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MASS EFFECT:  PARAMOUR
written by Charles Spencer

Chapter 8:

"LATE GOODBYES"

-1-

When she watched Mary Shepard punch Zaeed Massani with a hard right to his scarred face, Kelly Chambers wasn't one bit surprised...hell, she was glad to see the paragon hit the mercenary after what he pulled.


 From the first moment Mary, Zaeed and Kasumi Goto were delivered by a shuttlecraft and made their insertion in the jungles of Zorya, just outside of the perimeter of the natural gas refinery they came to liberate from the Blue Suns mercenary organization, Zaeed visibly became withdrawn from his comrades and much more intense than usual.  Mary had hoped the battle-scarred veteran would finally tell her what exactly was so personal between him and the Blue Suns' leader, Vido Santiago, but he still never volunteered any information.  So she finally had her squad pause just before they made their final advance on the refinery after sweeping through a hostile squad of mercs.  Mary coaxed the man into telling her what provoked the rage that burned in his heart...

  ...and Zaeed Massani revealed that he lived with that rage for twenty years, ever since he last saw Vido Santiago.  Mary was surprised when Zaeed revealed to her and Kasumi that he and Vido founded the Blue Suns.  But where Zaeed had a code of honor, Vido didn't...in fact, Vido had no scruples or morality governing him at all.  Zaeed was given many warnings, but even he had no idea how cold-blooded and power-hungry his partner was until he was betrayed in a singularly brutal moment.  Vido had six mercs loyal only to him hold Zaeed down so the bastard could shoot him in the head, and then he effectively took over the Blue Suns.

  But Zaeed lived, his face permanently, harshly scarred...worse, he discovered his every record as co-founder of the organization had been erased, and just like that he suddenly found himself alone.  Vido often led the Suns by proxy, delegating responsibility to lieutenants who at one time or another played the part of the group's leader as he stayed safely detatched from events and raked in the profits.  Zaeed knew Vido also took such steps to seclude himself, keep his location unknown from the man he almost murdered.  Zaeed spent nearly every waking moment of the two decades since anticipating, hoping, desperately yearning for his chance at revenge.  Fortunately for him, in recent years, Vido had become less and less careful, more sure of his own superiority and that Zaeed couldn't touch him...it was the only way to explain why Vido began taking visible command of rackets such as this siege on the Zorya refinery, threatening to kill its workers unless the company capitulated to his demands.  Vido warned the company that any attempt to call for help from the authorites, especially the Alliance Navy, would have gotten the hostages killed.

  But the company had other options, specifically calling upon freelance specialists...and Zaeed Massani eagerly responded.  This might well have been his one and only chance, yet he couldn't execute the contract all by himself...he needed the help of someone he could trust and had the skills needed for such operation.  Zaeed had always been a loner since Vido tried to kill him, he usually worked solo, and those few the man did trust enough for help were either unavailable or dead.  The timing was almost miraculous, something close to fate when Cerberus approached him to undertake a virtual suicide mission, and he made a deal with them to get the needed support to complete his contract and get to Vido.  Zaeed was as surprised as anyone could have been (although one couldn't tell because his scarred face seemed set like granite) that he'd be supported by Commander Mary Shepard herself, back from the dead.  But Mary saw the rage burning so bright in the veteran merc's eyes, and she had the bad feeling for a while now that the one real obstacle to saving the refinery workers and stopping Vido was Zaeed himself.

  Right after Mary, Zaeed and Kasumi infiltrated the refinery through one of its main entry points, a large force of Blue Suns led by Vido himself nearly ambushed them.  But only nearly because Vido arrogantly wanted to insult his longtime enemy first...Zaeed surprised the enemy by firing on a reserve tank close to Vido's position with his Vindicator rifle, touching it off in a massive explosion that almost singed the merc leader, distracting the Blue Suns and giving the three the chance to find cover.  Vido cowardly ran as he ordered the rest of his men to stay behind and kill the intruders.  But Zaeed surprised everyone then, especially Mary and Kasumi, with what he did next.  Mary had hoped Zaeed would stay professional, remember that they were here to save the hostages Vido was holding, look out for their safety along with the safety of his squadmates.  She had hoped that, but Zaeed broke a nearby control valve for one of the main pipelines in the area, which happened to run close to where the remaining enemy force was situated.  The entire line went up in a chain of detonations that decimated the Blue Suns threatening them...and then went further into the refinery.

  Safe (but only relatively so) for the moment, Kasumi watched awkwardly as Mary screamed at Zaeed, "What the HELL have you done?!?"

  Zaeed said neutrally, "I gave us a way in."

  Mary stalked toward him, upset, as she yelled, "That was unbelievably STUPID!  This is a gas refinery, and that means combustible elements!  What you just did risked the three of us and maybe the hostages we're here to save!  What if that stunt literally blew up in your own face?!  There had to be a better way!  There's always a better way!"

  As Mary reached him, Zaeed was defiant:  "You want to waste time being safe?  You're that worried about people I couldn't give two shits about?!  You and the thief go ahead and do whatever you want!  I'm going to kill Vido -- !"

  That
was when Mary punched Zaeed with a solid right hook.

  Surprisingly, Zaeed wasn't knocked out by Mary's punch...even though her strength (recently boosted by a cybernetic upgrade) was enhanced twice over by her N7 armor.  Most Humans would have been dealt a knockout blow.  Not Zaeed...his fury had been chilled only a little by surprise as Mary snarled at him, "You selfish, reckless bastard!"

  Zaeed simply looked up at her and growled, "You sure you want to do this, Shepard?"

  Mary fired back, "I'm sure I want to keep knocking your ass down until you stay down, you fool -- !"  Suddenly, a thudding series of explosions deeper in the refinery that shook the ground under her feet.  Mary whirled to look at the master thief and she yelled, "Kasumi, what's going on?!  Can you hack into the refinery's main computer?"

  Kasumi Goto quickly responded, "On it, Shep!"  Kasumi's right hand flew to her the gauntlet on her raised left arm, touched a simple, hidden control, and her Omni-Tool manifested brightly around her forearm.  A highly advanced construct that used the same principles of solid light as most control interfaces and terminals across the known galaxy, the Omni-Tool had a multitude of functions...for instance, Kasumi used it to remotely hack into the refinery's computer mainframe.  As she bypassed firewalls like they weren't even there, the master thief smiled.  "Ha-ha, this won't take long, the refinery's security programs are as basic as you can get...!"  She paused for a few seconds, and the smile dropped from her face as she stared at her Omni-Tool's display.  "Oh, this isn't good.  Mister Reckless just set off a chain reaction that's causing system failures across the refinery!  Safety protocols are trying to catch up...dammit, they'll be too slow!"  Kasumi looked at Mary.  "Shep, this refinery is minutes away from going up in a big ball of fire!"

  Mary asked urgently, "Can we get the hostages out in time?!"  Kasumi frowned dubiously.  "Shit!"  The paragon turned back to Zaeed, who was standing finally, and she shouted, "We're here to save these people from Vido Santiago, but now because of YOU we've got to work even harder to accomplish that!"

  Zaeed suddenly roared back, "No!  I couldn't give a damn less about anyone else!  VIDO DIES, NO MATTER THE COST!"

  To Kasumi's quiet amazement, Mary Shepard got into Zaeed's face, her own dark eyes burning with anger...only centimeters separated them as she yelled, "That's not why we're here, Zaeed!  OUR MISSION IS TO SAVE LIVES!  That's the contract you signed up for, remember?!?"  In spite of his own rage, he was visibly taken aback by the paragon's passion.  "That comes first before anything else, and if you don't follow my lead I swear to god I'll tie you up to one of these pipes and leave you behind, and you'll NEVER see Vido and have another chance to kill him again!  DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME!"  As she watched, as she felt cold sweat on the back of her neck, Kelly Chambers saw to her relief that Zaeed's mood was moderating...but would the man finally see sense?  Was it already too late for that?

  Suddenly, a voice spoke that Kelly and the squad heard over the primary comm line:  "Commander, it's Joker, just calling to give you a head's up!  Ship's sensors are detecting a gunship approaching the refinery fast from the east!  Could be enemy reinforcements!"

  Never taking her eyes from their withering gaze into Zaeed's, Mary ordered, "Keep an eye on them for me, Joker!"

  "Will-do, Commander!"


  "Shep."  Mary glanced at Kasumi, and her Omni-Tool was still glowing bright as the lovely thief operated it quickly.  "The Blue Suns had the place's security systems disabled, but I've got them back online.  I'm tracking Vido...he's moving deeper into the refinery...looks like he's heading for a shuttle pad on the opposite side!"

  "That gunship," Mary Shepard said thoughtfully.  "They could be coming to take Vido out of here...!"

  Alarmed by the idea, Zaeed's voice was dangerous as he shouted, "We've got to follow him, we've got to STOP him!"

  Mary said with authority, "Oh, we will, but along the way we're going to fix the damage you caused!  Can you find a way to stop the system failures, Kasumi?"

  Kasumi's voice was steady, full of confidence as she reported, "I'm already working on it, Shep!"

  Mary said, "Then let's move!"  The three of them moved deeper into the refinery...and encountered more squads of Blue Suns mercs.  For their own defense, Mary and her comrades cut down their enemies.  All the while, sporadic detonations near and far warned them how short their time was.

  Finally, as they reached an exterior part of the refinery, after seeing one of the workers they had to save barely get clear of an explosion, Kasumi was accessing her Omni-Tool again as she said, "Shep, I've got it figured out!  We can stop the chain reaction!"

  Mary stopped where she was as Zaeed was forced to pause too, and his eyes were full of impatience.  The paragon said, "Tell me, Kasumi."

  The master thief and expert hacker brought up a mini-map of the refinery...it showed their relative position in the facility.  "The safety protocols are moving too slow, but there are key terminals for regulating gas pressure here, here and here!"  Three small beacons lighted on the map, and fortunately they weren't far away, almost along the route they needed to take to catch up to Vido.  "I can bring the needed systems back online through each of those terminals, but I have to do it manually!"

  Zaeed snapped, "That will take too long, girl!  We'll never catch up with Vido!"

  Kasumi said unkindly to the merc, "Hey, you're the one who caused this whole mess, Scarface!"

  Mary's expression was firm.  "Exactly!  And we will fix this, one way or the other!"

  "Dammit to hell...!"  Reluctantly, angrily, Zaeed said, "All right!  If we're going to do this, then let's stop wasting time talking about it and get it done!"

  The path the three took was uneven, perilous, full of fire and smoke...Kasumi kept track of Vido's location as he rushed through the refinery somewhere ahead, and they were lagging behind more and more.  But they reached each terminal, and one by one, Mary and Kasumi saw with relief that bringing the regulation protocols back to nominal were getting results.  By the time they were done with the last one, the rumbling explosions had stopped...alarm klaxons went still...because Kasumi kept track monitoring the security cameras, Mary was grateful to see that the hostages that couldn't get out immediately were safe as others escaped unharmed.  Zaeed was in a sullen mood by this point until he realized that they could still catch up to his nemesis if they double-timed it the rest of the way!

  However.  Vido had left a large force, his remaining men in the refinery, to hold off Mary's squad.  And they had a heavy YMIR mech with them, just because there never could be too much bullshit.  It was the toughest battle yet on Zorya for Mary, Kasumi and Zaeed, and it took them a few minutes to clear out the enemies and break through...

  ...a few minutes too long, because by the time Mary and the others got outside, they saw Vido Santiago over 75 meters away at the shuttle pad.  The gunship, a VTOL craft that resembled a wasp, had just touched down.  As its cargo door opened, Vido took one glance back and saw his enemies far away...he grinned like the Devil as he gloated, "So long, you pathetic old fucker.  Maybe I'll see you in another twenty years!"  He began to step inside...

  Still too far away, Zaeed began to run faster as he roared, "Goddamn it, Vido's getting away!"

