How are my favourite readers?

I hope you're doing well. Things are a little hectic at the moment; work and other responsibilities just keep piling on top of me, but I'm hanging in there and soldiering on.

This chapter isn't going to be massively long; my sincerest apologies. I wanted to implement a filler chapter before I introduce a large chapter dedicated to combating Cerberus with my own little twist on things.

Keep up the follows, favourites and reviews! I've tried to message everyone to express my gratitude. I'll also mention it here again: if anybody wishes to message me about the story, possible ideas and contributions, or you just feel like having a chat with a sarcastic Englishman, then feel free to drop me a message! My inbox is always open.

That's enough from me.

Parts of this chapter are going to be pretty damn violent. You've been warned.

Let's jump back in!

Tali'Zorah nar Rayya stretched her arms as wide as she could within the Normandy's small elevator; her hand reflexively moved towards her vocaliser as she stifled a large yawn. Although it was an unnecessary action to cover her mouth whilst yawning, the subconscious action caused the young woman to chuckle softly to herself, a small smile splitting her lips. The Quarian engineer began to gently roll her shoulders in an effort to release a fraction of the tension within her body; her omni-tool sprang to life as she checked the time:

'07:15, Terran co-ordinated standard time. First shift's finally here.'

With a long sigh, Tali leant against the firm metallic bulkhead of the lift as her eyes struggled to stay open.

She'd covered another extra shift again in the engineering department, and the toll of the extra workloads were starting to have a negative impact on her; with the lack of sleep due to the Normandy being so quiet, and now the extra shifts of work, Tali was exhausted now more than ever before. Not to mention her nehya's exercise routines...

When the ground team, alongside the marine detachment aboard the Normandy, weren't participating in combat missions, the commander had them training vigorously. If they weren't carrying out routine weapon and equipment inspections, or practicing with a variety of firearms, then they were subjected to a brutal exercise routine. Physical exercise became mandatory for every combatant under Shepard's command.

With another stifled yawn, and a slight shake of her head to clear the drowsiness that had begun to creep up on her, the young woman opened her omni-tool once more; the bright orange interface sprang to life with a message she had recently received from her Auntie Raan.

In an instant, Tali's exhaustion was nearly forgotten as her mind began to race ahead. After reading through the entirety of the message, Tali quickly set about creating a succinct reply.

As the young woman began to expertly tap away at the haptic keyboard above her left arm, the memories of recent events began to crash haphazardly into the forefront of her mind. As the tapping evolved into a mad frenzy, Tali lost herself in her memories; her fatigue practically nonexistent as she crafted a well written report of her actions for her Aunt.

She would leave out the gruesome details, and the near death experiences she had narrowly avoided practically every time she'd accompanied the captain on a mission. If her Aunt, or Ancestors forbid, her father learned about the nightmares she witnessed everyday, she was positive a detachment of marines would be sent to retrieve her with all possible haste.

With a shake of her head to dispel the depressing thoughts of being taken away from the Normandy that had threatened to overwhelm her, Tali quickly finished her message to her Auntie Raan before closing her omni-tool. As she stood in the relative darkness of the slow elevator, the young Quarian woman couldn't help but close her eyes and sigh loudly.

Within the past couple of weeks, Tali had probably seen more death and destruction than half of the heavy fleet's Migrant Fleet Marines.

As the lift continued to slowly ascend, her imagination began to play a scene of events within her mind; a scene of events that she'd crafted after overhearing the scuttlebutt aboard the ship, what she'd been able to glean from some of the marines after their first major assignment, and what she'd been told from her captain himself. With every thought that rushed forwards, Tali tried her best to control her feelings concerning her own mortality; with the death she'd seen previously in combat as well as the constant threat of an abrupt end to her journey at any moment, the young woman had tried to come to grips with a crucial aspect of her new life.

If she could prevent her emotions from interfering with her work, then she'd be an effective member of the team.

She could be a warrior. Like her captain.

Her nehya.

It had been a couple of weeks since the ground team had left Noveria after dealing with Matriarch Benezia, and learning of Saren's intentions to locate the Mu Relay. During this period of time, for any other conventional military force, there would have been some form of rest and relaxation after such a taxing and exhausting mission.

For the crew of the Normandy, it was simply business as usual.

Even for Dr T'Soni.

The Asari had mourned her mother privately for hours before allowing anybody to try and comfort her. Shepard obviously took it upon himself to consider Liara's well being a priority. Eventually, the commander managed to convince Liara to see through the life-shaking event that had just taken place; her mother was dead, but her mourning wouldn't help anybody. The best thing for Liara to focus on was trying to assist him in locating Saren, so she could help put the metallic bastard six feet under.

The young Asari had reluctantly begun to fit back into the tight-knit ground team once more, and everything seemed to go back to normal for a time.

Well, as normal as it could be.

