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 Four: Growing Pains

A week after the Citadel Battle….

"Attention on Deck!" Pressley called out crisply as Shepard entered the CIC, leaning heavily on Anderson as she slowly limped into the room. The entire Normandy crew was gathered along the length of the bridge, with the Senior Officers and her squad lining the wall behind the galaxy map. As one the entire crew, aliens and all, snapped to attention and saluted their Commander. Even Joker had managed to drag himself to a formal attention and present a textbook salute.

"Commander Shepard," Pressley began formally. "On behalf of the crew of the Normandy, I would like to express what an honor and privilege it has been serving under you. Some of us may have had our doubts in the beginning…myself included," he admitted with a wry grin. "But you never gave up on us, and you never let us give up no matter how hard it got. You didn't just bring us through this mission Commander, but you helped to save everything we hold dear and fight for to begin with. Thank you. Hip hip."

"Hooray!" the Normandy crew shouted in unison as Pressley led them in an old traditional cheer.

The normally hard Commander felt a knot in her throat and tears of both pride and gratitude sting her eyes as the traditional cheer ended and everyone began shouting, clapping and whistling in a more informal cheer for her. There were a lot of people shouting that it was good to see her and have her back, and it was then that Shepard fully understood the gift she'd been given in this amazing and loyal crew. Not normally one for speeches, Shepard couldn't let this moment slip by without saying something in return.

"Captain…can you help me up to the platform?" she asked Anderson quietly. He nodded as both he and Chakwas carefully helped her up to where the galaxy map was and she turned it off so her view of the crew was unobstructed while everyone quieted down.

She cleared her throat, and looked out over the crew silently for a moment as they also got a clear view of just how much of a toll the mission had taken on her. It was clear that it was taking every effort for her to remain on her feet,. Half her upper body remained immobilized, her face was still heavily battered, her cheeks gaunt and skin pale and tight. She had dark circles under her eyes and she looked exhausted and in pain. But her eyes shone brightly with pride and unshed tears and everyone straightened just a little bit more.

"Eight months ago, I doubt any of us would guessed that we would be caught up in the middle of galactic politics, working in a racially integrated crew, and racing against the clock on a mission to save the galaxy from certain destruction. We had a steep learning curve that all of us had to overcome, and we suffered some setbacks along the way. Worse yet, we lost several good soldiers and friends during our mission. But their dedication and sacrifice will never be forgotten and their memories will be carried on in each of us."

There was a stir of concern as Shepard faltered and winced in obvious pain as Anderson and Chakwas moved to take more of her weight. Chakwas muttered something to her quietly and Shepard shook her head briefly before forcing herself straight again, her voice more strained but still carrying down the entire length of the bridge. "I couldn't have done this without the contribution of each and every one of you. I pushed all of you beyond what any of us thought we could ever endure and I can say with certainty that this is the best damn crew in the entire galaxy. You faced every challenge head on and you never backed down even with all the odds stacked against us. I am damn proud to have been your Commander and it is an honor to stand in the presence of such fine soldiers." She turned to look at her alien squad mates and a look of genuine gratitude filled her features. "Tali, Liara, Wrex and Garrus….all four of you joined my crew when you had no obligation to…some of you at great personal cost to yourselves. I know we weren't always the easiest to deal with in the beginning, but I thank all of you for giving us the opportunity to get to know all of you. I am in debt to all of you for all that you did for myself and this crew."

Another spasm cut through anything else she might have wanted to say however and this time Chakwas was not to be dissuaded. "Alright Commander," she said kindly, but firmly as she fixed Anderson with a look that brooked no argument from him either. "Let's get you settled in before you undo all that miracle working I did on you."

Gently panting from the strain, Shepard merely nodded and allowed them both to help her off the bridge, amidst more applause from her crew, and down to the med-bay where the Doc settled her in and gave her a hefty dose of pain killers as she checked the medi-gel administrators on the immobilizer.

Shepard called out to Anderson before he left however and he turned back. "Thank you Captain…for everything," she whispered even as her eyes began closing.

He smiled fondly at Shepard. "No Shepard….thank YOU," he told her just as sincerely. She smiled faintly and then drifted off into a heavy sleep.

Five days later…..

Shepard groaned in relief as the Doc finally took her immobilizer off. Ashley, who was sitting on a nearby bed, being helped with her physical therapy by Liara, chuckled knowingly. "It's nice to be able to scratch the places that itch, eh Commander?"

"Hell yes," Shepard said wryly as she set about doing just that.

Even with all the advancements in medical technology, no one had found a way yet to avoid dry and chaffed skin under the immobilizers without creating some other bigger problem or inconvenience. Shepard had endured through her fair share of the restrictive devices throughout her military career and then some, and felt the removal of an immobilizer was almost on par with sex. Chakwas snorted in amusement as Shepard sighed contentedly as she gently raked her nails over freshly healed skin that had been itching like mad the last couple of days.

"Better?" the older woman asked with a smirk after a couple of minutes.


"Any pain? And no tough Marine/Spectre bullshit either," Chakwas said firmly.

Shepard tentatively rolled her shoulder and shifted the arm around a bit, wincing slightly. "It still aches some, and it's pretty stiff," she admitted.

Chakwas nodded. "To be expected, but no sharp pains while resting the arm?" Shepard shook her head and the Doc smiled. "Excellent. Now I know how you are and you'll be wanting to throw yourself into therapy, but we are going to have to go easy this time around Commander. If we push it too hard and you tear anything further while it's still in this condition you will most likely end up with irreparable damage and loss of motion and or strength in that arm and shoulder."

Shepard sighed but didn't argue. "I read you Doc. When do you want me to start therapy?"

Chakwas handed her a sling that would support her arm and keep it protected, but would still allow for some natural movement as Shepard moved. It would help aid in getting the stiff muscles and ligaments to start loosening up without straining them. "I'm going to allow you to be up and around for six hours each day and no argument or I'll pull medical rank and have Hackett and Anderson back me up on that," she threatened when Shepard began to protest that.

Off to one side, Ashley coughed as she tried to cover a laugh and Shepard shot her a look that made the Chief focus back on her therapy. It didn't help that Liara, whose back was to Shepard, was openly grinning.

"You can do all six hours at once or break it up…which is what I would prefer. I am also severely limiting your activities during those six hours to visiting and walking around. Anything else and I'll have you confined to sickbay for another full week. After those six hours you will be in your quarters relaxing or sleeping."

"Can I at least have one or two friends visiting if I promise to relax when I'm in my quarters?" Shepard hated the pleading tone in her voice and glared in Ashley's direction again for good measure.

"On occasion, yes. However if it's boredom you are concerned with, I'm sure there is plenty of paperwork to keep you occupied over the next week that I am enforcing this."

"A week?!"

