Hi folks!

Just a quick re-upload with a refreshed introduction of myself, my writing style, and my approach to the story and interacting with you all for the newcomers. ^_^

So to break the ice for anyone who might be annoyed by this: I want to involve all of my readers in the creativity of my writing this as much as possible. It makes the process more enjoyable for me and presents me with ideas and thoughts that I might not have otherwise had.
And if you are inclined to like that, then you might very well enjoy it to.
So that equates to my Review reply section that I start with atop of every chapter. Naturally, if you are new to the story, then none of that will be relevant to you for your interest until you reach the latest chapter. Because I don't have a sweeping plan for the story, I just have a rough direction and I plot it chapter by chapter.

If you are not inclined to like or want to be a part of that process – I understand, and I won't fault you for that.
But I would request that you spare my authors notes a glance in each new chapter, at the very least.

I aim to improve with my writing, but that being said, I do not spare editing much effort at all. But if you review with an issue, rest assured, I will try to address it.
But in exchange, I would please request, that if you have a criticism, that you also include a positive in your review.

My update schedule: Ideally, by my own standards, I'd update it every 7-10 days. Buuuut with COVID restrictions almost gone where I live, work is demanding a lot more attention again, and I need to work my gluteus off to get clients back. So I may not meet that ideal schedule so strictly.

My story direction: As I said above, I have no concrete plan for a load of plot points. I want the war to feel harsher, harder, grittier, than what canon shows it to be. There will be integral characters who die. And the end goal of the story will be to be the end of the Reaper threat – I think that's a given…
But how we get there will evolve from update to update.

Characters and perspectives: It will likely become obvious fairly quickly for any new readers that my writing focus is on John and Miranda. They respectively make up around two thirds of the story. And my writing style is what I'd refer to as a floating third person perspective.
We see the world around the character somewhat third person, but I also include their emotive experience within that perspective.
I want to evolve each character I work on, beyond what we get from them in their respective canon sources.
I'm building John to bit by bit become more social and more personable.
I'm building Miranda to bit by bit confront the issues that give her the personality flaws that she has and become more heroic in her own right.
I've introduced Shepard, in many ways, as a fish out of water. He's a Marine who was accustomed to rigid lines of authority and systems of hierarchy, and now must adjust and adapt to a different kind of leadership and social environment.
On the topic of Shepard… His perspective, in my story, is less necessarily about Shepard's perspective, and more about it being a window into a series of events occurring elsewhere. From Chapter 13 onwards, I've discontinued it as "Shepard's POV" and resumed it more broadly as "Normandy's POV," which may mean that it shifts from one crew members experience to the next in various events.

Enemies: This one should be fairly obvious – The Reapers/Collectors, Cerberus, and the Geth.
My story is a tilt shift away from canon – Cerberus is more… Capable… or sensible, in how they approach certain circumstances. Social and company perspectives come into play here and there. Which will tie in to their effectiveness. When you get to a certain point about their resistance to UNSC weapons, bear with it, there's an explanation.
The Reapers, Collectors, and Geth, are essentially depicted the same as in canon. To the extent of their damage resistance at least. I might be depicting them with a little more tactical sensibility.

Technology and techno-babble: So I'm going to try to keep techno-babble to a minimum and include it only where needed. Some love it, some hate it, so I'll try to strike the balance somewhere in the middle. But I generally consider (tactically) UNSC/Halo weaponry and ships to be superior to ME's, mostly due to more explainable physics.
You'll find I touch on that somewhat in Chapter 11.

Story scale: I've had some readers asking if I'll provide this story like a story as a service. Haha kinda like a game as a service. But no, that is not the goal. I do want to have this reach a point of completion. And by Chapter 12, I consider that to be the end of "Book 1" if you will call it that… It is the correct size, perhaps a little bigger than an average novel.
I'm thinking I'll be able to complete this story by Chapter 26-30. Somewhere in there. Which should see this story conclude at something around 700k words.
I'm hoping I'll be at that point by mid-2021.

Contacting me: I welcome your thoughts. Be that in a review or message. So don't be shy, say hi, say what you think, say what you want. There hasn't been a single message, even ones asking for smut, which I haven't replied to with a positive attitude.

Audax Novus

Chapter One

:: Origins: Unconfirmed ::

His heavy brow was set firmly in a frown. His vibrant blue eyes were deliberately looking at nothing as he solely focused on his thoughts, his pain. A steady glare held control over his facial features. His lips, once full and stress-free at a much earlier age, were taught with dismay. Skin that was once smooth and unmarred was wrinkled and scarred, cheeks sunken with stress and sadness.

John wasn't the picture of a man that any mother would want for her son; if they could but see beneath the layers of gel suit and armour.

The thought very briefly made him wonder about his mother; his birth mother. Not Catherine Halsey. Not that he held anything against Halsey for what had happened to him and his adoptive brothers and sisters. He was sure that he'd have been melted into the slag of a Covenant bombardment on one of the many human worlds lost if not for his timely abduction.

A ping sounded through his helmet speakers, rousing his attention from his wandering thoughts and to the environment beyond the tech-infused hardened glass of his golden visor. There wasn't much to see, as he'd expected, he was floating aimlessly amidst a cloud of debris.

He blinked his left eye in two rapid successions, and the microsensors responded appropriately by bringing a display of his suit's systems across the visor. 'Good.' He thought to himself, seeing that everything was in perfect condition. Clashing with the Didact, falling through a nuclear explosion and the portal hadn't compromised the integrity of his armour.

Again the ping sounded. John blinked both of his eyes in exaggerated rapid succession again, and his suit readout vanished, replaced by his communications system. A radio signal was pinging his frequency, seemingly in an attempt to make contact.

John frowned at the oddity, temporarily pushing his upset at the very recent loss of Cortana from his mind. He couldn't fathom why any UNSC vessel would need to ping his frequency as a handshake for communication, especially when they knew he'd been in combat aboard the Mantles Approach.

Out of habit, he sent a frequency ping back to whoever was trying to handshake him.

The result was instantaneous; a distinctly female voice spoke through his helmet speakers. "You have entered Omega space. If your flight suit is not disabled please either dock at the main port or vacate your location. You are in a freight zone."

John's left eyebrow rose in surprise and curiosity as his right stayed in a confused frown. He pulled the facts he was aware of together quickly. Omega was a word typically used within UNSC military call signs and code names, but he was not aware of any space station above or around Earth named as such. Someone clearly had eyes on him to ascertain that he was in some kind of suit. But most concerning of all, being told as a warning that he was in a freight zone.

The last he'd known above Earth, all freight zones had been abandoned and suspended in the wake of the Didacts attack. The woman who'd spoken to him was clearly not UNSC, and clearly not privy to his very recent conflict.

Both of his eyebrows climbed his forehead as his eyes widened. His mind was jumping to a conclusion; 'I fell into the slip space portal.'

"This is Sierra 117, my suit's thrusters have insufficient capacity to carry me to dock."

