"Stop me if you've heard this one before." Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams leaned forward, elbow on the bar and fingers dancing over the rim of an untouched drink. "An asari, a turian and a salarian walk into a bar. The bartender looks at the asari-"
"And asks, 'Why so blue?'."
Ashley straightened, and scowled. "Oh, you have heard it."
Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko smirked and sipped at the water he'd been provided. Moisture ran off the cold side in rivulets to puddle on the bar's surface. "The old ones are the best," he said. "Though when I heard it, an ensign was trying to use it to chat up an asari dancer. It doesn't translate well. She started lecturing him on asari skin pigmentation and the wavelengths of their sun's light."
"Poor boy," Ashley chuckled, and cast a surreptitious glance over her shoulder. "Is the Commander nearly done? I feel all itchy without my guns."
They'd been forced to surrender their weaponry at the door to the seedy below-ground bar on the planet Marla, so named for the discoverer's wife (as a rather aged recording at the spaceport had informed them as they'd left the Normandy). Marla was cold, rocky and had an inhospitable atmosphere that was prone to violent and unexpected electrical storms (which rather made one wonder exactly what that discoverer's relationship with his wife had been) and all of the miners and inhabitants lived in hollowed out spaces beneath the surface of the planet. The communal spaces were so difficult to heat that there was a permanent chill to the air, and the most comfortable places were where lots of people congregated, such as the bar where Ashley and Kaidan waited for their Commander to finish speaking with a man in a shabby miner's uniform. The air in the bar was humid and smelt strongly of unwashed bodies, and Kaidan was longing for the recycled air of the Normandy.
"Doesn't bother me," he said, mildly, and sipped his water.
"It wouldn't," Ashley said, dryly, wiggling her fingers in the air, "Considering you can knock people into walls with your brain."
Kaidan smirked at her. Ashley Williams never seemed to show an intimidation when the subject of his biotic abilities came up, although in the first days of her assignment to the Normandy, she'd clearly not quite known how to react to him. When it became clear that he thought of himself as just another officer, she'd relaxed and followed suit.
"You can do the same with your fists," he pointed out. "I wouldn't have thought you felt the lack."
"Haven't been in a good brawl in a while," Ashley said, rolling her shoulders and raising her eyebrows. "I might be a bit rusty."
Kaidan laughed. "Never. I quake in fear of your abilities, chief."
There was a roar of outrage in the crowd, coming from the direction where Commander Shepard was sitting. They turned at the same time to see the man their CO had been talking to standing up in outrage, toppling the table.
"Be careful what you wish for?" Kaidan said, before they started pushing their way through the crowd to reach Shepard's side.
They need not have hurried. By the time they got to Shepard, she had the man pinned to the floor, a knee in his back to keep him done and his arm twisted up behind his back. For all that he looked like he outweighed her by a good thirty pounds Shepard was having no difficulty keeping him under control.
"Shouldn't have left the drinks," Ashley murmured to him, and he smirked.
Their presence had an effect though. Even unarmed, they were armoured Alliance officers, obviously under the command of a Spectre, and that was enough to get the man talking, taking occasional pauses to yell in pain, and start answering Shepard's questions.
They were on Marla because they were chasing down a lead to do with one of Saren's potential financial holdings. It had taken Kaidan a while to realise that Spectres were expected to pay for their own gear, and the Council didn't especially care how individual Spectres raised the cash. He hadn't realised until Shepard had made the wry comment that they were at least earning pretty commission for charting previously unknown mineral lodes on various worlds. They'd heard a rumour that Heraldic Presentiment, an asari mining concern, had Saren as a major shareholder. What he would want with a human-majority mining world, they hadn't worked out yet, but that was why Shepard had decided they needed to investigate.
"So if I were to ask you again about Heraldic's ops base...?" Shepard was prompting the man she held down, punctuating her query with a sharp tug on his arm.
"Did I say 'go fuck yourself'? I meant 'of course I can help you'..." The man's voice was squeaky, and his nose squeaked as he breathed, probably from a broken nose healed poorly at some point during his rough working life.
The locals were starting to look uneasy, glancing at each other like they were deciding whether they should intervene. There wasn't much in the way of a local militia on Marla. All it took to keep the natives in line was simply the knowledge that the planet was enough to kill most people, and that the way the companies tended to deal with troublemakers was to exile them to the surface with a pressure suit that had probably seen its last maintenance a decade or so earlier. Kaidan and Ashley took up positions either side of Shepard, and did their best to look threatening. Even without weapons, it worked. There was an audible decrease in muttering.
"They import workers from off-world," the man wheezed from the pressure on his chest. "Not supposed know where they go, but the transports go from the spaceport northwards, towards the mountains. Beyond that is impassable. You'll probably find 'em there."
Shepard grinned, and released her victim, and slapped him the shoulder as if they were drinking buddies. "There. That wasn't so hard, was it?"
She stood, jerked her head towards her subordinates. Even though she'd given no sign of seeing them approach, she had obviously known they were there. "Let's go."
