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You were absolutely true to the title of your work by presenting Claire in an incredibly sensual, alluring moment. The anticipation in ...

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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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MASS EFFECT:  PARAMOUR

written by Charles Spencer

Chapter 6:

"RETURN OF THE HERO"

-1-

Hours after they got some much-need rest from the turmoil on the criminal paradise of Omega, the mission continued for Commander Shepard and her crew...and within a few more hours by Mass Relay, the Normandy SR-2 reached to the Citadel.


  The Citadel was a massive space station that appeared like an iron flower, its petals open around its central ring as it rested in the incandescent gasses of the Serpent Nebula.  This structure was long believed to be one of the last great creations of the extinct, hyper-advanced Prothean race.  In one way or the other, Prothean tech influenced the development and the technological advancement of so many races, including Humans.  The jellyfish-like Hanar believed the extinct race to be their gods -- Enkindlers -- because their development had been so directly affected.  Many incredible testaments to the race could still be found, even fifty-thousand years after their fall -- from the Mass Relays and Prothean Beacons, self-contained databases of knowledge, to ruins that ranged from small temples to the great, silent world city of Feros.  The Citadel was thought of as another relic handed down from the extinct people since the Asari first found it, and it became the interstellar way station of diplomatic, cultural and economic relations between the Council Worlds and other advanced races in the galaxy.

  It was Mary Shepard who discovered the horrifying truth about the Citadel and the Mass Relays:  the station and the galaxy-wide FTL transit network were in fact the creations of the Reapers, an ancient race of synthetically-created beings that returned to the galaxy every 50,000 years to execute a cycle of galactic genocide.  It was during the last cycle that the Protheans were rendered extinct by the monsters, like untold numbers of civilizations in the millions of years before that.  Barely over two years ago, the time had once again come, but things had changed:  just after the eradication of their race, a handful of Prothean scientists created their own Mass Relay -- which they called the Conduit -- that linked directly to the Citadel's Presidium.  Before they starved to death, the scientists managed to throw a spanner into the Reapers' designs by cutting off their access to the Keepers that were programmed to serve them and play an essential role in starting each cycle.  The villain Saren Arterius and his master, the Reaper Sovereign, were absolutely driven to find the Conduit, the 'back door' they needed since the Keepers were beyond their control.  Saren finally found the Conduit on Ilos, and used it to reach the Citadel as Sovereign and the Geth armada under his command attacked the station, as well.  The overwhelming carnage that resulted in space -- the Battle of the Citadel -- was merely a distraction as Saren and the Geth troops supporting him infiltrated the Presidium to gain access to a communications uplink and call Sovereign's bretheren from the dark space outside of the galaxy.

  It was only by the most narrow of margins and the extraordinary heroism of Commander Mary Shepard and the team she chose to follow her that genocide was averted.  The paragon managed to remind Saren of what he once was, that he had become a tool for the Reapers, and he committed suicide...the uplink was never used.  Sovereign himself then tried to kill Mary and her squad using Saren's reanimated, hellishly transformed body as a puppet.  Mary was instrumental in defeating the Reaper as well, and gave the Alliance's Fifth Fleet the opening they needed to destroy the monster.  It was an incredible victory, but it wasn't a complete victory, either.

  The paragon knew ever since that the coming of Sovereign's kind hadn't been stopped, only delayed.  Could the Reapers have somehow sensed that Sovereign was dead?  And if this was the time for their genocidal cycle, they would logically have anticipated his signal from the Citadel...if it had never come, how long would it be before those monsters took the initiative and returned to the galaxy from dark space?  And how?

  Those questions constantly ached in Mary Shepard's thoughts since the Battle of the Citadel...her first concern had been to somehow prepare the galaxy for the arrival of the Reapers, and death hadn't changed that.  The need to make ready had only become more urgent than ever, whether the Reapers were using the Collectors in the same way Sovereign used Saren and the Geth or not.  The Illusive Man said that maybe her instrumental role in Sovereign's death was what provoked the ancient machines to consider her race a threat, orchestrate the mass disappearances of entire colonies simply to know more about Humanity...if that was true, then the paragon felt a personal responsibility to make it right.

  Each of the five outstretched petals of the Citadel were separate Wards of the station's self-contained cityscape around its central Presidium Ring...over 13 million sentients lived and worked on the Citadel at any given time.  Joker took the SR-2 in, but the frigate's arrival still had to be cleared by Citadel Security.  The screening was rigorous, even with C-Sec's forewarning of the frigate's arrival, because it was controlled by Cerberus.  The clearance finally had to come from the Citadel Council itself.  The ship finally found a berth in one of the multitude of docks for the station's Zakera Ward.

