Thanks to Reikson ... and to my reviewers who have been following this story patiently. A lot of diverse thoughts came out of the last chapter some of which find their expression here ... enjoy.
"The ends, if they are good, justify the means." Liara could hear the soft whisper as she opened the door to Shepard's cabin.
"Commander?" she asked, startled at the sound of her own voice disturbing the dark solitude of the cabin.
"Liara." Shepard perked up. "Chakwas give you a clean bill of health?"
"I barely had a scratch on me. I guess having you or Wrex to hid behind, when the shooting starts, has its advantages." The archaeologist said dryly.
"I see that hanging around Harris is starting to rub off on you." Shepard teased.
"I will admit that his methods of emotional coping leave something to be desired, but I can't dispute that people seem more comfortable in his presence."
"Yeah, much more comfortable then they ever get around The Butcher of Torfan." Shepard replied bitterly.
"That is not all that you are, Shepard. I've seen you do great things on this mission alone. Very few people could have accomplished what you did today."
"I beg to differ, Liara." Shepard sneered, frustration and self-loathing in her voice. "Getting good people killed seems to be a specialty of mine."
Catching the look on the young Asari's face, she added, "Sorry, Doc. I doubt you came up here to hear me bitch and whine."
"Actually, I did come to talk. You sequestered yourself after the mission, and I thought you might..." Liara trailed off uncertainly. Trying again, she managed, "Well, that is to say..." but faltered. Finally, she muttered, "Oh, Goddess. I'm not as good with this sort of thing as I should be."
"If it helps any, my father suggested that I try to imagine what the person that I admire the most would do or say." Shepard said helpfully.
Liara blushed. She was already picturing the person she admired the most, namely the Commander, far too much. Shepard filled her thoughts, day and night.
She tried to calm herself, centering her thoughts, and then decided that the best way to get herself on track was to ask Shepard something that might keep her talking for a few minutes.
"That phrase that you were just saying... I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but what does it mean?"
"Ah, yes... the wisdom of Niccolo Machiavelli." Shepard said bitterly. When she noticed the curiosity on Liara's face, she explained.
"Machiavelli was an ancient Earth philosopher. He wrote a text that was supposed to be a guide of sorts for those who ruled. Unfortunately, his theorems have become rather notorious on Earth. Mostly because some of the best and worst leaders of Earth's history have used its principles as justification for their actions."
Liara, ever patient and understanding, then pointed out, "The writings of the ancient Matriarchs have been similarly interpreted, and some would say misinterpreted, over the centuries."
"Basically," Shepard explained, "if my ultimate goal is good, then anything I do in service of that goal, regardless of the individual morality of the separate acts, must ultimately be good."
"I'm not sure I understand." Liara sighed, now confused.
"All right, look." Shepard sighed, groping for an example. "I see slavery as bad, thus I kill slavers and feel no small amount of pleasure in doing so I might add. By that thinking, whatever I do to someone like Dahlia Dantius is okay."
"I see..." The young Asari archaeologist mused aloud. "Such a harsh view of the galaxy. But after the things I've seen these last few weeks, it may be an understandable one."
"Liara, the problem is that morality is more complex then that. I killed Dahlia, but Kaidan didn't like that. I think he decided to do... what he did, because I killed that slaver." Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to ward off a headache. "If the good act, killing a slaver, costs me the life of a good man like Kaidan, then the act that preceded it becomes evil... thus making ME evil. The wonders and joys of consequentialism."
"Could not a person use such a philosophy to justify horrible acts?"
"Many people have. I mean, look at Saren. He more or less admitted that he thinks letting the Reapers consume the galaxy will be for the greater good. I guess that's why I'm sitting here."
"Am I to assume that you used such a philosophy to justify what happened at Torfan?"
"You looked it up, you tell me." Shepard replied, her voice drained of emotion, "What should I have done? We'd been fighting down in those tunnels for days, losing squad after squad. Plus, Command wanted results and they didn't much care how we got them."
"So what happened?"
"We'd just taken an enemy stronghold, capturing several prisoners, including the Base Commander. He comes strolling into our camp like he owns the place, invoking the Citadel charters and the articles of war. They hate us, but they studied us enough to know the lengths to which we go to maintain our sense of honor." Shepard was practically hissing at this point.
"So you interrogated him." Liara wasn't asking, and Shepard knew it.
"We'd been informed a long-range patrol was lost in the tunnels, maybe already in Batarian hands," she said, looking haunted. "He had the code phases to get us past the rest of the strong points and get to our people. Thing is, he refuses to negotiate with a woman. He thinks it's an insult that I won't produce Major Kyle who is in no condition to bargain for the lives of good men lost behind enemy lines. Meanwhile, I find out the commander's got a son, a boy who's serving in his first engagement. When we'd captured the camp, the commander had tried to hide him. But my men found the kid."
