Shepard was striding across the crew deck, but stopped short at the sound of her name. She turned suddenly, then smiled at the sight of Doctor Chakwas. The doctor was sitting in the mess hall, a cup of hot tea on the table before her.
“Doctor,” Shepard said, walking over to stand beside her. “Good to see you up and about.”
“Ah, yes,” the doctor shifted in her seat, looking a little embarrassed. “About yesterday… I enjoyed the brandy. But hope I wasn’t…too unprofessional.”
“It was nice to see you let your hair down,” Shepard said, smiling.
“I didn’t realize how much those feelings needed airing,” Chakwas said, sadly. “I appreciated the talk. But I didn’t get a chance to let you vent. How are you doing, Shepard?”
Shepard thought about that for a moment. She shifted the helmet under her arm from one side to the other, then said, “There are a lot of colonists out there depending on us. They may not know it yet, but they are. We won’t let them down.”
The doctor blinked at her, then chuckled and shook her head. “They just don’t make them like you anymore, Shepard,” she said. “What you went through would have changed most people. But not you, I see. Promise me that we’ll have a bottle of brandy together every year.”
“Done,” Shepard agreed. “Every year. As long as we’re both around to enjoy it.”
“Is someone drinking and not inviting me?” a familiar voice asked. Shepard turned to see Garrus walk into the mess to join them.
“Not this drink, I’m afraid,” she said with a small smile. “We’re talking about a girl’s night out, here. Or a girl’s night in, rather.”
“The brandy wouldn’t have treated you well anyhow, I’m afraid,” Doctor Chakwas added. “It scarcely treated me well.”
Garrus nodded and gave the doctor a fanged turian smile. Then he looked at Shepard with a sudden drooping of his mandibles.
“Why are you dripping wet?” he asked.
“Huh?” Shepard looked down and brushed a hand over her armor. The joints of heavy sythetic fabric were soaked. She was leaving a small puddle on the floor where she stood. “I didn’t notice,” she said. “I guess I was too busy coming down to check on you.”
“On me?” Garrus blinked in surprise.
“I’ve been a little busy at the helm these past few days,” she said. “But I wanted to see how you were settling in. The crew treating you okay?”
“Yeah,” Garrus said, cocking his head. “At least, everyone is polite. Being part of the team that took down Saren helped, I think. Don’t worry commander, we’re all working together.”
“Well,” Shepard shrugged. “Cerberus was anti-alien in the past. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t tempting your wrath.”
“No wrath tempting here,” Garrus assured her with a laugh.
“If you two will excuse me,” Chakwas said, rising, “I need to get back to work. It was good to see you, Shepard.”
“Thanks for the brandy, doctor,” Shepard replied with a nod. “We’ll have to do that again sometime.”
“Commander,” Chakwas said, walking away with her dishes in hand. Shepard turned to Garrus.
“So where have you set yourself up down here, Garrus?” she asked.
“Over in the forward battery,” Garrus told her, pointing down the hall. He headed in that direction and Shepard began to follow him. She realized belatedly that she was leaving a trail of footprints along the deck. “Rupert will love that,” she muttered, looking back a them.
“So what happened to you, Shepard?” Garrus asked her.
“I went planet-side,” she told Garrus, turning her attention back to the turian as they reached the door that led to the weapons systems. The door remained open to the crew deck and Garrus walked in to check on the systems panel. Shepard found a seat on a nearby crate of ammo. It was well-sealed, so she didn’t worry about dripping all over it.
“There was a lot of snow down there, I guess,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much of it got into my suit.”
“What planet were you…?” Garrus frowned. “Not…Alchera?”
“Yeah,” Shepard replied. “Found my old helmet.” She held it up for him to see, then set in on her lap. “Can’t believe I lost this thing and yet they still managed to bring me back. I don’t even want to know what my head looked like.”
She shuddered, then ran a hand over her head. Her hair had started to grow back a little, turning from copper to gold at the tips.
Garrus just stared at her, his mouth hanging open.
