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 Seven: Home

Alexis Shepard, Commander and Spectre, had long ago lost count of how many dozens of planets she'd been to and the hundreds of colonies, cities, and space stations she'd seen throughout her career. The last time she'd even felt a sense of wonder for someplace she'd visited, was her first trip to the Citadel all those months ago. That had quickly worn off however. Not even Earth had ever held that much appeal for her. Perhaps it was because she'd spent most of her childhood fighting to survive in the overpopulated mega-cities that sprawled along the costal areas of most continents.

She may have been born on Earth, but it had never been home to her because home indicated a place where one felt safe and could relax. She'd never, ever, felt safe during her youth.. And anyone who grew up living on the streets would tell you that letting your guard down for even one second, could cost you your life.

As the Commander walked the silent bridge of the Normandy one last time before her repairs, Shepard realized she'd finally found someplace where she felt at home. She had a crew that not only respected her, but trusted her with their lives. She had a ship that had proved herself steady and true during the heat of the moment. And for the first time in….forever, she had friends. People that had loyally fought by her side, ready to die with her or for her if need be. People who brushed off her short moods and abrupt manner. People who accepted her for who she was and genuinely cared about her. Some more than others, she admitted with a rueful shake of her head.

So for the first time ever, she was actually looking forward to her return to Earth. Her contact Fren, had finally sent her a fully detailed file on her acquired property and Shepard had stared at it in wonder for over an hour. From the pictures alone, it was everything he'd promised it would be, and Shepard realized she finally had a place she could call home. When she'd shown it to Ashley and Liara, they'd practically drooled on her screen. Even the Doc, once she'd gotten wind of the news, had decided that she and her friend would stop by for a few nights stay after a couple of weeks.

In fact there was so much extra room, Shepard was even kicking around Ashley's idea of having a crew party held there a few of days before they all had to report for duty again. Shepard was all for getting a good drunk on and having a good time, but she wasn't much of a socialite, so she still had to think about that one. For now though, she was just looking forward to seeing her new home with her own eyes and enjoying some downtime with Ash and Liara.

She'd been feeling a building sense of trepidation the last few days…like someone who was swimming in waters deeper than they were comfortable with. She'd spent several near sleepless nights trying to navigate her way through the foreign emotional waters she'd found herself in, before deciding to do what she normally did- see how things played out and go with the flow at that point in time. She was quickly learning that matters of the heart were not that dissimilar to battle plans. Rarely did they go exactly as one planned, and there were always other factors in play that could blow even the best laid plans right out of the water. It was best to just be ready for anything that might get thrown your way and deal with the consequences later.

With that decision made, Shepard had one thing in mind- to thoroughly enjoy herself for once. In a month she would once again have the weight of the galaxy on her shoulders, as it appeared she would have to once more fight to prove that Reapers were still a real threat. For now, she just wanted to do something she'd never really had the chance to do: spend some quality time with people she cared about and enjoy the simple pleasures in life for a little while.

A smile on her lips, Shepard patted the pilot's chair. "They're gonna get you all fixed up girl. See you in a month," she whispered to her ship before she headed out the airlock and down the ramp. She stopped in front of the Dock Master who was still chatting with Chief Adams. Both men straightened and saluted her as she approached. "She's all yours Dock Master. Take good care of my girl."

"You bet ya Commander. We'll have the Normandy running better than ever by the end of the month. I'll be having my best crews working on her."

"Excellent." Shepard turned to Adams who had his own bag of personal effects at his feet. Liara and Ashley were already waiting at the shuttle transport with her own gear already stored. "You can reach me through the usual channel if you have any questions Chief."

"Unless it's an emergency, I don't plan on ruining anyone's vacation Commander…especially yours. Enjoy your leave Ma'am."

"You too Chief. See you in a month."

With a final look back at her ship, Shepard made her way towards her transport, her excitement growing a bit with each step.

Two hours later…

"Ho-ly shit," Williams breathed out as their shuttle circled above the island before setting down on the appointed landing pad. Shepard could only nod in agreement, and Liara just continued to stare in wide-eyed wonder. Even the pilot took a minute to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounded them before he realized that none of his passengers had moved yet.

"Nice place you have here Commander," he complimented as he unbuckled his safety harness and then stood to move to the rear of the cabin and open the hatch. A fresh topical breeze filled the cabin with it's clean scent and everyone inhaled deeply. "Very nice," the pilot murmured to himself before he turned back and started gathering their belongings.

Liara helped Ashley to her feet and Shepard handed over her crutches as they made their way off the shuttle and stared around in amazement. "Wow….I didn't think such places really existed. I mean Virmire was beautiful…but…" Ashley trailed off grimacing at the memory of everything that had happened on the resort planet.

Shepard nodded in understanding. Virmire had been a beautiful planet…not much unlike what they were surrounded by right now. But the beauty had forever been tainted in all their minds by the blood and sacrifice that had been given that day. This however, was the epitome of peace and serenity. It was an instant balm to their battle weary souls, and all three women felt as if a weight had started to lift from their shoulders.

Shepard stepped off the shuttle, her mood so lightened that she even allowed the polite young man to take her bag as she exited. She stepped aside as he moved to assist Ashley down, while Liara trailed after them, carrying the last of their baggage with her biotics. The pilot picked up the armful he'd already unloaded and trailed after them as they slowly made their way along the cultivated path up to the main house.

Shepard placed her hand on the palm plate and the door slid open to reveal the simple beauty within. Shepard stepped off to the side, unable to take her eyes off of everything, and gestured for the pilot to enter. "Just leave everything here, we can sort through it later."

"No problem Commander," he said, gently depositing the bags on the floor and looking around. "Wow. This is pretty amazing. Well, is there anything else you ladies need?"

"That will be all," she said finally breaking her stare and turning to look at the pilot. "Thank you for your assistance Mr. Baker," she said handing him a good sized credit chit for a tip.

His eyes widened. "Commander! This is too much ma'am!" he protested.

She smiled. "As you can see Mr. Baker, I am quite wealthy now and this may be the only time I get to splurge before I'm back out there getting shot at every five seconds. So please, enjoy it while I can still offer it."

"Thank you ma'am! Listen I only work part-time for the transport company but I do a little side-business on my own. If you need to go anywhere, you just call me up and I'll be out right away…no charge. And just so you know, I'm not some low-life looking to sell stories to the press or anything. I hope to get into my own private shuttling business full-time some day and I'm building a client base…and you can't do that by breaking someone's trust. So you don't have to worry about me making a quick dime by telling those camera jockies all about your private life.""

Shepard nodded. "Actually, we may have need of your services then. Chief Williams has family that will be arriving here in three days time and will need transport from Sydney Central. Perhaps we can retain your services either privately or request you if you are working that day?"

"I'll be working that day, but the Company does accommodate requests for specific pilots if they can. I know I have no bookings that day, so I'm sure they'll be happy to assign me as your pilot for the pickup."

"Good. We also have to report to Alliance Medical once a week for check-ups. Perhaps we can arrange for you to be our pilot then as well? And I appreciate your offer for your services free of charge, but I would expect you to charge the normal rate since we will be requiring your services at least three times this month."

"Just let me know Commander and I'll be happy to schedule you in."

"Thank you. Do you have a card or should I just contact you through the company?"

He reached into his flight suit and pulled out a card to hand over to her and she set it on the counter next to the comm panel. "Thank you again Mr. Baker. I'll be sure to call your company later today and request you as our chartered pilot for the pickup of Chief William's family ."

"It was a pleasure doing business with you Commander and I look forward to seeing you ladies again. Enjoy your leave….oh…and thanks for saving all our collective asses. I have family in the Alliance and they told me what went down out there. Thanks for sticking with it when the odds were so far against you."

Shepard nodded and he smiled charmingly at her before leaving. "Looks like you have a fan," Ashley snickered from behind after the young man had left.

