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Introduction:

this story was originally written by firedancer in www.ralst.com so all credit g=for this piece should go to her
Six Degrees of Separation Series
Book 1: Tangled
By Firedancer
Chapter One: After the Storm
Ashley Williams jerked awake, and then gasped as the action caused pain to lance through her badly injured body. "Easy Chief," came the soothing tones of a familiar voice as Dr. Chakwas' face finally came into her view.
"Doc," she whispered hoarsely. It was both a greeting and a plea and the older woman intuitively understood and pressed a hypo against Ashley's neck, administering a painkiller that quickly eased the agony. Several moments later, Ashley's eyes closed as she exhaled slowly in relief. "Thanks."
Chakwas smiled down at Ashley and patted her free arm before reaching for a cup with a straw in it. "Here you go, just sip it, and if this doesn't bounce then I'll let you have the rest in a few minutes."
Ashley lay immobile on the bed as Chakwas held the cup for her and sipped a bit of the water down, chasing some of the bitter taste and dryness from her tongue and throat. When she was done, she looked down at herself and grimaced. Her entire left side was immobilized. "What happened?" she finally asked dropping her head back onto her pillow.
Chakwas frowned, concerned. "What do you last remember?" Ashley's injuries had been severe, more than she'd first let on, but there had been no indication of any head trauma severe enough to cause loss of memory.
"I remember being pulled out of the wreckage and thinking…." her throat closed off as she closed her eyes in pain. "I remember thinking that the Commander had been killed. And then just as we were leaving, there she was….beaten all to hell and barely able to walk…but she was alive. The med team helped her to us, and she and Liara and I hugged…and then I passed out."
Relieved, Chakwas chuckled. "You both passed out. With the Citadel in shambles, I ordered all of you to be brought here for treatment since you both needed surgery right away and I knew you couldn't get it anywhere else."
"The Commander?"
Chakwas smirked to herself. "Seen better days, but she'll be fine after a few weeks of rest and physical therapy…as will you."
"What's the damage?"
"Standard fare after the firefight you obviously had, but you were all apparently running low on medi-gel by the time Sovereign came crashing down around your heads. Both of you nearly bled out by the time we got you back here. You're armor saved you from being crushed completely by the debris, but it couldn't protect you from the force of the impact. We had to take a cutting torch to both of you to get off half your armor. Five broken ribs, your shoulder was dislocated and the collarbone fractured in multiple places. Your leg suffered fractures in multiple places, but thankfully none of the breaks were complete. When we finally removed your armor however, we realized a thin sliver of metal debris had punctured clear through your knee causing extensive damage."
Ashley's eye's closed as she drew in a steadying breath. "Will any of this affect my performance in the future?"
"If you follow my orders to the letter and stick with my regimen of therapy…no it won't. You'll be back out there throwing yourself into the line of fire in no time at all Chief, you just need to do as I say for now, understood?"
"I hear you Doc."
Chakwas smiled warmly at her. "Good. Now here's the rest of the water and then I want you to get some more rest."
Ashley wanted to ask more, but she could already feel her eyelids getting heavy and knew she couldn't fight it for much longer. And in all honesty she didn't want to. All her life she had been forced to struggle and fight to get where she was at, but here, on the Normandy, she had been given a new life…and a chance at earning respect. That's why she liked the Doc so much. Chakwas was a straightforward woman who called things as she saw them. And Chakwas had never held Ashley's family history against her. In fact she'd been one of the few to befriend Ashley when she'd first come aboard. She trusted Chakwas implicitly, and if the Doc told her she and Shepard would be fine, then Ash knew they would be.
Comforted with that knowledge, Ashley finished her water and let herself slip off into a deep and healing slumber.
Chapter Two: Awakenings
The first thing she remembered after passing out in Anderson's arms was waking up in horrible agony with Chakwas' concerned face looming over her as she gave terse instructions to her staff who were frantically cutting away at her armor. The Doc then looked down at her and managed a wry smile and a brief shake of her head even as she pressed a hypo against her neck. "Don't worry Commander you're in good hands now."
Her vision faded, and she was caught up in her nightmares once more, only to briefly awaken some time later by a light and familiar voice whispering reassurances in her ears as a cool cloth was pressed against her forehead. Liara, her mind supplied and she settled back into a deeper sleep.
When the nightmares returned and she began to thrash in her sleep, it was a more melodic voice that chased the images away and soothed her fevered brow. Tali.
Three days after the attack on the Citadel, Commander Shepard finally opened her eyes, blinking against the dimmed lights of Normandy's med bay. She rolled her head to the side and saw Ashley lying in the bed next to hers, half her body locked in an immobilizer, but alive and resting. The Doc was slumped over her small desk, reports and paperwork forgotten as she dozed. Despite her pain, Shepard couldn't help but smirk ever so slightly, knowing that her friend had probably been keeping vigil for however long she had been unconscious and was most likely well overdue for a long night of solid sleep.
Not wanting to disturb the doctor and feeling the pull of exhaustion herself, Shepard closed her eyes and slipped back into unconsciousness once more. It was another ten hours before she woke again, and this time she was greeted by the sight of Liara and Tali sitting on either side of Ashley's bed, having a quiet conversation in hushed tones.
Shepard shifted slightly and then groaned, realizing she too had immobilizers keeping half of her upper body locked in place. Her groan announced her alertness and the other three women were instantly focused on her. Liara moved swiftly to her side, concern and relief in her pale blue eyes as Tali hastily went to the back room to fetch Dr. Chakwas.
Liara said nothing as she simply held Shepard's free hand until Chakwas entered the room, tugging her medical coat into place as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She cleared her throat and asked Tali if she could fetch a small cup of water and a straw before running some scans over the Commander and then looked down at her patient.
"Commander," she greeted with a warm smile. "Glad you could rejoin us in the waking world. I was starting to become a little concerned."
Shepard tried to answer, but her throat was to scratchy and dry from disuse. "Here, sip this slowly and don't try to talk for a few moments." Chakwas instructed as she took the cup Tali had fetched. Shepard drank it thankfully and closed her eyes and relaxed afterwards letting the water hydrate her parched throat.
When she finally felt a little better, she opened her eyes and tried again. "How long?"
"Almost four days since the attack."
"Crew?" she asked, still trying to work on voicing more than a single word at a time.
"A little roughed up, but none the worse for the wear. As you can see Liara is already patched up and back on her feet. You and the Chief took the brunt of the damage. As I already assured Williams, you'll both make a full recovery if you follow my orders and rest for a proper amount of time before pushing things." Shepard nodded, and for once, didn't feel inclined to push things. "How do you feel?"
Lying with half her body in an immobilizer, Shepard realized she didn't need to keep up the tough mask she normally did. "Like my arm was caught in a meat grinder and a ship fell on my head."
"Unfortunately, it most likely will for another week or so. You took a nasty blow to the head that caused some swelling of your brain, but I was able to get that under control quickly. Your arm was touch and go however. It was badly shattered and it took me over three hours of surgery and some steel plating fused to the bones to save it. It's going to be a few weeks before you'll have full use and strength back in both that and your hand. I'll up your dose of pain-killers however to help keep the discomfort down for now."
"Thanks." Shepard swallowed and then managed a tiny version of her smirk again. "You look like hell Doc."
Chakwas laughed and everyone else grinned. "Says the woman who has two black eyes and a broken nose."
"Dr. Chakwas has been insistent on keeping an eye on both you and Ashley. It took Tali and I over a day to convince her we could watch over you both and would promise to wake her if anything happened," said Liara.
Tali snorted. "And she still hasn't slept more than a few hours in the last three days."
"I'm fine and not going anywhere Doc…..get some sleep. Commander's orders."
"All right, with all of you ganging up on me, I have no hope of winning now do I?"
"I'll tell them to tranq you," Shepard teased.
"If you're well enough to threaten, then I think my work here is done for now," Chakwas chuckled raising her hands in defeat. She fixed Shepard and Ashley with a stern glance. "There will be no attempts to get out of your beds or stray from the strict orders I have given them about your care."
"Too tired to protest," Shepard admitted wearily.
Chakwas nodded and then looked at Liara and Tali. "One of you has to be in here at all times, and remember to keep the conversations with the patients to a minimum. I want them to rest. That also means keeping the rest of the crew out of here, unless it's a damned dire emergency. Wake me if anything out of the ordinary comes up…I don't care how insignificant you might think it is. The nurses will be back from helping out on station in about three hours and have orders to check on them before they retire as well."
"We understand Dr. Chakwas."
"All right then ladies, a pleasant evening to all of you and I will see everyone in the morning." She gave Shepard a final fond smile and squeeze on her uninjured shoulder before heading back to her bunk.
"Do you need anything else Commander?" Tali asked holding up the cup again.
"More water sounds good," Shepard said gratefully. Then she looked over at Ash who had been quiet the whole time. "How are you Chief?"
Ash managed a wry smile. "Sore, tired and itching to get out of this damned immobilizer. But we're alive, we beat that son-of-a-bitch and that's all that matters right now right?"
"Amen, Chief," Shepard sighed. "Glad you'll still be around to watch my six Ash," she said with heartfelt sincerity.
"I'd follow you to hell and back Commander," Ashley responded with quiet intensity.
Shepard felt Liara begin to withdraw her hand as she looked away, but Shepard managed to squeeze her fingers and looked at both her and Tali, who was standing somewhat awkwardly off to the side with a refilled cup of water. "I couldn't have done this without any of you. I know I was a bitch most of the time and rode all of you hard….but you were the ones who gave me the strength to get through this. Thank you," she told them quietly.
The room was silent as the two aliens stared at Shepard in shock and in a new light. Tali finally shook herself from her daze and helped the injured Spectre finish the second glass of water and then took a seat in between the two patients. "You should rest Shepard…and you as well Ashley."
"Sleep sounds good," Shepard agreed her eyelids growing heavier each moment. Liara squeezed her hand gently one last time and then moved to sit at the desk where she had some of her own research papers out while Tali called up her Omni tool and began going over data.
Shepard rolled her head and caught Ashley's eyes and held them for several long moments. Finally her lips twitched upwards and Ashley returned the faint smile before they both settled in to sleep.
Chapter Three: Visiting Hours
"Well it's nice to see you two ladies are finally on the mend."
Shepard and Williams, who had both finally been allowed to sit up in bed and start eating real food again, stiffened as they heard the familiar voice of Admiral Hackett as he entered the med-bay. Chakwas sighed in exasperation, and Hackett chuckled.
"At ease ladies. The last thing I need is to have your CMO give me an earful about setting your progress back because you were trying to salute," he teased.
Shepard settled for a respectful single tilt of her head however. "Sir," she greeted.
Ashley glanced over at the Commander with a raised eyebrow. She had heard the Commander be gruff with the Admiral after several of his requests for them to go clean up some Alliance mess or another, and she had definitely seen Shepard all but tell another Admiral to kiss her ass and that there was no way in hell he was stepping on foot onto HER ship for an inspection. And yet here she was as respectful as Ash had ever seen her with any top brass.
Shepard noticed and rolled her eyes. "I can show some respect for my superiors," she commented dryly.
"Especially when one of them has a soft spot for his star pupil," Hackett grinned. "I came across Shepard back when she was nothing but a feral kid just trying to survive in a gang ridden territory back on earth. Saved her life that day, and even managed to convince her that she could have a better life if she had the courage to take the chance," he said with a fond smile to a now blushing Shepard.
"I had nothing to lose. Of course had I known back then that one day I would have survived Torfan, have my brain overloaded by ancient Prothean technology, and spend month after month on a grueling search to stop a rogue Spectre from helping to destroy all life as we know it, I might have run the other way," Shepard retorted with a smirk.
"Fate seemed to have plans for you Shepard. I think one way or another, you would have been sucked into this whole mess no matter what. How are you both feeling?" he asked, settling into a chair Chakwas pulled out for him as he looked between both of them.
"Better," Shepard answered simply.
Hackett rolled his eyes when no other answer was forthcoming and turned to Chakwas who was observing discreetly from her desk. "Doctor? How are our patients doing?"
"All things considered, very well. They are both still in a great deal of pain as to be expected with their injuries, but we have been able to keep it at tolerable levels. They are behaving themselves, and getting plenty of rest at least and I hope to start the Chief's physical therapy in a couple of days. The Commander
will need another week before we start hers."
"And you think they will make a full recovery?"
"I can guarantee it so long as they don't overdo it and re-injure themselves."
"Well ladies, you heard the good doctor. Consider it an order."
"Yes sir," Shepard grinned. "So what's the word Admiral?"
Here his expression fell a bit. "Things are a political mess right now. With the Council gone there is no one to officially calm the panic that has started. The Citadel is half in ruins, thousands are dead, and it will be weeks before clean-up crews can even get to some sections. Worse yet, there are certain greedy bastards that are trying to seize complete control of the Council in humanity's name and it's almost like a damned Crusade. The one good thing is that Anderson has agreed to step up to the plate as a potential nominee."
"Good. Udina is a backstabbing bastard who needs to be kept as far away from a position of power as possible," Shepard said vehemently.
"Having a former soldier would be a smart move anyway with the threat of the Reapers and war now," Ashley added.
Hackett grimaced. "That's the other thing. There are already rumors of the governments wanting to sweep this whole mess under the carpet. They don't want wide-spread panic and hysteria, which is already happening, and are trying to blame this all on the Geth."
"Are you fucking kidding me?!" Shepard demanded angrily. "This crew and I risked our lives to prove to the Council that the Reapers are real! I had to sacrifice one of my own men out there and have pushed this crew beyond their limits to stop Sovereign!!"
"Admiral," Chakwas warned quietly.
"Easy Commander," Hackett ordered calmly. He watched as she clamped her jaw tightly and saw her struggle with the tears that had moistened her eyes. That more than anything, spoke of just how badly this ordeal had worn on her.
"Damn it Jack," she finally grit out, hurt by his admission.
"I know Alex," he sighed, equally as frustrated. "But I believe you and Anderson believes you. Which is why I am pushing so hard for him to be on the new Council, because he won't let them get away with this- not without a fight. I'm going to do what I can to make this right, but I thought you should know up front what is going on right now."
Shepard closed her eyes and exhaled heavily as she sank back into her pillows, almost defeated. Ashley finally spoke up in the silence. "Sir, there were hundreds of Alliance and Council ships who fought that thing. How can they just get away with claiming that the Reapers aren't real?"
"Because we know so little about the Geth, that what debris we have been able to get our hands on, looks very much like Geth technology, if not more advanced. Couple it with the fact that Saren was knowingly allied with the Geth and they were working for him, and it makes it easier to believe. People are happier to believe it was just a Geth insurgence instead of some kind of super-race that has been wiping out entire civilizations for god knows how long."
"What happens now?" Ashley finally asked, dejectedly.
"You go home," he answered holding up a hand when both women jerked at that answer. "This is not punishment, this is my thanks to you and your crew for saving our collective asses. The Normandy needs repairs that cannot be accomplished here on the Citadel right now, and your crew is long overdue for some R&R. It'll be several more weeks before both of you can be released back to full duty anyway, so I spoke with the Admiralty, and convinced them that it was best if we brought you all home for repairs, recovery and some well earned time off. Since it will keep you all out of the spotlight that is being shined on the Citadel here, they were more than happy to agree."
"When are we expected to leave?"
"Chief Adams says it will be about a week before the engines will be stable enough for FTL, but he says there are some hull fractures they need to repair before he recommends jumping through one of the relays. Plus your med staff has been invaluable in helping out at the clinics right now until more personnel arrive from amongst the various races. I would say you'll be docked another two weeks and you should be seeing Earth by the end of the month."
"How long will our shore leave be?"
"We have a lot of ships limping home for repairs, but the Normandy will take precedence once she arrives. I estimate about a month right now. And you're crew has earned every hour of that, so no arguments on the timeframe."
"Well at least by then I should be almost fully healed," Shepard sighed.
"And itching to blow shit up I'm sure," Hackett smirked at her.
Ashley snickered, there was a snort of amusement from the Doctor's general direction, and even Shepard had to chuckle. "I know when I have been in the field too long because I feel naked without my armor on."
"Well considering the wealth you have managed to amass over these past few months, I think a few weeks on a nice quiet private island of your choosing will cure you of that. Be sure to send me a postcard," he said standing, knowing the good doctor would probably be chasing him out soon. He still had once last bit of business before he left though.
"I'll be sure to do that. Thank you for stopping by Admiral."
"Just glad you came through this insane mess alive Shepard. I know it's been tough on you and this crew. I know you never got a chance to really bounce back after Torfan and I'm sorry I threw you into this so soon afterwards, but it was a chance I couldn't let you pass up and I knew you had what it took to be a Spectre. I'm just sorry that your first assignment was something so horrifically burdening. But I'm proud of you kid, and I know that when you finally have a chance to heal from everything, you'll be back in the saddle proving those bastards wrong."
She didn't trust herself to speak just then so she nodded and reached up to squeeze the hand that had settled on her shoulder for a moment. Then Hackett turned to Williams. "By the way Chief, I want you to know that I appreciate you keeping the Commander's hide intact long enough for her to finish this mission. I know you two had a rocky start, but I am also aware of just how invaluable you were to her. I have been against the stonewalling of your career from the start, but unfortunately you do not fall under my direct chain of command. However, I want you to know that I have submitted your name in for a battlefield commission to officer rank of Lieutenant 2nd class. I don't know if they'll approve it, but I thought you deserved to know that I feel you've more than earned it."
Ashley stared at Admiral Hackett in complete shock. For most of her life, she'd wanted nothing more than to serve as an officer in the Alliance Marines and bring honor back to their family name. It wasn't until she'd been rejected for officer candidate school despite a flawless record, that she'd realized just how deep her family's stigma ran. It had crushed her to be denied the one dream she'd had for herself, but she'd continued to work hard and serve loyally despite the fact that her postings continued to become more dismal each time. Now, she had someone who was able to see her for herself and what she had accomplished on her own, and was willing to take a chance on her. It was more than she had ever let herself dare dream. "I…I don't know what to say Admiral. Thank you."
He shrugged and smiled a bit sadly. "I honestly don't know if they'll approve it Chief, so don't get your hopes up too high. But the one thing I can guarantee you is that so long as you want it, you'll remain aboard Normandy under Shepard's command. I am also attempting to get you reassigned to my command, but there is a lot of red tape to get through with that, and there are more pressing matters to consider."
"Sir, it would be an honor to receive the commission, but even if I don't….just knowing that someone in the Admiralty can see me for who I am and what I've done is enough for me. You have no idea what this means to me."
"So I take it you'll stay on with the Normandy?" he asked with a grin.
"For as long as the Commander will put up with me Sir," she replied with a watery grin towards Shepard who smiled back at her, pride and something else a lot warmer in her eyes.
"Good. Take care then ladies and I look forward to seeing you both in a couple of months before the Normandy pushes out again."
"You take care too Admiral."
With a final tilt of his head to Chakwas who offered up a casual salute, he left the med bay. Chakwas turned to Ashley who was staring at her sheets. "Well Chief, it seems congratulations are in order. Whether you get the commission or not, you were nominated for it and I know for a fact that it's been a very long time since anyone has been nominated for a battlefield commission."
"I….it's incredible. Thank you Dr. Chakwas," Ashley finally said.
"Ash?"
"Yeah Skipper?"
"He's right you know, and I meant what I said before. If it weren't for you watching my back, I'd have never made it through this mission alive. You have more than earned this and I hope those bureaucratic bastards finally give you your due. But if they don't, I hope you know you will always have a home and the respect of this crew."
Ashley swallowed hard, once more struggling with her emotions and nodded once. "I do. And I thank you for giving me a chance Shepard. All I ever wanted to be was a good operational marine and restore some honor back to my family name. You gave that back to me and so much more. Thank you."
Chakwas allowed a moment of silence to pass between the two younger women and then stepped away from her desk to collect their food trays. "Okay you two, it's getting late and I need for you to get some rest. If you both continue to behave, I'll even release you to quarters in a couple of days…unless you'd like to remain here Chief since those pods are a little cramped."
"Actually, Garrus Wrex and I rigged some field cots down in the Mako bay. We spend most of our time there, and we've gotten used to each other's company. No one hardly goes down there except for a few engineers every now and then."
"So long as I don't catch you working down there before I release you, I see no reason why not. All right ladies, I'll be in my back lab," she told them as she dimmed the lights. "Call me if you need anything."
The two settled carefully back down onto their beds and lay there in the semi-darkness contemplating their futures and everything that was starting to lay before them. Sleep didn't come quickly for either of them, but when it finally did, there was a small smile on both their faces.


Chapter Four: Growing Pains
A week after the Citadel Battle….
"Attention on Deck!" Pressley called out crisply as Shepard entered the CIC, leaning heavily on Anderson as she slowly limped into the room. The entire Normandy crew was gathered along the length of the bridge, with the Senior Officers and her squad lining the wall behind the galaxy map. As one the entire crew, aliens and all, snapped to attention and saluted their Commander. Even Joker had managed to drag himself to a formal attention and present a textbook salute.
"Commander Shepard," Pressley began formally. "On behalf of the crew of the Normandy, I would like to express what an honor and privilege it has been serving under you. Some of us may have had our doubts in the beginning…myself included," he admitted with a wry grin. "But you never gave up on us, and you never let us give up no matter how hard it got. You didn't just bring us through this mission Commander, but you helped to save everything we hold dear and fight for to begin with. Thank you. Hip hip."
"Hooray!" the Normandy crew shouted in unison as Pressley led them in an old traditional cheer.
The normally hard Commander felt a knot in her throat and tears of both pride and gratitude sting her eyes as the traditional cheer ended and everyone began shouting, clapping and whistling in a more informal cheer for her. There were a lot of people shouting that it was good to see her and have her back, and it was then that Shepard fully understood the gift she'd been given in this amazing and loyal crew. Not normally one for speeches, Shepard couldn't let this moment slip by without saying something in return.
"Captain…can you help me up to the platform?" she asked Anderson quietly. He nodded as both he and Chakwas carefully helped her up to where the galaxy map was and she turned it off so her view of the crew was unobstructed while everyone quieted down.
She cleared her throat, and looked out over the crew silently for a moment as they also got a clear view of just how much of a toll the mission had taken on her. It was clear that it was taking every effort for her to remain on her feet,. Half her upper body remained immobilized, her face was still heavily battered, her cheeks gaunt and skin pale and tight. She had dark circles under her eyes and she looked exhausted and in pain. But her eyes shone brightly with pride and unshed tears and everyone straightened just a little bit more.
"Eight months ago, I doubt any of us would guessed that we would be caught up in the middle of galactic politics, working in a racially integrated crew, and racing against the clock on a mission to save the galaxy from certain destruction. We had a steep learning curve that all of us had to overcome, and we suffered some setbacks along the way. Worse yet, we lost several good soldiers and friends during our mission. But their dedication and sacrifice will never be forgotten and their memories will be carried on in each of us."
There was a stir of concern as Shepard faltered and winced in obvious pain as Anderson and Chakwas moved to take more of her weight. Chakwas muttered something to her quietly and Shepard shook her head briefly before forcing herself straight again, her voice more strained but still carrying down the entire length of the bridge. "I couldn't have done this without the contribution of each and every one of you. I pushed all of you beyond what any of us thought we could ever endure and I can say with certainty that this is the best damn crew in the entire galaxy. You faced every challenge head on and you never backed down even with all the odds stacked against us. I am damn proud to have been your Commander and it is an honor to stand in the presence of such fine soldiers." She turned to look at her alien squad mates and a look of genuine gratitude filled her features. "Tali, Liara, Wrex and Garrus….all four of you joined my crew when you had no obligation to…some of you at great personal cost to yourselves. I know we weren't always the easiest to deal with in the beginning, but I thank all of you for giving us the opportunity to get to know all of you. I am in debt to all of you for all that you did for myself and this crew."
Another spasm cut through anything else she might have wanted to say however and this time Chakwas was not to be dissuaded. "Alright Commander," she said kindly, but firmly as she fixed Anderson with a look that brooked no argument from him either. "Let's get you settled in before you undo all that miracle working I did on you."
Gently panting from the strain, Shepard merely nodded and allowed them both to help her off the bridge, amidst more applause from her crew, and down to the med-bay where the Doc settled her in and gave her a hefty dose of pain killers as she checked the medi-gel administrators on the immobilizer.
Shepard called out to Anderson before he left however and he turned back. "Thank you Captain…for everything," she whispered even as her eyes began closing.
He smiled fondly at Shepard. "No Shepard….thank YOU," he told her just as sincerely. She smiled faintly and then drifted off into a heavy sleep.
Five days later…..
Shepard groaned in relief as the Doc finally took her immobilizer off. Ashley, who was sitting on a nearby bed, being helped with her physical therapy by Liara, chuckled knowingly. "It's nice to be able to scratch the places that itch, eh Commander?"
"Hell yes," Shepard said wryly as she set about doing just that.
Even with all the advancements in medical technology, no one had found a way yet to avoid dry and chaffed skin under the immobilizers without creating some other bigger problem or inconvenience. Shepard had endured through her fair share of the restrictive devices throughout her military career and then some, and felt the removal of an immobilizer was almost on par with sex. Chakwas snorted in amusement as Shepard sighed contentedly as she gently raked her nails over freshly healed skin that had been itching like mad the last couple of days.
"Better?" the older woman asked with a smirk after a couple of minutes.
"Much."
"Any pain? And no tough Marine/Spectre bullshit either," Chakwas said firmly.
Shepard tentatively rolled her shoulder and shifted the arm around a bit, wincing slightly. "It still aches some, and it's pretty stiff," she admitted.
Chakwas nodded. "To be expected, but no sharp pains while resting the arm?" Shepard shook her head and the Doc smiled. "Excellent. Now I know how you are and you'll be wanting to throw yourself into therapy, but we are going to have to go easy this time around Commander. If we push it too hard and you tear anything further while it's still in this condition you will most likely end up with irreparable damage and loss of motion and or strength in that arm and shoulder."
Shepard sighed but didn't argue. "I read you Doc. When do you want me to start therapy?"
Chakwas handed her a sling that would support her arm and keep it protected, but would still allow for some natural movement as Shepard moved. It would help aid in getting the stiff muscles and ligaments to start loosening up without straining them. "I'm going to allow you to be up and around for six hours each day and no argument or I'll pull medical rank and have Hackett and Anderson back me up on that," she threatened when Shepard began to protest that.
Off to one side, Ashley coughed as she tried to cover a laugh and Shepard shot her a look that made the Chief focus back on her therapy. It didn't help that Liara, whose back was to Shepard, was openly grinning.
"You can do all six hours at once or break it up…which is what I would prefer. I am also severely limiting your activities during those six hours to visiting and walking around. Anything else and I'll have you confined to sickbay for another full week. After those six hours you will be in your quarters relaxing or sleeping."
"Can I at least have one or two friends visiting if I promise to relax when I'm in my quarters?" Shepard hated the pleading tone in her voice and glared in Ashley's direction again for good measure.
"On occasion, yes. However if it's boredom you are concerned with, I'm sure there is plenty of paperwork to keep you occupied over the next week that I am enforcing this."
"A week?!"
Chakwas sighed and moved closer to Shepard lowering her voice as she rested a gentle hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "Commander…Alexis," she said quietly as she looked into Shepard's grey eyes. "In the past year, you have been through more high stress situations than most Admirals go through in a lifetime. Any other soldier would have already been required to take a medical leave to recover and yet you have been forced out of necessity to deal with everything and push forward. This last mission has done more than wear on your spirit Shepard, it's exhausted your body. I know you want to do more, but you can barely stay awake for more than a few hours at a time and your adrenal and endorphin levels are completely out of balance. Your brain patterns are erratic, and you suffer from those nightmares on an almost nightly basis if I don't give you a sedative. And don't even get me started on what I think interfacing with Prothean technology has done to you. I'm not doing this just as your doctor Shepard, I'm doing this as your friend. You need this time to heal…from everything."
Deep down, Shepard knew this had been coming. After that nightmarish mission on Akuze where she'd been the only survivor, Shepard had honestly been surprised that after a quick patch job, they had immediately posted her back with her old CO on the Normandy. Not that she had really minded at the time. It had been easier to deal with everything she'd been forced to endure by having something to throw herself into and initially, chasing down Saren was just what she'd needed. But the weeks began to drag on, with little time for rest as they pushed through one battle after the next, and being forced to leave a man behind had hit her far harder than she'd wanted to admit.
Having the Doc lay out just how much this whole fucked up situation had affected her only added to the depression she could feel herself slipping into. And that realization told her it was time to shut up and take care of herself before she tried to throw herself back on the frontlines. A distracted soldier was a dead soldier. Even worse, a distracted CO could get other people killed and Shepard wasn't about to let anyone else under her command down again. She'd had enough blood on her hands this past year to last several lifetimes.
"Alright Doc," Shepard said quietly as she looked down at her sheets.
A gentle squeeze of her uninjured shoulder made her look up into the compassionate gaze of her friend. "There's no dishonor in this Shepard. A lesser person would have been broken long ago by the kind of strain you have been under . As your friend, I am using my authority to see to it that you get the rest you so badly need and so richly deserve. I know it's tough for you military types and I've had the same discussion with your Gunnery Chief over there, but please try to just enjoy this downtime while it lasts Shepard."
Shepard looked past Chakwas and met Ashley's understanding gaze. The Chief finally gave her a rueful grin and shrug that seemed to reassure Shepard who exhaled slowly before looking back up at her older friend with a small smile as she covered the hand on her shoulder with her own. "Thanks Doc. Don't know what any of us would do without you here to put us back together."
"Go insane and try to take on a ship full of Krogan I imagine," Chakwas answered back dryly.
Shepard couldn't help but laugh, and for the first time in a long time, she felt something inside her chest loosen just a little bit. Maybe things could be alright with a little time.
Later that evening Shepard was dismally staring at the massive backlog of reports she had to go through realizing that Chakwas hadn't been kidding. There was more than enough to keep her busy for a week. This was the inglorious work that a commanding officer had to find time to do, and Shepard despised this aspect of her job. At least with being Spectre she didn't really have to worry about paperwork. Her only aggravation came from having to deal directly with the Council. Of course even then she hung up on them when they started pissing her off enough.
Shepard was saved from trying to figure out just where she should start by her door chime. "Enter," she called out gratefully, and smiled as Tali entered. "Hey Tali," she greeted warmly as she gestured for the young Quarian to have a seat on her couch.
"Shepard," Tali returned. "I hope I am not interrupting anything?"
"Thankfully, you did," Shepard chuckled as she pointed to the massive stack of data pads littering her desk. "I was about to get lost in my backlog of reports. I was just trying to figure out how I might be able to bribe Pressley to take at least half of it."
Tali chuckled. "Pressley is a good XO, but I don't think he likes being in charge for so long. I wouldn't be surprised if he's sneaking some of his own in there to get back at you for being down for so long."
"Probably," Shepard agreed with a grin. "So what brings you down here?"
Tali sighed and shifted uncomfortably as she looked down at her folded hands. "My father has asked several times when I am going to return to the Flotilla," she answered finally, in an unhappy tone.
Shepard's grin faded almost immediately. "Oh," was all she could muster for a minute. She'd known the time would come when Tali would have to return back to her people. Especially since Shepard had told her that first night that Tali and Liara had kept watch over her and Ashley that she'd changed her mind and Tali could have the Geth data. "You've been gone longer than most haven't you?"
"Most Quarians are gone for a few months, some even only a few weeks. Few go past six months, but that was when I stumbled across that transmission and felt the need to investigate it further. I've been gone from my people well over a year now."
"That's a long time, he's probably anxious to have his girl come home," Shepard said with a sad smile.
"He is," Tali sighed. "Especially since he knows now that I was in the middle of all this and probably have something very valuable to bring back to my people. But truth is….I don't want to go back Shepard," Tali said in an equally sad voice. "The Normandy has become my home, and it's you I wish to follow as my Captain, Shepard," she added in a stronger voice as she looked back up.
Shepard wished not for the first time she could see the young woman through the purple haze inside her visor. But those beautiful silver eyes shone brightly and never wavered as they held Shepard's gaze. And once again Shepard found herself being plagued by confusing emotions she'd long thought buried. She didn't know if it was just the aftermath of everything she'd been through, but every time she was around Tali, Ashley, or Liara she just couldn't seem to keep her bearings any more. And at times like this, she felt an almost physical ache in her chest. Emotion battled with reason, and Shepard sighed heavily.
"Tali, I would like nothing more than to have you join my crew permanently. But I can't ask that of you and I can't ask that of your people….at least not just yet. Your people know more about the Geth than any other race, and with the Reapers stalled for now, the Geth are the biggest threat since they have moved beyond the Veil and show no signs of returning. That data, it could be the key to stopping the Geth, and as much as I would love for you to stay, I know you can't figure this out on your own. You need the resources of your people, and I can't give you that here. I don't trust anyone else with this Tali…not even the Alliance," she admitted a bit bitterly.
Tali looked down and nodded. "You are right, and my father says that my people need my battlefield experience right now as well because the Geth have been making some bold moves lately."
"I underestimated you when you first came aboard Tali," Shepard smirked. "But you have turned out to be one hell of a fighter and especially going up against those Geth bastards. You're people will be lucky to have you back with them." Shepard knew her smile was forced, and Tali could obviously tell because she leaned forward and took Shepard's good hand in her own.
"I will never forget all that you have done for me Shepard. You saved my life back in that ally and you helped a young Quarian girl find the courage to face more than she ever thought possible. I know my father wishes for me to take his place some day, and that thought has always terrified me. I never thought I could be responsible for so many lives, and yet throughout this mission any failure on our part could have meant the end of all civilization as we know it. I will return a hero yes, but more than that, you helped me to grow into the person I know I will have to be one day for my people."
Shepard couldn't seem to form any words for that around the sudden lump in her throat, but this time her smile was more genuine. "I will return to my people Shepard and do what needs to be done. But should the Reaper threat return once more, you only need to call upon me and I will return in a heartbeat," Tali promised.
"When do you leave?" Shepard finally managed, her voice slightly rough.
"There is a transport leaving for the Flotilla first thing in the morning. My father has requested that I be on it," Tali sighed.
Shepard squeezed the hands that were clasping her own. "Then I wish you much success and happiness Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. I hope that our paths cross again someday soon, but not just because the galaxy is about to be blown all to hell. The Normandy will always be ready to have you back home….as will I."
Tali moved off her chair and crouched down in front of Shepard and drew the Commander into an embrace, careful of her still healing injuries. "I'll miss you Alexis. Take care of yourself and I look forward to the day when our paths will cross." They stayed that way for several long moments before Tali moved back towards the door. With a final glance backwards, she nodded farewell and took her leave of the amazing woman that had changed her life in so many ways.
Shepard watched bleakly as Tali walked out of her room and felt like the young woman was also walking out of her life. It hurt in a way that Shepard had never experienced before and only served to compound the confusing emotions that had been at war within her the last few weeks. Drained, depressed, and aching, Shepard moved to her bed and killed the lights. There she lay in the darkness, tears silently spilling down her cheeks as she tried to sort out her feelings and figure a way to put them back in the box they'd broken free from.

Out in the mess, Ashley, Wrex and a few of the crew were involved in a game of Turian poker and chatting with Liara and Dr. Chakwas who were simply enjoying a drink and watching. Ashley was the first to see a dejected looking Quarian exit the Commander's Quarters and tossed her cards down absently. "I fold guys. Don't deal me in until I come back," she told them as she stood, grabbed her crutches and moved to intercept Tali before she got onto the elevator.
Liara who hadn't see Tali come out, but saw Ashley quickly forget the game also excused herself to see what was going on. Both women made it on the elevator just before it began to descend to the lowest deck. "Tali, is everything okay?" Ashley asked in concern, noticing the Quarian had yet to lift her head.
"I must return home tomorrow," Tali answered softly.
That caught both other women off guard and all Ashley could manage was "Oh."
"But what about the threat of the Reapers?" Liara asked confused.
"The threat still looms, but they are not the biggest danger right now. Saren's actions caused the Geth to leave the Veil and they now pose the immediate threat to my people and yours. Shepard…" Tali's voice faltered and they saw her draw in a steadying breath. "Shepard believes my people are the only ones with a chance at figuring out how to stop them. She asked me to bring the data back to them."
"She told you to leave?" Ashley asked, both hurt and in disbelief.
The door to the elevator opened and they all stepped out as Tali was quick to correct the misunderstanding. "No, nothing like that. She made it clear that she would want nothing more than to have me stay. But she knows I need to finish my Pilgrimage and she knows my people need me right now. Shepard needs for me to deliver this information as well, but it was difficult…for both of us…to say goodbye."
"When do you have to leave?" Ashley asked, feeling a bit of her heart break. She'd become very fond of the young engineer, and had admired her courage even though she hadn't been a trained soldier. Tali had become more than just a teammate over the months, she'd also become a close friend and Ashley realized that she may never see Tali again after this.
Liara was just as heartbroken. When she'd first come aboard and stumbled her way through her first few conversations with Shepard, she'd almost asked to leave at their next port out of sheer embarrassment. But one night when she was wandering the ship because she was unable to sleep and had run across an equally restless Tali, they'd sat for several hours in the empty Mess and bonded over their mutual difficulties of trying to adapt to living amongst the humans. After that, they'd often sat up late into the nights, discussing what they'd learned from their interactions and helping each other adapt. Tali was her first true friend aboard the Normandy, and she felt like a piece of her was about to leave with Tali.
"My transport leaves first thing in the morning. But I need to be on board in another couple of hours to receive my cabin assignment and have my gear stored."
"Want some help carrying everything?"
"I do not think Dr. Chakwas would approve," Tali reminded her.
Ashley managed a smile. "Who said I was going to carry it? I was volunteering Liara for luggage duty. Since I'm ranking officer here, I get to oversee," she joked, lifting one of her crutches towards the young Asari.
That garnered a noise of mock protest from Liara and a chuckle from Tali. "Considering I am now leaving with far more than I came with, I wouldn't mind the help…or the company."
Garrus, who had been tinkering with the Mako when he noticed Tali start packing her gear, came over to join them. "Going somewhere?"
"My Pilgrimage is over and I must return to my Flotilla. Shepard gave me the Geth data and she believes that my people have the best chance of stopping them."
"I see. Well you weren't thinking of just sneaking off now were you? I know a few engineers that would be pretty disappointed if you didn't say goodbye to them."
"I…." Tali paused realizing that was actually what she had planned to do. "I didn't really think anyone would notice."
"Shepard wasn't making that stuff up when she gave her speech on the bridge Tali. Adams has made it clear he wishes he had at least five more like you. Hell, I think even Pressley finally came around and saw how valuable you have been. Tell you what, we'll finish this up, you go make the rounds and say goodbye to everyone and we'll walk you to your dock."
Tali felt tears slip down her cheeks inside her mask and cursed not being able to do anything to wipe them away but stepped forward to hug Ashley fiercely. "Thank you, Chief. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Take your time Tali. Goodbyes should never be rushed," Liara said sagely. She more than anyone else there, knew just how important goodbyes were.
Tali nodded and then headed towards the Engineering doors. As soon as she was gone, Ashley began pulling Tali's gear back out and looking it over carefully. "Chief?" Garrus asked, somewhat confused.
"Liara can you pack the rest of this stuff? Garrus I need your help with her combat armor. She took a pretty good hit on Virmire, and I just never had a chance to repair the cracked plate. Problem is I just don't have the strength to remove it right now."
Garrus took the affected piece from Ashley and walked over to her work table. He set to work, removing the damaged chest plate as Ashley began digging through the cabinet next to her workbench and sifted through the spare parts she had for each of their gear. She came up with the right piece and handed it to Garrus who snapped it back into proper place and then stepped aside to let Ashley fine tune it's placement and then wipe down the entire section of armor.
By then Tali had finished her goodbyes in Engineering and had gone upstairs to make her rounds. Wrex came down after a little while and joined their group. "So I hear Stick Girl is leaving."
Ashley snorted. Leave it to Wrex to keep calling her that blasted nickname, even now. "Yeah. She's gotta head back to her people and bring them that data."
Wrex grunted and went to stand over in his corner while Ashley, Liara and Garrus chatted quietly for the next half hour until Tali returned. To everyone's surprise, the massive Krogan pushed off the wall as soon as she walked by and went over to his locker and dug out the Spectre grade HMWSG Master X shotgun Shepard had bought for him at their last port. He approached their small group and looked down at Tali.
"I hear you're heading back to help take care of the Geth problem, Stick Girl. You need something better than that old Katana you still carry around. Take this and give 'em hell Tali'Zorah nar Rayya." He cuffed her on the shoulder in salute - the most gentle cuff any of them had ever seen - and then without another word, the gruff Krogan lumbered off leaving the group in stunned silence. For Wrex, that was the closest thing to an emotional goodbye that anyone would ever receive. Tali stared down at the gun in her hands and then softly whispered her thanks, knowing the Battlemaster could hear her still. He paused, looked back ever so slightly and nodded once before stepping back onto the elevator.
The young woman slipped the shotgun into its spot along the base of her spine and picked up one of her bags, as Garrus and Liara picked up her other two. Together with Ashley, the four friends slowly headed towards Tali's final destination. They visited for another final half hour, and then it was time for Tali to board her transport ship home.
"Write when you can Tali, and stay safe out there," Ashley asked of her as they hugged one final time, desperately trying not to ruin her tough image by crying.
"I will try Ashley. Keep Shepard safe and keep your head down as well."
"I promise I'll do my best. Call us if you get into a situation. I know Shepard will come in with guns blazing if you need it."
Tali said her final farewells to Garrus, and gave Liara a hug that lasted for almost a minute as each of the young women wept quietly. Finally Liara stepped back, wiped her cheeks and gave Tali a shaky smile. "Success and happiness Tali'Zorah nar Rayya."
"Good hunting my friends."
And then she was gone.
Chapter Five: Reflections
"Raise you five and I'll take two cards," Ashley said as she tossed two cards face down onto the table and then slid her chips into the growing pile on the table. When Wrex had first suggested betting credits, Ashley had balked given that she was normally very stingy with her salary so she could send some home to help her family. When Wrex told her that maybe she should check her account though, she'd nearly fallen over in shock when she finally did. Apparently, a lot of those side missions had brought in a massive amount of profit and Shepard had distributed it amongst the crew in a very businesslike manner. Everyone got their fair share, but those that had been on the front lines had received a substantial 'hazard pay' bonus. It was enough to buy every piece of gear Ashley ever wanted and still have plenty left over to buy herself a nice slice of paradise somewhere.
Since Shepard had already acquired all the weapons and gear Ash had needed for the mission, she didn't see the harm in taking a small amount of those extra funds and indulging in a few games of chance amongst friends. Especially since she was becoming extremely bored and at least this kept her occupied for a few hours each evening now. Ash had set herself a limit though and once she'd blown through those credits, that would be that. Considering the large stack in front of her however, she might be able to keep up their nightly games of poker for a bit longer than she originally thought.
Garrus deftly dealt two cards her way before setting the stack down and looking at his own cards. "So Chief, you seen Shepard at all today?"
Ashley looked over her cards and quirked an eyebrow. "No, I figured I must have missed her while I was running through my PT in the bay this afternoon. Have you seen her?"
Garrus shook his head as he grimaced at his hand and folded. Ashley looked at Wrex. "You?"
"Nope."
"Joker?"
"Nah, and I've been parked here most of the day. I saw the Doc go in there earlier, but she left after only a minute and she didn't look too happy. Liara stopped by to see her a little after that but Shepard never let her in. Man did she look bummed," he remarked with his normal flippancy. "I'll see your raise and add ten," he added with a smirk.
But then he always smirked. Ash had learned early on that Joker LOVED to bluff. And he was damn good at it so it was hard to tell if he really had a great hand or he was bullshitting. Her focus wavered however after hearing that bit of news. It bothered her that Shepard had turned away Liara like that…especially since she knew how close the two were. As much as Ashley cared for Shepard, she knew it could never happen. Shepard was her CO and the regs were very clear that fraternization between an officer and enlisted was career suicide.
It hadn't been easy for Ash to keep her feelings for Shepard in check though, because the Commander was very much her type - a tough, bad-ass, take no shit and give no quarter soldier who loved a good fight and never backed down from a challenge. But despite her renegade tendencies, there was a compassionate woman underneath that hard exterior. One who could be fair and willing to give people a chance if she felt they deserved it. The more Ashley had gotten to know Shepard, the harder she'd fallen, and if it weren't for the fact that Shepard had given her floundering career the boost it needed just when Ashley was about to throw in the towel, the Chief had been very tempted to act on her feelings -regs be damned. It didn't help that whenever they talked there always seemed to be a certain…electricity between them either.
But Shepard's distinguished career would be on the line too and Ashley would never do anything to jeopardize that, so she'd kept her distance as best she could and watched as Shepard and Liara began to dance around each other with a heavy heart. And when nothing happened for weeks, Ashley had begun to notice the subtle differences in Shepard's relationship with Tali and realized that she and Liara weren't the only ones who seemed to have caught the Commander's eye. Joker's comment made it clear that Shepard wasn't dealing with Tali's departure well.
"You in or what?" Joker asked the distracted Chief who blinked and refocused back on the game. Looking down at her hand she decided she would go talk to Shepard later, after everyone had turned in for the night. For now she would follow the Doc's orders to enjoy her downtime.
"What are we up to?"
"Wrex just upped the ante by another ten."
Ashley looked at her cards and decided to take a page from Joker's bag of tricks and smirked. "Really? Well I see both of you and raise it fifty."
"Too rich for my blood," grumble Wrex, who hadn't been doing so well all evening, as he folded.
Ashley looked over at Joker who just sat there and continued to smirk. "So what's it gonna be flyboy?" she challenged.
"Just because you can snipe a grape off my head from two hundred meters doesn't mean you intimidate me," he laughed tossing a hefty amount into the pot.
"Oh…so now you think you're on to me do you? Well I see that and raise you…..everything," she shot back as she shoved her entire stack into the middle.
"Well now, it's about time this game got interesting," Garrus commented as he leaned forward, looking between the two to see if he could judge just who had the better hand. Joker's expression never wavered so Garrus figured the pilot really did have a good hand.
The pilot shoved his own stack into the middle grinning. "Call."
Ashley's eyebrow lifted, but she didn't look upset, so she thought she had a good hand too. Joker laid down first. "Full house Aces over Queens. Read 'em and weep Chief," he said reaching for the pile.
Ashley whistled and nodded. "Gotta hand it to you Joker, that was a great hand. But-," she trailed off, her smirk back in full force now. She slowly started laying her cards down one by one and Joker's expression crumbled with each card. "Straight flush," she said smugly as she reached for the pot.
"Well all be damned," Joker laughed after the shock wore off.
"That's it for me tonight then," Wrex said as he collected what was left of his credit chips and stood.
Garrus looked at his decent pile, but knew it would take a miracle for him to catch up to Ashley. She and Joker had been the two biggest winners and with the pilot's share of the pot, she had a serious advantage. Besides, there was always tomorrow night. "I think I'll save myself the embarrassment, and carry this over into tomorrow night," he grinned at the Chief.
"All right you guys. See you down below in a while."
Wrex and Garrus nodded and headed off to the elevator. Joker was carefully getting to his feet and Ashley snorted. "You do that a lot more gracefully than me."
"When you practice you're whole life it gets a little smoother. Although I have to admit, it's a little funny for me to finally be the one laughing at someone else's expense."
Ashley just laughed. "I'll just bet. Enjoy it while you can flyboy. I finally get to ditch these crutches next week."
"Aw man, you mean no more tripping over deck plates and groping unsuspecting crewmates?"
Ashley blushed furiously. "Hey, you know I didn't do that on purpose! It made it worse that the Private Gomez tried to catch me, because she turned right into me as my hands went out to catch myself."
"Right on her boobs!" Joker guffawed. "Man, I don't know what was better. You're horrified expression or her come on!"
"And right there on the bridge no less," Ashley groaned shaking her head even as she grinned at the embarrassing moment. "God, I am so glad the Commander wasn't up there to see that. Pressley looked like he was about to stroke out. Shepard would have blown a gasket."
"Or the Private out an airlock," Joker smirked. "I get the feeling that the Commander doesn't like to share…much," he added with a wink.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ashley said, glaring slightly at the pilot.
Joker just shrugged it off. "From what I can see, the Commander seems to think she has something of a little dilemma. Personally, I don't see much of a problem though because she's managed to juggle everything else in her life just fine. Alright Chief, I'm off to hit my rack. Night!" he said cheerfully as he turned and left the speechless Williams standing there staring at his retreating back.
"Well…damn," she muttered looking around and grateful that there was no one else around to hear that particular remark from the wise-cracking pilot. She doubted Shepard would show him any mercy if she'd found out he'd just said something like that in front of other crew. Sometimes Joker just didn't know when to quit.
With a shake of her head she looked off to the port side of the ship and figured now was as good a time as any.

