“This is Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, requesting permission to come aboard.”
Kaidan waited in the decontamination chamber, blinking each time the white laser washed over him. There was a pause, then:
“Permission granted. Welcome back, lieutenant.”
Kaidan felt his heart skip a beat and a small smile formed on his lips. He’d heard that voice less than forty-eight hours ago. At the time, however, it had been moaning his name.
Don’t think about that, he told himself sharply. That was then, this is now. You’re not off dufy anymore.
But maybe she’s thinking the same thing , his wayward mind suggested.
Kaidan took a deep breath as he hoisted his duffel bag onto his shoulder. If she was thinking that, he told himself, then likely she was also trying to banish such thinking from her mind. Shepard knew as well as he did that they needed to keep things professional. They’d talked at length about it before they’d gone their separate ways and taken different flights back to the Citadel.
The doors slid open before him and Kaidan stepped into the dark interior of the ship. He gazed fondly down the crew deck, smiling at the familiar faces there.
“Lieutenant,” one tech said, saluting. Kaidan nodded in return.
Kaidan chuckled as he heard Joker’s voice from the bridge. He knew he needed to get his gear stowed, but he figured he had a few minutes to chat. He walked up to the helm, set down his bag and sat in the empty seat beside the helmsman.
“How’s it going?” Joker asked, holding out a hand. Kaidan shook it as gently as he could.
“Good,” he said. “How’ve you been, Joker?”
“Alright,” Joker shrugged. “Glad to be back at work. Missed this girl something awful.” He nodded at the helm. “We got a few upgrades. Can’t wait to try them out.”
“You gonna warn me when you do?” Kaidan asked. “Give me time to get to an escape pod?”
“Hey,” Joker said. “It’s not like I’m going knock out the artificial gravity or something stupid like that. Don’t think I will, anyway.”
Kaidan chuckled. “Right,” he said.
“So where’d you go?” Joker asked suspiciously. “I didn’t see you around the Citadel at all.” He looked over his shoulder and jerked his head down the hallway behind them. “Did you…you know?” He raised his eyebrows suggestively.
“Did I what?” Kaidan knew perfectly well what Joker was hinting at, but wondered if the man would actually come out and say it. Kaidan supposed he should have known better, because Joker instantly asked:
“Did you and the commander finally do ‘The Deed’?”
“Damn it, Joker!” Kaidan hissed. “Keep your voice down.”
“Well, did you?”
“That’s none of your business,” Kaidan said, frowning.
“So is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?” Joker asked.
“That’s a ‘it’s none of your business’.”
“Seriously, Alenko?” Joker asked. “You’re not going to tell me what happened?”
“No, Joker,” Kaidan said. “I am not going to tell you what happened.”
“Really?” Joker asked, apparently unconvinced. “Come on, Alenko. If something like that had happened to me, I sure as hell would be bragging about it to anyone who would listen.”
“You would not,” Kaidan told him. “Not if you really cared about the woman.”
“Huh,” Joker said, considering that. “So something did happen, then?”
Kaidan rolled his eyes. “Drop it, okay?”
“How can you come back here and act like nothing happened if something happened? I mean, something did happen, right?”
“Joker,” Kaidan said, looking over his shoulder and speaking in a hushed tone, “If something happened, then I’m off the ship. Got it?”
“Oh,” Joker said, making a face. “Right.”
“Right,” Kaidan said, matching Joker’s tone. “So,” he said, speaking a little more loudly, “What did you do for leave, Joker?”
“Huh? Oh, nothing,” Joker shrugged. “Hung around in Flux most of the time. Watched aliens dance. Tried to figure out the difference between male and female elcor.”
“Really?” Kaidan asked. “Can you tell the difference?”
“Naw,” Joker shook his head. “But when I was buzzed I thought I could. Glad leave is over. I don’t like being off the ship. Makes me jumpy.”
“Joker,” Shepard’s voice came over the comm, making both men straighten a little in their seats. “Is the lieutenant there with you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Joker said. He slanted Kaidan an ‘are you in trouble?’ sort of look.
“Have him report to the comm room,,” Shepard said. The slight scratching sound on the comm told Kaidan that she’d logged off.
“Huh,” Joker said, looking slowly at Kaidan. “So I guess nothing happened after all.”
