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Natural Fissures

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The screams echoed around him. The sound of dragging bodies, heavy breathing, scrambling and crying as the futility set in. The white and black uniforms were stark in their absence, his crew gone, taken. Moving toward the cockpit, the chairs empty on either side, the sounds of pressure seals failing. The cold of space creeping in as he banged on the door.

“Joker! Get out of there!”

An indistinct response. A scream that climbed in pitch until it hurt his ears. There were no Banshees on the Normandy.

“Commander, hurry, we can’t wait much longer!”

Joker’s voice from behind him – he must have made it to the escape pod after all. Turning back, the CIC stretched before him. He ran toward the elevator, the galaxy map suddenly behind him.

The screams were back, but different. Liara’s shriek morphing into a high-pitched wail, echoing through the ship. Shouts of surprise from James, then gunfire. Other voices, all around him as he stumbled forward into the cargo bay. A gaping hole in the side of the Normandy, angry red light streaming in from outside.

Lurching forward, he stared out at the broken ships that blocked out the stars. Turian, Human, Geth. A resounding bass thrum as the red light changed, a child’s laugh, the Citadel surrounded by hulking black shadows.

“Shepard!”

He spun, catching his reflection on the side of the Hammerhead. Red eyes, red like the light from outside, tracing down his cheeks. He opened his mouth and the red light spilled out, the low screech of a Husk escaping as he lifted the gun that was now his arm. The hull cracked as he focused on Joker, reaching for him inside that escape pod, screaming –

John jerked as the datapad hit the deck. Blue light filled his vision, replacing the red that had been there. A deep, gasping breath as he looked around. Bubbles from the fish tank, the Normandy’s hum, the temperature a comfortable cool.

Collapsing back into his chair, John exhaled. He ran a hand over his face, muttering to himself in reassurance. “Joker’s fine. They’re all fine.” He ignored the slight tremble in his hand as it dropped back to the arm of the chair.

The last week had been running from Cerberus base to Cerberus abduction, and he’d gotten so behind on the mundanities of command. He’d been determined to get through at least a dozen reports tonight; instead, he’d fallen asleep at his desk instead of in their bed.

He could see a shadow of his reflection on the glass cases that held the model ships Tali had such fun building. The Geth dreadnought, the Alliance cruiser, the Turian single-pilot flyer. The lights of the fish tank were reflecting oddly off them tonight, highlighting orange marks he hadn’t noticed before. Leaning forward, John froze when the marks moved.

Not marks. The reflection was from him.

John reached up to feel his chin. The scar there had never gone away, not since he’d woken up in that Cerberus lab. As he ran his fingers over it, he wondered again why the skin didn’t feel more disturbed. Why it didn’t feel like a wound or a proper scar. He wondered yet again what upgrades he didn’t know about. Miranda swore they’d brought him back as close to John Shepard as possible, but it wasn’t like The Illusive Man to waste an opportunity. Why not better memory? Aim and accuracy? A little more ruthless and efficient? Less inclined to crack under pressure?

And John could feel the cracks. Thin ones from forgetting to swing by for lunch with his friends. Fissures where pressure built as he faked his way through yet another encouraging interview. Chasms as he marched off to answer Hackett’s call, failing yet again to have new information or a spark of hope.

He didn’t know how the others kept going - the reports and the vid-calls and the politicians and it never stopped. Victus, for all his stoic concern, had taken to the job of Primarch without more than a moment’s hesitation. How Wrex had come to be the head of Clan Urdnot, let alone leader of the Krogan, had never been discussed. Anderson stayed on Earth without a second thought, ordering his best chance at surviving the next week away with confidence and certainty.

John had enlisted of his own freewill. It seemed the best way out of the Reds. It was naïve to think he’d be able to keep people safe in a life that was inherently dangerous. The boss had tolerated John’s need to look after the young ones and the working girls for far longer than anyone expected. It was borderline insubordination, depriving the Reds of that kind of income, changing the dynamics by preventing the traditional hazing, risking split loyalties of new members. And then things had come to a head and he’d needed a way out, no matter who he left behind. They’d told him to go, told him he was worth saving, and knowing he agreed with them was worse than imagining the things that were about to change without him there to hold the line.

It hadn’t mattered before. A soldier, good at his job, who rose through the ranks because he didn’t complain when things got hard. Taking the extra training because it meant he could do more, do better. Meant he could keep more people safe. Making the hard choices and learning to sleep on his guilt instead of turning to drink or company every time they had shore leave. And then he’d died. Frightened as he’d been, gasping for Joker to “shut the damn door”, it had just been the end. Everyone dies.

But he hadn’t. Somehow, he hadn’t. Four billion credits just to get him to feasible, Cerberus hadn’t even blinked as they dragged him back to life. Supposedly. If anything The Illusive Man ever did could be trusted. Because the Great Commander Shepard was a bloody icon, xenophobic claims and all, who could bring anyone together, get anything done. Who reappeared after two years, like the fabled King Arthur driving back the darkness at the edge of his realm. Science must have been able to explain what happened – Miranda wasn’t the sort to tolerate anything less – but nothing explained how there was anything left to save. People are more than flesh and electrical impulses. Suffocating, freezing, plummeting through an atmosphere – any one of those things was enough to kill a man. And yet…

The pad had powered down long ago. John couldn’t remember what he’d been reading before this morbid train of thoughts got the better of him. It’d been a long few days – a long, miserable few years in some ways – and it was just getting to him. He’d been pushing himself to stay awake until Kaidan’s shift was done, but it wasn’t working. He’d just have to risk the nightmares tonight.

Pushing back from the desk, John dropped the datapad back onto the stack of things he’d need to read over and sign the next day. His head was starting to hurt from exhaustion, a nasty pulling around his eyes as he stood and made his way to the bathroom. He debated a shower, but he really was too tired; he’d brush his teeth and deal with the rest of it tomorrow.

Grabbing his bag of toiletries from the shelves, John stepped in front of the sink. The lights were still dimmed from Kaidan’s migraine yesterday and it threw his scars into stark relief. Cutting along his chin, bisecting one check bone, perched on his right eyebrow. They glowed orange, brighter than he’d seen since he’d surrendered himself to the Alliance.

John remembered how some of the soldiers had tried to be polite; others had stared openly at his face and arms while he was handcuffed. He remembered the Alliance brass asking question after question, and he hadn’t known what to say. He remembered being introduced to Lieutenant James Vega, the look of disgust on the younger man’s face at the inhumanity those scars represented.

John couldn’t fault him. He’d asked Chakwas more than once why his scars weren’t healing. Skin healed; it was a unique element to human physiology that it healed as well as it did. And yet John’s scars not only persisted, they changed based on his mood. Like the worst possible evolution of Tina’s mood ring obsession or Anna’s compulsive need to dye her hair. Maybe the universe thought he’d forgotten about his choices, gotten too comfortable with his guilt. Easier to behave with your sins woven into your skin.

Setting his bag on the counter, John reached for his shirt collar, pulling it slowly, reluctantly, over his head. The scars were everywhere, and they lit up his skin like something was peering through. Illogically placed lines that appeared at random down his arms. The one on his left shoulder had reopened in the last few days. John’s eyes tracked down to his chest, choking at the reminder. Two scars started at his shoulders, tracking down to meet in the center of his chest before continuing south. Autopsies hadn’t changed over the centuries; even Cerberus didn’t think the technique needed improvement. The evidence was carved into John’s chest, glowing faintly.

No reason to fake scars like that. No reason to put those marks on a living person. Those were marks worn only by the dead. And the dead should stay dead.

Head dropping to the sink, John retched. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten, for which he was suddenly grateful. Four billion credits was enough wasted supplies on his unnatural state; no need to cost the Alliance precious resources on a walking corpse. If he counted as even that. He didn’t count as dead anymore – he’d seen the paperwork that reinstated him among the living. But he bore the marks of death, angry red light bleeding out from the proof that he wasn’t supposed to be here.

But if he wasn’t dead and he wasn’t alive, then how the hell could he be John Shepard? John Shepard was a person, even with all the lies, who did things and knew people and made choices. But a person was alive, by the very definition of things, and living things healed. It wasn’t a scar if it was in the process of healing, it was just a wound. And since it wasn’t a wound, and it wasn’t healing, what did that make these things?

“Seams.” The edges of something pieced together to cover up what was inside. The red light was showing through where the pieces didn’t quite fit or, according to Chakwas, he’d managed to apply too much pressure. Been too rough, too callous, too inhuman to keep the cover intact. He bit back on the hysterical sound clogging his throat. A cover, not just to fool the galaxy, but to fool him.

John looked up at his reflection. The light was brighter now, more visible in the half darkness of the room. What had Cerberus been thinking? Was this half-finished thing really worth billions of credits? They couldn’t find any other way to get what they wanted from the Collectors? And they were just going to let this thing wander away from them.

A tool. An agent with a singular purpose.

Gripping the edge of the counter, he tried to breathe. The Illusive Man might have a dozen reasons for wanting Commander Shepard back and in his debt, but he’d have no use for John. And either option was too valuable a resource to just let go. So why let John surrender to the Alliance? Why not have Miranda shoot him on the way out of the Collector base, crash the SR2 with a convenient lack of survivors?

The Alliance thought they had their hero back. This walking science project that talked and walked but wasn’t quite right. Anderson trusted him. Hackett put him in charge. The Illusive Man didn’t need to fight the Alliance, because at some point they’d realize they’d placed all their bets on some thing that couldn’t possibly be trusted. Couldn’t possibly be human.

Pushing himself back up, John studied the face in the mirror. He didn’t feel like a thing, he felt like himself. Not that Cerberus would program a replacement that thought it wasn’t Shepard, but how much could they really do? Could they fool Chakwas’ scans? Give him patience for Joker’s nonsense? Hide from Liara’s informants? Could Miranda keep up the lie for this long? Wouldn’t Mordin have noticed?

Whatever he was, he was all they had. He’d have to be enough. John rubbed at his shoulder, the old nervous habit a small comfort. As he tried to relax, he let his hand drift down, past the marks on his chest. Marks that would be hidden by his shirt, whatever they might mean.

Except when they weren’t. Except when he slept without a shirt because he only wore the sleep pants he’d requisitioned. Except when Kaidan came upstairs, tired but somehow always optimistic about the grand scheme. When the man he loved gave him that slow grin and reached out to touch –

John jerked, knocking his bag to the ground, the clacks and pings of items hitting the floor pulling his gaze downwards. He stared at, not really seeing anything. With an effort, he focused, gaze catching on his old pocketknife.

Obsolete in the Alliance, it had been a gift from Ryan. John had pulled his ass out of half a dozen messes before the kid decided he’d rather run for the Reds than try for thug status. It hadn’t saved him, in the end, and even if it had, John’s leaving had screwed over a lot of people.

Slowly, he bent over and picked it up. It wasn’t big, but it was sharp. The cloudy green handle looked black in the half-light, the grey metal casing standing out more than usual. A crack ran down one side of it, from when John had dropped the thing off the roof of a two-story building in an attempt to stop a fight from escalating. The manufacturer’s logo had long since worn off - too many nights running his thumb over the folded knife in his pocket. John pulled open the blade, remembering.

He’d been so damn happy when Kaidan kissed him. Crawled into his lap, ignoring John’s babbled attempts to explain why working together didn’t have to change just because Kaidan knew how he felt, and silenced him the best possible way. He’d loved everything since, all of it, even the missteps as they learned how to do this together.

He couldn’t face Kaidan again until he knew what Cerberus had brought back. If Kaidan had been fucking a monster, he had the right to know. To be disgusted. To leave –

Gripping his chin, John pulled on his cheek, forcing the scar open just a bit wider. The blade slid along the edge, not quite catching under the skin. Holding the point at his cheek bone, he took a deep breath, and shoved.

The pain was horrendous. He remembered now how much this had hurt the last time he’d tried, ripping away at his face with his bare hands. This was worse, because he wasn’t just scratching the surface.

But pain meant nothing. EDI had receptors that could simulate all sorts of things. He didn’t really know what his implants did - maybe nothing he felt was real.

Keeping the skin pulled tight, he wiggled the knife back and forth, trying to widen the opening he’d made. It didn’t seem to be doing much. With a gasp, he tilted the blade, pushing down to slide underneath the skin, prying it loose from the muscles below.

With a scream, he tore the blade out. John clutched at his cheek, gasping and whining at the sensations. This wasn’t going to work. This was stupid. Tali would be so angry when she found out he’d tried, again.

Because he’d worried about this before. And they’d talked him down. How had they talked him down?

Looking at the mirror, John watched the blood trailing down his cheek, a line of it following his hand to his wrist instead. Wide blue eyes looked over the arm, afraid. Under the arm, where the blood dripped, the scars looked worse than before. That horrid Y that meant they’d opened him and up done…what?

Nothing he had in his room would get through his chest muscles. He couldn’t risk damaging his hands, so it would have to be his face this time, too. If he wanted to be sure what was under all this effort to look human, he’d just have to jam it in there and pry the damn things open.

“They’re seams,” he whispered, eyes wide and watching. Taking hold of his face once more, John traced the scar. “Time to see what you’re made of.”


It was later than Kaidan wanted to think about. Things had been so hectic after Rannoch – the uptick in missions from Hackett, Cerberus pushing attacks on civilians, unnerving rumors about Sanctuary starting to gather weight. Everyone had been pulling longer shifts, trying to get a handle on things without losing their minds. Finally, Chakwas had all but ordered Shepard to find a way to return the shift schedule to normal. “War or not, people need rest, Commander.” Shepard had agreed, even as he continued to push himself harder still.

Not that Kaidan blamed him. John’s nightmares had been getting worse, keeping the man from even attempting sleep unless Kaidan was there. Wrapping himself around the biotic didn’t stop them, but John woke sooner and with less panic in his face with Kaidan in his arms. And it’s not like it was uncomfortable, being held like he mattered by the man he loved. Kaidan smiled to himself as the elevator doors opened to reveal the Cabin level.

He’d started on the uniform buckles before the cabin door had even opened. Catching the heel of one boot with the toe of the other, he wiggled his foot to loosen its grip. Kaidan huffed as he lost his balance, catching himself with a hand on the glass, spooking a bright yellow fish. He looked around, faintly embarrassed.

“John?”

Kaidan’s smile dimmed at the silence. He stepped down the stairs and leaned down to pull the boot off entirely. The bed was empty.

“John?”

The smile was gone now, replaced by confusion. Shepard was off duty; even staying up to work on the endless pile of reports, there was no way the man was still working. One hand caught at his collar, loosening the shirt further.

“John.”

Kaidan paused. He’d heard something. Kaidan turned and walked back up the stairs, gait uneven with just one boot on. He huffed, pausing to yank the offending article off his foot, tossing it against the wall with the fish tank.

“Hey, you in there?”

Kaidan palmed the door open, revived grin dying as soon as it appeared.

“John!”

Three steps had him at Shepard’s side. Kaidan dropped to his knees, hands fluttering like they hadn’t since medic training. John’s face was a mess. He was bleeding freely from where the skin had been…dislodged. He didn’t seem to have registered Kaidan’s arrival, staring blankly ahead. Running a hand over Shepard’s trembling arm, Kaidan’s eyes stopped on the small knife clutched in his fist.

Gently, Kaidan pried John’s hand open, the knife sliding through his fingers to clatter on the floor. Kaidan knocked it away before turning to John’s face. The younger man didn’t resist as Kaidan turned his head, eyes still unfocused. Kaidan tried to process the damage, to think about this like the triage situation it was. The blood had run down Shepard’s face, staining his neck and pooling at his collar bone. There was some on his hands and arms, but he didn’t see any accompanying cuts.

“John, what happened?” Looking back at the man, Kaidan tried again. “Hey, answer me.” His voice was starting to shake. “John!”

A slow blink, like he’d forgotten how. John pulled a deep breath, gaze trailing over Kaidan’s face until he found worried, brown eyes. Another slow blink. Another breath. “Kaidan.”

“What happened?” He couldn’t keep the pleading out of his voice. His chest felt tight as his focus left him, fear and panic crowding each other out as he tried to process the injuries. The medic in him was losing the fight to stay in control. “Talk to me.”

John lifted a hand, reaching to touch Kaidan’s face, then stopped short. Kaidan stared at the hand inches in front of him. It was covered in blood, dark red caked under John’s nails. Like he’d been scratching or digging. It took an effort of will to look back at John’s face. The gaze was still absent, but John recognized him now.

“John…”

“You should go.”

Kaidan flinched, pulling his hands away. “Go?”

“I had to know.” John’s voice was soft, distracted. He looked down at his knees, hand dropping to his chest. The dimmed light in the bathroom deepened the shadows, highlighting the angry glowing lines that marked John’s skin. Slowly, almost soothingly, John smeared blood over one of the lines that bisected the skin near his elbow.

“Know what?” Kaidan’s voice was shaking now. “What could you possibly…how could you…did you do this?” It was a stupid question – he’d taken the knife from John himself.

“I needed to know what Cerberus built. If I’m really me.” John was absently running his hand over his chest now. “Had to know what Cerberus brought back.”

“They brought back you!” Kaidan stopped himself, forcing down the urge to raise his voice. Deep breaths through the mouth, don’t focus on the smell of iron. Keep the person talking, reassure them no matter the severity of the situation. “John, they saved you.”

John was shaking his head. “No.” His head lolled to one side, the ghost of a smile amidst the grisly features. As if he felt sorry for someone. “They didn’t. They tried, but they weren’t that good. The seams won’t stay closed.” His fingers trailed through the still wet blood collected at his collarbone, smearing it downward as John ran his hand back across his chest.

“What seams?” Reaching out, Kaidan felt his gorge rise as he prodded the flaps of skin folded back on John’s cheek. John’s hand was still moving, tracing one of the ugly glowing lines that had worsened with the stress of the war.

“Marks of the dead,” John murmured.

He dropped his hand to his lap and Kaidan focused on the shape of the scar. Reaching out to touch the glowing Y, Kaidan froze at the sight of his own hand, now red from his attempts to help. He rubbed his fingers together, smearing John’s blood further.

A dark hand caught his own by the wrist. John was looking at him with unfocused concern. “Kaidan, what’s wrong?”

Swallowing hard, Kaidan forced the words out as John folded his hands around Kaidan’s shaking one. “EDI, get Chakwas up here.” The sob escaped, masquerading as a hiccup, and John looked at him with wide, worried blue eyes. “Now.”

Chapter Text

“Ow.” Chakwas jerked awake, grabbing at her wrist. It stung, as if from an electric shock. The light from her omni-tool had faded, leaving her to blink at the afterimage. “What -“

“Apologies, Doctor. I did not want to wake the crew.” EDI’s voice was soft, coming from the speaker in her omni-tool. “Your presence is required in Shepard’s cabin immediately.”