“So I just handed twenty dog tags off to Joker,” Shepard continued. “Took me a bit of searching to track them all down. We’ll drop them off at the next major outpost and have them sent back to the Alliance.” She frowned a little as she added, “That ought to help some grieving families - a little.”
“Wait,” Garrus said, shaking his head. “The Alliance asked you for help?”
“Hackett, if you can believe it,” Shepard said with a laugh. “I know, right? They don’t believe me about the Reapers and they practically threw me back to Cerberus. You should have seen it, Garrus.”
“I can imagine,” he muttered, mandibles flaring. “I was on the Citadel for a while before I got sick of their…smear campaign against you.”
“Yeah,” she said, shaking her head. “The Alliance can’t be bothered to help me, but Hackett is still asking me for favors.” She laughed bitterly. “You’d think they didn’t have anyone else who could get anything done, the way they keep sending me assignments.”
“So they sent you to look through the wreckage of the old Normandy for…what do you call them? Pet tags?” Garrus asked, incredulously.
“Dog tags,” she corrected, stifling a laugh. “They asked me to leave a monument there. Not that anyone would see it. It’s not exactly a tourist destination. Still,” She shrugged. “I put it by Ashley’s old gunnery station. The place was torn up really bad, but I recognized that part of the ship all the same.”
“Ashley…” Garrus said, sadly.
“I miss her, too,” Shepard said with a sigh. “I wish she was here right about now. Her humor is sadly missed.” She stared off into space.
“It hasn’t been that long for me, Garrus,” she said after a moment. “Its like it was just a few weeks ago that I overheard Crosby and Lowe checking out Ashley’s ass.” She laughed, but the sound was sad and hollow. “I didn’t even know Lowe was into humans until that day. I thought she exclusively had a thing for asari. I know she was after Liara…” She trailed off with a frown. “Poor girl. Joker said she died trying to save Presley.”
Garrus watched her for a moment, then asked, “So what was it like down there?”
“Torn up really bad,” Shepard said. “The glacier had shifted, crushing most of what hadn’t been ripped up in the crash. Don’t know how long that monument I put up will last. You know, I almost considered putting it by the Mako.”
“The Mako was down there?” Garrus asked.
“Completely unharmed, you’ll be happy to hear. Landed on it’s feet, as always. But don’t be getting any ideas,” she added, warningly. “We’re not bringing it with us. I always hated that thing.”
“I did too,” Garrus told her, grinning a little. “When you were driving, anyway.”
“Oh, ouch,” Shepard said, wincing. “Lucky for you, Garrus, I’m too tired to come over there and kick your turian ass for questioning my driving.”
“You’re welcome to try,” Garrus replied, folding his arms over his chest. “Anytime.”
“Maybe later,” Shepard said. “Like I said, I’m too tired.”
Garrus shifted a little and looked away. He then looked back at Shepard, paused a moment and then said lightly, “So, who did you bring on your ground team? Lawson? Kasumi?”
“Huh?” Shepard blinked and looked up.
“I just ask because I was hoping to be in your squad again,” Garrus said. “Not that I like being shot at,” he added quickly, “but you did say you wanted me to watch your back.”
“I do,” Shepard assured him. “I want you to come with me when we go pick up that convict for sure. I don’t like the sound of that dossier at all, but I’m willing to check it out.” She smiled up at him weakly. “I want a former police officer with me if I’m wandering into a jail to pick up a felon.”
“Fair enough,” Garrus said, nodding with satisfaction. “So, who did you bring with you to Alchera?”
“Oh,” Shepard shrugged. “Nobody.”
“Nobody?” Garrus frowned.
“I went alone.”
“You went alone?” Garrus took a step towards her and his voice rose a notch. “You went alone to an uncharted world to search through debris on the ice ?”
“I was fine,” Shepard said. She shifted her old N7 helmet from knee to the other. “It was quite peaceful down there, actually.”
“There might have been trouble,” Garrus said. “You should have brought someone. You should have brought me.”
“You hate the cold,” Shepard reminded him.
“I still would have come.”
“You would have complained the whole time.”
Garrus opened his mouth, then paused. “Maybe,” he said.