Kaidan gave Joker an enigmatic smile and stood.
“None of your business, Joker,” he said. He lifted his duffel onto his shoulder and walking away.
Kaidan chuckled to himself as he wandered down the command deck. The truth was, he thought, what had happened in the past few days was better than any shore leave he’d ever had before. Hell, that one migraine aside, it had been one of the best times of his life. And while he was still feeling uncertain about everything to come, he was seriously looking forward to another such vacation. He hoped the Alliance would be granting one soon.
Kaidan nodded at the greetings from the techs and other crew on duty as he walked along, then he stopped briefly to shake Navigator Presley’s hand. Everyone, it seemed, had benefited from the two week break – and from the honors they’d received from the Alliance before that. While the crew was going about their business as usual, Kaidan sensed a certain energy in the air, a kind of camaraderie and excitement that he hadn’t realized he’d missed until he stepped on board.
Kaidan continued on into the comm room, nodding briefly to the marine who saluted him at the door. Then the doors slid shut behind him and he saw he was alone in the room with Shepard. She sat at her usual seat, just to the right of the holographic display area, a datapad in one hand and a few more stacked neatly at her feet. He tensed then, suddenly unsure of how their on-duty reunion might play out.
Shepard looked up and smiled. “Hey,” she said, simply.
Kaidan let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding.
“Hey,” he replied.
“You can go put your things away first,” Shepard said, noticing his bag. “I just wanted to check in with you before the rest of the team arrives. We have a lot to do.”
“I have a minute,” Kaidan said.
“Commander?” Joker’s voice came over the comm. “Another one for you.”
“Engineer Adams,” another voice spoke, “and first engine tech Ruskev. Requesting permission to come aboard.”
“Permission granted,” Shepard replied, glancing briefly at the ceiling. “Have a seat,” she said, looking at Kaidan. He took his usual chair beside hers and set his bag at his feet. Shepard handed him a datapad and he looked it over.
“Geth attacks have all but stopped,” she told him. “That’s the good news. We’re to take some supplies to the new Alliance outpost on Watson and then continue on to the Armstrong Nebula.”
“That’s pretty far out in the traverse,” Kaidan said with a frown.
“Don’t I know it,” Shepard replied with a sigh.
“Commander?” Joker’s voice came over the comm. Shepard didn’t even look up as she said, “Here.”
“Doctor Liara T’Soni requests permission to come aboard,” a soft, polite voice said. “Um…Did I do that right?”
Shepard looked at Kaidan and grinned. He returned her smile.
“Hello?” Liara’s voice called again. “Was that alright?”
“Perfectly alright, Liara,” Shepard called back. “Permission granted. Stow your things and come meet Kai – Lieutenant Alenko and me in the comm room.”
“I…Yes, of course,” Liara said, sounding a little flustered on the other end of the comm. “Hello lieutenant. How are…” Her voice stopped short as Joker dropped the link.
Shepard shook her head. “Ah, Liara,” she chuckled. “Not exactly a marine, is she?”
“She can still hold her own in a fight,” Kaidan said.
“That she can,” Shepard agreed. “Shocked the hell of of me when we were on Noveria, I tell you what. Here I was thinking I’d have to assign you to keep an eye on her and then she broke out a biotic kick to rival one of yours.”
“Well, she is an asari,” Kaidan pointed out.
“Yeah, but to look at her…” Shepard shrugged. “Appearances can deceive, I guess. Okay,” she said, turning back to the datapad. “So supplies first and then the geth.”
“No assignments regarding the Reapers?” Kaidan asked. Shepard’s face fell and she shook her head.
“Don’t even get me started,” she muttered.
“That bad, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said. “This is where I pulled the Spectre card and told the Alliance that the minute I’m done with those geth I’m going to follow any and all leads that I can about the Reapers. They weren’t happy, but I don’t care. I am not going to table this search, Kaidan.”
“Lieutenant,” he corrected, giving her a small grin.
“Right,” she said, grimacing. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he told her, now wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.
“Okay,” she went on, “Anyhow, we need to find some way to bring the Reapers down - tech, a weapon, something, anything. I’m going to need your help in that search Kai - lieutenant.”
“What can I do?” he asked at once.
