Location: Shadow Sea Nebula, Iera System, Normandy SR-2
Shepard remained silent on the flight back. He merely leaned back in his seat as much as his equipment allowed and stared out the window.
Evidently, his reticence was easy enough to read by the rest of his team, since they maintained a respectful silence. Even Grunt and Jack decided to give Shepard a bit of space. Everyone was content to rest, given the difficulty and relative success of their mission.
"Initiating docking procedures. Stand by," Goldstein reported.
Hawthorne brought the shuttle around to dock with the Normandy. The frigate was currently in orbit around the second planet, Prospect. It was far enough from both the relay and Horizon that neither the Collectors nor the Alliance would be able to detect their presence.
"Docking procedures complete. We're back," Hawthorne cheerfully said.
Everyone groaned as they stood up and filed out of the shuttle. With the rush of battle long since gone, injuries made themselves known with a vengeance.
Dr. Chakwas was already present in the docking bay with a look on her face that was a cross between disapproval and concern. "I hope I'm not going to have guests in my Medical Bay tonight?" she asked in a casual tone. Despite her statement, her trained eye was evaluating everyone as they stepped down from the Kodiak. "Executive Lawson?" Chakwas said, zeroing in on her.
"I'm fine. Mostly impact injuries. My armor protected me," Miranda dismissed.
Chakwas wasn't buying it. "Come tomorrow, the full extent of your injuries will be revealed. If you can't make it out of bed in the morning, don't say I didn't warn you."
Miranda sighed. "Very well. A quick examination, then."
Chakwas nodded in satisfaction. "Anyone else?"
Shepard shook himself out of his despondent thoughts. "Jack, Mordin, and myself," he said.
"What? Me?" Jack said indignantly.
"Harbinger tagged you with that attack. A quick examination won't hurt," Shepard responded.
"I'm fine," Jack argued.
"I'm sure I'm fine too, but I rather not wake up to see my limbs decay and fall off because of a bad mix of pride and stupidity," Shepard retorted. "We don't know what we were hit with, so we're heading for the Med Bay. Chakwas is good at what she does. If there's no problem, she'll discharge you quickly," he said with finality.
Jack looked like she wanted to argue before catching Miranda looking at her with an eyebrow raised and arms crossed. It was the look of a woman looking down on her. "What are you staring at, cheerleader?"
"I was just wondering how much more childish you can be," Miranda smirked.
Jack growled and prepared to say something before closing her mouth. Realizing that saying something would only prove Miranda's point, she turned her back to the Cerberus Officer and started taking off her armor.
Shepard found himself impressed with the show of restraint. With Jack's back turned, she failed to notice the surprised and approving look from Miranda too.
"Um… what are you doing?" Jacob asked hesitantly.
"Taking off my armor. What the fuck does it look like I'm doing?" Jack said shortly. Removing the gauntlets and tossing them at Jacob, she started removing the pauldrons next.
Jacob barely had the presence of mind to catch the gauntlets. "Wait, you're taking them off here?"
"They're too damn uncomfortable," Jack replied. She finished in short order and tossed everything at Jacob's feet. "You said you could adjust it, so do it," she demanded, ignoring the various stares from the assembled people. She was standing in the hanger wearing only a tank top and panties, but was holding her shotgun and pistol in each hand. Thankfully, both were still in their compact state.
Obviously not one for modesty.
"I got it," Jacob growled irritably as he picked up Jack's Terminus Assault Armor off the floor.
"And do it right this time," Jack added.
"At least I got the chest plate right. It wasn't too tight, was it?" Jacob smirked.
Jack's eyes widened momentarily at his insinuation before narrowing dangerously. Before she could do anything drastic, Miranda spoke up first, beating Shepard to the punch.
"Watch it Jacob. If she doesn't kill you, I will," Miranda threatened. "And I promise, unlike her, I can make it last."
Jacob looked shocked for moment before his brain caught up with his mouth. He looked around to see Garrus shaking his head, Shepard looking on disapprovingly, and the various female crewmen, Goldstein, Gabby, even Chakwas, looking angrily at the proceedings. Deciding that silence and discretion was the better part of further stupidity, he turned around and made a beeline for the lift as quickly as his dignity allowed.
Shaking his head in amusement and sympathy for his fellow man, he looked over at the people inside the hanger. "Enough," he ordered to the crowd at large. "EDI, stand down from general quarters, but keep an eye out for any Alliance ships nearby."
"Understood, Commander," EDI responded.
"The rest of you, back to work," he said before nodding his head to the various teammates still standing around. "Let's go."