Chakwas sat up, pushing past sleep like they’d drilled at medical school. Middle of the night in the CO’s quarters - she doubted the boys suddenly wanted to review the ways and means of safe sex. Chakwas slipped on her boots and grabbed the first shirt she could reach. “What happened?”

“It would be better to discuss this outside of the crew quarters.”

Checking around the dim room, it looked like everyone else was still sleeping. Soft footsteps took her to the door, the hiss sounding loud at this late hour. Peeking outside, she checked for anyone in the hall before stepping out and walking quickly toward the MedBay.

Shoving her hair behind her ears, Chakwas reviewed the layout of the Captain’s Cabin as her legs ate up the distance. Not likely to be anything ship related - structural damage would bring louder alarms and several engineers. If Shepard had fallen and hit his head, likely EDI would just have woken Kaidan. Bad enough to need her, but somebody wanted it kept quiet. “EDI, what happened?”

“Shepard is injured. Major Alenko is with him, but your assistance is requested.”

“How did Shepard get injured in his cabin?” EDI didn’t respond. The MedBay doors hissed open, the lights brightening as Chakwas walked in. “EDI, I won’t be much help if I don’t know -”

“Shepard injured himself. Facial abrasions and corresponding blood loss.” EDI’s voice carried the same calm, cool tone it always did. No pesky organic limbic system to cloud the issue. “It seems he did not restrict himself to the use of his hands this time.”

Chakwas forced a deep breath, holding it as she counted backwards. “You said Major Alenko is with him?”

“Correct.”

The basic medkit would have most of what she needed. Setting the bag on her desk, Chakwas grabbed a pack of additional sedatives from the cabinet – Cerberus didn’t build their soldiers to go down easy. She ran her hand over the contents of the bag, reviewing the various military upgrades unique to Shepard, double-checking that she could counter them if needed. “Has this happened before? Since he handed himself over to the Alliance, I mean?”

“Unknown. Since Shepard has been back on the SR2, there has been no indication of a repeat incident. I can check Alliance medical records or ask Lt. Vega.”

“Don’t wake the lieutenant. There would be a record if Commander Shepard had tried such a thing in Alliance custody.” Supplies gathered, Chakwas set the lights to dim as she left. “What’s Kaidan doing?”

If she hadn’t worked with the AI, she might have missed the concern at the edges of that professional voice. “The Major is assessing the damage, but he appears to be struggling with the situation.”

“Not surprising,” Chakwas murmured.

The elevator was empty, just her and the gentle hum as it moved upward.

Readjusting her hold on the medkit, Chakwas stepped out, passing through the antechamber and the already open door.

“EDI?”

“Bathroom.”

Walking past the desk, Chakwas paused in the doorway. Alenko was kneeling beside Shepard, face pale as he focused on trying to do something with Shepard’s damaged face. The Commander was muttering something, tapping Alenko’s wrist as if to make a point.

“Gentlemen.” They both looked up. Kaidan’s breath hitched as he relinquished his medical authority. Shepard stared at her, recognition taking a moment, then refocused on the man beside him. “We couldn’t have done this at a civilized time of day?”

“Doc, Kaidan’s bleeding.” Shepard’s hand wrapped around the wrist he’d been tapping. “It looks bad.”

Chakwas gave Alenko a severe look. “Major, are you injured?”

“No, ma’am. It’s not my blood.” Formal, but not contained. Poor man must be aching on the inside, even as his voice shook so his hands wouldn’t. She turned back to Shepard.

“I’ll look at Kaidan after I check on you, Commander.”

“But –“

“You are more critically injured, therefore you take precedence.”

Shepard looked unhappy but held his tongue. He turned to Kaidan, raising a hand coated in dried blood to brush his cheek. His voice was calm, reassuring. “Breathe, Major. You’ll be alright.”

Alenko nodded, focusing on maintaining his hold on the Commander’s cheek and jaw.

Stepping into the bathroom, Chakwas knelt next to Shepard’s leg. “Major, I need to see the extent of the injuries.” When the hands didn’t move, Chakwas softened her tone. “Kaidan, I can’t heal what I can’t see.”

Kaidan slowly pulled his hands away. Flaps of skin clung to his left hand where the blood had already started to clot, popping loose as he moved. Shepard winced, eyes scrunched shut at the moment of pain.

“Kaidan, go wash your hands. Fetch clean clothes for you and Shepard.”

Having been relieved of his medical duty, it took Kaidan a moment to reorient. Alenko stood, moving to the sink. Something rattled across the floor where his foot knocked it out of the way.

Chakwas focused back on Shepard, who was watching her intently.

“You’re going to yell at me.” He sounded almost lucid.

“No,” Chakwas replied, tone professional as she set her bag on the floor, “I’m going to leave that to Tali.”

Shepard winced, again. “Do we have to tell Tali?”

“Yes, we do.” Chakwas pulled up her omni-tool and set it to scan. “Close your eyes so I can see what you’ve done.”

Shepard closed his eyes. The orange light played over his face, making things look even worse. For all the blood, he’d stayed on his face this time as well and head wounds were notorious for excessive bleeding. The blood trailed down Shepard’s neck and onto his chest. There were angry red welts, she presumed from his nails, that radiated out from the awful Y scar. No real damage to his torso, though.

Shepard’s face, though. Last time he’d only succeeded in cosmetic damage, scratching at the scars with blunt nails and emotional distress. This time, it looked like Shepard had found something to help him – probably whatever Alenko had kicked on his way to the sink.

Ever since he’d woken up, Shepard had had that line on his chin. Chakwas didn’t know why that scar seemed determined to stay visible, but it always was. Shepard had again succeeded in getting something jammed in there, then pulled upward as he worked along the scar. She could see a spot of white where he’d reached bone. It didn’t seem wise to point out it would have been more productive to pull down on that particular bit of skin.

Above his right eye were shallow cuts, as though Shepard couldn’t get the tool into the scar properly and decided to damage the skin however he could. His left eye looked out of place – a patch of undamaged skin on a face mostly old blood brown. But his right cheek had streaks of the dried blood on it, roughly shaped like fingers.

His left cheek had taken the worst of it. Whatever Shepard had used, it looked like he’d started by stabbing, jamming it in as deep as it would go. Having achieved that, there was mercifully little damaged muscle - Shepard had been pulling at the skin itself. Once he’d gotten it loose, she guessed he’d switched to using his hands. The skin had torn unevenly where he’d yanked at it, leaving strips of flesh hanging loose.

“Open your eyes and show me your hands.” Shepard did, holding them out palms up. Chakwas ran her fingers over them, rotating the hands to make sure. “I don’t see any damage. Just your face, then, plus these scratches on your chest?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t you ‘ma’am’ me, John Shepard. You were not to do this, again. What did you hope to achieve?”

The sound of rushing water stopped.

“I had to know.”

“You said that last time.”

“Last time?” Kaidan was staring at Chakwas, hand resetting on the handle where he’d shut off the water. His gaze moved to Shepard, sweeping over the man, searching for older marks. She could see the beginning of guilt take hold, weaving itself into Kaidan’s thoughts as he stood, frozen at the implications. “Last time?” he repeated.

“Cerberus was hard on everyone,” Chakwas said, giving Shepard a look. “Some people had unhealthy ways of coping with that stress.”

“I died.”

“I was there.” Her tone was clipped, cold. “The irony that you were the only one not at your funeral has not been overlooked.”

Shepard had the nerve to look apologetic. “But that’s the point – I should have been there. Should have been in that box, or whatever the Alliance does for their retrievable dead.”

“Don’t say that.” Kaidan’s voice was quiet. Chakwas was reminded of a young lieutenant, military stance faltering as Captain Anderson relayed the news, voice just as quiet. The same young lieutenant who stood next to a grave marker, clutching a folded rectangle of fabric to his chest, silent as hope died.

“But Liara gave me to Cerberus, and they did something. Pulled me back.”

Chakwas was digging through the medkit for antiseptic, the cold of the hard floor making her knees ache. “This next bit will hurt.”

“You can’t bring back the dead, Doc, so what am I?” Shepard prodded at a small glowing patch on his arm. “Living people heal, right? Scars heal— that’s what scars are— proof of healing.”

Chakwas popped the top off the little bottle. “Close your eyes— I’m going to spray this on your face to stop infection.”

Shepard closed his eyes, again. “But the scars aren’t healing. Sometimes, they get worse.”

“Kaidan, those clean clothes?” She caught the uncoordinated movement in her peripheral vision. Chakwas kept her attention forward as Kaidan stumbled out of the room, pretending she couldn’t hear the caught breath as he passed. “Shepard, close your mouth.”

The sounds of drawers being opened almost drowned out the hiss of the spray. Shepard did his best not to wiggle, nose scrunched up with the effort. She’d never before hoped medicine would hurt.

“You can open your eyes now.”

“Please don’t tell Tali. She’ll be so upset.”

“You should have thought of her before you tried to peel off your face.” Dropping the used spray back in the medkit, she retrieved a package of sterile wipes. “I’m going to clean you up, try to get that blood off your face.”

“I wasn’t thinking about her. Kaidan doesn’t trust Cerberus.”

Chakwas snorted. “Few people do.”

Shepard nodded. “I need to know what I am, for me, but for him, too.”

She gripped Shepard’s chin to avoid touching the injured part of his jaw and started on his forehead with the wipes. “Did you talk to Kaidan about this?”

“No.” Shepard exhaled, focus slipping again. “It was…I was planning on brushing my teeth.”

“Let this be a lesson to you on the importance of sticking to a plan.” The words were angry, but she kept them quiet. “Damnit, Shepard, how could you?”

Shepard looked at her, long enough she thought maybe he hadn’t heard. “I love him.”

“A hell of a way to show it.”

Shepard pressed on. “I do. So much. And if I’m just some weird doll sewn back together and battery powered, I need to know. I have to…to do the right thing, and I can’t do that when I don’t have all the information.”

“A doll?” She could hear the disbelief in her own voice.

Shepard was nodding. “They don’t heal, so they can’t be scars. But they could be seams,” Shepard tapped the Y on his chest, “where the edges didn’t quite line up.”

“Those are surgical scars,” Chakwas said, as forcefully as she could. “They cracked your chest open to fix or replace parts because you fell through the damn atmosphere of a planet.” She’d seen the scans, read the files; she knew what Miranda Lawson had started with. Far more concerning than any organ transplant had been the missing limb, now bumping gently against her ankle.

Shepard nodded, again. “And then sewed me back up.”

“I sew people up, Shepard. That doesn’t change what they are.” Chakwas swiped down Shepard’s nose before moving onto his uninjured cheek.

“Scars also don’t glow.” Shepard grinned at her, voice sardonic. “I’m my own night light.”

Chakwas could hear footsteps behind her. “No talking. I need to clean this other cheek.”

This time there was squirming. Shepard jerked as she tried to clean the skin, but he’d done more damage than she’d thought. After catching the wipe on a piece of loose skin, Shepard yanked himself sideways, clutching a hand over his cheek. “Stop that.”

“I have to clean it.”

A pile of clothes dropped to the floor nearby. “Let her work, John.”

Shepard scowled up at Kaidan. “But it hurts.”

Kaidan sat. He looked small, the Major replaced by a distressed lover. “John, please.”

“You should probably call me Shepard.” Sitting back up and looking warily at Chakwas, Shepard huffed. “Pretty sure John died.”

“Stop it,” Kaidan snapped, “just stop it.” He ran a hand through his hair, breathing through his nose. “I never want to hear that, again. Not about you.”

“Major, I need -“

Kaidan ignored her, focused on Shepard. His voice broke as he continued. “You’re alive. You survived. You came back.” Kaidan pushed the heel of his hand against one eye, breath hitching. “Cerberus did one good thing. You came back.”

Chakwas waited, watching the two men in front of her. There wasn’t anything in her medkit for this.

Finally, Shepard leaned forward, touching Kaidan’s arm. “Come here.”

“Doc needs to finish with you.”

“Major, come here.” It was almost Shepard’s field voice. And then, softer, “please.”

Still looking down, Kaidan moved closer. Shepard tucked the biotic into his side, running his fingers through Kaidan’s hair.

“Stay with me, OK? Dr. Chakwas is great – she can finish with me no matter where you sit.”

Kaidan caught the hand that was on his shoulder, knees pulled up to his chest.

Shepard looked back at her. “No more wipes?”

“Just one more.”

It took the better part of a half hour to get Shepard’s face cleaned and patched up. He’d done his best to hold still while she worked on his chin, but again his cheek proved too much. Chakwas pulled the first pack of sedatives out, administering the standard dose in place of a painkiller. Shepard had made a face, gripping Kaidan’s hand tightly for a moment. But it worked, and the painstaking process of lining Shepard’s skin back up so it would heal properly began.

Medical bandages were designed to mimic the skin of the person wearing them, though they rarely managed it. Still, Shepard looked less like he’d lost a fight with a varren and more like he’d just fallen off the MAKO. As she wiped down the marks on his chest, Shepard’s head drooped onto Kaidan’s. The Major’s eyes were closed, but his breathing was even once more.

“That’s everything I can do tonight,” Chakwas said, collecting supplies back into the medkit. “Shepard, wash your hands and go straight to bed.”

Shepard’s voice was soft, slurred slightly from the drugs. “What about Kaidan?”

Kaidan needs you to go to bed, where he can keep an eye on you and get some rest himself.”

“You think that’s all he needs?” Shepard was blinking more often now, lids reluctant to rise.

“Sleep will help the both of you.” Chakwas stood. She held out her hands to Shepard. “Up, Commander.”

Kaidan shrugged off Shepard’s arm and stood. Grabbing one arm while Chakwas took the other, they both pulled Shepard to his feet.

“You need to wash your hands, Commander. They’re filthy.”

Shepard nodded, yawning. He walked over to the sink, knocking the handle up with his knuckles as the water turned crimson under his other hand. Kaidan watched him for a moment before turning to the pile of clothing. Muscle memory took over as Alenko stripped out of his uniform, fetching a clean t-shirt from the floor. He stood there, holding a pair of pants Chakwas assumed were Shepard’s. “John?”

“Hm?” Shepard was playing with the water, running clear now.

“Bedtime.”

Shutting off the sink, Shepard leaned against the counter and pulled off one boot. Chakwas picked up the medkit and stepped out of the bathroom. She walked past the fish, down the stairs, past the seating area, setting the medkit on the smaller desk beside the couch. She could hear the two men talking, the cadence of conversation altered by emotions and exhaustion and medication.

She pulled down the blankets on the bed. The Alliance had removed the window cover, leaving the stars beautiful overhead. Chakwas made a note to have Tali come rebuild it – if Shepard was panicking over his scars, it was doubtful he’d made peace with the night sky.

The sound of a collision caught her attention. One or the other of them had miscounted the two steps, bumping into the wall on their way down. Kaidan had Shepard’s arm around his shoulder and was steering them toward the far side of the bed.

“Anything I can do?”

“I think we’re good, Doc.” Kaidan released his hold on Shepard, depositing the other man on the bed. Shepard’s arm shot out, lightning fast despite the sedative, grabbing onto Kaidan’s shirt.

“Stay.”

“I’m right here.” Kaidan nudged Shepard’s legs up onto the bed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“If I may?” Chakwas held up a syringe. “His implants process the sedative faster than normal, and I think you could both use the rest.”

Kaidan nodded and stepped back. Shepard kept his focus on Kaidan while Chakwas administered the sedative, pressing the needle into Shepard’s elbow with efficient movements.

Standing, she bid her boys goodnight. She collected the medkit from the desk, pausing on the steps to watch as Kaidan laid down, John rolling over to sleep almost on top of him. They’d both be out cold before she made it to the elevator.

Chapter Text

“I know we’re not supposed to, but sometimes I miss working for Cerberus.” Kenneth was face down on the counter, voice muted by the cool surface. “They had better coffee.”

Gabbi watched the dark liquid drip through the machine, collecting in the pot underneath. She couldn’t be certain, but she’d thought she’d heard the beeping sound of an omni-tool alert when she was falling asleep last night. Not a great sound for the middle of the night.

“It’s not like there were little breakfast pastries – that’s too civilian even for ex-military. But there was tea for Yeoman Chambers, and hot chocolate for that lass who kept the Hammerhead running after the Commander brought it back from Alchera.”

“Zeona.”

“What?”

“We picked up the Hammerhead on Zeona,” Gabbi said, voice dry at the repeated reminder. She twitched as the machine chirped to announce coffee. “Alchera was where the SR1 got blown up.”

“Oh.” Kenneth sounded like he’d lifted his face off the counter. “Probably shouldn’t get those mixed up.”

“Not with the number of people on this ship who were on the SR1.” It was a different kind of crew, held together not by assignment or cause, but by the man in charge. It was fascinating, watching the newbie Alliance soldiers slowly making the same shift in loyalty that the Cerberus crew had eighteen months prior.

“Oh…shite.”

Fetching two mugs from the cabinet above the coffee machine, Gabbi took a breath. “Hey, Kenneth?” A grunt. “Did you…hear anything odd last night?” She didn’t turn to look, fussing with the coffee utensils so he wouldn’t read too much into things.

“What kind of anything odd?”

“Beeps? Something electronic? Maybe someone talking?”

“What, you think EDI was in the crew quarters?”

Gabbi sighed and poured the coffee. So much for his reading into things. “Forget it. You couldn’t hear anything over your snoring, anyway.”

“Hey!”

Dropping four sugars cubes into the second cup, Gabbi held it out. “I just thought I heard something last night. But waking anyone on the SR2 in the middle of the night, in the middle of a war, would be a bad thing.”

Kenneth took the cup, voice quiet. “Aye, it would.” He lifted the mug, taking a long sip. “Ah. Just about bearable.”

Gabbi shook her head at her friend. “Kenneth, the Alliance does pay us. Why don’t you ask Cortez to get you some coffee you actually like?”

“He’s got more important jobs,” Kenneth said into his mug, voice once again muffled.

“More important than keeping engineering in a good mood?”

“Adams will never abandon his post, no matter how bad the morning swill.”

Gabbi’s response was interrupted by movement over Kenneth’s shoulder. The lights of the MedBay came up with movement inside, revealing Dr. Chakwas sliding off one of the beds. She was still in her pajamas, with her uniform coat thrown over top. Gabbi watched her for a moment, then turned to fetch a third mug.

Kenneth raised his eyebrows, looking between the new mug and Gabbi. “We testing my theory about Adams?”

“No.”

He watched her fill another cup and add only one sugar this time, thumb running back and forth on the lip of his own mug. “Do I get to know why I’m telling Adams you’re late?”

“No.”