A moment of tense silence tempted John to nudge a tiny burst from his thrusters to bring him slowly around. The sight of the massive, sprawling space station built into a rock revealed itself to him, and he instantly drew comparisons to High Charity. The thoughts of High Charity quickly vanished as he realised that this station was barely a fraction of the Covenants former mobile home world, and was built and designed without any of the elegance that the Covenant strove for.

"Sierra 117, a shuttle is on the way to collect you. You're lucky that Shepard's with Aria right now."

The answer only made John wonder more. To him, it almost sounded like code. Aria was the individual or group who commanded the station or its ship logistics, and the statement that he was lucky about this 'Shepard' being present implied that Aria didn't much care for the safety of anyone around the station and that Shepard did.

John couldn't help but wonder if it was code or just coincidental names. The chances of someone called "Shepard" bringing him into safety were incredibly small; given his history.

"Acknowledged," He replied meagrely into his mic.

His HUD shifted into a new setting, and the hundreds of tiny service shuttles and vessels buzzing around the station lit up in green. Several other frigate classified vessels highlighted in white with an overlay of their trajectory heading away or to what was the busiest port, and several larger freight vessels moving in his general direction from the station highlighted red.

It barely took a minute for one of the greenlit shuttles to veer away from the station and zip in his direction. As it drew within a hundred meters of him, he peered closely at it, trying to draw comparisons to anything he knew. He came up blank. The vessel, thankfully, didn't look Covenant or Forerunner remotely, and it did have an oddly Human design to it with its blocky shape, despite it being so incredibly different to anything he knew in the UNSC.

He sidelined his thoughts on what faction he was dealing with when the side hatch slid back on the blocky structure, and a woman in a form-fitting red and white suit with a full head helmet stood ready to dive out. Her visor was a sleek, thin strip of glass directly over her eyes, leaving John guessing if the suit and its accompanying helmet were simply enviro suit or body armour.

The woman gently dove from the safe confines of her craft and within moments was within reaching distance of John. He instantly drew the comparison that she was within the normal human build, which was small compared to his large frame.

"You're a big guy, aren't ya?" She mused with a joking tone over an open com channel.

John didn't react. He didn't know how.

Sensing his lack of interest in her comment; she reached out and grabbed hold of his outreached right hand. Satisfied with her grip, she gave the tether attached to her hip a tug, and it started reeling them both back toward the open transport bay of the shuttle.

"Where am I?" John asked suddenly, noting the total lack of insignia on the woman's suit.

She angled her helmet to be looking into his visor and cocked her head slightly to her left. She was confused by his confusion.

"Omega," She repeated the name he'd heard earlier, as though it were obvious.

John instantly questioned himself if it should be obvious, and he could find no reason for it to be. He distantly remembered one of his earliest missions being an infiltrate and snatch and grab mission in an Insurrectionist asteroid base called The Rubble. Still, he was one hundred per cent confident that the Rubble had not evolved into being this "Omega."

And of the many, many, many, asteroid based munition stores and probe bays that the UNSC had, he was sure that none of them was remotely like this.

"Am I in UNSC, space?" John queried as they entered the confines of the shuttle and the door slid shut behind them, but not before the subtle inertia of their acceleration made him brace against the ceiling as the crafts artificial gravity kicked in.

Again, the woman cocked her head at him. "UNSC space? What's that?"

John was silent and stood statue-still. His eyes darted back and forward in thought as he strung information together to conclude where he was, and how this person didn't know what the UNSC was. His brow knit and his lips pursed for a moment of concern, and he fought that urge to show signs of aggression.

He opened his mouth, then closed it, then opened and closed it again as he tried to work the best way to answer her return question. After a minute of his internal dilemma, he noticed her hands on her hips and her helmeted head cocked in query.

"United Nations Space Command, currently in martial control of the United Earth Government."

"Ohhhh!" She sounded and raised her left wrist. An orange hologram spun to life around it, and the towering Spartan fought the urge to prepare for a fight. The fingers of her right hand pressed against the hologram as though it were hard, and a small display came to life. "Never heard it called either of those names…" She muttered while tapping at her glowing device. "Don't know much about Humans, to be honest. Just know about Earth, First contact war and Shepard." She finished with alacrity, looking up into his faceplate without noticing his tiny step back in concern.

His eyes snapped to the woman in front of him from analysing her hard light device, 'Does that mean she isn't Human?'

John very subtly shook his head at the thought, 'How else could she speak English, if she wasn't Human?'

He justified to himself, hoping that she truly was Human. 'What else could she be? We don't know any species that physically resemble Humans so much, besides the Forerunners, and they're long gone.'

"Hey, are you alright?"

John's vision refocused on her.

"How did you get out here, if you don't know where here is?"

'I don't know,' The super soldier immediately answered in his head, but his mouth moved before his conscious mind could understand, "Slip-Space."

"Slip space?" The woman repeated dumbly, more in thought to herself than an actual question. "Some kind of drug or booze?" She continued after a moment of clear thinking. "You got a little too drunk, and a buddy tossed you out here as a joke?"

The rescuers attempt at trying to understand what Slip Space was only served to concern John further.

"Are you Human?"

Again, the female figure struck a 'what?' pose; "Of course not."

John stiffened at her nonchalant answer, barely registering that she was already continuing.

"I mean, I shouldn't say it like that, there are plenty of Human's on Omega these days. But no, I'm still true to my blue." She finished with a short chortle of laughter, a joke that went above and beyond him.

The behemoth's eyes narrowed at her. He was passed the point of incredulity and was now merely trying to make heads and tails of the facts around him. This woman was an Alien, point and fact. She spoke English, fluently. She was confused by his confusion. She was familiar with Humans, even making what seemed to be some kind of joke that he didn't get regarding colour. She had no clue what Slip Space was.

His mind was diving from one thought, one answer, to the next. Vain attempts at understanding this strange place he found himself. The Galaxy was big, huge, unimaginably vast; and Human space confined itself to around half of the Orion Spur. For him to being told in such a nonchalant fashion that he was a long way from Human space with such familiarity was an impossibility.

"Do you have star charts?" He sought; a hard edge in his voice.

She laughed again, this time much more openly. Not seeing him reply in any kind of way to suggest that it had been some kind of follow up joke about how drunk he must've been to get out here, and finally noticing the stance he'd subtly assumed, ready to uncoil, her laughter died in her throat, and she quickly shook her head. "I don't keep any on my omni-tool." She gestured to the glowing hard light device. "Look…" She implored slowly, opening both palms and raising them to the giant, "I'm not your enemy. So far, I like Humans! The First Contact war was all the Turians. For that matter, I don't even like the Council, so take it easy… Please?"

Years of indiscriminate warring against aliens fought to control the Spartans muscles and send his fists forward faster than this individual could hope to avoid and take the life from it. But he resisted, narrowing his eyes further and readied to ask more simple pointed questions.

"-Docking, doors are opening in a second!" The pilot's voice cut off the alien woman's immediate answer.