The commander had wished to journey to Feros immediately after dealing with the aftermath of his actions on Noveria, but the Council had strongly advised against it. Their intel reports had suggested that the threat the Geth forces had posed to the colony on Feros were somewhat exaggerated in hindsight; they'd left the Theseus system, and had hastily retreated back into the Perseus Veil after only a few hours of what appeared to be light reconnaissance.

Although the Geth sightings needed to be investigated, there were other matters that were far more urgent that required the human spectre's attention.

After a lengthy briefing from both the Council and Admiral Hackett, Shepard had informed everybody aboard the Normandy that they had been given additional assignments that had been granted priority status.

Some of the assignments, at first glance, had appeared to be relatively trivial; their first mission involved locating Prothean artifacts deep within extremely hostile territory.

The artifacts were believed to be able to provide further insight into Shepard's vision from the Prothean beacon on Eden Prime. Alongside these Prothean discs, the crew of the Normandy were tasked with the basic task of locating a prominent Matriarch's notes on Prothean history and culture from thousands of years ago; they'd been stolen by a band of merciless and bloodthirsty pirates whilst in transit to a temple on Thessia alongside other priceless works of art. Although Shepard had reassured the Council, and his ground team, that it was a simple enough task, the opposition they'd faced had stretched the human marine's military prowess to the limit.

In the end though, the ground team had prevailed triumphant. After returning to the Citadel with the cargo in tow, the Council had expressed their gratitude before giving the human spectre his next assignment.

Before the Normandy could disembark however, to complete the Council's next mission, the commander had been informed that his presence was required immediately within the human embassy. Shepard had journeyed on his own to Udina's offices, before he was briefed by his superiors. Once Udina had been told to leave the room, much to his annoyance, the commander had waited patiently for his orders. Within minutes, the entire Alliance admiralty board was in attendance, via holo-terminals; the Alliance brass had some assignments of their own; they reminded Shepard that although he was in the employ of the Council as a spectre, he was a marine first and foremost under their command. Their main assignment required Shepard's utmost discretion and his undivided attention. The human warrior, however, couldn't have been prepared for the consequences of his actions in his efforts to appease the Alliance brass.

An Alliance black ops program had gone dark recently; the scientists and their armed guards had gone radio silent for more than three days. This specific program had been concerned with the study of dextro and levo proteins and what biological pathogens could be weaponized and added to humanities arsenal if any race threatened the human species with total annihilation in the future. In this hypothetical event of total war, humanity wouldn't simply bow out gracefully. Trillions would die.

The commander had expressed his surprise at humanity's lack of trust towards their allies, but the brass explained that the project had been initially implemented after the First Contact War. Although diplomatic relations with the other alien species had increased exponentially, the Alliance didn't wish to be caught off guard a second time. They were prepared to use mutually assured destruction as a final contingency plan if it guaranteed the safety of billions of human lives.

It was after the explanation had ended that the brass informed Shepard of his task; the worst possible scenario imaginable had become a real threat. Intel suggested that there had been a drastic increase in Batarian and Asari pirate activity on the borders of the scientific facility before they'd gone dark. It was logical to assume that the pirates had some part to play in the whole affair.

The Alliance military, and ultimately the Alliance parliament, couldn't risk sending a fleet in; the Council would be highly suspicious of such a bold movement of Alliance forces on the outskirts of Citadel space. Their only hopes of preventing a catastrophic political clusterfuck rested on Shepard's shoulders. The human commander was tasked with salvaging any data possible, and wiping the facility off of the face of the planet it resided on; leaving no evidence to be found or leaked.

Due to the nature of the operation, Shepard's multiple encounters and subsequent victories concerning the liberation of pirate-held territory, as well as the Normandy's stealth technology, the commander was the perfect candidate for what appeared to be an impossible task. Subsequently, the alien members of the ground team would have to be left aboard the Normandy for the duration of the mission; only a handful of selected Alliance personnel could be trusted with such sensitive information. If any member of a council species was to learn of humanities underhanded tactics, all hell would break loose.

Shepard had promised the situation would be resolved with all possible haste, and once the briefing had ended the marine commander had ordered for the Normandy to be prepared for an immediate departure.

When they'd approached the uncharted planet, the human spectre had called a small meeting consisting of only the most experienced human marines, with Ashley and Kaidan being among them, into the comm room where ultimately the situation was explained, a plan of attack was decided, as well as the commander's hesitant decision to send a small reconnaissance squad of marines to scout out the stronghold; six hours before the human portion of the ground team's assault would begin.

If Shepard had had his full team available, he wouldn't have felt the need to send the soldiers under his command in blind; he would have stormed the base with his usual team to limit any possible casualties. The nature of the operation, however, limited the commander's ability to adapt on the battlefield.

Unfortunately for Chris, his decision had caused terrible consequences.

When the recon team hadn't checked in with the Normandy, the commander had initiated the attack immediately.