  The Citadel was considered neutral territory by every advanced race in the galaxy...those who worked and lived on the station -- especially the ambassadorial representatives of the world that had embassies there -- and even visitors were under a protective diplomatic umbrella.  No authority from one world had any jurisdiction over any member of another.  But no one was immune from arrest and prosecution by C-Sec if they were in the process of a criminal act or worked for an organization known to be criminal by the Council Worlds.  That was why the Council itself also sent the word down that even though she and her crew had arrived on a Cerberus vessel, Mary Shepard and her crew weren't to be arrested.

  Again, Mary didn't have to be reminded she was working with those the civilized galaxy called terrorists, and it was ironic that she was responsible for that.  During her hunt for Saren and the Conduit, she was the one who discovered the outlaw activities Cerberus was committing at the time.  From experiments on Rachni and Thorian Creepers to the assassination of an Earth Systems Alliance admiral, she gathered more than enough evidence that the Citadel Council and Earth's government uniformly condemned the former black ops group turned pro-Human extremists.  Mary still had horrid, lingering thoughts she was compromising her honor and all she stood for.  But the circumstances were so extraordinary, she and Cerberus were perhaps the only ones who were able to respond to the Collector threat when it seemed no one else could, she felt she had to make at least a few moral compromises.  If working with Cerberus meant saving lives, if saving Human colonies from the Collectors would further forestall the Reapers' arrival, the paragon hoped with all her heart that one day she could look back on all she had done and say she made the right choices.

-2-

  Mary Shepard traveled with Garrus Vakarian and Zaeed Massani from the docks to the main security cordon and entry point to the Zakera Ward by skycar.  Miranda Lawson thought it might be a good idea if any officially a part of Cerberus stayed on the ship, just in case, and Mary couldn't help but agree.  The entry point was lightly populated by sentients from every world, and most all were startled to see the woman who they thought was dead, the Human who became known across the galaxy as the Hero of the Citadel two years earlier.  Mary hated being given a descriptor like that, and was uncomfortable with the legendary status she had been given since her death.  She was a humble soul who never sought celebrity or medals for simply doing her duty, to defend others who couldn't defend themselves.

  Mary also happened to see a couple of the omnipresent, insect-like custodians of the Citadel in this area, doing their quiet work at this terminal interface or that...the mysterious, endlessly silent Keepers.  Even though she had discovered the cybernetic race were also tools of the Reapers, it was clear the Citadel Council still allowed them to be an integral part of the station.  It was common knowledge that the Keepers maintained the systems of the Citadel in ways beyond the understanding of even the best Asari and Salarian scientists...their importance to the continued existence of the station couldn't be easily quantified, and so the Council itself made it a crime with severe penalities if anyone tried to interfere with the Keepers' operations in any way or form.  That was one thing, but it was another that the Keepers also had access to parts of the Citadel unknown and inaccessible to anyone else, even after all this time since the station was discovered.  And there was still so little known about the creatures that were little more than VI's, alive yet completely slaved to their program of constant maintenance.  Even though the Protheans 'disconnected' the Keepers from the Reapers -- they couldn't be controlled by their masters by whatever signal the monsters utilized anymore -- what else was in their programming?  Were these caretakers as harmless as the Council believed?  Really?

  The paragon and those closest to her seemed to be the only ones worried that there were so many questions about the Citadel and the Keepers that were still unanswered...and perhaps desperately needed to be.

  As Mary's group moved toward the cordon, a luminous holographic cylinder came alive as the three of them passed it...the image of a pretty young woman appeared, and she wore a hood that shrouded the upper part of her face in shadow.  Still, the girl's smile was friendly as she said, "Greetings, Commander Shepard.  Have Collector problems?  Try Kasumi's Credit Services!"  Mary stopped with a bemused expression.  Speaking of compromises, the next recruit for her mission was, according to their dossier, a criminal -- a professional thief.  She didn't expect to meet this person so soon, though!  The image then said, "Please say the magic words, and you'll receive a free gift!"

  Magic words...?  That's right, Mary thought, the code phrase she needed to use to confirm her identity.  Mary said simply, "Silence is golden."

  The hooded girl really smiled then and said, "It's an honor to meet you, Commander Shepard.  I'm a fan, by the way!  Kasumi Goto, at your service.  I hope you understand the precautions I take when meeting new people, even famous people like yourself."