True to the pilot's word, the same doors that he'd been fished from space through mere minutes earlier opened to a thrum of a busy civilian docking bay. John instinctively looked out toward the bustling harbour, his hand carefully hovering over the Magnum clamped onto the top of his right quad guard out of habit toward unknowns, and aliens.

Upon a moment of further observation, John corrected his opinion of the docks being civilian. They were thrumming and humming with civilian traffic, Humans in a range of different styled clothing, dresses, skirts, pants, cloaks, armour. Blue skinned women with cuttlefish-like growths on their scalps similarly garbed, Human-sized and shaped aliens who looked like a hybrid of bird and crustation in their version of the same clothes. Large hump-backed reptilian creatures, slender and small amphibian looking bipeds with fleshy horn-like growths on their heads, and gnarly skinned demonic-looking aliens, sticking in small groups.

All of them seemed to be here on their own private agendas. Some collected fruits, meats, and other consumables from crates that were being unloaded from freight ships and bartering with the crew.

The crews also of mixed species, but distinctly different in their state of being more heavily armed, and with logos stamped on shoulders or painted on skin and armour.

"This is a pirate station?" John asked the woman still standing beside him in the open shuttle.

She stepped forward and made a slow, deliberate show of removing her helmet, revealing ocean blue skin with sky blue eyes peering curiously at him. The same cuttlefish like scalp growths that the blue female aliens beyond the shuttle had were likewise on her head, obviously a feature of her species.

"No." She pursed her plump lips at the definite she'd spewed. "Well, not exactly." Her slender nose crinkled in fleeting frustration as she finished.

John did his best to ignore the fact that she was an alien and simply paid attention to her. She'd not shown him even the most remote sign of hostility, and he genuinely seemed the Alien here. Wherever… Whenever here was.

"Aria-" She paused and gestured up and down her own body, "One of my kind, is the leader. I guess the most accurate description of Omega would be calling it a criminally organised government which enables criminal and mercenary factions to do business here. If those factions get out of line, Aria and her men bring them back into line. Civilians are allowed to live here as they would anywhere else, but crime is definitely worse than anywhere else."

John thought on the description, and the righteous part of him wanted to draw issue with the principled part of it, but he had to admit that it was essentially the same foundation that most civilisations came from. That's where the more rational part of his mind took that down a notch and remembered that generally applied to bronze-age species, not advanced space flight ones.

"Look," The blue woman started again. "You're obviously a Human, like no human I've ever seen with your size, but Human. If you are from a different- Faction? All I can do is take you to Aria and see what she thinks could be best for you."

John settled his hand over the grip of his Magnum, while his left now hovered over the Covenant plasma rifle on his left quad.

She held up her hands in a submissive wave. "Woo-woo-woo, I get that you're probably military too. Special forces or something, right?"

John made no verbal response but gave the smallest inclination of his head possible.

"I used to be military too, so I know how it is with the whole being principled thing, but Aria isn't a criminal." She very noticeably cringed at her choice of words. "Well, she is, but not like you'd think. She keeps the entire terminus systems in check, and relatively safe… Compared to what they'd be without her."

John didn't like the sound of a crime lord distributing justice, but he released a tense breath inside his helmet and released his grip on his pistol. "Okay."

"Okay." She reflected back, taking a quick step out of the shuttle and onto the grubby concrete of the port, "Follow me."

The Spartan quickly fell into step behind the woman. He took a moment to increase the magnetism of his suits clamping mechanisms; fixing all of his weapons, ammunition and grenades to his person tight enough to dissuade any theft or attempt thereof.

Many greedy eyes went his way from the native creatures irrespective of his daunting hulking mass that towered over even the largest of the aliens present.

"If you can take care of yourself, Omega isn't actually such a bad place to live." The blue woman leading him began to explain, clearly trying to make small talk to alleviate any tension.

John was sure that any tension that there was between them was entirely single sided. He was long accustomed to silences. His anxiety lay entirely in becoming submerged within a crowd of unknown aliens who his first introduction to had described as generally criminal.

"I mean, you get here, you either get a job with one of the crime gangs which keeps you pretty safe, and there are plenty of great apartment blocks, or you just get an honest to eezo job and know how to defend your own personal space and make a decent scrape." She gestured to an Asian man and a teenage girl who would appear to be his daughter behind a steaming trolley next to the doorway they were heading toward.

"That's Mister Chang and his girl, they run Tokyo Grub and Grill. You'd be amazed by how well they do setting-up here every day, but you can't let him know that some of us Asari know there's a difference between Chinese and Japanese." She laughed again and looked over her shoulder at the impossibly silent giant moving behind her.

John was indeed impressed with the docking bay. Not militaristically or logistically, but culturally. It was a marvel; a melting pot of alien and human cultures –the human ones being a footnote amongst the other- where the shores met the new lands. He ignored the grinding unease running through his blood of the thought of Humans living so comfortably with any Aliens. He'd spent the better part of his life in a genocidal war against an Alien Empire.

They came to a halt at the door next to the Chinese man and his trolley outfitted with a grill and bench. A green holographic interface spun in response to a hand gesture, and the door slid open with a hiss of pressure. A moment later and the hustle and bustle of the docks were behind them, replaced by the background hum of machines and electronic ads.

"My name's Theia, by the way, what's yours?"

"Master Chief Petty Officer 117," John replied on instinct and habit.

They came to another door and quickly passed through, instantly revealing to John that the docks and the hallway they'd just traversed were drilled through the exterior of the asteroid and that this internal space was a wholly mined out complex.

"Isn't that a rank?" Theia questioned, interrupting John's gaze wandering around the distant ceiling and the numerous clusters of towers, and the flying cars zipping through the air in barely coordinated madness.

"Yes." Came his flat reply.

"Definitely special forces then," Theia confirmed to herself, not looking back at him as she continued onward past a new type of alien preaching the end of days toward a large building with flashing lights and advertised dancers with the name AFTERLIFE imposed over and entryway.


"Aren't you cryptic." She shot back quickly.

John could understand her frustration. Obviously, she was a social person, and he assumed that most the people on this station were, to an extent, and he was clearly a new element in her world. Her curiosity was peaked, and he was taking the cap off that peak without even trying.

"The other soldiers in your unit as social as you?" She joked.

John genuinely thought about his response as they slowed for the doors to AfterLife to slowly open to a neon-lit beyond. "Yes. A few were more."

Theia laughed again and smiled as she gestured for him to enter through the next door with her. "I suppose you don't take sarcasm so well, do you?"

His shoulder rose and fell a few centimetres in response. He supposed she was right in that observation. He'd had practically no experience with civilians or civilians who'd been soldiers for that matter, or the same vice versa.

Theia nodded to a platform suspended above a living dancefloor. "Aria is up there!" She shouted over the roar of the music and the crowd.

"This way!"

Again, John followed her, but this time from her side. They traversed around the edge of the room toward a staircase that followed the wall upwards.