As they stormed the research facility, he'd found what had happened to the men and women under his command: two of them had been left to rot in the barren sands outside the entrance; demeaning signs hung around their necks as their armour lay in a discarded pile to the side. The words of "Alliance scum" and "screamed like a bitch in heat" had caused the large marine to fly into a wild fit of rage. One of his marines had been found in a pit of war varren. Or, the remains of him at least. The only way to identify him was by the dog tags buried within a pile of varren shit.

The final two marines had been found inside the complex, in a similar state to those outside the entrance. In the short amount of time the marines had left the relative safety of the Normandy, the pirates had stripped them of any sense of dignity before callously executing them.

Unfortunately for the pirates, it had ended in utter disaster for them.

Humanities response to the pirate threat had been vicious, brutal and swift. The pirates were unorganised and ill-prepared for a sudden attack from a squad of well trained marines. As they were sifting through the Alliance's files, the commander had breached into the main complex, killing anything in sight. Entire squads of Batarian and Asari pirates fell to Shepard's rifle as a red mist descended over the human juggernaut.

Once the dust had begun to settle, and the EPW teams had secured whatever prisoners were left alive after their initial attack, the rest of the marines in Shepard's squad, led by the Normandy's residential Chaplain, began preparations for the bodies of their fallen friends; the word had been passed back to the crew on the warship that the marines had suffered casualties, and that they needed to make space in the cargo bay.

Eventually, they'd silently loaded what remains and personal effects they could find into the Normandy's cargo bay; into waiting coffins.

Every alien member of the ground team had looked on from within the cargo bay, worry etched into their features as they tried to discern any form of information from the stoic marines.

Tali, was especially livid.

The young woman had paced in a mixture of anxiety and fear until the commander had come back aboard hours later, bloody, battered and bruised. But worst of all: silent.

Kaidan and Ashley had made themselves useful by searching the base on their own initiative for any additional pieces of data the Alliance brass would want to keep hidden, as well as anything that would benefit them in any way such as credits, guns, or intel on other pirate settlements whilst the commander sought retribution.

After a heated argument involving Shepard and the head of his EPW team, the Maniac had been left alone with the prisoners who had surrendered in the main command room.

The scuttlebutt that had passed through the ship after the mission was akin to a blazing wildfire, spreading within the blink of an eye; everybody had heard some snippet of a story from a fellow crew member as to what had happened down at the stronghold.

All of the stories shared a specific similarity: because of poor lighting, nobody was truly sure what had happened before the doors had finally shut.

It was described in hushed whispers that the flickering lights had provided a small glimpse through the cracks in the doors, illuminating the nightmare that the large marine concocted within the room; he'd executed every single one of them without a shred of mercy; a vicious grin on his lips the entire time; his face resembling a ghastly spectre akin to Death himself.

A few of the marines had regaled their fellow crew members with how the commander had dealt with the pirates: some were double-tapped through the head at point-blank range with explosive rounds; their blood, brains and shards of bone splattered against anything in the nearby vicinity, coating the other pirates in a disgusting gory paste. Other pirates had their throats aggressively ripped open at the hands of the Maniac's blade; different shades of arterial blood mixed together in a vile combination on the floor; Asari sapphire and Batarian amber blood saturated the scraps of clothing that were strewn over their lifeless corpses as they crumpled to the ground in puddles of their own shit; their cold, dead eyes would stare into their former comrades as the Maniac moved onto the next in the line.

Some stories circled around the warship what had happened when the captured prisoner's leader had begun to taunt the enraged human: the human titan had made an example of the bloodied Batarian; he'd beaten the ugly bastard to death in front of the others; his hands had apparently grown numb within his gauntlets after he'd eventually crushed the Batarian's skull like a wet grape, causing a disgusting squelch to emanate in the room. The remaining Batarians had begun screaming in disgust and horror when the crazed human had grinned maliciously in their direction, before slowly making his way towards them.

When the crew had questioned Ashley and Kaidan as to what had actually happened, they couldn't really comment themselves. They hadn't been in the room with their superior. Kaidan could, however, verify that Shepard had used a large quantity of explosives; a large explosion could be heard within the complex after the commander had left the room.

The crew had then tried to piece together what had happened: after placing a healthy amount of incendiary explosives in the room, the spectre had set a remote detonation link before leaving his handiwork to be forever forgotten. With a simple tap of a button on his omni-tool, Shepard would have become the only being in the galaxy that would have known the whereabouts of fifteen unaccounted for combatants.

All though it was wild speculation for the most part, nobody had tried to stop the stories being spread. Even the EPW team couldn't truly say what had happened to their prisoners.

Once the Normandy's soldiers had been accounted for and the data had been secured, the commander had given his final orders via his omni-tool; as the Normandy began to make its ascent into atmosphere, the gunnery officers were given an order to fire a salvo from the port broadside guns. The officers had questioned the orders at first, but when XO Pressly had insisted they were genuine and from the commander himself, they complied immediately.

The Alliance research base, was annihilated.

The strength of the Normandy's guns at such close range caused a large crater on a barren rock in a system nobody really knew the name of; it was to be the final resting place of a major Alliance fuck-up.

