Emiya and Miranda continued looking at each other, long enough for Shepard and Liara both to begin growing curious, he noted. And it was curious, that she was here, now.

He had left her at the salarians' tender mercies following their escape from Parnitha through the relay—leaving her to presumably be captured by one of the most feared and respected intelligence organizations in the galaxy. Yet here she was looking none the worse for wear, if a little haggard, free as a bird.

It was suspicious, to say the least.

Could she have escaped on her own? It was conceivable, given how capable she was. But highly unlikely, bordering on impossible. It was much more probable that she had instead cut some kind of deal to be let loose. On its face, that wasn't really so difficult to believe. Except he had no idea how they could keep any kind of control over her. Just by allowing her to leave and return to Alliance space gave her a thousand ways to slip any leash the Special Tasks Group might have yoked on her.

But unless they had managed some kind of foolproof method of keeping tabs on her and ensure her loyalty, there was no way in hell she would have been allowed to run free; her presence on Thessia and her connections and knowledge being simply too valuable to lose.

Had they done something to her? Emiya's mind raced with possibilities, poring over his experiences. It wasn't inconceivable that the salarians knew about Indoctrination and had managed to wrest it for their own purposes. Was Benezia mistaken? Was Saren performing a routine clean up instead of only just discovering the threat it posed? Then what about the geth, how did they fit in all of this?

More questions for their second meeting. But for now, he had no way of confirming or denying that.

Then what else? The back of his neck tingled as he suddenly remembered the operation he had undergone on the Citadel. The Starliner had returned by way of the Citadel, too. If a graybox had been implanted in her brain, set to record everything she did and then transpond it back. He would have to check that out. Somehow. But she won't risk sending a message while I'm here. Not unless she wants to get caught.

On top of that, there was still the matter of The Illusive Man. But that was a secondary priority compared to recuperating and preparing for his meeting with Saren. Well, unless he could manage to snag some information without wasting time, something that could be of use with the turian.

This is going to be a headache, isn't it? Emiya has figured that after cowing the Systems Alliance things would become much simpler, but apparently, there was more trouble in store for his stay in the human territories. Oh well.

Miranda was the first to break the staredown, her calculating eyes glancing at everyone there and trying to figure out their relation to him. Shepard and Cassani, Hero and Butcher of the Skyllian Blitz respectively, and him: their former teammate from half a decade ago and now the galaxy's most wanted hacker. It wouldn't do to forget about Miranda either, mysterious secret agent and terrorist that she was. They made quite a crowd. Strange, how it was the visually most distinct of them; the asari, who stood out in this crowd with how apparently normal she was. Something Miranda did not miss, as her eyes hovered on the archaeologist for a heartbeat longer, curious and weighing, but not malicious.

Of course, I suppose Liara's mother evens it all out. Surprising that Benezia didn't tell me anything about Liara coming here—or rather, did she nudge things to this happen in the first place? Emiya shook his head, not interested in trying to figure out what the ancient Matriarch might or might not have orchestrated. This definitely wasn't how he had expected this surprise lunch meeting to wind up and he had to marvel at the odds. The galaxy was a massive place and still, he had managed to run into so many familiar faces. Perhaps he should have bought a lottery ticket today, given how astronomical the odds of this reunion were.

He shook his head. Liara shouldn't be a problem, but Miranda on the other hand...

The raven-haired woman's eyes turned to Cassani one more time; piercing, unfathomable eyes swallowing the man whole for a long second before she offered him a pleased smile and Emiya had to wonder at that.

Did they know each other? The man seemed very much out of his depth here, despite easily being one of the most impressive among them, given the sheer number of patents attached to his name. Then again, Emiya wasn't surprised that the terrorist was familiar with both Shepard and Cassani, knowing how thorough she was and how... motivated she had been when it came to him. There was no way she wouldn't have checked them out, given their shared time in the Alliance Navy and how the two of them had managed to make it all the way up to N7.

Around them, the last of the arriving people had found elevators down to the reception and check-in stations, leaving their mixed group standing in the otherwise plain and empty hall.

Any lingering surprise at her reception now long-gone, Miranda's eyes crinkled as she looked to him again. "To what do I owe this pleasure then, Emil? Not that I'm not flattered, of course."

Why is she calling me that, now? She called me Emiya back when we last worked together... Was she merely messing with him or had she forgotten? He had even made a point of her using that name, back on Thessia. His mind went back to the Indoctrination Protocols he had written; to the sections he had specifically outlined on faulty and failing memory.

Shrugging and ignoring the use of the name, for now, he answered, "To be quite honest I wasn't expecting to see you again so soon. Not for here, at least," he answered shaking his head. "Then again, it's not the first time you've defied my expectations."

She pursed her lips, not quite pouting at him as something changed behind her eyes; a barely tangible shift in her internal gears as she changed tack. "Hmm... You did leave me in quite a predicament, Shirou. This is quite a surprise for me as well. I was afraid you might have tired of me."

"Shirou?" Shepard repeated beside them, blinking.

Cold reading, or poisoning the well? Or both? He wouldn't put the talent past the woman, hoping only that his poker face would hold. "Like I said, call me whatever you want."

Miranda turned to face the other woman as she ignored him, now smiling as she gave the redhead another once-over, Had she achieved some goal with the use of the name? "Miranda Lawson," she said extending a hand, her eyes crinkling with an altogether different kind of amusement as she glanced at him. "We have worked together a few times, he and I."

Shepard glanced at him and he merely offered a scoff in return.

Miranda wasn't strictly speaking lying, but he had a gut-feeling anything he said at this point would just be twisted against him. She posed the same kind of threat that Matriarch Benezia, Captain Anderson, and Juha Kolkkonen did. He was almost starting to regret having been so open with Shepard before since it had opened him up to all these threats.

Before—alone—he had been able to freely dismiss and ignore anything she said, confident that it wouldn't matter. But with Shepard and Cassani here, now... Should I leverage the Alliance Intelligence to take her in? No, that would be even worse—combining the forces of my nearby enemies isn't going to help me in any way.

He had to say something, though.

"She gave me a ride to the Citadel a few years back," he answered simply, trusting that Shepard would make the connection, without giving Miranda too much in return. He had to consider Cassani, too. If he carelessly revealed Cerberus' existence, that could end up affecting those previously uninvolved. Liara's acquaintance with him on Thessia being the prime example of how out of control that could go.

"Oh, it was quite a bit more than that. In fact, I do recall you owing me a..." The Cerberus Operative continued, eyes twinkling as she looked at Cassani again. "Private reveal."

Emiya raised a brow, considering her.

Was she already setting up Cassani as some kind of collateral against him? And what was she talking about? What promise—Oh, right. The eezo I made. His eyes trailed off, considering how to best handle that. Honestly, he didn't feel like stringing her along to some fake mining site or laboratory, like had originally planned. It would just be a waste of time, especially now that he had cast off his veil of normalcy.

Glancing at Liara, he wondered if he could pull a repeat of his wall-trick again before he shook his head. That was pointless. Play big, he reminded himself. It wasn't as if anyone outside their group was looking at them anymore, everyone all too happy to take the elevators down to the station proper. The cameras were irrelevant; he could just hack them, but leaving them be and allowing the AIA to see it was probably the better option.

Besides, he wanted to wipe the smug expression off of her face.

"Private? I don't mind doing it in public. So," he said. '—Trace, on'—begin projection, "here you go."

Miranda blinked, almost failing to react to the tossed chunk of pure, processed eezo, fumbling with it as she grabbed it out of the air with wide eyes. Shepard and Cassani both went bug-eyed at the feat—for different reasons—while Liara remained the only one among them to remain utterly unimpressed. She crossed her arms and he almost expected her to roll her eyes at him, as she looked at the others' reactions. Still, Miranda's smug mien had been completely blown away. And, best yet, he hadn't even needed to get shot at this time to achieve it.

I'm starting to like this 'big' stuff, Emiya thought with a scoff, crossing his arms. Miranda expected him to handle this delicately, the way he had handled things until now. So blowing that expectation completely out of the water should serve to make her wary of him.

And while she was completely out of sorts, he could wipe the slate clean of this promise business. "So, we're even? Good."

"Did, did you just fabricate element zero? No, wait—That's impossible; the heat and pressure necessary... Do you have some form of adjacent storage space?" Cassani asked, rolling forward to grab the piece straight out of Miranda's hands, the woman not even resisting as she merely looked at the eezo with surprise. "Using a divergent mass effect field, that could in theory..." He continued, trailing off.

Emiya noticed the flash something in the woman's expression, too unaware of his observation and amusement in her conflicted state. Worry. Anxiety. Panic? Just as quickly as it had surfaced it vanished, only her usual cool and collected comportment remaining. But brittler, somehow. Like she had just played her last card only to have turn out worthless.

"Emiya?" Shepard asked, not so much surprised by the act as by his willingness to do it so publicly. She glanced at Cassani, a hint of nervousness entering her eyes.

Right. Cassani now works for Aldrin Labs—guess that will work for devaluing the information. When he had been trying to stay an unknown variable through stealth and subterfuge, any information others could glean would be valuable. But if he inflated the supply, the demand should in theory drop as well. The greater the number of people who knew about what he could do, the safer they would be. At least in theory.

Clearing his throat, he answered. "Something like that."