  But Mary called after him, "No, he isn't!"  Zaeed stopped and turned...to see Mary was standing still.  Kasumi stood close by Mary, giving the paragon a curiouis look.  Mary lifted a hand to her ear and said, "Shepard to Joker!"

  Joker answered, "Standing by, Commander!"

  Mary said, "I have a gunship on the shuttle pad ahead of our position about to take off.  I don't want them to leave, do you copy?"

  In the cockpit of the SR-2, which was in a static hover high in the sky, Jeff 'Joker' Moreau answered, "Understood, Commander, moving in now!"  He keyed the ship's thrusters and began to arrow the Normandy downward toward the shuttle pad below.  Joker looked to the side and said, "Garrus!"

  The tall Turian Garrus Vakarian was seated at a weapons station on one side of the cockpit...as he worked his controls, he said, "Just a moment, Joker...all right!"  He then keyed his own comm and reported, "Shepard, I have a missile locked on that gunship and ready to fly!  Just say the word!"

  Mary said, "Copy that, Garrus!"  She and Kasumi walked to Zaeed, whose eyes expressed pure confusion as he stared at the paragon.  Mary Shepard had arranged for this contigency before the mission's start, motivated by simple common sense, to be executed just in case the enemy tried to make a getaway.  The paragon looked at Zaeed, noticed his expression, and asked, "What?  I like to prepare for anything."  She remembered something else bitterly, and she wished she had been able to take a precaution like this when she crossed swords with that Batarian terrorist Balak and his forces that tried to destroy the Human colony Terra Nova two years ago.  Then she had to let him go in order to save innocent hostages, but by the time she was able to secure their safety, Balak had already gotten away.

  Mary Shepard swore that ever since, she'd never let an enemy escape like that again.  She ordered, "Fire at will!"

  Vido Santiago had only started to strap into a flight harness and prepare for takeoff with the handful of his Blue Suns left when alarms sounded from the cockpit...annoyed, Vido moved there and looked over his pilot's shoulder.  The pilot reported, "Sir, incoming contact approaching fast -- Jesus Christ, MISSILE INBOUND!  MISSILE INBOUND!"  Vido and the pilot looked up through the cockpit's glass and saw the same thing:  the Normandy charging hard on a nearly vertical dive from the clouds above, and the bright blue flare of the exhaust of the missile the frigate just fired that was traveling even faster and would reach them in seconds!

  Vido wisely panicked and cried, "Holy SHIT!  TAKE OFF AND EVADE THAT MISSILE!"

  The pilot yelped, "I-I can't, sir, it's locked onto us -- !"

  The Blue Suns leader raged, "Fuck this!"  And so he ran...he scampered from the pilot and between his men in the cargo area -- they were only starting to realize what was happening and were furiously trying to get out of their flight harnesses.  Vido was the only one not strapped in, so he ran out alone...the coward left his own men behind, unsurprisingly.

  Barely two seconds later, no one else had gotten out and Vido wasn't quite far enough away when the missile reached the gunship...the craft's detonation lit up the shuttlepad and blasted it to pieces too, and the leader of the Blue Suns was hit hard by the explosion's concussive force.  If he hadn't been wearing his blue and white hard suit and had its mass effect field active, he would have been killed.  As it was, he landed hard close to some reserve fuel tanks...one of them was pierced by shrapnel and began leaking liquid dangerously...

  Zaeed took it all in with astonishment.  Then he heard a soft voice ask, "What are you waiting for?"  He turned to Commander Shepard, still standing close to Kasumi.  Mary said, "Ordinarily I never just watch one person kill another, but I know you're so driven to settle the score, you won't listen to me ask you not to."  A beat passed, and the lady added, "And I won't stand in your way."  A long moment passed as Zaeed's eyes softened as he looked at the paragon...he was honestly at a loss for words...until he nodded deeply, quietly turned and strode toward his enemy.  To settle the score.

  Vido felt like crap as he tried to stand and gather himself in his damaged, beaten armor...he didn't realize that his hard suit's protective field was inert.  Unsteady, with a drunken pace, he got to his feet and looked at the pyre that was once the shuttle pad and the gunship that sat on it for a few moments...he finally got the idea to turn and try to walk in some direction, any direction, but when he turned toward the refinery, he saw Zaeed Massani, barely twenty paces away and closing fast.  The bottom dropped out of his gut as he grunted, "Z-Zaeed...oh, shit!"  How the hell did things go so bad so quickly?!  He took a step back, not noticing his footstep made a splash, as he lifted his hands defensively and began to cry, "Wuh-wait -- !"  His Vindicator rifle in his big hands, Zaeed's face was stone as he fired once and shot his enemy in his left knee...the projectile sheared through his armor and his kneecap, and Vido realized his suit's defenses were gone as he descended into pain and screamed, "AHHH!"  He fell backward on his ass, and panic gripped his excuse for a heart again...frantic, he held his hands up defensively and roared, "FUCKING WAIT, GODDAMN IT!  You know it wasn't anything personal, Zaeed!  It was j-just business, I swear!"  In response, Zaeed fired again, shooting the Blue Suns leader once in his right leg.  Vido didn't know which leg to favor more as he screamed again:  "AAGGHHH!"

  Zaeed drew ever closer...he said in a quiet tone, "Yeah.  Your 'hostile takeover' of the Blue Suns was a bullet in my head."

  Vido screamed in genuine outrage, "IT WAS TWENTY YEARS AGO, FOR GODSAKE!"  Like time honestly made a difference.

  Zaeed said coolly, "Feels just like yesterday to me, Vido."  He stopped at the edge of the massive, growing puddle of fuel that had leaked from the reserve tank and spread to cover a wide area of ground.

  Vido didn't realize he was deep in that deadly puddle, backing up awkwardly on his ass like a crab.  He was pathetic as he whined, "Zaeed...please...please don't!  You can't just fucking kill me!"

  The battle-scarred merc frowned.  "I can't?  Why the hell not?  What makes you any better than me?"  He clenched his rifle at the ready in both hands very tightly.

  Vido's backward crawl came to a clumsy stop; his keening voice pleaded, "P-please...!  I-I-I'll give you anything you want, man!"  But his eyes, furitive and anxious, told a slightly different story...and one of his hands was slowly edging toward his holstered sidearm.  Zaeed seemed to be fixed wholly on his enemy's face, and so Vido thought he had a slim chance...his hand was nearly wrapped around his gun, ready to deploy it as he stammered, "J-just tell me what you want, I'm sure we can settle things in a civilized way, right?!"

  But from a distance, Mary Shepard didn't miss what was happening.  Neither did Kelly Chambers who, seeing through the surveillance systems of Mary's armor, had zoomed in on the sight of Zaeed and Vido...the Yeoman quickly breathed, "Mary, that jerk's trying something!"

  But before Mary could do anything, Zaeed Massani proved not to be as blind or stupid as Vido Santiago thought he was.  On the contrary.  The veteran merc snarled, "I want your life, you son of a bitch!"  Then the man did something Vido didn't expect, but then he was still so distracted by Zaeed, so fixated on killing him, he didn't realize he was in a deep puddle of highly combustible fuel.  Zaeed, who knew full and well, simply ejected a glowing-red heat sink from his Vindicator.  Advanced races across the galaxy, from Asari to Turians to Humans, more recent additions to the galactic community, shared technology for the most part, even when it came to small arms weaponry.  (It made trade between worlds, for instance, much simpler by necessity.)  The heat sink was a pivotal part of weapons tech in that it absorbed the heat that ordinarily would have worn down or damaged other components with extended use.  And Zaeed used his assault rifle liberally this day:  the small, burning cylinder flew through the air in an arc.  Zaeed was already turning from his enemy as the heat sink landed between Vido's legs.  And into the fuel.

  The fuel touched off and Vido Santiago was claimed instantly by the resultant inferno, which backlit Zaeed Massani as he began walking stoically back to Mary and Kasumi.  Vido screamed, but only for a few seconds as he burned to a crisp in his armored suit.  But the fire spread fast...by the time Vido stopped screaming and was very, very dead, the flames reached the reserve tanks.  KRAK-THOOM!  The combined detonation was incredible, almost bigger than the destruction of the gunship, and startled Mary and Kasumi...Zaeed whirled in time to see something big and heavy flying at him...

  ...and a piece of thick support beam landed on him hard, sending him sprawling...it was so big and heavy, the beam kept him pinned down.  Zaeed cried, "ARGHHH!  Damn it...!"  He was hurt, but his hard suit's protective systems were holding.

  Not far away, Mary cried, "Zaeed!"

  Zaeed looked back at her and Kasumi and barked, "I'm all right, Shepard, but don't just...uhh!...don't just stand there!  Help me with this shit!"

  Kasumi asked Mary, "Want a hand, Shep?"

  Mary regarded Zaeed as she said, "I've got this, Kasumi."  The paragon then turned to the master thief and said warmly, "And thank you."

  Kasumi nodded deeply as she smiled back.  She said, "My pleasure."  She pointed in another direction and added, "Um, I'll be standing over here.  Where there's no fire!"

  The flames from Vido's impromptu funeral pyre and the blasted reserve tanks were spreading slowly, inexorably, toward Zaeed.  Still, Mary Shepard calmly took her time to reach the merc's position.  She stood over him, assessed the man with a quiet look, and said, "You know something?  I'm not sure if I need a man like you on my ship."

  Zaeed visibly flinched...he didn't feel like being given a talking-to at the moment and growled, "If you didn't need me, you would have left me on Omega, right?!  Cerberus thought you needed me, otherwise they wouldn't have paid my fee!  If you're angry about before, if you have doubts you can rely on me, rest assured that I've been paid to follow your orders and that's what I'll do, nothing more or less!  Now as much as I'd love to continue this conversation, I'd like to go before that damn fire gets any closer!"

  Mary could feel the heat getting closer, but her dark eyes were fixed on Zaeed.  She shouted, "We were here to fulfill your contract and liberate this facility!  You should have done what you were being paid to do here, but you were so obsessed with getting revenge, you almost killed the people we were meant to save!  You put yourself ahead of the mission, Zaeed.  You should know that's not the way things work, and I don't want this to happen again!"

  Zaeed winced...his stony expression crumbled a little.  He said, "I've survived the past twenty years watching my own back and getting what I needed.  There was no percentage in worrying about anyone else!  Uh -- !"

  The man stopped awkwardly because Mary Shepard had her Predator pistol firmly in her right fist...and she was aiming it at Zaeed's scarred face.

  The merc's eyes narrowed as he tried to read Mary's dark eyes...was she going to kill him?

  Mary asked quietly, "Is that a fact?  So if I followed that same line of thought, I shouldn't worry about you?"  She let those words sink in for the man, and she hoped they did, once and for all.  "You're a part of a team, Zaeed...you're under my command..."  Then the paragon slowly, deliberately lifted the pistol's barrel skyward.  Her eyes burned into his as she finished, "...and the only way we're going to stop the Collectors is if we work together!"

  "You...!"  Zaeed was tempted to be angry, but he couldn't be...he knew the paragon was right.  He said hesitantly, since he was full of stubborn pride, "Y-you have a point.  I dreamed of revenge for twenty damn years, and I let that get in the way of what I am...and what I do.  And if it wasn't for your support, I wouldn't have gotten Vido."  Once, he would have hated to say something like that...but it didn't feel as bad to say as he thought it would have.

  For her part, Mary quietly holstered her Predator and began to help Zaeed...it took some effort from them both, but they managed to move the beam enough for him to get out from under it.  Mary then helped the old merc stand, and that didn't feel so bad, either.  Zaeed gazed into the paragon's eyes, and the man's expression seemed a little softer.  A little more at peace.  He mused, "Because of you, I can finally dream about things besides revenge, and I'll never ever forget that."  His eyes perceptibly hardened again, and his voice became resolute:  "I'm not just with you because I'm being paid to, Shepard.  From this moment on I will be working with you, and you've got all of my focus on your mission to stop the Collectors.  You have my word of honor on that!"  Mary looked back at Zaeed and nodded deeply...she believed the hardened veteran.  Zaeed Massani finally asked, "Let's get the hell out of here, huh?"