“As a Spectre I get access to all records about Protheans and other space-faring species that got wiped out,” Shepard told him. “It’s not much, but I’m hoping that it will lead us to another beacon or something might give us the intel we need. The clues are probably out there, but it’s going to take a lot of digging to make it all make sense.”
“Liara can help with some of that,” Kaidan suggested.
“That’s what I’m counting on,” Shepard nodded. “I’ll need you both to help me go through all those records and decide where to start looking.”
“I can compile all the relevant intel from the Alliance databases and then cross-reference the files with any other records you have access to,” Kaidan told her. “I’ll just tag and index the files so that we can update them easily and fill in the Council as we go along. Do you want me to prioritize the list of possible search sites in order of which ones are most likely to hold Reaper data or which sites are closest to Armstrong?”
He looked to Shepard for an answer, only to find her staring at him.
“I mean,” he said, confused by her expression, “I don’t know if it’s going to more efficient to go system by system to save on fuel or to jump around and save time…”
Kaidan broke off suddenly as Shepard leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“You are amazing,” she said, pulling back to gaze at him steadily.
“Ah,” Kaidan let out a breath and looked down at the floor. “Shepard… I mean, commander…”
“I know,” she said, raising her hands. “I know. Professional. But truly, Kaidan – lieutenant – you are the best.”
“Uh, thank you…ma’am.” Kaidan rubbed the back of his neck, then let his hand fall.
“I’ve seen you lead a team,” she went on, her eyes warm, “train squad members while in the field, rig a bomb, get covered in grease while fixing the electrical systems – which was incredibly sexy, by the way…” She gave him a sultry smile.
“But,” she added, “You can also file a report with the best of them and offer excellent advice.”
“You don’t need to flatter me, Shepard,” Kaidan said. He could feel himself beginning to blush.
“No,” she replied. “But I don’t say this often enough. In a purely professional capacity,” she emphasized the word by raising her eyebrow, “you are the best soldier I’ve ever met.” Kaidan opened his mouth to protest, but she held up a hand to stop him.
“Just take the compliment, Kaidan,” she said. “Since we’ve got to keep this all above board now that we’re back on duty, I’ve got to make sure that I take time to admire all of your…assets.” She looked him over slowly, “And not just the assets I’ve been admiring so far.”
Kaidan shook his head and laughed. “You’re going to drive me crazy, you know that?”
“Crazy in a professional way, right?” She winked at him.
“Most definitely,” Kaidan said, his gaze dropping to her lips. He smiled, lifting his eyes to hers, and Shepard smiled right back.
“Ah, commander,” a timid voice spoke from the doorway, “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
Shepard looked up to see Liara peeking nervously into the room.
“Ah, no,” Shepard said, shaking her head and pulling away from Kaidan. “Come join us. We were just talking about Prothean dig sites. We’re trying to decide where we’re most likely to find information about the Reapers. Think you can help us there?”
“Of course,” Liara said, brightening as she took the offered datapad. She scanned down the list, nodding at each entry. Kaidan thought Liara seemed to relax a little, given that this was a subject that she knew a great deal about.
“Good,” Shepard said. “We have a lot of ground to cover, but we’ve got access to the Council’s files this time. We’ve also got the best ship in the Alliance fleet and the best crew in the galaxy. We’ll find the information that we need to bring down the Reapers, and then we’ll…”
“Commander?” Joker called. Shepard glanced up, seemingly annoyed at the interruption. Kaidan stifled a grin.
“Yes?” she asked, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, Tali,” Shepard said. “Permission granted. We’re in the comm room.” She looked back down. “Where was I?”
“Giving another stirring speech?” Kaidan teased her. She narrowed her eyes at him.
“Watch it, lieutenant,” she said.
“Why do we have to ask you for permission to come onto the ship?” Liara wanted to know. “Why can’t we just ask Joker?”
“Tradition,” Shepard said as Kaidan answered, “Protocol.”
“Hmm…” Liara said. She turned her attention to the datapad.
“Commander?” Joker’s voice came over the comm again.
“Yes?” Shepard called.
“Rosamund and Talitha Draven,” a chirpy voice announced. “Permission to come aboard.”
“Granted,” Shepard called to the twins. “Welcome back.”
