A/N: Work has been strangely cooperative the past week, so I got another chapter done. Working on the next one now. No ETAs – I've had enough experience in saying: "Oh this won't take long," and then work, life, or other issues making it take months. However, a great deal of the 'outline planning' is now redone and the Editing Gang has been very helpful in adding in suggestions, and what I do know is that it will be looooooong. This one is just under 20k, so…

A lot of changes and revisions went into this, a sort of holistic effort. The original was… different, quite a bit different. A lot of the changes were to restructure the conversation with the Council, and to showcase and introduce some supporting characters. I do strongly recommend glancing over the Broker Report on the Citadel doc, especially the Spectre and Citadel Intelligence chapters.

In the games, Shepard's return is the most low-key 'who gives a fuck' thing I have ever seen. No one – literally no one – evinces any surprise at Shepard being alive, walking around, or what that means. It was frankly baffling. So, some of the things that happen here are a result of that.

The rest is more hard work by the Editing Gang.

Read the following authors when you get a chance, you won't regret it: SLotH4, Nolanstar, Xabiar, Pallan Minerva, Aberron, TungstenCat, Exstarsis, and YukiKazami.


'I was there – as a messenger runner, barely old enough for face paint – in the Council Chambers, when your father, Shepard, returned. She had Thanix Palavanus at her left hand, Sainted Uressa at her right, the heroes of the Citadel – Garrus Vakarian, your mother Liara T'soni, Telanya Nasan – even the Commissar, Jiong – behind her. I listened to five prattling bureaucrats debate if we should listen to one who transcended death or to the drone of politics as usual, and it is a rare fool who can anger Thanix and Uressa in a single sentence.'

-Presidium Guard Commander Jonax Tharsax, retired, from "Interviews with the Moments of History" by Liana T'Soni-Shepard, one hundred and thirty years after the Reaper War.


Admiral James Branson stared incredulously at the man across from him, before shaking his head. "I am almost certain I did not hear you correctly."

Jason Delacor tossed a heavy black rifle onto the table, his features set into a sneer. "I said, we are not going through with the assassination of Shepard. She just nearly killed herself to save a bunch of fucking kids. Even if she was a fake, killing her sends the worst possible message."

He folded his arms. "Besides, the scans proved she isn't a fake at all."

Branson leaned forward. "I don't think you… understand… Captain. Regardless of what the scans may or may not represent, or what messages would be sent by its demise, that thing is dangerous. I expected you, of all people, to grasp the danger she represents – to the Alliance, to humanity, to our destiny. The only solution is to remove the threat."

Delacor's wintry smile tightened. "You know, it's funny. Six months ago, before the Horizon mess, I might have agreed with you. I never liked Shepard, even when she stopped being a fucking lunatic, and I have spent the last two years bitterly stewing in her shadow, handed cast-off pieces of what they granted her, being deigned by ungrateful people to carry on in her place."

His cybernetic eye whirred quietly. "But even I know good and evil when it is placed in front of me, Branson. If she was a threat, she wouldn't have pulled a stunt like that which almost got her killed for a pack of orphan kids."

Branson exhaled, his jaw tightening. "Regardless of your indulgence in maudlin sentiment, you have a mission and orders from the High Lords of Sol to eliminate her."

Delacor smiled without humor. "Yeah. See, that's the problem. I never liked these orders to begin with, so I also made very sure I had my own comm tap to the High Lords net. I did it originally in case I was about to be thrown under the bus, but as it happens I heard the Prince's transmission – I know they already called this mess off."

He gestured to the rifle. "Vandefar and those fucking clowns in Ache Lameo probably cooked this weapon up, its got her style and methods all over it. It's probably designed to explode or otherwise fuck over whoever takes the shot, so you can have a good patsy. I'm already known as a failure who lost his command and never got along with Shepard, naturally I'd be the fall guy in this mess. I wonder who else you planned to fuck over with this little stunt and then conveniently claim you had no idea."

Branson glared at Delacor hotly, who merely let his smile widen. "And now, given how insistent you are that she die, I wonder if you want her dead just out of spite, old boy… or does she have some dirt on you? I figure it's the former. I mean, she was the best at the N7 exam, kinda showed you up as the 'Hero of Mankind' when she saved Neo Berlin. Ah, well."

He glanced at the wall of the large spacious office, smiling even wider as the haptic trideo screen showed a heavily escorted groundtrans bus arriving at the Tower. "Whatever it is, you can deal with that yourself. Good luck working all that out."

Branson's words hissed between clenched teeth. "You will pay for this, Delacor."

The man turned away, laughing bitterly. "How? Everything I wanted, loved, or valued is destroyed, dead, or gone." He glanced over his shoulder. "And I'm a Spectre; good luck making whatever bullshit you have planned stick."

He walked out, the doors hissing shut behind him, and Branson slammed a hand on his chair before angrily tapping a control on his desk. "Sinna, get me comms with 'Benefactor.' "

A soft female voice answered. "One moment, Admiral." A moment later, an accented voice spoke through the comm-link.

"Admiral Branson. An expected but, I fear, unnecessary call."

The man gritted his teeth. "Maliki, Delacor didn't go through with the take down."

The voice on the line gave a short, nasty laugh. "I know this. The man is smarter than your presumptions. Kiongozi is of like mind with the Prince, killing her at this junction of events is unlikely to do anything but make things messy. You are out of the loop. She has already cut a deal with the High Lords… and unless something changes, we will be stepping back."

Branson paled. "We had a deal, one that I have lived up to – at great risk to myself."

Maliki's voice was calm. "I know. But I am not making the decisions in this. And at this juncture, there is simply too much of a chance of our group being tied to any such… activity, without an appropriate set of patsies. Vandefar has already disposed of the AIS researcher who designed it."

Branson shook his head. "We have the backup sniper, and the damned rifles were smuggled in by the Shifter! All it takes is one fucking shot, not even she could survive that."

The voice cooled in tone. "The moment that Kiongozi told me the plan was a no-go, my assets recovered the other weapon and neutralized the backup sniper. The rifle in your possession is, of course, off the books. If you wish to employ your own methods or persons to make the attempt, you are free to do so… but it will be in opposition of the wishes of our mutual employers."

"Do not bother calling again, Admiral. If we have need of you, we will let you know." The comm-link gave a final click and Branson cursed.

A second later, the door chimed. "Come!"

Admiral Hackett walked through, dressed in formal SA blues, his garrison cap in his hands and his craggy features worried. "Shepard just arrived, and security is sending them up now." He glanced at the long weapon on the table and swallowed. "…and I am guessing that the direct action option is off the table now."

Branson rose, making a dismissive gesture with his hand. "Yes. Delacor knew the hit had been called off and neither the High Lords nor our mutual associates were willing to act. And I've just been told they'll call us when – and if – they need us again."

Hackett frowned, displeasure flickering across his eyes. "I took a large amount of risks in 'losing' equipment for Hades to recover, not to mention my other investments. The entire operation we backed on Alte, the shipments we've covered for. And now this? They're writing us off?"

Branson shrugged. "I don't know. Maliki is not the one calling the shots, merely relaying the news. This mess with Shepard and whatever she's up to will have to hold until I can get back to Earth and talk to people directly. For the moment, since they want to be uncooperative, we should prepare for the worst. Link everything to Hades and go ahead and have Patterson 'lose' every fucking encryption code we have on them. At least that way if they try to sell us out, they'll bring themselves down too."

He straightened his uniform. "I'll try to minimize the political damage this bitch will cause us, and remind the goddamned nobles we are not fucking disposable or expendable assets for them to discard as needed. I need you to get your people working on covering our tracks up to this point, and moving our assets to a place where we can make direct use of them."

Hackett sighed. "This is an unfortunate turn of events. Given what we know about the intentions of the salarians and the fallout from the Magog Incident, and the continuing drawdown on the fleet, it's more important than ever to have a second string. I'll move what I can and have my people run interference, but Hades ditching us implies they don't need us. And that makes us a liability."

Branson considered that for several moments. "Perhaps. Or they found something else, which is worrying given the Mnemosyne fuckup. As for being a liability, that cuts both ways. For now, just… focus on cleaning shit up. I'll try to find an alternative way to neutralize this mess that doesn't come back to us, and on making our displeasure clear.

The older Admiral gave a tired nod. "Like I said, I'll make some calls, Jason. Some of the more junior captains will be useful." He paused, a wary look in his eyes. "Although some will no doubt wonder if they should cut their losses and go their own way."

Branson's glare was venomous. "If that's the case then we're fucked already. I doubt it will come to that, though. Many of the captains that have come up during the Geth War did it because some of the old guard fuckers bought it in battle. None of them is going to want Shepard getting in their way of obtaining a knighthood.

Hackett's features eased slightly. "Good point. And as for this mess, just keep in mind – from what I heard over the years from Delacor, Florez, and Anderson – if that is Shepard, she's very… vindictive."

Branson's lips twitched into a grimacing smile. "A fact with which I assure you I am well acquainted, Steven. But then again, so am I."

O-TWCD-O

Shepard's feeling on returning after years to the Citadel Tower was that she still had an immediate and ongoing urge to take a flamethrower to the place. The same fake plazas, smarmy well-heeled people, and ironic use of alien plant life – this time, plants that Okeer quietly noted were from Tuchanka.

Shepard was amused, but not surprised, to see both a heavy media presence and lines of C-Sec riot control units on the approach to the Citadel Tower. The last time she'd come this way it had been in an aircar, and the view from the ground was even more imposing and imperial. The bone-white arches and tessellated green-spaces flanked the Tower, drawing attention to its height and sheer mass.

The Citadel Tower's environs were just as Shepard remembered, stupidly opulent and at dissonance with all the heavily armed security that loomed at every corner and balcony. The heavy gun emplacements along the sides of the tower and the AA-GTA missile banks artfully hidden by greenery that dotted the approach were new, though.

Maybe if they ever bothered to get off their ass and do something they wouldn't need all this security, Shepard thought sourly.

The bus grumbled to a stop, the sidewall of the bus hissing as it expanded and slid down and out to form a ramp. Shepard stood up, holding out her arm for Liara to brace herself with as she got up as well, and smiled. "Last stop."

Kai and Pel exchanged sharp glances as they put on their helmets, and fell into step behind Shepard, Pel speaking a second later. "You ain't no greenhorns, so I don't need to tell you that if some fucker starts shooting, you get down. Admire the guts it took to do what you did today, but you're in no shape for a throw-down at this point."

Shepard nodded, a touch stiffly, and Liara could feel the muted frustration and anger in her. "I dislike letting my people get shot at without me… responding."

Coming up behind them, Tela Vasir gave a wry smile. "That's a given, but he's got a point too. Anyone gunning at people is just trying to get to you, so the more careful you are, the less likely anyone is to get hurt." She glanced around, taking in the rest of the people getting off the bus.

"Okay, so we've got Vakarian, Telanya, Doc Solus, Matriarch T'Shora, and Pretarch Thanix. We also have Grunt, this Minsta guy, and your two Commissars. We have Ms. Lawson on a hot-link, and Ghadi Saan is waiting for us in the Council Chamber. Is anyone else expected to this mess?"

The pale gray eyes of Uressa met those of Tela. "Not from my end, Spectre Vasir. My Godtalkers will remain at the hotel I have chartered, and my staff will be arriving shortly."