Although nobody had asked any direct questions regarding what had happened down at the base, everybody knew it was a topic that Shepard, or the marines in his squad, didn't wish to discuss.

Shepard didn't move for hours, as he stood at rigid attention next to the coffins of the marines who had fallen under his command in the cargo bay, as the Normandy soared through the inky black void of space to the closest mass relay, and from there, to the Citadel.

He stood watch over their bodies as tears welled in the corners of his eyes; wet streaks of sweat left clear lines on his cheeks where they'd cut through the dust, blood and grime of his previous mission. Although he could feel his legs buckling from fatigue, the commander soldiered on through gritted teeth.

The knowledge of losing people who had relied upon him for guidance, command and direction, brought back excruciatingly painful memories of Elysium and Torfan. In combination with the wounds from his recent firefight, Shepard's pain thresholds were being pushed to their limits. The man was close to breaking point.

Every member of the ground team had sought out their superior, their friend, individually. But when they'd found him, they knew better than to attempt to glean any form of information out of him. They'd stood by their leader's side the entire time they'd journeyed to the Citadel; each individual had contemplated their own personal situations as they looked upon the five metal coffins in front of them.

When the bodies were eventually unloaded at the docks of the Citadel a day later, the commander made sure the necessary preparations were made regarding funeral plans, and the logistics aspect of losing soldiers under his command had been dealt with.

Once they were away from the Citadel, the large marine had retreated into his room with a datapad of a half-written after action report to the Admiralty board in one hand, and in his other, a large bottle of Kentucky bourbon whiskey.

A great deal of time had passed before the commander eventually emerged from his quarters. Although he'd tried to hide his emotions and place a brave facade in their place, everybody about the warship could see right through it.

When the brass had been informed of the situation, their response was somewhat more callous than normal; five human lives had been lost to control a situation that could have escalated rapidly and caused countless casualties. They knew what they'd signed up for, and their sacrifices hadn't been in vain; they would be honoured posthumously with general commendations of merit. There wouldn't be any mention of the black ops assignment; as far as the rest of the galaxy knew, the men and women who had lost their lives had done so in the line of duty.

Once the comms had been disconnected with the Admiralty board, Shepard had expected a barrage of questions from the rest of the crew regarding what had happened down at the research base and what his recent debriefing had been concerned with; particularly from his alien squadmates. Luckily for the marine commander, however, his crew were respectful enough to let sleeping dogs lie.

Quickly thereafter, the crew of the Normandy had journeyed back into the galaxy to complete additional assignments.

For the next week and a half, the ground team liberated colonies, both Alliance and Council, that had been occupied by slavers and pirates; they'd eliminated any pockets of isolated Geth platoons they encountered as well as participating in artifact retrieval.

Every assignment that Shepard completed from there on out was in the presence of the primary members of the ground team at his side. After losing marines under his command, Shepard didn't want to risk the same thing happening twice, and so, he'd placed his trust once more in his alien squadmates. There were instances where the marines fought alongside their commander when liberating large strongholds, but they were always accompanied by the rest of the ground team.

They grew as a formidable fighting force; their ties of friendship, camaraderie and loyalty became even stronger after every single instance of combat. As Shepard's trust in their abilities grew, their trust for his ability to lead and see them through their toughest times grew as well.

THey were practically unstoppable.

The elevator doors began to shakily open, admitting the light of deck two to spill into the enclosed space. Tali's eyes opened slowly as she released a small amount of breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding. With slightly shaky steps the young Quarian woman stepped forwards, intent on finally taking a break in the mess and having a well deserved meal.

Even if it was bland, sterilised nutrient paste that tasted like shit.

Although first shift had only just begun, the ship was abuzz with activity.

Tali had to try her best to avoid some members of the crew who were too busy to notice where they were going; multiple datapads were in their hands as they rushed to the mess; their sole purpose was to have a hearty breakfast as quickly as possible before returning to their responsibilities on the Normandy.

Another small smile was placed on the young woman's face as she recalled fond memories of walking through the bustling markets on the Rayya with her mother; they would push their way through the throngs of Quarians before reaching the stalls they wished to visit that day. Her mother was a master negotiator and excellent haggler; clan Zorah would always have the finest scraps of cloth to hang above their homes when Mala'Zorah visited the markets with her young daughter following closely beside her.

As Tali began to pull herself out of her inner reverie of happier times, a scene on the stairs from deck one drew her attention. Moving to the side, out of the way of the other crew members, the Quarian engineer looked on in fascination.

Joker hobbled down the steps from deck one the best he could with the assistance of his metal crutches, as well as Doctor Chakwas gently holding his left arm. The two made quite a sight as they clambered down the stairs:

"I'm fine Karen, honestly! I don't need any mothering. I'm perfectly capable of getting down these damned stairs! I wouldn't even need to get out of my seat if it wasn't for Commander Hard-ass..."