Kenneth nodded, finishing his coffee. “Fine, I’ll say you were doing your hair.”

Gabbi rolled her eyes. “You do that, Kenneth. I’ll be down shortly.” She picked up the two mugs and walked around the island, tone shifting dangerously close to reproach. “Don’t forget you need to recalibrate the –“

“I know, I know.”

“And wash your mug.”

Kenneth scowled, voice petulant. “I’m telling Adams you overslept.”

Dr. Chakwas was standing at her desk when the MedBay doors hissed open. The medkit in front of her had been dumped out, and she was sorting what needed to be replaced from what was still usable. “Hello, Gabriella.”

“Morning, Doctor.” Gabbi walked over to the desk, holding out the mug. “You’re up early.”

“Just underdressed.” Dr. Chakwas looked down at her outfit. “I suppose I have the dubious honor of a walk of shame.”

“Everything OK?”

Chakwas looked at her then, faint smudges under her eyes. Tucking her hair behind one ear, she studied Gabbi, voice still light, if a bit more professional. “Because I’m not dressed?”

“Because you slept in the MedBay,” Gabbi answered, gesturing to the bed behind them. “Because you look like ‘slept’ is being generous. Because,” she hesitated, “because somebody was woken up in the middle of the night last night.”

“Observant as ever, Engineer Daniels.” Chakwas took the proffered coffee. “Who else knows?”

“I asked Kenneth about it, but he sleeps like the dead.”

“Well, it’ll come out sooner or later.” A long pull from the mug, followed by a small frown. “I’m going to ask Lt. Cortez to get us better coffee – war or not, this is asking too much.”

Gabbi saluted with her own bitter cup. “We’ll start a donation fund.”

Chakwas leaned against the desk and sighed. “I was needed last night. The stress of this war is getting to everyone. Sometimes, it gets to them at inopportune times.”

“Better the middle of the night than the middle of a fight.”

“Indeed.” Chakwas rotated the mug in her hands. “It will take a while, but our crew member will be fine. They just need some rest and a stern talking to, I think.” She set her mug down on her desk. “How are you holding up?”

Gabbi gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I have Kenneth; it’s a fulltime job, keeping track of him. No energy left over to worry about the Reapers finding the Normandy and taking us all hostage, again. Turning us into those…things.”

Chakwas stepped forward and put an arm around Gabbi’s shoulders, voice dropping into a compassionate murmur. “Sometimes I forget I’m not the only one on this ship who got taken.” She gave Gabbi a gentle squeeze, a not-quite hug. “I’m here, if either of you needs to talk.”

“Kenneth won’t talk.”

“Give him time,” Chakwas said kindly. Then, with a shadow of steel, “if that doesn’t work, sit on him.”

Gabbi laughed. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Now,” Chakwas said, tone formal as she released Gabbi and stepped away, “I need to get back in uniform before I earn a formal reprimand, and I believe you are late for your shift.”

“Yes, Doctor. Have a…better day.”

“You, too, Gabriella.” A pause. “If you see Tali, can you send her up, please?”

Gabbi nodded, posture straightening into that Alliance-honed poise. “Yes, ma’am.”

Stepping out of the MedBay, Gabbi drained her mug as she headed back across to the kitchen. She washed it, then rewashed Kenneth’s to be sure all the sugar was out, and left them both on the drying rack. Shooting one last look at their doctor, she made her way down to Engineering, pushing everything not about the engine and the weird shield fluctuations out of her mind.


Garrus was perched on the edge of the bed, mandibles giving away his curiosity. That sniper calm had gotten him through more fights than his opponents, but it wasn’t going to outlast the look on Chakwas’ face. She had those dark spots under her eyes that he was pretty sure humans got when they were too tired. He tried to remember if they’d been there yesterday.

He was certain he hadn’t seen her putter before. Shuffling pads on her desk, double-checking the medkit she’d been refilling when he’d walked in, tapping at something on the nearest terminal.

“Want to talk about it, Doctor?”

“Tali will be here shortly, I’m sure.”

On cue, Tali appeared through the MedBay window. Garrus squashed the happy feeling at the sight of her – this was serious, however glad he was to have Tali back on the ship. And something that he and Tali needed to be informed of, but not Liara or Kaidan. Or Shepard himself, for that matter. Tension slithered along his limbs, clenching his gut; this had happened once before, but it had been the other way around. Chakwas unaware, Tali distracted, and himself, feeling useless.

The MedBay door hissed open, distracting Chakwas from her most recent organization of the datapads. Tali looked between the two of them, taking in Chakwas’ wilted stance and Garrus’ too-casual posture. Like the veteran she was though, she didn’t assume anything, keeping it light. “Gabbi said you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, both of you.”

Tali tilted her head at Garrus. “Something wrong with the dextro food supply?”

Just like Tali to be problem-solving already. She’d be a great Admiral when she finally got to do the job properly, not just worry about the damn Reapers.

“No, there’s nothing wrong with our food stores.” Chakwas closed her medkit and turned to face the both of them, Garrus by the bed and Tali still nearer the door. It was never a good sign, tht bracing deep breath. “This is about Shepard.”

“As opposed to most days where we can just ignore him,” Garrus supplied, nerves coming out as laconic apathy.

He couldn’t see Tali’s face, but he guessed it matched Chakwas’ glare of disapproval. Garrus stopped leaning on the bed, coughing apologetically into his collar.

“Sorry.”

“What about Shepard, Doctor?” Tali asked, turning to face Chakwas so Garrus could be certain how much trouble his comment had landed him in. “I saw him yesterday – he seemed fine. A little tense, but I can’t remember the last time any of us wasn’t.”

“I’ve been on late shift for the past week, so I haven’t seen much of our Commander,” Garrus offered, “but he seemed like Shepard when we did talk.”

“The Commander has always been good at putting up a front,” Chakwas agreed. “But that doesn’t make him alright.” She paused, struggling against the words. “Shepard…tried again. To see what Cerberus did to him.”

Garrus felt Tali stiffen from two meters away, as if she’d tightened the armor he was wearing. The ghosts that had been haunting him earlier solidified into memories, panic and confusions and cries. Tali, voice dangerously soft, asked, “what do you mean?”

“You know what I mean,” Chakwas exhaled, frustration and fear giving a slight edge to her voice. The doctor took another deep breath, eyes closed. “You know…what I mean, Tali.”

“Where is he?”

“Tali –“

“No, Garrus. He promised!”

“He didn’t, actually.” Garrus didn’t know why he was throwing himself into the line of fire like this, except that Shepard had always had his back, no matter how stupid or reckless he’d been. Stepping away from the bed, Garrus pulled Tali’s focus, voice even as he dragged up that terrible night. “We knocked him out and yelled at him. Had the Doctor here check him over. Did we ever actually talk to Shepard about all this?”

“I did!” Tali waved her arms around in her anger. “He said he wouldn’t do this, again! He said it was just too much too soon! Mortality and amnesia and damned Cerberus!”

“Those things haven’t gone away,” Chakwas interrupted, quiet but clear. “All of us could die any day, in horrible ways, and whatever Cerberus did to him, we’re still guessing.”

“Haven’t you scanned Sherpard?” Garrus asked.

“Many times, but that doesn’t tell me how they brought him back.” Chakwas tapped at her omni-tool, bringing up a file. “Everything I have on Shepard says he should have been too badly injured to be saved. Should have been dead before he hit the atmosphere on Alchera, let alone after he made it to the ground. I can’t explain it, and so far nobody from Cerberus is handing out files.”

“We should call Miranda,” Garrus suggested. “Ex-Cerberus or not, she must remember –“

Tali had been still, frustration and hurt vibrating through her until it couldn’t be contained. With the volume and force of a shrapnel grenade, she exploded. “Where is he!” Arms waving, Tali paced a tight little line. “When can I start yelling? How do you know he’s hurt? How bad is it?”

“He’s upstairs,” Chakwas answered. “Kaidan’s with him.”

“Does he know?”

“That Shepard’s injured?” Chakwas cocked an eyebrow. “He’s the one who found him.”

“I’m sealing that bathroom,” Tali muttered darkly, coming to a stop. “Or painting it a bright color. It’s a dark hole that kills hope.”

“I think maybe the bathroom isn’t the thing driving Shepard to be the security threat on his own ship,” Garrus said. “But I suppose a nice purple couldn’t hurt.”

“Shepard’s upstairs?” Tali asked. She was already moving toward the door. “You’re sure?”

“He’s asleep Tali. You’ll only wake Kaidan if you barge in there shouting right now.”

Tali stopped. It would always be impressive that she could glare with a face plate. “I can try.”

“I gave him enough sedatives to take down a horse,” Chakwas argued. “Give it till dinner, at least.”

“Plenty of time for Tali to organize her anger,” Garrus muttered.

Tali jabbed a finger in his direction before turning back to the doctor. “What about Kaidan? Does he know about last time?”

“He knows there was a last time, but nothing about it,” Chakwas answered. “If you’re going up to explain things, bring some tea with you. You won’t get him to eat, but Kaidan could use the sugar I’ll be adding.”

They followed Chakwas out of the MedBay, conversation dying at the sight of other crew members milling about. The doctor moved around the kitchen area, setting water to heat and pulling down mugs while Tali leaned on the counter and muttered to herself.

“Stupid, idiotic, insensitive Bosh’tet. I should hide his armor so the next mission, he’ll have to stay on the ship and worry. Or submit three dozen forms with tiny inaccuracies, so he’ll get paranoid about how many he signed before he noticed something was wrong.”

“Doctor,” Garrus asked, pitching his voice low, “how bad is it? Can Shep…can he even go on the next mission?”

“When is the next mission?” Chakwas asked, selecting a tea bag from the container on the counter. She cocked an eyebrow at him as the water burbled in the kettle next to her. “He’s not going anywhere today.”

“I’d have to check, but I don’t think we’re scheduled for anything for the next week.” Garrus ran an eye over the humans – nobody seemed to be listening. “But things happen.”

“If they happen, you will be taking James.”

Garrus leaned on the counter, his usual pose for chatting with crew members; just in case. “For the next week?”

“Yes.”

Whatever pain Shepard had been in before the sedatives kicked in, he was going to look back on it fondly when he woke up. “I suppose…I should go talk to our lieutenant? Let him know?”

“If you think that’s wise,” Chakwas said absently. “I don’t know what you’d tell him. It’s probably more important to tell Traynor to hold all calls.”

“Kaidan can talk to Hackett.”

“You’ll have better luck getting Kalros to let go of that Reaper than you will getting the Major out of that room.” Pouring water into the mugs, Chakwas added one tea bag each, followed by a concerning amount of sugar. The routine, almost mindless motions belied the tension of their discussion.

Tali was still muttering. Garrus felt his mandibles flare, but said nothing.

Turning around, Chakwas placed a tray on the island. “Tali, breathe. If Kaidan is asleep, leave him be.”

“And if he’s not?”

“Be gentle.” Chakwas smiled, tiredness in every line of her face. “He didn’t hurt Shepard, and being here last time doesn’t mean we’re the only ones upset now.”

“I get to yell first,” Tali said, all stubbornness. “He promised.”

“Somehow,” Chakwas said, pushing the tray forward. “I think Kaidan won’t fight you on that.”

Chapter Text

His head hurt. It wasn’t a migraine – he’d had enough to recognize the symptoms – but he felt heavy. Kaidan exhaled, swallowed, rubbed a hand over his face. He’d slept hard, but he still felt tired. Exhausted. Like the end of a day being trained by Vyrnnus personally.

Prying his eyes open, Kaidan stared blankly at the skylight above their bed. Bright points of light poked through the blue waves of a mass effect field. He squinted, as if that would help things make sense. As if it would make what had happened less awful.

Had he missed something? John was sleeping less, eating less, burying himself in the Sisyphean task of beating the Reapers. He thought he’d been paying attention to their Commander, that they all had. John had even started dragging some of his reports to the Starboard Observation Lounge, keeping Kaidan company.

When had things gotten so bad?

Tilting his head to one side, Kaidan studied the top of the head on his chest. John was snoring gently, a side-effect of the sedative – he usually slept silent. Rolling his head the other way, Kaidan raised his hand, gently running his fingers over John’s face. The bandages held, but the edges still caught as he passed over them.

He wondered if there had been other injuries. Medi-gel healed cuts and bruises fast; the Cerberus upgrades faster still. And Chakwas had said John had done this before. Kaidan tried to remember if he’d noticed John so much as pick at a nail in frustration. How could John have hidden this from him? From everyone?

Everyone – he’d have to tell them.

There was no hiding John’s face from their friends or the crew. Kaidan ran his thumb gently over John’s eyebrow as he thought. Chakwas would have to report this, and Spectre status wouldn’t matter on an Alliance vessel. How much value could Hackett argue Commander Shepard had when something like this could happen? At the very least, it was a risk to the morale of the crew.

Exhaling hard through his nose, Kaidan traced a path down from John’s eyebrow, tracing over his cheek, along the bandage on his jaw before dropping off his chin.

Nothing.

Maybe they should use Chakwas’ sedative in the field - leave a gang of Cerberus goons passed out for the Illusive Man to find.

Kaidan swallowed, licking his lips against the dryness in his mouth. He looked over at the bedside table on John’s side. John never did coffee in the morning; he’d kept a glass of water by his bed even back on the SR1.

Pushing gently against the sleeping man, Kaidan managed to sit up part way. Enough so that when he reached out a hand, Pulling the water glass to him, he could catch it with the confidence of a sleep-addled mind. He drained the glass, then looked at the empty vessel as the slow process of thinking worked out that now he’d need to refill it.

Kaidan stretched sideways, setting the glass on his own bedside table before continuing the task of releasing himself from the sleeping grasp of John Shepard. John dropped off him like a blanket, deadweight with no agenda of its own.

Kaidan stood by the side of the bed, musing in the dark. He couldn’t remember the last time John had slept this long without a nightmare. Probably back when Ash was still with them.

Picking the glass back up, Kaidan made his way toward the bathroom, cursing quietly when he tripped over the boot he’d left at the bottom of the steps. He kicked it away irritably, glaring at its mate under the fish tank as he walked up the steps. He was muttering unkind opinions on shoes as he palmed open the bathroom door.

The light came on, revealing the blood.

Kaidan grabbed the door frame, swallowing hard. He’d forgotten about the blood.

Somebody would have to clean all this up.

Forcing himself to look, the analytical part noted there really wasn’t much. Some streaks where John had collapsed, a faint trail back to the sink, a few bloody handprints on the counter - a clear handprint to the left of the sink. Kaidan stepped inside, setting the glass down on the counter. Absently, he held his own hand out, dropping it over the red stain. John’s hands were just slightly longer than his, making it look as if there was a dark shadow under Kaidan’s own.

Unnerved, Kaidan wet his hand and swiped it across John’s print. The brown turned back to a red, smearing and diluting with each successive swipe. He kept wiping even after the handprint was gone, the pinkish water drained down the sink, the repetitive movement unintentional and almost soothing.

Slowly, he moved onto the other blood spots, sliding his hand over the counter and sink until there was no red left. Holding his hand under the water, Kaidan studied his face in the mirror.

What had John seen there that was so awful? What part of the face Kaidan loved so much had driven the man to do such horrible things? Had Cerberus built in some sick, self-destruct command? Did they make the scars permanent so it would drive John over the edge?

The sob caught him off guard, catching in his throat as he tried to breathe. Swallowing the sound, Kaidan dropped his head and turned away. He scooped up the clothes and boots they’d left on the floor, pausing at the soft clatter of metal hitting the floor.

Setting the clothes on the counter, Kaidan knelt. He ran his fingers over the knife, the blood turning wet where he touched it. Hand numb, he picked it up, blood smearing on his fingertips. That familiar, dull red.

The same red that had covered John’s hands. His neck. His face.

Kaidan sat on the floor, staring at the thing in his hand, and let the tears come.


It was amazing the things that hadn’t changed about this room. It was still huge, by Quarian standards; it was still sparse by human ones; it still had a weirdly blue-shifted lighting system. It still never quite felt like it was Shepard’s.

On the SR1, Shepard had been down on the same level as the rest of the human crew, in roughly the same place Liara now occupied. The room had still been military clean, but something about it felt...lived in. The few times she’d visited, she’d been aware that she was in a personal space. Ironically, it might have been because so many people found themselves there. Shepard was not a territorial, isolating kind of person. Knowing what was going on and how people were helped in his job, but it also made him happy. Tucked up here, away from everyone, never any unexpected visitors had visibly frustrated her friend, even with all the Cerberus nonsense to distract him.

And that window wasn’t helping anything, either.

Tali studied the enlarged view port in the roof of Shepard’s cabin. She wondered how the Alliance justified making it bigger when she and Shepard had spent so much time wondering how Cerberus justified its existence at all. Much like the fish tank, it was aesthetically pleasing, sure, but it was also an unnecessary structural weakness.

Her best guess - what most of them thought, even if they didn’t say it - was that Cerberus had been trying to mess with Shepard’s head. He’d died under the stars, falling into darkness as he lost consciousness. What better way to remind him of the debt he owed than by making him relieve that every night?

Tali rubbed a finger against the bottom of the tray, thinking. Bright colored creatures swam in her periphery, oblivious to the world at large. On her other side, the model ships she’s been meticulously reconstructing hung lifeless in their display case, greys and blacks and silver. Both time consuming, unnecessary elements of the room that drew most people’s focus. Both things that Shepard would not have if they didn’t bring joy to his friends.

She’d yell at him. Shepard deserved nothing less after breaking his promise. The selfish Bosh’tet knew that he could come to them, knew his friends would do everything they could to help him with this war. Including looking after each other.

But Shepard was unconscious, locked away from the repercussions of his decisions by whatever Chakwas had given him. There was no point in being angry right now. Later, she’d yell so much, Shepard would have a headache to rival anything Kaidan endured.

Tali set the tray down on the desk and walked down to the lower level. Shepard was alone on the bed, making that strange sound humans did when they went too long without sleep. Lying on his front as he was, it was hard to see the damage. Crouching down beside the bed, Tali ran a finger over the small bandage over his eyebrow.

She’d always been fascinated by them, eyebrows. They were another thing unique to humans, but they seemed to be integral to expressing emotions. She remembered the good-natured teasing Kasumi had endured when everyone learned that she couldn’t move hers one at a time. The others might have tried her patience had Zaeed not cleared his throat and announced that he, too, was stuck with both or none.

Tali was pretty sure he’d been lying, but it was such a Shepard thing to do.

There was a bigger bandage on his jaw, running almost from his ear to his chin. She couldn’t see the other side of his face without moving his head, but Tali assumed there would be matching injuries. Shepard hadn’t played favorites last time.

