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: My character is based on a mostly Renegade, Earthborn, Soldier, who lived through the battle of Torfan.
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 13: Cutting Loose


"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."


"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."


"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?"


"How. Many. Geth. Have. You. Engaged?"


"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."

Part 15

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