“You know what we should do?”
Liara hummed sleepily, nuzzling into Shepard’s throat. The past year had been exhausting—for the galaxy, but perhaps especially for its savior. It was so rare that they had moments like this, where they could just be together, soft and quiet and alone. She looked up, smiled tenderly.
“What?” she asked, and Shepard pushed herself up on one elbow. Her fingers ran along the grooves of Liara’s neck.
“I want to take you to see the Grand Canyon,” she said. There was something wistful in her tone. “There wasn’t much damage there. I guess I just want something normal. Classic Earth experience. We could make it a road trip. Put the Normandy down in Vancouver, they’ve got the spaceports pretty operational there. Spend a few days in the city, then do an overnight drive to the canyon.”
She was intrigued. That, she would later acknowledge, doomed them all.
“That sounds wonderful, Shepard. I understand it’s one of Earth’s most beautiful locations.”
Shepard’s smile widened.
“It’s something,” she said quietly. “And we’ve all got a few weeks of shore leave built up by now. We should use them.”
Liara ran a few quick calculations in her head. There were a few essential reports from top agents that should be coming in over the next few weeks; but only one or two would be time-critical, and she could have those sent to her omnitool. Everything else could wait. She would be willing to risk the assets those reports might bring her, in exchange for a romantic getaway with her partner.
She kissed Shepard’s jaw and curled up close to her. “I agree. I think I would enjoy that immensely.”
Shepard gave a happy sigh and pulled her close.
“That’s the plan, then,” she said. “I’ll get the others on board.”
Liara’s eyes widened.
“Wait,” she said. “What?”
It was Shepard’s idea.
Nothing this completely outside the realm of anything resembling common sense or basic survival instinct could possibly be anything but Shepard’s idea.
Kasumi had the right idea, Miranda thought despairingly. Their thief had heard the words “road trip” and “Normandy crew” in the same sentence and, without a word or the slightest change of expression, vanished into thin air.
After everything they’d been through, the little traitor had abandoned them to their fate.
And so here she was, standing in the loading bay of the Vancouver spaceport, surrounded by the dozen-and-change of the Normandy crew who hadn’t managed to flee through one of the functional relays before she’d run them down. Most of them had been naively amenable to the suggestion, actually. She shook her head. They would learn.
There was a chorus of greetings as Grunt arrived, clambering awkwardly out of a smoking taxi. Miranda raised a hand in vague acknowledgement and surreptitiously checked her calculations again.
She’d run simulations. About five percent of them had only resulted in minor disaster, even! At the very least, she was certain there would be room for everyone’s luggage, with overflow available for a first-aid kit and whatever extra bags someone would inevitably show up with because it didn’t take up that much extra space, right?
She was a former Cerberus operative; she’d learned long ago that any conceivable disaster had a one hundred percent chance of occurring exactly when it could do the most harm, and she planned accordingly. Still. She was hopeful.
A low, rough laugh and an arm around her waist made her jump.
“Quit it, cheerleader.” A normal person might greet their girlfriend with a kiss on the cheek; Jack cheerfully took Miranda’s shoulder in her teeth, just at the base of her throat. The fact that she didn’t bite down hard enough to leave a mark made it a sweetly affectionate gesture, for her. “You’re raising my blood pressure.”
“God forbid,” Miranda muttered. She deactivated her omnitool regardless. “It’s about time you showed up. Cutting it a bit close, aren’t you? If that’s enough to raise your blood pressure, I can’t imagine how you intend to survive the next few days.”
“Throwing shit at Garrus,” Jack answered promptly, flashing a fierce grin. “Shepard’s about five minutes out. Still time for a quickie in the bathroom. Get you to fucking relax for five seconds.”
Miranda bit down a possibly-unfair comment about how if she’d been in the habit of relaxing the Normandy would have spontaneously burst into flames. She wouldn’t want to insult EDI’s competence.
“Where is EDI, anyway?” she said out loud. Jack did a double-take.
“Since when are you fucking EDI?”
“What?” She shook her head sharply. “No, I meant—”
“Who’s fucking EDI? ‘Cause, you know, I feel like I should be involved there somewhere.”
“Hey Joker. Everyone but me, apparently.” Jack punched EDI’s shoulder by way of greeting. She’d finally learned not to try that with Joker, after a few incidents involving emergency-room visits.
EDI cocked her head and said, infuriatingly mildly, “Operative Lawson and I have never been involved in a sexual relationship, Jeff.”
Joker heaved a sigh. “And you got my hopes up, too.”
Miranda was spared the necessity of thinking up a suitably cutting response by a deep foghorn noise.