Technically speaking, Cassani wasn't that far off. Unlimited Blade Works did in theory function exactly like that; a divergent space within himself from which he could pull out objects. Just, not using any of the principles or laws of nature that anyone else would understand, since he did in fact manufacture the matter there.

Cassani's nodded before his wide eyes were drawn to the piece of near-perfect eezo in his hands, gleaming. "I had theorized that it was possible to create a... pocket dimension of sorts, to store away objects in the same manner as the mass relays push mass into an adjacent space to avoid collisions... But to think the technology already exists. Incredible..."

Shepard looked at Emiya and he shrugged minutely, in return which she simply gave a defeated sigh. Liara still did not seem particularly impressed. Then again, after Thessia he wasn't sure what it would take to surprise Liara.

Miranda meanwhile, having lost her previous confidence looked around with only the thinnest veneer confidence, as if reaching for anything that would give her some leverage. Thessia really did screw her over, too. So I can pretty much assume she had nothing to do with it, if her mission was to get my eezo source, or whatever. But his demonstration had stolen the wind out of her sails, leaving her grasping again. Her eyes settled on Cassani, unreadable again.

Shepard noticed the gazing as she too eyed their old teammate, who was still lost in examining the eezo.

"So... Do you know her, Franco?" she asked to return his attention back up from the chunk in his lap, glancing at the woman who blinked at the question. They both turned to look at the wheelchair-bound man. "I mean, you were waiting on her here, weren't you?"

"Er..." It was Cassani's turn to be tongue-tied as he licked his lips, eyes meeting Miranda's. A whole conversation, completely silent and beyond the rest of them, passed in that moment. Seconds and myriad conflicting expressions passed.

"You two dating?" Shepard ventured.

"Yes," Miranda immediately asserted.

"No," Cassani vehemently denied just as quickly, his eyes bugging out again as he turned to look at Miranda with a betrayed expression. Their eyes met and they were lost in a conversation of their own again, private and unreachable to the rest of them despite it happening right in front of them.

They did know each other, somehow. Miranda must have approached the man before while investigating him, probably using any means at her disposal. Seduction, blackmail, extortion, there was little he would put past her. The man's flustered reaction combined with the cold calculation he could see in the woman's eyes painted a pretty uneven picture of their relationship, which reinforced that notion. I hadn't expected her to try something like that. Was that what her earlier behavior was about?

Trying to incite jealousy in Cassani, so that anything Emiya said about Miranda would immediately be taken the wrong way? A preemptive defense of sorts. He almost sighed, then. These kinds of interpersonal machinations really weren't his thing, the reason why he liked to stay out of the picture and why he hadn't been keen on interacting with Benezia.

Still, he couldn't exactly leave an acquaintance in Miranda's clutches.

While he didn't consider her a bad person per se, she was definitely dangerous. He needed to consider this very carefully. Should he just tell it like it was, or try some roundabout method to probe the depth of their relationship first? Or try and take him to the side and explain it to him? Well, I'll just start with something.

"Cassani," he began, meeting eyes with the sweating man. "You could do better than her."

A moment of utter stillness, they all looked at him askance.

"Emiya, what the fuck?"

It was Shepard who said that staring at him with an expression he couldn't quite decipher. He blinked twice, perplexed at her reaction. The woman shook her head as she realized how baffled he was. Exhaling loudly as she threw up her hands, she spoke to the two women, entering the elevator.

"Come on, Liara and Miranda. Let's just go."

When he tried to move to follow them into the elevator, her flat stare kept him from taking the last step inside. Blinking again, he could only watch as the doors closed and they began to descend without him and Cassani. Huh... Well, Miranda isn't stupid and I've got a live feed on the security cameras. It should be fine...

"What... just happened?" He looked down at the man in the wheelchair, who could only shrug helplessly at him. Clearing his throat, satisfied that he now had the man alone at least, Emiya tried again. "What I meant to say was, uh... Miranda isn't..." He struggled for words. "She's kind of dangerous. Not in general, but she probably has a grudge against me, so..."

Receiving a half-scoff, half-laugh, Emiya thought he had managed to get his point across without digging himself into another hole. Then, realizing that they were waiting on elevators that weren't coming back up, Emiya reached out and pushed the nearest button.

It was a silent and awkward minute as they waited. But eventually, with another pling it arrived and they both stepped in. Muzak, much to Emiya's disappointment, had apparently not seen any great evolution since he had last been stuck in an elevator, doing nothing to help the mood.

"Right... Uh okay." Cassani swallowed audibly, gathering his courage. "She's with the organization Burnsfeldt was with, right?" Then, seeing Emiya's raised brow at the name, he clarified. "The N6 Engineer we met in Brazil? The one who invited us to the N-line?"

Emiya blinked, looking away as he suddenly vaguely remembered that there had been someone like that. Nodding absentmindedly at the question.

"Yeah, that's right. Cerberus."

If he knew that much already, then it was probably fine letting him know the situation. He and Shepard had apparently been pretty close, so she had probably shared some of the details already. No harm with some candor right about now. Besides Emiya wanted to see how he would react.

"Well, since you're already in this deep, might as well go the rest of the way," Emiya smirked, looking at Cassani. "I faked my death on Mars, ran off to get some cybernetic implants on the Citadel and I'm now a wanted interstellar cyber-terrorist. I'm trying to lay low for the moment, but I had to take that dreadnought parked outside the station hostage because Alliance Intelligence were too stubborn to talk to Shepard."

The seated man looked up at Emiya as if he was a grizzly bear, a second away from mauling him to death, swallowing heavily.

"I'm telling you this because Miranda has been gunning for me for a while now." Emiya looked up, his mind running through the vast array of possibilities of what she might try. Eyes settling back to Cassani, he continued. "She won't try to kill you—probably, I mean she might do something stupid if she gets riled up—but keep your guard up anyhow."

"O, okay." Cassani swallowed again as he nodded, his eyes locking with the closed elevator doors again, deep in thought.

It was sort of strange how easy it was to talk about all of this. Not having to worry about everyone's safety, given how hot any information regarding him had been for a while now. He wasn't sure if this approach would have worked on the Citadel or Thessia, but it seemed to be working right now at least.

Which also reminded Emiya that the man beside him right now had been Shepard's colleague and teammate for a lot longer than he had. Through bootcamp all the way through most of the Villa—differing only slightly with his N7 Infiltrator designation from Shepard's Soldier training. If someone knew how and why she might have changed into the person she was today, wouldn't it be him? Grimacing, scowling, trying to think of how to bring up the subject, Emiya shook his head, all too aware of how sensitive a subject it was.

"Why... Why did you get Shepard involved?" Cassani suddenly asked, not looking up.

"Hmm?"

"It's been five years. I can't imagine you'd just come back from being dead all of a sudden for no reason," Cassani explained, shaking his head and sounding almost as if he wanted to apologize for prying. "So how—what did Shepard do?"

It wasn't exactly something Emiya was trying to hide, so he shrugged and answered vaguely.

"We met on Torfan. I was trying to keep the Alliance operation from becoming a complete catastrophe and she somehow found me." Chuckling, he added, "She tried to kill me at first."

"Oh," Cassani said, looking up at Emiya then nodded once more before returning his gaze to the elevator doors, brows furrowed as muzak continued playing. Then, as if remembering something, he looked up again. "Can I keep this?" Cassani asked holding the chunk of eezo still in his lap.

Emiya shrugged. He had half-intended to dispel it if Miranda tried to run off with it, but seeing as how she had lost all interest in it, he didn't particularly care what happened to the chunk.

"Sure."

The rest of the way down was quiet, a definite contrast to the apparent girl talk Shepard was managing. Somehow she had managed to become fast friends with Liara in the space of the few minutes they had had, which wasn't all that surprising given her apparent affinity with all the asari on Torfan. Miranda in contrast seemed to be brooding, offering very little to the conversation the two others were having.

Of course, that had been during the elevator ride down. As soon as they stepped out and into the immigration and customs booths, things had bogged down.

Given the sheer amount of traffic to and from Arcturus Station, it seemed that the checkpoints for entering the station ring were located in the ring itself, allowing for the central hub—where space was at a much greater premium and where it was easiest to dock starships—to remain undigested by the constant flow of people and goods. Depending on where you wanted to go and what your business was, you would be guided to the specific sections of the ring.

Liara as it turned out, did not have any kind of visa or visitation papers in order and the station personnel were debating whether or not to take the asari in for questioning, or even into holding. It wasn't as if aliens simply came as tourists to visit humanity, given the considerable starliner fares involved in the long trip. Hmm, she was a bit of a hothead, but did she really jump on the first starliner to Arcturus, through the Citadel from Thessia?

He had half-expected the asari to come with everything ready, considering who her mother was. But looking through, he found nothing. Following the discussion remotely and ignoring Cassani who was intently studying the projected eezo, Emiya frowned at what he was hearing.

She definitely came for the Mars ruins, but how does she expect them to let her there? She won't even be able to buy a ticket to Sol at this rate... The Maiden did not even have a doctorate or title to rely on to get her foot in the door. Did she really leave without graduating? I thought she was already nearly done with everything? How did she even expect to get inside the Mars facility?

"It's hard to believe they're related," Emiya muttered as he crossed his arms.

"Who?"

"Nothing, just talking to myself," he said and Cassani nodded hesitantly.

