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The line is regulation straight as the crew welcomes her aboard, and the ship VI’s announcement is oozing with every last drop of its programmed pleasantness.

Lieutenant Commander Nijah Shepard is now aboard. Welcome, Commander Shepard.

She greets each of her officers in turn with a crisp salute and firm, distant ‘at ease.’ As Captain Anderson waits, her eyes cast over the head of the marine detail. She’s always been a quick judge of character — a necessity where she comes from — and she can spot an appraising look from miles away.

He’s giving her one. It’s cautious and subtle, but still present. They’ve all heard of her —rare is a posting these days where they haven’t — but Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko is looking at her without awe or jealousy or doubt. It’s plain curiosity. He wants to know what she’s made of and whether whatever it is will be liable to make his job easier or harder.

It’s pragmatic, and thus it’s something she can appreciate. Her primary thought, however, is: ‘beautiful eyes.’

Thinking it isn’t really the problem. Now, the fact that the rest doesn’t chase it away.

Well.

 

*

 

In the end, it’s the little things that get her into trouble. But that’s pretty much always the way of it, so Nijah isn’t especially surprised.

 

*

 

She hasn’t seen worse than Eden Prime, just different shades of horrifying. People who aren’t on the ground, who’ve never been on the ground, always think they can classify and quantify, but it doesn’t work that way.

There’s noise and blood and dead and dying and no one is counting anything, except maybe the minutes they’ve lived through it and how long until they can get away from it. It’s better, Nijah’s found, not to think about it at all.

Nijah catches Alenko’s gaze, pulls it away from Jenkins’ glassy eyes, and speaks with authority. She knows what he needs to hear to drive him on; he has that air about him, like he’s still got secret, soft places despite all the years of service. 

Alenko is a fine soldier, but he’s never watched one of his own go down before.

She’s not been so lucky, and the only thing she really learned from it is that if you want to survive, you don’t stop.

Later, when they’ve found what’s left of the 212, Nijah takes no pleasure in the fact that she doesn’t have to explain it again.

 

*

 

There are, as it turns out, bars on the Citadel without entertainment that gyrates. Vital evidence regarding high level treason be damned, the Council has the power to make everyone wait their turn and no trouble exercising it.

Captain Anderson recommends some rest, but Nijah is ready to climb walls or shoot things, so she takes advantage of what she senses will be their only downtime for a while. It should worry her that she doesn’t even have to ask Alenko and Williams to come along — they just fall in behind her after she announces her intentions — but she’s exactly weary enough not to care. Drinks don’t make them friends. Good team chemistry doesn’t make her attached.

Alenko is easily outvoted and marches off to get their drinks. Nijah suspects it’s because both she and Williams much prefer watching Alenko leave than each other, but it’s the kind of thing you don’t say about fellow marines so it goes unconfirmed.

Williams munches on a handful of what passes for beer nuts here, jaw clenched and eyes hooded. Nijah knows the question that’s building in her throat before it comes, and she knows how she could cut it off — a joke, an anecdote, a gripe. It would be easy to stall until Alenko comes back, and the danger passes.

It’s not something she can fix; she hasn’t for herself, so there’s pretty much no hope for someone else. Of course, low chances of success have never stopped Nijah trying before.

Williams looks up at her, all huge eyes. Nijah expects her to regress, to lose years off of her age, but instead she looks exactly as old as she is. Somehow that’s even more tragic.

She and Williams bear very little resemblance — Nijah is sharper and darker and wears her regulation bun higher and tighter — but the things screaming in Williams’ eyes are very distinctive and make Nijah feel like she’s staring into a mirror.

“Does it get any better, Skipper?” Williams asks at last, and Nijah thinks of a barren, far away planet and melted, twisted piles of meat that used to be men and women she knew. It’s years gone, but still likes to drop in when she closes her eyes.

“No,” Nijah says. “But it gets easier to pretend.”

 

*

 

Finding time to oneself on a frigate is no simple task. They’re built for efficiency and efficiency involves using every available bit of space. Technically, Nijah is better off than most since she has the captain’s quarters all to herself, but that still feels like trespassing no matter how many blessings Anderson offered. So she settles, often, for nearly-alone.