With the distinct sensation of facing a firing squad, she turned slowly toward the source. She was vaguely aware of the rest of the group filtering in behind her as Shepard waved enthusiastically from the...vehicle...parked at the curb.
Miranda realized her mouth was open, and immediately closed it again. Then she tried to speak only to find that words had utterly failed her. After repeating this process several times, she managed to remember how the English language worked.
“...Well,” she decided. “It’s certainly…”
No. No, there really was nothing she could say that would make this better.
“It’s off-putting,” agreed Garrus.
Traynor appeared to be silently reconsidering the wisdom of accepting Shepard’s invitation. Too late now, Miranda thought grimly. She would not be tolerating any more defections. If she had to suffer through this, she was taking them all down with her.
“...Huh,” said Vega.
Steve Cortez rubbed his face. “That’s, uh...yup.”
“It has…” Liara was visibly struggling to be supportive. “It has character.”
Jack was the only one who appeared unfazed. She raised an eyebrow, tucked her thumbs in her waistband, and commented, “That is one ugly-ass bus.”
Well, Jack always did have a way with words. Miranda couldn’t argue with her analysis.
Traynor had found her voice. “It’s a lime green miniature airbus with a fuschia dragon on the side.”
“And it glitters,” Tali pointed out. “Let’s not forget that part.”
Traynor, in tones of acute misery, replied: “I can’t. I’m trying.”
“It is a unique design,” observed Samara. Nobody had any idea how Shepard had managed to convince the Justicar that this was a good idea. The smart money said she just didn’t trust them not to destroy the planet if left to their own devices.
Which, speaking of not-incorrect assessments...
“Wow.” Joker was smirking and insufferably smug. This was hardly a dramatic shift from his normal state of being, but Miranda glared at him all the same. “I would be personally offended by that thing, but I’m not, because I don’t have to touch it.”
Apparently being the most famous helmsman in the Alliance navy had gotten to his head. He’d managed to flatly refuse Shepard’s invitation unless he and EDI drove their own car. He’d even managed to justify it, as with sixteen people crammed into the bus there was no room for luggage. The two of them had rented a perfectly sensible aircar with a large storage compartment and a small towing trailer, which was enough to convince Shepard that it was worth letting them be spoilsports.
Yes, obviously Miranda was only bitter because she wished she’d thought of it first.
Ashley Williams just snorted. “Don’t get too smug, Joker. You’re the ones who’re gonna have to look at it. All the way to Arizona.”
Before Joker had time to swear, Shepard cleared her throat from beside the bus.
“All right, people!”
It was a mark of Shepard’s skill as a battlefield commander, and their respect for her, that she could achieve instant silence and attention even while standing next to that monstrosity.
Under his breath, Garrus commented, “I love vacations that start with pre-mission briefings.” Miranda wasn’t entirely certain he was being sarcastic.
After waiting a moment to make sure eyes were on her, Shepard continued, “Everyone should have a copy of Miranda’s timetable, we’re gonna try to stick to that as close as possible. The drive’s not that bad, Vancouver to the Grand Canyon’s only about twenty-one hours in a straight shot.”
“Your continent’s concept of distance terrifies me,” said Traynor.
Shepard grinned at her but didn’t respond. “Everyone toss your stuff in Joker’s trailer. Shuttle rules; any medication you might need, keep it on you, because stopping to dig anything out is gonna be a nightmare. Oh, and some people are gonna have to sit on the floor.”
Liara said gently, “I’m not certain that’s legal, Shepard.”
Shepard looked injured. “Well, Mordin wanted to come.”
Javik snorted. Miranda tried not to have a stroke, as no one had warned her he would be here. He was not accounted for in her simulations.
“I have no such desire,” he said. “Does this mean—”
“Nope.” Vega slung an arm around his shoulders, earning himself a multi-eyed death glare that he ignored. “You’re coming too.”
“Any other questions?”
Samara cleared her throat. “About the legality of our seating arrangements…”
“No questions? Good!” Shepard said quickly. “Fall in and look alive, people. Grunt, Wrex, you two are in the back. Everyone else can fight over it.”
“Shotgun!” sang Traynor.
“No calling dibs, I said fight over it, Specialist. Anyway, navigator gets shotgun.”
“Not cool, Shepard.” Steve shook his head. “The rules of shotgun are a sacred trust.”
“Shepard,” she asked delicately, because the Commander was twirling a set of car keys around one finger and it was making her nervous. “Who’s driving?”
There was suddenly dead silence in the loading bay.