Somehow it felt like she had left everything behind. Had Baliya's death affected her that greatly? What about Tyra, then? Sure they had only been roommates, but given everything that had happened since and what he had learned about Ardat Yakshi, he had half-expected the two to remain together to support each other. Did Tyra stay behind?

He considered looking her up for a moment but then shook his head. He could just ask Liara about it if it came up.

Whatever the asari was planning, he certainly was curious enough to accommodate her. The flick of a mental switch, a few changes in databases here and there and presto, suddenly Liara's stay in the Systems Alliance territories had been greenlit.

The elevator came to a stop and the doors opened, allowing Emiya to take in the view.

They were on the inner side—or top of, depending on your point of view again—of the spinning doughnut-shaped station. Great windows lined the reception area beyond rows and rows of seats and the booths living the far wall, giving a perfect view of the great ring's insides; the torus' outer edge below lush and sparkling with plantlife and man's works, curving upwards and out of sight further into the rest of the ring, with the expansive and breathtaking vista of the darkness of space and the great, blindingly bright mirror hanging far above like the manmade-facsimile of the Sun it was. In-between, numerous small crafts flew along, people moving along their daily rituals and schedules, wholly uncaring of the great wonder they lived in.

Heaven and Earth as one, floating along in the nothingness of space.

Emiya swallowed again, somehow feeling overwhelmed again. The amount of work and skill and time and everything imaginable necessary for something like this hitting home again. He couldn't understand why it was so much more potent than what he had seen before. Certainly, the Citadel and the mass relays hadn't been built by any still-extant species—probably—but hadn't he seen similar works by the asari?

It couldn't just be because it had been made by humans. Certainly, his Structural Analysis did not work completely with alien crafts and works, but it still told him enough and he could intellectually understand how much went into such things. Or was it the same distance as work as had made him originally dismiss Arcturus Station until he had seen it for himself? He didn't quite understand what it was, but it seemed like he should focus on that. Understand why his reactions had differed so greatly when seeing the real thing.

Shaking off his wonder, for now, he moved to follow after Cassani who had entered one of the booths.

Or rather, holding cells. Locking the doors into the rest of the station and back from where you had come, it ensured that everyone coming and going was properly screened. Reaching out with his cybernetics, he halfheartedly followed as Cassani presented his identity to the Virtual Intelligence receptionist. No human beings were actually physically manning the immigration and customs booths here, as Virtual Intelligences handled the routine.

Everything was of course being monitored from afar; he could trace down the security camera feeds down to a facility down in the station ring that coordinated and overlooked all of the numerous elevators between the central docking stations and the station ring. He could also tell that Alliance Intelligence was also monitoring them, but didn't think much of it. The previously mobilized marines and operatives had been recalled long since and he couldn't find anything else at works at the moment.

They were just looking.

Which would probably bring a lot of attention to his company. Shepard had already signed up for it, of course, but what of Cassani? Liara was another case again, but seeing as how he had already reached out on her behalf it only seemed proper he see it through. And finally Miranda...

He almost snorted. Well, it wasn't really his problem.

Cassani passed through the booth, the door in front of him opening up and allowing him access to the rest of the station. Shepard and the rest were still there, apparently waiting on them.

Stepping into the booth, the door behind him closed and boxed him in. It was just large enough not to be claustrophobic, but only just. Polished and clean surfaces, not quite hard and utilitarian lines, but a touch of some futuristic artstyle he could not name, hinting at opulence. In front of him, there was a flat-screen with the human avatar of the Virtual Intelligence appeared. Not quite on the Citadel's level there, he thought, vaguely remembering the holographic projections in use there and on Thessia for similar functions.

"Welcome to Arcturus Station, please present your identification to the scanner below," the VI spoke, not quite managing to sound human despite its best effort, skirting the uncanny valley.

"I don't have any," Emiya replied.

That wasn't true, he could just scrounge up the fake identitag he had made on the Citadel and it would probably pass inspection by a VI. Or he could just force his way through with his spirit hacking. But Alliance Intelligence was watching. And they had made a deal. Now he wanted to see how they would interpret it.

Would they intervene and let him pass to avoid getting in his way?

Or would they instead allow him to get tangled up here like a normal person would, in the name of not getting in his way.

He wanted to know how they would approach this new relationship and see how they reacted. He knew they were watching and were aware, and they should know that he knew that they were watching, so it was also something of a powerplay. Would they admit that they had been trying to keep tabs on him and give up that last vestige of power? Because if they thought they could watch and plot with impunity, then that would just lead to more headaches in the future.

"Please present your identification to the scanner below," the VI repeated. "Failure to do so will result in Arcturus Station Customs and Immigration personnel being notified of your failure to comply."

Emiya shrugged. "Alright."

"Please hold, station personnel are being notified. Thank you for your patience, now connecting you to the local office."

The VI vanished from the screen and was replaced by a man in a simple uniform. Not Alliance military, but still official-looking. The man's eyes looked off-screen for just a second before he cleared his throat.

"Welcome to Arcturus Station, sir. You appear to not have any identification, is that correct?"

Emiya nodded, crossing his arms and looking at the flustered man with more than a little amusement.

It was obvious the man had no idea who he was, but that someone was pressuring him off-screen to deal with it from the way his eyes flickered above the screen every few seconds. Or at least to play along. Emiya hadn't noticed any AIA messages, so it had probably been an actual messenger, now standing by and instructing the man quietly.

"Normally we don't allow anyone on station without at least a valid identitag, but..." A slight hesitation, as eyes looked up again. Emiya thought he could just see the silhouette of someone reflected in those eyes, doing a frantic 'cut it' hand-signal across their throat. Frowning and clearing his throat, he continued. "But, uh, I can make you a temporary visitation visa, if that would work?"

"That'd be great, thanks." Emiya nodded, smirking at the man who did not seem to know who he should be answering to; Emiya or whoever was in his office just out of sight.

"Right, uh, okay. I'll, uh, get it done right away. Enjoy your stay on Arcturus Station, sir."

The booth doors opened and Emiya nodded, walking on through. He did feel a little bit bad for bullying someone just doing their job, but he suspected he would be receiving a bonus sometime soon. And knowing that the AIA would grease things for him was good to know. That they preferred avoiding any trouble with him, if at all possible for the time being, gave him a means of predicting their future actions.

On the other side, Shepard and the rest of the group were still waiting. None had left, somewhat surprisingly. But that was Shepard for you, he supposed.

"What took you?" Shepard asked, more curious than worried. At least whatever annoyance or aggrievance he had previously caused didn't seem to be a problem anymore.

He shrugged, glancing at Cassani who was standing beside her, staying away from Miranda. Looks like I don't have to worry about him, then. Finally, there was Liara.

"Must just be something with customs and immigration today, huh?"

The asari's eyes narrowed and then there was a spark of realization. But she said nothing, refusing to acknowledge that she had been found out. Or alternatively, that she might owe him something. Not that he was going to let this stone lie unturned. Now that she was here and heading for Mars to continue what he had started five years ago, he might as well sponsor her directly to cut through all the red tape.

Alliance brass would probably think Liara showing up when she had would just be another of his machinations by the time they realized what he was going to help her with.

"So, lunch?"


;


Liara had to fight back from scowling. It wouldn't do to display hostility, not when she was so alone and defenseless now. The stranger in an even stranger land; the outsider among this group of humans.

"Any suggestion, Franco?"

The asari demurely glanced at the redhead as she asked that of the other seated human. It was slightly strange seeing humans like this; their female sex appeared even more like the asari than their males did. Or at least, she thought she could differentiate between the males and the females. It was too early to tell.

She had always felt that she was an outsider, even among her own people. Her mother was a very powerful individual and the expectations placed on her had always been weighing on her, even though she wanted nothing to do with that life. It had been part of why she had struck out on her own and decided to study what she had, and where.

But that was completely different from this.

Humans everywhere, so alien and terrifying. Looking at her. Whispering and pointing. No one approaching her or talking to her, but always aware of her. She had thought that Saiga—Emiya, Emil, Redhax, whoever he was—had been difficult when they had first met on Thessia through Tyra. But somehow she was realizing she preferred the man's casual and blunt mannerisms to humanity in general. At least so far.

"There are a few restaurants, but, I think we might have some trouble getting in. Usually, you need a reservation slot..." the man in the wheelchair replied.

Liara decided that he had to be a man, given how similar his voice and body were to Saiga's—Emiya's, and how much shorter and neater his fur was. It was a strange inversion; the turian males had longer crests than their females did, with the asari cartilage-crest being usually somewhere in between.

It was a small observation, but one she felt was a solid first step towards getting used to interacting with humans.

She hadn't felt so alone ever before. Even back when she had been the odd asari out in a crowd, or when she had spent months on her solo dig-sites on Dretirop, it hadn't quite felt so difficult. It was something about how humans stared at her. She couldn't quite figure out what they thought and what they wanted.

So far Shepard has seemed very interested in her, but Liara hadn't known what to say or how to react to the human. The elevator ride had been incredibly tense but at least the human hadn't yet been offended by anything she did. And then after all the difficulty she had had with getting through immigration — knowing she hadn't secured any kind of visa or permit before arriving, it had only grown worse as the redhead kept insistently inquiring as to what had happened, to which Liara honestly had had no real answers.

Not until he had rejoined and made it obvious to her, anyhow.

