Shepard could hear Grunt from out in the hall. “I don’t need medigel,” he was saying. “I’m a krogan, I don’t need medigel. I need more ryncol. Ryncol is the medicine of warriors!”
She didn’t hear the reply, but as the door swished open she could see the medic roll her eyes behind her hood as she turned away. Grunt—a medigel patch prominently strapped to his throat; the medic must’ve won this one—huffed and let his head drop back to the thin pillow, eyes closing.
“I brought you a present,” Shepard said.
Grunt opened one eye. “Is it ryncol?”
Shepard couldn’t resist teasing: “I don’t think you’re supposed to have hard liquor while you’re recuperating.”
Grunt snorted and shut his eyes again. “Shows what you know about krogan, Shepard.”
Shepard couldn’t help smiling. “Fair enough. But no, it’s not ryncol.”
“Is it new armor? I could use some new—”
Shepard folded her arms. “Did I give you some reason to think this was a guessing game?”
“So tell me.”
“I’ll show you,” Shepard said. She beckoned to the salarian who was hovering nervously (and who could blame him?) at the edge of the room. He brought the present—squirming and making little ‘meep’ noises—over and dropped it into her arms. “Open your eyes, Grunt.”
Grunt opened his eyes, but unfortunately he was looking not at Shepard but just past her. “You brought me a salarian to eat?”
“No, Grunt. I brought you a kakliosaur.” She deposited it on the edge of his bed. At this age, the kakliosaur was still pretty small—about the size of the Labrador retriever puppy Shepard had gotten when she was eight, and even the same golden color (although this creature would grow up quite a lot bigger than a yellow lab). Its tusks hadn’t come in yet and its horns were just buds, but it already had the beginnings of its prominent neck-frill. It squirmed up along Grunt’s side and nudged him with one three-toed hoof-paw.
“Oh,” Grunt said, struggling to sit up. He blinked down at the hatchling. “I heard there weren’t many of these in the first cloning batch. Not a lot to go around.” Unspoken was that the first batch would go to the warlords and battlemasters, the generals and scarred veterans, not a new company leader—no matter how celebrated.
“I pulled a few strings.”
He glanced up at her, and in that untroubled blue gaze she could see a devotion that he would never verbalize—partly because he didn’t have the words for it, but partly, too, because he would never see the need, would assume she knew. Which, of course, she did. Then he wiggled his fingers. “Hey, little guy. Hey.” The kakliosaur lunged to snap at his fingers, and he pulled them away from its sharp baby-fangs just in time and chuckled. “He’s got nerve. I like him.”
“Thought you would.”
Grunt picked the kakliosaur up, turning it around to study it from all angles, from the blunt muzzle that would soon sport long tusks to the stubby tail in back. “Genetically engineered,” he said, “like me.”
“That thought did occur to me.”
Grunt settled back against the pillows, hooking one arm around the infant kakliosaur and pulling it against his side. “Everyone’s going to wish they had a battlemaster like Shepard,” he said, sounding smug. The kakliosaur meeped.
As they were leaving, the salarian said, “Are you sure he’ll take sufficiently good care? The others we’re raising at least to adolescence before we hand them out—”
“He’ll be fine,” Shepard said. “He takes care of the things that matter.”
Naturally, that wasn’t the end of it.
It was just a few weeks later—on route to Rannoch—that Shepard got a video message from Grunt.
He was sitting on what looked like a lump of rock, and he looked much better than when she’d seen him last—although given krogan regeneration, that was only to be expected. And under one arm was… well, it had to be his kakliosaur, didn’t it? But it was much bigger than Shepard would have guessed. Just a few weeks later, and it was the size of a Shetland pony in height, and bulkier by far, with tusks and horns already growing in.
Well, Wrex had always said that Tuchanka wildlife grew fast. She just hadn’t bargained on quite this fast.
“Shepard!” Grunt said. “I wanted to tell you that your present? It’s still alive.”
“That’s good to hear,” she said weakly.
“I’ve been bringing it around with me on Tuchanka, so if it wasn’t strong, it would have died,” Grunt said. “But it didn’t die. So it’s worthy of being my kakliosaur.” Then he completely contradicted any Hobbesian implications by hooking the beast about the neck and rubbing his nose affectionately against its muzzle. The kakliosaur made a low mrrrrr of pleasure. “Aren’t you?”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Shepard said.
“So,” Grunt said. “Anyway. That’s not why I called.”
Then he paused and scratched his adolescent dinosaur-pony around the nose, tusks, horns, and frill, while it growled and purred with pleasure, until finally Shepard said, “…Yes?”
“Oh, right. I gave it a name. Him. They’re all hims, I guess, the salarians are keeping the first batch of cloned female kakliosaurs for breeding. Anyway. Him. I gave him a name.”
Grunt rubbed his fingers across his pony-sized baby kakliosaur’s butter-colored nose. “I decided to name him ‘Normandy.’”