Chakwas sighed and moved closer to Shepard lowering her voice as she rested a gentle hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "Commander…Alexis," she said quietly as she looked into Shepard's grey eyes. "In the past year, you have been through more high stress situations than most Admirals go through in a lifetime. Any other soldier would have already been required to take a medical leave to recover and yet you have been forced out of necessity to deal with everything and push forward. This last mission has done more than wear on your spirit Shepard, it's exhausted your body. I know you want to do more, but you can barely stay awake for more than a few hours at a time and your adrenal and endorphin levels are completely out of balance. Your brain patterns are erratic, and you suffer from those nightmares on an almost nightly basis if I don't give you a sedative. And don't even get me started on what I think interfacing with Prothean technology has done to you. I'm not doing this just as your doctor Shepard, I'm doing this as your friend. You need this time to heal…from everything."

Deep down, Shepard knew this had been coming. After that nightmarish mission on Akuze where she'd been the only survivor, Shepard had honestly been surprised that after a quick patch job, they had immediately posted her back with her old CO on the Normandy. Not that she had really minded at the time. It had been easier to deal with everything she'd been forced to endure by having something to throw herself into and initially, chasing down Saren was just what she'd needed. But the weeks began to drag on, with little time for rest as they pushed through one battle after the next, and being forced to leave a man behind had hit her far harder than she'd wanted to admit.

Having the Doc lay out just how much this whole fucked up situation had affected her only added to the depression she could feel herself slipping into. And that realization told her it was time to shut up and take care of herself before she tried to throw herself back on the frontlines. A distracted soldier was a dead soldier. Even worse, a distracted CO could get other people killed and Shepard wasn't about to let anyone else under her command down again. She'd had enough blood on her hands this past year to last several lifetimes.

"Alright Doc," Shepard said quietly as she looked down at her sheets.

A gentle squeeze of her uninjured shoulder made her look up into the compassionate gaze of her friend. "There's no dishonor in this Shepard. A lesser person would have been broken long ago by the kind of strain you have been under . As your friend, I am using my authority to see to it that you get the rest you so badly need and so richly deserve. I know it's tough for you military types and I've had the same discussion with your Gunnery Chief over there, but please try to just enjoy this downtime while it lasts Shepard."

Shepard looked past Chakwas and met Ashley's understanding gaze. The Chief finally gave her a rueful grin and shrug that seemed to reassure Shepard who exhaled slowly before looking back up at her older friend with a small smile as she covered the hand on her shoulder with her own. "Thanks Doc. Don't know what any of us would do without you here to put us back together."

"Go insane and try to take on a ship full of Krogan I imagine," Chakwas answered back dryly.

Shepard couldn't help but laugh, and for the first time in a long time, she felt something inside her chest loosen just a little bit. Maybe things could be alright with a little time.

Later that evening Shepard was dismally staring at the massive backlog of reports she had to go through realizing that Chakwas hadn't been kidding. There was more than enough to keep her busy for a week. This was the inglorious work that a commanding officer had to find time to do, and Shepard despised this aspect of her job. At least with being Spectre she didn't really have to worry about paperwork. Her only aggravation came from having to deal directly with the Council. Of course even then she hung up on them when they started pissing her off enough.

Shepard was saved from trying to figure out just where she should start by her door chime. "Enter," she called out gratefully, and smiled as Tali entered. "Hey Tali," she greeted warmly as she gestured for the young Quarian to have a seat on her couch.

"Shepard," Tali returned. "I hope I am not interrupting anything?"

"Thankfully, you did," Shepard chuckled as she pointed to the massive stack of data pads littering her desk. "I was about to get lost in my backlog of reports. I was just trying to figure out how I might be able to bribe Pressley to take at least half of it."

Tali chuckled. "Pressley is a good XO, but I don't think he likes being in charge for so long. I wouldn't be surprised if he's sneaking some of his own in there to get back at you for being down for so long."

"Probably," Shepard agreed with a grin. "So what brings you down here?"

Tali sighed and shifted uncomfortably as she looked down at her folded hands. "My father has asked several times when I am going to return to the Flotilla," she answered finally, in an unhappy tone.

Shepard's grin faded almost immediately. "Oh," was all she could muster for a minute. She'd known the time would come when Tali would have to return back to her people. Especially since Shepard had told her that first night that Tali and Liara had kept watch over her and Ashley that she'd changed her mind and Tali could have the Geth data. "You've been gone longer than most haven't you?"

"Most Quarians are gone for a few months, some even only a few weeks. Few go past six months, but that was when I stumbled across that transmission and felt the need to investigate it further. I've been gone from my people well over a year now."

"That's a long time, he's probably anxious to have his girl come home," Shepard said with a sad smile.

"He is," Tali sighed. "Especially since he knows now that I was in the middle of all this and probably have something very valuable to bring back to my people. But truth is….I don't want to go back Shepard," Tali said in an equally sad voice. "The Normandy has become my home, and it's you I wish to follow as my Captain, Shepard," she added in a stronger voice as she looked back up.

Shepard wished not for the first time she could see the young woman through the purple haze inside her visor. But those beautiful silver eyes shone brightly and never wavered as they held Shepard's gaze. And once again Shepard found herself being plagued by confusing emotions she'd long thought buried. She didn't know if it was just the aftermath of everything she'd been through, but every time she was around Tali, Ashley, or Liara she just couldn't seem to keep her bearings any more. And at times like this, she felt an almost physical ache in her chest. Emotion battled with reason, and Shepard sighed heavily.

"Tali, I would like nothing more than to have you join my crew permanently. But I can't ask that of you and I can't ask that of your people….at least not just yet. Your people know more about the Geth than any other race, and with the Reapers stalled for now, the Geth are the biggest threat since they have moved beyond the Veil and show no signs of returning. That data, it could be the key to stopping the Geth, and as much as I would love for you to stay, I know you can't figure this out on your own. You need the resources of your people, and I can't give you that here. I don't trust anyone else with this Tali…not even the Alliance," she admitted a bit bitterly.

Tali looked down and nodded. "You are right, and my father says that my people need my battlefield experience right now as well because the Geth have been making some bold moves lately."

"I underestimated you when you first came aboard Tali," Shepard smirked. "But you have turned out to be one hell of a fighter and especially going up against those Geth bastards. You're people will be lucky to have you back with them." Shepard knew her smile was forced, and Tali could obviously tell because she leaned forward and took Shepard's good hand in her own.

"I will never forget all that you have done for me Shepard. You saved my life back in that ally and you helped a young Quarian girl find the courage to face more than she ever thought possible. I know my father wishes for me to take his place some day, and that thought has always terrified me. I never thought I could be responsible for so many lives, and yet throughout this mission any failure on our part could have meant the end of all civilization as we know it. I will return a hero yes, but more than that, you helped me to grow into the person I know I will have to be one day for my people."

Shepard couldn't seem to form any words for that around the sudden lump in her throat, but this time her smile was more genuine. "I will return to my people Shepard and do what needs to be done. But should the Reaper threat return once more, you only need to call upon me and I will return in a heartbeat," Tali promised.

"When do you leave?" Shepard finally managed, her voice slightly rough.