Shepard looked surprised that anyone needed to ask. “Well, it’s my bus,” she pointed out. “I figured I’d—”
Fifteen people yelled “NO!” in perfect unison.
“You know,” Shepard complained from the back seat, “This is not how I pictured this trip.”
Miranda very pointedly opened a travel magazine on her omnitool. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said.
The bus had four short rows of seats, not counting the drivers’ section. The krogan took up all four bench seats in the back row. Jack had laid claim to the front window seat, because nobody was entirely willing to get in Jack’s way when she had her mind set on something and Shepard’s permission to fight dirty in order to get it. Miranda had established a space next to her, with Samara settling gracefully on the aisle.
She was trying very hard not to think about the fact that she was going to be sitting between Jack and an Asari Justicar for the next twenty-one hours.
Liara was directly behind them in the window spot, with Javik having glared Kelly Chambers out of the single seat across the aisle. Ashley Williams had apparently discovered the extent of her loyalty, because once she’d snagged a seat she had been entirely unwilling to give it up just to let Shepard sit next to her partner.
“You said fight for it, Skipper,” she said, unapologetically. “If I move, one of these piranhas is gonna take it.”
“She’s not wrong,” admitted Traynor, who actually seemed perfectly happy sitting on the floor.
Shepard heaved a sigh from the back row. Well, the back row save for the krogan. They sort of formed a solid wall that made it easy to forget there was seating back there.
Privately Miranda thought that Shepard had no business pouting, because she’d gotten one of the single seats; no one had quite been able to bring themselves to make the Savior of the Galaxy sit on the floor of her own minibus. Mordin had taken that position quite willingly, leaving Steve and Vega to establish themselves in the remaining two seats.
Kelly could theoretically have squeezed between Williams and Liara, but for the moment was lap-surfing. Steve seemed mostly bemused by her presence. Miranda was just grateful that Samara had an extremely limited knowledge of human motor-vehicle laws, because there was absolutely no way she wasn’t currently obligated to shoot them all.
There was a massive thud that shook the bus, and Miranda looked up from the eleventh thorough rundown of her checklist to see what was going on.
Garrus had managed to establish himself as their designated driver by virtue of never having gotten a traffic ticket or driven off a cliff. He’d also, she observed admiringly, planned ahead for this trip.
“There’s not gonna be a whole lot of dextro food at Earth roadstops,” he explained when he saw Miranda’s look. He patted the enormous cooler. “Especially with all the reconstruction still going on. We figured we should stock up. You know. Emergency rations.”
“Gummy worms!” Tali clarified enthusiastically. Then, “I’m not sure this is going to fit.”
“It should,” said Garrus. “The dimensions all worked out when I calculated it…”
“Maybe if we jumped on it?”
Samara raised a hand. A shimmering biotic field bloomed over the cooler of dextro junk food; there was a pause, then a resounding CRUNCH as the cooler settled into place.
“What was that?” demanded Shepard.
“I’m...sure it’s fine.” Garrus patted the bus anxiously. “We didn’t really need the parking brake, right?”
“He’s joking, Shepard,” Miranda assured her.
Shepard blinked. “There’s a parking brake?”
While Miranda thought back to the number of times Shepard had driven them in a vehicle along thousand-foot cliff edges and tried not to scream, Tali vaulted up into the passenger seat with a contented hum.
“You know,” she decided, “This isn’t such a bad vehicle, Shepard. It’s very roomy.”
Half the bus stared at her. The other half was glaring.
“Oh, you’re evil.” Garrus said affectionately, climbing into the driver’s seat. Tali made a sound that could only be called a sadistic purr. “Have we got everyone?”
Ashley snorted. “Yeah,” she muttered. “God forbid we forget to bring more people onto the damn bus.”
Jack stretched and cracked her spine. “Ah, shove it up your ass, Williams,” she said. “If you didn’t want to come you coulda said no.”
“You seem unusually upbeat about all this, Jack.” Liara sounded almost as surprised as Miranda had felt for the last week. Which, she acknowledged, wasn’t entirely fair; Jack wasn’t really a whiner. Once she’d signed on for something, she rolled with the punches remarkably well. Still, with such tacit permission to snark about the situation, she was a bit taken aback that her...whatever Jack was to her...held such a positive attitude about the trip.
Jack leaned over to grin back at Liara. “You kidding?” she said. “I give it three hours ‘till this turns into one hell of a brawl. I’m not missing that.”
Garrus chuckled quietly as he fiddled with mirrors and seat adjustments. “Oh, good. The radio works. Air conditioning’s good, too. I can work with this.”
