To call Shepard's expression querulous was doing disservice to the term. EDI continued to stand there, a mildly expectant look on her synthetic face, as she held the thing toward the human. "Uh..." Shepard began, eyes flitting once more between the bauble and the woman holding it. "You do realize I'm marrying Liara today, right?"

"It is a Unity Ring," EDI said proudly. "It is comprised of precious metals from each of the Council Homeworlds, each alloying with the next to create something stronger than the sum of its parts. And the diamond was pressure-formed from –"

"If you say 'the ashes of the dead', you and me are going to have a long talk about appropriateness. And ghoulishness, while we're at it," Shepard cut her off.

"Don't be absurd. It's made from carbonized wood from the cherry trees that were removed from the Council Chambers after the first Battle of the Citadel," EDI said. "Due to the inability to source its components, each ring has a value enhanced by its rarity. It also provides a useful symbol to the people."

"And who exactly is going to buy this thing?" Shepard asked, cleft brow raising. "Last I heard, the volus are just giving up on the whole 'having an economy' thing."

"I procured it some time ago from the stipend that was granted to me by Admiral Hackett and the N7SFC," EDI said. "I thought you might appreciate it."

"Oooookay," Shepard said. "Just so you know, it's kinda common for humans to exchange these kinds of things when they get married. Might send the wrong message, unless you're trying to make Joker jealous."

"What purpose is there in intentionally making Jet jealous?" EDI asked, her own brow furrowing. "It seems a waste of time and effort."

"You know, you're not wrong, EDI," Shepard said. "Be thankful you developed without the whole 'crippling insecurities' thing that most people drag around with them every day."

"One day, I will have to take a further examination of the condition," EDI said with a shrug. "Jet always says that 'sometimes you have to take the bad with the good'."

"True enough. Otherwise, nobody would have the patience for anybody," Shepard stopped, and leaned back, dragging the dress with her. "Thoughts?"

"It lacks ballistic plating and kinetic barrier generators," EDI said after giving the gown a barest glance.

"I was referring to how it looks," Shepard said.

"It looks like a bridal gown," EDI answered.

"...why did I ask you to help me with this?" Shepard muttered. "Tali? Tali!"

"What is it, Big-Sis?" Talitha shouted from two stalls over. Shepard thrust her arm with the dress on it out the door, past the gynoid that stood at the threshold. "Oh, no no no. You don't look good in orange."

"See? That's what I need. An eye that knows... aesthetic," she said, after summoning for a moment to get the right word.

"Perhaps you should have asked another of your friends. I'm sure that Miss Nilsodottir would be able to aid you in this..."

"Are you kidding? Have you seen her sense of style?" Shepard asked, tossing the orange gown into the reject pile – which was soon going to be half as tall as she was – and shook her head. "She'd get married in a tank-top, combat boots, and cargo-pants if you'd let her."

"With Jackie, it's more a question of who would dare try to stop her," Talitha offered.

"See? Talitha gets it," Shepard said. She picked out another one, and instantly scowled. "White? Really?"

"It appears that it would provide a degree of modesty, even for what it lacks in small-arms and explosives protection," EDI said.

"It's white!" Shepard said. "Who's ever heard of a white wedding gown?"

"Actually, it is a long standing tradition amongst asari, as white is in their culture symbolically associated with purity. Only Maidens or virginal Matrons were permitted by public opinion to wear a white gown during matrimonial celebrations."

"...They do know that white is death, right?" Shepard asked.

"It's pretty obvious," Talitha piped up.

"You wear white to a funeral, not to a wedding," Shepard said.

"Hey, Big-Sis? How about this?" she asked. Shepard sighed and leaned out of the stall, watching as Talitha emerged. The dress she'd picked was half-way between white and Liara's skin-tone, a hue which worked well with her coloration, and was gorgeous besides. Shepard instantly broke into a grin.

"Look at you, wearing the prettiest dress at the party," Shepard said.

"Really?" Talitha asked. "I mean, I don't want to overshadow you on your big day; I could go with another one if..."

"Tali, it's okay," Shepard said. She flexed a fist, noting how the ropey muscles tensed in her arm in a way that was distinctly non-feminine. "It's not like you're in competition with me." Talitha got that subdued little smile on her face, and Shepard herself returned to the stall. This was hopeless. She was probably better off just going in her dress blues. At least then she wouldn't be carrying around a silken trail a dozen meters long everywhere she went. She quickly pulled her own shirt back on, settling back into her boots and accepting defeat for the moment. It would take a better mind than hers to figure out wedding dresses.

"If you are declining taking a wedding dress, perhaps instead you can focus on the ceremony itself," EDI said, opening up a hard-light panel in front of her even as her Omnitool stayed firmly at her side. "I'm told that there is a great deal of cultural cache in the Aramali style, with an Arstotzkhan 'binding of hands' as its centerpoint."

"I just want Liara to be happy with things. After that, it can all go flying out an airlock for all I care," Shepard said.

"This isn't just about you, you know," Talitha said, frumping over in her dress. "It means a lot to us, the people who love you and care about you. It means a lot that we're a part of what should be the happiest day of your life."

"The happiest day of my life was when you came back into my life. It just hit a few snags before it got there," Shepard said, with an uncomfortable rub at the back of her neck.

"Which included beginning your relationship with Liara," EDI chimed in.

"Actually, I prefer to believe that the relationship existed before then, but that was when you finally admitted it to yourself," Talitha said.

"Have you found everything you were looking for, today?" the Matron at the desk which demarcated the end of the fitting area asked. While Shepard wasn't one to say it aloud, there was something about her that just seemed a bit oily. Like she was through sheer ignorance managing to avoid a hard sell that this woman had spent centuries refining.

"Not everything, but I think Li'l-Sis has what she's looking for," Shepard said. "You can just put it on my account."

"Excellent," the Matron said, eyes darting from Shepard to the robot, then to the fitting room. She 'surreptitiously' waved her Omni across EDI as she turned to guide Talitha to a seat, probably scanning for stolen cargo inside her frame. Shepard and Ship-Personified shared a dry look at that, but the Matron didn't make any move to stop them. "I hope you'll keep me in mind for the rest of your wedding needs."

"Of course I will," Shepard said flatly. The Presidium still looked much the same as it always did, when they crossed out into its passages. But it was quieter. Ordinarily, you could hear advertisements blaring twenty hours a day, people trying to talk over each other, salesmen hawking wares and customers bitching and complaining and trying to get refunds. Now, though, it was quiet. The ads had been turned off. Most stores were open only in name, their clerks not even showing up for work and letting the automated terminals do the job for them. Since the terminals were still beholden to such transitive notions as 'supply and demand', they still charged for things that nobody had money to buy, which had been handed out already. A lot of stores had simply shut down.

If they'd feared riots, then they'd gotten better than that. For the most part, people who were still in the Commons were here because they had nothing else to do, not because somebody was paying them. The streets stayed clean out of civic pride. Yet another thing which was soon going to be running in short supply, soon enough.

Gods, but it seemed the Reapers were everywhere, these days.

Maybe that was what was keeping everybody's shit together. There was nowhere to go, nothing to achieve by stabbing each other in the back. Every attempt by the Reaper's chosen 'emissaries' to ask for a cease-fire or an armistice was answered in the only way that mattered, with outright denial and violent hostility. Every lie that the Harbinger could send forth was preempted across much of the galaxy. There were probably still people, paranoids and crazies, who disbelieved the governments and the militaries enough to put their lives in the hands of the Reapers, but they were few, and their voices now especially quiet.

A shattered galaxy.

She'd heard from Admiral Hackett that the Crucible was on the verge of completion. Or at least, what all presumed was completion; they'd already changed the blueprint enough that it qualified as a version change if nothing else. If the Pantokrator was right, and it was merely emulating what the Nazara had done in their time, then hopefully the changes made it more likely to work, as opposed to less. Come to think of it, Shepard was supposed to read the debrief from the theory boffins at some point, but it was buried under a tonne of other things that clamored for her attention. Just not enough time. And if things went poorly, that was going to be carved onto the tombstone of this entire civilization.

Shepard found herself staring at the hulking statue of Gatatog Okeer, who even still sneered his way across history and the veil of death as a monument to the krogan's salvation of the Citadel in the time of the rachni. Was there no time which didn't labor under the pall of destruction and terror? Her jaw set, eyes narrowed. She didn't accept that. Even with all she'd been through, with the weight of those standing against her, she still didn't accept it. She couldn't, let alone wouldn't. The krogan were returning, not in the unending swarm and rapacious tide of orange blood that they had been, but as something... new. Different.

That was the trick, wasn't it? Changing the way things worked. War demanded the rachni be extinct, but Shepard denied it. Now, the rachni strove beside them to save everybody, themselves included. History demanded geth and quarian exterminate each other, but Shepard denied it. Now, they lived together in potential harmony on their homeworld. Something had changed. Well, Shepard was going to keep changing things until they suited her. She made a promise a long time ago, and the Reapers were standing in the way of that promise. So if she had to change the Harvest itself, she would. She would find a way. Somehow.

"This isn't doing me a whole lot of good," Shepard muttered to herself. She pushed off, walking down the stairs nearby and heading toward the tiny park which was nestled in the middle of the Presidium market. Most of the stores around it were shut down and locked up, nothing left for sale. But the garden itself was still tended, the grass cut and the weeds pulled. Another task of love, triumphing over despair. She gave a nod to the turian woman at her task. She didn't have a uniform, nor did she care about her clothes being sullied by grass-stains or dirt. Probably wasn't even the actual gardener. But she hummed under her voice all the same, applying the same skill, and care, to the grounds. The turian nodded back, and returned to her job. "'s way too quiet."

She probably got a glance from the turian at that, but she just kept on walking. No word from the Attican Traverse. No word from Outer Council space since the turian fleet withdrew from Palaven. The only reason there was still communication with the Terminus was because Aria shelled out for a QECD, and the news there wasn't the best.

"Are you alright, lady?" a little voice came to her. She stopped, turning and seeing a little asari girl sitting on a bench nearby. There was no mother in sight, which got Shepard's back up. "You look sad."

"I've got... a lot on my mind, kiddo," Shepard said. The girl kept kicking her feet in front of her, as they didn't come close to reaching the floor. "Where's your mommy?"

"Mommy?" the girl asked, blinking up at her with eyes black enough to come from a batarian. "My da says that Mommy's in heaven now."

"Oh. I didn't know," Shepard said. She squatted down before the child, looking around once more. "So where's your daddy, then?

"I dunno," the girl said. "Just 'at I'm s'possed to wait here for him. Have you seen Daddy?"

"What does he look like?" Shepard asked.

"He looks like... my daddy," the girl said. Shepard sighed and hung her head for a moment. Then, she looked back. "Hey? Gardener?"

"What is it, human?" the gardener shouted back.

"Do you know anything about this kid?" Shepard asked.

"You should take her to the promenade," the gardener said, tone distracted even as she shouted. "Somebody down there will know where she belongs."

"Did your daddy tell you to wait for him here?" Shepard asked the child. She shook her head. "Just that you'd find him here. And he didn't say when, did he?" she shook her head again. Shepard sighed, then got up, holding a hand toward the girl. "Well? Want some help finding your daddy?"

"Okay," the girl said, instantly grabbing two of Shepard's fingers and trundling along beside her. What kind of life did this girl have ahead of her? She couldn't be more than ten, which put her around a four-year-old as a human. It wasn't fair. That she faced living in a galaxy where peace was never more than a by-gone memory for her, eking out a living hiding from annihilation. Just wasn't fair.

The promenade wasn't far away, and was obvious to anybody traveling, because it was where a lot of people were still gathered in the Presidium. The great screens, once given over to advertisements and trashy daytime movers, were now monopolized by one news program, and a listing of names. The desks, once belonging to three different volus banks, were now manned by volunteers, who were working non-stop to deal with the crowds. Shepard looked down to the girl, then sighed. There was no way she was navigating that press with a kid in tow. Instead, she stooped down and scooped the girl onto her shoulders. The girl gave out an excited 'whee' as she went. "You're hair is soft," the girl said. "An' pretty. I's like soft wiry-wires!"

"Thanks," Shepard said. "Hey! Who's in charge here?"

The volunteer glanced up, blinking those broad ovoid eyes at her. "In charge? Nobody really," the salarian said. "Just a lot of people trying to do what we can for them. Is that your girl?"

"No. She was left on a bench a couple blocks that way," She gestured behind her, which was kind of pointless considering the crush and the amount of people involved.

"She's no relation of yours?" the salarian asked, brow drawing down.

"Can you help or can't you?" Shepard demanded. He held up a warding hand, then returned to his Omni. "Sweetie, tell the man your name."

"Ana," she said.

"Your full name. Like when someone's mad at you," Shepard prompted when the girl didn't seem to grasp the concept.

"Uhh, Ana... van Nostram," the girl said. The salarian nodded, and gestured up for her. "Is I gonna see Daddy now?"