Ruminating on the neatness of Dr. Chakwas’ work, Tali’s attention slid to the pillow Shepard wasn’t sleeping on. It had a dent in the middle, as if someone had been using it recently. Standing up, Tali noted the other side of the bed looked unused.

Where was Kaidan?

He wasn’t on the couch or curled up in the chair. The other desk, which she assumed was his as it lacked the mild clutter of Shepard’s distracted thinking, also lacked a sleeping form. She would have tripped over him if, for some reason, her friend had decided to sleep on the floor. Walking around the bed, Tali debated briefly if Kaidan had run downstairs for something, but dismissed the idea as he would have had to take the elevator she’d been in.

That left the bathroom. A fatalistic feeling ran down her spine as she walked up the steps. Walking over to the door, she palmed it open.

Kaidan was curled over on the floor. Small, hiccupping breaths interrupted already unsteady breathing, echoing in the smaller space. The display on the inside of her faceplate helpfully identified the substance streaked on the wall in front of her. Tali felt her insides clench as she took in the droplets and smearing that led toward the sink. She guessed Kaidan had been trying to clean up before the sedatives wore off. It was a good idea.

Stepping inside, Tali set the door to stay open, preventing the feeling of being trapped with what had happened. She knelt and placed a hand on Kaidan’s back, feeling him twitch at the unexpected contact.

“I’m so sorry.”

His shoulders hunched, curling in tighter on himself.

“Kaidan?”

When he didn’t respond, Tali rubbed her hand back and forth across Kaidan’s shoulders. She remembered Shepard doing the same after they’d come back from her trial, explaining that it was a common way for humans to show support or sympathy. It seemed to be working - she could feel Kaidan start to relax, just a little.

A few minutes passed before he managed a deep breath and sat up. His eyes were puffy from crying and Tali thought he looked a little pale. Kaidan kept his arms wrapped around himself, but he did look at her when he asked, “h-he did this…before?”

Garrus, for all his bravado, had been worried about this. About how much worse it might be to find out later. She’d been worried that Kaidan might think it was a trick, a ploy to get him to join their suicide mission. When she had finally written to him, she’d kept it short, to the point, knowing their friend needed time they didn’t have to come around but having to try all the same.

“This looks worse than last time.” Tali looked around them, suit scanning for more blood. “Last time he scratched up his face, but nothing medi-gel couldn’t fix in a few hours.”

Kaidan choked. “But then...I mean, how do we know…that it’s only twice?”

“Because it is.” Tali packed her voice with certainty she didn’t have. “It’s not about hurting himself. Shepard…gets in his own head. He worries.” She summoned a shaky smile, even though Kaidan couldn’t see it. “You know how Shepard gets when he worries about his friends.”

“He was worried those awful things I said to him were true.”

Tali tilted her head to one side, watching Kaidan’s face. “Did you two have a fight?”

“On Mars. On…Horizon. I didn’t believe he was real.” Kaidan’s voice was a miserable whisper. “If he was checking…” He closed his eyes, trembling under her touch. “Did I do this?”

About this, she was certain. “No, Kaidan.”

“Tali –“

“This is not about you.” Tali sighed, reaching for gentler words. “It’s not...only about you. Of all of us, Shepard has been the most worried about how he came back. While the things you said probably didn’t help, they’re just more holes in an already damaged bulkhead.” Tali sighed again, shoulder’s slumping at the admission. “And it’s not like you were the only one to say things.”

The toll of the day’s events slowed his reaction. “You?”

“Me, Garrus, Anderson.” Tali shrugged limply. “You win for being blunt, from what I’ve heard, but we were all worried. I left him on Freedom’s Progress, told him to be careful.” She laughed bitterly. “I wouldn’t have believed it if my team hadn’t put it in their reports. If Veetor hadn’t been so insistent.”

“You left?”

“Cerberus was investigating a colony that a Quarian was visiting,” Tali explained. “That’s where I first ran into Shepard. I spent the next few months arguing with myself, ransacking news feeds, bullying anyone who had been away from the Flotilla for rumors and gossip. Trying to figure out...who I’d met.”

Kaidan was staring at her, wide brown eyes slightly out of focus. “You walked away, too.”

Tali nodded. “I’d always hoped, if we’d had more time, if the crew hadn’t been taken, that maybe...you would have made the same choice. Come with us after all.”

Kaidan sat, sluggish thoughts working through the information. Then, “even Anderson?”

Tali shook her head. “I don’t have details on that. I wasn’t part of the crew when Shepard went to him, but I know he had to formally sever ties. As long as this was a Cerberus ship, Councilor Anderson couldn’t talk to a rogue, supposed-to-be-dead Spectre.”

“I can’t believe he did that.”

“You did,” Tali said, softly.

“Yeah, but...Anderson.” Kaidan bounced his fist against his knee, frowning. “Anderson should have known better. John...adores him. He’d never turn on the Admiral.”

Tali patted Kaidan’s shoulder. “How about we sort this out later? You go back to bed. Look after our idiot.” She gestured at the wall with her other hand. “Let me clean this up.”

Kaidan was twirling something slowly in his fingers. “Might just fall asleep.”

“So long as you’re there when he wakes up.” She caught Kaidan’s wrist, taking the little knife. “The guilt will hit him before I do.”

It was small and hollow, but it was still a laugh. “Thanks, Tali.”

She got Kaidan to his feet and ushered him out of the bathroom, agreeing good-naturedly as he insisted she just leave the towels there, he’d grab them in the morning. Once Kaidan was gone, Tali studied the knife. It was much too small for use in combat – it must have sentimental value. Tali set it on the shelf and grabbed a towel. She’d start with the wall – if anyone else came in, that shouldn’t be the first thing they saw.

Chapter Text

Hackett keyed in the command for the Normandy’s QEC. The console on his desk flashed a dull light as the comms connected, the glow blurring slightly around the edges as exhaustion once again sought to take hold.

No meeting he had to take in his office, away from even from the trusted ears of his comm officer, contained good news. The request for a private meeting had a medical note attached, which most likely meant a break from large scale pain to focus on a specific suffering soul. Someone on a ship he couldn’t spare needed a break he couldn’t give them.

The light on the console winked out with an aborted chirp, replaced by the small, holographic form of Dr. Chakwas. The usually put together appearance had a slap-dash air to it: hair combed into place by fingers, shoulders trying to slump against years of discipline, a distracted quality to how she noticed the line was live. Still, it wasn’t the doctor who was in trouble. Small blessings.

“Hello, Admiral.”

“Doctor.” Hackett leaned forward, folding his hands on the desk. “I understand you requested a private audience. Something about limiting knowledge of an incident.”

The training had kicked in. Shoulders straight, hands behind her back, gaze steady as she delivered her report. “There was a medical incident last night. Commander Shepard harmed himself. I have no reason so believe it was a suicide attempt, but it is an escalation of a previous incident.”

Shit.

He’d really hoped the Normandy had been attacked by the Collectors, again.

“You’re certain?” Hackett asked. He’d heard enough bad news in the last year to permanently freeze his face in a look of stoic interest. Military posture hid most of the tension in his shoulders, and Chakwas wasn’t likely to notice his hands tighten their hold on each other.

“About which part?”

“Doctor, if a senior officer is compromised –“

“He’s not.” Chakwas licked her lips, a nervous habit he hadn’t seen in years. “Shepard…” She stopped, took two deep breaths, started again. “Over the last year, there have been many attempts to determine how Commander Shepard survived the destruction of the Normandy SR-1. I went over the files and scans myself, dozens of times, trying to understand what happened, what was done. In truth, even the team that saved him isn’t entirely sure how it worked. Even Ms. Lawson attributes some part of the process to stubbornness or luck.” Chakwas looked up at him, something that wanted to be levity tugging at her lips. “Which will not hold up in a hearing.”

No, it wouldn’t. “That’s neither good news nor new information.” He’d read the files the Alliance doctors had compiled when Shepard had surrendered. All manner of cutting edge technology, mixed with techniques perfected without ethics to constrain them. The poor intern who’d had the misfortune to marvel out loud about the benefits of all that dehumanizing work in front of Admiral Anderson...

“Part of bringing Shepard back was the use of cybernetics,” Chakwas continued, “a side effect of which was a slowing of his ability to heal, at least in some cases.”

Hackett studied the doctor, x-rays and skeletal charts flicking past his mind’s eye. “That’s what causes those glowing lines.” He hadn’t known that detail. It wasn’t hard to imagine the effect such vivid reminders of the last few years might have on the man.

“Indeed.” Chakwas’ hands were back at her side – this was a common discussion for her, then. “The cybernetics, like most technology, have indicators to help with determining the effectiveness of the device. Because they are under Shepard’s skin, this gives the appearance of light. The bigger issue is that his body has never fully accepted the implants.” Reading something in his face, Chakwas offered “think of it as an organ transplant, but the compatibility isn’t quite right.”

“If you swap out organs, the new one has to match or the body won’t keep it.”

The doctor nodded. “That’s correct. The implants are not biological and thus read as foreign bodies at the best of times. However, the implants were needed to supplement a sufficient number of biological systems that they are affected, at a low level, by the Commander’s endocrine system.”

“Affected by?”

“They don’t impact the system, only react to it.”

Hackett could feel that morning’s headache returning, forcing a squint he hoped passed for concentration. “Why are we concerned that his endocrine system is affecting these implants?”

“Your endocrine system is in charge of regulating levels, most famously hormones.” He ignored the amusement in her voice; he’d passed basic medical, even if it was years ago. “Externally, this means your emotions.”

Hackett tried not to sound incredulous. “So Shepard glows depending on his mood?”

Chakwas nodded, a hand coming up to gesture absently as she continued her explanation. “Sort of. The more aggressive Shepard is, the more his body reacts to the implants as a foreign entity. At times, this results in his skin separating at old surgical points, allowing more light to be visible while,” the doctor paused, finally wincing at her own choice of words, “while also looking like the wrong side of a fight with kitchen utensil.”

“Like seams pulling apart,” Hackett remarked.

“They are not seams,” Chakwas snapped.

Hacket endured the glare, impressed by its ferocity. Somebody else had called them that and it had been a bad day.

“They are surgical scars that haven’t healed properly,” Chakwas said, her tone measured. “I admit I don’t know why, but that doesn’t change what they are.”

“I understand.”

Chakwas took a deep breath, regaining that professional calm. “However, while the official report focuses on the aggression element, any sufficiently negative attitude seems to affect these things. Stress or depression is just as bad.”

Hackett looked at her. “We’re at war.”

“I know we’re at war, Steven.”

Good, now he’d set off those protective instincts; that would win him points. They hadn’t used first names since...Berlin? Still, “stress isn’t going to go away anytime soon.”

Chakwas crossed her arms, shifting her weight to her back leg. “The main issue isn’t the war. Shepard’s been as miserable as any of our soldiers, but he hasn’t snapped again prior to last night.” Chakwas ran a hand over her upper arm as she paused. “Sir, the Alliance has been worried about being able to trust Shepard. But they have not been half as worried as the Commander himself.”

That made sense. John Shepard had a reputation for holding himself to a higher standard than his team, just as he expected his superiors to be better than he was. Trustworthiness was key to being that leader. If he didn’t think he could trust himself… “We were thorough in our evaluations, Doctor.”

“As was I, but you know how emotions work.” The amusement was back, if subdued. “Shepard has been worried since he woke up that Cerberus might have done something. Even after Ms. Lawson’s defection, he still has trouble believing the reports.”

So Miranda Lawson really had left Cerberus. They’d been trying to confirm that for months. Hackett made a note to let Corporal Fiennes know. “Is this tied to last night’s incident?”

“Yes, sir.” Chakwas put her hands behind her back, again, leaning on that training. “Shepard attempted to remove a section of his skin to confirm what was underneath it. He displayed periods of dissociation, but was lucid enough to answer every question I asked him. The injuries he inflicted upon himself were severe but limited in scope, leading me to believe that while there was harm, there was not intent to end his own life. It appears he was concerned about the level of VI/AI interference that might have been involved with reestablishing his mental processes, as well as the presence of normal human structural elements he has left.”

Jesus. “How successful was he?”

“Enough that I can’t see hiding this from the crew this time.”

“This time.” Not a phrase he’d wanted to come up in this report. “What happened last time?”

“Last time, he looked like he’d picked a fight with a housecat. Nothing medigel couldn’t fix.” Her tone was encouraging, the way she might speak to next of kin, but there was tension in the way she held herself. Last night had caught her off guard, and there would be guilt for choosing not to report things the first time.

Hackett leaned back in his chair. This was bad. For any other officer, any other soldier, he’d have them pulled as far from the front line as he dared. Chakwas was still dancing around some of the details, which meant she was stalling. Trying to think of a way to ask him for something he shouldn’t agree to do. “Doctor?”

“I’ve…reattached everything; Shepard will be fine, physically, in a few days.” She paused. “I’m not really calling about the Commander. I’m more worried about the crew.”

He understood that. This could seriously damage morale. Still. “I know we’re given Shepard a lot of leeway on things. The stuff he’s done? A typical soldier would have been dumped in a hole somewhere and left to rot. But I can’t have a soldier running around who doesn’t value his own life – that’s a risk to the whole team, and I need the Normandy.”

“The Normandy’s no good without Shepard.”

“I know.” They both waited in silence, one more terrible decision in a war full of them. “Karin –“

“It is my professional, medical diagnosis that Commander John Shepard is not suicidal.”

That stoic neutrality cracked as one eyebrow raised. “Is it really?”

“Yes.” Chakwas nodded firmly. “Shepard handled his anxiety about what happened to him at the hands of Cerberus two years ago very badly yesterday, but it is the first time there’s been blood spilt over it. More to the point, it’s been over a year since anything like this has happened, and Shepard has a much better support system to resolve matters this time.”

“You think his crew will save him?”

Chakwas sighed. “I wish it were that easy. That kind words and a good talking-to would resolve all the Commander’s pain and confusion.”

He wished it worked that way, too. “But it won’t.”

“No,” Chakwas agreed, “it won’t. But Shepard is no longer surrounded by a violent band of people learning to trust him and a meticulously designed crew that works for someone else. No spies, no ulterior motives, no chance of his own words being thrown back in his face by his superior.”

A smile, a real one, changed a lot about a person’s face. It was an odd time to remember that wars were won or lost by the stories the combatants told themselves.

“Half this crew is Alliance, which means they’re loyal to the same cause and want their CO to be the best he can be. The other half are, bluntly put, Shepard’s friends. They want this war to end on our terms, but more importantly, they want Shepard to still be here after. They will support him through this, as they have always done, no matter what it takes, and they will do so because they care.”

It was a pretty speech. “And you think that will work?”

“I do.” The professional was back, reporting on their options. “These are all people who’ve dealt with grief personally, and I believe they will be supportive of whatever method is determined to be best to help Commander Shepard resolve any lingering issues. I’m familiar with the fundamentals of handling mental health concerns, but will be looking into any approach that could prove successful.” Hope lingered in her words. “I imagine I won’t be the only one looking into options.”

This entire conversation was going to have to be erased from the system if he approved this. “You said you were worried about the crew.”

“Tali’Zorah vas Normandy and Garrus Vakarian were involved the last time this happened, so they’re mostly angry about a broken promise. However, the Alliance crew members don’t know most of the details about our time working with Cerberus, and the rest of the crew were there, but…never knew how bad Shepard got.”

His mind recalled the image of a blotchy red face under an Alliance ballcap, arms waving about wilding as words tumbling out, as if the man really believed yelling could change things. “Flight Lieutenant Moreau?”

“We determined his guilt about the SR-1 was too much of a risk. He was never told.”

He did not envy that conversation one bit. “Dr. T’soni?”

“Was not part of the Cerberus mission. We did a thorough job of burying what happened, so I can’t imagine anyone not on the ship could have learned about it.”

“So, it’s you three against the crew.”

Chakwas ran her tongue over her lip, again. “Major Alenko was the one who found him. No context, no warning. Just a friend who had done something awful.”

More than friends, if the rumors were true. “How’s he handling it?”

“About as well as we could expect. He called me immediately, did what he could to stop the bleeding, followed my instructions when I arrived.” The professional mask slipped, just a little. “Even if the next few days go better than I can reasonably hope, pulling us from the front lines would be wise. This crew is notorious for not taking shore leave as it is.”

“You want me to order shore leave to cover a fractured command structure?”

Chakwas stared at him. Hackett could see the gears turning in her mind, weighing his reaction against what she hadn’t told him. He could only coddle the Normandy so much. A small, currently-ignored part of him was mad at her for reporting this at all.

“I have Commander Shepard flagged for short term medical leave at the moment; a small window of time that shouldn’t catch anyone’s attention. I sincerely believe we can handle this, in house, and that the safety of the galaxy will be no more at risk than it already is.” Raising her chin, the tiny figure glared at him. “In fact, I believe we might be safer.”

“How does this make us safer?”

“Tali is scarier than either you or the Reapers. She, even if no one else was trying, will find a way to fix this, permanently.”

Hackett studied the far wall of his office, giving himself time to think. They were fighting giant aliens from the distant past, who used upgraded zombie versions of their own people against them and specialized in large scale mind control. No one had ever even come close to beating them. And the one man who might be able to do something about this, the one group who would never be cowed by these monsters, was about to hit a crisis point almost as bad as the loss of their original crew.

“You want me to risk the future of humanity on the power of faith.”

“Worse, Admiral. I want you to risk it on the power of family.”

Hackett stared down his nose at the tiny woman. “I’d have to delete this record just for that.”

“I would never presume you to have a heart, sir.”

Hackett rubbed his forefinger over his thumb. Finally, “I want regular updates. Classified, but leave nothing out.” He gave her a look. “Nothing.”

“Yes, Admiral.” The hologram disappeared as Chakwas signed off.

Hackett stared at the comm device. Maybe if he just never answered the damn thing, there’d be no more bad news. Whatever he’d told her, Hackett had to plan for the worst. Until he was certain that Shepard wasn’t one more threat to human lives, the Normandy had to be considered compromised. They’d need back-ups, plans for reassignments, new strategies for dealing with diplomatic channels, since they would no longer be able to lean on Shepard’s network of personal connections.

And he’d have to tell Anderson.

This was not how Hackett had hoped his day was going to go.

Chapter Text

The door to the cockpit hissed open behind him, the steady tread of familiar footsteps approaching his chair. Shit. Now he owed EDI a trip to the new Blasto movie.

“Your feast, my liege.” Traynor was grinning at him, protein bar and water bottle held out like offerings. “Is there really nothing on all these displays that tells you what time it is?”

“There is,” Joker answered with a huff. “I just…take my work very seriously. You wouldn’t want us to crash into anything because I was worrying about the time.”

“You could set an alarm.” Traynor set his lunch down next to his chair. “If you came down to the mess with the rest of us, you wouldn’t have to eat so many of these bars.”