"How did you know they were family?"
"You have such pretty eyes, you know that?"
"Of course. Mine are the eyes of a leader, a commander. Not like your weakling pair."
"You're right. My eyes aren't nearly as pretty as yours. But I bet your son's got pretty eyes like yours."
"My son? I have no-"
"A strong man like you? Of course you have a son. He'll obviously have eyes like yours. If he was at your side, fighting in your unit... I'm sure you wouldn't want him discovered. Or, worse yet, identified by the the enemy. But why worry? Most humans can't tell one Batarian from another... but YOU have such pretty eyes that I'll bet your son has pretty eyes like yours."
"My son is... not here. He's back on the homeworld. Back on Khar'shan."
"A strong man like you shouldn't have to lie. Not with such strong eyes as you come point your boy out to me. I think he's one of these men standing here."
"My son is not here, human. Now let me speak to your Major Kyle. I demand to speak to your leader."
"Now this one, he's got nice eyes, but they aren't pretty. Not like your eyes, so I know he's not who I'm looking for. Which is why I can do... this."
"Now this one here, his eyes... filled with fear. My goodness, they're not strong at all. Not like your eyes, so..."
"What the hell are you doing, human?!? This... what kind of a monster are you?!?"
"Now this one over here, is this your son? His eyes are closed, he's crying. Your son wouldn't cry... not with strong eyes like yours to guide him. So this one certainly can't be your son, now can he?"
"Now then, who's this we have here? Open your eyes... open them... I'm only going to ask you one more time. OPEN YOUR EYES!"
"Wait, human, wait! Please wait! I'll tell you everything! Just, please... don't hurt him. I'm begging you."
"You're begging me? Are you sure that you want your son to hear you say such things? You begging me, I mean."
"Everything will be all right, Bol'Shun."
"That's right, Bol'Shun. Everything will be all right. You, me, and your father... we're going to talk about a long-range patrol that passed by here three days ago. We're going to talk about the ambush that they almost certainly ran into. And we're definitely going to talk about how to reach them in time to save them."
"Most humans can't tell one Batarian from another," Shepard explained. "...but after they raided Mindoir, I spent years learning about them. Studying them. For instance, I know that a father is particularly proud when his son inherits the father's eyes."
A bitter smile curled her lips. "I did... questionable things that day, Liara. Things that the experts tell me that I should feel ashamed of myself for doing. But the experts... they weren't there. They didn't see the look of joy on the faces of those guys when we found them. On the faces of their families when they came home safe."
"So your lost patrol... you managed to reach them in time?"
"Yeah, I... we got to them. Every man was decorated for service above and beyond. Of course, that was also the first time that I ever heard my new nickname... And so The Butcher of Torfan was born."
"Then the ends, as they were good, justify the means. Do they not?"
"That's what I keep telling myself," Shepard laughed humorlessly. "I've almost managed to be convincing."
"I do not pretend to understand what you went through." Liara sighed, frustrated at being unable to comfort Shepard. "All I know is that I am alive because of you, and many others aboard this ship are as well. If the Alliance wishes to call you a monster, then that says more about them than it does about you. I do not see you as a monster."
"Maybe. What's up? Did you need me for something?"
"Chakwas thought that you might want to know that everyone is recovering. Xander insists on seeing you, as Doctor Chakwas keeps waving around a set of latex gloves and reminding him that you ordered a thorough examination. I admit that I do not understand his concern, but thought I would mention it when I spoke to you."
"I'll come and deal with it. What about everyone else?"
"Tali is with Serviceman Hobbs' body, and Chief Williams is at her station."
"You're a good woman, Shepard. Perhaps better then you know."
"I'm capable of doing good things, Liara. But that doesn't make me a good person." Shepard said bitterly.
"If your actions save the lives of every man, woman, and child in the galaxy, then that is good. That makes you a good person, no matter what you did to achieve that goal."
"Doc, I think I'm starting to be a bad influence on you." Shepard said, smiling thinly.
"On the day we met, I cowered in fear of a Krogan Battlemaster. Ever since I met you, I've faced some of the most dangerous foes in the galaxy and lived to speak of it. Bad influence? With all due respect, Commander... I disagree."
Shepard stood up and stepped forward, hugging Liara. The young Asari nestled her head next to Shepard's heart and closed her eyes, reveling in the embrace. "Monsters are supposed to be fearsome things. But it is not fear that I feel when I am with you, Shepard."
"Thanks, Doc." Pulling away from Liara, and feeling a strange sense of loss, Shepard finally said, "I'd better go see what Xander wants."
