"My god..." A gasp signalled the doctors' arrival.

Shepard turned in time to see the horror on Chakwas' face before her mental defenses slammed down, sealing the doctor's emotions behind a professional mask as she stepped forward, activating her omni-tool.

Mordin was already two steps ahead, 'tool scanning as he approached, unusually quiet.

Shepard wished she could have saved Karin from having to witness this monstrosity, that she could have disconnected David from the machine and had their patient led down ready for them.

Unfortunately the risk of triggering a medical emergency while unhooking him was too high, and she'd been forced to stand there waiting, helplessly murmuring inadequate platitudes and reassurances to the traumatised savant. She had no idea if he even heard her words, focused as he was on his mantra of mathematics.

"The square root of 1697.44 is for-"

"41.2" Mordin answered. That at least seemed to get David's attention, bloodshot eyes rotating against the metal claws that held his eyelids open.

Shepard carefully followed the Professor's instructions as they gradually removed each violation. Supporting David's body when they finally freed him from the last constraints. Picking him up and carrying him over to a suitable surface for the doctors to work on.

Chakwas took charge, a litany of medical jargon flowing freely between her and the salarian.

The situation was now firmly outside both Shepard's control and skillset. Her presence surplus to requirement.

With nothing more to do, she turned her back on the research lab cum torture chamber, but it wasn't so easy to expel the image from her mind's eye as the elevator carried her towards the station's exit.

She passed through the bulkhead doors, through the hidden cave and waterfall. Numb to the cold spray splashing her face.

She found Garrus standing sentinel on a nearby rise, his head briefly twisting to her as she climbed up beside him.

"How is he?"

"Doc's still with him."

They fell silent, gazing out across the landscape.

Clouds still raced across the sky but were starting to tinge pink and orange, the end of the day approaching. It couldn't come fast enough.

"Any movement?" Shepard jutted her head in the direction of Prometheus station. It was still a potential threat. They hadn't had time to make sure every geth platform was permanently disabled when leaving the crashed ship.

The turian shook his head, negative.

"Just space cows."

She made a mental note for the Normandy to bomb the place before leaving orbit. Hell, if it wasn't a garden world she'd nuke all four stations.

Then again that would probably be overkill. They were dealing with AI not an organic contagion. EMPs would likely be just as effective, if not more so, and less likely to get her in trouble with the Council.

Wind whispered through the trees. The rest of the world stood still.

"It's beautiful." Garrus admitted softly.

So was Virmire. Shepard nodded, saying nothing.

…...

Jacob felt the deck tremble as the Normandy unleashed her firepower on the planet below. He allowed himself a feeling of grim satisfaction at the thought of any remaining geth being obliterated, it was no more than the mechanical butchers deserved.

Memories of Eden Prime played through his head. He didn't notice when the ship slipped back to its default faint vibration and gentle background hum. Only looking up when the armoury doors slid open, Shepard and Vakarian stalking in.

The commander acknowledged his presence with a nod but there was no other attempt at communication as the duo began to strip their rifles.

Officially Jacob was responsible for maintaining all the small arms aboard ship but most of Shepard's squad insisted on taking care of their own gear.

Kasumi was a notable exception. The thief liked to sit and talk, watching as he methodically worked on her pistols and submachine gun.

Sometimes Grunt would stop by with questions on shotgun mods but usually only if the commander was too busy to answer him herself.

He snapped the pieces of his shotgun back together with practiced ease, pointing it in a safe direction to dry fire, listening to the clicks that assured him everything was functioning properly.

Storing it securely, he turned his attention to Miranda's carnifex, the XO the only member of today's ground team to entrust her weapons to him, as she hurried off to make the necessary reports to the Illusive Man.

He winced as he considered the details that report would contain.

He'd known the organisation he'd joined had a dark reputation. He couldn't claim ignorance on that front. However his work with the Alliance corsairs was hardly squeaky clean.

He'd been wary when Miranda tried recruiting him, but hell they'd saved the damn Council together! Not that they got any recognition or thanks for it. For all Cerberus' many faults at least they were willing to DO something. Unlike the Alliance, sticking their heads in the sand and whitewashing the entire attack on the Citadel.

Did he have concerns? Sure, but the Lazarus project to which he'd been assigned seemed like a worthwhile goal. The return of the legendary Commander Shepard. An inspiring leader and ferocious warrior. Someone who'd mutinied in the face of inaction, disobeyed orders to do what she knew was right. Exactly the kind of person they'd need in the coming war.