Thanix gave a good natured chuckle. "Primarch Fedorian was… irritated at me dashing off instead of joining him, but will meet us in the Council Chambers, along with young Vakarian's father."

Sara squeezed Liara's hand in hers, and then took a deep breath. "In that case, let's go."

The walk toward the entrance of the Tower, surrounded as it was by expansive garden areas and fountains of a purpose that eluded Shepard, was made slightly tense by the lines of media figures and the hovering cloud of drones that obscured the overhead view. For the most part, she ignored the shouted and inane questions and smirked instead, although Liara could feel her tension and small spikes of anger at particularly inappropriate questions.

The fact that the group had the audacity to launch questions at even Uressa and Thanix was made slightly less amusing by the fact that turian C-Sec officers holding back the crowd reacted… poorly to disrespect shown to the Palavanus, mostly in the form of 'accidentally' shoving reporters to the ground. The asari C-Sec mitigated this after a few moments, but the lack of professional conduct only underlined how fanatical the turians were toward the Palavanus.

Shepard shook her head. "This is a mess."

Liara's voice was light, although it carried an edge to it. "It is to be expected, Sara. The media serves primarily as a method to distract the public from 'real' news and engages in sensationalism in pursuit of profit. The fact that our arrival is likely to not only disrupt the status quo but is wrapped in frankly near-turian-levels of melodrama only makes this all the more attractive."

Sara pinched the bridge of her nose as the group finally reached the top tier of shallow stairs, coming face to face with the even more heavily armored forms of the Council Guard. The Guard Captain was, almost unbelievably, a krogan of all things, with a dark blue crest and a calm mien that immediately reminded Sara of Okeer. Next to him was a turian nearly as tall as the krogan, wearing the same kind of armor and with a non-descript set of facial markings.

The voice he had didn't help, nor did his words. "Greetings, Shepard. I am Council Force Captain Ganar Nathar. This is Lieutenant Ioni Covule. The Council Chambers are prepared and the Council and advisors await your arrival, if you will follow me." He cast a glance over the group and the handful of Cerberus-armored guards. "Your guard force may remain but all weapons must be surrendered upon entry."

Sara cast a glance back at Pel, who shrugged. "Honestly? If someone gets at you inside the goddamned Tower, ain't shit we carrying could stop it anyhow, boss lady. Your call."

She shrugged back. "Understood. We'll probably take an aircar or something less… visible when we leave, so go ahead and take the security squad to the transport station. Grunt and Tela will be enough security for now, I think."

She turned back to the Citadel Guard Captain. "Captain Nathar, please lead the way."

The massive krogan nodded, gesturing. After a moment of climbing more stairs, he spoke quietly. "The Ganar family is not quite sure what to make of the events of you defeating the War-Father in single combat. Most see it as confirmation that perhaps his path was not the best way forward for the Clan, while others refuse to believe the situation happened as described."

Grunt spoke. Having heard the real Grunt speak enough times to know the difference, Shepard could immediately tell this was Okeer imitating him, which was curious enough that she listened carefully. "It is unlikely that the attendants of Okeer on the ground where my battlemaster slew the Warmaster would have accepted withdrawal if there was treachery."

The other krogan gave Grunt a sharp glance, sniffing the air before slowly nodding. "There is that, whelp. I am curious as to why one of the War-Father's own works would follow his murderer, however."

Grunt's muzzle split in a chilling smile that looked alien on his features to Shepard. "Did not Okeer once state that the gusts of sentiment were the sign of an illogical mind? Clearly, if she threw down the Warmaster, she is the stronger, and worthy to be followed."

Shepard did not quite manage to suppress an incredulous snort at this, and Liara's voice was wry. "There is a certain level of irony here that is almost surreal."

The Captain looked confused, but shook his head a moment later as they arrived at the main doors, which slid open quietly. "I spoke only to say that I do not hold any such act against you, but that to say the War-Father was a criminal is unfair, given what the Ganar have endured."

Shepard said nothing but Grunt spoke, his tone darkly amused. "I have always found that complaining about unfairness only amounts to acknowledging your opponent's supremacy. Fair and unfair are hardly terms krogan should use, given our history."

The Captain gave the bigger krogan a sidelong look. "That last could have come from the War-Father's mouth directly. You are correct, of course. I am saying, I suppose, that to define him by a handful of acts is to ignore everything else he accomplished and championed. Just as there is more to Shepard than the 'Butcher' persona."

The Tower's interior hadn't changed much either. Shepard saw more turrets here and there, half-covered by trees or hangings, and the lines of flags had increased, but the rest was identical to when she'd first arrived at the Citadel all those years ago in the hunt for Saren. She smiled faintly at the faint praise from the krogan regarding her being more than the Butcher before responding.

"I'm not totally ignorant of what Okeer was, Captain. From what I've gathered, he did what he had to do in a situation with no really good choices back in the Krogan Rebellions, and I have a feeling that the main reason he lost is that he wasn't taking me seriously."

She glanced aside at Grunt, whose features only split into a wider and more mocking grin, and huffed. "That being said, he was working with the people who got me killed and nearly killed all my family and friends, my ship, and indirectly the assholes who blew up a star. For someone so smart, he didn't seem to have a lot of ethics or hesitation about working with people like Saren."

It took her a moment to realize the Tower was empty of people – only security, here and there, stood at guard attention.

The Captain's voice had a wry note of its own as he answered a moment later. "Perhaps. I will not deny that there were those within the Clan who felt our direction was… ill-advised. I was certainly one of them. If we are to ever be free of our reputation as brutish thugs, we must be diligent in representing ourselves in the best light." He rolled massive shoulders as he approached the primary lift. "That being said, one could also argue that Saren and Benezia fooled many, and that his associations in later years were not entirely… voluntary. But that has the scent of excuses, of a clan that measures itself not by appraisal of reality but by the soft and treacherous sands of 'perspective.' "

Mordin had been quiet up to this point, but now gave a sharp inhale. "Agreed, but also true that Okeer fallen, no longer the figure of admiration. Disagreement with intent pedantic. Okeer noted for intellect, political skill, and capacity for judgment. Had to know Saren's goals to produce intentionally flawed krogan-rachni abominations, and later acts even more revolting. Excuses based on disinterest in ramifications, not convincing."

The Captain inclined his head. "Excuses are rarely of any use. I merely want to proffer that – just as his mistakes should not blot out his life – his actions should not taint all of the Ganar in his light."

The lift opened, and Shepard gave a sudden groan.

Garrus frowned. "Sara…?"

She turned to face him, her voice deadpan. "…It's a turian elevator."

O-TWCD-O

"I remain deeply uncertain of the necessity of this action, Director." The aged matriarch sat stiffly in the chair in the small briefing room, her outfit a severe gray version of the Spectre dress uniform, the cape done in pure gold with a black sigil. Her lined features were framed in a myriad of black and red sigils, outlining her cheeks and coming to a stop near her chin. "To say this is unusual is to state the obvious, but both Shepard and Cerberus are dangerous and unlikely to see things the same way you and I do. Not to mention that these preemptive measures… bother me."

The slender form of the director of Citadel Intelligence gave a soft exhale and inclined his head, his uniform nearly as austere as hers. "I am aware of how unusual this is, but I stress that this entire situation is unusual. We're both deeply unsatisfied with how the Council is handling various issues. This offers us an opportunity that the Council is unlikely to take advantage of. We're not going behind their back, we're making sure that there won't be issues or problems. And if my intel is correct, if we just let them walk in there, we're likely to end up with a big problem with Vasir."

Matriarch Hazuma T'Armal gave an asari shrug, the shoulders dropping then rising. "I do not debate that. Nor do I think much of Thin'Koris's argument that we should refuse to work with her. The Council's job is to determine policy, ours is to execute and protect. We both know that this new Cerberus has done less questionable things than some of our own intel teams and operatives."

She folded her hands in her lap. "That does not mean Shepard will be cooperative, that she will listen, or that we can convince her to actually work with us. As for Tela…" She trailed off, her expression troubled. "I am praying there is a reason for all of this that is not her having betrayed the Mandate, but she has been a mess for decades."

Iridian Fidel folded his arms. "I cannot be sure what Shepard will do, but Cerberus has every reason to want the Broker shut down, and to quell Aria's nonsense and criminal expansion."

T'Armal gave a sidelong smile. "Thin'Koris claims Shepard and Cerberus are working with Aria."

Fidel gave a sharp exhale, his voice taking on a thin note of exasperation. "Yes, and they know this because they are also working with Aria. Frankly, complaining about that when we're employing a lunatic like Jona Sederis makes me question the focus of some of the Councilors."

She glanced at the wall indicator, and slowly stood, smoothing her uniform. "Our purpose is to serve. And we shall see if your gamble is going to pay off."

O-TWCD-O

Shepard was faintly nostalgic as the lift slowly rose, looking out over the spread of the Presidium, at the sloped buildings and the green spaces.

Liara gave a small smile and touched her arm. "You are thinking of the past?"

Shepard shrugged. "I guess. It's funny how life repeats, sometimes." She turned to face her wife. "I'm still flying by the seat of my pants here. I expect we're going to go in there and have a big, stupid argument about dumb shit."

Tela, who had been staring out the window, gave a short, bitter bark of laughter. "A constant truth of the Council is they don't want to hear bad news. Course, they're not going to be happy to see me either."

Shepard frowned. "We had this discussion, Tela. We even had Vigil mod the… thing." She glanced aside at the two Council officers, but they were having a quiet discussion of their own. She turned back to Tela. "I'm not going to let them do what you're worried about."

Tela smiled sadly. "Spectre command is going to want a debrief, and Pacifia has this… knack for figuring out when something is off. And given you're going to be pointing out that the Broker is an enemy, I am likely to get a mind-rip."

Uressa T'Shora slowly turned to look at Tela. "Then we have a problem." She glanced at Shepard. "There are things she knows of that… should not be openly revealed."

Shepard frowned, then grimaced. Fuck, she knows about Trellani being alive.

The lift stopped suddenly, halfway up the Tower, throwing off her thoughts. She glanced at the krogan Captain, who was looking at his omni-tool with a frown, when the doors opened.

A small room was at the end of a short corridor, with two people standing there – a tall, elegant but aged asari matriarch in a black and silver uniform with a Spectre cape, and a salarian of average height, wearing a black uniform with dark red trim.

The asari spoke, her voice soft but with an iron ring of command to it. "Captain Nathar, we need to speak – privately – with the principles in this affair. This will not take long."

Captain Nathar was about to speak when his Lieutenant looked at the asari in the room and then shook his head.

Shepard glanced at Liara, then shrugged. "Sure, if you tell me who you guys are."

The salarian gave a jerky nod. "I am Iridian Fidel, director of Citadel Intelligence, and this is Matriarch Hazuma T'Armal, High Spectre and coordinator of the Spectre Corps. We need to speak with you prior to your meeting with the Council to ascertain a few things."

Thanix Palavanus tilted his head. "Fascinating." He looked at Shepard. "Rarely do the chosen instruments of the Council act in independence, Shepard. You lose nothing by speaking with them, although I presume they are concerned about your potential impact on galactic affairs."

Sara glanced at Liara, whose eyes were narrowed. "The problem we were speaking of before the lift stopped might be resolved by these two, Sara."

Shepard looked down, then nodded. "Li, Tela, and… Matriarch Uressa, follow me. Garrus, this won't take long."