Tali noticed with a smirk that Joker was blushing slightly after Chakwas' continued attempts to assist him:

"I appreciate that you want a sense of self-dependency Jeff, but for someone in your condition-"

"Someone in my condition would have given up years ago! I don't need any help, damn it!"

A frustrated sigh could be heard from the elderly human as she suddenly spotted Tali:

"There's no need to shout Jeff, I'm right here. I might be getting older, but my hearing's still crystal clear," With a smile in Tali's direction, Chakwas continued, "And if you don't want my help, why don't we ask Tali to assist you?"

Another loud sigh came from the pilot as he grumbled his response, "I don't need anybody's help. Just let me get to the mess, and then I can go back to where I belong; flying the ship."

Tali, after being privy to enough of the conversation, made her way over to the pair.

As she got closer, Chakwas smiled warmly once more, "Ah! Tali! Just the woman I wanted to speak to."

The young woman nodded her head in understanding as she moved over to Joker's right hand side, "I see someone hasn't had much sleep then."

Joker grumbled once more as he reluctantly offered his right arm to the young Quarian woman, "There's my favourite Quarian comedian. Hey, have you got any other funny quips for me? My sides are splitting as it is, so I might as well go all out."

Tali ignored the venomous jab from the pilot as she regarded Doctor Chakwas, "Who's piloting the Normandy whilst Joker's down here?"

"The navigation VI. In conjunction with Navigator Pressly issuing any commands it requires to stay on course, we shouldn't be crashing into any planets or asteroids any time soon."

The Quarian woman smirked behind her mask as she assisted in moving Joker down the last few steps. A few members of the crew had stopped in their tracks at Joker's frustrated outburst, but when they had seen that the situation was under control, they'd carried on with their business as if nothing had happened.

To any other human in the galaxy, the sight of a Quarian pilgrim and an elderly English doctor assisting a pilot with osteogenesis imperfecta would have sounded like a completely bizarre scenario. For the crew of the Normandy, it was as normal as breathing.

The humans aboard the warship had quickly grown accustomed to accommodating the aliens the commander had brought aboard. Although there had been some reservations in the beginning, including doubts from Gunny Williams and Navigator Pressly, Shepard's decision had proven to be a sound one; the aliens had seamlessly transitioned into the lives of the Normandy's crew.

Once the trio had made their way onto deck two, Chakwas had spoken first, "It wasn't that bad, was it Jeff? There's no shame in needing some help from time to time."

Joker gave no immediate response as he began to hobble towards the mess, "I appreciate the help Karen, but sometimes it'd be nice to try and do things on my own. God knows I've had people wrap me in cotton wool since the day I was born. I'm a grown man. I can take of myself."

"You're a grown man with brittle bones, Jeff. You need to take better care of yourself, otherwise one of these days you could cause yourself some serious harm when you try and do the impossible on your own."

Joker nodded his head slightly in response as he smirked in Chakwas' direction, "When I cause myself some serious harm, I'll have you to come and patch me up."

Karen patted him softly on the shoulder before turning to regard Tali, "Thank you for your assistance there Tali. I'm sure we could have managed eventually, but your timely intervention sped the process up exponentially."

"I'm glad I could be of assistance," the young Quarian woman tilted her had to the side slightly as she smiled at the kind doctor. Chakwas returned the gesture as she began to walk towards the med bay, "Once you've had enough to eat Flight Lieutenant, drop me a message via omni-tool and I'll assist you in returning to your station. If I find out you've tried to clamber those stairs by yourself, then you can deal with the Commander's ire on your own."

With a lazy salute, Joker continued to hobble along, "Yes ma'am. Will do."

Chakwas shook her head mirthfully as she proceeded to enter the med bay, leaving Tali to stand on her own.

A small chuckle emanated from Tali's vocaliser before she made her way to the mess.

After rounding a corner, Tali met Joker's eyes as the pilot began to make his way towards her.

She began to slow down as Jeff moved slowly over to her, before the two were eventually matching each other's pace.

It was Joker who initiated the conversation first, "I just wanted to say thanks for helping me out back there Tali. I know I come off as an asshole sometimes, but I just get frustrated when I struggle to do things most people can breeze through."

Tali nodded her head in understanding as she empathetically replied, "I know where you're coming from Joker. I'm stuck in this suit because of my immune system; I can't feel the breeze on my skin like you can, or eat the food I want to eat. I'm going to be stuck like this for the rest of my life."

Silence reigned for a moment between the duo before Joker quietly responded, "Looks like we're both shit out of luck then?"

The young woman barked out a short laugh as they turned another corner, "I'm not. Although I have to wear a mask, I'm not nearly as ugly as you are."

Jeff was stunned for a moment, before he joined in on the laughter, "You know, I remember when you first came on board: you seemed like this nice young lady who was polite and respectful; an innocent person. We were going to be the best of friends. And then, you started going on mission with the marines, and now you're a fully fledged jarhead."