  To Kasumi's relief, the two of them began moving to the relative safety of her position, away from the fire...Mary called in the Normandy to pick them up.

-2-

  Later.  As the Normandy had almost reached the local Mass Relay that would slingshot them to the Widow Nebula and the Citadel.  In her Captain's Quarters, Mary answered a door chime...she opened her door to see her lovely Yeoman.  With her naturally warm smile, Kelly Chambers greeted, "Hi, Mary."

  Mary smiled back.  "Kelly, hi.  I was about to turn in, is everything all right?"

  "Oh, everything's good!  I wanted to see how you're doing."

  Mary asked, "As our unofficial counselor?"

  Kelly answered, "Kind of.  I-I won't be long, may I...?"

  Without hesitation, Mary stepped to one side and offered, "Please."

  The redhead in her black and white uniform stepped in slowly, her hands clasped behind her back.  Kelly said carefully, "I mainly wanted to ask about how you felt after that rough patch you and Zaeed ran into.  It got pretty intense for a while there, and I wasn't exactly prepared for it!"

  Mary eased closer to Kelly after she entered...her steps slow, careful.  "Fortunately, I was...I'm just happy it all worked out in the end."

  Kelly enthusiastically said, "Me, too."  The girl's green eyes shifted, seemed to gently examine the paragon.  "Why didn't you stop Zaeed from killing Santiago?"

  "Do you feel I should have stopped him?"

  "Why ask how I feel about it?"

  Mary stared at Kelly for a couple of beats...then:  "You didn't answer my question, Kelly."

  Kelly crossed her arms, her smile still gentle, as she said, "Which is only fair, since you didn't answer my question first."

  Mary looked away for a moment as she stifled a soft laugh.  "Ha-ha...yeah.  That's only fair."  Just like that, she felt herself relax...it was so easy to do that around Kelly.  She gazed at her Yeoman and offered, "I could have told Zaeed not to kill Santiago if I wanted to.  But would he have listened to me, honestly?"

  Kelly frowned.  "Doubtful."

  Mary nodded.  "Zaeed lived with his dreams of revenge for twenty years.  I decided that whatever he was going to do, whether he killed Santiago or not, I knew it was what Zaeed needed.  For a moment, right after he shot Santiago in his legs, I was sorely tempted to stop him anyway.  I think the only way I could have stopped Zaeed was to shoot him, though, and I couldn't do that.  But then I realized that Santiago was trying for his gun..."

  Kelly said, "Yeah, I saw that, too.  Santiago might as well have made the choice for Zaeed.  And for you."  Mary looked a question at her.  Kelly smiled sweetly and offered, "You're definitely not someone who would simply watch one person murder another, Mary."

  It was Mary's turn to frown then.  "You really feel that way."

  "Does that surprise you?"

  Self-aware, Mary averted her eyes from Kelly's.  "A little...I mean, we just started this mission, and you've seen from your station how many people I've had to kill so far."

  Kelly Chambers gazed at Mary and said, "Mary, I've never told you this, but..."  The girl paused only for a moment to gather her courage.  "You've fascinated me for a long time, ever since I first heard of you two years ago when you became the first Human Spectre, when you started your hunt for Saren Arterius and Sovereign.  One thing I quickly understood about you, without a doubt, is that you do something -- or you don't -- for the very best of reasons.  It's why so many call you a paragon.  You always strive to do what's right.  And when you can't do what's right, then you do what's necessary."

  Mary felt very warm inside.  Self-conscious, careful, she asked, "I've...fascinated you?"

  "Y-yeah," Kelly managed, so self-conscious in turn...so innocent.  She giggled, "Kasumi's not your only fan, y'know!"

  Mary said gently, "I know now, Kelly."  Deeply flattered by the girl's words, by the emotion she saw in those amazing green eyes, she said humbly, "I've only wanted to do my best for others, but there's nothing special about me.  There really isn't."

  Kelly didn't hesitate to say in a heartfelt voice, "Well, I hope you don't mind if I agree to disagree about that, okay?"

  So affected, Mary nodded deeply.  "Okay...and thank you, Kelly."  The paragon's expression turned a bit more serious and she said, "In the end, whether Santiago helped him make his choice or not, it was what Zaeed needed.  He had to get out from under all that time dreaming of revenge, and not just for the good of the mission, but for his own good.  He needs to be at his best as much as I need him to be."

  Kelly Chambers understood.  "It was like Consort Sha'ira told you at the Citadel...those fighting with you will need clear minds and glad hearts."  Her eyes suddenly brightened with curiosity.  "I've been meaning to ask how you met the Consort, by the way!  She said something about you helping her...?"

  Mary smiled.  "The Consort had trouble because of this misunderstanding...it could have turned into something worse, but I simply helped clear the air.  That's all."  She didn't have to say anymore than that, or go into how the Consort...um, showed her gratitude!

  "I see.  Well, no matter what the Consort said, I didn't have any problem with you not standing in Zaeed's way."  An unsure pause.  Kelly said, "How I feel about the whole thing doesn't really matter, though."

  Mary's smile shifted, developed a softer, more intimate curve.  "How you feel matters, Kelly.  It really matters more than you know."  The Commander and her Yeoman gazed at each other in the quiet of Mary's quarters for a long moment.  It felt so right to be together, they each felt the growing need for one another...yet their feelings were still so new, they were both so hesitant to express them.

  Finally, Kelly managed, "A-anyway, Zaeed seems fully committed to the mission now with that personal business done."  The girl thought of something and said, "Speaking of personal business!  I understand there's something involving Kasumi and a deal...?"

  Mary answered, "Yeah, I've been talking to her about it.  I can't go into detail about it now, but it's definitely personal for her."

  "Oh, okay."  Kelly looked at Mary thoughtfully.  "You might need to prepare for that from other specialists we recruit.  You've been making sure every operative knows how dangerous this mission is before they join us.  That might not sink in for them right away.  When or if it does, chances are they'll also want to take care of things that are personal to them, like Zaeed and Kasumi."

  "I hear you, Kelly.  Clear minds and glad hearts.  Before this is over, they might have to give their lives to stop the Collectors."  Mary didn't say that none of them might survive, the risk factors for the mission on the whole were so extraordinary.

  Kelly quickly, lightly said, "Hopefully that won't happen!"

  Mary almost laughed, but her eyes were solemn as she nodded.  "I hope that too, with all my heart.  But you're right.  If anyone else we bring on this ship has any personal business that might distract them, they'll need closure.  All they need to do is ask, and I'll do anything I can to help them."

  Kelly nodded so deeply, it was almost a bow.  "I have no doubt you will, Mary.  That's the kind of person you are."

  Mary wasn't used to such praise, or better to say she was so affected by those words coming from Kelly...her cheeks flushed a little as she felt a burst of warmth in response.  She couldn't help but ask, "Did you have anything personal to take care of before the mission goes any further?"

  Kelly was genuinely taken aback.  Pleasantly flustered, the girl responded:  "M-me?  Oh no, thank you so much, but I'm okay!  My biggest worry is for my sister, and she should be all right on Earth."  Kelly smiled softly as she spoke of her sister.  "Just as long as Kristy is all right, as long as we can stop the Collectors, I'll be okay."  But then the girl's striking green eyes carefully examined Mary.  "But what about you, Mary?  Do you need any kind of...closure?"

  Mary nodded and answered, "I have a few pieces of unfinished business I want to attend to, but I should have plenty of chances to take care of them during the mission."  Most prominent of all in her heart was the desire to see those she most cared for, at least one more time.  Ash...Liara...Wrex...maybe see dear Tali again...  "But there is something very personal I'll be able to take of right after we visit the Citadel."

  Kelly asked, "What's that, Mary?"

  Mary's words were suddenly quiet as she told the girl, "To pay my respects to lost friends."

-3-

  The visit to the Citadel was very brief.  The frigate was there only long enough to have a large unit of cargo carefully, respectfully loaded into the Normandy's hangar bay by dock workers.  In the sealed crate was the memorial statue created to honor the lost crewmembers of the SR-1, just recently finished by the most accomplished and skilled sculptors on the station.  After she and Admiral David Anderson finished supervising the loading, Mary and the Normandy left to go to their next destination -- it would take five hours, give or take, to reach the Amada System by Mass Relays.

  During that time, Mary became more distant from everyone, much more somber in mood...even from Kelly, and the girl understood perfectly.

  They finally reached Alchera, and Mary felt herself shudder as she saw it from the cockpit...the last time she saw this planet, the SR-1 had been destroyed, and --

  It took all of her willpower to not dwell on that memory.

  Jeff 'Joker' Moreau only had to take one look at the paragon's expression.  Seeing her, recalling his own memories of that terrible day, the ace pilot was much quieter than usual.  And this was no occasion for his singular sense of humor.  Joker personally took Mary and the memorial statue to the crash site by Kodiak shuttlecraft.

  After they landed, Mary Shepard left the shuttle by herself at first, sealed in her hardsuit.  It...didn't feel real to stand there in the midst of the wreckage of her former command.  The original Normandy.  The wreckage was spread out over a huge area of this polar region, the ice gleaming under the gorgeous, unending borealis that illuminated the starry sky.  The overall feeling was truly spectral, unworldly as she moved carefully on the icy, lifeless surface of this planet.

  She was in the open tomb of twenty brave souls who gave everything for her.

  Mary began the slow, careful process of finding what little had to be left of her lost crew, left here unprotected and forgotten for two years.  Thankfully, the task wasn't too difficult...over the next couple of hours with the help of her Omni-Tool's scanners, she found what little was left of them.  For the most part, there was nothing of the deceased that could really be recognizable as Human.  Or once alive.  But she did find each and every one of their dog tags, which all servicemen in the Alliance Navy wore for such a final eventuality.  Testaments of who they were...and where they fell.

  Her own breathing sounded so loud in her helmet.

  Mary didn't realize she was crying until her sight began to blur.

  The paragon soldiered on, completely committed to fulfilling this last obligation to those fallen.  When finished, she walked back to the shuttle, where Joker already had the monument prepared for moving by an antigrav lift-and-carry system that he manipulated remotely with his Omni-Tool.  He joined Mary and carefully followed her instructions on where to place the monument.  It was finally set down and settled into the icy terrain firmly...its tall base had engraved upon it twenty names, topped by a stylized, graceful image of the lost frigate itself soaring upward into the heavens.

  Joker didn't care about how long they spent here...he remembered Pressley and the others in his own way as Mary knelt before the monument...her gloved fingers slowly, carefully traced over each engraved name...she took her time...

  Finally, Mary stood.  Without a word, she returned to the shuttle.  Joker followed her.

  When the Kodiak returned to the SR-2's Hangar Bay, some of her people were there...most prominent among them were Kelly, Garrus, Karin, Ken and Gabby from Engineering, and a handful of others.  Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor were there, too...they both had concerns about how the paragon might have felt, as well, but they knew they were still relative strangers to her, and so were a bit more distant than the rest, trying to be unintrusive.  Mary left the shuttle with Joker close behind and she began to bypass everyone, in spite of their expressions of empathy and concern.  Joker stopped and said to the others, "Hey, guys.  The Commander told me we're gonna go get the next recruit, that Krogan Okeer?"  Okeer, like Mordin Solus, was a scientist whose expertise might have been incredibly important to the mission's success...even though according to his dossier, his fellow Krogan had a standing death warrant against him for what were essentially war crimes.  "But until we get there, uh, she needs some time to herself, all right?"

  Kelly's green eyes were full of sympathy and warmth for her hero...but as the paragon passed by, the girl couldn't help but say softly, "Mary?"  The woman in armor paused in her steps...she still wore her helmet, her face couldn't have been seen...and yet she didn't look at her Yeoman in response.  Kelly gently reminded the lady, "I-if you need anything...you know I'm here for you."  Mary turned briefly to the girl, nodded deeply, and moved with a quickened pace out of the Hangar Bay.  Kelly Chambers reluctantly stayed where she was as she watched the paragon leave.

