Chapter 1: Pretend We're Normal People
Shepard and Garrus go on a date.
Happy New Year!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Move in somewhere new and the junk mail will come.
Shepard flips the orange pieces of paper over and over in her hands. They'd arrived at her apartment along with rest of the unwanted solicitations. But perhaps they could be useful?
She strolls back to the kitchen counter and tosses down the pile while pulling out some frozen breakfasts and instant caffeine drinks. Cooking is a foreign concept to her, but she can heat food like nobody's business.
Her boyfriend -- such an odd phrase to use the older she got, but he seems to like it -- comes up behind her and wraps a three-fingered hand around her waist. "You win. This apartment is so much better than the family rent-controlled apartment in Kithoi Ward. Even if it does have too many windows."
"So we're keeping this one and your dad can have your old place for visiting?"
"It was his to begin with. Been in the family for ages. Apparently a volus once said it was a good investment. Seems to have paid off. I met you." He nips lightly along her neck and she makes pleased humming noises as she pours the drinks. "Keep that up," he rumbles, "and we're not going to leave this place today, either."
"Shore leave is a wonderful thing ... but I thought we might go out exploring a bit. We have the sleeping together thing down pat, but maybe we could try the dating thing more often. You're really good at it." She turns and kisses him. "Really, really good at it."
Garrus chuckles and rubs the back of his head awkwardly. It's adorable, if a little perplexing that he doesn't seem to realize how absolutely perfect he is.
The microwave chimes and she turns to set out their breakfast. "Besides, we're off ship. I'm sure you're going to get tired of rations, and it's the only thing I know how to make."
"I'd make you dinner if you could eat dextro food. I haven't learned any levo recipes yet."
"Anytime you want to start the experiments, I'm game. I'm told I have no sense of taste, so I'm easy to please." She holds up the orange tickets for him to see. "But I thought maybe we could stick with our strengths and shoot things."
He looks over the tickets and the little introductory note:
Welcome to the Armax Arena, where the danger is fake, but the excitement is real!
New athletes can challenge the Cerberus and Geth enemy sets at the Foot Soldier level. Additional layouts, enemies, and ally licenses can be purchased from the Armax store on the main level of the arena.
Completing any match awards a bronze, silver, or gold prize depending on your point totals. These prizes are redeemable at the arena store for credits or to unlock play options.
Bonus points can be acquired by finishing the match quickly, capturing bonus objectives, kill streaks, or taking voluntary handicaps. Voluntary advantages can be taken, but these reduce the final score.
See you in the sim!
-The Armax Arsenal Arena Team
"Hmmm... I suppose it could be fun to see how we stack up." Garrus examines the large cube of potted meat product in front of him as if trying to identify what it was originally before ripping into it with his talons.
"Ever played before?" Shepard pokes her burrito, waiting for it to cool down.
"Sure. Armax Arsenal is the supplier to most of the elite turian units. It's New Year's tradition for the various C-Sec units to have a playoff. They give us the tickets for free and the commander and the purchasing officers look over their latest wares. It's great for morale."
"So, what say we play a round and then hit the hotdog stand or whatever for lunch? Pretend we're normal people?"
"Alright, Shepard. Sounds fun."
"You know, you could call me Shepard a bit less. Everyone calls me Shepard." She takes a bite of her breakfast burrito.
Shepard makes a face like she's bitten into a lemon. "Not that."
"Dearest?" he watches her more closely this time.
"Queen of hearts?"
"Schmoopy?" he says with an evil look in his eye.
"Hell no." She taps him lightly on the nose with a finger. "Now you're doing it on purpose and I really want to know what you said in turian to get 'stereotyped sickeningly sweet not word' as your translation."
"See, you're not really a terms of endearment kind of girl." He chews thoughtfully on his shredded meat.
"What kind of girl am I?"
"Mine," he says reflexively.
"Now that, I like."
They head into the arena with their gear packed in bags. Shepard passes over the tickets to the volus at the gates.
"Commander Shepard! You came! Management is so pleased to have you patronizing our venue," says the round little man in the full-body suit.
"Can we get you anything?"
"Just tell us where to go."
"Down the stairs there to the players' locker room. And on behalf of the Armax Arsenal Arena Team, I hope you have a great time!"