“Maybe I like the bars,” Joker replied, closing out one of the screens on his displays.

“Even Major Alenko doesn’t like the bars, and biotics will eat anything.”

“Wow, Specialist,” Joker said, genuinely impressed, “that’s the closest thing to an insult I’ve heard out of you.”

“Yes, well.” Traynor crossed one arm across her middle to clutch at the other. “They don’t always have a choice, do they? Have to keep their metabolism in balance.”

“Don’t ruin it by being thoughtful.”

Traynor perked up, probably remembering something more interesting than supplying lunch for stubborn - he was not forgetful - pilots. “Speaking of Spectres, have you seen the Commander today?”

Joker reached down for the protein bar. “Nope.”

“Usually he’s passed through the CIC half a dozen times by now.” Traynor looked out the nearest window, brow creased in concern. She sounded worried, though he didn’t know why. “He’s always checking on people.”

“I guess no one ever told him grown men don’t ‘flit’.” Joker said, tearing open the wrapper with his teeth. He stuck his tongue out at the taste of the package’s adhesive. “Maybe I should set an alarm.”

“Come to think of it,” Traynor continued. She was still looking out the window, as if the tiny white lines of moving stars might be more interested. “I don’t think I’ve ever made it to lunch without running into Shepard at least once. Well,” Traynor amended, switching to chagrined “that time I got food poisoning on Tuchanka, but I really thought I’d be OK.”

“Do not eat anything a Krogan gives you, Traynor.”

“Shepard was fine.”

“Shepard’s a freak.”

Traynor looked around. “Isn’t this usually the point where he walks in?”

“Because,” Joker repeated, “he’s a freak. Iron stomach, perfect timing, never looks tired.” He took a bite of the protein bar and chewed. It was true that Shepard usually came in right at the point he was least wanted, which was probably why the Council avoided talking about him. “Any chance this plain old human can get a second water bottle? Or coffee?”

“I’m not your waitress,” Traynor said, distracted.

“No, but you’re super nice.” Joker gave her his best puppy-dog eyes. “And the boss isn’t even here to notice.”

Traynor gave him a look, that Oxford educated, academic superiority bleeding through all those manners for just a moment. “That I ran down to the mess after my lunch break, which I never do because I chug caffeine like the scientist I am?”

“It would not be out of your way,” EDI cut in, speaking up for the first time since Traynor had come in. “Chakwas has requested to speak with you at your earliest convenience.”

“Finally worthy of EDI’s attention, and it’s just so she can agree with my opponent” Traynor sighed dramatically. “Right, coffee it is. Black, like your soul?”

“Ha. Ha.”

Joker shook his head as Traynor walked off. He should probably do something…nice…for all the times she’d brought him lunch. He did tend to forget, and then he “bit people’s heads off”. Nothing in her official description included babysitting the pilot, and yet Traynor knew every single day he didn’t make it to the mess. Maybe he’d pick her up a Blasto keychain when he took EDI to see the stupid movie. Speaking of...

“So, next time we’re on the Citadel, it’s Blasto…what, fifteen?” When she didn’t respond, Joker looked over with a frown. “Uh...EDI?”

“You do not enjoy the Blasto movies, Jeff.”

“Because they’re dumb, even for my tastes.” They were dumb: the scripts were bland, no one could act, the sets were obviously painted backdrops. Probably not even painted, just screenshots blown up big enough to be a little fuzzy. “But a bet’s a bet.” Joker grinned to show the resigned tone was just a joke.

EDI adjusted a setting on the display in front of her. “I shall investigate show times that prove viable for our next shore leave on the Citadel.”

Joker swung his chair to face the mech. “Alright, EDI, what’s going on? You love winning our bets – you have a blast listening to me complain the length of this thing.” He paused, suddenly nervous. “You…do enjoy that, right?”

“I always enjoy your company, Jeff.” EDI sat still for a moment. That always creeped him out a little - synthetics didn’t have all the little movements organics did unconsciously. He hated how it made her look like a doll. “I am…distracted. But don’t worry,” and finally, she looked at him, that playful smile bringing life to her face, “I will relegate all non-priority tasks to my secondary processors while we are out. You will have my full attention while you complain.”

“Well…OK, then.”

Swinging his chair back to the front, Joker shrugged it off. He didn’t think EDI could get distracted, but girls were always thinking about twelve things at once, and EDI could run dozens of programs simultaneously. Maybe she finally had enough on her plate that she couldn’t compute answers in the blink of an eye. He’d check in with her later, if he remembered.

He needed to remember.

Joker set a reminder to flash in a few hours. Lunch was optional; EDI was not.


Sam rolled her shoulders as she waited for the elevator. Joker liked his coffee almost as sweet as Donnelly; she and Gabbi had bemoaned the lack of taste held by the men on this ship. While it could probably be blamed on the military training, it didn’t make it any less painful to ruin a perfectly dark cup with all that…glucose.

The elevator door opened to reveal Diana Allers. While she couldn’t understand that awful dress, Sam had found Diana to be a clever, observant woman. Right now, she looked more like a frustrated one. “Hey, you seen the Commander today? We were scheduled for an interview, but I think I’ve been ghosted.”

“I haven’t actually.” Sam frowned. “He’s usually pretty good about his appointments.”

“I know.” Diana laughed. “It was a nice change, actually. Usually command thinks of me as a useful nuisance, at best. I think the Commander actually kinda likes me.”

“He does.” Sam offered an apologetic half-smile. Diana did her job, but she also tried to be part of the team, integrating herself into the Normandy’s daily life. She chatted with people in the mess, helped move inventory when they reloaded at the Citadel, never emptied the coffee pot without setting it to brew a fresh one. It helped with gathering information for her feeds, having the crew think well of her, but Sam suspected Diana might just be…nice. “I don’t think he likes some of the questions your viewers have, but Shepard’s never said anything bad about you.”

Diana perked up, pleased. “He should see the questions I don’t ask. There’s at least three a day about his manly physique and brooding good looks.”

“The Commander doesn’t brood?”

“Yeah, but he’s got great eyebrows for it.” The reporter looked around. “He’s not up here, is he?”

“I haven’t seen the Commander all morning.”

Diana raised her eyebrows in mock horror. “Don’t tell me he’s actually getting some sleep.”

“That would be headline news.”

With a sigh, Diana stepped away from the elevator door. “You headed down?”

“Yeah,” Traynor stepped inside, prodding the symbol for the Crew Deck on the holographic display. “Dr. Chakwas needs to see me.”

“Food poisoning, again?”

“No.”

They both laughed. Diana turned to her as the elevator door opened on the lower deck. “If you see our illustrious leader, let him know I’m looking for him?”

“You’re looking for Shepard?”

Both women turned to see Garrus, one hand raised to hit the Call button. He was the first Turian Sam had dealt with regularly, and she still wasn’t used to how tall he was.

Diana, suffering no such distraction, piped up. “Yes, actually. Have you seen him?”

“He’s asleep.”

“No,” Diana gasped. “So the rumors are true?” Garrus looked distressed as she turned, grabbing Sam’s arm dramatically. “This could be the story that makes my career. Confirmed: Commander Shepard Really Does Sleep.”

“Watch this space,” Sam grinned, mimicking a reporter her father enjoyed.

Diana matched her mood, shooting Garrus a cheeky wink. “No worries, big guy. The secret is safe with me. I’ve got plenty of depressing statistics to work with for my next segment.”

“Oh…good.” The Turian looked strangely relieved, as if the joke hadn’t quite landed.

“You headed up or down?”

“Down, actually.”

Diana stepped to one side, gesturing for Garrus to join her. “I can keep you company to the Engineering level. Sam?”

“This is my stop.” Stepping past Garrus, Sam patted his arm. “You off night shift, yet?”

“Yes, finally.”

“It’ll be nice to…” Sam trailed off, thinking of how often she’d actually see Garrus away from the Normandy’s guns. “Uh, I’m sure Tali will appreciate seeing you around.”

Garrus’ mandibles twitched in what she’d come to recognize as the Turian version of flustered. “Maybe.”

Diana rolled her eyes as the elevator door closed, hiding the two of them from Sam’s view. Sighing with amusement at the idea of quiet Garrus surviving another round of Diana’s mischievous questions, Sam walked around to the MedBay. She nodded to Sargent Michaels as he passed, diligent as ever about his daily walking regime.

Dr. Chakwas was sitting at her desk, reading over something when Sam walked in. “You wanted to see me?”

“Specialist Traynor, yes.” Dr. Chakwas marked something on the datapad and set it down, standing to face Sam. “I apologize for the late notice, but you might need to run interference for the Commander today. He won’t be in, as it were.”

“Or course.” Sam smiled. “Finally taking some much-needed time off?” The other woman hesitated, summoning to mind the image of Garrus’ too-relieved face. “Doctor?”

“Shepard will be unavailable for the next few days. At least to anyone off this ship who isn’t Alliance Command.”

Admiral Hackett specifically, though she didn’t say it. Sam felt cold spread across her shoulders. “Is the Commander alright?”

Dr. Chakwas sighed and walked over to her, placing a steadying hand on her upper arm. “Sam, I can’t discuss one patient with another. You know that.” She held up the other hand as Sam opened her mouth to speak. “Shepard will be fine, because we look after our own, stubborn Commanders included. And I’m sure the details will come out.”

Swallowing back her nerves, Sam tried again. “Is Shepard OK?”

“He’s upstairs, resting. There was…an incident, last night, and I need your help keeping the Normandy functioning with regards to outside communication until Shepard’s back on his feet.” Dr. Chakwas gave her an encouraging smile. “Can you do that?”

“Of course.”

“Sam.”

“Commander Shepard is always fine.” Sam winced at the wobble in her voice. “He’ll be up and about in no time.”

Dr. Chakwas watched her for a moment. Something in Sam’s face failed to reassure her, because the doctor pulled her into a comforting hug. “He really will be alright.”

Taking a deep breath, Sam let the older woman shield her from this, just for a moment. Then she nodded and pulled away. “I know.”

“That’s the other thing.” Dr. Chakwas looked almost guilty. “We’re still informing people. The crew in general hasn’t been told anything.”

Sam thought back to Garrus’ panicked look. “I don’t gossip.”

“I know you don’t,” Dr. Chakwas said, fondly. “I just meant you should assume ignorance unless the other person says something. Though I’m sure everyone will know something by tonight.”

“So,” Sam said, mind spinning up a list of things she’d need to take care of, “reschedule meetings, reroute inquiries for information, stall anyone who really does need to speak to Shepard directly.”

“It might help to lean on Tali and Garrus. Shepard would have consulted them on whatever he was doing, so they might know who those calls could be rerouted to, or if some politician is just blustering their way onto the wrong person’s To Do list.”

“Not Major Alenko?”

This time, the hesitation didn’t bother her. For all their subtlety, the whole crew knew. Of course anything bad enough to take Shepard out of the game would pull Alenko’s attention. “No, not the Major. Not yet.”

“Stupid question.”

“A logical question,” Dr. Chakwas corrected her. “Kaidan would be the next ranking Alliance Officer.”

“But he’s occupied with other matters.”

Dr. Chakwas looked sad for a moment. “Yes.”

Sam bit the inside of her lip, worried. If they were going to convince Alliance Command that neither...whatever had happened...nor the relationship between their ranking officers was a problem that needed their attention, she was going to have to be careful how she moved which meeting. Sam squared her shoulders. “Whatever you need, Doctor. We look after our own.”

Dr. Chakwas smiled at her. Once again, she saw relief where she wasn’t expecting it. “You’re a good soul, Specialist.”

It stung, just a little, that some part of the doctor had thought Sam might need convincing. “It’s my crew, too.”

Patting her on the arm, Dr. Chakwas dismissed her, turning back to her desk and whatever she’d been working on.

Sam stepped out of the MedBay. She wouldn’t think about all the people who didn’t know. She wouldn’t worry about why her CO had been absent all morning. She certainly wouldn’t think about how Joker must not know, because the man wore his emotions on his prickly sleeve.

Striding across the mess, Sam pulled down a coffee mug and the box of sugar. Coffee for the pilot, then a mess of paperwork to help the Commander. She could do this.


It fascinated him, how being nervous was a universal thing. James studied the Turian in front of them, arms crossed over his chest as he thought about what Garrus hadn’t said. “Why can’t Loco go on any missions?”

“He’s injured.”

That frustratingly smooth voice, never fazed by gunfire or idiotic politics. Well, two could play at that game. “He wasn’t injured yesterday.”

The weird pieces on Garrus’ jaw moved, giving him away. “No, he wasn’t.”

Steve shifted next to him. He’d waved James over shortly after Garrus stepped out of the elevator. It was rare the Turian graced the shuttle bay with his presence outside of a mission, preferring his guns and the Port Observation Lounge when he wanted to chat. Still, that didn’t mean Scars had bad news, just that he’d come down here for a reason. A reason he didn’t really want to talk about, apparently.

Proving he’d always have more patience, Steve waded into the conversation. “Is there anything we can do, besides plan to work around Shepard’s absence?”

Garrus blew air through his nose. “Maybe.” He looked even more uncomfortable; the guy really hated to be the bearer of bad news. “I’m sure there’ll be…things to talk about. And I’m certainly no good at that sort of thing.”

“That’s OK,” James teased, “Loco doesn’t like to talk about himself anyway.” Garrus dropped his head, looking broodier than normal. “Scars?”

“This isn’t some mandated medical leave for staying up too many nights in a row, is it?” Steve asked. James didn’t like the way he’d asked that, like he knew something James didn’t. Steve crossed his arms and shifted his stance, like he had all the time in the world for Garrus to explain things.

Garrus looked at the pilot. “I couldn’t say.”

“Sounds like somebody got hurt.”

Garrus shifted again, jaw pieces shifting continually. “Does it?”

Steve nodded solemnly. “Shepard?”

It was never gonna help anybody stop calling them bird people when Turians went around cocking their heads like that. It was the angle, James thought. Humans just went to the side; Garrus had his head twisted, just enough to look like a robin studying an unfortunate worm. “Is there someone on this crew who’d want to hurt Shepard?”

Steve shrugged, dropping his gaze to hide that look in his eyes that meant he was remembering things that were better thought of with a glass of something strong. “If I had to guess, it sounds like this war is getting to people. Maybe Shepard thought he hadn’t shed enough blood for his cause.”

“Whoa, what?” James turned abruptly to stare at Steve. He didn’t like that implication at all, didn’t like that Steve’s thought had jumped there so fast. “That’s not what Scars said.” He turned to Garrus, gesturing at Steve. “That’s not what you said.”

“No,” Steve agreed, “but that’s what he was going to.”

James felt hot all over, memories of paperwork and vid-calls swimming unwelcome to the surface. It wasn’t the same. He wouldn’t be the one calling Alliance Command if something happened. This was a kind of unexpected attack, but there was no bad guy he could shoot, could shove off a ledge and hope gravity did the work. “Loco wouldn’t do that.”

“War’s hard on everyone,” Steve said, quietly.

“I don’t care!” It came out louder than he meant, drawing a few curious looks from the techs working nearby. Forcing a steadying breath, James glared at Garrus. “The Commander’s different. He can take it. He’d never...“ James faltered, finishing lamely, “he’d never leave us to finish this on our own.”

He hated the way Scars was studying him. Like he was piecing together James’ past without needing to see his file. Turning away, his hand caught on the edge of the console. Not again; he couldn’t keep losing COs. The plastisteel bit into his palm as his grip tightened. Bad enough to lose Tony to the enemy, but Shepard to his own fucking hand…

“It wasn’t a suicide attempt.” Garrus’ tone was firm, certain. “I know what some of our past missions look like, but Shepard’s never wanted to die, no matter how reckless his actions looked.”

“Then why the hell would he hurt himself?”

Garrus blew air through his nose, again. “He hates those damn Cerberus implants.”

James looked back over his shoulder. “What?”

It was rare that James felt the difference between the old team and the new, but watching Garrus debate how much to divulge drove home all the missions he hadn't been there for. His anger flared for a different reason, mixing with the acidic fear in his gut.

Steve, perceptive as always, stepped closer to him, settling his hand casually over James’. It diffused some of it, curbing the instinct to defend by attacking. Reminded James that he wasn’t the only new kid on the block, the only plain-Jane soldier worried about their CO. The only one confused by this curveball that the enemy hadn’t thrown.

Garrus was talking, explaining things the Alliance had guessed at when Loco had been arrested. “When Cerberus put Shepard back together, they needed to use cybernetic implants to supplement some things.” He tapped the scars on his own face. “Those glowing lines? A side effect. Been a sore point since he woke up.”

“They are a little creepy,” Steve admitted ruefully.

“Imagine seeing them on your own face.”

“I’d rather not.”

“That’s all this is?” James tried not to sound incredulous. “Loco’s mad that he glows?”

“Probably mad about a few other things, too.” There was a bite to the words, a line James had blundered across. “Cerberus doesn’t have a lot of fans on the Normandy.” Cerberus didn’t have any fans on the Normandy.

“Man, fuck them.” James waved his free hand in dismissal, but dropped his gaze to show he knew he’d been too cavalier. “Those pendejos couldn’t befriend their own dog.” He stole a glance to see if the message had been received, but the Turian had moved on.

Garrus was watching Steve, those sharp-shooter eyes picking the shuttle pilot apart. “Something else?”

Steve gave as good as he got, studying the sniper as he fished for the rest of his information. “You said Mr. Vega is next in line for running the away missions.”

The teasing came on instinct. “You don’t trust me, Esteban?”

“I do,” Steve said, not looking at him, “but protocol says it should be Major Alenko?”

James frowned. “Yeah, Scars, why me?”

Garrus looked between them, his voice back to his usual, vaguely amused dryness. “Really?”

“Yeah, really. Why not the Major?” James turned, but paused at the look of nostalgia on Steve’s face. He looked between the two men, eyebrows raised in inquiry. “What am I missing?”

“If you’re going to advance up the ranks, Vega, you might want to practice being a little more observant,” Garrus said. “Like noticing when your senior officers start spending a lot more time together.”

“Well, Loco missed his friend,” James said, pride wounded. “Friends need time to catch up. Especially from what I hear about the history between these two.”

“Right.” Garrus gave him a pointed look. “And I really need to visit Engineering three times a day.”

Oh.

“Oh.”

Steve looked away to hide his smile, patting James’ hand to ease the sting of betrayal. “We’ll plan accordingly, Garrus. Just…keep us posted?”

Garrus nodded. “Of course.” He gave James a once over. “You OK, Lieutenant?”

“Yeah. Sure. Just…feeling stupid.” James shook his head. “Why do I get the feeling I’m the only person on this ship who didn’t know?”