Liara didn't know how long he had stayed on Thessia but she was fairly certain that he had been manipulating records and databases and computers and who knew what, to enable his continued and unnoticed stay in Serrice. So it was obvious that he could simply wave his hands and make all of her problems disappear if wanted to.

Well, most of them anyhow.

"What do you think, Liara? Anything specific you'd like to try? I assume you're pretty new to human grub," Shepard asked as the humans had continued to converse, interrupting Liara's thoughts.

Flustered and confused, she made to reply but managed only to bite her tongue. What is grub? It doesn't sound very safe. Oh no, is there some ritual before eating? Flushing a deep purple she looked away. Even the notorious hacker and doom slash savior of Thessia couldn't possibly help her overcome her social anxiety.

Even if Shepard didn't seem particularly bad.

The other woman—Miranda—was worrying, though; they might have shared an animosity for a certain troublesome man due to past dealings, but she couldn't help but feel there was something off about the dark-haired woman. Like she was holding herself back, plotting and judging them all, measuring how to best use and discard them for her own benefit. Or perhaps that was just Emiya's wariness affecting Liara. So far the woman hadn't done anything, content to stand quietly and listlessly by the side.

"Well, okay, if you're fine with anything, then." Shepard shrugged. "I've never had anything outside the officer's club at Alliance HQ... You have any recommendations, Franco?"

"Ah well, you usually need a reservation ahead of time. I do have a standing reservation at one place for the rest of the week, but it's just for a table of just two... " The man in the wheelchair explained, trailing off.

"A reservation?" Liara asked quietly.

"This isn't like on a planet, or a moon, or even like the Citadel. Owning a business on Arcturus Station is quite expensive," the raven-haired woman answered. "And in high demand. Most places are booked full, with catering to nearby businesses besides." She shrugged, running a hand through her hair as she closed her eyes. "That, or they're privately owned, serving only at their owner's whims. Not the kind of place one simply waltzes into, unannounced."

Liara blinked, hesitating in her gratitude. The woman hadn't spoken a word for a long while now and the asari couldn't help but feel trepidatious. Not even noticing her or her hesitation, Miranda looked to Emiya instead with a slight curl of her lips and a raised brow: an expression Liara couldn't quite comprehend or decipher.

"The rent on a place here must be quite something," Emiya observed.

The raven-haired woman scoffed disdainfully. "You do not rent anything on Arcturus Station. You either own it, or you are owned."

"...I see," he hesitated in answering, Liara noticed.

"Still," Miranda began. "It is not as if everyone who owns anything lives here all the time. Surely there must be someplace left empty while the owners are away, behind lock and code." Saying that she turned to eye Emiya suggestively. "Of course, I'm sure that wouldn't exactly be a problem for you..."

The white-haired man scoffed, hiding his amusement. "So in the end, it's all up to me then?"

Miranda had been challenging him, Liara realized. Egging him on.

"You're gonna cook again?" Shepard asked, her voice rising in volume, alarming the asari. Was something wrong? Was cooking somehow bad? Liara couldn't deny the hint of excitement she felt at the prospect of Emiya's cooking again. For all his faults, an inability to prepare succulent food was not one of them.

But Emiya only raised his arms in a relaxed shrug, deflating the red-haired woman's—and Liara's—burgeoning excitement. "Breaking in and taking over a kitchen, huh? Sorry, I'm afraid even I have some manners and will have to pass on that."

Liara knew she was missing some context, recognizing the joking tone of his voice. But Shepard apparently did, nervous—or perhaps apprehensive—as she exhaled loudly and rolled her eyes as salarians did when they felt worried. Should she, too, be worried? She wasn't quite sure what the social standing of this woman and the other seated human was, but she was assuming that they were of a higher status than the others were as Emiya's behavior towards them was noticeably more polite and respectful than it was towards the standing woman, or herself for that matter.

Were their seats some form of ceremonial palanquin, denoting their higher standing? She hadn't heard anything about this before... Liara glanced at the white-haired man, noting how deferential he appeared towards them; or rather, as deferential as someone as brusque as he could be. The change in his body language since they had last seen on Thessia was shocking. If it weren't for the fact that she couldn't understand the other three humans at all, she might have suspected that she had only gotten better at reading humans. Meaning there had to be some reason for the drastic change in the white-haired man's body language, some greater meaning to telling her that these two were different.

She would have to be careful not to antagonize either.

"How about we walk around? If we find someplace that looks good I can check if they've got enough room for us? I'm sure I can get us in, thanks to our new friends," he suggested then, gesturing with his open palm, making Liara realize he wasn't talking about anyone present but rather someone he had met earlier.

"Oh, you think they'll do that?" Shepard asked, challenging him as she crossed her arms and leaned back to look at him down the length of her nose, in that way he did quite often as well.

He chuckled, shrugging easily again.

Liara was beginning to realize that this wasn't really a strict relationship and that Emiya wasn't beholden to either of them, rather he was simply relaxed and joking around. His calm manner and crooked smile were putting some of the actions of the others into context, but Liara still felt very hesitant to speak up and take part in the conversation herself. That and he did seem to be brooding a lot, the meaning of which she couldn't place yet in the conversations.

"That sounds alright to me. Franco?" Shepard said, mirroring Emiya's expression and mannerism again, as Liara subconsciously did so minutely as well as she tagged the motions in her mind.

"Sure, that sounds alright. If we can get in, I mean."

The last member of their group: the raven-haired woman, blinked as she realized they were all staring at her now. Then, she nodded and smiled without showing teeth, shaking her head slightly.

"Alright, that settles it. Let's go... This way?" Shepard said and took the lead with her wheelchair.


;


Emiya held back the scowl as they continued looking.

They had piled into an auto-shuttle to cab them around since they had two wheelchair-bound among them. But the more they looked around the more obvious it became it wouldn't be so easy to find a place for a quick bite. Not without earlier reservation anyhow. Just as Miranda had said.

Four places they had found and four places had been packed to the gills with customers who had made early reservations. It wasn't even just about getting through the door, as the amount of food prepared was carefully calculated and a group of their size simply hadn't been factored in in any of the places they had checked out. In fact, he could find a caloric table where each customer's dietary needs had been carefully laid out in most of the places he looked through, with exact measurements for how much of what they should eat and with comparisons to how much they usually did eat. Fitting in five more people at this point wouldn't be so easy.

It had already been half an hour since they had started looking around and since then they had explored a full third of the station ring for a place with little to show for it.

But that wasn't what really bothered him.

There's no working or lower class here.

Gleaming villas and tall spires of alloy and crystal, beautiful vistas of carefully groomed and arranged parks, efficient and careful design that lay just beneath the surface and telling of just how much thought had been put into this place. It had all blinded him at first, to the simple fact that this wasn't something new as far as humanity went.

Not really.

He could still remember the first thing he saw as he opened his eyes for the first time in this new body, years back on Earth. Back then he had awoken collapsed next to refuse and surrounded by poverty and disrepair, looking into the distance where seemingly boundless riches and luxury were on full display. Here there was no such dissonance; there was no working or lower, or even middle class here, as the wonders of automation and Virtual Intelligences had removed the last dregs of even the service industry in this society. It was obvious now, looking at all the prices of the places they had gone over. The restaurants and culinary establishments here were all top of the line; five stars experiences par excellence, the kind where the chefs bordered on artists in their craft, rather than being mere cooks.

Certainly, not all jobs could be handled by machines as maintenance and oversight still required a human touch. But those people were few and far between, and so the layout of Arcturus Station reflected that. There were no casual diners, no fast-food restaurants, no lunch buffets, and no street food culture. To live on the station meant that you could just afford to have whatever you wanted shipped in, or simply hire a personal chef to do it for you, and thus eating out had to become something special to compensate for that gap.

It wasn't like the Citadel, staffed by the strange Keepers—a mystery all their own—or expansive beyond any right, so large that it could easily fit the richest of at least half a dozen worlds in just the Presidium ring, leaving plenty of room for even the bottom feeders of society to move in, creating a more recognizable world.

What had he thought of this place as mere hours before?

The new throne from which humanity could rule the galaxy before they had stumbled upon other sapient life? That had turned out to have been a more apt description than he had realized at first. This was the walled garden where only the chosen ones may reside. Nothing had changed since his time alive.

No, that wasn't quite right. He had changed. He had distanced himself from people these past few years; it was obvious now that he had been confronted by Shepard and all that had followed. Predictions and mental models turning out wrong as he interacted in person with people. If his opinion of Arcturus Station could shift so many times, simply based on his resolution of observation...

What else had he missed all these years by relying solely on his newfound hacking prowess?

"Hey, stop brooding. I'm hungry, too," Shepard said as she playfully hit his shoulder.

Emiya glanced at her, expression going neutral, objection at her characterization of his having been 'brooding' just on his lips. But he scoffed instead, biting back the complaint. Instead, he said: "I did find something."

"Oh?" She sounded surprised. "Some super-secret place you found through your super hacking skills?"

He wasn't sure if she was asking that seriously or in jest, but he nodded regardless. There were two places with the capacity to take them in: one a quarter, and another two-and-a-half quarters of the ring away from where they were right now. Still, they weren't expected and using Alliance Intelligence to bully some chefs into letting them in didn't seem quite right. That kind of drama could shake up a professional's confidence completely, so unless he felt they were in need of a lesson, it was a method he loathed to use. Or rather, something he reserved for special occasions. Instead, he thought of another place he had found.