"Sure you are," Shepard said, helping the girl down and passing her over the desk. "You'll make sure she gets to her father, right?"

"If we can find it, I guarantee it," the salarian said. "That's about half of everything we do these days.

"I'm glad somebody's still taking the time to do it," Shepard said.

"A lot of people have lost someone in this war," the salarian said with a somber nod. "The least I can do is help a few of them find their way back."

"I know that voice," another intruded on Shepard's conversation, one that instantly got Shepard's hackles to rise and her back to tense. A sneer had pulled onto her face in the moment it took to face the source of it. "Aimei... Aimei is that you?"

Whatever caustic rejoinder she was about to launch at her aunt was forestalled as soon as she saw the woman. Instead, what came out of her mouth was a somewhat idiotic 'bwaaaaaah'. Hannah looked... different. She'd spent years under Hannah the Hardass, a woman with no sympathy and very little time or effort given to her sister's surviving kid. After all, Shepard was a living reminder that for whatever reason the universe saw fit, Hannah was destined to lack what her sister would find as effortless as breathing. Airbenders were still rare, still cherished, and watching her twin be so beloved by her own parents and the community at large had instilled a deep, dark jealousy, one that she took out on Shepard since her original target was dead. Shepard had expected she would hate Hannah Sohryu until the end of her life. But instead, that hatred died in a heartbeat.

Hannah looked beaten.

The last time she saw somebody looking so utterly defeated, was the final vision of Javik as he sat on the Citadel with Avina and his daughter. Her hair, which had held onto its coppery hue for decades, had given way to grey and white in total. Those eyes, once biting and cruel, were now watery and wavering. Even her stance had changed, her back hunched slightly forward as though trying to shield against yet another cruel blow. She was wearing her casuals, but they were wrinkled and rumpled, something she would have never accepted from her niece, or her children, let alone herself.

"...Hannah?" Shepard asked. The woman blinked at her. How much would Mom have looked like this if she had survived that day on Mindoir? Hopefully not very. Seeing her dead at least had a sense of finality, as opposed to the tattered husk that now stood amidst the clamoring crowd. "What... are you doing here?"

"It really is you... isn't it?" Hannah asked, eyes watering. "It... it had to be you, didn't it? At the end, it had to be you."

"What are you talking about?" Shepard asked, fist on her hip.

She didn't break, but her voice quavered just a bit. Truthfully, it was so out of Shepard's frame of reference to hear Hannah the Hardass faltering that she didn't know exactly how to grasp it. It felt... cold and hollow, like a revenge gotten once you'd already had the heart to forgive. "They're gone," Hannah said.

"They being?" Shepard asked, and then stopped. "Oh... oh shit..."

After Mindoir, she'd had three cousins she... housed... with. She couldn't say she 'lived' there with them, because she was very much an afterthought in their lives, and the spite that their mother bore toward Shepard and the airbender who'd borne her was passed, even without them knowing exactly why, to the children. Whether it was stony-faced rejection from Bang, withering contempt by Fubuki, or the outright hostility of Ojo, she never had an ally in that house. But to see that look on Hannah's face... there could be only one reason for the Hardass breaking down so completely.

"When?" Shepard asked.

"Ojo is in a coma... they say she's not going to recover," Hannah said, voice cracking slightly. She bit her knuckle for a moment, trying to summon strength that seemed already far gone. "Fu... she was aboard the SSV Misty Palms Oasis. It's gone too... And they... they say..."

And at that, the floodgates burst. The tears that Hannah was trying so hard not to shed finally fell. "They say Bang is Indoctrinated, that he betrayed his crew..." she palmed her face, as though trying to physically force the tears back in, but obviously to no avail. "You're... the only family I have left."

A very cruel and vindictive part of Shepard, one that was once a great deal more influential in her day-to-day dealings, wanted to laugh. 'That's what you get', that hypothetical her would say. 'I've already told you to fuck off, so fuck off', she might continue. But while there wasn't any great deal less anger in Shepard now as compared to that day more than a year ago, the hatred she had was far more focused, and onto something which deserved it a billion times more than the woman who made no claims on being her mother, even by substitution.

So Shepard welcomed the last wayward member of her family in. Maybe she wasn't ready to forgive Hannah for the hell she went through after Mindoir, the neglect when she needed help the most... but for now, she was willing to let a mother grieve in silence and peace.

Chapter 30

...The Best

The crowds were something that caught Shepard somewhat off-guard. She turned to Garrus, who shrugged even as he carried his bin before him. "Don't look at me. I didn't announce that I'm getting married."

"These people can't be here for me," Shepard said, giving her head a shake. It just didn't work with her world-view that the clamoring crowds who were self-assembling into a congregation in front of the branch office of Citadel Security would be waiting on her. It was a strange thing to be so humble an Avatar. She never expected her birthright to earn anything for her, even in the years after she learned she had it. For so long, it was a burden rather than a gift. But just as was the marriage of Avatar Aang to his Tribal beloved, news had ways of getting around, and making a major, major deal out of what in Shepard's mind wasn't that world-shaking. "Turian weddings are usually somewhat stolid affairs. Didn't used to be, I hear. Before the Unification, the wedding didn't end until the groom surmounted the Feats of Pain."

"You're shitting me," Shepard said.

"I was shocked my own self," Garrus said blithely. "Turns out we lost a whole lot of interesting ceremonies when the Hierarchy of the day decided to turn our species into a monoculture."

"A turian race without a stick up their collective ass isn't a turian race at all," Shepard contended.

"Now you're sounding like some of the people who taught me in boot," Garrus said. He shifted the bin, which contained essentially everything that she'd need for a small, subdued party to a hip, so he could flick open his Omni. "You didn't tell me you were late."

"I'm not," Shepard said.

"Your wedding is in half an hour," Garrus said.

"And we're already at the doors," she said, motioning ahead to the gateway that was closed and barred by the C-Sec officers, who were nervously pacing around and keeping an eye on the crowd. She flashed her badge – oh how she loved that badge – to the turian at the gate. "Shepard, Special Tactics and Recon, I need to get in."

"Sure you are," the turian said dryly. Shepard turned a confused look to Garrus, but he just rolled his eyes. "You'd be the third one this hour."

"...I have the badge," Shepard said.

"So did the last orange haired human," the turian said, then reached through the gap in the barrier fence to take her identifier. He waved his Omni over it, and when it emitted a happy chirp, his jaw went slack, and he quickly glanced back to her. "Oh. My apologies, agent. We're just having some problems with security right now."

"Somebody tried to get in as me?" Shepard asked, pocketing the badge once more.

"More than one. Letting this one through!" he broke off to shout to the guard in the kiosk that controlled the 'fence' itself. A panel shut down, the C-Sec on the other side forming ranks to keep the crowd from pushing in, while Shepard and Garrus were pulled into the relatively spacious courtyard of the C-Sec branch. "The first two had bad wigs and no ID. The last one at least made a show of it. She's cooling her heels in lockup."

"Impersonating an agent of the Citadel Council?" Shepard asked.

"The first two were dumb. The third was dumber," the turian said.

"Hey! Commander!" Joker's voice pulled Shepard's attention away from the turian. She gave him a nod of dismissal, and turned to the creaky-boned pilot, who was... sitting on top of two bins much like the one that Garrus was hefting. "I was wondering if you were even going to show up. Although I hadn't pegged you for a runaway bride."

"I've still got half an hour," Shepard said, bemused. "What's with the supplies?"

"You said you were going to throw a party, right?" Joker asked. "Well, if we're gonna do it, let's do it right. We're gonna party like it's the end of the universe."

"I've secured the containers in the van, Jet," EDI said, as she rounded the corner that led to the parking garage. "We will need another conveyance to transport the rest. Hello Shepard."

"Hey, EDI," Shepard said. "Van?"

"What? Did you think we could throw the party of the millenium with just three boxes of swag?" Joker asked with a broad grin.

"Whose idea was this?" Shepard asked, rubbing at her brow in annoyance.

"Well, when you said 'party', I invited James, and James invited Sam and Steve, and one thing led to another," Joker shrugged. "So I adapted. Most of it's on your way to your sister's place. I figured you'd want to start there before the crawl."

"Crawl?" Shepard asked.

"What Whalesh wedding isn't complete with its own pub-crawl?" Joker asked.

"You do realize I'm a recovering alcoholic, right?" Shepard asked.

"Today, you cheat a little," Joker said. He puffed out a breath, and for a moment, the strain and tension of that he had so expertly hidden showed through his eyes. "I figured that you at least have earned it."

"Ugh. Fine," Shepard said.

"When will you be changing into your dress?" EDI asked.

"What dress? I'm in my dress," Shepard said.

"You're not wearing a wedding dress?" EDI asked, scandal clear in her tone.

"Do I look like the wedding-dress kind?" Shepard asked, fist on her hip.

"I don't know. Ever since you got a taste for 'em on Bekenstein, you're surprising a lot of people," Joker pointed out.

"That was..." she began, but didn't have a way to finish, because Joker was right. The first time she wore a dress after leaving highschool was on a stealth mission with a kleptomaniac airbender descendent of one of her past incarnations, and ever since, they started carving out space in her wardrobes. "You just shut up."

"Where even were you?" Joker asked, shifting off of the stack, which Garrus simply added his own bin to. "Garrus? Help me out here."

"Found her up on the Presidium promenade, talking to her aunt," Garrus said. "She must have lost track of time."

"Yeah, I kinda did," Shepard admitted.

"I thought you hated your aunt," Joker said.

"So did I," Shepard said. "She's probably about five minutes behind us."

"You invited Hannah the Hardass to your wedding?" Joker asked. "EDI? Hold her down while I scan her. She's got to be a robot impostor or something."

EDI turned a very confused look to the pilot. "Commander Shepard is not a robot facsimile. I would have detected the mass differential."

"Something I don't know about your family, I guess?" Garrus leaned in.

"Hannah hated my mom because Mom was an airbender, and she wasn't," Shepard summarized decades of bad blood into one sentence.

"And what did your mother think?" Garrus asked.

"I don't know. I think she was just tired of dealing with Hannah by the time me and Tali came along," Shepard gave a shrug. Families were messy, messy business. It was the kind of thing that made her long for a nice, honest, life or death fight. Shepard paused as the doors opened into the building, blinking in confusion at the sheer number of people who were packed inside. And unlike the faceless crowds outside, every single one of these were known to her. She expected to find her squad and some of the crew. She hadn't expected the Normandy to empty out, and for a dozen dozen other unexpected faces to appear along with them. "...the hell?"

"She's actually here! Thank the Goddess," the only asari not in police uniform said. "I was beginning to think we had a runner on our hands."

"Why is everybody...?" Shepard said, panning her eyes across the crowd. That came to an abrupt halt when she spotted Urdnot Wrex, the leader of the krogan people, standing stiffly and wearing what looked like the krogans' equivalent of a tuxedo. Red eyes locked onto hers, and the old earthbender let out a deep, mournful sigh.

"I look ridiculous," Wrex said grimly.

"Wrex?" Shepard asked. "What are you doing here?"

"Heard you were getting hitched. Grunt invited me," he said, casting a thumb over his shoulder to where Grunt was two-fisting massive varren-burgers. Of course, Grunt didn't wear the finery that Wrex did. It was dubious he'd even have the patience to get fitted for it.

"Who invited Grunt?" Shepard asked.

"Yeah... that mighta been me," Vega said, from his place beside the door. He rubbed at the back of his neck. "It just kinda got out."

"Who else is invited?" Shepard asked, the concern clear.

"Just about everybody who's had the misfortune of getting shot at by your side," Wrex said, following her in. The lobby certainly gave credence to that. Besides the asari functionaries which kept the place running – even in the face of the apocalypse – every face was one she knew. The Lawson family, all technically the same woman at different points in her life, were dressed to the nines, with Yue's inevitable exception. It seemed, freed from even the potential influence of Henri Lawson, Yue decided that she was going to take a page from Jack's book, rather than Miranda. And speaking of Jack...

"See? Told ya she didn't get cold feet," Jack said. All told, she was dressed well... for her. That meant that she had the semblance of formality about her, but the abundant tattoos that she made no effort to hide and the aggressive hair-style made a quick mockery of it. Still, it was good to have Jack back at her side. "And you owe me money, Lawson."

"Fine..." Miranda rolled her eyes, but whatever the wager, that was left for the moment between them. Samara was also here, another surprise, standing straight and almost as stiff as Wrex's suit. She gave Shepard a minute nod as Shepard passed her by.

"Bakara sends her best," Wrex continued. "She would have come, but she'd just popped out an egg, and the squealers are starting to monopolize her time," He gave a quiet, distant laugh. "Never thought I'd see so many krogan ankle-biters at one time in my entire life."

"Shepard has a way of making the best come out of a bad war," Vega piped up. "Come on, you save my sweet ass, didn't ya?"

