Hey guys! Sorry it's been a long while (a month almost, I think), but as I said in my last update, school has been really really crazy for the last month or so. I've had some free time to work on this finally so I wanted to post something as quickly as possible. I hope I haven't lost too many readers because I've been away for so long. The good news is that there is only 2 weeks left in the semester, which means soon I'll be able to update pretty regularly again. The bad news is that I still have a ton of work to do, so this may be the only update for another two weeks, which is sad because this isn't really a cool chapter in my opinion.

Disclaimer: I do not claim any ownership of Mass Effect or its characters, story lines, dialogue, histories, or anything else. All of that is property of BioWare and the awesome folks who work there.

Chapter 7: Old Friends

The flight back to the Cerberus station was a silent one. Shepard sat opposite Jacob and Miranda in the shuttle, arms crossed and face completely devoid of expression. He took notice of the fact that Jacob seemed anxious, as if waiting for something. Is he waiting for me to say something?

He resisted the urge to roll is eyes at the soldier in front of him. What did the guy want from him? They had just found out that humans were being abducted by an alien race that no one knew the first thing about, and that they were being taken alive for unclear reasons, to a location that no one had ever returned alive from.

Shepard had nothing to say to him, or at least nothing that the Cerberus operative wanted to hear. His mind was all over the place at the moment, although no one would be able to tell from looking at his blank expression. He had been given life again and he didn't know what to do with it. That was a lie, he knew what he had to do with it, but he didn't know where to start or who to turn to. He had been promised answers, but they were illusory at best and just raised more questions. And he had a feeling that that was the point. Shepard knew deep down that the Illusive Man wanted him confused and grasping at straws like this, it would guarantee that Shepard would continue to need him for the answers he so desperately craved, and thus Shepard would continue to work for him.

"The Illusive Man will want to speak to you as soon as we land, Commander." Miranda's voice broke Shepard from his reverie. Perhaps it was just him, but he could have sworn that he detected a vaguely concerned note in her voice. He brushed it off, just the tricks of a tired mind. He thought pointedly. He hadn't said anything to tip her off, and only those few who knew him well knew that his current blank expression was a sign that he was troubled, and that was a very privileged few.

"I suppose I owe him as much." Shepard nodded as the shuttle's pilot notified them that they would be landing at the station shortly.

"Shepard. Good work on Freedom's Progress." The Illusive Man greeted him, feigned sincerity dripping from each congratulatory word. Shepard didn't understand why the man even bothered with the pretense of pleasantries. Shepard had enough experience dealing with politicians and 'businessmen' to recognize a genuine greeting from a forced one.

"The quarians forwarded their findings from Veetor's debriefing and omni-tool." He continued, "There was no new data to speak of, but it's a surprising olive branch, given our history." The Illusive Man smirked at some private joke as he finished, taking a prolonged drag from his cigarette as he did so. Although Shepard would have preferred to be able to meet the Illusive Man in person, he was glad for the distance if only so he did not have to inhale the fumes coming from the cigarette pressed between his shadowy backer's lips. Just seeing the gray puffs of smoke floating in front of him caused Shepard's teeth to tingle and his salivary glands to begin to overproduce salvia and coat his mouth in a thick film; a habitual reaction caused by years of constant smoking as a kid on Earth. Even now, over a decade after quitting, he still felt his body and mind yearning for a drag so that the nicotine could put him at ease.

"You and I have different methods, but I can't argue with your results." The Illusive Man shrugged, brushing off Shepard's success as if it were dirt on his well tailored suit.

"Backhanded compliments aside, have you ever considered the possibility of playing nice with others once in a while?" Shepard mocked.

The Illusive Man shook his head, acting as if he was being forced to explain some inane subject to a child. "It's a funny thing--diplomacy. It's great when it works, but difficult when everybody already perceives you as a threat to their well-being."

"Gee, imagine that. I wonder whose fault it is that Cerberus has that kind of reputation?" Shepard asked sarcastically. It was only his second conversation with the so-called Illusive Man, and yet Shepard already found himself sick of the man's penchant for lectures and frivolous conversation.