He glanced over at the woman in question. The grim look on her face as she pushed a cleaning rod down the barrel of her gun left little to the imagination about her opinion on what they'd found today, and he couldn't help his own thoughts drifting to the events on Aite. Wishing they were as easy to dismantle as the pistol in his hands.

Project Overlord was precisely the kind of cell that gave Cerberus their evil reputation. The sight of David in that machine had been undeniably sickening, but so was the stench and sight of Eden Prime. The multitude of corpses common on any battlefield made worse by the terror of husks. Former comrades torn apart by vicious spikes and repurposed into zombies. Forced to fire upon those he once knew or share their fate.

The geth had been responsible for those atrocities and if Archer's plan had worked, if they'd gained control of the geth, such events would never need happen again.

Hypothetically the inhumane torture of a single individual could have potentially saved thousands, maybe millions of lives.

An undoubtedly evil action, but one done for the greater good. He could see both sides and was unsure where he stood.

He glanced up to find Garrus gone, Shepard clearing up her workbench. She seemed tired, worn down, but he was thankful she didn't take any of her indubitable frustrations with Cerberus out on him.

He wondered if the ship could stay strong after this or if things would slip back to the uneasy passive aggressiveness from when the commander first boarded. Their progress snapped and torn by another cell's cockup.

She left and he wasn't far behind, making sure the armoury was tidy and secure before making his way to the elevator.

He bypassed the mess, instead heading straight for the port observation lounge. He nearly turned round when he saw the occupants. Zaeed and Garrus sat silently at opposite ends of the bar, Dr Chakwas nursing a brandy in one corner. Not a single Cerberus uniform in sight.

"Taylor." Zaeed broke the silence, grabbing an extra glass and filling it with a purple liquid he didn't recognise, sliding it across the counter in clear invitation. Jacob cautiously claimed an empty stool.

"Doc, how-" Chakwas sighed before he could complete the question.

"Physically he'll recover. Mentally?" She shrugged, taking a larger than average sip of brandy.

Jacob followed her example. A foul taste swamped his tongue before he swallowed, reveling in the burn as the alcohol slid down his throat.

It was without doubt the nastiest drink he'd ever consumed. Harsh and bitter, the perfect match to his thoughts. He didn't hesitate to top up his glass.

The silence was deafening. Broken only by the clink of glass and splash of liquid. They each sat with similar memories as they drank. Together alone.

...

I need a drink. The thought had been circling inside Shepard's skull for close to an hour and now she had finally run out of tasks to distract herself from it.

Just one.

It had been her decision to go tee-total. Trish had never insisted on it.

Sure her partner had been concerned about excessive drinking after Akuze. Wanted her to cut down on destructive behaviours. But she never said she had to give it up completely.

Quite the reverse in fact.

There had been a couple of times in the early years of her self imposed exile, back when the idea was still a silent challenge in her head and not yet a bold declaration to those who knew her, when Trish had leant over during some social event or other and whispered: 'you can have a drink if you want you know.'

'I know.' Nikki had always answered, 'I just don't want to'.

Well she wanted to now.

No, want had nothing to do with it. Want was a hot summer's day, vat meat sizzling on the BBQ, a bottle of alcohol free beer in her hand as she relaxed, basking in the sunlight.

This was not that. No mere passing fancy to satisfy her tastebuds.

She needed a drink.

Hard spirits to help burn the memory of Aite from her brain.

Trish certainly wouldn't mind if she just had the one.

One drink couldn't hurt.

She sighed.

She knew if she gave in she wouldn't be able to stop at just one.

She'd learnt that the hard way.

This was hardly the first time she'd needed a drink after work after all.

Usually she was stubborn enough to resist, but she wasn't a saint. She'd fallen off the wagon after Amadeus. Again with Invictus.

The first she'd woken with a hangover and a deep sense of self loathing. The second to Anderson 'testing' a fire alarm before dragging her to the gym and making her sweat it out on a treadmill.

'I'd be a hypocrite if I told you not to drink' he'd said. 'But not like this Shepard.'

Not like this. Problem was she was an all or nothing kind of gal. She didn't do anything by halves.

Hence going tee-total.

There were easy months and hard nights but it had been years since she'd stumbled, and no, that wasn't counting the two years she'd been dead. Holy fuck she'd died, if that wasn't an acceptable reason to have a drink she wasn't sure what was.