"The war hadn't started yet," Shepard pointed out.

"Bullshit, the Reapers tried to assassinate you a few minutes later. I call that a Declaration if ever there was one," Vega shook his head. The next unexpected face made her miss a step, because she had no idea she was going to see it here. "Oh, hey."

"That's all I get from you, James?" Zia asked. She looked different. No longer on the very cusp of death, which was an improvement, but not as much of one as Shepard would have preferred. A lot of Zia's hair had fallen out, and there just wasn't time enough to replace it, nor wigs that would do the trick, and her skin had taken on a somewhat gray-ish pallor. She didn't seem to be as steady on her feet, either, but she was standing, which put her head-and-shoulders above what she'd been before. "You didn't really think I was going to miss out on the great Avatar Shepard's wedding, did you?"

"I thought you were still in the hospital," Shepard said.

"Prognosis positive. Besides, what's one afternoon?" Zia shrugged, which sounded with a faint pop. Zia didn't let pain – if there was any – show on her face, and instead joined in with the four of them heading toward the boardroom that was off of the lobby so stocked with familiar faces. Was that... Balak? What was he doing here? The batarian didn't say anything, though, just sharing the minute nod with her as she met his gaze. An acknowledgment, and saying nothing more. "Come on. You've got a wedding to attend. And speaking of... where's your dress?"

"They wanted to put me in a white one," Shepard pointed out.

"White's a decent color," Zia said.

"Yeah, for a funeral," Vega said.

"Varrick-Moon, back in the Thirty-Fourth?" Zia said.

"Who?" Vega asked.

"She wore... never mind," the unwell Shepard said, shaking her head. "Still, you should have picked something."

"I got a bit waylaid," Shepard said. "Hannah's coming, by the way."

"I thought you hated her," Zia said, benuded brow raising.

"Yeah, so did I. Turns out underneath all that bitchiness, there's actually a half-decent person in there."

"Yeah, who knew such a thing could have happened?" Jack asked, rolling her eyes all the way around, probably for show.

The irony was not lost on Shepard. In a lot of ways, it was hard to even remember how she was four years ago, when all of this began. When her training in the elements was given a provisional 'finished', and she was released back into the military. When Anderson picked her out for that assignment aboard the first Normandy. In so many ways, she felt like she was looking back on the life of another woman, one who had masked pain with cruelty, insecurity with rashness.

And by the grace of those who now walked with her, she was changed.

The boardroom opened into a slight descent, a sort of gallery surrounding the emptied-out area at its center where the tables and benches would have sat. This was one of the municipal hubs, overseeing this entire section of both the Presidium Commons, and the Zakara Wards Access as well. All of that had been moved out, and a torii had been set in its place. Her eyes fell on Liara, then, and everything else faded away.

She was wearing a yellow dress.

Even as her brain picked out the look of Liara, that beaming smile that grew only brighter whenever Shepard came into view, it fell to all the little details. The way that Aethyta stood protectively nearby, but nevertheless cracked her stony demeanor when the other party of this wedding came into sight. How Liara's fingers ceased picking nervously at the hem of her dress, letting it fall. Come to think of it, Shepard couldn't even remember a time when Liara wore a dress. Before, it had always been utilitarian clothes, the clothes of a field researcher. After her resurrection, Liara favored the stylized and the leatherbound, which frankly Shepard didn't mind in the least, but even then, there was never a state of honest and genuine femininity to the way Liara dressed, in all the time Shepard had known her. This...

"You came!" Liara said.

"Of course I came," Shepard said.

"You were beginning to worry your friends," the officiator said, which pulled a start out of Shepard. "Well met again, Commander."

"Kolyat?" Shepard asked.

"When the call came for someone to oversee, all eyes turned to one such as myself," Kolyat gave a shrug, then returned to his relaxed grip on the leather-clad tome which had no doubt been passed from father to son.

"Still..." Shepard trailed off, coming to a halt opposite the asari. Her asari. "You look beautiful."

"And you look like you got distracted by things on the way here," Liara said with a tone approaching sternness, but falling short because it was criminally hard to take Liara seriously while she was wearing a sunny, translucent dress with embroidered insects on it.

"Family," Shepard said. She then turned, and noted that Wrex was standing right abouts where Aethyta was, relative to Shepard. "Um, what's going on? This doesn't look like an Aramali wedding..."

"Because it isn't," Kolyat supplied.

Shepard turned a look to the people who were now filing in, forming a crowd before the torii and the couple arrayed before it. They were all here. Everybody alive. Tali'Zorah, Garrus, Wrex, Asha, Jack; the whole gang that still drew breath from the original Normandy. And beyond them, all the others who had fought and bled beside her in her fight against the Collectors and Leviathan. Only the fallen were missing. And from the look of those gathered, they were gone but far from forgotten.

"I thought that it would be better to do something more... personal," Liara said.

"Well, you've nailed that," Shepard said. She looked down at herself, sighing now at her comparative lack of apparel. "I should... go get dressed in something."

"Do you want to?" Liara asked.

"Doll up? Good god, no," Shepard said.

"Then don't. We're making this up as we go along," Liara said with a room-brightening smile.

"We should wait. For the others to get here," Shepard said. Liara just shrugged.

"I am a very patient person," she said.

"No you're not," Shepard said.

"I waited for you to come to your senses. That required immense patience," she pointed out.

"I wasn't... I didn't..." Shepard stopped herself, and took a purging breath. "My senses were just fine. I just needed to do some soul searching..."

"Which required patience to wait out," Liara interrupted.

"Don't try to fight her on this one, Shepard," Garrus said. "There's no way for you to win."

"Because she's arguing with a woman?" Tali asked, glancing up to her turian paramour.

"Nah. Because she's arguing with an asari," Garrus said.

"Good point," Tali said.

"Uh, guys? We've got a bit of a problem," Joker said from the doors leading out into the rest of the building.

"What kind of problem?" Shepard asked, her impatience clear as a bell as she pulled herself away from Liara and the wedding-in-progress.

"The kind of problem that can only be solved by two hulking krogan, from the looks of things," Joker said. When Shepard reached his side, she could see a bevy of reporters being outright bullrushed out of the building by the combined might of Grunt and Wrex, with a bit of help from the almost-krogan-sized Jimmy Vega.

"Don't worry, Shepard, we've got this under control," Wrex said as they continued their unabated march. The various salarians, asari, and humans all complained at the top of their lungs about the injustice of being forced outside during the 'historic occasion', but their cries fell in deaf ears. Worse than that, they fell on krogan ears. One managed to break through, almost darting past before Vega caught her by the back of her collar like a disobedient kitten.

"Ah ah ah, Shepard said no," Vega said.

"Release me you chicken-worshiping heathen," al'Jalani exclaimed. Shepard sighed and palmed her face.

"No press. Including you," Vega said, and hefted her easily toward the doors once again.

"Khalisah? Commander, she's my guest..." Samantha said, pulling Shepard's attention to the Tribeswoman instead of the belligerent Si Wongi.

"Why would you invite al'Jalani anywhere, let alone my wedding?" Shepard asked. Traynor blushed a slightly darker shade of brown, and Shepard could only turn aside and bang her head against the threshold of the inner doors. "You're sleeping with her. Right."

"I don't even have a camera! Put me down or I'll... Just put me down!" al'Jalani complained.

"If she causes problems, you're getting thrown out with her," Shepard warned, turning a burning eye toward her cryptanalyst.

"She'll be on her best behavior," Traynor said with a sternness that instantly drew a chuckle from Shepard. Samantha was a nice person, but had all the fighting spirit of a lemur.

"See that she is," Shepard said.

"I can be very persuasive," she promised. Shepard nodded, then let out a quick whistle.

"James? Let Sam's guest down."

"Soon as I find him, I will," Vega said, almost reaching the krogan line that now barricaded the fifth estate in the grounds outside the building.

"That would be al'Jalani," Shepard said. Vega turned back, looking between her and the Tribeswoman, having it take a period long enough that Shepard found it funny for him to realize exactly what she meant by that. He put her down, but still didn't look too pleased with her presence. "Sam's vouching for you, al'Jalani. Don't make her regret it."

"Of course not," she said, and Shepard believed it about as much as she believed politicians and pathological liars – where the two didn't intersect being a whole other story.

"I say you just put her out with the rest of 'em," Grunt said. "Easier that way."

"It's Shepard's ceremony, so Shepard decides who attends," Wrex said.

"It's a stupid ceremony. Monogamy is stupid," Grunt said.

"Sadly, you and a lot of others think that. That'll have to change, too. Back off, pyjack. I'm not afraid of getting blood on my suit. Are you?" Wrex broke off. The pushy salarian instantly wilted and withdrew, no longer even trying to push into the personal bubble of the two krogan. "Go monopolize your mate, Shepard. We've got the doors."

"Thanks, Wrex. This means a lot to me that you'd do this for a human..." Shepard said.

"I'm not doing for a human. I'm doing it for Shepard," Wrex said.

"I'm still not convinced she doesn't have some krogan in her," Grunt added.

"She might just after all," Wrex said. Shepard gave the old krogan an appreciative nod, then turned back into the boardroom. The others were coming, not far at this point. And Liara was so beautiful. Even now, Shepard could see that little smile she had on her face most of the time, that tiny spark of unending optimism that only Liara T'Soni's particular blend of insanity could instill in her. She didn't see the camera built into the room recording the events, nor know of the viewership which encompassed most of the population of the Citadel, and a huge number of those beyond that still had access to the Extranet. All she knew is, she was marrying this mad, wonderful woman.

It might not have been the best wedding, objectively speaking, but for Shepard... everything was perfect.

Weaver whistled lightly as he went through his files, flicking panes of hard-light around as he idly tried to dig for something that he'd been looking for, but couldn't quite find. It was an annoying state, one that had fogged his mind of late when he wasn't busy and presently accounting for more important things. He cracked a yawn, breaking the tune long enough for his jaw to pop, then returned to the song.

There was so much to do to win this war. Sacrifices needed to be made, and he was the only one in a position to make them, and make them meaningful. His resources were dwindling, true, but not nearly as quickly as they were for every other player in this game. If there was one talent he'd learned both in the army before the loss of his eyes, and as the dual leader of Samsara and Phoenix in their wake, it was how to pull resources out of his metaphorical ass. Where the 'allied' war effort was going hungry, his fighters had full bellies. Where theirs were cold and demoralized, his were as solid as the Pillars of Heaven, unwavering. He demanded a lot out of his people, and they met his every expectation, often to a wide margin.

All that it'd taken was the augmentations he'd pioneered with the help of that braying, now deceased jackass, Henri Lawson. A mind proofed against Indoctrination, a body proofed against hunger, exposure, and injury. A soul moulded into the keenest weapon forged by human hands. Any army in human history would be quaking in its boots at the very notion of the forces that Weaver could bring to bear. An army of Avatars, or as good as such. Benders of the elements, heeding only the orders that would see an end to this war.

"Ah. Shepard got married," Weaver spoke into the silence of his black, empty room. He was alone with the hard light, projections of a hundred bleak battles that were bathing the blood of a hundred worlds in the blood of aliens. Blue, green, and indeed red, forming together into a muddy brown mess, a new topsoil that the Reapers would plant their next grisly crop. Unless he stopped them. And he had to stop them. Nobody else could do it. "How nice," he said, an edge to his voice.

For some reason, his jaw tightened, teeth clicking slightly at the pressure, before he gave his head a shake. So much to do. An army to lead. A war to win. Reapers to survive.

There was a knock at the door, and he didn't bother looking over his shoulder. "If that's a meal, just leave it beside my chair," he said. Sleep had long eluded him, but he didn't feel drowsy or leaden. Instead of having his eyelids drag down heavily over his synthetic eyes, they were pinned open, an unusual energy sparking along his fingertips, pins and needles tapping at the edges of his fingernails, keeping him awake, alert, and working. He had gone beyond sleep.

The gentle clack of approaching footfalls instantly fled into the farthest reaches of his mind, while he pulled up the reports of an operation in Inner Council Space where the asari lost control of another fuel depot. He clucked his tongue, and rattled off another order. That was the greatest weakness of the species; while their individual warriors could be tremendously experienced and capable, as an army they were about as cohesive as a wet bag of unrelated cats. Couldn't let the Reapers have the facility though. Perhaps another 'Samsara' holding was going to come under his control in the coming hours? More fuel meant more mobility. Samsara had no dreadnaughts, per se, so it had to make do with whatever else that Weaver could come up with.

Fortunately, he'd come up with rather a lot.

After a few seconds, he found himself staring at the feed of Shepard's matrimonials. She and the alien embracing to the adulation of her friends and family. He clicked his tongue, wafting away the vague distaste that it left in his throat. No reason to think that way about T'Soni. Hell, if half the asari in this war were of her caliber, perhaps they would have been adept enough to hold that damned fuel depot. It didn't occur to him that his visceral disgust was not directed at the blue skinned of the pair. Or that he wasn't the source of it.