  Mary Shepard began to lose her every defense to the sadness and grief as she ascended in the elevator to her quarters on Deck One.  The moment she walked through the door, she eagerly took off her helmet, and her cheeks were so wet with tears...her breaths hitched loudly, mournfully as she wept, as she hurriedly stripped the rest of her N7 armor off.  She had to get out of that damn armor as quickly as she could, it reminded her too much of those last moments when the SR-1 suffered that last devastating blast and she was thrown clear...only to begin to suffocate in the cold empty of space...it felt like she was experiencing that trauma all over again, and she hoped getting the armor off would help.

  But it didn't as, down to her sleeveless tee and panties on her beautiful, athletic form, Mary cried harder as her bare feet stepped down into the sunken portion of her quarters.  Her slender hands covered her face as she drew closer to her bed, trying and failing to stifle her sobs.  Oh god, it was Hell to flash back to her last moments in her previous life like this, but that wasn't why she was sinking into the depths of despair.  It wasn't why her legs felt weaker and weaker and she finally stumbled and fell upon the mattress as she was overwhelmed by her emotions, as she buried her wet face in her sheets to stifle her tormented weeping, as her hands clutched and fiercely took hold of them.  Her entire lithe body shuddered as she cried and let go to the soul-wracking emotion.  She could only think one coherent thought repeatedly as she laid there...

  I don't deserve to be alive.


-4-

  For over an hour she laid there, lost to any sense of time...her crying only subsided to softer whimpers...her lovely form didn't move, couldn't move, until...

  "Commander Shepard?"
 It was EDI's voice in the air.  "Please respond, Commander.  Are you all right?"

  "Ohh...snff..."  Mary's face lifted from her sheets...her red eyes looked up at the blue holographic orb not far away.  She managed, "E-EDI, you...you caught me at a really bad time..."

  EDI tentatively said, "I can see that, Commander.  Please forgive me for intruding, I..."

  "No, you're okay."  The paragon quickly rose and sat on her knees on the mattress.  She wiped at her cheeks furiously with both hands as she composed herself as best she could.  She had returned most of the way to herself as she said in a stronger voice, "I-I'm all right...snff!"  She took a couple of deep breaths to steady herself further, though.  "You wouldn't be calling me if it wasn't important, EDI.  What's wrong?"

  "We have received a high-priority communication from the Illusive Man.  He wishes to speak directly to you."


  Mary flinched.  It wasn't an answer she expected or wanted.  "Dammit."  She got out of bed and got a robe from one of her drawers...she quickly put it on as she strode up the short stairs to her desk.  Maybe he had to see her, but he didn't need to see so much of her.  Mary ordered, "Put him through to the main monitor in my quarters."

  "Connection established."


  There was a glass display above her desk that gave her a view of the rest of her quarters...it also served as a large monitor that flared to life as she reached her desk, and she quickly saw the visage of the Illusive Man himself, the leader of Cerberus.  The man was smoking a cigarette as he greeted simply, "Commander Shepard."

  The robed woman crossed her arms as she stood there and answered neutrally, "Illusive Man."  She still couldn't trust this man...she certainly couldn't bring herself to like him.  "I can guess this isn't a courtesy call?"

  The man with bright cybernetic eyes said, "Far from it, Shepard.  Cerberus has something of a crisis on its hands, and I believe you may be the best person to make things right again."

  Mary frowned.  "What are you talking about?  We agreed I wouldn't assist any of your organization's activities in any way!"

  "That was part of our agreement, and I'm not attempting to invalidate it.  This isn't about supporting Cerberus.  It's about saving lives...if that's even possible now."

  Mary Shepard stared at his image.  "What do you mean?"

  "We've lost contact with our Overlord Cell...they've been conducting experiments in a remote system in The Phoenix Massing."

  "What kind of experiments?"

  A trace of annoyance infiltrated the Illusive Man's voice when he answered, "The kind of a highly classified nature.  I can say that the project they were undertaking was extremely hazardous, and there were signs that things were going wrong before Overlord went silent.  I need you to lead a squad to investigate the facility and determine if there are any survivors -- "

  Suddenly, strongly, Mary interrupted him:  "No!  I'm not just going to rush wherever not knowing what I'm going to be dealing with, and I wouldn't ask anyone else to do that!"

  Cerberus' leader gave the paragon a look.  "Correct me if I'm wrong, Shepard, but one day you and your crew will have to traverse the Omega-4 Relay, and you won't know -- !"

  "That's different!  We're still recruiting specialists and gathering intelligence on the Collectors!  By the time we use the Omega-4 Relay, we should have some kind of idea of where we'll be going and what we'll face!"  Mary Shepard took a step toward the monitor and said in an unyielding, angry tone, "But I'm not going to put anyone in my command at risk for something we can't know about because it's highly classified!  You either give me a little more to work with and prepare for, or I'll end this conversation right now!"

  The Illusive Man sat forward in his chair and quickly said, "You don't have to do that, Shepard."

  The lady stared at him as she said, "Then give me something, Illusive Man."

  It took only a beat for him to calculate a response...he told her, "It's very likely you'll have to contend with a rogue artificial intelligence.  I can't give all of the details for security's sake, but Project Overlord involved the creation of a countermeasure against the Geth.  The project is substantial in size and involves over a hundred scientists and technicians, and they might be dying as we speak."  The man grimly added, "And if anything has gone wrong, it won't just be Overlord that's at risk."

  Mary asked, "More people could be threatened?"

  "If I'm right, the entire galaxy could be threatened...therefore, you'll understand the urgency of my request.  You're at liberty to refuse to go, if you wish."  His expression shifted as he sat back, as his bright eyes examined Mary.  "But will you ignore the fact that over a hundred lives are in danger, if they're not dead already?"

  Mary looked down at the floor as she stood there.  She thought carefully about it for a few beats but in the end, for her, it was no choice at all.  If he was telling the truth, if this was as important as he said and it meant saving lives...she looked at the monitor again and said, "You know I can't ignore something like that.  Give us the destination coordinates and we'll check it out."  She still had a vague feeling of discomfort, though...was the Illusive Man giving her enough information to prepare?

  The Illusive Man nodded, a small, satisfied smile on his face.  "Thank you, Commander.  I'm sending coordinates to EDI now.  Good luck."  His image disappeared as the monitor deactivated.

  Mary took a deep breath and finally whispered, "Asshole."  She looked to another holographic projector for her ship's A.I. and asked, "EDI, do you have the coordinates?"

  EDI's holo-representation appeared and answered efficiently, "Yes, Commander.  Project Overlord is on the planet Aite, in the remote Typhon System of The Phoenix Massing."

  Mary Shepard nodded and activated her comm system...she spoke crisply, "Joker, it's Shepard!"  The paragon wondered if her unease was a foreboding as she told her pilot, "There's been a change of plans..."


TO BE CONTINUED
MASS EFFECT: PARAMOUR, CH. 8
MATURE CONTENT warning for violence and some cussing in this chapter!  But don't worry, there's room for sweetness here, as well.  This is a story with romance at its heart, after all! :)

Chapter 8 of PARAMOUR has arrived, but after this I need to really bring more of JUDGMENT DAY here, too.  I'm sorry again about that, I just wish for the time I used to have to write. :/  But more of Cheryl and Rebecca's horror-romance will be coming here soon...that's a promise to you, sweet Ygure! :heart: :huggle: :heart:

This installment starts with the literally explosive events you MASS EFFECT fans might remember from a certain adventure in ME2 centered on Zaeed Massani called 'The Price of Revenge'.  However!  I said before that I'd be diverging from the story you know in some ways big and small...I have before, and you'll see that again here.  Remember how you could only choose to save the hostages or kill the bad guy who threatened them?  I always thought we could have been given an additional 'You CAN have your cake and eat it, too!' option.  If you've already read this chapter, then you know what I mean by that...if you haven't, then I won't spoil it! :D

There are sweet and quiet moments to be seen in this chapter too, as Mary and Kelly's relationship slowly begins to bloom...especially as the redheaded Yeoman makes a confession to her longtime hero.  Get ready for some feels! :heart:  But also prepare for sadness as Mary honors the crew members she lost when the first Normandy was destroyed...and we begin to see how deeply that and her own death affected her... :(

But Mary won't be given much time to grieve as...well, you'll see!  I hope longtime ME fans and newbies alike enjoy this! :)

As per usual, MASS EFFECT and its characters are owned by EA and Bioware!
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Mass Effect:  A Casual Mood by CharlesWS
Mass Effect: A Casual Mood
As I bring this pinup to you, I feel kind of sheepish...I honestly thought I brought this art here long ago, but I completely forgot I hadn't.  Yeah, brain freeze on my part.  Thankfully, it's never too late to make a wrong right!

This art had simply started out as a test, but the results are so beautiful -- because of the talent of Padme4000 again :heart: -- I just had to bring this here! :)  It's of Kelly Chambers in the same post-ME3 hairstyle she had that I showed you in my art 'She's Wearing That Dress Again...'  As you can see, though, she's out of uniform...and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that! :love:

Giving credit where it's due!

XNALara created by Dusan Pavlicek
XPS created by Dusan and XNAaraL

Model:
Kelly Chambers N7 Jacket + Underwear by Padme4000
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Mass Effect:  Teased by a Specialist by CharlesWS
Mass Effect: Teased by a Specialist
Time to bring some more XPS art to give to you! :)  This time I'm bringing you MASS EFFECT'S beautiful Samantha Traynor, or better to say one of her lovely models created by the wonderful Padme4000. :heart:  You may remember the art I created of Samantha in Infiltrator armor...in this case, ahem, you can clearly see she's wearing a lot less! ^_^

Imagine at some point during or after ME3 Samantha met Kelly, and FemShep's former Yeoman had the chance to teach the Mission Specialist a few dance moves...you ME fans know the kind of moves I mean!  Then Samantha surprised her lady love one night by performing a special dance.  Gypsy Rose Lee would have been proud! :D

Samantha:  "Oh bother, I dropped something.  Begging your pardon, I'll need to bend over and...mmmm...sorry to take my time, dear...!" :love:

And nope, FemShep didn't mind one bit! :D

Giving credit where it's due!

XNALara created by Dusan Pavlicek
XPS created by Dusan and XNAaraL

Model:
Samantha Traynor Stripper by Padme4000
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Relaxation by CharlesWS
Relaxation
Still haven't gotten the chance to get into LIFE IS STRANGE yet.  Sigh! :/  Until I do (and I will sometime soon!), I can at least show some LIS love to everyone in the form of art.  But rest assured, this is a work I couldn't have done without my dear friend Lyssa, aka DarkTonic.  Thank you so much again for making this lovely mod of Chloe. :heart: :huggle: :heart:

You might be asking, what is this blue-haired beauty thinking of as she relaxes?  Well, me and a lot of LIS fans ship her with Maxine.  So you have your answer! :heart:

Giving credit where it's due!

XNALara created by Dusan Pavlicek
XPS created by Dusan and XNAaraL

Model:
Life is Strange Chloe Mod by DarkTonic
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MASS EFFECT:  PARAMOUR

written by Charles Spencer

Chapter 7:

"PARAGON OF LIGHT, PATH OF SHADOWS"

-1-

The Presidium of the Citadel, in the comm room of the Human Embassy.
 Mary Shepard's status as an extralegal agent of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance Office had just been reactivated by the Citadel Council, ostensibly their way of supporting her in her mission to stop the Collectors.  The way things had been going for too much of the meeting, though, it seemed the Council was set on refusing to help her, perhaps even have her arrested for being backed by the terrorist organization Cerberus...to the relief of Mary and those who accompanied her, her mentor Admiral David Anderson, as well as Garrus Vakarian and Zaeed Massani, Consort Sha'ira and her acolyte Nelyna arrived to support her.  Admiral Anderson finally sighed, "Well...that went better than I expected."  He looked at Mary and said, "You do realize making you a Spectre again is symbolic, at best.  The Council won't actually do anything to help."

