Disclaimer: I do not own Mass Effect or any of its characters. They are products of BioWare, EA and certainly not me. This fan fiction is for entertainment purposes; no profit or intrusion of copyright is intended.

Summary: Humanity's fight for freedom and survival in a hostile galaxy continues as Commander Shepard has to unite an unlikely team against the Collectors. How will Shepard save the galaxy amidst the threat of mercenaries, politics, and his growing emotional entanglement with Miranda Lawson? An expanded retelling of Mass Effect 2.

Author's Note: The model for Shepard is the standard default model. I used a bit of leniency in interpretation for some story purposes but otherwise stayed as close to the universe as possible.

John Shepard stared out the portside window of the shuttle blasting through the thick atmosphere of Horizon. The colonial settlement disappeared out of sight as the shuttle soared through the cloud cover. He said little while his team waited for the shuttle extraction and spoke no words of encouragement or correction on the flight back to the orbiting Normandy.

Garrus cracked his stiff neck, adjusting the battered armor around his shoulders as he watched his friend stare aimlessly out the window. "She was emotional, Shepard. She wasn't thinking straight. Her loyalties, to me, seem clear. Right or wrong, she's for the Alliance. And whether you like it or not, we're with Cerberus, at least for now. I'm starting to think that is not such a bad thing."

Jack scoffed, leaning back in her seat, legs spread for comfort. "Alliance … Cerberus. I say good riddance. We already have one cheerleader on board. Don't need another."

"Ash is no cheerleader," Shepard finally spoke, turning hardened eyes towards the smart mouthed convict. "She's a skilled and fierce soldier. Loyal."

Jack huffed and crossed her arms defensively, looking out the window to the planet. "Loyal to who? Doesn't look like it's you. Loyalty means shit anyway. All it does is bite ya in your ass when you're not looking."

Shepard gazed out the window again, mind wandering to times of the past, when Ashley chose him. Two years passed for Liara, Ashley, and Garrus but the time felt only months to his consciousness.

The shuttle sailed into the docking bay of the Normandy and landed. Shepard stood, holding the cross bars along the roof of the shuttle for balance before walking to the door. He waited until the cargo hold pressure returned to normal then opened the hatch door.

Without looking back, Shepard tore the visor from his head. His fingers scratched at the short hair on the back of his head where the visor clung. Fist clenching the metallic bands of his visor, he stormed out the door of the cargo hold to the elevator and waved his hand over the sensor to call it.

Miranda walked down the hallway towards the cargo hold, a tablet in her hand. "Commander."

Shepard ignored the call as the elevator door opened and he stepped inside.

"Commander," she repeated a little louder but the door closed and the elevator ascended.

"Give him a few hours." Garrus said simply from the cargo hold door. "It wasn't a pleasant experience down there."

Jack brushed past the turian, bumping into him purposefully. "Be honest with the cheerleader." She taunted and eyed Miranda. "I guess not everyone wants to join the great Commander Shepard and Cerberus on their suicide mission across the galaxy." Jack shook her head as she turned from the two and walked towards engineering.

"I think some of the colonists survived." Garrus continued, addressing Miranda. "By getting the defense system up, the collector vessel launched and left without all of the colonists. The colonists we saw appeared to be in a state of stasis, conscious but frozen."

"Interesting. I wonder if the stasis wears off after a certain exposure time or if there must be a cure injected. Or perhaps it's permanent."

Garrus shrugged and shook his head. "No idea but I don't think it's permanent. While waiting for the shuttle, Jack and I collected some data and a few more samples for Solus."

"Good," Miranda nodded and tapped some of the virtual keys on her tablet. Garrus reached past Miranda to queue the elevator. He waited patiently, watching the Cerberus officer as she tapped and slid her fingers across the tablet. When the elevator door opened, he stepped inside; Miranda followed.

Garrus glanced at the woman beside him and just before the elevator arrived on the third floor, he addressed her. "Ashley Williams was on Horizon. She refused to come with us though." The door opened. "Tell your puppeteer. I'm sure he'd be interested in that." He stepped out of the elevator and turned down the hall.