Even as he watched, his fingers rattled another order to another unit, elsewhere in the galaxy. He did it with nary a thought, operating more on autopilot than a lot of tramp freighters. Perhaps that was the source of his continued vitality; he was able to dedicate all of his thought and effort into things that actually required time and concentration, while passing off the rest. Yeah. That must be it. He was just becoming more efficient. And after all these years at the head of both Samsara and Phoenix, he'd gotten very, very efficient.

The clacking came to a halt for a moment behind him, and he barely noticed. Damn it, another communications relay went down. Now how was he going to make sure his people were doing their goddamned jobs? That stung at him, a quiet outrage burning at the thought of not so much failure, but disobedience. Failure was something to be accounted for, but disobedience was unforgivable at this point. If they didn't listen to him, everybody was doomed. Everybody needed his hand at the tiller of this ship, whether they realized it or not. And a great many of them didn't realize it. He'd fix that in time.

Then, the clacking continued, its brief hiatus slipping his mind. He had other things to worry about. A war to win.

"Well? Is that my meal?" Weaver asked, turning to the newcomer. Ju Li was staring at him, mouth agape, eyes wide. "I don't see a meal."

"What..." she said.

"Nevermind. I'm not particularly hungry anyway," he said, returning his attention to the flow of information in front of him. He didn't get far before Ju Li rounded the chair, parting the hard-light with her body, and grabbing him by the chin. She immediately jerked his head to the right.

Wavering there, pointing now directly into his eyes, was his pistol, held in a white-knuckled grasp in his right hand. The finger was straining for its utmost to pull the trigger as the gun itself shifted, competing impulses to keep the gun on target and to force it away. He couldn't feel the gun in his hand. In fact, he could have sworn he was still typing with it. He blinked at the insane thing before his eyes, then flicked them back toward Ju Li, who was practically in tears.

"Well... what does this mean?" he asked.

He was answered a moment later by a massive electrical blast which threw him out of his chair, across the floor and into unconsciousness. The gun remained in his hand; the last thing he heard and felt was the searing blast of the pistol firing a bullet right beside his face.

"Alright, now that we've got the ceremonial face-suckage behind us, it's time to do what we were all looking forward to for the last month," Joker said, raising a can of beer above his head. "It is time, that we party down!"

"Should you be drinking that? We aren't home yet," Garrus asked, but Joker gave a patronizing laugh and shook his head to the taller turian.

"Do you think I'm going to be boring enough to stay sober today? I'm getting Steve to fly," he said. The shuttle – adorned as it was with the streamers and a hard-light placard reading 'Just Married' in about the trashiest way that he could have managed – opened its door to reveal the bright-eyed Tribesman within and at the helm. Joker wasn't even the first to duck into the shuttle, to get away from the noise in the streets. How they'd learned about said face-suckage he wasn't privy to, but they had gone all out in joining the celebration. And he wouldn't deny them that they'd earned a good party.

Shepard and Liara were being all lovey-dovey on their bench, which the others kept clear because, face it, if you were to stick a finger between them at this point, you were likely to lose your whole arm and part of the shoulder before you realized your mistake. "You should be more prudent, Jet. If you become inebriated, there's a chance you could fall and injure yourself," EDI said, ever the worrywart.

"There's always a chance I could fall and injure myself. With this in me, I won't care," Joker pointed out, giving his beer a shake before opening it – directing the spray at Vega because it was funny.

"Agh, damn it," Vega said, before flicking with a hand and having the foam lift from his neck and chest and fall to the floor. Damn, but it was weird to think of the big meat-headed earthbender as a mini-Shepard, but that was the kind of thing that Joker had gotten used to. What a crew this shuttle had. The Avatar, the Shadow Broker, the King of Tuchanka, Savior of the Citadel (although he would deny it at the top of his lungs if offered), and so many others besides. He'd always heard that the Avatar would gather the movers and shakers of his or her age around them, a whirlpool drifting through history and leaving the most splendid chaos in its wake. "You're lucky you're too easy to hurt, Joker. Otherwise I'd smack ya."

"You shouldn't antagonize Lieutenant Vega," EDI said.

"Please. I'm not antagonizing. I'm just busting his balls."

"I fail to see a meaningful difference," EDI said.

"Still gotta work on that sense of humor, then," Joker said.

"EDI, it's what men do to tease each other," Tali piped up.

"It still seems fairly aggressive," EDI noted.

"That's guy stuff. We rag on each other an' don't mean it, same way as women compliment each other an' not mean it," Vega said.

"Speak for yourself," Shepard's sister said, her head shaking to the absolute end of her patience. "Some of us are grown-ups. We can use our words."

"You'll be a school-marm yet," Joker said.

"Why thank you," she said, ignoring the rib. Talitha looked out the shuttle's window, and recoiled slightly, before shooting a glance first to her older sister, and then to Joker who at least was paying attention. "Oh my. That really is something."

"What is?" Joker asked, scooting over and leaning in on the window. The streets below were teeming with people, a mat of living aliens, humans, and probably a few Keepers that seemed to be doing their best to party in sympathy. Joker turned a look to the Avatar, then cast his thumb toward the window. "You might wanna take a look at this, Commander."

"Look at what?" Shepard finally dragged her attention to her newly wed wife, and to the window that was on her side of the shuttle. "Sweet merciful hell, look at that."

"I told you that people were just waiting for an excuse to have a party," Garrus said.

"Come to think of it, where exactly are we supposed to park this thing?" Steve asked over his shoulder.

"It's standing-room only on the streets. Anderson's..." Shepard trailed off, turning a glance to her sister. "...Talitha's apartment has a landing pad at least."

"Which is also playing host to partiers aplenty," Joker noted as he looked past the pilot's shoulder to the rooftop. "You'd almost think you were some kind of celebrity or something."

"No rooftop?" Shepard asked, parting from Liara entirely and elbowing her way through the tightly-packed shuttle to reach Joker's side. When she beheld what he had, she could only shake her head. "Great. No rooftop."

"We could try the neighbor's balcony?" Talitha offered.

"The neighbors have a balcony?" Shepard asked. "This building even has balconies?"

"It's not exactly large," Talitha's eyes dropped to the floor under even her sister's scrutiny. "I mean... it might fit."

"It'll fit," Joker said. He pointed out the protrusion which overhung the alleyway below, a glorified bracket for the great sign proclaiming the building to be the Tiberium Arms more than a place to set out a barbeque and open up a lawn-chair. Still, it'd work. "You can land it on that pinhead, can't you, Steve?"

"As long as you don't mind scuffing the paint a bit," the Tribesman answered. The shuttle shifted and translated over, slowly dropping until there was a grinding sound, followed by a metallic thunk. Steve cracked his knuckles and shut down the GUI, letting the engines power down. "Getting back out? Now that'll be a bit trickier."

"It's not a party until somebody's parked on the upstairs balcony," Shepard said, and reached past the paired krogan to open up the door. Even as it hissed aside, the patio-doors to the apartment were sliding open, at the tip of a bright pink tendril. The hanar dipped its point toward them all, then toward its own door.

"This one is surprised by your appearance in this one's apartment," the hanar said.

"Trust me, so are we. Do you mind if we go through?" Shepard asked.

The hanar fluttered to itself for a few seconds, light running up and down its body, before another voice came from beyond, this one not needing translation from bioluminescent light. "Undyne, honey? Are you gonna come back or not?"

"Please forgive this one. Events were in motion before your arrival. You may pass through this one's domicile," the hanar said, waving a tentacle towards its own front door. Joker turned a scrutinous look from the hanar, to his guys, then shrugged and started strutting. Half way across the spacious living room, he found himself walking into a faintly green haze that smelled frankly odd. He turned, looking toward this unit's kitchen, and found three asari, all in various states of undress, centered around some sort of burning censer holding bottles of what was almost certainly booze. "This one asks that you not intrude on this one's privacy, please."

"Yeah, sure," Joker said with a laugh, and opened the door. The hall beyond... there were aliens of all make and model, talking loudly, pressing close to the point of scandal, or lugging even more licentious beverages into the other rooms that lined the hallway. It was a relief to get back to Talitha's apartment, but even then, the instant he opened the door, a hardlight drone was in his face.

"Greetings, party goer," Glyph said. "Music has been selected suitable for the occasion. Please enjoy yourself."

"Yeah, will do," Joker said. EDI was soon at his side, and he motioned toward the bar on the far side of the fire-place. "So was this what you figured you'd be doing today?"

"I had my suspicions," EDI said coyly – or as coyly as she was at this point capable of.

"Man, it is good to be outta that crush," Vega said, rolling his shoulders. He gave his hands a meaty clap. "Alright! Who's ready to kick this sucker off?"

"Ah, the eagerness of youth," Joker said, carefully seating himself. The others, they started to part and separate, everybody heading for their own spot in the chaos which was unfolding now. Soon, the liquor would flow like blood, and everybody would be three sheets to the wind. In short, it was going to be a long, fun, hilarious day.

Navigating the press of people was easier now that they had a set of doors separating them from the rest of the Citadel, but there was still a weight on Zia's shoulders. Physically, she felt alright. Better than she had since Thessia, at any rate. So she even allowed herself a tentative sip of the beer offered to her by the little green hostess who was being the exact opposite of her dour parent. She had about a liver and a half in her at the moment, care of her legitimate 'sister' giving a laundry-list of transplants to her.

In a way, it was kind of strange. She currently played host to three lungs, three kidneys, a spare chunk of Aimei's liver, cultured Langerhans cells in a cultured pancreas, a network of new arteries around her heart making up for the atrophied ones she was 'born' with... simply put, it was a medical miracle that she was alive. And Karin let her know the exact price of that miracle. Not out of cruelty, but because Chakwas knew that Aimei wouldn't listen to her, and that somebody had to know the score. Yes, it was an improvement, and a drastic one. It was also a very temporary one.

"James?" Zia said, shifting on her stool in the kitchen.

"Yeah Z?" he asked, cracking open a beer for himself.

"Do me a favor and distract me, because I find myself thinking."

"Oh, how horrible," Vega said with gravitas betraying his wording. "Gotta be bad things you're thinkin' about, otherwise you wouldn't be bitchin'. Although, come to think, you weren't one for bitching in the worst of times..." He could only shrug. "What kinda distraction d'you need?"

That was something Zia didn't immediately have an answer for. She could see how Shepard and Liara tended to orbit each other even throughout the party, the way they looked at each other sending shards of unwanted jealousy into Zia's half-broken heart. She didn't want to be jealous of Aimei. Shepard had the weight of a galaxy on her shoulders, and Zia just wasn't up to carrying the burden. But then, Liara would turn a glance to Aimei, and it was like the room was lighting up. Something that Zia had never known. And would never have a chance to know.

"You know, it's a bit unfair," she said, instead. "Shepard is down about every expendable part of herself she can spare, and according to Karin, she is still showing stronger vitals than any time before. And that's comparing her against herself, not... you know..."

"The broken version?" Vega asked, tipping his can lightly toward her. She sighed and took another sip. "She's the Avatar. That's just kinda a thing she does."

"Yeah, but..."

"Still have problems with jealousy, Z?" Vega asked, leaning back on the counter, so that they were essentially side-by-side. "I know. Ain't fair. I mean, even I can feel it. In myself, ya know?" she raised a confused brow. He flexed a fist, flame igniting above it, before he let it snuff. "I don't get as tired anymore. Even after workin' the shit out of myself. And I'm gettin' stronger – it's just like what Chakwas said about Shepard, back at the start of all this. I think it's gotta have somethin' to do with my soul. The Avatar bit of it, I mean."

"What does it feel like?" Zia asked. "Having that as a part of you?"

Vega took a moment, staring off into space, punctuated by a hard draw from his beer that left the can empty. He puffed out a breath, staring down into the empty vessel. "Sometimes I can still hear him. Ismaal, I mean. The guy whose soul I've got."

"Really?" Zia asked.

"Yeah, and it's really fucking weird," he said. "I know this guy now. Like I lived my entire life with him – shit, as him – and now it's just... I don't know, man."

"It's got to be like what Shepard goes through. When she's in the Avatar State," Zia said.

"Kinda but not really," Vega could only shake his head. "I mean, I talked to Javik about it. He says that most of the time, the only voice rattlin' around in your head is your own. Said my head had an echo in it. Maybe that's what this is."

Zia didn't quite have the heart to tell him that Javik's comment was nothing but an insult, so she let it slide. "Then you're something special, James Vega. You can toast to that."

"I think I just might," Vega said, a smirk finally returning to his face. Zia was silent for a moment, staring at the unopened beer that was by her elbow. Oh, to hell with it. She was dying anyway. Why not have a bit of fun? She cracked it open, taking a swig as she had seen her 'sister' do when the times grew harsh and bitter. She immediately coughed and hacked, and wheezed, causing Vega to turn to her in concern and confusion. "Whoa, there; you alright, Z?"