"I think he's a fan of this place. I know I sure as hell am."

"Tell me about it. You have to refer me to your contact Shepard. This guy has amazing taste…and all I've seen is the living room and kitchen."

"Fren really pulled through this time. Come on, let's go see the rooms and then get out of these damn uniforms. I hear a beach and a drink or three calling out to me right now," Shepard said with a grin as she reached down with her good arm to lift her duffle when Liara's soft hand covered her own.

"Allow me Shepard," she said as she lifted the entire pile with relative ease and tilted her head to one side waiting for Shepard to lead on.

Shepard chuckled. "It's handy to have powerful biotics as your friends. Alright ladies, let's see what other wonders lie in store for us."

Later that evening, all three women rested on plush lounge chairs on the wooden deck that overlooked the ocean and watched as the sun set, painting the sky in beautiful hues of lavender, crimson and gold. They were all in various states of extreme casual wear, more relaxed than any of them could ever remember, and sipping on yet another recommended drink that was on the extensive list located on Shepard's food processing unit. "You know, I always thought real vacations were for sissy's," Shepard admitted with a grin.

"Didn't realize what you were missing out on huh Shepard?" Ashley smirked.

"Nope. This is truly awesome."

"Decided to retire early now?"

Shepard laughed. "Tempting as it might be Ash I know I'll be climbing the walls by the end of our leave. I like the action and the danger far too much. But I could definitely get into coming home to this every once in awhile." Shepard paused and then her expression softened even as her voice did. "I've never had anyplace to call home before."

That made both Liara and Ashley look over at her in surprise. "But, I thought you grew up on Earth," Liara said in confusion.

"I never talked about my childhood because it wasn't a happy one. I was an orphan who managed to get by living life on the streets in some slum area of the city. Then one day, I tried to pickpocket some Alliance Captain and got caught. I managed to break free and ran back to my gang's territory. But I was coming back empty-handed and that was a dangerous thing to do. Our Leader decided to have some of the older kids teach me a 'lesson' for failing to bring anything back. I was holding my own despite the fact that I hadn't eaten much in the last few days and was outnumbered six to one, but the fight was brutal and someone got a lucky shot with a pipe in. I went down and all I remember was feet and fists and then I saw the flash of a knife and figured I was dead. Never figured some upper class uniform would be crazy enough to follow me back into known gang territory. But there he was, and next thing I knew he was fighting off half a dozen drunks, theives and junkies with his bare hands. He put them all down so fast it was almost unfair. Then he took me back to Medical, ordered them to patch me up and offered me a chance at a new life. Apparently he thought I was tough enough to make it through boot and he was impressed that I was ballsy enough to try and lift something from him," she said with a chuckle.

Ashley grinned at that and even Liara's lips lifted slightly before Shepard continued. "After that I've just gone from one assignment to the next. You know how it is Ash….they never keep us in one place for long and even though a couple of my assignments were in nice locations, they had put me on the fast track for Command and the pace has always been brutal. Never had time…or need to find someplace that I could call mine and I've never really looked back. Until now."

"There is a certain peace about this place that calms the soul," Liara commented quietly after a few minutes.

"Takes all the hurt and just…makes it disappear," Ashley agreed quietly.

"No decisions to make, no lives at stake," Shepard whispered as the sun flashed briefly and then completely disappeared beneath the horizon.

They sat and in comfortable silence for another hour before Ashley finally sat up. "I know it's early, but there is just something about this place," she said with a wry grin. "I'm gonna go enjoy that oversized bed and get more than a few hours of sleep for once. Have a good evening ladies."

"That sounds like a really good idea actually," Shepard said as she too got to her feet. "Liara if you aren't tired yet, you can make yourself at home and do whatever. That entertainment center looks like it's as fully stocked as everything else here."

"Actually, I am not as accustomed to indulging in alcohol as the both of you and am feeling a bit weary myself. I think I will retire for the night as well."

"Ok then, night and sleep well."

"You as well Shepard." Liara returned and then nodded to Williams. "Pleasant dreams Ashley."

"You too Liara. Night everyone."


Chapter 8: Cross-Examination

Three days later Ashley Williams was relaxing in the oversized chair in her youngest sister's room as Sarah Williams bounced back and forth from her suitcase to her closet, listening to the non-stop commentary with a fond smile. "….and so then I dumped his sorry ass. Been free and single ever since," she declared proudly as she finished putting away the last of her clothes and then flopped on the bed and grinned at her sister.

"Sounds like not a moment too soon eh?" Ashley chuckled. Her sister went through boyfriends like most people changed clothes. It had always been a challenge for Ash to keep up with who she was dating. To hear that her sister was going on a whole month without a boyfriend was almost shocking.

"Tell me about it! Who knew I would be meeting a successful and handsome young pilot?" Sarah giggled.

Ashley shook her head grinning. "You, my baby sister, are incorrigible. You were in that shuttle all of two seconds before you started flirting with him."

"Please," her sister sniffed. "You apparently missed me flashing him my most charming smile as soon as he approached us. He was putty in my hands before we even got inside," she said without an ounce of shame.

Ashley couldn't help it. She laughed long and hard, her sister joining in after a few seconds. When the brunette had finally recovered enough to talk she wiped the tears from her eyes. "Oh man….it's so good to see all of you again. I miss this."

Sarah sobered a little at that. "We miss you too Ash. Mom….when word came in about the battle and that the Normandy was in the thick of it all," Sarah's voice trailed off for a moment as she looked down at her bed sheets. "When the vids started coming in, we recognized you Ash. I was so proud and so scared as I watched the different security feeds that showed you guys fighting all those Geth. But then everything cut off after you all went in after Saren and we only saw the devastation after that ship crashed through the station-" Her voice caught and Sarah sniffed a bit. "Mom didn't handle it well. You've given so much for us Ash. Ever since dad died, you've sacrificed everything to make sure we were taken care of. And just like that, we all thought you were dead, and you'd never had anything for yourself," Sarah whispered as she looked up, her eyes watery.

Ashley pushed herself to her feet and limped the short distance to the bed and sat back down next to her little sister and drew her into as firm an embrace as her healing ribs could manage. "Hey, shhhhhh," she soothed. "It's okay Sarah. I'm sorry it took so long for them to tell you I was going to be okay."

"Are you?" Sarah asked, pulling back and looking her sister dead in the eye.

Ash found herself hesitating before she answered, knowing that much like their mother, her sister had a gift for sensing the deeper heart of personal matters. She looked away and thought about her response for a minute before looking back at Sarah and nodding. "I will. This last mission was hard…harder than anything any of us have ever been through- even the Skipper. It took its toll on all of us….emotionally and physically. But we'll get through this, like we have everything else."

"Ash, you have worked so hard for everyone else. When are you going to take some time for yourself?"

"I'm doing that right now Sarah. For the first time since my commission, I finally have an entire month to just…relax."

"With your Commanding Officer?" Sarah asked with a skeptical look as she gave a very dramatic huff and rolled her eyes.

Ash immediately stiffened. "She's not just another C.O., Sarah. Alex and I have watched each other's back for months now and been through dozens of firefights together. She gave me a chance when no one else would and saw me for who I am. I trust her with my life and she trusts me just as much with hers. She's an amazing woman Sarah, and she's my friend…..I would follow her into Hell if she asked."

Sarah sat back and smirked at her big sister and Ashley suddenly realized she'd just walked right into something. "And the good Dr. T'Soni?"

"Sarah," Ashley began, a warning tone in her voice.