Just one drink. The devil on her shoulder whispered. You know this feeling won't go away until you do.

She ordered EDI to increase the music volume in her cabin, hoping to drown it out.

Demons drown better in alcohol.

"Shut up." She growled.

"Commander?" There was hesitation, uncertainty, perhaps even the faintest touch of offense in the synthetic tone.

Great, Shepard thought, now I'm projecting emotions onto an AI.

"Not you EDI." She put her weight on one elbow, flopping over from her back to her front. Grabbing a pillow and smothering it tight over her ears.

"If the music's too loud I can-"

"No! Thanks EDI but no, the music's fine."

Clenching her eyes shut didn't help. The memory of David trapped in that machine dancing behind her eyelids.

"I really need a fucking drink." She vocalised but didn't move.

"There are a range of alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages in the portside lounge, Commander." EDI helpfully reminded her.

"I don't want a drink, EDI." She groussed, leaving the AI in a state of confusion.

EDI understood the distinction between the words of course, but 'need' trumped 'want' in order of priority.

Why wasn't the commander taking care of her needs?

EDI determined she must be missing crucial data. Perhaps further observation would help her understand.

Shepard removed her head from below the pillow with a sigh.

The fact she hadn't won yet meant the shoulder devil was right: if she didn't have a drink she would be stuck here for hours, unable to focus on anything else for more than a few minutes before her brain was derailed by the all encompassing urge to drink.

It would keep her awake until she was too physically exhausted to keep her eyes open. Then her nightmares would be plagued with the same horrors that she so desperately wanted to drink away in the first place.

Her mental fortress had been taking a pounding all day. Longer probably. However, while before it had been a slow and gradual erosion, now the walls were under siege. If there was to be any hope for peace tonight she would need to-

Drink.

No.

-Reach out and call for reinforcements.

Her hand made it to her omni-tool but not to contacts. She went to the clock, checking the time difference.

She would not needlessly wake her wife at zero dark thirty or interrupt her while at work.

She'd weathered this storm alone before, she could do it again. Probably.

8PM. She breathed a sigh of relief.

Nicholas should be asleep, assuming he wasn't in one of his funny moods, but Trish would still be up watching a show.

Her hands functioned on autopilot, bringing up a blank message, she stared at it with growing trepidation, realising that her mind was just as blank.

She was so close to reaching out but couldn't think what to write.

Sure she could just say 'I need a drink', she would certainly get a prompt response, but she didn't want Trish to worry. To feel obligated to respond.

She typed something on a whim and quickly hit send before she could change her mind. It wouldn't do to get sucked into overthinking. To become embroiled in internal debate and victim of self-delaying tactics.

She glanced down to read what she sent.

[Hey babe, how many Cerberus personnel does it take to change a lightbulb?]

What the fuck was that? That was a disaster.

Assuming Trish even deigned to reply, presumably she'd now want an answer. She opened a new email and desperately attempted to draft a punchline.

[Lightbulbs? Why change lightbulbs when we can make an AI to do it for us. Holy shit it's killing us all, we should have just changed the lightbulb}

That… wasn't funny.

Then again the subject matter wasn't all that funny to begin with. Lightbulb jokes were supposed to include numbers, she remembered, deleting the text to start again.

Something like… X scientists to develop a new kind of light, Y guards to be killed when it becomes sentient and goes rogue, and 1 to call Shepard to come fix the mess.

Yeah, that was better. Not by much. She really should have read the message before sending it. Given herself a chance to talk herself out of it.

This whole fiasco could have been avoided if she'd just had a drink.

Hell, maybe she'd be funnier if she'd had a few drinks.

Her self recrimination was put on hold as a notification chimed and she hurriedly looked at Trish's reply.

[I really hope you're about to send me a hilarious video of your crew, but somehow I get the feeling today wasn't a good day. What happened?]

Shepard paused. Her wife hadn't even asked about the punchline. She was unsure whether or not she was disappointed by that fact.

She reread the brief response.

'I get the feeling today wasn't a good day.' Well that was something of an understatement, but had her message really been that obvious?

'What happened?' She wanted to talk to her wife, but she was suddenly less sure she wanted to talk about her day.

[Just another example of man's inhumanity to man.} Her finger hovered uncertainly above her 'tool.

"Promise me, no matter how bad things get you'll always talk to me, you won't shut me out again." Trish's past words echoed in her mind.

She'd told Trish far more about her work, about the things she'd seen and done, than she ever thought she would pre-Akuze.