"Ugh, it's in my nose..." Zia managed, before she lurched over to the sink to finish coughing the fizzy, bitter drink that had immediately backed out on her. She coughed hard, tears leaking from her eyes, until she wasn't sure if she wasn't going to start vomiting. There was a gentle hand on her back by the time she finally blew the last bubbling vestige from her nose and slumped forward in defeat.

"First beer?" Vega said from her side. She nodded weakly. "False alarm, guys, just tried inhaling booze."

"Then she's not trying hard enough!" Grunt called from elsewhere in the party, and the volume of the music raised up once more. Zia took a ragged breath, spitting out the malty mess which had so humbled her, and turned a look up to Vega.

"I have a question for you," she said.

"Careful. I ain't exactly known for havin' answers," Vega said with a shrug.

"Why did we never get together?" Zia asked. Vega blinked at her, as though not quite understanding the question.

"I... ah... didn't know that..." he began.

"If you didn't know, then you've got to be the most oblivious man I've met in my life," Zia said flatly. She pushed away from the sink, noting in the back of her head that Vega's hand stayed on her back. "I know... how much what happened on Fehl Prime hurt you. How much you needed a friend. I thought I could be... patient. But now, I don't have time. I'm... I'm running out of time."

"Well... I'm flattered, I guess," Vega said, rubbing at the back of his neck with his other hand. "Guess I was too busy gettin' shot at and blown up to notice. I mean, you're still Shepard, ya know?"

"I'm not the Avatar," Zia said.

"Yeah, and until recently, the only reason anybody could tell that was 'cause you were honest about it," Vega said. "You fought like her. Maybe in my head, I just kinda tied the two a' you together for that. And Shepard was always this whole other thing for me, ya know?"

"We're too special for normal old James Vega?" Zia said, turning at last and wiping the snot away from her face. "Well, after that, I think you'll have a hard time putting me on a pedestal."

"Hard to idolize someone who you seen blowin' snot, yeah," Vega said.

"We are here, at the end of civilization as we know it," Zia said. "I don't want to be alone."

Vega sighed, rubbing at his eyes with those big, strong fingers of his. "This is weird," he said.

"Not going to hear disagreement from me on that," Zia said.

"Then again, this is lookin' like it's gonna be a weird kinda party," he said with a helpless shrug.

"That sounded very close to a 'yes'," Zia said.

"You're like a cat with a fish, you know that?" he said.

"I know what I like," Zia said, cat-like smile spreading, even though she till felt a little off. She'd have to get used to 'off'. 'Off' was going to become her new normal. "So what do you say, Jimmy Vega? Want to do something weird today?"

The Avatar of Vengeance was not amused by the caterwauling and carrying-on that had started hours ago already. He thought that he would find some balm for his soul, seeing Abylon having fun. Doing something 'normal'. Being able to interact with others who weren't either her sire or her effective-adoptive mother was a luxury that she had been denied for so long because of their brutal circumstances in the last Harvest. She seemed to take to it with all the ease of a duck to the pond. And still, Javik had discontent.

He had pulled back, away from the others, away from the thudding of the music and the crashing and receding of the party-goers' voices, as far away as he could find in the same apartment. But there was no respite from the noise, and there was no respite from the Sensation that he could feel with every brush of his fingertips. This was Aby's room, now. She slept like a queen, on an actual bed. He could feel the residues she'd left behind in her time here. There was no fear, here. No terror. No wondering if she would see another day, or be victim to another of the strange horrors which preyed upon the living. Here, she could simply be.

Things such as these left a sting of bitter disappointment in him. Not at her behavior – the farthest thing from it. He was disappointed that he could never give this to her himself. She deserved far better than he as a father. But at the same time, she was all he had left. That was the epitome of weakness; to be a curse to someone you care for, and be too weak to let them be free of you.

The door opening once more instantly drew lightning to Javik's fingertips. The scent of ozone filled with the popping of the air, as an asari quietly entered the room, sliding the door shut behind her. It was the Samara warrior. The one almost undone by her physical injuries, before she dragged herself back into the fight. "What are you doing here?" He demanded, letting the lightning drain away.

"I find I need a brief reprieve from the celebration," she said, letting a cold gaze slide over him, quickly noting the topography of the room, marking her corners, before she took several slightly awkward steps out of the way of the door, and lowering herself to a kneel.

"What makes you believe you will find it here?" Javik asked.

"Do you wish conversation, or quiet?" Samara asked, eyes sliding shut.

Javik stared at the old asari, and then nodded slowly. It was one thing, to be molded by combat into a shape that had no purpose beyond it, but it was quite another to mold oneself with such purpose. He could feel whispers of the Samara warrior on the Normandy; she had never let much of herself touch the ground, not in parts which hadn't been vaporized by the Leviathan's attacks. She was as close to an enigma as he would find.

But frankly, he tired of riddles, he tired of games. He was just tired. So he lowered himself down to the floor as well, letting four eyes slip shut as he focused on the silence between the notes of music, the peace between peals of laughter from beyond. There was no more said between the two old warriors, and nothing that needed saying beyond the unspoken respect. Maybe this was no world for one such as Javik. That may never change. But he could make it a world for Abylon.

The door hissed open again, and this time Javik didn't immediately reach for lightning. Which was fortunate, because a fraction of a second later, he had to catch something that had been thrown at him. "Still got the reflexes, old man?" Abylon gave a wide grin, before turning and letting the door slid shut. Javik turned what had been thrown at him. A can of some sort of beverage. Well. Perhaps he did have a momentary thirst...

"Tali, are you sure you should be drinking that?" Shepard asked, leaning aside and taking a closer look at the wavering quarian.

"Of course! This is a party, and in a party, people drink things!" Tali'Zorah declared, holding her drink before her proudly, the little straw spinning along its lip. "It's just tricky to get the emergency injection port to line up..."

"Emergency in... Tali, that's a straw," Shepard pointed out, as she fumblingly put the straw to the hole in her mask.

"Emeeeeergency induction port," Tali slurred. "See? Javik gets it!"

And if that wasn't the biggest shock of the night, seeing Javik down at the bar, surrounded by empty cans of beer to a quantity that even Shepard wasn't sure she could easily put to bed. "Protheans... can read the smallest details of our environment," Javik said, every one of his eyes open to a different degree. He turned dramatically, pointing to where Jack was lounging on the couch with her feet up on the coffee-table. "You! Tattooed human! I wish to touch you!"

"I ain't nearly drunk enough for that, four-eyes," Jack spat back, shaking her head and taking a drink of her own.

"Then you, Garrus turian. I will touch you instead!" Javik declared.

"No thanks. I like having a few secrets to myself," Garrus could barely keep a laugh in.

"Then the Tali-quarian!" Javik turned toward her, hands reaching. She leaned back to the point where she fell off of her stool and landed in a pile on the floor, laughing madly.

"Maybe you've had enough, Tali..." Garrus said as he stooped to pick her up.

"But I've still got three more filters. I can't stop now! Where's my drink?" Tali bemoaned, as Garrus simply draped her over his shoulder and walked away with her. "Maybe I'm the drink! Tee-hee!"

"Hey, Collector-lookin' asshole. Maybe you should go touch yourself?" Jack offered from the couch.

"That comes at the end of the party," Javik said with a shake of his head and something that looked suspiciously like... like a giggle. Only it couldn't be, because Javik was Javik, and Javik giggling simply did not fit into Shepard's world-view. Suddenly he turned, eyes widening and narrowing seemingly at random. He thrust his beverage upward and in her direction. "Commanderrrrr!"

"Javik?" Shepard asked, barely keeping her own laughter down.

"I have been drinking the provided... drinks," Javik said, sloshing a bit over his wrist as he pulled it back toward him. "They are very refreshing."

"You might want to back off on the intake a little, there," Shepard said with a laugh. She then looked up and down the bar. "Where's the food?"

"Yeah, I've been wondering that," Jack said from the couch. "Wasn't there s'posed to be some sort of buffet or something?"

"In my cycle we had foods. Many. Varieties," Javik said proudly.

"Is... he feeling okay?" Shepard asked, leaning in to where Joker was manning the bar.

Javik rolled at least two of his eyes. "I am a Prothean. I am never okay," he said sternly, and then quaffed what remained in his can. He held it up to an eye, peering down its now empty depths. "But it seems these beverages are changing that."

"We've been waiting on delivery for, like, an hour," Joker said. "But do you know what I could go for right now? Burgers. Big, greasy, salty patties, sesame buns..."

"Ugh, Joker, you're a fuckin' sadist talkin' about food right now!" Jack shouted, draping a pillow across her face.

"Eh, I'm more of a dessert kinda girl," Shepard said. "Anything with cinnamon, and I am your slave."

"Sure. Hell, one of the oldest memories I still got was those muffins Mom and Dad used to make," Jack said, letting the pillow fall away. "Most of 'em didn't even last long enough to get cold."

Javik scoffed loudly, to the point of spitting a bit onto the bar. "Nothing compares to the food of my Cycle," he declared.

"Then maybe you should step into the kitchen, eh Javik?" Joker asked.

"I would. But so many of my ingredients are now extinct," Javik said, shoulders drooping as he fumbled to open another can of something malty and potentially useful for stripping paint. "Except for turians. And salarians. Krogan. Vorcha. Hanar, with enough salt... Is there any we could spare?"

"Yikes. And I thought Mom had a fucked up recipe book," Jack said.

Shepard could only shake her head and walk away from the utterly tanked Prothean. Everywhere else, it looked like people were having fun. Talitha and Abylon were being everywhere at once, the consummate social butterflies. Samara had emerged from her seclusion, now standing overlooking the living room. Wrex and Grunt had given up door-duty for a bit, and now were seated, drinking something that half-knocked her off her feet from across the room, and chuckling to themselves. Shepard paused at the corner, when Wrex snapped his fingers, and pointed at her. "Shepard!"

"Wrex?" Shepard said.

"Shepard," Grunt said with an eager nod.

"Grunt?" Shepard said.

"Shepard," Wrex said again.

"...Wrex?" Shepard repeated.

"Shepard... Shepard... Shepard," Grunt said.

"...Grunt?" Shepard said.

"Shepaaaaaaaaaard," Wrex said.

"Sheeeeeeeepard," Grunt drawled.

"...Wrex, Grunt..." Shepard said, and then turned away from the madness, lest it consume her.

She couldn't help but laugh as she headed up the stairs, though. She looked around, at the group assembled at the overlook. "Hey. Where'd Asha go?" she asked. Miranda gave an ignorant shrug.

"All we know is that she left in a hurry," Oriana answered for her elder sibling.

"Now, like I was sayin'," Vega picked up where he'd trailed off. "Biotics are impressive, absolutely, I'm not sayin' they aren't."

"You're just saying they aren't that impressive," Miranda sounded like she was at the edge of her patience already.

"Hey, you did just fine without 'em for most of your life," Vega pointed out. "Shit, you know what I mean. With biotics, you're all bang and no sustain. Come-on. Look at these guns! I could hold a Mako back with these boys!" he said, giving his sizable arms a flex. Zia simply shook her head in her palm, but Shepard could have sworn her beleaguered clone was smiling beneath it all. "Biotics can't give you this kinda fine instrument, the peak physical form you see before you!"

"Biotic martial arts do not require muscle mass. In fact, in some instances, they can be more a hindrance than an asset.," Samara said without turning.

"Is everybody up here playing nice?" Shepard asked.

"James here is just explaining how physical conditioning trumps biotic ability," Zia said, shaking her head slowly.

"Hey, I know first hand how strong biotics can be. I mean, I can do 'em an' shit – but they're all unpredictable. Surges and spurts, and a shit-load of coolin' down in between. But these bad-boys, it doesn't matter how long I go. In fact, the hotter I get, the better I am."

"Where did you find this one?" Miranda asked.

"The moon," Shepard said. "I wouldn't call my biotics 'unpredictable'. And I'm pretty sure the Reapers begrudgingly agree with me on that."

"A person can improve their physique," Vega said, clenching his fist before him and making those glorious muscles dance under his skin. "But biotics are what they are. Once you got 'em, you're stuck with 'em like that."

"Would you say that bending 'is what it is'?" Miranda asked. "I didn't stop getting stronger in my waterbending until I was almost twenty eight, and most waterbenders reach their peak in their teens. Earthbenders plateau in their thirties. Who is to say that biotics don't follow a similar path?"

"Okay," Vega waved the point away. "Maybe it's not conditioning exactly, so much as the conditioning of one James Vega," and then a flex. Oh, my. "Check it out, Z. Feng Nu? This guy right here, he never has to cool down. In fact, the hotter, the better."

Miranda stared at him blankly. "You are still talking about biotics, right?"

"Wow. I thought people like him only existed in movers," Oriana chimed in.

"I take that as a compliment, sweetheart!" Vega said.