“Garrus,” Shepard said, chuckling. “It wasn’t personal.”
“No, it was stupid. You died on that planet.”
“Technically, I died near it. I just fell onto it once I was dead.”
The turian’s mandibles flared. “You think that’s funny, do you?”
“Don’t you?” she asked. “The ice maiden dies on an ice planet?” When Garrus turned his head away as though he was angry, she tried to catch his gaze. “Garrus, come on. It’s that human thing, remember? We joke about stuff that bothers us. At least, I do.”
“I was fine,” she assured him. “Besides, I needed to do this alone.”
Her words seemed to give him pause. “Why alone?”
“Because…” she let out a heavy sigh and shrugged her shoulders. “Because the Normandy was home for me. I hadn’t had a home in a long time and that ship – became home. It was more because of the people – I realize that now, having walked among the wreckage – but I needed to say good-bye to the ship all the same.”
“Most of those people are gone,” Garrus said, his voice low.
“I know. The bodies were well preserved by the ice…” She trailed off and shivered. “It was a hell of a burial ground, but at least I found those dog tags.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Garrus shook his head. “I didn’t mean to ask about…” He broke off and tried again. “I meant the living crew. They’re even more scattered than that wreckage was. They’ve all disappeared.”
“You’re here with me.” She half smiled at him. Garrus stiffened and gazed back at her. “And Joker,” she went on. “And Chakwas. So there’s a start.”
“But not Alenko,” Garrus said. His voice had a brittle edge to it.
“No, not yet,” Shepard agreed. “But we can hope, right? It would be nice to have our old squad back. You, me, and Kaidan were a hell of a team. Having him with us on Omega would have been useful, I tell you what. If we’d had him with us in your base, we might have been able to save your face.“She grinned at Garrus teasingly, then broke off when she heard him growling, actually growling a little in the back of his throat. “Garrus?” she blinked. “Are you okay?”
“He’s not here, Shepard,” Garrus snapped, fixing his small eyes on her face.
“No,” she said, taken aback. “He’s not. Hey, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pick on you about your scars. I like you this way. You look distinguished.”
Garrus shook his head. Shepard watched him closely. “Hey,” she said. She stood, crossed to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. Garrus flinched, but did not pull away.
“I thought you’d prefer the truth to some bull about how your scars were nothing,” she said. “I’m not one to talk about scars, though. Seriously. Look at my face.”
Garrus did. He raised his eyes to hers. In their bright blue depths, Shepard saw…hurt?
“Garrus,” she murmured. “What happened to you on Omega?”
The turian made a disgusted sort of laugh and turned away.
“Garrus,” she pressed, “You promised that you’d tell me what happened. I still want to hear about it.” When he did not answer, she added, softly, “Will you tell me?”
Garrus looked down the length of the battery guns, then back at her. “You really want to hear about all that, Shepard?” he asked her.
“I do,” Shepard said, leaning against the railings.
Garrus sighed. Then lifted up his head and he told her.
Kaidan looked down at his plate. Talk about awkward silences.
Kaidan wished that Lilith hadn’t invited Mark’s cousin over for dinner. Delan was as chatty as Mark was the silent type. But unlike Mark, Delan hadn’t warmed to Kaidan at all, nor had he turned out to be decent under his rough exterior. The man had come late, complained about the food, insulted Kaidan at least ten times already, and even Lilith’s generous offerings of more herbed potatoes had failed to revive anything resembling a civil dinner conversation.
“So,” Lilth said after a sufficiently long pause. “How did work go for you today, commander?”
“Well enough,” Kaidan replied, “I think I’ve isolated the problem with the atmosphere interference, but it will take a lot of calibrating the defese grids working properly. We’ll have to get it all installed and then test it extensively to make sure it works. We may be off the network for a long time still.”
“Shouldn’t you have done that calibratin’ and stuff before you came here?” Delan snorted. He took a swig of the beer he had pilfered from the fridge and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Every colony is different,” Kaidan told him. “That’s why they send me and not just a bunch of tech in a box.”