These people all knew him—more or less—and surely expected something spectacular. Well, he had never been one for being predictable.

Lips quirking into a small smirk, he looked at Shepard. "Something like that... I doubt most people even know about it on the station, much less could get in."

"Alright!" She fist-pumped.

Taking Shepard's excitability as his cue, he took over the shuttle's autopilot to re-route it toward the place he had found. Five minutes and two normally-closed access doors that he hacked later, the rest of the group was starting to grow slightly apprehensive as they followed him.

Coming to a stop in what looked like a break room, he turned around. "Here we are."

"Uh... And where is here?"

"This looks like the break room of station personnel. I think." Cassani was of course right. The closest thing this place had to a middle class was the Alliance personnel, all of them commissioned officers and career military. His eyes came to rest on the machines lining the far wall. "...Is that a vending machine?"

"A cup noodle vending machine." Emiya nodded.

Shepard groaned. "This is the best you could find?"

Emiya didn't deign that with a reply, instead mentally forking over the necessary credits to one of the machines which promptly began to heat up and prepare a cupful of hot noodles for him. Food was food, as far as he was concerned, even if he did prefer to usually eat something healthier. Still, there was something about junk food and carbs that couldn't be understated.

Especially in a place as tightly regulated and segregated as this.

"You can't be serious," she tried again, seeing his expression and looking at the others for support.

Cassani didn't seem too bothered and Liara seemed even a little intrigued, leaving only Miranda as her ally. The two women shared a look with one another before turning to him as one, eerily synchronized. But he didn't let it bother him, instead reaching out for his steaming hot cup and chopsticks.

Ignoring them, he took to trying the noodles with a loud slurp, almost reveling in the look of disgust that crossed their faces, well aware of how the act was seen outside of Japan. But noodles were meant to be slurped and that was that.

"Hmm..."

A lot better than he had expected. He had half-expected to find the noodles made out of some modern-day replacement, or some base component of the ingredients having been changed due to health or cost reasons. But the texture of the noodles, the smell of the broth, the tang of monosodium glutamate... It was all there; so incredibly familiar and nostalgic in all its junk food glory.

This was an unexpectedly good find, he would have to look up the company supplying the station vending machines. Satisfied, he went for one of the empty tables and sat down.

Noticing the stares, he looked up and nodded. "What? Never used a vending machine before?"

"No, just... Noodles? Really?" Shepard asked, glancing at the others as she rubbed the back of her neck. "Noodles are kind-off, how do I put this..."

"Gauche."

They both looked at Miranda, who shook her hair and crossed her arms challengingly, and while Shepard had no idea what the word meant she nodded at the tone of voice. "Yeah, that."

Emiya shrugged, not particularly caring with most of his good mood having well and evaporated by now. Though he did note that some of Miranda's spunk had returned. Or rather, her instinctive reaction had reverted her to a more unguarded state.

Not that he had had any particular intention to cheer her up, or anything. Rather, he should focus on splitting this group up as soon as possible. Individually, none of them were a problem, and apart he could keep on eye on them. Shepard and Cassani would stay here, Liara was undoubtedly heading for Mars and Miranda... Well, he had already warned Cassani, and he could warn Shepard over the comms.

So.

"Liara, eat up. We're heading to Sol as soon as I've found a starship and we're not eating until we're there."

That got everyone's attention, especially Liara's.

"O-oh." She bore a conflicted expression, at the same time aware that she had no means of her own at the moment and a rather tight budget, but also less than thrilled about getting pulled along again. After a few seconds, the asari nodded and hesitantly approached one of the machines, mirroring his earlier actions with some confusion until she realized she needed to pay with the omnitool first.

"You're leaving already? What about..." Shepard paused as she looked at the others.

"There are some things I have to take care of that way, as I said before. No point in wasting time." Turning to look at Shepard, he exhaled. "Besides, this was mostly about you, wasn't it? I don't have any real business here."

"I guess not," she said after a moment. "You're heading to the moon immediately, then?"

"The moon? You're leaving for Luna?" Cassani perked up, still not having taken anything from any of the vendors. "There aren't any starliners heading that way for another two days, that I know."

Emiya nodded, glancing down at his now empty cup. "I was thinking I could buy a starship." He could take another cup since he would probably be looking around for a ride to buy for a while. "Something small and fast. There are a few used models on sale within the Arcturus system."

"I hope this will not be a repeat of Serrice," Liara whispered quietly, as she received her steaming hot cup from the vendor. "Yet somehow I suspect it will."

Seeing Shepard's interested expression, Emiya preempted the question.

"She and her roommate were with me when the STG and the Spectres showed up to siege my apartment. It was a complete mess." Emiya chuckled before he remembered something that had utterly slipped his mind. "Speaking of, what of Tyra?"

Tyra's condition had originally triggered some kind of seizure, which he hadn't had enough time to look into in any great detail at the time, having figured that his physical body's adverse reaction was simply an inconvenience. But now with his run-in with Henell and seeing what could happen, he felt a certain unease for the girl. There was no reason to assume she was in any more danger than she had been since he had left, being at no greater risk of being Indoctrination than anyone else at this time.

But still, keeping tabs on the asari might be wise.

"You did not know?" Liara looked up, quite astonished by his question. "She was taken away by the Justicar due to..." Glancing at the gathered humans listening in, she prevaricated. "Her condition. She will not be free to leave for at least a decade, or so I was told before I made for the Citadel." Whatever memory had been brought back to mind, it darkened the asari's expression as she turned to her cup again, saying no more.

Judging by Liara's reaction, it seemed like Tyra was fine. That went with what Benezia had hinted at; that it was a well-known and hidden condition, something that asari as a whole took great pains to hide and handle in private.

Something to look into later, given what could happen if a number of asari on the Ardat Yakshi spectrum were to become Indoctrinated.

"So you were with Emiya on Thessia? What was that like?" Shepard asked, finding an opening and not recognizing the asari's sullen state. "And who's Tyra? You met a Justicar, too? I thought they were pretty rare."

Somewhat taken aback by the blunt questions and unflinching gaze, Liara flushed under the redhead's gaze. "I, that is, well..."

Cassani took this moment to clear his throat, getting Emiya's attention back from Shepard and Liara. "If you are headed for Luna, perhaps I could be of help. I was just here for a meeting and now I'm headed back to Armstrong."

"You have your own starship?" Emiya asked. While he could buy one on a whim, that by no means meant that it was something just anyone could afford.

"It's on a 6-month lease through my work," Cassani answered, shaking his head. "But it's a fast ship and the fuel has already been paid by my company. If you are headed that way, then..."

"Hmm? Really?" Emiya considered it. "Alright. Just don't be surprised if Alliance Intelligence comes asking questions later."

The man in the wheelchair hesitated only for a second before he nodded. "We can leave as soon as you want." There was only the slightest tick that clued Emiya in on the man's nerves, as Emiya nodded. He wasn't in a hurry yet, since he had to figure out what to do with Miranda first.

Next to them, the woman in question sat down with a cup of coffee, abstaining entirely from the noodles. "You're going back to Luna?" she asked, posing languidly by resting one elbow on the break room's table. Cassani hesitated and looked to Emiya.

She's fishing for information. Question was, would she want to come along or stay here to report making contact with him? Can I afford to let her out of my sight? If she did report to the STG about his presence here, would they come charging in and demanding the Alliance hand him over. But on the other hand, if she was transmitting information back somehow, did he want to bring her along? Going to the moon to check up on the combat VI research program wasn't actually all that important, especially if he already had a better lead on tracking down Cerberus in the form of Miranda, so he could just forego it.

But Liara was heading for Mars and he still needed to visit the Moon Cell.

"You're headed back to Armstrong? I'm surprised you have a place there, considering the last time," Emiya said, probing in turn. The Cerberus facilities should have been raided and completely uprooted that time, but five years was a long time.

"Nothing quite like when you last visited, but..." There was a pause, as she considered something. A slight glimmer beneath those blue pools as her brows furrowed. "But there are a few places you might be interested in seeing." Did she figure out he was looking for Cerberus just by this much? "If nothing else, there are a few places with good food. Better than this anyhow," she said finally with a sniff as she glared at the empty cups and sipped at her coffee.

Emiya hummed in thought.

It wasn't really a problem as long as she didn't realize he was specifically looking for The Illusive Man. In fact, laying himself out as bait along with the eezo they had shown interest in might even draw the man out. Though he would have to drop by the Moon Cell first.

Turning to Cassani to see what the man thought of that. It was his ship they were talking about—or on his lease, anyhow. There was a healthy glint of wariness in the man's eyes, but he nodded nonetheless after a second. Speaking in a tone that betrayed none of his feelings, he said: "That's no problem."

"So you're just leaving me behind to deal with the mess you made?" Shepard asked, crossing her arms as she stared, giving Liara a well-deserved break from the interrogation.

"Call me if you need anything," he answered without bothering to look at her, a smirk tugging at his lips. She scoffed and shook her head, before going back to pestering Liara. He ignored the asari's attempt at surreptitiously requesting relief from Shepard with no small amusement. It was good for young asari to get in over their heads every once in a while.