Tali abruptly stopped walking as she regarded the bosh'tet in front of her, "Excuse me? What did you just say?"

The pilot stopped in his tracks as well as he realised what he'd said, "Aww shit..."

Jeff turned as quickly as he physically could to face the Quarian before he began to utter out his apology, "L-Look, I-I didn't mean it in a bad way! I'm not a racist! It's a navy term for marines!"

At that moment Master Sergeant Rohan, the leader of the Devil Jumpers marine unit aboard the Normandy, came around the corner; interrupting the pilot's heartfelt apology:

"Are you putting poor old Joker over the fire there, Sparks? It seems you've learnt a thing or two fighting beside the Commander."

Tali smiled warmly at the nickname before she quickly replied, "Just making sure Joker doesn't get too comfortable, Sergeant."

Joker's mind drew a blank as he regarded the marine and Quarian in front of him, "Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hold up a minute! You're not offended?! And who the hell's Sparks?"

Rohan lightly patted Joker on the shoulder before he regarded the pilot, "Sparks is just a little nickname the marines have come up with for Tali; she's gifted with that omni-tool of hers. Seeing as she's technically a marine whilst she serves under Shepard, I'd say she's entitled to it. Just don't piss her off; she'll make sparks fly. I'm sure quite a few pirates can attest to that."

Tali nodded her head before speaking, "What can I say? When you fight beside the captain, you learn to use whatever you have to the best of your ability." With a nod in Joker's direction, Tali continued, "And no, Joker. I'm not offended. I know a 'jarhead' is another term for a marine; the captain's explained that one to me already. I just thought it'd be funny to 'grill you a little bit'. I think that's the phrase anyway. I've heard humans use it before..."

Silence once again reigned for a time before Joker stuttered out his response, "Goddamn jarheads..."

Rohan and Tali barked out a laugh as they continued towards the mess; Joker quickly caught up to them before Rohan spoke, "I'm hazarding a guess that you're down here for a reason Joker? We don't usually get to see you down here with us grunts."

A quick intake of breath punctuated Jeff's next statement, "After the mess that happened a couple of weeks ago, Shepard's been hounding me to get more involved with the rest of the crew, eating down in the mess and all that kinda shit. I think losing people under his command has made the 'Butcher' appreciate what he's got. So here I am, socializing."

"Don't call him that. He was branded by the brass as unstable, and he sure as hell doesn't need soldiers under his command reminding him of that particular clusterfuck. He lost people under his command that day, but he put a definitive end to those Batarian fuckers and their slave ring. He saved as many human lives as he sacrificed. Show some goddamn respect." Rohan stopped in his tracks as he glared daggers in Jeff's direction. The tall marine towered over the shorter pilot as the two stared defiantly at each other.

Joker was quick to respond, a tone of ice laced his words as he held his own against the marine, "You might not realise it, jarhead, but I've got a hell of a lot of respect for the man. He's the toughest son of a bitch I've ever met; I've heard the stories like you have, but I don't mean any offense when I call him a 'Butcher'; he's one of the best. When shit hits the fan, I'd rather have a Butcher at my back than some fucking quaker who shits himself at the first sounds of gunfire. He treats me like another member of the crew; he doesn't care that I could break multiple ribs if I sneeze too hard. I'm part of his crew, and I take more pride in that than you'll ever know."

The two men didn't move for a time as they continued to stare at one another; Tali began to grow slightly nervous at the thought of having to break up an impending fight.

Tali felt like now was a better time than any to try and diffuse the situation, "I think it's fair to say we appreciate Shepard in our own, different ways. I mean, for example, the captain usually gets injured on missions when he's taking rounds that were meant for those under his command; that kind of selfless attitude defines Shepard. I can't even count the amount of times he's pushed me out of the way before taking a shot that was meant for me. Keelah, I would have died weeks ago if it wasn't for him."

The sergeant nodded his head, "Sparks is right. Shepard's definitely not a quaker. I honestly think that after all the combat we've seen these past two weeks, if it wasn't for the commander, I'd have been sent back to Earth in a metal box of my own. He's a demon to his enemies, but he's a goddamn saint to his friends. Because of him, after this whole business with Saren's finished, I'll be able to go home and spend some quality time with my wife and daughter. I'll finally get to hold my baby girl."

With a bark of laughter, the animosity between the pair practically dissipated instantly. Rohan offered a warm smile as he extended a hand, "You've got balls Joker. I hadn't expected that. You're alright in my book."

Grasping the marine's hand as hard as he physically could, Joker grinned viciously in response, "I might be just a pilot, but I'll be damned if I'm seen as weak. Shepard expects the best from everyone; that includes me. And for a grunt, you're not too bad I guess."

Rohan gave another hearty laugh as he motioned for his companions to carry on moving once more.

After passing through a group of conversing crewmembers, the two humans splintered off from the group to join the line in the mess hall. Tali was about to walk towards her pod, to get her own breakfast, before the pilot spoke, "Where are you going Tali? The line's right here!"