“Peh,” Delan said, taking another helping of potatoes and smothering them with ketchup. “Damn Alliance. Any excuse to get their own in here to spy for them…”
“Delan!” Lilith said, frowning at him.
“I came out here to get away from these jerks,” Delan went on, “but they keep hounding us.”
“You do realize,” Lilith pointed out, “That the Alliance is just *giving * these towers to us? They’re trying to *protect * us.”
“They’re wasting tax-payer money to do it,” Delan said, spearing his food. “Damn fascists.”
Kaidan took a bite and said nothing. Delan was right about one thing. The Council was spending tax-payer money on these towers – and that why his mission here was classified. If it got out that the Alliance was spending money to protect colonies out in the Terminus Systems – colonies that did not pay taxes, well, the tax-paying humans in Council space would be enraged.
The Alliance was in a difficult spot, however, and Kaidan understood that. On the one hand, the Alliance didn’t want to spend their money on projects that could raise protests. On the other hand, having human colonies go missing – even colonies outside official Alliance jurisdiction – could make humanity look weak. And Kaidan knew that the Alliance needed humanity to remain strong just now. If batarian raiders or merc bands decided humans were fair game because of a few lost colonies, that could spell trouble for the whole human race. But, of course, these counter-attack measures had to be done quietly. Hence the reason why he was heading it all up – alone.
“Hell,” Delan said, “The Alliance couldn’t help those other lost colonies. So I don’t know why they’re bothering. These towers are just going to make us a target. Damn Alliance. Have they ever done anything right ?”
“They saved the Council from the geth, you jackass,” Mark observed. Kaidan smiled wryly at the farmer.
“The Council,” Delan snorted. “Yeah, exactly. The Alliance is too deep in the aliens’ pockets to be trusted. I say we humans need to look to ourselves. Like that other group. What’s it called? Cerberus.”
Kaidan stiffened and set down his fork.
“They get the job done,” Delan went on, pointing his fork at Mark. “Cerberus stands up for humanity.”
“Ceberus,” Kaidan said, his voice low and cold, “is a bunch of terrorists.”
“Sure,” Delan said, taking another swig of his beer. “Of course the Alliance would say…”
“My old team shut down over half a dozen Cerberus cells,” Kaidan interrupted. “Cerbers wiped out whole colonies just to test out alien technologies. They turned innocent civilians into mindless husks in an attempt to produce slave laborers. They turned a team of scientists into husks and watched them rip each other apart. They killed a squad of *fifty * Marines just to watch the effects of thresher maw acid and they killed one of the most highly decorated admirals in the Alliance to keep all their dirty dealings secret.” He stopped and took a breath.
“Cerberus is not looking out for humanity.”
Delan stared at him, his fork halfway to his mouth. Mark looked at Kaidan with a mix of respect and amusement. Lilith looked at everyone nervously, then dropped her fork to her plate.
“How do you know?” Delan asked, rallying himself from his initial surprise. “Do you actually know anyone *in * Cerberus?”
“When I was on the Normandy,” Kaidan told him, “we got a lot of distress calls from colonies that had gone off of the grid. In most cases, it was Cerberus that had wiped them out. In fact, we think they may be behind these recent colony attacks.”
“Wait. The Normandy?” Delan repeated. “Hell, wasn’t that the ship that was helmed by…oh, what’s her name?”
“Shepard,” Mark said. He shoved a bite of potato into his mouth.
“That’s it,” Delan nodded. “Could never remember the name. She’s the one they thought was dead, right? But she joined Cerberus, too, now, didn’t she? Like I said, Cerberus gets the job done…”
“Commander Shepard is dead ,” Kaidan replied, hating the way the words tasted in his mouth. “And even if she hadn’t died, she would never have joined Cerberus.”
“How do you know?” Delan asked. “From what I heard…”
“It’s all lies!” Kaidan snapped, a little more sharply than he meant to. More quietly he added, “Shepard is dead.”
“Jesus,” Delan blinked. “You don’t know that. She could be alive.”
“She’s not,” Kaidan said. “If she was…”
If she was, she would be with me.