Satisfied that he had secured a ride back to the moon and was keeping Shepard out of yet another mess, Emiya began to pull back the various queries regarding buying used starships he had put out. No point in leaving a trail. Maybe he could take another look later, but for now, they could leave as soon as Liara was done eating, so—A tightbeamed request for medical assistance to the center of Arcturus Station caught Emiya's interest. An accident, a hull breach of some kind, numerous wounded and exposed to vacuum.

Interestingly, or perhaps annoyingly, there wasn't anything else on the other end for him to reach for. Just the tightbeam comm unit, suggesting that it wasn't a starship or station with any kind of central mainframe. But, there were people in danger and he was just sitting around, so...

Emiya leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes as if to take a short nap and then slumped.

Tightbeam jumps still worried him, but when it came to saving people that was simply a calculated risk he was willing to take. Besides, this wasn't that far off, just a few light minutes out from the station itself. Barely anything from his point of view. Opening his eyes as he popped out of the comm unit, astralized and invisible, he took in his surroundings.

Rough walls—or floor and ceiling?—with no real sense of up or down. Blaring lights, debris, and people floating around, but no sound.

Huh, vacuum. Right.

It took him another second to realize that he was inside an asteroid, surrounded by miners. Hollowers? Space miners? Shaking his head, he located the breach. One of the walls had collapsed and the pressurized insides seemed to have been sucked out. There were at least four who were already dead from exposure and two who were bleeding, but they were already receiving first aid with some medigel. That didn't seem to be what was causing the people here to panic, as there were at least four still lingering around the breach, pointing outwards and flailing around, probably shouting to each other. Weird that my cybernetics aren't picking it up. Some older generation of comms, or walkie talkies?

He would have to be mindful of that. The advantage high tech could give you could be negated by going sufficiently low-tech if you weren't careful.

Moving up behind them, past the rows of prefab buildings bolted onto the inside walls of the asteroid, he looked out into the abyss and peered. It took him a few seconds to spot what had happened. At least seven people were flying away at a steady pace through the void, without any means of propulsion to slow down or reversing their course. They must have been caught in the out-stream of air and were now floating off from the asteroid.

There wasn't a starship parked around, either, he noted. Probably a waste to keep a starship parked around while you're hollowing out an asteroid for valuable minerals. It was hard to say if there were any starships nearby capable of picking the stragglers off, given that he didn't know how much air they had. Only have four seconds left. Better jump back and then act on my turn.

Opening his eyes and noticing that none of them were looking at him. Inhaling, he closed his eyes and jumped back through the tightbeam onto the asteroid.

There was no point in overthinking the problem since they were still all in his range. Materializing next to the asteroid miners staring out into the vacuum of space, he ignored their gawking and projected his bow. Inhaling slowly—completely ignoring the fact that there was no air even with his projected helmet hiding his features—he lined up the bow and eyed the seven people still floating away at a constant velocity.

Seven arrows, he decided. No need for fletchings; replace it with something to attach a long wire to instead. Piercing through their hardsuits would kill them through exposure, so switch heads to man-catcher heads with openings just large enough to permit a limb.

No gravity or air resistance; direct line of fire. Arrows will actually fly straight for once, he reminded himself and let loose the first arrow. Then another and another, when he was certain the first would hit. It took a mere second for all seven arrows to be loosed, so he dispelled the bow and minded the seven loops of thin wire around his right arm. They were offering just enough resistance as they spooled out behind the arrows that the projectiles were slowing down; if they hit the miners too hard it would damage them, non-lethal heads or not, but if they were too slow the arrows wouldn't catch up.

As the first man-catcher latched onto a limb, Emiya smirked and began to tighten his grip around that particular wire to slow the man down. Then the second, third, and fourth. As he had all of them, he began to slow down the spooling wires. It wouldn't do to bring them to a sudden stop. It was like fishing; if you jerked the fish too hard, the line would snap and the fish would escape, he supposed. Or rather than a line snapping, one of their limbs would break. So he allowed the spooled wires to slow them down relatively easily while he kept one foot locked onto the asteroid to keep himself from being pulled out by their greater combined mass.

"Right, that does it," he said and began to pull them back. He had about three seconds left on his clock.

Turning around to the nearest gawking miner, he handed him the wires. He had already given them enough of a tug to reverse their acceleration, but bringing them back in gently enough that they didn't splatter against the asteroid would take too long. No point in sticking around. Giving the rest of the miners a jaunty wave, he waved them a two-finger salute and astralized, jumping back to Arcturus Station.

"Hmm. So that's where they were," Emiya said as he opened his eyes. Noticing Cassani's curious look, he shrugged. "The working class, that is. I didn't know they lived on hollowed-out asteroids."

"What?" The man looked confused for a second by the non-sequitur, only having a vague understanding of what Emiya was talking about, before nodding hesitantly as if understanding something. "The... working class?"

Hmm, could it be that those terms have fallen out of use? It seemed like a strange idea, given how familiar so much of everything seemed despite the obvious technological advances. A sign of the divide, perhaps.

"Right, spacers? It's different than on Earth. Getting off-world is expensive unless you're joining the Alliance or get scouted by one of the larger corporations..." Cassani glanced at Miranda quickly, before looking away. "Either you own a way off-world, or you are owned off-world." He looked down to his lap, interlacing his fingers and clutching at something invisible there.

The Systems Alliance had an effective monopoly on spaceflight since the First Contact War, but they wouldn't be able to populate planets on their own... So some corporations would have had to step in to fill that gap. Which explained their omnipresence on Arcturus Station.

"Sometimes it seems like the divide between the top and bottom just keeps growing every day..."

"Doesn't seem like much has changed there," Emiya muttered in reply.

He wasn't sure what to think about that. This stark divide.

This was why he kept himself out of economics and matters on the large-scale as much as possible. Things tended to get muddied up and lose their nuance, erasing the space within which justice could exist. The exact reason why Justicars were suborned to their local governments.

Which was why he had kept his head well and clear of such things until there was an obvious evil to cut down. But right now...

Didn't he have the means to handle such problems without resorting to violence?

Emiya grimaced at this line of thought.

It was one thing to act to stop something in progress and something completely different to act to prevent something before it had even happened. Hadn't he placed that limitation on himself for that exact reason? A hero of justice only saved people after the disaster had already begun. Especially when it came to human beings. Else, if he simply sought to prevent all tragedies by means most efficient, all he would be doing would be killing people before they had even done anything.

A fact he had to bear in mind right now more than ever before as he held the System Alliance in the palm of his hand.

Besides, what had changed? Walled neighborhoods and highly stratified societies had existed nearly as long as civilization itself had. The more wealth there was to be had the greater that gap would become, as those with more could continue to accrue more and more, while those without would remain left behind. The Pareto principle working at exponential rates of growth inevitably led to that wealth disparity.

Which, in turn, led to discontent and desperation.

Or rather a 'reversion' to an earlier mode of existence. To something more basic and primal. Instinctive, even. Civilization only worked so long as it worked. The moment it was no longer in the apparent interests of enough people and conditions grew intolerable, there would be nothing holding people back from becoming as beasts once more; the charade ending, the curtain coming to a close equalling to an atavistic call from somewhere far beneath and beyond the rational to destroy everything and begin anew. It was akin to a constant in the universe. Trees grew great and blotted out the sun from everything else beneath them until finally a fire would burn away and all that would remain would be ash for new growths. Matter gathered into few places until they began to burn under their own pressing mass, expanding, pulsating, cooling and finally collapsing into singularities than then in turn depleted back into disparate parts.

A continuous cycle. Life and death.

Of course, predation in the wild and predation in civilization bore little resemblance at first glance. Killing and devouring someone was usually a messier affair than just robbing someone, after all.

But it was the same in his eyes; profiting through the deprivation of others.

In that sense, the more desperate people were the more likely they were to commit injustices of every kind. That much had been obvious to him since long ago as he had traveled the world. The greater the catastrophe and the harsher a tribulation, the more likely people were to wrong one another. If the nominal rules for how to advance and better your lot in life obviously weren't true, then just as obviously there was no reason to follow such norms. Why work hard when it would never surmount to even a fraction of another's results? Especially if that truth was continually flaunted in your face.

Gleaming spires and beautiful mansions with squalid slums and wretched poverty at their base, barely a stone's toss away.

Hand-wrought worlds in the void with barely-habitable rocks spinning far and away, out of sight and out of mind.

He could neither judge nor praise either. Was it better to separate them so? Was it better for there to be a gulf of billions of kilometers of the nothingness in-between, than for those walled gardens to be right next door?

Emiya couldn't help but think back to Thessia again as he shook his head at his thoughts.

The Matriarchs of Thessia had all those advantages and more, allowing them to endlessly gather wealth while barring all others from their world making it impossible for any other race to directly compete with them. It had taken an unforeseeable disaster on the scale of endangering nearly all life on Thessia for that scale to be tipped back into the other side's favor. And even then, only for a while.

He almost hesitated to think it, but large-scale violent upheavals—which this distance made more difficult—might well be a natural process for civilizations. A release valve of internal pressures, allowing tensions to reset while reaping and spreading the bounties of the now-deposed and oft-decapitated wealthy. The late Bronze Age and Egypt's Old Kingdom's collapses, the fall of west and east Rome, Britain, the French Revolution, the Russian Empire and the subsequent Soviet Union, and the countless countless kingdoms in-between that had been forgotten and lost to time... How much had been lost and how much had been gained with each attempt?