"It wasn't intended as one," Oriana pointed out.

"Just hush and do some sit-ups," a new voice came from nowhere, causing Oriana to squawk and flinch into her older sister, whereupon a crackle hit the air and Kasumi Goto materialized out of thin air between Vega and the railing overlooking the party.

"Goto? What the hell are you doing here?" Shepard asked.

"Heard the Avatar was having a party. I couldn't exactly let that roll on by without sticking my head in to say 'congratulations' to my sister in the winds," Goto said with a grin.

"How did you get into my apartment?"

"I still have a key from the last time I was in here. Hey there, Clone-Shep. Wow. You look terrible," Goto said.

"It's Zia, remember?" the other Shepard said, impatience clear.

"Sorry, though. I still haven't gotten around to stealing a sense of humor for you," Goto said. "Maybe next time."

There was another fritz, and she disappeared from view again, even as Abylon came up the stairs with a platter of finger-foods that were likely created with an EDI-like precision by the only one capable of such a thing. "Snacks! Dubiously edible chewable things! Get 'em while they're warm and soggy!"

"You're a born saleswoman, you know that?" Vega asked as she approached.

"What about you, hoodie? Want anything?" Abylon asked to the naked air. All the people turned to that spot, but there was nothing there. Abylon pulled a confused face, tracking something unseen until it apparently went down the stairs. "Alright, just walk on by like a mute weirdo, then."

"You can see her?" Miranda asked, glancing between the hybrid and the cloaked human.

" can't?" Abylon asked. Vega broke the silence by grabbing a mitt-full of crunchy confections and digging in. "An' for the record there, Fridge LargeMeat, it's a no-brainer 'tween biotics and conditioning."

"You could hear us down there too?" he asked. Abylon waggled her ears a bit.

"These ain't just big 'cause we accessorize them, longshanks," Abylon said.

"She's right. It's an elemental martial art," Shepard said. "And one that apparently has a long and storied history that nobody talks about. Stamina and personal conditioning is important, but dark energy... that's a game changer all on its own."

"Bah. Maybe your right," Vega said.

"You had to know that was an argument you couldn't win," Shepard followed.

"You win some, you lose some," Vega shrugged. He then cracked a grin. "I mean, it's a lot of gettin' used to, ya know?"

"Imagine how I felt," Shepard said.

"Easier now," Vega said. "Though hey, check it out; I can roll my tongue, too."

And proceeded to to that. Samara sighed and leaned a little bit more against the railing, doing her utmost to ignore the loud-mouthed human at her side. Oriana outright shielded her eyes, muttering under her breath while Shepard did the only thing she could, and turned away from the insanity before it consumed her utterly. She couldn't even say how long everything had been going on. It was something of an informal rule that all clocks come off the walls and all monitors get shut down, to enjoy to the utmost what time they had without worrying about exactly how much had passed.

It wasn't until she reached the kitchen again that she realized that the door was beeping at her. The two krogan who had been serving as barrier wardens were still luxuriating on the sofa and loveseat, respectively, chuckling to themselves while drinking heavily, so Shepard took a deep breath and headed for the door. The camera that looked on the outside of the door had something blocking it, so that wasn't entirely helpful. Great. Sight unseen. She opened the door, her back straight and her clearest 'I'm gonna stomp a mudhole in you' expression that she'd inherited from her DI's back in basic. When it slid open, it did so to the mildly incredulous and confused look on the dumbest smart person that Shepard had met in her entire life.

"...Conrad?" Shepard asked, instantly losing her composure for the strangeness of it.

"Commander Shepard!" he said, brightening quickly. "I heard you were celebrating your wedding, and I thought I should give you a gift!"

He thrust a package toward her, one that crunched and crackled when it shifted. She took it gingerly from his grasp, feeling how mashed it felt. She shook it lightly, and damned if it didn't sound like crushed glass in there. "Is... this broken?"

"Erm... probably?" Verner said, shrugging meekly as he did. "But on the bright side, it was really nice before I dropped it... into traffic."

"...Thanks. I think," Shepard said.

"Oh, don't worry. They'll probably be able to replace it," he leaned in as though whispering a terrible secret. "I kept the receipt in the box."

"You kept the receipt for a wedding gift?" Shepard asked. She was dense as lead, true, but even she knew that there were some things that you simply didn't do with gifts, and letting the guy know how much it cost was pretty high up that list. "Right. Whatever. Liara and I appreciate your... generosity. Have a nic–"

"Hey, Shepard!" Jack called from across the apartment. "Unless it's that boogying vorcha again, get 'im a drink or something! We've got plenty!'

"Really, you'd want me to come to your party?" Verner lit up like a goddamned star.

"I never said..." Shepard said.

"I'll behave myself, I promise, Verner said, and darted past her, heading for the bar where Jack's tattooed arm – and nothing else visible – was beckoning him. Shepard just turned to watch him, a finger raised in impotent denial, while he vanished out of sight on the far side of the fireplace. She just stared there for a moment, then took another calming breath. If he did something tremendously stupid or destructive, there were probably enough people to contain it. Hopefully. Maybe. She turned to shut the door, but the door warked at her and when she turned, she could see it was because the frame was filled by other newcomers.

"Erdeni? Since when were you on the Citadel?" Shepard asked as Asha led him into the apartment and away from the people in the hall who were busy doing their own sympathetic celebration.

"I got here about a half hour ago," Erdeni said, seeming to perk up from his fairly tired-looking setpoint after crossing the threshold. "And if Asha here hadn't gotten me, I probably would have just gassed up and been back out through the relay by now. Congratulations on finally doing the smart thing and wife-ing Miss T'Soni... although is she still a 'T'Soni' or is she a 'Shepard' now?"

"That isn't how the asari do things," Shepard said. "And what do you mean 'wife-ing'?"

"So are you becoming a 'T'Soni', then?" Erdeni asked. "Oh, hey there, Wrex. Been a while."

"Erdeni," Wrex said, then quaffed hard on another drink of ryncol.

"That's... not how I do things, either," Shepard said.

"Well, I'm sure you two will figure something out," Erdeni said. He clapped his hands together and gave them a rub. "Now, I intended to get you a bottle of wine on my way here, but..."

"The Citadel seems to lack one for sale, at any price," Asha said, words a bit slurred. Shepard turned a confused look from the Si Wongi to the older man.

"Asha, have you been drinking?"

"A proper Si Wongi never drinks," she declared.

"Who ever claimed you were a proper Si Wongi?" Erdeni said. "I'm serious, though. I hope you've stocked up, because every liquor store between here and the docks is bare shelves. I did get you some crackers, though. Ash? The crackers?"

"Ah yes. Courtesy of Mister Erdeni, in lieu of a proper gift," she said with stuffy formality. Yes, Asha was definitely drunk. She handed over the box of admittedly fancy crackers, then headed straight for the bar, dragging Erdeni with her. "Now I find myself parched..."

"I'll see you around, I guess?" Erdeni said as he was pulled away.

Shepard could only shake her head and smile, closing the door in the face of a particular boogying vorcha before he surreptitiously danced his way into the apartment and by extension Shepard's own party. Little did Shepard know that the Citadel had risen as one for one last party, and was in the process of drinking the entire Citadel dry.

Waking up with a splitting headache wasn't on the top of Weaver's list of favorite things, even though it still did happen from time to time, despite his advancing age and the fact that by this point he really ought to know better. This time, though, when he tried to knead his brow, he found his hand jerk to a halt about half way there. He blinked a few times, then turned, staring silently and in confusion.

His left arm was handcuffed to the railing of the cot he was laying on. "Ju Li? Why do I feel like I just shot myself in the head?"

"Because you very nearly did," Ju Li's voice came back to him. He looked down his body, at this point only mildly surprised to find that he was lashed down so thoroughly that it would have taken a dozen Weavers to burst his bonds, if he were of the mind and lacking the headache for it. Ju Li pulled herself out of a pilot's seat – for at this moment, Weaver recognized that he was in a utilitarian skiff, and the windows all showed stars beyond, and stood at his feet.

Weaver blinked at her for a second or two. "Every time a woman looks at me like that, it's because I'm either about to get served divorce papers or a class-action suit. Say it ain't so, Ju Li," he said.

"You've gone too far in the wrong direction," Ju Li said. She moved to his side, sitting down on the bench opposite him, slumped forward with her hair covering her eyes. "You made a promise a long time ago. That we were going to kill the Reapers."

"We are going to defeat the Reapers," Weaver said. "I don't think I've backed down a millimeter from that, sweetheart."

Ju Li opened her omnitool in response, showing a camera view that Weaver knew very well. It was the chamber at the heart of his space station, the area of highest possible security. The sarcophagus that contained the ruined and vivisected remains of the Reaper weapon, Rho.

Shockingly, it showed Weaver there, too. He blinked at what he was seeing, glancing from Ju Li to the image that she showed. "The last time I was in there was during the Citadel Shuffle-Up. That can't be right."

"You've been in there every night for the last month," Ju Li said, tones tight, but the anger clear in them regardless.

"I think I'd remember such a thing," Weaver said. Ju Li clenched her jaw, then turned the image to another. Weaver's own bedroom. He sighed and turned a disparaging look at her. "You do realize things like that don't exactly engender a lot of trust between us?"

He watched as he set himself down for sleep one of the many nights, late as usual. What he didn't expect, but what happened immediately after he was squared away with his blankets in place, was that he got up, and walked away. He stared at that, the image of his own self walking toward the doors of his bedroom, in confusion. In shock.

"No," he said. "I've been too careful. There's no way."

Without saying another word, she flicked over again, this time to one of his audio logs. "...Lawson's research wasn't in vain, however I wonder exactly how much use the specimen is going to be in her current state. It makes my skin crawl just looking at her. There's something wrong about her. Something... unclean. Bah. Unimportant. I just need to find a way to control her. She's the key. To all of this. She is the catalyst to everything, the first step in a chain reaction that will give me absolute control. If I can control her, I can control them. And then, I can give all of this death some meaning."

"Ju Li, what...?"

"You promised me you were going to kill them," Ju Li said.

"No, that's not what I meant," he said. "Surely you can see what really meant was..."

"No!" She shouted, glaring at him now with eyes that called to mind another set, whose bearer was now so long gone. "You can lie to yourself, and you can lie to your men, but you can't lie to me! Kill the Reapers. That was your promise to me. And now you want to... what? Control them? Don't you see what they're doing to you? How they're getting inside your head?"

"I can do it!" Weaver shouted. "I just need..."

"It's impossible!" Ju Li shouted back at him, her fingers dancing along the Omni once more.

"...Juggernaut is starting to cost more than its earning. If we can't wrest control of the Reapers' soldiers, controlling them will be impossible," his own voice came back.

"That was before..." Weaver began.

Another crackle, and another log came to his ears. "Alright, let me say for the record; the goal is the annihilation of the Reapers," his voice came to him. "They're too insidious to leave alive, too dangerous to underestimate, too alien to understand. There's no quarter possible here. The only way I can win this is if she's alive. Miranda, can you promise me the Avatar?"

"If there is any way in the galaxy for Aimei Shepard to return from the grave, I will find it," Lawson's voice answered back.

"Look, things change..." Weaver said.

Another log. "Note to self; if I ever stop telling myself to kill these Reapers I keep talking about, make sure to quickly and quietly put a bullet in my head. Yeesh, these things are scary. Hey! Ju Li? Ju Li can you hear me?"

"What is it, Dad?" her answer came.

"Stay away from that thing! It's dangerous!" Weaver's past self sighed. "Look, future-me. Don't do anything stupid. For her sake. I didn't outlive Avatar Hong just to have the galaxy fall apart under my feet. You're doing this for her. For both of them. Here's to future-me. I hope I'm still devilishly attractive when I'm old and senile."

Weaver just looked at her. "...what?" he asked. He looked to Ju Li, his daughter. "Am... am I Indoctrinated?"

Ju Li could only silently nod.

"...yikes," he said. He gave a desperate laugh. "Really didn't see that one coming, now did I?"

"Dad..." she said.

"I've made a real mess of things, haven't I?" he asked. He tugged at his wrist once more. "Would you mind? I'd like to sit up, now."

"Dad..." she said.

"Eh, you're probably right. I'm a menace at the moment," he thumped his head against the cot. "I don't feel Indoctrinated. I feel like I'm... I'm right. Like what I'm doing is obvious," he said. He gave another dry chuckle. "I guess that's how they get you. Cut right into your pride. Where you never think to look. Clever bastards."

"I don't know what to do," Ju Li said simply. Weaver turned to her. Was she...? She wasn't crying, but she looked like she was doing her damnedest not to.

"Hey, chin up. I always knew you were better than me. Now you get the right to brag," he said. She turned a red-eyed glare at him. "You were always the best thing to come out of me. Although frankly, I think your mother might have been right. I wasn't always the best father. Aw hell, the galaxy is ending; let's be frank. I was a shitty father and you deserved better. Too late to do anything about that, though. Except for my exit strategy."