"Thanks. You, too." She walks in the direction he pointed and says over her shoulder to Garrus, "Well, that was shades of Conrad Verner."
"It wasn't that bad," he retorts.
"Not yet, but neither was Conrad when he started."
"You're getting that crease in your brow."
"I don't need more fans."
"Don't worry about it. We're just here for some fun -- before you forget how to have fun."
"Oh, I know how to have fun ..." she pulls him into a kiss outside the locker room door. "Prepared to shoot your way through hoards of-" she looks at their very limited options "-geth to get to me?"
"That's just an average Wednesday for me." He looks over the menu. "Hmm... this is pared down. They must have redesigned the place since I was last here. Too bad we can't play a few times, go for best score."
"It just means lunch and the walk home will come sooner."
"Good point. Geth it is."
Geth foot soldiers are not a challenge of any kind for Shepard and Vakarian. There is little point to Garrus using his beloved Mantis sniper rifle when he can headshot more enemies with the automatic. And while there is some joy in taking down piles of enemies trying to cluster around her on the battlefield, in the arena, with no threat of death, the feeling of accomplishment is lacking for Shepard.
They stand shoulder to shoulder looking at the scoreboard above the Wingman Arena, watching the points total.
"I can't believe we get a bonus for finishing in under five minutes. I'm barely even started." Shepard looks at Garrus. "Who takes longer than five minutes to finish off foot soldiers?"
"When I played with one squad vs. the other, it was more of a challenge. A five minute game would deserve a bonus. Or the shame to the losing team if they were that awful." Garrus looks around the arena. "But this does have one nice advantage."
"It reminds me of when we first started working together."
"So many geth."
"Yes. But it was back then I first saw what a great team we made: You out in front getting shot at and me hiding behind rocks and picking off the geth attached to walls that you hadn't noticed."
"I was just waiting for them to get into bludgeoning range. You just saved me a few bruises. I could handle it."
"Then I should check you over and make sure I haven't lost my touch." His hand strokes along her back before resting on her hip.
She leans into him. "After lunch. I know better than to live on my own cooking." Then she snorts at their 2886 point total is flashed on the board. "Looks like the Great Commander Shepard and the King of the Bottle Shooters just barely rate a silver prize."
"That puts us behind ... Aria T'Loak? She must be bored sitting around Purgatory. And Barla Von!?"
"How are we not as good as my volus financier? Maybe I should trade jobs with him and he can lead the Alliance offensive?"
"I think we can do better than this."
"Yeah. Maybe I'll buy a few more tickets. It can't be as expensive as that fish VI. See if we can beat our own scores."
But when they talk to the ticket volus, he's apologetic. "Buy more tickets? Never! I arranged for you two to have a season pass. It's the least we can do for our men and women in uniform."
Shepard beams at the sudden gift of a private practice range where she can go all out. "Good point. How many silver prizes would buy season passes for the entire crew?"
"Actually," says the volus helpfully, "A season pass costs one bronze prize, and you can buy three bronze prizes with one silver prize."
Shepard looks over at Garrus. "What do you say? A few more games for the troops?"
"Sounds better than doing it for your wounded pride," he teases.
"Shhh! You're supposed to pretend I don't have any flaws!" she says in self-mockery.
Garrus clears his throat. "I mean, of course, Shepard! What an obvious -- I mean brilliant! idea."
And so, Shepard and Vakarian went back to the arena to play a few more rounds and win some free passes for their friends, completely unaware of the cameras surrounding them.
So, this is an idea I've had floating around for a while. It was actually inspired by Miranda and Shepard, so expect her to show up eventually.
I'm apparently better at writing two stories at once than I am at writing just one. I guess my brain needs the occasional break from just one plot or theme.
Also, I got to write Garrus and Shepard being cute together. I miss doing that.
Chapter 2: A Reverb In Your Bones
Jack and Shep fight giant robots.
"I'll see you later, sweetheart." Garrus waves at her as Shepard pops her head over the top of the couch.
"Hunh? I thought you made me promise that there would be no work! Where are you going in that armor?"
"No work. I'm going to go catch up with the guys at C-Sec. It's been a while since we had some time to chat."
"That requires armor?"