"Of course, Shepard," Chakwas said, recovering her professionalism. She led the way for her new patients, but only Shepard, Miranda, and Mordin were following.
Jack was staring at Miranda with an unreadable expression on her face before realizing she was being left behind and ran to keep up, hauling her weapons with her.
Grunt followed them up the stairs before turning and headed back to the cargo bay. Garrus continued follow since his destination was on the deck above theirs.
"Grunt!" Shepard called out.
Grunt turned around and looked at Shepard questioningly.
"Your weapons," Shepard reminded, nodding his head at the krogan's armaments.
Grunt growled in annoyance.
"I'll take them upstairs for you," Garrus offered.
Grunt took off his shotgun, assault rifle, and pistol from his weapon's harness and handed them to Garrus before leaving.
"Hmm…" Mordin said once they reached doors to the elevator. They were waiting for it to return after Jacob's departure.
"Something on your mind, Professor Solus?" Chakwas inquired.
"Oh. Nothing. Thinking about mission," Mordin distractedly answered.
"What about?" Shepard asked.
"Colonists. After Collector retreat, paralysis wore off. Seeker swarms ceased working as well. Even managed to establish radio contact. Curious. Must investigate," Mordin said, nodding to himself.
"The professor has a point. Many of the colonists were awake and moving after the Collectors retreated. Unfortunately, most were trapped inside those pods. They were quite terrified, but otherwise unharmed," Miranda said.
"It sounds like your mission was a success," Chakwas noted.
The elevator arrived and they all stepped in. Shepard pressed the button for Deck 3 and turned to Chakwas. "They managed to get some of the colonists. I'd hardly call that a success."
"It's more than what most have done so far, Commander," Miranda said.
"I'm in agreement with Executive Lawson. One could say that Eden Prime is not a success if we were to entertain your standards. Many civilians and marines died there, but you did save the colony and its denizens by preventing its destruction," Chakwas comforted. "This road won't be easy, but that's why we're looking to you. I won't presume to speak for everyone, but I believe and trust that you'll see us through this somehow."
Shepard offered her a small smile. "Thanks."
Reaching Deck 3, Garrus reached around and gave Shepard a good-natured shove out of the elevator.
"Thanks, mom," Shepard muttered, grinning at the turian.
"It's only fair, Shepard," Garrus said. "Now get going."
Shepard shook his head and smiled at his friend's antics. He was grateful though, since it temporarily lifted his melancholy mood. "We're going, we're going," he said dramatically before grinning evilly. "By the way, thanks for volunteering."
Garrus blinked. "Volunteer for what?"
"Taking everyone's weapons back to armory. I'm sure they appreciate it," came the easy reply.
Jack grinned and tossed her shotgun at the turian's feet.
Mordin nodded in appreciation. "Yes, yes. Thank you," he said seriously, handing Garrus his SMG and pistol.
No one present could tell if he understood the joke or if he really thought Shepard and Garrus were serious.
Miranda sighed in exasperation before leaving her weapons on the floor of the elevator. "Might as well. Thank you, Garrus," Miranda said. Despite her tone of gratitude, it was obvious she was fighting to smile at his predicament.
Garrus looked down at the pile of weapons at his feet. "That's not fair," Garrus said to Shepard.
"Perk of being the CO of a warship," he quipped.
The examination for Jack, Mordin, and Shepard was indeed quick. Blood and tissue samples were taken; generic questions about health and an in-depth description of both Harbinger and the husk's attack were all noted. Afterward, Chakwas let them go with a promise that she'll inform them immediately if something was amiss. Miranda had to stay a little longer to ensure there were no hairline fractures or internal damage done from her impact against a wall.
Mordin and Shepard rode the elevator to Deck 2. Greeting Kelly and the other various crewmen in the CIC, Shepard trekked his way to the armory while Mordin split up and briskly walked to his lab.
In the Armory, Shepard saw Garrus and Joker inside, with Jacob typing at his terminal while examining Jack's armor. He was doing his level best to ignore the occupants inside his work area.
"Ah, don't worry about it Jacob," Joker said from his seat on one of the tables in the Armory. "I'd watch out for her too. We can hold only so much crazy on this ship."
Garrus chuckled good-naturedly while Jacob kept his back at them. Shepard's position at the doorway allowed him to see a ghost of a smile on the former Marine's face though.
Shepard moved up to his locker and began putting his weapons away. His actions caused the trio to be aware of his presence.
"Hey, Commander," Joker greeted, though he sounded a bit uncomfortable.
Shepard turned his head and nodded before turning back to his locker.
"That's… uh… that's pretty crazy the people you can run into out here, huh?" Joker continued, squirming a little on the table. "I mean, it was probably a setup or something, but it was still good to see Ash, right? Operations Chief Williams, wasn't it?"
