“Williams, is that…beer?” Kaidan came into the mess, then stopped, staring at the three six-packs of micro brew sitting on the table.
“Want one?” the chief asked, popping off the cap of a bottle with her bare hand.
“If the commander sees that…” Kaidan started.
“The commander’s on her way,” Ashley explained.
“The commander knows ?”
“Sure,” Ashley said. “I invited her, and she said she was inviting a few other people. We’re going to celebrate Armistice Day.”
“Wait,” Garrus had just come around the corner and now froze in place. “We’re celebrating what ?”
“The commander and I are celebrating the liberation of Shanxi,” Ashley said, her eyes narrowing.
“No,” Shepard said, appearing behind Garrus and walking briskly into the mess. “We’re celebrating the end of the first contact war – when humans and the rest of the galaxy agreed to get along.”
“Commander…” Williams broke off, frowning at Garrus. She clearly didn’t like the change in plans, but had the wisdom not to say anything. Shepard noticed her hesitation.
“And if you want your drink Williams,” Shepard said, smiling a little, “then I hope you’ll be open to the guests I invited – all of them.”
Ashely frowned. “Yes, ma’am,” she muttered.
“Why didn’t you invite me?” Kaidan frowned, trying not to feel like a dejected teenager.
“Because I’ve been busy picking up drinks for the party and getting us off of the ground,” Shepard replied. “Hey Kaidan, you’re invited to drinks with Williams and me at…” she checked her omnitool for the time, “2000 hours. Wanna come?”
Kaidan just chuckled and shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re going to have drinks on duty.”
“Sure,” Shepard said. “After Noveria, I think we all could use a stiff drink. But what I can’t believe is how you got micro brew out in the traverse. Williams.”
“Bought them on the citadel,” Ashley replied. “Been saving them. Here,” she handed one to Shepard. “I’m sorry, Garrus,” she added, “but I don’t think turians can drink this stuff.”
“They can’t,” Shepard said, “but – ah, doctor, there you are. Got your reserves?”
“I do, indeed,” Doctor Chakwas walked up to the table with Tali in tow and set down a few brightly colored flasks. “I think these will do for those with differing amino acids.”
“Where in the traverse did you find that?” Garrus wanted to know, pointing at one pinkish-purple tube in particular.
“Alcohol is a fine remedy,” the doctor said, setting down a bottle of earth-wine and popping the cork. “I make sure to have some in my stock at all times. As soon as we picked up additional crew, I made sure to have something for everyone.”
“Got something for me?” a deep krogan voice asked.
“Damn, commander,” Ashely said. “You invited half the ship.”
“The whole ship, actually,” Shepard replied. “The ones on duty now get to have a drink after we’re done. Wrex, did you bring the stuff we got in Port Hanshan?”
“Right here,” the krogan set down a crate full of various bottles. “That’s not enough to get drunk on,” he added ruefully.
“That’s not the point,” Shepard said.
“What? Of course it’s the point,” Joker came hobbling around the corner and gingerly settled himself into a chair.
“Just a friendly drink for everyone,” Shepard said. “It’s been a long run so far and we need a break. But I don’t intend for us to be soused when we run into Saren.”
“Well, and hopefully we’ll run into him soon,” Joker said. “I’ve set a course for Virmire and we’ll soon find out what intel that recon team has for us.”
“Good work,” Shepard said. “I get the feeling it won’t be much longer yet before we find Saren and nail him to the wall.”
“Here, here!” Ashley cried. “I’ll drink to that.” She held up her beer, and finding Garrus was standing right behind her chair, she clinked glasses with the turian.
“What was that for?” he asked, staring at his drink. “Are you deliberately trying to spread your bacteria into my glass?”
“What?” Ashley frowned. “Lighten up, turian, I was just trying to…”
“It’s a human custom,” Shepard said, stepping in. “Humans make toasts – well wishes – and then clink glasses. It’s a sign of friendship.”
“Oh,” Garrus’ small blue eyes widened. “Well then. I hope you…stop Saren.” He awkwardly tapped his glass against Shepard’s bottle, and then, after a slight pause, did the same to Ashley’s. Ashley shook her head, but she smiled. Shepard stifled a laugh.
As Doctor Chakwas got a drink out for Tali, Shepard looked up and caught the eye of Liara, who had come to stand shyly at the table. Shepard nodded at her and smiled. Liara returned the smile, but ducked her head. Shepard let out a small sigh. Liara was still grieving the passing of her mother on Noveria and Shepard hardly knew what to say to the young asari. Shepard had dealt with a lot in her life, but in her experience, her family had been a bright spot – brief though that spot had been. She couldn’t even imagine what Liara must be going through to lose a mother – first to distance and time, then to death. She had tried talking to Liara, but it was clear that Liara’s past attraction to Shepard had made things awkward now. Shepard didn’t know quite how to help. She suspected that Liara mainly needed patience and time.
