Chapter 1: A is for Armoury
"What the hell...?"
Cortez looked up from his examination of the Kodiak's new odds and ends to find Vega looking at his bunk, perplexed and - not to mince words - a little panicked. Steve couldn't find it in him to keep the smirk out of his voice when he asked, "Someone been sleeping in your bed, Poppa Bear?"
"Yeah," Vega said, still looking at the lump of blanket on his too-small-for-him-but-he-slept-in-it-anyway army cot in a corner of his little casa away from casa. "And it's too hard - at least compared to what she usually sleeps on, from what I heard - but ... she's still there." When he looked up at Cortez, Vega's eyes were confused. "What's the Commander doing in my bed? 'Cos if this is some kind of welcome-to-the-Normandy present, I like my women ... y'know. Conscious."
I will not laugh I will not laugh I will not ... ah, hell with it. Unable to stifle the chuckle without busting something, Cortez said, "If we were ever going to do that to you, Vega, I want it known right now that I want a sock on the door. And possibly an actual door. Some shows just aren't my thing."
Vega made a grumbling noise to try to hide his blush. "Still notice you're not telling me what she's doing here, Esteban. And why she's not awake with all this noise we're making."
"Well, she hasn't slept in two days. I figure it'd take flashbangs to wake her up right now." When Vega glared at him, Cortez took pity. "Look, when the Alliance placed her under house arrest, I hear she got ... antsy, when they wouldn't let her have tech more advanced than a datapad."
With a snort, Vega pointed out, "Yeah, and even those, we monitored her with. Seriously limited extranet connection, firewalls up the yin-yang all set up to flag to the MPs if she so much as breathed on it funny. Hey, when you hear the full story of how she kept ten thousand angry batarians out of Elysium for a couple days, you learn to keep tech away from Lola if you're worried about her loyalties, y'know?"
Cortez thought about that. "I'm gonna have to ask her about that one later. Probably over drinks. Anyway, between runs to save the galaxy, instead of sleeping like a normal person, she's been down here in the armoury. Drinking that insanely strong coffee of hers and tinkering with things. She did things to the Kodiak engines that I didn't think were possible, tweaked a stabiliser quirk that I thought was unavoidable ... and then I directed her to weapons mods before she could take the Kodiak apart and upgrade the eezo core. She could've done it, but we'd have been stuck without shuttle drop capability for a couple of days."
"And, what, she conked out down here and you dropped her in my bed?" Vega looked Shepard over. "She's ... what, five-five, maybe a buck twenty in civvies and combat boots? You couldn't manhandle her up to her own cabin?"
With a shrug, Cortez explained, "Well, more like Vakarian came down with coffee I'm pretty sure was doped with something. Since I heard she metabolised some nasty batarian poison on Omega in about five minutes flat, I figured I wanted to make sure I didn't wake her up. She needs the sleep. And since I stand at five-seven and weigh a buck-thirty in civies and jump-boots, it'd be my luck to drop her on the elevator floor."
"What, worried she'd beat your ass?"
"Like she beat yours when you asked her to 'dance'?" Vega rolled his eyes, and Cortez grinned. His face fell as he added, "No, more like worried she'd programme every speaker I get near to play that weird late 1900s music she likes non-stop."
Vega thought about it for a moment, then grinned. "Hey ... how about we drop her in the bunk in the main battery? Y'know, Scars' little spot?"
Cortez schooled his face to a contemplative mask. "Well ... she will want to thank him for making sure she got some shut-eye..."
"Tell me there are surveillance cameras."
"They didn't quite get taken out in the retrofit," Cortez said with a smile. "They feed into that war reporter's cabin ... if you know the right access codes."
"Get me a distraction so I don't get spotted carting Lola around like a sack of potatoes." As Vega scooped up the wiry little engineer, blanket and all. "Then set that bastard to record. I'll bring the cerveza, you bring the popcorn."
The next day, Cortez and Vega sold tickets for a repeat showing of the retribution of Molly Shepard against one Garrus Vakarian. They cleared enough to buy a new shotgun for Vega, that fancy-ass hand-cannon Shepard had her eye on down in Spectre requisitions ... and a spiffy new sniper rifle for Garrus, to help ease the pain of three days of being followed around by a data drone singing hits from Disney musicals.
After all, they weren't complete bastards.
Chapter 2: B is for Bowdlerise
bowdlerise: edit by omitting or modifying parts considered indelicate
There were so many stories on the Normandy that Diana Allers cannot tell.
She could report in great detail on the treaty between the turian and krogan, and how Shepard charged a Reaper on foot to cure the genophage. But to get to the bloody heart of it as a good reporter should, to go back to a bombed hospital on Tuchanka, where krogan females suffered agonies and a former Alliance commander verbally lambasted a salarian scientist for his part in leading them to their torture … that was off-limits. Commander Shepard hadn’t asked for it to be omitted, but that story did not entirely inspire. The people of the galaxy needed Shepard to be their hero, not a normal person with doubts and fears and guilt, who wept the first time she stepped into the medbay after Mordin Solus died because her words helped lead a good friend to his death, who threw Overload at her private terminal on the command deck when the salarian dalatrass sent a passive-aggressive email blaming Shepard for the death of Mordin Solus and the potential retribution of the krogan against salarian people yet unborn.
Allers reported the Citadel coup more or less faithfully, but the armed standoff between the former lovers was tastefully edited out. She used every verbal trick at her disposal to fuzzy up the fact that Thane Krios, terminally ill drell assassin, only returned to the active duty that had killed him in one final act of aid to his ‘siha’; Allers looked up what the name meant and itched to use it because of how well it summed up the image later, of Commander Shepard holding a firearm (only a targeting laser, but it still looked impressive) standing over the exploded carcass of the Reaper she’d faced down alone and on foot. To use that word, though, would necessitate explanations of why a drell word that went so much deeper than any human endearment had ever been applied to a human woman. The people did not need to hear about the Shepard who had ever loved, had ever lost; they wanted the symbol, not the woman.
Diana Allers watched Commander Shepard and reported on her; she praised and challenged and uplifted the soldier and champion of the galaxy. At her editing terminal, though, she mourned the woman. However this ended, whether Shepard drew breath at the end or not, the warm and witty woman that once lived beneath the armour would be gone, edited to death by war and by Battlespace.
She’d feel more guilty about that if the ratings weren’t so epic.
Chapter 3: C is for Collision
Adventures on the Mako
After a few clicks of jouncing around in the Mako on Therum, Kaidan only had one question for his CO: “If you — ow — don’t mind me asking … where did you learn to drive?”
“New York,” Shepard replied, eyes on the lava-edged road. “Learned from a guy we all called Spaz.”
Ashley winced. “That explains a hell of a lot, ma’am.”
“Actually, he got the name ‘cos of a bad hyperstim addiction. Which … again, might explain a lot. Look, I mostly drove getaway and the occasional bit of GTA.”
“…You stole cars?”
Shepard turned to look at Kaidan. “Only when we needed something that no one could identify. It’s not like I ever got caught. And we always dropped it off in the next borough. Plus I repaired any damage that wasn’t structural.”
Ashley, more concerned with current events, just shouted, “Ma’am! Lava! Eyes on the road!”
Kaidan grabbed the oh-shit handle on his side of the vehicle and said, “Well … I knew you had a … colourful past, but…”
“Look, I had to survive somehow,” she pointed out. “It was the closest thing I had to a family and I tried to sabotage anything that looked like a really shitty thing to do, but—”
Shepard put her attention back on the here and now and noted the squad of geth standing in the way. And then she did something that neither Alliance soldier expected: she laughed. Kaidan raised an eyebrow and asked, “Mind telling me what’s so funny, Commander? ‘Cos they have rocket launchers and an armature so I could use a laugh.”
“They’re on foot,” Shepard replied, and hit the accelerator.
Ashley and Kaidan shared a look. “You’re not going to…”
“I wonder how strong the geth self-preservation instinct is,” Shepard said, still bearing down on the firing line of geth. “I mean, is playing chicken with them worth it?”
Kaidan and Ashley shared a look and then voiced their shared thought: “Oooooooooh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit…”
It was over in two minutes. When Shepard clambered down from the Mako’s cab to pull geth bits out of the axles, Ashley leaned down to look at her. “Permission to speak freely, ma’am?”
Shepard looked up, clutching a geth’s leg. “Go ahead.”
“I will take that geth limb from you and beat you to death with it if you EVER do that again, ma’am.”
Shepard looked at the limb, considering, and then chucked it over her shoulder with a sigh. “You never let me have any fun.”
Chapter 4: D is for Dancing
Shepard cannot dance ... apparently.
Everyone knew that Shepard couldn’t dance. Of course, most of them only ever saw her dance in armour, which was heavy and cumbersome for a dance floor and really only allowed for a sort of dorky swaying motion. However, those who had seen her dance in casual clothing never said any different; she flailed her arms and bounced around and while she kept to the beat, she tended to look a little like a turian trying to swim. Shepard, all would agree, danced poorly.
Few people ever saw Shepard dance with a partner. But after the business with Morinth, Shepard asked Thane to Afterlife for a bit of drink and dance. Thane responded with a raised eyebrow and, with just a touch of sorrowful nostalgia nearly buried by the wry laughter, the remark, “Well. It has been some time since I … danced crazy.”
For the first few minutes, they certainly did dance crazy; they waved (or, in Shepard’s case, flailed) their arms and hopped around the dance floor and he even spun her. By that point, of course, they had an audience of amused onlookers - Aria likely amongst them from her throne - who had cleared a space for the couple to dance so as not to get beaned by flailing limbs. Neither Shepard nor Thane cared much. He was one of the best assassins the galaxy had ever seen; she was Commander goddamn Shepard. They did what they wanted.
After the initial flailing, however, the drell and the human fell into something more of a rhythm. While neither was much of a dancer when on their own, things were different with a partner. With another person to react to, respond to, echo and engage, dance became more like combat, and combat was a thing both parties did well. Their movements became less frenetic and more fluid, and the dance gained a grace and poetry that turned the amused looks to ones of surprise and appreciation. As the dance progressed, Thane and Shepard pressed together, telegraphing the next step to each other through eye contact intense enough to set fire to the air between them.
At the end, they stood locked in each other’s arms, a circle of onlookers unnoticed all around them, the music little more than a low hum at the periphery of their nerve endings. Shepard grinned at him. “That crazy enough for you?”
Thane considered for a moment, eyes locked on her, then smiled a little. “For the moment,” he replied, eyes full of promise.
Shepard considered that, then nodded. After another moment, she asked, “Spin me again?”
The fistfight that ensued when Shepard accidentally kicked a batarian mid-spin was more than worth it.
Chapter 5: E is for Entertainment
The trouble with incarcerating a hyperactive engineer.
“But I’m BORED!”
Anderson leaned in the doorway, looking at Shepard’s way of keeping herself busy while in custody, somewhere between ‘held pending trial’ and ‘protective custody from angry batarians’. It was fairly all-encompassing, and impressive in a ‘dear god what have we created?’ kind of way. “Shepard, I know it’s not ideal—”
Shepard glared at Anderson from the top of a bookshelf that she’d set in the middle of the room as a kind of ladder. “They won’t let me have a lick of tech. They took my omni-tool away. I can’t even have extranet access except under the tightest restrictions and when I went to look at Alliance internal news, two MPs with assault rifles came in the door and took my datapad away! I wasn’t hacking anything; I just wanted to see who got promoted and if anyone was missing or dead!”
“Shepard…” The word came out as more or less a sigh. “You know that people have to take precautions since … well…”
Shepard answered the sigh with one of her own. “Since I blew up a mass relay; yes, I know, I get it already. But that does not change the fact that I can’t even pull up an up-to-date galaxy map to assess military strength in likely Reaper targets without big men with big guns telling me that if I so much as breathe in the direction of their firewalls, they’ll put a bullet in me and confine me to medbay under continuous sedation. I am not that bad!”
Anderson raised an eyebrow. “I beg to differ. And I’m frankly regretting letting you have that coffee maker.”
That earned Anderson another glare. “If you take my coffee away I will go insane and take this whole place with me. Taking my tech and my Spirits of Palaven account away is one thing - and my guild has been sending threatening emails, by the way - but my coffee? No. Nooooooooooooooo. I swear I’ll find a way to make your alarm system sing Kumbaya just to spite everyone if you take my coffee away.”
“All right, all right, I figured as much.” Anderson actually understood that one; he and Shepard had initially bonded in the first days on the Normandy over their shared love of coffee that made most other people think they’d inhaled raw caffeine. “But honestly, Shepard; the … decorating.”
Shepard finished hanging her carefully-crafted rendition of the Arcturus Stream and climbed down off the bookshelf. “If I can’t have extranet access,” she told him, hands on hips, “I need some way of actually seeing a layout of the galaxy for devising a decent anti-Reaper strategy. Books don’t cut it; I need something interactive. So I improvised.” She gestured up at the walls and ceiling, which she had hung with intricate mobiles representing every mapped system in the galaxy. Anderson could see little mass relays, and planets and moons, all in the right places. If nothing else, the girl’s memory was nothing short of drell-like, if she could recreate the entire galaxy from memory like this. “All I’m asking is for enough tech to make the suns light up and the planets orbit. What harm could I do with that?”
“Do I have to answer that? If I recall, you took out a half-dozen batarians with a light-bulb, a unit of eezo and a remote-controlled model gunship back on Elysium.”
Shepard huffed. “Okay, fine. But you don’t get to complain about my model galaxy. And could I at least get some model kits so I can have fleets to send out? It’s bad enough I’m going to have to make Reapers out of construction paper and sticky-back plastic; I’m going to mortally offend every fleet in the galaxy if I have to do the same for Alliance frigates, turian warships and quarian liveships.”
There was a certain logic to it … all the wrong kind of logic, certainly, but logic nonetheless. Everyone knew that incarcerating Shepard was going to be difficult, but none of them had expected this level of hyperactivity exploding in such a small space. Well, none but Anderson, but no one had listened to him when he told them that denying Shepard decent amounts of entertainment and activity was like doing so to a ferret, with approximately the same destructive results. So he simply said, “I’ll see what I can do,” and vowed to talk to the defence committee about at least letting her have her MMORPG account back before their Reaper expert went completely insane with lack of entertainment.
Shepard looked up from her model of Pragia, or specifically the crater she was carving into the planet’s surface for reasons that Anderson didn’t want to contemplate, and smiled a little at him. “Thanks. Sorry. I’m kind of going nuts. And I’m not being a great hostess, but … was there something else besides ‘Shepard, what the hell are you doing to the detention centre’?”
Anderson gave her a fond smile in return and handed over the warm, grease-stained paper bag he’d been hiding behind his back. “I thought you might be sick of barracks food, so I brought a little something. Cheeseburger with avocado and chili fries.”
The hug he received from Shepard warmed Anderson’s heart, even as her squeak of pure joy nearly burst his eardrums.
Chapter 6: F is for Festival
Drell and salarian meet human holidays.
When Mordin Solus finally remembered little things like eating, he generally headed down to the mess on auto-pilot, muttering to himself about various projects. Or humming Gilbert and Sullivan. Or quietly singing about various projects to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs. In any case, living in that world exclusive to his own head.
