Disclaimer: Should have stuck one of these on the last chapter, so this applies to all chapters. I own nothing related to Mass Effect, apart from the games. I do not claim to own anything, I am not making any money from this piece of fan literature.

Please don't sue me.

Recriminations

****M****

My fault.

The thought kept circulating through her head. Over, and over and over.

My fault.

Ashley sat numbly in one of a line of chairs. Joker, Doctor Chakwas, Engineer Adams, Garrus, Tali and Liara were next to her. All of them were facing a desk, with the soon-to-be-promoted-to-council-member Captain Anderson behind it. He looked tired, dispirited. She felt a thousand times worse than he felt. Questions had been asked and answered.

When would another recovery effort be launched? Never, though Anderson would like another search organized, the fact was that Commander Shepard was dead, and only so much in the way of resources could be put into finding a corpse, no matter how noble the man had been.

Who was behind it? No one knew, sensor logs retrieved from the Normandy's black box had painted a picture of a ship unknown to anyone in Citadel space.

What would be done about the Reapers, now that the man who had taken it upon himself to stop them was gone? Anderson said he would try to get the Council and the Alliance organized, that he would make sure Shepard's sacrifice wouldn't be in vain.

Through the whole thing, Ashley remained silent. She felt as though someone had reached into her very soul and ripped out every thought and emotion that was even remotely positive.

My fault.

It was her fault. She should have stayed with him. Maybe she could have protected him, somehow kept him from suffocating to death into the cold dark. No one had even tried to deny that thought. No one had gone up and reassured her with empty platitudes. For all anyone else knew, she was just another shell-shocked member of his crew, trying to cope with the sudden loss.

My fault.

Ashley hadn't really been paying much attention through the whole debriefing. The main fact for her was that John was dead. She did, however, hear Captain Anderson give a dismissal. She stood up and turned towards the door. Leaving without a salute, or any other form of recognition was a serious breach of decorum, but she didn't really care. She didn't even know where she was going.

"Chief Williams, wait a moment" the Captain suddenly addressed her. She halted, turned, and watch the others file past. She tried to come up with a reason why she should feel annoyed, irritated, infuriated, that he hadn't just let her leave. She couldn't, she couldn't come up with a reason to care. She mechanically sat back in her chair and waited.

Anderson sighed and leaned back. "How are you holding up?" he asked. Ashley blinked, surprised that he would have her stay to ask her such a personal question. She answered "I'm… holding, Sir. Why?"

The Captain regarded her with a long, penetrating look. It made her feel a little uncomfortable, though she knew that, had she more mental energy to work with, she would be squirming in her seat. She wasn't used to being scrutinized in this manner by anyone other than a drill sergeant. Or John.

My fault.

Anderson watched her for a few more moments, until she almost was squirming, then he spoke. "I understand that the Commander's death is hard for you."

Oh, here it was. But why was the Captain giving her the whole 'it's not your fault' speech?

Ashley stayed silent, waiting for Anderson to continue. As she waited, a suspicion came to her mind. Could he know? No, it wasn't possible.

"After their debriefing is finished," Anderson continued. "The rest of the Normandy's crew" surviving crew "will be given leave, then reassigned. You are, as well."

Ashley nodded numbly. She felt a little conflicted. On one hand, staying on active duty might distract her, keep her busy. On the other hand, being able to go back to her family, to her mother and younger sisters…

It occurred to her that she had another option: She could simply stop.

No, that wasn't an option. Quite apart from her faith, there was too much riding on her to just give up.

Her faith, odd. During the search, she couldn't remember praying once. She couldn't remember pleading with God to bring John back alive. It hadn't even crossed her mind. She resolved to pray every day, if not for his safe return, for his safe transition.

The distraught marine suddenly realized that the Captain was speaking again.

"If you need it," he said softly. "I'll have your leave extended indefinitely, until you're ready." She frowned.

"Sir… thank you, but… why?"

Anderson held her gaze. "Because… I've been where you are now. I understand."

His words flew right past her for a moment, then she caught their significance.

Oh god,

He really did know.

My fault.

**M**

The first time Ashley Williams had seen the presidium, she had had the suspicion that the people who owned it were hiding something. Now it was a ruined shadow of what it had once been. The council, politicians that they were, were now spending exorbitant amounts of money restoring it. Ashley found a bench that had survived the carnage intact, and sat down. All the bodies had been removed as soon as it was considered safe to do so. She remembered spending some time helping C-Sec hunt down the remaining geth while the Normandy was being prepped for its next mission.

Its last mission.

Her throat clenched, and she quickly tried to shift her train of thought elsewhere. She failed.

Ashley buried her face in her hands, and was immediately wracked with a fit of silent sobbing. Tears ran down her face, the first she had shed since the fact that John wouldn't be coming back had fully registered. There was no one around to witness her loss of composure. Even if there had, she wasn't sure she couldn't have held it back.

On the other side of the presidium, a turian C-Sec officer glanced over, took note of what he saw, then returned to work. There was nothing unusual about one more grieving human. A sobbing, frail-looking woman in an Alliance shipboard uniform was unrecognizable as the armored, fearsome soldier who had fought alongside Commander Shepard in that last battle against Saren.

After a few minutes, the sobbing had been reduced to a sort of inconsistent hiccupping. The tears had stopped, and if she cared to look in a mirror, she would have seen that her eyes were red.

Ashley slowly raised her head, lowered her hands and straightened to a more upright posture. Finally taking a good look around, her military instincts kicked in, telling her that she was a vulnerable target, sitting there without any armor, any backup. She got up and walked back the way she came.

She decided that she might as well take up Anderson's offer of extended leave. Going back to her family might be what she needed.

On the other hand, all her younger sisters might find it disconcerting if their older sister came back to them with emotional difficulties. Especially Sarah.

She would be horrified, Ashley realized. After all, Sarah had sent that message, the one were she had teasingly pointed out that Shepard was cute. The message that he had inadvertently eavesdropped on.

Ashley closed her eyes, fighting back tears.

That irrational, self-destructive, human response to loss, the thought that it was her fault returned. No one would blame her for John's death, no one would cast accusing glances at her. No one had to.

My fault.

****M****

A/N: Sorry it took me so long to get around to this, and for the small amount of material I have finally posted. My excuses are as follows: One, I have had several new games in the last few months that have consumed much of my time. Starcraft II being among them. Two, I have several other FF projects running, as well as several original science-fiction stories. Three, writers block.

See you sometime next year, when I finally get another chapter out.