“Join us, Liara,” Shepard said. She picked up a beer and handed it to the asari. “It’s pretty nasty stuff,” she added in a low whisper, “so you may want to hand it off to someone else and drink the doctor’s wine instead. But just don’t let Ashley see you pass up the beer. She’ll tease you about it otherwise.”
Liara smiled just a little. “Thank you, commander.”
Turning her attention back to the table, Shepard helped Ashley pass out the beers. Several of the crew had come to join them, more started showing up in the mess once they had heard that the commander was passing out drinks on the crew deck.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Garrus said, “but isn’t this gathering completely against your Alliance regulations?”
“Pretty much,” Ashley laughed.
“It is,” Shepard nodded, “which means that it never happened. Got it, everyone?” Those standing around nodded their heads in agreement.
“I saw nothin’,” Joker said into his beer.
“It’s just one drink, anyhow,” Tali said with a shrug.
“We all need a break,” Shepard agreed. “If I get any flack for it from the brass, I’ll pull the Spectre card.”
“You’d pull rank over some beers, commander?” Kaidan asked. He had retreated to the corner of the mess where he stood leaning against the wall, beer in hand. He had been watching the commander the whole time with amusement, not saying anything until now.
Shepard gave him a sly smile. “If I have to,” she said. “Whatever it takes to stop Saren, right? Desperate times call for desperate…Hey!” she turned and just caught herself from slapping Joker’s hand hard. Instead, she snatched her beer back from the helmsman. “That’s mine.”
Kaidan chuckled. Shepard had changed a lot since he had first met her. Or rather, he corrected himself, her manner had changed. In truth, she really hadn’t changed at all. He realized now that her warrior persona was just a shell. The woman inside was a lot more complicated – and more interesting – than the legendary “Valkyrie”. She had proven to be fiercely loyal to those she loved, and capable of more mercy than her reputation suggested – though he had to admit, when pushed, she had a spine of steel and a temper he didn’t want to tempt.
Now the rest of the crew was coming to see her human side as well. The commander had extended a listening ear to nearly everyone on the ship. She genuinely cared about these people, and had drawn together a community where there had been merely duty before. And somehow, through all of these harrowing, confusing times, she had maintained a sense of honor and revealed a sense of humor. It was no wonder that the crew had come to think of themselves as ‘Shepard’s.’
Kaidan smiled as he watched her. He couldn’t resent how friendly she had become with everyone else, not when he knew that *he * was the one she came to when the day was over. He was the one she talked to before heading to bed. Even now, she looked at him in a way that he felt sure was meant for him alone. He raised his drink in a small salute to her, enjoying the half-smile she gave to him before turning her attention back to an argument between Wrex and Williams.
As he watched the crowd grow and the drinks being passed around, Kaidan suspected that Shepard had planned this whole party both to give everyone a break as well as to prove a point to Williams and the rest of the Alliance crew. By encouraging the aliens to come out from the various corners of the ship that they had hidden themselves in and join with the others, Shepard was making it clear that she thought they were all on the same side. It was an admirable plan, he thought, though there was still a little tension in the air, given the way that Williams was glaring at the krogan.
“So krogan women actually find those shreds down your face attractive?” the gunnery chief was saying.
“The mark of a warrior is always appealing,” Wrex replied. “Unlike you weak humans, who seem to value softness. Among the krogan, for example, Shepard here would be considered attractive because of her scars. But you humans think she’s ugly.”
“We don’t think she’s ugly!” Ashley snapped at him.
“Is Shepard considered unattractive among humans?” Tali asked, her voice full of innocent confusion. “That’s strange. I think she is quite pleasant to look at.”
Shepard opened her mouth to speak, but Joker blurted out, “Hey, the commander is a babe. Just ask any of the men on this ship.”
Everyone stopped talking and turned to stare at him. Joker suddenly turned red.
“I’m just saying…oh, shit.” He pulled down the brim of his hat over his face.
“I’m flattered,” Shepard said, looking for all the world like she was stifling a laugh, “Truly flattered, but let’s change the subject.” When no one said anything she added, “That’s an order. Seriously, people – change the subject.”
A few of the crew laughed nervously and turned to talk to one another in small groups. Shepard looked down at Joker.
“It’s alright, Moreau. I’m not going to break your arms. I need you to fly the ship.”
“Right,” Joker mumbled.
There was an awkward pause, then Garrus said, “I don’t understand. Joker thinks Shepard looks like a child? Does that mean you’re considered ugly for a human, Shepard?”
