Author's Note: That's right, ladies and gentlemen. Your eyes do not deceive you. After forty chapters and almost two years, The Hero We Deserve is finished. While there were some things about this novelization that I knew from the beginning, there was a lot I discovered along this journey. What parts—from throwaway lines or entire chapters—would resonate with people. Which readers would come back and review time and time again. The dozens of new people who would review, favourite or follow my work. The sheer number of reviews, period—I never thought I'd get over 400 reviews! While it's been a pleasure to write, struggle and re-write this fanfic, it's been an even greater pleasure to hear, in one way or another, how much joy and satisfaction it brought to all of you. So I'd like to take this opportunity to offer a sincere and humble thank you for all your accolades, no matter how big or small.
Additional thanks go to my beta reader and friend, Chris Dee, for all her time, input and creative energies. I wouldn't have gotten this far without her help and encouragement, which often times went above and beyond the call of duty.
While I can't make any promises on how quickly I can churn out future fics, or whether you will agree with what I have in mind (*cough*ME3*cough*), I certainly hope that you understand the decisions I make and will find some satisfaction in the final result.
Chapter 26: Aftermath
We had just returned through the Omega 4 relay. Hard to believe—I was still pinching myself to make sure it wasn't some crazy dream. I checked every deck and chatted with just about everyone, just to make sure we didn't miss anyone. But everyone was accounted for.
After harassing everybody, I dropped by Miranda's quarters. Her fingers were flying over her console as I entered. She held up one finger in an obvious "Hold on" gesture before continuing her typing, not even bothering to look up. Taking the hint, I sat down and waited. It took about ten minutes before she was done. Thankfully, I found a way to pass the time. (1)
"My Cerberus authorization codes are still valid," Miranda explained. "Probably because the Illusive Man doesn't know we survived yet. I was just transferring the assets from various Cerberus accounts—mine and several others I came across—to new accounts before he rectified that error."
"So are we solvent?" I asked.
"Relatively," she nodded. "Between the funds I... acquired and your usual habits, we should be all right for the near future."
"How do you feel about leaving Cerberus after all these years?" I asked. "Going from strident supporter and senior representative to resigning and siphoning off accounts?"
Miranda thought about that. "Honestly? Not as conflicted as I might have thought. I still believe that humanity should play a strong and influential role in galactic affairs. But my position on how we should achieve those goals has changed. This past year has forced me to face the dark side—arguably, the true side—of Cerberus and its methods. How abuses, atrocities and horrific experiments are routinely and blithely accepted as a matter of course, all in the name of making discoveries and progress to mold humanity into a dominant—if not the dominant—power. How a lack of any effective regulation or oversight—justified as being better than the excessive and over-redundant bureaucracy of other legitimate bodies—undermines and defeats that very progress.
"More importantly, this year has shown how humanity needs to work with the other species—in and out of Citadel space—if we are to survive the coming storm. We wouldn't have survived half of the missions were it not for the active and wholehearted participation of nonhumans. We wouldn't have survived going through the Omega 4 relay if it wasn't for all the upgrades and contributions of nonhumans. If we are to have any chance of defeating the Reapers, we have to stand together. And I wouldn't have come to that conclusion if it wasn't for you."
For once, I didn't know what to say. "Thank you," I managed at last.
Miranda nodded, then resumed typing. I guess she remembered another account or something. "How are you doing?" she asked casually.
It struck me that she was the first one who'd asked me that. "Okay. I can't believe we did it," I admitted. "Part of me wishes we could have done more, though."
"We did everything we could," Miranda soothed, looking at me reassuringly while typing away. "We saved the entire crew, didn't we? That wouldn't have happened had we rushed through the Omega 4 relay before we were ready. As it stood, we went after the crew as soon as the IFF was online."
She was right, of course. I knew that. But somehow it didn't seem enough. (2) Or maybe I was just tired. When had I had a good night's sleep? Or woke up without immediately getting out of bed and thinking about today's agenda? Couldn't remember.
I must have been silent for a while, because Miranda thought I was thinking about something else. "We had to do it, Shepard. Taking down the Collector base was the right decision. The Illusive Man might not agree... but we had no choice."
"The rest of the squad would agree with you," I nodded.
"Yes, you would have finished your rounds by now." Miranda gave me a look when I acted surprised. "It's me, remember? Of course I know your routines. What did they say? And how is the rest of the crew?"
Of course, she knew about my unofficially scheduled rounds. "Well, shall l start from the top and work my way down?" I proposed.
"Kelly was the first person I saw when I stepped out of the elevator. Still traumatized by the whole thing. She—did you know she has an eidetic memory?"
"That was in her records, yes," Miranda confirmed. "She remembers the entire ordeal in great detail, I take it?"