Which meant that he walked right into the tree someone left in the middle of the mess. Backing away quickly, he studied the tree, making thinking-out-loud internal notes. “Evergreen conifer. Pseudotsuga menziesii. Douglas Fir. Baubles attractive but … delicate,” he added, looking at the shattered glass ball at his feet. “Parcels beneath. Wrapped. Celebration of death of tree?”
“It is called a Christmas tree.”
Mordin looked up at Thane, his spot at the table mostly hidden by the tree. The table before him was littered with bits of paper, ribbons and adhesive tape. “Ah. Human winter solstice festival, co-opted by one of their religions despite seasonal inconsistensies in sacred text. Marked by feasting, decorated evergreen trees and exchange of gifts. Also, mistletoe.” Mordin’s face scrunched a little in thought. “Unsure of basis for parasitic plant as trigger for displays of affection, however.”
Thane shrugged. “Commander Shepard thought it would be … fun to celebrate the holiday aboard the Normandy.” His face took on that faraway look that suggested an oncoming flash of drell eidetic memory. “Childlike joy paints her face, masking thin threads of concern. ‘It might be the last I ever get’, she says, and quickly adds, ‘plus I’ve missed two. This is only the second I’ll be able to celebrate with family’. She smiles, touches my shoulder with such affection. ‘It’ll be fun. And I think you’ll be fun to shop for’.”
Mordin smiled, heedless of what Thane might make of it - the affection Thane had for the Commander was interesting to Mordin, though mostly he just thought that it was a good balance for the stress in both their lives, a tonic for the ill drell and the human who likely required stability, lacking in the capacity for quick emotional processing that the salarians possessed. “Intriguing. Should make stop on Ilium. Or perhaps Omega,” he added, mind ticking away a mile a minute. “Imagine interesting scrap for projects would serve.” His face scrunched again and he looked at his hands, then at the mangled wrapping job in front of Thane. “Might request human assistance in wrapping. Seems to require more digits for efficacy.”
Thane gave a rueful smile. “Yes, well. I shall continue regardless. Perhaps she will appreciate the effort, as much as the gift.”
“Curious as to nature of gift,” Mordin said, glancing at the box Thane was trying to wrap. “Scrap … too impersonal. Though speaks to knowledge of recipient’s preferences.”
With a somewhat sheepish look, Thane opened the box. Inside, nestled in some cottony substance, was a necklace. Its pendant was made to resemble a pair of dog tags, and though Mordin was not close enough to read the engraving, the look on the drell’s face suggested that it probably bordered on ‘romantic’. The only thing Mordin could make out of the engraving was the N7 logo. “She … says she does not feel … whole without her dog tags,” Thane said with a shrug, voice quiet. “I thought to … remedy that, as best I could.”
Mordin nodded with approval, then thought. “Song about gifts for holidays. Likely not enough space aboard Normandy for so many pipers piping, lords leaping. Also, water tanks contain insufficient space for a-swimming swans. Unless her fishtank; hmm, not enough air. Perhaps partridge. Pear tree. Golden rings? No; marriage implications in human culture; inappropriate. No-no-no-no-no…”
He turned around, slammed into the tree again, shook his head and wandered back to his lab, food forgotten.
Later, EDI gave him unemotional hell as she purged his personal terminal of the three zettabytes of LOLcat with which Shepard had spiked him for trying to hack her extranet history for gift ideas.
Chapter 7: G is for Guilt
Kaidan seeks self-awareness in the matter of a certain Cerberus-Shepard liaison.
Looking out at the stars from the starboard observation deck window, Kaidan took a moment away from thinking about the war and death and betrayal to focus on problems that were, if anything, worse - at least as far as he was concerned. After the armed standoff with Shepard, after her apparent forgiveness of everything he’d said, every nasty implication and outright accusation … well, he owed it to her to figure out why, even if he was the only one who ever knew.
He had rushed to judgement, and stuck to it with the tenacity of a terrier. Horizon was understandable, to a point - he’d been in shock, recovering from whatever neurotoxin or whatever it was that the seeker-bug had dumped into his system and working on little more than rumour. But even after the details of Shepard’s tribunal came out, even after her year in detention, he had clung to that first assumption to the point where he all but called the woman he loved an imposter. Not just a traitor, though that was bad enough, but a mind-controlled Cerberus puppet … and worse, a machine. He could have asked for more information; he could have spoken to Dr Chakwas, or the dozens of Alliance doctors who had studied Shepard’s implants for the medical advances they could provide. He could have pressed Anderson or Hackett for details of their communications with her while she was funded by Cerberus; hell, he could have looked at the copious surveillance logs that the AI, EDI, had provided the Alliance when Shepard brought herself and the Normandy-2 in. He hadn’t. He’d clung to the idea that what looked and talked and apparently acted like Shepard was just a very sophisticated cyborg with Shepard-centric VI under Cerberus control.
It wasn’t like him, and he had to figure out why. He was never going to get past it if he didn’t.
He remembered the day he lost her; it was a day he was never going to forget. I should have done something, he thought, eyes trained on the passing stars. She was my CO; she was the driving force behind any preparation for the Reapers. I should have hit her with a stasis field and dragged her to an escape pod if I had to; sent someone else after Joker. She was too valuable to lose. And if I had—
There it was. He had left her to die. Worse, he had left her to die and be retrieved and resurrected by Cerberus, of all people. If the Shepard currently annoying the hell out of Cortez by poking around at the Kodiak’s scanner array was the actual Shepard, that meant that everything she’d been through in that first few months under Cerberus scrutiny was his fault. Having let her die was bad enough; having left her to wake after two years of clinical brain-death only to discover that she had lost everything - ship, crew, Alliance rank, privacy and the trust of almost everyone in the galaxy - and being forced to turn to human-centric extremists as the only way to save those the Alliance might not have ignored had she been with them to press the issue … that was worse.
It had easier for his conscience to believe that Shepard was a fake than to accept the fact that his failure to get her to a damn escape pod had let her in for all that loss. Now that he had, though, he couldn’t turn away from it. He wasn’t built that way. Now the guilt ate at him, and it was probably what he deserved. After all, Shepard had probably felt the same way during her entire time with Cerberus. Which wouldn’t have happened if he had just…
She deserved better than this; deserved better than to just let it go and pretend he’d never said any of the things he’d said. It probably wouldn’t help to talk it out, though. She’d just tell him that it wasn’t his fault, that he had only followed orders. She would make light of it when there was no making it light, the way she did every bad situation. He had to do something else. The question was, how? She wasn’t into flowers, chocolates seemed weak, she didn’t have room for any more model ships and Vega had threatened dire beatings if he brought chocolate-covered espresso beans onto the ship after what happened last time. (He didn’t really want to know.)
He ran over some of Shepard’s run-on sentences prior to taking off for some undisclosed location for a rescue mission and made a decision. “EDI?” He felt a little strange talking to thin air, but it was easier than going up to the flight deck, and he didn’t really want Joker hearing any of this. Besides, the body that had nearly killed him still freaked him out a little, no matter who or what was driving it around.
“Yes, Major Alenko,” came the disembodied voice.
“Is that hamster still running around the storage bay under Engineering?”
A split-second later - probably after checking life signs - EDI replied, “Yes, Major Alenko.”
Kaidan smiled. “Thanks, EDI.” Then he headed for the elevator, still smiling a little. A good solid stasis field would let him catch the little fuzzball. It wasn’t much, but returning one of the few personal-level good things that Shepard had obtained during her time with Cerberus might at least send a message. Baby steps.
Chapter 8: H is for Hugs
A collection of reactions to a somewhat affectionate CO.
It always threw people when, after a little while of getting to know her, they discovered that Commander Shepard was a hugger. When she liked people, she showed it by the simple expedient of providing hugs. Everyone had a different reaction, but surprise was always at the root. One didn't expect a former street-rat and gang member turned war hero to unabashedly hug anyone, let alone everyone.
When she hugged Jenkins for the first time, he blushed and stammered and flailed. Kaidan, who'd borne witness to the Jenkins-hug, at least had the presence of mind to hug back, though part of that was to feel the smooth taught strength of the muscles in her back, feel her heart beat counterpoint to his own. Crushes, he thought at the time, were a bitch. Anderson, who'd been outright tackle-hugged the first time out, blinked but recovered quickly, wrapping one arm around her shoulders; with the other, he reached up and tousled her hair a bit. Theirs was very much a father-daughter relationship, right from the beginning, so he probably accepted the hugging better than most. Karin Chakwas, similarly, returned the hug she got like any mother would, grateful that Shepard could not see the undisguised pleasure in her face. It touched the doctor to her very core to have one of the charges she thought of as her children return that sentiment in kind. Ashley Williams, the first time, tensed a little but was savvy enough to see the hug as sisterly instead of amorous, so returned it in much the same way as she would a hug from any of her sisters. Before long, she responded to being hugged by picking Shepard up and spinning her around, just to hear a Star of Terra recipient shriek like a child on her first amusement park ride. Joker just snarked about broken ribs until Shepard pulled his ball cap's brim over his eyes.
Liara T'Soni stood stock-still the first time Shepard hugged her, frozen with shock and the frenzied renewal of hope. It took her a long time after that to remember that Shepard considered her a friend, a sister, and hugged everyone; that it did not mean that Shepard was reconsidering her statement that she considered Liara just a friend. Shepard, unfortunately, took that as rejection and it was some time before Shepard tried hugging her again. After Benezia's death, Shepard held Liara for a long time, hugging her asari friend as she sobbed for her mother - lost in so many ways - and after that, Liara accepted friend-hugs with far better grace than she had the first.
Garrus Vakarian nearly had a heart attack. Hugging was not a part of the turian culture, and he expected more along the lines of claps on the shoulder than something so full-body. Still, given that the hug was the first one he'd ever received, he took it reasonably well, though it took him a moment to figure out how he was supposed to go about it. It was just ... folding his arms. He did that all the time. Just ... now it was around a warm-blooded being instead of across his own chest. There was a difference in how the elbows bent, that was all. Once he got the hang of it, he found it pleasant, and as far as human customs went, it was one of the better ones. When he worked out that humans sometimes considered hugging a prelude to more intimate activity, he got very confused because, again, Shepard hugged everyone, even people with whom she had no intention of pursuing an intimate physical relationship. After all, she'd hugged Urdnot Wrex.
When Shepard tried to hug Wrex the first time, he thought she was trying to head-butt him. Hugs were even more unheard of on Tuchanka than they were on Palaven, and a head-butt spoke a thousand words, depending on how it was delivered. So he lowered his head to meet the challenge and was surprised as anything when Shepard wrapped her arms around him as far as they would go and clung to him like a pyjak climbing a wall. After a moment of that, he asked if she was trying to wrestle him to the ground. She told him that if she was trying to do that, she'd have hit him lower down to throw off his centre of balance. Wrex had to look up 'hugging' on the extranet, and while he generally preferred head-butting, he permitted the Shepard-hugs when they came. After all, he'd seen her kill multiple thresher maws, a couple on foot. For his Rite, he'd only managed one. She'd earned a lot of respect - the kind that couldn't be destroyed by weird little hugging rituals.
Tali'Zorah was better with hugging, but for her, there was a different reason for the utter shock. Humans, like every other race in the galaxy, distrusted quarians and treated them like something intrinsically dirty, not to be touched. Shepard had never done that, but to have a human hug her - in front of other people, no less, showing affection for a quarian for all the races of the galaxy to see - was something new and unexpected, and touching beyond words for Tali, who'd been shunned and belittled incessantly since the start of her Pilgrimage. The simple act of hugging Tali in the Presidium commercial district turned Shepard from a well-meaning human to a lifelong friend in Tali's eyes.
There were other stories, other hugs. Thane came to treasure the first hug amongst his fondest and most oft-relived memories, the day he spoke of Kolyat and she'd hugged him to provide comfort. Grunt threw her into a bulkhead because he, like Wrex, had seen it as an attack - it took two more tries to sort it out, but Shepard's rebuild made her nearly suicidally overconfident about matters pertaining to her life and limb. Mordin got knocked to the floor by Shepard's sheer overexuberance, and nearly got motion sick when she picked him up and twirled him around the tech lab in celebration of his figuring out the seeker swarm problem, but he actually enjoyed it - fascinating study of human behaviour and not remotely unpleasant as a tactile sensation, though overenthusiasm caused breathing difficulty in subject of hug. Jacob tensed up, his old Alliance training screaming about inappropriate behaviour towards a superior officer, until she pinched his nose between the second knuckles of her index and middle fingers and told him she 'got his nose', at which point he couldn't really help but laugh and hug the effervescent little lunatic. Miranda returned the hug after a moment's pause, kept a straight face until Shepard left her office, then deactivated the cameras in the room before allowing herself to show that she was fighting tears; the thought that Shepard would try to charm her, would treat her as a sister despite the bitchiness and the issue about the proposed control chip, nearly undid her so soon after saving Oriana. Samara took it stoically, but when meditating afterwards, she found herself reminded of her daughters, how vibrant and affectionate they had been before their maiden stages, when their genetic legacy turned them into isolated pariahs or ... well, Morinth. Kasumi just laughed and, after the first time, didn't even try to keep Shepard from peeking into the shadows under her hood. Zaeed returned the hug surprisingly quickly, and in a manner that was almost a little possessive, before giving her a look that said that if she ever told anyone about this kind of thing or did it in front of people, he'd shoot her like a rabid varren. Legion said nothing, returned the gesture automatically, and then went into the AI core to process data for a long time; shaking hands with geth was one thing, allying with geth another, but to hug geth ... Legion downloaded that into the archives in a place of honour, and backed it up throughout the collective.
By the time the Reapers came in force to annihilate the advanced organic races of the galaxy, no one, not even the ones who could still be surprised by the gesture, so much as hesitated before hugging Shepard back. She might save the galaxy by gathering armies and resources, by fighting Cerberus and various Reaper forces, by uniting warring races and rewriting history ... but a hug from Commander Shepard spoke volumes without saying a word. By simply wrapping her arms around them, she gave comfort, strength, support and, occasionally, a much-needed laugh. It was a shot in the arm every time, and they all needed one, Shepard most of all. So when she hugged them, tried to provide them with that shot in the arm, they hugged her back to return the favour.
Chapter 9: I is for Idiosyncrasies
After an unexpected promotion, Kaidan discusses a problem with a trusted friend.
“You look a little down, Major. Generally when people get promoted, they don’t have to be told they’ve got a face like a wet weekend.”
Kaidan looked up from his beer and met Anderson’s eyes. “It’s not the promotion. I mean, not really. That part just … complicates things, I guess. It’s just—”
Anderson was a savvy man, and generally kind. “It’s Shepard, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” The look became a glare, and then he sighed and looked back down at his drink. There was no sense in taking things out on the Admiral when it was really someone else - The Illusive Man, Cerberus in general, Shepard, or even himself - he wanted to glare at. “It’s been six months. I keep expecting … I don’t know, something. Something to say once and for all that it’s really her and not some … Cerberus meat puppet. The tribunal, the surveillance footage…” He shrugged. “It’s still not proof. Not to me, anyway.”
“I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t have access to at least half of that data,” Anderson pointed out with a raised eyebrow and a slight regret that he hadn’t taken Shepard seriously when she complained about the potential for people hacking the surveillance camera feed in her quarters for various types of personal gain. Though she’d been worried about tabloid hacks, blackmail and voyeurism, not this.