  Mary nodded as Garrus and Zaeed watched.  The paragon said, "I know from your dossier you're a thief, Kasumi.  It must pay to be careful."

  "I may be the best thief in the business, but not the most famous.  Need to watch my step to keep it that way.  I just wish being careful paid all by itself, then I wouldn't have to steal anything!"

  "Has Cerberus filled you in on the mission details?"

  Kasumi answered, "Yes, and I'm shocked they didn't come to see me sooner!  My fault for being hard to find, I guess.  When I found out they were hunting for me, I took it upon myself to find out why."

  Mary frowned softly.  "You must have been told how dangerous this mission might be, yet you accepted?"

  "I won't go into detail how much Cerberus offered me, but if I'm given enough credits, I'll try anything once!  Finding out you'd be in command really got my attention."  What could be seen of Kasumi's face took a serious expression.  "Actually, as it turned out, I also have something I need help with, something important that I can't do alone.  So I made a deal with Cerberus, and here we are!"

  Mary gazed at Kasumi's image and said, "I can guess this deal is something I need to know about?"

  "Hm, Cerberus didn't tell you?  Must have slipped their minds."

  "How important is this thing you need help with, Kasumi?"

  "So important I can't say anything in a public place.  Too many eyes and ears around us.  I'm still weeks away from locking down the details, too."  Kasumi hesitated, but only very briefly.  "I'll tell you more when we're on your ship, but someone stole something that belonged to...someone very close to me.  I need to steal it back.  Would you be able to help me?"

  Mary's stance became firmer as she crossed her arms under her bosom...but her eyes were soft as she considered Kasumi.  "It sounds like it'll be dangerous, too."

  Kasumi reassured, "Nowhere near as dangerous as trying to follow the Collectors through the Omega-4 Relay."  She quickly added, "I hope."

  It took only a beat for Mary to decide.  "Okay.   Provisionally, depending on what you have to tell me later...yes.  Helping you is the least I can do in return for the risks you're taking following me."

  A relieved smile from Kasumi then.  "Thank you, Shepard.  I deeply appreciate that, and I will tell you everything you need to know."  Above the paragon and her comrades, standing on one of the high cross-supports, Kasumi Goto relaxed in her posture as she said brightly, "But you'll see, it'll be fun!  And if things go according to plan, you won't even have to draw your gun."  She lifted her arm sheathed by her Omni-Tool, manipulated its controls with her free hand, and the ad cylinder went inert.  She called down to the hero, "By the way!"  Mary and the others looked up, surprised, and saw her smiling down at them.  "I hope it's okay to go wait for you on the Normandy?  I can guess you have some other things to take care of while you're here, like letting everyone know you're back from the dead!"

  Mary grinned and called back, "I do have some other business here, but it shouldn't take too long!  I'll let my crew know to be ready for you, unless you want to sneak aboard?"

  Kasumi Goto responded, "Now why would I be sneaky around friends?  I'll be a good girl and knock on the door first!  See you on the ship, Shepard!"  With a subtle surge of energy that rippled across her slender form, the thief engaged her stealth systems that refracted the light around her, rendering her invisible.  In little more than a heartbeat, it was like she had never even been there.

  After some troublesome moments being processed through the cordon -- official record still marked Mary as dead, of course -- she and her comrades reached the main C-Sec office for the Zakera Ward.  Up to two years ago, Citadel Security was made up mostly of Turian officers like its administrator, Executor Pallin.  (The Turians, with their martial philosophies that stressed the virtues of order and justice, were naturally drawn to such vocations.)  The Battle of the Citadel decimated C-Sec's ranks, and the demand for new officers to fill the tragic vacancies was tremendous.  Pallin himself therefore made an effort to recruit not only Turians, but other races as officers.  In the two years since, Human men and women made up the large percentage of those recruited into serving law enforcement on the Citadel, which in general didn't please many non-Humans.  Mary thought it strange...so many across the galaxy celebrated her heroism in the defense of the Citadel, yet at the same time Earth's fellow advanced civilizations insisted on looking at her race -- still a relatively new part of the galactic community -- as annoying upstarts at best.