That knocked her wordless for a moment, warmth spreading through her chest. She’d never really thought of Grunt as her son, exactly, but he was her… responsibility, even kin, in some way that even her other crewmates weren’t, since she’d decanted him from his tank. And the Normandy was his first real home, the first home where he’d been conscious. “Grunt. That’s… I’m honored. That’s wonderful.” That’s really sweet, she thought, but didn’t say, because if you told a krogan they were sweet they might tear your head off.
Grunt grinned, flickering across the vid message, that slow grin that showed every grinding tooth. “Yeah,” he said. “I just thought, I mean. Who else but the Normandy could get blown to bits and come back shooting?”
Shepard stared at him, across the comm, across light-years. “That’s not quite what I meant.”
“You don’t think it’s a good name?”
“No, it’s….” She put her forehead in her hand for a moment, then pulled it away, folded it behind her back. “No. It’s a great name. I’m honored.” Joker will be somewhat less honored. Maybe I won’t tell him. EDI can be the one to tell him that somebody named a hyper-aggressive extinct semi-dinosaur from Tuchanka after his favorite ship.
“You should come see, Shepard,” Grunt said, his lips spreading into the krogan grin that meant so much mayhem. “We’re going to break so many heads, me and Normandy.”
“Shepard,” Wrex said, staticky over the comm. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“I’ll get you a kakliosaur too if you want one?” Shepard said.
“I’ll pretend you didn’t say that,” Wrex said, narrowing blood-orange eyes at her. “I could get a kakliosaur if I wanted one, but have you forgotten that I’m a battlemaster? Most animals panic around biotics.”
“All right, all right.”
“But my generals who don’t have a first-round kakliosaur hatchling are asking me why some tankbred youngling has one. And everyone is challenging him in the hopes that if they defeat him they can inherit it.”
Shepard smiled to herself. “I bet he’s getting a real kick out of that.”
“Yes.” And here, then, Wrex grinned, despite himself. “Yes, there’s nothing Grunt likes as much as bloodying some idiot who wants to take his pet by force. But Shepard—”
“He’s done a lot for me, Wrex,” Shepard said. “I try to do for my people. I know you understand that.”
Wrex stared at her, that long, wry gaze. Then he sighed. “All right,” he said. “But Shepard—”
“—When he and Normandy,” and she could feel the irony heavy on that word, “wreck half our infrastructure, I’m billing you.”
“Bill away,” she said. “I’ll expense it to the Alliance,” and Wrex laughed.
When she got the call, Shepard thought, Not again.
She arrived on scene at the Presidium Commons to find a harassed-looking turian C-Sec officer (did they give them lessons in looking so put-upon? She’d never seen a C-Sec officer who didn’t have that look—even Garrus, back in the day) standing with arms folded. Grunt was sitting on a bench looking entirely unrepentant. His kakliosaur lay next to him, and it was bigger yet again—the approximate bulk of the draft horses she’d seen on human-dominated colonies, although broader and lower to the ground. It had deepened in color from butter-pale to a rich dark gold, and its horns and tusks appeared to be fully grown-in. (It was rubbing one tusk absently against the plastoid material of the bench, leaving deep gouges. It glanced up at Shepard with one beady red eye and said, “Gronk?”)
“Nothing against the rules about taking a kakliosaur through the Presidium,” Grunt was saying as she approached. He grinned. “I checked.”
“That’s because—spirits, krogan—that’s because we thought they were extinct.”
Grunt gave a one-shoulder shrug, the gesture unfamiliar on a krogan. He must’ve learned it from her, she realized. “Not my problem.”
The turian flicked a glance at Shepard, and looked, if anything, even more resigned. “What is your problem,” he said, “is the three broken fences, two overturned benches, one smashed kiosk, and twenty cafe tables that you flipped over. And you caused a riot. A small riot, I grant, but still a riot.”
“Wasn’t my fault.”
“You aren’t pinning this one on me, even if you are Shepard’s little pet,” said another familiar voice, and Shepard wanted to put her face in her hands. Jack—who had been sitting on the other side of the bench, shielded from view by Grunt’s bulk—got to her feet and turned to glare. (It was really a measure of how much she had changed that she was glaring instead of lighting the C-Sec officer on fire, although perhaps that was because the officer had been smart enough not to try to restrain her or take her in.) Next to her, Eezo sat up and put his front paws on the back of the bench, tongue lolling.
“I’ll deal with you in a minute, human,” the turian said, although he sounded more exhausted than aggressive.
“Like fuck you will.”
“Gentlemen,” Shepard said. “And Jack. Would someone like to fill me in on exactly what is going on here?”
All three turned to her and began to speak at once.
“One at a time, please,” she said. “Jack. Fill me in.”
The story pieced together in fits and starts, with interruptions and complaints and contradictions from all parties, and much swearing from Jack, who was apparently taking full advantage of her short leave from her kids. In the end, though, there weren’t really any major discrepancies. Jack had been taking Eezo for a walk—
(”Off-leash,” the C-Sec officer interjected.