Miranda froze in the elevator and looked up, watching the retreating back of the turian agent. She exited the elevator and headed immediately to her office. The office door opened and closed for her. At the closure, the Illusive man's voice sounded from the tablet. "Good." He exhaled in a hiss – cigarette smoke. "Operations Chief Williams would have been a liability aboard this ship and a possible mole for the Alliance. She is not to be trusted."

"I don't think you need to worry about that. It appears she refused his offer to join us." Miranda answered, simply and set the tablet on the stand upon her desk.

"I want you to watch him." Illusive man stated, exhaling again. "I won't have any emotional distractions keeping him from his purpose. I will call."

"Of course," Miranda nodded, obediently. "Just … give him some time."

"Time? I need his mind in the mission, not on some Alliance woman puttering around on a lost colony."

"I understand," Miranda defended. "Shepard will be ready. This is all still new. As far as his mind is concerned, anything with Chief Officer Williams was merely months ago, not years."

"I want his mind on this mission, Miranda, and nothing else. Is that understood? It is far too important for the survival of our species."


The tablet disconnected; Miranda sat in the silence, staring at the blank screen. Leaning forward in her chair, she accessed the security terminals through the systems on her desk. Cerberus installed hidden cameras and microphones throughout the ship – a benefit to keep track of all crew members and Commander Shepard. Miranda was the only person aboard the Normandy with knowledge of their existence and access to them.

With a frustrated roar, John Shepard kicked his armor chest piece across his cabin to the corner where his greaves laid, victim to a similar fate. The metal piece skidded and clanked across the floor before clashing into the greaves, rocking on its edge then stilled. He paced from the bed, to his armor then back to the bed before plopping down with a sigh. Ducking his head in his hands, he released a long slow steady breath.

His focused on his discipline, suppressing emotions for the moment, unwilling to examine anything. His efforts unsuccessful, he stood and paced to the empty fish tanks at the corner of his cabin and stared at the bubbling water. Anger fueled by feelings of confusion, betrayal and simple uncertainty and frustration.

When his suicide mission began, he hoped to reunite his trusted team. Ashley, Garrus, Wrex, Liara, Tali. Every name he offered to the Illusive man was defeated with a believable excuse. Tali refused him but after finding Garrus, his hope heightened; after all if the turian joined him, he could convince the others. Ashley Williams proved a far more difficult ally to convince.

When they met on Horizon, Ashley greeted him with a combination of disbelief, relief and even happiness. A short-lived happy reunion quickly plummeted when she discovered his association with Cerberus and his willing acceptance of the fate. She had said she loved him. But didn't trust Cerberus.

Why did he so easily hand his allegiance to Cerberus after everything that happened? So many crimes committed and he only knew of a handful. The Shepard from two years ago never so easily sacrificed his will and allegiance to an organization known for such atrocities, whether towards human or alien. Apparently death and two years changed a man.

Ashley's trust of Cerberus was not the memory in the forefront of that conversation nor was it the point that tore at him the most. Ashley used the term 'Loved' – past tense. In conclusion, she loved him but no longer. He placed no blame on her after all he had been dead for two years, how long could she dwell on him. For her sanity, she had to move on and continue with her life. That strength and focus dominated her personality and he expected nothing less.

Yet, his anger stemmed not from lost love or even Ashley's refusal to join Cerberus. Disappointed with his inability to recruit and hold a friend he trusted with his life after everything they had shared especially when confusion and uncertainty overwhelmed him despite his obligation to Cerberus. Guilt at the realization that love was never a word he used to describe his relationship with Ashley; desperate emotional release, maybe, but not love. Finally, unbridled fury simmered at Cerberus's sly entrapment and warped manipulation of his sense of honor, duty and hero complex. If not he then who else would save the fucking galaxy?

He validated his decision to work with Cerberus on three aspects swallowing the true emotions lingering from his association with the organization. The first, money. The second, ship. The third, the alliance ignored the signs. Ashley's words on Horizon proved his suspicions when she spoke of Cerberus being behind the attacks on the colonies. Collectors attacked the colonies, not Cerberus.