The turian eyed the salarian carefully, then gave a slow nod. "Sheep. Be careful. Not sure about the matriarch, but if the salarian is the director of Citadel Intelligence… Him stepping out of the shadows like this is very much out of the norm."

Shepard considered that, then clapped him on the shoulder. "I'll keep it in mind, Chicken." She then led the others down the short corridor, the lift door closing behind them, and walked into the small room. The C-INT Director touched something on his belt and the air crackled.

"Surveillance disruptors. We would have preferred to have this meeting in a more controlled setting, but the Council is obstinate at times. Our reason for meeting you here is that you are in possession of multiple pieces of information that could disrupt the galaxy, or kick off a war between the Citadel races."

Hazuma spoke. "Normally, such disruptions to the status quo are… neutralized. But in this instance, we are in something of a quandary. Both C-INT and the Corps have identified the Broker as being dangerous, and we recently discovered intelligence indicating your assertion of his being corrupt enough to work with the Collectors is accurate."

Shepard nodded slowly. "Good, I think. We certainly have evidence linking the two, but it's nice to know I won't be going in cold."

Fidel folded his arms, in the same way she remembered the Salarian Councilor doing. "The problem is the nature of our information is dubious. It is mostly circumstantial and the Council is dead set on not confronting the Broker, as he is useful to them in suppressing Aria."

The matriarch spoke again. "We recently captured a Broker asset, however. While they did not have 'hard' intelligence we could use, they indicated that Broker assets were directly involved in a number of acts against the Citadel and other parties."

She turned to look at Tela. "…Including the attack on the Normandy."

Tela swallowed and gave a weak smile. "…Yes, Matriarch, that is correct. It is… why I am here. I have evidence that clearly links the Broker to the Collectors – and the Reapers. And also shows he gave the order to have me provide false evidence to Shepard that led to her and the Normandy being destroyed. I was responsible for it all."

Hazuma's face was emotionless but her voice was quietly angry. "And you expect to come here and give this testimony and live?"

Tela shook her head. "I already told my… family… that the cost of sharing this was likely to be my arrest and execution. Shepard and her people have tried to make some… adjustments to the data I have to keep me out of it." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I knew better, Matriarch."

The older matriarch narrowed her eyes, but Shepard spoke up. "She admitted what she did straight up without any kind of dodge – and she didn't ask for us to cover for her, that was my idea."

Tela waved that aside. "I expected to face the punishment for my actions, but it didn't really hit me until now that – at the very least – Pacifia will also want my mind ripped."

Uressa spoke. "And that, Dark Tides, is the problem. Long have you served the Council – even before I was elevated. But Tela must not be subjected to interrogation."

Fidel glanced uncertainly at his companion, who made a sign of siari negation. "Divine One, I have the utmost respect and adoration of you, and you are one of the few people who I have never had any worries trusting completely. But you cannot expect us to let this wash into the bay. Aside from the fact she is responsible for a great deal of death, neither the Corps, nor I, will not let this abuse of her power – or hiding things from the Council – go."

Uressa gave a gentle smile. "There is more here in motion than you understand, Hazuma." She exhaled. "Tela is aware of a very dangerous fact, a deal I have struck with these people and Shepard to end the Reaper threat. One far more dangerous to galactic stability than letting Tela Vasir's crimes fall to the wayside."

Fidel gave a small exhale. "Really? I have to express some doubt over that."

Uressa looked at the salarian at some length. "I dislike putting this into the open so brazenly. Are you absolutely sure this room is secure?" At his nod, she turned to face Hazuma, and spoke in an ancient, almost harsh sounding dialect that Shepard's omni-translator didn't work on.

Hazuma held up a hand. "Divine One, I assure you that Iridian is trustworthy. He already has a great many files on the Dark Matriarch and in any case, keeping him in the dark will not serve us well. If these people know," and she gestured to Shepard and Liara, "then he should as well."

Uressa was silent for a long moment. "It will be upon you if your faith is misplaced, Dark Tides." She exhaled, then spoke in a calm voice. "Matriarch Trellani is not dead. She still retains the knowledge of that which you were told so long ago. She survived using an insuara ritual of the Old Temple, but only Cerberus and I know of her survival."

Fidel merely exhaled sharply.

The matriarch, on the other hand, actually staggered back a step, her features contorted in shock. "…Why?"

Uressa gave a sad, wan smile. "Because killing her does not remove the blade she holds over the asari – and I have done enough damage by my inaction. Forcing the issue would not have done anything but trigger whatever safeguards she had in place against her demise." Uressa paused, thinking. "And in a fashion, this can be seen as our security against any form of double-cross by Cerberus – all I must do is announce it and our people will stop at nothing to destroy Cerberus and Trellani once and for all." She shrugged. "Trellani may deserve death, but in that case, so do I. Many who are living and prosperous deserve death, and many who have died did not deserve that fate."

She squared her shoulders, her gray eyes resolute. "What matters is the Reapers. Tela is aware of Trellani's survival. If you arrest her and interrogate her, and this information gets out, we will have war. And it is not a war you can win, Dark Tide."

Fidel frowned. "Matriarch, could you clarify that?"

Uressa glanced at Shepard, then at the salarian. "I have spoken with Vigil, the Inusannon device. It could easily obliterate you if it wanted. It has power and abilities beyond what it has shown, I assure you, and if you place it in a position of having its plans ruined it has every chance of deciding the Citadel Council is a threat it needs to remove."

The two were silent, and then Hazuma spoke. "That would not be optimal."

Fidel snorted. "Given our preliminary analysis of Vigil's capacities, any such conflict would be short, messy, and likely to end badly for us. Not 'optimal' indeed." He half-turned to Hazuma. "I have some files pertaining to Trellani, but the nuance is missing. The STG was never sure exactly why her crimes were so disturbing to the Thirty. But I can presume that news that she faked her death would not be taken… lightly?"

Liara gave a brittle, sarcastic burst of laughter at that, and Tela shook her head.

Hazuma's voice was dry. "A considerable understatement, but yes." She exhaled. "Unfortunately we are at an impasse, Divine One. When I pledged myself to the Spectres at the start of the program, I was… dissatisfied with the justice our people provided. I have always put the fate of the galaxy before the demands of the Council of Matriarchs or my sister's spiteful wishes, and I have spent my entire life in service to the Council – to the ideal, to the concept of us all growing in siari to find a better unity."

She sighed. "I cannot and will not break my loyalty to the Mandate… even for you, Uressa. I understand what could happen if this information gets out, but if I lie to them I am no better than her." She pointed at Tela, and her voice hardened. "Nor am I sure I want to, in this case. You realize what you have cost us, foolish child?"

Tela sighed. "Yes, Matriarch. I acknowledge what I did was not only a violation of the Mandate, but the laws of the Citadel… and of asari law. I am oath-breaker, kin-slayer, and traitor–"

The asari shook her head. "The misuse of your power on Broker business is not my concern. Half my Spectres have divided loyalties in one fashion or another. We do not prevent such because we expect the Spectres to have enough common sense to not betray the entire galaxy! You did not notify the Council or the Four of your actions, and you did this knowing full well that this evidence would change everything!"

She clenched a fist. "We could have spent the last two years in preparation for the threat to come, we could have leveraged this to take out the Broker and stop the Collectors years ago! How many are dead because of your callous disregard, Vasir? For that alone you should be broken by the Nightwind and consigned to be hung by the heels with your eyes torn out."

Shepard had a flash of memory from Liara, of her inflicting that fate on an asari on Ilium, and cleared her throat. "We're… getting aside from the point." She turned to Fidel. "You said you wanted to talk to us to make sure we were on the same page. I think we are. We have a lot of hard information on lots of things, both involving the Broker and other… factions. We've used that to get us this meeting with the Council and to try to convince everyone to help us. Our goal is to stop the Reapers. And to do that we have to deal with the Collectors and the Broker."

Fidel nodded. "On that, we are in full agreement. I have long advocated the Broker Network is a danger, and my elevation and the recent expansion of C-INT is due to Valern and Sparatus finally taking action. That being said, my focus is the same as that of Matriarch Hazuma – the stability of Citadel Space and the preservation of our society."

He unfolded his arms, spreading his hands. "You are, one way or another, an indirect threat to that. If we can work together and you can demonstrate you are willing to make things better, then I will place all my resources at your disposal – with oversight – to get things done. But if you plan to try to blackmail the Council with threats the way you have several of the other governments, you are in effect just as dangerous as the Broker is."

He eyed Uressa carefully, his voice taking on a touch of deference. "The situation with this Trellani is not something I am concerned with, frankly. If knowledge of her survival causes a conflict that serves no one but the Reapers, it should be suppressed."

Hazuma slowly shook her head. "It is not that straightforward, Fidel, and you know this. Tela's testimony is a firm, direct link between the Broker and the Collectors. And in not notifying us of it, she is more to blame than anyone else for the situation we now face. I have few choices in how to deal with that betrayal, and the Council will want her examined thoroughly. "

She turned to Shepard. "She must be dealt with, and the Council notified of the situation. The Mandate is firm."

Shepard pointed at Tela. "Tela fucked up. I get that. And I know my way of looking at shit doesn't always fly with a lot of people. I get she's not trustworthy – if you want to throw her out of the Spectre Corps, that's fine. I can see that much. But if she hadn't owned up to what she did, we wouldn't be having this fucking conversation, I'd have shot her myself."

Her eyes narrowed. "My problem is that if the people who have turned a blind eye to the suffering of billions over the years and knew for decades she was working with the Broker are actually going to sit here and try some legal holier than thou bullshit about 'laws' when she walked in here expecting to die… that's going against my principles."

Hazuma made a sign of siari unity. "This is not about legality, Shepard, it is about transparency and trust. I do not care for the laws, they are merely tools, but trust and transparency is the foundation for why the Spectre Corps is permitted to exist, why we are permitted to wield our authority."

She paused. "I will admit, Shepard, that I do grasp why you are confused regarding this. When you were brought into the Spectre program it was done haphazardly, and more importantly, you… were not given the chance to understand this, and it is one of my regrets. The reasons why do not matter, but I say that to explain this is not something we can ignore – what Tela did is unforgivable."

She looked at Tela. "She knows what I mean. She can tell you if she wants, in her own words."

Tela swallowed. "The entire reason Spectres are allowed to have backers or sponsors or whatever is that we're expected to utilize these connections on behalf of the Council, and to be very clear about what we're being asked to do on behalf of those sponsors. A lot of the things we do are out of sight of the galaxy, and especially with people like the Broker, the Council expects absolute clarity. What I did – using the Council to get you killed and destroy the Normandy – is so far out of band with the concept of Spectres that a lot of them will want to kill me themselves."

Shepard took this in, as well as the almost dead tone of Vasir's voice. "I'm… Look, I get that this situation isn't good, but you're telling me there is no flex here? That trying to come back and fix this gets her nothing?"

Hazuma sighed. "Those errors that she made are not a misjudgment of calculation. Spectres do troubling things every day, oftentimes in contravenance of the law of our member states. To breach the trust given to them in that regard in the fashion Tela did will destroy all confidence and belief in the Spectre Program if it gets out."

Shaking her head, she continued. "While I cannot go into… certain details of activities with you, please do not assume the Corps has simply been sitting on its hands just because we do not announce our activity with melodramatic shows of power or emotionally driven video transmission. The whole reason Fidel and I wanted to meet with you first is to demonstrate we can act and that you should work with us and not try to threaten the Council into compliance. As for Tela… even if my hands were not tied by my conscience and my duty, what do you expect me to do?"