He took note absently of the complete comfort of the aliens and humans mingling together; of the blue-skinned alien women and other human women in scant outfits on platforms gyrating above the crowd.

He felt as though he'd just stepped into a totally different kind of cultural melting pot than even the one he'd come from beyond the external doors.

"Aria is hundreds of years old, and she is the queen and ruler of Omega," Theia said as quietly as she could to him as the neared the top of the stairs. John made no gestures or sounds of understanding, so she continued, "Don't upset her in any way."

John figured that advice made sense, so answered with a subtle nod just before one of the armoured and armed hump-backed reptilian aliens stepped in front of the pair.

"No one past this point!" He growled in a deep guttural tone.

"We need to speak with Aria!" Theia cried angrily and jabbed a finger toward the booth turned platform not far beyond the bouncer.

"Aria has had enough annoyances today, get lost!"

Theia's eyes shot wide as in an instant the circumstances of her life were threatened. The Krogan made to shove her back with what would have been something between a punch to the gut and a shove, but his fist never made contact.

John's hand blocked the strike with impossible speed and strength, stopping the Krogan's fist dead.

A part of Theia was ecstatic that she had been saved from a moment of pain and humiliation, but the rest of her was much more afraid of being in any kind of scrape with Aria's men and then being executed.

She had zero control of the situation now, the Krogan's eyes went wide in surprise and rage, and a guttural roar erupted from him as he moved to send his right fist into the anomalous helmet, which Theia only now just realised stood comfortably taller than the Krogan.

John's twofold defence and offence was sickeningly swift and effective. In the instant that the Krogan sent his right fist towards his helmeted head, he tightened his grip on the aliens left fist that he still held in defence of Theia. As he tightened his grip, he viciously twisted his own wrist with the result of an audible snap of bone before the Krogan had any chance to react to what would have been crippling pain John's right fist impacted the side of his temple from a lightning-fast jab.

Theia felt sickened seeing and hearing the Human's armoured fist hitting the side of the Krogan's temple with a meaty 'THWACK' and the bone structure beneath simply giving way as though it were made of card. The bouncer dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes. The entire fight, if that were even an adequate description, had only lasted a matter of seconds.

She felt a wave of horror waft over her. Firstly from the fact that she was just involved in the very public killing of one of Aria's men, so public that Aria was witness to it. Secondly, from the fact that the killer was a Human who'd killed a Krogan as though it were nothing.

Her mind spun in fear, and she registered a faint clapping sound in the background, gulping at the sound, thinking that it must be thermal clips being slapped into weapons. The soldier's shadow loomed over her; another protective action that she was sure was bound to only make matters worse.

But the sound of clapping was quickly joined by a melodic chortle of laughter. "It's nice getting a new show every once in a while."

A shiver visibly went down Theia's spine, but the anomalous Human remained completely unmoved, blocking her from view. He wasn't overprotective. But his initial reaction in defending her had been sheer instinct in protecting a non-combatant from an unprovoked threat. Then his follow-on assault on the Alien was a simple matter of neutralising a threat, as he'd spent his entire life doing.

"So, I don't think you're a mech?"

Mech was a word that even people in his reality used, commonly in a civilian capacity, but John understood quickly enough. "No Ma'am-"

"-Ma'am. Oh!" Aria stepped closer yet to John, her words coming out a flirtatious coo.

The shiver that had gone down Theia's spine seemed like an insignificant reaction compared to the dread she felt when she felt the slight shift in the air from Aria's biotics flaring like a blue flame around her body, even seeing the glow from behind John's towering frame.

"Soldier boy, is that it?"

John understood this kind of person, in his younger years, this kind of approach would have made him grit his teeth but comply. In this case, he nodded his head without issue or fault, "Yes." Leaving out the initial ma'am response, having decided that was reserved for at bare minimum human civilians.

"I don't think he knows who I am!" Aria claimed with a sarcastic and mirth filled voice, spinning on her heel to face her assembled guard, each of them at the ready. "No one fucks with Ar-"

Theia wanted to kick herself for her timing in finding her backbone as she stepped out of John's shadow.

"-Aria, he really doesn't know who you are. He doesn't know where he's from."

Aria smirked at having been cut off by the much younger Asari and rounded John's frame very slightly to take in the girl who had escorted the unknown to her abode. Her flaring biotics continued to ripple over her body menacingly, and Theia had the good sense to feel terrified by the power that the matriarch exuded. She was more than happy to let it show with the paling of her deep blue skin to a pale aqua and the cold sweat that lined her brow and scalp.

"So, little usurper, is it? Where is this…" Aria stepped boldly closer to John until just a few inches separated their bodies, "Thing, from?"

Of course, Theia wanted to contest being called a usurper by her dangerous superior, but debating anything would only make her situation worse. "I don't know, just that he's not from around here."

Aria squinted. First at John, and then at Theia. "Of course not, if an alien this strong was from MY world, I'd know about it."

"I need to contact the UNSC." He repeated his sentiment from his shuttle ride flatly.

Aria sneered, before resuming the flirtatious smile she'd started with. "Never heard of them." She smirked and sauntered back to her seat before gracefully taking up her former place, "And wouldn't care even if I had."

"Human military."

Aria looked pointedly at Theia. She narrowed her eyes and quirked a brow in confusion before looking to the two burly Battarians several steps down from the newcomers. Finally, the matriarchs gaze fell back to the towering man, she coughed in an overly dramatic show and shrugged. "Maybe they were once?" She shrugged and relaxed back further, visibly unconcerned but internally curious about wherever this interaction was going. "But if they were, they're long gone now."

The armoured man's hand instantly fell to the large pistol on his right thigh, but Aria disarmed him with the threatening distraction of twirling a stream of blue energies around her own right hand. She smirked as the light reflected off the armoured man's golden visor and resumed talking. "The Human military is the Systems Alliance. As it has been since I've known about it."

The gauntleted hand hovered over the grip on his pistol for several seconds as he processed the information behind the safety of his visor, and the almost expressionless face he wore. The expression broke from his keened calmness for a moment as confusion and an ounce of anger claimed his lips and brow.

He looked back to the smaller blue Alien that had fished him from space merely half an hour earlier, and then with the slightest movement glanced back at this self-proclaimed queen of the same race. His mind spun with questions, searching for some level of logical explanation that would fit.

They were alien, clearly so. But also, more Human in appearance than he imagined aliens could look, at least compared to his experience with the Forerunners and the expectation he'd learnt to have of them. His mind briefly shifted to the San'Shyuum, and he amended his momentary thought and figured that a human-like construction might be a somewhat standard kind of biological arrangement within galactic evolution.

"How do you speak English?" His gravely tone ordered flatly.

At being ordered, Aria would have customarily brought forward the death of the individual doing the ordering just for their nerve. But before she could be outraged, she was confused. Her brow pinched together, and her eyes narrowed, she once more looked the newcomer over, from his boots, all the way up to his heavily sandy-green armoured body until she settled suspiciously on his reflective golden gaze. "What's your game?"