Shepard lay in the dark, her mind still running in endless circles. She was a soldier, and before that, a feral kid who had survived growing up alone on the streets. She'd never let herself get close to anyone before, and she certainly didn't know the first thing about how to deal with the emotions she was trying to cope with right now. Problem was, there was no ignoring them any more- she'd been trying that and had obviously failed miserably.
What made it all the worse however, was the fact that her heart had suddenly decided to make up for lost time. She couldn't have done something simple and just fallen for one of her teammates. No, she was Commander-fucking- Shepard and nothing was ever easy in her life. Now she was trying to deal with having more than friendly feelings towards three of her teammates. And one had just left…quite possibly for good.
God this was fucked up, she groaned to herself for the hundredth time. In fact it was so much of a nightmare that she'd remained secluded in the dark of her room since the previous evening, not bothering to eat and telling the Doc she was too tired to do her PT for the day, knowing she would only get a one day reprieve. She'd felt horrible about not answering the door when Liara was outside, but she couldn't bring herself to face the young Asari just now…not like this. She felt too raw. Too vulnerable.
Now her door was chiming once more and she slapped a button on her nightstand to see Ashley leaning on her crutches outside. Ashley looked up at the camera just then. "Commander if you don't open these doors I swear I'll drag Garrus up here to bypass the lock."
"God damned, stubborn bitch," Shepard growled out as she pushed herself upwards and barked out 'Enter'.
Ash made her way just inside and blinked at the dark room. "Shepard?"
"What?!"
"Lights," Ashley finally called out and Shepard's eyes slammed shut in pain.
"Damn it Ash!"
"Wow…you look like shit Commander," was all Ashley said in response as she lowered herself into the chair by Shepard's desk.
"Well thank you very fucking much Gunnery Chief Williams. In case you hadn't noticed, I nearly got my ass blown to hell and then pulverized trying to save your ass and the rest of this galaxy," Shepard snapped as she blinked away the tears that the suddenly bright light had caused.
The moment she saw Ashley wince ever so slightly she regretted the words, but there was no taking them back now. Ashley pushed past it however and fixed her with a cool look. "Guess what Commander, when you took the job of being a Spectre you signed on for this kind of shit."
Shepard gaped at Williams for a minute. "Did you seriously just march right in here and tell your commanding officer to suck it up?"
"Well hobble is more like it since I nearly got blown to hell watching your six," Williams shot back at her. "But as for the rest? Pretty much…Ma'am."
Shock and anger forced Shepard out of her bed to stand over the Chief who dragged herself to her feet. "How dare you!" Shepard began angrily.
But Ashley merely smirked. "Oh I dare Commander," she answered back in a tone that Shepard had never heard from her before. "And I think that's the problem isn't it? I dare a lot and you like that…too much in fact." By now Ashley was leaning in towards Shepard who was forced to take a step back. "I am only going to bring this up once and then the ball is in your court Commander. I know why you are sitting here alone and in the dark and trust me Shepard, wishing this away won't solve anything. Tali is gone Alexis, and I think you are beginning to regret not admitting to her just how much she meant to you. So the question is Commander, are you going to repeat that mistake?" The question hung heavily in the air and then Ashley turned and made her way out of Shepard's room. At the door she paused and in a very conversational tone told her that she would see Shepard at PT the next day. Then she was gone, and Shepard stared at her door for a very long time.

"Fuck that hurts," Shepard hissed as Chakwas rotated her arm through a series of movements to begin gently loosening up the stiff ligaments.
"Breathe through it Shepard, you're almost done," the doctor advised gently as she worked the shoulder through the last of the exercises.
Shepard grit her teeth and forced herself to relax as much as she could and take deep cleansing breaths. A couple of minutes later Chakwas settled her arm back against her side and smiled sympathetically at her. "It'll only hurt like this for the first few days. After that the ligaments will be loose enough that we can start the strength training without risking any tearing."
"Really did a number on myself this time huh?"
"That you did Shepard. How's the hand? You able to touch your fingers together yet?"
"Index and middle to my thumb…still working on ring and pinky though," Shepard admitted in frustration.
"Considering that I nearly resorted to cybernetic replacement it was so badly damaged, I think being able to accomplish that much is a feat all in itself. Remember, this won't be like any of your previous recoveries Commander," Chakwas said as she placed an ice wrap on her patient's shoulder and secured it.
"I know. It's just….frustrating."
"Just be glad you don't have to hobble around on crutches Skipper," Ashley remarked from where Liara was running her through her own exercises on the next bed over. "I've had enough embarrassing moments on those things to last a lifetime."
Shepard had acknowledged the two other women when she came in earlier, but had otherwise remained silent throughout most of her therapy because she was at a loss of how to act around them right now. But Ashley had insisted on keeping up a casual conversation with Liara and the Doc, and acted as if nothing had happened between her or Shepard. The Commander had finally begun to relax by the end of her session enough that now she felt confident enough to tease Williams a little.
"True. I'll take the pain to openly groping a fellow crewmen in the middle of the CIC."
Ashley's eyes widened and then slid shut as she fell back on the table and covered her face with her arm. "You heard about that? God I am never going to live that one down am I?"
Liara's laugh was light and musical and Chakwas added her own hearty laugh. For the first time in two days Shepard actually smiled. "Not as long as Joker is alive. I think I've heard him relate that story three times now to various audiences."
Ashley sat back up and looked at Shepard indignantly. "What? Why that cocky little….Can I kill him?"
The question was asked with such serious sincerity that Shepard couldn't help but burst out in laughter. "Oh…ow!" she gasped as ribs and her shoulder protested the sudden sharp movement. "Sorry Chief, but he's the best damn pilot, and until you can find me a replacement I need him in that chair. But feel free to threaten all you want so long as no harm comes to him."
Ashley grinned. "Thank you Commander."
"All done Ashley," Liara announced as she rested Ashley's leg back on the table and Chakwas came over to check on her other patient.
"Liara you are doing an excellent job. I was watching you today and you ran through all the exercises flawlessly. You have a healer's touch."
"Thank you Doctor. But after spending decades carefully digging up ancient artifacts, one becomes very skilled with their hands," Liara remarked in all innocence.
Unfortunately, everyone else in the room was a little more worldly wise and were hard pressed not to burst out laughing. Chakwas settled for a suppressed smirk. Ashley coughed. Shepard blushed furiously and cleared her throat as she looked around the room for a minute while she tried to regain her composure. Thankfully, Dr. Chakwas was more composed and managed to continue the conversation without missing a beat.
"I'll bet you are," she said with a significant look towards the two other women in the room and nearly snickered. "But you do good work and I'm sure the Chief will be feeling better in no time at all under your skilled touch."
Ashley gaped at the older woman, who was now fully smirking and Shepard nearly lost it. As it was a strange noise escaped her throat as she tried desperately to reign in the sharp bark of laughter that bubbled up in her chest. Liara just looked between the three sensing their amusement but not fully understanding it. She didn't mind though, as she was still trying to learn and decipher human behavior and she could sense that she was not the focus of unwanted teasing. Besides, she was seeing Ashley and Shepard turn interesting colors of red that she had never seen before and she was fascinated by their physiological responses to the current conversation.
"All right you three, get out of my med bay. I have reports to finish up and then it's lunch time for me," Chakwas said helping Shepard to her feet as she made shooing motions towards the door. Liara helped Ashley off the bed, steadying her while Ashley reached for her crutches. Then all three obediently moved out of the room, bidding the doctor good day.
"Chief Williams and I were going to head over to a section of the station that was unaffected by the attack Commander. She says she wants to introduce me to a human drink called…a margarita I believe. Would you care to join us?"
Shepard looked over at Williams. "You're gonna go hit a bar?"
"Well, we're all off active duty right now, and the Doc didn't say we couldn't. So long as we don't get mixed up in any brawls I think knocking back a few drinks is considered relaxing, don't you? Besides, it'll get you off this ship for a little while. I think you could use some fresh air."
Shepard hesitated, weighing the wisdom of going drinking with the woman that had all but propositioned her last night. Then Liara laid a gentle hand on her arm, and looked at her with those big blue eyes. "I would like it very much if you could come with us Shepard."
And how could she say no to that? But she still didn't feel fully comfortable about being alone in their company just yet and decided she could make a compromise. "Fine, but we had better bring Wrex and Garrus along. Neither of them would forgive us if we left them behind and I'm in no shape to deal with crowd control. Damned reporters are bound to start hassling us the minute they catch sight of me," Shepard sighed.
She didn't miss Ashley's slight narrowing of her eyes, but the Chief knew she was right. The press had been clamoring for a statement from the human Spectre ever since the battle, and were sure to try and disrupt their little private party once they caught wind of Shepard finally being out in public. Wrex and Garrus would definitely help deter any over-zealous idiots who wanted to try and make trouble. In fact Wrex would probably love to have the chance to growl and intimidate a few people since they'd all been a little bored lately.
"I'll go down and see if they wish to join us," Liara volunteered and left the two soldiers to relax at the Mess table until her return.
The two women eyed each other evenly for a couple of minutes before Shepard decided to tackle the situation head-on a bit. "You do realize what's at stake here?" Ashley simply nodded. Shepard lifted an eyebrow. "Chief, you're up for officer promotion…something you have worked harder than anyone else I know, to achieve. You are willing to risk all of that?"
"I am," was the calm and determined answer.
Shepard sat back in her chair at that and stared at the table for another long minute. "And Liara? Tali?"
Ashley hesitated a moment before leaning forward and meeting Shepard's gaze and answering quietly. "I care about both of them a great deal too Shepard. And I know they care equally as much for you. Unfortunately, Tali is out of the picture right now, but I understand that this is very complicated for all of us. I said what I did last night to make you realize that there are a lot of options available to all of us. I know I still need to work this out for myself, but I learned something new during this insane mission Shepard. Life is too short to not take what little happiness comes our way. Even if it's only temporary or short-lived. There are some things worth the risk, and that is all I wanted you to know. I'm willing to take that risk."
Shepard nodded and sat back in her chair, somehow feeling better with that revelation. She still had a lot to think about, but Ashley's statement cleared up a lot for her and helped give her ponderings direction finally.

Six hours later their small group arrived back at the ship, Shepard and Williams being supported by Wrex and Garrus, while a swaying Liara was left to fend for herself. "Wrex, my good friend, I am appointing you as my personal bodyguard in all ports from now on," Shepard slurred.
Wrex snorted in amusement. "Like you really ever need one."
"Well….true. But I no matter how rude and intimidating I was I could never make that Al-Jilani bitch piss her panties. Can you believe she made that last report on me and then has the gall to push for an interview?!" the Spectre said in drunken indignation.
Garrus smirked over at Shepard. "Ah but her face was priceless after you turned to that other reporter…Wong, I think you called her, and told her you'd be happy to do an exclusive."
Shepard groaned. "Why didn't any of you stop me?"
The decontamination process had just wrapped up and the doors slid open just as the drunken Commander uttered those words and everyone cringed as a very unhappy looking Chakwas was revealed to be standing on the other side of the port door. "Indeed," she said giving everyone an icy glare before fixing Shepard with an even colder look. "I have been asking myself the same question for the last four hours. You are well over your allotted limit Commander."
"Aw come on Doc. I've been a good girl all week and I swear I didn't do anything more than sit….well except for when we walked to the bar and back….and Wrex here really carried me back most of the way so that's gotta count for something right?"
Williams snickered and Liara giggled. A second glare shut both of them up immediately. "Don't think either of you is off the hook."
This unfortunately made Shepard snicker, which started the entire inebriated group laughing again and Chakwas sighed and rolled her eyes. "Get her ass to the infirmary and along with Williams and the rest of you go sleep it off. And don't expect me to be handing out any hangover remedies later."
"Infirmary!" Shepard protested.
"We had a deal that you broke Shepard. On top of that you went out and got yourself hammered while still on a hefty dose of medications. Medications that either don't work well with alcohol. You're lucky I recently took you off the more potent pain killers or you likely wouldn't be breathing right now in your condition. So yes, infirmary. NOW."
Wrex grunted an acknowledgement and dragged the still slightly resistant Shepard towards the elevator as Garrus followed suit with a much more compliant Williams. Once inside the elevator, Shepard looked at the others and burst out laughing again. "She was pretty pissed huh?"
"Looks like you're about to be grounded Commander," Williams smirked at her.
"Ahhhh but it was so well worth it. This was a great idea ladies. Thanks for talking me into this."
And it had been. Despite her seriously compromised mental state, Shepard knew she had enjoyed the evening a great deal. Once Wrex had dealt with that obnoxious reporter bitch, she'd finally been able to just simply relax for the first time in…she couldn't even remember. Liara and Ash had simply been themselves and with Wrex and Garrus along for the excursion, it had turned into night of fun between friends. She might have brought the wrath of her CMO down upon all their heads, but it had indeed been worth it she thought to herself as she crawled onto the infirmary bed and promptly passed out.
Chapter Six: Homebound
"….and with that, Chief Adams says that the ship is flight ready. He advises against taking us into any firefights anytime soon of course, but the Normandy will get us back home with no trouble."
Shepard looked up at her XO and nodded. "Excellent. How soon before we can disembark?"
"Citadel Control is still a mess. Joker says it will take about a day for our flight plan to be processed right now. Probably one more before we receive approval."
Shepard made a note on her data pad. "Alright then, I'm going to post a note in the ship's general log for all crew that we will be leaving here in three days time, bound for Earth, barring any unforeseen circumstances of course. Please see to it that this is announced on the comm system during each shift over the next two days so anyone who is not part of the Alliance can leave if they so wish it."
"Think our alien allies will jump ship?" Presley asked, his eyebrow raised.
"I think they might take the time to either visit their own families and home worlds, or take care of personal business while we are on extended leave before rejoining us," Shepard answered evenly as she looked down at her reports and made a few more notation. Privately she had no idea what Liara, Wrex and Garrus would decide to do, but she doubted that either male would travel to Earth for their month long vacation. But all three had sworn their loyalty to Shepard and had already made it clear that once the Normandy was back in action, they would most definitely remain a part of her crew.
"Very well Commander. I'll see to it that the announcement is made for all personnel. Here are those reports you requested by the way, and Adams was wondering if you had any idea what kind of repairs or upgrades they were planning for the Normandy? I believe he has a few suggestions to make."
Shepard smirked. "I'll just bet he does. I haven't been told much about the repairs yet, but will be receiving a full inventory of them by tomorrow so I have time to review them all. I have to sign off on them before they can begin work, so tell Adams not to plan to hit dirt side as soon as we make orbit. I'll be consulting him on the repair schedule before I approve anything. Also, have him draw up his wish-list and tell him we can go over it once we get underway. We'll have a week to discuss what is feasible or not, and work on the most important ones."
"I'm sure he'll be delighted to hear that Commander. So when is your parole?" Pressley smirked.
"Tomorrow," Shepard answered wryly. "I was lucky she only confined me to quarters."
"Dr. Chakwas can certainly play hardball with the best of them. So was it worth it?"
"To see Al-Jelani's face after Wrex shoved his shotgun in her mouth and offered her a free lobotomy? Oh hell yeah."
"Good to hear you finally got a chance to cut loose a bit then Commander. Was a little worried you might not know how to have fun."
"Me? I'm the trouble-making renegade here. What about you Pressley? I get the impression you're one of those officers that starches his entire uniform - including your skivvies," she smirked back at him.
His eyebrow lifted. "I've got a good ten years more than you in the Fleet, Commander. I could probably out drink you on even my worst day. I just don't make it a habit to pick fights in public."
Shepard laughed. "Pressley, I might just be forced to take you up on that bet one day…just not until AFTER we get back from leave, lest Chakwas kills both of us. And I didn't pick that fight….Wrex did."
"Guarding you," Pressley smirked. "Alright Commander, I had better head back upstairs and make sure Joker isn't trying to hack into the port comm system again. We really need to find that kid something to keep him occupied while we are in dry dock. He's too damn smart and too bored while in port to stay out of trouble for long."
Shepard chuckled. "Alright, I'll have a talk with him. You had better get out of here before Chakwas grounds you too. Thanks for the update Pressley, and I'll see you tomorrow after my PT."
"Good night Commander."

"Son of a bitch," Williams grunted as her leg dropped to the table with a thud and she went fetal due to the sudden pain that shot through her upper leg.
Shepard looked up from where Liara was helping her run through some mobility exercises for the day, to see Dr. Chakwas move swiftly to Ashley's side with a scanner in hand. "Easy there Chief," she murmured soothingly as she checked the readings and then put the scanner into her pocket. "It's just a cramp, remember your breathing," she coached even as she began to gently massage the muscles along Ashley's thigh.
"You okay over there Chief?"
"Peachy, Commander" Williams grunted out in between slow deep breathes.
"So what are your plans for leave Chief?" Shepard asked, knowing all to well the pain Williams was going through and hoping to help provide some distraction through conversation. It would certainly help take her mind off her own discomfort.
"Don't know yet. My family is going to be coming to Earth for our return but they can only stay for a week," Ash answered between forced deep breaths.
"Why only a week?"
"Finals and graduations," was the short response.
Shepard winced. Because of their injuries, both she and Ashley had already been told that they could not travel off Earth ,because they would have to report for regular physical therapy sessions with Medical while on leave if they were to be cleared for duty once the Normandy was repaired. For Shepard, the orders were only a minor inconvenience as she already had her R & R plans set. But she knew how much Ashley's family meant to her and knew how hard it must be for her to miss important events like this- especially since she was actually on leave when it was occurring.
"Sorry you're going to be out of commission Chief," Shepard said sincerely.
Ash just grunted back and focused on her breathing for a couple of minutes. "What about you Skipper?" she asked finally, after the tight band of muscles began to slowly relax thanks to the medication and Dr. Chakwas deft fingers.
"I put that insane amount of money I earned to very good use ad bought myself a little slice of paradise," Shepard answered, chuckling quietly.
"Oh?"
"By the time we'd hit Noveria, I was done freezing my ass off on some arctic ball of ice in space. That was the first time I'd looked at my personal account and realized just how ludicrously rich I was and put an inquiry into an old contact of mine that handles finances for people who can't or don't want to be bothered with their money. He sank half into real estate throughout the galaxy, including a nice little tiny tropical island in the South Pacific, all to myself."
Ash stared at her for a second and then burst out laughing. "Well, now I know what to do with my poker winnings."
"I hear you've been cleaning the boys out most nights."
"Enough that I've got more than double what I started with. Funny though, you never struck me as the extravagant type Skipper."
"I'm not really. My requests for a residences were pretty specific. I wanted them simple, with just enough modern conveniences to make it comfortable. Privacy was a must, and the weather beautiful year round. Didn't really think I would live long enough to enjoy any of it, but I'm glad I looked into when I did."
"Sippin' Mai Tai's on your own private beach. Sounds pretty damn good to me," Ashley grinned.
"You want in? I haven't seen the property yet, but I'm told there's plenty of room for guests. don't know what you had planned with your family, but there's more than enough room for them to enjoy it too if you guys want."
"Really?" Ashley asked her gaze sliding to Liara who was focusing very hard on Shepard's arm and not looking at anyone. But even with her face and body half turned, Williams could see the sudden tension in her thin frame. "I mean, I wouldn't want to intrude or anything. And you don't even know my family."
"Intrude? It was just gonna be me sitting on that beach and that's no fun at all. I had already planned on seeing if you and Liara wanted to stay for at least a little bit of your leave. And I've survived you all these months, I think I can handle your family for a week. Hell Doc, you're more than welcome to crash there too if you want."
Chakwas smiled warmly at Shepard. "I thank you for the offer Commander, but I already have plans for most of my leave. Depending how long repairs take though, I might have a few days free at the end of our leave. Perhaps I'll call you if I find myself bored and in need of a Mai Tai."
"Plans already? That was pretty fast," Shepard remarked.
"A good portion of the Fleet is returning home for repairs and extended leaves. I have a dear friend who is also scheduled for leave on the same rotation as us and we decided to use that time to…catch up," she responded with a slight lift of her lips.
Both Shepard and Williams grinned. "I see. Well you two have fun with all that catching up there Doc…and feel free to visit whenever. Your friend can come too," Shepard smirked.
"That's very generous Shepard. Thank you."
"Least I can do for the miracle worker that saved my arm and puts up with my cheery disposition every day. Liara? You in?"
Liara looked up and glanced between Shepard and Ashley, trying to discern if she was truly welcome. "You would not mind me staying with you during your leave?"
Shepard tried not to wince at herself when her 'of course not' came out a little more eagerly than she had intended.
"I have never visited Earth before," Liara answered, some of her youthful excitement showing through finally. "I am told you have an amazing variety of climates and life forms."
"That we do. The mega-cities aren't exactly the nicest of tourist attractions, but outside of them, we have some pretty incredible natural preserves full of life and beauty. Can only imagine what wonders lay in store for us to explore on my island."
"I still can't believe you bought a whole damn island," Ashley chuckled as Chakwas began to run her leg through a series of gentle stretches to help loosen the muscles back up.
"Me neither," Shepard admitted. "I'm just hoping that it lives up to what my investor billed it as. I am very much looking forward to lounging around doing nothing for a little while without someone trying to blow my damn head off."
"Amen to that Skipper."

For the first time in three weeks, Commander Shepard was allowed back on duty, albeit extremely light duty. Dr. Chakwas had agreed to allow Shepard back into her uniform so she could oversee their departure from the Citadel. Since they had been officially taken off the active duty roster, there wasn't really much more to do after they hit the relay that would jump them into their own system. After that, it would be a brief one week flight from the relay point to Earth, most of which would be spent pouring over the reports on Normandy's upcoming repair and upgrade. Adams was already chomping at the bit, eager to go over the schedule and add his own input of things he thought should take precedence.
Roughly an hour before their scheduled departure, Shepard stepped off the elevator and carefully made her way through those of the crew that were moving back and forth as they began final preparations for the ship's departure. Her healing arm was cradled protectively in a padded sling, and despite their hurry, everyone made a concerted effort to avoid bumping into her. Shepard stepped up behind Joker and looked out through the front viewports at the still devastated dock. The Admiral hadn't been kidding when he said that it would take months if not years for the Citadel to recover fully from the attack.
"Status report, Joker," she requested.
"Flight plan has been approved and logged into the computer Commander. Engines are spun up, and all departments are going through their final checklists. We should be clear for departure within the next hour."
"Excellent. Give me a ship-wide comm." Joker punched a button and then looked up at Shepard and nodded. "Attention everyone, this is Commander Shepard. The Normandy will be departing within the hour for Earth. This is the last call for those who are planning to depart. Docking doors will be closed and sealed in one half hour."
Joker flipped off the comm and looked back up at Shepard. "Good to have you back, Commander."
"Good to be back, Joker. I'm going to say goodbye to Wrex and Garrus and then check in with Control. See you in an hour."
"See ya."
Shepard headed towards the port door where Wrex and Garrus were waiting. "So, are you both still planning on rejoining us when the Normandy is back in shape?"
"Wouldn't miss it Shepard," Garrus told her with a smirk.
"Got nothing better planned, and you have dredged up the best fights so far Shepard. So count me in," Wrex added.
She chuckled and grinned at both of them. "Well thank you both. After two months of doing very little, I'm sure I'll be itching to pick some good fights once the ship and crew are all back together."
"Take care of that arm Shepard. Won't do you any good to start fights if you can't lift your weapon," Garrus advised.
"That's what I have Wrex for," she smirked back at them as she winked at the Krogan who laughed. "Enjoy your vacation, and I'll see both of you on the flip side."
"Take good care of your women Shepard. Williams needs to relax a little…I'm sure you and T'Soni can figure a way to help her relieve some of that tension," Wrex shot back in parting, leaving a gaping Commander to sputter in his wake.
Garrus snickered and then with a final wave, followed the Battle Master out of the airlock and down the platform. Shepard finally snapped her mouth shut and then shook her head and snorted at her own embarrassment. Did everyone on this damn ship know?
An hour later she was standing behind Joker once more as they put in the call to Citadel Control. She nodded to Joker who flipped the comm system on for her once again. "Control this is the SSV Normandy requesting clearance for departure."
"Clearance for departure has been approved Normandy. Please remain on vector nine until you clear the outer arms." There was a brief pause and then, "Thank you for all you have done for us Commander Shepard. Safe journey to you and your crew."
"Thank you control. My pilot has vector nine set into the nav system. See you in a few weeks Control. Shepard out." She waited for Joker to kill the comm and then patted him on the shoulder gently. "Alright Lieutenant. Steady as she goes."
"Board is green Commander, port is cleared……staying on flight vector nine."
Shepard watched as they glided by the massive arms, finally getting a good look at the extensive damage to the entire station and shook her head. "Damn," she murmured under her breath.
"Hard to believe just one ship could do all that damage," Joker agreed quietly.
"And somewhere out there, an entire fleet of those things are just lying in wait," Shepard finished grimly.
They were both silent for a few more minutes and then the relay came into view as Joker's fingers danced along his control panel. "Approaching the relay….course laid in. Jumping in t-minus thirty seconds. You should take a seat Commander. Normandy may be jump capable, but she isn't quite herself right now- this may be a bit bumpier than normal."
Shepard slid into the co-pilot seat, trying not to grimace at the fact that this was once Alenko's seat. As Joker called down the last few seconds to jump, she managed to buckle herself in with her one good arm. They hit the relay on target, and the ship shuddered as they were flung through the galaxy at impossible speeds arriving at their destination within moments. The shaking stopped as quickly as it started and Shepard let her breath out slowly, relieved that the ship had held together and that she'd listened to Joker. There was no way she would have stayed on her feet in her condition.
"All systems are green, main engines online and engaging, drift…just under 2k," he said with a satisfied and smug expression. "She's good to head out Commander."
Shepard released the catches on the harness and got back to her feet. "Take us home Lieutenant."
"Aye aye, Commander. Home it is."

Chapter Seven: Home
Alexis Shepard, Commander and Spectre, had long ago lost count of how many dozens of planets she'd been to and the hundreds of colonies, cities, and space stations she'd seen throughout her career. The last time she'd even felt a sense of wonder for someplace she'd visited, was her first trip to the Citadel all those months ago. That had quickly worn off however. Not even Earth had ever held that much appeal for her. Perhaps it was because she'd spent most of her childhood fighting to survive in the overpopulated mega-cities that sprawled along the costal areas of most continents.
She may have been born on Earth, but it had never been home to her because home indicated a place where one felt safe and could relax. She'd never, ever, felt safe during her youth.. And anyone who grew up living on the streets would tell you that letting your guard down for even one second, could cost you your life.
As the Commander walked the silent bridge of the Normandy one last time before her repairs, Shepard realized she'd finally found someplace where she felt at home. She had a crew that not only respected her, but trusted her with their lives. She had a ship that had proved herself steady and true during the heat of the moment. And for the first time in….forever, she had friends. People that had loyally fought by her side, ready to die with her or for her if need be. People who brushed off her short moods and abrupt manner. People who accepted her for who she was and genuinely cared about her. Some more than others, she admitted with a rueful shake of her head.
So for the first time ever, she was actually looking forward to her return to Earth. Her contact Fren, had finally sent her a fully detailed file on her acquired property and Shepard had stared at it in wonder for over an hour. From the pictures alone, it was everything he'd promised it would be, and Shepard realized she finally had a place she could call home. When she'd shown it to Ashley and Liara, they'd practically drooled on her screen. Even the Doc, once she'd gotten wind of the news, had decided that she and her friend would stop by for a few nights stay after a couple of weeks.
In fact there was so much extra room, Shepard was even kicking around Ashley's idea of having a crew party held there a few of days before they all had to report for duty again. Shepard was all for getting a good drunk on and having a good time, but she wasn't much of a socialite, so she still had to think about that one. For now though, she was just looking forward to seeing her new home with her own eyes and enjoying some downtime with Ash and Liara.
She'd been feeling a building sense of trepidation the last few days…like someone who was swimming in waters deeper than they were comfortable with. She'd spent several near sleepless nights trying to navigate her way through the foreign emotional waters she'd found herself in, before deciding to do what she normally did- see how things played out and go with the flow at that point in time. She was quickly learning that matters of the heart were not that dissimilar to battle plans. Rarely did they go exactly as one planned, and there were always other factors in play that could blow even the best laid plans right out of the water. It was best to just be ready for anything that might get thrown your way and deal with the consequences later.
With that decision made, Shepard had one thing in mind- to thoroughly enjoy herself for once. In a month she would once again have the weight of the galaxy on her shoulders, as it appeared she would have to once more fight to prove that Reapers were still a real threat. For now, she just wanted to do something she'd never really had the chance to do: spend some quality time with people she cared about and enjoy the simple pleasures in life for a little while.
A smile on her lips, Shepard patted the pilot's chair. "They're gonna get you all fixed up girl. See you in a month," she whispered to her ship before she headed out the airlock and down the ramp. She stopped in front of the Dock Master who was still chatting with Chief Adams. Both men straightened and saluted her as she approached. "She's all yours Dock Master. Take good care of my girl."
"You bet ya Commander. We'll have the Normandy running better than ever by the end of the month. I'll be having my best crews working on her."
"Excellent." Shepard turned to Adams who had his own bag of personal effects at his feet. Liara and Ashley were already waiting at the shuttle transport with her own gear already stored. "You can reach me through the usual channel if you have any questions Chief."
"Unless it's an emergency, I don't plan on ruining anyone's vacation Commander…especially yours. Enjoy your leave Ma'am."
"You too Chief. See you in a month."
With a final look back at her ship, Shepard made her way towards her transport, her excitement growing a bit with each step.
Two hours later…
"Ho-ly shit," Williams breathed out as their shuttle circled above the island before setting down on the appointed landing pad. Shepard could only nod in agreement, and Liara just continued to stare in wide-eyed wonder. Even the pilot took a minute to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounded them before he realized that none of his passengers had moved yet.
"Nice place you have here Commander," he complimented as he unbuckled his safety harness and then stood to move to the rear of the cabin and open the hatch. A fresh topical breeze filled the cabin with it's clean scent and everyone inhaled deeply. "Very nice," the pilot murmured to himself before he turned back and started gathering their belongings.
Liara helped Ashley to her feet and Shepard handed over her crutches as they made their way off the shuttle and stared around in amazement. "Wow….I didn't think such places really existed. I mean Virmire was beautiful…but…" Ashley trailed off grimacing at the memory of everything that had happened on the resort planet.
Shepard nodded in understanding. Virmire had been a beautiful planet…not much unlike what they were surrounded by right now. But the beauty had forever been tainted in all their minds by the blood and sacrifice that had been given that day. This however, was the epitome of peace and serenity. It was an instant balm to their battle weary souls, and all three women felt as if a weight had started to lift from their shoulders.
Shepard stepped off the shuttle, her mood so lightened that she even allowed the polite young man to take her bag as she exited. She stepped aside as he moved to assist Ashley down, while Liara trailed after them, carrying the last of their baggage with her biotics. The pilot picked up the armful he'd already unloaded and trailed after them as they slowly made their way along the cultivated path up to the main house.
Shepard placed her hand on the palm plate and the door slid open to reveal the simple beauty within. Shepard stepped off to the side, unable to take her eyes off of everything, and gestured for the pilot to enter. "Just leave everything here, we can sort through it later."
"No problem Commander," he said, gently depositing the bags on the floor and looking around. "Wow. This is pretty amazing. Well, is there anything else you ladies need?"
"That will be all," she said finally breaking her stare and turning to look at the pilot. "Thank you for your assistance Mr. Baker," she said handing him a good sized credit chit for a tip.
His eyes widened. "Commander! This is too much ma'am!" he protested.
She smiled. "As you can see Mr. Baker, I am quite wealthy now and this may be the only time I get to splurge before I'm back out there getting shot at every five seconds. So please, enjoy it while I can still offer it."
"Thank you ma'am! Listen I only work part-time for the transport company but I do a little side-business on my own. If you need to go anywhere, you just call me up and I'll be out right away…no charge. And just so you know, I'm not some low-life looking to sell stories to the press or anything. I hope to get into my own private shuttling business full-time some day and I'm building a client base…and you can't do that by breaking someone's trust. So you don't have to worry about me making a quick dime by telling those camera jockies all about your private life.""
Shepard nodded. "Actually, we may have need of your services then. Chief Williams has family that will be arriving here in three days time and will need transport from Sydney Central. Perhaps we can retain your services either privately or request you if you are working that day?"
"I'll be working that day, but the Company does accommodate requests for specific pilots if they can. I know I have no bookings that day, so I'm sure they'll be happy to assign me as your pilot for the pickup."
"Good. We also have to report to Alliance Medical once a week for check-ups. Perhaps we can arrange for you to be our pilot then as well? And I appreciate your offer for your services free of charge, but I would expect you to charge the normal rate since we will be requiring your services at least three times this month."
"Just let me know Commander and I'll be happy to schedule you in."
"Thank you. Do you have a card or should I just contact you through the company?"
He reached into his flight suit and pulled out a card to hand over to her and she set it on the counter next to the comm panel. "Thank you again Mr. Baker. I'll be sure to call your company later today and request you as our chartered pilot for the pickup of Chief William's family ."
"It was a pleasure doing business with you Commander and I look forward to seeing you ladies again. Enjoy your leave….oh…and thanks for saving all our collective asses. I have family in the Alliance and they told me what went down out there. Thanks for sticking with it when the odds were so far against you."
Shepard nodded and he smiled charmingly at her before leaving. "Looks like you have a fan," Ashley snickered from behind after the young man had left.
"I think he's a fan of this place. I know I sure as hell am."
"Tell me about it. You have to refer me to your contact Shepard. This guy has amazing taste…and all I've seen is the living room and kitchen."
"Fren really pulled through this time. Come on, let's go see the rooms and then get out of these damn uniforms. I hear a beach and a drink or three calling out to me right now," Shepard said with a grin as she reached down with her good arm to lift her duffle when Liara's soft hand covered her own.
"Allow me Shepard," she said as she lifted the entire pile with relative ease and tilted her head to one side waiting for Shepard to lead on.
Shepard chuckled. "It's handy to have powerful biotics as your friends. Alright ladies, let's see what other wonders lie in store for us."
Later that evening, all three women rested on plush lounge chairs on the wooden deck that overlooked the ocean and watched as the sun set, painting the sky in beautiful hues of lavender, crimson and gold. They were all in various states of extreme casual wear, more relaxed than any of them could ever remember, and sipping on yet another recommended drink that was on the extensive list located on Shepard's food processing unit. "You know, I always thought real vacations were for sissy's," Shepard admitted with a grin.
"Didn't realize what you were missing out on huh Shepard?" Ashley smirked.
"Nope. This is truly awesome."
"Decided to retire early now?"
Shepard laughed. "Tempting as it might be Ash I know I'll be climbing the walls by the end of our leave. I like the action and the danger far too much. But I could definitely get into coming home to this every once in awhile." Shepard paused and then her expression softened even as her voice did. "I've never had anyplace to call home before."
That made both Liara and Ashley look over at her in surprise. "But, I thought you grew up on Earth," Liara said in confusion.
"I never talked about my childhood because it wasn't a happy one. I was an orphan who managed to get by living life on the streets in some slum area of the city. Then one day, I tried to pickpocket some Alliance Captain and got caught. I managed to break free and ran back to my gang's territory. But I was coming back empty-handed and that was a dangerous thing to do. Our Leader decided to have some of the older kids teach me a 'lesson' for failing to bring anything back. I was holding my own despite the fact that I hadn't eaten much in the last few days and was outnumbered six to one, but the fight was brutal and someone got a lucky shot with a pipe in. I went down and all I remember was feet and fists and then I saw the flash of a knife and figured I was dead. Never figured some upper class uniform would be crazy enough to follow me back into known gang territory. But there he was, and next thing I knew he was fighting off half a dozen drunks, theives and junkies with his bare hands. He put them all down so fast it was almost unfair. Then he took me back to Medical, ordered them to patch me up and offered me a chance at a new life. Apparently he thought I was tough enough to make it through boot and he was impressed that I was ballsy enough to try and lift something from him," she said with a chuckle.
Ashley grinned at that and even Liara's lips lifted slightly before Shepard continued. "After that I've just gone from one assignment to the next. You know how it is Ash….they never keep us in one place for long and even though a couple of my assignments were in nice locations, they had put me on the fast track for Command and the pace has always been brutal. Never had time…or need to find someplace that I could call mine and I've never really looked back. Until now."
"There is a certain peace about this place that calms the soul," Liara commented quietly after a few minutes.
"Takes all the hurt and just…makes it disappear," Ashley agreed quietly.
"No decisions to make, no lives at stake," Shepard whispered as the sun flashed briefly and then completely disappeared beneath the horizon.
They sat and in comfortable silence for another hour before Ashley finally sat up. "I know it's early, but there is just something about this place," she said with a wry grin. "I'm gonna go enjoy that oversized bed and get more than a few hours of sleep for once. Have a good evening ladies."
"That sounds like a really good idea actually," Shepard said as she too got to her feet. "Liara if you aren't tired yet, you can make yourself at home and do whatever. That entertainment center looks like it's as fully stocked as everything else here."
"Actually, I am not as accustomed to indulging in alcohol as the both of you and am feeling a bit weary myself. I think I will retire for the night as well."
"Ok then, night and sleep well."
"You as well Shepard." Liara returned and then nodded to Williams. "Pleasant dreams Ashley."
"You too Liara. Night everyone."
Chapter 8: Cross-Examination
Three days later Ashley Williams was relaxing in the oversized chair in her youngest sister's room as Sarah Williams bounced back and forth from her suitcase to her closet, listening to the non-stop commentary with a fond smile. "….and so then I dumped his sorry ass. Been free and single ever since," she declared proudly as she finished putting away the last of her clothes and then flopped on the bed and grinned at her sister.
"Sounds like not a moment too soon eh?" Ashley chuckled. Her sister went through boyfriends like most people changed clothes. It had always been a challenge for Ash to keep up with who she was dating. To hear that her sister was going on a whole month without a boyfriend was almost shocking.
"Tell me about it! Who knew I would be meeting a successful and handsome young pilot?" Sarah giggled.
Ashley shook her head grinning. "You, my baby sister, are incorrigible. You were in that shuttle all of two seconds before you started flirting with him."
"Please," her sister sniffed. "You apparently missed me flashing him my most charming smile as soon as he approached us. He was putty in my hands before we even got inside," she said without an ounce of shame.
Ashley couldn't help it. She laughed long and hard, her sister joining in after a few seconds. When the brunette had finally recovered enough to talk she wiped the tears from her eyes. "Oh man….it's so good to see all of you again. I miss this."
Sarah sobered a little at that. "We miss you too Ash. Mom….when word came in about the battle and that the Normandy was in the thick of it all," Sarah's voice trailed off for a moment as she looked down at her bed sheets. "When the vids started coming in, we recognized you Ash. I was so proud and so scared as I watched the different security feeds that showed you guys fighting all those Geth. But then everything cut off after you all went in after Saren and we only saw the devastation after that ship crashed through the station-" Her voice caught and Sarah sniffed a bit. "Mom didn't handle it well. You've given so much for us Ash. Ever since dad died, you've sacrificed everything to make sure we were taken care of. And just like that, we all thought you were dead, and you'd never had anything for yourself," Sarah whispered as she looked up, her eyes watery.
Ashley pushed herself to her feet and limped the short distance to the bed and sat back down next to her little sister and drew her into as firm an embrace as her healing ribs could manage. "Hey, shhhhhh," she soothed. "It's okay Sarah. I'm sorry it took so long for them to tell you I was going to be okay."
"Are you?" Sarah asked, pulling back and looking her sister dead in the eye.
Ash found herself hesitating before she answered, knowing that much like their mother, her sister had a gift for sensing the deeper heart of personal matters. She looked away and thought about her response for a minute before looking back at Sarah and nodding. "I will. This last mission was hard…harder than anything any of us have ever been through- even the Skipper. It took its toll on all of us….emotionally and physically. But we'll get through this, like we have everything else."
"Ash, you have worked so hard for everyone else. When are you going to take some time for yourself?"
"I'm doing that right now Sarah. For the first time since my commission, I finally have an entire month to just…relax."
"With your Commanding Officer?" Sarah asked with a skeptical look as she gave a very dramatic huff and rolled her eyes.
Ash immediately stiffened. "She's not just another C.O., Sarah. Alex and I have watched each other's back for months now and been through dozens of firefights together. She gave me a chance when no one else would and saw me for who I am. I trust her with my life and she trusts me just as much with hers. She's an amazing woman Sarah, and she's my friend…..I would follow her into Hell if she asked."
Sarah sat back and smirked at her big sister and Ashley suddenly realized she'd just walked right into something. "And the good Dr. T'Soni?"
"Sarah," Ashley began, a warning tone in her voice.
"Oh please," her sister said, rolling her eyes once more. "You must think we are all deaf, blind and dumb sometimes Ash. You're first letters to us were all about how much your new C.O. aggravated you and you couldn't believe she was working with all these aliens. In less than a month you start telling us all about how crazy Shepard is, but how much you are starting to admire her. Next thing we know you're telling us all about your new alien buddies- which it's about time you lightened up on your trust issues by the way- and how amazing, and brave Shepard is. So of course we start following all the vid bits on her and realized she is SO your type big sis. What really threw us though was all the chatter about those other two….Liara and Tali. Then you finally get sprung for some well earned leave and who do you spend it with?"
"Look, we're just friends-,"
"Uh huh," Sarah interrupted with a look that said she totally didn't believe her sister. "Ash, seriously. Don't even try and bullshit me. What's going on with you four…and why isn't Tali here? I was kinda excited about getting to meet a Quarian finally and then I find out last minute she's not gonna be here?"
Ashley exhaled, relieved she could buy herself a little time by explaining Tali's need to return home. Two minutes later her sister was looking at her expectantly, and Ash knew she would have to give her sister at least a little something or there would be embarrassing consequences if she didn't. "It's…complicated."
Another 'look' from her sister indicated that was clearly not anywhere near enough of an explanation. "Sarah, it's hard to explain," she sighed.
"Look, it's obvious you're really into Shepard. What about the other two?"
Ashley hesitated and then nodded, slowly. "I care about them too. In different ways maybe, but they both came to mean a lot to me during the mission….and afterwards. But now Tali is gone, and none of us know if we'll ever see her again and it…hurts," she admitted quietly.
Sarah squeezed her hand. "So, you still have Shepard and Liara, you guys are on vacation here in paradise….what's stopping you from having a little bit of the fun and happiness that almost everyone else in this galaxy gets to enjoy?"
"Sarah, it's not that we haven't acknowledged it…well at least Shepard and I have talked about it. But we could both loose our commissions over something like this. It's not a decision that can be made lightly sis. And I still don't know how Liara feels about things."
"Then perhaps once we all leave, you three should have a nice little sit down, clear the air, and then fuck like bunnies until your leave is over and just not tell anyone about it," Sarah said matter-of-factly.
Ashley felt her face flush bright red even as her eyes tried to pop out of her skull. "Dear god Sarah!" she gasped halfway between shock and laughter. "Do you have no shame at all?"
Sarah seemed to think about that seriously for a few moments and then grinned rakishly at her sister. "Nope!" she answered cheerfully. "Seriously sis. I can get it if a serious relationship is out of the question because of your stupid regulations or whatever. And yeah, I read that little letter of yours about 'fraternizing' with your fellow soldiers being a no-no, but it took me all of about ten seconds to read the vibe between you three. It's almost as if you're walking on eggshells around each other…not quite sure what to say or do. And Shepard looks like she hasn't slept in days in fact."
"They aren't stupid regs, and if you had been through what she's been through you'd be waking up almost every night screaming from nightmares too."
Sarah's eyes widened. "Are you serious?"
Ash nodded, a pained look in her eyes. "I was going to discreetly tell all of you later anyway, but since it was brought up now, you might as well know the whole story. I can't tell you everything, but Shepard has been through a lot in the last couple of years. Enough to break most people. She's toughed it out, but it's all been catching up with her since we woke up after the Citadel Battle. When we were first on Eden Prime, there was a Prothean message beacon and Alenko triggered it by accident. Shepard shoved him out of the way and then was caught up in it's transmission. It imprinted a warning message about the Reapers into her mind and from what I can understand the images were horrific. It took awhile for her to understand what she was seeing, and the more she understands the worse the message becomes. Couple that with everything we've been through this past year and well…..it doesn't make for good dreams. So don't be surprised if you hear her shout out in the middle of the night."
"Oh…wow," Sarah breathed. Then her brow furrowed. "This message, you say it becomes worse- like she still hasn't…translated it all."
"She hasn't. The message was badly damaged and the human mind was never really meant to absorb something like that to begin with. Anyway, please don't bring it up around her and let the others know."
"Alright. I won't push," Sarah sighed. "But sis promise me you'll think about one thing."
"What?"
"Ash, you nearly died out there and more than once from the sound of things. I get that this is the life you have chosen for yourself and I respect you for it. But sis, if you don't stop to enjoy a few of the simple pleasures in life every now and then, then what's to stop you from forgetting what you are fighting for when things get bad? Life's too short Ash - take what little enjoyment you can allow yourself when the opportunity presents itself. Please," her sister all but begged of her.
Ashley looked down at their clasped hands and sighed. "I'll try kiddo, but sometimes it's not just in my hands alone. I promise I will try though."
Sarah leaned into her and hugged her tightly once more, and Ashley felt her smile against her shoulder. "Good. Now….tell me how in the hell Shepard scored such an awesome place like this. You know how Lynn and Abby are, we'll be lucky if they make it back before dark."
Ashley chuckled. "And poor Liara has been stuck around here the whole time helping Shepard and I keep up with our rehab so she hasn't been able to do much exploring either. I have been watching the scientist in her just begging to be let out and discover! I'm glad that she'll have some good company with her while she explores a bit this week."
"Are you kidding? I thought I was excited to be able to really meet a few aliens, but they were practically drooling at the chance to spend some time with someone from another race. You should probably warn Liara, cause Abby was focusing her anthropology thesis around how several different races evolved culturally compared to humans. She had yet to interview any Asari as very few travel to our system."
Ash grinned. "Well I think the interviewing will be going both ways. Liara has spent the last fifty years digging around in Prothean ruins and hadn't had much contact with people. After Shepard started dragging her around though, I think she began to see what she'd been missing out on. She is fascinated by the variety of cultures and races and sometimes you can barely answer one of her questions before she asks another."
"Fifty years? How old is she anyway?"
"A little over a century. She's barely in what they call their Maiden stage."
"Barely legal eh?" Sarah smirked.
"God you have a one track mind!" Ashley laughed as she shoved her sister away and stood. "Come on, I don't want to leave Shepard alone too long with mom because she's almost as bad as you. God knows what damage she's already done."
Sarah smirked. "I'm sure she's only given the 'if you hurt my daughter's feelings I'll hunt you down and make you pay' speech once."
Ashley grimaced and began limping with purpose towards the door. "Great," she muttered.
"Hey you want these?" Sarah asked holding up the crutches.
"Go ahead and bring them, but I've been working on getting around on my own power for short distances. Doc says the bone's healed perfectly and now I just need to start exercising the muscles and ligaments. Hopefully, I'll be rid of this limp by next week."
Sarah walked past her in the hallway, and then looked back at her sister with a wicked grin. "I could give you pointers on a few fun exercises that would definitely help with that," she offered.
Ashley's eyes narrowed and then she gave her sister an almost feral grin back. "And I could tell your new little flyboy about that time you tried to spike the punch at Prom last year."
Sarah's eyes widened. "You wouldn't!" Her sister just smirked and Sarah finally backed off with a laugh. "Of course you would. Alright, alright, I'll stop teasing you…..for now." And then she skipped out of reach as Ash leaned over to swat her ass.