” God , Garrus,” Ashley snorted, “That’s not…”
“It’s okay,” Shepard said, her lips quirking in amusement. “‘Babe’ is a compliment, Garrus. And as for my face, it got messed up pretty bad as a kid and I had some reconstruction done. They couldn’t fix everything, though. My face is a little scarred, but otherwise I look pretty average for a human.”
Someone snorted. Those seated at the table turned to find that the sound had come from Kaidan.
“What?” he asked, seeing everyone staring at him. “I didn’t say anything.”
“What the commander is forgetting,” Ashley said, “Is she’s in really good shape. So in spite of her scars, yeah, she’s considered attractive among humans. Don’t deny it, commander,” she said, looking over her beer at Shepard when the commander opened her mouth to protest.
“You are considered very attractive for a human, too, are you not, Miss Williams?” Liara asked, politely.
“Uh…” Ashley blushed and looked startled. “Depends on whose doing the considering.”
Shepard laughed. “I think what Ashley is trying to say is that among Alliance Marines, particularly among *female * Marines, attractiveness is not something we talk about on a regular basis. Worrying about our looks is something we typically reserve for…” Shepard broke off and tried to remember the last time she’d worried about her appearance.
“Off duty?” Ashley offered. “Private lives?”
“Private lives?” Kaidan muttered. “What’s that?”
“Agreed,” Shepard said, looking up at him briefly. “So all that goes to say, it’s not a topic of conversation that I feel comfortable with.”
“I’m sorry, Shepard,” Liara said hastily. “I didn’t mean…”
“No harm done,” Shepard said. She looked over at Joker. “Moreau – no harm done.”
Joker mumbled something incomprehensible and kept his hat over his face.
“Alright, that’s it,” Ashley said, slamming her beer bottle down on the table. “I need to do something so that I don’t feel girly all of a sudden. Commander, want to arm wrestle?”
“What?” Shepard laughed out loud.
“You heard me.” Ashley plunked her elbow down on the table, hand up. “Bring it.”
“What…just happened?” Garrus asked, looking from one woman to the other with a worried expression.
“A gauntlet got thrown, that’s what,” Wrex said, his eye lighting up and his voice registering approval.
“Williams,” Kaidan said, watching both of them from the corner. “You’re going to get creamed.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, LT,” Ashley snorted. “Commander?”
Shepard looked at the chief’s open palm, then at the crowd around them. Everyone had gone totally silent.
“Alright,” Shepard said, sitting down across from the chief. “You’re on.”
“No biotics,” Ashley said, leveling the commander a look.
“Done.” Shepard placed her hand in Ashley’s.
“Whoa,” Joker said, looking from one woman to the other in amazement, his previous embarrassment now gone, “This is going to be good.”
“Kay – Lieutenant,” Shepard said, nodding to Kaidan. “Care to call it?”
“Play fair, ladies,” He chuckled as he came to stand beside the table.
“How does this work, exactly?” Tali whispered.
“I don’t know.” Liara looked worried.
“I imagine we’re about to find out,” Garrus murmured. Wrex was grinning from ear to ear.
“Three…two…one…Go!” Kaidan said.
Ashley and Shepard clasped hands, each struggling against the other’s grip.
“Oh,” Garrus said, nodding. “That’s the same as turian…”
“Shhh!” Joker and Wrex hissed at him. Garrus fell silent.
The struggle lasted for a few more seconds, then Ashley’s grip gave way and Shepard slammed the chief’s arm to the table.
“Damn,” Ashley said, laughing and rubbing her hand. “You’re a lot stronger than I took you for, commander.”
“You, too, chief,” Shepard said, flexing her fingers.
“Aw, crap,” Joker said, “I should have put money down on that.”
“No gambling,” Shepard told him. “We’re already breaking regs enough with the drinks.”
“My turn,” Wrex said, plunking himself down into a chair and putting his arm out. Everyone froze and stared at him. “What?” he asked. “No takers?”
There was a pause, then Ashley said, “Oh, what the hell? Show me what you’ve got, krogan.”
To no one’s surprise, Wrex easily beat Ashley – and Garrus and everyone, since he wouldn’t rest until he’d tested his strength against the whole crew. He even managed to convince Doctor Chakwas to wrestle him, though Shepard threatened Wrex that if he damaged any of her crew – especially the medics – she would flay him alive. Wrex managed to win without injuring anyone.
And as Wrex fought his way through the crew, Ashley challenged anyone and everyone who would join her, and so the small drinks party turned into an arm-wrestling competition. Shepard found herself smiling as she stepped back and watched Liara arm-wrestle the requisitions officer. No one was more surprised than Liara when she beat him.
“Nicely done, Shepard,” a voice said softly at her ear. Shepard registered the speaker in a moment, feeling suddenly warm all over. She turned to see Kaidan looking at her with amusement and approval in his eyes.