"Oh please," her sister said, rolling her eyes once more. "You must think we are all deaf, blind and dumb sometimes Ash. You're first letters to us were all about how much your new C.O. aggravated you and you couldn't believe she was working with all these aliens. In less than a month you start telling us all about how crazy Shepard is, but how much you are starting to admire her. Next thing we know you're telling us all about your new alien buddies- which it's about time you lightened up on your trust issues by the way- and how amazing, and brave Shepard is. So of course we start following all the vid bits on her and realized she is SO your type big sis. What really threw us though was all the chatter about those other two….Liara and Tali. Then you finally get sprung for some well earned leave and who do you spend it with?"

"Look, we're just friends-,"

"Uh huh," Sarah interrupted with a look that said she totally didn't believe her sister. "Ash, seriously. Don't even try and bullshit me. What's going on with you four…and why isn't Tali here? I was kinda excited about getting to meet a Quarian finally and then I find out last minute she's not gonna be here?"

Ashley exhaled, relieved she could buy herself a little time by explaining Tali's need to return home. Two minutes later her sister was looking at her expectantly, and Ash knew she would have to give her sister at least a little something or there would be embarrassing consequences if she didn't. "It's…complicated."

Another 'look' from her sister indicated that was clearly not anywhere near enough of an explanation. "Sarah, it's hard to explain," she sighed.

"Look, it's obvious you're really into Shepard. What about the other two?"

Ashley hesitated and then nodded, slowly. "I care about them too. In different ways maybe, but they both came to mean a lot to me during the mission….and afterwards. But now Tali is gone, and none of us know if we'll ever see her again and it…hurts," she admitted quietly.

Sarah squeezed her hand. "So, you still have Shepard and Liara, you guys are on vacation here in paradise….what's stopping you from having a little bit of the fun and happiness that almost everyone else in this galaxy gets to enjoy?"

"Sarah, it's not that we haven't acknowledged it…well at least Shepard and I have talked about it. But we could both loose our commissions over something like this. It's not a decision that can be made lightly sis. And I still don't know how Liara feels about things."

"Then perhaps once we all leave, you three should have a nice little sit down, clear the air, and then fuck like bunnies until your leave is over and just not tell anyone about it," Sarah said matter-of-factly.

Ashley felt her face flush bright red even as her eyes tried to pop out of her skull. "Dear god Sarah!" she gasped halfway between shock and laughter. "Do you have no shame at all?"

Sarah seemed to think about that seriously for a few moments and then grinned rakishly at her sister. "Nope!" she answered cheerfully. "Seriously sis. I can get it if a serious relationship is out of the question because of your stupid regulations or whatever. And yeah, I read that little letter of yours about 'fraternizing' with your fellow soldiers being a no-no, but it took me all of about ten seconds to read the vibe between you three. It's almost as if you're walking on eggshells around each other…not quite sure what to say or do. And Shepard looks like she hasn't slept in days in fact."

"They aren't stupid regs, and if you had been through what she's been through you'd be waking up almost every night screaming from nightmares too."

Sarah's eyes widened. "Are you serious?"

Ash nodded, a pained look in her eyes. "I was going to discreetly tell all of you later anyway, but since it was brought up now, you might as well know the whole story. I can't tell you everything, but Shepard has been through a lot in the last couple of years. Enough to break most people. She's toughed it out, but it's all been catching up with her since we woke up after the Citadel Battle. When we were first on Eden Prime, there was a Prothean message beacon and Alenko triggered it by accident. Shepard shoved him out of the way and then was caught up in it's transmission. It imprinted a warning message about the Reapers into her mind and from what I can understand the images were horrific. It took awhile for her to understand what she was seeing, and the more she understands the worse the message becomes. Couple that with everything we've been through this past year and well…..it doesn't make for good dreams. So don't be surprised if you hear her shout out in the middle of the night."

"Oh…wow," Sarah breathed. Then her brow furrowed. "This message, you say it becomes worse- like she still hasn't…translated it all."

"She hasn't. The message was badly damaged and the human mind was never really meant to absorb something like that to begin with. Anyway, please don't bring it up around her and let the others know."

"Alright. I won't push," Sarah sighed. "But sis promise me you'll think about one thing."


"Ash, you nearly died out there and more than once from the sound of things. I get that this is the life you have chosen for yourself and I respect you for it. But sis, if you don't stop to enjoy a few of the simple pleasures in life every now and then, then what's to stop you from forgetting what you are fighting for when things get bad? Life's too short Ash - take what little enjoyment you can allow yourself when the opportunity presents itself. Please," her sister all but begged of her.

Ashley looked down at their clasped hands and sighed. "I'll try kiddo, but sometimes it's not just in my hands alone. I promise I will try though."

Sarah leaned into her and hugged her tightly once more, and Ashley felt her smile against her shoulder. "Good. Now….tell me how in the hell Shepard scored such an awesome place like this. You know how Lynn and Abby are, we'll be lucky if they make it back before dark."

Ashley chuckled. "And poor Liara has been stuck around here the whole time helping Shepard and I keep up with our rehab so she hasn't been able to do much exploring either. I have been watching the scientist in her just begging to be let out and discover! I'm glad that she'll have some good company with her while she explores a bit this week."

"Are you kidding? I thought I was excited to be able to really meet a few aliens, but they were practically drooling at the chance to spend some time with someone from another race. You should probably warn Liara, cause Abby was focusing her anthropology thesis around how several different races evolved culturally compared to humans. She had yet to interview any Asari as very few travel to our system."

Ash grinned. "Well I think the interviewing will be going both ways. Liara has spent the last fifty years digging around in Prothean ruins and hadn't had much contact with people. After Shepard started dragging her around though, I think she began to see what she'd been missing out on. She is fascinated by the variety of cultures and races and sometimes you can barely answer one of her questions before she asks another."

"Fifty years? How old is she anyway?"

"A little over a century. She's barely in what they call their Maiden stage."

"Barely legal eh?" Sarah smirked.

"God you have a one track mind!" Ashley laughed as she shoved her sister away and stood. "Come on, I don't want to leave Shepard alone too long with mom because she's almost as bad as you. God knows what damage she's already done."

Sarah smirked. "I'm sure she's only given the 'if you hurt my daughter's feelings I'll hunt you down and make you pay' speech once."

Ashley grimaced and began limping with purpose towards the door. "Great," she muttered.

"Hey you want these?" Sarah asked holding up the crutches.

"Go ahead and bring them, but I've been working on getting around on my own power for short distances. Doc says the bone's healed perfectly and now I just need to start exercising the muscles and ligaments. Hopefully, I'll be rid of this limp by next week."

Sarah walked past her in the hallway, and then looked back at her sister with a wicked grin. "I could give you pointers on a few fun exercises that would definitely help with that," she offered.

Ashley's eyes narrowed and then she gave her sister an almost feral grin back. "And I could tell your new little flyboy about that time you tried to spike the punch at Prom last year."

Sarah's eyes widened. "You wouldn't!" Her sister just smirked and Sarah finally backed off with a laugh. "Of course you would. Alright, alright, I'll stop teasing you…..for now." And then she skipped out of reach as Ash leaned over to swat her ass.

"Can I get you anything to drink Ms. Williams?" Shepard asked as she watched Ashley follow her youngest sister into her room to chat while she unpacked. Abby and Lynn had already dumped their belongings in another of the rooms and all but dragged an equally excited Liara off to explore the island a bit. Which left her alone with Ashley's mother….a formidable looking woman who smiled easily, but whose gaze could pierce right through you.

Shepard, who had faced down hordes of Geth, a disbelieving Council, and Sovereign itself, had actually wanted to squirm a bit under the measuring look she'd been given by the Williams matriarch. She realized right away she was definitely going to need a drink to get through this conversation. Especially since throughout all the small-talk they'd had, the older woman had yet to indicate that Shepard could call her something less formal.

"A drink would be lovely Commander. Do you have any brandy?"

"Several according to the computer. Anything in particular?"

"Crystal Shores if it's listed, otherwise any will probably do."