I quoted Kelly's exact words: "'Trapped. Suffocating. It's oozing into every pore. Faint sobs echoing in the confined space.' Sounds like Thane's memory recall, actually. I was thinking that maybe she should talk to Thane. See if his experience with this sort of thing can help her."
"He would know what she's going through better than anyone," Miranda agreed.
"Matthews was crowing about how we 'tore the Collectors a new one.' Hadley agreed that we really pulled through for them. Joker's hoping that 'Collector/Reaper crap' is over. Deep down, he admitted that he knew better."
"We may have stopped the Collectors, but we still have the Reapers to deal with," Miranda agreed. "And after you stopped them twice, they definitely won't be happy."
"True, but I think some people are more worried about the Illusive Man's reaction," I replied. "Mordin for example, he—how did he put it? Right: 'Collectors destroyed,'" I mimicked. "'Base in ruins. Extremely impressive. Illusive Man will be displeased. Fortunately, not human myself. Not my problem."
Miranda smiled. "Did he have anything else to say?"
I did another Mordin impression: "'Having trouble working between your interruptions and EDI's insistence that 'insane' experiments endanger entire crew. Hard to concentrate.'
"Anyway, moving on: Jacob thought blowing up the Collector base was a great way to tell the boss I was quitting and wished he could see TIM—the Illusive Man's face," I continued. "Come to think of it, it is odd that he hasn't called to complain yet." I pondered that for a moment before shrugging. "Anyway, he also thinks that we still have a ways to go before it's over. Especially with my penchant for making enemies out of groups like the Reapers and now Cerberus.
"Garrus felt the same way about the Reapers and Cerberus, though he was a bit more optimistic. Seemed to think that anyone who got on my 'bad side' tended to meet a sticky end—such as Saren and the Collectors—so he almost felt sorry for everyone else who'd pissed me off. Reapers. Almost."
"Jacob and Garrus do have a point," Miranda nodded. "We can hardly rest on our laurels when there's still so much work to be done. On the other hand, the track record we've established so far is very promising."
"True. Moving on: Gardner seemed to think I was a hero because I pulled the crew from the Collectors' clutches just after they got taken from the Normandy. Said I was aces in... in his book."
"Eh, it's just... it's sincere and all, but it's just so simplistic," I sighed. "People just go and call you a hero, even when there are other factors that were just as important. Or people who played just as important a role, if not more. There's no way in hell I could have been ready to go after the Collectors that quickly if it wasn't for the contributions and upgrades of the entire squad. And fighting through all those Collectors and husks to rescue the crew, escort them back and blow up the base? Team effort again. Well, squad effort, but you get the idea. It's just glorifying one schmuck at the expense of so many others."
"But it was your foresight that explored so many options to improve our fighting chances," Miranda pointed out. "You encouraged us to use our knowledge and resources to make all the upgrades—military and otherwise—to the Normandy and our weapons. It was your leadership that led us through so many battles, honed our skills and refined our unit cohesion. It was your ability to inspire people that made us stand by you through impossible odds and come out alive."
"Yeah, I guess. (3) Anyway, Samara and Thane both agreed that destroying the Collector base was the right choice. Samara added that the Illusive Man lacked, in her opinion, the wisdom to utilize it. Thane understood that it might have been a difficult choice—"
"Was it?" Miranda wanted to know. "Was it difficult?"
"For a moment, maybe," I conceded. "I mean, all the advanced technology just sitting there. We know that any time the Collectors give a piece of it out, it offers a massive technological advantage. But when you think of all the suffering that's required to acquire it, the fate of those who are given to or abducted by the Collectors, it sure does make you feel uneasy.
"Legion had an interesting take on it, actually," I remembered. "They felt humanity was offered everything geth aspire to. True unity. Knowledge and understanding. Even transcendence. But I ultimately rejected all of that, even the possibility of using those gifts to achieve such goals on our own terms—which the geth had also done. Legion interpreted that as a suggestion that I had more in common with the geth than they had previously thought."
"You know," Miranda said thoughtfully, "a year ago, I would have thought that ludicrous. Even insulting. But now? Now that sounds like a compliment of the highest order."
"I feel the same way," I agreed. "Funny how allies and enemies can change so quickly."
We exchanged a knowing look for a second. Then a minute. Then we realized that this was going nowhere fast. "By the way, how is Dr. Chakwas?" Miranda asked. "You must have passed her on the way to see Legion."
"She's still a bit shaken by her ordeal," I replied. "Anyone would be, particularly given what lay in store for her and the crew if we hadn't gotten there in time. But she is very grateful for our help. Cited me and Joker in particular.
"Rolston and Patel are a little dazed as well," I continued. "Glad it's over and we succeeded, though. Rolston can't wait to get back to San Fran and see his family. I think everyone could use a little R&R."