John remained stock stick for several seconds until he finally pivoted slightly to face Theia, being the closest thing present to a friendly contact. Theia stepped back from him several paces until she bumped against one of Aria's grey armoured Batarian guards. She stumbled against the four-eyed man and grimaced at the circumstances she found herself in after her day had started so typically.

John felt a moment of regret for Theia as it dawned on him that his presence was risking her life. He made the smallest motion in turning his posture back to the pirate queen, but before he could answer the question which didn't quite make sense to him, she rose up from her point of luxury and waved toward the stairs.

"You know what?"

John's muscles coiled on instinct, ready for a fight.

Theia slunk back further, under the gaze of the Batarian she'd bumped into, her face paling further as she awaited the death order that would surely come.

"I don't give a damn where you're from, what you want, who you are. Just get out of my sight-"

"-Who is Shepard?" John ordered gruffly, cutting her off.

The ire showed in her sneer as she connected the dots to almost an hour earlier when Anto had leaned in to interrupt her latest meeting with the antagonistic Human Spectre about what should be done about an individual floating in the freight zone. She'd waved him off and said to do whatever they wanted.

She scoffed after another moment of her suspicion dwindling as the facts lined up in her mind; "A Human busy body."

Theia's nerve returned in a trickle as she shuffled forward at the mention of the Spectre's very well-known name and she explained in a hushed tone that said far more than Aria's dismissive and derisive one. "He's an Alliance Soldier; Hero of the Citadel, Butcher of Torfan, first Human Spectre."

Only the first title meant anything to John, at least able to identify this Alliance as a Human military force. The titles meant nothing to John. But as always, he logically and tactically analysed all the information fed to him. Shepard was a Human man, obviously associated with this era's Human Military. He was given respective titles, despite them not meaning anything to him, they gave the man meaning in honourable distinction. The distinct point about him being the 'first' Human Spectre made it clear that Spectre was perhaps some kind of cross-species title given out at great honour, further giving John faith that this man who was responsible for his safe retrieval into the harbour, was to be trusted –at least to an extent.

"Why did he order me in?"

Aria laughed openly before her face twisted into a snarl, "Shepard!" She glowered at saying his name. "Ordered nothing. I said that they could do whatever they wanted with you."

A momentary frown retook John's brow and he glanced at Theia whose shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. She had just been assigned to the shuttle, she hadn't done the communicating.

"How about this?" Aria started with a snarl. "I hate looking at you. Go find Shepard and get the hell out of my sight. He's either in the luxury apartment district or in the VIP section of Afterlife, he's looking for an Ardat-Yakshi."

His daunting reflective golden gaze eerily turned from Aria to Theia. "Do you know those locations?"

This far less dominant of the Asari present nodded the affirmative.

"Take me to this VIP section."

Theia nodded dumbly as her mind reeled over the strange evolution of circumstances. She was more surprised over the sheer fact that she was still breathing and she was sure it was showing on her face. She gulped after withering under the golden glare without interruption from Aria for several long seconds until finally turning on her heel and headed back the way that she'd come ten tense minutes earlier.

The Spartan moved, falling into step behind Theia in three impossibly large strides that cleared the steps like they hadn't been there and was soon parting the crowd with his imposing size.

John stepped up beside Theia as they exited Afterlife and took a left along a pathway that gave a scenic view on Omega's upside down skyline. Theia released a long sigh and flicked her wrists, obviously released tension from the standoff. She stopped and leant against the railing, shaking her head to herself. "Goddess, next time you want to pick a fight with a Matriarchal dictator Asari, please give me a heads up?"

The super soldier stayed silent and directed his body to face some oncoming aliens of the variety that looked like they deserved to be sculpted on the corners of a gothic church. Theia noticed his silence and looked to where he was looking. She straightened and waved a dismissive hand at the aliens.

"Don't worry about them. They're just Vorcha, they won't attack you unless there's a lot of them… Probably."

John looked at them a few moments longer as they neared and then passed by him, their eyes cemented in the direction of the weapons on his thighs momentarily. He fought the urge to send his gauntleted fist crashing through their exoskeletal skulls or to grab them and chuck them off the edge of the platform.

But his discipline won out, and he turned back to Theia with a grace that would generally defy a body his size.

She realised that he would stay silent and turned back to the view once more. "I might as well enjoy this view one last time. It is beautiful."

John looked from the back of her still very alien head to the skyline. He had done his normal tactical scan before he allowed the emotional section of his mind to visually appreciate it. It was an indeed unique and stunning view, but he couldn't help but compare it to any of the other alien aspects he'd been granted in the past few years. The Unyielding Hierophant, High Charity, either of the Halo's, The Ark, Requiem, even the burning skyline of Reach, all of them spectacularly more vast and vibrant than this view.

But he kept his thoughts to himself as she continued on.

"After I've shown you where you need to be, I'm gonna leg it back to Thessia. Accidents happen to people who piss Aria off."

John did register a sensation of disappointment in himself at her words. His eyes travelled back from the skyline to her head. He was responsible for supplanting her from her home; even if she'd said herself that it wasn't the most perfect place to live. He thought back to the confrontation with Aria and knew that he could have been a lot more diplomatic if he'd followed Theia's body language prompting.

But he was raised to be an offensive fighter. The instant a threat presented itself; and it was beatable, he went on the offensive to destroy it. If not for that, he'd have died a thousand times over during the war. He checked the thought and shuffled his weight from one armoured boot to the other, with the slightest sound of his weight touching the ground that he never normally made.

Theia seemed to take the sound of his motion as prompting to move, and then straightened her posture and started toward a door next to the one that they'd entered the commons area from.

"So what's your plan?"

John regarded her for just a moment before refocusing on the opening door ahead and stepping through; taking in the scene of what appeared to be a marketplace at a glance. His eyes fell on the nearest of the most numerous species present; one of the four-eyed grey-skinned humanoids. It stood at a human typical five foot nine, or at least the typical for UNSC marines. Deep wrinkles and jowls in its grey sickly looking skin told John of it being an expressive creature.

John's eyes settled on the white logo emboldened on the creatures blue armoured chest and picking up on his silence Theia caught the direction of his faceplate. "That's a Batarian; he's a Blue Suns merc."

The explanation of this new creature didn't serve to make John any less tense, and sensing this, Theia continued. "Human's and Batarians don't get along. Batarian slavers and Pirates like raiding Human colonies in the Terminus systems."

John wasn't surprised by the information that the resident Humans of wherever or whenever the hell he was didn't get along with these specific Aliens. Every instinct he had told him not to trust this creature. He grit his teeth in frustration of his lack of understanding of where he found himself, squared his shoulders ever so slightly, and made to answer Theia's first question.

"I'll ask that he direct me to this," He paused, recalling what Aria had called them, "Alliance, so that I can find out where I am... Or when."

Theia allowed a short chortle of laughter out, not seeming put off by the latter part of his answer, "Not going to find a place to fit into Omega?"