"There's no need to be childish, Shepard. I'm merely stating the facts, and we have far more important things to discuss." He continued without missing a beat. "Your findings confirmed that the Collectors are indeed behind the abductions."

"So you knew about them already?" Shepard inquired raising an eyebrow as he crossed his arms across his chest.

"I had my suspicions, but no proof to support them. The Collectors are enigmatic at best. But now, thanks to you, my suspicions have been confirmed." He smirked as he put out the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray that was built into his chair's armrest.

"The Collectors periodically travel to the Terminus Systems and gather seemingly random and what are generally unimportant items and specimens." The Illusive Man said matter-of-factly. Shepard felt his blood heat as he was once again reminded of why Cerberus was everything he had worked against as he listened to the Cerberus head casually refer to the various races abducted by the Collectors as nothing more than 'unimportant items and specimens'.

"When the Collectors get what they came for, and they always do, they disappear as quickly as they arrived; vanishing beyond the unmapped Omega-4 Relay. Until now we've had no evidence of direct aggression by the Collectors themselves; they usually deal through mercs and pirate bands. This sudden direct intervention by them is…disconcerting, to say the least."

"What do the Collectors even get from these deals?" Shepard questioned, genuinely curious.

"The Collectors aren't exactly very forthcoming with their motives." The Illusive Man answered, an amused tone lacing his voice, "Generally, they seek out species with rare genetic mutations or abnormalities. Our intel suggests that quarians and krogan were both targets of the Collectors at different points in time, however, the average size of a group abducted by the Collectors is usual in the dozens, hundreds tops on rare occasions. Now they are abducting humans by the tens of thousands."

"Why the sudden change? Do you have any idea why they've suddenly shifted their focus to humans?" The questions poured out against Shepard's will. He knew what the Illusive Man was doing, dangling important information in front of him and using his natural curiosity and need to know against him--it was working.

The Illusive Man's expression grew grave as he answered. "If the Collectors are working for the Reapers, it could be any number of reasons. What concerns me is why they are bothering to abduct the colonists in the first place. Once the humans are paralyzed, why not just kill them? I want to know what they are doing with them."

"Is that genuine concern I hear?"

The Illusive Man simply rolled his eyes as he proceeded to light up another cigarette. "Please. You may not trust me Shepard but remember Cerberus is pro-human. We work for the good of all humans, and if an alien race is targeting humans for some reason, it is our job to stop them. Judge us not by our methods but what we hope to accomplish. We are on the same side; make no mistake about that, Shepard. Don't let your idealism blind you to that truth."

"Fine, I'll drop it for now. But you're holding something back. How do you know that the Collectors are working for the Reapers? You don't seem like the type that would go through all this trouble just because you had a 'suspicion'." Shepard accused.

"The patterns are there, buried in the data, you only have to look at it to see where I'm coming from Shepard." He waved off the subject non-pulsed. "The Council and the Alliance want to believe the Reaper threat died with Sovereign; they'd like to simply ignore this threat until it's at their door step. You and I both know better."

He stood up from his chair and turned his back to Shepard, facing the dying star whose image took up the entire back wall of the room. "I won't wait until the Reapers are on the march. I'm sure you've already gathered that just wouldn't be my style." He turned back to once again face Shepard, removing the cigarette that had been pressed between his lips from its perch. "We need to take the fight to them."

"You're talking about fighting a goddamned war. I'll need an army for an operation like this, but I have a feeling that's not what you have in mind." Shepard retorted bluntly as he placed his hands behind his back.

"Cerberus doesn't work that way Shepard, and we've already sunk a heavy portion of our resources into bringing you back." The Illusive Man indicated as he brought up a display terminal from one of his chair's arms and began typing. "I've compiled a list of soldiers, scientists, and mercenaries. You'll get dossiers on the very best of them."

Shepard's omni-tool beeped as he received the dossiers the Illusive Man was just talking about as the man continued to talk, not missing a beat. "Finding all of them and convincing them to help you could prove…challenging, but you are a natural born leader."