"Can I get you anything to drink Ms. Williams?" Shepard asked as she watched Ashley follow her youngest sister into her room to chat while she unpacked. Abby and Lynn had already dumped their belongings in another of the rooms and all but dragged an equally excited Liara off to explore the island a bit. Which left her alone with Ashley's mother….a formidable looking woman who smiled easily, but whose gaze could pierce right through you.
Shepard, who had faced down hordes of Geth, a disbelieving Council, and Sovereign itself, had actually wanted to squirm a bit under the measuring look she'd been given by the Williams matriarch. She realized right away she was definitely going to need a drink to get through this conversation. Especially since throughout all the small-talk they'd had, the older woman had yet to indicate that Shepard could call her something less formal.
"A drink would be lovely Commander. Do you have any brandy?"
"Several according to the computer. Anything in particular?"
"Crystal Shores if it's listed, otherwise any will probably do."
Shepard ordered the requested brandy for her guest and a double scotch on the rocks for herself. She managed to keep a grip on her glass with her healing hand, and passed Ms. Williams the snifter holding her drink before she gestured to the lounge chair out on the deck.
They settled in and both took a moment to sip from their drinks and enjoy the view. "This is a beautiful home you have here Commander."
"I was telling Ash and Liara that it's the first place that I could ever call home. I don't make that much with the Alliance, and the Spectre pay wasn't a tremendous increase in pay like one would think. But throughout our travels we were asked to do a lot of small side mission for third parties that paid well. Plus our travels brought us across a lot of spare gear and parts that we could sell for credit. It was some months before I even realized just how much I had accumulated and damn near fell over in shock. Contacted an old acquaintance of mine who is good with handling finances and he bought this place a couple of months ago."
"Your investor has good tastes."
"That he does. Ash wants his number so she can have him start investing her share of the pay."
"You were most generous in your sharing of the wealth with your crew from what I hear."
"I may be a hard-ass Commander, but each and every one of my crew earned that kind of reward. Your daughter was with me on almost every mission and if it weren't for Ash I probably wouldn't be alive today," Shepard admitted quietly.
"It's ironic though isn't it?"
"What ma'am?"
Ms. Williams took a sip of her brandy, savored it, and then turned her hawk like gaze on Shepard. "That you didn't want my daughter on your ship in the beginning."
Shepard fought down the urge to cringe. "It wasn't for the reasons you think Ms Williams."
"Really? Then please elucidate for me why you wanted to leave her back on Eden Prime, Commander?"
Why indeed? Not even Ashley had ever asked that question and it had been one that Shepard was not comfortable answering. Her emotions were still too raw, and this would be revealing a bit of the deep hurt that she'd been attempting to bury for months now. She took a healthy swig of her drink and looked away. "Because I could tell Ash was a good soldier…and I was tired of sending good Marines to their deaths. She'd just lost her entire unit on Eden Prime, and I knew we were about to get tossed into something huge. I didn't know if she could be focused enough to not wind up dead…like everyone else around me seemed to be," Shepard answered with a far off and haunted look.
The older woman tilted her head, studying Shepard and then nodded in understanding. "Torfan," she said perceptively.
Shepard took another healthy swallow and then nodded. "There's no amount of training that can prepare you to give the order that you know will send your men and women to their deaths. We stopped those fucking slavers, but to me the mission was a failure. I expected a court marshal for my actions on that planet, and instead they wanted to make me a damned Spectre. Eden Prime was my first mission after Torfan, and what happens shortly after I hit ground-side? Another kid under my command gets blown to bits before he can even get a shot off," Shepard answered bitterly.
Ashley's mother was silent for a bit, taking in all that the young Commander had revealed. She sipped her brandy in quiet contemplation for several moments before speaking again. This time her tone had lost it's hard edge from before. "Ashley says you never held her heritage against her."
Shepard's steady gaze finally met hers. "If it weren't for the timely intervention of an Alliance Officer, I would have been dead or locked up and doing hard time long ago. I was given a chance to leave that life behind and I never looked back. I am the last person to give a fuck what someone was before they became a Marine. But it has always been very difficult for me to rely on anyone else, because I grew up trusting no one but myself. Like I said though, it didn't take me long to realize just how good your daughter was. When I found out why she was being held back it infuriated me, because she's one of the best Marines I've ever had the privilege of working with. She's the first person in a very long time, that I trust my life with."
"My daughter would die for you Commander Shepard…she very nearly did." It wasn't said with anger or resentment. But there was a grave seriousness to the elder woman's tone.
Shepard's gaze never wavered. "So would I, and I nearly died trying to protect her as well."
There was another measuring look, but this time there was finally approval in those aged eyes. "Thank you for bringing my daughter back alive Commander."
Shepard nodded and they went back to watching the ocean for awhile, each lost in their own thoughts. "So tell me Commander. What do you plan on doing next?"
"Enjoying my time here with your daughter and Liara before we have to go back out there and protect the galaxy from the next threat that is sure to rear it's ugly head."
"Ah yes. The good Dr. T'Soni. She's a lovely young woman. Absolutely charming and quite adorable. I can certainly see how she managed to break through Ashley's somewhat xenophobic tendencies. I didn't blame Ashley for her feelings, but I had hoped that one day, she'd be able to let go some of the bitterness that her father had instilled in her at a young age. She seems quite enamored with your Asari friend."
Shepard shifted, realizing they were straying into dangerous territory and opted for a neutral shrug as she sipped the last of her drink. Damn, she was empty already. "Ash and I are both Marines and while firepower is great to have, it's always nice to have someone with some great tech or biotic powers to help back us up. Liara was with us on quite a few missions, and both Ash and I gained a lot of respect for Dr. T'Soni after she faced off against her own mother with us."
"I heard about that. That must have been terrible for the poor dear. How is she coping with that?"
"More gracefully than anyone else I know would. She grieves in her own quiet way, but I know that there is a sense of relief for her that she was able to know in those last final moments that it wasn't really her mother that had done all those terrible things. She'd been able to say goodbye- something that had almost been lost to her. I think she has found a sense of purpose in helping Ashley and I through our recovery."
"I see. So do you plan on retaining my daughter as part of your crew Commander?"
Shepard was beginning to have sympathy for anyone who ever had this misfortune of finding themselves on a courtroom witness stand. She also needed another drink. She opted to try and steer things into a less formal conversation for now. "It's really okay to call me either Shepard or Alex, Ms. Williams. I've just managed to break Ash from calling me Commander while we are on Leave."
"Only if you drop the Ma'am business and call me Ruth," the older woman returned, finally cracking a smile.
Shepard felt herself relax and smiled back. Apparently she'd passed some sort of test it seemed. "And yes, I plan to keep Ash as part of my crew as she has expressed a desire to remain aboard. I know as her mother, that's probably not what you want to hear given how dangerous our assignments have been-,"
"But Ashley wouldn't have it any other way," Ruth chuckled quietly. "That girl lives for danger, and she has wanted nothing more than to be an Operational Marine since she was a little. She may be on the frontlines now, but at least I know she now has someone who cares enough about her that they'll watch her back. That's all a mother can ask." That last bit was said with a pointed look at Shepard.
Shepard nodded in silent understanding and then pushed herself to her feet. "Refill?"
"Why the hell not?" Ruth grinned as she held up her glass.
Shepard made her way inside and let out a sigh of relief as soon as she was out of sight of the older woman. She walked up to the food processor and chuckled quietly to herself as she realized just how tense she'd been during their entire conversation. "And the defense rests it case," she muttered to herself wryly as she picked up her second drink, downed it and then pushed for a third.

"So Liara…is it okay if we call you that? Or do you prefer Dr. T'Soni?" Lynn asked as they all walked briskly through a fairly overgrown footpath that ran along the coast.
"Liara is just fine. I only use the title in more formal settings."
"I can't believe you have been here for three whole days already and you haven't done much more than swim a bit in the ocean!"
"As you can see, your sister and the Commander are still healing from their extensive injuries. Both of them require a daily regiment of exercise and physical therapy. This process takes roughly four hours each day, and it leaves them both somewhat tired and not as steady for a little while afterwards. I am not comfortable leaving their proximity just yet."
"So you're in charge of their therapy?" Abby asked as the path turned inland and the vegetation began denser.
"They are both adept in running through the stretches and exercises themselves right now, but Dr. Chakwas has entrusted me with supervising their care and assisting where needed. Thankfully their recovery is proceeding well and they require my assistance less each day. I do not mind being there to help them, but they are both strong willed and independent individuals, and I know it has been difficult for them to have to rely on others so much this past month."
"I can just bet. I remember when Ash was in High School, she took a bad hit in a Rugby game. Broke her arm in two place and three ribs. Mom went through hell trying to get her to ease up a bit so it would all heal right. Can't believe she's being so compliant for you."
"Dr. Chakwas has provided a sufficient amount of threats to deter both her and Shepard from straying from her strict schedule for both of them. As it was, they both broke their…parole so to speak, early on and found themselves both confined to quarters for an extra period of time. I admit I was a bit concerned that they would try to push me to allow them to stray from their approved activities, but this island has had a calming effect on both of them thankfully. They appear only to be concerned with catching up on some much needed rest and relaxation."
"Yeah, but what about you?"
"I have enjoyed the time spent in their company a great deal and do not find keeping an eye on them to be a burden of any kind."
"But you're happy to have the chance to explore now," Lynn grinned knowingly.
Liara blushed slightly and nodded. "I am. Ashley has told me much about her family and I have been looking forward to meeting all of you. And I will admit that my…scientific nature has been growing more and more curious about the wonders this island will hold for us. I understand both of you have been studying courses in scientific areas as well?"
"I've been majoring in interspecies sociology and anthropology," Abby confirmed. "The Asari race in particular has always fascinated me. Maybe when we're just relaxing one day, you wouldn't mind answering a few questions about your race? I'm a firm believer in getting everything straight from the source."
"A wise practice, as there are many things that are misunderstood in every culture by others because of misinformation and assumptions. And I would be happy to answer any questions you may have, if I might ask the same in return."
"Sure. But I can't believe Ash and the Commander haven't answered everything you'd want to know about us already."
"They know a great deal about you're people's history, but they are both soldiers and there are certain aspects of your culture that they simply have not experienced for themselves and therefore cannot answer."
"Really? What kinds of things would that be?"
"The Commander has had no family to speak of for as long as she can remember, and Ashley's life has been devoted to attaining her goal of becoming a soldier. While your sister was able to clarify some of my questions regarding familial structures, neither she nor Shepard could answer anything about personal relationships as they have had either little or no experience in the matter."
This caused both of the sisters to laugh. "You got that right. Not that she didn't have a whole slew of boys and girls trying," Abby told Liara with a grin. "God bless Ash, because she's the reason I'm getting my Master's next month. But we worry about her sometimes. It's not healthy going that long without getting laid."
Liara had heard the term before, but it took her a moment to recall it's meaning and when she did, she finally blushed. "Ah, you mean to have intimate relations with someone."
"Yeah. I mean it's had to have been a good six years since she was involved with anyone. Anyway, we just would like to see her happy with someone for a little while. Loosen her up a bit."
Liara desperately needed to change subject so she looked at Lynn. "I hear you will be graduating next year with a degree in navigation and planetary survey."
"I am. Ash keeps trying to get me to sign up with the Alliance, because with a degree there's no way they can turn me down for Officer Candidate School…especially now that they lost so many at the Citadel Battle," Lynn added a bit somberly. But then she shook her head. "But I'm still not sure if the military will be a good fit for me. And I'm a little bitter with them for their prejudice against our family. Ash is a damn good soldier and they've done nothing but shit on her career just because of our family name. How she's put up with them for so long is beyond me," Lynn said with a vehemence.
"Ease up there kiddo," Abby chuckled quietly.
Lynn let out a long breathe, forcing herself to relax and then smiled ruefully in apology. "Sorry about that. It just gets me so worked up that she's worked so hard to try and restore honor to our family name and provide for us, and they keep shutting her down."
"I once queried why a soldier of her caliber had never been stationed with a ship before and she explained your family's history to me and the difficulties it had presented to both your father and herself. I understand your anger, and you may be placated in knowing that Commander Shepard was equally angered when she found out why Ashley had been held back for so long." Liara's lips turned upwards a somewhat wicked smile. "Shortly before we traveled to Ilos, we were all sharing a meal after yet another skirmish with the Geth. Ashley had performed exceptionally on that particular mission, and Shepard promised her there in front of half the crew that she would be sure to see to it that Ashley got a promotion if we all lived through the mission."
"Yeah but several of her C.O.'s have promised the same thing only to have their requests denied."
"Perhaps, but Ashley is a Hero of the Citadel Battle now. There are hundreds of security feeds that have been flooding the extranet with videos of her actions during the final stand against Saren. If your military leaders were to withhold honoring her for such bravery, your people would protest vehemently at the injustice."
"Huh…you've got a point there. Well, still, I'm not sure if I really want to be a part of the fleet…especially not when we are potentially gearing up for war. Right now, I just want to find a spot on a research ship and put my skills to non-lethal uses."
"A worthy endeavor. There have been many days when I miss the simplicity of my own work. But my journeys with the Commander have led to some incredible discoveries in regards to the Prothean cultures and have helped me to hone my biotic abilities better- both of which I will benefit from in the future. It has also allowed me to study a wide variety of races and cultures up close and in depth while aboard the Normandy."
"How was it working with such a diverse crew? I mean we got the letters from Ash, who was a little wary of everyone at first. I was so jealous of her though!," Abby laughed. "I told her she needed to lighten up and just observe. Not every alien was a bad guys, just like not every human is a self-righteous asshole. Was glad to hear after a few weeks that she was starting to come around."
"In Ashley's defense, it was difficult for everyone in the beginning. The human crew were always on edge and most of them didn't trust us. Shepard brought us aboard, but even she took some time to trust us completely. I had never had any dealings with humans before and Tali had only a little more experience than I did. Wrex was your typical Krogan male, and his presence frightened a good number of the crew for several weeks. I steered clear of him for almost two months myself," she admitted with a shy grin.
"Heard Ash nearly came to blows with the Turian….Garrus was his name?"
Liara nodded. "I heard about that incident. It was early on, before I was rescued actually. Ashley made her distrust of the aliens well known, and Garrus took her to task for it. The argument escalated and Wrex and Tali joined in, but Ashley did not back down. The Commander had to intervene, and as her solution to the problem, she made your sister bunk down in the Mako bay with Garrus, Wrex, and Tali for an entire month."
"No way!" Lynn laughed.
"Ash forgot to tell us about THAT little bit of information!" Abby added, also laughing hard.
Even Liara found herself chuckling. "Shepard apparently told them that they would 'get along, or they could fight it out and then she'd space the lot of them.' That was when Wrex laughed and cuffed Ashley on the shoulder and said he thought she was pretty brave for a scrawny human. Then he walked back to his normal corner and Ashley backed down finally. From that point on the tension between the three died down, and by the time I had arrived, they were managing to work civilly with each other. I believe the Commander found it amusing that even after the month was up, Ashley continued to bunk in the Mako bay. By the end of the mission, we had all become good friends and we regretted that Tali had to return home."
"Tali….she was the Quarian right?" Abbey asked.
"She was."
"You have to tell me all about her. There is so little in the databases about them, and half of it seems to contradict the other half," Abbey asked enthusiastically.
Liara smiled, understanding completely Abby's enthusiasm. She opened her mouth to tell the younger woman all about her dear friend when the path widened unexpectedly and they were treated with a breath taking sight. "Goddess!" she gasped and the other two women pulled up next to her, equally awed by what they were seeing.
They were standing in a small clearing of knee high grass. The tree surrounding them, towered several stories high and were active with various forms of birds and even a few small primates could be seen leaping from branch to branch calling out to each other. Several ground creatures roamed or scurried about and two small deer looked up from where they were drinking at the freshwater pool in front of the trio. A small rock ledge ran along the far side of the pool, raising no more than ten feet above the surface of the water, and a small waterfall spilled over the top.
"Oh my god," Lynn whispered. "This…this is incredible!"
Abby silently moved forward, noting that the pool was shallow across most of it's expanse, but deepened sharply under the waterfall, which showed indications of being much larger at times- most likely after a rainstorm. The deer sniffed the air and then with a snort, took off into the underbrush. Abby reached the edge of the pool, and leaned down to feel the water. It was warmed by the climate and sun, but still just cool enough to be refreshing after a hike. She spun with a huge grin on her face.
"It's perfect!" she called out before spinning back around and stripping down to her underwear and running in.
Liara blinked in surprise and then looked over at Lynn who was chuckling at her older sister's antics. She looked back at Liara and shrugged with a grin that matched her sister's and a playful glint in her eyes. "No one ever said the Williams' sisters were shy," she laughed before she stripped off her own shoes, shorts and shirt and followed her sister into the inviting water.
Liara stood on the shore and watched the two siblings splash into the water, scaring off any wildlife that might have remained nearby despite their arrival. "Come on in Liara!" Abby called as she splashed her sister who squealed slightly in protest and then chased after her.
Liara grinned at their antics. "I would, but Asari do not see the need for undergarments."
That brought both women up short and they gaped at her for a second before Abby slid a sly glance over at her sister. There was a moment of silent communication between them and then as one they turned to Liara and grinned back at her. "Well I hear the Asari aren't particularly shy," Abby said bravely.
Liara nodded her head. "We are not. However many other species, yours included appear to have cultural taboos on public nudity."
"Who said we're in public?" Lynn asked as she reached down and yanked her bra off and tossed it towards the shore even as her sister copied her action.
"We humans actually have a term for this: Skinny Dipping," Abby explained as she freed herself from the last of her clothing and stood waist deep in the clear waters.
Liara tilted her head to one side, smiling and then reached up to divest herself of her own clothing. She watched as their eyes widened as she removed the last of her clothing, but saw no revulsion there, only curiosity and then appreciation. Then she joined them in the water and took a moment to entertain her own scientific curiosity with a brief glance over each of their bodies before they all settled into a comfortable conversation while lazily floating around the deeper edges of the pool.
Liara found herself quickly befriending Ashley's sisters as they were as scientifically minded as she was and had a wicked sense of humor on top of that. They were indeed as bold as their eldest sister, just in more subtle ways. The afternoon was spent getting to know each other, sharing stories and observations, and involved a great deal of laughter. Liara couldn't remember the last time she had actually laughed this much, and she found herself somewhat envious of Ashley's family. It was apparent that they were all close and they loved each other dearly. Liara wondered what it would have been like if she'd had a sibling of her own.
As the sun began to dip down below the horizon they finally climbed from the pool, laughing at their pruned skin, and lay out in the meadow for a few minutes still chatting amiably while the water dried from their skin in the still warm air. When they were finally dry enough, they replaced their clothing, and began their journey back towards the house, Liara using her biotics to provide adequate lighting for them to safely move along the darkening path. The sisters of course loved it, and were begging her to show them a few of her other biotic abilities along the way. Liara humored them a bit by lifting several rocks of various sizes and hurling them off into the growing darkness and then freezing both women in a stasis field causing their eyes to widen in as they realized just how limited their ability to move was.
"That's gotta be pretty handy in a fight," Lynn grinned once she was free from the stasis field.
Liara nodded. "There were many times we were outnumbered severely and the easiest way to handle those numbers was for me to keep as many as I could at bay, while Shepard and Ashley engaged the rest. In the case of a charging Krogan, it would usually take all three of us to take him down."
"Can't believe you went from scientist to soldier in the span of a few weeks."
Liara shrugged. "It was not an easy transition, but I needed to find out for myself why my mother would turn from everything she taught and believed in, to follow such a dark path. One does what they must to survive."
The sisters grew quiet at that for a few moments. Finally Abby settled a hand on Liara's shoulder, now knowing that the Asari maiden could sense her intentions through the touch. "Ashley told us about how you had to face down your own mother. I'm truly sorry you had to go through something like that…I couldn't even imagine how horrible that must have been. But I hope you know that you have come to mean a great deal to our sister and Ash has always been a good listener."
Liara swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat and smiled weakly at the kind woman who was offering her gentle support. "Your sister has also come to mean a great deal to me as well, and I know she is willing to be there for me. But this journey has been long and exceptionally hard, and it is going to take time for all of us to let our guard down enough to grieve properly for all that we have lost during our pursuit of Saren and Sovereign. It will not be easy for any of us to face our demons, but at least we have the strength of each other's company when that time comes."
Abby squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and then changed the topic to something less emotionally heavy as they finally hit the coast and could see the lights of the house off in the distance. Liara gratefully allowed the distraction and soon enough the two sisters had her giggling at a particularly embarrassing story they were revealing about their oldest sibling. Fifteen minutes later they were walking up onto the deck where everyone else was reclining on the lounge chairs, sipping on a variety of drinks.
"Nice of you three to finally join us," Ashley said with a sarcastic smile as she narrowed her eyes at her two younger sisters. "So what trouble did you find yourselves?"
"Trouble? Ashley dear, we leave that all to you. We simply went exploring and found this amazing pool that was begging to be swam in."
Shepard, even through her alcohol induced haze, frowned. "But you don't have any bathing suits or towels," she observed.
Abby just smirked. "We are in the middle of nowhere and with no one else around. Who needs bathing suits?"
Shepard choked on her drink, and Ashley spilled her own. "Abs!" Ashley protested loudly as she frantically tried to brush her drink off her lap.
All of Ashley's family just smirked and Liara couldn't help the small giggle that escaped her mouth. She stifled it quickly when Shepard shot her a look, but couldn't fully keep the smile off her own face.
"We decided to eat dinner, just in case we had to send out the search party for you three. We have yours keeping warm in the stasis container though. Why don't you head on inside to clean up and then enjoy you meal. Then you can tell us all about this pool you discovered," Ruth suggested before too many glares stared getting thrown around. After all, she was enjoying her own pleasant buzz and would hate to have it ruined by having to break up a fight between her children.
Liara thanked her and wisely steered Abby and Lynn inside, Sarah joining them as Shepard and Ashley stared at each other, both trying to reign in their shock and temper. Ruth simply sat back in her chair, easily reading both younger women and smirked into her drink. This was going to be a very interesting vacation.
Chapter 9: Solace
It was one thing for Ashley's family to know that Shepard had violent nightmares that woke her on most nights screaming. It was another to actually bare witness to it. Ruth, who'd been married to a military man and was all too familiar with the occurrence, abided by her daughter's wishes to leave Shepard be for two nights. After the third night in a row of laying in bed and hearing Shepard shout out in her sleep, the older woman could not ignore her previous training of many years ago, nor her protective maternal instincts any longer.
She rose quietly from her bed, wrapped a robe around her and wandered out to the kitchen area where she ordered a mug of warm herbal tea. She wasn't surprised to cross paths with her eldest daughter in the living room. "You okay?" Ashley whispered, concerned.
"I am perfectly fine. Alexis however is not, and if you won't do anything to help her right now when she needs it most, I AM," Ruth told her daughter firmly.
"Mom, Shepard…Alex hates showing weakness of any kind. If anyone were to go in there it'll just make her angry."
"Anger is a good thing sometimes dear. Besides, how will you know if it will help or hurt her unless you even try. Now I have sat here and listened to her for the past two nights and I am not going to let a third pass without offering her some kind of comfort. And before you start on me, you remember what I used to do before I married your father and settled down into family life," Ruth told Ashley sternly. "I saw my fair share of soldiers just like her back in my day and I know what I'm doing. Now, step aside Ashley."
Ashley, who hadn't had that tone directed at her in a good number of years, shut her mouth and stepped aside quickly, partially out of surprise. Her mother bid her a cordial goodnight, walked past her and straight to Shepard's room. The elder woman knocked softly to announce her presence and then stepped inside without waiting for an answer and shut the door behind her.
Her eyes were already adjusted to the lack of light as she had moved through the house without turning any lights on, so she was easily able to make out Shepard's form. The younger woman was curled on her side, facing away from the door, the were sheets twisted tightly around her from her obviously struggles, and she was still trying to get her breathing under control.
"Damn it Ash, I told you I would be fine," Shepard whispered, her voice raspy and harsh.
"You are far from fine Alexis, and if you are going to have any chance of getting through your ordeals with your sanity intact, you cannot do it alone, not can you continue to suppress this," Ruth admonished quietly as she moved deeper into the room.
Shepard rolled over immediately, and struggled to sit up, hissing in pain as she put too much strain on her healing arm in her hastiness. Ruth moved swiftly to her side and wrapped a strong arm around Shepard's back and helped her into a sitting position. "Easy there," she soothed. "Don't want to undo all that hard work your doctor accomplished."
"Ruth? What the hell are you doing here?"
The older woman arranged some of Shepard's pillows behind her and then gently guided her to sit back and pressed the mug of tea into her hands. "I should think that would be obvious," Ruth answered wryly.
"Fuck….have I been waking you guys up every night?"
"You have," Ruth admitted. "Ashley warned us about your nightmares, and she requested we abide by your wishes to be left alone. But as a mother and a former Counselor, I simply could not stand by and watch you suffer like this alone."
"You were a shrink? Great," Shepard grumbled.
"Of a sort. More like a grief counselor really. I didn't have a degree, though I had been thinking of working towards one. Then I met Ashley's father and we fell head over heels in love and decided to focus on a family instead."
"So are you going to psychoanalyze me now?" Shepard asked stiffly.
Ruth sighed. "Shepard, I understand why you have felt the need to isolate yourself from people in the past. For most of your life, your very survival has depended on you relying on no one but yourself. But it doesn't have to be that way now dear. You have people who genuinely care about you, people that you have admitted to me that you trust deeply. People who wish to help you succeed in any way they can," Ruth reminded her as she tipped the bottom of the mug up, encouraging Shepard to take a sip.
Shepard hesitated for a moment, but the heat of the liquid was seeping into her hands and calming her some so she finally complied with Ruth's silent request. Ashley's mother sat on the bed next to Shepard, and allowed the younger woman a few minutes of silent contemplation while she continued to sip her tea. When Ruth felt her begin to relax a fraction she began speaking again. "Alexis, there is no shame in this. Emotions are what make us human. Without them, we would be mindless killers…much like that Sovereign creature you have told us about. One simply cannot go through life, shutting themselves off from feelings they don't like, or want, or understand."
There was another minute of silence before Alex responded. Ruth noted that the younger woman could not raise her eyes, but this was to be expected. "I…don't know how to deal with this Ruth. All my life I've had to be strong…to be the strong one for others. People's lives depend on my ability to make decisions- even the hard ones- and be able to deal with it. On Virimire, if I had gone back because I couldn't leave a man behind, we would all have died, and Sovereign would have wiped out the Citadel and the rest of the galaxy would have followed."
"How did that make you feel? Having to leave Lt. Alenko behind?"
"I hated myself for not figuring out a plan that didn't involve sacrificing one of my men. I still do," Shepard whispered harshly, frustrated with the rebellious tears that were starting to gather in her eyes.
"Did he beg for you to come after him?" Ruth asked, even though she was well aware of the answer having heard the entire story from her daughter already.
"No," came the faint response. "I wanted to go back, and he told me to leave. He knew there wasn't enough time, and he told me it was okay. He was willing to sacrifice his life to save ours…to see to it that we finished our mission."
"Lt. Alenko died a hero then, and what Alliance officer doesn't want that?" Ruth reminded her gently.
"Then why do I feel like I failed him…and so many others?" Shepard demanded angrily, unable to stop the tears now.
"Because you have taken the weight of the galaxy on your shoulders Alexis…and you are only one woman. There is no way you can protect us all, and you feel like you must. It is a fact of life that some will have to fall in the fight to protect the greater number. A good leader accepts that these losses are inevitable, and continues on. A great leader grieves for those losses however, and then honors their sacrifices by carrying on their fight. As much as you want to fight against it my dear, grief is part of the healing process, and if you don't acknowledge it, your perceived failures will continue to fester like an open wound until it consumes you with bitterness, hatred and anger. And just like gangrene, it will poison your body until nothing good is left within you and you become everything you fought against. Is this what you want for yourself Alexis?"
"No," came a half choked sob.
"Is this what you want for my daughter and Liara?"
"Gods no!"
"Then let go my dear, and let someone else be strong for a little while," Ruth told her as she leaned forward and gently pulled Shepard into a comforting hug.
For Alexis, it was the first time in her life, that she could ever remember being held safe in a mother's arms. Ruth may not be her mother, but there was just something instinctively maternal in the way she held Alexis who finally broke down and grieved. She clung to the older woman, unable to stop the sobs that wracked her body so hard, it made everything hurt. She grieved for a childhood lost, for the deaths of so many during her years of service- innocents, comrades and friends- and for an entire civilization lost to the Reapers.
For over an hour she took solace in that safe embrace, her mind and heart finally purging some of the roiling emotions she had kept locked away for most of her life. It was far from being enough to cleanse her completely of her grief, but it was a start. Throughout the rest of the dark and silent house, five other young women lay awake listening to the heartbreaking sobs of a broken hero, tears of their own slipping silently down cheeks to dampen their pillows.
When Liara and Ashley could bare it no more they both rose quietly from their beds almost in tandem, and exited their rooms. Ashley looked across at Liara, surprised more by their timing than by intent. In the dim light she could see that the young Asari had been as effected by Shepard's grief as she had been, and Ashley was reminded of the young woman's own loss and during that god forsaken mission. She instinctively held her arms open. Liara slid into them and Ashley hugged her tight, even as she sniffled a bit. "She needs us Li," Ash whispered.
"I know. But I have been so unsure…about many things," Liara whispered back.
"Me too," Ashley admitted. Then she pulled back and looked deep into Liara's eyes. "But I promise, when my family leaves, we will talk about all of this. But mom was right- we can't let her keep going like this."
Liara nodded and they both made their way down the hall and quietly entered Shepard's room. Ruth looked up at their quiet entry and then gave her daughter a sad but knowing look. Shepard was still clinging tightly to her, her breathing coming in short uneven gasps, even as her body still shook from the occasional sob. The older woman gestured for the two to take over, and made room for Ashley to sit next to her, while Liara took up a spot on the other side of the bed behind Shepard. Ruth gently extracted herself from Shepard's grip and shifted it over to Ashley who immediately wrapped her strong arms around Alexis and took over soothing the distraught woman.
Ruth ran her fingers through Ashley's hair and kissed her on the forehead. Then she held out her hand and took Liara's and kissed her knuckles affectionately and then guided that hand to Shepard's shoulder. "The girls and I will be doing a bit of touring to Hawaii in the morning. We'll see you in a day or so," she told Ashley and Liara quietly.
"Thank you mom," Ashley whispered back in sincere gratitude.
Ruth merely nodded and left the three young women in peace for the rest of the night. She knew that Shepard had a long way to go yet, but she felt satisfied in knowing that the intrepid Commander was back on the track to recovery.

It was nearly noon before Shepard finally began to stir from the deep sleep she had slipped into during the early hours of the morning. The first thing that she was aware of was the throbbing pain in her head, as if she'd drank too much the night before. On top of that, her chest and shoulder ached, but there was a soothing warmth that was surrounding her, helping to relax muscles that had obviously been abused last night.
She tried to remember what had happened the night before, but her mind was still foggy. Then some of the warmth that was surrounding her moved, and Shepard's eyes shot open…well as open as they could considering they were still swollen. Her body tensed as soft blue features swam in and out of focus just inches in front of her, but an arm tightened around her waist as a strong body snuggled up more tightly behind her.
"Relax Alex," was breathed into her ear, and Shepard desperately tried to remember how she ended up with both Ashley and Liara in her bed. It took another minute and then everything came rushing back at her, causing her to inhale sharply, even as the arm she had wrapped around Liara tightened involuntarily.
Soft blue lips leaned forward and pressed against her forehead. "It is okay Alexis. We are here for you," Liara assured her.
Alex closed her eyes tightly, even as the tears came again. She remembered the conversation with Ruth which had laid bare the wounds of her soul that she had been trying to ignore for years now. She remembered a mother's concern- even if it wasn't her own. And she remembered finally letting go. She realized somewhere along the way, Ruth's comforting embrace had been replaced by Ashley's and Liara's and shortly after that she must have passed out.
Alex didn't think it was possible for someone who had cried as hard as she had last night to possibly have any more tears, but the grief was still there. Not nearly as harsh and overwhelming as the night before, but still fresh and raw. And so she clung to Liara, even as she pressed back into Ashley's strength, and let them hold her as she wept for a little while longer.
After awhile, her breathing began to even out, even though her body still trembled slightly. "Gods, what is wrong with me?" she asked, both embarrassed and frustrated.
"Nothing is wrong Alex," Ashley answered her reassuringly. "You're just finally letting go of everything you've been keeping locked in for so long."
Alex exhaled slowly, and forced herself to relax back into their warmth. She drifted back to sleep again for a little while longer before her body's needs forced her back awake. "What time is it?" she murmured sleepily against Liara's shoulder.
"A little after thirteen hundred hours," Ash answered as her fingers drew lazy patterns along Alex's stomach.
Shepard's eyes cracked open. "What about your mom and sisters?" she asked concerned.
"They went to check out Hawaii. They'll be back tomorrow."
Shepard relaxed back into her pillow, even as she tried to think of something appropriate to say. She was reveling in the warmth and comfort of their bodies, but she was also feeling more than a little awkward about their situation. "I….shit…I have no idea what to say right now," she admitted.
She watched an amused smile paint Liara's lips and felt Ashley chuckle quietly from behind her. "How about we don't spoil the moment with words then?" Ashley suggested.
This made Alex chuckle. "You know…I would really like to follow that advise. In fact I think I could be content to stay in bed like this all day. But unfortunately, my body needs to take care of a few things."
Ashley laughed lightly, and then rolled away from Shepard, who immediately missed the warmth that had been spooning her from behind. She gave Liara a final squeeze and then extracted herself from the Asari's gentle grasp and carefully sat up with Ashley's help. She winced as her shoulder was moved and then shook her head ruefully. Her whole body was stiff, and she felt like her entire face was swollen. She probably looked like hell.
She made her way off the bed reluctantly and into her bathroom where she took care of her needs and then forced herself to glance in her mirror afterwards. Oh yeah, she definitely looked like hell. She stripped out of her clothing and flipped on the shower, deciding some hot water would probably do her a world of good right now. She brushed her teeth while the water warmed and then stepped under the hot spray and sighed contentedly.
The steam slowly cleared her foggy mind and released some of the pressure in her still clogged sinuses, while the water gently eased the aches in her shoulder and torso. As her mind cleared, she finally began to process more of the previous night's events and had to snort in mild disbelief at everything that had happened. She remembered the shock of having Ruth come in to her room uninvited and her deep embarrassment at having the older women see her like that. She still couldn't believe just how quickly and easily Ruth had gotten her to open up. Alex had to hand it to Ashley's mom….she was good. The Alliance could probably use someone like her back on their payroll- especially right now.
Alex spent the next several minutes reflecting on how she felt about what had happened. Yes, there was some anger and mild resentment at the invasion of her privacy- but that was her normal and instinctive response and she decided to disregard it this once. She still felt raw, weary, and…vulnerable. This made her uncomfortable because she had always been so in control of her feelings and emotions… until recently at least. But last night she'd let her guard down completely, and it scared her a bit. Until she thought about who had been there for her in her moment of weakness.
Feeling considerably better, Shepard turned off the water and stepped out of her shower and toweled off before slipping her robe on and exiting back into her bedroom. Ashley and Liara had vacated her bed, but the Commander could make out the smell of coffee and breakfast and figured they had headed into the kitchen in search of food. Shepard threw on a pair of old training shorts and tank top and padded barefoot out into the front of the house.
The other two women were quietly enjoying their meal in relative silence, but the looked up at Shepard and smiled warmly at her as she slid into a seat between the two of them at the table. "Feeling better?" Ashley asked as Shepard poured herself a cup of coffee and sipped it gratefully.
"Much better now," Shepard sighed.
"Wasn't sure what you wanted so we ordered a few things to share."
"Actually, I'm starving and it all looks good."
Liara, who had noticed the Commander's appetite begin to wane over the past month, was pleased to see Shepard load up her plate and smiled. The Commander noticed and snorted. "Does this mean I won't get a lecture today about the need to eat more?" she teased.
"Perhaps."
Shepard grinned and shook her head as she dug into her food, and the table went comfortably silent once more for awhile. When she was full, she pushed her empty plate back and looked over at Liara once more. "You think the Doc would be too upset if we went one day with therapy?"
"She informed me that so long as it was not a regular occurrence, that there could be days where you forgo your conditioning. Since it is clear that your shoulder and arm are sore, I believe it would be prudent to allow you some rest today."
"Have something in mind Skipper?"
Shepard sat back and stared at the table for a moment. "Honestly? I think I just want to spend some quiet time here with both of you today…if you're both up for that."
"I think it's something all of us could use actually," Ash said as she reached out and clasped her hand over Shepard's. She then looked up at Liara and smiled warmly. "I think it's time we talked a bit about things."
Liara nodded and Shepard looked up to meet Ashley's gaze. "Back deck?"
"I think I preferred your idea of staying in bed all day personally. What about you Liara?"
"I admit to being very reluctant to leave it earlier. It was…comforting."
Shepard couldn't deny that, but she wanted to make one thing clear. "Bed it is. But there is something both of you need to know up front," she said in a serious tone. "I think we are all aware of what is going on between us and how we feel about each other. If there is any question as to whether or not I want both of you, be assured that I do." There, she'd said it. She drew in a steadying breath even as she watched both Ash and Liara inhale a bit sharply with her outright admission. "But," she continued, "you're right Ash…we do have a lot to talk about first. Plus, I need time to…process everything from last night. Your mom is good Ash, damn good in fact. But I need time right now. Everything is still so…raw inside of me." Her voice caught for a second, and she had to clear it to continue, even as she held their steady gazes.
"Besides, we still have your family coming back for a few more days Ash, and I've already cost you a day with them. I wouldn't want to take any more of your precious time from them."
Ash smiled in warm understanding and gratitude and nodded in agreement. Liara smiled as well and then stood to start removing the empty dishes. Ash and Alex stood to assist her as much as they could and then a short while later, they retired back into the bedroom, wisely bringing along some snacks and beverages for later. "It's a good thing you have such an enormous bed," Ash chuckled as the three of them settled themselves back onto the bed, this time with Liara tucked in the middle.
Shepard chuckled. "I thought it was oversized when I first saw it, but I'm starting to appreciate it's generous space."
"I wish Tali had been able to see all of this," Liara commented somewhat sadly.
The other two fell silent and then Shepard sighed even as she curled up a bit tighter against Liara. "Me too," she admitted quietly.
"Do you think she'll ever come back Alex?" Ash asked into the stillness after a few minutes.
"I hope so. You?"
"Hell yeah," Ash said with a clear grin in her tone. "She was one hell of an engineer and pretty damn wicked with that shotty of hers. Would defiantly love to see the woman behind the mask there."
Shepard and Liara both smiled in response, but didn't make any comments as the warmth from each other began to lull all three women into an extremely relaxed state. Within minutes all three had drifted off into a peaceful slumber where the mere presence of each other kept the nightmares at bay.

