Chapter 2

"Lieutenant-Commander, just what the hell were you doing down there?" Commander Anderson growled at her. Shepard tensed. She wasn't expecting this. Seeing Anderson after all these years, she was expecting praise and kudos, she was receiving them from everyone else. The air was dry and still, the smell of plastic was heavy in the air. Anderson's office was non-descript, only his commendations hung upon the walls and a picture of earth. He was pacing back and forth. She stared straight ahead, but in the corner of her eyes she could almost see smoke rising from his collar.

"I had orders to take the bunker, sir. I carried them out. We took the bunker. Taking out that bunker allowed us to wipe out the rest of them, sir."

"That's not what I'm talking about!" Anderson snapped. He paced around the room, his movements were snappy, his posture tense.

"This isn't just about Torfan. You have a 85% casualty rate! Is that how you get the job done? "

"Sir, the goal is what matters, not the cost."

"That's bullshit!" Anderson almost screamed. He stood directly in front of her, his frothing eyes staring right at her.

"When you joined the Alliance you took a sacred oath, to lead the men and women under your command. You broke that oath! You threw away those kids' lives as if they were nothing! Look at this!" He handed her a datapad. The datapad was packed to the brim with names, faces, dates. Some names were vaguely familiar, most weren't.

"Don't recognize the names, do you? Those are the names of everyone who's died under your command! A good officer gets the job done, but not at the cost of the lives of those under his command! An officer leads his soldiers, but that doesn't mean you lead them to the morgue! A good officer remembers the names of the soldiers serving under him. These names should be burned into your soul! A freighter's entire cargo hold is filled with coffins. Your coffins. Major Kyle's a shell of himself!"

Shepard put the datapad down.

"Did I give you permission to look away?!" Anderson thundered. Shepard looked back at the datapad. In her mind she started reciting the names. The dates were familiar at least. And soon she recalled some of the faces and the deaths associated with them. Some.

"As if this wasn't bad enough, you committed war crimes! Executing prisoners! Is that part of the oath you swore?"

Shepard said nothing.

"I asked you question!"

"No, sir." Her voice was scarcely a whisper.

"Is part of the oath putting personal revenge above the lives of the men and women under your command? Above the mission?"

Shepard said nothing. She did her best to stand straight, but her knees were shaking, there was a thick lump in her throat.

"I can't hear you, Lieutenant-Commander."

She furtively shook her head.

"I still can't hear you!"

"No, sir." She managed to whisper, straining her voice to the utmost.

"The Alliance is hushing it all up, there's nothing I can do about that. But there is something I can do about you. I'm transferring you under my command. I see a lot of potential in you, Shepard. But you need to change. You need to let go. Those batarians weren't behind what happened on Mindoir. They caught almost everyone years ago. I don't need to tell you that. You think your family would be happy knowing their only child's grown up to be a hateful monster? I'm ashamed of you, child. "

Shepard could say nothing and fought hard to stop the tears rolling down her face. Those last five words hit her harder than any gunshot could. She remembered the day he found her, scarred and wounded, firing madly in the air, surrounded by charred rubble. He didn't say a word to her, he just hugged her and told her everything would be okay. She was a child, though she didn't know it. She was still that frightened, angry, heartbroken child. But the time for being a child was past.

Cassandra replayed that conversation in her head one more time. She remembered everything about it, the dryness of the air, the inflexion of Anderson's voice, the sounds his footsteps made, the feel of the datapad in her hand. She'd kept that datapad all these years, losing it only when the Collector's ambushed the Normandy. She remembered the names now. All of them. The dates. The places. She couldn't remember all the faces. It was a disservice to their memory that she didn't.

She sat at her desk, her legs fidgeting nervously. Her fingers played with her wedding ring and her bond bracelet, the asari equivalent of the former. She'd met with Kara Mueller first. She was rather introverted, but it was contrasted nicely by her obvious confidence. She was rather young, in her late twenties, but battlefield promotions had been very common during the Reaper War, as in all wars. She was a good Spectre candidate but not exemplary. She'd been distracted during the interview, she'd been distracted ever since Atherton's name had resurfaced. He was due any minute and she hadn't been this nervous in years. Cassandra jumped when Stravowsky opened the door to her office.

"Are you okay?" She asked.

"I'm fine." Cassandra nodded. "He's here, isn't he?"

Stravowsky nodded. "You want me to wait a few minutes before sending him in?"

"Thanks doc, but let's get this over with. Send him in."

A few seconds later, Jonathan Atherton appeared. He was wearing a dress uniform, the boots shining a deep black gloss, his uniform impeccably creased and pressed, his hair perfectly trimmed. He was still short, standing about 5'10 but his frame was wider, not as scrawny as she remembered. He stood at attention and stared at the wall behind her. He was standing, immobile and looming over her as a Colossus of Rhodes. This isn't how she wanted this conversation to begin. She'd agonized over this, ran through dozens of possible scenarios in her mind, how to manage this conversation. She'd talked with Liara and Stravowsky, none of them had been terribly helpful. Now he was standing in front of her, she was clueless.

"At ease." Cassandra said quietly.

"I'm fine." He said quietly. His voice was marked with tension. It seemed like his adam's apple was threatening to pop out of his throat. He was breathing loudly, his chest visibly heaving.

"It's nice to see you, Atherton." She said cautiously.

"Nice to see you finally remembered my name!" He snapped.

Cassandra said nothing for a few moments. A heavy, tense silence hung in the air. Cassandra could almost see it, a black amorphous mass slowly swallowing and enveloping the room.