John glanced at her again, momentarily and decided that it must have been a joke. They continued on through the market without talking, John observing the different aliens around him, with the odd Human mixed into the crowds.

Within ten minutes of navigating the market, Theia halted and pointed to a closely shaven head visible a dozen meters from them that stood slightly taller than the rest of the crowd. "That's him!"

John quickly stepped passed Theia, his large mass parting the crowd like a boulder in a stream. A surge of satisfaction streamed through him at the lifetime familiar sight of a Human man with a military haircut and who walked with the posture of an experienced soldier.

He shouldered through the shoulder to shoulder crowd of Alien's, momentarily uncaring of being in such close proximity to the unknowns as he pushed toward the Human who was marching with a purpose by the side of one of the blue aquatic-headed aliens.

"Shepard." The super soldier barked the name, ordering the man now within comfortable hearing distance to turn.

Both the closely-cut haired head of the Caucasian man and the blue head of the Asari turned in unison and John finished pushing aside the organic impediments to his progress to stand directly before the man he sought.

"Ahh, another autograph?"

The man smirked to the Asari flirtatiously as he turned and within the Spartans' helmet lips turned in the smallest suspicious frown. The frown turned into full suspicion as the Human's smirked vanished the moment his gaze landed on the armoured form, and he blanched in fear.

The Asari also smirked, but in her case with false confidence. "Ey, Shepard. This one of your die-hard fans, or something?" She queried with a waggle of her brow. Getting no response, she looked at her companion who had paled, and eyes had become saucers of concern.

The Asari frowned in confusion and looked back and forward between her quickly deteriorating companion and the armoured behemoth who was standing statue still. "…Shepard?" She asked slowly after a long second.

"Uhm…" The identified man mused, gulping several times in quick succession and grimacing to try and cover the blatant fear on his face. "Go-go-good to see you again, how did you go on your last mission?" He tried haltingly.

John shifted minutely in confusion. He narrowed his eyes and looked between Shepard and the Asari, who was now looking at him expectantly, her eyes alight in wonder and her smile had returned to her lips.

John burst the bubble of the Asari's wonder just as Theia stepped from the crowd to stand a step back from him as he spoke, "You're an imposter?"

"Wahh!" Shepard spluttered, stepping back and shaking his head. "It's me, buddy! If- if…" He muttered incredulously, sparing a desperate glance at the Asari who was looking at him with confusion again. "If you don't recognise me… You must be the imposter!" He nodded fervently in agreement with his own lie and stepped closer to the towered newcomer, looking up boldly into his faceplate. "Tell me what you did with the real you!"

"Idiot…" Theia muttered around a half-hearted laugh.

"I have never met Shepard."

The man's eyes widened into saucers again, and the Asari companion dressed in a skin-tight semi-translucent lavender bodysuit crossed her arms over her petite bust and assumed an expression of, 'Oh, this better be good?'

The 'Shepard,' didn't reply for a full minute as he blanched to the point of impossibility before his frayed mind finally had him suddenly reaching for his right hip pocket for a small item producing a slight bulge within the fabric. John's left hand shot forward faster than any of the eyes watching could comprehend, and he secured his grip around the imposter's wrist and twisted.

The imposter wailed like a starving varren pup the moment his wrist was twisted, and the item he had been reaching for in his pocket tumbled to the ground, going 'poof' in a tiny explosion of orange sparks and smoke.

"Humph-humph-humph," Theia muffled a giggle behind a hand, no longer trying to slink into the thrumming crowd.

The imposters' companion Asari struck her hands on her hips and glared at the wailing imposter. John, sensing that the tiny explosion would have been meant as a distraction device to escape let go of the wrist and returned his hand to his side, glancing unsurely at the crowd that moved around the four uncaring of their actions. He frowned in thought and wondered what they'd do if someone started shooting.

"So what, you get facial surgery of a hero to try to lay me, huh?" The lavender clad Asari mused with a dangerous tone in her voice.

"I… Uhh…"

The whimpering ceased briefly before ebony energy glowed around the lavender dressed woman and she empowered an almighty slap that dropped the artificial Shepard lookalike to the grimy concrete. John shuffled on his feet uncomfortably, and the imposter glared up at the three looking down on him with bleary eyes and a bloody crooked nose. "Fughh yew! Fugh yew all to tah hell'n'bahg!"

None of the three reacted to his disempowered yell, and he crawled to his hands and knees before running into a crowd all too willing to ignore the bloody and bleary Human.

"Well… Damn!" Muttered Theia, again attempting to not be overly noticeable.

The mountainous man shifted slightly to look at the blue Alien who'd been guiding him before turning back briefly as the lavender dressed would have been, or imagined to have been, seductress, cursed under her breath, "Goddess, what a damn embarrassment!"

John didn't see the embarrassment, but he nodded the affirmative to attempt to draw more relevant information.

The seductively dressed Asari snorted derisively at the lacking social skill from the armoured giant and simply waved over her shoulder as she spun and strut off. "Thanks for saving me from a bad night!" She shouted over the din of the marketplace.

John stood like a humanoid island in the organic movement of species for several more long seconds before Theia coughed uncomfortably. "Sooo, he probably isn't in the VIP section… They just came from there, and I reckon it would've looked pretty suspicious if there had been two Shepard's in there. Soooo," She mused and gestured with a tilt of her head to their right. "That way to the luxury residences?"

The helmet bobbed, barely, and Theia moved. In the hour or so that she'd known the oddly alien Human; she'd already learnt that a defining part of his character was that he was a man of few words. She sighed inwardly, and outwardly, and made for the luxury residences nearby.

The only added benefit over normal life of having the giant present was that she didn't need to carefully navigate, or push heftily, through the crowd. The crowd parted before the titanic man, and as was the way on Omega, they all likely feared him to be a vengeful merc.

They strove forward for another five minutes before they headed up a short flight of stairs and out of the movement of the crowd. They pressed along the corridor before stopping in front of a doorway that read Central Luxury District. Theia palmed the holographic control by the door, and it slid open, revealing an elevator capsule.

He didn't waste a second in stepping into the capsule after Theia. The doors shut and the pod ascended smoothly, unlike a majority of the other capsules on the station.

The doors opened to another hallway, this one was clean and the walls were lined with shining brass with a door on each side every ten meters. Theia clicked her tongue and crossed her arms, "Nice to be able to afford one of these."

John looked down at her for a moment, shrugged in answer to the hopeful thought, and moved forward again toward the door that he could see open at the far end of the stretching hallway. They reached the door and didn't stop for any kind of politeness in the form of knocking or keying the intercom.

They entered and found a room completely askew. Furniture littered the floor in bits and pieces throughout the kitchenette. John moved forward ahead of Theia without rush or concern. His mind had already jumped to the conclusion of what could have happened here as he took the three steps into the depressed bedroom section and stopped; looming over the corpse of an Asari clad in a revealing black leather catsuit; her throat crushed and her neck bent at an angle counterproductive to living.

"This one is an Ardat-Yakshi?" He asked simply, looming above the corpse.