“See?” Shepard gestured toward the front of the bus. “That’s the attitude I like to hear.”
Garrus gave a vibrating hum. “I’m a turian,” he reminded her. “Team building-exercises...they’re sort of our thing.”
Shepard sighed. “It’s a vacation, Garrus,” she said patiently. “Not a team-building exercise.”
“Not a very good one, anyway,” he agreed, casually clicking through radio stations. “Jack’s right. We’re definitely gonna end up killing each other.”
There was a pause as the passengers glanced around, silently wondering if anyone was going to disagree.
“I don’t know what bluegrass is,” Garrus announced cheerfully. “But I’m gonna play it.”
By the time they were an hour and a half outside Vancouver, even Shepard was starting to think she might have had enough of Garrus’ attempts to sing along to the local bluegrass station.
Admittedly some of the passengers didn’t seem to mind. Samara, of course, had closed her eyes and appeared totally at peace with her fate; Kelly had thought ahead enough to bring a set of high-end noise-cancelling headphones and was bobbing her head idly in the middle row. She was sitting in Ash’s lap now. She seemed a lot happier about that arrangement than Ash did.
Schadenfreude was unbecoming, as Miranda had snapped at her plenty of times before. But damn was it satisfying. Ashley Williams had it coming.
Tali didn’t seem bothered by the singing either, although Shepard had her suspicions about that. She’d noticed Admiral Vas Normandy surreptitiously tapping something into her suit controls and was pretty certain she’d deactivated the audio input. But Jack had been complaining for the past forty-five minutes, Javik was muttering darkly ominous things about retribution against their cycle, and Steve was reading aloud an excerpt from the Geneva Convention about torturing prisoners. It was probably time to step in.
“Okay guys,” she said, just loud enough to be heard over Garrus. “Not that this isn’t fun, but we’ve got at least twenty-one hours to kill. Why don’t we do something?”
“There are sixteen of us in a moving vehicle, Shepard.” Miranda leaned around Samara to make absolutely certain Shepard saw her expression. “I can’t imagine what you think we’ll be able to do.”
Mordin piped up from his spot at Shepard’s feet. “Described this activity as a ‘road trip’. Strange phrase. Most journeys follow roads. Route markers. Etcetera. Nevertheless, research indicates humans attach certain traditions to this practice.”
“There you go, Miranda.” Shepard gestured at Mordin. “Might as well do this right.”
“I’m not certain what you mean.” Liara sounded wary.
Vega laughed. “What?” he said. “Asari don’t play I Spy?”
“I like the way you think, Vega.” Truth be told, Shepard was a bit giddy about this whole thing. It’d be nice to get a chance to just relax and play stupid car games together. No explosions or galaxy-destroying eldritch abominations. Well...fewer explosions, anyway. She was a realist. “Want me to start?”
“Jack can start,” Miranda announced calmly from the front.
“I don’t remember Jack volunteering,” Shepard called back.
“She’s being volunteered. She’s muttering and it’s driving me crazy.”
Shepard couldn’t see what was going on that far in the front. That worried her a bit. A lot. The bus was a rental.
“Are you fucking serious?” demanded Jack. Luckily she sounded more incredulous than pissed.
“Too hard for you?” Miranda shot back. Her smirk was audible.
Oh, Jack was gonna love that …
“I can start!” Kelly said quickly. “I spy something...green.”
“No,” said Jack. “You know what? Fine. I spy something—”
“With my little eye,” said Miranda serenely. Traynor was struck by a sudden coughing fit.
“You are so fucking close, princess. I spy with my little eye something bitchy and wearing a catsuit.”
“Play nice,” Shepard warned them both.
“Besides, that’s too easy,” Garrus called back from the cabin. “It’s obviously me.”
“That’s all right, Commander.” Miranda’s voice had gotten even sweeter. Oh, that was a bad sign. This had been a bad plan. Someone was going to die and it would probably be Shepard, statistically speaking. “If that’s how she wants to play the game, I spy something that went through five hundred credits’ worth of alarm clocks in a year because she throws them against the wall.”
Jack snorted. “Weak. Pull out ‘cries after sex’ or something, come on. Don’t look at me like that, Chambers, I’ll psychoanalyze your ass out a window.”
Kelly’s vaguely concerned look lingered for a moment longer, but before Shepard could quietly back up Jack’s blunt desire for privacy their resident...unofficial shrink...smiled and leaned back, playing with Ash’s hair.
“Well,” she said brightly. “I spy someone who’s definitely not prejudiced against aliens, they’re just saying.”
It was better than a turian singing bluegrass, but not by much.
