Shotguns and Wedding Rings

Part 3, Chapter 51 of Valkyrie

My one chapter story “The Color of Shepard’s Panties” would go about here. It was not quite right for the tone of this story, so I just kind of wrote it on a lark and set it aside from this main plot line. But if you wanted to read it, it fits about here in some alternate universe for Kyrie and Kaidan.

Shepard sat at the helm, staring over her coffee cup at the stars beyond. The Earth-hour was late, or early, depending upon how you looked at it, and she simply couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t the nightmares this time. It was the damn headaches. They kicked in almost every night and often got so bad that they woke her. She considered asking Mordin about it, but then she figured she’d just get used to it as she continued to adapt to her new implants. The daily workouts in the cargo bay were helping, and training with Samara was good, too. She doubted many human biotics ever had the opportunity to learn from an asari justicaar and it was an opportunity she didn’t intend to pass up. Truly, considering how much she had been fighting, you’d think she’d be able to sleep through anything, but sadly, it wasn’t so.

So Shepard had laid in bed for all of an hour, then wandered down to the mess for some coffee. The headache had eased a little, then came back as she checked her messages by the CIC. She dutifully avoided looking at the encrypted message labeled, “About Horizon,” even as she also avoided archiving it with the other messages. Shepard then wandered up to the helm and her headache had mercifully gone away over the past hour as she just sipped her coffee and stared out at the view. EDI was keeping the ship in orbit over the planet below, systematically probing for minerals. Shepard watched the holographic display from time to time, the numbers of resources and credits ringing every so steadily higher.

They’d been on Illium over two weeks, and had now set out into the traverse, gathering information and supplies. It seemed silly, somehow, to be out here in the traverse doing chores like this when they needed to be taking on the Collectors. But at least no more colonies had been hit, and Shepard knew that she needed everything in place before taking on the enemy. That was how she’d always lost against her brothers in their real-time strategy network games as a kid. Her brothers had the patience to wait until they had gathered enough resources and built full armies before coming across the map to take her out. Her approach had been to build a few military units and charge right in. Of course, she knew from practical experience that what the battle looked like in a simulation and in the field itself were two entirely different things. Still, as long as she was acting general in this little war, she knew she needed to be careful and much was riding on her decisions to have her impulsive ways lead the team wrong now.

Shepard pulled her dog tags out from under shirt and ran her fingers over the raised text: K. Shepard, 4.11.2154, 349-598-606, Alliance N7. They had become something of a talisman to her, she realized. She wasn’t Alliance anymore, and that fact galled her, but the tags still made her feel a little more tied to her old life.

And she missed her old life. It wasn’t just Kaidan that she missed, she realized – it was that overall feeling of belonging. Even at her most lonely in the Alliance, she had felt that she was a part of something bigger than herself – that she had a cause to uphold, rules to follow – rules to hide behind. As a Spectre, making decisions about things that were clearly beyond her limited human understanding of the galaxy made her nervous. She had tried to hide that fact from the crew, and certainly from the brass. She often suspected that only Kaidan had noticed how much it bothered her.

She’d always been an idealist. She knew that. But it was easier to be an idealist with the Alliance backing her. As a Spectre, Shepard realized that the moral high ground was a luxury she had taken for granted. Making the hard choices on behalf of the Council was – hard. Most often, she had simply gone with what “felt” right at the time. Later, however, she would reflect that perhaps the right thing to do was the choice that she would lose sleep over, but which would make the galaxy safer in the end.

With Cerberus, however, Shepard felt completely at sea. She was out here in the traverse dealing with some of the roughest scum in the galaxy, and the people at her back were lost misfits – deadly in their own way, but clearly in need of guidance and not entirely trustworthy. And Shepard felt so lost herself, so unsure of who she was anymore, that it was difficult to put on a persona of leadership and walk about with that mask on. Inside the exterior of confidence that she projected to the crew, she was reaching for something, grasping at something. But what that something was, she hardly knew.

Shepard pressed the dog tags hard against her lips and frowned. She had killed a pack of mercs yesterday. They’d shot at her first, true; they’d set up a false distress beacon to lure her down to their base and she had defended herself. But one of the mercs had gone flying over her head, courtesy of her biotics, and she shot him point blank in the chest. He dropped at her feet like a doll, and the thought instantly went through her head that he might have had a family.