  Mary looked back at him thoughtfully and nodded.  "At least they won't be standing in my way, either.  Besides, it's no good to burn bridges."

  Anderson smiled.  "True enough!  And they won't give you any trouble as long as you keep your activities in open space."

  Mary looked at Sha'ira warmly and said, "Thank you so much for speaking on my behalf, Sha'ira.  I didn't know you had such influence with the Council."

  Sha'ira smiled and bowed gracefully.  "The Councilors have...called upon my services at one time or another, Mary.  My advisement has proven to be of great value to them over the years, and they have learned to listen to me on matters of great importance.  Even if I was not indebted to you, especially for your saving my life along with Nelyna's and so many others during the Battle of the Citadel, it was a pleasure to speak for you."  She and Nelyna exchanged a sad look before Sha'ira added, "Not all of my acolytes survived that crisis, but I know beyond any doubt you did your very best in spite of your enemies.  And I know you will continue to do your best, for all of our sakes."

  "Anderson!"  The man's shout came from the doorway to the comm room just after it opened, as Earth Ambassador and Councilor Donnel Udina entered.  He marched in with brisk steps as he began, "We need to talk about -- !"  He stopped dead in his tracks as his mouth went dry.  Udina saw that Anderson had guests...it was surprising enough to see the Consort there, but his eyes couldn't help but lock on the beautiful Human soldier amongst them.  He managed, "Shepard...?"

  Mary Shepard looked at him neutrally and asked, "Not used to seeing ghosts, Udina?"

  Udina took a few halting steps closer toward the paragon as everyone else in the room watched.  Garrus had no care at all for Udina, remembering how the bureaucrat turned on Shepard and her crew two years before...Zaeed looked at the man in stately clothes like a breed of bug he hadn't seen before.  The Human Councilor said, "I-I'd heard you were alive, of course.  Actually seeing you again takes a bit of getting used to.  You're undoubtedly here for the meeting with me and the rest of the Council...!"

  Anderson said, "The meeting's already over, Udina.  You were running late, so I took the liberty of starting things without you."

  Udina virtually exploded in sudden rage...he said with increasing volume, "You went to the rest of the Council behind my back?!  Do the words 'political shitstorm' mean anything to you?!?"

  Mary Shepard spoke:  "Calm down, you didn't miss much.  The Council isn't happy with what I'm doing or my being involved with Cerberus...still, they reinstated me as a Spectre.  What mattered to them is I keep my activities in open space."

  Udina took a few beats to absorb that...and he nodded after his bureaucrat's mind thought of it from every angle.  He mused, "Yes...yes, I can see how that arrangement would work for all sides involved."  He suddenly glared at Anderson, though.  "You still overstepped your bounds going behind my back in such a way, Anderson.  This was a bigger insult than you punching me in the face long ago!  Maybe it's past time the Systems Alliance found me a new advisor!"

  Mary gave the politician a look.  She asked, "You sure you want to do that?  Do you really want everyone to know your advisor arranged a deal without you?"

  Anderson himself said mildly, "You can just go along with this and say you knew...or, you can explain to the Alliance how you want to have me replaced for doing your job."

  A tense couple of beats passed...and Udina finally grumbled, "Hm...I know how the game is played.  I'll tell my fellow Councilors I'm on-board."

  Mary purred, "Better hurry.  They're a fickle bunch.  They tend to forget who their friends are."

  Udina's lips tightened into a thin line as he stared at Mary.  He was about to say something curt in reaction, but suddenly someone else said, "Councilor Udina?"  Sha'ira's young acolyte stepped up to the man and bowed gently.  "I am Nelyna, and I wanted to take a few moments to discuss your future appointment to meet the Consort."

  "Uh...!"  The Councilor suddenly looked very self-conscious as his cheeks glowed a little.  He gave an awkward glance at the Consort before he managed, "Ahem, that's a very private matter -- !"

  Nelyna smiled brightly.  "Of course, which is why I ask if we can speak in your office.  The Consort herself would talk to you personally, but you can imagine she is very busy."

  Mary was quietly amused by how out of sorts Udina seemed to be...the man barely knew what to say.  "I, ah -- uh -- !"

  Then Nelyna gestured to the doors to the comm room and said, "Let us go to your office, Councilor, it will only take a few moments."  The girl's eyes gazed into his innocently.  "Please?"

  Udina finally stammered, "A-all right."  As Nelyna led him out of the comm room, he asked, "B-but what about my appointment?  I made it over two years ago, and I still have months longer to wait...!"

  Nelyna answered, "Well, I'm afraid your appointment with the Consort must be postponed another few months -- !"

  Udina was clearly aghast as he almost stumbled on his way out.  "WHAT?  But I've already been waiting so long!"

  Nelyna responded, "Ah, personal matters have caused the Consort to...um, reshuffle her schedule.  I'll explain further in your office, Councilor."

  Councilor Udina groaned as the two of them left.

  No one else there minded his departure at all.  Admiral Anderson shook his head and growled quietly, "Udina's such an ass!  Bad as he was two years ago, he's ten times worse now as part of the Council."  He looked at Mary.  "Better him than me, though, and he has been doing well promoting Alliance interests."

  Mary smiled warmly at her mentor.  "If I had suggested you be Earth's Councilor instead of Udina two years ago, you would have hated every minute of it."

  "You know me too well, Shepard."  Anderson looked at Sha'ira and offered his hand.  "Thank you very much for your assistance, Consort Sha'ira.  We both deeply appreciated it."  Sha'ira took his hand, and he bowed deeply...Mary for her part simply gazed at the Consort with clear and present gratitude.

  "As I said, Admiral, it was my pleasure."  Sha'ira then turned to Mary...she drew very close to the paragon.  "Thank you again, Mary.  I feel like I owe you an apology, as well."  Mary looked a question at her.  "I had thought my gift of words had been lost to you when I heard of your death, but I am truly happy to know I was wrong and that you've resumed your journey."

  Mary smiled warmly and said, "You have nothing to apologize for, Sha'ira.  It's not like you can look into the future, right?"

  The expression in Sha'ira's eyes stayed characteristically gentle, yet Mary also saw a subtle...shift in them in reaction.  The Consort smiled in an inscrutable way and said, "Well...sometimes I cannot see everything I need to."  Mary frowned a little, not comprehending the meaning behind those words, but then the Asari said, "Your returning to us does show once and for all that you are indeed a survivor, whether by your own strength or with the support of others.  You must undoubtedly remember what I told you when you began your journey, Mary...?"

  Mary's expression was truly solemn...she did remember the Consort's gift well.  "Yes.  I didn't understand at the time, but ever since the meaning of what you said became clearer to me."  Even though she didn't have a photographic memory, strangely, she still remembered virtually every word the Consort told her:

  "This gift of words will serve you on the journey you have only just begun.  This gift is an affirmation of who you are...and perhaps who you might yet become.  You have lived the life of a survivor, Commander.  Your skin is as tough as Turian scales, an unyielding wall between you and everyone else.  It protects you, makes you strong.  You were forced to face a great tragedy...you lived as everyone around you died.  You suffered so because of that tragedy, but that pain is also what drives you.  The pain only made you stronger, as well.  You will need your strength during the journey ahead...by your own efforts and with the support of those closest to you, you shall survive great trials.

  "But remember what you are is not necessarily who you will become.  Where you have been is only the foundation...future experience will continue to build and shape you into a woman who will do truly great things.  Your journey will have a profound effect upon you, just as your choices will have an effect on everything and everyone around you.  Your strength might one day become a bright light for everyone to see...you have the potential to terrify your enemies, empower your loved ones, and inspire those you have sworn to defend.  Remember these words whenever doubt descends, Mary."


  Mary recalled those words as she said softly, "I do understand how much of an impact my decisions can have on others...I won't ever take that for granted, Sha'ira.  I promise."  She wanted to say more...yet she hesitated.  "But..."

  The Consort drew closer, her gaze sympathetic.  "I know how troubled you are by where your journey has taken you.  It's understandable you feel doubt.  You've come back to us to walk amongst dark shadows, but it shall not be for long.  As long as you are true to yourself and all you believe to be right, you will not tread in the dark for long.  In fact, this path into shadow might bring so much more reward to you and to others than you can possibly imagine."  The Asari lifted her hand, and her fingers softly touched Mary's cheek.  The paragon was so affected, her breaths became shallower.  Sha'ira counseled, "But keep in mind that it will not be solely your strength and courage that will be tested."  Sha'ira drew very close, softly kissed Mary on one cheek as her touch lingered on the other, and spoke into her ear gently:  "Remember others journey with you...remember they will need to fight by your side with clear minds and glad hearts."  Sha'ira stepped back, smiled radiantly, and finished:  "Be well, Mary."  Then, with perfect grace, the Consort left.

  David Anderson, like Garrus and Zaeed, was quietly moved as he watched the Consort leave, but he kept his feelings to himself.  He couldn't help but think of someone else, a woman who touched his heart long ago...that, however, was something to be explored at another time.  Mary Shepard also kept her feelings close to the vest, even though unlike Anderson she had once shared truly intimate, Heavenly moments with the extraordinary Asari at the start of her fateful journey.

  Anderson finally looked at Mary and said, "Now that we're finished with the Council, it's past time you got to talk to someone else."  Anderson moved to the main communications console.  "He wasn't in the mood to speak to the Councilors, and I'm sure you understand why, but he's still been listening in all this time."  The man simply touched a few keys as he asked, "Isn't that right, Admiral Hackett?"

  Another of the holo-arrays brightened and coalesced into the real-time image of Admiral Steven Hackett from Earth...the battle-scarred veteran, the highest officer of the ESA's Navy, said in answer, "Exactly right, Anderson."  Hackett looked directly at Mary and nodded deeply.  "Shepard, it's truly amazing to see you've come back to us."

  Mary immediately went ramrod-straight and offered a brisk salute.  "Admiral!"

  Hackett's image held up a hand and said, "At ease, there's no need for formality!  At least, not at the moment.  I have been listening in, and rest assured I fully understand why you took this mission with the backing of Cerberus."  Mary relaxed a little before the leader's penetrating gaze, but then Hackett said, "Before I say anything else, Anderson and I know about your uplink to your ship...we know your crew's been watching.  I understand they had an interest in hearing what the Council had to say, but now it's time to discuss Alliance business.  And to be blunt, anyone with Cerberus doesn't have to hear or see anything else!  David, if you would?"

  Anderson said crisply, "Yes, sir!"  He activated his Omni-Tool, and it took only a little manipulation of its controls --

  -- and just like that, the transmission from Shepard was cut off.  Kelly Chambers moaned, "Aww!"  Many of the crew visibly responded with disappointment, as well.

  Except for Miranda Lawson...she smiled a little as she mused, "Hmf...I'm surprised they didn't do that sooner."

.  Mary Shepard understood completely, and she wasn't surprised at all.  Hackett looked at Mary and said, "Even if the Council won't come right out and say it, Shepard, we owe you a debt for your heroism two years ago.  You saved a lot of lives, including me and most of the Fifth Fleet when you gave us the opening to help you destroy Sovereign."  The man frowned with worry then and he said, "Still, in spite of what Consort Sha'ira said, however long your association with Cerberus will last, Earth's government is that damn close to issuing a warrant for your arrest!"

  Anderson's expression became dour as he stared at his former student and he emphasized, "As much as Hackett and I believe in you, Shepard, even we have to question your decisions!  This mission is dangerous enough, I don't have to tell you that it isn't a good idea by any measure to take it upon yourself to affiliate with terrorists!  You are flirting with charges of treason, and too many in the Parliament and the admiralty don't want to be as understanding of your reasons as we are!"