Shepard ordered the requested brandy for her guest and a double scotch on the rocks for herself. She managed to keep a grip on her glass with her healing hand, and passed Ms. Williams the snifter holding her drink before she gestured to the lounge chair out on the deck.

They settled in and both took a moment to sip from their drinks and enjoy the view. "This is a beautiful home you have here Commander."

"I was telling Ash and Liara that it's the first place that I could ever call home. I don't make that much with the Alliance, and the Spectre pay wasn't a tremendous increase in pay like one would think. But throughout our travels we were asked to do a lot of small side mission for third parties that paid well. Plus our travels brought us across a lot of spare gear and parts that we could sell for credit. It was some months before I even realized just how much I had accumulated and damn near fell over in shock. Contacted an old acquaintance of mine who is good with handling finances and he bought this place a couple of months ago."

"Your investor has good tastes."

"That he does. Ash wants his number so she can have him start investing her share of the pay."

"You were most generous in your sharing of the wealth with your crew from what I hear."

"I may be a hard-ass Commander, but each and every one of my crew earned that kind of reward. Your daughter was with me on almost every mission and if it weren't for Ash I probably wouldn't be alive today," Shepard admitted quietly.

"It's ironic though isn't it?"

"What ma'am?"

Ms. Williams took a sip of her brandy, savored it, and then turned her hawk like gaze on Shepard. "That you didn't want my daughter on your ship in the beginning."

Shepard fought down the urge to cringe. "It wasn't for the reasons you think Ms Williams."

"Really? Then please elucidate for me why you wanted to leave her back on Eden Prime, Commander?"

Why indeed? Not even Ashley had ever asked that question and it had been one that Shepard was not comfortable answering. Her emotions were still too raw, and this would be revealing a bit of the deep hurt that she'd been attempting to bury for months now. She took a healthy swig of her drink and looked away. "Because I could tell Ash was a good soldier…and I was tired of sending good Marines to their deaths. She'd just lost her entire unit on Eden Prime, and I knew we were about to get tossed into something huge. I didn't know if she could be focused enough to not wind up dead…like everyone else around me seemed to be," Shepard answered with a far off and haunted look.

The older woman tilted her head, studying Shepard and then nodded in understanding. "Torfan," she said perceptively.

Shepard took another healthy swallow and then nodded. "There's no amount of training that can prepare you to give the order that you know will send your men and women to their deaths. We stopped those fucking slavers, but to me the mission was a failure. I expected a court marshal for my actions on that planet, and instead they wanted to make me a damned Spectre. Eden Prime was my first mission after Torfan, and what happens shortly after I hit ground-side? Another kid under my command gets blown to bits before he can even get a shot off," Shepard answered bitterly.

Ashley's mother was silent for a bit, taking in all that the young Commander had revealed. She sipped her brandy in quiet contemplation for several moments before speaking again. This time her tone had lost it's hard edge from before. "Ashley says you never held her heritage against her."

Shepard's steady gaze finally met hers. "If it weren't for the timely intervention of an Alliance Officer, I would have been dead or locked up and doing hard time long ago. I was given a chance to leave that life behind and I never looked back. I am the last person to give a fuck what someone was before they became a Marine. But it has always been very difficult for me to rely on anyone else, because I grew up trusting no one but myself. Like I said though, it didn't take me long to realize just how good your daughter was. When I found out why she was being held back it infuriated me, because she's one of the best Marines I've ever had the privilege of working with. She's the first person in a very long time, that I trust my life with."

"My daughter would die for you Commander Shepard…she very nearly did." It wasn't said with anger or resentment. But there was a grave seriousness to the elder woman's tone.

Shepard's gaze never wavered. "So would I, and I nearly died trying to protect her as well."

There was another measuring look, but this time there was finally approval in those aged eyes. "Thank you for bringing my daughter back alive Commander."

Shepard nodded and they went back to watching the ocean for awhile, each lost in their own thoughts. "So tell me Commander. What do you plan on doing next?"

"Enjoying my time here with your daughter and Liara before we have to go back out there and protect the galaxy from the next threat that is sure to rear it's ugly head."

"Ah yes. The good Dr. T'Soni. She's a lovely young woman. Absolutely charming and quite adorable. I can certainly see how she managed to break through Ashley's somewhat xenophobic tendencies. I didn't blame Ashley for her feelings, but I had hoped that one day, she'd be able to let go some of the bitterness that her father had instilled in her at a young age. She seems quite enamored with your Asari friend."

Shepard shifted, realizing they were straying into dangerous territory and opted for a neutral shrug as she sipped the last of her drink. Damn, she was empty already. "Ash and I are both Marines and while firepower is great to have, it's always nice to have someone with some great tech or biotic powers to help back us up. Liara was with us on quite a few missions, and both Ash and I gained a lot of respect for Dr. T'Soni after she faced off against her own mother with us."

"I heard about that. That must have been terrible for the poor dear. How is she coping with that?"

"More gracefully than anyone else I know would. She grieves in her own quiet way, but I know that there is a sense of relief for her that she was able to know in those last final moments that it wasn't really her mother that had done all those terrible things. She'd been able to say goodbye- something that had almost been lost to her. I think she has found a sense of purpose in helping Ashley and I through our recovery."

"I see. So do you plan on retaining my daughter as part of your crew Commander?"

Shepard was beginning to have sympathy for anyone who ever had this misfortune of finding themselves on a courtroom witness stand. She also needed another drink. She opted to try and steer things into a less formal conversation for now. "It's really okay to call me either Shepard or Alex, Ms. Williams. I've just managed to break Ash from calling me Commander while we are on Leave."

"Only if you drop the Ma'am business and call me Ruth," the older woman returned, finally cracking a smile.

Shepard felt herself relax and smiled back. Apparently she'd passed some sort of test it seemed. "And yes, I plan to keep Ash as part of my crew as she has expressed a desire to remain aboard. I know as her mother, that's probably not what you want to hear given how dangerous our assignments have been-,"

"But Ashley wouldn't have it any other way," Ruth chuckled quietly. "That girl lives for danger, and she has wanted nothing more than to be an Operational Marine since she was a little. She may be on the frontlines now, but at least I know she now has someone who cares enough about her that they'll watch her back. That's all a mother can ask." That last bit was said with a pointed look at Shepard.

Shepard nodded in silent understanding and then pushed herself to her feet. "Refill?"

"Why the hell not?" Ruth grinned as she held up her glass.

Shepard made her way inside and let out a sigh of relief as soon as she was out of sight of the older woman. She walked up to the food processor and chuckled quietly to herself as she realized just how tense she'd been during their entire conversation. "And the defense rests it case," she muttered to herself wryly as she picked up her second drink, downed it and then pushed for a third.

"So Liara…is it okay if we call you that? Or do you prefer Dr. T'Soni?" Lynn asked as they all walked briskly through a fairly overgrown footpath that ran along the coast.

"Liara is just fine. I only use the title in more formal settings."

"I can't believe you have been here for three whole days already and you haven't done much more than swim a bit in the ocean!"

"As you can see, your sister and the Commander are still healing from their extensive injuries. Both of them require a daily regiment of exercise and physical therapy. This process takes roughly four hours each day, and it leaves them both somewhat tired and not as steady for a little while afterwards. I am not comfortable leaving their proximity just yet."

"So you're in charge of their therapy?" Abby asked as the path turned inland and the vegetation began denser.

"They are both adept in running through the stretches and exercises themselves right now, but Dr. Chakwas has entrusted me with supervising their care and assisting where needed. Thankfully their recovery is proceeding well and they require my assistance less each day. I do not mind being there to help them, but they are both strong willed and independent individuals, and I know it has been difficult for them to have to rely on others so much this past month."

"I can just bet. I remember when Ash was in High School, she took a bad hit in a Rugby game. Broke her arm in two place and three ribs. Mom went through hell trying to get her to ease up a bit so it would all heal right. Can't believe she's being so compliant for you."