Shepard had begun shaking his head before the Illusive Man had even finished, "Keep your lists. I want people I trust--the ones who helped me stop Saren and the geth. I want my team." He said firmly.

"That was two years ago, Shepard. People change. Most of your old team members have moved on…or their allegiances have changed."

Right, two years. Still having a hard time with that. Shepard thought. He remembered Tali on Freedom's Progress. Tali had been so dedicated to the mission and so steadfast in following Shepard's lead during their time hunting Saren and even she had turned down a chance to help him now because she had more important missions to undertake. If Tali, the most selfless person on his team, could turn him down what were the chances of someone like Wrex deciding to drop everything and join him again? Only now that he didn't have them did Shepard realize how lucky he was to have the team that he had had. It had been a perfect storm of miracles and luck that had brought his original team together, and Shepard knew he probably wasn't going to catch lightening in a bottle again. But that wouldn't keep him from trying.

"Where's Garrus Vakarian?" Shepard asked first. Garrus had said he would go back to C-Sec after their mission to stop Saren was over, and he was even going to reapply for Spectre candidacy and training. Surely Garrus was either on the Citadel working with C-Sec or the Council would know of his whereabouts in regards to his Spectre activities. If there was one man that Shepard was sure would want to join him on a suicide mission, it was Garrus.

To say the Illusive Man's answer surprised Shepard was an understatement. "Your turian comrade disappeared a few months after you were declared dead. He simply quit C-Sec one day and vanished. Even we haven't been able to get a fix on his location."

Goddamnit Garrus, you hotheaded turian bastard. Shepard lamented. He could picture it in his head, Garrus storming into Pallin's office and throwing his badge right in the executor's face and then angrily marching out never to be heard from again.

Shepard felt his stomach start to knot up as he prepared to ask about the next name in his mind. Ashley. Aside from Garrus, Ashley seemed like the surest bet to Shepard. She was devoted and determined in everything she did, and Shepard was sure she would jump at the chance to join him again to stop the new threat to humanity. But that wasn't the only reason he wanted her to join him, he knew deep down that he had much more personal reasons for wanting her to be available.

His mind inadvertently traveled back to the night before Ilos, he could still smell the cheap perfume she had put on before coming to his room. He had teased her about that. And she had teased him back for being able to smell the difference between cheap and expensive women's perfume. Shepard had to fight to keep the smile from his voice as he asked the Illusive Man about her, his past memories clouding his current judgment.

"What about Ashley Williams?" He asked, keeping his voice level in doing so.

"She's still with the Alliance. Promoted, finally an officer I believe. Her file is surprisingly well-classified by Alliance standards."

Now things were going to start to get iffy. Liara's and Wrex's availability were unknowns to Shepard. He trusted them of course and he knew they were loyal, but asari and krogan dealt with life and death differently than other species did. When you can live to be over one thousand years old you have a different philosophy on the death of friends. Wrex was a krogan and he had been a merc. Death was a constant part of his life; krogan accepted it and moved on. Liara, while sensitive and even naïve was still an asari that would outlive him practically ten times over. Would she just have accepted his death and have moved on with her long life?

"Where's Liara T'Soni?"

The Illusive Man subtly rolled eyes, realizing that Shepard was going to make him go through his entire crew before he accepted the truth. "She's on Illium. My sources tell me that she's working for the Shadow Broker now. If that's true she can't be trusted." He crossed his left leg over his right as he sat in his chair and continued. "And before you bother to ask, since it's apparent that you refuse to see the truth of the situation, Urdnot Wrex is on the krogan home world, Tuchanka. He hasn't gone off world in well over a year. He's trying to unite the krogan clans under one banner."

Liara and the Shadow Broker? What? Wrex on Tuchanka made sense, Shepard could accept that. But his mind was reeling from the thought of Liara as an information broker. If the Illusive Man was indeed being truthful, what did that mean? Had Liara really changed that much in 2 years?

Shepard laughed in spite of himself as he asked about his final former teammate, already knowing the answer, but still too stubborn to admit that they were all gone. "What about Tali? She already helped me on Freedom's Progress."

