The entire shuttle winced as static burst from the comm. “—amn it, Normandy to shuttle. Come in already!” Joker’s voice sounded more frantic than Garrus had ever heard it but for one time, over two years ago.
Shepard’s brows lowered a fraction, her expression inscrutable. “I hear you, Joker,” she answered. “Comms were blocked.”
“Noticed that, ma’am,” he said, but it didn’t have his usual sarcasm behind it. Shepard’s mask hardened further. “What is it, Joker?”
“Shit, Shepard, I don’t know how to—” He broke off in mid-sentence.
“Joker, what the hell is going on?” she snapped, cracks beginning to form in her calm facade.
It wasn’t Joker, but EDI, who answered. “Communications from the Kite’s Nest, Sol, and Apien Crest clusters have gone dark. Reports suggest that the reaper assault has begun.”
A deafening silence fell, and only EDI dared to break it. “I am sorry, Commander.”
Several Months Earlier
Jane Shepard stepped out of the comm room looking like hell but feeling incredible. Her N7 armor was cracked and mottled, her short red hair was a singed tangle, and her freckled skin was marred with dirt and bruises—but she couldn’t care less. She’d been to hell and back and lived to tell about it, and she’d finally handed in her resignation to Cerberus by way of a massive explosion. All things considered, it was a damn good day.
Her mood was slightly dampened as she passed through the CIC, nodding and smiling at crewmen whose attempts to return her smiles were belied by their haunted eyes. Yet she was proud of them beyond measure. Those who were physically capable were at their stations and ready to serve, no matter the horrors they had endured. Along with the ghosts in their eyes, she also found gratitude and pride—and loyalty. Not to their organization, but to her. To her ship. If she had doubts before, she had none now. The Cerberus crew had become her crew. Giving her these people was one of the few good things Cerberus had done. They’d also given her the ship she’d now stolen—and her life.
There was a part of her that felt like she ought to owe the Illusive Man for that, despite already completing the task he’d set before her. But there was another part of her that screamed to be heard—that said to remember the thorian creepers and David Archer and Admiral Kahoku and the rachni. To remember Akuze. Bringing her back—even helping her save humanity—did not erase those crimes. Which was why she had no second thoughts about stealing the ship and telling the Illusive Man to fuck off.
Shepard stepped up behind the pilot’s chair as she entered the cockpit, her blue eyes darting to the windows. She could just make out the dull glow of Omega in the distance. “ETA?” she asked curtly.
“Just over an hour,” Joker said, tugging down the bill of his SR-2 cap. “But are we really going to use parts from Omega to fix the Normandy, Commander? My baby deserves the best.” Some might have taken his tone for insolence, but Shepard knew better.
“We’ve got the best engineers, Joker. They won’t accept anything less than perfection,” she reassured him. “She’ll be up and running again as good as she ever was.” The only response she received was a nod. Shepard wasn’t fazed by his reticence. She understood how he felt about the Normandy. Shepard liked to think she loved the ship nearly as much as he did.
Shepard turned to the ever-present holographic interface on the console. “EDI, are we safeguarded against Cerberus hacking attempts? No doubt the Illusive Man will try to get his ship back.”
Her answer was prompt. “Yes, Commander. Jeff’s removal of my shackles has eliminated any possibility of Cerberus control.”
Shepard nodded. She’d been suspicious of EDI for a long time, despite the polite and friendly attitude with which she always addressed the AI. But EDI had proven herself, and Shepard had come to trust her with her ship, her crew, and her life. “Keep up the good work, EDI. Can you patch me through to the crew?”
“Patching you through, Commander.”
Shepard leaned over the comm unit, tucking back a sweaty lock of chin-length red hair. “Normandy crew, as some of you no doubt already know, this is no longer a Cerberus vessel.” She paused a moment, allowing that to sink in. “We dock on Omega in one hour, and those of you who wish to leave may do so from here—no questions asked. Those who want to stay on as part of the Normandy crew need to be at your stations in forty-eight hours. Until then, you’re on shore leave. Shepard out.”
Shepard straightened up, making a mental note to send out a short bulletin about safety on Omega. You could never be too careful. She rolled her left shoulder absent-mindedly, wincing a bit at the movement. The doctor’s patch-up job had been rudimentary at best, since Shepard had begged off to run to the comm room. She had brushed off the doctor’s concern—even now, her advanced cybernetics were hard at work knitting her back together. The squad had come out of the battle with a wide enough variety of injuries to be their own medical dictionary, but even the worst seemed insignificant when she considered that they had never expected to live at all.
Shepard realized, lost in thought as she was, she was still standing in the cockpit. Glancing around, her eyes landed on the Normandy’s pilot. Everyone on this ship was a hero as far as she was concerned, but Joker had done more than most. Despite his own traumatic experiences (and likely a number of broken bones), he was less likely than anyone to take advantage of their shore leave. Unlike most things when it came to Joker, that was not going to fly.