As an elitist organization committed to the preservation and advancement of humanity, Cerberus took the initiative in facing the Reapers, a foe responsible for the extinction of countless species throughout galactic history. If the alliance preferred to lie and dance around truths, Shepard opted to seek assistance where it was offered. But at what cost?

Ashley's refusal to join him wounded the confidence in his ability to recruit, to gain trust and to succeed. Instead of seeing reason, as Garrus did, she instead remained loyal to an organization refusing to see truth behind political warfare.

Shepard paced from the fish tank to the desk and picked up the small picture frame, staring at the picture of Ashley Williams inside the metallic frame. When he first arrived on the Normandy, his first action in his cabin was to find the picture of her. Nightly the last few weeks, he looked at the picture wondering when the emotions he thought he was supposed to feel would surface; they didn't. As the evenings passed, the picture evolved in his mind. Oddly, there was a sense of loss but more from nostalgia and not raw emotion. Little connection remained as if something disjointed between the current man and the man of two years ago. He wondered if he was the exact same person brought back to life. Did the Lazarus Project work? Was he the same man?

"Commander," Joker's voice rang through the cabin from the communication device. "Commander, do you have a course?"

In a vain attempt to bend the metallic frame, Shepard clenched his fist. "I don't care."

"Well, should we just stay in orbit around Horizon?"

Shepard grunted. "Joker, you have all of the coordinates of where we need to go. Just pick one, and set the fucking course."

"Ouch." Joker responded with his usual sarcastic slant. "Alright then, surprise surprise. Hold on." The communications feed ended.

He looked at the picture again and shook his head. He walked to the garbage chute and opened the hatch. His hand holding the frame hovered over the opening. Fist clenching, the metal digging into flesh he willed his grip to release the frame. Growling his frustration, he slammed shut the hatch for the garbage chute and winding up, flung the picture towards the pile of his armor. The frame crashed into the wall then dropped to the floor behind the armor.

Miranda sat back in her chair, watching Shepard toss the only physical memory of his past with Ashley Williams. Curious to his motives, she leaned a little closer, eyes narrowed slightly to focus best she could on his face in an attempt to read his expression, infer to his emotion. He gave little away.

EDI popped up at the small terminal in Shepard's cabin to announce the Illusive man's request for Shepard's audience. Shepard responded with authority. "Tell the Illusive man to go fuck himself. I'll be there when I'm ready for him."

Miranda arched a brow at the statement yet she could not help the small smirk that tugged at the corner of her lips. She never dreamed of using a tone like that when the Illusive man summoned her. Flicking a switch on her terminal, she disconnected the feed.

For three weeks after Horizon, Shepard kept the Normandy in deep space, mining planets for minerals and assigning upgrades to the ship, crew armor and weaponry. In his time away from the map and his terminal, he visited the crew members, listening to their stories and offering to help them in their requests. After all, they offered to accompany him on a suicide mission. In return, they deserved a favor and without hesitation, Shepard agreed to their every request.

Jack wanted revenge on an abandoned Cerberus facility responsible for her childhood torment. Grunt needed to find purpose in life. Jacob desired closure with the disappearance and sudden possible reappearance of his father. He expected more requests to follow in the coming days.

Early one morning while most of the crew slept, Shepard aimlessly walked through the ship, unable to sleep. He checked the status of the mining probes, patrolled the cargo hold and the crews quarters before entering the mess hall. He paused; surprised Miranda's door was unlocked - when asleep, she often locked her door.

Waving his hand over the queue for the door, he stepped inside when it opened. Miranda's eyes darted quickly to him at his entrance, obviously unexpected. She appeared tired, worried and completely unlike the Miranda he came to know.

It surprised him how her icy and stoic exterior slowly peeled away as she exposed more of herself to him and finally spoke of her sister, Oriana. Of course, he agreed to help.