Right there, Shepard knew she was in trouble. She had never wondered much about the people she shot, but then, she’d never needed to think about things like that. With the Alliance, she had her orders and she followed them. If someone shot at her for following her orders, she shot back. That was how the universe worked: simple and clean. She supposed that in that way, she had been a lot like Garrus – idealistic, impulsive, and a little reckless. The difference between her and the turian, however, was that she respected the rules governing her actions. She was glad she had guidelines to follow to keep her in check, to keep her from shouldering the full weight of her actions.

And it was with that thought that Shepard realized something about herself that she simply didn’t like to admit. For all that she talked about choices and making her own decisions and leaps of faith, she’d more or less followed the Alliance blindly for years. The only time she had stepped outside of their rules was when she had made the decision to hijack the Normandy. Even there, she had done so on Anderson’s recommendation and done so in order to save lives. If ever there had been a reason to step outside of the law, she thought, that had been it. But she had still felt like the worst sort of traitor in the process.

Yet now, here she was, spending months of her time outside of the law. Being with Cerberus made her momentary mutiny look like some small speck against the huge betrayal of joining with terrorists. True, she was here because she didn’t have much choice: Cerberus had their hooks in her and the Collectors needed to be stopped. Shepard sighed and frowned. In some ways, this mission was like one very long run to Ilos – without Kaidan along to make the journey more pleasant.

Shepard frowned at the thought of Kaidan and let her dog tags drop. Thinking about him, about them , was a constant itch in the back of her mind. It wasn’t just that she missed him constantly – though of course, that was part of it. It was that she felt lost without Kaidan. He hadn’t just been her lover – he had been her best friend. He had been her voice of reason and the one person who stood up to her and called her on her bad decisions, assured her when she’d done the right thing, and endured her selfish moods. And somehow, he had done all that with the respect and courtesy of a subordinate officer trying desperately to toe the line in front of the rest of the crew. Shepard still didn’t know quite how he managed to do that and stay sane. If she’d been in his place, she would have gone crazy.

Though truly, Shepard thought, she had felt like she had been going crazy even back then. Kaidan had always been pulling back, always looking at her with that unspoken question in his eyes. She had never been quite sure what to say him when he looked at her like that. How was she supposed to answer a question that he never asked? How was she supposed to tell him that she loved him when he was always pulling away? And now he was gone – he had walked away and left her alone to her own means. She could manage without him, she told herself with a scowl. She had done so for years before Kaidan came along. She had led teams, accomplished missions, held off attacks all on her own and she was damn proud of herself for it. She could handle herself without him.

But still, she thought, sadly, she had managed on her own, but only as a soldier. As a person, a whole person, she’d been better off with a friend. While Kaidan had sometimes frustrated her, he had always drawn her out of her icy, selfish shell. Now Shepard felt now like she was crystallizing, loosing the warmth and flexibility and, hell, *humanity * that Kaidan had brought out in her. She certainly felt like she was loosing her sense of humor without him around. She knew she was pushing people aside to focus on her mission and her problems, but she didn’t really know how to break free of the machine that Cerberus was shaping her into.

Her lips curled into a rueful smile. Funny how working with a pro-human organization made her feel like a mere tool and only Kaidan had ever made her feel human. It was ironic, that.

Shepard took a gulp of cold coffee and went back to fingering her dog tags.

“What are you doing up here?”

Shepard started in surprise. She uncoiled from her slouched position and straightened into a more commander-like pose just as Joker stumbled up to the helm, blinking down at her in bleary-eyed confusion.

“You’re in my seat,” he said, frowning.

“It that how you talk to all your commanding officers?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s the first thing I said to Anderson,” Joker yawned.

Shepard laughed, her pensiveness fading slightly. “No wonder he was always pissed off when he talked to you.”

“Yeah, well,” Joker shrugged. “You gonna move?”

“I happen to be the commander,” she told him. “I can sit wherever the hell I want.”

“And I can drive the ship better than you,” he replied.

“I could have to keelhauled for insubordination,” she informed him.

“Outside of the ship?” Joker asked in mock fear, “Oh God no, because you’ve never tossed me out of the Normandy before and taken my place .” His joking expression hardened into something almost angry.