She looked at him speculatively. She wouldn’t force him to leave the ship, especially not on Omega, but he needed to relax and unwind. He was coiled as tight as a spring. Dire measures might become necessary, she thought, a smile curling the corners of her lips. She had an idea. “Before this shore leave is over, Joker, you and me are going to have to play some Skyllian Five. I’ve got an appointment with your credits. Spent all mine on weapon mods.” It was a provocation he would never ignore.
He laughed as he turned to face her—a lighthearted sound she hadn’t heard in longer than she cared to consider. “You’re on, Commander,” he said, never one to turn down a challenge. “Long as you’ve got something left to bet.”
Hell, she might even let him win this time. Every now and then, you had to take one for the team.
Garrus strode into the captain’s quarters with an air of confidence no doubt borne from his successful conquest of interspecies relations in that very room the previous night. “You called?”
Shepard glanced towards the door and nodded, shutting down her terminal as she stood. “There are a couple of things I want to talk to you about.” Her eyes traveled up and down his form as he came to lean casually against the desk. Now that she knew what alien beauty lay beneath that armor, it was difficult to avoid becoming distracted. She forced her eyes upward to his face. Maybe once her work was done they could take a little shore leave themselves and… No. Stop it. You can fantasize later.
She cleared her throat awkwardly, trying to banish the images from her mind. “How’s your bullet wound?” She motioned to his stomach.
Garrus shrugged. “Chakwas patched me up and I’m as good as new,” he assured her. She wasn’t convinced, knowing a thing or two about turian plate injuries, but if Chakwas had released him, she wouldn’t press the issue. “So did you just call me up here to check on me?” he asked.
She shook her head. She wished it was that simple. “It’s about Omega. While we’re on the station I want you to keep at least two of the squad with you at all times.”
The turian’s browplates lowered into a frown that would be obvious to even the most unobservant human. “Why?”
The resistance was not unexpected. “If someone recognizes you, there’s going to be trouble. I’m not taking any chances, especially not now that we’re no longer under the Illusive Man’s protection,” she explained. “I don’t want to have to run a rescue while the Normandy and her crew aren’t at their best.” She couldn’t hold back the images of the last time she’d rescued him on Omega. His blood everywhere. On the floor. On her boots. Her hands…
A gloved hand on the side of her face brought her out of her reverie. Garrus gazed down at her with an expression she couldn’t quite read. “I don’t like it, Shepard,” he said, “But if it will make you feel better, I’ll do it.”
“I just want you to be safe,” she confessed, glancing downward. It was stupid of her to set him apart from the others like this, but it was true. He wasn’t just any teammate, and it had started long before their night together. From the moment she saw him on Omega, Shepard had known she would sacrifice more than she should to get him out of there alive. When she almost failed, it nearly destroyed her.
She’d felt an echo of that pain later, on the Collector base. She tried never to let her heart get in the way of good tactics, but when his talents as a team leader forced their separation, she’d wanted, more than anything, to change her mind and keep him close. She’d scoffed before at his worry when her missions had required he be left behind, but now she understood what it was like to be on the other side, to watch someone you love walk into certain danger.
It was in that inopportune moment that she realized how much she loved him. She’d realized long before then that her feelings were greater than friendship, greater than attraction, and definitely greater than some kind of cross-species curiosity. But the moment she watched him walk into danger—without her to protect him, damn it—was when she finally realized that she was desperately in love with him and didn’t know what she would do if he didn’t come back to her alive.
A touch on Shepard’s arm brought her eyes back upward. “So I guess this means no hot dates, then,” he teased, voice rumbling in a way that made her stomach flutter.
Shepard felt heat rising in her cheeks. “After Omega, I’ll make sure to take you somewhere nice.”
He held her gaze with surprising intensity. “I’ll hold you to that.”
After a beat of silence, she motioned towards the elevator and reminded herself to breathe.
When the doors closed behind them, Garrus turned to her again, suddenly back to business. “There was something else you wanted to talk about?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yes, but it’ll have to wait until we’re off the ship,” she told him, hoping he’d understand.
By the way his eyes darted around the elevator, she knew he did. He would see nothing but EDI’s camera, but that didn’t mean there was nothing there. As they waited for the slowest elevator in the Terminus systems to travel down one floor, she took to watching him.
For obvious reasons, Shepard hadn’t had much time to think about the previous night. She remembered what Garrus had said weeks ago about their prospective night together. “It will either be a night to treasure or a horrible interspecies awkwardness thing.” To be truthful, it had been a bit of both. Garrus had been nervous, attempting human customs to make her comfortable, worrying about injuring her, and trying to figure out what the hell to do with breasts. Shepard had been simply wishing she’d taken a closer look at Mordin’s diagrams. But in the end they’d made it work, and Shepard was very eager to give it another go. With a bit of practice, she was certain they could make each other very, very happy.