Theia cautiously stepped up around the armoured man and bent forward at the waist upon seeing the only other occupant of the room was well and truly dead, and not a threat. She peered at the corpse for a minute before shrugging and straightening nonchalantly. "Could be," She shrugged and eyed his lack of response. "Oh! Right, of course!" She palmed her face dramatically and shook her head, "Not many other species know about the Ardat-Yakshi…" She rubbed her chin and squinted in thought. "Think of them like mutated Asari… When they mind-meld with a partner, they kill them, and they're pretty much driven by a desire to do that."

Silence greeted her. She looked back up at the giant of a man, then back at the corpse, and decided to lean down to inspect it again. "No idea why Commander Shepard would be hunting one though. S'pose it's a good thing for Omega if this was one."

"Are there any other Alliance assets on Omega?" He queried with an apparent precision in his voice, making Theia half-smile apologetically.

"Definitely not… Shepard comes and goes sometimes. But looks like you'll have to figure it out yourself."

John stood stock still, somehow more so than usual, his eyes darting back and forward within his visor. He was lost. Lost; in a way that he'd never been. Cortana was gone, or at least, if she'd travelled through the portal with him to wherever –or whenever- he was, then she hadn't shown up with him.

He had no standing orders, beyond his oath to defend Earth and all of her colonies. He was stranded in an alien land populated by aliens the likes of which were somehow even more exotic than usual from what he was accustomed.

"You could…"

The cogs turned back to the present in a snap as the Asari woman's voice stirred his attention from the background of his awareness.

"Ahem-" She coughed uncomfortably and crossed her arms over her chest and managed to look bashful. "You could stay with me…" Her eyes widened in unsolicited panic as he cocked his head slightly at the offer. "I mean until you get a job so you can pay your way off this heap!"

The golden visor glowered impassively at Theia for a long moment, making her shuffle uncomfortably. Finally, his head nodded. "How do I make currency here?"

The corner of Theia's mouth pulled into an apologetic smile as she looked up at his faceplate again before turning to head the way they'd come. "I feel like you won't like it, but you'll probably be really good at it."

John strode after her silently, catching up in two strides and remaining silent to await the advisement.


Shepard turned his head to the left sharply at the sigh from the other occupant of the couch, and the room moved at a faster rate than it should have from his motion. He clenched his eyes shut for a moment to steady the results of drinking a little too much brandy and then eased his eyes back open to look at Tali.

She was leaning forward on the other side of his L-shaped couch, propped on her left elbow on her knee, her hand holding a tube of fluids with a straw extending from it into the receiver in her mask. A sucking noise sounded from her, and her left hand palmed lamely at her mask in her own expression of tipsiness.

Shepard scoffed in amusement but mentally kicked himself for manipulating Tali's innocence toward alcohol to being apparently reliant on it for stress relief post-mission. It was a bad habit, and he was making every damn effort, besides straight up pulling the plug on it, possible to remove it.

They'd just departed Omega several hours earlier, and unlike every other time they had visited the station, he hadn't restocked his personal drink supply. He lazily let his gaze travel back to the bottle of brandy on the low table with around a cup worth of drink remaining. Last one… He noted mentally, before lurching forward to refill his glass from empty to almost overflowing and deciding the best course of action to consume it without spillage was to lean forward from the couch and purchase his lips on the rim to sip from the glass minus his hands.

Tali laughed with several hiccups mixed in at the ungainly sight, and Shepard just shrugged after sitting back, bringing the glass with him, now empty enough to lift without fear of easy spills.

"Sooooooo…." Tali drawled playfully. A second later, her luminescent eyes turned down behind her mask. "What was it this time? Keelah, Shepard, more trouble?"

Shepard battled the alcoholic fog away from his brain to think and nodded once, mentally lamenting so much of his current life.

He was glad to have been revived by Cerberus, and gladder yet that he was still able to take the fight to the Reapers, and far gladder again that in doing that he had the support of his two closest friends, Tali and Garrus present on his ship. But his happiness almost made a dead stop there, and a mixture of anger and frustration encroached upon everything after that.

Everything, every fucking thing, was conditional now.

Before there had ever been a Normandy, he had been a simple soldier. A damn good one, an effective leader; but it had been simple. He would be given an order, and he was happy he had never been ordered to do anything ethically reprehensible, and he would follow the order without question.

His loyalty was to the Human race, to the Alliance. The chain of command would distil orders down, and he would damn well follow them. Then he would give orders to his underlings, and they, like him, would follow them.

It was so simple then.

Then he had been made the Commander of the first Normandy, and the water had started to become muddy. He was no longer a typical Alliance Marine.

A Spectre, an agent of a multi-species alliance that wasn't as united as the word alliance, would have one think.

The hunt for Saren and the truth becoming a horrible reality about the Reapers had been arduous, but straight forward. Anderson, Hackett, and even the damnable Udina supported his mission.

The crew were all loyal. And it had been his first time being extensively exposed to aliens, and he had grown to see all of those who joined him as comrades first and alien second. As much as Ashley's grating nature toward them had rubbed him the wrong way, and he couldn't deny that when it had come to choosing between saving her or Kaiden that her attitude toward aliens had been a part of who he decided to save, he had appreciated her just as much as the others.

They had all been loyal and united.

But ever since the defeat of Saren; everything had gone to hell.

He had been assigned to seeking out pockets of Geth incursions. The Reapers were denied mere days after the Council had been saved. His closest friends and allies, the aliens, left his ship went back about their lives, leaving him unexpectedly alone on his ship.

Since he'd been revived and had assembled his new crew, he'd found his leadership stressed by a growing cynicism that challenged him daily.

Every member of his fighting crew had fractured loyalty and apparently didn't have the discipline to put their personal issues aside to face a foe that made it all seem insignificant. It had started with Garrus, with his vendetta against Sidonis. Shepard held his tongue the whole way through, he'd supported his Turian friend and comrade.

But he'd hated every moment of it. Garrus needed a serious reinforcement of his apparently waning Turian discipline as far as Shepard could tell. He'd abandoned C-Sec because of 'Red-Tape,' otherwise referred to as the rule of law. He'd started a vigilante group on lofty principles but on a morally tenuous foundation.

Predictably, that had come back to hit him in the face, exampling the Turian's inability to be a decisive leader. When Garrus had started griping about Sidonis and finding him to dish out his justice, Shepard had really just wanted to send all of the info to Bailey. The Turian former vigilante was a recorded criminal. With the prompting of a Spectre, Bailey would have ample reason to have made the arrest and send the Turian dissident to prison.

After the fact, Garrus had resworn his loyalty, in a manner of speaking. Shepard had taken that on the chin as well and gone along with it, no matter how much he wanted to smack his Turian friend.

But things fractured further, day after day. Between seeking out resources, taking odd missions to help ailing localities, and persuing leads after the Collectors, his fighting crew each developed a personal life problem which would apparently prevent them from keeping their focus on the mission.