"There is a transport leaving for the Flotilla first thing in the morning. My father has requested that I be on it," Tali sighed.

Shepard squeezed the hands that were clasping her own. "Then I wish you much success and happiness Tali'Zorah nar Rayya. I hope that our paths cross again someday soon, but not just because the galaxy is about to be blown all to hell. The Normandy will always be ready to have you back home….as will I."

Tali moved off her chair and crouched down in front of Shepard and drew the Commander into an embrace, careful of her still healing injuries. "I'll miss you Alexis. Take care of yourself and I look forward to the day when our paths will cross." They stayed that way for several long moments before Tali moved back towards the door. With a final glance backwards, she nodded farewell and took her leave of the amazing woman that had changed her life in so many ways.

Shepard watched bleakly as Tali walked out of her room and felt like the young woman was also walking out of her life. It hurt in a way that Shepard had never experienced before and only served to compound the confusing emotions that had been at war within her the last few weeks. Drained, depressed, and aching, Shepard moved to her bed and killed the lights. There she lay in the darkness, tears silently spilling down her cheeks as she tried to sort out her feelings and figure a way to put them back in the box they'd broken free from.

Out in the mess, Ashley, Wrex and a few of the crew were involved in a game of Turian poker and chatting with Liara and Dr. Chakwas who were simply enjoying a drink and watching. Ashley was the first to see a dejected looking Quarian exit the Commander's Quarters and tossed her cards down absently. "I fold guys. Don't deal me in until I come back," she told them as she stood, grabbed her crutches and moved to intercept Tali before she got onto the elevator.

Liara who hadn't see Tali come out, but saw Ashley quickly forget the game also excused herself to see what was going on. Both women made it on the elevator just before it began to descend to the lowest deck. "Tali, is everything okay?" Ashley asked in concern, noticing the Quarian had yet to lift her head.

"I must return home tomorrow," Tali answered softly.

That caught both other women off guard and all Ashley could manage was "Oh."

"But what about the threat of the Reapers?" Liara asked confused.

"The threat still looms, but they are not the biggest danger right now. Saren's actions caused the Geth to leave the Veil and they now pose the immediate threat to my people and yours. Shepard…" Tali's voice faltered and they saw her draw in a steadying breath. "Shepard believes my people are the only ones with a chance at figuring out how to stop them. She asked me to bring the data back to them."

"She told you to leave?" Ashley asked, both hurt and in disbelief.

The door to the elevator opened and they all stepped out as Tali was quick to correct the misunderstanding. "No, nothing like that. She made it clear that she would want nothing more than to have me stay. But she knows I need to finish my Pilgrimage and she knows my people need me right now. Shepard needs for me to deliver this information as well, but it was difficult…for both of us…to say goodbye."

"When do you have to leave?" Ashley asked, feeling a bit of her heart break. She'd become very fond of the young engineer, and had admired her courage even though she hadn't been a trained soldier. Tali had become more than just a teammate over the months, she'd also become a close friend and Ashley realized that she may never see Tali again after this.

Liara was just as heartbroken. When she'd first come aboard and stumbled her way through her first few conversations with Shepard, she'd almost asked to leave at their next port out of sheer embarrassment. But one night when she was wandering the ship because she was unable to sleep and had run across an equally restless Tali, they'd sat for several hours in the empty Mess and bonded over their mutual difficulties of trying to adapt to living amongst the humans. After that, they'd often sat up late into the nights, discussing what they'd learned from their interactions and helping each other adapt. Tali was her first true friend aboard the Normandy, and she felt like a piece of her was about to leave with Tali.

"My transport leaves first thing in the morning. But I need to be on board in another couple of hours to receive my cabin assignment and have my gear stored."

"Want some help carrying everything?"

"I do not think Dr. Chakwas would approve," Tali reminded her.

Ashley managed a smile. "Who said I was going to carry it? I was volunteering Liara for luggage duty. Since I'm ranking officer here, I get to oversee," she joked, lifting one of her crutches towards the young Asari.

That garnered a noise of mock protest from Liara and a chuckle from Tali. "Considering I am now leaving with far more than I came with, I wouldn't mind the help…or the company."

Garrus, who had been tinkering with the Mako when he noticed Tali start packing her gear, came over to join them. "Going somewhere?"

"My Pilgrimage is over and I must return to my Flotilla. Shepard gave me the Geth data and she believes that my people have the best chance of stopping them."

"I see. Well you weren't thinking of just sneaking off now were you? I know a few engineers that would be pretty disappointed if you didn't say goodbye to them."

"I…." Tali paused realizing that was actually what she had planned to do. "I didn't really think anyone would notice."

"Shepard wasn't making that stuff up when she gave her speech on the bridge Tali. Adams has made it clear he wishes he had at least five more like you. Hell, I think even Pressley finally came around and saw how valuable you have been. Tell you what, we'll finish this up, you go make the rounds and say goodbye to everyone and we'll walk you to your dock."

Tali felt tears slip down her cheeks inside her mask and cursed not being able to do anything to wipe them away but stepped forward to hug Ashley fiercely. "Thank you, Chief. I'll be back in a few minutes."

"Take your time Tali. Goodbyes should never be rushed," Liara said sagely. She more than anyone else there, knew just how important goodbyes were.

Tali nodded and then headed towards the Engineering doors. As soon as she was gone, Ashley began pulling Tali's gear back out and looking it over carefully. "Chief?" Garrus asked, somewhat confused.

"Liara can you pack the rest of this stuff? Garrus I need your help with her combat armor. She took a pretty good hit on Virmire, and I just never had a chance to repair the cracked plate. Problem is I just don't have the strength to remove it right now."

Garrus took the affected piece from Ashley and walked over to her work table. He set to work, removing the damaged chest plate as Ashley began digging through the cabinet next to her workbench and sifted through the spare parts she had for each of their gear. She came up with the right piece and handed it to Garrus who snapped it back into proper place and then stepped aside to let Ashley fine tune it's placement and then wipe down the entire section of armor.

By then Tali had finished her goodbyes in Engineering and had gone upstairs to make her rounds. Wrex came down after a little while and joined their group. "So I hear Stick Girl is leaving."

Ashley snorted. Leave it to Wrex to keep calling her that blasted nickname, even now. "Yeah. She's gotta head back to her people and bring them that data."

Wrex grunted and went to stand over in his corner while Ashley, Liara and Garrus chatted quietly for the next half hour until Tali returned. To everyone's surprise, the massive Krogan pushed off the wall as soon as she walked by and went over to his locker and dug out the Spectre grade HMWSG Master X shotgun Shepard had bought for him at their last port. He approached their small group and looked down at Tali.

"I hear you're heading back to help take care of the Geth problem, Stick Girl. You need something better than that old Katana you still carry around. Take this and give 'em hell Tali'Zorah nar Rayya." He cuffed her on the shoulder in salute - the most gentle cuff any of them had ever seen - and then without another word, the gruff Krogan lumbered off leaving the group in stunned silence. For Wrex, that was the closest thing to an emotional goodbye that anyone would ever receive. Tali stared down at the gun in her hands and then softly whispered her thanks, knowing the Battlemaster could hear her still. He paused, looked back ever so slightly and nodded once before stepping back onto the elevator.