  The commondant in charge of the office was Human, as well:  a gruff, hard-edged native of Earth, Armando-Owen Bailey.  Garrus was stunned by how differently work was done here in comparison to his service for C-Sec's Presidium Office.  Bailey himself admitted, without excuse or apology, that because of the Zakera Ward's high crime rate, rules and regulations often got in the way of law enforcment...his officers did everything from mistreating and beating suspects to get a confession (or at least some kind of valuable information) to taking bribes to make things run smoother between C-Sec and those in the Ward who were 'connected'.  Recognizing Mary Shepard, knowing she'd have to go through weeks of ritual and procedure to be publicly, officially listed as alive again, Bailey was more than ready to use his authority to speed along the process with only a few keystrokes at his terminal.  Mary was tempted to say no, but she wasn't about to let bureaucracy stand in her path when she had so much to do.  In less time than it took to tell, it was recorded in the Citadel Archives -- which quickly transmitted to Earth and every Council World for the record, as well -- that Mary Shepard was back after two years listed as Killed In Action.

-3-
 
  Finally, Mary Shepard and her comrades reached the Presidium.

  The polished offices of the Human Ambassador from Earth, the newest member of the Citadel Council...it became evident that Donnel Udina wasn't there, but the chief representative and advisor to the man was.  Earth Systems Alliance Navy Admiral David Anderson was a man who had seen many things serving his world, had fought many battles.  He was one of the first graduates of his Navy's elite Interplanetary Combatives Training program.  It was a testament to Anderson's character and inner fortitude that he had what it took to earn the program's seventh, highest level of proficiency and combat prowess:  N7.  Years ago, he took it upon himself to mentor an earnest, driven young Lieutenant who applied to ICT...after years of sweat and struggle, Mary Shepard also climbed high to the N7 designation as she rose up in the ranks to Commander.  Not long after that, just over two years ago, Mary was assigned to be Anderson's second in command at the time he was Captain of a newly minted experimental Navy frigate -- a cooperative effort between the Alliance and the Turian Heirarchy called the Normandy SR-1.  They set out to assist the Human colony of Eden Prime when Saren Arterius and his Geth forces attacked it.

  A lot happened after that, including the Battle of the Citadel...and only a month after Anderson's protegee saved the galaxy, Mary Shepard had been murdered by forces unknown as she lost the SR-1.

  The hard, firm lines of Admiral David Anderson's face softened dramatically as he greeted Mary Shepard...he moved to Shepard as she approached, and if it wasn't for the scars that honestly did little to mar the beauty of her face, Mary seemed all-around unchanged from the last time he saw her...before she died.  As her companions Garrus and Zaeed kept a brief, respectful distance away, Mary held the man who was the closest to a father figure in her life warmly for a pleasant moment.  Unfortunately, this reunion had to give way to important business.  Mary was there on time for this meeting with the Citadel Council, but Udina wasn't...still, the august representatives of the Salarian, Asari and Turian peoples were anxious to proceed whether Earth's Councilor was there or not, even if a majority vote was needed to approve any decision the Council on the whole made in important matters.  This quiet meeting between them and the Hero of the Citadel was certainly important.

  The other three representatives of the Council weren't exactly there, either...Anderson and his guests had to move to the embassy's comm room to greet the holographic representations of those politicians, real-time transmissions by secure channel.  Councilor Sparatus representing Palaven, Councilor Valern of the Salarian Union, and between them the Asari Councilor, Tevos.  For most of the past two years since the Battle of the Citadel, they had been on a victory tour, traveling by the Asari flagship called the Destiny Ascension.  And they were still at it.  (To be fair, the Milky Way was a big galaxy.)  It annoyed Mary deeply, but it didn't surprise her.  She had to wonder if the Councilors had put themselves on such a high pedestal, they were forgetting how to honestly deal with anyone on a personal level?  It did surprise her that Udina wasn't traveling with them, but then he wasn't a part of the Council at the time of Sovereign's defeat.  If Udina had been, he wouldn't have hesitated to be as self-promotional as his fellow Councilors.

  From the Normandy's CIC, Kelly Chambers watched the meeting thanks to her station monitor's uplink to the surveillance systems of Mary's armor.  She didn't mind at all that many of the crew gathered behind and around her station, from Joker and Doctor Chakwas to Miranda and Jacob Taylor to Kenneth Donnelly and Gabby Daniels from Engineering.  At first, Kelly was absolutely sure that her hero would get some much-needed support.  It went well at first as Mary Shepard outlined in brief how she had indeed returned to life after she was written off as Killed In Action two years before.  She told them that it definitely wasn't her choice that Cerberus brought her back to life because of the Illusive Man's belief that she, more than anyone, would make a difference when the Reapers arrived to threaten all life in the galaxy.  Mary's resurrection, it turned out, had gained an even greater urgency because of the disappearances of entire Human colonies within the open Terminus Systems.  She said, "In the little time I've investigated so far with Cerberus support, I've learned that the Collectors are responsible for the colony attacks.  Worse, I've been given reason to suspect they're serving the Reapers."