"I can't eat your food; I'm dextro, remember? Besides, if it isn't sterilised it'll kill me."

Joker smiled softly in response as Rohan spoke next, "We'll grab our food and we'll meet you at the table in the far corner; Ramirez and Price seem to have found a decent spot, so we'll eat with them."

"Sounds good to me."

Tali moved towards her sleeping pod before withdrawing a tube of grey nutrient paste. The thick murky liquid inside sloshed about as she closed the sleeper pod back up again.

Moving towards the canteen's tables, Tali noticed a sight in the corner of her eyes that caused a large grin to split her lips.

Sat in the corner of the canteen was her nehya at a table by himself. The large marine in question was sat in the corner with a datapad in front of him on the table, and parts of his rifle sat in his hands; a small filthy rag was in between the man's fingers as he cleaned the individual parts of his Lancer. In addition to a datapad being on the table in front of him, there was also a steaming cup of coffee in a bright white cup, as well as an apple with his combat knife sticking out of the top of it; the emerald skin had been pierced by the shiny metallic blade with juices running out of the top of the incision.

Tali then noticed in that instance that Sergeant Rohan was carrying two trays of food with Joker by his side. The Devil Jumper indicated to a table in front of him with his head, before Joker asked a question, "You coming over Tali? There's a seat over here for you."

The young woman looked between her nehya and the two humans she'd been speaking to earlier, before making her decision.

As she was walking towards the table, she spoke quietly, "Permission to sit, Captain?"

Chris looked up from his datapad, before placing his rifle's barrel on the table, "You don't need to ask for permission Tals. Of course you can sit down."

Tali tilted her head to the side as she smiled softly, "Thank you, Captain."

The two smiled at each other before they continued with what they had previously been doing; Tali prepared to eat her disgusting breakfast, and Shepard continued to clean his rifle, whilst reading from his datapad.

Sergeant Rohan and Joker soon came across, and with a small smile, the commander motioned for them to sit down.

After a few minutes of silence, the group began to converse with each other; initially, Shepard had stated that it was 'nice to see Joker down in the mess with the rest of the crew'. A remark of, 'following orders' had been the pilot's response, and the conversation had then evolved to include the Sergeant and his thoughts about the mission in general. Shepard made time to inquire about the man's family, and he'd even asked if he had plans to leave the marines once their tour was over and try and lead a normal life. Rohan had barked out a laugh in response, before replying that 'fighting was in his blood'; he'd 'die with his rifle in his hands rather than in his bed from old age'. Chris had approved of this statement, and had given a soft smile when Joker had spoken up:

"Marines. You're all goddamn crazy. I mean, I know I know the Alliance Navy relies on you guys to help mop things up on the ground, but you two are just plain crazy." The two marines had laughed heartily at this statement as Rohan tapped Joker lightly on the shoulder, the pilot enjoying his rashers of bacon and scrambled eggs.

"You wouldn't have us any other way, Joker." Rohan turned to face the Quarian member on their table before continuing, "I mean, after all, what's the Navy's official policy for a gunfight, Sparks?"

Tali leant back in her seat as she deactivated her omni-tool, her breakfast still untouched on the table, "If it's anything like the Migrant Fleet, then you send in the marines!"

"OOH-RAH!" The two marines exclaimed loudly; Rohan spat a little bit of egg out of his mouth at the statement, and Shepard placed a piece of apple from the end of his knife into his mouth.

Joker shook his head in despair as other members of the crew joined in on the revelry.

They made light conversation for a time before the other members of the ground team appeared in the mess, ready for their breakfast. Kaidan and Ashley were the first to join the group, with the Gunny having to pull up an extra chair from a nearby table. Again, jokes and laughter were passed around as the two marines joined in; usually at the Alliance Navy's expense.

Wrex was the next one to arrive. The lumbering Krogan stomped towards the mess officer before being handed what looked like a large scorched cow's leg. The Krogan gave a toothy grin in their direction as the Gunny asked the obvious, "The fuck have you got there Wrex?"

"Roasted Varren leg. Quite hard to come by, but I have my sources on the black market. When we'd stopped off at the Citadel, I restocked my supplies. After the amount of fights we've had recently, I felt I deserved a damn good meal."

"Nobody's arguing with you there Wrex," Kaidan grinned as he made room for the large Krogan, "Just, move to the side a little. The smell's putting me off of my food."

The large warrior had chuckled loudly as he smacked the marine lieutenant on the back, pulling up another chair to the table.

Liara and Garrus were the last to arrive; the Asari took a simple cup of coffee as nourishment before seating herself next to the commander; the Turian C-Sec officer joined the group first before bothering to get any food.

Tales of battles won and battles lost were passed around the group next, with some wild tales coming from Garrus, Wrex and Kaidan. There were some honourable mentions from Sergeant Rohan and Gunny Williams; even Liara had a few experiences that had caused some laughter to break out in the group. The only person who hadn't mentioned a single previous mission was the commander. He'd simply sat with his cup in his hands and had listened to everybody else with rapt attention.