"Sushi restaurants. They're killer."
"You know I'd like to argue with you, but I can't."
"I think I'll keep that one tucked down my shirt for the future."
"If you're going to be lonely sitting on the couch reading a book, I have been told that the rest of the squad would like to visit with you if you check your e-mail."
"E-mail might involve work. Every time I sit down at the computer it's Hackett telling me that Cerberus has taken another base. Except this time I can't do anything about it because I don't have a ship to carry me to the Silean Nebula."
"That's why I wrote a program to filter your e-mail at your home terminal. Only friends and relatives can get through."
"I love you, too." She smiles up at him. "Alright, go on. I'll find someone else to entertain me." Maybe by this evening she'll have come up with something nice to do for him.
In the meantime, she gets up to look over her e-mail. The box is practically full to the brim, and as promised, it's only friends. When did she manage to make this many friends? She pulls out her calendar and begins scheduling meetings.
I hear this Silversun Strip place has a combat simulator, and I felt like kicking the crap out of something. Get your ass down here if you're game.
While she hadn't planned on revisiting Armax Arena, it's still an appealing invite. It might also be filed under her good deed for the day, since of all the crew to be given a desk job, Jack is the most likely to chafe at the restraints.
Shepard had barely surveyed the crowds in the lobby when Jack appeared with a smile on her face. "Glad you could make it. I've got us set up."
"You're looking good, Jack. Who are the victims this time?" Shepard falls into step beside her.
"You have to ask? Cerberus."
"Glad you're getting some use out of the pass."
"Who wouldn't? Free goons to kill and I don't have to put up with those 'I'm soooo disappointed' looks from Miranda and Jacob."
"So who is our shield breaker?"
Jack rolls her eyes. "You're always so cautious. Relax and live a little. We're going to take'em down with huge fucking detonations."
"That's a little messy..."
"Did you ever learn the meaning of fun?"
"I like bringing the right tools to the table." Shepard shrugs. "But we can certainly do it your way."
"You had better fucking believe we're doing it my way," says Jack, punching a fist into her hand. "Time to let loose."
"HY-Yahhhh!" Shepard charges the knot of centurions and works on beating them to death with raw power. It's frustrating to put so much effort into attacks that will be easily absorbed by shields, even if the explosions are nice.
She drops and rolls as an ATLAS mech lands. Jack shoots at her nemesis and clears the shields with a shock wave. "I am gonna beat you until candy comes out!" The tattooed woman laughs. "Damn it's nice to relax. Just cutting loose, not worrying about the kids..."
Shepard smiles back. "It's worth the stress to watch the people you're commanding come into their own, though."
Jack wrinkles her nose. "Shut up."
"Who said I was talking about you?"
"Anyone with half a brain."
"Alright, then tell me you don't enjoy being a good girl with the adoring eyes of children looking up at you."
"Shut up." Jack punches Shepard in the shoulder.
"The Queen of the Girl Scouts with a turian on the side? I don't think so. You don't get a guy like that in your bed if you're not more kinky and rebellious than you let on."
"Prying, are we?"
"Hell no. Speaking from experience. I've done turians."
"So what? You're going to make me blush?"
"As if I could. I figured out that you like me and Miranda hates me for the same reason: I'm what you could be if you took the fucking brakes off. And I don't blush."
"Don't you? The pitter-patter of little feet seems to be doing strange things to you."
"Not stranger than what the vibration does when-"
Shepard punches Jack in the shoulder as a rocket blows away part of their cover. "I think we have a mech to deal with."
"I'll prime. You detonate." Jack throws a shockwave at the stomping colossus.
Shepard spins out of hiding and, in the mood to show off, throws a flare at the simbot, leading to an especially fiery explosion.
Jack looks transported as she smiles in the wreckage of some forgotten or faked asari temple. "You know, if there is a God, that's what she sounds like. Just a big deep BWOMMM to let you know everything's gonna be okay."
"You have a funny idea of okay."
Jack arches an eyebrow at her. "Tell me a fucking reverb in your bones doesn't make you chill out after battle."
Shepard tilts her head with a bland expression and then lets a smirk steal over her face. "Hell yes."
They turn to walk out of the arena. "Thanks for coming, Shepard."