The young woman slipped the shotgun into its spot along the base of her spine and picked up one of her bags, as Garrus and Liara picked up her other two. Together with Ashley, the four friends slowly headed towards Tali's final destination. They visited for another final half hour, and then it was time for Tali to board her transport ship home.

"Write when you can Tali, and stay safe out there," Ashley asked of her as they hugged one final time, desperately trying not to ruin her tough image by crying.

"I will try Ashley. Keep Shepard safe and keep your head down as well."

"I promise I'll do my best. Call us if you get into a situation. I know Shepard will come in with guns blazing if you need it."

Tali said her final farewells to Garrus, and gave Liara a hug that lasted for almost a minute as each of the young women wept quietly. Finally Liara stepped back, wiped her cheeks and gave Tali a shaky smile. "Success and happiness Tali'Zorah nar Rayya."

"Good hunting my friends."

And then she was gone.


Chapter Five: Reflections

"Raise you five and I'll take two cards," Ashley said as she tossed two cards face down onto the table and then slid her chips into the growing pile on the table. When Wrex had first suggested betting credits, Ashley had balked given that she was normally very stingy with her salary so she could send some home to help her family. When Wrex told her that maybe she should check her account though, she'd nearly fallen over in shock when she finally did. Apparently, a lot of those side missions had brought in a massive amount of profit and Shepard had distributed it amongst the crew in a very businesslike manner. Everyone got their fair share, but those that had been on the front lines had received a substantial 'hazard pay' bonus. It was enough to buy every piece of gear Ashley ever wanted and still have plenty left over to buy herself a nice slice of paradise somewhere.

Since Shepard had already acquired all the weapons and gear Ash had needed for the mission, she didn't see the harm in taking a small amount of those extra funds and indulging in a few games of chance amongst friends. Especially since she was becoming extremely bored and at least this kept her occupied for a few hours each evening now. Ash had set herself a limit though and once she'd blown through those credits, that would be that. Considering the large stack in front of her however, she might be able to keep up their nightly games of poker for a bit longer than she originally thought.

Garrus deftly dealt two cards her way before setting the stack down and looking at his own cards. "So Chief, you seen Shepard at all today?"

Ashley looked over her cards and quirked an eyebrow. "No, I figured I must have missed her while I was running through my PT in the bay this afternoon. Have you seen her?"

Garrus shook his head as he grimaced at his hand and folded. Ashley looked at Wrex. "You?"



"Nah, and I've been parked here most of the day. I saw the Doc go in there earlier, but she left after only a minute and she didn't look too happy. Liara stopped by to see her a little after that but Shepard never let her in. Man did she look bummed," he remarked with his normal flippancy. "I'll see your raise and add ten," he added with a smirk.

But then he always smirked. Ash had learned early on that Joker LOVED to bluff. And he was damn good at it so it was hard to tell if he really had a great hand or he was bullshitting. Her focus wavered however after hearing that bit of news. It bothered her that Shepard had turned away Liara like that…especially since she knew how close the two were. As much as Ashley cared for Shepard, she knew it could never happen. Shepard was her CO and the regs were very clear that fraternization between an officer and enlisted was career suicide.

It hadn't been easy for Ash to keep her feelings for Shepard in check though, because the Commander was very much her type - a tough, bad-ass, take no shit and give no quarter soldier who loved a good fight and never backed down from a challenge. But despite her renegade tendencies, there was a compassionate woman underneath that hard exterior. One who could be fair and willing to give people a chance if she felt they deserved it. The more Ashley had gotten to know Shepard, the harder she'd fallen, and if it weren't for the fact that Shepard had given her floundering career the boost it needed just when Ashley was about to throw in the towel, the Chief had been very tempted to act on her feelings -regs be damned. It didn't help that whenever they talked there always seemed to be a certain…electricity between them either.

But Shepard's distinguished career would be on the line too and Ashley would never do anything to jeopardize that, so she'd kept her distance as best she could and watched as Shepard and Liara began to dance around each other with a heavy heart. And when nothing happened for weeks, Ashley had begun to notice the subtle differences in Shepard's relationship with Tali and realized that she and Liara weren't the only ones who seemed to have caught the Commander's eye. Joker's comment made it clear that Shepard wasn't dealing with Tali's departure well.

"You in or what?" Joker asked the distracted Chief who blinked and refocused back on the game. Looking down at her hand she decided she would go talk to Shepard later, after everyone had turned in for the night. For now she would follow the Doc's orders to enjoy her downtime.

"What are we up to?"

"Wrex just upped the ante by another ten."

Ashley looked at her cards and decided to take a page from Joker's bag of tricks and smirked. "Really? Well I see both of you and raise it fifty."

"Too rich for my blood," grumble Wrex, who hadn't been doing so well all evening, as he folded.

Ashley looked over at Joker who just sat there and continued to smirk. "So what's it gonna be flyboy?" she challenged.

"Just because you can snipe a grape off my head from two hundred meters doesn't mean you intimidate me," he laughed tossing a hefty amount into the pot.

"Oh…so now you think you're on to me do you? Well I see that and raise you…..everything," she shot back as she shoved her entire stack into the middle.

"Well now, it's about time this game got interesting," Garrus commented as he leaned forward, looking between the two to see if he could judge just who had the better hand. Joker's expression never wavered so Garrus figured the pilot really did have a good hand.

The pilot shoved his own stack into the middle grinning. "Call."

Ashley's eyebrow lifted, but she didn't look upset, so she thought she had a good hand too. Joker laid down first. "Full house Aces over Queens. Read 'em and weep Chief," he said reaching for the pile.

Ashley whistled and nodded. "Gotta hand it to you Joker, that was a great hand. But-," she trailed off, her smirk back in full force now. She slowly started laying her cards down one by one and Joker's expression crumbled with each card. "Straight flush," she said smugly as she reached for the pot.

"Well all be damned," Joker laughed after the shock wore off.

"That's it for me tonight then," Wrex said as he collected what was left of his credit chips and stood.

Garrus looked at his decent pile, but knew it would take a miracle for him to catch up to Ashley. She and Joker had been the two biggest winners and with the pilot's share of the pot, she had a serious advantage. Besides, there was always tomorrow night. "I think I'll save myself the embarrassment, and carry this over into tomorrow night," he grinned at the Chief.

"All right you guys. See you down below in a while."

Wrex and Garrus nodded and headed off to the elevator. Joker was carefully getting to his feet and Ashley snorted. "You do that a lot more gracefully than me."

"When you practice you're whole life it gets a little smoother. Although I have to admit, it's a little funny for me to finally be the one laughing at someone else's expense."

Ashley just laughed. "I'll just bet. Enjoy it while you can flyboy. I finally get to ditch these crutches next week."