  Mary looked at them both and said, "I simply want to save our people and stop the Collectors.  For godsakes, the Alliance has never faced a crisis like this before, even during our conflicts with the Batarians.  Our colonies are being systematically wiped out one by one, our people taken for...I'm afraid to ask why they're being taken, especially if I'm right about the Reapers being involved!  I wouldn't even be working with Cerberus if I thought I had a better option, but no one else was taking any action at all, and all things considered it seemed like the best choice I had!  If the Alliance Navy was allowed to mobilize and defend our colonies in the Terminus Systems -- !"

  Hackett's mood visibly darkened as he said, "We can't, Shepard.  It's the policy set by Parliament and the Defense Committee itself."  The Defense Committee was basically an extension of the Parliament, and made up of admirals given the responsibility of overseeing the Navy and ensuring it obeyed political policies.  "I'd love nothing better than to tell them to go to hell and deploy battle groups to guard at least our most vulnerable and remote colonies...for godsakes, we just lost Ferris Fields!  That's eight of our colonies gone without a damned trace."

  Anderson said on a sympathetic note, "The public on Earth lost their patience long ago, Shepard.  Protests have been spreading like wildfire as people have been screaming for the same thing we want, positive action to defend our colonies and end the threat.  Unfortunately, Parliament is still standing firm."

  The paragon shook her head softly.  "Anderson, I just don't understand...!"

  Sourly, her mentor explained:  "It's the official position that Earth should focus on building relations and having a policy of openness to all cultures in the galaxy as a new addition to the Council Worlds.  The powers that be feel that shifting our focus to defending our colonies would be seen as a selfish step by the rest of the galaxy.  They also fear other races might think we'd use the colony disappearances as an excuse to aggressively claim unincorporated space."

  Mary Shepard said instantly, "That's bullshit!"

  "That's politics, Shepard, and there's very little the Navy can do about it right now."

  Admiral Hackett said, "But you're trying to stop the disappearances, Shepard, and I wish I could give you an entire fleet for support to track down the Collectors.  I understand you're officially 'on the grid' again because of Citadel Security."

  Mary turned fully to Hackett's image.  "Yes, sir?"

  "News travels fast, and you're now listed as alive and well not just on Earth and throughout the Alliance, but I'm sure on every Council World, too.  That shouldn't have an affect on you when you have to work in secret as a Spectre in open space, but I can at least do this to show my support and Anderson's."  Admiral Hackett's stance became firmer as he said formally, "Effective now, Commander Shepard, you're reinstated as an officer of the Alliance Navy with all of the privileges and authority that comes with your rank!"

  Mary felt very warm...she couldn't contain her smile as she saluted Hackett again.  "Thank you, Admiral!"

  Hackett nodded warmly.  "You are flying a ship built by a terrorist organization.  If you have to enter Alliance space for any reason, it'll help keep our Navy off your back.  I'm sorry to say I can't help you anymore than that for now."

  Admiral David Anderson said, "Admiral Hackett and I will also do our best to hold off the likes of Udina and run interference against idiots out there who see you as a liability or worse, a traitor.  Bottom line, Shepard:  you'll need to show them how wrong they are and that your association with Cerberus is a necessary, temporary evil!"

  Resolute, Mary saluted her mentor, as well.  "Aye, sir!"  Inevitably, she thought of something that brought heat to her blood...she looked at Anderson and asked tensely, "I didn't have the chance to ask while the Council was here, but I need to know what the current situation is with the unknown cruiser that destroyed the SR-1 two years ago!  I've learned since I was brought back that I lost twenty of my crew including Charles Pressley, my Navigator."  It was all she could do to control her anger again as she asked, "Was that ship ever identified?  Were there any clues to where it came from?"

  Anderson said quietly, "Negative, Shepard.  The Navy has been actively hunting for that damn ship ever since...since you lost your command, but we haven't had any luck.  There have been no reports anywhere of any encounter with a vessel like it, either."

  Mary said, "I had the thought they might have been Geth, since we were actively hunting for them.  But that cruiser definitely wasn't a Geth design."

  Hackett said, "Some of your crew managed to keep sensor records of the unknown with them when they escaped, but those records didn't do us much good.  The ship was heavily shielded, so there were no accurate readings, nothing in the records that gave us any clue to the ship's origins."

  The paragon mused, "All I know for sure is that ship had incredible power, so much we never had a chance."  She looked at Anderson.  "You said there were never reports of anyone seeing a vessel like it...I can guess it has been seen since, but no one lived to tell about it."

 Hackett's image nodded.  "Naval Intelligence had the same thought, and there have been disappearances of vessels in open space since we lost you.  None of those events seem to be related or connected to what happened to you, but...we just don't have enough information."

  Disappointment flooded Mary's expression, but Anderson reassured, "If it means anything, Shepard, we'll never stop looking for those bastards, no matter where they came from."

  Mary sighed.  "It means a lot, sir."  She then thought of her crew at present, those who swore to follow her and stop the Collectors.  "I...I need to ask about something else very important.  You must know that most of my crew are affiliated with Cerberus...but they were recruited into the organization specifically for this mission, because it was believed they would best be able to support me, like former Lieutenant Moreau and Doctor Chakwas."

  Admiral Hackett said simply, "Yes, Commander.  Naval Intelligence is aware of that, and that only two of your crew are veteran Cerberus agents, Miranda Lawson and Jacob Taylor."

  Mary became more and more tense, her eyes more worried as she spoke.  "Well, Jeff and Karin wouldn't have become a part of this operation and Cerberus if it wasn't for my involvement.  And like me, they only have the best interests of Earth and the Council in mind doing that.  During the course of this mission, I'll need to recruit specialists who will improve the chances of our mission's success."  She turned and gestured to her companions.  "I'm accompanied right now by two of those agents, my longtime colleague Garrus Vakarian and freelance operative Zaeed Massani."

  Anderson nodded as he gazed at the operatives and turned back to his former protegee...he said, "Understood, Shepard.  What are you trying to say?"

  Mary looked at Anderson as she thought of her crew.  She thought of how most of them weren't terrorists, not really, and that couldn't ever have been said about Kelly Chambers, who Mary couldn't help but picture in her heart above all.  God, in the short time they've known each other, she liked Kelly so much...  "According to the Citadel Council, my crew and I will be immune from prosecution for as long as the mission lasts...but I want to know what will happen after the mission is done.  You know better than anyone how seriously I take the welfare of my crew, Anderson.  If I do have to answer for my partnership with Cerberus, I want to be sure that no one else under my command will."

  Anderson gave Garrus and Zaeed a measured glance before he told the paragon, "I can say categorically that when it comes to the specialists you've already recruited and those you still need to bring aboard your mission, if none of them are directly affiliated with Cerberus, there shouldn't be any issues."

  Hackett's projection nodded deeply as the man said, "Agreed!"  He paused briefly as he frowned a little.  "It won't be so simple for Moreau and Chakwas, however.  Chakwas essentially deserted her duty to join you, while Moreau resigned his commission long ago."

  Mary looked at Hackett and tried to make her case:  "But they both wouldn't have joined Cerberus and this mission if it wasn't for me.  The same goes for most of the crew, and they were recruited literally barely a month ago in order to support me.  They all simply wanted to do what's right, to stop the colony abductions...!"

  In a quiet, neutral tone, Anderson interrupted with a question:  "But you can't say the same for Cerberus agents Lawson and Taylor, can you?"  Mary stared at him...and finally gazed down at the floor quietly.  She couldn't answer that.

  Hackett's eyes looked at Mary curiously.  "You seem to already be personally involved with the interests of your crew, Commander."

  Mary turned to Hackett and said, without hesitation, "With all due respect, Admiral Hackett, is that wrong to feel that way?  A good captain always looks out for the best interests of her crew, and it doesn't matter if most of the crew under me now were recruited by terrorists.  The risks of this mission are literally beyond any measure compared to my hunt for Saren and the Conduit!  It's personal because my crew is risking everything, just like I am, and..."  She stopped...and as she thought of Kelly again, she said with quiet earnest, "I don't want anything to happen to them, sir."

  Anderson considered her for a moment, his gaze sympathetic.  "I understand, Shepard.  Still, the situation is far from simple.  At this time I can't answer your concerns, as much as I want to."

  Hackett said, "Neither can I.  However, best case scenario, if your mission is a success...if you and your crew bring an end to the Collector threat...what you accomplished will have a profound and positive weight on how things will proceed after that.  Until then, no promises can be made.  Understood?"

  Whether she liked it or not, Mary knew she had to settle for that...she responded, "Yessir."  Her being relaxed a little then as her thoughts shifted to someone else she cared for deeply, a dear friend she left behind two years ago, someone she needed to ask about.  Mary looked at her mentor.  "Anderson...where is Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams?  I wanted to reconnect with her, but I can't find any information on her status through normal channels."  She still found it unusual that in spite of his information network, the Illusive Man couldn't pinpoint where Ash was or what she was doing, either.

  Before Anderson answered, Admiral Hackett enlightened Mary:  "Actually, Shepard, Williams was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant since you've been gone."

  The paragon's bright smile reflected her delight.  "That's wonderful, sir!  I remember sending a letter of recommendation to Officer Training School for Ash right after the Battle of the Citadel!  But I never heard back from them before..."  Before she died, but she couldn't finish that sentence.

  Anderson said warmly, "Bureaucracy usually runs slow, Shepard.  Right after we lost you, OTS accepted Williams...she joined the officer ranks just a few months after that."

  "Where is Ash?  I hope it's possible to see her again...?"  Her dark eyes looked at Anderson hopefully.

  But her mentor's words had the same effect as a bucket of ice water:  "I'm afraid that for the time being I can't say, Shepard.  Lieutenant Williams is on a classified mission for the Navy.  I know how much she must mean to you, but...I can say nothing further.  I'm sorry."

  Disappointed, Mary nodded softly.  "I understand, Anderson.  I just wanted to see her again, let her know I'm all right.  Can I at least write a message to her...?"

  "Unfortunately, no...but I'm sure she will know you're okay, one way or the other."

  "All right."  She regarded both Anderson and Hackett as she said, "I'm afraid I have to go very soon, but was there anything I can do?  You know that outside of my search for the Collectors, I won't hesitate to follow any orders you have for me."

  Hackett's image said, "Rest assured, Commander, we'll keep that in mind.  In fact...there is something you can help us with, and I believe you'll have a personal interest."

  The hero asked, "Yes, Admiral?"

  "It's about your former command, the SSV Normandy.  I wanted to ask that you travel to its crash site on Alchera in the Amada System for two important reasons.  First, I want to have a monument erected at the site to memorialize the crewmembers you lost.  After all this time, we never got the opportunity to give you and the rest of your crew who were K.I.A. the respect you deserved."

  Mary Shepard was affected instantly...sadness was thick in her voice as she said, "I-I didn't know that, sir."

  Anderson offered, "Two years ago, the Defense Committee decided that such things were of secondary importance as the Navy proceeded with rebuilding, and they still haven't seen fit to rectify the damned situation.  All that could be done was an initial survey of the crash site.  It didn't help matters that we never found your remains...we now know why, of course."  Because Cerberus somehow got possession of Mary's body before anyone else could.

  Hackett spoke then.  "That brings me to the second reason for this request, Shepard.  The remains of the crewmembers lost were never recovered, and their families need some kind of closure.  If you can retrieve evidence of their passing while you're at the crash site, it would be greatly appreciated.  Simply personal items like their dog tags are all that would be necessary."

  Mary nodded deeply, eagerly.  She thought of Pressley and the rest of the crewmembers she lost...she absolutely owed it to them.  "Of course, sir.  I...I have something to attend to before I can do that."  She glanced at Zaeed, remembering his contract.  "It's important to the mission, and it shouldn't take too long."

  "Understood, Commander.  I can only offer my deepest apologies that it took so long to honor the people you lost."  Anderson looked at Mary with as much sympathy as Hackett did.  Two years dead and gone, their remains so far from their homeworld...the lost of the SR-1 deserved a helluva lot more respect than that.  "Take two days and return to the Citadel.  By then we should have a proper monument crafted by the Citadel's best artisans for you to take to the crash site."