"Great," Ashley said, "Can I drive this time?"
"Got a problem with my driving, chief?"
Ashley snorted softly. "Of course not, ma'am. My lunch does, though."
Shepard rolled her eyes, and might have muttered 'everyone's a critic' but it was too quiet for Kaidan to hear.
"Smugglers," Shepard pronounced, the scowl audible even though her face was hidden by the helmet she wore. The three of them were lying on a rocky outcropping that looked down into a pit that had been gouged into Marla's suface. Lightning rods had been set up around the perimeter, one of which was standing tall next to where they lay flat against the ground, and Ashley had to resist the urge to glance skyward nervously.
In the pit, there were several prefab buildings, the same sort as could be found anywhere in the galaxy, arranged in a rough semi-circle around a tunnel access airlock dug into the side of the pit. Pressure-suited workers dragged carts back and forth between buildings, some with dirty debris, some with neatly sealed cartons on them. Wandering around amongst them were armed guards, none of whom seemed to be giving the top of the pit much attention. It was sloppy work, but helped Ashley, Kaidan and Shepard remain unobserved. They'd left the mako half a kilometre away and approached on foot. Ashley watched them walk around, clearly not paying attention, and wondered if they would have noticed if Shepard had parked directly on top of them.
"You sure?" Kaidan muttered.
Shepard pointed to a section of the pit, at what Ash had just assumed was an unusually regular-looking bit of rock. "See that? The discolourations on the side? They're letters, or bits of them. Definitely Prothean."
Ash blinked, and used her HUD to give her a magnified image of the indicated area. While she could have said that the rock's shading was too uniform to be natural, she would never in a million years have guessed that they were Prothean symbols. She wondered if this was part of the download that the beacon had dumped into her CO's head. Ever since Shepard had received the cipher from that asari, Ash had more than once overheard Doctor T'soni going on about how Shepard's new knowledge was a gift to Prothean researchers everywhere (usually followed by Shepard's awkward excuses about needing to be somewhere else).
Ash supposed that if she had seen fragments of English lettering, she would recognise them immediately. She just hadn't realised Shepard's Prothean was that good.
"Not miners then," she said, "But I can imagine Saren wanting to get his hands on Prothean artefacts."
"There wasn't anything in the Heraldic documents suggesting they were interested in Prothean relic recovery. They don't have the specialists or the equipment." Shepard shook her head slowly, "Which probably means that either they're involved in some under-the-table dealings, or these are smugglers using the Heraldic name to avoid suspicion."
Kaidan said, "Heraldic Presentiments seems to be a legitimate company, Saren's interest aside. I'd imagine that if they'd found a Prothean cache, they'd be selling off the rights to it to the highest bidder."
Shepard nodded in agreement, and Ashley felt distinctly left out and uncomfortable. It hadn't even occurred to her to research Heraldic Presentiments, even though she'd known from the briefing that Saren's connection with them were what they were investigating. She wondered if Kaidan had done the research, hoping to impress Shepard, or whether it was naturally part of his personality, part of the reason why he'd become an officer. She knew so frustratingly little about him, save that he kept to himself, he was biotic, and had an obsession with fixing the systems monitor panel that the crew muttered was because it was near the Commander's quarters.
About the man himself, she knew very little, less even than Shepard, whose history was at least a matter of public knowledge. She'd related this, frustrated, to her sister in one of her letters back home, which her sibling had responded to with a giggle and, "You could just try talking to him, you know."
Ash thought she wasn't very good at the talking thing. Most of the men in her previous assignments hadn't really needed more encouragement than a few rounds at the bar and a suitably suggestive expression. If Kaidan was interested in Shepard, then Ashley shouldn't even bother entertaining vague fantasies, since there was no way in hell she could ever compete with her CO.
And the irritating part was that she actually rather liked Shepard, which made it damn hard to resent her for that. Maybe she should try talking to Kaidan anyway. What did she have to lose?
"That building on the northside, the L-shaped one," Shepard was indicating with minute gestures that wouldn't attract attention. "Looks to be the command centre. We go in, get their data, talk to a few people, and find out what they're doing and why Saren's involved with them."
Ashley rolled her shoulders and released the assault rifle from its mounting. She gave it a quick glance and check to make sure all of the components were in working order. "Just give the word, sir," she said, brightly.
Shepard had been right. They were smugglers, some two-bit operation that had picked the name of Heraldic Presentiment out of a hat to use as a cover for their illegal dig, and had fallen over themselves to surrender when a Spectre had appeared on the scene, taking out their armed guards with a combination of biotics and weapons fire that took less than two minutes, all told.
The female turian in charge of the dig had looked like she wanted to hide, but instead held her ground, babbling explanations. She was just a functionary, she said, for a smuggling cartel who'd hired her to oversee the digging, packing and off-world shipping. The guards were cheap mercs. They hadn't expected anyone to find them.
No, they had no connection with Heraldic. No, they had no knowledge of Saren. By the end of it, Shepard was thoroughly irritated and annoyed that they'd wasted time, and told them that the local authorities would be getting a call as soon as they got back to the mako, and if they didn't want to spend the next ten years in prison for theft and smuggling, they'd get a move on.