Humanity's history was one of rise and of collapse as they progressed towards... something.

Perhaps civilizations themselves were becoming more adept at preventing those collapses. Like a memetic gestalt lifeform of its own; the logos itself learning and adapting, slowly becoming more capable and skilled at staving off its own destruction, learning the many ways in which it could come to pass and resisting. 'People don't have ideas. Ideas have people.' Or however it went.

In that same sense, wasn't he trying to bring something dead back to life?

Emiya shook his head again. Enough. This was why he didn't want to think about these things and tried to keep himself to simpler definitions of justice. It was so much simpler to save seven astrominers from being spaced than it was to ensure that they had a fair and just chance at life.

"You're brooding again," Shepard complained at him and he rolled his eyes at her. She was right, but that didn't mean that she had to point it out. "I figured you'd act a little different, given it was a reunion, but apparently you never change."

She said that half in jest, scoffing at him as if she was exasperated, but he didn't react knowing that if he tried to explain himself it would only get her more worked up.

So instead, he coolly shrugged and went to get more noodles from the vending machine, hoping the salt and fat and carbohydrates would wash away his funk. It reminded him of simpler times, back when he would keep a serving or two of dry noodles in his pack and eat it after whatever disaster he had been in the middle of had blown over. He couldn't really remember why he used to carry such things with him, but it had probably something to do with his youth. It seemed like the thing he would have had to eat as a kid, given the level of cooking ability among his family back then.

"Was that why you enlisted back then?" Cassani asked suddenly and Emiya had to frown, trying to decipher his meaning and brought back from his musings. At least I wasn't brooding, he thought.

Thinking back, he shrugged and said, "Something like that."

Cassani eyed him intently, but then accepted the non-answer with a silent nod. Miranda was listening intently but quietly by the side. For now, she was simply going to tag along and observe him.

"Emiya had Mars in his sights from the start," Shepard chimed in. "Right?"

Liara made a small sound, slight enough that only Emiya recognized it as the polite request for a chance to speak, one that none of the others noticed or understood. Meeting her eyes, he raised a brow to say, Go on.

"The original Prothean cache that humanity discovered was on Mars. Was that not you told me?" Liara asked and when he nodded, she continued. "I had hoped to investigate that second ruin, the one where you claimed to have found the relic." Miranda and Cassani perked up at one of those words. "The relic, which, as so it happens, vanished without a trace."

Emiya tilted his head at that, meeting her accusing stare evenly.

Had he dispelled the projection? That hadn't been his intention, but with the falling orbital station, Rho Aias, and his damaged spiritual core, that could have easily happened. Combined with Baliya's death and Tyra being whisked away by the Justicars, it was little wonder Liara had left Thessia behind. If the only remaining lead on the mystery of the Prothean 7th age was on Mars he doubted even Benezia would have been able to stop Liara. Well, what's done is done.

"Well, it must have been lost during your run-in with the Spectre. Anyhow, as far as the ruins go... You won't find it. It's connected to the one that was found earlier, but I doubt they would even let you in. Much less start looking for it."

She broke eye-contact, displeasure obvious to not just him. "I had assumed as much, given the response I had received earlier when I queried into the matter."

He nodded. "Alright. Would you like to see it?"

Miranda and Cassani almost jumped out of their seats as one before realizing what they had done and sharing a wary glance with one another. A whole conversation seemed to occur between them in the space of a second, but it was Shepard who demanded Emiya's attention following the question.

"Wait, wait. You're going to the Mars ruins?" Shepard asked indignantly. "The same one you were going to last time?" Seeing his nonplussed stare she threw up her hands. "Well... screw staying behind then. I'm coming along!"

Emiya blinked and almost retorted about the Alliance Intelligence and Systems Alliance, before opting to keep his mouth shut instead. Well, there goes the plan of splitting everyone up. Glancing at Cassani, who blinked and realized that he was being stared at—as if having forgotten that it was his ship again—before nodding solemnly. That was that, then.

Emiya shrugged. "Alright, I guess we're all heading to Mars then." Everyone rose up, turning towards the door almost as one, causing Emiya to blink. "What, no one else wants more noodles?"

Seeing their stares, he sighed. Guess not.

Well, he could always order noodles some other time now that he had the supplier's name down.


;


Shepard glanced at the back of the raven-haired woman who was sashaying in the middle of the group, obviously keeping herself constantly apace at Emiya's blindspot—not that such tricks would work on him, Shepard thought with a scoff—as they entered Franco's rental.

It wasn't such a clear-cut relationship as she had originally figured, after all.

If she wasn't certain that Emiya quite enjoyed the woman's company, Shepard would be pretty sure that they were enemies. Of course, Emiya hadn't appeared to realize the fact that he didn't dislike the woman, either. It somewhat reminded Shepard of how he had been back in basic with her. Not the specific actions he took or words he used, but the way he positioned himself adversarially, yet without hostility, in relation to her.

It was another niggling piece of the puzzle that made up the friend she had made so long ago.

Still, that was only what Emiya thought.

It was plain to see that a lot had happened between them, just as a lot had happened between herself and Emiya. But where Shepard thought her life had taken a generally positive upswing following their friendship, she wasn't so sure the same could be said for how Miranda perceived her encounters with the man.

Because while Emiya appeared to quite like the woman, Franco was completely on edge around her, despite the fact that he had been waiting for her to arrive. What could possibly worry him—a former N7 combat specialist—so? Suddenly dealing with the entirety of the Systems Alliance didn't seem like such a pressing matter any longer,

Besides...

The Mars ruins Emiya had joined the Alliance Navy to see. The one reason which had led to their meeting and which had then propelled him to turn on his back to everything he had done, overturning and confounding pretty much the entire solar system in the process.

What was it he had found there?

She had to see it.

Would seeing it for herself allow her to put every piece in place in the puzzle? Probably not. But even so, she had a presentiment that this was something important like it had been a turning point for him which.

"We have clearance for take-off," Emiya announced suddenly and Franco appeared confused for a moment before he nodded in understanding.

She had seen him do his "hands-free" trick several times by now so it didn't surprise her any longer, but she had expected more of a reaction from Franco. Emiya must have told him while they had been separated, she figured.

"Right, I'll..."

But the starship was already starting up despite there being no one at the helm. The only one who appeared the least bit surprised was Liara, who was looking between them with wide, unblinking eyes.

"We'll full burn the whole way. No point in waiting around."

Cassani eyed Emiya before turning to Shepard, who could only shrug.

"Umm, I do not presume to know how such things are handled among humans, but among asari I believe that this would not be taken lightly..."

Liara was right, of course.

Flying at full burn meant being pretty reckless; it wasn't like the emptiness between various star systems where there were no speed limits. Flight plans had to be announced and transmitted, such that any nearby flight control could verify your point of origin and your starting burn because the moment you entered superluminal speeds, any means of tracking a ship in realtime became sketchy at best.

Something that always left people rather nervous.

As far as she knew, most of the approved flight plans involved as much utilization of gravity wells for slingshotting to minimize fuel consumption and avoiding the heliospheric current sheet, as they did making sure that there was nothing the ship could hit, even if it wanted to. Once you hit a certain velocity, there was only so much you could "turn" within the confines of a mere star system when moving at faster-than-light speeds. Of course, with mass effect technology, making a turn wasn't that difficult, even without dropping out of FTL. But that meant losing out on kinetic energy, and more importantly, momentum. The trick to turning a starship into an impromptu anti-planet warhead lay in maintaining FTL while slowly scaling back on the mass effect lightening field and raising the ship's mass. The reason disruptor torpedos and other kinetic barrier breakers were so slow was precisely because they needed to maximize their mass to punch through kinetic barrier and armor.

A very small starship at full speed and at minimal mass might not even penetrate through the atmosphere of a planet due to its buoyancy; it would be like throwing a helium balloon into a swimming pool.

The trick was to get enough distance to build sufficient kinetic energy, getting as close to normal mass as possible, and then slamming the eezo core's full output into the kinetic barriers and raising mass the moment you reached your target. Much of the theory was the same as with disruptor torpedos; when trying to break them, a planet's atmosphere and a dreadnought's kinetic barrier weren't all that different.

This was something she had been drilled in as a part of N7. Both the basics of starship combat and how to theoretically utilize any spacefaring vessel as an improvised missile. Now, in theory, again, the kinds of hard targets something like that could actually hit were limited to extremely large—and also usually habitable and full of civilians—targets, meaning it was the kind of stuff that you weren't really supposed to do. The best way to get on the rest of the galaxy's shitlist was to orbital bombard a habitation.

So it was good that all of it had been under the guise of how to prevent such occurrences, right? It seemed like skirting the line with what the Citadel considered good conventions was something of a habit for the Systems Alliance if she had understood the talk of AI right earlier.

As far as she knew, those protocols had been re-worked and tightened up immensely a few years ago, following Emiya's last trip to Mars. And now, following Thessia tensions would undoubtedly be running high. She hoped he knew what the hell he was doing.

"Hmm."

Emiya grunted neutrally, only furthering the asari's confusion.

Shepard cleared her throat and spoke. "Are you just messing with, uh, them, again?"

To her, it seemed like he was testing his boundaries. Seeing how far they would let him go and how they reacted to his antics. That sort of thing.