Chapter 10: Skeletons
Alex slowly became aware of the warmth that was curled up against her side, and the gentle tickle of Liara's steady breathing as she continued to slumber. On the other side of Liara, she could hear Ashley's soft snores, attesting to the fact that she was the only one who was awake yet. Not willing to disturb her companions and despite her own recent nap, Alex gave into the lassitude that had settled in her body and allowed her mind to drift for the next half hour as she dozed on and off. It wasn't until Liara finally stirred and stretched that all three women began to awaken.
Alex turned her head and cracked her eyes open in time to see Liara open her own eyes. Blue met grey and a soft smile appeared on each of their faces. "Sleep well?" Alex asked, her voice still a bit rough from her own sleep.
"I did. No nightmares?"
"Not even a hint of them," Alex answered, grateful for the uninterrupted sleep. She hadn't realized just how physically wearing on her the nightmares had become.
"Do you dream about what happened to the Protheans?" Ashley asked quietly, having understood for some time now that the message from the beacon had been intense, graphic, and deeply disturbing to the Commander. It had been at the heart of Shepard's single-minded drive to stop Saren and Sovereign, no matter what the cost.
Alex tensed a bit, not sure if she was ready to talk about it just yet. Liara felt it, and Ashley sensed it in the silence. The brunette rolled out of bed and limped around until she was on Alex's side and then motioned for her and Liara to shift over so she could recline next to Alex. Once they were all resettled, Ash rolled onto her side and propped herself up on her elbow so she could look down at Alex.
"I understand not wanting to talk about it Alex. I grew up with a former counselor as a mom and to this day I still fight having to talk it out, even though I know that I'll feel better afterwards. Why do you think her and I were gone for so long that second day? She hadn't just heard you, she'd heard me wake up from my own nightmares and spent over an hour wearing me down enough to finally talk to her about everything," Ashley admitted with a rueful chuckle.
"Funny isn't it?"
"What is?"
"Our whole lives have been about survival. Mine physical, yours has been your career. We've been forced to close ourselves off from everything around us except for that single determination to survive and succeed, knowing that all it could take is one sign of weakness and everything would be over. So much rides on us, but a single word could bring it all tumbling down. Craziest thing to me though, is Chakwas knows that mentally we aren't fit for duty, but didn't insist on counseling because she knew they would ground us both either long-term or permanently. She took a gamble in hoping we could work things out on our own, because she knows what's at stake and what could be lost if we aren't allowed to go back out there and fight."
"That or she was well aware of the fact that my family was coming to visit and knew my mother would handle things."
"She did?"
"She knew that my family was visiting and asked me to send her regards to my mom. In one of my letter's home I'd mentioned Dr. Chakwas' name and it turns out that they both worked at the Alliance's Medical Branch in London for a couple of years before Chakwas was finally granted a post on a ship. Chakwas patched up the broken bodies, mom came in and helped patch up their broken spirits."
"Huh," Alex grunted. After a minute she smirked slightly. "Chakwas is one slick woman. Always thinking two steps ahead."
"If she hadn't gone into Medical, I think she could easily have been in Intel. The woman is observant as all hell," Ashley agreed in wry amusement.
"Did it help talking with your mother Ashley?" Liara asked, steering them back to the conversation at hand.
"It did, and I felt stupid afterwards for resisting so much, because I knew I would help to begin with."
There was a moment of silence and then Alex finally asked in a subdued voice what her nightmares had been about. Ash lay back down on her pillow and stared up at the ceiling for a few seconds. "Take your pick I guess. Eden Prime….Virimire…the Citadel. Mostly about Eden Prime though. I'd been shipped to so many backwater posts over the last few years, and everyone else was so bitter about their assignments I'd never really gotten close to any of my units. But Eden Prime was different. The world was beautiful, the colony was close and I was reunited with most of my platoon from H.E.A.T. They respected my leadership skills and we were all pretty close. "
"Heat?" Liara asked, confused.
"H.E.A.T.," Ash said spelling out the letters. "It stands for Hostile Environment Assault Training. It's a brutal four month training program on Titan that teaches us to aggressive assault training techniques and how to adapt to any given situation. That was where I finally had an instructor recognize me for my skills and not my name. Gunny Chief Ellison was a hard-ass instructor, but he was also fair. Received my first promotion from him, and I think he was behind getting my old platoon assigned to me on Eden Prime. It was nice to finally have some friendly faces around." Ashley's smile began to fade however. "Which just made it all the harder to lose some of them. Some of those people were like family to me by the time of the invasion."
"Niralia Bhatia?" Shepard guessed.
"Amongst others, but she and I were the closest. Neither of us was on duty that day actually. I was supposed to meet her at the spaceport to check out some of the new hard suits that were coming in, and then we were going to head up to the lakes to swim and relax. My LT called me in for a briefing though, and Nira told be she needed to pick up a few things anyway and she'd meet me at the port when I was done. My Lieutenant was just wrapping up the briefing, which was about beefing up security for the scientists that were suddenly digging all over the place, when the first attack came. I grabbed my gear and started recalling my squad. Saren knew right where to hit us though. Bastard dropped his Geth right on our base, and half our people were slaughtered just trying to get to their barracks and their gear. Nira was one of them," Ash said quietly as a tear slipped down the side of her face to soak the pillow below.
"By the time the remaining members of my unit were able to rally at my location, I only had six out of twenty people alive, and four of them were fresh out of basic. Johnson, Gomez and I tried to keep those kids calm and focused on the fight, but they were just too damn scared because we were so overwhelmed. As soon as the first one got his head blown off, the other three broke and ran. They didn't last five seconds out in the open, and the last of us were forced to fall back to where one of the other units were supposed to be fighting. By the time we got there, they were putting out that distress call, and half their unit was dead as well. More Geth were dropped on our location, the LT was killed as one dropped right on his head, and I finally gave the order for all units to fall back and assist with evacuating the colony. Gomez and Johnson followed me towards the spaceport to see if we could secure any of the evacuation shuttles, but I lost them as we started to near the dig site, not realizing that was what the Geth were after."
It was quiet for a minute and then Alex finally spoke up. "I know I was a complete bitch to you back on that planet Ash and I'm sorry because I know it had to have made the pain of losing everyone worse. I was still reeling from the giant fuck-up on Torfan, I'd just lost Jenkins, and I was in the middle of a fight with Geth of all things. I shouldn't have said what I did to you like that," she apologized.
"No you shouldn't have," Ash said without any venom. "But after finding out what'd happened to your own team, I understood you were probably just venting."
"Torfan?" Liara asked.
Neither woman missed Shepard's flinch. Ash was about to answer for Alex, but the blonde stopped her. "No…it's okay. I suppose your mom's right and I need to let this out before it eats me up. Besides, all you really know is the official story Ash, not what lead up to one of the worst losses of Marines in recent history."
Alex took a deep breath and began her story. "You both know that my life has always been a hard one. It's public record that I was one of the Alliance's 'diamonds in the rough'. I wasn't a gifted biotic. I didn't have a degree in anything, and I wasn't following tradition. I was just some kid who grew up on the streets and did whatever I needed to in order to survive. It was brutal and harsh and I learned the hard way that the only one I could trust and rely upon was myself. I barely passed my exams, and I think the only reason they really let me in was because the old man stuck up for me and I could fight like no one else. Those survival instincts were deeply ingrained in me though, and no matter how hard they tried at the Academy, they couldn't break me of that. I learned to work with my teams, but I had earned a reputation for being a lone wolf, and a renegade. The irony was they couldn't dispute my performance, because I always got the job done. I started rising through the ranks quickly, but Command was always on me for not working with my team and as a team. Guess they figured giving me a unit of my own would break me of that habit, because now I had people who were relying on me not to get them killed. Was the first time I was actually scared.
"On the streets, when I ran with my gang, our lives were meaningless unless you were at the top. Turf wars raged every other week, and people died all the time. We were all expendable to those in charge, and to the rest of the world, the dead were just another statistic. I think that was how I always saw myself before I was promoted, and that was why I was never afraid to die. But now I was the one in charge, and I realized these men and women weren't expendable. Time and money had been spent in the effort to train them and now I was in charge of directing them into dangerous situations without getting them killed. At the time, it was my worst nightmare," Alex admitted ruefully.
"A few weeks before Torfan, our unit along with two others, were running training exercises nearby when the uprising at Mars Theta Penal One hit. Command asked us to go in and conduct a locate and capture of the inmates that had managed to escape to the mountain range east of the facility. About two dozen of those bastards had holed up in a small series of caves and they'd managed to get their hands on a good sized load of weapons and a few explosives. The locals had already fully mapped the caves so we knew every exit and entrance. We were also informed that many of the caves weren't stable any more. Unstable environment and the prisoners had the tactical advantage from inside- it would have been suicide to try and breech, and I suggested we just wait them out. They may have had some decent defenses, but their supplies were finite. With no food or water it probably wouldn't have been more than a week before they would finally be forced to give up or die of dehydration and starvation. Unfortunately, I was the newest C.O. of all the unit Commanders and my idea was disregarded by the more experienced Commanders," she said bitterly.
"As they began to lay out their plans, I realized they were going to get people killed. I voiced my objections, but they decided to go ahead with the breech anyway. Pissed off, I took matters into my own hands. The breech wasn't going to happen until early morning, so I waited until after dark and slipped away from our camp. I stripped off all my weapons except from my combat knife and a single implosion grenade, and then snuck into one of the entrances. I took down three of their sentries silently before I finally found them all holed up in the deepest cave, arguing over what to do next. Needless to say they were a little surprised to see me," she smirked.
"I bet. Was a little insane of you to go in there all by yourself though Shep," Ash said with a raised eyebrow.
"I wouldn't argue that," Alex chuckled quietly. "So I waltzed right in there, explained the facts to them, and told them there was no way of escaping. I also made it clear that I wasn't about to risk my men getting killed by some stupid cave-in while trying to extract a bunch of scumbags that were holed up like the rats they were. I showed them the grenade and made damn sure they understood exactly what it would do if I set it off right then and there. We stared each other down, and they realized that if I was crazy enough to walk in there virtually unarmed, I was probably crazy enough to blow us all to hell. They threw down their arms right then and there, but wanted a few reasonable requests. Seems the Warden was engaging in some illegal operations and inmates were disappearing, but in reality being reported as killed during a fight or dying from some illness. It was the whole reason behind the uprising, and they were all willing to accept the consequences of their actions so long as I promised that I would see to it a full scale investigation was launched immediately and that the Warden wouldn't touch them.
I guaranteed their safety out of the caves if they agreed to cooperate with my orders, and that I see to it that my Superiors looked into the matter immediately. I assured them that I would pay a personal visit to the Warden to let him know that no one had better 'disappear' while he awaited his own investigation and they agreed to everything. I let them pass around the bottle of rum one of the locals had given me earlier in the day and then walked them all out of the cave hands on their heads. The other CO's were of course furious, and when one of them started to get rough with a prisoner that wasn't doing anything wrong, I knocked him on his ass for it. I was given a commendation for finding a peaceful resolution to the situation, and then dressed down for over two hours about striking a fellow officer and not going along with the plan. They knew the plan was shit, they knew it would have resulted in unnecessary deaths on both sides, but they are so stuck on their idea of working as a team, they couldn't let my actions slide and I got a mark in my file."
Liara and Ashley murmured in quiet disapproval over that action, but let Alex continue her story. "A few weeks later we found ourselves at Torfan with one of the other units from Mars. I was still furious over what had happened, and to make matters worse I was stuck working with Jervis, the asshole I'd punched. We argued over strategy, when he came up with another shit plan and finally he pulled rank. It was a bait and trap strategy and my unit was to be the bait. I argued that my men were too vulnerable, but then I let him get to me by questioning my ability to lead and their ability to fight. Bastard hadn't even done a recon, and his team was almost completely wiped out just trying to get into position. I lost a quarter of my team before I realized there was no back-up. By then it was too late to do anything else, and the slavers were preparing to leave with their haul of the colonists they'd captured. With Jervis dead, I knew I alone would take the blame if we lost those colonists and I wasn't about to lose this mission. So I ordered an all out assault knowing that we had almost no defensible ground to fall back on. All that mattered was that I could get to the ship and blow one of it's engines and ground it."
Alex stared off into the distance as memories of that horrible day came back to her. "It was like being back on the streets in the middle of a raging turf war again. Shots and screams and blood everywhere. I took several hits to my armor by the time I got to the ship and set the charges. I was pumped so full of adrenaline, stims and Omni-gel I didn't even realize two bullets had made it through my plating. Once the ship was grounded, the slavers poured out, pissed as hell. My men didn't stand a chance, but I ordered us to hold our ground. We managed to whittle their numbers down to about a dozen before they finally threw down their weapons and surrendered. I was so far into the battle-rush that I did what came instinctively - what I had learned the hard way on the streets. I shot every one of those bastards before they could change their minds when they realized there was barely a half dozen of my Marines left and every single one of us was injured. I was patched up, sent in for the formal Inquiry into my actions, and once I was cleared of any dereliction of duty, I was given a token pat on the head for saving the colonists and then reassigned to the Normandy."
Ashley spoke up, her voice thoughtful. "Looking back, do you think that their Inquiry was also them feeling you out as a possible candidate for becoming a Spectre?"
Alex was silent for a minute as she thought about that. "Huh….never would have really thought of it in that light, but…you might be right Ash. I'd been through Inquiries before, but that had by far, been the most intensive. They seemed determined to make me start questioning my actions, but the more they pushed the more I stood by what I did and for some reason I got the sense this satisfied them more than it really should have."
"It is widely known that Spectres work almost exclusively on their own. By your own admission, you have always been more comfortable working alone and relying upon no one but yourself. From what I have heard, your military relies heavily on strength in numbers and there would probably be few candidates who would excel working as a lone operative. Fewer still who could have the wide range of skills you possessed along with Command experience. You were the ideal candidate for becoming he first Human Spectre," Liara reasoned.
"But they took a huge risk putting you back out in the field like that so quickly," Ashley remarked. " After what happened on Eden Prime with that damned beacon.." she paused and shook her head. "Anyone else probably would have lost it completely and we would all be dead."
"This whole situation has been one giant cluster fuck. Rogue Spectres, Reapers, genetic experiments, good people dying…God Liara, I don't even know how you managed to deal with going up against your mother like that and not losing it," Alex said, reminded once more that she and Ash weren't the only one's nursing open emotional wounds. She heard the young Asari's breathing catch in the slightest of chokes and wrapped her arm around slender blue shoulders more tightly.
"My mother and I did not see eye to eye on a great many things as I grew older. I thought it was because I was a Pureblood and she was ashamed of what I represented- choices in her life that she regretted. She had been well on her way to becoming a popular Matriarch and Priestess in our society when she had me. I was always well aware of the fact that my existence cost her some standing amongst our people. I knew she loved me, but the rift between us seemed to grow larger every year. My mother humored my choice in career, even if she did not agree with it. We did not speak for years at a time after I left, but she never once spoke harshly against my choice. At least I know she was proud of the stand I made and of me…before…"she broke off her voice finally catching as tears streaked down her face.
"It's okay Li," Alex whispered pulling the smaller woman tightly against her as Liara had done for her the night before. Ash reached across them both, adding her own comfort as Liara finally allowed herself to grieve for the loss of her mother.
It was brief, and not nearly as intense as Shepard's was, but then Liara had seemed to already make her peace with her mother's death, and there was the fact that they had apparently not had a very close relationship to begin with. When she finally relaxed back into her own pillow, Alex and Ash helped to dry her eyes, and Alex leaned forward to press a gentle kiss against Liara's forehead.
"Guess we all have our own demons to deal with," she remarked sadly.
"Ghosts that will probably haunt us until the day we die," Ashley agreed somberly.
"Pasts that will forever guide who were are and how we will always react to a situation no matter how much we might want to change," Liara said with a flash of sudden insight.
Alex caught the look and sighed heavily, knowing exactly what Liara was referring to. It was time to bite the bullet and bring up the matter of what they were going to do about their evolving feelings for one another. "And therein lies the challenge of what to do about us. I know how much I care for both of you, and yes, if Tali were still here, she'd be included in that statement as well. But I've never allowed myself to be this close to anyone…ever, and quite frankly my instincts are screaming at me to get out and run. On top of that, my training is right there with it, reminding me that I could be jeopardizing two careers if I take things any further with you Ash."
She watched as Ashley opened her mouth to argue, but laid a finger against soft full lips to still her words. "I know you said you were willing to risk it for this Ash, but you have no idea how hard it is for me to just go along with that…especially now when you are so close to fulfilling a life-long career goal that you have worked harder than anyone else to achieve."
"I don't understand," Liara broke in quietly. "Are you saying it is against your military protocols to be romantically involved with one another?"
"For Ashley and I, yes. Regulations do not allow for officers to fraternize or have a relationship with an enlisted soldier. Officers can date other officer and enlisted with enlisted, so long as you are of the same rank, or are in no way under the senior officer's chain of command. The only exceptions are for a married couple serving together, and one of them receives a promotion. As long as the Senior Officer in such an arrangement never shows any favoritism they are allowed to remain posted together. Ash and I would not only be breaking the regs of fraternizing between enlisted and officer, but I am her CO."
"I understand now," Liara said, realizing why both women had kept their emotional distance from each other despite the obvious attraction between each of them.
"But my biggest concern has always been my ability to retain control. Every time I lose control, people die, and I don't want to lose either of you any time soon. Those regs are there for a good reason, and once we get back out there, I need to be the Commander. I can't have my judgment clouded by emotional attachments. Too much is at stake right now," Alex admitted finally.
"You fear that this could lead to some kind of permanent emotional commitment that may effect your ability to lead us once we are back on duty," Liara assessed.
Alex winced, hearing it stated so bluntly. "Look I'm not saying that I'm just looking for…a one night stand or something. You mean far too much to me for it to be like that. But I don't want anyone hurt by taking this too far without knowing what we are getting into."
"Alex? No matter what happens between up personally, I wouldn't want to serve under any other Commanding Officer. When we get back on that ship, I know things will have to go back to the way they were and I would never ask anything more of you because I understand the need to keep your head in the game. All I want, is a chance to enjoy something special here and now with you and Liara while we still can," Ash confessed.
They exchanged a long searching look before Alex nodded, reassured by what she saw and then turned her head towards Liara. "Li?" she asked gently. "I know it's got to be hard for you to understand all of this, but-,"
Now it was her words being still by a slightly calloused fingertip. "Alexis, these past months have been some of the most incredible of my life. All those decades working mostly by myself, digging around in ancient ruins…I would have never guessed that my knowledge would some day lead me into the middle of galactic espionage and a battle that could mean either the savior or destruction of all life in our galaxy. I was exposed to cultures and races I had only read about, felt the exhilaration of a battle won, and experienced emotions I had never felt before. What I began to feel for you, and Ashley…and Tali," she said, admitting that too she also cared deeply for their Quarian friend. "These feelings were new, and confusing, and a little frightening because they were so intense. I knew there would be challenges, but I want to explore these emotions, and no goal is worth reaching for if there aren't obstacles to overcome along the way."
Alex was silent for a moment as she digested that and then looked between Liara and Ashley. "Then if we decide to…explore deeper levels of our friendship, for now, no one is expecting anything more?" There were head shakes and Alex pressed further. "Once we are back on duty, things will go back to the way they were and no one is going to try to pull any emotional strings to undermine my orders or decisions?"
"Only if you promise not to try and keep us out of harms way simply because you care for us more than others Alex," Ash tossed back at her with equal seriousness.
An unspoken name passed between them and Alex flinched slightly. "He may have been an officer and you just an enlisted grunt, but I had a stronger biotic on the team and you were by far a better fighter. I will never say any of my men were expendable, but I had others that could fill the gap his death created. I have taken you on every mission I've been on, Chief, and that's not about to change."
"Aye aye, Skipper," Ash said with a reassured smile.
"Alex?"
"Yeah?" Alex turned her head towards the young Asari, their faces only inches apart.
"You have nothing to fear from either of us. We all know what is at stake, and we all know that nothing can distract us from succeeding in our need to stop this threat. But the Goddess's have chosen to bless us with this chance to be reminded of what we are fighting to protect, and I for one would like to embrace this opportunity…however brief it may be."
With that, she leaned in and placed a light kiss on Shepard's lips. Ashley, who had propped herself up on her arm once more, watched with a warm smile on her face as the two kissed tenderly…almost timidly. Ash ran her fingers along the base of Alex's skull, enjoying the shiver she felt as the other two women embraced each other tighter, the kiss finally deepening. When they broke for air, Ashley leaned in and exchanged slow kisses with each of them before she lay back down and snuggled up against Alex, content to simply enjoy the rush of emotions and sensations through her body.
Oh she wanted more, and she could tell they did also. But Alex had been right- all of their wounds were still too raw right now, and they needed some time. Besides, her family would be back in the morning and they still had another three more days. Ash didn't feel like starting something that they couldn't enjoy uninterrupted over the next few days. She could however, fantasize about how exactly she wanted to spend the rest of their leave. It made for some very pleasant dreams later that night as they all slept wrapped around each other once more.
Chapter 11: A Storm Weathered
It was perhaps one of the most spectacular sunsets yet. A storm had rolled through earlier, blanketing the island in a refreshing rain that took the edge off the heat a bit. The smell of clean ozone and fresh water still lingered in the air, competing with the ever present scent of wild flowers and the salty ocean breeze. It made for a heady mixture, that only enhanced the slowly changing canvas that was being painted up above their heads. Light blue was giving way to purples, and gold was transforming into orange and crimson. The sea was beginning to calm from the storm's brief excitement, and the beauty of the heavens was reflected on the rolling surface below.
Two women stood at the edge of the surf, the water occasionally washing over their unshod feet before receding back out in its endless cycle. They silently watched as the last sliver of sun dipped below the horizon with a final flare that promised it's return in a few mere hours. As darkness began to chase away the multitude of colors in the sky, silence continued to reign between the two companions. Birds of all variations called out to one another, the surf continued to crash gently against the shore, the leaves and palm fronds swayed in the breeze, and the nocturnal animals began to chitter and cry out their greetings to the approaching night.
When the first stars began to appear, the younger of the two turned to her companion. "Thank you for helping me…for helping all of us Ruth."
Ruth turned to Commander Alexis Shepard and smiled warmly. "It was my pleasure dear. I am glad that I was able to be of some assistance."
"You were- even if I was angry with you for barging into my room at first," Alex chuckled. She was quiet for a few more moments. "I always figured they'd insist on me seeing a shrink at some point, and I was dreading the whole experience. Figured they'd take one look at me and that would be it. Alliance could probably use someone with your skills right now Ruth."
"High praise indeed," Ruth laughed, amused. "And perhaps I'll consider it once Sarah heads off to college in the fall. But for now I am content with having contributed to helping three of the Citadel Battle Heroes work through their trauma enough to begin the healing process."
"Thank you for talking with Liara yesterday. She let go a little with us the day you all went to Hawaii, but I knew that couldn't be the full extent of her grief. She seems more at peace with things today, and I know she slept better last night too."
That made Ruth smirk a bit. "Hmmm, it did now did it? And you know this how?" she asked, well aware that the three women had been carrying on the pretense of sleeping in their own rooms, when in reality they had been sneaking into Shepard's room each night after everyone else had gone to bed.
She could see Shepard's blush even in the receding light and couldn't help but laugh. "What they say about mothers is true, my dear Commander Shepard. We really do have eyes in the back of our heads and we know everything that goes on around us. We simply choose to silently allow what we approve of and speak up of the things we don't."
"So, you don't mind that we've been sharing the same bed each night for the last few nights?" Alex asked hesitantly.
"I do not, simply because I know nothing more than comforting one another and sleeping is all that is occurring right now."
"I…see. And if it were more?" Alex pressed, suddenly worried that Ruth may object to more.
Ruth as quiet for longer than was comfortable before turning to Alex. "My daughter cares for you a great deal Alex….perhaps even loves you. As a mother, I will always worry about her possibly being hurt. But I know that you are an honorable woman Shepard, and I am aware that the three of you had a chance to discuss your unique situation and have taken measures to prevent anyone from being unduly hurt. You have also wisely chosen to give yourselves time to adjust to your new situation as well as allow yourselves some time to heal further- both physically and emotionally. I can find no reason to argue with your actions thus far. Ashley is a grown woman who has sacrificed much on our behalf. She is happy with you and Liara and far be it from me to deny her what little of that she can enjoy these days. You do not need my approval Commander, but I wish the three of you nothing but the best and would welcome you both into our family willingly."
Alex felt tears sting her eyes as her throat tightened and looked away quickly, overwhelmed by the offer to be a part of someone's family for the first time in her life. Ruth laid a gentle and understanding hand on her shoulder, but said nothing more. Alex finally managed to clear her throat enough to whisper a hoarse 'thank you'.
The hand squeezed her shoulder one last time before slipping away. "No, Alex….thank YOU." With that, the older woman wandered off back towards the house, knowing that Alex would need some time alone. As soon Ruth was out of earshot, Alex let loose the strangled sob of relief and…something else that she couldn't quite identify. She sat heavily in the sand, her breathing coming in harsh ragged pants as something else inside her broke loose and was finally allowed a chance to breathe. It was an emotion so complex, that Alex couldn't identify it and didn't even try. All she knew was that it was like another bandage over the wounded thing that her heart had become, had been ripped off, exposing something she'd been trying to keep hidden away for so many years. After awhile though, the pain subsided, and this time as Ruth's words replayed in her mind, it was the balm to soothe the old wounds in her heart and soul.

Ashley watched from her seat on the back deck as her mother approached alone and gazed out across the quickly darkening shoreline, spotting Alex sitting in the sand alone, her arms wrapped tightly around herself. She struggled to her feet, concerned. "Mom?"
Ruth merely smiled warmly at her eldest child. "She will be fine dear."
"That doesn't look like fine to me," Ash said hesitantly.
"New wounds are the freshest, but old wounds run the deepest and most people have an incredible knack for burying their pain so far down that they actually forget they are there. Alex just needs some time to cope with all that she has been denied in her life, and to realize all that she can gain back if she allows herself the chance."
"Like?"
"Love, happiness, and family for starters," Ruth said, cupping her daughter's cheek. "Regulations be damned, they are both a good match for you sweetheart. I hope none of you waste this chance to simply enjoy your lives and be happy."
Ashley wrapped her mother in a tight embrace, tears in her eyes as she buried her face into the older woman's shoulder. "Thank you so much….for everything. I wish you didn't have to go. I miss you guys so much."
"I know sweetie. And we miss you fiercely too. But I think it'll be good for you three to have some time to yourselves. I have a feeling we would all be underfoot soon enough anyway," her mother chuckled as she drew back and gave her daughter a teasing grin.
Ashley laughed quietly, happy that the darkness was hiding the blush that was sure to coloring her face. Then she looked back out towards the beach. "Go on. She probably won't mind the companionship. It'll help her focus on the future and not her past."
Ashley hugged her mom one last time and then carefully made her way towards Alex. Sarah came up next to her mom and watched her older sister sit in the sand next to Alex and wrap an arm around the Commander. "She's really got it bad for them doesn't she?"
"Very much so. And they return her feeling with as much intensity."
Sarah looked at her mom, frowning at the strange tone in her mother's voice. "I thought you were okay with them."
Ruth sighed. "I am more than fine with their relationship. I just fear for them….all of them. Ashley and Shepard are soldiers about to head back out onto the frontlines in preparation for war. Liara is now a warrior in her own right and will be joining them in their fight. But they have all suffered horrific losses already and sacrificed much in their hearts along their difficult journey. I fear what will happen if even just one of them falls in the upcoming battle."
Sarah was silent for a long time, not wanting to think of the possibility. "They have something truly amazing and they watch each other's backs like no one else. If they can live through the Citadel Battle, they can make it through anything."
"I can only hope dear." But deep down, Ruth had an unsettling feeling in her gut. She was happy for the three young women, and happier still that her daughter had finally found someone to share her life with. But she felt like something dark and terrible was on the horizon, and it frightened her.

They young pilot that had become their personal chauffer arrived on time the next morning and collected the entire group to head over to Sydney. Sarah sat up front, shamelessly flirting with him much to everyone else's amusement, and even secured his personal comm number by the end of the trip. He politely waited by the shuttle, as the women all tried not to have too emotional of a farewell. Once Ashley's family were on their way to their transport back home, the remaining three women headed over to Medical for their weekly check-up.
Liara was praised for her efforts, which had resulted in excellent progress in the two soldiers. Ashley was now able to take most of her weight on her leg and was allowed to progress to some strength training. She would most likely be allowed to resume some light impact exercise by the following week if all went well. It was clear that she was relieved to not have to use her crutches any more and was looking forward to being allowed to do more on the leg.
Alex's progress was still a little slower due to the severity and extensiveness of the damage to her arm, but she had finally managed to regain fine motor control over her arm and hand, being able to touch all of her fingers together and form a complete fist. They would progress her into the resistance training stage to help begin rebuilding some of the muscle tone that had been lost during her rehabilitation. If her shoulder didn't act up, they would allow strength training next week. It was clear that it would still be another month before they would probably clear her for full duty however. Alex was frustrated with the slow progress, but she knew that if she pushed it this time, she could end up doing irreparable damage that could bench her permanently.

They decided to enjoy the rest of their afternoon in Sydney, and their pilot was more than happy to act as their tour guide, showing them some of the popular local sights and highlights. He recommended a restaurant that he thought they would enjoy and they happily took him up on it- insisting that he join them.
"Commander, I am extremely honored, but it would be unprofessional of me," he tried to argue.
"I know. But if that battle taught me one thing Todd, its that there are some opportunities in your life that you just shouldn't pass up. Now, you have just been invited to dine with three Heroes of the Citadel Battle, don't be a stick in the mud. Besides, it'll be good for your business. Someone is bound to take pictures and your face will be seen and they'll wonder who you are. Since you refuse to take my money, at least let me help endorse your company."
He laughed then and held up his hands in surrender. "All right, all right. And you're right, I would be a fool to pass up this opportunity. But not just because your heroes…but because I would be passing up the opportunity to dine with three lovely ladies."
Ashley laughed at that. "Better not let my baby sister hear that!"
He blushed. "She was pretty….forward."
"Aggression seems to be a family trait of theirs," Shepard smirked. "Ashley here channels hers into fighting. Abby and Lynn are dedicated to their schooling, and Sarah…"
"Sarah is bound and determined to find herself a nice guy to settle down with. She's the romantic of the bunch," Ash remarked, still chuckling.
"Well no offense Chief Williams, but I don't know about dating someone whose older sister could kick my ass using just her pinky," he grinned.
This caused all three women to laugh heartily. Shepard shoved Williams gently, mindful of both their healing injuries. "Told you that you were scaring off her love interests."
"Fuck you," Ash grinned, shaking her head. "Like that girl has EVER been lacking in boyfriends. But just so you know Todd, there was only one time that I was about to intervene because she had this boyfriend that started to get physical. I went with her when she went to set him straight and the second he laid a hand on her, she put him down on the ground and let him know what was what. I didn't have to do a thing. My baby sister can take care of herself, so I've stayed out of her private life."
"I don't know if that really reassures me," Todd said quirking his eyebrow, much to their amusement.
Dinner ended up being a wonderful experience for all four. The restaurant apparently catered to the locals, and was low-key enough not to draw too much attention to themselves, even though a few people did obviously recognize who they were. The food was incredible, the music fun and lively, and the atmosphere relaxed and pleasant. The owner refused to let them pay, and a couple of people asked for their pictures and autographs, but not until they were through with their meals and getting ready to leave. It was a bit embarrassing for the women, but they were thankful that their 'fans' had allowed them the chance to enjoy their dinner without interruption.
Once Todd had decided to loosen up and enjoy the evening, he found the company of the three women a great deal of fun. The Commander was nothing like any of the other military types he'd met before. She was a bit of a rebel it seemed, and he laughed as Ashley and Liara related a few of Shepard's antics while chasing Saren all over the galaxy. He'd never really had a chance to meet an Asari before, so he was thoroughly pleased that he got a chance to find out more about their culture as well as get to know the lovely Dr. T'Soni. He'd also found Chief Williams interesting. She was more of the typical soldier, but her story was interesting and he had to admire her determination to stick with the Alliance after being held back for so long. The amazing thing was how well educated she was in literary classics. He suspected Sarah wasn't the only romantic in the family.
Watching the three women interact was another treat all in itself. When he'd first dropped them off at the Commander's home, he could see the toll their fight had taken on them- both emotionally and physically- but had sensed that there might have been something deeper there than just comrades in arms or battle buddies taking a much needed vacation. Last week, they'd appeared more rested, and their injuries were of course on the mend, but there was an underlying tension between them. Here and now, all that tension was gone. They laughed more freely. They shared casual touches or glances, that spoke of a comfortable intimacy. Most importantly though, when they smiled, the smile was reflected in their eyes. He could still see that some of their mission still lingered with them- and after what he'd seen on the extra-net he didn't doubt that fight would take awhile to heal from- but the haunted, weary look was finally gone. He knew they had all sacrificed much to protect everyone's way of life and existence- probably more than anyone would ever know. It made him immeasurably pleased that they had managed to find some peace within themselves and with each other.
Once they finished up, they all piled back into his personal transport and he took them back to Shepard's home. They continued their easy conversation during the hour long trip, asking him questions about his life and how he'd gotten started in his business. He was happy to answer their questions, including Chief Williams more personal ones. He grinned to himself, knowing that despite her claim to stay out of her little sister's private life, the Chief obviously couldn't help checking up on someone who might be a potential love interest. After getting to know them better though, he honestly didn't mind. Sarah was young, but there was something deeper under the surface there that had caught his attentions, and he was seriously contemplating checking in with her once she got home. What was most appealing to the potential situation was that he'd already met her family, and they all seemed to like him well enough. One less thing to worry about.
Night had well settled over the island once they arrived, and after a long full day, the three women were ready to call it a night. Todd bid them all goodnight, refused Shepard's offer of payment, and then assured them he would be back at the same time next week. They waved at him as he lifted off and Shepard grinned over at Ashley. "I think that kid would make a nice brother-in-law."
Ashley groaned and shoved Shepard gently. "Please stop trying to marry my baby sister off. The girl needs no help at all."
"Well at least she's set her sights on someone who seems to be mature enough to have his life figured out. And he's a decent guy…who will probably be raking in the cash within a year or two."
"That boy is doomed," Ashley laughed. "No one can resist my sister in full charm mode, and this time I think she's really got her sights locked in. Not that I blame her, mind you. I totally agree that he seems like a nice guy who is defiantly on the right track to an honest and lucrative career. It's just a little scary thinking about the fact that my baby sister could be settling down soon. Where the hell did time go?"
"Our mission to stop Saren certainly made time go by quickly," Liara agreed. "I admit that I was not accustomed to life aboard a ship and one can easily lose track of time with the lack of natural light."
"Yeah and considering the pace we kept," Alex added shaking her head. "Seems like we lost almost an entire year." The blonde stopped by her food dispenser and ordered an ice cold bottle of beer and looked over inquiringly at Ash who grinned and nodded. Liara had tried a beer her first day, and had promptly made a face that had the two humans chuckling as she held the offending beverage away from her in disgust.
Shepard was just about to settle on the couch for a little while when she noticed that her comm light was blinking at her that a message had come in while they were gone. With a sigh she went over to the panel and typed in her security code.
"Who has the balls to bug you on your vacation?" Ashley asked from where she was sprawled across the other couch.
Alex looked at the ID code and frowned a bit. "Hackett….damn it he had better not be recalling us. The Docs won't release either of us to full duty for at least another month, three weeks if we push it. And I'm not going back out there in a ship that's been thrown back together," she grumbled as she stabbed at the recall button.
A few moments later she was patched through to Hackett's aide. "This is Commander Shepard. The Admiral called while I was out and asked for me to return his call."
"Ah yes. Just one moment Commander, Admiral Hackett was expecting your call. I'll patch you through."
Seconds later Hackett's face popped up on the screen. "Commander," he greeted.
"Admiral."
"Sorry for disturbing you on your much deserved Leave, but I needed to pass some information along to you."
Shepard sighed. "Lay it on me Admiral," she said, her heart sinking into her stomach.
He chuckled quietly. "I see your enjoying your Leave," he remarked, easily noting Shepard bracing herself for bad news.
"Enough that I would really like to enjoy the full time that was due to my crew and myself," she responded flatly.
"Well not to worry Shepard, I'm not about to ruin it with bad news. But now that the Council races have managed to finally get more of their fleets to the Citadel, our ships were finally able to come limping home as well and the Station Master is up to his neck in ship repairs. Normandy is on our high priority list, but the Roosevelt just docked, and as a battle cruiser you know that will take precedence over anything else. Thankfully her damage wasn't too extensive, and they've been making repairs on the fly already. But Command feels we should divert most of our resources to getting her back into fighting shape first."
"How long do you think our repairs will be set back?"
"Station Master feels a week, two at the most. You know things never go as expected, so I'm giving you at least one week more on Leave, but be prepared for it to be extended to two. Besides, I had a look at your Medical Reports from earlier and while you are both healing nicely, you and the Chief won't be in fighting shape before then anyway. So call your Crew Chiefs and let them know to pass the word down that your Leave has been extended a full week for now. I would give the two weeks, but if your girl is ready, I'd rather have you use the time to put her through a shake-down run that won't require any fighting."
"Understood Admiral. I'll call my people tomorrow."
"Good. So, now that business is out of the way, how are you enjoying that little island of yours?"
"If I it weren't for the fact that I know I'd go stir crazy not being in the middle of things, I could easily retire here right now," Shepard smirked as she sipped on her beer.
Hackett laughed. "Glad to here it kid. You look good." His eyes slid past her to nod in the direction of Ashley and Liara. "Ladies," he greeted with a pleasant smile before he looked back at Shepard. "You all look much better. You be sure to keep minding the good Doctor T'Soni there and keep up the progress with your recovery. I'll call you as soon as I hear back from the Station Master."
"Aye aye, Admiral. Have a good evening Sir."
Hackett tipped his head, a smirk not quite showing in his eyes and lips. "You as well Commander. Hackett out."
"Our vacation has been extended?" Liara asked with a pleased look on her features.
Alex grinned. "By a week at least, possibly more," she confirmed with a grin of her own. "Give me a minute ladies, I'd rather take care of this now than to be bothered with having to remember this tomorrow," she said turning back to her comm unit and punching in Pressley's number. Thankfully, she got his message box and left a brief message apologizing for disturbing him on his Leave but relayed their orders and asked him to relay it to the Department Heads so they could inform their own people. She would get back to him when she knew more.
With that done, she headed back to the living area to reclaim her beer and crawl back onto the loveseat. Relaxing back into the soft cushions, she sighed contentedly after taking a long pull from her beer. They sat in silence for awhile, enjoying the peace and warm company. "Did you really mean what you said to the Admiral?" Ashley asked after awhile.
"About retiring here?"
"Yeah."
Alex let her gaze to the large bay windows that clearly showed the moonlight ocean outside a blanket of stars hanging overhead. "You know my whole life has been spent surviving from one battle to the next. When I was younger and I would see normal people with their normal lives, I couldn't ever imagine myself in their situation. I had gotten so used to the thrill and challenge of the fight, that I thought living like that would be so boring," she admit with a wry chuckle.
"But now….now I look at what I've missing out on, and I could easily see having at least a little of that for myself. This mission made me look hard at my life and while I'm proud of everything I've accomplished and I know that I could have only seen us through this because of my past, I'm…tired," Alex admitted quietly. She noted in the back of her mind that both women were listening intently to her now, but she continued on. "My whole life has been about giving everything I am to someone else….the gangs, the Alliance, the Council. I have sacrificed so much for all of them, and only just now have something to even show for it. I'll see this mission through to it's end, because the Reapers HAVE to be stopped and it seems I'm really the only one who is willing to acknowledge their existence. But when this is done, and the Reaper threat is over, I'm through," she said decidedly.
"Got any plans for then?"
Alex shrugged and finished the last of her beer. "For the time being, retiring here seems like a good plan. I finally have someplace to call home, and that's good enough for me. The rest I can figure out when I have all the time in the world to decide what I want to do with my life afterwards. What about you Ash?"
"Honestly? I don't really know Alex," she admitted with a sigh as she looked down into her bottle. "I've always been so focused on being a career Marine, and figured I'd probably die in the line of duty some day. Never planned for much in the future because tomorrow's battle could be my last. But now?" she paused and looked up between Alex and Liara. "Now I have a lot more to live for, and I've started to re-evaluate my priorities as well," she finished quietly.
Alex smiled warmly at her. "C'mere," she breathed.
Leaving her empty bottle on the coffee table, Ash moved over to curl up next to Alex who wrapped an arm around her. "Scary thinking about the future isn't it?" she asked knowingly.
"It's simpler to just have to worry about yourself and getting through the next day," Ash acknowledge quietly, feeling for the first time that someone truly understood her.
Liara, who was being the giving the gift of getting to know and understand yet another deeper facet of her two lovers' personalities, sat quietly and observed the interaction with a tender expression in her eyes. She had never been a very social person growing up and until this past year, her interactions with others had been limited, but she had seen soldiers of all kinds over the past century , and one thing had always struck her about the dedicated kind- they were extremely controlled people. You could always sense the fire of passion burning just beneath the surface, but they had honed that passion into weapon- only to be used in the heat of battle. She was finally beginning to understand that the thought of using that passion for anything else was far more terrifying than overwhelming odds on the battlefield.
Alex pressed a kiss against Ashley's temple, understand her dilemma all to well herself. "I hear you Ash. It's why I decided I'm not going to think too hard about the future. I know what I want for myself, but who knows? An all out war could start and maybe we won't be good enough to stop them. Our lives have too many variables to plan for anything specific, and we can't afford to be distracted. So I say we take your advice and enjoy what we have, while we have it and if we find ourselves alive on the other side of this upcoming fight, then we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Ashley turned to look at Alex with a beautiful smile on her face. "I like that idea Skipper."
"Good. Now, I've been waiting to do this all day," Alex murmured as she leaned forward and pressed her lips against Ashley's.
Ashley's lips were full and soft and Alex sighed into the tender kiss as she felt her body relax into the embrace. Her tongue moved to gently explore that softness, Ash reciprocating the gesture moments later. The feel and taste of Ashley as their kiss quickly deepened, ignited the desire and passion they had been keeping in check for the last several days. From her own seat, Liara gasped quietly as she both felt and saw the change in their aura's. Arousal coursed through her own veins as she watched her two soon to be lovers sink back into the couch until Alex was covering Ashley with her own body, their hands beginning to wander restlessly along each other's bodies. She desperately wanted to join them, but she knew they needed this and it allowed her another moment to observe and learn.
The young maiden watched as Alex began to trail wet kisses along Ashley's jaw down to her neck and nipped at a spot just below Ashley's ear that caused the brunette to gasp and expose more of her neck. She noted how Ashley's strong hands traced a trail up Alex's back to her neck and scratched gently against her scalp causing the Commander to swear softly into Ashley's neck. She saw how they enjoyed the small subtle play for domination, their bodies beginning to slow grind against each other as they succumbed to the need that had been burning just beneath the surface for weeks now. It was beautiful, intimate and highly erotic.
Alex felt Ashley's hands finally slid up under her shirt and groaned loudly with the contact of skin and nails along her spine. The noise was finally enough to startle her slightly out of the fog of desire that had settled over her, and she pulled back, trying to catch her breath as she opened her eyes and stared down at Ashley. Her Chief finally opened her eyes, the irises relegated to thin bands of chestnut encircling widened pupils filled with an equal amount of arousal. Alex felt her hands tighten involuntarily where they gripped the brunette, and Ashley responded with a bodily shiver and a soft exhalation. Then they both turned to where Liara sat, and were surprised by the hungry expression on her face as she carefully watched them. She looked almost as out of breath as they were.
Alex swallowed hard and finally managed to find her voice. "Bedroom?" she panted.
Liara stood swiftly and approached them both a sultry smile on her lips that neither of the other women had ever observed on her lips before. "I believe that is an excellent suggestion," Liara commented in a husky tone that sent shivers through the two humans before she knelt down to share in lingering wet kisses with her lovers.
It was with some reluctance they parted and Liara moved back so the two soldiers could stand on unsteady legs before she moved towards the bedroom. As Ashley moved to eagerly follow, Alex grabbed her hand stilling her for a moment. "Ash…Liara…she's never…" she began in a bare whisper, concern suddenly in her eyes.
"Been with anyone," Ashley answered back equally as quiet as she squeezed Alex's hand reassuringly. "I know Alex. And I want to make this as special for her as you do."
Alex smiled warmly at Ash and then leaned in for one last exchange before they both trailed after Liara, their bodies thrumming in anticipation for what they were about to experience.
Chapter 12: Gravity of Love
No sooner had Alex and Ash walked into her darkened room, both were grabbed by the fronts of
their shirts and held fast by both a strong physical and biotic grip as Liara kissed them each fiercely. Then just as suddenly as she had captured them, she released them and took several steps backward as they panted hard and stared at her with hungry eyes. Liara heard her own breath coming in quick gasps as her blood pounded through her body at an incredible rate. Her senses were on overdrive, and she could feel her biotics tingle through her mind and body, driving her to complete the union.
"Do you both understand what Joining with me involves?" she forced herself to ask.
Alex looked over at Ash who nodded and then back at Liara. "We do."
A slow and sensual smile spread across her moonlit features. "Then why are you both still standing in the doorway staring at me?" she asked coyly as her hands drifted up to the top button of the shirt she was wearing.
Those words were enough to dissipate any notions of hesitancy any of them might have been feeling. They wanted this…needed it. Desire and passion resurfaced in all three and Ashley and Alex quickly closed in on Liara pushing her back onto the bed as their bodies pressed into each other and their mouths sought out feverish skin.
All doubts that had still lingered within Alex fled at the sight of that look on Liara's shadowed face and at the tone she used on her Ash as she gave them tacit approval to proceed. It also triggered something deep within her that she'd been keeping at bay for….forever. A need and hunger rose in her that changed the color of her aura so sharply it caused Liara to gasp even as Alex closed in on her and claimed her in a deep kiss and pushed her back onto the bed.
Ash followed them both down, her body slowly grinding up against Alex even as her hands begin to deftly work at the fastenings to Alex's shirt while she nibbled along the back of her lover's neck. "Fuck," Alex growled into her kiss with Liara as Ash found a particularly sensitive spot and nipped it lightly after hearing the Spectre's oath. Then she laved the spot with her tongue and felt Alex shiver beneath her and grind instinctively into Liara who gasped in shocked pleasure.
Ashley chuckled huskily into Alex's neck, and then moved down further to capture Liara's mouth for another slow, wet kiss even as her fingers finally parted Alex's shirt enough to slip a hand inside to freely explore full soft flesh. Alex groaned as strong fingers strummed across needful flesh slowly teasing it into further stiffness.
"Ash!" she cried out when the brunette added a slight tweaking motion that expertly threaded the line of pleasure and pain. Suddenly Ashley was pulling back, pulling Alex with her as they knelt straddling Liara, while Ashley ripped Alex's shirt wide open, exposing the blonde's torso to Liara's now hungry gaze.
Ashley held Alex from behind, kissing and licking her way down a slender neck along the top of a shoulder still marked by recent surgery scars that were just beginning to fade. Not one to ever pass up an opportunity to explore and discover, Liara reached both hands upwards to skim along the front of Alex's body, marveling at the difference between the lean, hard planes of strong abs, and then up to cup the full soft weight of Alex's breasts. Her hands brushed along Ashley's, enhancing the pleasure they were now both giving Alex, and Liara reveled in the soft noises that were coming from the normally controlled Commander. Blue eyes shifted past Alex's heaving chest and tracked slowly upwards to meet the dark brown of Ashley's smoldering gaze. She watched as the darker woman left her mark on paler flesh, and then grin wickedly down at Liara as her eyes slid briefly to the woman that was writhing against both of them.
Liara was all to happy to comply with the unspoken decision as she wished to learn more about her lovers and how she could elicit even more of the erotic vocalizations that were filling the moonlit bedroom. On an impulsive whim, Liara's biotics flared, filling the room with it's brilliant blue glow briefly as she applied it in a manner that she'd never used before. What was left of Alex's clothing was quickly rent in half and flung into the darker corners, leaving the blonde completely bare.
Alex gasped as she felt the biotics wrap around her briefly and then was left stunned as the remainder of her clothes were ripped from her body. She shuddered in excitement at the display of such power, and absently wondered what else Liara could do with her biotics. Ashley had moved to her other shoulder, her hands and Liara's still pulling noises and sensations from her body that Alex had never experienced before. This was so far beyond any of the quick one night stands that she had dabbled in on those rare occasions that she'd felt like indulging in her body's desires. She was so far gone on the pleasure high they were creating that she couldn't even protest that she was the only one undressed.
Ashley, despite her focus on Alex, wasn't immune to the whole eroticism of the moment and she needed to feel more of Alex's skin against her. She left Liara to the enjoyable task of keeping Alex distracted with strong skilled fingers while she stripped out of her own shirt and bra and then pressed her body back up against Alex's. Hot skin that was beginning to slick with sweat gently scraped against Ashley's sensitive nipples and caused the darker woman to groan in need as her mouth sought out her lover's jaw.
Liara watched as Ashley began shedding some of her own clothes and gladly took advantage of having Alex to herself for a little while, her fingers continuing their play for a moment longer before her hands began trailing all along the bare flesh that was now exposed to her. She started stroking slowly lower along her lover's sides and ribs, back over the well defined abs, and then over the gentle swell of Alex's hips and down the outside over her thighs. As her hands drifted lower, so did her gaze and it settled between the legs that were straddling her body. She could feel the moisture that was now soaking through her shirt and damping her own stomach, and could easily smell Alex's arousal, a scent that was driving her own desire higher.
Slowly, far too slowly for Alex, her hands began to track back up those spread thighs, her thumbs skimming along the insides as she watched Alex lean back into Ashley and tense in anticipation. Ashley had Alex wrapped in her strong embrace once more and was planting loving kisses along the blonde's jaw, her hands picking up where Liara's had left off. Aware of Liara's own explorations, she guided Alex up higher onto her knees, and then leaned them both back a bit more allowing their inexperienced lover the chance to explore more freely. Liara gave her a beautiful smile that made Ashley's heart beat harder and she pulled Alex's head around for a long and deep kiss.
Alex was completely lost in the world of burning desire that her two lovers had awakened within her. She couldn't catch her breath, her heart felt like it was about to pound out of her chest, her body was covered in a fine sheen of sweat and every nerve ending was sensitized to their touches. She could feel and smell her own arousal, heard the noises they were dragging from her, and it all served to ratchet her need even higher. When Liara began the slow torturous journey towards where she needed her most, she gladly accepted Ashley's shifting of their bodies along with the searing kiss that quickly followed. Then finally….finally she felt the lightest of touches along the juncture of her thighs and whimpered into the kiss as her hips moved of their own accord in an attempt to deepen that touch. Strong fingers dug into her hips, and Alex broke off the kiss to gasp Liara's name and finally look down into her lover's eyes.
Ashley looked down as well, and her hands tightened their hold convulsively as she saw that the young Asari was faintly glowing blue, and her eyes were nearly black. When she whispered 'Ebrace Eternity!' to them, something shifted between them and Ashley was a part of something so intense and beautiful she knew this was home. Old wounds were closed, fears were assuaged, and nightmares chased away as a burgeoning love was exposed and explored. Words were no longer needed as thoughts, desires and need were clearly communicated between each of them and the time for teasing Alex passed as her need became their own.
All three cried out in joy as Liara's long fingers sank into warm, wet, and receptive flesh and Ashley added her own firm touches in all the right places. When Liara sat up so that she could suckle on what her fingers had only teased before, a lightening bolt of pleasure ran through all three of them. Another shocked through them when Alex slid her hand up the back of her Asari's neck and skimmed along the edges of Liara's crest, exposing an apparent Asari erogenous zone. Another flare of biotics and all clothes were disposed of as the three women began to move and writhe against each other focused only on bringing their combined pleasure higher. The journey didn't last long however, because all three were too caught up in Alex's already heightened arousal. When they finally crested, it was with a combined scream of release, before they collapsed in a shaking heap as aftershocks of intense pleasure continued to rock both their minds and bodies for long minutes afterwards. Finally, the rapport of their Joining slowly released it's hold on them, and in its wake a deep lassitude settled in carrying all three away into a sweet oblivion.