Shepard sighed, before turning around and giving Garrus a questioning look.
Garrus shrugged. "Sorry. I thought Joker deserved to know about Chief Williams' presence on Horizon."
"It's fine," Shepard said to him before turning to Joker. "We talked, but things have changed. We let it go."
"Oh, good, because I was not looking forward to your mood if that went bad. There's a reason I don't date crew, Commander," Joker said in relief.
"I'll keep that in mind," Shepard muttered as he turned back to his locker.
"Oh, sorry," Joker said quickly.
"If I have a problem Joker, I'll deal with it on my own time. I wouldn't take it out on the crew," Shepard resolutely said. He finished storing his weaponry and turned to Jacob. "About what happened in the hangar…"
"I'll take care of it, Commander," Jacob answered immediately.
"It's fine. We males have a long, sad, and ugly history of saying stupid things to the fairer sex. And paid for it dearly many times over," Shepard said. Nobody knew if he was talking about his meeting with Ashley or not. "I was about to tell you to avoid Jack for the time being. I'll apologize for you and try to clear things up during our next biotic lesson."
Jacob looked up. "I was actually thinking of going back down to apologize to her myself," he admitted.
"Oh, boy," Garrus muttered, while shaking his head.
"Wow… that's pretty brave move there Jacob," Joker commented. "You do know that she hates anything Cerberus, right?"
"I'm not going unarmed," Jacob said before reaching under his table.
Shepard thought he was going to pull out a shotgun or his missile launcher. He was surprised when Jacob picked up a pair of small-sized combat boots instead and put them next to Jack's armor.
"I'm bringing gifts."
That made everyone laugh. "That might work. Maybe. You really can't tell with Jack, can you?" Joker replied.
"I'm not sure that would work, Taylor," Garrus said. Once the humor passed, everyone could tell the turian was a bit worried.
"I'm with Garrus on this," Shepard agreed. "Last thing I want is to see either of you injured."
"I know, Commander," Jacob said. He turned back to work on Jack's armor. "But I still have to do it."
"What reason could you have to invite death by… whatever Jack will do to you?" Joker asked incredulously.
"We're going to be working together. If she's going to be part of the team, I've got to smooth things over," Jacob explained. He paused in his work and sighed before turning around and facing them. "Besides, if there's one thing my old man taught me, it's to always own up to your mistakes, even if you keep making it."
Shepard nodded approvingly. "Good lesson to learn."
"Yeah, well, he made no apologies, I gave him that much," Jacob said neutrally.
Shepard noted that Jacob used past tense and filed that information away for later. "If you're set on this, then tell me before you go down there. I want to be present, to mediate, if things get out of hand. Last thing I want is a hole in my bulkhead."
Jacob nodded. "Fair enough, Commander."
Garrus stepped behind Jacob. "You need help up here? I finished my calibrations in the main batteries a while ago, in case the Normandy engaged that cruiser, so I have some free time."
"Yeah, I could use the extra hands," Jacob said gratefully.
"Alright. I'll start with the assault rifles," Garrus said, moving to another table and turning on a terminal.
"I'll get out of your way," Joker said. He got off the table and hobbled out of the armory.
Shepard walked back to his locker, secured it, and prepared to leave when Miranda called.
"Go ahead, Miranda," Shepard acknowledged.
"Some of the off-duty crewmen have asked me if they can do something a bit different than usual with their free time."
"What are they asking?"
"They want a party to celebrate our first victory against the Collectors."
"That sound like a good idea," Jacob commented.
"Alright," Shepard said. "Let them have it in the Port Observation Lounge. Be sure to have a restriction on the number of drinks they're allowed to have as well, three or so. We might leave at any time and I won't have an inebriated crew manning a warship when their shift comes around."
"I'll pass that along, Commander."
After changing out his uncomfortable armor, taking a shower, putting on a set of 'civilian' clothes and having Kelly take his armor back down to the Armory to get it readjusted; Shepard finally sat back down at this desk and relaxed. Turning his head, he saw the picture of Ashley and felt his despondent mood return. Determined to get a drink, Shepard trekked his way through the decks of the Normandy and entered the Port Observatory Lounge. Inside, much of the off-duty crewmen were taking advantage of the lounge to celebrate humanity's decisive first victory against the Collectors. Several people saw Shepard enter and raised their glasses to toast him.
"Commander!" Rupert Gardner boomed from across the room. He was tending bar at the back. Judging from the various crewmembers' surprise and praise, it was another hidden talent they didn't know he had. "Come on in! Get yourself a drink!"