  "Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir."

  Hackett's projection said, "You undoubtedly have a lot to do, Commander, so we won't keep you any further.  Again, I wish we could give you more assistance."

  "Take the best of care, Shepard," Anderson said.  "Especially for as long as you're dealing with Cerberus."

  Stoic yet warm, Mary Shepard nodded deeply.  "I will, Anderson, and thank you.  Admiral Hackett, sir."  With a formal salute, she rejoined Garrus and Zaeed.  The three of them quietly left the communications room.

  Admiral David Anderson gazed at the door Mary exited from after it closed for a few tense beats...his expression tightened as he said, "I hated like hell keeping the truth from her, Hackett."

  Admiral Hackett's projection regarded him.  "You did your duty, David.  Lieutenant Williams is on a classified mission, after all."

  Admiral David Anderson turned to look at Hackett.  "Yes, based on bad information collected by Naval Intelligence, which led us to believe Cerberus was responsible for the disappearances!  But now Shepard is telling us the Collectors are responsible.  I don't doubt her for a moment, and that means all of our colonies are at greater hazard than we imagined, including Horizon!"

  If Admiral Steven Hackett was affected by Anderson's worry, he didn't show it.  The strong tone in his voice didn't flag as he reminded:  "That doesn't change the fact our ability to respond will still be limited, whether Williams will have the chance to call for help or not.  No, David.  For now, as long as Earth's government is keeping the Navy from doing what has to be done, we can only lay our hopes on Shepard and that she can stop the Collectors."

-2-

  The three of them only spent a couple of hours longer on the Citadel, shopping in the Presidium and then the Zakera Ward for essentials they'd need for their mission.  As Mary found new upgrades for her cybernetics, for weapons and other important items -- including a bottle of Serrice Iced Brandy she knew Karin Chakwas would have appreciated -- Garrus Vakarian took some time to purchase components for a weapon that would improve the SR-2's offensive capabilities by leaps and bounds.  He couldn't get everything he needed, though, and he knew it would take some intensive searching in the weeks to come to find the rest of the parts for the Thanix Cannon, a weapon so powerful it was meant to be used on Dreadnaught-class ships.  It was good to find vendors who were receptive to the idea of giving Mary and her friends a discount...as long as she could provide an endorsement for their business.  There were some times it helped to be a celebrity...

  ...but for the most part it didn't help at all.  Case in point:  the paragon and her squadmates were done and only meters away from reaching a skycar terminal, where they would have traveled to their ship's dock, but a familiar voice suddenly called after her:  "Mary Shepard!  Shepard, please wait!"  The voice wasn't familiar in a good way, and Mary felt her heart sink.  She stopped and turned around, and it was exactly who she thought, a woman of dusky beauty closing in fast.  She was a journalist the hero met before...unfortunately.  That woman was followed closely by a couple of floating camera drones...she finally reached Mary and announced, "Khalisah bint-Sinan al-Jilani, Westerland News!"  Mary simply looked at her.  Hesitantly, Khalisah added, "Ah, I interviewed you two years ago, after you became a Spectre?"

  Mary simply folded her arms across her bosom and she said coolly, "I remember you.  What do you want?"

  The journalist answered with a grin, "Come on, Shepard, you honestly have to ask?  I'm looking at the Hero of the Citadel back from the dead!  I want to interview you!"

  The paragon was afraid of that, and she wasn't in the mood.  Not even close.  Mary began to dismiss the woman by saying, "So you can make me look bad in front of your audience again?  No, thanks."

  Khalisah gave Mary a look.  "Now Shepard, you may object with my methods, but we're on the same side.  Besides, you're back, that means you're news!  And with all of the rumors flying around, this is your chance to tell everyone what's true and what isn't!  A lot of people are calling you a terrorist."  The woman deliberately paused for affect.  "Or don't you have anything to say about that?"

  It took a couple of beats for Mary to decide.  "All right...but I can't stay long, this has to be quick."

  The lady beamed brightly and said, "Okay, thank you!"  Quickly, Khalisah accessed her Omni-Tool...she moved her camera drones into set postions in the air as she said, "Scott, set me up to cut into the Extranet live in 30 seconds!  I'm about to talk to Mary Shepard!  No, I'm serious, set me up, dammit!"

  Close by, Zaeed Massani scowled and asked, "Who the hell is this?"

  Garrus Vakarian stood next to him and answered neutrally, "Just a reporter we ran into two years ago, Zaeed.  She was so annoying, Shepard was tempted to punch her out."  Garrus also didn't like this woman at all.

  It was clear Zaeed didn't, either...he growled, "I sympathize.  Just five seconds in front of this bitch and I want to hit her, too."

  Only a moment later, the cameras' lights flared brightly...and Khalisah was being broadcast across the known galaxy as she stood in front of the hero and announced to the cameras, "Ladies and gentlemen and fellow sentients, it's my honor to bring to you Commander Mary Shepard, the Hero of the Citadel herself!"  She turned to look at Mary and said, "For two years you've been declared killed in action, but you're back and effective today you're listed in official records as alive again.  How did you come back to life?  Where have you been all this time?"

  Mary had to contain her dislike as best she could, so she could only manage a neutral, all business tone as she answered.  She had to keep in mind her conduct and everything she said would ultimately reflect on her as an Alliance officer and as a Spectre.  "It was only recently I came back, Khalisah, after two years of work by Cerberus medical scientists.  Ever since I've been doing my best to catch up on lost time, but my primary focus is stopping the disappearances of Human colonies."

  Khalisah looked back at her audience, her expression somber as she said, "Yes, and Ferris Fields is the most recent colony to be lost."  The lady looked at Mary again.  "But you're an officer of the Alliance Navy, and you've come back to us working for an extremist organization of terrorists.  I find that unusual considering your vocal opposition of the Terra Firma movement two years ago, which like Cerberus endorsed Human supremacy."  Her eyes examined the paragon as she asked, "Or maybe you feel indebted to Cerberus for bringing you back to life?  Perhaps you've changed your mind and you agree with their views of -- ?"

  No.  Mary couldn't let Khalisah try anything like that again, sensationalizing something so important for the sake of gaining more viewers.  Mary took a step toward Khalisah, and her eyes were hard as she interrupted:  "Let me make this perfectly clear, Khalisah.  I haven't changed my mind about anything.  I haven't changed one damn bit.  I'm not endorsing Cerberus' agenda and their organization, and I'm sure as hell not working for them.  They are simply giving support to my mission to stop the Collectors from taking any more of our colonies, and that's all.  We both want the same thing, but we have absolutely nothing in common."

  Taken aback, Khalisah managed, "The Collectors...?"  The reporter grinned and said, "Shepard, I've heard of the Collectors and they're nothing more than a myth...an interstellar urban legend -- !"

  There was such an intensity in Mary's eyes as she said, "Oh, no.  They're very real.  I've seen them for myself taking Humans from Freedom's Progress.  Let me show you..."  She accessed her Omni-Tool, and for the next couple of moments, Khalisah and her viewers saw some of the same evidence she showed to the Council.  Collectors taking Humans from the colony.  Mary shut down her Omni-Tool and asked flatly, "Seen enough?"

  Surprised, more than slightly frightened by what she saw, Khalisah managed, "Y-yes."  It took only a beat for her to recover and press on with her interview.  "Still...there are some in Earth's Parliament and the Alliance Navy who are calling you a traitor for even associating with Cerberus.  How would you respond to them?"

  Mary Shepard looked at Khalisah bint-Sinan al-Jilani with a stoic expression.  "No matter what I say here and now, I know I'm not going to change their minds.  But I will say that these are the same people who have decided that our most remote colonies are on their own.  Go straight to Parliament in London.  Ask the powers that be if politics are worth the tens of thousands of men, women and children gone without a trace.  Ask them that and see how they respond."  Mary let that sink in for Khalisah and her viewers before she finished quietly, "I'm done here."  The paragon left with Garrus and Zaeed.

-3-

  Zaeed told Mary that according to his intel from Zorya, Vido Santiago and his Blue Suns were still waiting for a response from the company that owned the refinery they had taken.  He knew Vido well enough that it would still be a couple of days before the refinery workers were in any real danger from Vido.  Then the merc leader would have started killing hostages to get what he wanted from the company.  It would have been another half a day of travel to reach Zorya and Mary wanted herself and her crew at their best for such a dangerous situation.  So she decided to keep the Normandy where it was in the docks for at least half a day for down time and preparation.  First, Mary made it her priority to speak at length with her latest recruit and the personal matter the girl needed help with.

  The Observation cabin on the ship's Crew Deck, where Kasumi Goto made her quarters.  Mary summed up everything she had just been told by the master thief.  "So basically you're planning a heist from this Donovan Hock to get back your late partner's graybox."

  Kasumi Goto sat casually next to Shepard on the couch as they spoke, but Mary could feel the underlying tension and emotion that belied the girl's conversational tone.  "Yep!  Keiji's graybox is important to me because it has all of his personal memories digitally stored in a neural archive.  And I mean...very personal.  It's important to Hock because the same information that got Keiji killed is amongst his memories, and if he gets it Hock will sell the information to the highest bidder."  There was a subtle urgency in Kasumi's frown on her cloaked face that couldn't be denied.  "I don't know what kind of information could have gotten Keiji killed.  That doesn't matter to me, and I don't care what that bastard Hock wants to do with it.  The graybox belonged to Keiji, and no one else.  He'd want me to have it."

  Mary nodded.  "I understand how personal this is for you, Kasumi.  Keiji's memories are all he left behind.  You said you almost had a plan finalized...?"

  "Donovan Hock hosts parties on a semi-annual basis at his home on Beckenstein, and his next one will be in a few weeks.  He invites criminals from across the galaxy he wants to deal with or control to expand his empire.  It's also an exercise in pure ego, Hock's chance to strut around like a peacock and show everyone how rich and influential he is.  It's the best time for me to slip in and take care of business, and if I can't I'll have to wait a long time before my next chance.  Hock will find a way to break through the graybox's security encryptions long before that.  I have all of the details for the plan down except for the way in...and that's where I need some help."

  "Tell me more."

  "Hock knows of me and that I was Keiji's partner in...more ways than one.  He'd never invite me and compromise himself.  I can sneak in easily, but I can't get to his vault by myself.  Too many security protocols and failsafes."  Kasumi smirked a little as she added, "However...if I had the help of a silent partner, someone Hock did invite and could help me circumvent his security..."  Kasumi's voice trailed off there...

  ...and Mary said, "I can guess that's where I come in."

  "I've already taken the liberty of creating a very convincing myth with fabricated stories and handsomely paid informants of an elusive mercenary who works in the Terminus Systems.  She's ruthless, tough, and she's become quite infamous.  I even gave her a faux Extranet account and email and everything.  I know Hock has a weakness for the ladies, and just as I hoped, the activities of Allison Gunn have captured his interest enough he's sent her an invite.  She just needs to respond to it, but that will be a little difficult considering she doesn't exist...at the moment."

  Mary slowly nodded again as she understood.  "So you want me to play the part of Allison Gunn."

  "Exactly.  What do you say, Shepard?"

  Mary took a moment to think about it.  The only worry she had about what Kasumi proposed was:  would Hock or anyone else at his home recognize her, in spite of her using a fictional alias?  She decided the chances of that were slim, at best.  Mary was known as a soldier, not someone who clashed with the criminal elements of the galaxy, and so it wasn't like they saw the hero as a threat in the same way they would police agencies.  Hock or anyone else attending his party might think 'Allison Gunn' looked familiar, but that would be all.  Unless...  Mary asked, "Does Hock use genetic scans to screen his guests when they arrive for his parties?"

  Kasumi shook her head softly.  "Nope.  He only reserves security measures that high for his vault, to protect his treasures."