It was still early morning when Alex finally began to stir. She was immediately aware of the feeling of two soft and naked bodies pressed against her, and memories of the previous evening's sweet loving surfaced, bringing a smile to her lips even as her body began to respond to those memories. A gentle kiss was placed against her lips and she opened her eyes to see Ashley leaning back into her pillow a warm look in her eyes.
"Mornin' Skipper," she whispered quietly with a rakish grin on her lips.
From the soft snores coming from behind her, Alex easily deduced that Liara was still asleep, a fact that wasn't unexpected since Liara was the focus mind for their Union. Alex smirked back at her darker lover. "Chief," she whispered back. "You didn't play fair last night if memory serves. Ganging up on me like that," she said, raising her eyebrow in mock severity.
Ashley's grin widened and her eyes twinkled mischievously. "I'll take whatever advantage I can against you Alex. Besides, I could see the scientist in Liara rearing it's beautiful head and figured she'd enjoy being the one in control for her first time. I know I certainly appreciated it my first time."
Alex rolled them quickly over so that she was pinning her Chief down to the bed as her smirk returned in full force. "Well you know what they say….turn about is only fair play," she murmured before she leaned in to mark Ash in the same spot that she'd been marked the previous night.
Ashley gasped as quietly as possible and then tried to suppress a giggle as Alex's mouth began to wander. "Alex! Liara's still asleep," she protested quietly.
"Mmmmhmmm. I think we wore the good doctor out last night," Alex murmured smugly against her neck. "I don't think she would mind if we enjoyed each other until she wakes up though," she added before sucking on a sensitive spot on Ashley's neck. A sharp inhalation was all the encouragement Alex needed to continue mapping the tan skin beneath her with lips, tongue and hands.
It took every ounce of Ashley's willpower to keep from crying out as Alex slid down her body and began teasing her nipples to further stiffness with teeth and tongue. As it was, her breathing was coming out in harsh pants as she arched her back up into Alex, one hand threading in short blonde hair while the other twisted into the bed sheets. Alex looked up from where she was enjoying teasing her lover and took in the look of completely ecstasy and need, and felt a sense of satisfaction thrill through her. She surged upwards capturing Ashley's mouth in a hungry kiss, their tongues dueling for control and ground herself against Ash causing both of them to moan softly.
For the next several minutes they remained locked in the heated kiss as they thrust slowly against each other, their arousal evident in wet slick flesh that ground into each other as the soft sounds and smells of their loving filled the room once more. But Alex wanted more and she finally broke free of the kiss drawing air into her lungs before she began sliding back down Ashley's body, planting wet, open mouthed kisses along the way. She would pause occasionally as she found new hot spots and relished in making Ashley writhe and clutch at the sheets. Her kisses finally led to hips that jogged upwards as she began tracing teasing circles inward with her tongue.
"Alex!" Ashley gasped out in frustration.
"Shhhhh. Liara's still asleep remember?" Alex whispered back quietly as she lifted her head up to smirk at her Chief.
"Liara is no longer asleep, but she is very much enjoying how she woke up," a husky voice said from next to them.
They both looked over to see their Asari lover stretched out very much awake and obviously enjoying what she was watching. She smirked playfully at them. "By all means, do continue."
Alex smirked back at her. "Hope you like what you see, because you're next," she promised in a sultry voice. Then she turned her attention back to Ashley and focused back on the goal in front of her. Neatly trimmed dark hair did little to hide the evidence of Ashley's arousal and her heady scent filled Alex's nostrils at this close range.
"Please," Ashley begged out loud now, thankfully she no longer had to contain her passion.
Alex relented finally, and leaned in to run her tongue along the length of lover and tease the sensitive bundle of nerves gently. Ashley cried out, her hips grinding further into Alex. The blonde was not prepared for the sharp spike in her own arousal as she began loving Ashley in earnest, and her world narrowed to the whimpers and cries of Ashley and the taste and smell of her lover as she delved deeper with her tongue for more of the addictive nectar. Despite the ache in her shoulder, she slid her arms under Ashley's thighs to wrap around and firmly hold the Latin woman to her as she brought her closer to the edge. That moment arrived only a few short minutes later with Ashley crying out her name as her whole body stiffened and then shuddered with an intense climax. Alex let her come down slowly from her release and looked over to see Liara watching them intently, one of her hands lightly dancing along her own skin in arousal. Wiping her chin, a feral grin lifted Alex's lips as she moved swiftly from the now limp form of Ashley to her Asari lover.
Liara was surprised by the explosion of flavor on her tongue as Alex kissed her deeply, sharing the lingering flavor of Ashley with her even as strong hands quickly began arousing the Asari. Liara was subjected to the same teasing loving that Ashley had experienced, and quickly found her self so off balance she didn't think she could focus enough for a proper Joining. Alex paused at one point and smiled gently at her. "It's ok sweetheart. It doesn't have to be like last night every time….that would be too wearing on you. We humans enjoy good old fashioned loving just fine. So relax and enjoy," she told her tenderly as she placed gentle kisses along her brow.
And then Alex began exploring something she'd recalled from the previous evening but had been too distracted to pay proper attention to. Her hands slid up Liara's neck and into the elegant fringes of her crest and watched as Liara's eyes rolled back in her head. The fringes, which were originally hard and almost bone-like in their design began softening under her touch the longer she paid attention to them and Alex watched in fascination as they unfolded ever so slightly. Moving upwards so she could have a better view she continued her tactile explorations, reveling in Liara's steady stream of whimpers. When Alex leaned in to begin kissing and sucking lightly on their edges she was rewarded with the whimpers turning into a sharp gasp of pleasure as Liara's fingers dug into Alex's hips. From her new vantage point Alex could see a patch of skin that was now exposed on the Asari's skull, it's coloring a deep indigo. Intrigued, Alex gently ran the tip of her finger against the almost velvet like skin.
Liara's eyes opened wide as her whole body jerked with intense pleasure. "Goddess!" she cried out sharply and Alex jerked her hand back, afraid that she'd just hurt her lover. "No!" Liara panted as she grasped Alex's hand and guided it back up to her crest.
"I didn't hurt you?" Alex asked, concern still in her eyes.
"Goddess no!" Liara panted. She wanted to explain more, but words were currently failing her.
Hesitantly, Alex lightly repeated her previous touch and watched as Liara shuddered and groaned deeply as her head titled to give Alex better access.
"Looks like you just found an Asari G-Spot," Ashley chuckled from where she was watching and recovering.
Well I'll be damned, Alex thought to herself with a grin as she rubbed the spot a bit harder and was rewarded with another cry. Fully curious now, Alex shifted up further and leaned down to run her tongue across the indigo patch that drug another cry from Liara. Grinning, Alex leaned back in and began licking firmly at that soft spot, feeling her thighs grow slick from her own arousal at hearing Liara's cries and pleas for more.
Ashley felt her own arousal return as she watched Alex pleasure their Asari lover and from this angle could see the effect it was having on their intrepid Commander. Having finally recovered from her stunning release earlier, Ashley shifted until she was straddling Liara's thigh and had access to both her lovers. She knew Liara was aware of her presence because that soft thigh moved to press against her damp center, dragging a soft moan of appreciation from Ashley. Her hand splayed across soft blue skin and Liara's legs parted instinctively granting Ashley free access, which she quickly took advantage of. Her other hand reached out and slid up Alex's leg, and the blonde broke off her attentions for a moment as the sensation broke through her focus. Ash continued up higher until there too, she was allowed entry.
Instinct took over and they set up a pace and rhythm that gradually increased in speed, depth and firmness until all three were panting and grinding desperately against each other. Liara was the first to peak, and her howl of release as she came hard, sent such a rush of pleasure through the other two that they quickly followed her into the blinding joy of release. Trembling, exhausted and completely sated, they curled against each other and succumbed to another blissfully deep slumber.


Chapter 13: Cutting Loose
"Commander."
"Please Doc, we are all on vacation," Shepard chuckled shaking her head as she hugged the older woman.
"Very well then. Alex, I would like to introduce you to an old friend of mine, Dr. Sela Karpinsky. She and I went through med school together. Sela, this is Commander Alexis Shepard," Chakwas introduced.
"You can just call me Alex," the blonde said as she shook the other woman's hand, her eyes quickly assessing the good doctor's 'friend'. She was certainly a beautiful looking woman.
"A pleasure to meet you finally Alex. Carolyn has been telling me a great deal about your mission. I've been looking forward to meeting all of you," she said warmly as she shook hands with Alex, Ashley, and Liara.
"Drink?" Alex asked as they moved into the house, Liara deftly lifting the luggage after them.
"I would love a drink Alex. My God, this place is absolutely gorgeous!" Chakwas gasped as she took in the interior of the house and the view it offered.
"I know. I can barely believe it myself. I'll take you on a tour of the property in a bit," Alex chuckled. Then her grin took on a bit of her wicked smirk. "So should Liara take your bags to two separate rooms or just one?"
A graying eyebrow lifted in her direction, and Sela blushed a bit. "Just one if you please Liara," Chakwas answered smoothly, her expression daring Shepard to say something.
Alex had the good grace not to tease her friend…just yet at least. Her eyes crinkled in amusement, but she held her tongue while Liara took their bags back and Ashley got them settled in the living room. "Pick your poison ladies!" she said as she ordered up drinks for Liara, Ashley and herself.
A couple of hours later they were all relaxing on the beach, trading stories and sipping on a fresh batch of cool drinks. Sela had been eyeing the water for the last half hour, and Ashley rolled to her feet. "Anyone else feel like a swim?"
Liara was quick to stand and Sela eagerly joined them. Shepard and Chakwas promised to join in a few minutes after they finished their drinks and smiled as the small group splashed into the water. "Ashley's leg is coming along nicely. I see her limp is completely gone, and she's able to get to her feet without any trouble now," Chakwas remarked in a pleased tone.
"Liara has been keeping us right on track."
"I figure if anyone could keep you two in line it would be her," the older woman chuckled. "I'm glad to see all of you looking better Alex. You look….at peace."
Alex looked out at her two lovers and was unaware of the tender smile that was lifting her lips. "I am Doc."
The last couple of weeks had been….amazing. Countless hours had been spent simply loving and holding each other as they drew comfort and joy from one another. As they explored their deepening love, the wounds in their hearts and souls were slowly soothed over and old nightmares and fears were finally chased away. A sense of peace had indeed settled over them, along with a renewed vigor for life. The past week had been spent touring the planet and seeing some of the better things that Earth had to offer. Liara had been in heaven, wandering one city after another with eyes wide with wonder and a permanent smile affixed to her face. Even Alex had enjoyed seeing more of the planet that she'd once regarded with disdain. It had been a transforming experience for all of them.
"I'm happy for you Alex…for all of you," Carolyn said with a genuinely pleased smile. There was also a knowing look in her eyes.
Shepard tensed for a moment, worried, and Chakwas rested a hand on her arm. "Relax. You are the last person to let personal feelings stand in the way of your Command. Personally, I think this is something you needed to help ground you."
"And professionally?"
"So long as you keep things discreet once we are all back on board, and you never let your feelings for each other cloud your judgment or decisions, then I see no reason to make it any of my business. You're not just an Alliance Commander anymore Alex. You are a Spectre and our ship and crew are unique. Your crew has gotten used to not having to play by the rulebook so strictly. Hell, even Pressley loosened up a bit more by the end there," the older woman chuckled.
"Do you think it's a bad thing? Not playing by the rules?"
"I think it depends on the crew and the Commander. You may not play by the rules all the time, but you don't shirk your responsibilities in the slightest. You demand results from yourself and the crew, and they respect you for your dedication to finishing the job no matter what."
"They are a good crew."
"That they are."
"So…you and Sela huh?" Alex asked after a moment of comfortable silence.
Chakwas chuckled and shook her head. "I knew you couldn't leave it alone for long," she teased.
"I can't believe you never let on that you had someone that beautiful as a partner!"
Carolyn smiled wistfully. "Ah, if only circumstances would allow such a relationship. I am a career Fleet Doctor, Alex. I gave up any hopes or notions of family or a real relationship a long time ago. Most of us have acknowledged that being a Fleet Doctor doesn't really allow for such luxuries- especially once you make CMO. A rare few have managed to make it work, but they are few and far between. Many of us keep in contact with each other and if we happen to be scheduled some leave at the same time and place we will try to enjoy what little physical comfort we can. Sela is one of a few close friends that I like to enjoy such companionship with whenever possible."
"Friends with benefits eh? So if you had your choice, who would you pick to settle down with?" Alex asked, her curiosity piqued.
"Michael Banks. We grew up together, and he was the only other person that I knew longer than Sela. Sadly, he was killed in action when the Roosevelt was destroyed at the Citadel," Carolyn sighed.
"I'm sorry," Alex said softly.
"We all lost a good many friends that day. At least we can take heart that they died bravely and fighting for the survival of all life in the galaxy," the older woman said philosophically.
"True." Shepard paused and then looked over at her older friend, her eyes slightly narrowed behind her sunglasses. "Speaking of dealing with losses, you knew Ashley's mom would interfere didn't you?"
At this Chakwas smirked unrepentantly. "It took me awhile to realize that our young Gunnery Chief was the daughter of a very talented Counselor I worked with many years ago before I received my first ship posting. I was going to insist on counseling sessions for all three of you, and then I found out that her mother would be visiting you. Ruth could never turn her back on someone that was hurting and she had a gift in getting even the toughest ones to open up. I knew she wouldn't let you off the hook- no matter how stubborn you can be."
"Huh…..was pretty damn sneaky of you there Doc. But thank you."
Chakwas nodded and then smiled down at the water. Setting down her now finished drink she stood and stretched her still fit body before nodding towards the others. "Shall we?"

Carolyn turned off the light in their bathroom and walked into the darkened room she was sharing with her companion for this trip. She discarded her robe onto the back of a chair as she passed by it and slipped under the sheets, and leaned over to enjoy a light but pleasurable kiss with her dear friend. When they broke apart after a minute, Sela shifted to wrap herself around the trim form of her lover and they relaxed into each other.
"This place is incredible. Shepard didn't strike me as the type to go for something so….grand."
"She isn't. But then all she's ever really had in her life was the clothes on her back, whatever little food she had time to scrounge up, and the next fight to live through. I think after these last couple of years she needed something for herself to help keep her grounded. After saving us all from Saren and Sovereign, she's definitely earned the chance to buy herself some luxury and peace. "
"Well this is the place to do it. I would say that all things considered, they all look pretty good. After you told me all about what they've been through this past year, I was honestly a bit concerned we'd get here and end up putting on our professional hats and have to help Counsel them."
Carolyn chuckled. "I made sure that was taken care of before we got here. Did you know that Ashley's mother is Ruth Williams?"
"Ruth Williams, Ruth Williams," Sela muttered her eyes becoming unfocused as the name rang a bell. "Wait…Ruth Williams from the Talares Rehab Center?"
"The one and the same. I put a bug in her ear that she really needed to make sure she came and visited with her daughter during Ashley's leave. Apparently, she still has the gift and worked her magic on them and I have to say even I'm a bit amazed at how well they look. It's quite the turn around from when they left my sick bay nearly a month ago."
"Hmmmm, well I would say Ruth wasn't the only thing to influence their recovery process," Sela said with a knowing smirk.
"Does it bother you?" Carolyn asked a bit concerned.
"I never told you about the cute young medic that was assigned to me two years ago did I?" Sela grinned.
Carolyn chuckled. "You do like them young don't you?" she teased. "Since Medic's are enlisted, I'm going to go out on a limb and say you don't much care for that regulation either."
"For the record, I definitely prefer my partners to be more….experienced," she purred as she traced a fingernail up Carolyn's back, enjoying the response she got. "But the young ones are fun because what they lack in experience they certainly make up for in enthusiasm. They are always so eager to please," Sela laughed. "But I could care less about that reg so long as it doesn't affect someone's command ability. Since I detected all sorts of approval in you today, I'm going to guess their relationship doesn't bother you either."
"Something has been brewing between those three….well four really until Tali had to leave…for months now. I suspected that finally allowing themselves at least a little happiness and enjoyment with each other would help expedite their recovery. This year has been extremely hard on all of them. It warms my heart to finally see them truly smile."
Sela raised her head and kissed Carolyn's cheek. "You have always been so compassionate my dear. But there is something special in this crew of yours isn't there?"
"It was the first time I have worked with a truly integrated crew Sela. I spent weeks…months, finally able to do in depth research and study into species that we normally have limited contact with. The doctor and scientist in me was fascinated and thrilled by that experience alone. This old dog learned so much this past year alone, that I can only imagine what another year on that ship can bring. But it wasn't just the aliens, the human crew was just as diverse and amazing. Jeff overcoming the odds of making it through flight school with his Vrolik syndrome. Pressely coming around despite some deep seated prejudices. Adams is an engineering genius. Kaiden pushing through the pain of an old L2 implant on a daily basis. Ashley's sheer will and determination to stick it out despite the constant scuttling of her career. That woman should have been made an officer years ago. And Shepard is a legend in her own right. It was because of them that the rest of the crew followed without question or complaint. I was truly impressed to see every man and woman on that ship stand loyally behind their CO because they had faith in her, in themselves and in each other. Despite the diversity, they were the most united crew I have seen in my entire career Sela. I want to be a part of that for as long as Shepard will have us."
"Wow….that does sound amazing. You really care for her don't you?"
Carolyn rolled her head and quirked in eyebrow in the dim moonlight. "Not in that way if that's what you are insinuating," she chuckled quietly. "Perhaps if I liked mine younger like you, I might be taken with her a bit. She is certainly easy on the eyes."
"You're not attracted to her at all?" Sela asked, not buying it for a minute. "She is totally your type Carolyn. You've always loved the dangerous ones."
Carolyn laughed. "I did not deny that the dashing and daring Commander was attractive. But Sela, I am practically twice her age, I am a CMO, and I have earned her trust finally as a friend and confidant. She has so very few of those in her life and I wouldn't have it any other way."
"Guess your stuck with little old me then," Sela laughed quietly as her hands began to drift under the covers.
"Hmmmm, not so old I think" Carolyn hummed happily. "And it's an arrangement I'm more than content with my dear," she responded as she pulled her friend and lover to her for a deep kiss.

"Tell me again how I let you all talk me into this?" Shepard asked wryly as she watched young Mr. Baker's transport shuttle descend with the first of her crew aboard. She could several more hovering off in the distance, waiting to unload their passengers once the landing pad was cleared.
"It'll be good for crew morale," Chakwas chuckled.
"And besides…underneath that hard-ass exterior, we all know you love your crew as much as they love you. It'll be a good bonding experience for everyone," Ashley supplied with a grin.
"Command would probably have my stripes if they found out about this. You do realize that don't you?"
"Well then, it's a good thing you're a Spectre too," Sela smirked.
Shepard sighed theatrically, and couldn't suppress her own chuckle after Liara giggled. The shuttle landed and they approached the pad as Todd opened the hatch and then stood aside for his passengers as they began to disembark, their eyes wide in astonishment.
Joker was one of the last, and he allowed Todd to carry his bag down for him as he limped carefully down the short ramp, mouth hanging open. "Holy shit Commander! This place is amazing!!!" he gasped out.
"It is something else isn't it Joker?" Shepard said with a bit of pride. "Ladies and gentlemen if you follow Dr. Chakwas, she'll show you where you can pile your bags and then change into something a little more comfortable. Feel free to explore and make yourself at home."
A collective 'thank you Commander' rose from the group and then Chakwas was gesturing for them to follow her as Todd handed Joker's bag back to him and approached Shepard. "Commander, my service has put me at your disposal for the rest of the weekend per your request. Also, since I was aware of your plans for this weekend, I took the liberty of putting out a couple of calls to some close associates of mine in the various entertainment/hospitality industry. I didn't tell them anything specific since I know you value your privacy, but they, like myself, are respectable people who deal with high profile clients who are looking to enjoy a private party with their friends…and keep the details away from the public eye."
Shepard and Ashley both quirked their eyebrows. "I see. And what exactly do your friends do Mr. Baker?" Shepard asked amused.
"One is a DJ, one is a caterer, and one is a bartender. All three happen to be available this weekend."
"And let me guess, they even have stuff prepared just in case you give them the green light," Shepard said wryly.
Todd had the good grace to finally blush a bit. "They are. I, um, hope I wasn't being too presumptuous Commander. But I was aware of your plans since you talked about them in length the other day on the trip back, and I noticed that you didn't have any plans for entertainment. I thought your crew might enjoy a bit of that this evening and it would take some of the hosting stress off yourself if they are kept distracted."
Shepard chuckled and shook her head. "You are damn good at your job Mr. Baker. How much, and when can your friends be here?"
"Standard fare for all three for a night of their services will run you around twenty thousand credits a piece Commander….they are very good at their jobs and they are well known amongst the elite for their discretion. However, I believe once they find out who they are catering to tonight, they will insist on doing it either for free or for a severely discounted rate."
"You tell them I'll take their services and for no less than fifteen thousand. I appreciate their willingness to be on standby and lose potential income had I declined your offer."
"They can be here within the hour and set up within an hour of landing."
"Wow. That's pretty impressive Todd," Ashley remarked.
Again the young man blushed. "I had a gut feeling you would say yes, Commander. They are actually staged, with their staff, in Auckland right now."
"Had I said no, what would this have cost you Todd?" Shepard asked, after hearing just how much of a risk the young man had taken.
"Free rides for any of their clients for the next two years, so long as it didn't interfere with my job with the Company."
Ashley whistled. "That probably would have set you back quite a bit seeing as how they would most likely keep you very busy."
"Yes and no. Most high profile clients tip decently, so I still would have made enough to cover maintenance and energy costs. Plus I would be adding to my clientele list once they got to know me. However, I would not be saving the kind of money I would normally through fare costs and would be set back in coming up with the money to expand my business," he said with a shrug.
"A smart risk then. You gain either way, you just don't make quite as much money up front one way," Shepard said impressed. "Alright, go clear my pad so the rest of my crew can get in here and get your friends out here. Do I need to do anything?"
"You won't have to do a thing Commander. Just enjoy your party, and we'll handle everything else for you."
As soon as the young pilot jogged off back to his shuttle Shepard looked over at Ash and Liara with raised her eyebrow. "You realize I blame you both for this."
"What did we do?" Ash chuckled.
Alex softened her gaze, a fond smile turning her lips up. "You helped show me how to enjoy life with the people I care about," she said quietly.
Ash wanted nothing more than to hug Alex just then, but they had all agreed that while in the presence of the crew they would forego any public displays of affection. Dr. Chakwas was probably a good indicator of how the crew in general might react if they knew Shepard was involved with Liara and Williams, but it was best to set a standard of conduct now. It would be difficult, but necessary. It didn't stop Ash from resting a hand on Alex's shoulder and squeezing it briefly in acknowledgment of the sentiment however. Then the next shuttle was landing and the group turned back to greet the next batch of astounded crew members.

A few hours later the crew of the SSV Normandy was partying hard all around their Commander's spacious property. The music was pumping its loud primal beat across the expansive beach, the liquor was flowing freely and with flair, and Shepard's back deck had been transformed into a culinary banquet of exquisitely prepared foods.
A few of the crew were enjoying the still warm waters of the surf, despite the fact that the sun had long since dipped below the horizon. Several of the crew partnered up and would slip off into the darker recesses of the beach further down for awhile before returning to the party. There was a steady stream of people refilling their glasses or plates. But most were gathered on the sand just in front of Shepard's deck where the DJ had set up, a mass of moving flesh as everyone got their best groove on and enjoyed themselves and each other.
In the middle of it all, their fearless Commander was losing herself to the heavy bass and the alcohol flooding freely through her system by then. Somewhere along the way she'd lost the t-shirt she'd been wearing, and was clad only in her short shorts and the bikini top she'd had on from earlier. Sweat freely beaded down her tanned, toned flesh, marred only by the criss-cross of old battle scars. She was currently pressed up against her Gunnery Chief who was as equally undressed, and both were grinding suggestively against each other.
If the crew took notice, no one made any comment or even seemed to care. Considering how much everyone had had to drink by now though, Shepard doubted that anyone really noticed. She'd tried to make the rounds with her crew, dancing with others or by herself throughout the night. She'd even managed to coax a hesitant Joker down onto the sand to dance with her and Liara with a promise that they'd be gentle.
She knew she'd probably had too much to drink because that promise had certainly come out more suggestive than she'd intended, but Liara had played along and Joker, had finally relented. Shepard never thought she'd have that much fun making the normally cocky and sarcastic pilot loose his power of speech for once. By the time Liara had helped the poor guy back to the comfy lounge chair he'd been relaxing on all evening, Shepard had been about to loose her composure.
Now she was pressed up against her lover, and a few moments later she felt her other lover slide up against her from behind and Shepard's breath caught in her throat. God she burned for these two. Hands began to wander as her resolve started to waver, and then Chakwas was suddenly there with a couple of fresh drinks in her hand, a knowing smirk on her face.
"Drink Alex? You're looking a bit thirsty."
Alex suddenly snapped back to her surroundings as her hands stilled their movements and then slowly slipped away from the path they'd been traveling. With a rueful smile to Ashley and Liara she forced herself to disengage from the two women and followed Carolyn out of the dance area and up to the house where the noise and people were considerably less. They collapsed on a couch and drank eagerly from their glasses.
"Thanks," she said, the meaning on several levels.
"I know you'd never forgive yourself if you took things too far, even if your crew wouldn't mind."
Shepard surveyed the crew from her vantage point, her lips lifting in a rebellious smirk. "Command would have a complete shit fit right now."
Carolyn allowed a slightly wicked grin to lift her own lips. "Indeed they would."
"Think the crew will still respect me in the morning?"
Carolyn laughed. "I think they've just about deified you by now my dear. More than one has said that if this is how you reward them after a tough mission they will follow you into whatever hell you lead them into for however long you'll take 'em."
Shepard laughed at that. "Where's Sela?"
"Looking after Joker."
"He didn't get hurt dancing did he?" Shepard asked, sitting up and suddenly concerned.
Carolyn smirked into her drink. "Nothing like that. But the poor boy has been lusting over my dear friend all evening and then you and the good Dr. T'Soni tease him before leaving him in quite state. Sela has never been one to let one suffer."
Shepard gaped at the older woman and then laughed so hard she nearly spilled her drink. "My god, are all Fleet Doctors so….." she trailed off, her alcohol addled mind trying to come up with a nice term for what she was trying to say.
"Freely libidinous?" Carolyn supplied with a chuckle. "Well there are always a few stick-in-the-muds. But in general yes. You have to understand Alex, our professional lives are as dedicated as any officer's. More so in a lot of ways. Yet we have an intimate knowledge of the human body and desire to help people feel better. It is a rare moment when we get to practice that knowledge in a…less professional manner."
"Yeah…but she's with you right now. Doesn't it bother you?"
"She is merely a dear friend Alex. Besides, I know that come the end of the night, it'll be my bed she returns to," Carolyn added with a sly grin and a wink. "Sela has always been a bit of a wild one and it's one of the things I love dearly about her. No one could ever hope to tie that woman's heart down because it's too large for just one person to handle. Besides, if anyone would know how to handle our fragile Mr. Moreau, it would be a doctor familiar with his limits."
"Wow….that was a mental image I…really didn't need," Shepard said with a wry grin. She looked around after finishing her drink. "Hey, have you seen Todd?"
"Poor boy has been fending off a good number of our female crew…and a couple of the males," she added with a grin. "He has been hanging around the bar chatting with his friend most of the evening."
"Well I need a refresher, and I think I need to go thank him again."
"He has certainly been a very resourceful young man."
"That, my good doctor, is an understatement."

It was a little before noon when Shepard finally cracked an eyelid open, and then with a groan slammed it shut. Someone shifted next to her and she burrowed deeper into the warmth hoping it would make the pounding in her skull go away. Strong gentle fingers raked through her short hair and began a sympathetic massage of her forehead and she sighed in slight relief.
A tender kiss was placed on her nose, and Alex finally forced her eyes to open to see Liara smiling lovingly at her. "Time?" she croaked out.
"Nothing you need to worry about love."
"Crew?"
"It has been extremely quiet since I awoke earlier. I believe most are still resting and recovering from last night's partying."
Alex grunted and leaned into Liara's skilled fingers. Ashley shifted behind her and an arm was thrown around her waist as the brunette sleepily snuggled up to Alex. "Morning love," was mumbled against the back of her neck and the throbbing lessened just a fraction more.
Silence reigned for awhile longer as Ashley and Alex dozed on an off for the next hour. Quiet noises from the front of the house finally stirred them into a further state of wakefulness. "God, what the hell was I thinking?" Alex groaned.
"That you could out drink our obviously experienced XO. Have to give you props though Alex, you were already hammered when you started that contest and he wasn't nearly half as drunk as you."
"Who won?"
"Pressley. Not by much, but he still won. If it's any consolation however, I doubt he is any better condition than you right now," Ashley chuckled quietly.
"We should probably get up. Sounds like a few people are starting to wake up and we all need breakfast."
"Like you're in any condition to help prepare food for several dozen people," Ashley chided. "Our lovely Liara took care of everything and breakfast will be handled by the professionals."
"It will?"
"I spoke with the caterer last night as he and his staff were cleaning up and he was happy to make himself available for breakfast preparations. What we are hearing is most likely them setting things up."
"You're amazing," Alex groaned in relief as she sank back onto the mattress and their warmth.
Liara smiled down at her lover and placed a chaste kiss on her forehead. "Come my love, we should shower. I think all of us will feel better once we've had a chance to freshen up a bit and then we can get some food into you."
"Maybe the Doc will have something for this hangover," Alex mumbled as she forced herself to sit up and waited until the room stopped spinning before she let her two lovers guide her into the bathroom. They took a leisurely shower, the hot water and gentle touches helping to speed the recovery up a bit more. The pounding had diminished to a dull throb, but Alex found her balance was still off a bit as they exited the bedroom finally and shuffled out into the front room to survey the damage.
Remnants of the party had been mostly cleaned up, but her crew was sprawled everywhere. She'd had several spare rooms in the main house along with a guest house that had six more, and she figured those had all been claimed by the higher ranking officers of her ships. The rest had crashed wherever they'd found available space. The weather was warm enough that many were still sound asleep where'd they lain down on lounge chairs and blankets on the deck and beach. A few were awake and making use of the facilities or chatting quietly with the catering staff who were setting up efficiently and almost silently. As the heavenly smell of food and more importantly, coffee began to fill the air, more of the crew stirred and the slow process of waking began in stages.
Alex, Ash and Liara waded through the bodies that littered the living room and approached the caterer. "Jacques, thank you so much for everything. I really don't know what I would have done without your services last night and this morni- um afternoon."
The caterer smiled warmly at her. "It is my pleasure to serve you and your brave crew Commander. My work is my passion, but it is a rare thing for me to actually be able to repay someone I feel so indebted to. I am glad that I and my friends could be of service to you."
Alex graciously nodded at him and then looked at the feast his staff was in the process of setting up. "I know you and your people didn't leave until early this morning. You can't tell me that you actually slept and then had time to prepare all of this?" she asked stunned.
"The lovely Dr. T'Soni inquired early in the evening about breakfast preparations Commander. My set-up crew and I were able to get plenty of rest while my chefs and their staff prepared today's meals. In the event that you wish to retain my services for the rest of the day, I am available Commander."
Shepard contemplated it and realized it might be wise. They all had one more day until they had to report to Alliance HQ for release back to duty. She had three food replicators throughout the residences, and her crew was certainly more than capable in fending for themselves, but they had earned this and she was feeling generous. "How much to reserve your services until tomorrow morning Jacques?"
"I would insist on doing it for free, but since Mr. Baker has informed me that you will refuse, I will charge you for the food and travel costs only. Ten thousand."
Shepard sighed. "Fine, but I'm clearing out the guest house so you and your set- up staff don't have to keep commuting. When you aren't working I expect all of you to enjoy yourselves as a thank you from my crew and myself."
"Commander, our weekend could have been spent catering to a very spoiled and trying diplomat," he confided in her with a wry smile. "She pays extremely well, but several of my fellow associates refuse to take her as a client anymore. My poor staff hates that I still cater to her, and were praying that something else would come up. Apparently the gods took pity on them this time," he chuckled. "You have a good crew Commander, and it is very rare that we go through a night without a single complaint and with so much gratitude from the people we are serving. I can tell you that we went to bed happy and content Commander, because all my people were at the pad early and eager to return."
Shepard experienced another moment of pride in her crew. Despite last night's fun and over-imbibing, her crew had remembered to be thankful for what they had. Given everything they had been through this past year, she wondered if any of them would ever take anything for granted ever again. Regardless, they'd partied hard, but had still conducted themselves appropriately towards those that had made it all possible. "They are something else aren't they?" she mused quietly as a slight grin lifted her lips as she looked around at her people who were looking a little rough around the edges, but were in obviously good spirits after the previous evening's revelry.
"And they have an exceptional Commander," Jacques added with quiet confidence. Then he clapped quietly, mindful of sensitive ears nearby, and was back to business. "Now, you must all return to your Headquarters tomorrow for your return to duty correct? So I believe tonight won't be quiet as….boisterous as last night. We'll keep breakfast out for a couple of hours and then I think we'll fire up the barbeques for the rest of the afternoon and evening. There are some excellent fish in your local waters, and I happen to have a couple of skilled fisherman amongst my staff here if they might be allowed to borrow the small boat that is stored in your boathouse?"
"By all mean. Please make yourselves at home Jacques."
"Thank you Commander," he said graciously with a bow of his head. "Now, you my dear look like you could use some of my restorative drink. It's guaranteed to get rid of that nasty hangover you and most of your crew are certainly suffering from." He snapped his fingers and one of his assistants was by his side instantly with a steaming cup of something that he handed to Jacques.
The caterer passed it carefully to Shepard who looked into the mug and cautiously sniffed it. "Coffee?"
He tisked at her. "It is coffee based, yes. It is a secret recipe guaranteed to make you feel like a new woman within minutes."
Shepard raised an eyebrow. "There's nothing in this that'll get the sorry lot of us discharges on substance abuse charges when we go through Medical tomorrow will it?"
The somewhat effeminate man pressed a hand to his chest theatrically. "You wound me Commander."
Shepard chuckled and then took a cautious sip of the hot liquid. Unlike most 'home remedies' this one was surprisingly palatable. In fact it was quite good. She took a larger sip and then looked up at Jaques in amazement. "This is good." She swore she could feel it tingle all the way down to her stomach where the warmth seemed to spread, settling her queasy stomach.
Jacques smiled proudly at her. "A half hour Commander. I guarantee it," he said confidently.
Ashley hadn't drank nearly as much as Alex the previous evening, but had indulged enough to be nursing a small hang-over of own and began looking around. "Please tell me you have more of that," she asked hopefully, in desperate need of her morning coffee anyway.
Another snap and another cup was supplied and Ashley was savoring the bittersweet liquid with an appreciative groan. Within moments she too was feeling the amazing effects and looked into her cup in awe. "Wow," she said almost reverently.
Shepard chuckled. "My Chief is a coffee fiend," Shepard explained to Jacques. "She'll be insufferable after this now. She hates that sludge they serve on the ship already, but this….this is heaven to her I think."
"Perhaps I can wrestle up a few packages that you can bring with you to use as a reward for a job well done," Jacques chuckled.
Shepard took another long sip, sighing as she felt the tension in her head begin to ease more steadily. "You are a saint."
Jacques laughed and then shooed them off towards the tables with instructions to eat and enjoy the rest of their day.
True to his word, the drink had the rest of her crew back on their feet and ready for one final day of fun in the sun before they had to return to duty. They spent the day exploring and enjoying the natural beauty of Shepard's private island, and made the most of their last day groundside before they would head back into space and the confines of their ship. While a few spent some time to themselves reflecting for awhile on what lay before them, everyone took turns in participating in the various friendly competitive games that started up throughout the day. Joker, who had been forced to watch on the sidelines most of the day and cheer on his fellow comrades, was finally given a chance to join in when someone suggested a shooting competition. While heavier weapons were left onboard the Normandy, everyone had their own personally issued side-arm in their gear bags and an impromptu firing range was set up along the beach.
To everyone's amazement, the fragile pilot hobbled up to the first firing line drawn in the sand with his own weapon and a smug look. At a hundred yards, the entire crew had been disqualified, with the exception of Ashley, Liara, Shepard…and Joker. He smirked over at his Commander who was looking at him with a new appreciation in her eyes. He shrugged. "I had a lot of extra time on my hands in flight school while the rest were running PT drills. Figured if I couldn't do any of the heavy work like everyone else, I should at least be able to shoot decently."
"I'd say you did a pretty damn good job in honing that ability Mr. Moreau. So just how good a shot are you?"
"Well I can't handle most snipers…the recoil has a tendency to dislocate my shoulder," he admitted wryly. "But I can hit a target plate at two hundred yards with a Viper. A hundred yards with the Vindicator Assault Rifle, and my best with my Karpov here is three center shots in a row at seventy five."
"How are you with moving targets?"
Joker grinned. "Want to find out?"
Shepard grinned back and then looked sideways to Liara. "Dr. T'Soni…mind doing the honors?"
"Certainly Shepard. What shall I use?"
Shepard looked around and then spotted the stack of plates on one of the tables and nodded. "I'll replicate more when we get back to the house. Ash, you want in on this?"
"It's been awhile since we've had any target practice. It'll be good for me to get back in the groove."
"Five rounds down the line taking turns. Then five rounds of a single plate with all three going for it at the same time. Adams, Pressley and Chakwas will judge."
Shepard went first and took out all five of her targets as Liara launched the plates through the air in various trajectories using her biotics. Alex was pleased that her aim was dead on, but she noticed that due to some of the lingering stiffness in her shoulder and arm, her timing was a tad slower than normal.
Ashley went next and she too hit all five targets. She seemed to be right on with both speed and accuracy, though Shepard noticed a slight change in her firing stance and realized that after an afternoon of several physically active games, she was favoring her leg again.
Joker was next and Shepard had to say she was impressed. He missed his first target, but his tracking time with the remaining four was surprising as he easily dropped the remaining four plates within moments of their release. It was clear that her pilot was a natural.
All three checked their clips and then lined up together as their judges lined up behind each of them to watch the next phase. Pressley called out for the pull, and Liara launched the first plate. Joker and Ashley both fired simultaneously but missed. Shepard fired shortly after them and nailed it.
The second round went to Ashley, the third to Shepard, and then Joker took the fourth. In the fifth round, Joker and Ashley fired in sync again and the plate was obliterated as both shots impacted with it at the same time. The judges conferred and declared it a three way tie so a tie breaker was needed. One final plate was launched and both Joker's and Shepard's shots went slightly wide while Ashley nailed it. The crew cheered all three and Joker actually blushed as he received some gentle pats on the shoulder and back as the crew congratulated him on keeping up with their fearless Chief and Commander.
Ashley and Shepard grinned at him and gave him their own words of praise before Shepard slipped off to replace the dishes they'd just sacrificed. Many of the crew decided it was time to cool off and began stripping down to swim attire or their skivvies and waded into the gentle surf. Even Joker managed to wade in with the steadying help of Sela and Dr. Chakwas. Swimming was the one activity he truly enjoyed, because the water gave him a weightlessness that relieved the constant pressure on his fragile bones.
Jacques and his team kept the crew fed, relaxed and happy, and were rewarded with generous compliments from the sincerely grateful crew. As the sun set, a peace settled over the happy crew and the boisterousness had begun to settle down as everyone settled back on blankets and chairs to watch one last sunset over their native planet.
Drinks were passed out by the ever attentive servers, and Shepard finally stood and turned to face her sprawled out crew, drink in hand. All the small talk died down as they realized she was waiting for their attention and they all instinctively sat up and shifted closer.
"First I would like to thank Jacques and his amazing staff. If it weren't for them, the lot of you would be eating replicated food or field rations," she admitted with a self deprecating grin. There were a few chuckles but everyone raised their glasses towards the caterer and his staff who bowed humbly.
"Tomorrow we head back to the Normandy and while you all know we'll have a couple of weeks of shakedown cruising, soon enough we'll be back in the thick of it. I know many of you are curious as to what is next, but I have been saving that for when we get back on board. I'm sure you know this weekend is definitely something that falls outside what Command would expect of it's officers, but I think you all have come to know that I don't always play by the rulebook," she smirked. There were a few knowing grins and noises of quiet amusement from her crew, and Chakwas winked at her. "All of us sacrificed a great deal in our pursuit of Saren, and to hell with regulations, we deserved this."
"Here, here," someone murmured and most of the group mumbled their quiet agreement with that statement.
"But once we get back on board, you know I will expect nothing but the best from all of you. You've set the bar high for yourselves now, so be aware that I know you limits. You are a damn fine crew…the best. As I said before, I am proud to have each and every one of you under my Command and it was an honor to enjoy my final days of Leave getting to know all of you in better circumstances. So here's to all of you," she said raising her glass in a toast to her crew.
The toast was returned as the sun glinted its final light over the water before finally dipping beneath the horizon. Silence continued to reign over the group for awhile as they watched the sky continue its rapid transformation overhead and the first of the stars began to shine as darkness settled over the island.
It was Ashley's soft voice that finally broke the silence as she began reciting an old poem.
"All through the night, your glorious eyes
Were gazing down in mine,
And, with a full heart's thankful sighs,
I blessed that watch divine.

I was at peace, and drank your beams
As they were life to me;
And revelled in my changeful dreams,
Like petrel on the sea."
Shepard nodded in silent agreement as Liara looked over at the brunette. "Is that from your favorite poet…Tennyson?"
Ashley shook her head. "Emily Bronte," she answered with a faint smile. "When we were younger, Sarah used to tease me about how often I would just sit outside and stare at the stars. She came across that poem during her studies in school a few years back and sent it to me in one of her letters. The poem really struck something deep within me."
Quiet conversations slowly picked up again after that, and several people got up to head towards the food tables. The rest of the evening passed by leisurely, with the crew helping to break down the buffet and clean up the Commander's property since they all had to be up early the next morning and ready to head out.
There was a steady stream of people flowing through the facilities late that evening, a number of them offering to double up since it was common practice on a smaller scout vessel like the Normandy anyway. And it gave a few of those that had partnered up during the weekend a chance for one last little bit of privacy before they had to resume life aboard the confines of a military vessel. Jacques had thoughtfully requisitioned several dozen sleeping bags and pads to be brought out with his earlier delivery of food, since he knew that his team had displaced several of the crew from their previous sleeping quarters.
He was thanked for his thoughtfulness and most of the crew decided to spend their final night down on the still warm and soft sands of the beach, out under the open stars. Joker retained the room he'd been given in the main hall as his body just could not handle laying on the ground for very long- no matter how soft the surface may be. He did however, open his sliding doors all the way and lay in his bed listening to the quiet sounds of the night as a deep peace settled within him.
Wanting to enjoy their last night together, Carolyn and Sela opted to remain in their room as well, and Joker smiled to himself as their soft sounds of loving each other carried down the hall and into his room. He was sure the Doc was going to kill him when he stumbled out of his room in a daze last night, Sela trailing behind him with a satisfied look in her eye that was obvious to anyone who was watching. He'd watched with rising fear as Sela had crossed the room to lean in and kiss Chakwas who merely grinned at her lover and asked if she'd had a good time. In that moment he had a whole new level of awe and respect for the Normandy's CMO. Who would have thought ?
"You go Doc," Joker chuckled quietly to himself. His grin grew even wider as another set of passionate sounds began drifting down the hall. "You too Commander," he mumbled his eyes closing as his body began relaxing into sleep.