"Aw man, you mean no more tripping over deck plates and groping unsuspecting crewmates?"

Ashley blushed furiously. "Hey, you know I didn't do that on purpose! It made it worse that the Private Gomez tried to catch me, because she turned right into me as my hands went out to catch myself."

"Right on her boobs!" Joker guffawed. "Man, I don't know what was better. You're horrified expression or her come on!"

"And right there on the bridge no less," Ashley groaned shaking her head even as she grinned at the embarrassing moment. "God, I am so glad the Commander wasn't up there to see that. Pressley looked like he was about to stroke out. Shepard would have blown a gasket."

"Or the Private out an airlock," Joker smirked. "I get the feeling that the Commander doesn't like to share…much," he added with a wink.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ashley said, glaring slightly at the pilot.

Joker just shrugged it off. "From what I can see, the Commander seems to think she has something of a little dilemma. Personally, I don't see much of a problem though because she's managed to juggle everything else in her life just fine. Alright Chief, I'm off to hit my rack. Night!" he said cheerfully as he turned and left the speechless Williams standing there staring at his retreating back.

"Well…damn," she muttered looking around and grateful that there was no one else around to hear that particular remark from the wise-cracking pilot. She doubted Shepard would show him any mercy if she'd found out he'd just said something like that in front of other crew. Sometimes Joker just didn't know when to quit.

With a shake of her head she looked off to the port side of the ship and figured now was as good a time as any.

Shepard lay in the dark, her mind still running in endless circles. She was a soldier, and before that, a feral kid who had survived growing up alone on the streets. She'd never let herself get close to anyone before, and she certainly didn't know the first thing about how to deal with the emotions she was trying to cope with right now. Problem was, there was no ignoring them any more- she'd been trying that and had obviously failed miserably.

What made it all the worse however, was the fact that her heart had suddenly decided to make up for lost time. She couldn't have done something simple and just fallen for one of her teammates. No, she was Commander-fucking- Shepard and nothing was ever easy in her life. Now she was trying to deal with having more than friendly feelings towards three of her teammates. And one had just left…quite possibly for good.

God this was fucked up, she groaned to herself for the hundredth time. In fact it was so much of a nightmare that she'd remained secluded in the dark of her room since the previous evening, not bothering to eat and telling the Doc she was too tired to do her PT for the day, knowing she would only get a one day reprieve. She'd felt horrible about not answering the door when Liara was outside, but she couldn't bring herself to face the young Asari just now…not like this. She felt too raw. Too vulnerable.

Now her door was chiming once more and she slapped a button on her nightstand to see Ashley leaning on her crutches outside. Ashley looked up at the camera just then. "Commander if you don't open these doors I swear I'll drag Garrus up here to bypass the lock."

"God damned, stubborn bitch," Shepard growled out as she pushed herself upwards and barked out 'Enter'.

Ash made her way just inside and blinked at the dark room. "Shepard?"


"Lights," Ashley finally called out and Shepard's eyes slammed shut in pain.

"Damn it Ash!"

"Wow…you look like shit Commander," was all Ashley said in response as she lowered herself into the chair by Shepard's desk.

"Well thank you very fucking much Gunnery Chief Williams. In case you hadn't noticed, I nearly got my ass blown to hell and then pulverized trying to save your ass and the rest of this galaxy," Shepard snapped as she blinked away the tears that the suddenly bright light had caused.

The moment she saw Ashley wince ever so slightly she regretted the words, but there was no taking them back now. Ashley pushed past it however and fixed her with a cool look. "Guess what Commander, when you took the job of being a Spectre you signed on for this kind of shit."

Shepard gaped at Williams for a minute. "Did you seriously just march right in here and tell your commanding officer to suck it up?"

"Well hobble is more like it since I nearly got blown to hell watching your six," Williams shot back at her. "But as for the rest? Pretty much…Ma'am."

Shock and anger forced Shepard out of her bed to stand over the Chief who dragged herself to her feet. "How dare you!" Shepard began angrily.

But Ashley merely smirked. "Oh I dare Commander," she answered back in a tone that Shepard had never heard from her before. "And I think that's the problem isn't it? I dare a lot and you like that…too much in fact." By now Ashley was leaning in towards Shepard who was forced to take a step back. "I am only going to bring this up once and then the ball is in your court Commander. I know why you are sitting here alone and in the dark and trust me Shepard, wishing this away won't solve anything. Tali is gone Alexis, and I think you are beginning to regret not admitting to her just how much she meant to you. So the question is Commander, are you going to repeat that mistake?" The question hung heavily in the air and then Ashley turned and made her way out of Shepard's room. At the door she paused and in a very conversational tone told her that she would see Shepard at PT the next day. Then she was gone, and Shepard stared at her door for a very long time.

"Fuck that hurts," Shepard hissed as Chakwas rotated her arm through a series of movements to begin gently loosening up the stiff ligaments.

"Breathe through it Shepard, you're almost done," the doctor advised gently as she worked the shoulder through the last of the exercises.

Shepard grit her teeth and forced herself to relax as much as she could and take deep cleansing breaths. A couple of minutes later Chakwas settled her arm back against her side and smiled sympathetically at her. "It'll only hurt like this for the first few days. After that the ligaments will be loose enough that we can start the strength training without risking any tearing."

"Really did a number on myself this time huh?"

"That you did Shepard. How's the hand? You able to touch your fingers together yet?"

"Index and middle to my thumb…still working on ring and pinky though," Shepard admitted in frustration.

"Considering that I nearly resorted to cybernetic replacement it was so badly damaged, I think being able to accomplish that much is a feat all in itself. Remember, this won't be like any of your previous recoveries Commander," Chakwas said as she placed an ice wrap on her patient's shoulder and secured it.

"I know. It's just….frustrating."

"Just be glad you don't have to hobble around on crutches Skipper," Ashley remarked from where Liara was running her through her own exercises on the next bed over. "I've had enough embarrassing moments on those things to last a lifetime."

Shepard had acknowledged the two other women when she came in earlier, but had otherwise remained silent throughout most of her therapy because she was at a loss of how to act around them right now. But Ashley had insisted on keeping up a casual conversation with Liara and the Doc, and acted as if nothing had happened between her or Shepard. The Commander had finally begun to relax by the end of her session enough that now she felt confident enough to tease Williams a little.

"True. I'll take the pain to openly groping a fellow crewmen in the middle of the CIC."

Ashley's eyes widened and then slid shut as she fell back on the table and covered her face with her arm. "You heard about that? God I am never going to live that one down am I?"

Liara's laugh was light and musical and Chakwas added her own hearty laugh. For the first time in two days Shepard actually smiled. "Not as long as Joker is alive. I think I've heard him relate that story three times now to various audiences."

Ashley sat back up and looked at Shepard indignantly. "What? Why that cocky little….Can I kill him?"