She gestured vaguely at the lift, and the Citadel beyond. "This testimony will leak. The Spectre Corps will know she betrayed us, and so will others. The justicars will demand her head, as will the Council of Matriarchs. The Alliance and others may even imply that since she was a Spectre, her actions fall upon the Council and demand reparations."

The old asari met Shepard's gaze. "Your own redemption from a life of crime was admirable, but cannot be applied to every situation. Tela knew from the moment she chose to tell the truth that she was going to die."

Vasir nodded slowly. "I told you as much, Sara. This isn't something they can… bend on. And… they aren't wrong." She gave a sad smile. "I fucked my entire life up chasing a reason to live, and I never found one. I expected you to blow my head off once I told you the truth, or Liara to do it. But this is the end of the line."

Sara looked upset. "You can't just go along with being fucking killed, Tela."

The asari's sad smile widened into something warmer. "…Of all the people to forgive me, you doing it means the most. But the matriarch is right." She swallowed. "I'm not going to derail the mission to stop the Collectors and Reapers by trying to save my own worthless skin."

Liara closed her eyes. If she was honest with herself, a part of her wanted Tela to be punished, but… it would hurt her aithntar badly, and make her Sara feel like she had sold someone out for cooperation. "Is there no way out of this? And informing the Council of Trellani's survival will certainly not aid galactic stability."

Fidel spoke, his voice musing. "I believe I have a… possible way out of this impasse and my own concerns, as well as resolving the issue about Trellani's survival – and punishing Tela." He glanced at Uressa. "Matriarch Uressa, can you confirm that Trellani is not a danger any longer, to the stability of the Citadel?"

Uressa nodded slowly. "If she was going to tell what she knows out of spite, she would have done so already. She is… too weak now to do anything, or be a direct threat. And she is more focused on the destruction of the Broker and the Reapers than engaging in her bitterness at the Thirty. I would not have compromised myself if I thought she was a danger at this stage."

Fidel turned to Shepard. "If we make a deal regarding Tela not being executed, will you agree to try to work with me, with the Council, instead of being adversarial? Will you agree to try to help us instead of whatever machinations Harper may intend, to focus on the Broker and the Reapers?"

Shepard narrowed her eyes, but after a long second shrugged. "My problems with the leadership are mostly with the Thirty, the SIX, and the High Lords." She glanced aside at Tela, who had a confused expression on her face. "Tela made a mistake and I agree that it deserves punishment, but… not death. Killing her won't bring any of the people who died back, and she just saved my life not that long ago."

After another long second, and a glance at Liara, she gave a nod. "You have a deal. We'll be… mostly good. I can't promise I won't curse the Council out, but I'll try to get them to listen without detailing our compromising information."

The salarian snorted and turned to Hazuma. "My suggestion is this. Let us proceed. Let Tela tell her tale, let the argument play out. When it comes time to arrest her, state that you will perform the mind-rip yourself, and inform the Council there is troubling information she had in her head that requires additional follow-up. When they ask you to report, suggest some of this information could be imbalancing to galactic stability and simply share what you have learned with a 'neutral' Councilor."

Hazuma was quiet for several seconds. "And Tela?"

Fidel took a deep breath. "Have her remanded to Spectre custody and kept in isolation for further interrogation on what she knows about the Broker Network, which is more than a mind-rip could find out anyway. I would point out that every single traitor to the Corps has always fought, and never before has one voluntarily turned themselves in, especially in situations where we did not even know she had committed said violations."

His expression grew thoughtful. "The legal requirement is that an agent be stripped of their status and punished, but we've just always equated that with death since they all fought. And if there's resistance to that, point out that just shooting her after a mind-rip would throw away useful intelligence that we could gather by using her as a honeypot or trap, and that we can always execute her at a later date."

Hazuma was silent then turned to Tela. "…You will never be free again, Vasir. If you fail to comply even once, I will execute you myself. If you are cooperative and compliant, I will recommend permanent incarceration – and implantation with a cortex explosive. You have spat upon every possible oath, and the only reason I will agree to this is for the betterment of the people I serve – and that you betrayed."

Tela bowed her head. "I swear by the Sixth Oath of Sublimation to you and those you designate, Matriarch Hazuma. I will obey."

The old Spectre was silent for almost ten seconds and then made a sign of siari frustration and grimaced. "Very well. Her blood is no longer on your hands, Shepard. Although this leaves the question of who exactly I reveal this information to, in regards to Trellani's survival. Certainly not that idiot child Tevos."

Uressa spoke. "No, I agree. Young Tevos is beholden to the worst of the Thirty. Valern will attempt to leverage this for more power, and Thin'koris will use any advantage in the pursuit of security for the quarians. Only Sparatus and Udina would be viable."

Hazuma gave a short nod. "Very well. Let us now proceed to the Council Chambers. Tela will be remanded into custody and I will handle the mind-rip myself and then inform…" She paused, then gave a faint nod. "Udina, I think. Sparatus has honor and that can be a liability at times."

She stared at Shepard, her gaze cool and hard. "Do not make me regret this, child. My life has been sworn to the protection of those just trying to live in peace, and despite your hatred of evil, you are far too quick to embrace questionable allies in pursuit of your goals."

Shepard folded her arms. "Maybe. Maybe. I'm not perfect and neither is the Dog, but neither are you. You've very conveniently said earlier you can't talk about what you did to improve things – I get it. But this all comes down to one simple thing: the Council can either listen to me or preach at me, but the last time they didn't listen to me nearly got your asses murdered by Benezia, just keep that in mind. And I don't remember your Spectres being able to stop her either."

Hazuma glared. "The Council – and the Corps – has to often choose from a selection of suboptimal choices based on political expediency, not sentiment. And we range far afield from the actual point – the utility and wisdom of listening to the front-wave of a terrorist organization. In the case of Saren, I argued very strongly we should go after him ourselves. The deal struck for you to be a Spectre was not my doing, and our own Spectre hunters were taking out the six other Spectres that Saren had seduced and corrupted."

She gave a huffed exhalation of breath, and Fidel spoke up. "Your frustration is something I have felt myself, Shepard, for many years. But please look at this from our point of view; you have never had to make decisions on this scale, or pursue the goal of maintaining justice across the expectations of multiple races. Every action we take could have unseen consequences, or blow up into a war that undermines all we have worked towards. And we do not doubt you, we doubt those backing you – with good reason.

"I'm as exasperated with the antics of my own people and the asari matriarchy as you are, and the other ills of this galaxy do not go unseen or ignored, but we are focused on supporting the Council. You have the luxury of being free of any consequences of your actions; no one dependent on your judgment, answering to no laws and with nothing at risk. Spectres are 'above the law' only as long as they do their jobs correctly and my own hands are more often than not tied by the need to avoid starting a war."

He spread his hands. "No matter what Harper may say, trusting him is a very large ask given his past, and what Cerberus has done to our people."

Sara tightened her jaw, but Liara laid a hand on her arm. "Our goals align in the larger sense, Director Fidel. I have seen some of what you have done in the shadow world of intelligence, enough to know you are not merely saying this to look good." She turned to Sara. "He has helped, Sara. C-INT may have once been toothless, but they have been fighting the Broker as hard as Cerberus has for some time. And we are here to find friends, not rehash old disagreements."

Sara nodded slowly. "Yeah. It is just frustrating when you're trying to get things done and people keep telling you they don't like how you do it." She met the old Spectre's gaze again. "Don't make me regret throwing Tela under the bus to get this to work, either. My life has mostly been spent trying to not be a piece of shit that does things out of 'political expediency' and I'm not going to change that now."

Uressa gave a faint, soft laugh. "You are two outlines of the same fire, Dark Tides. She is dismissive of a respect for laws that have always failed her, and you are untrusting of a sense of justice that too often turns to mere revenge seeking. But you are both good people who want, in the end, for the innocent to be able to prosper and for the evil and cruel to fall and pay for their crimes."

Hazuma's expression evened, and Shepard's scowl faded some, and the T'Shora matriarch's smile widened. "Now. Let us see if we cannot reason with the Council and bring about a brighter day."

O-TWCD-O

Tevos T'Sael smoothed the front of her dress, making sure her features remained calm and her hands steady as she did so. The air was nearly tangible with tension, the features of her fellow Councilors and the various other attendees of this meeting indistinctly neutral in what she suspected was an equal amount of trepidation kept under a placid expression.

On the one hand, the 'return' of Shepard was perhaps insignificant. On its own, her life and death had changed the galaxy, true, but so had many other events before and since. Shepard herself had been intolerant and inflexible before she had perished, but also tightly corralled by both her lack of support from her own species and her blindness in regards to politics.

The person coming up the lift to face them was no longer the same naïve fool that had once sneered at Tevos for making use of clanless trash or upbraided them for not believing in her. This Shepard had – assuming her story was true – been murdered by the devious calculations of the Shadow Broker, possibly with collusion from the Alliance itself. She had been given into the hands of Cerberus and the Illusive Man, who had somehow brought her back as a nightmarish supercharged version of herself with no restraint and, chillingly, even less pity than before she had died.

This Shepard had somehow managed to parry or neutralize every political action Tevos could have made to head this stupidity off before Tevos was even aware of the options. The Council of Matriarchs had been oddly both terse and ambivalent in their messages, and if Irissa was right, they may have lost all control over Uressa.

Tevos knew she didn't have all the details involving the Divine One, but she knew enough. If the Council had lost control – and the fact that the Blessed Mother was arriving with and working alongside Shepard indicated it was – then her only goal was to ensure that Shepard and the Asari Republic were aligned.

The actions taken by the justicars in attempting to restore order on Ilium were going to make that much harder to pull off, unfortunately.

She exhaled, glancing across at Valern, who was engaged in reading something on a datapad, scrolling too rapidly for her to make out anything but blurred images of Shepard. She was thankful that Matriarch Yulsanis had issued no specific instructions for dealing with Shepard aside from general caution.

She wasn't sure how much freedom Valern could exercise, but he certainly looked irritated. Based on his frequent glances at the salarian dalatrass waiting patiently along one wall, his irritation was having to deal with Chara Yaan overlooking his actions.

Across from her, Sparatus frowned. "The lift should have gotten here by now, certainly."

Udina gave a small laugh. "Remind me who built these elevators again? Ah yes, a turian who probably wanted a nice long melodramatic look out over the Presidium."

Thin'Koris snickered, but then shook his head. "Still this is taking a long time, even given turian engineering."

Sparatus returned to looking at his own podium, muttering something under his breath.

Tevos suppressed a small smile as she glanced at the lift indicator, then touched her comm-link. "Captain Nathar, is Shepard and her entourage on the way up?"

An unexpected voice answered. "We are in transit, Councilor Tevos. Director Fidel and I had to discuss a matter with Shepard and her people first."

Tevos shot a glance at Valern, then spoke in a strained voice. "I was… not expecting to hear from you, Matriarch Hazuma. Is this to do with Shepard's Spectre candidacy or…?"

Hazuma's voice was cold. "It has to do with information of certain possible dangers to galactic stability that requires some… analysis. We will explain shortly, we are nearly to the Chamber now. Hazuma out."

Thin'Koris's voice was musing and dry. "Well, having our head intel agent and our senior Spectre talking to a pack of unstable criminals is always reassuring. This is not the first time they have decided to simply undertake an action without briefing us first. Nor the second."

