As always I do not own, nor claim to own, anything associated with BioWare's most magnificent piece of Intellectual Property. I merely write about it. Please leave reviews, critiques, and / or fluffy things. Most importantly: Enjoy the yarn.


Pride

Minuteman station was gone. In its place, a vast black expanse, the smooth slate floor extending out into infinity while a massive shimmering star glowed in serene violence, casting its orange and blue pallor over the entire virtual reality.

For that was what Shepard knew she had entered. She was surrounded by all the hallmarks of early experimental holographic technology, the classic "feelies" that debuted years ago. It seemed… quaint.

The stars, both distant and immediate, were not the only presence beside Shepard. A man sat before her in a simple, Spartan chair, sifting a lowball with one hand, tapping out a cigarette with the other. He looked up at Shepard; she stared back, her face schooled into a mask of indifference.

"Shepard," the man with metal eyes said. "How are you feeling?"

"Commander, November-Seven-Two-Eight-Yankee-Zero-Tree-Zero-One-Eight-Kilo-Papa-Fife-Tree—"

"You're not a prisoner, Shepard, you can drop the charade."

She didn't respond.

"Commander, if you were a prisoner, we wouldn't have let you keep that set of armor you're wearing. The only reason you are unarmed is because you attacked my people, but you and I both know you need not be armed to kill. Now there are matters of importance to discuss, but civility is a lost art in these dark times, and I do what I can to maintain what little of it remains, so I'll ask again, how are you feeling?"

Shepard blinked. "Alive."

"Well I'm glad to hear that. The Lazarus Project was quite the gamble, but I trust that it has only begun to pay off." The sharply-dressed man took a sip from his lowball, setting it back down and smiling. "I'd offer you something to drink, but I'm afraid I make a rule of conducting these meetings in this manner."

"A necessary precaution," Shepard said. "Illusive Man."

"I'm glad you understand."

"You look different than your InOps file suggests."

"What's to say I haven't had my image altered for your benefit?" he traced a lazy circle through the air with his extinguished cigarette. "Besides, my file in the InOps database is hopelessly outdated, and it's been two years since you last had an opportunity to take a gander."

"Cut to the chase," Shepard snapped. "You brought me back for a reason, and it sure as hell wasn't to shake my hand for a job well done."

Again he smiled. It was a thin gesture, full of teeth. "If I may digress for a moment, I in fact do want to shake your hand—figuratively, of course. Your campaign against the Davinport cell was well-executed, if a bit inelegant. In a way, I have you to thank for exposing the gross excesses to which Joachim had ventured, and you even spared me the expense of disposing of the fool."

Shepard rolled her eyes. "Next you're going to tell me you never endorsed his actions, and if you had known, you would have put a stop to it, I know how you play this game, and if I had wanted to play it I'd have been shuffling papers at a desk on Arcturus two years ago instead of gasping my last and lonely in Alchera orbit. Something's big enough that you don't care that I'm Cerberus' worst nightmare since Heracles decided to take you for a walk."

"I won't pretend you haven't caused your fair share of headaches, but all that is meaningless in light of our present situation. Though the Alliance refuses to admit it, humanity is under attack. Entire colonies have been disappearing in the Attican Traverse and Terminus Systems. Human colonies. We believe it to be the work of the reapers, or more of their agents."

Something metal ground in Shepard's elbow as she folded her arms. "Am I suppose to just take your word for all this?"

"Not at all. I'd be disappointed if you didn't demand to see proof." The Illusive Man's eyes sparkled wickedly as Shepard glowered. "Your shuttle should be finished re-fueling for a trip to the latest colony to be hit, Freedom's Progress. They went silent about when you were fighting off Wilson's mechs."

"Really now?" Shepard said. "How convenient for you."

"I'll admit the timing is fortuitous. It allowed me to intercept and delay the initial discovery enough for you and your team to be the first ones on the surface."

"Who is 'my team'?"

"Operatives Lawson and Taylor will accompany you to the surface. Impressive as some of Cerberus' operations have been, we simply don't have the manpower to assign you a full squad of trained soldiers, so you'll be given the best we have instead."