That certainly didn't mean she told her everything though. Some things she didn't need to know. Others were still classified.

She'd already mentioned Cerberus though, clearly her subconscious wanted this off her chest.

[You remember a couple of years ago there was that big resurgence in pre-contact films? Every human run TV station was showing them along with half the cinemas.} Ok, so technically 2176 was more than 'a couple of years ago' by now but that was immaterial. {Did you ever see A Clockwork Orange?]

Badger had dragged the whole squad out to see it. Back when she was still a corporal. When Rodgers was still with them, trying and failing to match Bulsara drink for drink and song for song.

Back before Akuze. Before a bunch of Cerberus scientists decided luring marines into thresher maw nests somehow counted as science.

Before she knew how it felt for acid to eat through your flesh. Before her whole damn platoon was wiped out. Not Rodgers. He'd clocked it just before Christmas. Batarian slavers. Lambert replacing him. Eighteen years old, fresh out of boot. Lost his combat virginity and his life all on the same day. All because of Cerberus.

Damn, this was not remotely close to stopping her from wanting a drink.

[No, never watched that one. I saw the trailer, that was enough for me. Why?]

[Did the trailer show the bit with the eyes?]

She wished they were close enough for vidcall, but was thankful they weren't so far apart that messages took hours.

[Yeah. One of the reasons I didn't watch it, it was horrible.]

[It's even worse in real life.]

The pause waiting for a reply felt longer than usual. Long enough that Nikki wished she hadn't said anything. She had no right to try and ease her nightmares by forcing them on her wife instead.

[Cerberus were doing experiments on aversion therapy?]

[No, different experiment. They just had the same contraption with the eyes}

'Just', like that somehow made it less bad. When in reality it was worse. So much worse.

The film 'just' had the eye hooks. David also had tubes down his throat, metal pierced through his arms as he was suspended in a crucifixion pose and plugged into the geth neural network.

Hell, at least in the film the person suffering was a convicted and violent criminal. Sure plenty people would argue that didn't make it right, but in Shepard's book it certainly made Overlord worse.

David had done nothing to deserve his fate.

{I don't want to talk about it anymore. Tell me something good.]

Again the gap seemed to drag. Nikki wasn't sure if her wife was struggling to think of 'something good', or debating whether or not to keep pressing about her day. Or maybe she'd lost all concept of time and this was simply the usual delay required for data to pass through the mass relays and zip across the vastness of space.

[Nicky's getting really good with his colours. We were walking past a krogan security guard today, Nicky pointed at his armour and said 'wed'.}

Shepard smiled, eyes crinkling in the corners as she kept reading.

{The guard saw him pointing and waved at us. I'm pretty sure a normal kid would either wave back or hide behind their parent, not your kid though. Your kid, was so delighted at being waved at that he managed to slip his hand out of my grasp and run up to the giant armed krogan!

Nearly gave me a damn heart attack.

Fortunately Nicky stopped when he reached him. The krogan just knelt down and tried to talk to him. Obviously Nicky's too young to have a translator and I doubt his pronunciation is close enough for the krogan's translator to pick up much, but they both seemed to enjoy themselves.]

Nikki chuckled.

[That's adorable. I mean, I know he's far too young to have picked up on society's prejudices but I still would have thought the sheer size of a krogan might make him hesitate. He's so fearless and curious and pure. It's amazing! I can't wait to hear what he gets up to when you two go to the Citadel.]

[Don't! I'm already dreading it. Why did I agree to an interplanetary business trip with a toddler?]

[Because you love tech conferences. Because you put a helluva lot of effort into that project and now it's been greenlit who better to launch it?

Seriously, does Kassa have anyone else who knows the tech involved better than you and would be able to answer every single possible question that might get asked at the conference?

The answer by the way is: obviously not. Otherwise they would have just sent them rather than offering to pay additional expenses on Nicky's transport and childcare arrangements to get you there.

You'll just have to make sure if he's not in your hotel room or the daycare that he is wearing his monkey backpack harness all the time. It'll be just like a trip into Joughin but busier and with more aliens. I'm sure it'll be fine.]

[Unless he escapes, runs up to the wrong sentient and gets kidnapped.]

[Relax, it'll be fine. The absolute worst that can happen is he's filmed doing something cute, goes viral and becomes an extranet sensation. Promise.]

[That doesn't make me feel better Nick!} Shepard chuckled as she read the rest of Trish's reply.

Personally she felt loads better.