Sparatus flicked both mandibles, one out and one close. "And when they chose to do so, they had excellent justification for it. You either trust your people to do their jobs or you don't. I assume that if they're doing this without telling us, they have very good reasons to do so."

Tevos let herself have the luxury of a faint sigh, and then steeled her features as the lift opened, and the broad form of Captain Nathar emerged, followed by a panoply of figures in white, black, and gold, and the singular grace of Uressa, along with Matriarch Hazuma and Director Fidel.

She noted sourly that Thanix Palavanus's regalia matched neatly with Cerberus colors as the group approached, coming to a neat stop at the edge of the petitioner's pier, with Fidel and Hazuma standing a short distance away.

She forced a small smile on her features as she spoke. "Welcome, Sara Shepard. The Council is gratified that your departure from the shores of life was, indeed, rectified, if concerned at the hands that achieved such. We are also glad that you have chosen to communicate with us, given the… reluctance you showed during earlier attempts to contact you."

Shepard gave a small bow. "Spectre Shepard, reporting."

Tevos made a single sharp gesture of siari disagreement. "That remains to be seen."

Shepard only shrugged with a grin. "Agreed. As to your statement, Councilor Tevos. My options at the time of my… awakening… were limited and I had very good reason to believe that an attempt to simply 'return' – either to the Alliance or to the Citadel – might have resulted in my legal imprisonment, being 'vanished,' or other legal, and possibly illegal, issues of an unpleasant nature."

She gestured to the form of Ghadi Saan, the volus smugly standing off to one side. "Hence why I have obtained legal representation."

Udina spoke next, his voice warmer than Tevos and his expression holding a hint of amusement. "As usual, Shepard, everything you do ends up being complicated. I am also very glad to see you, and while I do share some of Tevos's concern about your associations, the actions of this new Cerberus in the past few weeks have gone a long way towards perhaps ameliorating that."

His voice tightened in tone. "Unfortunately, as you have indicated, there are not only a raft of legal issues, but the reality of exactly why you have chosen to meet with us, as well as some… needed clarification as to your position. In that light, Alliance High Command is also here. The Spectre Corps and Citadel Intelligence have several representatives – two of which you seem to have already met – to determine any needed actions, and members of the Turian Hierarchy are here for fleet considerations. A single member of the SIX, Dalatrass Chana, is also here, who can coordinate with the STG."

He gestured at a frowning Admiral Branson, who gave Shepard a terse nod but said nothing, and then folded his own arms. "I say all that because having foreign officials and dignitaries here makes this discussion… complicated."

Sparatus flicked a mandible. "We may require the Chamber to be cleared before any sensitive information is shared. Other than that, I believe we also have some questions for Spectre Vasir, who has been incommunicado for several weeks, although that can be dealt with later on as it is likely minor, once the officials have departed."

Udina looked at Sparatus in irritation at being interrupted. "Yes. Aside from that, as I said, I'm glad to see you – and Lady Liara, as well as Cera and Cena Vakarian. The thought that Shepard would appreciate the 'Butcher's' antics crossed my mind more than once. To know it was you all along should not have surprised me in the slightest."

Sara inclined her head. "It's good to see you too, Donnel. I'm willing to be as cooperative as the Council is."

Udina gave her a sardonic smirk. "I'll have to see it to believe it."

She laughed. "No, seriously. I mean, I know there's some hoops to jump through, and as for the legalities, we both know I haven't the first clue what's required. But my legal team will see to that. Why I am here is simple; we have a threat to deal with, and I need help taking care of it."

Valern spoke, his voice a touch raspier than Shepard remembered, his expression looking tense and tired. "I will echo the sentiments of my fellow Councilors; your demise was a sad day for us all and to have it reversed in such a shocking fashion is not unwelcome. However, Cerberus is a known threat, and recent actions haven't blotted out the disgusting acts of terrorism, murder, and alien bigotry it was known for prior to you yourself bringing it down."

He glanced at the silver-haired man standing next to Liara. "It is not politically expedient to simply ignore what Cerberus has done or that this may be a false front. I am merely… cautious. The fact that you are accompanied by a man the STG has flagged as working for Cerberus for years does not improve our estimation."

Galen Minsta smiled almost mockingly. "Good to see you again too, Erdat. Your assertions of our relative guilt or innocence seem to ignore the fact that Shepard has never tolerated criminality or petty evil, as well as the fact that she has already brought one Cerberus member with a long list of crimes to the asari. Shepard is here because she chose to be, and Cerberus supports her, it does not command her."

Shepard's lips quirked. "I get that the salarians are going to be the most wary of this entire thing. I don't blame you. I'm not gonna sit here and pretend the crap the group got up to in the past wasn't revolting. What I am going to point out is that for all of your 'caution,' the Council hasn't been dealing with pirates. The Council hasn't been stopping slavers, cloneleggers, and dust pushers. The Council was just fine letting the Collectors abduct hundreds of thousands of colonists because it wasn't politically convenient to act. The Council didn't do a thing to try to stop the mess on Ilium. So maybe, just maybe, can we all stop pretending like you five give one flying shit about morality and ethics?"

One of the Spectres along the outer wall of the chamber stepped forward, a middle-aged matron with swirling white sigils as face paint, stark against her purple skin. "I am Pacifia T'Rome, a senior Spectre. I assure you that we have not been blind to any of the above. You seem to conflate the power the Council has with acting directly and openly. That is not the case."

Shepard noted absently that Thanix Palavanus was giving the Spectre an extremely wary stare, and a second later spoke, his voice tense. "Not to put a talon in the wrong place, but exactly why are you here, Agent Pacifia? This is to be a discussion, not an interrogation or prosecution."

The asari gave him a stiff smile. "I might ask the same of you, Prince Thanix. But in short, I am here to assist in discussion, as my strengths are both diplomacy and analysis."

The Palavanus grimaced and folded his arms. "Watch your words carefully, then. I did not choose to stand beside her out of distrust, or to place my honor alongside hers to be questioned."

The asari smiled, a cool curving of her lips. "And I am not questioning your honor, or hers. Merely her perceptions of what we have undertaken, and her sponsors. One might even question motives."

Shepard did not know what to make of that, and based on the emotions she was getting from Liara – faint alarm and curiosity – her wife didn't know either. Instead, she refocused her attention and spoke. "I'm saying that it's ridiculous to bother questioning my goddamned motives when I've done more in six months to clean up the galaxy than you have in years – or if you have, I'm not seeing it or hearing about it on the news."

Pacifia shrugged. "To declaim the Council has no right to question your associations because they are unwilling to start a war with the Terminus that would kill hundreds of millions of people – or that we should 'interfere' with the very wildcat colonies your own Systems Alliance has made it very clear we should not meddle with – is about as amusing as your assumption that we would announce the actions we have taken. We act as is necessary to preserve Citadel security and stability, and we traditionally prefer to keep a low profile."

Shepard shrugged. "I kinda already had this conversation with Matriarch Hazuma. It's still a pile of bullshit. It's really nice you guys think you've done so much to help out when places like Umlor were still around, but I freed hundreds of thousands of slaves – almost all of them Citadel species. Writing off entire sections of the galaxy to keep your part safe is not me being 'blind.' "

Pacifia shrugged. "We can argue until the ocean goes dry on the necessary actions, or if writing off parts of the galaxy out of expediency is immoral, but to imply we are ignoring the nexa in the water is simply naïve."

Shepard was going to speak when Minsta did so instead. "Ah, I am not used to being handed such a sloppy line of thinking, but our problem stems from the lack of results. A great many things can be 'done' without actually achieving anything. Pardon my incredulity at your statements, but a cautious mind might wonder exactly why the galaxy is in such a sorry state if you and yours are doing their jobs… And how much of your actions are less about cleaning up the revolting filth that the Traverse tracks into your perfect little society and more about making sure it doesn't disrupt business?"

The asari gave him a flat look. "My concern – and the job of the Corps – is the preservation and protection of Citadel society. Not those in the Traverse. Not foreign colonies who refuse to pay taxes or follow laws."

Shepard folded her arms. "I'll cut this short to say this – I'm here to get help, not pass judgment on the Citadel Council. I'd appreciate it if you decided to do the same for me. If Valern wants to be concerned and cautious and decide that working with Cerberus is a problem, I'm not simply going to accept that without pointing out that your hands aren't clean either."

She turned away from the Spectre to face Sparatus, who merely nodded, his voice vastly amused. "Your words are sadly accurate, and my own concerns were removed the moment you dashed out with no armor and already wounded to save hatchlings. If some of our members do not learn from having their claws broken, I do. If the Imperatorial Prince stands by you, then to declare you false – or worse, suggest you are covering for a terrorist group out of necessity – would both be insulting and fly in the face of what I personally know about you."

She nodded. "I haven't forgotten what you told me after I took down Cerberus."

His expression flickered for a moment, and then he straightened and gave the formal turian honor salute, of a veteran to a commander. "Nor have I, Sara Shepard. Others may doubt. I do not."

Thin'Koris gave a long-suffering sound of exasperation. "Have we completed the necessary melodramatic social posturing yet, or must I make some vague explication of pleasure that you didn't die in a messy ship explosion with hints of not trusting the pack of murderous terrorists now bankrolling you?"

She gave him a lopsided grin. "And here I thought Rael was the real asshole in the Admiralty. But, now that you've played at being the odd man out, yes. We have."

Thin'Koris glowing eyes narrowed. "Very cute. You are here, Shepard, to answer questions and purportedly to make a statement. Unlike the other members of this Council, my government is skeptical of your purported goals."

Minsta sneered openly. "And perhaps, unlike with other members of this Council, we have not judged it necessary to remind you of your sins. That is easily rectified."

Shepard held up a hand. "Enough." She faced Thin'Koris. "Like I said, I am here to get help, and to bring to light some information you need to know. Not to throw out threats. I've had to do that to some of the governments I messaged earlier because the vast majority of my 'problems' are with them."

Tevos considered this, surprised that Shepard, of all people, would be the one deescalating. This was the second time the human had acted in a manner she didn't expect, and it made predicting her tricky.

Then again, Tevos thought, Just because it is not going the way I thought, does not mean it is going badly.

She refocused her attention on Shepard, who exhaled. "As for your skepticism, Thin'Koris, I won't comment on that, except to say we both know where your information comes from, and that if you're going to give that trampy bitch a listen you might as well offer me the same consideration, given how I go after geth."

Thin'Koris stilled, looking thoughtful at Shepard's statement, and Tevos smoothly made a gesture of siari unity. "I agree, arguments do not address anything and bring us neither useful information nor closure. Perhaps we should cover our precis and debriefing and then discuss said goals, and discuss the legal issues and concerns about Cerberus later?"

Shepard gave a short nod, her voice agreeable. "I didn't come to argue, so that works for me. Ask away, Councilor."

Tevos traded glances with Valern. Seeing his minute head shake, the asari turned back to face Shepard and her people, bringing up notes on her lecturn's screen.

"First of all, let me outline the course of this discussion. We are aware that you have made a number of statements: That the Shadow Broker was responsible for your death, that the Broker is working with the Collectors, that Doctor Ganar Okeer was also involved with them, that the Collectors are the servants of the Reapers, and that the Broker is deceiving us with the reports from his sensor array at the Shrike Abyssal."