"Dr. Chakwas has provided a sufficient amount of threats to deter both her and Shepard from straying from her strict schedule for both of them. As it was, they both broke their…parole so to speak, early on and found themselves both confined to quarters for an extra period of time. I admit I was a bit concerned that they would try to push me to allow them to stray from their approved activities, but this island has had a calming effect on both of them thankfully. They appear only to be concerned with catching up on some much needed rest and relaxation."

"Yeah, but what about you?"

"I have enjoyed the time spent in their company a great deal and do not find keeping an eye on them to be a burden of any kind."

"But you're happy to have the chance to explore now," Lynn grinned knowingly.

Liara blushed slightly and nodded. "I am. Ashley has told me much about her family and I have been looking forward to meeting all of you. And I will admit that my…scientific nature has been growing more and more curious about the wonders this island will hold for us. I understand both of you have been studying courses in scientific areas as well?"

"I've been majoring in interspecies sociology and anthropology," Abby confirmed. "The Asari race in particular has always fascinated me. Maybe when we're just relaxing one day, you wouldn't mind answering a few questions about your race? I'm a firm believer in getting everything straight from the source."

"A wise practice, as there are many things that are misunderstood in every culture by others because of misinformation and assumptions. And I would be happy to answer any questions you may have, if I might ask the same in return."

"Sure. But I can't believe Ash and the Commander haven't answered everything you'd want to know about us already."

"They know a great deal about you're people's history, but they are both soldiers and there are certain aspects of your culture that they simply have not experienced for themselves and therefore cannot answer."

"Really? What kinds of things would that be?"

"The Commander has had no family to speak of for as long as she can remember, and Ashley's life has been devoted to attaining her goal of becoming a soldier. While your sister was able to clarify some of my questions regarding familial structures, neither she nor Shepard could answer anything about personal relationships as they have had either little or no experience in the matter."

This caused both of the sisters to laugh. "You got that right. Not that she didn't have a whole slew of boys and girls trying," Abby told Liara with a grin. "God bless Ash, because she's the reason I'm getting my Master's next month. But we worry about her sometimes. It's not healthy going that long without getting laid."

Liara had heard the term before, but it took her a moment to recall it's meaning and when she did, she finally blushed. "Ah, you mean to have intimate relations with someone."

"Yeah. I mean it's had to have been a good six years since she was involved with anyone. Anyway, we just would like to see her happy with someone for a little while. Loosen her up a bit."

Liara desperately needed to change subject so she looked at Lynn. "I hear you will be graduating next year with a degree in navigation and planetary survey."

"I am. Ash keeps trying to get me to sign up with the Alliance, because with a degree there's no way they can turn me down for Officer Candidate School…especially now that they lost so many at the Citadel Battle," Lynn added a bit somberly. But then she shook her head. "But I'm still not sure if the military will be a good fit for me. And I'm a little bitter with them for their prejudice against our family. Ash is a damn good soldier and they've done nothing but shit on her career just because of our family name. How she's put up with them for so long is beyond me," Lynn said with a vehemence.

"Ease up there kiddo," Abby chuckled quietly.

Lynn let out a long breathe, forcing herself to relax and then smiled ruefully in apology. "Sorry about that. It just gets me so worked up that she's worked so hard to try and restore honor to our family name and provide for us, and they keep shutting her down."

"I once queried why a soldier of her caliber had never been stationed with a ship before and she explained your family's history to me and the difficulties it had presented to both your father and herself. I understand your anger, and you may be placated in knowing that Commander Shepard was equally angered when she found out why Ashley had been held back for so long." Liara's lips turned upwards a somewhat wicked smile. "Shortly before we traveled to Ilos, we were all sharing a meal after yet another skirmish with the Geth. Ashley had performed exceptionally on that particular mission, and Shepard promised her there in front of half the crew that she would be sure to see to it that Ashley got a promotion if we all lived through the mission."

"Yeah but several of her C.O.'s have promised the same thing only to have their requests denied."

"Perhaps, but Ashley is a Hero of the Citadel Battle now. There are hundreds of security feeds that have been flooding the extranet with videos of her actions during the final stand against Saren. If your military leaders were to withhold honoring her for such bravery, your people would protest vehemently at the injustice."

"Huh…you've got a point there. Well, still, I'm not sure if I really want to be a part of the fleet…especially not when we are potentially gearing up for war. Right now, I just want to find a spot on a research ship and put my skills to non-lethal uses."

"A worthy endeavor. There have been many days when I miss the simplicity of my own work. But my journeys with the Commander have led to some incredible discoveries in regards to the Prothean cultures and have helped me to hone my biotic abilities better- both of which I will benefit from in the future. It has also allowed me to study a wide variety of races and cultures up close and in depth while aboard the Normandy."

"How was it working with such a diverse crew? I mean we got the letters from Ash, who was a little wary of everyone at first. I was so jealous of her though!," Abby laughed. "I told her she needed to lighten up and just observe. Not every alien was a bad guys, just like not every human is a self-righteous asshole. Was glad to hear after a few weeks that she was starting to come around."

"In Ashley's defense, it was difficult for everyone in the beginning. The human crew were always on edge and most of them didn't trust us. Shepard brought us aboard, but even she took some time to trust us completely. I had never had any dealings with humans before and Tali had only a little more experience than I did. Wrex was your typical Krogan male, and his presence frightened a good number of the crew for several weeks. I steered clear of him for almost two months myself," she admitted with a shy grin.

"Heard Ash nearly came to blows with the Turian….Garrus was his name?"

Liara nodded. "I heard about that incident. It was early on, before I was rescued actually. Ashley made her distrust of the aliens well known, and Garrus took her to task for it. The argument escalated and Wrex and Tali joined in, but Ashley did not back down. The Commander had to intervene, and as her solution to the problem, she made your sister bunk down in the Mako bay with Garrus, Wrex, and Tali for an entire month."

"No way!" Lynn laughed.

"Ash forgot to tell us about THAT little bit of information!" Abby added, also laughing hard.

Even Liara found herself chuckling. "Shepard apparently told them that they would 'get along, or they could fight it out and then she'd space the lot of them.' That was when Wrex laughed and cuffed Ashley on the shoulder and said he thought she was pretty brave for a scrawny human. Then he walked back to his normal corner and Ashley backed down finally. From that point on the tension between the three died down, and by the time I had arrived, they were managing to work civilly with each other. I believe the Commander found it amusing that even after the month was up, Ashley continued to bunk in the Mako bay. By the end of the mission, we had all become good friends and we regretted that Tali had to return home."

"Tali….she was the Quarian right?" Abbey asked.

"She was."

"You have to tell me all about her. There is so little in the databases about them, and half of it seems to contradict the other half," Abbey asked enthusiastically.

Liara smiled, understanding completely Abby's enthusiasm. She opened her mouth to tell the younger woman all about her dear friend when the path widened unexpectedly and they were treated with a breath taking sight. "Goddess!" she gasped and the other two women pulled up next to her, equally awed by what they were seeing.

They were standing in a small clearing of knee high grass. The tree surrounding them, towered several stories high and were active with various forms of birds and even a few small primates could be seen leaping from branch to branch calling out to each other. Several ground creatures roamed or scurried about and two small deer looked up from where they were drinking at the freshwater pool in front of the trio. A small rock ledge ran along the far side of the pool, raising no more than ten feet above the surface of the water, and a small waterfall spilled over the top.

"Oh my god," Lynn whispered. "This…this is incredible!"

Abby silently moved forward, noting that the pool was shallow across most of it's expanse, but deepened sharply under the waterfall, which showed indications of being much larger at times- most likely after a rainstorm. The deer sniffed the air and then with a snort, took off into the underbrush. Abby reached the edge of the pool, and leaned down to feel the water. It was warmed by the climate and sun, but still just cool enough to be refreshing after a hike. She spun with a huge grin on her face.