  Surprised, Anderson said, "The Collectors...?  We never even considered that!  To be blunt, Alliance Command had suspected Cerberus for the mass abductions."

  Mary asked him, "Why do you say that?"

  Her mentor said, "When we investigated the colonies that most recently went dark, Freedom's Progress and Ferris Fields, highly advanced surveillance satellites were found.  They had encryptions in their software we identified immediately as Cerberus."

  Mary clarified, "The Illusive Man took it upon himself to monitor unaffected colonies in one way or the other, to get early warning of the next disappearance."  If only Earth's government had thought of taking such a measure for colonies in open space.  After showing the Councilors the intelligence she gained from Veetor, undeniable video evidence of the Collectors kidnapping Humans, the paragon outlined her goal to find a way through the forbidding Omega-4 Relay to reach the Collectors' home territory and stop their abductions.  Mary gazed at the projections and said, "In spite of their criminal status, Cerberus is looking for a positive solution to the crisis.  I want to do the same, but I hope to make it understood that my association with them is out of necessity only.  I'm not working for them or supporting their agenda in any way."  Mary looked at Anderson and said with quiet passion, "I'd never, ever betray all I hold dear...and I need to formally request the assistance of the Citadel Council and the Systems Alliance to find and stop the Collectors.  Any help you can provide would be invaluable."

  Unfortunately, the Councilors' immediate response was a staunch reminder that the colonies in open space were beyond any Council World's authority.  In fact, one of them coolly brought up the point that the colonists were well aware of that fact when they set out to start their new lives in the Terminus Systems!  From where she stood, Kelly Chambers felt a hot burst of anger -- they might as well have been saying that the colonists had no one to blame but themselves for being kidnapped.  Most all of the crew watching with her couldn't help but express as much anger on their faces as the Yeoman.  Close by, Miranda Lawson kept her emotions to herself as she stood there, her arms folded just under her bosom as she stared at Kelly's viewscreen...she said to the redhead quietly, "It's because of 'leaders' like them we had to undertake this mission, Miss Chambers.  Never forget that."  They watched as Mary tried to argue the colonists were still endangered and deserved protection, but her words seemed to fall on deaf ears.  Only Anderson was clearly in her corner, and he tried to assert the urgency of the situation by reminding the Councilors that the Reapers might very well have been involved.

  That didn't make things any better.  The Councilors 'present' dismissed Mary's fears of the Reapers in the same way they did two years ago.  They were so damn insistent on denying the Reapers even existed, even after everything she and her crew discovered at the time.  Anderson quietly reminded Mary:  "Shepard, remember we've only had your word about the existence of the Reapers and the threat they pose.  You and your squadmates were the only ones who interacted with Vigil, that Prothean virtual intelligence on Ilos.  You were the only ones who spoke to Sovereign itself.  I believe in you.  Many in the galaxy do.  Unfortunately, without direct evidence from another source -- !"

  "My word isn't good enough for the Council," Mary said flatly.  But it was more than that.  The Councilors, like the leaders of Earth, were only too eager to dismiss and even discourage any talk about the Reapers.  Even though they had made her the first Human Spectre, even though they trusted in her enough to shoulder such an extraordinary duty to work above and beyond interstellar law for the greater good, the Council's trust and respect in Mary only went so far.

  In the end, the Citadel Council was made up of politicians.  They believed in doing what was expedient, correct and convenient, and it would have been one thing if it was for the sake of interstellar relations.  Politicians no matter the age or place, first and last, served themselves and took the most calculated, painstaking steps to cement their own positions and power.  Everything the paragon and her team discovered about Sovereign and the Reapers, their terrible cycle of galactic genocide, it was all too big, too nightmarish for the Citadel Council to want to face.  Mary Shepard understood how frightening it all was...hell, she didn't want to destabilize the way things were and terrify the entire galaxy with the fact that a horrible threat was looming over everyone's heads like a great Sword of Damocles, and that it was only a question of when that killer blade would come down.  But for the paragon, that made it even more essential to warn everyone, and maybe people needed to be frightened into preparing, to be ready (if that was even possible) for the Reapers' arrival.