Shepard cocked her head to the side in surprise. “You really were pissed at me for dumping you in that escape pod, weren’t you, Joker?”

“I was,” he said, scowling. He scrubbed a hand over his face, then let it drop. “Never mind.”

“No,” Shepard said. “Speak your mind, Joker.”

The helmsman sighed and shrugged. “Hell, commander,” he said. “The Normandy was my arms and legs. It was like you’d made me an amputee and then you died on me.”

Shepard blinked at that rather stark image. “Geez,” she muttered. “Sorry, I guess. But next time don’t be an ass and get off the ship when I give the order. Then it won’t be a problem.”

“Yeah,” Joker muttered. “Okay, fine. Point taken. Look, I’m sorry. I’m just cranky in the mornings. Plus, EDI woke me up with something off of your play list. It was colony western. So that made me feel like shooting myself.”

Shepard laughed. “Do tell. Which song was it?”

“I don’t know,” Joker snapped. “I just know that I don’t want to hear it again.”

“Fair enough,” Shepard replied, standing and waving a hand at the helm. “Your seat, Joker.”

“Thanks,” he hauled himself into the chair. “So what are you doing up here anyway, commander? I know you like to get my insightful opinions on the Cerberus crew and all, but I didn’t think that you’d come up here to chat with EDI when you can just call her from anywhere in the ship.”

“Just passing time,” Shepard replied. “Tell me,” she said, lifting her chin at the holographic display, “do those search probes ever fall on a house or a factory or something? I mean, some of these planets are colonized.”

“Huh,” Joker asked, turning to look at the screen. “I never thought about that before. Do you know, EDI?”

“I calibrate the landing points for all probes based on scans of minerals and of existing structures,” EDI replied automatically. “We are at a distance from the planet where I can accurately launch a probe to an appropriate location.”

“Impressive,” Joker said, nodding. “Good thing you’re looking out for the little guy, EDI, since I sure as hell wouldn’t.”

Shepard just smiled. Joker was certainly getting used to the AI, in spite of his initial dislike of it. She wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing, but she was getting used to EDI, too. The ship had certainly saved her butt on numerous occasions.

“So,” Joker said, looking over his shoulder at Shepard. “What’s on the menu for today, commander? Taking out mercs? Helping one of these Cerberus kiddies reunite with their daddy or mommy or sister or brother or dog or something?”

Shepard chuckled and shook her head. “We’re just scanning our way through this system,” she said. “EDI’s long-range sensors noticed some quarian ships mining in the asteroid belt. I was going to check in with Tali once she’s up to see if she wants to stop and visit with the migrant fleet before we move on. I imagine they’ll be glad to see she’s well.”

“Yeah,” Joker said, rolling his eyes. “Check in with the quarians from a Cerberus ship. Great idea.”

Shepard gave wry smile. “Well, like I said, I’ll check with Tali first. Chambers said Tali wanted to see me about something anyhow.”

Joker nodded, then looked back at the helm. “Is it just me, commander,” he said lightly, “Or are we slowly making our way back to the Citadel?”

Shepard chuckled. “You noticed that, huh?” she asked.

“I am the helmsman,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, we’re going there eventually.”

“Emphasis on the ‘eventually’?” Joker asked.

Shepard realized she was pinching her dog tags between her thumb and forefinger. She let them drop to her chest. “The Council wants to keep me out in the traverse,” she said. “I’m not in a hurry to rush back to their welcoming arms.”

“So you’re sneaking back into Council space a system at a time?” Joker asked.

“Eventually I’m going to need to go there to talk to Anderson,” she replied.

“Why’s that?” Joker asked.

“I dunno,” she shrugged. “Before we hit the Omega 4 relay I want to…lay my cards on the table with him, I guess. If we come back from the mission – when we come back – I want to…” she trailed off and slanted a glance at the blue sphere that represented EDI’s constant presence on the ship.

“So I should be ready with the shotgun?” Joker quipped. “Who do you think is gonna come after us once we take out the Collectors? The Alliance or the Spectres?” He glanced at EDI’s sphere again. “Or someone a little closer to home?”

“If we make it back we need to be ready for anything,” Shepard said. “Let’s just get through the mission first, though.”