Accepting their gratitude as gracefully as he could, Shepard moved through the lounge until he reached the bar where he grabbed the nearest bottle of bourbon.
"Aw, come on, Commander! I can whip you up something better than that!" Rupert laughed.
"Sorry. I got reports to finish," Shepard lied.
"Well, let me know if you change your mind. I'll make something special for you!"
Shepard smiled as best he could and left.
"Commander, the Illusive Man wishes to speak with you," EDI said the moment Shepard re-entered his quarters.
"Later," Shepard said as he flopped on the couch and poured himself a generous helping of liquor.
There was a brief moment of silence, during which Shepard finished two glasses, before EDI said, "The Illusive Man insists to speak with you, Commander."
"Good for him. Now tell him that I'll talk with him when I'm damn well ready!" Shepard snarled.
"Understood, Commander. Logging you out," EDI responded in her neutral tone.
"Wait. EDI… I'm not mad at you, just him. I just want to get that clear," Shepard clarified. He didn't know why he was explaining or excusing himself to an AI, but for some reason, he didn't want to hurt the AI's… feelings, for lack of a better term. "You were big help today. We wouldn't have succeeded without you."
"I understand, Commander. Logging you out," EDI said.
Noting that EDI said, "I", Shepard assumed that he was forgiven… if there was anything to forgive. "Strong stuff," he said out loud as he stared at the glass in his hand. I must be getting drunk if I'm seeking forgiveness from an AI… Shrugging to himself, Shepard drained the glass and poured himself another when the door to his cabin beeped. "Who's there?"
Sighing, Shepard said, "Come in."
Miranda stepped into his cabin and stopped at the archway separating Shepard's desk from the living area. "Celebrating by yourself I see," she commented with a raised eyebrow.
Shepard laughed humorlessly. "I was until you showed up. You okay?"
"Chakwas cleared me with a clean bill of health. You don't want to come down? You deserve a break after today."
"Not in the mood," came the short reply.
Miranda looked at him in concern before turning to see Ashley's picture on his table. Understanding dawned on her and she walked in and sat down opposite to Shepard. "Mind if I celebrate with you?"
"Go ahead," Shepard said uncaringly.
Miranda picked up a glass off the coffee table and poured herself a moderate amount before leaning back and taking a sip. "You and Chief Williams were close?"
Shepard shrugged, but didn't answer. He occupied himself with pouring another glass.
"I'm sorry," Miranda offered sympathetically, after taking his silence as confirmation. "What happened?" she asked.
"We went our separate ways. She stays in the Alliance and I stay here. She's not too keen on the idea of me working with Cerberus."
Miranda shook her head. She couldn't help but say: "Typical Alliance attitude."
Shepard looked up from his drink to glare at her. "You don't know her situation, so don't judge."
Miranda looked startled at the sudden defense.
"Ash's family has been military for four generations, three of which has been in the Alliance, including her," Shepard explained.
Miranda recalled Shepard's dossier from his first mission as a Spectre and the related information she studied for two years. "Her grandfather was General Williams of Shanxi, right?"
"Yeah. Her family was blacklisted from the military after that, but they still serve regardless," Shepard said. Taking a gulp of bourbon, he continued, "Her father didn't even get past serviceman 3rd class. She's trying hard to restore her grandfather's name, but that goes out the airlock if she signs back on with me. Helping the first 'human' Spectre is fine, but helping Cerberus? It'll end her career and her family's chances of ever coming back into service." Sighing morosely, he took another drink. "Family is important to her. Even if she asked to come along, I probably would've said no."
Miranda stayed silent for a time. She leaned back and took another sip as he thought about his words. "Perhaps I was too hasty in my opinion. I apologize," Miranda said.
Shepard waved her off. "It's fine. It's not like the Alliance or Cerberus are friends or anything."
"I know, but Chief Williams was your friend. I should've respected that."
Taking another drink, Shepard looked over his glass at her. "I've got tough skin, no worries." Shepard shook his head. "It's better this way. I know I hurt her when I… 'died', and now I'm back only to be on a suicide mission?"
Miranda stayed silent, unsure of what to say.
Shepard continued. "High-risk missions never stopped me before, but those threats were tangible. Creditable intelligence, known threats, general locations, that sort of thing. Reapers, Collectors, we don't know a damn thing that's helpful. Not the kind of mission I'd sacrifice her career for." Shepard snorted. "Or sacrifice her family ties for." He looked up at Miranda and smile morosely. "Not that we'd know anything about family."
She looked at him in confusion. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know anything about my family and you hate your father. Ash always stayed close to hers," Shepard explained.