The group were simply happy to be themselves in each others presence.

Tali looked upon these supposed strangers; to the other Quarians back on the Migrant Fleet, it would be unheard of for so many aliens to come together and converse peacefully. All they'd ever known was prejudice and contempt from the other species in the galaxy. Tali, however, was extremely fortunate. She could call these aliens friends. They were the family she'd never had. The family she'd always wanted.

After a slight lull in the conversation, Ashley spoke to her superior, "So, what have you got there Skipper? Anything interesting?"

Shepard gave a loud sigh before placing the datapad on the table, "Oh, it's nothing really. I'm just going over the plans for the next mission. We've got orders from the brass to investigate a series of bases on the planet Binthu for hostile activity. Apparently, Admiral Kahoku's been able to glean from various sources of intel that the group responsible for the atrocity on Edolus go by the name of 'Cerberus', and for some reason, that's got a lot of Admirals worried. And if the brass is worried about it, then that means we've gotta be worried about it as well."

Gunny Williams gave a snort of contempt as she tucked into another rasher of bacon, "As long as the army pukes accompanying us don't get in the way, then that's fine by me."

Kaidan quickly interjected, "Wait, wait, wait. Army pukes? You never mentioned we'd be fighting with reinforcements Shepard."

Chris shook his head mirthfully as he sliced off another piece of his apple, "We're to rendezvous with the SSV Warsaw in Binthu's orbit before deploying alongside the 113th. They're a mechanized division of the Systems Alliance Army. They usually don't leave the Sol system, but after the attacks on human colonies in the past decade, we've had to be a hell of a lot more lenient in where we deploy our forces. They're coming back from a stint on Mindoir, and most of them are gonna be pretty green. After we pushed the Batarians out of that region of space, pirate raids are pretty damn rare. Most of them have probably never seen combat."

"Great. So we're stuck babysitting a bunch of fucking army pukes. That's just fantastic." Kaidan sighed loudly to punctuate his statement, before taking another swig of his coffee.

"It can't be all bad, Boss. At least we're gonna have some back up this time." Garrus mused as he looked to his superior.

Shepard suddenly stood up from his seated position before moving towards the mess officer, "There's gonna be casualties Garrus. I can guarantee it."

With that cryptic statement left to hang in the air for a moment, Shepard beckoned Garrus and Tali over towards him.

The two dextro squadmates moved over to the large human as swiftly as they could, before Shepard addressed the mess officer on duty:

"Rawlins, grab me those packages out of the fridge; the ones with the blue labels on."

The human soldier quickly complied and produced the package his superior required after a few moments, "I think these are what you meant, sir."

"Thank you, Rawlins. Carry on."

With a quick salute, the mess officer continued with his duties as Shepard guided Tali and Garrus to one side:

"In this box you'll find some Petran rations. There's a box each; you both have enough to hopefully last you until the end of the month. This is my way of saying thank you for everything you've done so far. I appreciate the fact you've stuck around this long, and I hope you'll see it through to the end."

Garrus' eyes lit up as he began to inspect his rations, "Spirits Boss... Petran rations are extremely hard to get a hold of. And the last time I checked, they were pretty damn expensive too."

"You two deserve it. Believe me." Shepard smiled softly as he regarded his Quarian squadmate, "Your rations have been sterilized Tali. It cost a little bit extra, but I wouldn't have it any other way."

As the two dextro's stared in a sense of wonderment and disbelief at their superior's antics, Shepard moved towards the table the rest of the ground team was occupying, "Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get my rifle back together and in one piece. We're about three hours out from Binthu, so get your chow down you and stow your shit away. This next mission's going to be bloody."

Once their commander had left, Garrus and Tali exchanged looks of surprise before making their own way over to the rest of the team; Garrus already had a bar of dextro chocolate in his hand as he carried the box under his arm. When they'd come back to the table, Tali began to open her own box up; she slowly pulled out individual tubes of delicacies she could only dream of having when she was back on the fleet. There was a whole myriad of meats and vegetables she'd never heard of, but she was definitely eager to try.

The young woman placed her unopened tube of sludge that was going to constitute her breakfast into one of the many pockets in her suit, before she opened one of her new meals.

As the nutrient paste, with different flavours and textures than anything she'd ever had before, slid down her throat she couldn't help the tears that sprung into the corners of her luminescent eyes.

She loved her human.

She loved him with every fibre of her being.

She was going to stick around until the end, no matter what.

So, there we have it.

Like I've said before, this chapter's just a filler and the next major one to be released will be concerned with Cerberus.

If there are any members of the armed forces reading my story, please take no offence at some of the jokes I've used. I'd like to thank you for your service and the sacrifices you make every day. But some of them were just too good to pass up!

Let me know what you think of the chapter: keep those reviews pouring in!

Andromeda will be here soon, so expect to see me on that!

I'll see you again soon.