"It's perfect!" she called out before spinning back around and stripping down to her underwear and running in.

Liara blinked in surprise and then looked over at Lynn who was chuckling at her older sister's antics. She looked back at Liara and shrugged with a grin that matched her sister's and a playful glint in her eyes. "No one ever said the Williams' sisters were shy," she laughed before she stripped off her own shoes, shorts and shirt and followed her sister into the inviting water.

Liara stood on the shore and watched the two siblings splash into the water, scaring off any wildlife that might have remained nearby despite their arrival. "Come on in Liara!" Abby called as she splashed her sister who squealed slightly in protest and then chased after her.

Liara grinned at their antics. "I would, but Asari do not see the need for undergarments."

That brought both women up short and they gaped at her for a second before Abby slid a sly glance over at her sister. There was a moment of silent communication between them and then as one they turned to Liara and grinned back at her. "Well I hear the Asari aren't particularly shy," Abby said bravely.

Liara nodded her head. "We are not. However many other species, yours included appear to have cultural taboos on public nudity."

"Who said we're in public?" Lynn asked as she reached down and yanked her bra off and tossed it towards the shore even as her sister copied her action.

"We humans actually have a term for this: Skinny Dipping," Abby explained as she freed herself from the last of her clothing and stood waist deep in the clear waters.

Liara tilted her head to one side, smiling and then reached up to divest herself of her own clothing. She watched as their eyes widened as she removed the last of her clothing, but saw no revulsion there, only curiosity and then appreciation. Then she joined them in the water and took a moment to entertain her own scientific curiosity with a brief glance over each of their bodies before they all settled into a comfortable conversation while lazily floating around the deeper edges of the pool.

Liara found herself quickly befriending Ashley's sisters as they were as scientifically minded as she was and had a wicked sense of humor on top of that. They were indeed as bold as their eldest sister, just in more subtle ways. The afternoon was spent getting to know each other, sharing stories and observations, and involved a great deal of laughter. Liara couldn't remember the last time she had actually laughed this much, and she found herself somewhat envious of Ashley's family. It was apparent that they were all close and they loved each other dearly. Liara wondered what it would have been like if she'd had a sibling of her own.

As the sun began to dip down below the horizon they finally climbed from the pool, laughing at their pruned skin, and lay out in the meadow for a few minutes still chatting amiably while the water dried from their skin in the still warm air. When they were finally dry enough, they replaced their clothing, and began their journey back towards the house, Liara using her biotics to provide adequate lighting for them to safely move along the darkening path. The sisters of course loved it, and were begging her to show them a few of her other biotic abilities along the way. Liara humored them a bit by lifting several rocks of various sizes and hurling them off into the growing darkness and then freezing both women in a stasis field causing their eyes to widen in as they realized just how limited their ability to move was.

"That's gotta be pretty handy in a fight," Lynn grinned once she was free from the stasis field.

Liara nodded. "There were many times we were outnumbered severely and the easiest way to handle those numbers was for me to keep as many as I could at bay, while Shepard and Ashley engaged the rest. In the case of a charging Krogan, it would usually take all three of us to take him down."

"Can't believe you went from scientist to soldier in the span of a few weeks."

Liara shrugged. "It was not an easy transition, but I needed to find out for myself why my mother would turn from everything she taught and believed in, to follow such a dark path. One does what they must to survive."

The sisters grew quiet at that for a few moments. Finally Abby settled a hand on Liara's shoulder, now knowing that the Asari maiden could sense her intentions through the touch. "Ashley told us about how you had to face down your own mother. I'm truly sorry you had to go through something like that…I couldn't even imagine how horrible that must have been. But I hope you know that you have come to mean a great deal to our sister and Ash has always been a good listener."

Liara swallowed against the sudden tightness in her throat and smiled weakly at the kind woman who was offering her gentle support. "Your sister has also come to mean a great deal to me as well, and I know she is willing to be there for me. But this journey has been long and exceptionally hard, and it is going to take time for all of us to let our guard down enough to grieve properly for all that we have lost during our pursuit of Saren and Sovereign. It will not be easy for any of us to face our demons, but at least we have the strength of each other's company when that time comes."

Abby squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and then changed the topic to something less emotionally heavy as they finally hit the coast and could see the lights of the house off in the distance. Liara gratefully allowed the distraction and soon enough the two sisters had her giggling at a particularly embarrassing story they were revealing about their oldest sibling. Fifteen minutes later they were walking up onto the deck where everyone else was reclining on the lounge chairs, sipping on a variety of drinks.

"Nice of you three to finally join us," Ashley said with a sarcastic smile as she narrowed her eyes at her two younger sisters. "So what trouble did you find yourselves?"

"Trouble? Ashley dear, we leave that all to you. We simply went exploring and found this amazing pool that was begging to be swam in."

Shepard, even through her alcohol induced haze, frowned. "But you don't have any bathing suits or towels," she observed.

Abby just smirked. "We are in the middle of nowhere and with no one else around. Who needs bathing suits?"

Shepard choked on her drink, and Ashley spilled her own. "Abs!" Ashley protested loudly as she frantically tried to brush her drink off her lap.

All of Ashley's family just smirked and Liara couldn't help the small giggle that escaped her mouth. She stifled it quickly when Shepard shot her a look, but couldn't fully keep the smile off her own face.

"We decided to eat dinner, just in case we had to send out the search party for you three. We have yours keeping warm in the stasis container though. Why don't you head on inside to clean up and then enjoy you meal. Then you can tell us all about this pool you discovered," Ruth suggested before too many glares stared getting thrown around. After all, she was enjoying her own pleasant buzz and would hate to have it ruined by having to break up a fight between her children.

Liara thanked her and wisely steered Abby and Lynn inside, Sarah joining them as Shepard and Ashley stared at each other, both trying to reign in their shock and temper. Ruth simply sat back in her chair, easily reading both younger women and smirked into her drink. This was going to be a very interesting vacation.


Chapter 9: Solace

It was one thing for Ashley's family to know that Shepard had violent nightmares that woke her on most nights screaming. It was another to actually bare witness to it. Ruth, who'd been married to a military man and was all too familiar with the occurrence, abided by her daughter's wishes to leave Shepard be for two nights. After the third night in a row of laying in bed and hearing Shepard shout out in her sleep, the older woman could not ignore her previous training of many years ago, nor her protective maternal instincts any longer.

She rose quietly from her bed, wrapped a robe around her and wandered out to the kitchen area where she ordered a mug of warm herbal tea. She wasn't surprised to cross paths with her eldest daughter in the living room. "You okay?" Ashley whispered, concerned.

"I am perfectly fine. Alexis however is not, and if you won't do anything to help her right now when she needs it most, I AM," Ruth told her daughter firmly.

"Mom, Shepard…Alex hates showing weakness of any kind. If anyone were to go in there it'll just make her angry."

"Anger is a good thing sometimes dear. Besides, how will you know if it will help or hurt her unless you even try. Now I have sat here and listened to her for the past two nights and I am not going to let a third pass without offering her some kind of comfort. And before you start on me, you remember what I used to do before I married your father and settled down into family life," Ruth told Ashley sternly. "I saw my fair share of soldiers just like her back in my day and I know what I'm doing. Now, step aside Ashley."

Ashley, who hadn't had that tone directed at her in a good number of years, shut her mouth and stepped aside quickly, partially out of surprise. Her mother bid her a cordial goodnight, walked past her and straight to Shepard's room. The elder woman knocked softly to announce her presence and then stepped inside without waiting for an answer and shut the door behind her.

Her eyes were already adjusted to the lack of light as she had moved through the house without turning any lights on, so she was easily able to make out Shepard's form. The younger woman was curled on her side, facing away from the door, the were sheets twisted tightly around her from her obviously struggles, and she was still trying to get her breathing under control.