Upon their first meeting, he treated Miranda with cautious trust; after all she saved his life and her face was the first he remembered seeing after waking up from a long darkness. He remembered little of the time he was dead, whether nothing happened or simply the thoughts and memories didn't transfer into corporal form, he didn't know. But after so long in darkness, when his eyes finally opened, he saw her.

Miranda. He heard the name, watched her pace and bark orders as his heart rate raced and his blood pressure rose. Relief flooded her expression when whatever injections she demanded appeared to take effect. Her face the last he saw, her voice the last he heard before darkness consumed him again. That familiar voice.

In that strange state of unconsciousness, his mind focused on the few events it could remember, bits and pieces of a time in the past, a time so long ago and yet only years. Connections and understandings slowly developed as he regained the memories of his past and yet the vision and voice of Miranda lingered, the forefront of his memory.

Her voice awoke him during the attack on the Cerberus station. A familiar tone, the very sound almost comforting, alluring however unlike his previous memories of the sound, her tone sharpened with warning as she ordered him awake and guided him through the station.

Then, she disappeared; her communication link dropped.

He finally saw her again near the shuttle bay in her white honeycombed cat suit, eyes narrowed in anger as she lifted her pistol and shot Wilson in the throat. Shepard drew his gun instantly, his cautious trust wavered at the act. Granted, he found Wilson suspicious but to shoot on sight snapped him into action. Pointing his pistol at her head, he questioned her and her calm explanation soothed him.

How easily she calmed him, convinced him. Why?

After escaping the Cerberus facility and speaking with the Illusive man, he confronted Miranda and discovered she wanted to implant a chip in his head to control him. Though she claimed such a chip was never inserted, he curiously wondered to the truth of that statement.

If there was no chip in his head, why the hell couldn't he tear his eyes away from that infuriating woman?

The next day, Shepard leaned against the wall of the mess hall, watching a majority of the crew enjoying their evening meal. Despite the severity of their scenario, many still tried to emit a sense of hope. Some laughed and joked while other's smiled and teased. A few remained somber in thought, especially those with families on fringe colonies.

To the right across the way, the door to Miranda's office opened with a whoosh and the Cerberus operative stepped out. His eyes lingered as she approached the mess Sergeant and took one of the offered plates of food before returning to her quarters.

How quickly two months passed aboard the Normandy. What was it about Miranda Lawson that always drew his attention? Granted, the tight form fitting cat suit, near perfect appearance and seductive femme fatale beauty helped. But it was something more. She pulled at him, his eyes, his attention, his concern and his mind offered no explanation to the unseen power she held over him.

Joker leaned against the wall beside Shepard, arms crossed to mimic his commander's stance. His eyes followed Shepard's until Miranda entered her office. The saucy pilot nodded then nudged Shepard with an elbow. "You'd have to be dead not to want to crawl up into that suit, huh?" He mimicked the sound of a cat. "Re-ow. She can stretch me over an operating table any day."

Shepard smirked then laughed unable to hold it back. He shook his head. "You do realize that I was unconscious for a majority of those two years she had me on an operating table.

"Hah," Joker scoffed. "That doesn't matter. She can take me unconscious too. Hell she can strap me into any one of those archaic torture devices. As long as she sits in my lap while she does it."

"Joker …" Shepard warned smoothly though a smirk punctured his usually serious veneer.

"Alright alright. Just saying is all."

"Set us a course for Illium."

"Illium?" Joker perked at that. "Aye, aye, sir!" Always excited to fly, he limped towards the elevator with a beaming grin on his face.

Shepard waited for Joker to round the corner to the elevator then finally turned his attention back to Miranda's door. Logically, Illium was the next place to visit. Dossiers from the Illusive man for two potential allies as well as Liara's presence proved too difficult to pass up. Of course Illium was also the world Miranda asked to visit to save her sister. And God help him, despite the outcome he intended to help her first even at the cost of losing a potential team member.

Walking to the elevator, he rationalized his decision; Miranda Lawson implanted a chip in his head.

Note: End of the chappy. This will be quite the long story and I love reviews, so by all means send them my way and let me know what you think.