Alenko is quiet, not shy, but carefully reserved. Some of the crew think he’s odd, but he’s probably the least odd L2 she’s ever met. She suspects that he cultivates that normalcy and all that control for exactly that reason. She won’t ask, of course, because that would be personal and she doesn’t do that anymore.

But sitting isn’t personal, especially when they’re not talking. And Alenko has a knack for eating at off times when they’re the only ones in the mess. They share a biotic appetite so there’s nothing to hide there. They sit across from each other and bulldoze their rations-and-a-half with impunity.

She knows that he likes soy sauce on his reconstituted eggs and he takes to wordlessly passing her sugar for hers. They both hate mushrooms, but he trades half his chicken for half of her rice pilaf every time that comes up on the dinner menu.

It’s not until he’s down with a migraine for half a day and she finds herself with a hearty pile of long grain leftover on her plate at dinner that she lets herself see the danger.

She wraps it up and leaves it for him in the darkened medbay. He’s lying on his back, asleep, she can tell from his breathing, with one arm thrown across his eyes. Doctor Chakwas watches Nijah watch him for a full minute before gesturing to a chair. 

The fact that she wants to sit down makes her leave all the faster.

 

*

 

The thing about loss is that you never get used to it, but you do become an expert at trying to avoid it.

 

*

 

“Come on, Shepard!” Vakarian yells it with such force that it crackles at the end, his translator giving out a bit. Nijah didn’t take him for a betting man, but that’s definitely the sound of someone who has credits riding on this.

She grips Ashley’s hand tighter and shifts her shoulders. Her elbow is grinding into the table and the Chief’s arm bends just a little more. Things shift, fractionally, in Nijah’s favor.

Ashley is biting her lip, face screwed up in concentration, like she doesn’t even hear the jeers and trash talk of all the crew gathered around. Out of the corner of her eye, Nijah can see Kaidan at the end of the table, a rare full-blown smile gracing his features.

Nijah goes for the kill, putting on the pressure and Ashley grunts as she tries to resist her hand heading for the table. Then, Nijah’s elbow slips. A miscalculation or serendipity, either way her leverage disappears, and Ashley takes advantage.

Nijah’s knuckles rap smartly against the table as a deafening chorus of cheers, boos, and catcalls rises around them. Ashley grins, lopsided, as she raises her arms victoriously, then pauses to massage her shoulder. For a moment, in the turn of Ashley’s mouth and the glint in her eyes, Nijah sees someone else entirely before she blinks away faded memories of families disbanded all too quickly.

“Nice one, Skipper,” Ashley says, smug, and holds out her hand for a shake.

Nijah smiles in spite of herself and takes her hand.

“Two out of three, Chief,” she says and the crew roars with approval.

Down the table, Kaidan is still smiling.

 

*

 

There doesn’t tend to be a lot of palatable alcohol on a ship, and the Normandy is no different. Outside of Chakwas’ stores there’s not much that you want to so much as taste as it goes down, but sometimes the effect is all that’s really important.

After you’ve been trapped in an old mine in a very small room with an armed nuke is absolutely one of those times. She and Kaidan sit across from each other at their normal table — they have a table and Nijah knows that she’s drunk because she finds that hilarious — though for him it’s mostly a spectator sport.

“A hangover’s got nothing on a migraine,” he explains.

Nijah frowns.

“That’s so sad,” she says. Her words barely run together at all.

“I manage,” he replies with a grin.

“Then this,” Nijah says as she raises her cup again, “is in honor of you.”

It’s still pretty terrible swill, but she’s gotten used to it at this point. She must make a face though, because he chuckles into his coffee.

“What do you do to loosen up, then?” she asks with the hooch burning down her throat.

“Maybe ‘loose’ is over-rated,” he replies.

“Spoken like someone wound way too tight.”

She worries for a moment that she went too far, because she knows why, overlong “debriefing” sessions that neither of them want to end have ensured it. Though the line of his shoulders goes slightly stiffer for a moment, he doesn’t retreat.

“In that case,” he says and he sets his mug down, “do you have any suggestions?”