  Mary did her level best to argue her position...she asked that the Councilors looked at the evidence of Sovereign's remains, spoke to the Prothean virtual intelligence Vigil on Ilos, where she found the Conduit.  Unfortunately, the Council dismissed Sovereign as a super-advanced starship created by the Geth...to make matters worse, they told Mary that Vigil was investigated by a unit of the Salarian Special Tasks Group shortly after her death and was found no longer functional.  She wasn't surprised, remembering how ancient the V.I. was and seemed to have reached the end of its road...yet to her burning frustration, Mary saw how the Council was taking advantage of any little thing that would have given them reason to doubt her.

  The stern Turian Councilor, Sparatus, was the least polite about things when he assessed, "Unlike my colleagues, I see little reason in continuing to be diplomatic about this!  Shepard, it's clear to me you are obsessed with your fears of a Reaper invasion.  It's certainly clear to Cerberus because they are using your obsession to manipulate you, and you willfully refuse to see that!"

  His Salarian colleague, Valern, said with clinical neutrality, "Remember that most of the information you gained about the Reapers came from enemies, from the likes of the traitor Saren and his supposed master, Sovereign.  Haven't you considered for a moment that you were being deceived by disinformation and outright lies designed to make you believe what they wanted you to believe?"

  Tevos, the lovely Asari Councilor, said with practiced calm, "We have no doubt you believe in the Reapers, Mary Shepard, but simply believing in something does not make it true."

  Mary looked down for a moment, exercising all of her self-control to simply stay calm...she smiled ruefully and said, "Christopher Columbus had to prove the world was round, too."

  Tevos looked at the Human.  "Excuse me?"

  Mary looked back up at the Councilors as her expression hardened.  "If you refuse to listen to me, remember I wasn't alone during my search for Saren!  My squadmates were there with me when I learned about the Reapers and what they wanted!  They were there with me when I spoke to Sovereign and Saren and Vigil!  They can support everything I've ever said about the Reapers!"

  Sparatus responded, "Really.  How can we know that for certain?  How would we know if your comrades are telling the truth...or simply lying for you out of loyalty?"

  Mary might as well have been slapped across her face.  She stared at Sparatus, and then her dark eyes narrowed as she began to snarl, "Why, you son of a -- !"

  "Shepard!"  The barked voice came from Anderson...she saw his expression was stern, yet at the same time his eyes were full of caution.  The admiral's warning didn't have to be spoken in so many words.  She had to remember who she was talking to, and to not say anything she'd later regret, no matter how justified she might have been.

  But Mary's tone was moderated only a little...her frustrated anger was threatening to boil over, and she couldn't help but say how she felt.  And she only barely kept herself civil:  "We're not just talking about people who followed me as I hunted for Saren, they fought with me!  They risked everything, and I lost one of them on Virmire!  Kaidan Alenko sacrificed his life for the sake of the mission YOU gave to us!  Question me all you want, you will not question their honor and integrity!"  It truly, completely offended the paragon that the honor of her friends and comrades would be questioned.  Kelly's heart went out to the hero...so did Joker and Karin's.

  But then Valern spoke:  "Actually, it is your integrity we must question, Shepard.  We do not dispute the evidence you have shown us of the Collectors being responsible for the colony abductions.  Still, you are serving a terrorist organization, enemies of your homeworld's government and this Council -- !"

  Mary almost shouted, "Dammit, I told you before, I'm not working for Cerberus!  If I was, then it would be stupid in the extreme for me to come here!  They are only supporting me, and that's all!  If you think you can use that to ignore me, you -- !"

  Tevos interrupted, "We can do far more than ignore you, Mary Shepard."  The graceful Asari considered Mary coolly as she continued:  "Indeed, it might have been better for you if you hadn't come back at all and trouble us again with your constant demands regarding the supposed Reaper threat.  Need I remind you that to even associate with an organization like Cerberus can be considered an act of treason by the governments of every Council World, including yours.  Indeed, such a crime is a captial offense in accordance with interstellar law -- "

  Suddenly, with fire in his eyes, Admiral David Anderson stepped up next to Mary Shepard and shouted, "Now THAT'S going too goddamn far!  Shepard's a hero to most across the galaxy, not just in the eyes of Humanity!  She did everything you ever asked of her, hell, she even saved your worthless hides!  You and I both know you sent her on that idiotic mission to find the remnants of the Geth Sovereign and Saren commanded to keep her quiet about the Reapers!  Now she's come back to us, and you want to threaten her into silence?!  Just because she's saying things you don't want to hear?!?"  Mary could only look at Anderson with such a heartfelt gaze as her heart swelled.  Anderson pointed at the Councilors angrily.  "The moment Councilor Udina hears about this, he'll start yelling so damn loud everyone and their mother will hear it!  Then the peoples you represent will know how far you're willing to go to deny reality -- !"