Jack had set the tone, all right. After twenty minutes of viciously lighthearted burn session in which aspersions were cast on Shepard's survival instincts for some reason, Miranda had redirected successfully into an extremely interesting game of Mad Libs. No one’s interest had lasted longer than a few rounds, but between Jack, Mordin, Javik, and Samara’s respective vocabularies there had been some wild results.
By now, things were finally starting to settle into a sort of calm. Liara was reading, Tali was holding a paper map of North America upside-down and rummaging through a bag of dextro gummy worms, and Samara was tolerating Kelly’s presence in her lap with admirable calm. Wrex and Grunt were cheerfully and loudly comparing the prowess of their respective newborn children when they passed a rounded aircar travelling the opposite direction and Jack’s face lit up. That wouldn’t have been nearly as concerning if her fist hadn’t done the same thing.
Shepard nearly leapt out of her seat and was yanked back by the safety belt.
“No biotic punch buggy!”
Jack sighed, threw her hands in the air, and flopped back into her seat.
Shepard considered for a moment and then hurriedly clarified, “Actually, no biotics on the bus. Period.”
Very reasonably, Grunt asked, “Can we punch people without biotics?”
Wrex snorted. “All you young soft things. Letting biotics do all the work.”
Shepard sighed. “You’re a biotic, Wrex.”
“I don’t need biotics. A real warrior can rip out an enemy’s lungs with his bare hands!”
“Yeah,” Grunt agreed. “But you use biotics. Then you can rip out his lungs and his spine. And all the other stuff. All at once!”
“Not the same, runt. Not the same. Here, I’ll show you.”
Sensing disaster and in a fit of naive optimism, Kelly suggested road trip songs.
They’d forgotten that Mordin was on the bus. It had been three hours.
Kelly and (surprisingly) Traynor were enthusiastic enablers, Shepard thought drily. At least it had made up for Jack’s disappointment at the punch-buggy ban; Miranda had argued that her suggestions were technically drinking songs, but had been unanimously overruled by a bus morbidly curious to see how many of the damn things Jack knew. Even Ash, Steve and Vega had gotten involved in trying to think of as many different driving songs as they could, but their enthusiasm had tapered off at about eighty-two bottles of beer.
Traynor, Kelly and Mordin were still going strong.
Shepard cleared her throat. “Guys?”
“...take one down, pass it around—”
“Twenty-seven bottles of—”
“I WILL LITERALLY FUCKING FLAY YOU ALIVE!”
“Thanks, Jack,” said Shepard.
Ash cleared her throat.
“So, uh,” she said. “We always played the alphabet game. In my family.”
There was a chorus of groans.
Tali turned to peer at them. “Isn’t there a human quote about the definition of insanity?”
“Aw, come on, Tali.” Shepard sat forward. “We’ve got nothing better to do.”
“Whose alphabet?” asked Liara. “There are...seven different species here, with wildly different language systems.”
“Well, we are on Earth,” said Ash.
Grunt...grunted. “She would say that.”
Shepard thought about it. “We’ll cycle through languages,” she decided.
Steve shrugged. “Well, I see an asari.”
“A couple of biotics,” added Traynor.
“The cooler,” Miranda reported.
From the front, Tali chirped, “Drive shaft.”
“Uh,” said Steve. “If you can see the drive shaft, we’re in trouble.”
Tali giggled. “I can see the drive shaft. It’s not my fault you don’t have built-in scanning functions.”
Shepard shrugged. “That’s fair. Someone do E.”
It was actually a surprisingly peaceful couple of minutes. It almost looked like they would get through a single game without incident, which should have been all she needed to know to realize what was about to happen.
“Lights,” was Liara’s contribution.
“Miranda,” Ash added immediately, and was immediately shot down.
“Aw, c’mon,” Vega protested. “That’s too easy.”
“You can’t use Miranda,” Tali agreed. “I had a good one!”
“It rained last night,” Steve said, pointing out the window. “Mud.”
Shepard snapped her fingers and pointed at him. “There we go. All right, who’s got N?”
“Nonsense?” Miranda suggested mildly.
Vega rolled his eyes and spread his hands. “Come on, Lawson,” he said. “Normandy crew!”
“I liked hers better,” said Jack.
“Organics,” said Vega. “And someone who’s not Javik take the next one, I’ve been eyeing this guy and he’s been waiting on ‘Primitives’ since B. How about physical perfection? ‘Cause, I mean. I’m right here.”
Wrex gave a low, evil chuckle.
“I got one,” he said, and turned to look Grunt in the eye. “I’m back here looking at a little pyjak.”