"What makes you think I can trust either of them?" Shepard asked. "Miss Lawson shot a man in cold blood. Mister Taylor is just a gun-for-hire."

"I daresay Jacob would be somewhat amused by your thoughts on his motivation, and Miranda did exactly what I wanted her to. Wilson was too dangerous a loose end to have around you. When I say they are the best, I also mean in discipline, not just ability. They will follow your orders because I tell them to, and they will continue to protect you for the same reason."

The Illusive Man stood, lowball in hand. Taking a sip, he drew near and waved disarmingly. "I understand that this is all quite a bit to take in. Suffice to say that eventually you will realize that you and I are on the same side. Our methods may differ, but never doubt that I have humanity's best interests at heart. If I'm not mistaken, you set your goals higher, but for now our cause is one and the same. The rest of the galaxy is in no less danger than humanity; I intend to stop the reapers, and I'm asking for your help in doing so."

Shepard frowned. Cerberus was everything she stood against. For three long years, she had been a crusading knight, flying up and down Alliance space in an effort to root out and destroy the very man she was now conversing with. For three long years, she'd vowed to dismantle the terrorists from the ground up until nothing remained of them but a brief codex entry for students to learn of in history class.

But The Illusive Man was right, much as it galled her to admit it. All the battles, all the struggle and death would have been for naught if the reapers arrived and carved a bloody swath through the galaxy. Cerberus was small peas. Meaningless. Focus the Alliance and the rest of the Citadel on the real threat and all of sentient life might stand a chance in the coming onslaught. Would Shepard do what had to be done, or would she fall back to her dogma, the closed-minded crusading that would kill itself to assuage its pride.

This is exactly what he needed to say, and he knows it. He's playing me like a damn fiddle.

She fixed him with a cold stare. "If what you say is true… If the reapers are behind this… I'd consider helping you."

The man regarded her with those glowing blue eyes. Within them, she could see satisfaction, not triumph. "Thank you, Shepard. Don't think I don't know what this takes, listening to the words of your enemy. Whatever you find on Freedom's Progress, know that I am grateful for that. Miranda and Jacob will be waiting for you at your shuttle. Good luck."

Shepard watched him return to his seat, where he keyed a haptic button. Out the corner of her eye, the vast expanse of black disintegrated, and she found herself staring at a blank wall.

Squaring her shoulders in the ill-fitting armor, she turned and walked back out the way she came.


In his conference room, The Illusive Man lit another cigarette before pouring himself another splash of scotch. Leaning on the corner of his desk, just outside the hologram capture zone, Miranda sifted her own drink, looking over a transcript of the entire exchange.

"That took long enough. Our scout ship just sent back a report: quarians entering the system. They'll be on the ground a good half-hour before we can even enter orbit."

"Miranda, something as delicate as issues of loyalty cannot be rushed. The time we spent here was necessary, otherwise I would have gone with your original proposal."

"It's still my current proposal."

"And my answer is still no. That kind of control would ruin everything we've worked so hard to accomplish, turn Shepard into nothing more than a pawn of our own. Sovereign may have been content working through indoctrination, but between Saren and Shepard, who walked away?"

"This whole operation will have been for naught if her Alliance sympathies are allowed to hold sway over her."

"That's being dealt with. For now, keep her safe, and keep her occupied. The Alliance will be taken care of by the time you return."

"Very well then. By your leave?"

The Illusive Man nodded, and Miranda glided out of his office. He finished his drink as he watched Shepard and her escorts board the shuttle, then turned to his desk. The intercom blinked red, and he pressed the activation stud. "Yes?"

There was work to do.


Author's Notes:

A nice little side-project to distract from my main work. I always thought the TIM / Shepard friendship was never given adequate exploration within the game. Constrained by the need to get players from mission A to mission B while giving them as much useful information as possible, I never really got a unified sense of just how the two would work together so readily, and how they felt about one another. So here's the interactions of my continuity's Shepard and TIM.

Reviews, critiques, and fluffy things, all welcome.

~ Ferrard