"You have an exit strategy?" she asked.

"Of course. Who do you think I am?" he said. "In the event that the entire galaxy wanted me dead, I find a nice enemy to throw Phoenix at, break Samsara down into its component parts – which you'll find you conveniently have controlling shares in – and I go and live on my private moon until the rum runs out. I don't think that's going to work, though."

"Because of the signal?" she prompted.

"Yeah. The signal," he nodded. It was something that he'd known for a while, but only now would admit to himself. The control frequency that he used to contain the outbursts of his Phoenix grunts, the technology that augmented their bodies and bending powers, it all stemmed from the same, Reaper well. And when the Reapers eventually figured out exactly how Weaver was doing all this – and that was only a matter of time at this juncture – there would come a point where every soldier fighting for Phoenix, would be under the direct command of the Reapers. He was spending years to buy minutes. And he'd just run out of time. "So this is how it's gonna be for the rest of it, huh? Me pretty much having to point at everything I think is a bone-headed idea and walk in that direction, because the alternative is all Reaper-y."

Ju Li rubbed at her brow, displacing her glasses for a moment before returning them to their perch. "What about this facility?" she asked. "If your thinking is compromised, there's no telling where you've left unconscious traps in its workings. You almost let Rho out! What happens if the Reapers track the signal back here?"

"We burn it down," Weaver said. He reached over toward the console in the wall, only to have his limbs jerk to a halt long before reaching it. He turned a look toward his daughter, then to the console once more. She unlocked one of his arms, and he reached up to the console. "Five? Are you still rattling around in there?"

"What is my mission?" the AI asked.

"...Golden Parachute," he said. The AI was silent for a moment.

"Please verify your intention. If this is to be begun, there is only one end forecasted for it," Five informed him.

"Lock and erase all Godhead-level research data. Disband all units of the Golden Spiders not susceptible to the control frequency," Weaver said. "Raise no silent or audible alarms. Just drop the firewalls and let them see us. I'm sure that the Alliance will clean up the rest of the trash."

"Enacting Golden Parachute. It has been an honor," Five said.

"No it hasn't. I've always been a jackass," Weaver said. There was a chirp as the line shut down, and he turned to Ju Li. He then shrugged with his one freed arm. "Great. Now. I need to go to the Citadel."

"...why?" Ju Li asked of him.

"I have a very old appointment to keep," he said, barely at a whisper.

The noises coming out of the bathroom had Garrus a little on edge. He gave a final, parting glance to the pane of glass that hemmed one side of the entry, shelving for the moment thoughts of explosive filaments and sinister booby-traps and instead moved for the lower-floor commode. He took a clearing breath, swishing some of his own level of intoxication away, then rapped his knuckles against the door. The answer he got was the thick chundering of somebody being noisily ill. "Are you alright in there?" he asked.

"'m fine! Just fine!" Tali's voice came.

"Tali? What's going on in th..." he trailed off as he found himself pushing the door open, only to find Tali bare-headed, with the toilet-bowl in the place of her helmet and faceplate. She pushed up, barely getting a glance at him, before releasing once more into the toilet. "I think you've probably had enough to drink."

"This..." she paused, before spitting in about the least graceful way that a woman not named Jack could manage, "this is nothing, I'm fiiiiine."

"This looks fine to me," Garrus said, deadpan.

"Yup. Fine fine fine..." Tali pushed back, wiping her mouth and offering a loose-joined grin. "Hey. Garrus. Wanna – d'you wanna... Garrus! Do y'wanna see my tattoooooo?"

"When did you get a tattoo?" Garrus asked, squatting down beside her.

"I'ss just an Omnitattoo, jus' a pattern, but but I'm gonna totally have it done. You know. For me!" Tali said, before she grabbed onto his shirt and steadied herself, suddenly a portrait of drunken earnestness. "Wanna know what it is? Do y'wanna?"

"I shudder to think," he said.

Tali looked away, gesturing grandly with her hands. "It's a pretty bird! Made out of rainbows... that's flying out of the eye-hole of a skull – erp – that's bein' held in the mouth of a Thresher Maw, that's got that's g... it's got a naked woman – with a sword! – on its back!" she said proudly.

Garrus couldn't restrain his giggles. "Really. I might have to take a look at that. Not what I'd have figured from you, though..."

"Jack recomm... said I should get it. 'Cause I'm hardcore," she said, and slumped forward, giggling herself. Garrus reached past the bowl of the toilet and picked up her face-plate. Yeck. He held it under the shower for a few seconds until it was clean again, before handing it over. "Aw, I was... I was just getting used to the smell of the bathroom."

"You're gonna – ahem – you're going to have a massive allergic reaction," Garrus said. "And when you do, I'm not going to be around to laugh at you."

"Why? Are you going somewhere?" she asked, as he slipped the faceplate back into place. While it was still galling to have to hide that beautiful face, she could probably use all the help she could get at this point. "Whoop! I'm up!"

"Sure you are," he said, helping Tali to her feet. "You should probably get some food into you. It'll help. Trust me."

"Why, mister Vakarian, are you afraid of me getting too drunk?" she asked.

"I'm trying to spare you a horrifying headache tomorrow," he said. The music hit a zenith as he rounded the next corner, only to find most of the people doing their various dances in the gap between the kitchen and the table at the back. They, too, were doing their utmost not to burst into endless laughter, because of the twitching and contorting of one Avatar Shepard, who stood at their heart.

"Has she always been like this?" Traynor asked from the table, a wide grin on her face.

"Shepard is saving the gaaalaxy!" Tali spoke up, gesticulating so wildly that she almost fell out of Garrus' grasp. "You have to allow for a few... eccentricities!"

"Well, it's very... enthusiastic," Traynor admitted.

"Y'all can go to hell. I'm having fun," Shepard declared proudly from her place of dubious distinction in their midst.

"We should record this and stream it to the Reapers," Garrus said. "They'll either melt down, run away... or fall in loooove."

"Why did I invite you to this party again?" Shepard asked. Shepard, though, carted the desperately inebriated quarian past the dancers, to a slightly quieter part of the party. Of course, that was like saying a slightly less vitrified piece of Thessia, these days. The back room played host to the current occupants, Shepard's sister and Javik's daughter.

"Oh, hello mister Vakarian," Talitha said.

"Garrus, not 'mister'. Only Dad would demand that," he said. "Tali, you stay right here for a moment, right? I'll grab you something to eat."

"You're such a doooowner, Garrus. What happened to fun-Garrus? I like fun-Garrus. Fun-Garrus doesn't take my drinks away."

"You don't know the first thing about fun-Garrus," Garrus said, and then realized how grim that sounded. "That came out wrong."

Tali laughed, though, welcomed into the pool of relative sanity at the back end of the party. EDI and Joker looked positively domestic in the kitchen, bustling about and cooking. It pained Garrus slightly that the tastier looking morsels were bound inexorably for stomachs of a different chirality, but there was some souvlaki laid out, probably a bit colder than optimal, but food on a stick was food on a stick. And Tali would probably appreciate a taste of Rannoch after all the hard work she put into being able to actually return there.

"You should take the entire rack, Garrus," EDI said without turning around. "I have had to prevent other partygoers from partaking of them on numerous occasions."

"Don't need to tell me twice," Garrus said, setting down one stick and picking up all six.

"Jet, you could..." EDI said, facing the Normandy's pilot.

"I'm not dancing, EDI," Joker said.

"I could dance with you!" Shepard shouted from the heart of her oblivious circle of horror and shame. Joker immediately burst out laughing, long and hard enough that it looked like he was on the verge of breaking something or popping a blood vessel. "Your loss."

Garrus could only give his head a shake, and head into the next room. By the time he got there, he heard an odd noise, one that he took a drunken second to figure out its source.

"Shooom shoooooom shooooom," Tali mimicked earnestly.

"What are you...?" Garrus asked.

"Hup!" Tali held up a finger, then returned to her spread posture, "Shoooooooom."

"That's a bit uncanny. The SR1 did sound very much like that," T'Soni said with a nod.

"I know!" Tali slurred brightly. "Entirely different to the new Normandy. It was so much bigger that they had to upgrade the ventilation system; that one is more of a 'whu-whu-whu-whu-whu-whu-whuh...'."

"Are you impersonating our ship?" Garrus asked, holding a stick of seasoned shep toward her.

"Why thank you! And if you're further up, it's more of a 'T-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh-t-kuh..." Tali said.

"Yup. And the silent weirdo over there is recording her," Abylon added.

"Hey! Who are you calling a weirdo?" Goto asked as she let her cloaking field drop and her form return to sight.

"Look who's finally taking part in the party instead of wandering around like a ghost," Abylon said, throwing another can at Goto. Kasumi grabbed this one, an annoyed twist to her lips. "That's hilarious, by the way. Can you do any other impressions, Hips?"

"I don't know," Tali said, slowly turning the skewer over in her fingers. Oh. Right. How was she going to get that inside? It took Garrus a lot longer than he would have wanted to remember, oh right; naked air won't kill her anymore. "That ship... it was really something."

"It brought all of us together," Liara agreed with a nod. "It is hard to imagine where we would be if it wasn't for Shepard... and the Normandy."

"I think you'd still be stuck in your energy ball," Tali said.

"...what?" Talitha asked.

"Oh!" Tali said eagerly. "When they found her, she was stuck in a Prothean... thing... singing terribly at the top of her lungs! That was the first time you met Shepard, and it was luuuuuuurve at first siiiiiiight..."

"It wasn't quite that simplistic..." Liara said with a shrug. "I was in there for quite some time. I still don't know exactly how that technology worked, but..."

"Security device on a Prothean ruin?" Abylon asked. "Big, white, oval shaped openings to the outside, lots of rooms, big elevator running up the middle?"

"Yes!" Liara asked.

"Well shit," Abylon said, snapping her fingers in annoyance.

"What is it?" Talitha asked.

"Dad always badmouthed the 'dens of iniquity' across the shattered empire," Abylon began.

"What was it? A gambling den? A superbrothel?" Tali asked.

"Shopping mall," Abylon answered.

There was silence for a moment, then a snort from Liara. All turned to her.

"Aimei is going to be so smug," she said quietly with a grin.

"Can you imagine her in there? Stuck for that long?" Tali asked. "She would have been all... 'Can you hear me out there? I'm trapped! I'm in a bubble'!"

"You weren't there," Liara pointed out, humor fading slightly.

"I can still imagine..." Tali said. Abylon answered with her hissing laughter, striking her knee with mirth at the image.

"So the primitive got stuck in our shop-lifting gates? Too rich," Abylon continued to hiss, the only laughter her throat was capable of.

"It wasn't that funny," Liara said, now blushing a slightly darker shade of blue. Garrus, though, just took it all in, nibbling on the Rannochian meat on a stick. Through the doors, he could see Shepard and a lot of the others dancing up a storm – of which Shepard was the tornado at the center, causing the greatest devastation possible with the minimal amount of space. He could see Javik staggering around the bar-area, proclaiming himself the new god-king of a reborn Prothean Empire, before tripping over a step and landing in a pile on the floor. No sign of Zia. Or Vega. Or Asha nor Erdeni, for that matter. The party seemed to be winding down. He couldn't even hear the crack of skull-plate on skull-plate of Wrex and Grunt in the living room.

It was a good time. One that all would look back on fondly, Garrus reckoned. The only question would be, how many people would there be left to look back on it?

Waking up was a slow, slightly achy proposition, one that Shepard undertook only with the utmost of unwillingness. Sleep was good. Sleep while drunk meant you could bypass the hangover... in the event you slept long enough. But sadly for Shepard, it wasn't in her nature to snore the day away, even when her brain would vehemently thank her for the privilege. Still, there was a warm and fuzzy feeling in her heart at the warm and pebbly feeling under her hands. She dared to peel one eye open, to see Liara curled up in bed before her, still wearing her undershirt from last night. Last night. What happened last night? She could barely remember.

Still, she gave Liara a squeeze, and the asari gave an appropriate happy mumble at the gesture. Wife. Shepard had a wife. Still trying to get her head around that one. In her youth, she'd always sort of presumed that one day, she would be the wife. Because of... you know... heterosexuality. Although, it occurred to Shepard as she pondered whether she really wanted to bother getting up, that she actually was still a wife. Just to a woman. Or rather, to an alien which had been extensively genetically modified by monsters from the blackness beyond the stars into only having one, ostensibly female, gender.

Never let it be said that an Avatar's life was boring.

There was a smell in the air, one that Shepard didn't really expect, but put a happy mumble in her own throat at the appearance of. Breakfast. Some charitable soul was cooking breakfast. "Hey. Liara. Wake up. You're lying on my arm."

"rrrrrm not the bagel shotgun..." Liara mumbled.

"Liara?" she gave the woman a mild shake, and Liara's eyes flit open, glancing around, before wincing and pulling in on herself a bit more. "Sorry. Hell of a night, eh?"