  "It need not come to that, Admiral!"

  Everyone in the comm room, even Garrus and Zaeed, were surprised to hear the new voice that came from the entryway...they looked and saw who just arrived.  So did Kelly and everyone watching with her on the Normandy.  Two Asari had entered, two striking yet different visions of unearthly allure dressed in pastel tones.  One had deep blue skin and was clearly servant to the other, taller woman who seemed older and had skin a lighter, ethereal shade.  This one's pale, penetrating eyes looked fondly upon Mary Shepard as she approached...

  ...and the paragon recognized both visitors instantly.  The shorter Asari, Nelyna, was an acolyte for the other, who Mary knew on truly intimate terms.  Mary said softly, "Consort Sha'ira...?"  The Consort was a professional courtesan who worked in the Presidium -- she and her devoted acolytes, similar to the ancient Greek hetaerae, gave advisement, counsel and pleasures of both the mind and body to clients.  Sha'ira was known far and wide beyond the Citadel for her...singular talents.  Two years ago, even before Mary began the hunt for Saren that culminated in the Battle of the Citadel, she met the Consort almost incidentally.  'Almost' because the sensual Asari seemed to expect the hero, even though they had never met.  Sha'ira asked Mary to help her with a troubling situation that could have resulted in a scandal.  The paragon did indeed rectify the situation, and Sha'ira gave her a 'gift of words', where she mysteriously alluded to the Human's important journey she was about to begin.  At first, Mary wasn't sure how much value to give to Sha'ira's gift...although she would understand as time and events progressed.  It was then that the Consort generously gave to Mary...

  ...well, to be respectful, leave us say that Mary was given much, much more in Sha'ira's bedchamber for a few hours.  It was an experience so incredible, Mary never, ever spoke of it to anyone else.  Still, it was cause for distraction every time she recalled it...!

  Distracted and more than slightly flustered, Mary gazed at Sha'ira as she and Nelyna reached her.  Anderson could only quietly watch as well, like Garrus and Zaeed, as the Consort bowed deeply and said, "Hello, Mary Shepard.  It's been too long.  You remember my acolyte, Nelyna.  I am pleased beyond words to see that the journey you began two years ago continues."

  The projections of the Councilors seemed to grow agitated, even defensive...even a little intimidated by the presence of the Consort...?  Still, Tevos gathered herself and said to her fellow Asari, "Consort Sha'ira, with all due respect, you weren't invited to this meeting -- !"

  Sha'ira, calmly, quietly interrupted, "Invited or not, it seems opportune that I am here.  Mary Shepard did me a great service two years ago, before she began her journey...a journey that is far from over."  She began to glide toward the images of the Councilors.  "It's the least I can do to speak on her behalf."

  Tevos' eyes narrowed as she began, "Sha'ira -- !"

  Sha'ira's pale eyes seemed to stare into Tevos' projection.  "Listen to me very carefully, sister.  Do you really want to threaten a true hero because she is an inconvenience to you?  Deny her fears, deny your own fears all you want, but many in the galaxy believe in her."  Sha'ira stressed with graceful power, "I believe in her."  The three Councilors looked at her as if for the first time, surprised.  Sha'ira pressed, "I feel the need to caution this esteemed Council:  the goodwill and praise you are enjoying would disappear very quickly if Admiral Anderson does indeed make this a public issue.  Do not let foolishness blind you to the potential risks you'll face."

  But Tevos was resistant as she blurted, "Sha'ira, it isn't that simple!  We'd instigate a galaxy-wide panic if we publicly validated Shepard's beliefs and told everyone to prepare for a Reaper invasion!  It would be enough of an upheaval amongst our worlds to expend the resources and effort needed to prepare for an invasion that might never even come!"

  Sha'ira gave the projections a look.  "And so you would do absolutely nothing and hope for the best?  I would instead suggest that a compromise be made between Mary Shepard and this esteemed Council.  I'm sure a solution can be found that would satisfy everyone.  You often use compromise to settle disputes, is that not correct?"  The luminous Asari strode with purpose back to Mary Shepard and gestured to the hero...the Consort said, "This woman, the first Human to serve as an agent of your direct authority, simply needs help in her mission to stop the Collectors, and you can provide that assistance in any of a number of ways!  In fact...now that she has returned to us, it would be a simple yet profound show of your support if you returned to Mary Shepard her status as a Council Spectre.  I do not imagine that much more would be necessary, really.  What would you say to that, Councilors?"