As the sun rose, the crew began to stir back into alertness, and there was a quiet sense of duty that had begun to settle over them. They continued to jest with one another and casual conversation still took place as they ate breakfast, donned their duty uniforms and double checked their bags. But it was much more subdued than before as they settled back into their routines as Alliance soldiers.
In her room, Shepard shared one last lingering kiss with her two lovers after they had all dressed and packed their gear. "I want you both to know that I was wrong before. I tried to deny what I was feeling because it scared me…but I can't deny it any more. I love you both….with everything that I am. And while I can't let my feelings for you get in the way of my Command right now because there is too much at stake and too many people are depending on us, when this is all over and done with I want to bring you both back here and see where things go from there."
"Are…are you saying-," Ashley began, her voice catching at the implication of Alex's statement.
Alex simply nodded, her deep gaze holding Ashley's. Ashley swallowed and then stepped forward and wrapped Alex in a fierce embrace as they shared a deep and meaningful kiss. "I love you too Alex," Ashley whispered against her lips as they finally broke apart.
Alex looked over at Liara, her eyes hopeful. "Liara?"
The young Asari slipped into her embrace and their kiss was more tender but equally as meaningful. "I would gladly spend my days by your side no matter where you may be my love," Liara responded quietly.
Alex nodded and then stepped back and tugged her uniform straight and picked up her bag. They watched as her Command mask began to slip into place, but her eyes remained soft as she gave them both one last loving look. "Just remember. Out there I HAVE to be the Commander, lives depend on me being able to make that distinction. But no matter what, I love you both…even if I can't or don't show it….I will always love you."
"And we love you all the more for your ability to bear that burden Alex."
"You can count on us to respect and support our agreement Commander," Ashley added, slipping back into her role as Gunnery Chief.
Shepard smirked then and nodded. "As you were then ladies." With that she picked up her own bag and strolled out of the room and towards their future.
Chapter 14: Fasten Your Seatbelts
Shepard waited impatiently for the airlock to cycle through its decontamination cycle before she was finally able to set foot on her ship for the first time in over a month. Her crew was already bustling around familiarizing themselves with the upgrades and running pre-flight checks.
Shepard turned to the cockpit and leaned against the empty co-pilot chair as she looked the new interface over. "Everything up to spec Joker?"
"And then some, Commander. Normandy's better than ever," he answered in a pleased voice.
"Good to hear. As you were Lieutenant."
"Aye Commander."
Shepard turned and began making her way through the busy CIC and came across her XO who was consulting with one of the techs at his station. Pressley watched her approach, finished his orders to the tech and then straightened up when Shepard reached him.
"Commander," he greeted as he handed her a data tablet.
"How are we looking XO?"
"So far all department heads are reporting back no major problems. We've had a couple of minor glitches and hiccups, but Chief Adams has his crew and the techs crawling all over the ship fixing them and triple checking all major systems. By this time tomorrow we should be slipping past the outer planets."
"Excellent, keep me appraised of our progress. I want to hold a Senior Staff meeting before we head out."
"We have our orders?"
"Not yet. Admiral Hackett will be arriving shortly to deliver our orders in person. Please notify me as soon as he arrives and see him to the Briefing Room. And make sure Joker doesn't get too nosey while we are in there," she added with a serious look.
"Aye Commander," Pressley answered with a knowing roll of his eyes. "Oh, by the way, we got word in while you were being cleared by Medical. Wrex and Garrus are both heading back to the Citadel and will await your instructions on their pick-up."
Shepard smiled at that. "Once we get our orders, see to it that we plot a course for the Citadel first."
"Sure thing Commander. There is also a message for you from Tali. I took the liberty of forwarding it to your cabin."
"Thanks. I'm going to go get my gear all stored away. Carry on Mr. Pressley."
"Aye Commander.
Shepard made her way down to her quarters, and looked around sadly when she entered the spartan surroundings. She had never been one for decorations, but the sterile environment that surrounded her left her with a sense of cold loneliness. She'd grown accustomed to having the presence of her lovers and living somewhere that both looked and felt like home. But the Normandy had become her home too and with a snort of wry amusement at her musings she began to unpack her bags which had been sent ahead while she was cleared for full duty.
Once her uniforms were all hanging in place and her gear stored in her locker, she moved over to the desk and placed two small pictures next to the computer monitor. Suddenly the room looked a whole lot less sterile as she gazed fondly at the pictures she'd taken of each of her lovers while they had been on vacation.
Still smiling, she slid into the chair and punched in her code for her message inbox. She scrolled through the messages, deleting the spam and saving other messages for later perusal. She finally came across the one from Tali and opened it. Her expression softened as the young Quarian's familiar visor filled her screen.
"Hello Shepard. I promised Ashley and Liara that I would try and keep in touch, but I am about to be sent out on a rather lengthy assignment and I don't know when I will next have a chance to contact you so I figured I'd keep you updated now while I could. I am back with the flotilla and you should have seen the reception I was given."
Shepard chuckled quietly as Tali sighed and could almost see the blush under the violet visor. "Sometimes it's a bit embarrassing being the daughter of a Fleet Admiral," the young woman groaned good naturedly. "Coming home a Hero from the Citadel Battle only made it worse," she added with a rueful chuckle as she shook her head. "Needless to say they were ready to place me on one of the most prominent ships without even needing the data from my Pilgrimage. But my father was thrilled to have the data and he has already begun a special research project based upon what we found. He's promised to keep me appraised of his findings, and I will pass along any information we uncover."
Tali paused and then leaned forward. "Our actions have finally stirred my people from their complacency Shepard. When I came back, I spent some time with my father and another Admiral and they told me that as soon as it became known that the Geth had been traveling beyond the Veil, fear began to run through our Fleet. After the attack on Eden Prime, my people realized we could no longer run from our problem any longer. It would only be a matter of time before the Geth sought our Fleet out and we do not have the means to defend it properly from a full scale attack. It has been the cause of much debate amongst the Conclave and the Admiralty Board, but father has told me that they have already started on a course of action to better prepare our people.
"We have been able to monitor and even decrypt several Geth transmissions indicating possible locations of strongholds. A few are close enough to the Fleet to be the cause of some concern and by the time I had returned, our military had stepped up both recruiting and the training of our Marines. It seems I possess some rather…unique skill sets now. Apparently, none of our soldiers know how to hack a Geth Prime during the middle of a firefight," she said with a touch of smugness in her voice. Shepard chuckled quietly as Tali continued on. "I am being attached to our best Marine Unit to start training them in the basics. Our missions will be to not only take down as many strongholds as we can, but to recover as much data and intel as we can during each mission. I will be sure to forward to you what we find."
Shepard swore quietly as Tali paused again and then sat back in her chair to relax a bit more. Shepard knew that Tali could more than handle herself in a firefight, but it still worried her that Tali was going to be heading back into danger. And the frontlines at that.
"Well, now that business is out of the way…..I miss you Alex," the young woman said softly. "I miss all of you terribly. I think my father was a little…disturbed by the fact that I was so reluctant to return home, but he has tried to be understanding. Life has been a little dull here, although that is soon to change I suppose. It is good to be able to see my friends and family again, but it's not the same as it was before I left. I can't explain how I feel to anyone here, perhaps because they did not share the same battles and struggles as we did. But I do not feel as….connected to my people any more."
There was a soft sigh and then Tali seemed to shake herself from her mood. "I received a message from Liara a couple of weeks ago. I am glad to hear that you and Ashley are healing well and that all of you are enjoying your vacation. You most certainly earned it. Keelah, I can't tell you how good it felt to be out of my suit for the first time in over a year. My father could barely get me to come out of my quarters that first week," Tali chuckled and Shepard grinned. The young woman's voice softened a bit with the next statement. "I would have given that all up however to have been able to spend some quiet time with you Liara and Ashley however."
Shepard swallowed hard and traced a finger along the screen over Tali's face. "Me too Tali," she whispered. "All of us would have enjoyed that I think."
"But my father was about to send the Marines out to fetch me so it was a good thing I returned home," the other woman continued with a rueful shake of her head and a noise of amusement. "I have to head out soon. The Captain of the unit I am being assigned to is having his doubts about having an engineer and tech specialist assigned to his team and wants to run me through some practice drills. Good thing I had a good instructor out on the battlefield. You take care of yourself Shepard and I will keep in touch with you as much as I can. Keelah se'lai, Commander."
"You take care of yourself too Tali," Shepard whispered fondly and then saved the message away in her personal files. She wanted to show it to Ashley and Liara later.
"Commander, Admiral Hackett has arrived."
Shepard leaned forward and punched the comm button on her desk. "Thank you Pressely. I'll be up in a minute."
Standing, the Commander pulled her uniform straight and double checked herself in the mirror before heading up to the Conference Room.
Hackett looked Shepard over as she strode into the room and was silently pleased with what he saw. When she had departed a little over a month ago, he'd seen a weariness in her eyes and an almost defeated set in her shoulders that had concerned him greatly. He, more than most, was well aware of the struggles and personal obstacles she'd had to overcome to become the woman she was today. He knew that this past year had been hell on her, and quite frankly even he was surprised she hadn't caved under the pressure. That she'd managed to weather the storm, only strengthened his faith and confidence in her abilities as a soldier and a leader. It was a shame that brewing political storms might force her to step back from her ability to command Alliance troops and return to the life she had worked so hard to leave behind her….that of a lone wolf.
Shepard stopped just in front of him and went to proper attention, giving him a crisp salute. "Admiral," she greeted.
"At ease Commander," he grinned, and then because he alone could, he stepped forward and hugged her. "Good to see you back on your feet kid."
Her ears reddened slightly, but she accepted the gesture from the man that had saved her life all those years ago and been the closest thing to a father figure that she'd ever had, and returned it briefly before stepping back. "It feels good to be back Admiral. So what's the word?"
His smiled faded and he gestured to the chairs. "Actually, there is quite a bit we need to discuss so perhaps we should make ourselves comfortable."
"That bad?" Shepard asked taking in his somber expression as they sat across from each other.
"Things are expectedly, a mess right now. You are humanity's hero, but that damned reporter that you pissed off is also stirring up trouble with some of the other races with a smear campaign focusing on the fact that we sacrificed the Council so we could concentrate our fire on Sovereign. Despite my instance that as Senior Commanding Officer in the battle, it was ultimately my call to make, she is singling you out as the sole reason for their deaths."
Shepard scowled. "You know one day, that bitch is going to make a bad report on the wrong person and get a bullet for her trouble," she grumbled.
"I'm honestly surprised it hasn't been done already. That woman is a menace to everyone's society. The last thing we need right now is someone stirring up more trouble."
"Guessing I may not be so popular whenever I set foot back on the Citadel again?" she said with a bit of a smirk.
"I would recommend that you try and not stir up any more unwanted attention for a little while."
"Great," Shepard sighed. "So I take it that isn't all the news you have?"
"Ashley's appointment to First Lieutenant did not go through. I am officially protesting it, but Command has so much on its plate right now it'll take months for my appeals to go up through the chain of command until it can reach someone who will override the initial decision. However, I put in a new request for her to at least be promoted to Operations Chief. I expect this one to go through as it will be within the normal progression and after what she did on the Citadel there is no way she can be denied it. The only thing that old windbag Waverly can do is slow down the paperwork which I'll expect, but I promise to keep nagging him for this until he finally grows tired of me and sends it through."
Shepard sank back into her chair, more depressed by that news than she thought she would be. They had all known that with Waverly in charge of signing off on Ashley's promotion, the promotion from enlisted to ranking officer was slim to none. The Admiral had served the same time as Ashley's grandfather and the man had carried a massive grudge against the Williams family ever since. Several other ranking officers had protested his obvious impartiality when dealing with Ashley's father and herself, but the ancient Admiral was too highly decorated and carried far too much clout for anyone to do anything serious about it. Shepard had retained a small sliver of hope that the well documented video proof of her Chief's actions on the Citadel would have been enough to sway the Admiral's viewpoint finally. Apparently not.
A sharp burst of anger surged through her and she stood up abruptly and walked over to the comm panel. "Fuck that son of a bitch!" she swore as she slammed her fist down onto the panel and then winced as her newly healed hand and arm protested the abuse.
Hackett allowed her the anger, for he had done pretty much the same thing. Actually, he had done a bit more by giving the old bastard a piece of his mind….which he was sure he was going to regret sometime in the near future. Hackett hadn't done like many of the others in the past had by protesting quietly within the confines of secure office.
"If it makes you feel any better, I went right up to His Highness and told him what I thought of his decision right there in the middle of the Command Floor just after the Chiefs had adjourned from a meeting with the President," he told her with a smirk.
Shepard turned and stared at him in awe. "And you still have your job?"
"Oh, I am sure he'll find some way to make me pay. I'll probably find myself back out on patrol again, which I honestly don't mind right now. Too much political maneuvering going on for my taste. But rest assured, I didn't sensor my words on the subject."
Shepard moved back to her seat, still rubbing her hand and slumped back into it. "Now this I have to hear."
"I had gotten a note from my aide right before the meeting that Ashley's promotion had been denied. God bless Anita because she had done a little digging around and gave me some ammunition to hold against him for his decision…
As soon as the tone sounded indicating the end of the meeting, Hackett stood from his seat and made a direct line to Waverly who was in the process of gathering up his notes and issuing a few commands to his aide. "Admiral Waverly I demand to know why you rejected my recommendation for a field promotion for Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams," he stated loudly enough to cause the rest of the board to quiet down.
"Need I remind you that I do not have to answer to you Admiral Hackett?" Waverly said stiffly, well aware of the stares of the others, including the President himself.
"Perhaps not, but I can assure you that I will appeal this to the highest levels on the basis that I feel your personal grudge against a dead man has turned into a vendetta against anyone else in his family that is serving within our ranks. Need I remind YOU of the fact that there is plenty of documented proof that Ashley Williams is to be awarded the Presidential Star of Honor because of her bravery? On what basis would you deny her the right to be promoted?"
There had been several stifled gasps of surprise at his audacity to question the ruling of a high ranking Admiral in front of everyone else, and Hackett saw out of the corner of his eye that the President was watching the proceedings very intently. The man was only slightly older than Hackett himself, and was known for his fairness in all matters. It was clear he wasn't liking what he was hearing…and it was the first he'd become aware of it.
Waverly was also very well aware of the position Hackett had maneuvered him into and while his face was an unreadable mask, Hackett could see the anger burning behind those dark eyes. Waverly didn't get to his position being a complete idiot however. Prejudices aside, he was a brilliant tactician and strategist. He took only a moment to recover and then straightened.
"Admiral Hackett I am not disagreeing that Chief Williams is a courageous and exemplary young soldier. No one can deny she is indeed one of the Heroes of the Citadel Battle. But she has only just received her first field experience while under Shepard's Command and I believe that field commissioning her all the way to Lieutenant might be a bit…hasty."
"I see," Hackett said flatly. "But approving a field commission to Lieutenant to a man that has only slightly more field experience and a record of insubordination isn't hasty?"
He almost smirked when he saw Waverly's jaw twitch in irritation. "The candidate in question was of higher rank than Williams to begin with and those marks in his file were from early in his career. He has had an exemplary file since. Again, I do not have to explain my decisions in such matters to you."
"And I wonder why it is that a man with several marks in his file and that enlisted two years after Chief Williams, was promoted faster than her when she has nothing but stellar reviews by all her commanding officers and some of the highest performance evaluations amongst our entire fleet," Hackett retorted.
"Admiral I refuse to discuss this further with you as I do not answer to you. If you wish to resubmit a request for the Chief to be promoted along the more traditional path of someone with her experience I will be sure to seriously consider it."
"I'll be sure to have it on your desk by the end of the day."
Shepard whistled. "Wow. You really didn't hold back any punches did you?" she said, her tone conveying her respect for her mentor's boldness. For a lower Admiral to go up against someone like Waverly over an enlisted officer like that would normally be career suicide. It spoke volumes of just how impressed Hackett was over her Chief's performance, and Shepard felt a surge of pride for Ashley.
Hackett smirked. "No I didn't. And by questioning him in front of everyone including the President not only did I make sure Ashley's case was fairly heard by all of them, I ensured that Waverly couldn't retaliate against me too harshly without drawing attention. Besides, we've lost too many officers for Waverly to risk sinking my career. We can't afford to lose anyone at this point so the worst he can do is see to it I get assigned to oversee upcoming sector patrols."
"Thank you for taking such a risk Admiral."
"William's deserves this. So tell her to hang in there and I hope to have her promotion within the next month or two. The rest is going to take some time, but I will not let up on this until she is an officer."
"Thank you, sir."
"Now, let's discuss your shakedown cruise and upcoming assignment," he said his features once more going grim.
Shepard frowned. "I'm not going to like this either am I?"
"You're not going to like what it implies," Hackett admitted.
Three hours later…..
The crew took one look at the dark and angry expression on Shepard's face after the Admiral had left and wondered at what could be so bad to have completely changed their Commander's demeanor so drastically. It was well known amongst the crew now that Hackett had been Shepard's sponsor and mentor during her Academy days and since her Commissioning, and that she'd obviously had both a soft spot and a respect for him that she showed few other higher ranking officers. A discreet call was placed down to Ashley and Liara, after the Commander had stormed off the CIC and down towards her quarters, and the two women met in the Mess.
"Joker called you too huh?" Ashley asked her lover quietly as they moved off to one side of the room.
"He did, although Dr. Chakwas was just returning with her dinner when Alex passed by on her way into her quarters. She came in to inform me that something had happened and that Alex was obviously very upset and I was about to call you when Joker called me and then told me he had already alerted you."
"She's been in that meeting with Hackett for over three hours. Most mission briefings take only an hour maybe two. Let's go see why this one took so long and why it's made her so upset."
Liara nodded and they approached the door and signaled the chime. Both waited patiently and finally were granted admission to the room. Ashley looked back as they slipped inside, but none of the crew in the Mess seemed to be paying any attention.
Ashley looked back into the room as she stepped inside and let the door slide shut and took in Shepard's stiff stance as she stood facing away from them, a tumbler of Turian brandy in her hand. "Commander?" she asked formally.
"Yes Chief?" Shepard asked flatly without turning.
Liara's eyes widened at both the tone and formality. While it caught Ashley a bit off guard, she quickly fell back into her training and moved into a formal at ease pose. "Dr. T'Soni and I were just wondering if everything was ok Ma'am. The briefing took longer than normal and the crew has noted that you came out looking upset."
Shepard slammed back the rest of her drink, then set the glass down hard on the edge of her desk and turned to face Ashley and Liara. Ashley was suddenly thankful that she'd decided to slip into the more formal posture, because the eyes that were meeting hers were not her lover's but her Commander's. "Chief Williams, how I appear is not any of this crew's business, and I will not have speculations running rampant aboard my ship is that clear?"
"Crystal, Commander. I will relay the message Ma'am."
"See that you do. As for the nature of my meeting with Admiral Hackett, that is also none of this crew's business until I deem it time to reveal what I feel is relevant for the crew to know of our orders. When I do so, it will be with the entire Command Staff."
Deep down, Ashley felt hurt by the cold tone and by being shut out, but she knew it had to be this way. Relying on her training, she pushed her feelings aside and straightened to an attention and saluted her Commander. "Aye Commander. I'll be down in the hold resuming my duties."
"But-"
"Is there an issue here Dr. T'Soni?" Shepard asked, her voice creeping into a dangerous tone that hadn't been used with either of them in a very, very long time.
Ashley quickly reached out and grabbed Liara's arm. "There's no problem here Commander. We're sorry to have bothered you Ma'am," she said, quickly pulling a hurt and bewildered looking Liara out of the room.
The doors closed behind them and moments later glass could be heard shattering in the room. Liara tried to stop, but Ashley just tightened her grip and despite the spectacle they were making, the rest of the crew gathered in the Mess politely pretended to ignore them as Ashley dragged Liara back towards the Med-Bay and into the back office that Liara and Chakwas now shared.
Chakwas glanced up at their entrance, took one look at the two and then studiously returned to cataloging her supplies. Once inside the office Liara jerked her hand out of Ashley's grip and looked at her with tears in her eyes. "What the hell was that all about? How could you let her talk to us that way?!" she demanded angrily.
Ashley slumped against the doorframe and rubbed a hand through her hair. "Liara this is what Alex was talking about. This is why she was so afraid of getting involved with members of her own crew in the first place. We were wrong to go in there just then."
"So checking on someone you love when they are obviously upset is wrong? Explain to me how that could possibly be wrong ," Liara demanded.
This is way more complex that I thought it would be, Ashley sighed to herself. "Liara, checking and caring for someone you love isn't wrong. Going in there after she's just had a meeting with the Admiral to find out what made her so upset…that was wrong. As much of a renegade as Alex is, there are certain protocols and policies she sticks to and this is one of them. Officers are usually given all the details of various missions and intel. The crew is then only given enough information to get the mission accomplished, but they usually never know all the details."
Liara, who had finally begun to understand the military way of life and thinking nodded slowly. "But why would she speak to us in that manner?"
"Because even though we went in that room as concerned lovers, I am still one of her soldiers, and not even a ranking officer at that. I had no business being in there asking her what the Admiral had said when not even Pressley knows what's going on yet." Ashley stopped and then smacked her head back against the doorframe as she closed her eyes and groaned. "Damn it, we haven't even been aboard a day and I already put her in a position that we all promised we would try to avoid. Fuck!" she swore, angry with herself.
And suddenly Liara fully understood. She stepped forward and settled a hand on Ashley's shoulder. "I think she will understand that we only had the best of intentions, and will not hold it against us for long Ashley."
"Yeah, but don't expect to see 'Alex' anytime soon now Liara," Ashley warned with a sigh. "After this, expect to only deal with the 'Commander' for awhile, until we can all adapt to this situation."
"Perhaps that would be for the best. I had not realized just how…difficult it would be to adjust to conducting ourselves properly while aboard ship," Liara admitted.
"We'll get through it. Besides, you have a little more leeway than Shepard and I do and we are the ones who really have to be careful. So don't sweat it too much, and don't take her distance personally ok?"
"I won't," Liara promised.
"Good. Now I had better get my ass back down to the Bay and finish our weapons inventory. Something tells me the Commander is going to be up top in a bit demanding that we be ready for departure sooner than we all expected."
Liara leaned in for a chaste kiss and the two women let their foreheads rest against each other for a few moments. "We'll get through this Liara."
"I know. Now go. You have far more work than us left and no one else to help you."
"You're always welcome to come down when you're done here. Once I'm done with inventory, I'm going to be breaking everyone's personal weapons and armor down and cleaning them. I know you've been wanting to learn more about taking care of your own gear."
"I will see you in an hour," Liara promised with a smile.

"Status report!" Shepard barked out and everyone in the CIC cringed.
Pressley raised an eyebrow, but looked down at the pad in his hand. "Dr. Chakwas said the Infirmary is all prepped and Medical is green to go. Nav and Helm are doing some minor adjustments to instrumentation readings but should be ready for final flight prep within an hour or two. Food stores are all aboard. Chief Williams just cleared Weapons and is currently running the Mako's checklist. Chief Adams says his crew has worked out the bugs and they are starting their final check of the new drive. I would say that we should be ready for departure within five hours barring any major issues with the drive."
"Joker get on the comm and request clearance to undock in six hours."
"Aye Commander," the pilot answered crisply without any of his usual sarcasm.
"Pressley inform all department heads that I want a meeting with them in five hours."
"Aye Commander. Will there be anything else?"
"There will be a small detachment of Marines that are being assigned to us. They should be here within the hour. Notify Chief Williams and myself as soon as they arrive, and send them to the Briefing Room. I'll be in my quarters reviewing the mission file until then."
"Yes Ma'am."
Shepard spun on her heel and marched back out of the CIC and the group let out a collective sigh of relief. Pressley walked forward and Joker looked back at him. "New Marines? You think she's pissed because we are taking on new crew?"
"That or Williams is about to be relegated to the bottom of the ranking pack again," Pressley sighed. He'd been made aware of the Chief's situation and was infuriated by command politics that such a promising young soldier was being denied the chance to serve her race to the best of her ability.
"Maybe someone should put a few of those Admirals back on the frontlines to remind them of why we need officers that can actually think under fire," Joker grumbled.
"While I whole-heartedly agree with that statement, it's best you keep such thoughts to yourself Mr. Moreau," Pressley warned sternly.
"Aye Sir. It's just frustrating," Joker sighed.
Pressley rested his hand on Joker's shoulder. "I know. But the last thing we need to do is add to the Commander's frustration with the situation. You've got orders to follow anyway Lieutenant."
"Yes sir."
Ashley swore as Joker's voice reverberated around the Bay and startled her enough to smack her forehead on the Mako's undercarriage. Pressing a greasy hand to the lump that was already growing, she slid out from under the vehicle and sat up. "What?!" she called out.
"Uh, sorry to bother you Chief, but the Commander needs you in the briefing room for a meeting with the new Marines we just took on board."
"New Marines?"
"Um…yeah," Joker answered hesitantly.
Ashley's heart dropped. She threw the rag she'd been wiping her hands clean on to the ground and sighed. "Well fuck," she muttered, starting to have a picture as to why Shepard was so upset. "I'll be right up," she told Joker who acknowledged her back and then the comm system clicked off.
Ashley stood and then looked down at herself. "Way to make an impression on my new superior officers," she muttered to herself. Surprisingly, she found herself not really caring for the first time ever. Either Alex was rubbing off on her, or she was finally growing weary of fighting so hard to impress ranking officers when it was being made clear that even her status as a well known hero wasn't good enough to advance her career.
She stalked up to the briefing room, grease stains and all, and found herself an empty chair, ignoring the inquisitive looks from the new arrivals. She noticed they were all of equal or lesser rank…with one exception. And the kid wearing the Lieutenant stripes looked greener than every other man or woman sitting in the room. Hell, Joker looked more intimidating than this kid. Well wasn't this just great, she thought bitterly to herself.
Shepard entered a minute later and Ashley shot to her feet. "Commander on Deck!" she called out before the Lieutenant had even noticed Shepard's arrival. The rest of the Marine compliment rose swiftly and following the Chief's example, they went to rigid attention and saluted their new Commanding Officer.
Shepard looked them over, and then her eyes stopped briefly on Ashley's grease-smudged form. Despite her anger over Ashley crossing the line earlier, she couldn't keep her amusement at Ashley's appearance out of her eyes entirely. The amusement died as soon as her eyes drifted to the young man wearing Lieutenant stripes standing just past Ashley.
"At ease," Shepard responded flatly. She took a seat and nodded for the rest of the group to take a seat as well. "I am going to make this brief ladies and gentlemen. This crew is special in more ways than any of you probably realize, and your posting here was not a welcomed one," she told them bluntly.
Ashley felt her eyebrows creep upwards at the harsh statement and the Marines shifted nervously.
"You all know who I am, and I am sure you've all heard the stories, though most likely you've only heard half the story of what really went down. I don't give a fuck what you think about me, but I can promise you that if any of you screw up even once, I will take the opportunity to boot your ass off my ship. We have a racially integrated crew here and it took a lot of time, hard work and effort for us to all reach the level of trust and performance that was demanded of us. I serve not only the Alliance, but I also serve the entire galaxy in my capacity as a Spectre. Sometimes that means I have to toss the rulebook out the airlock and do things my way to make sure they get done. Hero or not, if I had just been a Commander for the Alliance I would have been Court Marshaled for disobeying a direct order and stealing the Normandy to continue my pursuit of Saren and Sovereign. If you have a problem with any of this then you need to let me know now before we leave and you will be free to leave in good standing."
Ashley watched as everyone shifted again and warily looked at each other. None of them had ever been in a situation like this, and it was obvious that all of them were extremely uncomfortable, but no one wanted to speak up.
"Last chance," Shepard warned.
Still everyone remained silent. Shepard then looked at the young Lieutenant. "What's you're name Lieutenant?"
"Garvey, Ma'am."
"Lieutenant, how much field experience do you have?"
"I've done two tours of duty Commander."
"On a backwater farm planet and on a patrol ship on the inner ring. You've dealt with what? A handful of small pirate and slaver skirmishes maybe?"
His face reddened, and he stiffened under her almost scornful look. "I've been in almost a dozen enemy engagements Commander," he protested.
"Chief Williams, how many battles have you fought in?"
"Before I signed on with you Commander I had been in one hundred and sixteen engagements with enemy forces. I lost track after that."
"Not counting everything we had to fight our way through on the Citadel battle, you can add nearly a hundred more to that number Chief," she answered holding the young man's gaze for another moment longer. Then she looked at each of the new Marines. "Since you have all decided to stay, here's how things are going to run. I have to play nice for now with the Admiralty, even though I think the majority of them have their heads up their asses. So Lt. Garvey, you will be Senior Officer for this little joy squad in title only. The rest of you seem to have decent files with reasonable battlefield experience. We'll see if you can live up to my standards. Chief Williams has been with me on every single enemy engagement since Eden Prime and knows what I expect of my crew. I suggest you all look to her for suggestions on how to survive under my command."
Shepard paused and looked the group over before turning to Williams. "Chief, get them up to speed on the crew and find something for them to be useful at while we run through our final checklists. Also, talk to the Quartermaster and have him issue them some cots for down in the Mako Bay."
"What?!" the Lieutenant exclaimed.
Shepard's gaze snapped towards the Garvey. "Just one excuse, Garvey. That's all I need."
Garvey's mouth snapped shut, but the others moved restlessly and finally one of the other enlisted lifted his hand and waited patiently for Shepard to acknowledge him. "Commander, I realize that us being here is an intrusion on your team, but do you really think it's necessary to prohibit us from having access to the crew quarters like everyone else?"
Ashley couldn't help it. She let out a bark of laughter and even Shepard smirked. "Apparently, none of you made yourself familiar with the design of this ship. This isn't some cruiser, or even a troop transport like most of us are used to ladies and gentlemen. The Normandy was designed as a scout ship with a limited crew compliment in mind. However, because of the nature of our upcoming mission, and because of the experience of this crew, we are being sent back out onto the frontlines. We were already pushing capacity as it was and there are no real 'crew quarters' aboard the Normandy. The sleeper pods are already maxed out in rotations and a good number of my crew have managed to do just fine with more creative means of sleeping. My Chief Medical Officer and resident Prothean Expert share a lab which also doubles as their sleeping area. A number of the Engineering Crew have claimed a few quiet corners and tunnels god knows where as places to sleep. My pilot practically lives in his chair. And the Chief, along with several other members of the team that you will soon meet have made the Mako Bay their home. It's unconventional, but then so is this crew. Besides, you are all Marines. Deal with it."
"Yes Ma'am."
"Good. Now report to Dr. Chakwas for your medical evaluation. Chief Williams will catch up with you when I am done briefing her on several more matters. Dismissed."
The slightly shell shocked group stood and made their way out. Ashley had stood with them, but had slipped into a formal at ease pose once more and held it while the group left. As soon as the door closed she cleared her throat and met Shepard's gaze. "Commander, I would like to formally apologize for my behavior earlier. It was unprofessional and I was completely out of line. I promise I won't let that happen again."
Shepard sighed and sat back in her chair tiredly rubbing at her temples. "Sit down Ash," she said quietly.
Once Ashley was back in her seat, Shepard looked up and offered her a wan smile. "I know you and Liara only had the best of intentions and I'm sorry I was so hard on you both back there. But I was pissed off and I just couldn't deal with that right then."
"You had every right to come down on us like that Alex. Liara didn't understand but I explained it to her. I'm sorry for putting you in the very situation we all talked about avoiding this morning," Ashley said sincerely.
"Is she okay with this?" Alex asked quietly.
"Probably not as much as I am, but she understands. She's just going to need time to adjust is all. She knows not to take it personally though…just as I didn't and never will."
Alex let out a small sigh of relief and gave Ashley a look of immense gratitude. "It's gonna be tough on us for a few weeks Ash. I hope you know that my distance doesn't mean I care for either of you less. It's just-,"
"You have to take the lead in setting an example and you have to let the crew know that nothing has changed just because we are all a little more familiar with each other. You have to find your balance and both Liara and I understand that. You've got enough to worry about with this new squad assigned to us Alex- don't worry about us too. We're big girls, we can take care of ourselves," Ashley assured her with a grin.
"Thank you Ash."
"So don't you think you were a just a tad harsh on the new kids?"
"Fucking Admiralty. They did it just to piss me and Hackett off," Shepard swore angrily. "And that's not all," she continued grimly. She opened her mouth twice and shut it, wondering just how she could soften this blow.
Ashley saw the anger and disappointment in Alex's eyes and let out a long slow breath suddenly realizing what was so hard for her lover to tell her. "Waverly didn't approve my appointment did he?" she asked sparing Alex from having to tell her.
"No," Alex muttered dejectedly. Then she smirked a tiny bit. "Though you should know Hackett cornered him in front of everyone including the President demanding to know why he turned down your appointment. Bastard managed to weasel himself out of the explanation, but Hackett assured me that he can't turn down your appointment to Operations Chief, and that he is still going to pursue your promotion to officer even if he has to appeal it up to the President himself. It might take time Ash, but you'll get what you deserve."
Ashley's smile became a little more genuine. "Well it's nice to know that I have at least one friend in high places. Please tell Admiral Hackett that I appreciate all he has done for me next time you talk to him. And Operations Chief is the next best thing anyway. They can't stick me in shit assignments anymore…that is if you ever decide you're tired of my stubborn insubordinate ass."
"Come here you," Alex growled out and Ashley moved to crouch in front of her. Alex grabbed her by the front of her uniform and pulled her close for a searing kiss. "I happen to like your stubborn insubordinate ass, and I plan on being able to ride it for a long time to come," she said with a smirk as Ashley chuckled at the double entandre.
Alex released her after one more playful nip of her lips and then her command mask fell back into place. "As for too hard on the new team? They are going to have it easy compared to what we had to deal with. And that Lieutenant is barely six month out of the Academy. You'll hear more about the mission in the briefing, but we are being sent back out onto the front lines and Waverly has the nerve to send me some green kid that has no real battle experience to be my new squad leader as a slap in the face. If I let him take charge of this compliment he'll get people killed and I am THROUGH having Marines die needlessly under my watch," Alex said vehemently. "So I include him in Senior briefings and he'll go planetside to get his experience, but ONLY with you there to watch his six and mine. You're gonna have to baby sit him Ash, and I know this puts you in an awkward position. But I saw the respect in every one of those Marine's eyes when they heard just how many skirmishes you and I were in during this past year alone. Are you up to the task of taking the lead even if you aren't ranking officer? It's going to be a fine line you are going to have to walk, and you aren't exactly known for your subtlety Chief," Shepard said with a faint grin.
Ashley chuckled and shook her head. "You never like to make it easy for me do you Skipper? But yeah, I can handle this. I'll have them in line and up to your standards in no time."
"Good. I'll see you in a few hours at the briefing then. And just so you know, when I call for a Senior Briefing, I do expect you to be there, regardless of your rank. I need your experience and expertise in those meetings and the rest of Senior staff is already familiar with your presence."
Ashley saluted. "Aye aye, Commander."
"Dismissed, Chief."
Ashley smirked at the now familiar phrase and the tone behind it and with a nod left the Briefing Room. As she made her way downstairs, she felt some disappointment and resentment over not being appointed. She also admitted to being angry with Waverly's choice of Lieutenant. It was just as clear to her why this kid of everyone else that had to have been available was chosen. But it was a fool's choice and a dangerous one at that. No one else should pay the price of one man's personal grudge. But she felt a sense of satisfaction in knowing that she would get her appointment to Operations Chief soon- the highest enlisted rank she could hope to achieve. It also helped to know that she had at least one heavy hitter in her corner finally. For now though she had to go play good cop and soothe some bruised egos.
She entered the Infirmary and smiled at Chakwas and Liara who were both busy running tests and scans on their newest batch of crew. "How's it looking Doc?"
"Everyone is in good health. I wasn't aware that we had planned on taking on an extra Marine compliment," she asked with a raised eyebrow.
Liara, who was finishing her scans of the young Lieutenant paused and looked up, her eyes sad. "I take it that your appointment didn't go through?" she said with some bitterness in her normally soft voice.
Ashley sighed inwardly as the new Marines glanced between the three women, the Lieutenant looking as uncomfortable as he was back in the Briefing Room. It was not something she wanted to discuss in public, but she decided it was time to nip this in the bud before it started and these guys were going to find out anyway.
"No it appears that once again, my association with the Williams name has kept me from being appointed to the Lieutenant rank that both Shepard and Admiral Hackett put me in for. I am assured however that I will get my Operation promotion soon though and that Hackett is going to go over Waverly's head and push for an officer appointment for me anyway. Might take awhile, but Shepard seems pretty confident in the fact that someday I might see my own set of stripes. Until then I'm here to help our new crewmates settle in and adjust."
She turned to the squad who were now regarding her with even more shock and noted out of the corner of her eye that the Lieutenant hung his head. "Ladies and gentlemen I know you have already met Dr. Chakwas and Dr. T'Soni, but let me tell you a little more about these two incredible women. Dr. Chakwas here has served the Alliance for almost three decades, and is one of the best damn doctors you'll find in the Fleet. She is also well versed in the physiology of a number of other races, and we are both honored and proud to have her continue on with crew even though she was due for retirement at the end of our last tour of duty."
Chakwas blushed slightly but nodded her thanks to the Chief. "Dr. T'Soni is our resident Prothean expert. She has been working as an archeologist for the last half century, and is one of the galaxy's leading experts on the Prothean culture and technology. It was because of her that we learned that much of what we knew about the Prothean's had been wrong. She alone realized that the Prothean civilization was not the first to be wiped out inexplicably in our galaxy and it supported Shepard's discovery of the Reapers and the threat they now pose to our own civilizations."
"Reapers?" a Marine sergeant asked confused.
Ashley frowned. "The ship that attacked the Citadel was a Reaper. It was a sentient ship with immense power. You all saw what it did to the entire armada at the Citadel and that was just a single advanced scout. There is a whole fleet of those things beyond the edge of the galaxy, and it's up to us to prepare for a war with them."
"But I thought that it was just the Geth," another responded
"Yeah, I mean I was there on the Citadel, and the place was swarming with Geth," a third added.
Ashley, Liara, and Chakwas all share a look. "The Geth were working with Saren, but only because they believed Sovereign- the Reaper- was some kind of…deity for them. Hasn't the Council or even Command briefed everyone about the threat we are facing?" Ashley asked in disbelief.
Garvey finally spoke up. "We were all told that it was a Geth ship that Saren had somehow managed to gain control of. How can you be sure otherwise? I mean it looked pretty much like a Geth ship."
Ashley turned on him her eyes growing dark. "And how many Geth have you fought Lieutenant?"
"What?"
"How. Many. Geth. Have. You. Engaged?"
"Uh…none."
"I could fill a frigate with the amount of geth I have blown to pieces this last year. It's safe to say that I got to know how they operate pretty well. I was also there when Shepard actually had an exchange with Sovereign itself, and that was no Geth. It was just using the Geth like it was using Saren. And what you may not know and will never bring up to her personally though everyone on board knows about, is that Shepard interfaced directly with a Prothean message beacon. The message was a warning about the Reapers, and she witnessed the destruction of an entire civilization. If any of you have any doubts to the validity of the existence of the Reapers I suggest you keep it to yourselves, unless you want to piss off every single member of this crew," she warned grimly.
"We copy Chief," one of the more seasoned Marines said quickly.
"Good," she said forcing herself to relax. "Grab your gear and I'll show you where your new home is going to be."
They made their way down a deck and Ashley was surprised to already find that the Engineering crew was in the process of setting up a small row of bunks off in one corner of the Bay and a second row of storage lockers had already been installed against an empty wall. She noticed that her own cot was gone and that a second set of extra large and sturdy racks replaced Grunt's and Garrus's original sleeping pads. She looked over at O'Malley who was directing the Supply Techs who were delivering another shipment and quirked an eyebrow.
He grinned and shrugged. "Called in a few favors when I found out we had a new squad being attached to us. I knew there was no way we could fit them into the sleeper pod rotation and this is the largest free space we have. I have a few more coming in for myself and some of the Engineering crew too. Might get a little cozy down here, but figured it would make it easier for all of us. Quartermaster and Chief Adams are trying to figure out somewhere we might be able to install a second head and shower room though. It's starting to get mighty friendly upstairs," he chuckled ruefully.
Ashley smirked knowingly and nodded in agreement. She noted that some of the new crates being brought on board bore the emblems of several weapons manufacturers. "More toys?" she asked with a hopeful gleam in her eye.
O'Malley laughed. "Shepard called me earlier to tell me that I had a nice little chunk of credits to use as I saw fit for any of the crew's needs. As soon as I heard about these guys I figured it wouldn't hurt to order a few extra weapons just in case. Also have some armor upgrades and spare parts for any repairs you might need to do in the future."
"And God knows just how many of those we go through. Thanks O'Malley."
"No problem Chief. Oh and if you give me a list of everyone's primary weapon specialty, I'll see to it that we can pick up a Spectre grade weapon of choice for each of them while we are at the Citadel," he said with a nod towards the stunned looking Marines.
"Will do O'Malley. Thanks."
"Just doing my job Chief."
Ashley turned back to the group and was hard pressed not to laugh. "Spectre grade weapons?" one of the younger Marines asked.
"Because Commander Shepard is also a Spectre, she has access to weapons that most people do not. She also accumulated enough credits on behalf of the ship to make sure that everyone who goes planetside with her is armed with nothing but the best. You are going to find that life on board the Normandy is going to be difficult ladies and gentlemen. There are a lot of things you are going to have to adjust to. But it does come with some perks. Weapons and armor upgrades on the ship's account and not your own is just one of them."
She noticed most of them were still looking a bit overwhelmed and leaned against the wall. "I know this is hard for you guys right now. If it makes you feel a little better, Shepard was very opposed to me being on board at first too. On top of that, I had the same prejudices and difficulties in being forced to work with a team full of aliens as I am sure most of you do. And then to make matters worse, the deeper into that mission we got, the more we realized the fate of the entire galaxy was resting on our shoulders and the pressure to not fail was worse than anyone could ever imagine. But we set all of that aside and overcame the odds against us and we are family to each other now.
"Lieutenant, I'm sorry you have been put in the position you are. Everyone expected to come back and see me promoted to officer, even though I told them not to expect it because Admiral Waverly still carries a grudge against my family despite my record," she told him with a resigned shrug. "I'm still just a Chief, and I will respect your rank, but I hope you can respect that I know how things run around here and that you'll feel comfortable in asking my advice on things. I know it's an unusual situation, but as all of you will soon find out, this crew is unique and we do things Shepard's way….which isn't always by the book. So give it a little time, have a little patience, and you'll see soon enough that the crew will warm up to you if you give us a chance."
"May I have a word with you in private Chief?" Garvey asked after a minute.
She nodded and they moved off to the side. He looked her in the eye for a minute and she waited patiently for him to sort out his thoughts. "Chief how long have you been a Marine?"
"Almost ten years, sir."
"I see," he said looking away, doubt in his eyes. "And you were really nominated for officer promotion and turned down?" he asked quietly.
"I was nominated by both Commander Shepard and Admiral Hackett. But Admiral Waverly is in charge of those kinds of promotions and unfortunately he served with my grandfather who surrendered at Shanxi. His personal grudge against my family name is the reason why I was turned down for officer candidate school despite a perfect grade point average and the reason why I will probably never see officer stripes during his lifetime," she said unable to keep the resentment from her voice completely.
"But that's ridiculous! Why hasn't anyone said anything?"
"Politics, Garvey. I have had over half a dozen CO's recommend me for Officer School and every request has been turned down. My last CO that went up against Waverly for me found himself on a five year tour of the inner system. I understand Admiral Hackett went to bat for me, and was still turned down. Waverly just has too much clout for anyone to be able to do much about it," she sighed.
"So really, you should be doing my job and I shouldn't even be here," he said dismally, realizing why his reception had been so cold.
"In their eyes, yes," Ashley admitted. "Like I said, I told them not to expect it to go through. I was hoping that with an Admiral finally in my corner I'd have a better chance, but not this round it would seem. We honestly weren't expecting an extra Marine compliment. No offense sir, but by sending your squad and putting a green graduate in charge on a highly dangerous mission, it was meant to be a slap in the face to the Commander, the Admiral, and myself. I'm not going to take your presence personally, but sir, I thought I was ready for the action I was bound to see on the Normandy. I had nine years of service under my belt, I have graduated from a number of Spec Ops training including H.E.A.T., and I was the only surviving member of my squad on Eden Prime. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Shepard's more pissed about having someone so green being put in charge of these men and women. The Skipper cares about her crew, and contrary to the rumors, she does care if she loses someone. She's worried that having someone as inexperienced as you will put the rest of the squad in danger, and that's why she is angry with Command's decision to assign you to us."
"I…see," he said slowly, looking even more dejected. Ash felt pity for the young man who had found himself a pawn in a game of power. "She's never going to trust me is she?"
"Work hard, do what she says, be willing to accept advice, keep your head down, and don't get yourself or anyone else killed and she'll come around. It took almost three months before she finally began to ease up on me. It took me nearly five to really become settled with the rest of our crew. Working with our alien crewmembers is going to take time Lieutenant. They all come from cultures so different from our own and it took almost everyone on this crew awhile to adjust. So what you will see when Wrex and Garrus come aboard is the result of time and patience on everyone's part. None of us are going to expect you to trust in them overnight, but we will expect you to treat them with the same amount of respect that we show them."
"We will do our best Chief. And given the circumstances, any input and feedback you can give me would be helpful. I may be green as you put it, but I'm not stupid. I have had men and women under me with more experience and I have always been open to suggestions and recommendations. I just hope that you understand that I also have an impression to make here. And while it has been very few times and I hate doing it, there will be times when I might pull rank. Most of the time it has worked out, but on the few times it didn't, I have been man enough to admit to my mistakes. I need to know that the only time you will disobey an order from me is because you know, without a doubt, that my order may get someone needlessly killed."
Ashley nodded. "So long as you are willing to admit to your own mistakes and learn from them sir, I will not interfere with your orders unless I feel they may jeopardize the team or the mission. At that time I will make a strong recommendation in hopes that you will take my suggestion into consideration."
"Then I think we are going to get along just fine Chief," he said with a somewhat relieved smile on his face.
Out of respect, Ashley straightened and saluted him with a smile on her own face. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.
"What can the rest of us help you with Chief?"
"Let's get everyone's bunk assignments squared away since it seems a few of the Engineers and our Requisitions Officer are also bunking in with us, and then maybe you can introduce me to the rest of the squad. After that, I'll steal your tech specialists to help me finish out the Mako's final inspection while the rest of you do a full weapons and gear inventory and inspection. The Skipper likes to leave port knowing that we are ready for a fight at any moment. Given the action we've seen this past year, it's been a very good habit to get into. Most of us keep our armor nearby because we never know when we need to be suited and ready to drop within a few minutes."
"Sounds like we should run through some gear up drills in our spare time then too."
Ashley nodded in approval. "I would strongly recommend it and the Skipper will be pleased."
"As soon as the Senior Briefing is over I'll tell the squad to be prepared. Perhaps you would do us the honor of demonstrating to us what the Commanders expectations are?"
"Aye Aye, Lieutenant."
"Thank you Chief."