The Illusive Man's eyes narrowed imperceptibly as he replied. "That was unexpected, she's an unknown; I need more information on her before I'll commit to that." A smirk drew across his face as he continued. "Besides, according to Miranda's report she wasn't too thrilled to see you working with us, and even refused to join you on Freedom's Progress when you asked her."

Thanks for the reminder, asshole. As if I didn't remember. Shepard thought with mild frustration.

He shook his head as he tried to clear his mind of his swirling thoughts. Shepard crossed his arms across his chest and leaned his weight back on his right leg. "Alright I get it, they're all unavailable." His voice sounded less even than he would have liked it to as he responded. "But I am still a Spectre. I could get the Council to help me; they do owe me pretty much everything after all."

"If you think you can convince them, by all means, please. But it's my understanding that the Council has always been rather…hesitant, in hearing you out." The Illusive Man put out the remainder of his second cigarette as he continued. "Just remember--you've been gone for a long time. Things have changed. I wouldn't expect too much from them."

"I'll worry about that." The frustration he had felt building within him during the course of their entire conversation finally breaking through his calm facade. "You may have brought me back, but that doesn't mean I trust you in the slightest. I've destroyed numerous Cerberus bases and I'd do it all again in the blink of an eye. You people are responsible for the death of my entire unit on Akuze and for the death of Kahoku and all his marines, not to mention dozens of other criminal acts you've perpetrated!" He pointed his finger accusatorily at the man in front of him who was still sitting calmly. "You might think I owe you something but I know your type. You're just as likely to throw me to the wolves as you are to help me defeat the Reapers, whichever is more convenient."

"Are you finished?" The Illusive Man asked after a beat, as he stood up from his chair. When Shepard didn't respond he simply continued. "I understand you may have reservations about working with us Shepard, but you need to understand something." The man sighed pinching the bridge of his nose, his own frustrations slipping to the surface. "You are a very large investment, one that I would never just simply discard. But more importantly, you need to understand that we are on the same side here, we are both working towards the same goal. You might not like it, but you're soon going to learn the hard way that Cerberus is all you have right now."

"Is that a threat?" Shepard inquired angrily.

"Hardly." He chuckled. "You have no idea the things the Council and Alliance said about you and the things you said after your death. Hearing it from me probably won't change your mind, but you should ask your friend Councilor Anderson the next time you see him." He smirked slightly, "I think you'll understand why you need us after you hear what he has to tell you."

"I'll make that decision for myself." Shepard huffed, pressing his mouth into a hard line as he finished.

"Suit yourself Shepard, but remember the old saying: 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. The Reapers and Collectors are a threat to the entire galaxy and you're our greatest hope in stopping that threat. I recognized that and brought you back so that you could continue that fight--despite your checkered history with Cerberus. Don't be so naïve as to throw away a willing ally."

He's right…and he knows it--I know it, Shepard thought as he stood staring at the Illusive Man. As much as Shepard wanted to hate the man and walk away from Cerberus right now, he had nowhere to go yet. He didn't know where to start with the Collectors--he really didn't know the first thing about them--who to recruit, hell, he didn't even have a ship! The Council would flip a shit if he just showed up on the Citadel unannounced and told them he was alive. He'd be stuck in red tape for months while they debated his reappearance.

Shepard sighed in defeat, his voice monotone, "You just worry about the Collectors, and I'll worry about getting a team ready. I'll deal with my…allegiance, later"

"Good." The Illusive Man nodded. "Two things before you go: First, head to Omega and find Doctor Mordin Solus. He's a brilliant salarian scientist. Our intelligence suggests he may be able to develop a counter-measure to the Collectors' paralyzing seeker swarms."

"Is that an order?" Shepard scoffed.

"I'm giving you direction." The Illusive Man shot back--sounding like he had just barely been able to stop himself from calling Shepard 'boy'.

"Alright, alright, what's the other thing?" Shepard asked.