She met Shepard's gaze squarely. "Thus, we need to establish facts and a baseline for these claims. Once we do that, we need to hear from you exactly what you want from the Council."

She forced a smile. "Once we have a good concept of what you are asking, we need to discuss your position in a legal sense – and deal with the death of Doctor Okeer – as well as your chain of command and the delicate issue of your SPECTRE-status. Finally, we will vote on your… requests from the Citadel Council."

Shepard gave a long sigh. "Alright. How should I start?"

Thin'Koris tilted his head. "The primary claim is that the Broker knowingly engaged in some form of sabotage and cover action to kill an active Spectre agent as well as destroy a vessel of a Council member race is the most concerning of the facts we need clarification on. The decision to send you out into Citadel Space was a recommendation of the Systems Alliance High Command, and was buttressed by scout reports verified by Spectre Vasir herself."

The quarian fixed his gaze on Tela, who gave a weak smile and then stepped forward.

"Councilors, I have been an active Spectre for centuries. The only Spectre who has exceeded my tenure is Matriarch Hazuma. In that time, I have done a great many things that were distasteful to me, in the name of galactic stability. For that and other reasons, I chose to work with the Broker over many long years."

She swallowed. "My link to the Shadow Broker was known, both to the Gang of Four and to C-INT and the Council in general. That link led to the Broker using me to generate a false trail of geth results to the Council, for the express purpose of luring Sara Shepard into an ambush."

Tevos's eyes widened in shock, while Sparatus's expression hardened into disdain and Udina frowned thoughtfully, and several of the Spectres had expressions of anger, shock, or outrage. Thanix Palavanus gave her a sidelong look of disgust, while Valern spoke into the silence.

"Spectre Vasir, this is… an extremely serious charge and, I must say, a clear violation of the Citadel Mandate."

Vasir nodded. "I am… aware."

Tevos's voice was hard. "And do you have proof of your assertion?"

Tela nodded. "Yes. I still have the recording of my call to Tetrimus, when I was ordered by him to perform this act." She tapped her omni-tool, and a familiar voice echoed through the Chamber, drawing almost matching masks of fury from Shepard and Liara.

The conversation covered Tela reporting to Tetrimus that the killing of Ylana had been done on purpose, and Tetrimus openly spoke of the Collectors and working with them. That was enough to make several of the people in the Council Chambers uneasy. The revelation that the Broker planned to work actively with the Collectors and had a plan to escape the Reaper purge was also shocking news.

The following bits were even worse. Tetrimus spoke, his tone quietly confident. "Now that Ylana has been handled, the Collectors have one other task for us to complete. The Broker has already begun moving pieces into place for this to take place, but the objective is to kill Shepard."

"I rather like Shepard, and she's married to my favorite aunt's kid. Can't she be… turned? Or ignored?"

Tetrimus's voice was cool. "No. The Collectors were very firm on this point. They want her dead. That does not mean you will be involved in killing her, merely framing the proper viewpoint. And we do not have any need to kill Liara T'Soni at this juncture."

Vasir's voice gave a sigh. "What am I to do?"

"There will be a data package and some 'evidence' – components of geth ships – placed at rally point 59.4 in Bethar System. Gather it and follow the stated navplot to the Amada System, and load the datafile into your sensor profiles. Once that is complete you should return to the Citadel and present the evidence to the C-Sec sensor specialist Kanas Wodiros, one of our assets. They will prep the results."

Shepard felt a surge of anger and gratified satisfaction from Liara, and figured whoever Kanas Wodiros was, they were probably deader than shit now. She refocused on the replay.

"Okay… and what is this about?"

"Proof the geth are operating in Aria's territory. The Council cannot dispatch 'official' forces without riling Aria, and the Black Fleet patrols too openly for STG cells to have a shot. Thus, they will need to send in a cloaked ship, either STG or the Normandy. As the STG does not admit to having full cloaking at this time, sending out the Normandy is the only course of action they can take."

Sparatus gave a glance at Valern, who was cradling his horns, then Udina, who looked more than a little irritated.

Tela's voice grew thoughtful on the recording. "And… put a Spectre in charge, and Aria probably won't blow the shit out of them if they get caught. Clever." A pause. "I'm still not happy about this, however. She's family."

Tetrimus's tone hardened. "Vasir, I usually don't bother with details, but you have been a valued associate of the Network since before my birth. You can turn down the assignment. The other options we have are more likely to have collateral damage… such as your cousin, or even your aunt Aethyta, if we are forced to strike at her at Arcturus Station. Shepard is already dead, the question is simply how it happens. This is something the Reapers have instructed the Collectors to carry out."

All five Councilors looked grimly concerned at that, while several of the observers appeared shocked. Thanix Palavanus merely nodded, as if hardly surprised. Shepard saw Valern tapping what looked like a comm-link and whispering something into it.

Another long pause. "Not much choice then. Alright. I can do that. The only problem I see is moving Shepard into place – the humans are very isolationist right now."

Tetrimus's voice took on an amused tone. "We've already covered that, as it happens. Be ready."

Tela clicked off the recording, speaking in a soft voice. "I was given to understand that the Broker reached out to Charles Saracino, and that he suggested the action to the High Lords."

The Councilors were silent, then Sparatus spoke. "You are aware of the code violation for submitting fraudulent evidence, for using SPECTRE assets in the service of breaking the law, and in the deaths of over twenty human service members and the death of a fellow SPECTRE… and the penalty for such a betrayal, of concealing this information from us."

She nodded again. "I am, Councilor Sparatus. This was a betrayal – not only of the Mandate and a duty to my own people, but my family. And I am fully aware of the price of such."

She lifted her chin. "And I accept the punishment for that, because the truth is more important. The Shadow Broker is not an ally, or a resource, or even a manageable threat. He has only gotten more sadistic and cruel as time has passed and the Network has turned from a shadowy cabal of paranoiac information thieves into a crime empire larger than Aria's."

She glanced around the room. "I came to this place to let you know the Broker plans to profit from the death of our entire civilization, to make money off of our corpses – to deliberately disrupt, delay, and destroy any attempt you make at preparing for the Reaper threat. I am here, despite knowing the only penalty for my actions is death, to tell you that the Collectors are a very real danger, and that they are in league with the Reapers."

She gave a shaky exhale. "I admitted my guilt to Sara Shepard – whom I got killed. To my… family, to Liara T'Soni, to Aethyta Vasir, who both suffered due to my crime. I expected to be killed. I wasn't, because I chose to own my actions."

Sparatus gave a slow, careful nod, while Tevos looked furious. The turian spoke, his tone cool. "We have no choice but to accept – at the very least – that the Broker Network was involved with Shepard's demise." He glanced to one side of the room. "And we owe Fidel a long-overdue apology for dismissing his concerns. This information is very worrisome, to say the least."

His voice hardened. "And while we appreciate the fact that you decided to come clean, Vasir, the ramifications of your actions cannot be ignored, and as you said – the only wages for such is death."

Director Fidel stepped forward. "While I agree her actions cannot be ignored, I'd suggest that simply executing her per the Mandate is shortsighted. Every Spectre to betray the black has heretofore always resisted. None of them admitted their guilt, and in every single case we found out about their misdeeds and pursued them. In this instance, Vasir has had every chance to evade justice; she could have simply stayed with Cerberus, or had her recording altered to make it sound like someone else had done the deed and tricked her. Instead, she has admitted her guilt and come back to face justice."

Sparatus frowned. "The legal requirement is that an agent be stripped of their status and punished."

Fidel nodded. "Yes, that is true. But it does not specify death. It took a great deal of bravery to come to ameliorate her actions, and to ignore that strikes me as petty. I could make an argument that long-term incarceration would allow us additional time to gather a working knowledge of what she knows, as mind-rips are always spotty and suspect. I could even suggest that perhaps with a precedent for surrender without death, future rogues might be handled with less… collateral damage."

Sparatus nodded shortly. "I will agree that turning herself in is unusual. Her intentions – and bravery – are immaterial, Director. The Citadel Mandate is clear. I'm not any happier about it than you are – her decision to own her actions would do any of my people proud – but we cannot have the Spectre Corps think that they can get away with trying to undermine the foundations of trust between us and the agents we instill significant power in. We have never tolerated it before. We cannot tolerate it now."

Shepard's smile widened. "Right. Because we didn't sit in this very fucking room saying Saren was doing that. And we also got laughed out of this very room, without even a joke of an investigation."

Tevos met her gaze squarely. "This is not a comparable situation. I will be the first to admit the Saren situation was perhaps not handled correctly, but here we are with yet another Spectre who has abused their station and this time you ask for mercy. It is quite likely, in this instance, that had we been aware of this, it would have… accelerated several of our efforts, and forced us to reckon with the Broker sooner than maintain the status quo. Advocating for her here is… curious."

Sara smiled, her gaze hard. "I'm not protecting her. If I was doing that she wouldn't be here. I get that she fucked up pretty bad, but – like she said, she owned her actions. That's a lot more important to me than the fact she messed up so badly, since so many don't ever bother trying to change or owning up to what they did."

She exhaled and spoke again, even as Valern opened his mouth. "But I also get what you are saying. I don't like it, but I am not the one calling the shots here. To me, Spectres have always been a danger, in their ignoring the law, not to mention getting fixated on their own status and being blinded by their power."

Shepard saw Garrus's father flick a mandible in clear amusement, and grinned. "Some would say that having a second top-tier agent betray you in less than three years proves the point. It looks bad and I'm a lot more aware of the whole optics crap than I was before I died."

She stared up at the Council. "But if the cost of us working together is her life, I'll walk out."

Matriarch Hazuma spoke. "Councilors, you are aware Director Fidel and I have had a… conversation with Shepard. There is a concern that Spectre Vasir is in possession of information of a sensitive and… disruptive nature. Normally, she would be arrested, chemically paralyzed, mind-ripped, and then subjected to detailed interrogation before immediate dispatch. However, the intelligence I speak of is something that requires a careful and detailed examination. It could be Broker disinformation, and the very nature of it affects several species – we need intelligence to review this and to verify it before taking any action."

Valern frowned. "Meaning what exactly, Matriarch?"

"Tela has agreed to be taken into custody. I will perform the mind-rip myself, and gather any pertinent data. Anything of a disruptive nature will be conveyed to Councilor Udina, who is a representative of the only Council species not affected by this. Should she fully cooperate, I concur with Director Fidel and recommend that she be placed in high-security lockdown and imprisoned for life or until such time as both the Director of C-INT and the Corps determines her continued survival to be a threat."

Shepard's voice lanced out. "Trust me, each of you knows exactly what kind of shit could come out of this, given the Broker's knowledge – you want that floating about where it can leak?"

Valern exchanged glances with Tevos, then shrugged. "Spectre Pacifia, Spectre Bau, any issues with this?"

The asari gave a sign of siari unity. "In this instance, I will defer to the matriarch's judgment, with the caveat that Vasir should also be held in… Alpha Security."

Jondam Bau's features were thoughtful. "If the Matriarch says the information is dangerous, Councilors, and she of all people is recommending going outside of the standard paths, I would say that you should take it seriously. I've already gotten a few reports of the kinds of things Shepard has found out, if this is somehow worse…" He trailed off.

Udina folded his arms. "I presume I will be asked to determine if this information should be released to the Council?"

Hazuma gave a single nod.

"Then we'll deal with that after the issue with Shepard. For the moment…" He looked at Tevos, who exhaled.