She'd had neither the inclination nor, more importantly, the time to waste in dealing with an ultimately petty crime.
Both Kaidan and Ash seemed unhappy with the exercise. Marla was an unpleasant world to have to trek across, and both of them remained silent as Shepard guided the mako across the terrain back to the spaceport, where Joker was warming up the Normandy's engines after Shepard had called ahead. She guessed that they weren't pleased with the rather futile exercise, though their silence could have been a result of Shepard's rather reckless driving that had them all bouncing around their seats as she took her frustration out on the mako's suspension.
They were halfway out of the atmosphere, the roaring of the engines in air coming clearly through the hull, when Pressly informed her that the Council were waiting for her to contact them. She salved her sense of wounded pride by making them wait until the Normandy hit space and the noise had faded away, well on course for the nearest relay, before she went to take the Council's call.
She was halfway down the stairs descending from the command deck to the crew level, debating whether she should check in on engineering before heading to her quarters for some shut eye, when she realised she could hear voices in quiet conversation. The deck, empty of most crew who were currently sleeping in their pods not too far away, should have been silent at this time of the shift, and Shepard would have ignored the crewmen talking, proceeding without delay to her own quarters, save for the fact that it was Kaidan and Ashley speaking, and she heard her own name mentioned.
She halted, hidden by the curve of the stairwell, damned by the acoustics that let her hear all too clearly what was being said.
"So there's no truth to the rumours about you and Shepard. None at all?"
There was the scraping sound of something being picked up off the mess table. Probably a mug. Shepard hadn't realised that Ashley and Kaidan sat around drinking coffee together.
"That would presume I knew what rumours you were talking about." Kaidan sounded amused, rather than defensive. "Now, if the rumours are that I happen to think she's got an impressive skill set..."
"Skill set, right," Ashley drawled and chuckled. A chair creaked noisily as someone moved. "No, I was talking about the two of you being more than commander and subordinate. You've been seen talking a great deal."
"You know the regs," Kaidan said, sounding less amused and more firm. "She's my CO. Any ideas other than that lead in the direction of a court martial."
"So there's nothing," she pressed.
Kaidan was silent for a moment. Too long a moment. Shepard found herself holding her breath to try and hear the inevitable response better, but her heart pounded in her ears.
"Come on," Ashley said, patiently, "It's me you're talking to. Who am I going to tell? Apart from my sister, of course, but I'm pretty sure she's not in the chain of command."
Kaidan sighed heavily. "Nothing's going on between us," he said. Shepard couldn't identify his tone of voice. Sad? Wistful? "I'd be lying if I said I was fine with that, but she's a Spectre, a decorated officer. We both have our careers. It'd be professional suicide."
"So you wouldn't try anything?"
"No," Kaidan said, slowly, "Not now. Not unless something changed. I don't think anything could happen between us."
The damned thing was, Shepard found it hard to argue with his logic. That didn't stop it from twisting her stomach any less painfully.
Ashley hmmed softly. "So, if I were to say, ask if you'd be willing to buy me a drink at Flux next time we get a bit of R&R on the Citadel, you wouldn't shoot me down straight away?"
It'd be a better idea for him, for both of them. None of the drawbacks, all of the benefits. Ash sounded like she was serious, not just being idly flirtatious. The long pause after she asked made it clear that Kaidan was giving the idea serious consideration.
"Yeah," he said, after a long moment, "I'd like that."
Shepard had enough of eavesdropping. She continued down the stairs, making a point of hitting the deckplates with her boots hard enough to make her footsteps impossible to ignore. She rounded the lift blocking her view to see Kaidan and Ashley sitting at one of the mess tables, coffee mugs in hands. They looked up as she approached. They didn't look surprised to see her, but there was no reason they should have been.
"Commander," Kaidan said, calmly, "What's the word from the Council?"
"Some interesting pieces of information from one of their teams," Shepard said, reaching up to rub the back of her neck. "You two should get some sleep. We'll be arriving tomorrow afternoon and you're both on the ground team."
"Yes, Commander," Ashley said, smartly, "Can I ask where we're going?"
"A planet called Virmire. I looked it up, and apparently it's got great beaches."
Ashley grinned, standing. "I'll pack my bathing suit, sir."
Shepard laughed lightly and shook her head. "You do that, chief. Just make sure you throw some incendiary grenades in with the towels."
"Will do," Ashley said, and then went belowdecks to prepare their gear.
Shepard glanced at Kaidan, wondering if she should say anything, wondering if she should let him know that she'd heard every word he'd said and that while he wasn't wrong, maybe they should-
"I mean it," she said, finally, "Sleep."
Kaidan nodded. "Yes, Commander," he said, "And if I may, you should do the same."
"I will," Shepard said, and turned away from him. "Goodnight, Lieutenant."
She heard his murmured 'goodnight, Shepard' before the door to her quarters slid shut behind her, leaving her alone with the starlight and her thoughts.