“Maybe not the only one,” Steve murmured.

“Well, focus on feeling authoritative,” Garrus suggested. “You could be in charge of some violent smartasses under fire in the near future.” He crossed his arms, rocking back into a familiar stance. “I hear we can be a handful.”

James cleared his throat. Now it was his turn to feel nervous. “We don’t have a mission scheduled for another week.”

“I’ll let the Reapers know.” Turning, the familiar orange of an omni-tool flared to life as the Garrus headed back upstairs. Probably checking on some new calibration...thing.

James watched him walk back to the elevator. The guy looked a lot more relaxed now that his job was done. Misery loves company after all.

“You can do this, Mr. Vega.” Steve patted his hand again before walking back to his terminal. “Don’t doubt yourself.”

“I’m not.”

Steve looked back, eyebrows raised.

“I’m not!”

Steve tapped at his screen. “I’m gonna see what I can do about getting us something strictly for enjoyment in the next supply drop.” He paused, looking up at nothing while he mused. “You think the crew would enjoy some pretentious, Earth-grown coffee?”

“I have no idea.” James frowned at the abrupt subject change. “I thought the Alliance didn’t spring for specialty items?”

“It doesn’t,” Steve answered, “but I think there’s gonna be some late nights and low spirits, and it’s the little things that get you through.”

James nodded. “Like coffee that doesn’t taste like charcoal.”

“Precisely, Mr. Vega.”

James looked around at the other soldiers in the shuttle bay. Studiously going about their jobs, unaware that distress was compromising their superiors. Dedicated to beating the Reapers into the ground where the giant buggy bastards belonged.

“Stop over-thinking it, Mr. Vega. You’ll be great.” Steve was watching him. Maybe it wasn’t so surprising he’d missed the burgeoning relationship between his superior officers - he always forgot Esteban had blue eyes. Blue eyes that always saw more than he wanted.

“I’m not over-thinking.” James ran his hand along the edge of the console. “Just...the last time I was in charge, things didn’t end so well.”

“We’re at war. Bad things are going to happen whether you’re in charge or not.” Steve offered a lopsided smile. “If it helps, I’m sure the team you’d be going out with will argue with any dumb ideas you suggest.”

“Yeah. Yeah, probably.” James rapped his knuckles against the console and started back toward the weapons bench he’d claimed as his own. “Is it weird that potential insubordination is comforting?”

“It’s only insubordination if they’re Alliance soldiers.” Steve finished adjusting something on his terminal. “I think this is just people using teamwork to try and save the world.”

“Just that?”

Steve shrugged unconcernedly. “Less paperwork."

Walking back to the space he’d carved out for himself, James considered the pull-up bar he’d installed. Muscle maintenance. Clear his head.

But his head was pretty clear. He knew how to lead, how to think under pressure. And if he thought about it, he didn’t think Loco would take himself out of the game. Saren, Cerberus, all the noise from the Council, the running ticker that was the body count for this war, and James had yet to see Loco flinch. Not to mention the...positive changes around here.

In hindsight, Loco did stand pretty close to the Major. There’d definitely been something about Mars James hadn’t been able to put his finger on. And oblivious as he was, even he’d noticed Loco had been smiling more.

Toying with a box of new mods Esteban had gotten for him, James sighed and let the mess drop to the back of his mind. Worrying wouldn’t help, and he’d never been any good wrapped up in his own head. If a mission came up, he’d do what was needed of him. Lead to the best of his abilities, trust the people he’d been out in the field with for most of a year now, fight like hell for his world and everyone else’s. Hold on to that gut feeling that said Loco would be back out there with them in no time.

Chapter Text

“I just don’t see why the Alliance made it bigger! There was no point to the thing in the first place and the human military is hardly known for its emphasis on aesthetics.”

Joker’s sigh was her only response. Sighs had been his main form of response since she’d burst in here half an hour ago, venting her frustrations of the morning on the only captive audience member she could find.

Now that she thought about it, though, Tali wasn’t sure the pilot had ever actually been up to Shepard’s cabin – he might not know what she was talking about. “The window, in Shepard’s ceiling.” She leaned a little to one side, trying to see if Joker was actually doing any work, or just tapping at his displays because his anti-social soul didn’t like visitors who weren’t Shepard. “The Alliance made it larger when they retrofitted the Normandy.”

He didn’t sound any more interested after her clarification. For all his conspiracy theories and dour predictions concerning any authority figure’s motives, the man was being frustratingly unresponsive. “They left me my leather seat – that’s all that matters.”

“Which just begs the question! All the changes to the Normandy are functional or to conform with Alliance regs. What, Admiral Anderson just really wanted to look at the stars?” Tali paused, looking out one of the windows on the bridge. “I mean, they are beautiful…”

“Tali, is there a reason you’re up here?” Joker twisted around in his seat to look at her, pushing his hat up to his signature “I’m annoyed” angle. “Not that I don’t love your company, but you’re kinda rambling.”

“I am not rambling.”

“I thought you covered that window. ”

Tali threw her hands up in frustration. “I did! It bothers Shepard! But the Alliance took down my covering when they made the blasted thing bigger!.” She shook her head. “Bad enough he never says anything about being upset, but after last time I thought we’d at least got that sorted.”

“Last time?” Joker resettled his hat, finally paying attention.

“Um, when we worked for Cerberus.” Tali winced at how high her voice had gotten. “I installed a retractable covering, so Shepard could cover the window when he wanted, but he…he could still let me come up and build those model ships under the stars.”

“And you’re this mad the Alliance didn’t keep your cool design when they decided to supersize the thing?” Spinning his chair around, Joker gave her a funny look. “Tali...why are you up here?”

Tali tugged at her fingers, an nervous habit from when she’d first learned about her father’s Geth research. Sometimes she wished the men in her life would stick to activities that weren’t so hard to bring up in conversation.

After finishing in the bathroom, Tali had dumped the various types of cloth into the hamper, leaving the cooling tea on the desk for when the boys woke up. She crept down onto the lower level of the cabin to take a few notes on the new window, and had ultimately given into the need to check on her friends once more. Shepard’s face was still half-hidden, pressed against Kaidan’s chest like that, but they both looked like they were sleeping peacefully. It was hard to believe the actual extent of the damage.

And she’d resolved to tell Joker what was going on. He needed to know as their pilot, but he deserved to know as their friend, and he certainly did not deserve to find out second-hand from an overheard conversation in the cafeteria. But now that she was up here, looking at their self-proclaimed “Grinch”, she wasn’t sure how to start. So she’d babbled about the window instead.

“Tali?” Joker asked, faint concern edging her name.

Damn it. “Um, I uh, I need to tell you something.”

Joker rested his chin on one hand. “Let me guess - it has nothing to do with windows.”

“Well...no.” Tali cleared her throat. “But it is about Shepard.”

Joker sat back up. “Is the Commander OK?”

Tali felt her suit flex, reacting to the increase in heartbeat and adrenaline. “He will be. Shepard is -” She stopped, debated the order of events, and started, again. “None of us really trust Cerberus, and while we’re grateful for Shepard’s life, there are still a few...lingering questions about how he’s, um, alive.”

“Not from all of us.” Joker sat back, lips turned down in annoyance. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Admiral.”

“It’s not me that’s looking,” Tali replied. “Back when this was a Cerberus vessel, Shepard had trouble with those new scars of his. He wanted to know why they glow.”

Joker gave her a look, like he was trying to figure out why they were still talking about this. “They are a little unnerving.”

“Not as unnerving as the urge to...check?” Tali shifted from foot to foot. “There was a point, an evening, when Shepard...tried to access his cybernetics. He didn’t get very far, human skin is quite thick, but he, uh, tried.”

Joker was watching her in silence now. It was never a good sign when their pilot stopped talking. After a long pause, “he...what?”

“Chakwas dealt with it,” Tali tried to reassure him, “it was just a bunch of ugly scratches. Scary, but no lasting damage.”

“But our friend hurt himself.” Joker said the words slowly, like they didn’t make sense. “That’s...a bad thing, Tali.” Frowning, Joker looked up sharply. “Hold on. You said ‘last time’.”

“I did.”

“Traynor was up here asking if I’d seen Shepard today. I told her no and that she shouldn’t worry.”

“She shouldn’t; Shepard will be fine.”

“‘Will be’?” Joker asked. “As in ‘isn’t’? As in ‘this time’? As in,” his voice dropped as he glared at her, “‘hurt himself’, again?”

Tali crossed her arms. “Yes, he did. Worse than a few scratches, too.”

Joker’s anger was tinged with alarm. “What did he do?”

“He,” Tali dug her heels in and got the words out all at once, “he tried to remove his face, so he could see what Cerberus had put underneath.”

She waited, watching the gears turn in Joker’s head. She could almost hear him replaying her words over, looking for a less terrible interpretation of events. Hazel eyes flicked around the cockpit, unable to focus on anything while the mind behind them raced.

After a long moment, those eyes settled back on her. “They saved him.” Joker’s tone was faint. “Those miserable, murdering assholes saved him. Who...who actually cares how?”

Tali squinted at him. “‘Who cares how’? Shepard, the Alliance, the Council.”

“But Shepard would know if he wasn’t himself,” Joker said. “He’d know if he’d come back...different.”

“Would he?” Tali asked. “Why would Cerberus build a fake that knew it was a fake?”

“But he’s not a fake,” Joker snapped. “He’s Shepard. Our Shepard.”

Tali uncrossed her arms, hands settling on her hips. “I know that.”

“Why does he need to check?” Joker’s hands were clenching and releasing around the arms of his chair. “When did this happen? How long have you known?” Joker refocused his glare on her. “Tali, when did -”

“This morning.” Cutting him off, Tali thought about it. “Or last night. I’m not too sure.”

Joker’s eyebrows rose with his pitch, disbelieving. “How can you not be sure?”

“I wasn’t there. Chakwas called me and Garrus in to tell us.”

That caught him off guard, Joker’s head jerking back in that unconscious movement humans favored when they weren’t expecting a name. “Garrus?”

“Yes,” Tali said. “He helped last time.”

“Can I -” Joker rubbed at his face. “You do get that it was a dick thing, not telling me this before? That my best friend was capable of hurting himself, that he was miserable enough to try?”

Guilt pricked at her heart. “I do.”

“And I’m going to let it go, because you told me this time. Only apparently, Shepard’s been hurt for hours and I’m only just learning about it, which means I’ve been telling people bullshit all morning!” Throwing his arms up, Joker finished “Garrus knows. What the hell is Garrus gonna do, calibrate him?”

“Hey!”

“Who else knows?”

“What?”

“Who...else...knows?” Joker leaned forward. “I’ve been here since the beginning. I knew Shepard when he was still Anderson’s second. I’ve done Geth and Spectres and Collectors and every kind of politician.” Joker flung a hand to one side, eyes never leaving Tali’s face. “I was part of this crew every single time Shepard stepped onto the Normandy and I’ve never once questioned who or what he might be. That bastard died saving me,” Joker’s voice rose, cracking before he wrestled back control. “So tell me who else knows!”

Tali pulled at her fingers, this time more for something to do with her hands. She understood feeling left out - he had been - but he wasn’t the only one who’d been here from the beginning. “Kaidan found him; I don’t think he’s left Shepard’s side since it happened. Last time, Miranda, because she was watching all of us, and Mordin figured it out.”

“What about Liara?”

“I never told her,” Tali said, the guilt still slithering through. “I don’t know what she knows, but she wasn’t on the ship, and after that night, none of us ever talked about it.”

“You have to tell her.” Tali was getting a little tired of everyone telling her that. “Anybody else?”

The cockpit felt small. She could hear the processors in her suit whirring and humming, feel the barest current of air around her neck.

“Tali. Is there anybody else?”

Tali didn’t look around when she spoke. “EDI.”

Tali watched Joker turn, slowly, for once moving as if his bones might break, to look at his co-pilot.

“EDI?”

The mech hadn’t moved since Joker had spun his chair to face Tali. It didn’t move now. Through the ship’s speakers, EDI’s voice was distant. “I was needed to facilitate contact between individuals. And while I do not actively monitor the security feeds, I do have access to them.”

Joker sat quietly, again. Tali thought he might be ignoring them when he spoke. “Someone should tell Traynor. Shepard never misses a shift. She’s probably worried, even after I told her not to.”

EDI’s voice stayed in the Normandy’s speakers. “Traynor has been told.”

Joker nodded. “Good.” He swung his legs to the side, hauling himself out of the chair. Tali reached to help him as he stumbled. “Don’t touch me!”

Recoiling, Tali stepped back, watching Joker catch himself on his chair. His shoulders were hunched. “Don’t...just don’t.”

“Joker.”

“Chakwas can hide behind her medical ethics, but you should have told me before. He’s my friend, too. Someone…should have told me.”

Pushing off the chair, Joker made his way to the cockpit door. Tali watched him go. “Joker, we –“

“You had your chance.” Joker glared at her. “You had a year to tell me Shepard was hurting himself.”

“He hasn’t been,” Tali argued. “It’s not like this was a regular thing. It was just once –“

“But it isn’t ‘just once’ anymore, is it?” Joker hissed. “It happened, again. Tell me,” his voice cold, “if it hadn’t been Kaidan who found him, would you guys have kept this time a secret, too?”

Tali flinched at the accusation, but kept her voice level. “Joker, that’s not fair.“

“But that’s what happened, isn’t it? ‘Last time’?”

“You trusted Cerberus!” Tali snapped. “You were willing to work for them because it meant being part of Shepard’s team again. You were the only one they didn’t have to trick or tolerate. You worked for Cerberuse before you knew Shepard would be back.”

Joker watched her from his position near the door, stooped form tight as poorly strung cable.

Forcing a deep breath, Tali reached for one of Shepard’s olive branches. “That’s not why we didn’t tell you. We didn’t tell anyone. We...we thought it would be safer, that way.”

She wasn’t sure what the olives were supposed to do, anyway.

“Watch the ship.” Flicking his eyes up, Joker scoffed. “Or don’t. I’m going upstairs.”

“He’s sleeping.“

“Then I’ll wait!”

Joker walked out of the cockpit, brittle bones no doubt paining him as he forced himself away from her.

Tali stood, silent as the doors closed, sealing her in. “It wasn’t about excluding him,” she said. “It was just…never the right time. And then it had been so long…”

“Jeff will understand.” The mech still hadn’t moved. “He’s hurting. He will be alright.”

“Will he?” Tali looked up at the ceiling. “Damn it, Shepard.” She leaned against the interior bulkhead, tugging at her fingers. “Selfish, foolish Bosh’tet.”

Chapter Text

The even sound of breathing, the slight rise and fall of the chest beneath his head; comforting sensations that ran counter to the feeling of cold across his bare skin where the covers had slid down. John sighed and buried his nose against the soft fabric. His sleep-fogged mind tried to remember how he’d ever managed to get any rest, jammed behind a dumpster in the wind tunnels disguised as city alleyways.

Running his hand along Kaidan’s side, John frowned slightly as he searched for the displaced covers. He couldn’t remember going to bed. It wouldn’t be the first time Kaidan had dragged him, half-conscious, away from a pile of reports, but John could usually remember something about it happening. A few teasing words, an arm around his waist, that warm chuckle in his ear.

Cracking one eye open to help with the search, John caught the edge of the blanket and tugged. He settled it across his shoulders, tucking Kaidan in too with a small smile. John winced, clapping a hand to his cheek at the twinge of pain.

John lurched upwards, one hand on his injured cheek, eyes wide, as the memories flooded back. Fragments and feelings, but enough to piece the story together.

“No…”

He’d done it, again. Tried to peel back the skin on his face to see what was underneath. He hadn’t even really wanted to; the fear and nerves had been clawing at his throat and he just couldn’t think. He remembered Ryan’s knife and the sharp relief it had brought, if only for an instant.

The bandage was rough under his fingers. Moving slowly, John felt over his face, heart dropping as he logged the injuries.

He’d meant what he’d said to Tali. John hadn’t thought about his implants beyond the occasional medical scan in months. He certainly hadn’t intended to…to do this.

His hand stopped over his mouth as the memories played out. Panic in Kaidan’s voice, in his face. Brief moments of touch as he asked John questions. He thought he remembered Chakwas, too – a sedative would explain how he’d slept so soundly.

Running his fingers over the bandage on his jaw, John saw a flash of himself in the mirror. Skin loose, eyes wide, chest heaving as he staggered back. Biting back a cry, John bent under the weight of fear and regret, breathing hard through his nose as he tried to block out the pain.

“Hey.”

Looking up, John caught sleepy brown eyes watching him. Kaidan shifted his head on the pillow, a faint smile tugging at his lips.

His insides felt like they were writhing, caught between his guilt and the anxiety about what had happened to him. But Kaidan waited, watching, patient as he ever was with John’s night terrors.

Forcing himself to move, John laid back down, head coming to rest back on Kaidan’s chest, right arm draped across his middle. The familiar weight of Kaidan’s hand rested on his head, thumb rubbing back and forth along his hairline.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“Not really.”

Kaidan’s chest rose and fell more dramatically with the sigh. “You don’t really get a choice this time.”

John felt his squirming insides start to settle at the reminder that he wasn’t alone in this. “I know.”

“You scared the hell out of me.” Kaidan’s voice was quiet, and a little sad. “You know you don’t have to talk to me, right? If you’d rather I get Tali or call Jack –“

“I like talking to you.” John twisted so he could see Kaidan’s face. “And I owe you an explanation, at the very least.”

Kaidan’s smile had wilted, still there but only just. “I meant before tonight. Or last night, I guess.” His hand slid down to rest at the base of John’s neck. “You did a number on yourself, and you wouldn’t have felt the need if you were comfortable with the way things are.”

“Kaidan –“

“I’m not offended.” Kaidan's nose twitched, caught in the lie. “Well, maybe. Hurt, mostly.” He sighed again and closed his eyes, bracing himself. “I’m supposed to help you with the bad things; a soft place to land. I know sometimes I get caught up in my own, smaller tragedies, but I didn’t think I was this blind.”

“There are no small tragedies,” John interrupted. “Your students are just as important as anyone we save.”

Kaidan opened his eyes, the smile returned but sad. “There you go, worrying about everyone else.”

John sat up, shifting so that he was lying next to Kaidan, head pillowed on one arm. Kaidan rolled onto his side, mirroring him. “I don’t have the energy to worry about myself. There are too many important people who need saving.” John lifted a hand and ran a finger down Kaidan’s nose. “People like you.”

“I don’t want to be saved if we lose you again.”

John faltered at the peace in Kaidan’s voice. “Don’t say that. Please don’t say that.”