  "I'm sure he'll have plenty of security on the grounds, anyway."

  "Uh-huh.  Mercenaries and mechs."

  "Will I be able to go in armed?"

  "Hock allows his guests to be armed, but at a minimum for self-defense.  It'll be all right if you pack a handgun."

  "A little protection is better than nothing at all...I'll need more than that, just in case things go south."

  "I've thought of that, and it's part of the plan.  Seriously!"

  "How much freedom should I have to move in Hock's home?"

  Kasumi smiled.  "I paid a previous guest to let me know exactly that.  You'll have lots of room to move around, but there are some areas he keeps private...I can change that on the sly given a moment's notice, though.  We'll need access to certain parts of his home to make this plan work, anyway.  I'm still ironing out the final details, but I promise, I'm thinking of everything."

  Mary smiled back warmly.  "I believe you...and I'm in."  Kasumi sighed deeply with grateful relief, but then the hero asked, "I just need to know what else you'll want from me?"

  Kasumi Goto answered, "Your dress size."  The paragon stared at the girl as she giggled.  "Hey, this is a party, remember?  You'll need to look your best!"

  Shortly after their talk, the paragon made a visit to the Medical Bay...to receive the cybernetic upgrades she recently purchased.  Most medical procedures at this time across the galaxy involved nano-technology, or the use of molecular machines called nanites.  The marvels might have been so small they couldn't be seen, but in enough numbers and properly programmed for a specific treatment, they were virtually miraculous.  Under Doctor Karin Chakwas' care, it took less than a couple of hours for Mary Shepard to receive the upgrades to her bones and muscles in the same way her skin had been just after her time on Omega.  These upgrades in question were relatively simple, but according to Doctor Chakwas their benefits would be invaluable.  During the process of her resurrection, Mary's skin, bones and muscles had to be regenerated...Project Lazarus didn't just restore those parts of her, they were given additional reinforcement in the form of unique nano-fiber mesh weaves.

  For whatever reason, perhaps lack of time -- the hero had begun to wake up before Miranda Lawson's work was complete -- those reinforcements hadn't been given the optimum attention as the rest of Mary's cybernetics.  Proof of that were the lingering scars on the paragon's face.  But Karin understood that if given enough enhancement, and there should have been plenty of opportunities to get even more upgrades during the mission, the density and durability of Mary's skin and bones would be improved many times over.  More than that, upgrades to her body's muscle structure would increase her strength to three times that of a Human male at the peak of their power, which could make her capable of going hand to hand with a battle-angry Krogan.  When told, Mary had the lingering worry that she might lose touch with her own strength and cause unintentional damage, especially at times she wore her armor...the N7 hard suit's exo-servos already boosted a wearer's strength twice that of normal!  Fortunately, Karin reassured that the paragon wouldn't have to relearn how to use her muscles at any point, but when given enough upgrades for the weaves, training would be necessary when possible to explore her new limits and what she was capable of.  Mary had long ago made it a habit to exercise at least an hour a day, so that wouldn't have been difficult.

  Still, Mary had to comment quietly, "I have to wonder.  Is this second chance at life really worth it if..."  She closed her eyes and said in an even softer tone, "...if I lose my humanity?"

  Karin gave Mary a critical gaze as she scolded, "You still have over 70-percent of your original parts, girl.  That's more than some veterans of the military have taken with them!"  The matronly doctor knew that, unfortunately, in part because of personal experience.  The silver-haired lady's expression became softer as she smiled and said, "The fact you would ask such a question should tell you the answer, Mary.  You're one of the most amazing, most Human souls I've ever known in my life.  You have come back to us, and all that's happened in the bargain is...you've been given replacement parts.  Reinforcements.  You could never lose what truly makes you who you are, and that's your heart.  I say that physically and metaphorically speaking, of course."  Karin added with gentle power, "As long as you're true to yourself and all you care for, you'll never lose a damn thing."  She added with deep emotion, "You will definitely never lose me, Commander."  Mary and her doctor held each other for a long time, the emotions each felt ran so deeply.

  Afterward, the hero checked in with her Yeoman before she returned to her quarters to turn in.  She had to be sure she'd be fresh and ready for the operation on Zorya...especially if it was all going to be as personal for Zaeed Massani as she feared it was.  After she took a shower, she was barely dry when Kelly called her...the girl said, "Mary, you have a new message on your private terminal!"  The paragon moved to her desk virtually overlooking the rest of her quarters, logged in...and her heart swelled when she saw the personal message:

From:  Corporal Henry Toombs

Shepard,

I could hardly believe it was you when I saw your message, Commander!  It's still strange to call you that, I was used to you being my Lieutenant before everything went to hell on Akuze long ago.  I'm doing a lot better, I'm almost finished with my rehab and counseling, in fact.  Cerberus did a lot of damage to me that took so long to heal, and I don't just mean the experiments that they put me through.  I can't wait to get back on duty again.  Did you know that Doctor Wayne got the death penalty months ago?  You told me I was better than he was, that I didn't have to be like him, and you were right...it truly felt like justice when the verdict came down.

It helps even more to know you're back, and I appreciate you taking the time to let me know what you're doing.  If I found out some other way that you were working with those Cerberus bastards, I don't think I would have understood.  But I've served under you.  I know you and you wouldn't dishonor the friends we lost, and it doesn't surprise me you care that much about how I felt.  You sure as hell wouldn't turn traitor like I've heard so many assholes saying!  You're doing this for the right reasons, like you always have.  Dammit, somebody has to something about our colonies, especially since the Navy won't!

Do what you have to do for all of us, Shepard, and when you're done I hope I can help you kick some Cerberus ass!

Toombs

-4-

  Kelly Chambers' personal quarters.  The Yeoman just finished her daily report -- and thankfully, there wasn't much to write.  After meeting the Council and especially after seeing Mary's interview broadcast across the Extranet, the crew was in high spirits.  The same seemed to be true for her hero, and that was all she felt obligated to write before she sent the report to the Illusive Man.  Kelly stood from her desk and was about to move to her bed...and then a chime sounded from her terminal before she heard a familiar voice:  "Yeoman Chambers?"

  The voice surprised her because it was the artificial intelligence created to serve Mary Shepard and her crew...her eyebrows perked up as she said, "Um yes, EDI?  Can I help you?"

  The almost seductively feminine voice answered, "Perhaps.  I felt it best to wait until your off-duty hours, but I wanted to ask if we can talk?"

  Kelly Chambers was naturally, innocently curious to know more about EDI anyway, and she smiled warmly as she sat down at her desk again.  She said, "Of course!  What did you want to talk about?"

  "I wish to gain a better understanding of Human behavior, and Commander Shepard suggested I speak to you."


  Doubly surprised and more than a little flattered, but nervously so, Kelly said, "Really??  I-I'm no authority, EDI, but I swear I'll help you in any way I can!"  Carefully, the girl asked, "Um, what do you want to know?"

  "As much as you can tell me, Yeoman Chambers."


  "Oh!  Oh, okay."  Kelly Chambers knew it would take a long time to tell EDI all she knew and understood about what it meant to be Human -- probably most of the mission! -- but she truly didn't mind.  The redheaded beauty added, "And please, call me Kelly!"

TO BE CONTINUED
MASS EFFECT: PARAMOUR, CH. 7
And now, Chapter 7! :)  The Citadel Council might have given Mary Shepard their quiet endorsement -- and a literal license to kill -- to help her in her hunt for the Collectors, but she's still associating with a terrorist organization.  The paragon has always had her doubts about the wisdom of her decision, especially with those who don't want to understand ready to condemn her as a terrorist, too!  But the circumstances are as unique as they are unpleasant -- literally no one else seems to be able to do anything about the colony disappearances except for Mary Shepard...and those she once called her enemies.  To say the least, doing the right thing isn't easy! :/

I loved MASS EFFECT 2 as much as any fan, but I thought there were a lot of things that could have been fixed, logically speaking.  Like in the last chapter.  Yeah, as FemShep is recruiting Kasumi Goto, the 'master thief' talks to the hero about her secret plan to steal Keiji's graybox IN A PUBLIC PLACE! x_x  And like in this chapter, wouldn't Shepard have asked about that giant cruiser that destroyed the first Normandy and killed her?? Yeah.  Again, I fix little things like that and bring you little divergences to make the story you love feel fresh and new as as you get into a true romance between FemShep and her Yeoman, Kelly Chambers! :heart:

Broken record time!  MASS EFFECT is owned by EA and Bioware!
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[Updated:  just added a couple of details of what I'm experiencing that might help explain things!  Look below...]

The last journal entry I wrote, I had problems then, too.  Sigh!  Hopefully someone knows what I'm dealing with... :)

I can log onto DA from my computer at home, but then...I can't do anything else!  I can browse and all, but there's a big list of things I suddenly can't do.

When I slide my cursor over the top menu bar on the right to get to my View All Messages menu, it won't appear and come down...which means I can't access deviantWATCH, Notices, Feedback, Correspondence, Notes, all of that.
I can't leave feedback or respond to it too, even when I go to the art itself.
I can't leave journal entries.  (I'm writing a journal entry now because I'm on an internet station at the library at the moment.  Sigh!)
I can't submit art.  Grr! -_-
I have to right-click on a thumbnail of art in order to get to it, I can't left-click like usual.  And the art won't expand when I click on it.
One friend's flash player for some reason won't appear...maybe there's something to that?  (I've checked Adobe, and it has that thing with the clouds and tree -- those who have seen it know what I mean! -- and that works.  Maybe I need an update?)
I saw that there was a recent 'debugging' of DA.  What the heck did that involve??

I already sent a note to DA Help, of course.  I hope no one else has been having as many problems?


  • Mood: Optimism

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CharlesWS
Charles Spencer
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:iconkatie-hellsing1997:
Katie-Hellsing1997 Featured By Owner Jul 22, 2015
Heyo, just to let you know i sent a note to you :)
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:iconkatie-hellsing1997:
Katie-Hellsing1997 Featured By Owner Jun 4, 2015
Hi :)
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:iconkatie-hellsing1997:
Katie-Hellsing1997 Featured By Owner May 10, 2015
Hey, how's you? Just to let you know i sent you a note a random idea i had for RE X SH. :)
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:iconwolfarchangel:
WolfArchangel Featured By Owner Sep 10, 2014  Student Digital Artist
Honey, kasumi head dont fix with the model than you send me...sorry
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:iconygure:
Ygure Featured By Owner Jul 29, 2014
Heeey! You, disappeared boy! Ho've you been? ;p It's all right?
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:iconcharlesws:
CharlesWS Featured By Owner Jul 29, 2014
Hi, sweet friend, I was just checking in! :heart: :huggle: :heart: I know, I've been really busy and I'm so sorry. I'm all right, thank you so much...and fortunately I've been busy writing, too! :)

How are you, though? I hope you're awesome as always? :huggle:
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:iconkatie-hellsing1997:
Katie-Hellsing1997 Featured By Owner Jul 30, 2014
At least you somehow found time to write, bet your happy about it too ^_^ i know i wouldn't like not being able to finish my story without a reason. Plus it was getting weird on what happened on the current chapter, looking forward to the next one when you are able to update it ^_^
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:iconcharlesws:
CharlesWS Featured By Owner Aug 3, 2014
A little bit of time here and there, yup. :/ LOL, a lot of weird is going on in the story, but what do you mean? Was there something you wanted to ask about?
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(1 Reply)
:iconygure:
Ygure Featured By Owner Jul 30, 2014
Don't worry! I was just checking if you're okay, and I'm glad you are. ^^ I'm fine as always, not much changes xD thanks for asking!
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:iconcharlesws:
CharlesWS Featured By Owner Jul 30, 2014
:heart: :huggle: :heart: Not exactly okay, sweet friend, but I'm all right...I miss you when I'm busy. :( I hope things get better, and I'll be having another chapter here soon. Cheryl and Rebecca will be in it! :huggle:
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