“Can’t you just make them wait at the door?” Liara wanted to know. “Have them all come in at once?”
“I wish I could,” Shepard said. “But it doesn’t work like that.”
“How many more are coming?” Kaidan asked.
Shepard sighed. “Only half the crew is here so far. Okay, so any ideas yet, Liara? Alenko?”
“The Leviathan of Dis,” Liara said, nodding to the datapad. “The Council has more information about it than I did.”
“Should I put that at the top of our list?” Kaidan asked Shepard.
“Sure,” she said, just as the doors to the comm room slid open.
“Hello commander,” Tali said brightly.
“Commander?” Joker’s voice came over the comm again, cutting off Shepard’s greeting to the quarian.
“A little chaotic today, isn’t it?” Kaidan asked, looking up at Shepard with humor dancing in his eyes.
Shepard just laughed and shook her head.
“A bit,” she said. “But it’s good to be home.”
“What the hell were you doing?” Garrus snapped, yanking Shepard into the shuttle.
Shepard pitched forward as the shuttle took off towards the sky. For a moment, she was smack against Garrus, her face smashed against the hard armor of his chest. Then she fell back against the bench opposite him. Garrus grasped at the railing behind him, then carefully found his seat and strapped himself in. Shepard found her harness and did the same.
“I didn’t expect to see you in here, Garrus,” she said, yanking off her helmet and running a hand thorough her hair. Her movement made her hair stand up all over the place. Garrus looked at the top of her head as if in a daze, then seemed to recover himself. His eyes narrowed.
“You are the most reckless person I’ve ever met!” he practically shouted at her.
“Nice to see you too, Garrus,” she said, frowning at his outburst and tucking her helmet under her arm. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping, though?”
“No,” he snapped. “ You should be sleeping. My day just started when Joker told me where you were. I came on the pickup shuttle right away. Damn it, Shepard! You can’t take risks like that.”
“Like what?” Shepard asked mildly. “This time I had armor on.”
“You were running around on a ship about to pitch off the edge of the cliff.” Garrus waving a hand at the window. “You’re lucky it didn’t…Oh, spirits,” he breathed.
Shepard looked out of the window just in time to see the wreck fall. From up here, the Estivanico looked like a broken toy toppling off of a table. The ship had felt much bigger when she was standing on it.
“Shit,” she muttered. “That was close.”
” Close ?” Garrus gaped at her. “You call that close ?”
“I got out in time,” she told him.
“I cannot believe you!” Garrus shouted at her in truth now. “How can you be so careless?”
“Last time I checked, Garrus, I was in command, not you.” Shepard’s voice went cold and she glared at him. “I appreciate your concern, but this was *my * call.”
Garrus stopped short at that, his mandibles flaring. He turned his head away, then looked back at her.
“You’re our captain,” he told her, obviously struggling for calm. “You can’t put yourself at risk by…by walking around on a ruin of a ship!” His voice rose to a near shout again.
“I’m an N7 and a marine,” Shepard replied evenly. “I’ve been doing this kind of thing since I enlisted.”
“You’re only human, Shepard,” Garrus said. “You don’t regenerate like a krogan, much as you seem to think that you can.”
“Regeneration doesn’t count in situations like that, anyway,” Shepard told him. “There it’s dexterity that counts, and I have that as much as any other human. It’s part of what gives us an edge.”
“This isn’t the first contact war, Shepard,” Garrus told her, frowning.
“No,” she replied. “It was a simple salvage mission and I was fine. If I can’t pull off something like that, Garrus, then I’ve got no chance against the Collectors.”
“You won’t be going up against the Collectors alone,” Garrus told her.
“No,” she said. “But this was still good practice.”
Garrus shook his head. “It was still a risk,” he said.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Shepard replied. She lifted her chin and added, “Look, Garrus, I know you turians like to put your captains in the back and send the pawns out in front. But in human history books, the generals who got the most done were the ones who were willing to ride out in front of the armies.”
“I’ve read your human histories,” Garrus said, folding his arms across his chest. “Not all human generals did that.”
“Yeah, well, I prefer the ones who did. Otherwise you get something like the charge of the light brigade.”