Xander's protests could be heard long before she reached Medbay. When she walked into the room, Chakwas was just finishing her examination, tossing her latex gloves into a disposal bin.
"Jesus, Doc, I swallowed a marble when I was ten. Did you manage to find it while you were up there?" he screeched.
"How is he, Helen?" Shepard asked.
"No ill effects. I'd say the Technical Sergeant's going to be fine." Chakwas chuckled.
Glaring at Shepard, Xander grumbled. "I hate you, boss. I just want you to know that I genuinely hate you."
Unfazed by his declaration as she met his stare, Shepard asked, "How are you doing?"
"You mean, other than the whole 'somebody dying to save my life' thing?" he said sarcastically. "I'm just peachy."
"Kaidan isn't your fault, Xander." Shepard sighed. "You didn't make him do what he did. He made a choice. Let him own it. As much as I might resent what it means, it was still a noble choice."
"Meaning what?" Xander deadpanned.
"I thought I knew the people under my command. I certainly thought that I know my enemy. Now I find that I didn't know either of them. Kaidan didn't trust me. Hell, maybe he NEVER really trusted me, and Saren isn't in charge. He's just a figurehead, a... a puppet of Sovereign." Shepard sighed.
"Boss, I'm about to reveal a highly embarrassing detail about my personal life. My first... well, THE first, if you know what I mean... she was this girl named Faith. She was tough, passionate, definitely street-smart, and running the house on guys like me when I was still in short pants. My grand first time consisted of her basically using me to... well, she got what she wanted."
He chuckled bitterly. "THAT was an eye opener for me. 'Cuz, hey, guy here. So the idea of Girl using Guy for sex was like astrophysics for me; did not compute. To call it a one-night stand would imply that it lasted the night, which it didn't. When she was done with me, she tossed me out the door in my skivvies without even bus fare to get my ass home."
Fighting back a grin, Shepard said, "As amusing as that is, I'm guessing that you have a point?"
"Faith had issues." Xander sighed. "Hell, Faith's issues had issues, and it wasn't until much later that I came to realize that what happened between us was part of a long road of self-destructive crap that she'd been putting herself through. And because I didn't see that, it almost cost me my life. For real, because I was SO not immortal back then."
Sobered, she asked quietly, "What happened?"
He sighed and leaned against a nearby wall. "She started working for the bad guys at some point. Seems that they got to her by giving her the support and trust that she wasn't getting from us. When I confronted her, she tried to kill me."
At the incredulous look she shot him, he shrugged and added, "I thought that those ninety minutes of passion forged a magical connection between us."
"Kill you?" Shepard snorted. "You've got to be joking."
"No jokes, boss." Xander sighed, rubbing at his neck. "She nearly choked me to death, and... well, it was a long while before I could trust her enough to fight alongside her again. I even came to admire her."
A maudlin silence fell in the medbay. Finally, Shepard broke it by asking aloud, "Why would you tell me this, Xander?"
Xander fiddled with his omnitool for a few minutes before saying, "Maybe I want you to see that I screw up, too. I made mistakes with Faith that almost cost me my life. Maybe I want you to see that you aren't the first emotionally-damaged and extremely dangerous woman that I've dealt with."
The omnitool flashed briefly as he added, "Or maybe I'm telling you a story about a woman who died almost two hundred years ago because, if I want you to be able to trust me, I have to be able to trust you. And that starts with letting you in on my big secrets. Or, at least, the ones that actually mean something. Of course, it could be all of the above."
Shepard looked at him and shook her head. "I'm starting to think that you not being able to die is a safety mechanism to protect you from your own stupidity."
"Well, in hindsight, I have done some things that were epically stupid," he quipped. "But I had good intentions. That has to count for something, right?" His lopsided little grin of self-deprecation made her smirk in spite of herself, but she shook her head.
"Saren acted like he knew you, Xander." This was a point that had been nagging at her ever since Virmire. "If you want me to trust you, then tell me how you know him."
"Saren thinks his precious older brother is dead because I didn't bother sharing my super-secret knowledge of the Reapers with him." The immortal Scooby sneered.
Now intrigued, Shepard only said, "Go on..."
"Around the time of the First Contact War, I had a small side gig at the time regarding... well, the polite term would be antiquities acquisition."
"Tomb raiding." Chakwas supplied dryly.
"Tomb raiding? That's illegal on Earth and they aren't that fond of it in the rest of Citadel space, either."
"Yeah, they might not like it, but Serrice University got way less judgmental after I gave them the writings of Matriarch Dilinaga." Xander replied, smirking. "Made them pay through the nose for them.
"Do I even want to know WHY you'd pull a stunt like that? Depending on the artifact and the race involved, they'd be liable to lock you up for long enough that you might die and come back a few times."