"Damn it Ash, I told you I would be fine," Shepard whispered, her voice raspy and harsh.

"You are far from fine Alexis, and if you are going to have any chance of getting through your ordeals with your sanity intact, you cannot do it alone, not can you continue to suppress this," Ruth admonished quietly as she moved deeper into the room.

Shepard rolled over immediately, and struggled to sit up, hissing in pain as she put too much strain on her healing arm in her hastiness. Ruth moved swiftly to her side and wrapped a strong arm around Shepard's back and helped her into a sitting position. "Easy there," she soothed. "Don't want to undo all that hard work your doctor accomplished."

"Ruth? What the hell are you doing here?"

The older woman arranged some of Shepard's pillows behind her and then gently guided her to sit back and pressed the mug of tea into her hands. "I should think that would be obvious," Ruth answered wryly.

"Fuck….have I been waking you guys up every night?"

"You have," Ruth admitted. "Ashley warned us about your nightmares, and she requested we abide by your wishes to be left alone. But as a mother and a former Counselor, I simply could not stand by and watch you suffer like this alone."

"You were a shrink? Great," Shepard grumbled.

"Of a sort. More like a grief counselor really. I didn't have a degree, though I had been thinking of working towards one. Then I met Ashley's father and we fell head over heels in love and decided to focus on a family instead."

"So are you going to psychoanalyze me now?" Shepard asked stiffly.

Ruth sighed. "Shepard, I understand why you have felt the need to isolate yourself from people in the past. For most of your life, your very survival has depended on you relying on no one but yourself. But it doesn't have to be that way now dear. You have people who genuinely care about you, people that you have admitted to me that you trust deeply. People who wish to help you succeed in any way they can," Ruth reminded her as she tipped the bottom of the mug up, encouraging Shepard to take a sip.

Shepard hesitated for a moment, but the heat of the liquid was seeping into her hands and calming her some so she finally complied with Ruth's silent request. Ashley's mother sat on the bed next to Shepard, and allowed the younger woman a few minutes of silent contemplation while she continued to sip her tea. When Ruth felt her begin to relax a fraction she began speaking again. "Alexis, there is no shame in this. Emotions are what make us human. Without them, we would be mindless killers…much like that Sovereign creature you have told us about. One simply cannot go through life, shutting themselves off from feelings they don't like, or want, or understand."

There was another minute of silence before Alex responded. Ruth noted that the younger woman could not raise her eyes, but this was to be expected. "I…don't know how to deal with this Ruth. All my life I've had to be strong…to be the strong one for others. People's lives depend on my ability to make decisions- even the hard ones- and be able to deal with it. On Virimire, if I had gone back because I couldn't leave a man behind, we would all have died, and Sovereign would have wiped out the Citadel and the rest of the galaxy would have followed."

"How did that make you feel? Having to leave Lt. Alenko behind?"

"I hated myself for not figuring out a plan that didn't involve sacrificing one of my men. I still do," Shepard whispered harshly, frustrated with the rebellious tears that were starting to gather in her eyes.

"Did he beg for you to come after him?" Ruth asked, even though she was well aware of the answer having heard the entire story from her daughter already.

"No," came the faint response. "I wanted to go back, and he told me to leave. He knew there wasn't enough time, and he told me it was okay. He was willing to sacrifice his life to save ours…to see to it that we finished our mission."

"Lt. Alenko died a hero then, and what Alliance officer doesn't want that?" Ruth reminded her gently.

"Then why do I feel like I failed him…and so many others?" Shepard demanded angrily, unable to stop the tears now.

"Because you have taken the weight of the galaxy on your shoulders Alexis…and you are only one woman. There is no way you can protect us all, and you feel like you must. It is a fact of life that some will have to fall in the fight to protect the greater number. A good leader accepts that these losses are inevitable, and continues on. A great leader grieves for those losses however, and then honors their sacrifices by carrying on their fight. As much as you want to fight against it my dear, grief is part of the healing process, and if you don't acknowledge it, your perceived failures will continue to fester like an open wound until it consumes you with bitterness, hatred and anger. And just like gangrene, it will poison your body until nothing good is left within you and you become everything you fought against. Is this what you want for yourself Alexis?"

"No," came a half choked sob.

"Is this what you want for my daughter and Liara?"

"Gods no!"

"Then let go my dear, and let someone else be strong for a little while," Ruth told her as she leaned forward and gently pulled Shepard into a comforting hug.

For Alexis, it was the first time in her life, that she could ever remember being held safe in a mother's arms. Ruth may not be her mother, but there was just something instinctively maternal in the way she held Alexis who finally broke down and grieved. She clung to the older woman, unable to stop the sobs that wracked her body so hard, it made everything hurt. She grieved for a childhood lost, for the deaths of so many during her years of service- innocents, comrades and friends- and for an entire civilization lost to the Reapers.

For over an hour she took solace in that safe embrace, her mind and heart finally purging some of the roiling emotions she had kept locked away for most of her life. It was far from being enough to cleanse her completely of her grief, but it was a start. Throughout the rest of the dark and silent house, five other young women lay awake listening to the heartbreaking sobs of a broken hero, tears of their own slipping silently down cheeks to dampen their pillows.

When Liara and Ashley could bare it no more they both rose quietly from their beds almost in tandem, and exited their rooms. Ashley looked across at Liara, surprised more by their timing than by intent. In the dim light she could see that the young Asari had been as effected by Shepard's grief as she had been, and Ashley was reminded of the young woman's own loss and during that god forsaken mission. She instinctively held her arms open. Liara slid into them and Ashley hugged her tight, even as she sniffled a bit. "She needs us Li," Ash whispered.

"I know. But I have been so unsure…about many things," Liara whispered back.

"Me too," Ashley admitted. Then she pulled back and looked deep into Liara's eyes. "But I promise, when my family leaves, we will talk about all of this. But mom was right- we can't let her keep going like this."

Liara nodded and they both made their way down the hall and quietly entered Shepard's room. Ruth looked up at their quiet entry and then gave her daughter a sad but knowing look. Shepard was still clinging tightly to her, her breathing coming in short uneven gasps, even as her body still shook from the occasional sob. The older woman gestured for the two to take over, and made room for Ashley to sit next to her, while Liara took up a spot on the other side of the bed behind Shepard. Ruth gently extracted herself from Shepard's grip and shifted it over to Ashley who immediately wrapped her strong arms around Alexis and took over soothing the distraught woman.

Ruth ran her fingers through Ashley's hair and kissed her on the forehead. Then she held out her hand and took Liara's and kissed her knuckles affectionately and then guided that hand to Shepard's shoulder. "The girls and I will be doing a bit of touring to Hawaii in the morning. We'll see you in a day or so," she told Ashley and Liara quietly.

"Thank you mom," Ashley whispered back in sincere gratitude.

Ruth merely nodded and left the three young women in peace for the rest of the night. She knew that Shepard had a long way to go yet, but she felt satisfied in knowing that the intrepid Commander was back on the track to recovery.

It was nearly noon before Shepard finally began to stir from the deep sleep she had slipped into during the early hours of the morning. The first thing that she was aware of was the throbbing pain in her head, as if she'd drank too much the night before. On top of that, her chest and shoulder ached, but there was a soothing warmth that was surrounding her, helping to relax muscles that had obviously been abused last night.

She tried to remember what had happened the night before, but her mind was still foggy. Then some of the warmth that was surrounding her moved, and Shepard's eyes shot open…well as open as they could considering they were still swollen. Her body tensed as soft blue features swam in and out of focus just inches in front of her, but an arm tightened around her waist as a strong body snuggled up more tightly behind her.