"Spectre Tela Vasir, you are immediately removed from the Spectre Corps, your right to wield the authority of the Citadel Mandate is hereby terminated, and your citizenship as a Citadel resident has been revoked. You are remanded into the custody of the Spectre Corps."

Tela nodded, and Bau came up to her, pulling the glowing Spectre badge off her armor and withdrawing a set of handcuffs. His motions were oddly gentle and Shepard could see his hands shaking a little. He put a hand on Tela's shoulder and whispered something to her, and then took her elbow.

Sparatus spoke as she was being led to stand to one side. "…Vasir." As she looked up, his voice deepened. "Given what you know, of this link between the Broker and the Reapers and this 'escape' plan, what do you think the Broker intends?"

Tela gave a wan smile. "Councilor, his goals are simple: to keep the Citadel races and all of civilized space divided and unprepared while the Collectors finish whatever task they are doing, then to sacrifice most of the Network to cover for a small core of survivors to hide out in dark space while the Reapers destroy our entire civilization. Once they have withdrawn, he and his survivors will become the dominant power of the next Cycle and use their prep time to plan to flee the galaxy to safety from the Reapers forever."

Tevos and Valern shook their heads at this, and Thin'Koris grimaced.

Udina gave a short chuckle, his voice a little forced. "Well, that's certainly alarming. I presume that you have more evidence to back all of this up, Shepard?"

Shepard's smile faded. "Yeah, just a little." She glanced at Ghadi Saan.

The figure of the volus to one side stepped forward. "Assuming your legal attachés have not already vacated the building to sell bootleg recordings of what we just heard, you should find a series of forwarded documents on your file servers shortly. Group A of these are financial records, stock sales, shipment bills of lading, and other hard evidence that the Broker Network shorted or otherwise made financial transactions that benefited from the destruction of certain colonies. Colonies that were all victims of Collector attack, and transactions that show the Broker pulled out of said colonies days or even hours before each attack.

"Group B is data recordings, extranet records, and gathered errata. The majority of this is speculative, but the inferences one can draw from it should be evident even to mentally-impaired vorcha. There is no valid reason, for example, for known Broker agents to buy up the same sort of materials and components in the black market as the known Benezia associate Ylana. Nor can I fathom exactly why we show shipments of materials from known Broker black sites, to systems with Collector sightings on a regular basis, if they are not in some form of nefarious collusion."

"Group C is the most disturbing, and you will wish to have both scientific specialists and medical personnel review it. Attached is the manifest of items – Collector corpses, which have been definitively gene-linked as a match to genetically modified Protheans, as well as husks from the battle on Horizon that are identical to husks deployed by geth – both of which have power-source nodules comprised of a material only employed by Reapers."

The volus gave a small bow. "There are several appendices I have also forwarded, financial records for FINCIN, forensic data from several sites, and, of course, sensor logs, agent reports, and the like. The total take is upwards of six hundred petabytes of text, video, and audio."

Udina raised both eyebrows, while Valern was scrolling through something on his padd and Tevos was clearly pondering her thoughts.

"This is a great deal to take in at once," she said, and Liara gave her a thin smile.

"We are aware of that. But we wish to both ensure the cooperation of the Citadel and lay the groundwork for solving the Reaper problem. In addition to what Esquire Saan has already provided, I have uncovered much of the lower workings of the Broker Network in my own struggle on Ilium. The Network has penetration into almost every police organ in the galaxy, spies holding a number of absolutely critical positions in your governments, saboteurs and assassins seeded in cover identities with orders to disrupt and sow chaos when ordered, and much worse."

Tevos nodded softly. "This tends to support evidence and… certain transactions that Citadel Intelligence has been bringing to light the past few months." She glanced at Fidel, and then at Valern.

The Salarian Councilor shrugged. "It is hardly surprising. It is one of the reasons we decided to expand C-INT, after all." He turned to face Shepard. "What else do you have?"

Shepard folded her arms. "We've also had a chance to prove the Broker is handing you a line of bullshit when it comes to the Reaper threat. His 'long-range scanning array' in the Shrike Abyssal is, according to Vigil, completely useless; a fake, in other words. Vigil has stated that his own research and observations indicate the Reapers may be operating in upwards of thirty galaxies and with a rough force estimate 'far in excess' of my own original guess of hundreds or thousands."

Shepard unfolded her arms, letting them hang. "You take what Tela just told you, the fact the Broker is playing fast and loose with Collectors, and the realization that he's lying to you and you should be able to see there's a problem needing a solution."

Sparatus rubbed his chin. "Citadel Intelligence and C-Sec have both been pushing for action against the Network for some time. The Broker's proffering of intelligence and assistance during the Benezia Incident, and his assistance in other ventures is only part of why we have been reluctant to take more direct action."

He stared across the gap at the group. "The ugly truth is the Broker has a great deal of information on a wide variety of things that he could reveal, some of which might kick off a war, disrupt the galactic economy, or result in anarchy and chaos."

The turian was going to say more, but Thanix gave a snarl. "Why do we even bother employing you, then?"

Sparatus quailed, his fringe settling flat in shock. "Great One?"

The Palavanus exhaled. "You have just stated that the Citadel Compact – the galactic government that we have all sublimated ourselves to for cooperation and protection – is effectively being neutralized by a criminal syndicate with blackmail. And when someone comes along and says 'perhaps this is a bad idea,' your answer is to say 'we cannot deal with the threat because it is a threat'?"

The turian folded his arms. "I have found myself disappointed more than once on this trip to the Citadel – at C-Sec's lack of foresight at the docks, at the lax discipline among law enforcement and the like. But to come in here and find that you have not even prepared to mitigate whatever the Broker may be up to and your answer is mewling hesitance is revolting."

Sparatus said nothing, but Thin'Koris stiffened. "With all due respect, Prince Thanix, the Council, and Citadel Intelligence, has prepared contingencies for such an event. We are not assuming that the Broker will 'play fair' if we go on the offensive. I believe the concern is more along the lines of how the Broker may retaliate against other concerns – shipping, the economy, stresses within various races – that would stress our resources and capacities to the limit."

Udina snorted. "Which is, ultimately, just another way of saying that we're fine with him holding us hostage?"

Thin'Koris's voice took on a thinly edged note of irritation. "No, that is both simplistic and missing the point. The Broker has had this capacity for many years – before any of us were born, I suspect – and has never utilized it. The unspoken rule is that Network keeps its hands out of Citadel business and we return the favor. I will be the first to admit that I am uncomfortable with the Broker having crippling information, but so what?"

The quarian turned his gaze back to Thanix. "We were put here, as you said, to stop interstellar war, anarchy, and endless conflict. I can certainly see the value in ceasing contact with the Broker and realigning our priorities in terms of preparations for the Reapers – things which are necessary now that we appear to have confirmation that the Broker is in direct contravention in the preservation of galactic and Citadel stability. Nonetheless, that does not mean that we discard all the preparations and contingency planning which has already gone into this. Simply put, I remain ambivalent about Citadel forces – or at least member forces under the CDF – directly engaging his forces and giving him any reason to spread damaging information."

Udina scowled. "And why is that, Councilor? Did you not just hear that the Broker has been playing us for fools all along? Your 'unspoken rule' has the sound of the Broker not being in a position where we have directly threatened him before now."

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose, as Udina's scowl deepened. "And our actions are going to be seen as an attack, regardless of whether or not we send our own forces, so I say send them in and take the cretin out now."

Sparatus shook his head. "Not the point, Udina. Not at all. While I grasp the Great One's impatience and dismay, the facts are simple. We don't know where he's operating from, and despite Fidel's best efforts, we can't be sure we have localized all his agents on the Citadel. If the Broker ascertains that we – or the CDF – is preparing to act against him, he is almost certain to go ahead and release this information. The fact that he hasn't acted already considering the damage that Shepard has inflicted upon his forces on Ilium is a minor miracle, which makes me concerned that his next move will be unpredictable. Because he had to know we would hear this, and what Shepard would share."

He spread his hands. "I have no problems with killing him, but we have no way to do that. And what I am saying is that engaging in some kind of shadow war is playing on his terms. I'm not opposed to letting Iridian off his leash, either, but I am guessing it's going to take more than a handful of Spectres to bring down the Broker Network that has been around for centuries, especially if we have to dodge assassins on the Citadel."

Shepard held up a hand. "First, let me lay out a few things. One, we know exactly where the stupid bastard is at. He's holed up on his flagship, hiding out in a system in the Traverse." She was going to say something else but Liara gently touched her arm, and Shepard grimaced. "The, uh, exact location will be revealed right before the assault."

She exhaled. "Anyway, that's all academic because Cerberus is willing to handle the Broker ourselves. I'm certainly not going to turn down any help, if the Spectres or some other badasses want a piece of him, but we're not demanding anything along those lines. His files will be analyzed for data we can use against the Collectors and Reapers – and then destroyed. I'm not going to try to hold his blackmail files over your heads."

Both Valern and Tevos looked surprised at that, while Thin'Koris merely nodded. "Logical, to avoid merely making yourself a different color of the same threat."

Shepard shrugged. "I'm sure Harper would love to snatch up a bunch of shit, but he's not running this operation."

Tevos and Valern exchanged looks, and the latter spoke in a quiet voice. "That… does alleviate some of the concerns we have. Although one could also argue that he may change his tune once he has access to the Broker's intel cache."

Sara snorted. "Not if he has any fucking brains, he won't."

Udina smothered a laughing cough at this.

She exhaled. "Second, the main reason we're here is to gain assistance for something more challenging." She took a deep breath. "The Collectors operate out of the Omega-4 Relay. No ships have ever successfully transited that relay, and as long as the Collectors are behind it, they can do whatever they like to us. Our plan is to capture a Collector vessel and storm their… wherever they are staging their attacks from."

She looked around the room. "As you can imagine, given what we saw on Horizon was what Vigil described as 'low-level weapons,' this is going to be a dangerous gamble. We will need help in both subduing a Collector ship for boarding as well as engineering a method to get it to take us to the Collector operations area – Spectres, STG, special forces, N7s, Blackwatch, everything."

Udina's voice was dry. "There's a tiny flaw with that plan, namely the relay being in the middle of Aria's territory, right next to her illegal hell-hole of a space station and under the guns of her fleet. You might have a wee bit of a problem with that."

Sara smiled. "Would I drive up your blood pressure like that?"

Udina merely sighed dramatically.

Shepard chuckled. "But no, as it stands, in return for me not blowing that tramp's head clean off her shoulders, she tentatively agreed to let a task force accompany us through, as long as it's under Cerberus command. She hates the Collectors too, and is not really thrilled about the big fat target having them coming out of her system paints on her."

Tevos's voice was low and her expression doubtful. "That… is a very large concession. The Terminus Systems have been adamant about opposing us since the Council of that time unwisely assassinated Terina, and any rapprochement will require them to cease predating on innocents inside Citadel Space."

Liara's voice was drolly amused. "I fear you misunderstand, Councilor. We are in no way suggesting Aria is cooperative enough to offer peace or to act decently, only that she will allow a military strike through her territory to destroy the Collectors. Perhaps the quarians can provide more diplomatic channels of discussion, but it is all Sara and I can do not to eradicate her and all her works for the crimes she has committed."

Valern shot Shepard a look, his large eyes blinking rapidly. "Ah, yes, Aria was the backer of the criminal involved in your own… difficulties in early life. I can see how that may cause some friction."