They veritably stampede through her mind, which is nothing new in this little dance they’ve taken up, but she’s sloshed enough that she might actually voice one. So, she stands instead.

Or tries. It’s a much more dizzying prospect than it was an hour ago is all. Kaidan leaps to his feet as she wavers and winds his arm about her waist.

“My only suggestion is bed,” Nijah says, then grimaces. “For me.”

That doesn’t really make it better, but he just nods agreeably.

“I’ll walk you,” he says, by which he means half-carry her the short distance to her quarters.

The circle of his embrace is warm and solid. Her fingers play on his shoulder as she braces herself against him. Her door is behind them, but neither of them is making a move towards it.

He has a tiny scar on his lower lip.

“There are very few people I’d let see me like this, you know,” Nijah says.

“An honor and a pleasure, ma’am.” His voice is low and careful. He’s always careful.

“Not that much of a pleasure, no,” Nijah replies. His pupils are blown, his eyes dark as can be, and she doesn’t regret it.

“Shepard,” Kaidan breathes, and it goes through her like a lightning bolt. She knocks her head against the door.

“Someone needs to walk away here,” she forces out, “and I’m not exactly in the condition.”

He releases her, and she feels cold.

“Of course, Commander,” he says with a remarkably even voice.

She turns to the door and waves her hand past the access pad. It slides open with the sound of the hermetic seal releasing. His boots are echoing on the deck.

“Not for good, though,” she calls and hates herself.

His footsteps stutter, pause, before they start again.

 

*

 

She’d made herself a life and her life was the service. Her life was her uniform. Her life was her unit. She learned the value of belonging back when she should have been playing at her parents’ knees, and she left one family entirely on the strength of finding another.

Then they dropped onto Akuze and it all went away in fits and starts. Fifteen down, then half a dozen here and there. Then one by one by one until there was only one.

Nothing matches the primal fear of a child left all alone, except perhaps it being recreated on a distant planet full of monsters. So she took that fear and tempered it and made solitude a virtue.

What followed was short postings and pleasantries and going to great lengths not to remember names.

She came from nothing, so going back to it was easier than anyone could have imagined.

 

*

 

She knows all of Ashley’s sisters’ names and things that have been kicking around in Kaidan’s head since adolescence. 

As if that wasn’t enough, she knows about Garrus’ daddy issues. And Wrex’s. And Tali’s. (There’s something comforting about certain things being universal, she supposes.)

It’s like the flood gates were pried open and everyone came crashing through, and now they’re all looking at her in a way she can’t stand: with loyalty borne not just of respect, but affection. 

She’d like to blame the mission as it stretches on and on, and they grow ever more unable to rely on anyone but each other, but it occurs to her that the why of it doesn’t really matter when she’s settled in and running low on resistance.

 

*

 

There may be a sorrier sight than three marines covered in plant zombie vomit standing sullenly in a decon chamber, but Nijah has never seen it. Her hardsuit has been recolored putrid yellow-green by Thorian slime, and Ashley and Kaidan match her.

None of them is surprised when the VI announces that the contamination level exceeds the threshold for basic decon and so full clean room procedures are required. They strip off their hardsuits, piece by piece and drop them into the pro-offered bins. Their duraweave undersuits are better off, though not by that much. Ashley unzips Nijah who unzips Kaidan who unzips Ashley, all with standard military precision.

Kaidan has a mole beneath his left shoulderblade, and Nijah’s finger grazes it. Ashley’s grin says that she noticed, and she turns away with exaggerated deliberateness. The undersuits go in the bin as well, and all is silent as the compartments with tubes of decon gel swing open.

Until, Nijah groans and scoops Thorian slime out from her standard issue sports bra.

“How the hell is that even possible?” she demands with a grimace that sets Ashley off laughing.

Kaidan only grins, but for him that’s more mocking than Ashley’s chuckles, so Nijah squirts decon gel at him.

Things deteriorate from there.

 

*

 

Later, fully showered and dressed, Ashley bursts into a guffaw every time Nijah crosses her arms over her chest. 

When Nijah’s gaze falls on Kaidan, he rolls his left shoulder reflexively.

 

*

 

It’s always the little things.