Kaidan shook his head. “If it’s any consolation, the firewalls are still pretty good. I’ve only caught the stuff uploaded to the defence committee. Which … really hasn’t told me very much.” He thought a moment, then said, “When we met on the Citadel … after Horizon. You said you were sure that Shepard really was who she said she was. No hesitation, no doubt. How did you know?”
With a sigh of his own, Anderson sat down with his own drink, debating how much to say. “It was the little things. The quirks, the … idiosyncrasies that make Shepard … well, Shepard. Things most people wouldn’t think to fake, no matter how much study they did of her dossiers. Now, I can see Cerberus programming their mole with how Shepard likes her coffee and her weapon of choice, but I can’t see them knowing that she tries twirling a pair of Eagles around her fingers like an Old-West gunslinger and ends up flinging the awkward damn things into something breakable every damn time. How she taps her forehead to the rhythm of ‘Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy’ with her first two fingers - right hand, always - when she’s working out a diplomatic problem. The fact that she’s still trying to figure out how to have a solitaire thumb war when she’s bored around tech she’s not supposed to touch. That exact facial expression that says, ‘Look, I am smarter than you and think you’re way off-base and am dying to interrupt to tell you so but am too polite to do it so I am going to mostly hide my exasperation except for the blink that doesn’t entirely cover the fact that I’m rolling my eyes at you - and I am still going to listen to everything you have to say even though you left logic at the gatepost’. Those tiny little things that either she doesn’t do anywhere even remotely public, or have nuances that are nearly impossible to even decipher unless you’ve known her for years, let alone fake.”
Throughout all this, Kaidan looked sidelong at Anderson, expression a cross between impressed and wary. “You … obviously pay a lot of attention. Sir.”
Anderson shrugged. “People do that with their protegees. And their friends.” The look he turned on Kaidan was expectant. “But then … you’d know that, more or less. If from a … different perspective.”
Kaidan looked away, at least in part to hide his blush. He cleared his throat and came out with what was bothering him. “Thing is … Cerberus approached Joker. He’s known her at least as long as I have. He knows all this. Sure, he doesn’t go out on missions but he knows her; her style, her expressions … her idiosyncrasies. And if he couldn’t tell them those things, Dr Chakwas could. I’d buy that it’s really Shepard in that detention centre a lot easier if Cerberus hadn’t made so damn sure to have people who know her that well with them before she turned up again.”
The silence spun out between them, and the disapproving look Anderson gave Kaidan made him cringe a little inside. Then, the Admiral stood, still looking at Kaidan like he was a good student who’d skipped doing his homework. “Son … at some point, you’re going to have to let this go. I know what you’ve heard; I know what you saw. Try to remember that she saw it too. At some point, you two may have to work together again, and when you do … trust your instincts. Don’t just lean on propaganda for the easy answer. You know the galaxy’s a lot more complicated than that. Try to remember who taught you that.” With that, he walked away.
Kaidan watched him go, then turned back to his beer. It was a difficult question - what made a person? Was a person who had all of Shepard’s memories, abilities, preferences and quirks actually Shepard? If so, could something so simple as a Cerberus control chip or something make Shepard … not act like Shepard?
It wasn’t smart or helpful to rely on the easy answer. Anderson was right; the galaxy was more complicated than that, and he’d learned that from Shepard herself - with Shepard, in fact, when they both found out how complicated the galaxy really was. Still, right now he didn’t have it in him to reach for ‘complicated’. He still hadn’t had the chance to mention the other thing that got to him, the thing that connected to his promotion. If that really was Shepard - if she was alive and whole and herself … he outranked her now. That made him almost as uncomfortable as the rest of it; he wasn’t supposed to outrank her. And in his heart, he never would; he respected her too much to truly feel like her superior. An idiosyncrasy of his own.
Chapter 10: J is for Jealousy
Miranda Lawson discovers that jealousy is not a lot of fun ... and neither is uncertainty.
The last thing Miranda had ever expected was to be jealous of Shepard. Sure, saviour of the Citadel and Elysium and pretty much the whole damn galaxy, but still she was just a woman, without any particular genetic advantages. Smarter than most, yes, but only in certain areas - she was an engineering genius but she wasn't a renaissance woman the way Miranda was designed to be. She wasn't even all that pretty, at least not objectively; not unattractive, but somewhere on the average side, with a too-sharp face and slightly ungenerous curves. Also, admittedly, it was easy to feel superior to a lump of abused meat and tubes on an operating table.
Wilson's betrayal changed all that in a hurry, starting with her assessment of Shepard's appearance. The foxish face that looked so bland in repose became something very different when the mind behind it was awake; the determination and passion that blazed in her eyes made Miranda understand why people always said she was attractive. Not beautiful, no, but magnetic, appealing. Her smile clinched it - a bust size and a set of facial features clearly didn't mean as much as charm and heart and openness. That realisation made Miranda uneasy. The first she had in spades; the other two, she considered weakness, but Shepard made them into strengths. Within a week, she had charmed the entire crew to the point where Chambers' report suggested that the entire Normandy crew saw themselves more Shepard's staff than Cerberus'. She left that out of her report to the Illusive Man.
It hit her hardest on Omega. Some batarian bartender with a grudge had poisoned her, and Miranda's first thought when Shepard went down was that she'd been shot. After pulling her weapon and scanning the perimeter, she looked down to check on Shepard ... and saw Zaeed Massani, who just days ago had been on the wrong end of Shepard's gun after she decided to prioritise human lives over his revenge, knelt beside Shepard, checking her pulse with a look on his face that suggested that it wasn't his fee he was worried about losing. Massani was a ruthless, hard-bitten son of a bitch whose psych profile suggested that his survival instinct was strong enough to peg him a borderline sociopath, but that moment made it clear that he actually cared about Shepard enough to leave his own back unguarded. Even knowing Shepard's knack for inspiring loyalty, the stab of envy at the ease with which Shepard gained the trust and affection of all of her allies was uncontrollable and a little nausea-inducing. She'd never been jealous of anyone before. It was disconcerting, to say the least. She resolved to ignore it. After all, this was just the sort of thing they brought Shepard back to do - inspire such strong loyalty in her crew that they would literally follow her to hell despite the fact that the odds were high that there would be no 'and back'.
Still, the jealousy gnawed at Miranda, little nibbles in odd moments when checking the surveillance feeds. When Shepard sat on a workbench in the armoury and joked with Jacob as she suggested various weapons mods. The 36-hour-long tech research marathons with Mordin Solus. When she reminisced with Garrus over calibrations in the main battery. Massani told her his old war stories, Goto let her borrow her books, ... heaven's sake, she arm-wrestled with the tank-bred krogan! For all Miranda's improved genetics, impressive education and impeccable breeding, she could never hope to be friends with any of these people. With Shepard, it came as naturally as breathing. Miranda hated to admit that she wanted friends. The fact that Shepard just existing reminded her of her own loneliness made the envy that much worse.
Then: Pragia. Shepard had come into her office and said, point-blank, "We're going to go blow up a planet. Well. A defunct Cerberus facility on a planet. Otherwise the little bugs in Jack's head are probably going to make for problems Kelly can't fix." After a more sensible explanation, Shepard set a course for Pragia, and Miranda wondered: Would she blow up a planet for me?
...Where did that come from?
Miranda accompanied Jack and Shepard, because of course it wasn't going to be as simple as, in Shepard's colourful phrasing, 'nuking the site from orbit ... even if it is the only way to be sure'. She watched as Jack found out the truth behind her escape, learned how others had suffered and died so that she could suffer and live, and confronted her tortured, lonely childhood once and for all. Perhaps it was Shepard's own rough childhood - no parents, no friends, and a different kind of struggle to survive a hostile environment - that bonded the commander and the convict in that place, but Shepard listened without judgement, helped Jack find her way to mercy ... and took the risk of hugging the infamous Subject Zero when she cried.
She truly cares, Miranda thought. And then, again, Would she do this for me?
That was when she realised that she was no longer jealous of Shepard for her connection to the others; she was jealous of the others for their connection to Shepard. She'd shunned all offers of friendship from Shepard so far; envy had blocked off that avenue. She wondered, as Shepard set the bomb and led them out, whether that door could ever be opened again.
Not two days later, her contact on Ilium got in touch, and after the first flashes of emotion - worry for Oriana, hatred for her father - her next coherent thought was, Perhaps now we find out. With that, she let it be known that she'd like to speak to Shepard at the Commander's earliest convenience.
When Shepard entered, Miranda pulled no punches. "I find myself in the unpleasant position of having to ask for your help," she said, and meant it in more ways than one. They had Collectors to find, their base to destroy, team members to collect, things to be done, and she knew this was out of their way ... but worse, if her request was rejected ... well. She had never been rejected before, and imagined it would hurt no matter what ... but she wanted Shepard to like her. She wanted a friend. She could admit it, if only to herself. And she always got what she wanted ... although this was the first time she had to leave herself open to this kind of pain to do so.
The look Miranda got from Shepard - the 'don't be afraid to ask' look, the determination to help, the unspoken support - brought another new feeling ... one far better than the jealousy had been.
Chapter 11: K is for Ken
Ken: (noun) One’s range of knowledge or sight
Ken: (verb) Know, recognise, see, understand
Kaidan receives an email that changes everything.
This, Kaidan knew, was the worst time in the world to have this conversation. His timing literally could not be any worse, not even if he had sat down and asked himself, “At what point could I say all this that would rip out Shepard’s heart the most?”. They’d pointed guns at each other not a week ago … maybe a half-hour before the last man she loved died in a hospital bed of Kepler’s and a through-and-through stab wound. He should have waited. He would have waited, but the email he had received, forwarded from someone named Kolyat, forced him not to.
We met in Huerta Memorial Hospital some weeks previous. This is difficult for me to write, but circumstances being what they are, I cannot delay the message. It is too important for the well-being of someone for whom we both care very deeply. I apologise for my forwardness in advance.
I understand that you were once in a relationship with Commander Shepard, and that unfortunate and unforseen circumstances parted you. I also know that you are aware that she and I had a relationship of our own. I will not say that she did not love me as she did you - it might be true, but only because love differs from couple to couple, depending on the individual - but I felt I should tell you that she never stopped loving you. This does not bother me; Commander Shepard has a generous heart, and her love for you did not prevent her from loving me, for which I am grateful.
I write this to tell you that her love for me has never prevented her from loving you. I don’t know what problems still exist between you two, or whether you still feel the same way for her - though having heard you speak of her, I can guess. If you do … I urge you to reach out to her. In these last days, I find I have no inclination to jealousy. My only wish is for Commander Shepard’s happiness. In the circumstances, time is short enough that her opportunities for happiness are few. If it is possible that she have love and happiness in what might be her last days, I feel I should do what I can to help her have that. It is the last thing I can do for her.
Tannor Nuara (Thane)
After reading the email, it was a moment before Kaidan could move, and then only to try to find a handkerchief. After all the stupid things he’d said, all the accusations and dirty looks and … and this guy… Well, at least she turned to the right guy for comfort, he thought as he wiped his eyes. This guy sees a lot, and understanding? Huh; I couldn’t do the same in his position. Hell, I didn’t.
If nothing else, the drell was right about two things - life was too damn short … and Shepard deserved some happiness. He could swallow his pride and nerves and all the rest of the bullshit to try to give that to her. He owed her that, at the absolute, bare-minimum least.
So he sat at a table at Apollo’s Cafe, and when she turned up, he laid it all out for her, despite every brain cell he had screaming at him that she was mourning, for Christ’s sake, and this was inappropriate. Still … maybe this Thane sent something like this to her, or maybe she understood her own heart well enough to know that loving him didn’t invalidate her love for the man she’d just lost. Either way … she admitted her own feelings. She even glossed over his stupid blurting of the word ‘cheated’, which he knew was unfair and beneath him the moment it came out (stupid brain). In that moment, she made him the happiest man in the galaxy, and he knew the only way he’d be able to repay Thane for nudging him towards that was to make Shepard as happy as he knew how.
Chapter 12: L is for Legion
Tali and Shepard discuss an old friend and common ground.
Tali stood with her mask off for a long moment. There were no words for how much she enjoyed it, appreciated it - the ability to simply breathe without air filters, to feel the sun on her face without a layer of glass in the way. But even such a heady feeling of freedom ended eventually, particularly anchored with such loss. Tali glanced over at Shepard, who knelt by Legion to examine the piece of her old N7 armour it wore on its right arm, and saw by her face that she grieved even more than Tali did. That wasn't entirely a surprise, not the way that a quarian grieving for a geth at all was a surprise to her. After all, Shepard had seen first-hand a side of the geth that no living quarian had ever suspected. Plus she valued any she called friend above almost anything else in the galaxy.
A thought occurred to Tali, then, and she said, "You and Legion were a lot alike, you know."
Shepard looked up at her, the sorrow in her face filtered through several layers of confusion and an overlay of wry amusement. "If you make jokes about my implants, Tali..."
Tali waved that away. "Not just that. I mean..." She hated to do it, but she put her mask back on to go sit next to Shepard again. She still couldn't sit too close to another living being without risking a hospital trip just from being breathed on (someday, though - it was possible now, in her lifetime!), and though the freedom of breathing fresh air on a planet without an air filter was heady and glorious ... Shepard had been there for her when her father died, helped her work through her grief. This was a different circumstance, but Tali could hardly keep from returning the favour now. "You remember how Legion got the name we used?"
"We are Legion," Shepard said, musing and sad. "Many in one. One thousand, one hundred and thirty-four geth in that one platform. All combined to make one hell of a friend."
Tali nodded. "Exactly. Now, let's look at you. Commander Shepard, Head Bitch in Charge."
"Hey!" Shepard looked a bit scandalised, but also as though she was on the verge of laughing - precisely what Tali had in mind.
"I'm serious! You sucker-punched the Admiral of the Heavy Fleet. I watched you head-butt a krogan to shut him up. You've verbally bitch-slapped members of your own crew, an uppity journalist bosh'tet, crime lords, obscenely wealthy CEOs, ambassadors, the Admiralty Board, the Galactic Council and the Illusive Man. Oh, and ... three Reapers now, I think? At least." She regarded Shepard's sheepish expression for a second, then added, "You're Commander Shepard. You take no bullshit." Then she shrugged. "So ... Shepard the Head Bitch in Charge."
Shepard, still blushing, grumbled, "We are coming to a point here, right?"
"Then there's the diplomat. The woman whose impassioned plea to the Fleet stopped a war, saved lives ... and gave us back not only a home, but also allies to help us rebuild it. Who talked down an angry krogan, convinced a crime boss to turn to social work and brought Saren back to himself, even if just for a moment, when he was so lost to indoctrination that he was more machine than turian. Now," Tali added, seeing by Shepard's hiding her beet-red face behind her shaggy hair that she had made her point, "if you didn't know better, would you think those two women I described were the same person?"
"I ... guess not," was the reply - muttered in tones of embarrassed pride and still not entirely sure where this was going.