"Lieutenant Garvey I assume you have had a chance to catch up on the rest of the crew manifest by now, but let me introduce you to the rest of the Senior Staff. You have already met my XO and Navigator, Lieutenant Commander Pressley along with our CMO, Dr. Chakwas. I believe you have also been getting to know Gunnery Chief Williams, who has been placed in charge of Armory and Security. Lieutenant Moreau whom you will all hear us refer to as Joker, is our Chief Helmsmen and the best damn pilot in our fleet. Dr. Liara T'Soni has been assigned to our crew as a civilian expert in the science field, with a particularly vast knowledge of all things Prothean - which given our particular assignment became rather critical. Finally, we have Lieutenant Commander Adams who is our Chief of Engineering."
Garvey nodded politely to each, happy to see that most of them seemed at least somewhat open to his addition to their ranks and didn't dismiss him outright. "Everyone, this is Lieutenant Garvey, and he is the team leader for the new squad of Marines that was recently assigned to our crew."
There was a murmur of quiet welcomes, but Shepard kept them short before cutting back in. "Now, down to business. Lieutenant Garvey have you been brought up to speed with details about our last mission?"
"Yes, Commander. I was also made aware of the fact that not everything we've all been told may be quite the full story. While we were assisting Chief Williams, she has…clarified certain aspects of your last mission."
Shepard nodded in approval. "Good," then she looked at the rest of her crew. "Apparently with a few rare exceptions- Admiral Hackett being one of them- the Alliance and nearly every other race is trying to lessen the seriousness of what happened on the Citadel by saying it was merely a Geth incursion. They are keeping details of Sovereign and the threat of the Reapers from the general public."
There was a sudden clamor of angry comments and noises of disbelief that quickly followed that statement. Shepard allowed it, for she understood all too well their outrage at having their personal sacrifice diminished. She noted that Garvey looked around, a serious and thoughtful expression on his face as her crews' reactions re-affirmed what he'd been told. Finally, she held up her hand to quiet them after a couple of minutes.
"Trust me, I know exactly how you feel and now you can see why I was a bit out of sorts earlier. Hackett and Anderson are fighting this decision, but it is going to be a long hard road for them to pave. People are scared and right now the Geth threat is more than they want to believe. Command and many other governing bodies of the various Council races believe introducing the idea of this new menace will only cause mass hysteria and panic. Many of those in power don't even want to accept the existence of the Reapers."
"How can they ignore so much evidence though? Sovereign was literally delivered to their doorsteps." Liara asked.
"And there-in lies the problem. A lot of Sovereign has mysteriously disappeared - scavenged by private entities who swooped in during the confusion. What has been left looks very much like advanced Geth components to the rest of us. The Quarians are the only ones who have really been able to study the Geth in the past and know their make-up. Their scientists are regarded as the only experts who can definitively say whether Sovereign was Geth or not. I asked the Admiral to send what they have retrieved to Tali's father since he is an Admiral within their people, but it may take some time before he can verify our claims," she sighed.
"In the meantime, our orders are to seek out and destroy the Geth strongholds that are beginning to pop up all over. These orders come from the Alliance in conjunction with the current de facto Council members, which means that this is my current assignment both as an officer and as a Spectre. Since we know that the Geth are trying to set up a strong presence in Council territory, I can understand the Council's desire to see the Geth pushed back. What I won't stand for however, is having the Reaper threat completely swept under the carpet and both Admiral Hackett and Councilman Anderson agree with me on that. As a secondary and covert mission, we will continue to look for further signs, information, or knowledge about the Reapers in an effort to thwart another invasion that may wipe out all life in the galaxy like they did to the Prothean civilization.
"We will be heading to the Citadel to pick up our two remaining crewmembers, and I will also have a meeting with Councilman Anderson as to a few more specifics. Our reception there may be a mixed one so I suggest that the crew remain aboard while I take a small team to the station for the meeting and a supply procurement stop. Joker….don't do anything to piss Control off this time. I don't need to draw any more heat than what we will already be likely facing."
The pilot looked somewhat irritated but nodded. "Yes Ma'am."
"Adams, how much longer does your crew have?"
"My crew is finishing the final checklist now Commander. Normandy should be ready to be under way within the hour."
"Good. Joker, as soon as Adams gives the green light for his department, notify me immediately and then be ready to undock. In the meantime, I suggest that those of you whose duties are not required at this time, get some rest during the next week. Once we set out from the Citadel we have another long mission ahead of us, and it might be almost as ugly as the last one. Dismissed."
Everyone stood and began exiting the room, a mild grumbling rising between them about the dismissal of the Reapers. Garvey hesitated and then straightened when he finally caught Shepard's eye. "May I speak with you privately Commander?"
She nodded stiffly and then when the rest of the crew had left she leaned against the wall and folded her arms. "Decide you want off my boat Garvey?"
"Permission to speak freely Commander?"
She smirked. "Why the hell not. Let's hear what you have to say rookie."
His expression tightened, but he took a moment to force himself to relax. She was baiting him and he knew he couldn't let her get to him, or he would never have her respect. "Look, I know I'm the new kid on the block. I also know that half the men and women in my squad are probably more qualified to lead than I am just on experience alone. But we all have to start somewhere. You started somewhere yourself Commander, and if I read right, not everything always went according to plan. Whether you were at fault or not, people died."
She straightened, her eyes going cold. "I would choose your next words carefully Lieutenant."
"Listen I know there are two sides to every story. And I had the unfortunate experience of having McCullough as one of our field instructors during a live fire exercise. I and half my training squad damn near lost our lives because of his recklessness and ineptitude. All I am saying is that someone was willing to give you another chance. That's all I am asking here Commander. I may be new, but I AM a Marine. I have faith in my training…I just need the experience and some guidance. Frankly, I couldn't have asked for a better Commanding Officer. I also know the truth about Williams, and I think what is happening to her is bullshit. I'm sorry that I'm the poor son of a bitch who got chosen to be the pawn in this little power game, but here I am, and there was nothing you or I could have done about that. Now I am willing to play by your rules Commander, but all I ask is that you give me a chance here. Marines don't do the job because of the pay…we do it because we want to help make a difference. I am here because I want to prevent what happened on Eden Prime and the Citadel to anyone else. Help me learn how to do that the best way I can."
Shepard was silent for a long time, just gazing steadily at him. He held his breath, hoping that his request would break through her iron shield. She shifted minutely, but he noticed her stance relaxed somewhat, even if her eyes narrowed just a bit. "This ship is mine Lieutenant, and we don't always do things in compliance with Command. As a Spectre sometimes my duties to the Council override or even conflict with my orders from Alliance Brass, and I may break them outright. Are you willing to go the full distance as I see fit?"
"It may take some getting used to, but I think both I and my team can handle that. Way I see it, this ship is Council property anyway. Besides, if you had obeyed your orders the last time, this discussion wouldn't even be taking place."
She nodded. "You might also notice that I let some minor infractions of the Regulations slide. For now, I expect you and your men to adhere to them until you get a feel for how things run around here. If I bust someone down for breaking a regulation, I don't want to hear a complaint about what I do or don't allow other crew members to get away with."
"Understandable. It's something I've seen on a couple of ships and shouldn't be a problem Commander."
"I also tend to take small teams to the surface with me. Less people to worry about and we draw less attention. You need to understand that if we go into a what I know is a highly dangerous situation, I will be taking those I know and trust until I feel you have enough experience. In return I promise that you will see your fair share of action, and I will give you the chance to learn from each away mission. In most of those situations you will be partnered with at least myself and Chief Williams and if she gives you a directive in the middle of a fight, I expect you to follow it for the time being."
"Chief Williams and I have come to an agreement Commander and there will be no problems there."
"I also expect you and your squad to treat our alien crew with respect. They take some getting used to, and sometimes they can be difficult to figure out. Garrus is a Turian and keeps to himself until he gets chatty. Wrex seems like your typical Krogan- badass, blunt and won't give you the time of day until he respects you. But once you have earned his trust and respect, you'll have one hell of an ally in your corner. Liara…Dr. T'Soni," Shepard corrected herself, "is still working on figuring us humans out. Don't underestimate her though. Beneath that quiet and almost naïve exterior is a young woman who is probably stronger than most of this crew. Liara is both a skilled fighter and a powerful biotic. During our pursuit of Saren, we discovered that Liara's own mother had fallen under Sovereign's compulsion and Liara was forced to fight her. Lady Benezia did not survive the encounter, and despite the pain of having to kill her own mother, Dr. T'Soni never wavered once in her commitment to stop Saren and Sovereign."
Garvey nodded. "I understand patience will be needed and you have my word Commander that I will do my best to show them the utmost respect. I have no problems working with aliens Ma'am, and from the comments I've heard from others, they are actually looking forward to the chance to interact and work with other races. We believe that Command might have actually chosen all of us because none of us have any xenophobic leanings. Guess they managed not to fuck that up," he said with a somewhat rueful expression. "I believe it will be an enlightening experience for all of us."
Shepard was quiet for a bit longer and then finally her posture relaxed completely as a smirk turned the edges of her lips upwards just a fraction. "Then I think we won't have any problems Mr. Garvey. Welcome aboard Lieutenant," she said with a nod to him.
He grinned back at her and then saluted. "Thank you, Commander. It is an honor to be here Ma'am."
"Talk to Williams. You'll be going down to the Citadel with me- she'll tell you what to bring."
"Aye aye Commander."
"Dismissed, Lieutenant."
He saluted once more and left feeling much better about his assignment. He knew it would be a bit of a rocky ride in the beginning, but he and his team would adapt if they just hung on and rode it out.

Shepard sighed as her lights came up at Joker's contact. "Commander, Normandy is cleared for undocking."
Well at least she got a half hour of rest. She pulled herself upright and slid her shirt over her head. "Notify the crew we will be undocking in five minutes and have all departments run through the final check in. I'll be up in a moment."
"Aye aye Commander."
Two minutes later she was striding through the busy CIC making her way to the helm. "Status?"
"All departments check in and green to go Commander. Port hatch has been sealed, docking ramp has been withdrawn, and Control will be removing the locks in T Minus two minutes and ten seconds."
Two minutes and ten seconds later the docking clamps released and Normandy's control was turned over to the helmsman. "Normandy you are cleared to launch. Please proceed to sector two nine seven. Good luck and god speed."
"Copy Control. Heading to sector two nine seven. Normandy out."
Shepard remained behind her pilot, watching for several minutes longer as they cleared the traffic that always surrounded both earth and the massive shipyard that hovered above it. As they slipped into empty space Joker looked up at Shepard. "We are in the clear Commander."
She stared out the inky blackness and watched as the band of the Milky Way drifted by the window. Somewhere out there, just beyond that rim, an armada was poised. For now, she could do nothing more than find more pieces to the puzzle and prove that their existence and threat was real. Still staring out into the infinity, she recalled an old line from one of the rare stories she'd heard as a child. "Second star to the right and straight on 'till morning Mr. Moreau."
He raised an eyebrow at her reference but then nodded and turned back to his console and double checked his course heading for the Citadel. "Aye aye Commander."

Chapter 15: Burden of Proof
Shepard and Williams traded knowing smirks as they watched their new Lieutenant gape at the spectacle before them. In all honesty, they too were a bit surprised by how quickly the Marketplace had been cleared of wreckage and was well on its way to being restored to its former glory. The Ambassadorial wing was also nearly refurbished, and many businesses were up and running once more. A glance across the walkway showed that the Consort's establishment was open and Shepard smiled to herself. Sha'ira had been her first sexual encounter with an Asari, and it had definitely been an eye opening experience. One that had led to her increased interest in Liara after she'd come aboard. Maybe she would stop by the Consort's office later to thank her for opening her heart and mind to possibilities Alex once thought not possible for someone like herself.
The approach of Councilman Anderson brought her attention back to the present and she smiled at seeing her old friend decked out in his new official garb. She chuckled quietly, seeing him tug on the collar of the formal jacket in discomfort. But he smiled warmly in welcome, and bypassed the hand she held out to clasp her and Ashley on the shoulder in a less formal manner. Garvey's eyes widened a bit, but he remained silent, taking everything in.
Anderson stepped back and looked the two younger women over with a practiced eye and noted the difference in both of them. A smile of genuine pleasure lifted his lips and he nodded in approval. "It's good to see you both back on your feet and looking well rested."
"It feels good to be back sir. Glad to see that you made the cut for the new Council position. I would have hated to think what a slime ball like Udina would do if he managed to worm his way onto the Council," she said with a grimace.
Anderson winced. "Yes well thankfully that did not come to pass. Unfortunately for me however, the man has been assigned as my advisor because despite his backhanded dealings, he knows the system better than I do."
"Ouch," Williams remarked, her face conveying her sympathy. "Hopefully you won't have to deal with him for long."
"The man is reprehensible most of the time, but he does serve a purpose. There is a great deal of political maneuvering going on, and Udina is quick to spot it. He also knows the major players here, and has contacts that have proven extremely useful. As a former Alliance officer, much of this goes against the very principals we are instilled with, but these are critical times, and if I don't play the game, humanity could suffer greatly. I have no intention of seizing power like Udina wants, but this is our one chance to put ourselves in a position of equal power so that we can finally make a difference."
"I wish you all the best of luck with that then sir. I have faith that having someone with your honorable reputation on the Council will help humanity make a good and decent name for itself."
"Thank you Commander. Well, if you would accompany me to the new Council Chambers?"
"Lead the way Councilor."
Garvey hung back a bit while he watched Shepard, Williams, and Anderson chat amicably about recent events and mutual friends. He noted the undercurrent of familiarity and ease between the three, and realized that Shepard had close friends in very high places. It further instilled in him the need to respect just how much power this one woman had, and that he would do well to live up to her standards- however demanding they may be.
Once they reached the Council Chambers, Anderson looked at him and Williams. "I am afraid I have to ask both of you to wait here. There are a few things that the Council wishes to discuss with Spectre Shepard alone," he informed them.
After hearing Anderson refer to Shepard in her Spectre status, Ashley immediately nodded in understanding. Garvey, took no offense as he knew it was very rare that anyone ever saw the Council in person anyway. "We'll just be waiting right over there Skipper," Ashley said as she nodded towards a row of benches along the far wall.
"Hopefully, I won't be too long. Contact Wrex and Garrus and figure out a place to meet up with them."
"Aye aye, Commander. Good luck," she said with a hint of a smirk.
Shepard's lips lifted ever so slightly in response but she turned towards Anderson and nodded for him to lead the way. Once inside, she moved to the center of the room and nodded towards the three individuals that sat before her.
"Spectre Shepard, it is good to see that you have recovered from your injuries," the new Asari Councilor began. "I am Councilor Renara and these are my fellow associates, Councilors Talis and Velik Droth," she said by way of introduction and gesturing to the Salarian and Turian Councilors. Shepard nodded a greeting to them each. "Councilor Anderson I believe you are more than familiar with already," Renara added, with a hint of amusement in her eyes that Shepard matched as she nodded in agreement. The amusement faded however, and Renara looked at her companions who nodded for her to continue with the proceedings.
"I take it that you have been cleared for full and active duty?"
"I have," she answered simply.
Anderson had moved to take a seat next to his new fellow Councilors, and Shepard noted that his expression had gone extremely neutral. It was the only warning she had, that things were about to become unpleasant.
"You have been called here today to discuss the results of your actions during the Citadel Battle. Specifically, the willingness to sacrifice the former Council instead of protecting them," the new Turian delegate said tersely.
Shepard straightened to a proper military attention and raised her chin proudly. "Is this a court marshal hearing?" she asked evenly.
"While Spectres do not necessarily have a 'court marshal' as you refer to it, you are well aware of the Council's ability to revoke an individual's Spectre status. As a Spectre it is your duty to protect life….all life. This Inquiry is to review your actions during the battle and your willingness to sacrifice the thousands of individuals aboard the Destiny's Ascension, including those in key governmental positions."
"I see. May I inquire as to how many warships were involved in the Citadel Battle? I myself am not aware of just how many ships from the various fleets made it here to fight."
"Twenty Turian ships, including five of their battle cruisers. Twenty three Asari ships, including the Destiny's Ascension. Eighteen Salarian STG scouts and one GARDIAN starship. One hundred and fifty nine civilian ships with mentionable weaponry. And the arrival of the Terran Fifth Fleet: Sixty three ships ranging from scout class to battle frigate," Talis the Salarian delegate recited.
Alex quickly did the math in her head. "Two hundred and eighty four ships. How many Geth ships accompanied Sovereign?"
"Thirty three."
"Two hundred and eighty four ships against thirty four ships. The numbers SHOULD have been in our favor ladies and gentlemen. But even without the Geth fleet, we were barely a match for Sovereign. It took all of our combined forces to bring that creature down. You forget that I witnessed the destruction of an entire civilization at the hands of the Reapers. Every member of this Council willingly admits that the Protheans were far more advanced than any of our races are. And yet, even with all their technology, they were completely obliterated. If Sovereign had succeeded in sending the signal out that would have brought the entire Reaper fleet down on our heads, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I did not sacrifice the Destiny or the Council lightly ladies and gentlemen. But there was no time to divert forces to protect a single ship- no matter who was onboard. If we had done that, Sovereign would have had time to send the signal and we would have all been dead by now. I sacrificed thousands of lives, yes. But I did it to save the trillions of lives amongst all our races."
Silence reigned around the room after that for several moments as the Council digested the news. Finally, Renara spoke up. "You would make the same choice again?"
"If I am forced to choose between the few against the many, then yes. Even if that ship had been filled with nothing but humans, yes. Race has never been in issue for me, and I would think the make-up of my crew proves that. The Reapers are the greatest threat this galaxy has ever faced. No one before us has ever been able to stop them. It is going to take everything all of our races collectively have to stop them. My actions bought us the time we need prepare, because make no mistake ladies and gentlemen, they are out there, and it is only a matter of time before they come for us."
"You speak of these Reapers with conviction Spectre Shepard. However it should be noted that there has been no noted proof provided to this council of their actual existence," Velik declared.
Shepard started violently. She'd been warned, but to hear it in person still shocked her to the core. "Are you fucking serious?!" she asked her voice raising in tone and volume.
"Shepard," Anderson warned, his eyes pleading for her to keep her temper in check.
Renara interrupted in calming tones in hopes of staving off an unpleasant confrontation. She threw her Turian companion a look that caused him to immediately fall silent. Shepard managed to reign in her temper enough to close her mouth long enough to hear what was to be said.
"What my companion here was saying, is that the situation with these so called Reapers must be handled…delicately. The fleet that attacked the Citadel was clearly Geth, and while the massive warship that you refer to as Sovereign, was foreign to our scans, there was nothing to indicate that it wasn't anything more than a highly advance Geth ship that has never been classified before. There was much chaos after the battle and it took several weeks before this new Council was put into place. By then, various…..entities had scavenged much of the unknown ship's remains. What little remains, are being studied by the top scientific minds of all our races. Until we have solid proof that Sovereign was something more than a new form of Geth, we are faced with trying to calm a panicked galaxy. Adding to that with unverified claims may only cause further unrest."
Shepard grit her teeth. "So just like the first Council you don't believe me or my crew either," she said flatly.
"It is not a case of disbelief Spectre Shepard. It is clear just how deeply you believe in this threat, and you went to great and painstaking lengths to save us from this creature's threat. I knew Lady Benezia well, and I know she would have never willingly followed such a dark path. Saren was a friend of hers, but not even he could have influenced her so deeply that she would turn from everything she believed and taught for all these centuries. Your report claims that Sovereign had the ability to enthrall people it came into contact with, this is the only plausible explanation for Lady Benezia's actions. I believe you when you say that whatever that creature was, it was a dire threat to our existence. But even in your human courts, the burden of proof rests on those making the claims. The people of this galaxy are going to want more than just the word of a few individuals…more than the fragmented memories burned into your brain by a device that was never designed to be used by humans. If this Council is to approve the united mobilization of our combined fleets in preparation for a war that we don't even know when it may start, we need to know for sure what we are up against. Right now, we have almost nothing."
Shepard's fight left her at Renara's words and she bowed her head in frustration. "Do we even know who took Sovereign's remains?" she asked after a minute of collecting herself.
Satisfied that her words of reasoning had gotten through to the young woman before them, the Asari offered a sympathetic look. "I know this is difficult for you to accept Shepard. But your patience and ability to see the reasoning behind our actions are commendable. The first Council did well in choosing you for this job."
"Your words honor me," Shepard forced herself to say as she bowed her head in respect. She didn't like it one bit, but she couldn't argue the logic of the situation. Inside, a small part of her idly wondered in some amusement, just how much of Liara was starting to rub off on her.
"In answer to your question," Anderson continued, a look of pride in his eyes at her restraint, "there are a number of groups we believe are responsible. We believe the Shadow Broker and Cerberus are amongst the top two however. While no one wants to admit to it, every race has its subversive or underground groups that are more than likely involved in this in minor capacities. But only the Shadow Broker and Cerberus have enough resources to pull off the large scale operations that were required to remove so much of Sovereign so quickly."
"Any solid leads?"
"Shadow Broker has many operatives and no known identity. Base of operations hidden for decades. Shadow Broker has too many ears. Three possible leads all ended with informants dead within hours. Having difficulty finding anyone who will talk," Talis said, his clipped tones a little more grim than normal.
"Alliance Command is working on turning up some intel on Cerberus operations. We have a few promising leads, but Command wants to be sure of their validity before they send you off on a wild goose chase around the galaxy. All viable leads will be forwarded to you immediately."
Shepard nodded. "I'll be more than happy to look at anything even remotely connected with those sick bastards. They need to be shut down and buried," she said adamantly.
"Working on these leads will be only a small part of your assignment. As you are already aware of, your primary concern for now will be to help put down any and all Geth incursions that the various patrols turn up. That is the immediate threat and every Spectre is being tasked with this assignment. While you may use whatever force is necessary to destroy any Geth strongholds you come across, information gathering is vital right now. So salvage what you can and then move on," Velik instructed.
"Is anyone following up on the Reaper threat?" Shepard asked in frustration.
"As the Geth worked for this Sovereign, would they not have the most intel on the Reapers? Start with the Geth, and see where the trail leads," Renara advised. "We have two more final bits of business to address and then you may take your leave Shepard. The first is that several Spectres were close enough to respond to the threat to the Citadel and gave their lives in the battle. Two more were following leads on the Geth in the field and have not been heard from in several months and are presumed dead. We need to fortify your ranks and we are taking recommendations."
Shepard blinked in surprise, having not expected this request. Her mind quickly went through the list of possible suggestions and the Council waited patiently while she weighed her decision. "Are these individuals expected to be …reviewed immediately?"
"At this time we are merely hearing out recommendations for possible future candidates. Not everyone is ready to become a Spectre right away, but our field agents work with a great many people and can help bring to our attention individuals that we should keep an eye on for future consideration."
Shepard took another minute and agonized over one in particular. She saw Anderson watching her carefully, and shoved her personal feelings back inside their box as her sense of duty reasserted itself. "I would like to put in a recommendation for three possible candidates. Two could definitely use a little more time and experience on their own and in commanding others, but one I feel has well proven her worth as a soldier on the battlefield and is capable of handling herself in any situation. My Gunnery Chief, Ashley Williams, would make an excellent candidate."
The Asari Councilor smiled and nodded. "Ashley Williams has indeed captured our attention. Councilor Anderson has also made us aware of the….issues surrounding her inexcusably slow advancement in your military ranks despite her incredible accomplishments. I would like to assure you that we have no such issues here, however for the time being, she is to remain assigned to you and the Normandy as we know just how invaluable her skills have been to you. If we make Ashley Williams a Spectre, she will be reassigned out of necessity, and this Council is not yet ready to break up the team you put together and which has performed so admirably."
Shepard let out a small silent sigh of relief. While she didn't want to be the cause of stalling Ashley's career any further, she was glad to know that the Council was going to allow the fiery Chief to remain by her side for some time to come yet. "The other two would be Garrus Vakarian and Tali'Zorha vas Neema."
There was a bit of stunned silence at that and then Velik shifted agitatedly. "You would recommend a….Quarian for such a position? It's bad enough-," his racial rant was thankfully cut off by the Salarian who was obviously as intrigued as the other two.
"Quarians considered outcasts. They have little military prowess and training. Fleet survival is everything to them. Once they return from their Pilgrimage, none leave unless banished. Spectres entrusted with safety of all species not just their own."
"You are correct in observing that most Quarians would not be fit for this kind of position of responsibility as it goes against the very grain of their society. I will also admit that Tali'Zorah is still quite young and could benefit considerably from further time and experience in the field. But I have fought side by side with her and it was her actions here on the Citadel when she was on her own that brought her to my attention in the first place. Tali was and is still able to look past her own heritage and is as convinced that the Reapers possess a threat to all life. This is about more than just humanity, or the council races, or the flotilla. She herself told me that she knew her people would have to join with the rest of ours if we were to face this coming threat with any hope of surviving it. As a soldier, Tali is both brave and fierce. During her time with my crew, she was attentive to the various fighting techniques of my diverse team and I watched in pride as she utilized and adapted them for herself. Her combat skills improved remarkably and her tech and engineering skills are remarkable. That she was able to utilize both on the battlefield made her a unique and invaluable asset to my team and I was sorry that she had to depart."
Velik thankfully remained silent, and Talis continued to look thoughtful. "As a former commanding officer, I have to say I too was quite impressed with Tali'Zorah's unique abilities. It is not often that you find an engineer who is comfortable on the battlefield, but she kept her cool under fire. I doubt she will ever be an out and out scrapper charging the front lines like Shepard here, but she would make an excellent spec ops operator…the kind of soldier who could get in, hack anything you needed and then could fight her way out if needed," Anderson remarked.
"I too am intrigued by your recommendation," Renara admitted. "And you make a solid argument in her defense. We shall take your recommendation of her under advisement and continue to keep an eye on her progress. Your second recommendation?"
"Garrus Vakarian."
"Vakarian had an outstanding record with C-Sec, performed admirably with your team and yet you would recommend holding him back. Why?" Velik demanded.
Shepard sighed to herself, noting she was going to have as much fun with this Turian Councilor as she did with the last. "I trust Garrus with my life and he was a vital part of my team. However, he has spent most of his career as a cop, bound by far more laws, red tape and political bullshit than any soldier ever has to deal with. I believe Councilor Anderson will tell you that the transition from being a soldier to a politician has not been easy. Playing by the rules has gotten people killed under my Command in the past. I willing throw courtesy and orders out the airlock if I think it might get people needlessly killed. Garrus has always been told what to do and has not yet had to bear the weight of leadership yet. I feel he could benefit greatly from learning how to take on such a responsibility and it was my plan to work on that to help him grow into the soldier I know he can be."
Velik backed down slightly at this. "You, a human, would help a Turian?"
"I would help a friend," Shepard answered without hesitation.
There was another pause and then Velik nodded, satisfied. "With your guidance we expect to see excellent results then Shepard," Renara commented. "The final matter we need to discuss, is your continued tenure as an Alliance Officer. We realize that this is most likely a sensitive issue, but all of us, including your former Commanding Officer, feels it is something that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later."
"You want me to resign my post," Shepard stated flatly.
Renara looked towards Anderson , deferring to his expertise and familiarity within this area. "Shepard, I know how hard you worked to get where you are. And Admiral Hackett is a personal friend of mine, which means I was well aware of your struggle to fight your own personal past to become the woman you are now. Trust me when I say that I truly do understand the dilemma you are now faced with. Life is filled with choices to make and some paths require sacrifice if we are to fulfill our ultimate destiny. Your actions as an Alliance Officer brought you to the attention of the Council in the first place and they offered you the chance to become something far more than soldier."
Shepard was silent for a few minutes digesting this. "Then….you really think I should resign my post sir?" she asked, the mere mention of it tearing at her.
"That is a decision only you can make Shepard and it is not something this Council will force upon you for now. But consider this, you are a Spectre now, no longer bound by the rules and regulations that the rest of us are. If you continue to retain your status as an Alliance Officer, you will be expected to adhere to their requests, and you will be faced with conflicts between your assignments. As the saying goes, one cannot be a slave for two masters."
"And if I resign my post? What will become of my crew?"
"There are several possibilities," Anderson admitted. "The Normandy will be officially turned over to you as your own ship. Command may see fit to allow some of the crew to remain as a special detachment, but the majority will most likely be reassigned. However, if any of them wish to resign their own commissions, they can put forth a personal request to you to remain aboard as your crew. The choice will be left entirely to you, but you alone will be responsible for their well being. They will be under your employ so to speak."
Shepard exhaled slowly. "I see. How long before you all are going to force this issue?" she asked bluntly.
"We are not setting any deadlines, however, be aware that if and when the day comes that there is a conflict of interest, this Council expects you to make a clear choice one way or the other. We respect your talents and all that you have accomplished Commander. There is no doubt that you are worthy of the title of Spectre and it is this Council's wish that you will see the greater good you could do if you continue to remain one. However, we will not begrudge you if you feel your first duty comes to those who helped you become what you are today," Renara answered in an understanding tone.
Shepard nodded. "Thank you for giving me some time to consider my choices. Is there anything else?"
"That is all Spectre. Good hunting."
Shepard snapped to attention and saluted them, a gesture of respect that was not necessary, but was not lost on any of the Council members. They nodded to her in return and then stood and began to exit the room, leaving Shepard alone with Anderson. "I apologize Shepard. But the Council needed to not only hear your words but to see your personal conviction."
"I understand sir, and it wasn't completely unexpected. I have to say, asking for more Spectre recommendations was though. They really need Spectres that badly?"
"There are several critical positions that do need to be filled immediately, and those candidates are already being checked out in various field assignments by several other Spectres who were able to accommodate validating their readiness. Don't be surprised if we toss one or two your way over the coming weeks. But while the Council is not committing all of our resources towards a united military front against the Reapers, they are willing to expand the Spectre ranks to lay the groundwork that will be necessary if and when such an action is needed."
"How so? I mean in general, Spectres work alone. We need armies, not lone wolves."
"True, but every Spectre has an extensive network of contacts and command the respect of nearly every race. A small army of Spectres can carry a large amount of influence. They also have their own ships and loyal crew…usually containing some of the best and brightest minds. A Spectre is also skilled in intel gathering, which is what the Council's main focus will be on in the coming weeks and months. As much as I hate to admit it, they are right about one thing. We have very little information on the Reapers, let alone being able to verify that Sovereign is indeed a Reaper and not an advanced Geth warship. Which is why I have a special assignment for you. This is not sanctioned by either the Council or Command, but there are a few people in both that agree with me on this and have agreed that it would be a wise course of action."
Shepard raised an eyebrow at that. "Risking the new job already sir?" she asked with a smirk.
"Hardly. This is not something you have to keep off the records, but some…discretion in the matter would be appreciated."
"I'll see what I can do. What's the job?"
"The Quarians are the only race with advanced knowledge of the Geth, and they have shared little of what they know with the rest of the Council races. We have learned a great deal over this past year from our own combined studies, but their assistance in this would help tremendously. Unfortunately prejudice and pride on both sides have prevented us from asking for their help and from them in offering it. The President and several key members of Command are interested in securing a better relationship with the Quarian Flotilla, and I know that Councilor Renara is aware of the need to start mending the fence so to speak. Unfortunately, most other races either don't care, or are blaming the Quarians for the return of the Geth and don't see their potential as Allies. You not only accepted one of their people as a member of your crew, it is well known that you befriended Tali'Zorah. Add the fact that she is the daughter of one of their top Admirals, and you alone have a chance in opening diplomatic talks between our people and theirs."
"Whoa, whoa whoa," Shepard said holding her hand up. "You want me to go in as some kind of Ambassador? Councilor, I am soldier…not a politician."
Anderson chuckled. "I know that Shepard. But we would like you to break the ice with a peace offering of sorts. You are being entrusted with several pieces of Sovereign in hopes that the Quarians will be able to confirm that it isn't Geth, and perhaps tell us more about its make-up than we were able to figure out. When you deliver it, all you need to do is simply relay a message that the Alliance is interested in an exchange of information, and hopefully more. If we can open diplomatic relations with them, I believe the Asari will be quick to follow, and once that happens many of the others will at least start to listen."
Shepard sighed. "Alright, I'll see what I can arrange. Tali was about to head out on an intense training mission with their new Marines. I doubt she'll be available for the exchange, but I should be able to get close enough to their fleet without drawing too much attention while we're chasing geth around and make the delivery."
"That's all I ask. Do you have any questions about your orders?"
"The Normandy has barely been put through her paces and I want to make sure my crew has been allowed a proper shakedown before we head back onto the frontlines. I also want some time to train with my new squad before we all just head into another Geth infested cluster-fuck."
"What did you have in mind?"
"A week maybe two. Pinnacle Station can provide us with a chance to become familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses. As for the real thing…well I can think of one or two planets that could do without a Thresher Maw or mercenary stronghold."
Anderson snorted. "You don't like to do anything easy do you Shepard?"
"I just like to keep my people on their toes," she smirked.
"I'll put a call into Admiral Ahern to let him know to expect you. Don't push it past two weeks though or you can expect a call from both the Council and Command."
"Understood sir. When can I expect that intel?"
"It should be uploaded to the Normandy for Your Eyes Only, by the end of the day. Everything else will be forwarded as soon as it checks out."
"I'll have Joker file a flight plan for tomorrow. I need to take the new kids shopping for some gear," Shepard said with a smirk. "I hear they've all been drooling since they found out I was gonna spring for some Spectre grade weapons for each of them. There are a few other errands I need to run as well."
"Just try not to stir up too much with the press," Anderson said with an exaggerated sigh.
Shepard's smirk turned into a full blown grin. "I'll just take Wrex with me. He seems to have better luck keeping them at bay."
Anderson laughed and shook his head and then clapped her on the back. "Go on, get out of here. Say hi to the crew for me and I'll be keeping in touch."
Shepard nodded and smiled back at him, even as she gave him a salute. "Yes sir." Then she spun on her heel and marched out of the room.
Outside, Williams and Garvey were both relieved to see Shepard leaving this meeting in decent spirits. They stood and joined her side, the three making their way out of the new Council Chambers and back towards the Presidium. "Wrex and Garrus?" Shepard asked after they had finally boarded one of the rapid transit vehicles.
"They are throwing back a few drinks at Flux waiting for our call. Garrus promised not to let Wrex start too many fights," Ashley added with a smirk.
Shepard snorted. "Wrex can hold his liquor. Garrus on the other hand hasn't learned yet that he can't out drink a Krogan. Let's go rescue him before Wrex tries to challenge him again," she said with a grin.
They made their way to the newly rebuilt Flux, ignoring the stares and whispers that followed them, and entered the neon-lit club. The club was packed, but it didn't take Shepard long to find her two comrades, who were quietly drinking in the back of the club, the other patrons giving them a wide berth. Both males stood and smiled at Shepard's approach, and Garvey had to stifle his nervousness at seeing a Krogan Battlemaster smiling.
"Shepard," Wrex grunted in greeting, as both he and Garrus looked her over with a critical eye and then nodded to themselves, apparently pleased with what they saw.
"So you two just going to stand there all day making sure the Doc put me back together properly or you going to buy your Commander a drink?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
"That depends Shepard. Are we going to find ourselves on the receiving end of the good Doctor's wrath again? Because let me just say, you might be insane, but that was almost scary," Garrus asked, his flanges moving in amusement.
Shepard laughed and shook her head. "Sadly I have to behave, so you boys are safe from the Doc," she promised as she slid into a seat across from them. Everyone else followed suit and a few minutes later they were all enjoying a beer, though Garvey was visibly uncomfortable with drinking while he thought he was on duty.
Shepard and Williams paid no attention though as they caught up with their comrades for a few minutes before Wrex turned to look at the newcomer. "Who's the pup?" he asked in his usually blunt manner. Shepard hid a smirk behind her beer as she watched Garvey sigh almost imperceptibly.
"Guys, meet Lieutenant Garvey. He and a new squad of Marines were recently assigned to the Normandy to join in all our fun and excitement."
Garvey nodded and forced himself to smile politely. "It's a pleasure to meet you both."
They didn't smile back at him however, and as one they looked from Ashley and then to Shepard, with what appeared to be scowls on their faces. At least he thought that was the expression- it was hard for him to tell as he hadn't had very much contact with either race before. Whatever the expression, the sudden tension was immediately palpable.
"I follow you or Williams, Shepard," Wrex stated flatly.
Shepard watched as Garvey shifted uncomfortably and felt her lips lift just a tiny bit in pride. Next to her, she could feel Ashley sit a bit straighter in pride with that statement. "Don't worry Wrex. That isn't going to change anytime soon aboard my ship. The good Lieutenant and I have come to an understanding of how things are to be run on my ship. He's young, and inexperienced, but he's got a good record so far and I think we can mold him into the kind of Commanding Officer that our militaries are going to need. I'm counting on both of you to help him and the squad learn how we fight and to work with us."
Wrex turned and stared at Garvey, who forced himself to sit still and straight under the appraising gaze. The large Krogan seemed to find something redeeming as he snorted and then looked back at Shepard. "He'll do."
"I take it your promotion hasn't gone through yet then Chief?" Garrus asked in a sympathetic voice.
"Not the officer promotion that everyone was hoping for. But Hackett assures me I'll finally reach Operational status soon," Ashley answered with a shrug. After her initial disappointment, she more than anyone else had seemed to make peace with the decision and had moved on. That she had managed to balance Shepard's orders to take the lead in helping the new squad integrate and yet still show the respect Garvey deserved as an officer, had impressed most of crew- especially Garvey.
"So where's the next fight Shepard?" Wrex asked, getting down to business.
"Pinnacle Station for starters," she answered as she downed the last of her beer. "Normandy still needs a week or two to finish her shakedown, and I insisted on being allowed some time to make sure our new Marines are given a chance to get a feel as to how we run and fight while on mission. We had too many close calls there in the beginning of that whole Saren mess. Now that we have a little breathing room, I don't plan on repeating that. After that, we'll be doing more of the usual. Chasing down Geth, and looking for intel on the Reapers. The rest I cannot say until we are back on board."
Both males nodded in understanding. "When do we leave for Pinnacle?" Garrus asked .
"Midday tomorrow. It has been recommended that I try and bond a little better with my new crew," she said with a sideways smirk towards Ash who just rolled her eyes. "So instead of letting O'Malley pick up the gear, I'm going take the kids shopping."
Garvey nearly spit his beer as he watched both males sit up with an excited gleam in their eyes. "Mind if we tag along?" Garrus asked hopefully.
"Cuz you guys don't already have the best gear?" Shepard chuckled in amusement.
"Wrex gave his shotgun to Tali as a parting gift, and besides, I heard Devlon Industries just came out with some cutting edge new weapons…including a top of the line sniper rifle they've had in development for a few years," Garrus sad in their defense.
Ashley was grinning into her beer, Garvey was trying not to smile at the males' obvious enthusiasm in shopping for new gear, and Shepard continued to look amused. "Yes you can tag along," she finally said with a theatrically long suffering tone. "Just try not to break the Normandy's bank this time," she teased as they all finished their beers and prepared to leave.
"Is that even possible?" Garrus asked in mock surprise.
Wrex grunted in amusement. "Never seen anyone horde gear and then trade it for profit like you do Shepard."
"Yeah yeah…. you all bitched when I made you lug back all that crap from every mission, but look at what it got you. I better not hear any whining this time around when I come back with a Mako full of loot," she grinned as they left Flux behind. She paused before they reached the nearest lift Rapid Transit station that would take the group back to the ship. "There's something I need to do. You guys all head back to the ship and I'll catch up with you later."
Ashley looked over at Alex, a silent question in her eyes. "It'll be okay Chief. I'm not looking for any trouble…just want to check in on a friend."
"Aye Commander. See you in a bit."
Shepard watched them leave and then headed off in the other direction, a bit surprised to find herself eager to see how Sha'ira was faring in the wake of the attack.
Chapter 16: Propositions
Shepard walked up to the entrance of the Consort's newly renovated establishment and allowed a small smile to show as she greeted the young asari acolyte that was at the front. "Nelyna, good to see you came through that battle okay."
The young asari smiled in return. "Commander Shepard. I am pleased to see that you have recovered from your grievous injuries," she said as she discreetly tapped a button on the screen of her podium. "I must admit I was not expecting to see you back on the Citadel so soon."
"Can't keep a good soldier down for long," Shepard responded with a smirk. "Besides, the new Council wanted to have a few words with me."
"Well you don't seem any worse the wear. Is there something I may assist you with today?"
Shepard shrugged as she looked around. "Just wanted to stop by and see how things are."
"Ahhh. You wished for some reassurance that Lady Sha'ira was well."
Shepard chuckled quietly to herself at the maiden's perceptiveness. "I did. Sha'ira gave me some words of wisdom that I didn't fully comprehend at the time, but they certainly became very important during my mission. I wanted to thank her."
Just then a tone sounded on Nelyna's computer and she looked down at it. "You are in luck then Commander Shepard. It appears the Consort wishes to receive your thanks in person." The asari gestured to one of the other acolytes who approached immediately. "The Consort wishes to speak with Commander Shepard. Please escort her to the Consort's private chambers."
"Certainly Nelyna. Commander? If you would please follow me."
"Good to see you again Nelyna. Keep taking care of yourself."
"I shall endeavor to do so Commander."
Shepard then turned and followed the other acolyte through the new visiting area, noting that the place was not quite as full as it was before. There were also quite a few new faces. They walked down a long hall, past a row of private rooms, and then up a staircase that lead to a single doorway at the top. The acolyte pressed the chime plate next to the door and then turned and bowed respectfully to Shepard before quietly retreating back down the stairs.
The doors opened and Shepard entered the Consort's renovated room, glancing around in admiration. "I like what you've done with the place," she remarked as she came far enough into the room that the doors closed behind her.
Sha'ira set down the data pad she had been reading when Shepard entered and approached the human with a warm smile on her face. "Commander Shepard. It is very good to see you standing before me…healthy and whole." She paused in front of the blonde human and looked her over with a very careful eye, her smile growing wider. Then she leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on Shepard's lips.
Alex froze, having not expected such a…friendly gesture of greeting. But Sha'ira merely chuckled softly against her lips and did not press for anything deeper. "Relax Spectre. I can sense the change in you, and that your heart finally belongs to someone else. I merely greet a friend - one whom I owe my life to now."
Alex blushed, and rubbed the back of her head a bit self-consciously, but couldn't help the grin that lifted her lips. "It's a good thing Ashley isn't here or she might have a few words with both of us about that kind of hello."
"Ah yes… Chief Williams. She was the young woman that had accompanied you on both your previous visits correct?" Shepard nodded, and Sha'ira smiled. "I sensed an intensity between you both back then. She was none to happy with either of us when I invited you to stay longer for a…'private' session with me," the asari matron laughed.
"She was in a pissy mood for a week after that," Shepard admitted with a laugh of her own.
"It is good to see that you have come to an understanding though. Love suits you Shepard. It has controlled the fire within you, without tempering it."
"Thanks…that's actually why I came by. To thank you for what you told me. And for opening my mind to new possibilities….with those of other races as well."
At this Sha'ira eyes widened slightly. "So there is another?"
Shepard blushed again. "There are two actually…a third if circumstances had allowed it. But I guess it wasn't meant to be."
"My you have been busy during these last few months," Sha'ira teased with a scandalous grin. "Come sit, and tell me all about it."
And Shepard did, even if it surprised her at how comfortable and open she could be with someone else. Alex confided everything to the matron, knowing that she could trust this woman with all that she had to say. She confessed how deep her feelings were for both her lovers, her worries of how things would work out, her fears of them being in harm's way, and her doubts in all that had been tasked to her once more.
Sha'ira had merely listened patiently the entire time, offering bits of advice sparingly, and asking pointed questions in order to draw Shepard's own thought process out further. When Shepard finally fell silent, Sha'ira stared hard at her for several long minutes. Shepard saw the almost distant look in her eyes, and knew that some great power was at work with the matriarch. Normally the hardened veteran wasn't a believer in the mystical. But after this past year, she wasn't quite as rigid in some of her previous beliefs. Besides, she'd been subjected to this same look almost a year ago, and the words that had followed had come to have critical meaning to her life. She didn't dare break Sha'ira's concentration now, because she'd come to value whatever the asari would say.
After an eternity, Sha'ira's gaze came back to reality and she looked almost troubled. "Shepard, your life has never been an easy one, and it never will be. You will have moments of respite- like the one you just enjoyed- and though you may doubt it, you will have more to come. You have been tested and found worthy to be the galaxy's Champion. But a Champion must fall in order to find the strength to pick themselves back up. You have a hard road ahead of you Shepard, and it is one that only you alone can navigate. You have the strength to find your way, but you must never lose faith in yourself, or else all will be lost."
Shepard sighed as her head dropped. "That's not very reassuring Sha'ira."
"I know Shepard, and I wish I could offer you something more positive. But you are destined for great things, and a hero's life is never an easy one. Just know that no matter what, you will always have places of refuge. I owe you my life, and I have seen all that you are and can be. You will always be welcome here when you need a moment of respite Shepard."
Alex looked up, a look of pure gratitude on her face. "I thank you for that Sha'ira. I have come to value your counsel very much…it's not easy for me to open up to others. Not even to Ash or Liara."
"I know, and I am honored that you trust me with such intimate concerns," Sha'ira replied sincerely. She reached out and cupped the human's cheek. "I worry about you Spectre. So much of our fate has been placed on your shoulders, and I can feel that this is far from being over. If you were anyone else, I fear that the burden would be too much. There will come times when you feel the same, but if you open your heart in those moments and believe, the Goddess will give you the strength to carry on."
"I don't really believe in-,"
"I know you are not a spiritual person Shepard. And everyone ascribes to their own beliefs and deities. With a life such as yours you have come to only believe and rely in yourself. In those dark moments when you feel like you have lost your way, forget everything else and open your heart and mind. Whether it be in a god or goddess or yourself….just BELIEVE."
Shepard was silent for a moment and then exhaled slowly. "I will try and remember what you have told me Sha'ira. Thank you for receiving my visit."
"It was my pleasure Shepard. Congratulations on your newly mated status, and may you find many joys and pleasures in your mates loving arms."
Shepard blushed hard and smiled a bit. "I do…they make sure of it," she admitted with a chuckle.
"Given what I could sense of young Chief Williams I don't doubt it. Now, do not fret over what is to come, for there is little any of us can do about what destiny has chosen for us. Enjoy your life now, focus on success in the coming battles, and when difficulties arise, you will have many good things in your past to dwell upon."
The truth of her words struck deep within Shepard and she nodded. "You're right. No sense worrying about what could happen tomorrow, when I haven't even finished out today. Thank you for your insight Sha'ira."
Both women were standing, knowing that the visit was drawing to a close. "It was good to see you again Shepard. Take good care of yourself while you are out there fighting for all of our lives. I look forward to when our paths will cross again."
"Me too. May the Goddess continue to bless you," she said, repeating a common asari farewell she'd picked up from Liara. Then with a final nod she left the Consort to her business and headed back towards the ship to collect her Marines and alien friends for a little shopping before the day was out.
===^^===
"Alright, listen up everyone. I know you are all excited to get some new gear, but let me lay down some ground rules here. Normandy has a fairly substantial account right now, but this does not mean I am willing to blow everything on new gear for everyone. So here is how it's going to work. You each get ONE new Spectre grade weapon. Pick whatever your specialty is and upgrade that. All armor has to be approved by either Ashley or myself. I want it rated high enough for two upgrade modules, but keep it within reason. Also do not bother wasting any money on ammunition or armor upgrades. Our Requisition Officer has an entire storeroom full of those. We are just here for weapons and armor. Understood?"
"Five by five Commander," the Lieutenant answered for the group.
"The Chief and I have extensive knowledge in armors and all weapons. Garrus knows snipers forwards and back, and Wrex specializes in shotguns. Feel free to ask any of us for our opinions on anything you have your eye on before you commit to buying it and don't take it personally if we don't have anything good to say on your selection. Trust me when I tell you that this year we have probably tested just about every weapon there is out there and can tell you with certainty how well it will perform." She paused and looked the eager group over and almost rolled her eyes. She doubted they heard most of what she'd just said because they were anxious just to start shopping. With a shake of her head she looked over at her teammates who were smirking back at her.
"So how substantial of an account does the ship have?" Ashley teased.
"Given the gleam in their eyes, I think we are about to put a serious dent in it," Garrus observed.
"So long as THEY haul around all the loot you find to make up for what you're about to spend Shepard," Wrex added.
Shepard rolled her eyes and turned away from her teasing comrades and lead the group towards the markets. It was going to be a long day.
===^^===
Shepard sank into a chair at the mess table and dropped her head onto folded arms with a groan. There was some noise nearby as a chair was pulled out and a quiet chuckle. "Rough day Commander?" Chakwas asked in amusement.
"You have no idea. How can shopping for a few weapons and armor be so exhausting and trying? Thank god Ash and Garrus were there because I was about to kill someone."
"Yes, well I don't imagine haggling with the local sales people is really your forte," Chakwas remarked with a gentle grin. "But I trust everything that was needed was procured?"
"And then some. Speaking of which have you seen Joker around?"
Chakwas winced. "Ah…he had a bit of an accident earlier. He is resting in the Infirmary."
Shepard sat straight up, concern in her eyes. "What? Damn it we are scheduled to depart tomorrow. What happened?"
"Relax Commander. Jeff will be fine after a full night of rest. He may look a little worse for the wear for a few days, but he'll be able to perform his duties without a problem tomorrow. Someone spilled something on the floor here earlier and it was still damp when Jeff came in for his lunch. When he went to get up his foot slipped and he fell forward. He sprained his wrist and suffered a broken nose and a fracture to his right orbital socket, but nothing serious."
"But he's okay?" Shepard double checked.
"Loaded up on Medi-gel and painkillers and blissfully ignorant to the Universe," Chakwas assured her.
"All right…well I guess I'll just have to give him his new present tomorrow then. Ashley was actually the one to find it. There's a new assault rifle out with zero recoil. He's already got a top of the line side arm. Figured it'd be nice for him to add this to his collection considering the man can shoot...even if he doesn't hardly get the chance to use that skill. Never know though, it might come in handy some day right?"
"I think it is a very touching gesture that Jeff will appreciate dearly Commander. It not only shows that you acknowledge his ability, but you want him prepared to be able to cover your back should that moment ever arrive."
Shepard cleared her throat, somewhat embarrassed and shrugged. "So what's on the menu for tonight Doc?"
"Some surprisingly decent Mexican from what I hear. O'Malley said to stay away from the beans, but that everything else was fairly spot on."
"Well the kids are downstairs polishing their new toys and I suspect they'll be drooling over them for a little while which means we can enjoy a nice quiet dinner for a bit. Shall we?"
"I could use a little peace after today's excitement. Liara is in the back office doing some research. Would you like for me to fetch her as well?"
"You go ahead and get started and I'll go drag her away from her computer."
A small knowing smile played along the older woman's lips but she merely nodded and stood to head over towards the galley counter. Shepard walked into the infirmary and paused next to the bed that held her helmsman. She winced in sympathy at the mess that was Joker's face. He had obviously broken his fall with it. His nose would never be the same and both eyes were black and swollen…the right twice as much. There was bruising all along his right jaw as well, and his wrist was wrapped in a Medi-gel brace, discoloration apparent around the edges as well. Shepard didn't think the pilot would be up for flying the next day, but the Doc seemed confident that he would be well enough.
With a shake of her head she moved on to the small office in the back and got a look at the newly renovated room. It was twice the size that it was before and was partitioned off to double as a small bedroom for any attending medical personnel that needed a bit of rest but couldn't stray far from their patients. There was only a small nightstand and a set of bunk beds attached to the wall, but it was much better than the field cots that the Doc and others had been forced to use during long patient watches.
Liara was so engrossed in her research that she didn't even hear Shepard approach. The Commander took a moment to look down at her lover in amusement and then allowed herself a small bit of indulgence as she leaned down to wrap her arms around the maiden and tenderly kiss the back of her neck. Liara shivered in her arms and Shepard was hard pressed to push down the desire that flared to life within her. She did allow Liara to turn in her grasp and kiss her slowly and thoroughly back.
"Hey," she said with quiet affection once they parted.
"I have missed you," Liara admitted, savoring the moment.
"I know….me too. Once we get underway tomorrow, I'd like to spend some time with you and Ashley…just the three of us."
"I would like that very much."
Shepard grinned. "Good, then be sure you set some kind of reminder Dr. T'Soni. Wouldn't want you to be so buried in your work that you miss out."
"Trust me, I would not miss this opportunity for anything my love."
Shepard leaned in for another kiss that left both of them slightly flushed and breathless. "Are you at a stopping point?"
Liara quirked an eyebrow of amusement at her. Shepard flushed more. "I just got back from the longest shopping trip ever and am starving. Chakwas is waiting out in the Mess for both of us."
"I do not think she would mind if we were a little late."
"But she would most definitely mind us christening HER bed over there. So as tempting as you are, I am not going to risk catching all kinds of teasing and hell from her. Come on…let's go enjoy a quiet meal before a bunch of hyper Marines realize they are hungry."
Liara sighed dramatically, but offered her lover a teasing smile to let her know she wasn't truly upset. Frustrated, certainly. But Shepard did look tired, and her stomach had made itself known several times in the last five minutes. She saved and shut down her work and then gracefully stood to follow Shepard out to the Mess area where Chakwas was already digging into some delicious smelling food.
The two women loaded up their trays and then joined the doctor. Companionable silence reigned for a bit while everyone focused on their foods and then Liara finally looked up from her meal. "Ashley returned without you for awhile. She said you had an errand to run?"
Shepard swallowed her food then nodded. "Wanted to check in on a…friend."
Liara nodded, knowing that a lot of the crew - herself included - had been trying to establish contact with acquaintances that had been on the Citadel during the battle to check on their well-being. "I hope you found them in good health?"
"She was yes. Her business has even been restored already…although I noted several new faces and a few of the old ones missing. I didn't ask, but considering she is located in one of the hardest hit areas on the Presidium, casualties were expected."
"Presidium? And her business is already up and running again?" Chakwas remarked, somewhat amazed.
Shepard flushed, knowing she would never be able to hide anything from her asari lover, and Ashley by extension and figured it was best to get it out in the open now. "Well considering who she is, it's no real surprise. I went to visit the Consort."
Liara, who knew of Shepard's previous dalliance with the asari Matron was a little surprised by the news, but Shepard saw no concern there and let out a silent sigh of relief. Chakwas however was staring at her in mid-bite.
"You just dropped on by the Consort's place and she saw you? Without an appointment?"
Shepard cleared her throat and pushed her food around. "Yes well, I had some dealings with her last year and did her a bit of a favor. In return she gave me some words of advice that made no sense at the time, but became clearer as things began to unfold." She left out just how friendly they had gotten during that visit. "Anyway, she feels indebted to me for stopping Sovereign and wanted to be assured of my well-being also."
"Did she offer any more advice?"
Shepard looked down at her food once more. "She did. She knows things are going to get worse before they get better." Here she looked up and then over at Liara who held her steady gaze. "She reminded me that no matter how bad things get, to never forget what means most to me."
Despite the fact that they were in the middle of a very public area, Liara slid her hand out cautiously to Shepard, who allowed her to take it and squeeze it gently before she focused back on her own meal. "Something I believe our shore leave did for all of us. Gave us a chance to remember what we are fighting for," Chakwas remarked in agreement. "Well that was part of your morning. So did your Marines break the ship's bank?" she asked turning to lighter subjects.
Shepard groaned again and then chuckled ruefully. "They weren't the only ones. They can complain all they want, but Garrus and Wrex are going to be doing their fair share of hauling loot back to the ship after our upcoming missions."
"So much for keeping everyone in check eh?"
"Thank god Ash is in love with her own gear right now. She was the only voice of reason I had behind me the whole damn day. I'd give her a pay raise…..but I don't think I could afford it right now!"
Chakwas laughed and pushed her empty plate aside. "Well at least our Marines are all properly outfitted. I hear we have been given leave to train this bunch properly for a couple of weeks."
Shepard nodded as she finished her last bite. "Honestly Doc, I can't believe we didn't lose more people last mission. We caught more than a little bit of luck. I don't intend to push that this time around. We know what we're up against, and I plan on making sure everyone is in top shape and on the same page before we throw ourselves in front of Geth fire and who knows what else. The Council gave us two weeks. I could probably get away with pushing it more if I really felt we needed it, but I think that should be enough time for us to get everyone in fighting sync."
Liara looked up at this bit of news and Shepard noticed a speculative gleam in her eyes. "What?"
"Where were you planning on training with the new squad?"
"The Alliance set up a state of the art combat simulation station out in the Phoenix system called Pinnacle Station. It's earned a reputation amongst several species as offering advanced and realistic battle simulations. The Turians, Salarians, and Asari have been known to use the station for training of their infiltration and spec ops teams."
"Hmmmm."
"Hmmmmm?" Shepard asked, trying to prompt her lover to give her some indication of what she was thinking.
"The station is open to anyone who wishes to train there?"
"Well, they have to be granted permission by the Station's Commanding Officer, but so long as they aren't enemies of the Alliance or Citadel races I don't see why not. Why? What are you thinking?"
"Tali and her team have been on the move looking for more places to provide proper training grounds. Might be nice to see her again, and you could run your Marines against hers."
Shepard's eyes widened and then a grin lifted her lips as a sly look filled her eyes. "Tali's supposedly trying to prove her worth to the squad she's been assigned to right?"
"With little success...though not through her own fault. They have no real training grounds so they have been looking for actual Geth outposts and have been coming up with little right now. She says they were barely challenging - even for the squad's new recruits. I know that look Shepard," Liara said with a small chuckle. "What are you thinking?"
"Maybe we could give our new Marines a display of what we expect of them and prove to Tali's squad that she can kick ass and take names, all at the same time. Hope you've been keeping up on your biotic exercises Dr. T'Soni," Shepard answered with a smirk.
"I have been looking forward to something that might challenge me," Liara responded with an almost predatory gleam in her eye.
Chakwas chuckled and shook her head. "Looks like I'm going to be busy in a few days. Well if you ladies will excuse me, I think I will double check my inventory and make sure I have enough supplies to treat any Quarians that may visit my infirmary in the coming week. Liara…Alex," she said with a smile and a nod before she stood with her empty tray and retreated back to the Infirmary. Shepard looked over at Liara and grinned. "Come on, let's go talk to Ash, Garrus and Wrex and see if they are up for an exhibition fight."
They made their way down to the hanger bay that now doubled as the Marine's barracks and motioned for their three squadmates to join them. Shepard couldn't help but chuckle over the fact that the new Marines were still fawning over their new gear. "What's up Skipper?" Ashley asked as they all settled into relaxed stances around the workbench.
"Liara here had a pretty good idea about our upcoming assignment and it gave me an idea. We are going to head to Pinnacle Station for our shakedown cruise and training with the new squad. Liara says Tali's team has been hard pressed to find anything challenging to train her own team as the Geth seem to be laying low. Was wondering how you all felt about a small exhibition fight. Us against the Quarians and our Marines."
"Stick Girl is going to be on our team right?" Wrex asked much to everyone's quiet amusement.
"I think her team would be able to see better just how quickly she can work on the field if she's fighting against them, rather than with them. Besides, it would round out our team to an even six fighters…two teams of three if we needed to divide forces."
"Throw in a full compliment of Geth just to raise the stakes and lower safeties to minimum settings for us and I think it might just be a fair fight," Garrus remarked with a smirk of his own.
Shepard chuckled. "I take it that's a yes all the way around then?"
Ash looked around and then answered for the group. "Count us all in Commander. Now the trick is….can we get Tali's team out to Pinnacle too?"
"Liara do you know how to get in contact with them?"
"I do. However, I have noted all her messages have time stamps with hours slightly at odds with our own. I believe if we tried to contact them right now, it would be in the middle of their tertiary shift. Perhaps we should wait until the morning?"
"Sounds like a plan. I have a ton of paperwork still waiting for me to finish out before we leave, so carry on and enjoy the rest of your evening. I will see all of you back here at say 0800?"
"Aye aye Skipper," Williams answered as she straightened to attention and saluted her Commander Officer as she prepared to leave. Shepard's lips lifted a bit but she nodded back in response and left the team to their own devices for the rest of the evening as she prepared herself for the final stack of reports that she had left to wade through before they could leave port the next day.