"Relax Alex," was breathed into her ear, and Shepard desperately tried to remember how she ended up with both Ashley and Liara in her bed. It took another minute and then everything came rushing back at her, causing her to inhale sharply, even as the arm she had wrapped around Liara tightened involuntarily.

Soft blue lips leaned forward and pressed against her forehead. "It is okay Alexis. We are here for you," Liara assured her.

Alex closed her eyes tightly, even as the tears came again. She remembered the conversation with Ruth which had laid bare the wounds of her soul that she had been trying to ignore for years now. She remembered a mother's concern- even if it wasn't her own. And she remembered finally letting go. She realized somewhere along the way, Ruth's comforting embrace had been replaced by Ashley's and Liara's and shortly after that she must have passed out.

Alex didn't think it was possible for someone who had cried as hard as she had last night to possibly have any more tears, but the grief was still there. Not nearly as harsh and overwhelming as the night before, but still fresh and raw. And so she clung to Liara, even as she pressed back into Ashley's strength, and let them hold her as she wept for a little while longer.

After awhile, her breathing began to even out, even though her body still trembled slightly. "Gods, what is wrong with me?" she asked, both embarrassed and frustrated.

"Nothing is wrong Alex," Ashley answered her reassuringly. "You're just finally letting go of everything you've been keeping locked in for so long."

Alex exhaled slowly, and forced herself to relax back into their warmth. She drifted back to sleep again for a little while longer before her body's needs forced her back awake. "What time is it?" she murmured sleepily against Liara's shoulder.

"A little after thirteen hundred hours," Ash answered as her fingers drew lazy patterns along Alex's stomach.

Shepard's eyes cracked open. "What about your mom and sisters?" she asked concerned.

"They went to check out Hawaii. They'll be back tomorrow."

Shepard relaxed back into her pillow, even as she tried to think of something appropriate to say. She was reveling in the warmth and comfort of their bodies, but she was also feeling more than a little awkward about their situation. "I….shit…I have no idea what to say right now," she admitted.

She watched an amused smile paint Liara's lips and felt Ashley chuckle quietly from behind her. "How about we don't spoil the moment with words then?" Ashley suggested.

This made Alex chuckle. "You know…I would really like to follow that advise. In fact I think I could be content to stay in bed like this all day. But unfortunately, my body needs to take care of a few things."

Ashley laughed lightly, and then rolled away from Shepard, who immediately missed the warmth that had been spooning her from behind. She gave Liara a final squeeze and then extracted herself from the Asari's gentle grasp and carefully sat up with Ashley's help. She winced as her shoulder was moved and then shook her head ruefully. Her whole body was stiff, and she felt like her entire face was swollen. She probably looked like hell.

She made her way off the bed reluctantly and into her bathroom where she took care of her needs and then forced herself to glance in her mirror afterwards. Oh yeah, she definitely looked like hell. She stripped out of her clothing and flipped on the shower, deciding some hot water would probably do her a world of good right now. She brushed her teeth while the water warmed and then stepped under the hot spray and sighed contentedly.

The steam slowly cleared her foggy mind and released some of the pressure in her still clogged sinuses, while the water gently eased the aches in her shoulder and torso. As her mind cleared, she finally began to process more of the previous night's events and had to snort in mild disbelief at everything that had happened. She remembered the shock of having Ruth come in to her room uninvited and her deep embarrassment at having the older women see her like that. She still couldn't believe just how quickly and easily Ruth had gotten her to open up. Alex had to hand it to Ashley's mom….she was good. The Alliance could probably use someone like her back on their payroll- especially right now.

Alex spent the next several minutes reflecting on how she felt about what had happened. Yes, there was some anger and mild resentment at the invasion of her privacy- but that was her normal and instinctive response and she decided to disregard it this once. She still felt raw, weary, and…vulnerable. This made her uncomfortable because she had always been so in control of her feelings and emotions… until recently at least. But last night she'd let her guard down completely, and it scared her a bit. Until she thought about who had been there for her in her moment of weakness.

Feeling considerably better, Shepard turned off the water and stepped out of her shower and toweled off before slipping her robe on and exiting back into her bedroom. Ashley and Liara had vacated her bed, but the Commander could make out the smell of coffee and breakfast and figured they had headed into the kitchen in search of food. Shepard threw on a pair of old training shorts and tank top and padded barefoot out into the front of the house.

The other two women were quietly enjoying their meal in relative silence, but the looked up at Shepard and smiled warmly at her as she slid into a seat between the two of them at the table. "Feeling better?" Ashley asked as Shepard poured herself a cup of coffee and sipped it gratefully.

"Much better now," Shepard sighed.

"Wasn't sure what you wanted so we ordered a few things to share."

"Actually, I'm starving and it all looks good."

Liara, who had noticed the Commander's appetite begin to wane over the past month, was pleased to see Shepard load up her plate and smiled. The Commander noticed and snorted. "Does this mean I won't get a lecture today about the need to eat more?" she teased.


Shepard grinned and shook her head as she dug into her food, and the table went comfortably silent once more for awhile. When she was full, she pushed her empty plate back and looked over at Liara once more. "You think the Doc would be too upset if we went one day with therapy?"

"She informed me that so long as it was not a regular occurrence, that there could be days where you forgo your conditioning. Since it is clear that your shoulder and arm are sore, I believe it would be prudent to allow you some rest today."

"Have something in mind Skipper?"

Shepard sat back and stared at the table for a moment. "Honestly? I think I just want to spend some quiet time here with both of you today…if you're both up for that."

"I think it's something all of us could use actually," Ash said as she reached out and clasped her hand over Shepard's. She then looked up at Liara and smiled warmly. "I think it's time we talked a bit about things."

Liara nodded and Shepard looked up to meet Ashley's gaze. "Back deck?"

"I think I preferred your idea of staying in bed all day personally. What about you Liara?"

"I admit to being very reluctant to leave it earlier. It was…comforting."

Shepard couldn't deny that, but she wanted to make one thing clear. "Bed it is. But there is something both of you need to know up front," she said in a serious tone. "I think we are all aware of what is going on between us and how we feel about each other. If there is any question as to whether or not I want both of you, be assured that I do." There, she'd said it. She drew in a steadying breath even as she watched both Ash and Liara inhale a bit sharply with her outright admission. "But," she continued, "you're right Ash…we do have a lot to talk about first. Plus, I need time to…process everything from last night. Your mom is good Ash, damn good in fact. But I need time right now. Everything is still so…raw inside of me." Her voice caught for a second, and she had to clear it to continue, even as she held their steady gazes.

"Besides, we still have your family coming back for a few more days Ash, and I've already cost you a day with them. I wouldn't want to take any more of your precious time from them."

Ash smiled in warm understanding and gratitude and nodded in agreement. Liara smiled as well and then stood to start removing the empty dishes. Ash and Alex stood to assist her as much as they could and then a short while later, they retired back into the bedroom, wisely bringing along some snacks and beverages for later. "It's a good thing you have such an enormous bed," Ash chuckled as the three of them settled themselves back onto the bed, this time with Liara tucked in the middle.

Shepard chuckled. "I thought it was oversized when I first saw it, but I'm starting to appreciate it's generous space."

"I wish Tali had been able to see all of this," Liara commented somewhat sadly.

The other two fell silent and then Shepard sighed even as she curled up a bit tighter against Liara. "Me too," she admitted quietly.

"Do you think she'll ever come back Alex?" Ash asked into the stillness after a few minutes.

"I hope so. You?"

"Hell yeah," Ash said with a clear grin in her tone. "She was one hell of an engineer and pretty damn wicked with that shotty of hers. Would defiantly love to see the woman behind the mask there."

Shepard and Liara both smiled in response, but didn't make any comments as the warmth from each other began to lull all three women into an extremely relaxed state. Within minutes all three had drifted off into a peaceful slumber where the mere presence of each other kept the nightmares at bay.

Part 10

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