“You seem to think we all just…went on with our lives, after the SR1 went down.” Kaidan caught John’s hand in his own. “Losing you was one of the worst things that happened to any of us, and so soon after Saren and…and Virmire. And I…I wasn’t off helping the helpless to deal with my grief.” Kaidan laced their fingers together, eyes downcast. “You would have been so disappointed in me. Ash would have kicked my ass.”

“You were in pain.”

“Yeah?” Heat crept into Kaidan’s tone, dark brows drawn down as they came back to what he’d done. “How much pain are you in, John? Because happy people don’t peel off their skin.”

John opened his mouth, then closed it. He let his gaze roam about the room, careful to avoid looking up. He sighed. “It just…all got to be too much. All at once.”

Kaidan scoffed. “There’s no way that was the result of one bad day.”

John grimaced. “I was trying to wait up for you, but I fell asleep at the desk. The…” John stopped, impressions from the nightmare pushing at the edges of his thoughts. “It was a bad one. I woke up, but the nightmare never quite…ended.” He looked at Kaidan, offering an apologetic grin. “It seemed like the best course of action, at the time.”

Kaidan was studying him with a worried expression. “How do we keep it from ever being the best course of action, again?”

“Well,” John summoned a blithe expression, “I don’t seem to have any trouble when you sleep with me.”

Kaidan looked at him for a moment, then snorted. “I’m being serious.”

“So am I.” John lifted their hands to his lips, dropping a kiss on Kaidan’s knuckles. “The nightmares aren’t so bad, when I wake up to you.”

Kaidan half-buried his face in the pillow, failing to hide a real smile. “You’re awful.”

John held Kaidan’s hand against his heart, doing his best to pout when Kaidan tried half-heartedly to pull free. He let the moment turn serious again, choosing his words carefully. “I know we’ll have to talk about this.” John tried not to look chagrined. “I imagine I’ll have to talk to a lot of people, this time.”

“Chakwas did mention there was a last time.” He was grateful for the lack of accusation. “Something about Tali?”

John’s nose scrunched up at the thought. “Yeah. That’s going to be rough.” He gripped Kaidan’s hand tighter as he refocused. “But I want you to know…I need you to know…that I need you. Here, by my side.” John dropped his chin and peered up at Kaidan, suddenly shy. “You love me, and that gives me more strength than you can possibly know.”

Kaidan squeezed John’s hand in return. “I’m not going anywhere, ever again.”

The door to the cabin hissed opened, admitting a shaft of bright light from the antechamber. A familiar, uneven tread, accompanied by a slight breathiness that came from the usually sedentary having to hike the length of the ship. “Commander? Rise and shine! Shepard?”

John rolled onto his back to see his pilot limping toward the steps. “Joker?”

“Don’t you dare sound surprised.”

John raised his eyebrows at the accusing tone, glancing sideways at Kaidan to see if the other man knew what this was about. Kaidan slipped his hand out of John’s with a supportive look and one last, encouraging squeeze. John threw back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Joker had paused, looking at something on the desk.

With a nod, he picked up a mug and lobbed it at John’s head, cold tea splashing along its route.

“Hey!”

“We,” Joker ignored him, reaching the top of the steps, “are busting our asses to keep this crew safe. To keep everyone safe, despite Reapers and Cerberus and the Council’s continued disbelief,” grabbing the handrail, Joker started down, “and our leader is up here, carving his face up like a 20th Century holiday ham!”

“Joker, I’m fine. It’s not like I tried to kill myself.” Seeing Kaidan flinch, John chided himself for being a little too blunt.

“Did anybody else know that?” Stepping onto the floor, Joker posed dramatically, as if remembering something obvious. “Oh, that’s right, some of us did, since this was Take Two.”

John stood, one hand held out to stem the tide. “Listen, there –“

“No, you listen!” Joker swore as he slipped on the dark liquid. The crack as he caught himself on the handrail made John wince. Kaidan moved as if to get up, but Joker wasn’t finished.

“Do you know how much it sucked after you died? You thought nobody was listening to you, but they really didn’t listen to the rest of us. Everybody was mad at the humans because the Council was killed, as if Sovereign wasn’t the one blowing up ships. And you told us to wait!” Joker stood unsteadily, right arm now tucked against his side. “I had to hang up on the Asari thanking me for saving her, because the Alliance was ordered to hang back, to ensure we had the forces necessary to take out Sovereign.”

John lowered his hand, throat tight. “I’m sorry that –“

“So obviously everyone thought humanity was a necessary evil after that, only they were all too scared of Commander Shepard and his crew of mutineers to say it!” Joker took a few steps closer, grabbing at his arm. “Shit, ow.” He stopped, then pointed an accusing finger at John. “Then you died. Because of me. And then, then they could say whatever they wanted.”

“I died because of the Collectors,” John interrupted, frustration bubbling up again at knowing his friend still blamed himself.

“I heard you.” Joker's voice cracked. “Shouting through the comms for me to close the door to the escape pod. That stupid pipe exploded and blasted you out into space, and you had the nerve to be worried about me!”

Joker paused, left hand pressed against his other side now, higher up, as if his ribs were hurting him. Kaidan did sit up this time, catching the distressed pilot’s attention.

“And what about everyone else? Liara said she volunteered to come get me – I could have been responsible for her death instead.” Joker threw his good arm up in desperation. “You were the one we needed. We lost Williams and kept going. Losing Liara wouldn’t have fazed the Council. You could have left Kaidan behind instead. But no, you died, and so everything we’d fought for meant nothing.”

John shot a glance at Kaidan, but the man was still as stone, perched on the far side of the bed. If they didn’t talk about Horizon, they never spoke of Virmire at all. John flicked his gaze back to their visitor. “That’s unkind, Joker.”

“Unkind?” Joker gave a humorless laugh. “What was ‘unkind’ was having to comfort Anderson at the funeral of a person he cared about, who wasn’t even dead!” Joker grabbed at his side, again. “Shit, shit, shit.”

John stepped forward, stopping only when Joker pulled away from him.

“I’m fine.”

“You’re hurt.”

“Damn right I am.”

John huffed. “I meant your bones.”

“Forget my bones. I’m mad at you.”

John’s hand hovered over Joker’s shoulder. “You can still be mad at me sitting down. You’ve done it before.”

“And I’ll do it, again.” Joker attempted a deep breath, then tilted his head back and whined. “Ow.”

“Come on.”

John helped Joker over to the couch. The pilot moved slowly, his own collection of injuries gathered in this room reminding him of his bravado with every step. John kept his hands up, ready to help, but never quite touching. Casting a look over his shoulder, John felt his gut twist at the way Kaidan refused to even look at Joker.

Sitting on the edge, Joker closed his eyes as he focused on breathing. “Ow.”

“I’m sorry, Joker. For all of this.”

“Yeah, well,” Joker coughed, his usual dry tone winning ground as awkwardness displaced anger, “I knew the mug was full when I threw it.”

John sat across from him on the couch. “I meant you’ve never given it to me with both barrels before. It’s always sarcasm and evasion.” John’s shoulders slumped. “I really screwed up this time, didn’t I?”

Joker sighed, wincing as his ribs expanded. “Yeah, you did.”

“I’m guessing there’s a line to give me hell about it?”

“I know Tali’s got some thoughts.” He rubbed at his side and looked at the streak of dark liquid on the floor. “Maybe she’ll skip the yelling so the two of you can commiserate over being yelled at by me.”

“You yelled at Tali?”

“Bad enough you hurt yourself.” Joker sighed again, deeper this time, even with the wince. "I didn’t know you’d done it before.”

John looked at him in surprise. “How did you not know? You were here.”

“It’s not like you said anything,” Joker parried.

John looked away, feeling exposed by more than his lack of uniform. “Does that really sound like something I would do?”

Joker shifted, uncomfortable now from something other than his injuries. “I guess everyone else decided to keep it on the down low. Bad for morale, the CO pulling a Terminator.” Joker chuckled awkwardly to himself. “Might be useful if you did. Just a scary, glowing metal face when you tear away your real one.”

John stiffened, fear crawling back up his spine. Feelings that had been swirling at the edges of his thoughts crowded back in. The thin scar along the inside of his left arm glowed more brightly. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw movement by the bed, but the memory of red light mixed with red on his hands.

Joker looked up, smile dying. “Commander?” He took in the change in John’s posture, pieces clicking into place. “Shit. That’s what happened, isn’t it? You thought…you thought you might actually…” Joker balled up his fist, thumping it onto his knee. “Shit. I can’t believe I said that.”

The words were automatic. “It’s fine.”

“It is not fine.” Running his hand across his forehead, Joker pulled his cap off with a frustrated exhale. “Shit, sir, I’m so sorry. I just jammed it right in there, didn’t I?”

The memory of pain lanced across his cheek. Footsteps, soft on the bare floor, somewhere off to his right. John swallowed as he remembered how warm the blood felt, the knife’s blade not so cold after having been shoved under his skin. “You didn’t mean it.”

Joker had moved from regret to worry. “Shepard? Hey, Commander, you’re looking a little stuck inside that head.”

His head. Miranda had said there was no control chip, but she wasn’t the only one on the project. Or maybe he was just a load of implants that made up a high-tech VI. Was it him, stuck inside his own head?

The couch dipped behind him. John jerked as a warm hand touched the cool skin of his back. He half-turned, Kaidan’s other hand taking gentle hold of his wrist. John froze, unsure of when he’d started running his fingers over his bandaged jaw.

Joker was staring at him now, eyes wide and afraid. “Kaidan, what’s he…”

“You should get down to the MedBay, Joker.” Kaidan’s voice was calm, steady. “I’d guess you broke something when you fell down those steps.”

The door to the cabin opened. Joker whipped around, yelping as his various injuries objected. The soft clack of heels heralded EDI’s appearance at the top of the steps.

Kaidan flicked his gaze up to the mech. “EDI, can you take Joker to see Chakwas?” He shifted closer to John, wrapping his arms around him and resting his chin on John’s shoulder. “I’ll look after things up here.”

“Of course.” Stepping down the steps with her usual grace, EDI stopped next to Joker. “How may I help, Jeff?”

John leaned back against Kaidan. He was shivering, but he couldn’t be sure why. “You might have to carry him. He’s pretty banged up.”

Joker scowled, jamming his hat back on his head. “Do not carry me, EDI. Just…help me walk.”

The mech helped him to his feet, keeping an arm around his back as they moved over the wet spot on the floor. John watched them go, fingers trailing over Kaidan’s arm unconsciously.

At the top of the steps, Joker looked back. “Shepard?”

“Hm?”

“Um…feel better, OK?”

John laughed, short and distracted. “Yes, sir.”

EDI helped Joker out of the cabin, the door beeping after it closed to signal it was locked. The thought flitted through John’s mind that he never locked his door.

A quiet settled over the room; even the constant hum of the Normandy’s engines faded into white noise. John’s head felt empty, devoid of thought or intent with the barest hint of urgency rippling at the far edges. He leaned his head against Kaidan’s, matching his breathing to the chest pressed against his back. One of the fish swam lazily along, stopping when it reached the wall of the tank, stymied but unconcerned.

“John?”

“Hm?”

“What Joker said.” Kaidan hesitated, voice catching on the name before soldiering on. “Is that’s what you’ve been worried about?”

Twisting around so he could see Kaidan’s face, John watching the other man sit back, considering. “Which thing that Joker said?”

Kaidan bit his lip. John smiled, thinking how the Council would have been less inclined to make Kaidan a Spectre if they knew how cute he looked when he was thinking.

“Are you still worried that Cerberus built something new, instead of bringing you back?”

John made a face. “I guess.” He looked at their bed, not really seeing it. “But if Cerberus could make super soldiers, why just make me?”

“You cost almost as much as this ship.” Kaidan slipped his fingers under John’s chin, turning his face back to him. “I don’t think they could afford more than that.”

John grimaced. He didn’t want to talk about this. “I just want to be human.”

“You are human.” Kaidan’s voice was quiet but firm. “Cybernetic implants are just like bone grafts or biotic amps. You’re still just a human.” Kaidan smiled, tentatively. “Like me.”

He’d never given it any thought, the small pieces of tech that were part of the other man. He never even noticed the implant at the base of Kaidan’s skull anymore. John smiled, almost to himself. “Like you.”

“And if need be,” Kaidan ran his thumb over John’s chin, skirting the edge of the bandage, “I’ll remind you.” His smile was more sure of itself now. “Every day, John. As often as it takes.”

He studied Kaidan’s face, the worry lines finally softening around his eyes. “Kaidan?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I kiss you?”

Kaidan raised his eyebrows. “Yeah. Always.”

John leaned forward, Kaidan meeting him halfway. After a moment, John pulled back just enough to watch Kaidan open his eyes. “I like that. Kissing you.” He felt suddenly shy again. “It’s like knowing the story has a happy ending, even though you haven’t reached it, yet.”

Kaidan blushed. “That’s a lot to put on one kiss.” He took John’s hand, tracing an imaginary design over the back. “Is it your happy ending, at least?”

John bumped his forehead against Kaidan’s. “Only if you’re there.”

Kaidan met his gaze, eyes serious. “Of course I’m there.” He rested his other hand on John’s undamaged cheek. “Just like I’m here. And I’ll do whatever it takes to get us that happy ending. Shoot bad guys or wake up when you have nightmares,” Kaidan’s lips twitched, “or kiss you. Everyday, if that’s what it takes.”

John pushed his cheek against Kaidan’s palm. “Everyday? That’s a lot of bad guys and nightmares.” But the mood had finally changed.

Kaidan smiled, mischief in those brown eyes. “A lot of kisses, too.”

John turned his head, kissing Kaidan’s palm. “If you’re sure.”

Kaidan’s smile dimmed. “If it helps.”

John stood, reseating himself as Kaidan tucked them into the corner of the couch. “It helps.” John snuggled in close, firmly ignoring the doubt whispering at the back of his mind. “I’d rather kiss you than pull off my face, any day.”

Kaidan sounded mildly indignant. “Well, if those are your only choices.”

“I could kiss Garrus.”

Kaidan laughed, a short sound of surprise. “Yeah, but could Garrus kiss you?” He ran his hand up John’s back, slowly, then back down. “Always thought our sniper was a little shy.”

John buried his nose against the worn cotton with a smile. “He’d take one for the team.” He let the mock formality drop from his voice, the fear that had roared through him earlier retreating petulant back to its murky domain. Tucking his arms around Kaidan in most of a hug, John murmured, “rather it be you.”

Kaidan chuckled, the lower, richer sound vibrating against John’s cheek. “Me, too.”

The blue light of the mass effect field rippled across their bed, playing with the shadows from the rumpled sheets. The minutes slipped by, blending one into the next as John focused on the movement of Kaidan’s hand, attention dwindling until even the pleasant thoughts were too much effort.

After a time, Kaidan hummed, the sound escaping on a sigh. “We should probably move back to the bed. Before we get too comfortable.”

“Too late.” John grinned lazily at nothing as he shifted to make his point.

Kaidan’s hand had stopped moving, the biotic’s arms settling into a loose hold around John’s waist. “Do you know how uncomfortable sleeping on a couch is?”

“More comfortable than sleeping next to a dumpster. Besides,” John twisted to look up at Kaidan, “I’m not sleeping on a couch. I’m sleeping on you.”

“Then I insist on the bed,” Kaidan deadpanned. “I refuse to be the only one with a sore back.”

John resettled himself, the shifting blue light capturing his attention once more. “A few more minutes. Then we’ll move.”

The arms around his waist tightened for a moment, lips brushed against the top of his head in the echo of a kiss. “A few more minutes. Then we’ll move.”

Chapter Text

“So, who’s flying the ship?”

Sam studied the reclining form of Jeff Moreau through the MedBay window. His arm was bound up in a sling, and it looked like he might be there for the night. She wondered if this was the first in a rash of injuries, or if Joker and the Commander had just been unlucky on the same day. “EDI, I suppose.”

Gabbi rummaged through the latest batch of military rations they’d picked up, hidden from passersby by the counter island and Sam’s legs. She glanced up, two bright green bars and a muted red one in hand. “I’ll bet Joker’s loving the idea of all these Alliance newbies wanting to know why we have a pilot when the AI can fly herself.”

“EDI says the Normandy works better when she and Joker work together.”

“I know that,” Gabbi stood, moving over to the fridge to hook three water bottles off the lower shelf, “and you know that.” She bumped the door closed with her hip. “But I guarantee at least one of these Alliance guys doesn’t.”

“You’re an ‘Alliance guy’, too, Engineer Daniels.” Sam shot her a teasing smile. “These days, at least.”

Gabbi smirked. “I do enjoy being off the terrorist watch list.” She jerked her chin at the box on the ground. “You still looking?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Crouching down, Sam started her own search. “I thought I’d hunt down the Commander, make sure he’s eaten something today.” She kept her tone light. Despite Dr. Chakwas predictions, it seemed most people hadn’t noticed their CO’s absence during the day. “I think he’s picking up Joker’s habit of forgetting to eat.” She looked up when she didn’t get the expected laugh.

Gabbi was chewing the side of her lip. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Is the Commander OK?”

Sam pushed a pile of red bars out of her way. When it was clear she wasn’t going to answer, Gabbi went on.

“If you can’t tell me, I get it. Shepard doesn’t come down to check on his engineers every day, but I did think he’d swing by – we just installed those power couplings he got for us.” Gabbi paused, then continued in a low voice. “I also know Chakwas got a call in the middle of the night. Those things don’t have to be related, but…” She shrugged. “Shepard’s always somewhere, and it’s just weird, not running into him at all.”

Sam looked up at her. “I’m not at liberty to give details, but Shepard is fine.” She weighed the odds and decided Gabbi could be trusted. “He will be, anyway.”

“Is there anything we can do?”

Sam smiled apologetically. “Not right now.”

Gabbi nodded. “Until I hear something official, I heard nothing at all.”

“Thanks.”

Gabbi walked off, the engineering team’s excuse for dinner in hand, and Sam went back to hunting through the box. She didn’t know how much food to bring - Shepard might refuse to eat anything at all, but Major Alenko was a biotic, and since her job wasn’t actually babysitting Alliance food habits, she couldn’t remember how many calories a day that was. That was assuming nobody else had brought them food, or that Alenko hadn’t come down on his own, or that Shepard didn’t keep a few bars in his desk for late nights, or -

“Oh, thank the goddess.”

Jumping, Sam looked over her shoulder to see Dr. T’soni leaning over the island, omnipresent datapad in hand. “I thought we’d be stuck on those protein bars for another month.”

“Lt. Cortez is a miracle worker,” Sam agreed, “though these are still around because Corporal Vale hid the box for two weeks.”

“The Corporal should get a raise.” Walking around the island, Dr. T’soni leaned down to snag one of the red bars. “Dig sites and military ships lead a person to develop all kinds of quirks,” she smiled, “like having preferences on terrible food items.”