"I've found a pilot I think you might like. I hear he's one of the best." The Illusive Man said while simultaneously bringing up a vid display from one of his chair's armrests. "Someone you can trust." He said as he pressed a button on the blue vid display, ending their conversation.

As the orange grid of the bizarre communication system the Illusive Man used faded away around him, Shepard suddenly heard a familiar voice call out to him from behind.

"Hey, Commander. Just like old times, huh?" Joker called out to Shepard, a goofy smile on his face.

"I can't believe it's you, Joker." Shepard said as they proceeded to walk towards the station's primary hanger.

"Look who's talking! I saw you get spaced." Joker shot back lightheartedly, in the way that only he could.

"Yeah, I never really thanked you for that." Shepard muttered, causing Joker to stop suddenly right in front of him, causing Shepard to almost run into him.

"Shepard…I, I didn't mean…" Joker sputtered, his face flooding with guilty as he began to stare at the floor.

"Frankly, I don't know whether I want to hug you or hit you right now. Being spaced really wasn't fun." Shepard spoke darkly, cracking his knuckles as he did so.

Joker's eyes shot up from the floor and met Shepard's as the blood completely drained from his face, horror etched into his features. "Shepard! Come on, I swear! You don't know how upset I was! I…I--you wouldn't hit a guy with brittle bones?" Joker begged as his voice rose in fear.

Shepard shook his head as he watched Joker tremble in front of him, a soft laugh escaping from his lips. "I'm just fucking with you, Joker." Causing him to laugh harder.

"Right, asshole. You sure are funny, Shepard. Glad to see that hasn't changed" Joker muttered sarcastically.

"How the hell did you end up with Cerberus anyway?" Shepard inquired, his tone growing more serious.

"It all fell apart without you, Commander. Everything you stirred up, the Council just wanted it gone. I don't know if the Illusive Man told you what they said about you, but it aint pretty." Joker continued, disdain seeping into his voice. "The team was broken up, records sealed up tight, and I was grounded."

"The Alliance took away the only thing that mattered to me. Hell yeah I joined Cerberus." He spat.

"Do you really trust Cerberus?" Shepard asked; concerned that Joker had let his frustration and ridiculous urge to fly blind him to the potential hazards Cerberus presented.

"I don't trust anyone who makes more than I do." He said matter-of-factly.

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"Hey you asked!" Joker shouted defensively as the two of them stopped in front of a view port into the currently dark hanger bay. "They aren't all bad. I mean the saved your life. Let me fly--and there's this."

The lights to the hanger bay began to flicker on one at a time in front of them, revealing a ship docked within it.

No way.

See the look on Shepard's face, Joker smiled a large, tooth-filled grin. "They only told me last night." He said, his voice full of an almost childlike joy.

Shepard couldn't believe it. Same design. I can't believe it. Could use a new paint job though. He thought as he observed the large Cerberus emblem painted onto the side of the ship that looked like identical to the Normandy in every way, except for the fact that it was at least double the original's size.

"Holy shit." Was the only thing that fell from Shepard's already parted lips.

"I know. Feels good to be home, huh, Commander?" Joker asked, the awe in his own voice undisguised.

"I guess we'll have to give her a name?"

So yeah, not really my favorite chapter of this story. Not by a long shot, but similarly to the chapter on the Lazarus Station it is kind of necessary for plot reasons. Also I didn't include the first chat with TIM so I thought I would work him in here. I plan on expanding on the Council's stonewalling of Shepard in this story, which is why it plays a larger role in this chapter. Also I think Joker definitely deserved the mean joke, I was mad in the game that Shepard was so forgiving of Joker getting him killed...damn Seth Green.

Anyways, not my favorite chapter, and not what I want to leave you guys with for the better part of 2 weeks, but I'm not really in a position to work on this without sacrificing my grades. Bullshit I know, but that's the world.

Please read and review if you can, let me know you still are interested in this story and tell me what I could do better for future chapters. People complained about the profanity in previous chapters, so I toned it down a little (in my opinion) here without completely eliminating it.

Thanks for reading and I'll hopefully see you all in 2 weeks!