“A fucking mess,” she clarified. “Anyhow, I hear you, Garrus, but it’s still my call. And I managed it just fine. Besides,” she added, going for humor, “The only other person awake this morning was Grunt. If I’d sent him, he probably would have gone over the cliff in a rage.”
“Hmpf,” Garrus sniffed, obviously not believing her for a second.
Silence descended upon the small shuttle. Shepard looked out of the window, watching the clouds below them.
“Truthfully, Garrus,” Shepard said quietly, “I just needed to get out of the Normandy and be alone for a while.”
Garrus frowned at her. “Why?” he asked, arms folded over his chest.
“It’s just too…“She searched for the right word. “Clean.”
“Clean?” Garrus blinked at her. “The Normandy is too clean ?”
“No, that’s not it,” Shepard ran her hand through her hair again. “It’s too bright. Too many people. It’s just not…home.”
“It’s not the old Normandy, you mean.” Garrus said, snorting.
“Yeah,” she said, nodding and raising her gaze to his. “It’s not. Sometimes it feels like it is, but then it feels wrong. Sometimes I wish they hadn’t tried to copy the old ship and that they just built something entirely new.”
“That would take some getting used to,” Garrus said.
“Even as a replica it takes some getting used to,” Shepard replied.
Garrus frowned at her, his mandibles flaring. “You know,” he said at last, “I liked our old ship and our old crew, but this new one isn’t so bad.”
Shepard gave him a pointed look.
“Cerberus aside,” he added, raising his hands defensively, “But they’ve stayed out of your way for the most part. And you’ve recruited some really good operatives. Well, not that Krios…”
“What’s wrong with Thane?” Shepard wanted to know.
“He’s an assassin,” Garrus said, his voice dripping with distaste, “And a free-lancer at that.”
“You were something of a free-lance assassin, Garrus,” Shepard reminded him.
“It wasn’t even remotely the same!” Garrus protested.
“Okay,” she said, holding up a hand. “Fair enough.” She shrugged. “Regardless of the team’s abilities as individuals, Garrus, the truth is that they have no idea how to work together.”
“Well, that’s your job, isn’t it?” Garrus asked. “You’re supposed to lead them.”
Shepard snorted, then her expression grew thoughtful.
“Yeah,” she said. “I guess I am.”
“Huh,” she added, looking out of the window to the retreating surface of the planet below. “You know, I took it for granted that I could lead a team, but a lot of what I did was really just building on what the Alliance had accomplished. They had the rules, the regulations, the protocols. My Alliance crew already knew all those things - they knew their place. Adding a few good aliens like you and Liara, Tali and Wrex was pretty easy. It’s a hell of a lot harder to build a team when you’re starting completely from scratch.”
“Heh,” Garrus said, shaking his head. “Tell me about it.”
“How did you get your team to work together?” Shepard asked him. “I mean, they weren’t trained professionals.”
“Not when I got them, no,” Garrus replied. He shrugged. “I found out what they could do well and then I set them to it. After a few missions together, everything fell into place. Part of success is having the right people in the right place.”
“Yeah,” Shepard said. “That’s true enough.”
“You did the same with Saren,” Garrus told her.
“You’re not giving yourself enough credit, Shepard,” Garrus told her. “I was there.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Well, I guess it’s time to stop recruiting and start building up the team, because we have a hell of a mission ahead.”
“Any word from the Illusive Man?” Garrus asked.
“Nothing new,” she replied.
The two of them fell into silence as the shuttle punched through the pink and gold atmosphere and out into the blackness of space.
“So,” Garrus said after a minute, “I, ah, I had something I wanted to ask you about, Shepard. If you have the time.”
Shepard looked around the empty shuttle. “I don’t think I’m busy at the moment, no,” she said, smiling wryly.
“Right,” Garrus said, coughing a little. “Well, ah…I wanted to know… That is…”
He coughed again. Shepard just raised her eyebrows.
“Are we headed to the Citadel?” he asked in a rush.
“Eventually,” Shepard replied, her brow furrowing. “Why?”
“I have some business there,” Garrus said.
“Heh,” she said, shaking her head. “You and Thane both.”
“Thane?” Garrus scowled. “What does Thane want?”
“That’s his business,” Shepard said. “What do you want, Garrus?”
“Well,” Garrus said slowly, “it seems that I have a chance to repay an old debt.”