"Which reminds me," I said, snapping my fingers. "Kasumi thought the crew could use a good party. Rather than wait until we hit a port where they could disembark for some shore leave, she thought she'd set one up. When I left her, she was determining just how much alcohol we have in the Port Observation lounge—which was a lot. Seems like the crew didn't really make use of it because they didn't want to intrude on what was essentially her quarters."
"I'll pass the message on to the rest of the crew," Miranda nodded. "And I'll make sure Gardner works with her as well—I'm sure he has some supplies that he was saving for a special occasion. This would certainly qualify."
"If nothing else, he has a stack of thresher maw steaks left over from Grunt's Rite," I agreed. "Unless he ate them all. Speaking of Grunt, he's still giddy about how things turned out. Kept going on and on about how it was a great battle, how he found it hilarious that I blew up the base instead of handing it to Cerberus and how that meant we were probably the most dangerous thing in the galaxy now."
"Until the Reapers show up," Miranda muttered.
"Yeah," I groaned. "I know."
"Anyone else?" Miranda asked, trying to lighten the mood.
"Tali also marvelled that we destroyed the Collector base, given how everyone said it was impossible. According to her, though, that's said about a lot of things I somehow manage to do."
"It's true, though," Miranda shrugged.
"Anyway," I moved on, a bit embarrassed by all the accolades, "Ken and Gabby were busy helping her run diagnostics. They extended their thanks as well. Would've said more except..." I broke off, memories coming back in perfect detail.
"They were interrupted by a bunch of loud bangs and thumps and shrieks. Sounded like a bunch of crates were being crushed against each other—with cats trapped inside."
Miranda leaned forward, a frown on her face. "What was it?"
"Zaeed and Jack," I winced. "I don't know when exactly this happened, but they evidently decided to have sex. A lot of it. As loud and violently as possible."
"Oh, there's an image I didn't need," Miranda shuddered.
"At least you didn't see it," I said sourly. "It was... it was wrong on so many levels. (4) Thank your lucky stars that you—"
"Shepard," EDI broke in over the comm. "The Illusive Man wants to speak with you. Immediately."
I knew this was too good to last. "Has he locked out the controls yet?" I groaned.
"Actually, he can't do that anymore," Miranda said.
I looked at her in surprise—and delight.
"Ms. Lawson is correct," EDI informed me. I noted that she wasn't using her Cerberus designation of 'Operator.' Guess scuttlebutt travels fast. "With her assistance, I have deleted all remote overrides throughout the Normandy. Please note, however, that there are still numerous surveillance systems that I have yet to isolate and remove."
In other words, I could fly merrily throughout the galaxy, do anything I damn well pleased, and TIMmy couldn't do anything other than watch helplessly and chomp on his cigarettes. Hmm...
Before I could start imagining the various possibilities, Miranda cleared her throat. "Shepard?"
"I have to admit, I'm still feeling a fair amount of anxiety and tension."
"Not surprising," I replied. "We did just waltz into a hornet's nest, rile everybody up, rescue the crew, blow up said nest and escape just in the nick of time. Anybody would be a little stressed after something like that."
"Indeed," Miranda nodded, a wicked smile spreading over her face. "And if we don't do something to address that soon, I may not be medically fit to continue my duties as executive officer."
"I see," I said, echoing her smile despite the grave tone in my voice. "Then, as captain, it is my duty to help you relieve your stress in any way I can."
"I would appreciate that very much, Commander."
Looking back, I've been fortunate in that I had a lifetime to carefully develop and hone my unique sense of mischief and humour. Miranda, on the other hand, did not have such an opportunity. You could say that, thanks to my questionable influence, she was making up for lost time. (5)
As a result, I honestly can't say for certain whether the next couple hours we spent having mad, passionate sex—after double-checking that her quarters were free of any surveillance devices—was due to our developing relationship or due to the pleasure she got from flipping the proverbial bird to her former boss.
All I know was that I had no reason to complain. I can't say the same about her desk, though. Or the chair. Or the carpet.
As enjoyable as the post-mission 'exercise' was, however, I couldn't put off TIMMy forever. Actually, that's not quite accurate. I would be perfectly fine keeping TIMmy on hold until the cows came home. What I couldn't put off, however, was seeing the look on TIMmy's face after I'd effectively told him to jump in a lake. So it was with great reluctance—and anticipation—that I left Miranda's quarters and headed up to the comm room. There was quite a lot of debris that hadn't been cleaned up from the Normandy's crash landing. Metal girders ajar, loose cables sparking, that sort of thing. Which meant I took my sweet time carefully negotiating the impromptu hazard course between me and the comm room. Just so I didn't twist an ankle or hit my head, you understand.
Come to think of it, that might have been another reason for why he was so mad when I answered his communications request. (6) I don't think I had ever seen him so darn pissed. He was scowling, no, glaring at me. His jaw was clenched. I swear I could see a vein throbbing in the side of his neck. And when he took his cigarette out, I briefly glimpsed teeth marks embedded along its length—before he crushed it into his ashtray.