The question was asked with such serious sincerity that Shepard couldn't help but burst out in laughter. "Oh…ow!" she gasped as ribs and her shoulder protested the sudden sharp movement. "Sorry Chief, but he's the best damn pilot, and until you can find me a replacement I need him in that chair. But feel free to threaten all you want so long as no harm comes to him."

Ashley grinned. "Thank you Commander."

"All done Ashley," Liara announced as she rested Ashley's leg back on the table and Chakwas came over to check on her other patient.

"Liara you are doing an excellent job. I was watching you today and you ran through all the exercises flawlessly. You have a healer's touch."

"Thank you Doctor. But after spending decades carefully digging up ancient artifacts, one becomes very skilled with their hands," Liara remarked in all innocence.

Unfortunately, everyone else in the room was a little more worldly wise and were hard pressed not to burst out laughing. Chakwas settled for a suppressed smirk. Ashley coughed. Shepard blushed furiously and cleared her throat as she looked around the room for a minute while she tried to regain her composure. Thankfully, Dr. Chakwas was more composed and managed to continue the conversation without missing a beat.

"I'll bet you are," she said with a significant look towards the two other women in the room and nearly snickered. "But you do good work and I'm sure the Chief will be feeling better in no time at all under your skilled touch."

Ashley gaped at the older woman, who was now fully smirking and Shepard nearly lost it. As it was a strange noise escaped her throat as she tried desperately to reign in the sharp bark of laughter that bubbled up in her chest. Liara just looked between the three sensing their amusement but not fully understanding it. She didn't mind though, as she was still trying to learn and decipher human behavior and she could sense that she was not the focus of unwanted teasing. Besides, she was seeing Ashley and Shepard turn interesting colors of red that she had never seen before and she was fascinated by their physiological responses to the current conversation.

"All right you three, get out of my med bay. I have reports to finish up and then it's lunch time for me," Chakwas said helping Shepard to her feet as she made shooing motions towards the door. Liara helped Ashley off the bed, steadying her while Ashley reached for her crutches. Then all three obediently moved out of the room, bidding the doctor good day.

"Chief Williams and I were going to head over to a section of the station that was unaffected by the attack Commander. She says she wants to introduce me to a human drink called…a margarita I believe. Would you care to join us?"

Shepard looked over at Williams. "You're gonna go hit a bar?"

"Well, we're all off active duty right now, and the Doc didn't say we couldn't. So long as we don't get mixed up in any brawls I think knocking back a few drinks is considered relaxing, don't you? Besides, it'll get you off this ship for a little while. I think you could use some fresh air."

Shepard hesitated, weighing the wisdom of going drinking with the woman that had all but propositioned her last night. Then Liara laid a gentle hand on her arm, and looked at her with those big blue eyes. "I would like it very much if you could come with us Shepard."

And how could she say no to that? But she still didn't feel fully comfortable about being alone in their company just yet and decided she could make a compromise. "Fine, but we had better bring Wrex and Garrus along. Neither of them would forgive us if we left them behind and I'm in no shape to deal with crowd control. Damned reporters are bound to start hassling us the minute they catch sight of me," Shepard sighed.

She didn't miss Ashley's slight narrowing of her eyes, but the Chief knew she was right. The press had been clamoring for a statement from the human Spectre ever since the battle, and were sure to try and disrupt their little private party once they caught wind of Shepard finally being out in public. Wrex and Garrus would definitely help deter any over-zealous idiots who wanted to try and make trouble. In fact Wrex would probably love to have the chance to growl and intimidate a few people since they'd all been a little bored lately.

"I'll go down and see if they wish to join us," Liara volunteered and left the two soldiers to relax at the Mess table until her return.

The two women eyed each other evenly for a couple of minutes before Shepard decided to tackle the situation head-on a bit. "You do realize what's at stake here?" Ashley simply nodded. Shepard lifted an eyebrow. "Chief, you're up for officer promotion…something you have worked harder than anyone else I know, to achieve. You are willing to risk all of that?"

"I am," was the calm and determined answer.

Shepard sat back in her chair at that and stared at the table for another long minute. "And Liara? Tali?"

Ashley hesitated a moment before leaning forward and meeting Shepard's gaze and answering quietly. "I care about both of them a great deal too Shepard. And I know they care equally as much for you. Unfortunately, Tali is out of the picture right now, but I understand that this is very complicated for all of us. I said what I did last night to make you realize that there are a lot of options available to all of us. I know I still need to work this out for myself, but I learned something new during this insane mission Shepard. Life is too short to not take what little happiness comes our way. Even if it's only temporary or short-lived. There are some things worth the risk, and that is all I wanted you to know. I'm willing to take that risk."

Shepard nodded and sat back in her chair, somehow feeling better with that revelation. She still had a lot to think about, but Ashley's statement cleared up a lot for her and helped give her ponderings direction finally.

Six hours later their small group arrived back at the ship, Shepard and Williams being supported by Wrex and Garrus, while a swaying Liara was left to fend for herself. "Wrex, my good friend, I am appointing you as my personal bodyguard in all ports from now on," Shepard slurred.

Wrex snorted in amusement. "Like you really ever need one."

"Well….true. But I no matter how rude and intimidating I was I could never make that Al-Jilani bitch piss her panties. Can you believe she made that last report on me and then has the gall to push for an interview?!" the Spectre said in drunken indignation.

Garrus smirked over at Shepard. "Ah but her face was priceless after you turned to that other reporter…Wong, I think you called her, and told her you'd be happy to do an exclusive."

Shepard groaned. "Why didn't any of you stop me?"

The decontamination process had just wrapped up and the doors slid open just as the drunken Commander uttered those words and everyone cringed as a very unhappy looking Chakwas was revealed to be standing on the other side of the port door. "Indeed," she said giving everyone an icy glare before fixing Shepard with an even colder look. "I have been asking myself the same question for the last four hours. You are well over your allotted limit Commander."

"Aw come on Doc. I've been a good girl all week and I swear I didn't do anything more than sit….well except for when we walked to the bar and back….and Wrex here really carried me back most of the way so that's gotta count for something right?"

Williams snickered and Liara giggled. A second glare shut both of them up immediately. "Don't think either of you is off the hook."

This unfortunately made Shepard snicker, which started the entire inebriated group laughing again and Chakwas sighed and rolled her eyes. "Get her ass to the infirmary and along with Williams and the rest of you go sleep it off. And don't expect me to be handing out any hangover remedies later."

"Infirmary!" Shepard protested.

"We had a deal that you broke Shepard. On top of that you went out and got yourself hammered while still on a hefty dose of medications. Medications that either don't work well with alcohol. You're lucky I recently took you off the more potent pain killers or you likely wouldn't be breathing right now in your condition. So yes, infirmary. NOW."

Wrex grunted an acknowledgement and dragged the still slightly resistant Shepard towards the elevator as Garrus followed suit with a much more compliant Williams. Once inside the elevator, Shepard looked at the others and burst out laughing again. "She was pretty pissed huh?"

"Looks like you're about to be grounded Commander," Williams smirked at her.