“Thanks,” she said, turning away again before she started grinning at him like an idiot in front of the whole crew. “I wasn’t sure if this would work out, but I think it did.”
“It did,” he agreed. “Nothing like alcohol and competitions of strength to bring a bunch of soldiers together.” Shepard laughed at that.
“Well, we’re just appealing to Ashley’s softer side,” she said, nodding at the table where Ashley had just finished off one of the corporals in a rematch. The poor man looked like he couldn’t decide if he was completely embarrassed or completely in love. Shepard felt a little sorry for him.
“Shepard,” Wrex said. Shepard looked up. “You going to take on Alenko?” Several people turned to stare at them. Shepard looked to Kaidan, eyebrows raised.
“Ah,” he said, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”
“Why not?” Wrex asked. “I’ve been wondering which of you two would win in a fight.”
“This is hardly indicative of who is the better soldier,” Liara told the krogan. “A fight uses speed and skill as well as strength. This competition merely determines who has stronger bicep muscles.”
“Well, I still want to know who’s got stronger muscles,” Wrex replied.
Shepard and Alenko looked at one another for a moment longer, then Shepard shrugged.
“Sure, why not? I’ll go easy on you, lieutenant.”
“Easy on me?” He laughed.
“It would make it more interesting if they used biotics,” Joker said. “I’d pay good money to see that.”
“It sort of defeats the purpose of arm wrestling,” Ashley pointed out. “The whole point is to see who has more physical strength.”
“Well, let’s find out then,” Shepard said. She sat down at the table, elbow down, palm up. Kaidan hesitated for a moment, then sat across from her and took hold of her hand.
He realized his mistake the moment he did so. In all their time together, Kaidan had never actually held her bare hand before. He was now suddenly aware of the fact that he was doing so for the first time in front of a crowd of people. Her grip was strong, but her hand was slender – and warm and covered with rough callouses. He could feel her biotic energy more strongly now with the contact. She was holding her powers in check, but the hum from her amps was like a low pulse in the air. It was intoxicating – and distracting.
“You ready?” she asked. Kaidan blinked.
He almost missed it when Ashley gave the signal to go. Shepard took advantage of his distraction, and for a moment, Kaidan found himself fighting back against her quick push. He was strong, but Shepard had caught him off guard and now had his hand at a slight angle. It gave her leverage against him and he was having trouble keeping his arm from falling. They fought for a moment longer, neither one giving any ground.
“Go Kaidan,” Joker murmured.
“Go skipper,” Ashley called.
Then Shepard made the mistake of looking up into Kaidan’s face. He met her eyes and a tiny shimmer of biotic energy flickered across his jaw and down his throat. Shepard blinked, her heart suddenly pounding. In that second, she lost focus. Kaidan slammed her arm down on the table. She looked down at their clasped hands, then back at him.
“Damn it, Alenko, you beat me.” She frowned.
Joker whooped; Ashley swore. Wrex just stood there and laughed while Garrus looked a little worried.
“You used biotics,” the turian said. “I saw you, lieutenant.”
“I didn’t,” Kaidan said, frowning and taking his hand out of Shepard’s hastily.
“For a second there, your face flickered…”
“He didn’t use biotics,” Shepard said. She withdrew her hand from the table slowly and then rubbed it with her other hand. “At least, he didn’t use them to win.”
“How can you tell?” Garrus asked.
“I’m a biotic,” Shepard said. “I know. Alright, I think that’s my last round for the night. My arm is getting tired.”
“You okay, commander?” Kaidan asked. Shepard met his eyes. He looked worried.
“I’m fine,” Shepard replied. “But I think I’m done for now. Joker, you can finish my drink. I’m going to go relieve Presley so that he can come on down and enjoy some of this. You did save a beer for him, didn’t you Williams?”
“Huh?” Ashley looked up from where she was taking on the poor besotted corporal once more. “Yeah, I got him covered.”
“Alright,” Shepard nodded. “Carry on then, and take it easy everyone. Be sure to go to bed early. We have a mission starting in twelve hours. We need to be ready for it.” Everyone groaned.
“I know, I know,” Shepard laughed, “but when we’re done, we’ll have more drinks back at the Citadel. On me.” The groans turned to cheers, then turned to the rumble of conversation as everyone returned to talking and arm wrestling.
Shepard looked once more at the crew – her crew – before she turned to the stairs. As she walked away, she found herself smiling. In the past, her missions had always been utilitarian affairs: she’d been professional and gotten things taken care of and then gone onto the next place the Alliance had sent her to. But this crew was like family, she realized. They had gotten over the fact that she was a biotic and accepted her as their leader without question. In turn, she had come to care about all of them, wanting to protect every last person on the ship.
It just went to show, Shepard thought, that when you let your guard down and let people in, sometimes the result would pleasantly surprise you.