Joker nodded, then asked, “You think Alenko’s on the Citadel?” His voice was suspiciously casual.

Shepard made a face and then shrugged. “The thought has occurred to me, but I don’t know.”

“It’s a huge place,” Joker said. “You’d have trouble finding him even if he was there.”

“Yeah,” she murmured.

“Would Anderson…? Oh, hell,” Joker frowned and turned away.

“Would Anderson what, Joker?”

“He wouldn’t still keep you in the dark about where Kaidan – I mean, Alenko, is stationed now, right? If we went and tried to recruit Kaidan, then maybe…”

“Then maybe what, Joker?” Shepard raised an eyebrow at him.

“He’d join us?” Joker suggested.

“We’re still Cerberus,” she pointed out.

“Oh,” Joker frowned. “Right. I guess you tried that already.”

“I did,” Shepard said softly.

“But still…”

“No, Joker,” Shepard said with a shake of her head. “I think my first impulse was the right one: the less people who join Cerberus, the better.”

“They’re not all bad,” Joker told her.

Shepard said nothing.

“Come on,” Joker said. “I mean, they’re not like our old crew, but some of them are alright.”

“This crew is alright,” Shepard told him. “Getting to be alright, anyhow, but the rest of Cerberus…” She trailed off and glanced again at EDI. “Just be ready, Joker.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” he said, giving her a rather smart-assed salute. Shepard gave him a tight smile.

“Right, Joker,” she said. “I’ll see you later.”

“See ya, commander,” he said. Shepard nodded to him and headed back down the length of the bridge to the CIC. Joker waited until the commander was out of earshot before turning to the blue sphere beside his station.

“Is outgoing mail to Alenko still blocked, EDI?” he asked.

“I still have a standing order to intercept and forward all mail sent to…” EDI replied.

“Yeah, yeah,” Joker interrupted. “And you still don’t see any loopholes?”

“I do not, Mr. Moreau,” EDI replied. “As before, the Illusive Man’s orders are nearly impossible to circumvent.”

“Damn,” Joker said, turning back to the helm. “Well, keep trying, EDI. We’ll think of something.” His eyes narrowed and he muttered: “I have a few choice things to say to that guy if I get half a chance.”

“Understood, Mr. Moreau,” EDI politely replied.

“Thanks for backing me up on this, man,” Dean said, tugging nervously at the collar of his dress blues. Kaidan gave Dean a smile and slapped him on the back.

“You know she’s going to say ‘yes’,” he told his friend.

“Wish I had your confidence,” Dean muttered.

They reached the doors of the clinic and Dean stopped cold. Kaidan gave him a shove. “Go on,” he said.

“I should have called first,” Dean muttered. “Or…something. Shit. What if she doesn’t like the ring?”

“She’s going to love the ring,” Kaidan told him. In truth, he knew nothing about rings except that Dean had said the diamond-studded band of platinum had cost two month’s wages. The girl damn well better like the ring, Kaidan thought.

“Can you…?” Dean turned to him, pleadingly.

“What?” Kaidan laughed. “Ask her for you? Sorry, Dean, this is something you have to do yourself.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea,” Kaidan replied with a small smile.

Just then, the doors to the clinic slid open. The red-headed Dr. Michel walked out and nearly ran into them.

“Oh!” she said in surprise. “Hello there, Dean. And…”

“Commander Alenko, ma’am,” Kaidan reminded her.

“That’s right,” she smiled. “Are you here to pick up the girls?”

“Ah…” Kaidan looked to Dean just as Dean looked to him.

“They didn’t mention it. So I suppose this is a surprise?” Dr. Michel smiled. “I’m afraid they’re up to their elbows in preparing flu vaccines. ‘Tis the season, you know. Do you want me to tell them you’re here?”

“Yes, please,” Kaidan said just as Dean said, “No.”

“Yes,” Kaidan insisted. “But just…” he trailed off as Dr. Michel walked back into the clinic and the doors slid shut. “…Katie.” He finished. “Damn.”

“Okay, this was officially a bad idea,” Dean said.

“Calm down,” Kaidan told him. “You’re going to be fine.”

“I should have remembered the clinic was busy this week.”