“Of course off-leash, dumbass,” Jack said. “You ever try to put a leash on a varren?”
“They chew right through it,” Grunt agreed. “Even chain.”)
—Jack had been taking Eezo for a walk around the lake, and Grunt had decided to take his kakliosaur out for some exercise—
(”Why here?” Shepard asked.
Grunt gave her a flat I-know-you’re-my-battlemaster-but-are-you-also-stupid look. “Because there’s not as much room in the Wards.”
“No, I mean why did you bring a kakliosaur on the presidium in the first place?”
“I couldn’t leave him on the ship. He’d miss me. Also someone would try to steal him.”)
—and either Eezo had decided to chase Normandy Junior or vice versa (no one was quite clear on that point) and both Jack and Grunt had apparently felt the need to defend their respective pets, which explained the shotgun blasts marring the topiary bushes and the occasional exploded tree (although that might have just been Eezo, come to think of it) but the end result was clear: a litany of property damage that the turian listed, in detail, in tones of total defeat.
“Grunt,” Shepard said. “How many times am I going to wind up paying damages for you?”
“I don’t know,” Grunt said, after a moment’s thought. “How big is your bank account?”
“Jack,” Shepard continued, ignoring that, “what would your students say if they’d seen you twenty minutes ago?”
Jack considered this. “They’d say I’m a badass motherfucker who protects what’s in her charge and takes no shit from nobody.”
There wasn’t really any answering that. Any of that. “I’ll vouch for these two,” she said. “Spectre… business.” The beauty of being a Spectre was that it didn’t have to be plausible. “And I’ll pay the damages.”
Twenty minutes and a seemingly-endless stream of paperwork later, and Shepard walked out of the Presidium, flanked by a tank-bred pure krogan and an all-powerful biotic bitch, who were in turn flanked by some of Tuchanka’s deadliest. It was a shame, really, that there was no one to impress except for the occasional terrified shopkeeper. “You two owe me a drink. Two drinks.”
“I’ve got some ryncol—”
“Commander.” Victus was always polite to her—especially since she’d helped his son regain his honor—but now she could tell there was a strain under that politeness.
“I appreciate all you’ve done for my people. And I am frankly astounded by the success of the krogan on Palaven. It’s nothing short of miraculous.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”
“But I’m having a morale problem.”
He sighed, and rubbed the plates between his brow ridges with one fingertip, a gesture she knew from Garrus as one of frustrated weariness. “I don’t suppose you know why we have a young krogan riding a large horned creature back and forth on the barricades in Valanus City shouting ‘Commander Shepard sent me and Normandy to save your pansy asses for you’?”
Shepard hurt everywhere; everywhere, everything hurt. The one thing that convinced her that she wasn’t dead, after everything, was that she hurt too much. That was half of why she hadn’t yet tried to dig her way out—the other half was that she wasn’t actually sure which was to dig. She couldn’t see even a sliver of daylight. The only reason she was pretty sure she’d made it to Earth was that the air was breathable. Choked with smoke and dust, but breathable.
She wasn’t sure how long she lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness, before the earth shifted and a sliver of light fell through to her. Her eyes squeezed shut reflexively against the brightness.
And then, a voice. “Shepard?”
She managed, barely, to get breath into her lungs, to speak: “Grunt?”
“Shepard!” And then suddenly the rubble was moving away from her—fast, almost frighteningly fast—and she was being lifted, hauled upward in defiance of every Alliance protocol about moving the injured, and she could not have given less of a fuck because Grunt was pulling her out of the rubble and onto the warm, leathery back of an animal.
She couldn’t speak, didn’t have either the breath or the energy for it, but that was all right because Grunt had enough words: “I had a bet with Kasumi. She said her sensors would find you first. I said I would. Ha ha ha, I was right, Normandy had your scent. She owes me….” He hesitated. “I don’t know what she owes me. Something. We bet on something.”
“How did you… even…” She wheezed, dragged a fresh breath. “…know I was alive?”
Grunt must’ve nudged his mount into a walk, because the soft warmth beneath her began to shift. “Something Ashley said. Said in her culture, things came in threes. You were alive once, and you came back after that. So you had at least one more in you.”
She smiled, or tried to, the expression pulling at every painful cut and burn on her face.
Grunt continued. “Besides, you’re my battlemaster, so you couldn’t be dead. Not yet. You okay? ‘Cause Joker says everyone’s waiting.”
“…Thank you,” Shepard said, thinking of everyone who had brought her to this place, and everyone who was carrying her away. Feeling the warmth of an extinct animal beneath her, the slow cadence of alien footsteps treading on her ancestral homeworld, her kin among the dead bearing her back across the ashes of Earth to the living. “Thanks, Grunt.”
“Yeah,” he said, and though she couldn’t see him through the blur of her exhaustion and pain, still she could see him, in her mind’s eye, her almost-son, her alien child, born and reborn as she was born and reborn, from technology and will and hope. “Yeah. Shepard, we’re all going home.”