There had been a few that hadn't vexed him. Tali for one; he couldn't at all fault her for her sudden distraction given the cultural circumstances of the Quarians and the accusations laid against her. In reality, he had actually been relieved the be a part of helping her. Both himself and Tali had earned respect within the Quarian population for the resolution, and it had opened the door to a relationship that he'd never really thought could be available given the Quarian's health risks.

Mordin had been another case of a distracted crewmember whom he had been more than happy to help, once again; because of his unique issue. The genius Salarian had helped to reshape the Genophage, and the risk of that work being undone, or worsened, demanded attention.

Of course, Shepard didn't quite agree with the weaponised disease, but he wasn't happy arguing against it either. He hadn't been alive during the Krogan Rebellions, but he'd done his research, and he couldn't entirely argue against the actions of the time. And much like Mordin himself had said, the real error had been in uplifting the Krogan to begin with.

But then Jacob and his father happened. The Spectre's tolerance had plummeted, and he'd lost the rosy idealistic and disciplined image he'd had of his quartermaster and replaced it with an undisciplined fool, reinforcing one of his first thoughts he'd had considering his reasons for joining Cerberus.

And now the most recent issue with Samara. Could he sympathise with her? Of course! Did he agree with her chosen course of action? Not even for a second.

But it seemed to be the cost of having her bring her considerable skill to bear on their mission, so again he'd sucked up his personal thoughts on the manner, presented his cool, calm and determined Commander persona and been the bait that Samara required him to be.

The entrapment had rubbed him all wrong all the way through. First, he'd entered the club and been witness to one of the direct side effects of his temporary death; a surgical doppelganger. Shepard had threatened to beat the face-off, and the fake had the good sense to leg it out of the club, and not too long later Morinth had made herself known to him.

Entrapping her had been simple enough, but controlling his contempt hadn't been when he'd finally helped Samara subdue her. Of course, he'd managed, and made it back to the ship and made for his drinks cabinet until Tali had imposed herself and joined him.

"More trouble." He agreed atop a suppressed alcoholic burp. He winced and swallowed. "Saw a guy wearing my face the club…"

Tali's eyes narrowed behind her mask, and she waved at Shepard's flushed expression. "Like… A mask?"

Shepard scowled, "As in, he had surgery to look exactly like me. Probably just uses it to get stuff-"

"-Or attention," Tali interjected with a scowl in her tone.

They locked eyes morosely for several seconds until Tali shuffled her rear on the couch and took another quick sip of her Turian brandy through her receiver. "And what next?" She pressed at an attempt at casual.

Shepard heaved a long sigh and let his head flop back against the couch, "Morinth showed up, I went along with it all until we got to her apartment and Samara came along. They were pretty evenly matched, so I had to help Samara subdue her. Then one broken neck later and Samara is now one hundred per cent loyal to the mission. Pfft!" He scoffed immediately and waved his hands dramatically, almost spilling his remaining beverage.

He corrected his movement the instant he realised the almost spill and carefully brought the glass to his lips and drained another quarter.

Tali crossed her arms over her chest self-consciously and turned her face away, "Keelah, Shepard… If I'd known it would be so hard on you, I'd never have asked-"

"No!" Shepard sat forward suddenly, "No, your thing…" He clarified his cutting her off. "I completely understood that. You're my crew, my closest friend, more than that."

Tali's eyes drifted back to him; wide with yearning at his words.

"But what happened to you. It wasn't right, wasn't fair. Even if it hadn't been you, some other Quarian on my crew, I'd have been more than happy to help. Even Mordin's issue, I agreed with helping that one too. It made complete sense, and it was bigger than a simple personal issue which could have been put off a dozen other ways." He clarified, bringing up his line of thought about his Salarian crewmate from earlier.

Tali pressed her lips together, and in the low mood light Shepard could faintly make out the vaguery of her concerned expression. She slowly uncrossed her arms and retrieved her drink again, nodding once as she took a sip. "Jacob's troubles…" She paused and narrowed her eyes, looking for the right words. "Weren't quite well placed for what we're here for."

Shepard snorted and held out his left fist, flicking his thumb out. "Jacob." He then flicked out his index finger, "Samara's parenting issue which could literally wait a thousand years." He flicked out his middle finger. "Kasumi needs my help for her former criminal partner's grey box being stolen by one of their criminal targets." He flicked out the next finger. "Jack: wants to blow up the place that fucked her up for no damn reason." Then his little finger, "Thane; again, parenting problems!" He cringed and quickly shook his head. "Actually scratch that, he's got a disease that could kill him soon, maybe it makes sense that it's immediate for him."

Shepard narrowed his eyes and moved on, "Zaeed; he's not right. I don't trust his briefing at all, so it's probably something to do with money or a grudge." Then he raised his right hand holding the glass and flicked out the thumb on that hand, "Grunt!" He narrowed his eyes and bit his lip, "Actually… Who knows with him? A tank bred Krogan? Maybe we'll have to deal with him next. It could actually be a problem with his health."

"Shepard-" Tali sighed his name, her eyes alight with empathy. She placed her drinking canister back down and reached for his still splayed out left hand with her right. Their genetically differing appendages closed naturally around one another, and Tali shuffled closer so that her right knee touched his left. "So that's Garrus, Jacob, Samara, Kasumi, Jack and Zaeed who're a little difficult." She clasped his hand a bit tighter, "I know it's not great, but that leaves me, Mordin, Grunt, Thane and Miranda who aren't an issue. Half is better, at least?"

Shepard half smiled and nodded slowly toward her, "It could be worse." Then the other side of his lips turned down in dubious contemplation, "I'm surprised about Miranda. She's starting to come around to our way of thinking – with Cerberus," Shepard clarified, his brow pinched in thought. "But she's as messed up as they come. But not a whisper of trouble from her…"

"Hmmm," Tali mused thoughtfully. "Don't think she isn't just trying to not be too noticed?"

The Human narrowed his eyes at the Quarian and smirked. "Still don't trust her? She even helped on the Alerai."

Tali smoothly, if somewhat haughtily, retrieved her hand and leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest again. "She's okay, I'll admit!" She lamented quickly to rush the complimentary part of her response out, "But she's Cerberus! She tries to sell it to everyone!"

Shepard shrugged and downed the remainder of his brandy. "You know I go speak to her every day?"

Tali quirked her head to the side as though to say, "so?"

"Yesterday, without me disagreeing with her about Cerberus or The Illusive Man, she just started saying that she was concerned about what some of Cerberus' missions did to Human morality."

Tali shrugged meekly.

Shepard sighed and chuckled to himself, glad that the topic had somehow shifted away from him feeling angry about the dappled loyalties of his crew to caring about their wellbeing. "I think she's coming around to our side. And I bet she has some issue that she wants to keep quiet. Pride? Maybe she gets how hard it would be leading a crew with distracted loyalties and doesn't want her thing to be an issue? She would have made a good Alliance Officer."

Tali shrugged again, "I suppose we'll find out."