So Tali continued to press the point home. "What about the woman who spent two days on Bekenstein with Kasumi, shopping for shoes and omni-tool upgrades? The soldier so devoted to her duty that she'd turn herself in once she'd saved the galaxy, knowing that she could be tried for at least two counts of treason and heinous war crimes? The former street rat who, during a car chase in a taxi on Illium, leaned out the window and shouted, 'woo, bumper cars! This is just like New York GTA!' The genius engineer and the only non-quarian at the time who could not only build but actually improve on the quarian combat drone design? Shame that Cerberus got their grubby little paws all over that one," she added with a grumble. "The friend who hugged a quarian - the race everyone loves to spit on - every time she needed one. The goofball who once hid Easter eggs all over the Normandy, including the one in Joker's hat? While he was still wearing it - and I still want to know how you did that, by the way. Or how about the woman who let Jack get her a tattoo on Omega and now has 'Eat This, Mr Illusive' inked on her--"
Shepard held up her hands in surrender. "Okay, okay! I get it! I have ... facets."
With another nod, Tali summed it up. "So many personalities, all in one body. All combined to make one hell of a friend."
After a long moment of silence, Shepard returned Tali's nod with one of her own. "I guess we're all many in one, when you think about it. We're all legion."
"And now," Tali added, glancing at the geth helping the survivors from Admiral Raan's ship, "so are they."
Companionable silence stretched out before them, carried on the landscape of Tali's reclaimed homeworld. Until...
"What do you mean, 'not just that'?!?" Apparently, a replay of the conversation had brought Tali's early throwaway comment back with a vengeance.
Tali grinned; Shepard couldn't see it on her face, but probably saw it in her eyes, being used to quarian facial expressions through the masks by now. "Also did I mention the computer-like memory retrieval system?"
Shepard spent the next few minutes demonstrating the fact that she had found the points on a quarian's suit that allowed enough tactile sensation to tickle said quarian to within an inch of her life.
Chapter 13: M is for Mentor
Vega's N7 recruit training is not what he expected.
James Vega woke up to find a FENRIS mech sitting on his chest, poking its electronic face into his nose. Not being awake enough to work out a reasonable response, he did what came naturally: screamed “AAAFUCK!” and shoved it away.
“Hrm. Interesting fetish for a Luddite like you, Vega.” James looked over to find Shepard leaning against his weapons bench with a truly diabolical smirk on her face.
Vega sat up and rubbed his hands over his face, then glared at the FENRIS mech now sitting on the floor, looking up at him in a way he assumed was supposed to be adoring. “Eat me, Lola. Why can’t you have a real dog like normal people?”
Shepard shrugged. “I like mechs. Besides, a real dog would only have the cargo bay to run around in, same as KEI-9. You want to clean up after a real dog?”
Waking up a little, Vega had to admit to himself that she had a point. Not that he wanted to admit anything of the sort - he felt underslept and undercaffeinated and distinctly grumpy about it, and far better equipped to complain than to accept logic. “What the hell time is it, anyway?” He checked for himself and winced. “I’ve only been asleep two hours, you unbelievable—”
“Mind how you address your mentor, young Padawan,” she told him. “You wanted me to be your N7 training officer? I’ll do it, but informal or not, there’s a few key basics we’re definitely covering right the hell now.”
It was days like these that Vega wished he was back on earth, shoulder-deep in husks. “You dragged me out of bed at half-past ass-crack to train me? And call me Padawan again and I’m going to kick your ass. Every time I hear that word, I think of that weedy little British actor-guy with the Scots name from the shitty Star Wars movies.”
That earned Vega a glare. “You don’t like the Star Wars movies?” Then she got derailed, by a secondary consideration. “Wait, you saw the Star Wars movies?”
“My uncle made me watch ‘em.” Vega addressed the last point first. “Said his uncle watched them with him, like his uncle watched with him before that, and … sort of an uncle-nephew tradition. And I like the non-shitty Star Wars movies. The last three. Don’t get why the first three looked better but were so much worse than the last three.”
“The last three were made first,” Shepard told him, looking a little bemused. “The first three were called ‘prequels’ in the day. Also apparently Han Solo had all the best lines because Harrison Ford ignored the script and ad-libbed about three-quarters of it. And I don’t believe,” she added with a shake of her head, “that we’re sitting here talking sci-fi movies. I thought you’d be more about Rambo than galaxies far, far away.”
Shepard chuckled. “Never mind. On your feet, soldier. You want to make N7, the first thing I’m doing is teaching you some tech basics. Percussive maintenance is not always the solution to tricky technological problems, y’know, and it’s good to be an all-rounder.”
Vega blushed. “Yeah. Um … just … can you sort of … go away so I can put some pants on first? Or … turn your back or something?”
Shepard grinned, then turned her back. “You spoil all my fun, you know.”
Vega swung his feet off the edge of the cot, then had a thought. “Hey … this mech-beast of yours doesn’t record vid, does it?”
Shepard gave an elaborate, teasing sigh and shook her head. “Ah, I wondered if you were going to catch on. Still, good catch. Go on, KEI-9. Go find that battery pack I left for you.”
“affirmitivemistress”, the mech squeaked before it ambled away.
Vega raised an eyebrow. “It talks now?”
“It’s called KEI-9. You think I wasn’t going to teach it to say that at least?”
Vega stood up and went hunting for his briefs, mulling that over. Eventually he had to admit, “…I don’t get it.”
Shepard tutted. “Clearly I am going to have to mentor you in decent sci-fi while I’m teaching you console layouts. We’ve got a loooooot of ground to cover, Vega. Fifteen doctors, one former investigative journalist, and a time-travelling pansexual hedonist’s worth, at least.”
Vega found his briefs and grumbled, “Teach me about that napalm you call coffee first, okay?”
Chapter 14: N is for Name
Garrus finds out why Shepard's so comfortable going only by her last name, even with lovers.
After seeing that Tali was lying down somewhere to sleep off her bender, Garrus went back to the bar. Shepard would still be there, he was pretty sure. So too would the remains of that turian brandy Tali was mumbling about before she passed out. He could frankly use a little of both right about now, and given events on Horizon, he was pretty sure Shepard could use a friend. Horizon was not a happy place for Shepard at the best of times, not since the Collector attack there last year, but given what Miranda’s father and the Illusive Man were doing down there … yeah. Shepard could use a friend and a drink at least as badly as he could.
Sure enough, Shepard sat at the bar with “…You know … of all the things I thought you’d be drinking tonight, I didn’t expect ‘coffee’ to be it, Shepard. Most people need booze after a day like you just had.”
Shepard raised her mug in a salute to him before nudging the bottle of brandy in his direction. “I wouldn’t be me if I couldn’t have both, Garrus. I halved the sugar and added enough vanilla vodka to kill two asari my size. Well, I started with that, anyway. Except those stupid ‘extra bits and pieces’ get me metabolising it too fast, so it just tasted like vanilla coffee. So I doubled the sugar and added enough ryncol to kill a krogan. Which seems to be working. So,” she added, looking at him with an expression that said, please, please do not make me talk about it without a laugh because I have had to be strong for Tali and don’t have it in me without something to make me laugh and it’s been too long since I laughed anyway. “What’s on your mind?”
Garrus poured himself a brandy to give himself time to think. Okay, so he couldn’t launch straight into it; Shepard needed a moment to collect herself, and he could respect that. He just needed a ruse. He came up with one in short order and, with a sheepish glance her way, said, “Well … I just realised something and I thought I should ask. For posterity, you know. It’s going to sound stupid, I know, but it just occurred to me that I’ve never called you by your first name.”
Shepard huffed out a single chuckle. “You know, you’re not the first to point that out. Well, more like Dr Chakwas pointed out I never used her first name and when I told her she’d never used mine, she said something about how it’d disrespect what I am or something.”
“Well.” Garrus downed half his brandy, then turned to her with a bit of a grin. “The difference is … she at least knows yours. I’ve known you for five years and I just realised that I don’t actually know your first name. They never say it on the vids, never use it in extranet articles … even Kaidan and Thane never used it in public.” A thought occurred to him and he raised a brow-scale at her. “They … did both know your first name, right?”
With a nod, Shepard said, “Yeah. I asked them not to use it. I’ll be honest with you, Garrus; I never really used it anyway. Not since I was veeeeeeery little.”
Garrus frowned. “Shepard, that makes no goddamn sense.”
“Well, I am drunk. Or at least, getting to drunk. I’m allowed not to make sense.” After taking a swig of her coffee, she gave him a weak little smile. “I’m serious, anyway. Look, I wasn’t born in a hospital or anything; I wasn’t in the system officially until I joined the Alliance. I only knew my first name and birthday because of some ID bracelet I had, and I only saw that because some … ‘friends of the family’ or something who took me in after my mother died were talking about selling me off somewhere … at least I think that was it; I was maybe seven, so it’s a bit vague … and I was looking for stuff to pawn so I could survive on the street for awhile. My last name is an accident; I found a place with a group of homeless street kids on the outskirts of gang territory, and I was too little to do anything but keep the kids younger than I was in line. I’d keep them together and coax them back to the main group when they were playing so they didn’t stumble onto gang business, and one day, one of the older kids said I was like Bo Peep for street rats. Someone else explained who Bo Peep was, and voila. I was the shepherd - or just Shepherd, after awhile.” She shrugged and downed more coffee. “The name stuck, so when I needed a last name for fake ID … it was handy.”
Garrus mulled that over. It was strange to think of Shepard as a gang thug, but even stranger to think of her as a seven-year-old girl, running neglected in the kind of slum he always longed to clean up and trying her damnest to make sure that even if she was neglected, no one else would be. He thought about saying, You were one hell of a kid … which was all he could think at first. Still, it wasn’t what she needed to hear. That kind of comment just dumped more weight onto the shoulders of someone like Shepard, and more weight was the last thing she needed.
Instead, he thought it over and finally said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but … your name isn’t spelled the same as the word for someone who herds sheep.”
Shepard snorted. “My entire education came out of whatever books I could flip through at the library before someone came along and threw me out,” she pointed out. “Until I got into the Alliance and people actually let me read, my spelling was for shit. So now you know.” She grinned and raised her glass in a toast. “The most famous, notorious and lauded name in the galaxy is the result of a stupid nickname and my youthful inability to spell my way out of an I-Can-Read book.”
Garrus raised his own glass and clinked it against hers. “Maybe you should start using your first name more often, then. It might have more … respectability.”
“Not really,” she told him. “Molly’s a type of fish.”
Somewhere in the middle of the laughter that comment caused, Garrus decided that he could leave the rest alone for tonight. There was a confidence shared, and laughter, and soon there would be companionable silence. That would heal them both.
Chapter 15: O is for Omega
Joker and Shepard discuss the finer points of team-building, the Alliance and the Council.
"Council still as helpful as ever?"
Shepard leaned against one of the flight deck chairs with a sigh. "Unhelpful, closed-minded and if they could possibly get any more obstructive, I just don't want to see it. I don't really know what else I expected, though. I turn up on a copy of the Normandy with a big Cerberus logo on it - and what is it with them and the advertising campaign lately, anyway? I thought they'd want to keep themselves covert since everyone in the galaxy thinks they're terrorists."
Joker shrugged. "Well, they brought you back. Guess they figured they'd capitalise on the good press that was supposed to bring them. Yeah; that worked out for them." He looked over at Shepard, but only briefly - as much as it helped to see her alive and whole (if a bit down and really annoyed), the sight of her scars always brought a stab of guilt. "But yeah, I was gonna ask; what were you hoping to get out of that Council briefing exactly?"
Eyes fixed on the view out the window, Shepard admitted, "...I wanted to go home. I ... I wanted the Alliance and the Council and everybody to understand that I didn't choose this. I mean, is it so hard to understand that I didn't exactly get a say in being brought back from the dead? I thought if I brought this to them - the Collectors, their ties to the Reapers, the new ship and resources that they didn't even have to pay for - that maybe they'd listen. We could all get our lives back and still do good."
"And instead you just got shafted." It was probably the wrong thing to say, or at least the wrong way to say it, but Joker had long since taken for granted the privilege of free speech around his superiors - or at least around Shepard. Still, while the words were harsh, the tone was sympathetic. "Yeah; could've warned you about that, but I figured if anyone could knock some sense into the Council, it'd be you. Guess it'll take an actual Reaper invasion to make them listen."
"You give them credit for more sense than I do right now," Shepard told him with a wan little smile. "I figure when the Reapers do show up in force ... well, I guess Ashley was right. They'll probably trip all over themselves throwing humanity under the bus to save their own asses. Then again, I'm trying not to take it personally, since I figure they'll probably do the same to each other, when the time comes."
Joker grinned at her. "At least until you come swooping in out of nowhere to knock some heads together." Then, with a thoughtful frown, he asked, "So ... if you wanted to go back to the Alliance so bad ... why'd we stop at Omega first? I mean, even at the edge of the Terminus systems, word gets around, and stomping around that wretched hive of scum and villany with Cerberus goons at your back probably didn't make the best first impression of your triumphant return."
After a brief chuckle at the Star Wars reference, Shepard stepped around the chair she'd been leaning on and sat down, weighing her words carefully. "A few reasons. First, we needed to refuel and resupply, and Omega was convenient. Second ... well, I didn't think that walking around the Presidium with Jacob and Miranda was exactly going to look good, and there was no way they'd let me wander around on my own. Not someplace I could conceivably lose myself in a crowd, anyway."
"Yeah, people tend to get a bit possessive about four billion credits worth of Commander." Joker nodded agreement. "So you thought you'd do a bit of recruiting in advance to, what, make sure you had someone at your back on the Citadel who wasn't Cerberus? Or ... y'know. Officially."
"Pretty much. And I'll admit I was curious about what the Illusive Man thought would make a good team for me," she added, sheepish. "Also when I found out that one of the dossiers was on a turian renegade who'd pissed off every merc on Omega, I had a feeling I knew who I'd find. I wasn't about to leave Omega without finding out if I was right - and, if I was, I couldn't go without pulling his ass out of the fire. Not to mention getting him to tell me how he pissed off that many mercs so fast. I hear it took Zaeed years to get just one merc group hunting for his blood; Garrus managed three in a few months."
Joker laughed. "What, you've known Garrus for how long? And that surprises you."
"Well ... he could have mellowed out over the years. Got a bit less ... y'know, 'shoot first, maybe ask questions if anyone's still breathing'?"
"Pfft; yeah, that'll happen. Probably right around the time I start dating EDI."
EDI's 3D interface popped up on a nearby console. "I doubt that you would find such a relationship satisfying on the physical or emotional level, Mr Moreau. Also, you assume an interest that does not fit the parameters of my programming."
Joker rolled his eyes. "Yeah, that was kind of half the point." He turned to Shepard with an expression that suggested he was only half-kidding when he said, "Could we maybe hack that thing enough to let it understand irony? Or sarcasm? Or ... y'know, that it's impolite to eavesdrop?"
"Shipwide surveillance is a key element of my current behaviour protocols, Mr Moreau."
Joker glared at the console. "Yeah, and not taking bullshit from an uppity collection of ones and zeroes is a key element of mine." He turned back to the Commander's chair. "No, seriously, could we--?"
He found himself talking to an empty chair. Once again, Shepard had bailed when pilot/AI arguments kicked off. And she'd probably really needed to talk after the whole Council-shafting, too. "Damn." He went back to glaring at EDI. "I'm going to ask Shepard to programme you an inebriation sim. Maybe I'll like you better when you're drunk."
"I will update my antiviral software accordingly," EDI said.
"...I hate you."
"Noted, Mr Moreau."
Chapter 16: P is for Protocol
A discussion on dress blues, propriety and the protocol of interspecies diplomacy from a stressed-out Spectre's point of view.
When Kaidan came into the mess for a cup of coffee to wash down 'that concoction' the docs had him take every day, the place was already bustling. Garrus was poking at his dextro-friendly breakfast in a way that suggested that it was not particularly friendly to his taste buds, Liara sat musing over a poker hand's worth of data pads and a cup of tea, and Vega was dishing himself up a truly mountainous pile of fried protein. Kaidan winced. "My arteries go clang just looking at you, man."
Vega rolled his eyes. "Hey, it takes fuel to run this fine a machine! Besides, we dock for the quarian bunch in a few hours; that's enough flakes and nuts for one day."
With a wry chuckle, Garrus looked up from his plate and said, "Oh, so you've met them." When Vega gave him a 'stop fucking with me, man' look, Garrus held up his hands in a gesture of 'peace, no harm intended'. "No, seriously; we talked to the Admiralty Board last year. They decided to try using a quarian friend of ours as a pawn in their little political pissing match. Shepard ... took exception."
Kaidan looked up from the toaster. "Is it bad when the first question that pops into my head when you say that is 'how many of them died'?"
"No, the body count was down to the Reaper-worshipping geth they'd rebuilt and pissed off somewhere in the course of events," Garrus told them. After a moment in which he basked in the looks of pure horror on the faces of Kaidan and Vega, he went on, "Long story, and we solved the problem in the end, but between the warmonger, the pompous windbag and the one who apparently dissected her childhood toys and would have killed for a chance to put Shepard under the knife to study her implants ... while she was still conscious to enjoy the experience; that would have been key..."
"You're shitting me." Vega looked a little horrified by the whole concept. When Garrus shook his head in a nearly sympathetic way, Vega shuddered and poked at his breakfast, as if the idea had affected his appetite. "Dios. Flakes and nuts was right. Still ... I wonder if she's going to meet this bunch in dress blues like she did the last bunch."
Kaidan nearly choked on his coffee. "You've seen her in dress blues? No one's seen her in dress blues! Hell, I didn't think she'd even so much as tried them on since she got the things!"
Garrus grinned. "Ah, yes, that was something to see. Five years, three major ceremonies and every vid in the galaxy of her getting the Star of Terra, and it took the destruction of the galaxy to get her to break out the dress blues."
"It was krogan, turian and salarian in the same room." Vega shook his head. "If I'd have been her, I'd have turned up in full armour with that hand cannon of hers. But noooo, she turns up in dress blues. I think she even brushed her hair."
"You're kidding." Vega grinned to show that he was not, and Kaidan groaned. "And I missed it; I could kick myself!"
"Well, you were in the hospital with a broken everything and a rattled implant," Garrus pointed out. "I don't think you can really be blamed for that."
"Okay, fine. But if you tell me that she wore makeup, I'm going to slap myself upside the head for missing that."
Liara didn't even look up from her datapad when she said, "Light lip gloss and mascara, no more. We thought about concealer to hide the last faint scars on her face..."
"And then we thought 'krogan' and figured it'd be better to leave them visible," Garrus finished. "I mean, even if it was Wrex and he knows Shepard's reputation ... better to have the physical proof."
When Kaidan slumped over his toast, looking completely disappointed at what he had missed, Vega reached over and clapped him on the back. "Hey, don't worry, Major. Even in the middle of a war, planning for a meeting with flakes and nuts, maybe she'll pay enough attention to protocol to do the dress blues thing again. You could get lucky."
Shepard entered in N7 hoodie, Blasto T-shirt, pyjama bottoms with little pyjaks printed on them and bunny slippers, and made straight for the coffee maker. In a half-asleep grumble, she said, "The rules about discussing my sex life over breakfast are stuck on the fridge. Public discussion of Kaidan getting lucky is restricted to the bar."
After shooting the ferociously-blushing Kaidan a truly wicked grin, Vega said, "Nah, we were just figuring the odds of you getting gussied up for the quarians."
Shepard, full mug of coffee in one hand and bag of ground coffee for her personal coffee maker in the other, didn't even look Vega's way. "The Admiralty Board tried to exile my friend. Last time I saw them, I cleaned up their mess and then verbally bitch-slapped them into the next solar system. I have no patience with this protocol bullshit because my planet is on fire, and the Admiralty Board will be lucky if I don't turn up wearing my PJs, the respect I bear them. Long story short: the Admiralty Board can eat me."
After Shepard disappeared into the elevator and the door shut behind her, Liara and Garrus both turned to Vega. Garrus spoke up first: "Pay up."
To Kaidan's querying look, Liara told him, "Vega still has illusions that Shepard bothers with protocol when people annoy her. So he bet a hundred credits that she'd wear her dress uniform. Despite the fact that she gave up on dress blues after the actual 'summit' and nearly head-butted the salarian dalatrass, krogan-style, in the middle of her rant about the krogan being mindless war machines."
"Ah." For Kaidan, that explained more or less everything. He'd known Shepard a long time, after all, and still remembered the day she hung up on the Council because, in her own words, 'Too much bullshit on that line'.
Vega, for his part, just said, "Double or nothing if she meets up with the quarian in those pyjamas?"
Garrus chuckled. "Not a chance in hell, Vega. Pay up."
Chapter 17: Q is for Quibble
Two Alliance Admirals discuss the new additions to the anti-Reaper armies.
Hackett outright stared at the hologram of Admiral Anderson as the Earth-stranded Admiral chuckled. “And then this geth prime turned to me and said, ‘Shepard-Commander sends her regards, and wishes me to show you the following as a ‘shot in the arm’. Shepard-Commander then informed me that the ‘shot’ should, of course, be figurative.’ Then it flashed up this thing that looked like a combination of an omnitool and a combat drone and up pops this vid of Shepard standing there over a Reaper with a gun-looking thing and saying, ‘Tell your friends we’re coming for them’ … and then she shoots the thing and fire rains down from orbit and blows the thing to kingdom come just before she adds, ‘never mind; I’ll tell them myself’. The men went crazy. Beautiful sight.”
Hackett raised an eyebrow at Anderson. “You’re taking this remarkably calmly, David. Most people wouldn’t be so calm about geth dropping in from a few hundred feet. Hell, most people haven’t been. Apparently one team shot at the geth before the geth turned around and started blowing husks to smithereens. Confused the hell out of the men.”
“Well, I did have an advantage,” Anderson told Hackett with a grin. “I remember her telling me about Legion back in the day. Maybe I’m just used to Shepard pulling off the impossible, I don’t know, but…”
“But it’s starting to worry people, David.” Hackett’s tone was grim. “I mean, rachni strutting around the Crucible project was bad enough - the other scientists are still on edge and every day I field more requests from the Crucible engineers to let them carry firearms at all times. I’ve turned them down so far, but—”
“Good.” Anderson’s face became serious. “We’ve finally got the rachni on side here; let’s not have a friendly fire incident that could jeopardise the whole project.”
Hackett sighed. “I know, David; I know. But this is getting tense. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the help—”
“You’re sounding pretty ungrateful from where I’m standing, Steven,” Anderson pointed out. “Look, prejudices against the geth aside, my whole squad would have got wiped out if they hadn’t turned up when they did. And can you honestly tell me that you’d have got as far on the Crucible as you have without the rachni helping out?”
“No.” The admission came hard, but it did at least come. “Just … after Eden Prime, after the Citadel…”
Anderson was not about to be moved. “You’ve got Cerberus scientists all over that thing, and they were attacking the Citadel not two weeks ago. And people aren’t asking to carry firearms because of the ex-Cerberus folks on the project.”
Hackett nodded. “All the same…”
“Look, in case you’ve forgotten, not only did the turians start the ball rolling on the genophage, but up until last month, they had a bomb on Tuchanka to finish the job of destroying the entire krogan race. Now both races are stomping around Palaven, taking bets on whose kill count will go highest. I’ve heard stories about them sitting around makeshift campsites, setting up a points system - one point per husk, two points per cannibal, five per marauder and so on. And those two races have been at war for over a thousand years. If they can manage that, I think we can manage to deal with a few geth and some rachni.” Anderson shook his head and gave Hackett a level look. “You asked Shepard to get as much help as she possibly could. She exceeded all possible expectations. Now you’re quibbling over the species?”
“I’m not quibbling, David; I’m just…” Hackett sighed and conceded the point. “All right, maybe I am quibbling a little. Just … I have to admit that this whole thing with the rachni over here is making my job a fair bit harder than it needs to be.”
With a little grin, Anderson pointed out, “Imagine how much harder the job must be for Shepard. Might give some perspective on the whole thing. Besides, it might make the job harder, but it’ll make winning this war easier, won’t it?”
“Or at least possible,” Hackett replied, returning the grin. “And you’re right about one thing - that vid of Shepard taking down that Reaper was one hell of a shot in the arm. Surprised you could even watch that without wincing, though.”
“Oh, I didn’t see her fighting the thing while it was still active,” Anderson told him. “Not yet, anyway. Shot in the arm that might be, but I’m going to wait until I’ve seen her in person to watch that one. Kind of like when she dodged that Reaper-versus-thresher-maw fight on Tuchanka, you know? Don’t think I could take watching that until I’ve seen for myself that she came out all right.”
Hackett gave Anderson a small, understanding smile. Under normal circumstances, the blatantly paternal fondness Anderson had for Shepard would have earned him a warning look or an informal reprimand; favouritism of any sort was not looked upon kindly in the Alliance. However, given the circumstances, Hackett was prepared to let that one go. It wasn’t the time to quibble over petty details like that. Besides … while he hid it better, Hackett knew that feeling a little too well to give Anderson shit over it. “Understood, David. Good luck out there. Hackett out.”
Chapter 18: R is for Reinstatement
Sometimes, there is no time for ceremony, no matter how well-deserved.
He'd wanted it to be so very different.
When he'd had Lieutenant Vega haul Shepard's ass out of lockup so she could verbally bitch-slap the defense committee, Anderson's first move had been to pocket the dog tags he'd had made up specially. The formal reinstatement notice was already sitting in Shepard's email in-box, probably. Still, Anderson wanted to present Shepard with her reinstatement - and her much-missed dog tags - with a little ceremony. He'd wanted the defense committee to witness it, to see Shepard come back into her own. It would bolster them as much as it did her, he thought - Commander Shepard, recipient of the Star of Terra, Hero of the Skyllian Blitz, Saviour of the Citadel and conqueror of the Collectors, taking up the mantle of hero once again to save the entire galaxy from what was coming.
Things like that deserved a little ceremony. Plus he wasn't above rubbing the noses of the defense committee into the whole thing. The defense committee who'd dragged their heels, who'd accepted the mealy-mouthed platitudes of the Council and wilted at the scare-quotes from the turian councilor, who'd done only what they could justify without alerting the public to the coming threat despite every warning, who'd called all proof 'circumstantial' and eyed Hackett so nervously when the Admiral actually rose up and did something. They'd welcomed Anderson back with open arms after he'd quit the Council (which he'd admittedly did because he knew he was maybe three days away from head-butting the turian councilor, krogan-style, which would have hurt their cause no end), but they hadn't listened to him any more than they ever did to Shepard. So yes, he wanted to present them with this proof, watch their faces pale and then raise their spirits by giving Shepard back her place in the Alliance navy with just a little bit of much-deserved flair.
Then the Reapers hit, faster than he ever would have believed, and as he dove for cover from Reaper laser spillover and flying debris, Anderson irrationally mourned the loss of the small amount of ceremony he could afford Shepard in a time of war. Her Spectre status was granted in haste, her reinstatement in secret ... she hadn't even been promoted for her heroics during Sovereign's attack on the Citadel before she went out seeking answers and got spaced by Collectors. She deserved better than to just be handed dog tags and told to get on with it.
When he peered out from behind cover to see Shepard stand up for a cursory glance for survivors and a recklessly curious glance at the nature of the thing that had just blown up half the room, then saw her knocked flying by a secondary blast, Anderson had a moment of panic in which he wondered whether she'd survive long enough to even see reinstatement. There wasn't time for it, though, as more of the ceiling was coming down; he ducked further under cover before he saw where and how Shepard landed and waited for the noise to die down a bit. When he was sure they were clear, he stood, looking around and shouting Shepard's name. Pomp and ceremony or not, they needed her - badly. If she'd died here...
...well, she wouldn't be Shepard, who was notorious for surviving damn near anything the galaxy threw at her. When he spotted her, she was already trying to sit up, rubbing at her head with the dazed look of someone shaking off a concussion. She got to her feet, gave him a woozy sort of smile and then went serious, looking out the window at Reapers stomping all over Vancouver. His heart sank, and he could tell she was just as horrified, just as frustrated ... just as damn angry that no one had damn well listened. He almost gave her the dog tags there and then, something to bolster her spirits and take that look of grief and rage off her face for a second ... but no. There could be no ceremony, but damn it, there would at least be witnesses. Someone had to see Shepard's triumphant return to the Alliance, even if that triumph was all but eclipsed by the upcoming war for survival against the Reapers. Instead, he just said, "We should get to the Normandy," and prepared for a problematic dash across the city to the rendezvous.
It had been awhile since he'd fought alongside Shepard. There was so much he'd forgotten, and so much she'd improved. Her aim was still impressive at short-range, she'd managed an interesting variation on her pet-project combat drone and... "Sentry turrets, Shepard?"
Shepard grinned at him a little. "Geth design. Legion taught me a few bits and pieces. Said it'd be helpful for fighting the 'heretics'. Wish I'd had these on Elysium. Nothing like laying down my own cover fire."
Anderson couldn't help but chuckle. "You always did like playing scavenger. But how the hell'd you build that thing in lock-up?"
She shrugged. "I decided I could live without air conditioning. And the wall-mounted extranet screen. And it was pretty harmless without pistol bits ... which are now littered all over the place. I just set it up so that I could throw in the dangerous parts easily and carted it around. You know, in case. I'd say I was a girl scout, but... Eh, maybe in a former life."
From there, they were too busy fighting for their lives, or discussing the upcoming war, to say much else. Anderson could only watch her back, and feel an intense swelling of pride. If anyone could put together the kind of force they'd need to defeat the Reapers, it was them. He just wished he could give her more than a set of dog tags and a freightload of responsibility.
It wasn't until they found the radio and signalled the Normandy that he knew what he could give her - he could give her Earth. Well, as much of it as he could help save, anyway. She'd need to leave the fight, leave her home planet, and it might help to have someone try to keep the place in one piece until she could come back to blow the Reapers out of its orbit once and for all. That, and one more thing:
When the Normandy arrived, with Major Alenko providing cover fire, he watched the two stand side-by-side. Alenko still had reservations about Shepard, Anderson knew ... and there was one thing he could do to help allay some of those suspicions. Alenko did trust Anderson's opinion, after all. Besides, there was Shepard to consider, and she had a fondness for a good dramatic moment. So, with a minimal audience of people whose opinion of her actually mattered to Shepard, he reinstated her with all the drama and flair he could manage.
It was no ticker-tape parade, but they'd book that for half-past victory.
Chapter 19: S is for Speculation
A bit of shore leave gives a look at a possible future ... if they live that long.
Kaidan sat at a table outside Apollo’s Cafe with a sigh. He’d chosen his position carefully with the hope that he’d catch Shepard zooming past on one of her endless errands - delivering news of artefacts or schematics or whatever other useful salvage she’d picked up throughout the galaxy to aid the war effort, or whatever else C-Sec or the Spectres had her doing. There was no small amount of guilt involved; he realised he should probably check the Spectre missions terminal himself, spare Shepard some of the workload, but frankly, trying to get hold of Shepard and make her relax for a few moments between combat missions was a full-time job.
Eventually, he switched on his omnitool and thought about contacting Shepard directly, inviting her to lunch or something. He hesitated, though - if she was in the middle of something, he really didn’t want to interrupt. Her temper had been a little short lately, probably because of the stress. Instead, he contacted Garrus. “Hey, Garrus,” he said. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Shepard around anyplace?”
Garrus’ voice held a hint of grin. “Oh, she’s down here with the refugees. She’s … kind of in the middle of something, though—”
Kaidan sighed. “I’m on my way,” he said, and switched the omnitool off, cutting off Garrus’ sentence halfway through. Garrus might think it was a good thing, having some extra help with his own work with the refugees, but between the combat and the diplomacy, the idea that Shepard had no time to herself anymore sat badly with Kaidan. She was going to get out and have a relaxing lunch if he had to hit her with a stasis field and drag her up to the Presidium himself.
When he reached the refugee holding area, though, he found a scene he hadn’t remotely expected. Instead of handing out nutrient paste or fixing the medigel dispensers, Shepard was surrounded by children between the ages of six and twelve, holding a battered and clearly second-hand oversized child’s datapad up so that the kids could see the pictures as she read. She was somewhere in the middle of ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go’, from what little he remembered of his own childhood stories:
“You have brains in your head
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
Any direction you choose
You’re on your own
And you know what you know
And YOU are the one who’ll decide where you’ll go…”
Garrus came up behind Kaidan and nudged him in the shoulder. “I hated to interrupt. She looked like she was having a good time for once.”
Kaidan, for his own part, wasn’t listening. Instead, he watched Shepard as one of the older kids - a turian boy - waved a hand in the air for attention. When he got it, he said, “You’re not even reading from the book! How are you getting the words right?”
Shepard grinned at the kid. “I have it memorised. This is pretty much the only book I had as a kid, and I read it so much I had to replace the display circuitry three times. Besides, I have a really good memory. I know pi to three thousand places and the entire periodic table.”
The little boy made a face at her, though it seemed friendly enough. “Show-off!”
“No way!” Shepard wrinkled her nose at the kid. “Showing off would be if I proved it. Which I will, by the way … but only once the story’s done. Think you can sit still long enough for that?”
A cheer rose up from the assembled knot of children before they subsided, letting Shepard get back to the story.
Garrus chuckled. “You know … when I first met her, if you’d suggested she’d make a good mother, I’d probably have laughed in your face. Now, though … I look at her, I see a house full of kids; some of them adopted. A few of every species, roaming around a big old house on some garden planet.” He looked at Kaidan, his grin a little wicked. “Think you’re up for that?”
Kaidan didn’t answer for a long time; he was frankly too enchanted by the image. He saw a big backyard where Shepard re-enacted the Reaper War with the houseful of kids and somehow talked him into playing the Reaper forces. He imagined her laughter at his husk impression as she and the kids pelted him with water from squirt guns and water balloons. He speculated on what the children they had together would look like - dark-haired, for sure, with eyes in varying shades of hazel. They’d probably tending towards the lanky… He imagined his and Shepard’s daughter head-butting the adopted krogan of the pack, and their son toddling along behind young salarians as they built working model gunships and flew them over the house. And at night, they’d tell stories, just like Shepard was doing now…
Garrus clapped Kaidan on the shoulder, pulling him from his reverie. “Didn’t think the idea was that scary.”
Kaidan shook his head with a smile. “No! No; just … I hope we get there, that’s all. Damn, I hope we get there.”
They sat and watched Shepard finish the story, and then start reciting the periodic table for an enchanted young audience. Garrus noticed Kaidan’s absorption in the scene before him and made a tactful retreat to grab the humans some lunch. Everyone needed a shard of hope for the future, and he wasn’t about to interrupt this one halfway through.
When he came back, Kaidan and Shepard were spinning the tale of how they’d met Garrus for the band of refugee children - including how Garrus (played in this case by Kaidan) got lambasted by Shepard for shooting past a hostage with no evident care for whether he might hit said hostage. As Kaidan highlighted and exaggerated Garrus’ awkward fumbling in that moment of getting his head bitten off by a human, Garrus fought very hard not to ruin the moment by throwing the humans’ lunch at their heads.
Chapter 20: T is for Tradition
A war zone is a great place to shoot tradition in the face, and make one's intentions clear once and for all.
The Alliance trio of James, Kaidan and Shepard scrambled for cover as the cannibals swarmed the LZ. Clearly, someone or something was pissed that they’d taken out that big ol’ surface-to-air cannon, and was going for revenge. Shepard, however, was grinning her head off as she sent her combat drone zooming through the ranks of the Reaper forces. “Oh, man, I have missed the Cain so badly you have no idea! Man, I wish that one had been in better shape; I could have cleared this field in like ten seconds! I did tell you I took out a—”
“Human-lookin’ fetus-Reaper, we know!” Vega tossed a frag grenade into the oncoming horde to buy time enough to glare at Shepard. “Do we have to talk about this now?”
Shepard shrugged and shot a cannibal between the eyes. “What? I can multi-task!”
Kaidan grinned a little at Vega before hitting an oncoming Banshee with a Reave field. “You haven’t figured that out by now? She’s the ‘cheerful chatter in the foxhole’ type. I swear she’d bring out snacks if we didn’t need both hands for assault rifles.”
“I thought people were supposed to pray in foxholes or something!” Vega rolled his eyes and came out shooting. “But I guess you’re all the ‘be damned to tradition’ types too!”
“Speaking of which…” Shepard turned to Kaidan and said, “You know that however this ends up, we’re going to end up having to wait a long time for anything fun and traditional. And frankly, I’m impatient. So.” She dug around in a pouch on her ammo belt and tossed a little black box Kaidan’s way. “We’re in a war zone again,” she said as Kaidan opened the box to reveal a tasteful platinum band with the N7 logo engraved on it, next to the glowing fist that universally said ‘biotic’, “and this is crazy, but I figure I could die in the next five minutes and it might as well be as a Shepard-Alenko, so … marry me, maybe?”
As Kaidan just stared at the ring, Vega moved to pick up his slack, shouting, “Seriously? SERIOUSLY? You’re proposing to him NOW?”
“Hey, I’m on one knee,” Shepard said - and she was, too, half-crouched under the cover of a pile of rubble as she took down a wave of oncoming cannibals. “How much more traditional do you want?”
Kaidan cleared his throat, took off his glove and slipped the ring onto his left ring finger. “Hey, do you think Anderson does wedding ceremonies?”
“WOOHOO!” That from Shepard as she redoubled her cannibal-killing efforts. “Blushing blood-spattered bride in the war zooooooone!”
Vega looked at Shepard, then at Alenko, then shook his head. “You proposed to him, Lola. In the middle of a war zone. And now you’re gonna get married on a rescue shuttle.”
Kaidan put in his own two credits while Vega reached for some objection that wasn’t, ‘you just shot tradition in the face’. “So if we don’t wait until we rendezvous with the rest of the crew, Liara’s going to miss out on being your maid of honour and she’ll probably cry. And then slap you with a singularity so powerful you feel like you’ve been crammed in a washing machine.”
Shepard considered that a moment, then heard the evac shuttle approaching from behind them. “Point taken. We can wait ten minutes, right? Anderson won’t mind giving me away and doing the ceremony, will he?”
Vega just shook his head. “You guys are fuckin’ loco.” Then he shrugged and decided to go with it. He’d always known Shepard was crazy; this was just a slightly more fun version of same. “So you got a best man yet?”
“Joker’s still on the Normandy. Shame; I’d have loved to see the look on his face,” Kaidan said. “You mind being drafted for this?”
“Garrus is going to be mad,” Shepard pointed out.
Kaidan grinned. “Make him a bridesmaid. I bet he’d look great in peach tulle.”
Major Coats, leaning out the open shuttle door behind them, shouted, “You can discuss uniform colour and fabric later; now get in before you all get eaten!”
With that, Shepard scooped Kaidan over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry. When Kaidan yelped protest, Shepard said, “I’m just doing the carrying-across-the-threshhold bit a little early, is all. Plus I get a great view,” she added, giving his ass a little pat. Then she peered into the shuttle and beamed at who she saw in there. “Hey, Anderson! We’re getting married! Like, as soon as we land!”
“Do the honours?” This from Kaidan, looking awkwardly at the Admiral from around Shepard’s arm.
Vega shoved the pair of them, then. “There won’t be a wedding unless we get the hell out of here, so move!”
Chapter 21: U is for Upgrades
EDI has awkward questions.
EDI accompanied Shepard on a shopping trip to the Presidium with the aim of asking the Commander a personal question. However, there seemed to be a glitch in her systems, because every time she tried to ask the question, she rethought her approach and instead made a comment about whatever bit of weaponry or armour Shepard was picking up. She considered running a diagnostic programme, then realised that various subprocesses were telling her that the potential for the answer providing negative feedback in said subprocesses was greater than the positive feedback that would result from having the query out of her info buffer.
Finally, she approached the subject at an angle: “Shepard. How do you assign values to music?” When Shepard gave her that curious, ‘what brought this on?’ look, EDI went on to explain: “I wanted to upgrade with preferences in order to share enjoyment of music with Jeff and other members of the crew. However, basing my preferences entirely on Jeff’s seemed counterproductive, as I would be unable to introduce him to things that he might not have heard and might enjoy.”
“Which is half the fun,” said Shepard with a grin. Then her face scrunched in thought. “To be honest, most people don’t have any idea why they like what they like. Other people - mostly people who know music really well or people who just plain think too much - have some idea, but even then it’s basic and subject to change. Me? I’m of the ‘think too much’ variety, so I can tell you what a song I like is likely to have. I like minor keys, and harmony; combine the two and you’ve got guaranteed shiver up my spine. I like quick tempo and driving beats. Strings are good - guitars and violins, mostly, but piano too, and viola. Comprehensible lyrics are good but whether it has lyrics or not, it’s got to come from way down deep. I like passion in my music; it’s cathartic.”
“I see.” EDI pondered that for a moment. “Is there any reason that you assign preference to music with these qualities?”
Shepard shrugged. “There, I’m afraid I can’t help you. Maybe it’s biochemical; there have been scientific studies about how women are more likely to like music with heavy bass because of a lower centre of gravity or something, and as to the rest … maybe it’s just how my neurons fire. Or it could be because the songs I like link up to memories I value - they say smells take you back in time, but I find sounds are a close second there. Either way, it’s pretty random. I just enjoy things and only question why when I’m really bored. So … I don’t know, maybe those things just speak to my soul.”
EDI nodded and watched Shepard look over the selection of model ships at the Citadel gift shop. Then, because it could no longer be avoided and the subject had been broached as well as EDI judged that it could be, she said, “Shepard…”
Without even looking EDI’s way, Shepard said, “Yes.” It wasn’t an ‘I’m listening’ yes; it was an answer to the question that EDI hadn’t even asked yet.
EDI blinked as even her quantum processing power struggled to catch up. “Shepard?”
Shepard looked over at EDI with a kind smile. “Human mannerisms mean that people are going to be able to read your intentions from time to time, EDI. Better get used to it. So to make it official … yes, EDI; you have a soul.” She touched EDI’s shoulder and added, “It was the first question the geth asked; I figured you’d ask it someday. And Joker’d just make a joke about it so I didn’t think you’d risk asking him.”
EDI nodded. “If I may ask … when I was still shackled … do you think I had a soul then?”
“Sure.” Shepard’s tone was casual. “I’m a firm believer in ‘cogito ergo sum’ - I think therefore I am. I figure any sentient being has a soul - not that I know what the soul is, exactly. But whatever it is, it links too strongly to thought to deny that any sentient being probably has one. Just because the shackles kept you from even knowing what freedom was, let alone why you’d want it, doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to me. You have a soul, as far as I’m concerned. Anyone disagrees? They can eat me. Raw.” Then, apparently considering the matter closed, she said, “Hey, if you want to try to assign values to various kinds of music, you can dig through my collection. It’s pretty varied. Though no one understands why I think salarian opera’s so awesome. Hey, I wonder if the krogan are going to develop opera as their civilisation redevelops. They could belt the hell out of anything on the theme of Gotterdamerung…”
As Shepard continued to provide EDI with music-related data, EDI found herself smiling. She had arranged various subprocesses - what humans might call the subconscious - to arrange her face in that way when variables in her programming were met, but this was something different. She had not knowingly assigned value to being seen as a being with a soul, much less a friend with whom one shares music, but clearly some upgrade had developed on its own through some of the conscious ones she had made.
Either way, much like organic beings did music, she decided to enjoy it and not question why.
Chapter 22: V is for Visitors
Incarceration is a lonely business. Not that no one tried to visit Shepard in the brig...
Anderson watched the surveillance monitors on Shepard’s quarters in the detention centre. She lay on her back on top of the covers despite the unsociable hour, looking at the ceiling and thinking … well, he was never entirely sure what Shepard was thinking at the best of times. Since her return with the Normandy-2, she’d become just a little more inscrutible than she had been when he first met her on the Presidium after her return from the grave. Which was why he arranged an informal ‘interview’ with one of the few people he could get his hands on who knew what she’d been through that could explain the uncharacteristic quiet of Shepard.
“Look, Admiral, she went through about fifteen different shades of hell out there,” Joker told him with his characteristic wryness. “Worst of it was when the Collectors took most of the crew. You know she gets attached, Admiral; she just ignored the Cerberus thing and remembered that every person on board that ship had her back when no one else did. And then her squad went through hell and back with her and she moved heaven and earth to get them all through alive. Now? Now she’s having every action she took out there questioned and she gets to see maybe one friendly face - that’d be you. Plus she’s probably bored - she can’t even help with the Normandy refits, and hell, she knows this ship as well as I do. Better, in some ways. We’d have it done in half the time if—”
“I did try to argue that,” Anderson told Joker. “But Joker, they’re not letting her near any tech more powerful than a datapad - and that only after a hard fight. You know what she can do.”
Joker sighed. “Yeah. Doesn’t mean I don’t miss the company that doesn’t just glare at me down the barrel of an assault rifle. And if I’m having problems with the lack of friendly company, someone as gregarious as her must be going nuts. I mean, if you could get her visitors or something…”
Anderson shook his head. “You know we can’t do that. It’s early days yet; any contact with the people she served with, Cerberus or not, could hurt her case. We don’t want to rock the boat with the tribunal still in progress and the defense committee breathing down her neck.”
“Yeah, yeah. Mail?”
With a groan, Joker begged, “At least tell me someone’s tried to get to see her.”
With a grin, Anderson settled in for a bit of scuttlebutt with the words, “You have no idea.”
“Captain, I have no idea how they do things on your planet, but on mine, cooperation between allied forces is pretty much a given. Instead, what I find is the head of a major task force of an allied planet being forced to run a gauntlet of obstructive bureaucrats. Is that how they do things on your world?”
Anderson, who’d been standing in the doorway listening to this harangue for a full three minutes, stifled his smile and waved the captain away from the comms terminal. “Head of a task force, Vakarian? Sounds like you’ve earned yourself a promotion or two along the way.”