Sam sighed wistfully, thinking of the camp stove they’d snuck into the dorms back at school. “I do miss having a proper meal.”

“Liara, may I have a word?”

Sam went back to her search as Dr. T’soni turned to see Dr. Chakwas walking toward her. The older woman waved her over, and the two conferred in lowered voices, the datapad and red bar left behind on the counter.

Dr. Chakwas had been clear that she couldn’t tell Traynor anything, and this wasn’t necessarily related. Military training was designed to build obedient individuals who could tune things out as needed. Basic manners alone meant full knowledge that eavesdropping was rude. But...she was only human…

Tracing a finger along the edge of the box, Sam tried to hear over the ambient hum of the kitchen’s appliances.

“Is there any chance you can still contact Miranda Lawson?”

“I can certainly try.” Dr. T’soni sounded confused. “I think Shepard’s met with her a few times already, though. He might be the better option.”

Ms. Lawson was one of the few encrypted communications Sam had trouble verifying. Shepard had had to formally override the protection software, because the updated Alliance program kept bucking the messages.

“Her files?” Dr. T’soni’s surprise pulled Sam’s attention back to the otherside of the counter.

“Shepard’s, specifically.”

Now Dr. T’soni sounded worried. “Is everything alright?”

There was an edge to Dr. Chakwas’ voice, as if she wanted to convey something without having to actually say it. “Tell Miranda the Commander’s worrying, again. She’ll know what that means.”

“Even though I don’t?”

This was why you didn’t listen in on other people’s conversations. There were all sorts of reasons to keep Specialist Traynor out of the loop, but Dr. Liara T’soni wasn’t Alliance and - she still wasn’t sure if she was supposed to know this bit - ran the biggest information network in the galaxy. Not telling her, assuming she didn’t know, meant...something.

It could be that Dr. Chakwas was worried about people overhearing; Sam felt a twinge of guilt. But if the doctor was worried about that, she could have just called Dr. T’soni into the MedBay. Private, and even with the big windows nobody would question why she was in there. Or if Joker wasn’t supposed to know...whatever was going on...then they could have gone to Liara’s quarters.

“Alright. I’ll see what I can do.”

“The sooner the better, if we can.”

Footsteps retreated, and Sam tried to look engrossed in her search and definitely not like she’d been sticking her nose in someone else’s business. She felt a small leap of triumph as she finally located a half dozen blue bars always buried at the bottom of the box. It was like someone at the packing plant had been obsessed with finding the decoder ring in the cereal box, but wanted a slightly more grown-up version.

“Specialist Traynor.” Dr. T’soni drew her name out, using that tone that meant she already knew the answer to whatever she was going to ask.

Sam kept her attention in the box. “Um…yes?”

“Do you know what that was about?”

“What what was about?” Sam looked up, doing her best to look innocent.

Dr. T’soni cast her an unconvinced look.

“I’m sure I was too busy digging in this box to have heard anything that wasn’t my business.”

“I’m sure you were.”

Sam played with the wrapping on one of the blue bars. “I really don’t know what that was about.” She didn’t, actually. “I think Shepard might be sick, though. Dr. Chakwas was a little worried earlier, that’s all. Asked me to move some meetings.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all I know.”

Dr. T’soni was looking off toward where Dr. Chakwas had gone, her pretty face unapproachable as she studied something. “Is Joker alright?”

Sam knelt up so she could peer over the counter. “I honestly don’t know why he’s in the MedBay. He was fine at lunchtime.” She reviewed the afternoon. “He did leave the CIC level sometime after that, but I don’t know where he went.” Sam sighed. “I hate to reduce anyone to their medical file, but maybe he really did sneeze too hard and crack a rib?”

“Joker wouldn’t stay in the MedBay over a broken rib. He’s too proud to let something that wouldn’t limit a soldier with a normal skeleton slow him down.” Dr. T’soni crossed her arms, one hand on her chin. “And that sling looks more like a broken arm.”

“How could he break his arm?” Sam asked. “He’s always sitting down.”

“And where’s EDI?”

Sam paused, wondering why the missing mech hadn’t registered sooner. “She’s...flying the ship?”

“EDI can pilot the Normandy without her mech,” Dr. T’soni countered. “Anything bad enough for Joker to stay in the Medbay should mean EDI hovering nearby.”

“Synthetics don’t hover,” Sam replied automatically. She fought a blush as the Asari looked at her. “I’m sure EDI would say that it’s impractical to worry when Joker’s in such capable hands.”

“EDI is still learning the pitfalls of love.” But the intense feeling had dissipated, Dr. T’soni’s voice picking up a teasing quality as she dropped her arms back to her sides. She pocketed the red bar, switched the datapad over to the other counter, and set about making her usual cup of tea.

Sam waited to see if there were more questions to dodge. She didn’t think she’d said anything about the Commander that the doctor couldn’t know, and try as she might, she couldn’t remember anything out of the ordinary about Joker’s day. She fished the rest of the blue bars out of the box before snapping the lid back on and shoving it into the lower cabinet Corporal Vale had rightly guessed no one ever checked.

“Bringing someone dinner?”

Sam looked at the Asari as she stood up. “What?”

Dr. T’soni nodded to the stack of bars she’d set on the counter. “That’s a lot of food for one person.”

“Oh.” Sam looked down at the bars. “Well, whatever’s going on, I personally haven’t seen the Commander all day. I’m worried he’s picked up Joker’s habit of not eating properly.” She gave her best convincing smile. “I thought I’d pop upstairs and check. Bring enough for Major Alenko, too, in case not eating is some new reg for the Normanday’s veteran officers.”

“Did Kaidan’s migraine finally pass?”

“I hope so.” Sam scooped up the bars. “He was miserable the last time I saw him, and if it’s bad enough for the Major to show some so-called ‘weakness’…”

Dr. T’soni rolled her eyes. “Sometimes I think humans are obsessed with the idea. Pain is pain, and you shouldn’t be embarrassed.”

“But the crew of the Normandy are legends,” Sam said, dropping her voice an octave, mimicking the voice from the Blasto trailers, “and legends don’t have mundane problems like horrible, massive headaches.”

Dr. T’soni was fishing around in the fridge. She pulled out two water bottles and a carton of juice. “Here.” She balanced the liquids on Sam’s pile. “Make sure the legends actually do eat.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sam left Dr. T’soni to her tea, mindful of balancing her cargo as she made her way to the elevator. Momentarily stumped by her full arms, she rewarded Sgt. Michaels with a grateful smile as he slapped the call button on his way past.

Inside, Sam stared at the display, debating her options. “EDI, could I get a lift to the Captain’s Cabin?”

The elevator bumped upward, decades of science still not quite erasing that starting hop.

“Thanks.”

Sam watched the display lights change as the elevator rose. Now that she was here, arms laden and elevator moving, it occurred to her that she hadn’t actually checked if this was a good idea.

“EDI?”

“Yes, Specialist Taynor?”

“Do you…can you tell me if Shepard is in a fit state for visitors?”

EDI’s response was slower than expected. “I don’t know. However, Major Alenko is conscious. As your primary goal appears to be food, I imagine he won’t object.”

The elevator reached the top level, the door opening to allow Sam to exit. She stepped out, looking up on instinct. “Thanks, EDI.” Sam pondered the door to Shepard’s quarters. “I’m probably supposed to be weird about this, aren’t I?”

“You are not the first crew member to visit Shepard in his quarters. Nor is this your first visit.”

“I meant about…whatever happened.” Sam walked over to the door. “I should probably be nervous or…or something.”

Again, EDI’s response was delayed. When it came, her voice was quieter than usual, emitting instead from Sam’s wrist. “I’m sure the Major would appreciate a little normalcy. If you act as you usually do, so will he.”

Sam cocked her head. “Did you just tell me to ‘be myself’?”

It took a moment to adjust to the low lighting of the Cabin, the brightest things in the room being the giant fish tank and the large window in the ceiling. The entire retrofit team had come up and stared at both, confounded and a little jealous. The rest of the room was a futuristic twilight, small lights pin pricks in the semi-dark.

Stepping inside, Sam cleared her throat. “Hello?”

“Down here.”

Sam moved forward, shoulders hunching with uncertainty. Stepping down to the lower level, she looked around for the voice. “Major?”

It had been a surprise, looking up to find Staff Commander Alenko wandering through the CIC. Only now he was Major Alenko, and unlike on Horizon where she’d been off-duty and visiting family, now she actually had to do what he said.

Not that they’d hadn’t gotten along on Horizon. A number of the colonists had been upset at what they viewed as Alliance interference, but Sam’s parents had only been annoyed it had taken the Alliance so long to send someone. Human colonies were disappearing, and since they had no intention of moving back to Council space, her parents had been glad to see someone taking things seriously. On the days that her parents had to work, Sam had gone and introduced herself, offering her services to the somber soldier who was just trying to install some new security towers.

She’d thought she was finally going to get the story out of him - either what he was actually doing on Horizon or why he looked so damn haunted - the day the Collectors had attacked. Frozen in place, listening to screams being replaced by the sounds of large insects, Sam had been torn between worrying about her parents and hoping her new friend didn’t do something reckless. Soldiers with that look in their eye tended to play hero, and she liked Alenko.

But they’d both made it. He’d actually hugged her when she ran up to him, asked if she was alright and if she’d found her parents, yet. Something had changed during that attack - Shepard had been there, though she’d only learned that later - but she’d thought Alenko wore anger and uncertainty better than despair.

But that was more than a year ago. Sam had gone back to the lab, learned with the rest of them that Shepard was still alive, and then the world had ended. After nearly a year at war, scrambling to learn her new position and then scrambling to find any way to help, she’d almost forgotten about the biotic who’d paid such close attention to her instructions on why his omni-tool was being locked out of colony news (Little could be such an ass).

Alenko had smiled, a genuine look of pleasure, when he’d seen her standing by the Galaxy Map.

“Watch your step.” Sam followed Alenko’s gesture to the dark liquid on the floor at her feet. “I’m not sure what it is, but I think we were supposed to drink it.”

Sam stepped around the spilled beverage. “I, uh, brought up some things.” She looked pointedly at Shepard, who appeared to be asleep on Alenko’s chest. “I was under the impression neither of you had made it down to the mess today.”

“Thanks,” Alenko looked bashful, “I was actually debating the best way to move without waking someone.”

Carefully, Sam maneuvered her cargo onto the coffee table. She tore open a bar and handed it to the Major. “Here you go.”

“Thanks.” As Alenko took a bite, Sam took the moment to study her sleeping CO.

Shepard looked different unconscious. That careful mask of polite professionalism wasn’t there; he looked as exhausted as the rest of them. The Great Commander even appeared to snore, though not so impressively as Engineer Donnelly. Instead of a look of attentiveness or, more lately, frustration, Shepard’s face wore...a bandage. It covered almost his entire left cheek, starting right below his eye and covering from his nose almost to his ear. Not quite matching the skin around it, the bandage stopped above one of the faint glowing lines that proved Cerberus hadn’t brought Shepard back as an ordinary human.

“How is it?”

Sam looked back at Alenko. “Hm?”

“Downstairs.” The Major was watching her intently. “Has the crew started asking questions?”

“Oh.” Sam fidgeted with one of the pockets on her pants. “Most of them, um, don’t seem to have noticed anything’s amiss. Well,” she amended, “there were a few questions about where the Commander was all morning, but so far most people seem to think he was just having a lie-in.” She tried to look dependable, like the woman who’d marched into the Alliance cubicle and announced she could help with the defense towers. “Chakwas only told people who needed to know right away.”

“Hm.” Alenko took another bite of the bar.

It wasn’t a surprise, given whatever bad thing had happened in the last twenty-four hours, but Sam noted the familiar cast to Alenko’s face. Whatever had happened to Shepard, whatever...whatever the Commander might have done...it was dragging up painful memories. There had been a hollow quality to the way Alenko had asked those questions that she’d hoped she wouldn't have to hear again. It didn’t take quantum processing to figure out that Shepard had been the source of much of Alenko’s pain, nor that they’d...sorted things out. All the professionalism in the world couldn’t hold up against the way those two would smile when the other entered a room.

Taking another look, Sam gestured to Shepard’s cheek. “Is there…anything I should tell Chakwas when I go back down?”

“That I made Shepard eat something when he woke up.” Looking down at the man, Alenko added, “and that he slept for most of the day.”

She took a step back, clasping her hands. “Eating and sleeping. Got it.”

“Don’t slip.”

Sam looked behind her, then back to Alenko. “Right.”

“Traynor.”

“Yes?”

Alenko’s look was softer this time. “How are you taking it?”

Sam hesitated. “I don’t know the details, but if the Commander is hurt, at least he’s got good people looking after him.”

“You’re not...” Alenko paused, searching for the word, “disillusioned?”

“Disillusioned?” Sam asked. Then it clicked. “You mean, does the reminder that I’m serving on a human vessel, with a very human Commander, upset my understanding of how we’re doing in this war?”

“Yes.”

“No.” Sam crossed her arms. “Did you know he sighs, when he doesn’t want to talk to someone? I thought he’d exhale his entire lungs by the time we got rid of the Dalatrass.” Alenko laughed softly. “And he positively ran the last time I told him Anderson was available on vid-comm.”

“No illusion about working for someone who’s more than human, then?”

“Commander Shepard wouldn’t be worth following if he wasn’t human.” Sam caught herself, stumbling over her words. “I mean, not that he has to be human. If he’d been a Turian, I’m sure he’d be equally worth following. I like Garrus, and Tali, and –“ She cut herself off at Alenko’s grin. “I just meant –“

“I know what you meant.” Alenko’s grin stayed intact. “I like Garrus, too.”

Sam coughed. “Right. Well. Yes.” She pointed upward dramatically. “Eating and sleeping.”

She turned, immediately slipped on the spilled drink, and landed on her hands and knees.

Pausing to mourn the loss of her dignity, Sam got carefully back to her feet. She appreciated Alenko’s attempt to smother his laugh. “I’ll let Chakwas know.” Sam marched up the steps, back ramrod straight. “See you tomorrow, Major.”

“Specialist.”

Back in the bright light of the antechamber, Sam tucked her head into her neck, shoulders as close to her ears as she could get them. “No good deed.”

After a minute, she sighed and relaxed, rolling her head from side to side to release her neck. Back to the MedBay to talk to Chakwas, then a little down time before bed. Maybe she’d use up the rest of her monthly extranet time and beat that snot-nosed brat who thought they could usurp her Tey-Athlet crown. A bloody end to this little rebellion ought to remind the gaming server who was queen once again.

Chapter Text

“Dr. T’soni, there is an incoming message on your personal terminal.”

Rubbing her eyes, dry and irritated from the long hours staring at her screens, Liara straightened up and took a deep, supposedly-cleansing breath. “Thank you, Glyph. Any word on the supplies that were delayed near Tellunne?”

“No, Doctor. There have been no other communications.”

Liara looked over her wall of screens. A dozen blank windows looked back, all waiting for updates that might never come. Especially the one that was two days overdue. She stepped away from the slightly too short console, her lower back aching from leaning at an angle for so many hours. She tried yet again to remember why she hadn’t taken Engineer Daniels up on her offer to raise it to a sensible height. Something about it not being necessary and everyone having to sacrifice a little comfort for the greater good.

She set a reminder to message Daniels in the morning - later that morning, according to the clock - and headed over to her desk.

Settling into her chair with a groan, Liara closed her eyes and breathed. This time, she really did feel a little better. Tired, desperate, frustrated, but that stubborn part of her that had gotten her trapped on Therum on the slightest chance there might be a Prothean inscription in an unmapped chamber shook itself back to life, squinting at the war with the same dispassionate analysis she’d leveled at the first four rejections for that digsite. She keyed in the command, the terminal she used for personal projects and to keep track of...non-business contacts blinking awake.

She was genuinely surprised to see the face of Miranda Lawson light up the screen in front of her. The same dark hair cascaded over her shoulders, contrasting against the bright white of her chosen uniform. A less charitable part of her mind noted that hiding from Cerberus might be easier if, like the other defectors, Ms. Lawson had elected to change anything about her appearance.

There was probably no changing that patronizing smirk, though. “Dr. T’soni. I heard you’re looking for me.”

“I am,” Liara answered, voice smooth and cool as silk. “I didn’t think you’d get back to me so quickly.”

The smirk widened, just a touch. “You got lucky. I was in the communication neighborhood when your agent came sniffing around.”

“You left him in one piece, I hope.”

“He was intact when I left him.” Her tone was sincere, but the unspoken risks of the war hung in the air, an ugly reminder of all the non-mission related reasons her people might not be getting back to her. Miranda shifted, attention split between her location and their call. Liara wondered how secure the connection was, given all the resources both of them had lost in the last few months. “You needed some information. Given the favors you must have called in to find me, I assume it’s urgent.”

“Yes, or rather, Dr. Chakwas needs some information.” Liara tapped a datapad, silencing a reminder she’d set to contact Feron about the latest movements of a trio of Drell assassins. “She needs the files you have on Shepard, specifically any medical ones.”

Miranda frowned, the look of humanizing her face as her control on the situation diminished. “She already has those.” A scoff, flavored by the bitterness of one who feels their friend has disregarded sound advice. “Unless the Alliance confiscated those, too.”

“I don’t know what Chakwas has,” Liara admitted, shoring up the appearance of being simply the middleman, “but she seems to think you might have information that would help Shepard.” A short pause, as if she didn’t know the phrase was important. “She said the Commander’s worrying, again.”

Miranda crossed her arms, blue eyes tracking someone walking by. “Of course the Commander’s worried. The Reapers will open diplomatic channels before Shepard goes a day without worrying about someone somewhere.”

Liara let the smile tug at the corner of her mouth. The woman wasn’t wrong. “Still, Chakwas thought you might know something.” How to put this so Miranda would answer questions instead of asking? “I haven’t seen Shepard all day, so I didn’t notice anything strange myself.”

The mind that had helped make Cerberus such an effective tool focused on the screen. “You didn’t see Shepard, or Shepard hasn’t been seen?”

“I don’t know,” Liara said, feigning unconcerned. “I was supposed to meet with him this afternoon, but I was told he was unavailable.”

She watched Miranda process the news. Eyes down, flicking back and forth as she looked at nothing. One had tightening in response to an unwanted conclusion. The practiced breathing that should have looked relaxed, except for the stillness that had taken over everything else.

It wasn’t until the ex-operative tugged her top lip between her teeth that Liara let herself fixate on the little signs from throughout the day. The presence of the usually missing mug for Chakwas’ late-morning tea; the off-handed inquiries as to where certain people were; Allers chatting up a few Privates when she should have been conducting an interview. Joker, injured, with no EDI in sight. