Huh. Figures. All the good people we lost, and you get left behind…
It's been too long, Ash. How have you been?
Our colonies are disappearing. The alliance turned its back on them. Cerberus is the only group willing to do something about it.
You betrayed the alliance… Anderson. You betrayed me!
Ash, you know me. You know I'd only do this for the right reasons.
Typical alliance attitude. You're so focused on Cerberus that you're blind to the real threat.
Aboard the Normandy, Ashley lay on her bunk with one arm over her eyes to block out the light. She lingered in that surreal twilight where the lines between dreams and reality blurred. Images and moments from Eden Prime and Horizon flowed past her in a swirl of feeling, sound and color. Over the past few years her ego and confidence had taken several bad hits.
First, Eden Prime, where her entire squad had been killed. Ashley had been stationed on the Colony of Eden Prime, with direct orders to defend it, yet the best she had been able to do was survive. It was the Skipper who had turned the tide, disarmed the bombs and drove the Geth away.
It occurred to her that she was the first of the Normandy team to ever see a Reaper. Yet it was the Skipper in the end who had stopped Sovereign. The best help she had provided through the whole adventure was an extra gun and a shoulder for him to lean on when he grew discouraged. More than a shoulder, in fact. But nothing he could not have found elsewhere.
After two years of burying her head in the sand and ignoring the reaper threat- the fact stung like nothing else, but all the counter-arguments she could think of felt like rationalizations- she was stationed on Horizon, with direct orders to protect the colony, and to investigate possible Cerberus activity. Yet it was the Skipper, once again, who turned the tide; who activated the orbital defense cannons, who eliminated Collector resistance on the ground, who drove them away and saved half the colony.
The best Ashley had been able to do was survive, and most of that was luck. Luck that the paralyzing sting of the seeker swarms had worn off. Luck that the Collectors had abandoned her in her pod to go fight Shepard.
Huh. Figures. All the good people we lost and you get left behind…
The statement had stung at the time. It was vicious and petty, and born of the colonist's bitterness and grief, but it hit Ashley a hundred-fold worse as she lay there in her bunk a year later. She was on Eden Prime when the Geth attacked, Horizon when the Collectors attacked, and Earth when the Reapers attacked. It was her surreptitious relationship with Shepard –something she had enthusiastically engaged in despite regulations- which had caused him to save her instead of Kaiden, and now she had nearly let Cerberus assassinate the Council. Once again Shepard had ridden in at the last minute to save the day.
Ashley felt a great deal of anger and bitterness sweep through her. What was she good for? What use was she? Everything she had ever done, every victory she had been a part of belonged ultimately to John Shepard. Every failure belonged to her. She had failed to stop the Geth at Eden Prime, failed to stop the collectors on Horizon, failed to stand up and recognize the Reaper threat before it was too late, failed Kaiden by letting her emotions get the better of her and affect Shepard's decisions.
Jesus, she wanted nothing more than to get out his shadow, yet here she was, once again tagging along for the ride. Did she deserve her promotions? Did she deserve to be a Spectre? She was honestly shocked when the council hadn't rescinded Udina's decision. She owed her new designation to a Cerberus mole…
A hissing noise and a rush of cool air signaled the barracks door opening. Ashley heard footsteps approaching, but she kept her arm over her eyes, feigning sleep in the vain hope that whomever was visiting would just up and leave her alone.
"I've treated enough patients over the years to recognize when someone's pretending to be asleep, Lieutenant Williams." The voice was British, matronly, and so very familiar.
Ashley sat bolt upright, staring into the creased, worn face of Karin Chakwas.
"Doc…" she murmured.
The doctor nodded, smiling. "Joker told me you were aboard. Just wanted to let you know that this old war horse still has some familiar faces."
"I talked to Garrus earlier." Ashley confessed as the older woman dragged a nearby chair over and took a seat next to her. The subdued lighting wrapped both of them in purple shadows, but Ashley liked it better that way. She didn't feel as scrutinized as she would have under the pale, harsh lights of the medical bay.
"Garrus never was much good in a conversation," Chakwas admitted with a chuckle, "but he got far worse after Omega."
"Omega?" Ashley frowned, "What happened on Omega?"
"I'm not entirely sure it's my right to tell you. Perhaps you should ask him yourself."
"Sounds like I missed a lot." Ashley said sullenly.
"Not all of it good," Chakwas replied, "And I for one am glad you're back on board."
The doctor must have detected something in her voice, because Chakwas sat up a little straighter, and took on the stern, medical persona she used to cut through macho marine stoicism. "Alright, start talking, Williams."
Ashley hesitated, but felt driven to speak as much out of nostalgia for the post-mission patch-ups Chakwas gave them in the old Normandy days as for the desire to air her issues. "I just feel… look, Doc, Eden Prime and Horizon both got hit on my watch. Now I nearly brought down the Council! I feel like… like I'm the enemy. Like I'm cursed to constantly fuck up. Like… I shouldn't be on this ship."
Chakwas looked startled by the admission. "No…" she said slowly, shaking her head, "No, no no. You're not. You've done a remarkable job, Ashley, all things considered."
"The best I've been able to do is survive!"
"An essential skill in a soldier." The doctor replied mildly.
"I need to be able to do more than that, though!"
"Considering the odds you've been pitted against, no one can blame you for not doing more." The doctor said patiently, "Who in the galaxy could have?"
"Shepard does! All the time! And now I'm a Spectre, just like him. Spectres can't make mistakes, but mistakes are my entire fucking family history! Even my grandfather at Shanxi!"
"I think your grandfather saved every human life on that colony by surrendering, and he bought the alliance time to put the Second Fleet into action. The men who condemn him have never been in his position. They have no right to judge," Chakwas replied. "As for Spectres, if they couldn't make mistakes, we wouldn't have had to chase Saren across the galaxy."
"I… right. Well I meant good Spectres."
"Saren was the council's best Spectre." Chakwas leaned back in her seat. "Or is John Shepard your only point of comparison?"
Ashley blinked. "…Well…"
"John Shepard has only been a Spectre for four years, Ashley. During that time he has never, to my knowledge, gotten along with the Council. Their authority they've given him spitefully, their support only when convenient, and their respect grudgingly at best. If Spectres are meant to be the long arm of the Council's will –which they apparently are- Shepard is quite awful at the job."
Ashley chuckled. "You know what I mean, though. He gets things done."
"He also has the best warship in the galaxy and a network of talented people at his back. You included, Ashley."
"I don't feel talented."
A frown lingered at the edges of Chakwas' mouth. She leaned forward and took one of Ashley's hands in her own. "Tell me," she said, "during the Cerberus Coup attempt, what were you wearing when you rescued the council?"
Ashley stayed silent, staring down at her hand, resting in Karin's palm. The warmth was motherly and soothing.
"Garrus said they found you in a hospital gown."
"You fought your way out of the hospital, all the way to the presidium, up the elevator into the council chambers, all the while facing off against the best soldiers Cerberus could put on the ground, stole the council out from under the Illusive Man's nose, and got them to safety. All while in a hospital gown." She pulled Ashley into a comforting hug. "I can say this without any doubt: You are exactly the sort of soldier we need in this war, and you deserve a place on this ship.
Ashley smiled into her friend's shoulder. "Thank you. I'm glad you're on board, Karin."
"Oh, me as well." Chakwas smiled back. "I wouldn't miss this for anything!"
Joker's voice echoed over the intercom. "Ladies, Gentlemen, and James Vega, the Normandy is about to exit the relay into Batarian space. Would Lieutenant-Commander Williams please report to the cockpit? Lieutenant-Commander Williams to the cockpit. Man… that word jus sounds… dirty…"
Chakwas shook her head. "Oh, Joker… But you'd better go. And don't forget what I said, Ashley. You're a great soldier, and the Alliance needs you. The Galaxy needs you."
"Thanks Doc." Ashley rose to her feet, feeling a sense of relief flow through her as the old doctor's words sank in.
"And don't let Shepard draw you down." Chakwas added genially. "He and Garrus tend to get into brooding matches these days."
"I won't." Ashley promised.
On board the Normandy, Miranda's already tight grip on the CIC railing increased tenfold. She felt helpless. She hated feeling helpless! Moments ago a thresher maw had reared out of the Tuchanka dust to confront Shepard's tiny trio. Miranda had never actually seen a thresher up close. Technically she still hadn't, as she was viewing it through the video feeds on Shepard and Garrus' helmets. Even then it was imposing, towering a healthy thirty feet above their heads. Its triple-tongued gullet could have swallowed a shuttle, and she could make out the acid sacks spaced evenly between the purple slithering appendages.
Miranda was afraid. She had felt fear many times before, but this was different. This was about Shepard. The Commander had ordered her to stay on the ship while he and Garrus wandered about on the hostile planet. His decision to leave her behind had nothing to do with doubt in her abilities. Quite the opposite. Rather he did not entirely trust the Krogan, and had wanted the Normandy's XO in command should a rescue or alternate mission of some kind be required. He and Garrus had already accompanied Mordin Solus into enemy territory to assist in the rescue of an old colleague. Miranda had thought that had been the end of their business on Tuchanka …until Grunt smashed a hole in the cargo-bay window during a fit of rage.
Miranda had argued with Shepard against taking Grunt on a rite of passage. What was the use? The Krogan was an asset built for one single purpose. Grunt did not matter. He wasn't even a proper natural Krogan. Half the Krogan didn't believe the tank-born was one of them. He was an aberration created in a lab.
So was she by her own admission, Shepard had argued, neatly skewering her on her own hypocrisy, yet she was still a person, and he never would have ignored her needs, let alone consider her expendable. Shepard had an incredible knack for simultaneously filling her with anger, and offsetting it with a strange warm glow which always seemed to set her thoughts spiraling somewhere just beyond her control.
What was the quote? Oh yes, the splinter in one's eye is oft the greatest magnifying-glass available. Miranda simply had not respected the Krogan enough to realize the lizard had affairs of its own- of his own. Grunt was ugly, brutish and foul. Company to be appreciated when the only alternative was Jack the Delinquent. Miranda had scolded the Krogan rather harshly for the broken window, and it- he… he had responded with an aloof disregard for her authority, which was infuriating. Then Shepard had pointed out that the only result of butting one's head against a wall was to create a headache; rather an ineffective way to approach the situation.
That man was right again. Miranda hated it when Shepard was right, and it was happening more and more often. She had approached the Krogan again, this time speaking of the situation in terms of strength and weakness as Shepard had advised her: A warrior who couldn't control his own temper weakened his clan. Breaking the window was a symptom of weakness, not a demonstration of strength. It had nothing to do with damage to Cerberus' property.
While addressing the issue from that angle, Miranda had fared far better though it still burned a little that the Krogan regarded Shepard's word as the final opinion on anything. Yet the second time, Grunt listened to her. The Krogan had even apologized, and she had gone back to her office marveling at Shepard's instinctual ability to see the galaxy through the eyes of others, and speak to them on their own terms.
It was a rare ability. Rarer still in her experience did anyone who possessed it ever put it to such excellent use as with Shepard. She knew, had known for a long while, why the Illusive Man had spent so much money to bring him back. And it was one of the many reasons she had grown to care for him far more than was operationally sound.
Now she stood at the CIC, grip on the railing white-knuckled as she watched Shepard's camera feed. Far below the Normandy, down in the ruins of an ancient Krogan city, Shepard, Garrus, and Grunt were facing off against a Thresher Maw.
The sight of the alien worm dwarfing Shepard's armoured figure only served to make her more anxious. She pressed the com button and opened a private channel to Garrus. "Garrus, keep an eye on Shepard. His psych evaluation suggested that taking a Thresher Maw on foot might trigger memories of his experiences on Akuze."
The Turian's camera whizzed around to point at Shepard. To her horror and fury, the treacherous Turian said, "Miranda thinks you're going to curl up into a fetal ball at the sight of one of these things." His voice echoed across the CIC, prompting glances from the crew on duty.
Miranda glared through the static-filled camera as Shepard stared at Garrus for a moment, his sharp blue eyes wide with shock. He burst out laughing, even as the Thresher's roar overwhelmed the audio feed. "Oh god help!" the Commander cried dramatically as a stream of acid flew past his left shoulder, making her cringe. "The walls are closing in I can't take it anymore! I'm goin' Cat-Six!"
"No need for sarcasm, Commander." Miranda replied coolly. She could hear the snickering of several crew members. Across the bridge. Kelly Chambers was trying to suppress a smile. "I'm merely trying to help."
Shepard peeked over cover, his sniper rifle blasting high-powered rounds into the titanic alien's maw. "You do realize we fought like a dozen of these things on the SR-1, right?"
Miranda took a moment to absorb this fact, then she snapped. "That was not included in any of your mission reports!" It was true. She had memorized them all. Even the useless side missions Hackett had constantly distracted him with. Though that fact did explain why the human and his Turian partner were so blasé about facing a triple-tongued, twenty-five meter tall, Krogan-eating sand-snake.
"Well if I'd known you were going to read them I would have gone into more detail." Shepard said as he ducked down to reload. Grunt took over, roaring in what must have been Krogan ecstasy as he blasted at the leviathan's tentacles.
"He had 'Encountered Hostile Alien Life Form' hot-keyed." Garrus supplied helpfully. Somewhere out of view, Grunt was roaring in pleasure, his shotgun blasts echoing around the trio's courtyard, and around the CIC.
"Yep. CTRL-F-OFF." Shepard supplied. Laughter burst out across the Normandy's command deck. Even Miranda, for all her struggles, couldn't suppress a grin. She felt very glad Shepard couldn't see her; he would have counted it as a victory in his private struggle to open her up. Then she spotted Kelly Chambers, and realized the Yeoman had been watching their interactions very carefully. Miranda forced the grin away, and cleared her throat. The young psychologist had a shrewd expression on her face, mixed with a little disappointment. Miranda recalled that Kelly had been given orders to seduce Shepard, and she wondered whether or not Kelly was watching her XO's relations with Shepard on behalf of the Illusive Man, or out of her own curiosity. It occurred to her that it could well be both. Miranda would have to investigate the young woman's communications logs to find out what she knew, what she suspected, and what she had left out of her reports.
"Boom, headshot!" Garrus announced, firing another round at the beast. Miranda directed her attention back to the screens.
"Nice one!" Grunt congratulated.
"Yeah." Shepard said dryly, "Nice one. Its head is only the size of a Mako. Hard to miss, Garrus."
"And yet you still manage somehow." The Turian tutted in disappointment.
"I'm an excellent shot!" Shepard fought back. "Miranda, back me up."
"Actually by my own observations you tend towards the spray-and-pray approach." Miranda teased. A few more crewmembers began to laugh, and despite the severity of the situation on the ground, she couldn't help but feel a small amount of pride. It had been a very, very long time since she had made someone else laugh. Although what she had said was not entirely true; Shepard was an excellent shot when he chose to be. She wondered why in hell she was taking part in such a ridiculous discussion.
"Ha!" Garrus laughed.
Off to the side, Miranda heard the elevator door open. Most of the mission specialists filed one by one into the CIC to watch. Mordin, Jacob, Jack, and Thane had gathered off to the side, alongside Zaeed and Kasumi Goto, the crew's most recent addition.
"Et-tu, Brute?" Shepard asked plaintively.
"Well your aim has improved drastically since you took my advice and stopped listening to music on the battlefield." She told him, pressing her microphone a little closer to her mouth.
Their commander's voice floated through the com system as he exposed his skill as a surprisingly melodic tenor. "…Myyy Bright Rainbow Skkkyyyy! All I'm dreaming of is you and IIII- Oh shit!" Shepard dodged to the side, narrowing avoiding a collapsing pillar. The Thresher Maw roared in disappointment and sprayed the battlefield with more venom, pock-marking the already uneven terrain.
Miranda gritted her teeth. "May I suggest you avoid singing as well?"
"I agree," Joker added, broadcasting to everyone, "Especially when it's that song."
More laughter. "Anything to add?" Miranda asked the gathered specialists, pausing to exchange a hateful glare with Jack.
"I'm just here for the entertainment." Jacob snickered.
Jack gave the screen a moment's glare, and then marched forward, snatching the microphone from Miranda. "You have a Cain on your back, Shepard. Just nuke the fucker."
"Would If I had time to properly charge and aim the damned thing." Shepard replied.
Mordin stepped forward, reading something from his omnitool, gently guiding Jack aside. "Shepard. Have analyzed Thresher Maw biology. Specimen heavily armoured, but nerve clusters exist under plates on top of head. Believe a tech overload applied there will cause the specimen extreme pain. Paralyze creature. Will certainly buy you time. May even bring it down."
"My overloads don't seem to get through its armour." Garrus reported. "We need to knock that armour plate off, and get a better angle."
"Use armour piercing ammo to get through that plate." Jacob said.
"We're already using armour piercing ammo." Shepard told them. The ground team scattered as the thresher maw gave the area another acid bath.
"Armour piercing will get through, sure. But you need that armour gone. Switch to inferno. Burn it away." Zaeed supplied.
Thane was suddenly beside the old Merc. "Commander Shepard, the Thresher Maw appears to target whomever is hurting it the most-"
"No wonder it's always targeting me!" Garrus said.
"Actually it's …attacking Shepard." Thane corrected politely.
"Ha! Long live the 'spray and pray' approach!"
The Drell continued, "…But Grunt has incendiary ammunition, an excellent angle, and time to aim."
All three camera feeds froze for a moment as the ground team processed the statement. In the CIC, Zaeed gave Thane a hearty slap on the back. A gesture which the Drell clearly did not welcome.
"Grunt, put that shotgun away. Switch to your Mattock. Incendiary ammo!" Shepard ordered, "I want that armour gone by the time Garrus gets to you!"
The crowd in the CIC watched as their ground team executed the plan seamlessly. Grunt moved first, ducking behind cover and switching weapons while Shepard and Garrus opened up on the thresher maw, keeping the monster busy. Then, in a gut-wrenching moment for Miranda, Shepard broke from cover, running out in the open, taunting the creature, and drawing its attention away from Garrus.
Grunt, meanwhile, opened up with his incendiary ammunition, burning away the creature's armoured exo-skeleton. Garrus joined him a moment later. The Maw turned to them, preparing to spit more acid, but Shepard, who was standing alone on the other side of the courtyard, opened up with his Viper sniper rifle and drew its attention back. As it swung towards him, it exposed the sensitive burned area just behind its head.
Garrus did not waste the opportunity. His tech overload splashed across the sensitive membrane underneath the charred remains of the Thresher Maw's armour. The beast shrieked in agony and curled back in on itself.
"Get to cover!" Shepard shouted, charging the M920 Cain.
For a moment, Miranda tried to remember what the radius of the nuclear explosion was, and she felt a burst of fear as she realized that the entire ground team may have been in range. She pushed through the others and grabbed the microphone, but it was too late; he fired, a single projectile as bright as the sun crossed the battlefield and hit the gigantic worm in the belly. There was a flash of light, and a burst of momentary static which knocked out all the cameras and microphones, and left the audience in the CIC blind.
Masking her panic as best she could, Miranda leaned down to the mic. "Shepard? Commander Shepard? What's your status? Shepard?"
Beside each camera feed, Miranda had a vitals monitor. Their steady beep had been a reassuring background noise throughout the entire event, but now even their steady low rhythm had gone silent, showing nothing but flat lines. The CIC fell silent for a moment, everyone praying or hoping.
Miranda swallowed and tried again, speaking loudly over the static, "Shepard?"
The static slowly cleared, shapes forming in the grey electrical curtain. She could hear voices, whooping and hollering. Garrus' camera feed came back first, and the Turian was looking at Grunt.
"Did you see that explosion?" the Krogan whooped. "That was a good fight!"
The camera whirled over to reveal the Thresher Maw's dead carcass splattered across the courtyard, and Shepard crawling over its body and sliding down to join the other two.
Miranda breathed a sigh of relief as the heart monitors came back online, along with the other data feeds.
"What's the matter, Cheerleader?" Jack asked snidely, standing beside her, "Afraid your tin soldier broke?"
"Cerberus invested a lot of money in this mission." Miranda replied, her tone equally as disdainful. "I cannot abide failure."
"God forbid you waste a single fucking credit, huh?" Jack planted her hands on her hips and shook her head. "Of course your boss's money is what you care about." She stalked away back to the elevator.
Trying to ignore how much the criminal's words stung her, Miranda fell easily into her cold, calculating self. She addressed the rest of the team, gathered around her work station. "Excellent work, everyone. The Illusive Man will be pleased with our progress."
Jacob and Zaeed fixed her with a shocked look nearing disbelief. Mordin as watching the camera feed, and Thane… Thane had fixed her with a strange expression. She had always found the Drell difficult to read, and now was no different. Was it hostility? Curiosity? Sympathy? Had he sensed something in her worry the others had clearly missed? It was something she feared worse than their derision. She did not want the crew to know what was going on between herself and the Commander.
Especially not when she couldn't quite figure it out herself. It worried her, how addicting she found his company to be. The feeling was clearly mutual, given that he visited her twice a day for 'reports' on the crew and the state of the ship. Yet even alone, despite their occasional moments of weakness, they kept up an air of formality. She knew Shepard wanted to be closer to her, and she wanted the same thing, in her heart of hearts. But she still held back, fearing the consequences. Consequences for her career if she developed too strong an attachment, consequences for the mission; Shepard had already made an emotional call on Virmire, and it had cost him a team member. What would happen if one of them died? Miranda feared the pain of heartache, both her own, and possibly Shepard's damaged psyche if she were killed. Finally she feared the emotional attachment itself.
Trust, true trust had always been difficult to come by. Yet now she was stuck in this strange emotional limbo where everything felt better than it should have, and the world took on a rosey hue every time he drew near her. Yet she couldn't act on what she felt. The risk was too great.
But only just.
The Normandy had just arrived in the Kite's Nest. Enemy territory. Upon arrival, Joker had cut the engines and let the Normandy drift. Ashley, who was in the cockpit with Shepard, had been confused at first, but the reasoning soon became perfectly obvious.
Ashley watched as a red wave crawled across one of the screens, the line moving downwards in tandem with the noise. "What is that?" she asked.
"The Reapers are searching for us." Shepard murmured, his eyes fixed on an enormous shape, visible only through trace reflections from the solar system's sun, and the red eye, scanning the debris field which surrounded the relay.
Deathly silence fell over the cockpit. Ashley's breath caught in her throat as another Sovereign-class reaper swept in from behind, moving silently through the empty space above their heads. Ashley could see the details of its ancient shell as the deep space monster moved sluggishly through the debris, less than two kilometers away. The monster's tentacles, each the size of an Alliance frigate, swayed and twitched with the motion as if caught in the stream of cosmic winds. Its enormous bulk brushed past their tiny ship, sweeping wreckage out of the way, and leaving a trail of flotsam nearly a kilometer wide behind it.
"How many are there?" she asked, though she had barely a breath to speak. Almost as if the ancient leviathan had heard her speak, a second ping joined the first.
"We don't know." Shepard whispered back, his gaze oscillating between the two visible Reapers, trawling through the debris field. "If we scan, they spot us. We made that mistake the first time. Nearly cost us everything."
"How long do they search?" Ashley kept her voice as a whisper, afraid against all common sense that the Reapers would hear her. She was horribly aware that nothing protected her from the black fathomless depths of space except a few metres of carefully manufactured armoured hull. It felt paper thin. The Reaper beams would carve through it with pathetic ease. Her life could end in seconds, and it all depended on whether or not the Normandy's dead silence was enough. She didn't dare move for fear that anything would disturb their fragile stillness.
"Hours." Shepard muttered, tensing as the second Reaper made another pass and disappeared from view, coming close enough to give the crew a view of its enormous red eye. "We've come close to venting several times. It's tense. No one sleeps."
"You keep the crew on combat alert?"
"I don't have to."
"How have they not found us yet?"
"They cluster around the relays to prevent any counterattacks. They know it activated, but our approach is masked enough they can't detect exactly which piece of floating debris just arrived. On top of that, our IFF is confusing them."
"Is that enough?" she whispered.
"Has been so far." Joker added nervously, his eyes on the distant Reaper. "But there are more of them every time."
"That might just be the progress of the war."
Red waves scrawled down the sensor monitor. Shepard and Joker both glanced down at the display. "At least three, now. Maybe more."
"Where's the third one? I don't see it." Ashley leaned out over Joker's shoulder, scanning the morass of wreckage.
"Could be behind us." Shepard said quietly. "Under us, maybe. I don't know."
A red beam of light blasted out from the eye of the nearby Reaper, the thin line contrasting horribly with the blackness of space. It began cutting lines through the wreckage about half a kilometer ahead of the Normandy, sending debris floating off in all directions. This was shortly followed by two more blasts. The further Reaper did the same, slicing up the flotsam.
"What the hell are they doing?" Joker leaned forward, watching the leviathans' strange behavior.
"Trying to flush us out, maybe?" Shepard frowned, "Ever hunted any animals Joker? You frighten them first. Then they run."
"That's how you spot them." Joker ground his palms into his eyes, "You know what, Shepard? This sucks."
Shepard patted him on the shoulder. "Just keep us off their sensors, Joker. We'll be fine."
"We won't be if that beam hits us."
"Only move if you have no other option." The Commander ordered. "Carry on, Joker."
The Flight Lieutenant threw him an overly-enthusiastic salute, and turned back to his controls.
Shepard turned to Ashley, taking her attention from the pinging monitors, "Williams?" Ashley stared out the viewport, watching the Reapers a few more seconds before she backed away, shaking.
"Ash." Shepard prompted gently. She blinked and stared at him, feeling sick to her stomach.