“You’ll be fine,” Kaidan said again. “You’ll…”

“Dean?” Katie stepped through the doors of the clinic, frowning. She was wearing a tight doctor’s uniform, which clung to her short, curvy body. Dean looked down the length of her and seemed to go mute.

“Uh… Dean said, gaping like a fish. Kaidan elbowed him.

“Go on,” he hissed.

“Is something wrong?” Katie asked, concern filling her voice.

“I got discharged from the Alliance and I’m moving to Earth,” Dean informed her all in a rush.

“What?” Katie asked. Her large brown eyes widened, suddenly filling with tears. “You’re leaving ?”

“No!” Dean said, a little too loudly. “I mean, yes. I mean…” He looked helplessly at Kaidan. Kaidan waved his hands as if to say, “Don’t look at me .”

“I’m not leaving you ,” Dean said, turning back to her.

“But you just said…”

“Come with me,” Dean croaked. He sounded like his throat has seized up. “You don’t need to work here anymore.” Katie’s eyes narrowed. Kaidan felt like slapping his forehead. Dean had obviously stepped into some very dangerous waters by the look on Katie’s face.

“You want me to give up my *job * just because you decided to take off all of a sudden?” she asked, her voice a little steely now.

“God no,” Dean said, tugging again at his collar.

“Take her for a walk down the Ward,” Kaidan hissed at Dean. Hopefully, when Dean got going, he wouldn’t make quite such a bungle of this.

“Right,” Dean said. “Here, just, um…can we talk somewhere, Katie?”

“So what?” Katie snapped. “You just expect me to drop everything when you haven’t even…”

“Damn it, Katie,” Dean scowled. “I’m trying to propose to you.”

Katie stared at him for a second, her mouth dropping open. Then she suddenly, violently, burst into tears.

“Shit,” Dean muttered. He quickly wrapped his arms around her. She tried to push him away, but he just held her fast. A crowd began to form around them, looking on in concern. Dean looked to Kaidan in helpless confusion as Katie apparently changed her mind, buried her face against his chest and took large, gulping gasps of air every few seconds.

“Take the woman on a walk, Dean,” Kaidan said, nodding down the street. Dean said nothing, but quickly pulled Katie away around the corner and out of sight.

As soon as they were gone, Kaidan found that he was shaking with laughter. It wasn’t the worst proposal on record, he thought, but it had to be close. But just then, the doors to the clinic opened and Dr. Michel and Lisa walked out. Kaidan instantly sobered, his face falling into a frown.

“I found them!” Dr. Michel announced triumphantly. Lisa pressed her lips together and looked at Kaidan questioningly. Kaidan suddenly wished he hadn’t come to help Dean after all. He found himself nervously rubbing the back of his neck.

“Ah…hi,” he said, lamely.

“Hi,” Lisa said.

“Have a good night!” Dr. Michel said, waving at them both. “Don’t stay out too late,” she added with a wink.

Lisa waited until the doctor was out of sight before turning to Kaidan and folding her arms over her chest. “You could have called,” she said, accusingly.

“I was just trying to help Dean propose to Katie,” Kaidan said quickly.

“Propose?” Lisa blinked, letting her arms drop.

“Only your friend the doctor thought we were here for the both of you.” Kaidan added hastily.

“Propose?” Lisa said again.

“They went that way,” Kaidan said, pointing.

“He finally proposed?” Lisa asked.

“In a manner of speaking,” Kaidan hedged.

“Well,” Lisa said. She considered the floor, then looked up at him. “Good.”

“Yeah,” he replied.

Lisa glared at him. “So I assume that means you weren’t here for me?” she asked, archly.

“God no!” Kaidan said, holding his hands up quickly. “I mean…” he added when her eyes narrowed. “I just came as moral support for Dean.”

“Right,” she said tersely, her lips thinning. She turned to go.

“Lisa…” Kaidan began.

“Do you want to see me?” she asked, her green eyes glittering.

Kaidan had no idea how to answer that question. “No,” sounded rude and “yes,” was not entirely true.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” he said at last.

“Wrong answer,” she said, coldly. Raising an elegant black eyebrow, she flipped her dark hair over her shoulder and stomped away. Kaidan watched her go, feeling like a complete idiot.

“God almighty,” he muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Ash was right. I really don’t understand women.”