traynor, causing the young woman faint.
"It's good to have you back, Kasumi," EDI said with a touch of humour in her voice.
"It's good to be back, EDI. Oh, but I seem to have encountered a problem," The master thief complained and sighed theatrically whilst prodding Specialist Traynor's cheek with a gloved finger. "Shepard asked me to acquire some new equipment for her, and I cannot help but wonder: who will help me carry those things now?"