Of course, Kaidan couldn’t say that. If Shepard had lived through the Normandy attack, Kaidan wouldn’t have let her out of his sight for a moment. And if he could do it all over again, he wouldn’t have let her out of his sight back then, either. If he had disobeyed her last order, he might have been able to save her. Or he could have died with her. That was an end he could have accepted. Instead, he had lived, alone and full of guilt.
Kaidan stood suddenly. “Thanks for dinner, Lilith,” he said. “I think I need some air. I’m getting a headache.”
“Hell,” Delan said, “You got that worked up about Cerberus?”
“Let him be, Delan,” Lilith said, as angry as Kaidan had ever heard her. “The commander gets headaches. He’s a biotic.”
“Well, shit,” Delan said, looking up at him. “Ain’t you a piece of work?”
“Shut up, Delan,” Mark told the man. “Anyone would get headaches listening to you spout off.” Mark nodded to Kaidan. “Dinner’ll be in the fridge when you get back. Sorry about Delan here. He’s full of horseshit.”
“Mark!” Lilith hissed at him.
”’S true,” Mark shrugged.
“Hey,” Delan said, frowning at him. “I’m your cousin.”
“I know,” Mark said, scooping up another bite of potatoes. “That’s the only reason you’re welcome in this house.”
Kaidan heard Delan and Mark continue to bicker as he wandered out the back door into the evening air. Directly behind the pre-fab house was one of Mark’s irrigated fields, ripe with a new strain of wheat-barley mix. Kaidan walked to the edge of the field and stretched out his hand. The heads of the grain brushed his palm. He breathed in deeply. It was a wonderful smell. He did miss this when he left the colonies, this wonderful smell of ripened grain right before a storm.
And there would be a storm. Kaidan had come to understand the weather patterns on these various worlds. He had always associated the smell of ozone with biotic energy before, having grown up in a biotic training camp on a space station. But now, he realized that it was actually the other way around. The smell of ozone had been a warning of storms in nature long before it spoke of discharged biotic energy.
Either way, the smell reminded him of Shepard.
Now there was a surprise, he thought, letting his hand drop to his side. Even now that he was beginning to get over her, so many things still reminded him of Shepard. He wondered if the smell of wheat and a gathering storm would have reminded her of her childhood. He had never thought to ask her much about her past. If she had lived, he would have liked to have gotten to know her better - to learn every little thing about her.
If she had lived.
Only she hadn’t, Kaidan thought. She hadn’t lived. If she had, she would have been with him these last two years, and he with her. They would have gone to stop the Reapers together, not let the problem fester in boardrooms and bureaucratic meetings.
Kaidan knew that Anderson was working on the Reaper problem. At times, he wondered if Anderson needed some help there, but it wasn’t really his place to ask. Anderson had the Reapers covered, and stopping these attacks were Kaidan’s business.
And dealing with annoying locals was also his business.
Kaidan sighed. He wished he hadn’t lost his temper back there. He rarely lost his temper in the past, but it seemed he was loosing his cool more readily these days. Two years of trying to act like a machine all the time had taken their toll on him. Two years of trying to ignore the rumors about Shepard hadn’t helped. So when Delan had talked about Shepard joining Cerberus…
Cerberus . Kaidan shook his head. Hell, he was out here to *investigate * Cerberus, not listen to crap about how Shepard might have joined them. And that meant, he thought with a pang of regret, that he should have kept that info about Cerberus’ past actions to himself. It was classified, so it was completely stupid of him to have said it. But he’d been so angry, he wasn’t thinking clearly. He really was on a hair trigger these days.
Anyhow, he told himself. It didn’t matter what Delan thought. Shepard would never join with terrorists, even if she had lived. She would never have left the Alliance, never have left him .
But even as Kaidan thought that, the ideas of what might have been grew dim in his mind. It was so hard to think of what Shepard would have done because, well, she hadn’t done any of it. She had died , and the last two years had happened instead. And because she wasn’t here, Kaidan was out on this distant world surrounded by morons like Delan – and good people like Lilith and Mark, it was true – and he was trying to stop Cerberus’s crazy plans once again.
Only this time, Kaidan was on his own.