"Something like that," he answered without looking, attention entirely elsewhere. "Also, we're approaching the relay now. Four minutes until the approach run." Turning towards Cassani he flashed a smirk. "We're burning a lot more fuel than the specs suggest we should. Rather interesting, no?"

"...It's a company firmware prototype," the seated man admitted, looking away.

Emiya grunted approvingly, eyes returning to look at nothing—and everything, Shepard supposed.

"It's shaved off nearly a minute from the flight plan. I'm impressed."

"Yes, well... Would you like to sit down? There's a lounge near the cockpit, just up ahead..."

They following after Cassani, eyeing each other and Emiya, who despite his reticence and far-off attention, had no trouble navigating after them.

As they approached the mass relay, Shepard inhaled slowly. This was it; if the Systems Alliance wanted to turn on Emiya, this was the single best chance they had. A starship in FTL was next to impossible to find, much less destroy. But any vessel exiting a relay jump would be stuck and completely vulnerable the moment it exited the jump.

Gripping the wheelchair, she repeated the earlier thought.

I hope you know what you're doing, Emiya...


;


Emiya inhaled and tried to relax.

The starship popped back into normal speeds, some two light-years short of the relay as he overrode the standard jump protocols, and immediately he activated the tightbeam communicator. There was a considerable loss of charge in the galactic relay system due to the shortened jump, but in return, he hadn't been parked right beside the Charon Relay.

Statistically, it was the most dangerous place to be as far as intentional attacks went, as over half of all ship-to-ship engagements were launched at ships just coming through. Emiya had decided not to chance it, but just to observe how he would be welcomed at the edge of the solar system from a distance first. Within the confines of Arcturus System, the Systems Alliance's control was water-tight, but much of the FTL communications were routed back to Earth, making it impossible to screen all and find out who was saying what.

So if someone did want to take this chance to remove him from the picture or to tag him for observation, that would be the moment to do it. So, he was quite curious to see who was in place to do such a thing and just who would be looking on, something which he would find out within a handful of seconds once the tightbeamed contact request to the Charon Relay went through. Because based on what he had found on Arcturus Station, there were at least half a dozen apparently independent parties who had an interest in his arrival by now.

Well, it was just another layer he had to pay attention to now.

Keeping the transponder shut off he accelerated while still unnoticed—and would remain so for at least a year, perhaps even two, depending on how far out the most distant observation satellites were—as he approached the Charon Relay at a snail's pace, more merely floating forward than actually trying to fly closer. His initial plan had been to in one jump simply drop back on the radar just outside of Mars and then head to the ruins directly to avoid any hassle. But that would mean foregoing the chance to figure out who was waiting on him by Charon.

And since he couldn't go to Charon in-person to figure it out, he had to think of something else.

He could have taken the slow way in and flown under the starship's own power and observing what had been going on by the relay. So long as he remained in FTL, he would remain completely invisible, right? Well, that wasn't actually true at all. Rather, no one would have time to react as he would be arriving before the information—the light reflecting off of this starship—did. But just as it would take a year or two for the light reflecting off of his starship to reach the Sol system, so too would it take far too long for any information to reach him from there.

So in effect, he would have to fly to Charon, regardless, if he wanted to see who had been there and waste half a day in the process.

It was so much simpler back when I could just take a skycar and fly it without worrying about who was watching... he grumbled to himself. That was how he had made it from Mars to the Moon the last time he had been here.

But there was a snag now, in that something had obviously improved since.

His jaunt through the Systems Alliance files back on Arcturus Station had been pretty clear on how much beefier security was now. The routes along which travel was permitted were much stricter and any vessel discovered outside these interplanetary roads would become of immediate interest. And even if he remained in FTL, that wouldn't keep him hidden, as there were hundreds—if not thousands—of small satellites and observation vessels, all equipped with FTL tightbeam communications, ensuring that any observations would be immediately forwarded.

Even if they couldn't see him coming, if they were told he was on his way and on which heading, that wouldn't really matter.

And by the looks of it, there wasn't just one such system in place, either. It wouldn't be enough that he hacked the Systems Alliance's Solar System Flight Control Station if another, independent system could just pass the same information on along another, unnoticed vector.

Still, it wasn't as if they were the only ones who had learned new tricks since five years ago.

Unlike the bulky starship, the tightbeam communicator used a laser combined with a mass lightening field tunnel. With its base mass being minimal, light could easily reach such velocities as to all-but instantly reach the mass relay despite the 2 light-year distance. But not quite as instantly as the tightbeam connection of someone right next to the relay.

Thus as the massively faster-than-light tightbeam communicator made contact with the Charon Relay, he hastened to override its blacklisting of his connection based on the propagation time. It had been programmed to ignore any requests coming from beyond a certain distance during the handshake; for a variety of reasons, Emiya suspected, as for there to be a net gain in charge from relay jumps to dump into the system he had discovered, the jumping vessel would have to be relatively close and if everyone could bombard the relay with requests from any distance it would be a very simple matter to orchestrate a distributed denial-of-service attack and effectively shut it down. But it wasn't very difficult to 'convince' the thing to make an exception for him now that he had made contact.

As far as the Charon Relay was concerned, he was no just another regular starship requesting for a jump.

More than that, he could now use its communicators and short-range sensors to identify every starship that was in the vicinity and then contact them, in turn, to identify their transponder details all while still remaining so far beyond any sensor's range that it would be impossible to detect him.

Five seconds having now passed and with a list of everyone waiting for him to arrive by Charon Relay—or just waiting to use the relay—he gave it another request and it immediately obliged. At a much more considerable charge deficit than his earlier aborted jump, he noted.

"You might want to secure yourself, it might get a little bit rough," Emiya said as he strapped himself in as he ignored their questions.

He was pretty sure this would work, but it sure as hell wouldn't be a comfortable ride.

In the far distance, the Charon Relay began powering up again despite no starship having prepared for a jump to Arcturus from its end just then.

Normally in a jump, two relays worked together: one pitched the starship forward while the other caught it, slowing it down gently and absorbing the excess electrical charge before it could do any damage to the vessel or its crew. It was pretty much exactly how in biotiball two biotics would make a pass, sans the static charge, to avoid another player intercepting the ball in flight. So just like a skilled asari player could intercept and re-direct a thrown ball at a distance, without even physically touching it, couldn't a mass relay do the same to a starship?

The starship shuddered as Emiya's manual handling of the relay caught it from still very nearly 2 light-years away, its awesome power rendering the distance moot.

It was like an arm reached out from the massive and ancient construct through the blackness of space, wrapping its tendrils around the hull and pulling it back towards the relay. Kinetic barriers are holding, he thought as he shut off everything else on the starship, plunging even the room he was sitting in into darkness, feeding the freed output into the kinetic barriers.

He was fairly certain he heard a shriek, but he ignored it as they passed by the relay, still accelerating as the 'arm' began to extend again. Now, here comes the hard part... he thought as they passed Saturn at speeds impossible to reach without the mass relays. The 'arm' changed and became akin to a tendril, or a bungee cord, slowing down the starship and raising its mass. But it didn't last: the ad hoc method with which he was making all of this happen far too imprecise, only possible because of the sheer overwhelming overkill of the eezo core and base hardware. The equivalent of a hundred thousand normal jumps' charge worth had already been lost to make this happen, as the tendril he had been riding snapped like a wet noodle and released the starship.

The starship shuddered again and Emiya noted several 'small' impacts against the kinetic barrier—the shunting effect of the relay jump beginning to disappear due to the unusual way of the relay being operated, fading with every thousand kilometers they traveled. Another two seconds passed and then he exhaled, restarting the non-essential systems he had been holding back.

As the lights came on, Emiya opened his eyes and finished his exhale of the breath he had taken in another star system.

"W-what was that?" Liara asked looking around. Shepard and Cassani, too, appeared confused. Only Miranda was intently staring at Emiya, their eyes meeting as he gave her a shrug.

Everyone looked a little frazzled, so he smiled and routed one of the cameras to a screen in the room.

"Welcome to Mars."

All in all, the trip from the Sol Relay in Arcturus system hadn't taken more than a single breath.


;


Sorry for the long wait, but well... The times have been waaaay too interesting. 2020 is a fucking hoot and I haven't wanted to miss a thing. Also, funny thing, I wrote that section with Emiya musing about civilizations inevitably collapsing like a month before, well, current events. Or actually, not funny. Precipitous and ominous? Hmm...

As usual, too many breaks also really cut into my productivity. I've spent more time looking over my notes and trying to figure out where I was going than actually writing, only to get interrupted again forcing me to start over again, and as a result, it ended up being a lot more info-dumpy than I'd prefer. But well, progress is progress, I hope. I'd have preferred some more character interactions, but in my mind none of the actors wanted to play along, being far too skittish and closed off for anything more to really occur yet, which is annoying.

Also, random stuff I've had to deal with: built a (tiny) sauna, repaired a car, a motorboat, a scooter, moved to a new apartment, sold half of my possessions to get rid of all the junk, had an ATV accident(was actually pretty fascinating, especially the part where standing up would cause so much pain that my vision would vanish, that "seeing stars" thing. Also, can confirm there is a "rushing river"-like noise that follows your head turning and is really confusing) and then I've been reading and playing a lot of VR. I'm pretty proud to say that I have managed to beat "Fit Beat" on Expert+ in Beat Saber. Now I just want to get back in shape so that I can record myself doing it :S