"Ahhhh but it was so well worth it. This was a great idea ladies. Thanks for talking me into this."

And it had been. Despite her seriously compromised mental state, Shepard knew she had enjoyed the evening a great deal. Once Wrex had dealt with that obnoxious reporter bitch, she'd finally been able to just simply relax for the first time in…she couldn't even remember. Liara and Ash had simply been themselves and with Wrex and Garrus along for the excursion, it had turned into night of fun between friends. She might have brought the wrath of her CMO down upon all their heads, but it had indeed been worth it she thought to herself as she crawled onto the infirmary bed and promptly passed out.


Chapter Six: Homebound

"….and with that, Chief Adams says that the ship is flight ready. He advises against taking us into any firefights anytime soon of course, but the Normandy will get us back home with no trouble."

Shepard looked up at her XO and nodded. "Excellent. How soon before we can disembark?"

"Citadel Control is still a mess. Joker says it will take about a day for our flight plan to be processed right now. Probably one more before we receive approval."

Shepard made a note on her data pad. "Alright then, I'm going to post a note in the ship's general log for all crew that we will be leaving here in three days time, bound for Earth, barring any unforeseen circumstances of course. Please see to it that this is announced on the comm system during each shift over the next two days so anyone who is not part of the Alliance can leave if they so wish it."

"Think our alien allies will jump ship?" Presley asked, his eyebrow raised.

"I think they might take the time to either visit their own families and home worlds, or take care of personal business while we are on extended leave before rejoining us," Shepard answered evenly as she looked down at her reports and made a few more notation. Privately she had no idea what Liara, Wrex and Garrus would decide to do, but she doubted that either male would travel to Earth for their month long vacation. But all three had sworn their loyalty to Shepard and had already made it clear that once the Normandy was back in action, they would most definitely remain a part of her crew.

"Very well Commander. I'll see to it that the announcement is made for all personnel. Here are those reports you requested by the way, and Adams was wondering if you had any idea what kind of repairs or upgrades they were planning for the Normandy? I believe he has a few suggestions to make."

Shepard smirked. "I'll just bet he does. I haven't been told much about the repairs yet, but will be receiving a full inventory of them by tomorrow so I have time to review them all. I have to sign off on them before they can begin work, so tell Adams not to plan to hit dirt side as soon as we make orbit. I'll be consulting him on the repair schedule before I approve anything. Also, have him draw up his wish-list and tell him we can go over it once we get underway. We'll have a week to discuss what is feasible or not, and work on the most important ones."

"I'm sure he'll be delighted to hear that Commander. So when is your parole?" Pressley smirked.

"Tomorrow," Shepard answered wryly. "I was lucky she only confined me to quarters."

"Dr. Chakwas can certainly play hardball with the best of them. So was it worth it?"

"To see Al-Jelani's face after Wrex shoved his shotgun in her mouth and offered her a free lobotomy? Oh hell yeah."

"Good to hear you finally got a chance to cut loose a bit then Commander. Was a little worried you might not know how to have fun."

"Me? I'm the trouble-making renegade here. What about you Pressley? I get the impression you're one of those officers that starches his entire uniform - including your skivvies," she smirked back at him.

His eyebrow lifted. "I've got a good ten years more than you in the Fleet, Commander. I could probably out drink you on even my worst day. I just don't make it a habit to pick fights in public."

Shepard laughed. "Pressley, I might just be forced to take you up on that bet one day…just not until AFTER we get back from leave, lest Chakwas kills both of us. And I didn't pick that fight….Wrex did."

"Guarding you," Pressley smirked. "Alright Commander, I had better head back upstairs and make sure Joker isn't trying to hack into the port comm system again. We really need to find that kid something to keep him occupied while we are in dry dock. He's too damn smart and too bored while in port to stay out of trouble for long."

Shepard chuckled. "Alright, I'll have a talk with him. You had better get out of here before Chakwas grounds you too. Thanks for the update Pressley, and I'll see you tomorrow after my PT."

"Good night Commander."

"Son of a bitch," Williams grunted as her leg dropped to the table with a thud and she went fetal due to the sudden pain that shot through her upper leg.

Shepard looked up from where Liara was helping her run through some mobility exercises for the day, to see Dr. Chakwas move swiftly to Ashley's side with a scanner in hand. "Easy there Chief," she murmured soothingly as she checked the readings and then put the scanner into her pocket. "It's just a cramp, remember your breathing," she coached even as she began to gently massage the muscles along Ashley's thigh.

"You okay over there Chief?"

"Peachy, Commander" Williams grunted out in between slow deep breathes.

"So what are your plans for leave Chief?" Shepard asked, knowing all to well the pain Williams was going through and hoping to help provide some distraction through conversation. It would certainly help take her mind off her own discomfort.

"Don't know yet. My family is going to be coming to Earth for our return but they can only stay for a week," Ash answered between forced deep breaths.

"Why only a week?"

"Finals and graduations," was the short response.

Shepard winced. Because of their injuries, both she and Ashley had already been told that they could not travel off Earth ,because they would have to report for regular physical therapy sessions with Medical while on leave if they were to be cleared for duty once the Normandy was repaired. For Shepard, the orders were only a minor inconvenience as she already had her R & R plans set. But she knew how much Ashley's family meant to her and knew how hard it must be for her to miss important events like this- especially since she was actually on leave when it was occurring.

"Sorry you're going to be out of commission Chief," Shepard said sincerely.

Ash just grunted back and focused on her breathing for a couple of minutes. "What about you Skipper?" she asked finally, after the tight band of muscles began to slowly relax thanks to the medication and Dr. Chakwas deft fingers.

"I put that insane amount of money I earned to very good use ad bought myself a little slice of paradise," Shepard answered, chuckling quietly.


"By the time we'd hit Noveria, I was done freezing my ass off on some arctic ball of ice in space. That was the first time I'd looked at my personal account and realized just how ludicrously rich I was and put an inquiry into an old contact of mine that handles finances for people who can't or don't want to be bothered with their money. He sank half into real estate throughout the galaxy, including a nice little tiny tropical island in the South Pacific, all to myself."

Ash stared at her for a second and then burst out laughing. "Well, now I know what to do with my poker winnings."

"I hear you've been cleaning the boys out most nights."

"Enough that I've got more than double what I started with. Funny though, you never struck me as the extravagant type Skipper."

"I'm not really. My requests for a residences were pretty specific. I wanted them simple, with just enough modern conveniences to make it comfortable. Privacy was a must, and the weather beautiful year round. Didn't really think I would live long enough to enjoy any of it, but I'm glad I looked into when I did."

"Sippin' Mai Tai's on your own private beach. Sounds pretty damn good to me," Ashley grinned.

"You want in? I haven't seen the property yet, but I'm told there's plenty of room for guests. don't know what you had planned with your family, but there's more than enough room for them to enjoy it too if you guys want."