"Sometimes you need someone who's not as... restricted... by red tape. And some of those writings were on planets in the Terminus Systems, planets controlled by the kind of guys who don't like archaeologists. "
"I get it," Shepard impatiently waved away his justification. "What happened with Saren and his brother?"
"I was with a trio of mercs that made planetfall on Shanxi in the last days of the First Contact War. Me and my partner back then, a guy named Harper, we were looking for a lost artifact." Xander explained, looking haunted. "I have no idea what it was doing there, but it looked a Hell of a lot like something made by that Reaper, Sovereign."
"Wait, Turian High Command knows about Reaper tech and you didn't think that might be something I'd want to know?" Shepard demanded.
"It's not like they still have it." Xander shrugged.
Now curious as to something she could use against Saren the next time they met, Shepard only said, "Go on."
"Harper and I found the artifact, all right." Xander said, pensive. "But one of his merc friends, Ben, got hit with some weird discharge from the artifact and got fried by it. Harper tried to save Ben, but couldn't reach him in time, which left the other merc Eva absolutely devastated."
He leaned in close, grinning as he muttered, "Scuttlebutt is that Eva had a crush on Ben."
Pulling away, he added, "In any case, Harper ended up being changed by the artifact somehow, but he didn't seem different otherwise. I got fried by it, too, but Harper saw me revive myself, so..."
"Anyway, I later heard that Saren's brother Desolas ended up being indoctrinated, and that Saren had to blow up that damn artifact with orbital bombardment in order to stop Desolas from using it to corrupt the Turian High Command or some other such stupidity."
"What happened to your partner?"
"Harper? He became obsessive. He thought that the artifact was the key to mankind's ultimate destiny, that my immortality was connected to the artifact somehow." Xander shuddered. "Dude was creeping me out, and... frankly, I got a bad vibe off that thing. So he and I parted company after we got to Arcturus after the First Contact War ended, and I've never seen him since."
Shepard cursed. "Damn it! I was hoping that there might be something we were missing."
"Boss, you heard Sovereign. They use their technology to control us. If we're going to beat this thing, we have to think outside the box. Way, WAY outside."
"Which means that we're stuck with plan A; find the Conduit on Ilos and hope like Hell that we can stop Saren from using it to kill us all."
"How soon we starting on that, anyway?" Xander asked.
"Those Geth Dropships did a number on us." Shepard sighed. "We'll put into dock at the Citadel and get some repairs done. Plus, the SSV Madrid's there. Hobbs' brother serves on her, so we can transfer the body to his custody."
Xander got off the wall, groaning as he stretched his arms. "Well..." he grunted, "...then it's high time that I got back to earning my pay voucher for this trip. I'll get Tali and we'll do what we can to get this baby up to spec before the repair crews screw her up TOO badly."
Shepard grinned in spite of herself. "Thanks, Xander. Oh, and by the way... good work down there. No matter what else happened, you did a lot of good. Kaidan was my responsibility. It was my choice to keep him in the dark about what you could do, so don't blame yourself."
"It was Harper. I trusted him with some of the details and he got all weird. I've been really careful about telling anyone ever since. Still, maybe if I'd trusted Kaiden more-"
"Xander, there's a lot of people who think that trust and respect are a right that they should just be given, no matter what. The truth is that trust and respect are earned."
"Maybe, but it just sucks, you know? Ashley thinks I lied to her, which... I guess I did, from a certain point of view..." he sighed, getting ready to walk past her. "...but it wasn't deliberate."
Shepard held up her hand, stopping him in his tracks. "That having been said; if I were you, I'd think long and hard about if this crew has earned the right to your trust. Especially since we're heading into battle together. These people have your back, Xander, and they need to know that you have theirs."
"Thanks, JL. I'll think about it." Xander smiled softly,
"JL's for special occasions, Xander. It's boss," she warned him lightly.
"Yeth, bossth." He slurred, sounding like Igor the hunchback assistant.
She punched him on the arm, smirking, before she had a thought. "By the way... about your friend, Faith... did she ever get help with... her issues?"
"Faith? Yeah, sort of." Xander sighed, smiling sadly. "I mean, things started getting better when we started treating her like the friend she really was, instead of some big, dark, and evil secret that we never talked about."
Shepard paused, nodding. "Thanks, Xander. Let me know when repairs are finished? Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to finish a report followed by what I'm certain will be a lovely and supportive chat with the Council."
"Oh, joy," he said dryly. "You know, normally I'd love to hear what the Turian Councilor's going to say THIS time to piss you off, but I'd just as soon get started on the ship."
"No, that's all right," she said confidently. "They have the reports from the ground teams, including Kirrahe, who I'm dragging into the meeting. I'd like to see them deny the truth with one of their own vouching for me."