Shepard smiled. "Come with me."
He led her down the CIC hallway, past the hushed crewmen. They stopped beside a pair of technicians. Ashley walked several paces before she realized Shepard had stopped. It took her a moment more to realize why; one of the technicians looked sickly pale, and his breathing was ragged. His hands were shaking on his keyboard.
"Crewman Allen, isn't it?" Shepard asked gently.
"Yessir." The man blurted out hesitantly.
"You doing alright, Allen?" the Commander asked in a kindly tone.
"Just tired, sir." The man's shaking hands slid off his keyboard. "Can't sleep well. There's always more and more of the bastards every time, Commander. I just… our luck can't last forever…"
For a moment, just a moment, Shepard's confident look faltered. Uncertainty flashed in his eyes despite his best efforts to conceal it. It was a slight thing, and it would have gone unnoticed by anyone who didn't know him as well as she did. Ashley glanced around the CIC. Silence had not fallen, but the bustle of activity was supplemented by the straining of a dozen cocked ears.
"Do you think I'd've been able to do half of what I've done if I relied on Luck, Allen." Shepard said. He had recovered from whatever unspoken fear had gripped his mind. A certain amount of swagger entered his tone and he thumped the bulkhead. "This ship was built for exactly this kind of mission. You should've been there when we went through the Omega-4 relay."
"Omega-4?" Ashley asked sharply, realizing that this was the first time Shepard had opened up about his time with Cerberus. She felt both hurt and excited. On the one hand, she was finally going to hear some details. On the other… Shepard was willing to talk about it with a subordinate technician –one he had never served with before- before he would discuss it her?
Shepard shot Ashley a glance, but he was focused on the technician. "Yep."
"But… no ship's ever come back…" Allen said. "That's what the rumors always said…"
"The Normandy has." Shepard replied with utter surety. "The Illusive Man wanted me to deal with the Collectors living on the other side of it. They were abducting human colonies at the time. The Normandy came and went. Now that problem is solved." He stood back and crossed his arms, leaning confidently to one side in a cocky pose which Ashley was intimately familiar with. Shepard addressed every listening crew member across the CIC. "I know these aren't regular Alliance ops, guys. You're with a Spectre." He motioned at Williams. "Two of us, in fact. Welcome to the Big League. This is what we do. This is what I do. I've got too much riding on this to rely on luck."
Crewman Allen gave him a confused look. "Sir?"
Shepard winked and gave him a smile, "I've got a bet with Garrus Vakarian that they won't find us. If I win, and I will, he's buying my popcorn when we go see Blasto IV. The prices theatres charge these days, you think I'm going to pay for my own snacks, Crewman Allen?"
A grin to match Shepard's had somehow found its way onto Allen's face, and it didn't look like it was going away any time soon. All around the CIC, crewman were laughing whether out of humor or disbelief. It didn't matter; anything was better than the tense, morale-obliterating silence which everyone had been feeling moments before.
"Damned straight! Now, I'm getting you a coffee."
"I…" Allen's eyes widened. "Sir?"
"You said you're tired. It's either coffee or you hit the rack."
The crewman exchanged glances with his amused comrades. He squared his shoulders. "Coffee, I guess. Black and plain. I'd rather stay at my station, sir."
Shepard nodded. "Good man."
"I'd like an espresso, Commander." Joker's voice rang out over the intercom. "Two sugar, two cream, and make sure you make a little leaf pattern with the foam in the top. And a shot of whiskey crème liqueur wouldn't go wrong, either."
Shepard chuckled, a warm, pleasant sound which rang across the CIC, bringing smiles to the faces of the worried crewmembers. He said, "When we get back to the citadel I'll add it to the grocery list, I promise, Joker."
"Oh, really? Awesome!"
"Just so long as you drink it off-duty."
"Oh, come on!" Joker called out. Near Ashley, a young crewmember barked and laugh and clamped a hand over her mouth. Her shoulders were still shaking.
"Your maturity, discipline and professionalism are, as always, a credit to the uniform, Joker." Shepard said dryly.
"It's why you love me."
"Carry on, Ladies and Gentlemen." Shepard strode away. Ashley followed. Outside the ship, Reapers combed the debris field, trying to flush out their prey. On board the Normandy, cheerful banter spread across the CIC. Shepard's unorthodox methods worked.
Of course they did. Ashley knew that already. That wasn't the problem.