The team ended up meeting in the mess area as everyone had congregated there around the same time for breakfast. They spent a half hour relaxing and teasing a weary looking Shepard who had been up most of the night finishing out her reports, for procrastinating on her paperwork. Chakwas joined them halfway through the meal and reported that Joker had been released back to duty looking a little rough, but functioning well enough to do his duty. Once they were all finished, the group crammed into the elevator to head up to the bridge. A few of the crew looked their way in mild interest as they all moved towards the helm as an entire squad, and not a few wondered if Joker had pulled another prank that had him in hot water with the fighters.
Joker looked over his shoulder as he heard their approach and raised an eyebrow. "Commander?" he asked looking a little nervous.
Shepard raised an eyebrow back at him. Chakwas wasn't kidding when she said he looked a little roughed up. Both eyes were still blackened and swollen from the broken nose and cheek, and his wrist was still supported by the brace, but he appeared to be comfortable enough to be working efficiently. "Glad to see you back in your chair Joker. Not up to anything I'm going to hear about are you?"
"Uh…no?"
"That doesn't instill confidence in me Lieutenant. Whatever it is, I had better damn well not be hearing any complaints from the Docking Master again. I have already played the 'he was testing your security firewalls' excuse twice now. I doubt a third time is going to cut it…Spectre status or not," she warned.
Without looking he punched a few buttons on his panel and the screen cleared. "Aye Commander. But bringing the whole team with you as backup…isn't that a little overkill?"
"Actually, we wanted to put a call in to a friend. I expect you know how to get in touch with Tali?"
"Oh sure," he said, trying not to be obvious at how relieved he was. He turned back to his panels and began typing in a series of commands and typed in a comm request and sent it off. "Should only take a couple of minutes. Tali's kept me informed of their assignments so it'll make sending a signal easier. So what's up?"
"Going to see if her team wants to join up with us on Pinnacle for a little combined training."
"Really? Wow…that would be pretty cool if they could. Bet Tali would love to see everyone again too. Adams will have a mini-gasm if she visits since, besides me, Tali's the only other one who would appreciate the work that's been done on the Normandy."
Wrex grunted, Liara and Ashley grimaced, Garrus shook his head, and Shepard sighed. "You seriously did not just say that to your commanding officer."
"What? It's the truth!"
Thankfully, everyone was saved by the chime of a response back from Tali's ship and Joker turned away from the groaning group and focused his attention back on his panel. "This is Lt. Moreau of the SSV Normandy requesting direct communications with Tali'Zorah vas Neema."
"Copy Normandy. Shall I direct this to her personal quarters?"
Joker looked back over his shoulder at Shepard who waved that she wished to take over the conversation. "This is Commander Shepard of the SSV Normandy. If your Commanding Officer is available we would like to speak with them both."
"Copy Commander Shepard. Both just went off duty for lunch, but it shouldn't take them long to return to the bridge. Please hold."
"Joker, we'll take the call in the Briefing Room. Forward it as soon as they call back."
"Aye aye Commander. Mind if I listen in?"
"Like you don't always?" Shepard asked archly.
Joker had the good grace to look somewhat chagrined. "Since it's not classified yes, you can listen in…until I tell you not to. Understood?"
The last word was spoken with clear warning and Joker nodded. "Yes Commander."
Shepard nodded, satisfied and then the group walked back to the Briefing Room and made themselves comfortable around the room as they waited to hear back from their young Quarian friend. After a relatively short wait, Joker's voice came over the comm. "Receiving visual Commander," he announced as the screen came to life.
Tali was standing proudly next to a Quarian male, and Shepard noted that her body armor was new…and rather striking. She couldn't stop the smile that lifted her lips at the sight of Tali. "Tali'Zorah vas Neema. I would like to congratulate you on your appointment," she greeted warmly.
Tali's head dipped. "Thank you Commander Shepard. It is good to see you and Chief Williams fully recovered and back on duty. It is good to see the rest of you as well," she said turning her head so that her unseen gaze took the rest of the group in. "May I introduce you to the Commanding Officer in charge of our training mission, Commander Kal'Reegar."
Shepard nodded towards the Quarian Marine. "Commander, a pleasure to meet you."
"And you as well Commander Shepard. I have heard a great deal about you from Tali'Zorah. It seems I have very large shoes to fill," he said wryly, but with enough humor in his voice to keep the comment from being caustic or resentful.
"We were victims of circumstance Commander. Unfortunately, failure was not an option for us, and we pushed ourselves beyond what any of us thought we were capable of."
"And yet Tali'Zorah is adamant that those days are not yet passed. So much so that the Admiralty listened to her warnings enough to initiate special training programs for our military forces. We are still in the initial trial phases, but as a soldier I find wisdom in their actions. One can never be too prepared."
"Tali wasn't exaggerating when she spoke to your people of the dangers that still lay ahead. I fear that even if we had several years of preparation, we would still not be prepared enough to face the threat of the Reapers."
"Well let us hope for all of our sake that we have the time to prepare all of our races for what is to come. How may I help you Shepard?"
"I have a proposal for you Kal. I understand your team is on assignment to actively seek out any Geth bases that are too close for your Fleet's comfort, and use these missions as training for your newly integrated Marine squads."
"That is correct. Our soldiers are mostly used to small skirmishes that involved quick infiltrations. In and out, intel gathering missions. The Admiralty feels it is time to make our soldiers more prepared for full scale battles. There is even talk of the possibility of war with the Geth to reclaim our home world- though I think a decision in that direction is still some years off. Unfortunately, most of the Geth outposts we have come across are either abandoned now or minimally manned. It has been a nice warm-up for our newest…recruits. But nothing to challenge them."
"I too have been assigned a new compliment of Marines and frankly, I don't want to head off onto the frontlines without training if I can help it. I had a good team last time around, but I think even Tali will agree with me in that we got lucky…..and we had far too many close calls there in the beginning. We have been given leave by both Alliance Command and the Council to take two weeks to train on Pinnacle Station. How would you feel about joining us for some of that to give your squad the challenge it needs?"
Kal'Reegar's head had tilted to the side in interest at that. "They would welcome us?" he asked in disbelief. Tali had told him that Shepard was a tough but fair Commander who was not adverse to interacting with aliens. But he had been around the galaxy during his own Pilgrimage several years ago and had seen first hand just how poorly his race was treated by most. He couldn't quite believe that an alien would be so open and willing to extend his entire Marine compliment such a courtesy.
"Tali was part of my team originally, and if I want to invite you to share the time with us, there is really little they can do to object. Especially since I have both Command and the Council requesting that I be given priority clearance for training," she added with a slightly smug look. Sometimes it was good to have a lot of pull.
Kal'Reegar looked over at Tali who nodded once and then looked back at the screen. "We would be honored to join you Commander. I look forward to meeting you in person and putting my team's skills up against yours."
"My squad here and I would like to make another proposal. An exhibition match of sorts."
"Oh?"
"I would ask that you loan us Tali for a day so that she can join my squad here, and the six of us will go up against your team, my Marines and Garrus wanted to throw some Geth in against our team as the icing on the cake."
Kal'Reegar's head reared back a bit. "Isn't that a little…ambitious? Even for the Hero of the Citadel Battle?"
"Commander, what we lived through just to get to that battle was nothing compared to what I fear lies in wait for us when the Reapers show up. This exhibition match that I am proposing? We faced dozens of fights with odds like that or worse. If anything, this match will show you what we are up against, and what all of our people need to be prepared to handle. It will also prove just how lethal a highly trained small group of soldiers can be, despite overwhelming odds."
Kal'Reegar looked at Tali. "Is this something you wish to participate in?"
Tali looked back towards the screen and they could all hear the excitement and determination in her voice. "Very much so Commander. I know many of the crew have their doubts that some of our techs and engineers are not cut out for battle…myself included. I believe this will show them that in a fight, manpower and weapons are not the only tools that determine victory."
Kal'Reegar, who knew that he too had to be included in Tali's comment about the crew, nodded. "Commander Shepard we accept your offer." He turned to someone off screen. "How soon can we be to Pinnacle Station?"
"Two days if we travel at top speeds sir."
"We will be heading out today as well, but I want to give my crew some time to run the ship through a few paces while we are in open space. Shall we plan on meeting in three days time?"
Kal'Reegar nodded. "We look forward to it. I take it you will inform them of our arrival so we don't have any problems?"
"I'll notify them before we head out."
"Excellent. I suppose since you already have us on the line, you would like to chat with my engineering specialist?" he asked with an amused tone as he looked back at Tali.
"If you wouldn't mind?"
"Not at all. See you in three days Commander." With a nod the Quarian Marine took his leave.
"Do you wish to continue this conversation in private Commander?" Tali asked with a tilt of her head to those that were still left on the bridge.
Shepard wanted to say yes and then haul Liara and Ashley back with her to her quarters. But despite all their gruffness, she knew that Wrex and Garrus had become friends with Tali too and since they were all here it would be rude. "We can catch up when we meet up Tali. For now, I think there are a couple of people who would love to say hi that haven't talked to you since you left," she said looking over at the two males.
Garrus took the initiative and leaned forward. "Landed yourself in the middle of another group of marines huh? Bet you weren't quite expecting that when you got home did you?"
Tali chuckled and shook her head. "Not quite. I was figuring that I would be locked away in some debriefing room for the next year and then be assigned to help my father with his research. But as Kal mentioned the Admiralty felt it was time for all our people to be ready for bigger confrontations now that the Geth have moved beyond the Veil. It's going to be tough proving to our people that not everyone needs to know how to fire a weapon well in order to be able to make a difference. The techs and engineers who volunteered for this assignment aren't even sure themselves that they can be of any use. It will be good to fight by your sides once more and prove to them that they can make the difference."
"Will be just like old times," Garrus grinned.
"You get to use that shotgun yet Stick Girl?"
Tali chuckled quietly and shook her head. "Not as much as it deserves Wrex. But perhaps with our upcoming training I'll get to feel her warm up properly in my hands."
"Shepard took us shopping. Wait until you see the new model I picked up," he told her with what passed as a grin.
"And my new sniper," Garrus piped up.
"Might want to be careful taking them up on that offer Tali. I spent an hour cleaning the drool off of my armor last night," Ashley piped up with a teasing grin in the direction of her fellow squad mates.
Garrus threw her a gesture he'd picked up from the humans, and Wrex just simply ignored her. Liara giggled and Tali couldn't help but chuckle. "I am looking forward to meeting with all of you again soon." She paused and then looked down sadness filling her tone. "I did not know if I would ever see any of you again my friends and it had saddened me a great deal."
"We look forward to spending some time with you again as well Tali. I need to sign off soon so we can begin preparations to get underway. We will see you in three days time."
"Keelah Se'lai, Alexis Shepard."
"Keelah Se'lai, Tali'Zorah vas Neema."
After a moment the transmission ended. "Commander I have already taken the liberty of forwarding the request for the Quarian ship Shivala to be granted permission to dock at Pinnacle Station so that her crew may join ours in combat training," Joker announced over the comms.
"Thank you Joker. Have we been granted clearance to leave?"
"Control has us slated to undock in two hours Commander."
"Excellent. Have all departments begin final checklists and turned into Pressley within one hour. Once we have made the jump and are in the clear have all hands prepare for some battle simulations to put our girl through some of the paces for the rest of the afternoon."
"Aye aye Commander."
Shepard turned to her squad. "Chief Williams, I want you to take Garvey and run him through final preparations. As of right now we are going to go battle ready. Garrus see to it that at least one of their techs knows how to rundown the checklist for the main weapons battery. Wrex, I'll have you check over the Mako and make sure it's launch ready. Liara, you're with Chakwas. The new squad has two trained medics, I'll have Garvey send them up to you so they can become familiarized with how the Doc runs things during combat. Tell her I might randomly pick crew members to become 'injured' just to shake things up a bit and so the kids can have some ship-board triage practice."
Everyone acknowledged their assignments and headed out to prepare for the upcoming days of training. Shepard could feel their anticipation building and thought to herself that seeing Tali at least one more time before they headed off to the frontlines would be a good morale booster for her squad. She knew she was looking forward to it a great deal and found herself wishing they would have more time together. Unfortunately, duty called for both of them so they would all just have to make the best use of whatever little time they had left together.

DISCLAIMER: Mass Effect is the property of Bioware. This series is done purely for fun and I am making no profit off of this in any way. The series will cover the already known Mass Effect Universe with some (obvious) tweaking. While I will attempt to stay close to canon there will obviously be some artistic liberties taken to conform this series to my liking. This series is also going to portray love and sex between two or more women with minor references to some m/f pairings. There will be multiple f/f pairings and yes, this will eventually be a harem fic of sorts, so if that is not your thing then please move on. This story will also contain scenes of violence, death, and other content of dark nature (no rape however) further down the road.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Just a reminder here folks that some creative liberties have been taken with this story. My goal is to stay within the main thread of the ME storyline, but with some deviations that won't change the entire course of the canon. Thank you once again for all the feedback and emails! Glad you are enjoying the story so far.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To xfiredancerx[at]gmail.com
Six Degrees of Separation Series
Book 1: Tangled
By Firedancer
Chapter 17: Interlude
Shepard sank into the empty co-pilot's chair and leaned back with a relieved sigh as she watched the stars streak by above her.
"Long day Commander?" Joker asked as he glanced over at her.
"Long week," she admitted. "Didn't help that I waited until the last minute to catch up on my reports," she said with rueful shake of her head.
"Running on a couple of hours of sleep and three pots of coffee, eh? Sounds like you're just getting back into the swing of things again," he chuckled.
Shepard groaned. "God, I hope not. After the first couple of months, I expected all of us to start bleeding coffee if we got shot or cut. So how are you holding up?"
He shrugged and fiddled with the brace on his wrist. "Hanging in there. Sore, but the Doc is keeping the pain meds flowing. Don't worry, nothing that won't impair my reaction times or judgment. They just help take the edge off. Getting tired of the whole 'how's your face Joker? Cuz it's killing me' joke, but then I figure I deserve it."
Shepard smirked but remained silent on the matter. She watched the stars for awhile longer, not realizing how often she was yawning until Joker finally broke the comfortable silence. "You keep that up and you are going to make me fall asleep while I'm trying to fly. Go hug your pillow…or something," he said, shooing her out of the cockpit area.
She quirked an eyebrow at him, but he just stared intently at his panel and refused to look over at her. With a roll of her eyes she gave in and hauled herself out of the chair. "You going to turn in soon?"
He shrugged. "They went and replaced my chair with a new one. Figured I'd start breaking this one in. Besides, we need to run a test on the VI auto-pilot and Carter said she'd be willing to keep an eye on things from her station if I wanted to get some shut-eye."
Shepard knew it was pointless to try and coax the pilot out of his chair for some sleep. With his condition the pods were more uncomfortable for him, and she figured he'd probably not even slated himself into the rotation anyway. "Alright, just please make sure that you transfer watch over to Carter before you nod off."
"Aye aye Commander. Have a good night."
"You too Joker."
As she walked down the walkway through the CIC, she suddenly realized just how late it was. The lights were dimmed, and the skeleton third watch shift was already well into their tasks for the evening. Even Pressley had turned in for the night. Great. Liara and Ashley had probably given up waiting for her and were in their own racks by now.
With a small sigh of frustration, she stepped into the elevator, waited for the slow ride down to the crew deck and stepped out to a silent mess area. Another massive yawn overtook her and she winced as her jaw cracked. Maybe it was for the best. She'd only had two hours of sleep early this morning, and had missed lunch due to the numerous department briefings she'd had to go through once they were under way. She was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to take a hot shower and then collapse in her bed for the night.
She stepped into her darkened quarters, and began stripping as she made her way to her small private bath, and flipped the water on while she began her usual nightly routine. The water helped to soak away some of the stiffness in her neck and shoulders, and she felt herself begin to relax under the hot spray. With her eyes closed and her mind drifting she didn't hear the door to her bathroom slide open or see the two figures that slid inside the steam filled room. So when two warm bodies pressed gently against her from either side, she started and most likely would have slipped and fell if it weren't for the strong and steadying grips around her.
"Shhhhh. Easy Skipper," Ashley reassured her quietly from behind. "We have you."
Heart still pounding from the unexpected startlement, Shepard sighed and allowed herself to be held as she dropped her head forward to rest on Liara's shoulder. They all stood under the warm spray for a few minutes like that before Shepard finally lifted her head and looked at her lovers wearily. "I'm sorry about tonight. It's just-,"
Liara silenced her with a tender kiss that was meant to reassure more than it was meant to arouse. When she drew back she gave Alex a loving smile. "You do not need to apologize Alex. We understand that out here you are the Commander and Spectre first. You have responsibilities and duties that must come first- as do we."
"Today was a busy day for everyone, but you have been up for almost two days straight. Let's get you to bed," Ashley said as she placed a loving kiss on Shepard's shoulder and then reached for the controls to turn the shower off as Liara reached for the towels. Together they dried themselves and Shepard off and then guided the exhausted Commander towards the bed.
Ashley and Liara had already discussed that they both knew just how tired Shepard was and decided that tonight's intended rendezvous should probably be postponed. So they helped Alex into a comfortable pair of shorts and tank top before they got her under the covers, and slid in on either side of her, fully clothed themselves. Shepard mumbled another apology that was quickly kissed away and then seconds later was breathing deeply as sleep claimed her.
Liara and Ashley watched over her for a little while before Ashley finally slid from the covers. Liara looked over, the dim light from the wall chronometer allowing her to see that Ashley was bent over as she slipped her socks and boots back on. "You are leaving?" she whispered regretfully.
Ashley gave her a sad smile in the dim light. "Wouldn't be good if I was caught trying to sneak out of the Commander's quarters with my boots in hand tomorrow morning Liara. You are a civilian so there's not really much anyone could say or do. It's okay though. I knew and accepted this when I decided to initiate a relationship with her. Take good care of her for me and sleep well."
Liara reached out and pulled Ashley closer, the two of them leaning over Shepard's sleeping form as they shared a tender kiss. "Mmmmm, I know I will now," Ashley replied with a soft chuckle once the kiss finished.
"As will I. Sleep well my Ashley."
My Ashley. Wow. A girl could get used to that the Chief thought, oblivious to the ridiculous grin on her face as she quietly made her way out of Shepard's room after making sure the Mess area was clear. She finally managed to school her features a little better as she stepped out of the elevator and into the make-shift barracks area. Most of the new squad were already sleeping, with one or two still up and chatting quietly in the corner with a couple of engineers that were off duty and not quite ready to turn in just yet. Ash made her way across the bay to where her cot was set up and noted that Garrus and Wrex were still up and playing cards.
"Deal you in Chief?" Garrus asked as she sat across from them.
"Sure, I'll join you guys in a couple of hands."
"Figured we wouldn't see you till morning," Wrex smirked once the new hand was dealt.
Ashley blushed and looked across the bay to the new Marines. "Yeah, well Shepard was exhausted and besides we have to keep this…change in our relationship off the radar for now."
"There are regulations prohibiting fraternization I take it?" Garrus said quietly as they began playing through the round.
"Between officers and enlisted, yes."
"All you so called 'civilized' species make things so much more difficult with all your damned rules and regulations," Wrex grunted. "With the Krogan, you sleep with whomever you like….or at least whichever female will have you. If anyone has a problem with your leadership then they can challenge you, or leave."
Ashley and Garrus chuckled and shared a knowing eye-roll. "Yeah well, it's the rules I have to live by so I would appreciate it if you guys didn't go broadcasting this to the new Marines over there any time soon."
"You should know they already suspect something is up between Shepard and Dr. T'Soni," Garrus informed her.
"Liara is a civilian and she poses no threat to Shepard's career…or mine for that matter."
"We'll be sure not to say anything that could get either of you in trouble Ashley."
"Thanks. So what did you two do while you were on vacation?" she asked steering the conversation away from herself and her lovers. Thankfully, they let the subject drop and for the next hour the three friends engaged in quiet conversation about some of their various adventures while on leave as they played a few more hands of poker.
Ashley finally glanced at her wrist chrono and decided it was time for her to call it a night. "Sorry guys but I need to turn in. Tomorrow is going to be spent up in the briefing room all day with the new kids, going over a lot of the battle footage from our suit cams so they can see just what we were up against. You guys are welcome to join if you want."
Wrex snorted and gave her a look that asked if she was really serious. Ashley smirked knowing the battle master would have no real interest in long boring tactical meetings. Garrus however considered the offer and then nodded. "I'll join you Chief."
"Great," Ashley smiled. "We were going to meet at 0900 in the briefing room. The Commander may join us for awhile, but she has the department reports to go through along with a training schedule to finish putting together, and Pressley will have the CIC most of the day."
"Sounds good," the turian said as he stood to put the deck away. The three of them moved their racks back into place and then shifted the footlocker that had been serving as their table, up against the wall.
Ashley turned off the workbench light and then dropped onto her rack. "Night guys," she said quietly as she slid under her covers, her eyes growing heavy almost immediately. Wrex grunted in return, and Garrus responded with an equally quiet 'goodnight' as the three soldiers quickly relaxed into slumber.
Chapter 18: Wake Up Call
Liara T'Soni smiled fondly down at the sleeping form of her lover. It was still early, and she was loathe to disturb Shepard, but she knew the Commander would want to be awake soon to get a good start on another busy day. At least she'd managed almost eight hours of sleep. The asari maiden allowed herself a few more moments to observe Alex, a sexy grin slowly lifting her lips. What was that expression she'd heard Alex and Ashley use before? Ah yes….there was no reason why she couldn't kill two birds with one stone.
Carefully, so as not to wake her lover just yet, Liara pulled the sheets off Alex and moved herself until she was kneeling over the Spectre. Slowly, she slipped her hands under the blonde's t-shirt, deft fingers tracing light patterns along the lightly tanned skin. She smirked when Alex mumbled something in her sleep and arched slightly into her touch. She set a slow seductive pace of pushing her hands higher and higher, the shirt lifting with her movements and exposing more skin to her view and touch. Liara felt inordinately pleased with herself when full breasts capped by already stiff nipples were finally revealed.
Alex was still slowly writhing beneath her, her breathing coming in soft pants, but Liara could tell she had yet to awaken. Grinning, the asari bent her head and wrapped her lips around one firm nipple, her teeth and tongue firmly toying with it as Shepard gasped out loud beneath her and arched fully into the contact. A hand moved to the back of Liara's neck, blunt nails scraping lightly against her flesh causing her to moan into the warm and plaint flesh beneath her lips.
"Goddess Liara!" Alex gasped, now fully awake and not at all displeased with the method used. She'd been in the midst of a highly erotic dream, only to awaken and find out it wasn't a dream. One of her lovers really had been skillfully seducing her in her sleep, and she was more than happy to comply with Liara's desires right now.
Knowing that Alex was now awake and she had her full attention, Liara pulled free of Alex's grasp so she could sit up and all but ripped off the t-shirt she had been wearing as well. When that was done she reached down to place a slow wet kiss on her lover's lips before pulling her shirt off. "Good morning my love," she whispered into Alex's ear as she began nibbling all along that soft pale skin of her Commander's throat, careful not to leave any marks no matter how badly she wanted to.
"Every morning should be this good," Alex moaned happily as Liara found a particularly sensitive spot and started giving it extra attention. She arched into the soft press of Liara's body against her own, reveling in the skin on skin contact and the electric feel of Liara's nipples scraping lightly against her own. It was like every nerve in her body had been jump started, and she was spiraling towards release far quicker than she ever had before.
Liara had begun a slow tease down along her body by now, and Alex was practically hyperventilating by the time that soft wet mouth began kissing and licking along the waistline of her shorts. "Please Liara!" she begged quietly.
"As you wish my love," she responded before she sat back on her knees and quickly yanked Alex's shorts and underwear off in one efficient move.
Turned on even further by the bold and demanding move, Alex groaned as firm hands slid up the inside of her thighs, parting them and then coming to rest just short of where she needed them to be. Thankfully, Liara seemed to be very in tune with what she needed because before she could voice her protest, she was crying out in relief as her lover's lips closed over her wet and aching center. "Oh fuck," she panted, her eyes screwed tightly shut as Liara quickly and skillfully brought her to the edge. The young asari may not have had any experience before she'd taken both Ashley and Alex as her lovers only a few shorts weeks before, but no one could ever accuse her of not being an apt pupil. Shepard found herself riding that fine line for far longer than she'd thought possible. The soldier found herself reduced to clutching the bed sheets in one hand, the other clamped firmly to the back of Liara's head as she begged her lover for her release. Too many moments later, she was thankful for the heavy plating around her quarters because she screamed out her release as waves of intense pleasure coursed through her body causing her to cry out several more times as Liara slowly let her come down.
When she finally floated back to some semblance of coherency, Liara was snuggled up against her side, her arms wrapped loving around Alex. "Good morning Commander," she whispered huskily.
Alex felt a deep lassitude in her that took the edge off the stress that had been slowly building over the last few days and managed to roll her head sideways so she could look at her smirking lover. She couldn't help but chuckle at the expression on Liara's face. "And good morning to you Dr. T'Soni." Her expression sobered a bit. "Ashley?"
Liara offered her a tender smile. "She waited until after you had fallen asleep and then headed to the barracks below. She knew you were exhausted love, and was content to just hold you for a little while. Do not worry, we will have time again later. She says you can make it up to her next time," she added with a playful glint in her eyes.
That did the trick and Alex grinned. "Oh I most definitely plan to." She squinted at the chronometer on the wall and then grinned even more. "And look at that, I still have an hour before I am expected in the CIC. More than enough time for a shower for two and to catch a quick breakfast."
"Another shower?"
Shepard rolled suddenly until she was pinning Liara to the bed with her own body. "Trust me….when I get through with you my dear Dr. T'Soni, you are going to be wanting one," Shepard purred as she leaned in and began a slow plunder of her lover's soft lips.
Chapter 19: Dangerous Liasons
The small group seated around the Mess Hall looked up as the doors to the Commander's quarters opened to reveal Dr. T'Soni being escorted out by a serious looking Commander. "Thank you for bringing that to my attention right away Dr. T'Soni. I'll be sure to take it under advisement. In the meantime, I am going to need you to continue working on translating what we recovered from Sigil. I have a feeling that someday in the future that information will prove to be invaluable."
"Aye Commander. Thank you for taking the time to….hear out my suggestions," Liara said, fighting hard to keep her face straight and not quite pulling it off to those who knew what to look for.
"Anytime Doctor. Dismissed." Then Shepard turned her serious gaze towards the table, trying to keep her mask in place as she noted the amusement on several of her team's faces. Ashley was pointedly not looking at them and seemed to be engrossed in her breakfast. Garvey was eying the retreating figure of Liara with a speculative look, and Garrus and Wrex were smirking.
"Williams!" she barked out.
Everyone either cringed or straightened in their chairs as Ashley shot to her feet and saluted the Commander. "Commander!" she acknowledged crisply, suddenly wondering if Shepard was pissed about last night. She hadn't thought she or Liara had been out of line…but then they were still new to trying to figure out how this should work out.
"At ease Chief. I know you had that briefing scheduled this morning, but I need you to bump that back an hour or two as I have to file that weapons inventory report and with all the new gear I need your expertise in making sure it's complete."
Ashley tried not to look confused, sure she had given the Commander a detailed report on everything that had been recently purchased for the new Marine contingent but nodded and then looked back at Garvey. "Lieutenant, can you please inform the rest of the squad that the briefing will begin at 1100 hours instead of 0900? If I am available before then I will have Joker notify you."
"Will do Chief."
Shepard turned on her heel and stalked back into her quarters which also doubled as her office, with Williams following closely behind. As soon as the doors closed Garvey exhaled slowly. "Man…someone sure did get up on the wrong side of the rack this morning," he muttered as he turned back to his breakfast. Snickers from around the table made him look up and eye the rest of the gathered crew suspiciously. "What?"

Ashley had just cleared the door which slid shut behind her when she found herself grabbed roughly and shoved against wall. "Comman-?" she began in confusion before a pair of lips claiming her own silenced her. Caught completely off guard, Ashley was helpless to stop the rising flood of arousal that flashed through her. Not that she was protesting any. But ever the good soldier, Ash managed to gather enough of her scattered wits about her to regain some measure of control. Firmly grabbing Shepard by the front of her shirt, she levered herself off the wall and spun them around until Shepard's back slammed into the unforgiving surface, the force of the impact bruising both of their lips.
The kiss went on for several moments longer before Ashley pulled herself back, gasping as if she'd just run a marathon. Blue eyes nearly made black by arousal slowly opened to meet her own and she grinned as her eyebrow quirked. "Weapons inventory report?" she chuckled in amusement.
Shepard shoved her backwards, smirking at her lover. "Well, my workstation can definitely be involved," Shepard purred as she used her body to guide Ashley deeper into the room until the brunette had bumped up against Shepard's desk.
"I thought you wanted to keep our personal and professional lives separate?" Ashley had to ask.
She swallowed hard at the hungry look of raw need and desire in those intense eyes that held her pinned in place. "Trust me….when it matters the Commander and Spectre will be firmly in charge of this ship and crew. But right now we are in the middle of transit, and I need a break from all this fucking paperwork. Besides, I promised you and Liara personal time and I never go back on my word," she growled out as she leaned in and captured Ashley's lips once more.
Anything else Ashley might have been about to say was quickly forgotten as Shepard's body pressed firmly against her own and strong hands raked down her back to grip her ass tightly. Moaning into the kiss, Ashley decided to go with the flow and began to give as good as she got. Nibbling along Shepard's jaw she brought her lips up against her lover's ear. "Do you know how long I have fantasized about ripping that uniform off of you while on duty?"
Shepard shivered, her hands tightening as she groaned. She closed her eyes as she tried to reign in that darker part of her than was begging to be let out and play for a little while. A strong hand gripping her chin firmly, forced her eyes to snap back open. "No!" Ashley demanded in a serious tone. "I know you keep a part of you in check with Liara and I understand why. But we're both soldiers and I get this part of you Alex. Don't you fucking hold back on me right now," the brunette demanded as her fingers tightened just enough to be slightly painful.
Alex stared hard at Ashley who met her gaze unflinchingly. "Ash….are you sure about this?" the blonde asked in a breathless whisper.
"Oh I'm sure Alex. Question is….do you think you can handle me?" Ashley asked with a challenging smirk.
The response was swift and everything Ashley was hoping for. Rough hands were suddenly moving across her body, divesting her of her clothing in record time even as she returned the favor. When both women had finally managed to shed the last of their clothing, their bodies crushed together as lips met in another bruising kiss as they struggled for dominance. Ashley found herself lifted and deposited onto the hard surface of Shepard's desk, report pads scattering to the floor forgotten as the taller woman began mapping a searing path down towards Ashley's aching breasts. Just as teeth raked across one taut nipple, Two fingers suddenly sank into Ashley's depths without warning, causing the smaller woman to grunt in pleasure as her eyes rolled back in her head.
"Oh FUCK!" she gasped out as Alex set up a fast and hard rhythm with her hand as she began sucking hard on Ashley's nipple for several long moments before switching breasts. Ashley was bucking hard, her fingers gripping the edge of the desk with one hand and twisting into Shepard's short hair with the other.
Then Alex's hot breath was teasing her ear ratcheting her need even further. "You like this Chief? You like getting fucked hard by your Commander?"
There was just something extremely wicked about bringing their ranks into this. The vivid reminder of just how dangerous a game they were both playing added to the thrill of the experience and Ashley felt her whole body shudder in response. "God yes!" she answered eagerly.
There was a sudden tweaking of her nipple, hard enough to cross the line of pain and Ashley's eyes flew open in surprise as she gasped. "That's not the proper response soldier!" Shepard barked out.
"Y-Yes ma'am!" Ashley snapped in automatic response.
A slow and cocky grin spread across Alex's face. "Much better Chief. I think you should be rewarded." With that she suddenly pulled her hand away and Ashley nearly sobbed in frustration and disappointment. Then she was grabbed around the waist and pulled off the desk and then spun around so that her back was to Shepard's front. Her legs were kicked apart and a firm hand gripped the back of her neck. The soldier in Ashley struggled hard with the instinctive urge to resist. Shepard chuckled knowingly from behind her and pushed down hard, bending the brunette over the desk. That hand remained in place as Ashley heard a desk drawer being opened up and the sounds of something being removed. She struggled to turn her head at a better angle so she could see what was going on but Shepard just barked another order at her again as the fingers slid up into her hair and tightened. "Eyes forward, Chief!"
Ashley was a little loathe to admit just how painfully turned on she was and that the use of the 'command voice' here inside the confines of the bedroom nearly made her cum right then and there. Then with a final small shake of her head in warning that she had better stay put, Shepard released her hair and Ashley could here the faint rustle of activity behind her.
Shepard donned the strap-on she'd purchased a couple of weeks ago, and looked down at the firm compact body in front of her. Ashley was bent over her desk, hands firmly gripping the sides, her legs spread wide open, her pussy still gaping open and dripping from her earlier rough invasion, and swollen with desire. The taller woman wanted nothing more than to drop to her knees and….her head cocked to the side and a grin spread across her lips. Well why the fuck not?
Ashley nearly jumped when strong hands grabbed her hips right before a firm tongue dragged up the length of her aching center and then buried itself inside of her. Crying out, the smaller woman pushed back against Shepard's face and tongue, her walls clenching as she sought deeper contact. Shepard continued drinking her fill of Ashley's nectar and allowed the smaller woman to ride her tongue until she felt Ashley was getting close again. Reluctantly she sat back and grinned when Ashley cried out once more in frustration.
"Damn it Shepard!" Ashley began, almost angry.
A resounding and stinging slap across her ass quickly quieted her, along with refocusing her desire. Shepard was back on her feet again and one hand was firmly planted on the center of Ashley's back to keep her from getting up. "Is that any way to address your Commanding Officer?" she demanded.
"No ma'am!"
"What do you have to say for yourself Chief?"
"Sorry Commander….but I was…distracted," she began, her voice faltering as Shepard's free hand began wandering over her tense body once more in light random patterns. "I'm sorry I lost my temper Commander, but I would appreciate it very much if you would stop teasing me so much and just fuck my brains out….ma'am!"
Shepard leaned over her lover and chuckled. "Fuck your brains out eh, Chief?" she asked in her lover's ear, feeling the shiver that ran through her body.
"Please," was the whispered needy plea.
"Hope you're ready for just that then Chief," Shepard warned as her hand moved up to grip Ashley's hair and jerked her head back so that she could see her eyes while her other hand drifted along Ashley's drenched core, gathering some of the moisture then and smearing it along the shaft of the dildo. Ashley was panting in need now and Shepard met Ashley's eyes as she gripped the dildo in one hand and lined it up. They shared a long intense look and then Shepard drove her hips forward, her eyes rolling slightly as Ashley all but screamed in ecstasy even as she thrust her hips back.
"Ffffuck," Shepard panted as her hips slammed home against Ashley's bare ass, the base of the toy pushing firmly against her own center and sending sparks of lighting through her own body. She pulled back slowly and then slammed the shaft home again, wrenching another cry of pleasure from her lover. Shepard took a deep steadying breath, and looked down at her Chief. "Let's see how well you can follow orders Chief. Don't you dare fucking cum until I tell you to. Got me?"
Ashley swallowed hard but nodded. "F-five by five Skipper," she managed around another groan.
Shepard smirked and then set a hard, fast pace that left Ashley breathless and struggling to obey her lover's command. She screwed her eyes shut tightly and desperately tried to think of something else to help distract her. Gun specs, Mako maintenance checklists, anything that would keep her from dwelling on the fact that she was more turned on that she'd ever been in her life, and all she wanted to do was scream out her release right then.
Shepard had to admit she was impressed. Sweat was slicking both of their bodies and as she pounded into Ashley, and she could feel her own climax approaching swiftly. The slap of her skin against Ashley's, the high-pitched noises of un-restrained ecstasy as she slammed the faux cock home with each hard thrust, feeling Ashley's body tremble violently beneath hers with restrained need. It was quickly growing too much and Shepard closed her eyes as she let the feelings build within her.
Her own grunts of pleasure were now mixing with Ashley's, and her thrusting sped up as she approached her own threshold. Then, just before she crossed the point of no return, she paused, and leaned over her lover, her hands suddenly softening as her arms encircled Ashley's body. Her lips brushed against the shell of her lover's ear and she grazed it with her tongue before whispering her final command. "Come for me my beautiful Chief," she whispered tenderly even as she jogged her hips forward one last time.
The new angle caused the phallus to hit that special spot deep within Ashley and she cried out in sweet and happy release, her whole body shaking as Alex held her, riding out her own orgasm with the smaller woman. When Ashley could finally move again, she realized that she was laying on Shepard's desk, her arms having given out, and apparently Shepard hadn't been too steady on her feet afterwards as she was resting most of her weight on Ashley's back, though she'd never released her embrace from around the brunette. Ashley managed to get her hands under her and pushed up slightly, and Shepard finally snapped out of it enough to push herself up as well and step back.
Ashley groaned at the loss of the dildo, but all she wanted right now was to stagger over to the bed and collapse next to Alex and hold her for a little while. They did just that, and despite their best efforts, both women fell fast asleep in each others arms.
Up on the bridge Joker cleared his throat and looked around once more. He had been thankful no one else had been up in the cockpit area with him when Shepard's comm had gone live. She'd already done that a handful of times when she'd accidentally set a data pad or something else on the button. Most of the time there had been nothing but muttered swearing or the shuffling of paperwork that had come through. This time however….whoa boy!
"Gonna have to have Adams send a team up there to re-route the location of that comm button," he muttered to himself as he wiped his brow and then chuckled wickedly to himself. Damn that had been hot though. Maybe he wouldn't tell Adams just yet…..
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