"Shepard," he said curtly. "You're making a habit of costing me more than time and money."
I took a minute to clean my ears. Very, very slowly. "Sorry," I said cheerfully when I was finished. "Having trouble hearing you. Getting a lot of bullshit on this line."
Yep, that vein was definitely throbbing. "Don't try my patience," he snapped. "The technology from that base could have secured human dominance in the galaxy. Against the Reapers and beyond."
"Human dominance, or just Cerberus?" I challenged.
"Strength for Cerberus is strength for every human," TIMmy replied, getting to his feet. He took a few steps towards me, silhouetted against the star that was on holographic display in his office. It was a different one, I noted. All blue instead of the usual mix of red and blue. Nice change. Just like the change in our unwanted working relationship. "Cerberus is humanity," he insisted. "I should have known you'd choke on the hard decisions. Too idealistic from the start."
"I know what you are, and the price of dealing with you," I replied coldly. "We're gonna do things my way from now on. Harbinger is coming and it won't be alone. I'm going to make sure we're ready when they get here. You can fall in line or step aside, but don't get in my way."
I definitely saw a vein throb in his neck. "You can't be serious, Shepard."
"Yes, I can," I said cheerfully, planting a wide smile on my face. "I just choose not to."
TIMmy's jaw clenched again.
"Some of the time," I amended.
His fists tightened. This was fun.
"You arrogant... insolent... don't you realize you're dooming not just humanity, but the entire galaxy?" he bit out.
"I think big," I offered innocently.
"You sure that's what you want?" TIMmy asked, eyes blazing in fury. "You're taking a hell of a risk, Shepard."
Actually, what I wanted was to do something that I'd been thinking about for the longest time. "Joker," I called out. "Lose this channel." (7)
TIMmy's scowling face, his beady eyes and the really cool backdrop abruptly flickered and disappeared. "And... we're out," Joker dutifully reported. "Whoops."
"Good job, Joker," I told him. I turned around to leave and stopped. "Enjoy that?" I asked.
"Actually, yes," Miranda replied, pushing her off the wall she had been leaning against. "Very much so. Now what?"
"Now we celebrate with the squad—not like that!" I burst out after Miranda raised an eyebrow at me. "Miranda Lisa Lawson, why I never," I muttered, walking out of the comm room.
I led Miranda to the cargo bay. Joker and the rest of the squad was there, trying to clean up things as best they could—there was only so much they could do about all the gaping tears and holes that went straight through the floor and out the ship's hull, after all. Stepping around strewn crates and barrier-covered gaps, I exchanged nods with Legion, Grunt, Jack, Garrus and the others. Seeing me, Joker stood up and handed me a datapad. Thumbing it on, I saw a bunch of pictures. Looked like snapshots of Reapers from different angles. "What's this?" I asked.
"Data packet that was tight-beamed to the Normandy just before the Collector base blew up."
Joker shrugged. "EDI thinks it might have been from the Collectors, but she's not sure." (8)
"We'll study this later," I said. "For now..." I passed the datapad on to Miranda and went to a corner of the cargo bay. Hopefully that floating eyeball hadn't—yes! They were still intact! Grabbing the crate, I took it back to the squad, who had now stopped what they were doing. I put it down, rummaged through the cups and pulled out a bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy and a small flask of some liquor that the vendor swore was very popular amongst turians and quarians. (9)
"Anyone up for a drink?"
Editorial Note: On which salubrious note, this compilation of logs concludes.
(1): Sudoku, in case readers were wondering.
(2): Only people of Shepard's character would be able to beat the odds and complete the mission with such spectacular success, but still feel guilty that they couldn't have done more. Shepard and Miranda would later revisit this conversation.
(3): While his laments were honest and heartfelt, they also served to dodge the fact that Gardner's last compliment was eerily similar to one made by his long-lost father.
(4): This from the man who's pre-mission... activities may have been equally disturbing.
(5): The horror, the horror.
(6): Logs indicate that Shepard's post-mission activities kept the Illusive Man on hold for two hours, thirty-nine minutes and eighteen seconds.
(7): As mentioned before, Shepard never cut short a conversation with the Council. It is telling that he chose otherwise where the Illusive Man was concerned.
(8): Specifically, EDI speculated that Harbinger may have been exerting direct control on the Collectors, through their 'Collector General' until the base was about to be destroyed, at which point it decided they were of no further use. Once Harbinger removed its influence, the Collector General may have had a brief interval of time with which to transmit this information as a final act of defiance after centuries of degradation and subjugation.
(9): It seems that Shepard bought these beverages at the same time he bought the Serrice Ice brandy for Dr. Chakwas.