If Garrus wanted to continue, that is.
Shepard glanced over at him surreptitiously as they stepped out into the CIC. Based on his reaction a few minutes ago, he was still interested in blowing off steam with her. Maybe more. But ‘maybe’ wasn’t enough. She wanted so much more than just a way to ease tension. She found herself relying on him more and more as time passed, both on the field and off, and her feelings of friendship had somehow blossomed into something greater and infinitely more precious.
They went through decontamination and stepped out into the docking tube, pausing before they reached the dirty, shadowy halls of Omega. “So what’s the other thing?” Garrus asked.
“Hmm?” she questioned. “Oh. Right. The other thing.” She really needed to get her head back into the game and stop mooning over her turian companion like a teenager on a first date. Focus.
Garrus gave her a uniquely turian smirk, crossing his arms cockily over his chest. “I’m just that distracting, huh?”
Shepard blushed, cursing her genetics for the fair skin that did nothing to hide it. His stupid visor was probably giving him a full report on exactly how fast her heart was racing. “I need a safe place for the team to meet, somewhere the Illusive Man can’t hear us,” she told him. “At first I was thinking of a private room in Afterlife, but I’m guessing Aria’s got them all bugged.”
Garrus nodded, confirming her suspicion. “She does,” he said confidently. “I used to know a few places. There’s a restaurant that serves both levo and dextro food. Used to take the team there. The owner was… a friend.” A shadow flitted across his features. “It’s in a bad neighborhood, but it’s probably our best bet.”
“It’s Omega,” Shepard deadpanned. “They’re all bad neighborhoods.”
Garrus gave a small laugh. “Bad even for Omega,” he amended, but Shepard wasn’t dissuaded.
“We’ve survived worse,” she said with a shrug. “Tap a couple of teammates to scope it out with you, and I’ll throw in some extra shore leave hours for whoever goes. Book it for tomorrow night if you can. I’d like to buy the team dinner and drinks after we get done talking business.” She paused, meeting his eyes. “It goes without saying that we don’t discuss this where we could be overheard.”
“Of course,” Garrus said, sounding almost affronted that she felt the need to say so. “I’ll take care of it now. You coming?”
Shepard shook her head. “Too much to do.”
“Shepard,” he warned, closing the distance between them. “You haven’t stopped running since the Collector base.” His concern was sweet, if unnecessary.
She put a reassuring hand on his arm. “We’re going to be here for a while. I promise I’ll take some time out to relax before we move on.”
He looked her over sharply, as if to gauge both her truthfulness and her state of health. Shepard followed his gaze, blushing slightly as his blue eyes ran down her body and back up again. He still looked worried when he met her eyes, but he nodded and took a step back. “I’ll message you once I get it checked out.”
“Thanks,” Shepard said, with a genuine smile, the one few people saw. As Garrus moved to message a couple teammates from his omni-tool, she headed back through the airlock and up to her quarters. Thoughts of pleasure would have to wait—she had planning to do.
The captain’s cabin was dim and still but for the fish swimming lazily in their tank. A redheaded figure sat motionless in front of a cluttered desk, ignoring the growing list of messages on her terminal. The glass display in front of her held an array of model ships, but she stared past them, seeing nothing.
Her mind was occupied with thoughts of the future, what to do now that they’d survived the impossible once again. She couldn’t ask her friends and crew to follow her without a plan. The immediate steps to take were obvious. Get the Normandy back in shape and remove the Cerberus bugs. Fill in any gaps in the crew.
But after that things became far less simple. There was a part of her that wanted to return to the Alliance—it had been her life since the marines rescued her from Mindoir at sixteen years old. But she had a nagging feeling within her that while the Alliance was where she wanted to be, it wasn’t where she needed to be right now.
What she needed to do was stop the reapers. No pressure, Commander, she thought with a roll of her eyes. The Alliance could provide resources and intel, but she needed more than that to save the galaxy. She needed freedom to do what must be done—and by nature, she wouldn’t find much of that in the Alliance.
Spectres had the freedom she needed. If she could get the council behind her, it could be the ideal solution. She could be a representative for multiple races, not just her own, the unifying force needed to see this through.
But that left the problem of evidence. She’d had less luck with the council than the Alliance when it came to proving her theories, and though she had more evidence now, she still knew it was not enough. Everything she’d seen—the vids and data her team had recorded—would mean nothing if the council believed she destroyed the threat along with the Collector base.
There was, however, a third option.
With Liara now firmly in possession of the Shadow Broker’s resources, Shepard had no doubt she could be as useful to her as the Illusive Man, Alliance, or Citadel council ever were. She didn’t think this was what Liara had in mind when she’d offered her help, but it might be their best shot.
It felt strange to be drifting like this, unaffiliated and alone, but Shepard would do what she had to. She would save this galaxy even if she had to drag it kicking and screaming to victory.
She realized, grimacing, that she probably would.