Shepard wraps an arm over her shoulders in a hug. "Wouldn't have missed it."
As they exit the arena, Shepard pauses at the gear pick up counter. There's a green blinking sign that seems to indicate she has e-mail. But her e-mail account isn't linked to Armax Arena, is it? She doesn't remember setting that up. Curious, she presses the button . Nope. Standard e-mail screen for Shepard@armaxaa.gcom. But she doesn't know any of these people.
She opens one.
Welcome to the club
From: This One is Number One
This one just noticed your appearance on the leaderboards and wished to offer its congratulations. It advises that success in combat sports can bring out an enthusiastic fan base. Do not worry about them. Most are quite harmless.
Wishing you gentle tides,
Oh. He noticed her name on the boards. Just being friendly and observant. But what's this about a fan base? She's just playing a sim game with friends. A game that posts top scores just like any other vid game. She's not going to get that many fans from a few high scores on a local machine, is she?
From: CU Engineering Club
Your match got you quite a following here at the Citadel U. Engineering Club. When we heard you were in the arena, we polled the club for what kind of dream matchup they'd like to see. Funny thing--the votes came in and not a lot of people wanted Reapers or Cerberus. (I guess that's too much like the news.) They wanted to see you take down the geth, like the old days. So they're getting some friends together and I wanted to ask, could you do one just for us? Geth, on the Blasteroid map?
We can't really afford to pay you, and you're probably doing pretty well for yourself anyway as a big-time Spectre and all that, but some of the engineers here are in weapons research. Give us a game, and we'll make you a mod? Is that too gauche?
Anti-President, CU Engineering Club
See her take down...?
"You okay, Shepard?" Jack puts a hand on her shoulder. "You're a little pale."
Shepard points at the screen.
"So they're videoing this all and showing it across the wards! I'm currently serving in the navy! I could lose my commission for doing this without filing all the proper paperwork! Using the uniform to promote commercial goods!"
"Shep, I don't think they're going to decommission you during a Reaper invasion. They're not that fucking stu-" Jack shakes her head. "What am I saying? They locked you up. They are that fucking stupid. But you're still a spectre. You can authorize yourself to do anything you want, right?"
"I ... guess I could. I should run over to the Presidium and do that right now... Oh. Shit." She starts banging her head against the wall.
"Umm... they were videoing and we were... having a private conversation." Heat floods her face.
Jack laughs. "Guess I can make you blush after all!"
"It is one thing for you to razz me about my boyfriend. It is an entirely different thing for the whole galaxy to watch me discuss my sex life. My mother is out there!" Shepard closes her eyes. "Oh, God. My mother is out there and she doesn't even know I'm dating someone, let alone outside my species. Maybe the Reapers can just kill me now."
"Oh, pick your balls up off the floor. No one records athletes on the field. They don't want to be sued for giving away gamer secrets. You'll be fine."
As much as Shepard wants to rage some more and possibly beat herself up for not reading what she suspects was in the fine print (cursed junk mail), she realizes she's ruining Jack's day off. "You're right. I think I could do with more punching giant robots. You want to go again?"
Chapter 3: Shooting Sounds Suspiciously Like Work
Paperwork: There's always more of it.
For reasons unknown, there are never any other spectres in the spectre office. Shepard breathes a sigh of relief and steps out of the office to catch a sky car home.
The door to Bailey's office slides open, and Shepard does a quick sidestep to avoid a collision -- with Garrus. She pivots to face him as he stops dead, the door swinging shut behind him.
"What are you doing here?" they exclaim.
"You're supposed to be on vacation!" The echoing continues. Shepard frowns and Garrus draws his mandibles close in annoyance.
Shepard lifts her hand and opens her mouth to try a third time, but Garrus grabs the hand and spins her around, ending with her at his side, her hand neatly tucked in the crook of his arm. "We should discuss this at home."
"Oh, thank God. If we said the same thing a third time, I was going to think we'd been spending too much time together."
"Maybe too much practice. I know James is upset by how little we need to talk."
"You mean I could get you to talk more if you didn't already know my every move? Hmmm... physical ease versus that voice..."
He leans near her ear as he calls up a sky car. "Aren't you lucky you get both?"