  For a moment, the projections of the Councilors showed surprise again...the Salarian representative, Valern, really weighed Sha'ira's suggestion as he looked at Mary.  He finally mused, "The Human colonies in open space are beyond our jurisdiction and authority.  For legal and diplomatic reasons, this Council cannot have any involvement.  But...it is true that an agent of our Special Tactics and Reconnaissance Office wouldn't have to worry about such matters because of their extralegal status."

  Sparatus, the Turian Councilor, nodded deeply as he had listened to Valern...he seemed to approve of the idea and announced to the hero, "The power granted to you as a Spectre would most definitely be of value considering your dubious relationship with a terrorist organization.  Those under your command who are a part of Cerberus would have as much immunity from prosecution as you do...but only for as long as they are under your command, and only for however long your mission lasts.  You would not be hindered in any way by any government in the galaxy during your search for the Collectors."

  Tevos followed her colleagues and pronounced, "All we would require is that you keep as low a profile as possible.  Restrict your operations as best you can to open space like the Terminus Systems.  And just as before your death, you will make every effort to work on behalf of the best interests of your homeworld and this Council."

  Sha'ira turned to the paragon...her smile was serene as she asked, "Would that be satisfactory to you, Mary?"

  Mary Shepard really thought about what was being proposed, and she understood all of its merits.  She knew what it meant to be a Spectre, an elite agent of the Council's authority, and that status served her well during her hunt for Saren.  If Mary chose, she would again be literally untouchable by any law enforcement agency in the galaxy, answerable only to the Citadel Council and no one else.  As long as her actions worked toward preserving peace and upholding interstellar law, she would have carte blanche to fulfill her duty and accomplish her mission by any means necessary.  It was a literal license to kill, and if she was going to be associated with Cerberus, the renewal of her Spectre status would definitely be an asset.  The Council wouldn't in any way be affected negatively...by law, in spite of their implicit endorsement of an agent's activities, they couldn't be held accountable in any way, even if Mary did anything blatantly criminal or went completely rogue like Saren.  Two years ago, she swore a solemn oath to honor her duty to the Council as much she did as a soldier of the Alliance Navy.

  Mary Shepard hadn't changed since her death, and she saw no reason to change that, as well.  She stepped foward and said humbly, "Like I said, Councilors.  I'd greatly value any support you can give me for this mission."  She paused only a beat before she declared in a strong voice, "I respectfully request reinstatement as a Spectre for the Citadel Council."

  The Councilors looked at one another, seeing cues from each other only they recognized...their expressions seemed uniformly positive.  And then the three of them activated their Omni-Tools as Councilor Sparatus said, "Request granted."  The three of them input instructions into their Omni-Tools, and Mary realized that they were indeed formally making it official record as he said, "Your Spectre status has been reactivated effective...now!"

  They were done only a moment later, and Councilor Valern nodded.  He said, "You have our formal leave to continue your investigation of the Collectors, to find a means to track them down through the Omega-4 Relay and stop their attacks.  This Council wishes you well with your investigation, Spectre Mary Shepard."

  Then Councilor Tevos said, "We hope for a quick resolution to this crisis...and a quick end to your relationship with Cerberus."

  And just like that, with no further word, the projections of the Councilors faded to nothing.

TO BE CONTINUED
MASS EFFECT: PARAMOUR, CH. 6
Finally, as promised, more of PARAMOUR! :)  Ugh, what I had intended to write as one chapter got so big it turned into two...I'm having similar troubles with my other huge fic, JUDGMENT DAY, which you'll see more of here soon, too!  That's why you'll see two chapters for this story brought here instead of one!

And it was almost inevitable I write so much because of the crazy-deep awesomeness of MASS EFFECT's story.  There was so much to the epic, so many little things, and I knew it was almost inevitable I'd cover ground all of you fans are already intimately familiar with. But as I said long ago, this is a story that gives a true romance to FemShep and Kelly Chambers, but I couldn't just retell the events that surround and propel them the way you saw them in the games.  That would bore you!  So you're going to see a lot of divergences, big and small...one of the biggest ones will be with Mary Shepard's meeting with Admiral Anderson and the Citadel Council to ask for their help.  It turns out Mary also gets some help from a character I always liked from ME1, yet she was visibly absent in the following games.  You'll see, and it won't change MASS EFFECT and everything you love about it in the ways that really count! :)

Again, for safety's sake, MASS EFFECT and all within are 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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