"Really?" Ashley asked her gaze sliding to Liara who was focusing very hard on Shepard's arm and not looking at anyone. But even with her face and body half turned, Williams could see the sudden tension in her thin frame. "I mean, I wouldn't want to intrude or anything. And you don't even know my family."

"Intrude? It was just gonna be me sitting on that beach and that's no fun at all. I had already planned on seeing if you and Liara wanted to stay for at least a little bit of your leave. And I've survived you all these months, I think I can handle your family for a week. Hell Doc, you're more than welcome to crash there too if you want."

Chakwas smiled warmly at Shepard. "I thank you for the offer Commander, but I already have plans for most of my leave. Depending how long repairs take though, I might have a few days free at the end of our leave. Perhaps I'll call you if I find myself bored and in need of a Mai Tai."

"Plans already? That was pretty fast," Shepard remarked.

"A good portion of the Fleet is returning home for repairs and extended leaves. I have a dear friend who is also scheduled for leave on the same rotation as us and we decided to use that time to…catch up," she responded with a slight lift of her lips.

Both Shepard and Williams grinned. "I see. Well you two have fun with all that catching up there Doc…and feel free to visit whenever. Your friend can come too," Shepard smirked.

"That's very generous Shepard. Thank you."

"Least I can do for the miracle worker that saved my arm and puts up with my cheery disposition every day. Liara? You in?"

Liara looked up and glanced between Shepard and Ashley, trying to discern if she was truly welcome. "You would not mind me staying with you during your leave?"

Shepard tried not to wince at herself when her 'of course not' came out a little more eagerly than she had intended.

"I have never visited Earth before," Liara answered, some of her youthful excitement showing through finally. "I am told you have an amazing variety of climates and life forms."

"That we do. The mega-cities aren't exactly the nicest of tourist attractions, but outside of them, we have some pretty incredible natural preserves full of life and beauty. Can only imagine what wonders lay in store for us to explore on my island."

"I still can't believe you bought a whole damn island," Ashley chuckled as Chakwas began to run her leg through a series of gentle stretches to help loosen the muscles back up.

"Me neither," Shepard admitted. "I'm just hoping that it lives up to what my investor billed it as. I am very much looking forward to lounging around doing nothing for a little while without someone trying to blow my damn head off."

"Amen to that Skipper."

For the first time in three weeks, Commander Shepard was allowed back on duty, albeit extremely light duty. Dr. Chakwas had agreed to allow Shepard back into her uniform so she could oversee their departure from the Citadel. Since they had been officially taken off the active duty roster, there wasn't really much more to do after they hit the relay that would jump them into their own system. After that, it would be a brief one week flight from the relay point to Earth, most of which would be spent pouring over the reports on Normandy's upcoming repair and upgrade. Adams was already chomping at the bit, eager to go over the schedule and add his own input of things he thought should take precedence.

Roughly an hour before their scheduled departure, Shepard stepped off the elevator and carefully made her way through those of the crew that were moving back and forth as they began final preparations for the ship's departure. Her healing arm was cradled protectively in a padded sling, and despite their hurry, everyone made a concerted effort to avoid bumping into her. Shepard stepped up behind Joker and looked out through the front viewports at the still devastated dock. The Admiral hadn't been kidding when he said that it would take months if not years for the Citadel to recover fully from the attack.

"Status report, Joker," she requested.

"Flight plan has been approved and logged into the computer Commander. Engines are spun up, and all departments are going through their final checklists. We should be clear for departure within the next hour."

"Excellent. Give me a ship-wide comm." Joker punched a button and then looked up at Shepard and nodded. "Attention everyone, this is Commander Shepard. The Normandy will be departing within the hour for Earth. This is the last call for those who are planning to depart. Docking doors will be closed and sealed in one half hour."

Joker flipped off the comm and looked back up at Shepard. "Good to have you back, Commander."

"Good to be back, Joker. I'm going to say goodbye to Wrex and Garrus and then check in with Control. See you in an hour."

"See ya."

Shepard headed towards the port door where Wrex and Garrus were waiting. "So, are you both still planning on rejoining us when the Normandy is back in shape?"

"Wouldn't miss it Shepard," Garrus told her with a smirk.

"Got nothing better planned, and you have dredged up the best fights so far Shepard. So count me in," Wrex added.

She chuckled and grinned at both of them. "Well thank you both. After two months of doing very little, I'm sure I'll be itching to pick some good fights once the ship and crew are all back together."

"Take care of that arm Shepard. Won't do you any good to start fights if you can't lift your weapon," Garrus advised.

"That's what I have Wrex for," she smirked back at them as she winked at the Krogan who laughed. "Enjoy your vacation, and I'll see both of you on the flip side."

"Take good care of your women Shepard. Williams needs to relax a little…I'm sure you and T'Soni can figure a way to help her relieve some of that tension," Wrex shot back in parting, leaving a gaping Commander to sputter in his wake.

Garrus snickered and then with a final wave, followed the Battle Master out of the airlock and down the platform. Shepard finally snapped her mouth shut and then shook her head and snorted at her own embarrassment. Did everyone on this damn ship know?

An hour later she was standing behind Joker once more as they put in the call to Citadel Control. She nodded to Joker who flipped the comm system on for her once again. "Control this is the SSV Normandy requesting clearance for departure."

"Clearance for departure has been approved Normandy. Please remain on vector nine until you clear the outer arms." There was a brief pause and then, "Thank you for all you have done for us Commander Shepard. Safe journey to you and your crew."

"Thank you control. My pilot has vector nine set into the nav system. See you in a few weeks Control. Shepard out." She waited for Joker to kill the comm and then patted him on the shoulder gently. "Alright Lieutenant. Steady as she goes."

"Board is green Commander, port is cleared……staying on flight vector nine."

Shepard watched as they glided by the massive arms, finally getting a good look at the extensive damage to the entire station and shook her head. "Damn," she murmured under her breath.

"Hard to believe just one ship could do all that damage," Joker agreed quietly.

"And somewhere out there, an entire fleet of those things are just lying in wait," Shepard finished grimly.

They were both silent for a few more minutes and then the relay came into view as Joker's fingers danced along his control panel. "Approaching the relay….course laid in. Jumping in t-minus thirty seconds. You should take a seat Commander. Normandy may be jump capable, but she isn't quite herself right now- this may be a bit bumpier than normal."

Shepard slid into the co-pilot seat, trying not to grimace at the fact that this was once Alenko's seat. As Joker called down the last few seconds to jump, she managed to buckle herself in with her one good arm. They hit the relay on target, and the ship shuddered as they were flung through the galaxy at impossible speeds arriving at their destination within moments. The shaking stopped as quickly as it started and Shepard let her breath out slowly, relieved that the ship had held together and that she'd listened to Joker. There was no way she would have stayed on her feet in her condition.

"All systems are green, main engines online and engaging, drift…just under 2k," he said with a satisfied and smug expression. "She's good to head out Commander."

Shepard released the catches on the harness and got back to her feet. "Take us home Lieutenant."

"Aye aye, Commander. Home it is."

Part 7

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