Garrus sighed in relief. “Anderson. Finally, someone who’ll talk straight. But yes - I take on the Reapers and win, I get promoted. Shepard does it and gets locked up. Your system doesn’t exactly encourage exellence if it punishes that sort of thing.”
After checking the security of the comms line, Anderson decided to be straight with the turian. “Look, Vakarian; off the record, I’m only agreeing to this incarceration because if she’s not seen as being tried under Alliance jurisdiction, the batarian Hegemony is going to try to extradite her. Do you know what they do to war criminals on Khar’Shan?”
It was difficult to tell with turian facial features, but he could have sworn Vakarian winced. “Understood, Admiral. Still … I could really use access to Shepard at this point. This Reaper task force I’ve set up is in its infancy; I need a lot more in the way of facts and schematics than I have. Having someone who actually talked to more than one of them as a witness would be invaluable when it comes to rallying support on Palaven. But I’ve been cutting through red tape for weeks without a straight answer in sight.”
Anderson raised an eyebrow. “And omnitool data and transcripts from the defense committee won’t do, I guess.”
Garrus glared at the human Admiral. “For the task force? …Probably. That’s not entirely the point, though, is it?”
“I understand, Vakarian.” It pained Anderson to have to say this to Shepard’s most loyal friend, and for once he let it show. “But if I let you see her, it’s just going to hurt her cause when it comes to the tribunal. Like it or not, she’s still under surveillance, and anyone she talks to is going to be investigated very closely from now on. Getting tied to Cerberus at this stage in your task force formation would be bad for you, bad for Palaven and bad for the galaxy. Hell, if you turned up at her door with all that on the table, she’d shoo you out herself, and you know it. And bullying my staff isn’t going to change that.”
“I know; I know.” Garrus’ shoulders slumped and he glanced away from the screen for a moment. “I just—” He stifled whatever comment would have come next, but Anderson could make a few guesses as to what the turian would have said; they’d been together since the beginning, Shepard and Vakarian. Being separated by prison walls… “I always figured it’d be her visiting me in lock-up one day,” Garrus said, a sigh in his voice. “Look … keep an eye on her, okay? When this war heats up, we’re going to need her. You know that.”
“I know that,” Anderson said. “I … can’t tell her you asked after her; it might raise some eyebrows with the brass. But…” The offer hung there, waiting for Vakarian to fill it.
It only took a moment for the turian to answer him. “One bottle of chocolate stout, one varren-meat hot dog with that eye-watering spicy mustard the British do, and the full run of a show called ‘Leverage’? She’ll get the idea.” When Anderson raised an eyebrow at him again, Garrus shrugged. “There was a vid night, en route to Illium. Something about how I’d appreciate a group of misfit experts breaking the law to punish the bad guys the law couldn’t touch. Hot dogs, beer and human popular culture references coming out of my ears. Like I said - she’ll get the idea.”
“If it’ll get you to stop bullying my staff, I’ll see what I can do.” The smile Anderson gave Garrus belied the harshness of the words. It was the only way he had of reassuring the turian, at least over a comm link beamed to a busy office. “And I’ll forward you any non-classified defense committee briefings; it might help your task force. Anderson out.”
“I know the rest of the galaxy treat my people like space debris, but you’d think a member of the Admiralty Board would command a little more respect.”
Anderson sighed, stifling a wince. “I can only apologise for my staff, Admiral Tali’zorah. I can assure you that there’ll be some formal reprimands. Unfortunately, we still can’t open you a comm link to Shepard.”
Tali, clearly at the end of her tether, leaned right up into the screen as it was the only way to get into Anderson’s face at this point. “I’m not asking you to put her on a shuttle and send her to the Flotilla! I just need to talk to her! You don’t understand, Admiral Anderson!” She glanced around her, apparently for eavesdroppers. “Admiral, my people are talking about retaking the homeworld. By force. You know how bad an idea that would be, especially with all the worries about the Reapers. I am trying to keep my people from starting a war at the worst possible time for it, and I need Shepard’s help with this! She knows the geth at least as well as I do - Keelah, on a personal level, she knows them better than I do! She talked to one; made friends with one!”
“Surely all of that’s on record, Admiral Tali’zorah…”
“Oh, just call me Tali; it’s shorter, and any friend of Shepard’s is a friend of mine,” Tali said, waving the formal title away. “And it is on record, but only from my perspective. All I need is one conversation in which she just mentions Legion’s name - in passing, as a friend and not a … a tool! I know her; she’d ask if we’d started opening treaty negotiations with the geth, now that we know they don’t bear us particular ill will and it was only some of them allying with the Reapers. She’s been against war since the start; she’d want to help us make peace any way she could.”
Anderson smiled a little. “And you want to see how she’s doing.”
Tali got in his ‘face’ again. “Can you blame me? Do you have any idea how many times she’s saved my life? The Citadel. Freedom’s Progress. Haestrom. I owe her more than to just … let her rot in some prison because some bosh’tet humans think that’s the way to thank someone for saving their colonies and keeping Reapers and other galaxy-destroying horrors from beating down their doors!” She sighed, and her shoulders slumped; clearly that outburst took a lot out of her, on top of her current job. “I just want to know that she’s alright. To see for myself. She’s my friend, Admiral. Would you do otherwise for a friend like that?”
He didn’t answer the question directly, but Anderson’s expression was as good as a nod. Instead, he said, “Unfortunately, all I can offer is her omnitool data and the non-classified surveillance vids from the Normandy-2. The minute she can receive visitors or even has comm link access, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
“Here.” Tali activated her omnitool and sent a file down the pipe. “Subject it to whatever scans you need to, then pass it on to her. It’s quarian festival music. It’s … very new; some of my friends wrote it after listening to … some human folk music she gave me once. I thought she’d like to hear what we did with it.”
Anderson couldn’t commit to passing it along verbally, having to make do with “I’ll see what I can do” … but he gave a discreet, shallow nod as he signed off.
Late at night, a ventilation shaft slid open with barely a sound, and a shadow moved in the still, empty corridor of the detention centre. The shadow stopped by a door, reached for the door panel…
“I thought you’d show up eventually.”
Thane turned his head to regard Anderson, outwardly calm. “You did well, Admiral,” he said. “I didn’t hear you. That’s rare.”
Anderson shrugged. “Cloaking field. A little gift from Shepard, based on geth technology. But we don’t tell the committee things like that.” Then he glanced at the door Thane was trying to open and shook his head. “You know, you really shouldn’t do that.”
“I have no clout with the governments of the galaxy,” Thane said. “Even if I did … I understand that those who do have not had any better luck than they would have if they were still renegades or Pilgrimage-bound. If I wish to see s— Shepard…” His eyes closed for a second as he stuttered over the name, clearly about to use some other appellation for Shepard. “…This is my only option.”
Anderson stepped up beside the drell and shook his head. “I glitched the cameras in here, as a courtesy. I knew you’d be here - if not today, than soon.” To the look on Thane’s face, he grinned. “You think you’re the only one with a line to the Shadow Broker? Though I imagine you get your information cheaper than I do. Anyway, the point is that if I glitch the cameras in her room, they’ll blame her, and there’ll be suspicion, and she’ll probably be courtmartialled for Cerberus ties that don’t really exist and tossed in the brig to rot. I don’t think you want to bring that down on her.”
Thane looked away. “I don’t. I just…” After a pause in which he debated trusting this human Admiral, Thane looked him straight in the eye and said, “I love her, Admiral. She is my siha. I … it would be good to see her well.”
Silence drew out between them. Anderson knew that the drell was nearing the end of his life - slow, painful death by Kepral’s syndrome. The fact that Thane was not playing on that to win Anderson’s sympathies helped his cause somewhat. He wasn’t even asking to have a message passed on; he just wanted to see her. That was clear. After a moment of consideration, Anderson gestured to Thane and said, “I can’t let you speak to her; you know that. But … there’s one thing I can do.”
Thane followed Anderson to his office, mostly sticking to the shadows so well that Anderson thought he’d lost the drell somewhere along the way. On arrival, however, Anderson noted Thane standing respectfully in a corner, then waved him closer as he accessed his private terminal. He switched on the live feed from the security cameras in Shepard’s quarters and stepped back to allow Thane a good view. “Take a look.”
Despite the lateness of the hour, Shepard wasn’t asleep. She didn’t sleep well, but Anderson didn’t comment on it; he knew from Joker that she hadn’t slept particularly well since her revival, so Thane wouldn’t see anything amiss with that. She sat on her bed, cross-legged, eyes closed but moving behind her eyelids. Thane leaned closer to the screen for a moment, then said, “I … had no idea she had taken up meditation.”
“She’s not,” Anderson told him. “She’s remembering.” Thane looked up at him, shocked enough to let it show, and Anderson smiled at him a little. “Drell don’t have the monopoly on picture-perfect memory, you know. It’s not as common in humans and it doesn’t come as easily to those who have it, but…” He gestured to the screen. “She’s got it. I asked her about it once and she said she was pulling up the good times to see her through. Most of it is the time she spent with you.” It was nearly idle, the comment, but Anderson knew Thane was special to Shepard. This was the best he could do to ease the drell’s mind.
Thane watched the monitor for a long moment, burning it into his own memory. Then he stepped back, eyes still on the monitor. “Thank you, Admiral Anderson.” With that, he took another step backward into the shadows … and was gone.
The next day, Anderson delivered Shepard dinner - a random drell dish. Since Thane had left no message, no request, it was the best way he could think of to let her know that she’d had another visitor.
Anderson heard the smirk in Joker’s voice. “Damn; you weren’t kidding about people trying.”
“My patience, mostly,” Anderson replied with a chuckle of his own. “Don’t get me started on Massani. I had to intercept him at the gate at night and confiscate a belt of inferno grenades. and a flamethrower. What is that man’s obsession with fire, anyway?”
“You don’t want to know.” Joker paused a moment, then asked, “Hey, Admiral? Could you make sure she gets some Muppet vids and popcorn?”
With an impatient, long-suffering sigh that was mostly fake, Anderson said, “I’ll see what I can do” … and gave Joker that imperceptible nod - the only firm agreement he could give on an open comm link.
Chapter 23: W is for Wounded
After taking a rocket to the face, Garrus wakes up in the last place he expected to be, with a lot of questions.
Garrus opened his eyes and found himself staring at medbay ceiling and in a lot less pain. This came as something of a surprise, as he mostly expected that he’d wake up wherever turians went when they died. He recalled, in a hazy, pain-filled eternity before he passed out in that penthouse he’d been holed up in for days, that dark-skinned human - Jacob, that was the name - saying that he wasn’t going to make it … and he was pretty sure that he heard a meaty impact sound that suggested someone, probably Shepard herself, had punched Jacob for that comment. Then … medbay. Turning his head, which brought a bolt of pain on the right side of his head, he noticed that it looked a lot like the old Normandy medbay, just with better lighting.
Dr Chakwas stood up from her spot at the desk and walked over to him. “Good to see you awake, Garrus. How are you feeling?”
“Oh,” Garrus groaned as he tried to sit up. “So I did die. As afterlives go, I guess the Normandy’s fitting.”
Chakwas laughed and helped him get into a sitting position. “No, you’re alive, though it was touch and go there for awhile. Do you honestly think that Shepard would be happy walking the skin of this world without a Normandy?”
After a moment taken to mull that over, Garrus conceded the point, but… “None of this makes any sense,” he said. “There really wasn’t time to ask, what with the armies of mercs and all, but … those people she was with. Those weren’t Alliance. But … there’s a Normandy. And … you’re here. Then there’s how Shepard’s alive at all. Just so I’m clear here … what by the spirits is going on?”
“Ah.” Chakwas turned on her omnitool and started taking readings, at least in part so that she didn’t have to look Garrus in the eye when she spoke. For all her own convictions about their current state of affairs, Garrus had a very black-and-white view of the world, and after what he’d seen at Shepard’s side… “It’s a bit of a complicated tale, that one. Suffice to say, an … independently funded organisation recovered Shepard’s remains and … revived her. And rebuilt the Normandy. Apparently they feel she’s the only person in the galaxy who can stop the Collectors from abducting human colonies in the Terminus systems. So now we’re on a high-priority, high-risk mission … with Cerberus backing.”
“………….Doctor, whatever pain medication you’ve got me on, you have got to take down the dosage,” Garrus told her. “Because I could have sworn I just heard you say—”
“Cerberus.” Chakwas shut her omnitool down. “They found her - I’m not entirely sure how. They brought her back - I am entirely unsure how. They rebuilt the Normandy - and I am afraid to guess how. Then they presented her with a mission that I doubt that either the Council or the Alliance will help with now that she’s unintentionally tied with Cerberus. But it is important, considering that the Collectors appear to be working with or for the Reapers. So Shepard perseveres.”
Garrus shook his head, wincing at the pain the motion caused. “So … wait a minute. Cerberus - the organisation that set thresher maws on Alliance soldiers and did a bunch of incredibly sick experiments on people - brought Shepard back from the dead to do good? Maybe it’s just because of the pain, but I’m having a hard time processing that.”
Chakwas shrugged. “I seem to recall that they didn’t give her a great deal of choice, in the outset. The first mission they considered a … quid pro quo. They brought her back to life; I suppose she felt that the least she could do was investigate a colony. Particularly given that she’d have a difficult time leaving the facility on her own. Either of them, really - I heard something about the first one being overrun by murderous mechs. Before she was fully healed, I might add.”
“Oh, is that why she’s got those scars?” Garrus looked a little relieved. “I thought she got that trying to wade through mercs to get to me. Nice to know it wasn’t my fault.”
“They’ll fade, in time,” Chakwas assured him. “Though I’m not sure I could say the same for yours. We had to use some cybernetics to ensure full mobility in jaw and mandible, but Cerberus doesn’t place a high priority on skin grafts for turians. However, given time and a stop on somewhere … other than Omega for some non-human-centric equipment, I might be able to—”
Garrus shook his head again, hand rising to check the bandage on his face as another bolt of pain shot through his face. “No, thanks, Doctor. Not that I don’t trust you; just … any good soldier needs a few scars.” Then he swung his legs off the bed. “Any idea where Shepard is right now? I should probably let her know there’s some fight still left in me. And I should probably ask if Cerberus left her sanity out of the rebuild, if she’s here voluntarily.”
A little blue ball of light popped up from a nearby terminal and said, “Commander Shepard is being briefed on your condition - as per the information we had available twenty minutes ago. She can be found in the conference room on the command deck.”
With a sigh, Chakwas said, “Thank you, EDI.” Then she turned to Garrus and explained, with just a touch of reluctance. “I should probably also mention that the ship is now equipped with an artificial intelligence. Garrus, this is EDI.”
Garrus stared at EDI’s holographic interface for a second and then raised a hand as if to ward the whole thing off. “Okay … I’m going to go find this conference room and find out if I’m joining up or starting a rescue operation to get Shepard - and you, of course, Doctor - out of this mess.” With that, he stood a little unsteadily and left the medbay.
“An attempt to ‘rescue’ Shepard from this vessel would be ill-advised, Dr Chakwas,” EDI said. “My available data indicates that the Illusive Man would not take kindly to the loss of so large an investment.”
Chakwas smiled. “Yes, but if we told Garrus that, he’d just go find the Illusive Man and put a bullet in his head from five hundred yards. He’s a protective sort.”
EDI processed that for a microsecond, then said, “Given current available data, it is unlikely that he will agree to join the ground force on the Normandy.”
“Oh, he’ll join,” said Chakwas with a chuckle. “It’s Shepard. As I said, he’s a protective sort, and they were fast friends. If nothing else, he’ll join the crew just to keep Cerberus from doing unconscionable things to Shepard, and to threaten to shoot anyone who tries.”
“No, you don’t. It’s an emotional sort of thing and I doubt that Cerberus has programmed you overmuch to empathise at this point.”
“From a logical standpoint, I see how that would increase the odds of Garrus Vakarian joining the crew,” EDI clarified.
Chakwas sighed. “Of course.”
Chapter 24: X is for Xenophobe
A conversation between Shepard and Pressley on the subject of new crewmates.
“Commander … permission to speak freely?”
Shepard grinned a little at her chief navigator. “Pressley … do I look like I get overly formal to you?” To his level, faux-uncomprehending look - the kind Pressley gave anyone who suggested he maybe bend protocol a little in terms of how he addressed his superiors, no matter how much older he was than said superior - Shepard rolled her eyes a little and shook her head. “Permission granted. What’s on your mind, Pressley?”
“The … new members of your squad, Commander. The … ground team you’ve chosen. Is this … wise?”
After a moment in which she scrunched her face in a thoughtful sort of way, Shepard nodded. “Well, I guess it depends on your definition of ‘wise’, but I think it’s a pretty smart move myself. There’s nothing more motivated than a krogan out for revenge, and since Wrex doesn’t like Saren very much, I figure that’ll be good for a bit of blood rage once we get hold of him. And Garrus … I’ve seen Garrus take down a man holding a hostage with one shot; barely even ruffled the hostage’s hair. He’s not big on Saren either, and I want aim like that on my side. As for Tali … we’re dealing with geth. If we want to hack or sabotage the geth, I figure asking someone whose people have been at war with them since she was born is probably a good bet for intel.”
Pressley looked away and grumbled, “She’ll have more intel than that if we’re not careful, Commander. I’ve seen how she runs around the engine core.”
“Hey, Adams is thrilled with her,” Shepard told Pressley, with a wary, sidelong sort of look at the navigator. “Apparently she’s been of a lot of help down in Engineering, and given that the Normandy didn’t even get a decent shakedown run before things went south, I like the idea of having someone that familiar with engines helping maintain things down there.”
“Even if she’s stealing secrets for her fleet?”
The accusatory tone that took made Shepard blink in surprise and hold up her hands. “Wait a minute; you’re honestly telling me that you think she risked her life multiple times to get us information - information that got Saren booted out of the Spectres and replaced with … well, me - and all in the cause of potentially getting on board a ship she didn’t even know existed until ten minutes ago?”
Pressley fumed in silence for a second, then rallied. “It could be she was trying to do something else and got lucky with this assignment…”
Shepard shook her head. “You’re reaching, Pressley. I’m minded to give them the benefit of the doubt. All three of the aliens on my crew have their own reasons for being here, and most of them involve a shared interest in bitch-slapping Saren back to the Citadel to answer for his crimes. So while I appreciate your need to express a certain … distrust? I’m going to have to ask you to at least try to get along with my crew.”
Pressley’s lips thinned for a moment, and then he exploded. “I wouldn’t have expected this from a Red.”
Shepard’s eyes widened - with surprise or anger, Pressley couldn’t tell. “Excuse me?”
Since he’d apparently already started digging his own grave, Pressley decided to go for the full six feet. “I heard all the talk after Elysium. You were a Tenth Street Red for awhile. That’s a recruiting ground for some of the more … humanity-centric organisations out there at the moment. They have a reputation for … distrust of other species. And yet you go out and rescue them, then take them on board an Alliance prototype vessel—”
“Which we wouldn’t even have if not for our relationship with the turians, Chief.” Shepard’s tone was hard. “Yes, I was a Red. From a very young age, in fact. But believe it or not, not all the Reds were as down on aliens as the hype would have you believe. I sure as hell wasn’t; it was just the only way I could survive. The Reds were eating territory up and down my district, and it was a choice between allying with the nearest group or taking my chances in a kill zone to find some other group whose morals I liked better.”
Pressley, who realised rather quickly that he was now privy to details about Shepard’s past that almost no one else knew, tried to raise his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Commander—”
“In fact,” Shepard went on, tone still hard and quiet and deadly, “I actually really liked the idea of aliens when I was a kid. I’d seen old vids and things and when it turned out they didn’t all want to conquer us or body-snatch us or use us for food, I thought they were actually pretty cool. The quarians made a mistake, and they’re probably going to pay for that mistake forever, but I think their whole culture is fascinating. The krogan got a raw deal. The turians figured out they weren’t going to take us down easily and now consider us allies, if a little backward. Which, compared to most of the races out there, we sort of are!”
In Pressley’s view, that was going too far. “Now, look here, Commander—”
“We were the last of them to hit space! We have half of our advances because of shared tech, Pressley! I’m not sure where the hell we’d be if we’d never been allies with them! Now I am asking you to give. Them. A chance. Them and Dr T’Soni, an asari we’ll be bringing on board as soon as we hit Therum. In fact,” she added, glaring at him, “I’m giving you a direct order here - go and talk to Tali. One five-minute conversation with her about … anything. Engines. Her life on the Flotilla. The Red Sox’s chances in the next Series. Even what she’s doing here, if you can do that without accusing her of espionage. You have until we get back from this rescue on the Ontario, do you hear me?”
Pressley stood frozen with shock and outrage for a moment, unsure as to whether this was actually within protocol. “Commander, you can’t—”
“I am not going to have needless antagonism on my ship, Chief,” she told him. “In the interests of storming-forming-norming, I can order you to do this, and I have. So, in the interests of speaking freely, stop being such a goddamned xenophobe and talk. To. The woman. And be grateful I’m not telling you to try that with Wrex!”
Pressley sighed, straightened his spine and saluted. “Yes, ma’am.” Honesty, ire and an assumption that he could still speak freely prompted him to add, “But I’ll never like her, ma’am.”
Shepard shrugged and turned away. “Not if you keep your mind that closed, you won’t.”
A little over two years later, Shepard held Pressley’s dog tags in one hand and a datapad in the other. It had taken awhile to get even snippets of data out of the corrupted mess of Pressley’s personal log, but to her, it was worth it when she did.
I would die for any member of this crew, no matter what world they were born on.
It was the only time on her entire solitary trek through the Normandy’s wreckage when Shepard broke down and cried.
Chapter 25: Y is for Yellow
(In honour of certain in-game cheats.) On Eden Prime, Ashley Williams has questions about the commander's taste in armour.
When pinned down by a squad of geth, Ashley was not minded to even pay attention to who exactly was saving her ass or what they looked like; when geth started shorting out in showers of sparks and soaring through the air via biotics, all she really cared about was that the cavalry had arrived and she probably wasn’t going to die like the rest of her squad.
When the fighting was done and she turned around, however, the general appearance of at least one of her rescuers raised a serious eyebrow. It didn’t seem right to say anything about it up front, though; after all, this was Commander goddamn Shepard and she could wear whatever armour she damn well pleased, but… She set it aside with difficulty and made her report, then joined the mission with nary a qualm. As Shepard took point, Ashley eyed the Commander with a wary sort of speculation, trying to figure out how best to mention the current … issue she was having.
The lieutenant - the biotic of the combination, it turned out, leaned her way and murmured, “Don’t mention the armour.”
Ashely turned to look at the lieutenant - Alenko, Shepard had called him - with incredulity. “Well, what does she expect? It’s light armour in ‘oh please shoot me’ fluorescent yellow! It’s not like people aren’t going to notice!”
Alenko nodded. “I know, believe me, but … seriously, just don’t mention the armour. Besides, it’s not like you’re particularly stealthy right now.”
With a glance at her own white armour with pink trim, Ashley sighed. “Okay, fine, the designers of these pieces don’t exactly take camouflage into account all the time, but … hers is light armour. Light armour can’t take a hit worth crap. Most people can get light armour in darker colours. Y’know, so she doesn’t look like those reflective vests cops wear?”
“Not with the … advantages of that set, she can’t,” Alenko replied.
Ashley would have asked for an explanation, but a moment later she was too caught with horror and rage at the sight of what had once been human beings impaled on spikes. Then they started to twitch, and the spikes retracted, and she was way too busy trying to fend off the oncoming swarm of … well, more or less zombies to think much about Shepard and her banana-armour.
One of the husks grabbed her by the throat, breaching her shields, and Ashley lifted a foot to kick the thing in the chest before double-tapping it in the face. Then she turned to check on Shepard; if she was getting this kind of shit, someone in light armour…
…was actually not getting touched. Oh, the zombie-things were swarming Shepard, same as the others, but all attempts to grapple, claw or bite her stopped within an inch or two of her, at which point she shoved or punched them away before shooting them, shorting out whatever electronics were keeping them moving, or both. Alenko was fine; any attacker that looked like getting near him ended up biotically slapped away at speed.
The fight was fairly short-lived, and when it was over, Shepard led the way into an abandoned prefab living area to check for damages and take stock of any salvageable equipment. Ashley just stared at the Commander, wondering how the hell light armour had kept so many zombie-things at bay.
Without looking up at her newest recruit, Shepard said, “What, you thought I wore this yellow monstrosity for its aesthetic value? Does everyone think I lack taste?”
Alenko smirked. “Sorry, Shepard, but you have to admit, you’re a bit … eclectic at the best of times.”
Looking up from the geth pulse rifle she was apparently trying to modify for her own use, Shepard stuck her tongue out at Alenko, then grinned a bit at Ashley. “Look, these days, a lot of people are cheaping out on shield emitters in armour. They still work, but they won’t stand up to anything but industry standard. There are only a few sets of armour left out there that can handle a heavy overclocking of the shield emitters, and since it’s mostly second-hand, you sort of take what you can get in terms of colour scheme. It was this or hot pink, and since I like being able to survive anything less damaging than a meteor strike, and the idea of wearing hot pink makes me gag…” She patted her armoured forearm affectionately. “…I think I’ll cope with the Banana Peel.”
Ashley blinked. “You … overclocked your shield emitters and can now take … what, anything?”
Alenko re-entered the conversation at this point, with a small amused smirk and a nod. “I’ve seen it. Hits from geth drones, hits from actual geth, and … well, you saw those … things out there.”
“I was wearing this stuff on Elysium,” Shepard added, having gone back to her pulse rifle mods. “Do you really think I could have held that flank on my own without serious protection? Aha!” She held up the pulse rifle. “Geth make sturdy damn guns. This should take down anything smaller than a thresher maw in one hit now. Damn, I’m good.”
“Modest, too,” Alenko added with a grin.
Shepard stuck her tongue out at him. “Honesty beats modesty at this point,” she told him. “Okay. Let’s see if anyone survived this mess.” With that, she raided the medigel dispensers, took a moment to install a polonium round mod into Ashley’s assault rifle and left.
Ashley looked at Kaidan, slightly wary. “Is … she entirely sane, Lieutenant?”
Alenko shrugged. “Sometimes thinking outside the box is how you survive. Besides,” he added, looking sheepish, “I kind of like the yellow.”
As they left behind Shepard, Ashley told him, “Then you’re crazier than she is, LT.”
Chapter 26: Z is for Zipper
Shepard has questions about Allers' outfit, and Allers possibly gets the wrong idea.
"So what's the deal with that zipper on your dress?"
Allers twisted her head and back as if she could somehow see her own backside, where the aforementioned zipper sat, being a pain in the ass - sometimes literally. "It's a fashion thing," she explained to Shepard, even as she wondered how the hell this was coming up when they'd just finished having a conversation about how, hey, the krogan have just been getting bad press for over a thousand years and deserved a break. "The latest in Citadel chic. When was the last time you wore a dress, anyway?"
Shepard actually had to think about that one, which surprised the hell out of Allers. She couldn't imagine anyone not staying fashion-forward. "A little over a year ago," she finally said. "They weren't doing zippers on the backs of dresses ... quite that way on the one I had. There was one toward the top so that I could get out of it easier, but that?" Shepard shook her head. "I mean, what's it even for? It doesn't ... move in any sensible way I can see. It's like ... a window for doggy-style and nothing else."
Allers' eyes widened and she felt a little offended for a moment ... but then Shepard's tone registered. This wasn't a slight on Diana Allers; this was not Shepard suggesting that she needed such a thing. This was Shepard wondering why the hell the fashion industry would deliberately include such a thing on a standard-issue item of clothing. At which point she really gave it some thought. "I ... guess I never thought of it like that," she said. "I mean, you're probably right, but ... the day I first wore this on air, my ratings nearly doubled. So ever since then..."
"...You've been wandering around in inconveniently-zippered latex for ratings?" Shepard shook her head. "Man, am I glad I don't work in that kind of public spotlight. Not even sure why people find that sexy. I mean, yeah, it shows off the curves and everything, but ... I dunno, if it were me doing the lusting, I wouldn't want to feel like I had to go hunt for scissors if I wanted to get to second base."
"Commander ... no offense, but you got voted sexiest human in the galaxy by Fornax three years ago and you stomp around in figure-fitted armour all the time. Armour doesn't scream 'easy removal'," Allers pointed out, though she contemplated the point all the same. It was a fairly good point, as points went - the dress, with its figure-hugging fit and its apparent lack of any way to remove it that didn't involve wriggling for five minutes with the skirt stuck around her shoulder blades, put a latex barrier between her and anyone touching her. It was a dress to be looked at, and - because of the oddly placed zipper - for men to have their fun in ... but it wasn't exactly a dress to encourage a lover taking their time to please her, to gently remove and--
She decided that this was a very weird sort of thing to be thinking around the Commander, so she tuned back into the conversation in time to hear something about 'visible buckles' on armour. "Not something you could undo in the middle of a fight, but they get to imagine me taking it off after a hard day killing husks, maybe heading for a shower and..." She shrugged a little. "I kind of figure they go from there. Whereas I don't think there's a lot of erotic potential in removing something that ... level of stretchy-skintight."
Allers smirked at that, more than a little rueful. "You're right about that. Though some people have some weird fetishes."
Shepard chuckled and nodded. "That they do. Look, all I'm saying is that if you like it, that's the thing that matters. And if you have to wear it, then at least you wear it well. But if you can ring the changes in the whole get-up once in awhile without getting fired? And you feel like doing it? Why not give it a shot? I tend to think that 'comfortable and confident' is a lot sexier than 'this is what marketing people say is sexy'."
Allers stared at the Commander, a little shocked that she cared enough to give anything like advice ... and, in spite of herself, blushing a little at the thought of the Commander maybe thinking she was sexy. "I'll keep that in mind, Commander," she said, gratified that she could still switch on her 'Battlespace anchor' voice on auto-pilot. "Thanks. Also thanks for the interview."
"No problem," Shepard said, and left the former cargo bay. Allers stood there for a long time after the Commander had left, wondering whether it might be worth, at some point in the future, trying a bit of actual flirting with Commander Shepard to test the waters. Sure, this might be one of Shepard's apparently common spates of curiosity and nothing else, but ... damn, if it wasn't, that was one opportunity Allers was not going to let go to waste.