Miranda covered her hesitation with another sip before coming to a decision. "I may hate my father, but I do love my sister."
Shepard knocked back the last of his glass and started to pour another. "So it was a sister, huh?"
Miranda's head snapped up. "You knew?"
"Just now," Shepard said, leaning back on the couch and taking another gulp. "You mentioned to Rolston a while ago that you understood his worry for his family and I was pretty sure you weren't lying. That meant you might've had family that you're looking out for too. At least, that's the conclusion I came up with."
"How much have you had to drink?" Miranda asked, looking into Shepard's eyes to judge how drunk he was.
"More than a little, but not nearly enough," Shepard answered. As if to prove his point, he took another gulp of bourbon. "Tell me about her. Is she in Cerberus too?"
Miranda sighed. "No. She's on Illium. She's living a normal life, safe and hidden from our father," she answered.
"Normal as in…?" Shepard prompted.
Miranda stayed silent, sipping her bourbon.
"You don't know, do you?" Shepard asked shrewdly, despite getting increasingly drunk.
"It's complicated," Miranda said tersely.
"Yeah. I'm started to get the impression family usually is," Shepard nodded in exaggeration. "Garrus is at odds with father for quitting C-Sec, Wrex killed his, Liara had to help me fight her own mother, Tali was under pressure from her own father, Grunt doesn't give a damn about Okeer, and even Jacob might have an issue with his… Family really is complicated, isn't it?" he observed before leaning back and frowning at the ceiling. "Or maybe it's just the circles I travel in," he mused.
"Perhaps," Miranda allowed after a pause. She appeared to be in shock hearing the litany of familial problems Shepard was privy to.
"So, your sister. You really don't know anything about her?"
"I don't like discussing personal matters," Miranda said.
Shepard shrugged. "If you like," he allowed.
Miranda stared at him before rolling her eyes in annoyance. Taking another sip, she answered, "She's my genetic twin. We're identical. She doesn't know about Cerberus, our father's plans, or what I'm doing. One of us deserves a normal life and I promised myself she would get it, no matter what."
"So you take care of her at a distance, then?"
"I've tried to keep her hidden without impacting her life. I don't want for her what our father has done to me," she resolutely stated.
"How is she doing?"
"I placed her in the care of a very nice family. They're good people. None of them are involved in anything clandestine," she said.
Shepard chuckled. "Normal, huh? I wonder what that feels like…?" he said.
Miranda gave a small laugh of her own. "Alright. If not normal, then happy. I'll accept that as well."
"That's very admirable," Shepard praised, raising his glass at her in salute.
They sat in comfortable silence, a better mood surrounding them than the depressing one Shepard was filling his cabin with earlier.
Miranda finished her drink and stood up. "I should head back down to the party and ensure the crewmen are behaving. We may need to leave at a moment's notice," she said, echoing Shepard's earlier instructions.
"Tell the Illusive Man: I'll talk to him when I'll talk to him and not a moment sooner," Shepard suddenly said.
Miranda looked flabbergasted. "How…?"
Shepard chuckled and poured another glass for himself. "I assumed after I told EDI to tell the Illusive Man to piss off, he'd contact you. Don't worry, you're just the messenger. And I feel a bit better after talking," he answered. "Thanks."
"Anytime, Commander," Miranda said, still trying to recover from her shock. "I won't even put it in my report. But, about my sister…?"
"I won't say anything unless I have your unconditional permission first," Shepard assured, taking another gulp. "You have my word on that."
"Thank you. Get some sleep," she advised before leaving.
Shepard sighed after she left. He couldn't help but think about the directions his life took ever since joining the Alliance. He made his career by standing his ground and making the most difficult or even impossible choices. Choices people would shy away from, choices people would run from.
Some choices tested his character; Joining the Alliance and leaving Earth.
Some choices tested his conviction; Committing treason by stealing the Normandy and chasing Saren to Illos.
Some choices tested his ability to define right and wrong; The rachni queen on Novaria.
Some choices tested his resolve; Sacrifice the Council and focus on Sovereign or save the Council and sacrifice human lives.
Some choices tested his compassion; Wrex
Some choices tested his soul; Kaidan
Some choices tested his conscience; Cerberus
Shepard knew that his next choice would test his heart. Finishing off his drink, he stood up and walked back to his desk. He studied Ashley's picture one last time and sighed. Reaching out, he grabbed the top of the frame and placed the picture face down on his table. Turning away, he proceeded to get ready for bed.
Well, this is probably the most original chapter I've written since I've started. I'm so proud of myself. It's also the other chapter that I might get the most criticisms about, the other being 15, Horizon.