Shepard stared at him and then chuckled. "That has to be the most diplomatic phrasing of what I went through I've ever heard."

Thin'Koris sighed. "We are traveling far afield from our destination. To summarize, you wish the Citadel to officially cease business and tolerance of the Broker Network and possibly for volunteers to assist in the neutralization of the Broker. At that time you will localize and engage a Collector vessel, board it and capture it, and use it to launch an assault on the Collector… base of operations, which could be anything from a space station to a Ytnari Sphere for all we know."

Liara whispered to Shepard. "The salarian term for what I believe you call a 'Dyson Sphere.' "

She whispered back. "Yeah, don't know what that is either." She then cleared her throat. "Essentially, yes. I'm hoping, in taking out the Collector leadership and operating area, that we can both gain useful technology to upgrade our ships and get intel and insight into the Reaper threat – and maybe rescue the colonists they've kidnapped."

The five Councilors looked at each other before Tevos smoothly turned to look at the figures standing to one side. "Before we discuss the details of such a thing, I would like to take a chance to examine the feasibility from a logistical standpoint. Primarch Fedorian, when we discussed this event via holocall, you expressed some concern about utilization of the various member nation fleets, and that you'd been in contact with several admirals. Assuming that Shepard is successful in taking down the Broker and localizing a Collector vessel, what level of support can be provided?"

The primarch folded massive arms over his chest, his deep voice vibrating as he spoke. "That is something I would need to discuss with the Unbroken Circle and other military commands, in order to provide full details. In general, however, my understanding is that the majority of our fleets are not at full capacity or repair. The Battle of Haestrom cost the turian fleet three dreadnoughts and nearly fifty other heavy ships of the line, as well as dozens of smaller support ships and cruisers. We have roughly somewhere around forty-five percent of our total battle strength available and most of that is tied up in dealing with Facinus at the moment."

He gestured to Admiral Branson. "I am fairly confident that the Systems Alliance fleet that fought by our side is in even worse shape at this juncture, given they were the ones who brought down that super-dreadnought."

Branson inclined his head, his voice clipped but clear. "Indeed, Primarch. At our current state, the only undamaged fleet I have left is the 1st Fleet which is, by order of the High Lords, focused solely on the defense of Sol and Arcturus. I can't even put together more than two undamaged squadrons, and that's if I pull ships from the 5th Fleet."

Fedorian inclined his head in turn. "High Velsharess Uona T'Koro says the Asari Republican 2nd Fleet is basically a write-off at this juncture, and that your 4th and 5th Fleets are in refit. The volus are still bringing their dreadnoughts online and won't be ready for almost six months, and the salarians are at nearly full strength, but…"

Valern's mouth quirked. "But you wouldn't like to put them in a line of battle without sturdier ships taking the heat, Primarch? A fair assessment."

The big turian flicked a mandible in irritation. "In theory the Citadel Fleets are at full strength. We've increased our fleet numbers, actually, from the Battle of Citadel. With that said, if the Collectors are backed by the Reapers, that bodes poorly considering how much the fleet suffered while facing one. Even conventional Collector ships are extremely dangerous – I will remind those present that two Collector ships destroyed an Alliance heavy-cruiser armed with degenerate matter torpedoes and stood off six times their number in Cerberus vessels – and some still escaped. If the Collectors have only a small number of ships, then the Citadel Fleets could crush them. But if they have even a modest number of ships, or more powerful ones than we've seen already, then we are looking at severe casualties in any open conflict."

Tevos pursed her lips. "None of this is new, although I admit I was not aware the fleets were in such bad condition as a whole. I was under the impression our ships were still combat ready, even if some needed refit."

Admiral Branson's voice was tight. "The recession and the Geth War have done a number on readiness. On the gestalt numbers, we still have hundreds, probably thousands of ships that can fight – but they are scattered all over the galaxy, pinned down on anti-piracy or peace-keeping ops, dedicated to guarding the homeworlds, or stuck in long-needed refits."

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose. "Well, that's just great."

Valern frowned, tapping something on his lectern. "What about our ground forces? The Special Operations Group, the CDF, and our Citadel-assigned STG teams?"

A heavyset turian in the silver and blue of the Citadel Defense Force stepped forward slightly, his face-paint done in shades of gray and black. "Councilor, the SpecOps is at full capacity, including the associated forces. The quarians have committed almost a thousand Techmarines and three hundred Heavy Marines, and the drell have included two thousand 'high' skill mercenaries along with fifteen Remembrance Dancers. This is alongside the Shieldbreaker, Blackwatch, DACT, and all the other units already attached. The CDF main body is… somewhat less prepared. We are still recovering from storming Haestrom, though the Biotic Corps remain at nearly full readiness. All STG teams granted to us are at full readiness."

Valern smiled thinly. "Thank you, Supreme Commander Vox." He straightened. "We are prepared to follow up on any action you may undertake, Shepard, but with the details unknown, what forces to utilize – and our insertion profile – is still up in the air."

Shepard shrugged. "To be honest, our guess is the Collectors don't have a large fleet. It's boots on the ground that we'll need the most when we go in after them. But the faster we can move on this, the better off we'll be. What I'm asking for is not the entire fleet or giant legions, but support, both military and intelligence, to back us up."

Valern shook his head. "I disagree. What you are asking for is to be granted a great deal of military focused power, taken into a hostile region of space with no clear understanding of what exactly lies beyond the Omega-4 Relay. What you are asking is to be given operational command of a strike force of our ships. Aria's little demand that any such Citadel fleet she deigns to allow into Omega being under Cerberus cannot be seen as anything but such. You are asking us to pursue open warfare with an enemy that can strike at us in ways that no amount of preparation, defenses, or intelligence gathering can even warn us against, much less stop. This is in addition to insisting that we ignore our own misgivings and concerns, and simply agree to whatever you ask."

He sighed. "Before we agree to anything you may wish of us, we need to know if we can actually perform what we are being asked to do, and the cost to us to do so. And before I am willing to agree to any such things, we need to know what the actual goal is. 'Destroy the Collectors' is both vague and at the moment, utterly theoretical. We need to determine the actual tactical and strategic doctrine of how we will go about it. At this point, all we know is your assertion that we need to get through the relay and that Aria will let our fleets pass through her territory unmolested."

Thin'Koris folded his arms. "Which segues neatly into my main concern: a clear understanding of what is being asked, what is being offered… and how we have any assurance of control of the situation. As Valern said, even if we trusted both you and your backer, and even if we take every piece of evidence you have given us regarding the Broker as fact – of which I do not believe we have reason to doubt right now – that still leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. What is defined by 'under Cerberus control'? Who will be in nominal charge of the attacks? When will we be getting a guarantee from Aria herself of safe conduct for our ships to operate in Omega? Who exactly is going to pay for all of this – the refits, the eezo, shipping troops…?" He trailed off, his glowing eyes narrowing. "It's a bit much to just walk in here and expect us to agree with everything you say with no details."

Tevos nodded gravely. "There are still a great number of matters that we need to consider before we decide on any action. It may be best if we recess now, to let C-INT, C-Sec, and FINCIN review the data that you have provided and liaison with the STG in regards to the Broker, and to let our military commanders provide a more detailed estimation of the cost and timeframe to assist in any such action you are planning on."

Shepard grit her teeth, but even as she opened her mouth a heavy hand fell on her shoulder, that of Thanix Palavanus. He gave a theatrical sigh, towering over Shepard as he stepped past her. "I am sure that beings of diplomacy and bureaucracy such as yourselves are immured to the frustration of dealing with minutiae, but I am not. These are all questions that you resolve after you agree to a course of action, not before. More delay is only aiding our enemy! The Reapers are the threat, not a 'lack of control,' not worrying about costs, not trying to score points of which fleet gets to do what, and not dancing around the point!"

The giant turian opened his arms. "We know for a fact that the Collectors are a grave danger. They blew up a star, and I can't figure out exactly how. They clearly know things about the relays that make them capable of bypassing our defenses. The longer we let this vune-beast stalk without bringing it down, the more likely it is to pounce on us in the dark. And if we do not take the opportunity to bring them down when they are still weakened from losing ships at Horizon, who is to say they will not build up their strength until we cannot oppose them?"

He flicked both mandibles. "Delay is always the enemy of prudence. If it is a matter of resources, the Palavanus will pledge a billion credits and the services of our clan in aiding any refit or repair teams that may be needed. I will also be releasing to all Citadel species – under the appropriate DRM – the first run of the 'Thanix Cannon,' a magnetohydrodynamic weapon similar to that of Nazara's terrifying weapon. And if need be, I am prepared to lead the House of Ulvu myself into battle to kill these corrupted Protheans before they can summon their dark masters."

Even as he finished, Uressa quietly stepped up beside him, her tones soft and calming but her voice still firm. "And I will match his pledge, as well as pay for any optronics or eezo that may be required. If needed, the Church of Athame will go to war as well. If there is a question of leaving homeworlds defenseless, I will pledge the entire fleet of the House of T'Shora and… convince the Matriarchs of Thessia to add to this their own ships."

She stared at the Councilors. "You do not see, perhaps, the danger here. The geth, the Broker, the Collectors, they are all the stains of those monsters in the dark beyond, the Reapers. They have murdered two worlds and slain countless innocents, even while their servants plot to keep us divided and arguing instead of acting."

She made a sign of siari unity, her motions almost tired-looking. "I am very aware that this is an unheralded situation. That Shepard coming back from the dead and asking for help, on behalf of a group with bloody hands and an ill history is both concerning and questionable. That there is reticence in simply agreeing because of how it will look, and how it will change the galaxy. That to agree to this is perhaps unwise, given who she serves, and her own biases."

She met each one of their gazes, her pale gray eyes wide. "Yet you were not elevated to stand upon that pier to argue and declaim, but to safeguard and protect the trillions of innocents who live inside Citadel Space. To bring together asari and human, turian and quarian, salarian and krogan – to bind us all into a siari of working together. To make things better. To make sacrifices mean something. You were put here to act, to lead, and to keep the galaxy from going dark. Most of all, you are expected to look beyond your own insular interests and see the bigger picture, and embrace your roles as leaders and protectors of the galaxy itself – not just those who pledge themselves to the rule of the Citadel.

"We have all, myself included, sat far too long upon the throne of indulgent apathy, content to make gestures of solving issues and instead merely letting them drift by, leaves on a falling tide. But now we face something that cannot be reasoned with, nor ignored."

She bowed her head. "If we do not act now, then we will be as the Protheans are; memories in stone and dust – the curiosity of some future species also doomed to die."

After a long moment, Udina tapped his lectern. "As usual, Matriarch Uressa, you remind us why we must always strive to be better people." His voice strengthened. "I call for a vote. Perhaps two votes, actually. I recommend designating the Collectors a Class One threat to the security of our galactic civilization. I recommend sending in a task force to localize and engage in whatever action is required to bring about the neutralization of the threat of the Shadow Broker and the destruction of the Collectors."

He turned to glance at Shepard as his mouth twisted into a grin. "And given there are concerns about who would lead such an effort being perhaps under doubtful cognizance, I vote to recognize Sara Shepard as an agent of the Office of Special Tactics and Reconnaissance of the Citadel, and to send her to deal with this issue once and for all."

The silence in the room was almost total, until Tevos cursed under her breath.