"So, How do you feel being nominated for a Spectre?" She chided herself for asking such a banal question. But she hoped by asking this she would steer this conversation down a less confrontational path. An icebreaker of sorts.

"Permission to speak freely?"

"I'm not military anymore. Granted"

"You picked me to assuage your conscience. Trying to make yourself feel better. I think you're starting to believe all the bullshit they're saying about you! You... you ruined my life! You ruined my career! You know, whenever I close my eyes I see that batarian who's face you melted. He had a name you know, Keral Bok'aral. He had 3 children, barely pouchlings. And whenever I tried to tell the truth about Torfan, about you committing war crimes, they shut me up, demoted me, giving me every shit assignment in the galaxy and then some!"

"That wasn't me." Cassandra said quietly but firmly. "I didn't pick you to be a Spectre. I had nothing to do with your career."

"You had everything to do with it!" He yelled. "You got whisked away, promoted, Anderson's prized protégé. While I got shafted! No one listened to me. All that bullshit about saving the Council and the Citadel! Defeating the Reapers! That wasn't you, it couldn't have been you! I saw the look in your eyes when you executed those batarians! That was you! You made a deal with Cerberus and got the first Normandy destroyed! That was you! I saw the speech you made when they first made you Councillor. All this fluffy bullshit talk about how you're doing this to save lives and keep people working together. What a bucket of varren piss! You care about nothing except yourself! You're a fraud! I don't know what really happened, but the story everyone believes is just a cover-up! And they just keep hushing everything up! They'll never charge you with what you did in the Bahak system!"

He stopped, sweating heavily, he looked exhausted, pale even. He'd waited a long time to say this to her.

"I'm not the same person. I've changed." Cassandra said quietly but firmly. She wanted to rip him apart. How dare he call her fraud to her face? All the loss, blood, sweat, tears she'd shed fighting the Reapers. How dare he? Yet, she had to let him have his say. He deserved that much at least.

"Bullshit! People don't change!" He shot back. "You ask me what I think about being a potential Spectre? I don't give a shit. People like you and Saren soiled the good name of the Spectres. If you pick me, it's so you can sleep a little better at night. If you don't, you'll just be acting like you always did. I don't give a shit!"

"Dismissed." Cassandra sighed quietly. He hurriedly left her office. Stravowsky appeared instantly after his departure. She closed the door behind her and sat on a chair. She looked upon Cassandra with concern.

"That didn't go very well." Stravowsky said.

"Nope." Cassandra answered. She felt light-headed, distracted. Adrenaline was rushing through her veins like a great flood. She couldn't sit still. She'd wanted to convince him how she'd changed. He hadn't given her a chance. No. His mind was made up. Had been made up a long time ago. Was there anything she could do to convince him?

"You should take the rest of the day off." Stravowsky suggested.

"No." She shook her head. "I still got a lot of work to do."

"Shepard." Stravowsky said reproachfully. "You've worked seven days a week for the past 4 months. I'll clear your schedule."

"It's okay, doc." Cassandra said.

"No. You're taking the rest of the day off." She said firmly, crossing her arms.

Cassandra chuckled. "I'm not winning this fight, am I?"

"Not a chance." Stravowsky smiled.

"Thanks, doc. See you tomorrow."

She went straight to the gym. She needed to clear her head and work off some steam. The Ascension had ten gyms, each one was constantly busy due to the high number of people aboard. Even though she'd spent ten months here she turned heads wherever she went. She would usually only pay attention if someone would speak to her. Not today. A few waved her over or spoke to her but she ignored them. Changing into her workout clothes she plugged in her personal music player. She started playing Vorchathrone. She didn't normally care much for this style of music, but when the mood was right, they were just the right tonic. Their cover of Don't Fear the Reaper was good but didn't have enough cowbell.

She ran 12 miles on the track. Her body dripping with sweat but she wasn't tired, wasn't spent. Far from it. She was still wired, still had massive amounts of adrenaline pulsating inside her. A portion of this gym was set aside for martial arts training. Training from all Council races was offered here from turian savate to human capoeira and everything in between. On the training mat a krogan was training a turian in tonka smacka, a krogan martial art that specialized in brute force. Donning boxing tape and gloves, she made her way to a boxing ball.

She threw mad, hard punches. Not caring for her stance or stamina. She thought of everything that bothered her as she punched the hanging ball; her past hatred of the batarians, the Council that had for so long ignored her, her killing of the geth and EDI, Atherton's outburst. Why am I so unhappy? She asked herself. By all means she should be happy as clown; the Reapers were gone, she was married to the love of her life, a child on the way, a job she enjoyed despite its challenges, yet her past haunted her and wouldn't let her go. Her nightmares, her doubts. Maybe it was fairer this way, the universe's way of asserting balance, she'd saved all life in the galaxy by defeating the Reapers, and nothing great was ever achieved without great cost. Maybe that cost was living out her life with perpetual malaise gnawing her. Maybe that was a fair price to pay, what was the happiness of one person compared to saving the lives of trillions?

She grunted loudly, throwing one last, hard punch, her biotics flared. The boxing ball tipped, the base tore free of the bolts holding it down and fell with a loud clang. She stared down at the toppled contraption, drops of sweat clogging her vision, breathing heavily. She wiped her face, suddenly aware of the complete silence surrounding her. She looked around and everyone was staring at her, hundreds of eyes fixed on her. Eyes curious, alarmed, worried, amazed. Eyes turian, asari, krogan, human. She cursed and ripped her boxing gloves off, throwing them on the ground. She walked to the locker-room, everyone turning to look at her as she passed by. Finally the gym returned to normalcy behind her.