"Very lucky," she says as she slides into the car. It takes a few moments more for him to settle beside her.
"Though I still want to know why you were in Bailey's office."
Garrus grimaces. "Paperwork."
"Pontius Betucius. He works security down on the docks with the refugees. There's a human girl there. Every day, she comes and stands at the arrivals board, waiting for news of her parents. She's friendly, polite, obedient, and devoted to her family. And every day she's a little bit thinner and dirtier. It's clear no one is coming for the girl until the war ends, if then. He wants to adopt her."
"I know it's unlikely, but her parents could still be alive."
"Of course. And she could have other family, not that she remembers any. But whether they are or aren't alive, she's a kid and she's doing worse on her own every day. Pontius worries over her every night when he goes home. He's volunteered for extra shifts just to keep an eye on her. I was talking to Bailey about setting something up for temporary custody."
"And you haven't asked me to help because...?"
"I only learned about it today and using spectre authority would be like using a flamethrower to light a candle. I'd like to try to do something more subtle and less likely to draw the attention of the council."
"Ah. You and your charity work." Shepard sighs.
"It's important!" he says heatedly.
"Absolutely." She puts a hand on his arm. "The truth is, it makes my heart melt to watch you organize supplies on the docks. You've been wonderful."
The skin on his neck flushes blue. "Oh. Um. Thank you."
"I just don't want you overworking yourself. I wish we could be everywhere, taking care of everyone, but we can't. And as someone pointed out to me, you need to come up for air sometime."
"I'll keep that in mind." He gives her hand a squeeze. "What were you doing in the spectre offices?"
She grimaces. "The eSports thing Armax Arena scammed me into participating in."
"Apparently they've been broadcasting our matches."
"Oh. OH! That makes so much more sense now."
"People were talking about us down in the bar. It was a little bit weird. I was wondering if I needed to check the Normandy for hidden cameras."
"There won't be much more to talk about. I'm hanging up my imaginary gun after one more match."
"Why one more?"
"Oh, some engineers offered to make me a new gun mod, and well, you know engineering students: It might be crap, but there's a chance it will be awesome. Want to come along?"
"I'm not sure. Shooting things sounds suspiciously like work."
"For other people, maybe. I thought you were good enough to do this in your sleep..."
"Darn. Trapped in my own words."
"That's the best kind of trap. So is it a date?"
"You know, if they weren't recording us, this might be fun." Shepard watches the point totals. Seventh place. Not bad for a final round.
"Who says it isn't fun this way? The guys down in Kithoi Ward made a drinking game out of watching the Arena challenge. I like to think that with each perfect headshot, I'm buying them another round of drinks."
"Wait, there's a drinking game?"
"Ye-es." Garrus regards her cautiously.
"Tell me the rules. We need to do this again."
"You want to make a bar full of turians drunk, don't you?"
"I'm betting the turians aren't the only ones with a drinking game. Screw mods, I want to see how drunk we can make the Citadel."
"I am not. I am doing my civic duty by boosting morale during times of war." She tries to look forthright.
"Oh, definitely. I see that now." He exaggeratedly nods in sarcasm.
"I am also teaching them a valuable lesson about managing risks when giving others power over your life."
"Always a life lesson and thinking of others, huh?"
Hours later, Shepard turns over their pile of silver prizes to Garrus.
"You're certain you want me to have all of them?"
"Yes. I've had my fun." She leans in, pressing her forehead to his in the locker room. "You said the refugees on the docks are still undersupplied. I know you're not going to ignore all of their problems just because we're supposed to be on vacation. Cash in the tokens to buy some food and grease some palms. We don't need the money."
He gives her a light kiss on the cheek. "Alright, sweetie. I'll take care of it the next time I go out." He heads upstairs to claim their prizes.
Shepard picks up a package from her arena mail. One SMG power amplifier. It's not as impressive as she'd hoped, but it's a nice effort.
Along with the amplifier, the only piece of mail at the moment is a request from a news crew to get some "safe" footage of her fighting Reapers by herself.
Damn. She wants this little sojourn into eSports to be over with, but for the good of the Alliance, she'll do the propaganda piece. That literally is part of her duties at the moment, no matter how disingenuous it feels.
But that's for another day.