"Is it... morning already?" she asked.

"A perfect one," Shepard said, leaning in to kiss Liara on the corner of the mouth, because that was about as far as she could reach. "Come on. Somebody's making breakfast."

"I wish we could wake up every morning like this," Liara said, gently pushing back into Shepard's body with her own.

"Soon as I learn how to punch out a god, I'll be right on that," Shepard said. "Now come on. Can't stay here forever."

"Mrfl," Liara eloquently declared, before rolling off of Shepard's arm and burying her face in the pillow. That gave Shepard the wherewithal to actually start roaming, though. All told, her headache wasn't even that bad. Hell, she'd had a worse one when she went into that charity match at the Armax Arsenal Arena. Whoever's bright idea it was to put Shepard against six of herself should be beaten to a pulp in the locker rooms. Apparently, according to whoever programmed the other hers, Shepard was a dirty, cheating maniac.

She followed her nose toward the door, but was waylaid slightly by an unexpected groan. She paused, then slid open the door to their shared bathroom. She stared for a moment, then had to stifle a laugh. "You alright there, Javik?" she asked of the Prothean who was splayed out over the floor.

"Is it time to rule the galaxy now? Kneel before Javik!" Javik slurringly declared, casting his arms wide from his place at the center of the bathroom floor. He stopped, blinking upward for a moment. "I had the most horrible dream. There were primitives everywhere. And the asari were blue."

"That sound's horrifying," Shepard said. "Just sleep it off, old man."

"And there was another Avatar. And it was stupid and prideful. Wait. That was me," Javik bonked his head against the edge of the shower stall, and then let out the most miserable groan. Shepard could only shake her head and slide the door closed. Never had she beheld Javik cut quite so loose as he had last night. Honestly, she didn't think he'd had that in him. Returning to the path her nose gave her, she headed downstairs, now on the trail of hissing and popping. Oh, she knew that sound, and she knew that smell.

"Hey, Commander," Vega said from the heart of the kitchen. "Want some eggs?"

"Desperately," Shepard said. She then plunked herself down on the stool, and did a double take. Then a triple. She turned to her side, to where Jack was pounding down a beer to chase away the liquor she'd imbibed last night. "Jack? Is that who I think it is?"

"It's not what it looks like," Jack blurted, almost spitting out some of her beer in the process.

"Commander Shepard! It's good to see you're finally up!" Conrad Verner exclaimed.

"Hey, not so loud, man. Lots of walkin' wounded around here today," Vega stressed.

"C...Conrad?" Shepard asked. "What are you doing here?"

"Helping make breakfast!" the eager scientist offered, as he stirred some sort of potato-based frying food around in his own pan.

"Jack, why is Conrad..." Shepard began.

"It's not what it looks like!" she repeated, a nervous look making its way even into artificial eyes.

"Jaaaack," Shepard said.

"Oh fine. He's here 'cause I kinda slept on him," Jack said, a glower on her face.

"You slept..." Shepard began, then broke of into chuckles, which Vega simply nodded along to, a grin on his own face, while Verner himself seemed utterly oblivious to the breakdown happening about two and a half meters away from him. "You slept with Verner?" she finished at a harsh whisper.

"Shut the fuck up!" Jack answered back at her own rasp.

"Wasn't a no, though," Vega pointed out. Jack looked like she wanted to set him on fire with her brain. Luckily for all involved at the moment, Jack's gifts were first and solely in the realms of the biotic martial arts.

"Fine. Pry why don't ya?" Jack said.

"Why?" Shepard asked.

"I was drunk, and horny, and he was there," Jack muttered into her drink.

"Not long now!" Verner piped up, merrily and obliviously sizzling away.

"Jack, what the hell?" Shepard asked, but Jack was already shaking her head.

"Stunned the fuck outta me, though. Guy might look like a stiff wind can knock him over, but fuck me if he ain't got stamina."

"Right," Shepard said. She didn't get another word out before hash-browns were being shoveled onto her plate along with Vega's eggs, and set down before the two former comrades-in-arms. She looked up to Vega, and then to Conrad. "You actually don't look like a man with a spinal injury, Verner. Mind explaining that one?"

"It turns out, they needed someone like me on the Crucible project, so they pulled out all the stops on my rehabilitation," Verner said, starting to pile what remained onto his own plate. "The Crucible is an amazing project. I've never even heard of something as ambitious as it is."

"People keep saying that," Shepard said. "I for one would like to know what exactly it's supposed to do."

"Well, there's a few theories, but..." Verner trailed off.

"Don't get him started. Please, don't get him started," Jack begged.

"The energy produced doesn't behave in a manner coherent with known dark-energy theory," Verner began. "Which means that it either is operating under another theoretical axiom, or we have to adjust our existing knowledge of dark-energy interactions to explain its effects..."

"Fuck. Look at what you did!" Jack gestured toward Verner, who was now off on a tear.

"Yeah. This guy gives Liara a run for his money when it comes to runnin' his lip," Vega offered, before taking a bite of his offerings. Instantly, a satisfied look spread across his face. "Oh yeah. Uncle would've loved to get his gums on that."

"Why didn't Grunt and Wrex throw him out?" Shepard asked, still at a whisper, while Verner continued on his screed without them.

"Look for yourself," Vega said, and pointed into the living room. There, asleep in the two reclining chairs, were the political leader of the krogan race, and the custom-built shaman who followed him. Both snored more quietly than Shepard would have given them credit, Wrex's breathing only gently waving the lizard parrot which was perched on his hump. Oh, Wrex.

"Seriously, though, Jack?" Shepard asked, throwing a glance toward Verner.

"Go eat a bag of dicks, Shepard," Jack said.

"Didn't realize tall, dork and clueless was your type," Shepard said.

"I will fucking destroy you," she warned.

"I don't think Conrad would appreciate that very much," Shepard said. "He is something of a fan of mine."

"A whole bag, Shepard. Just a big, bag of dicks."

"...forming a harmonic waveform that combines features of existing dark energy phenomenon, with a new phenomenon which hasn't been named yet, creating an ever-increasing feedback loop that paradoxically becomes more refined with each iteration..." Verner continued.

"Jack likes dorks. That is now a given," Shepard said.

"You know what? I'm gonna go find a bag of dicks for you to eat," Jack said, popping off of her stool and storming toward the doors out of the apartment.

"Have fun, Jack," Shepard said after her.

"Oh fuck you!" she pithily retorted.

"Fuck you, whaaaat?" Shepard drawled.

"With a bag of dicks!" she said, managing to slam an automatic door in her exodus. Shepard couldn't help but laugh, shaking her head lightly.

"...not be possible to compensate for the Hossel Effect, but at the same time we might not even need to, if the test-operations' telemetry is accurate; for all we know, it might be operating exactly according to its design parameters, save for a few obvious missing pieces at this point..." Verner continued.

"FOR THE LOVE OF KALROS SHUT THE FUCK UP!" the lizard parrot shrieked from the living room. There was a moment of silence in its wake, followed by Wrex reaching up and giving it a hard flick with his finger, not even opening his eyes.

"Shuddup," he said, and then settled right back down into sleep.

"Man. Jack missed out on a good one," Vega said.

"Did... that bird just yell at me?" Verner asked.

"That happens," Shepard said. "So what exactly, in twenty words or less, does the Crucible do?"

"Twenty words?" Verner asked, then pondered long and hard. "Oh, I got it. We don't know, but whatever it is, it's big."

"Very useful. We have an energy generator with no weapon at the end of it," Shepard said.

"Close, but not quite," Verner said. "It's closer to an amplifier than to a generator."

"Amplifier? What does it amplify?" she asked. Verner could only give a shrug. "Wonderful."

Shepard was about to dig back into Vega's eggs when a chirp came to her Omni. She blinked at it for a moment, wondering who would try to contact her today. When she saw Hackett's name on the line, she instantly spun away from the counter and turned on the connection. "Commander Shepard, congratulations. Your celebrations are going to have to be short lived, however."

"Has something shaken loose with the Reapers, sir?"

"Phoenix has just made a critical error," Hackett said. "We're having our best tracking it down, but we could be one step away from knocking Weaver out of this war entirely."

"I'll be ready immediately, sir," Shepard said.

"I expected you would be," Hackett said. "I'll forward the information to your XO. This could be the start of the end of the war, Shepard."

"I understand, sir," Shepard said. Hackett gave a distracted salute, then shut off his line before she could return it. She turned to Vega. "There's a change in plans, James; hand out the pain-killers and box up your eggs. We've got a mission to go on."

Every instinct told him he was doing something stupid. Unforgivably dumb. So bone-headed that he should be kicking his own ass all the way to Ba Sing Se. That was the only reason that Weaver still stood here, though. That instinct, that yearning to return to his old course, was the surest sign that he had wandered entirely too far off of it.

Hundun Station, the brain of Phoenix and Samsara combined, continued in its comparatively tight orbit around its supergiant star, hidden by the intense light, heat, and radiation that fueled the workings of the station. Weaver, though, was just beyond the faintly glowing metal, watching as it receded into the distance, his yacht pulling away gently. Practicality would have been to just FTL away, but he knew he was seeing what had been for so long the heart and nerve-center of his operations for the very last time. There would be no next time, and even if there was, Hundun was already consigned to the grave.

"You want to go back, don't you?" Ju Li asked.

"Desperately," Weaver admitted. "Which is why I know I shouldn't."

"You're going to have to keep fighting the Indoctrination," Ju Li said. "As long as it takes, to..."

"There's no 'to' about this kiddo," Weaver said, patting a hand on her shoulder gently. "There's only one direction this goes, and it ain't a pretty one."

Truer than he knew. On his last walk out, he'd done a parting glance at the command structures of his people in Phoenix. Less than a quarter of them would still follow his direct commands. The Reapers would figure out the control signal, likely soon. And when they did... Phoenix would be a Reaper weapon. Better to clean the slate while he still could. Burn it all down.

"This... is probably better if we don't see each other again," Weaver said, seeing the last glimmer of Hundun disappear into the distance. Then, he turned and headed for the skiff that was parked in the yacht's cavernous holds. "You can't afford to be associated with a traitor and a psychopath, after all. At least something good will come from your mother never giving you my name. You'll get a fresh start after all of this."

"It would be better if I wasn't doing it alone," Ju Li said.

"We don't always get what we want, kiddo," Weaver said. His daughter simply nodded. He sighed, and pulled the woman into a hug that she seemed a bit surprised to be a part of. "You were always the best thing I made. You know that, right?"

"Are you trying to make me cry?" she asked flatly.

"Not even a little bit?" he asked. She gave him a very flat look. "Can't blame a father for trying." And there was the sassy eye-roll that she was famous for. "Good luck, Ju Li. If there's anybody in the galaxy who deserves it, it'd be you."

"I suppose I should say the same to you," she said, pausing at the door to the skiff. No pilot, since he could do that himself. "Is there..."

"The only thing I want out of you, is to live well," he said. He took a deep breath, then nodded. Hold your head up high and walk toward your death like a man, damn it. Weaver hated the notion of 'dying for something' which he was viscerally opposed to, but he had to trust Ju Li. And now, that trust demanded pain and death. Nuts.

He pulled the door to the skiff closed behind him, breaking the gaze held between illegitimate father and daughter, and then pulled himself into the pilot's seat. He finally released the breath he'd taken in, and set a course.

Time he finally kept that appointment he made with the Consort.

For all they'd partied themselves nearly to death the day before, the crew of the Normandy were quick to return to the docks. They may have been walking wounded for the better part, but they came nonetheless. Shepard stood at the rail, looking out to where the Normandy was berthed. Their home, more than any other place had ever been. The constant reminder of who they were, what they fought for. Liara sidled up next to her, pulling her into a sideways-hug as she did.

"I suppose it's back to the fight already," Liara said, barely at a whisper. The others just stood, staring not even at her, but in the same direction she was. At the same thing. Likely having the same thoughts.

"At least we through one hell of a party," Shepard said, squeezing Liara back. She puffed out a breath. "Probably the last one."

"You may be right, but..." Liara said.

"Whatever happens, we'll be there," Garrus cut in, laying a hand on Shepard's other shoulder as he did. "You'll see it all through, and we'll be right beside you when you do."

"Yeah," Shepard said. Garrus nodded, then started away, guiding the highly tentative Tali away with him as he went. Joker, too, gave Shepard an approving nod, and as he went, the others split off from their silent contemplations, returning to the ship which was now their home.

"It's hard to imagine all of this, coming from the lives we lived five years ago," Liara said.

"We've all come a long way," she said. And didn't even reject herself from the statement, which itself was proof to the concept. Liara nodded, the leaned in to give a fleeting kiss on Shepard's lips.

"It's been a good ride," she said, and then pulled free, heading toward the Normandy. Their destiny.

Shepard nodded, a smile despite herself on her lips. "...the best."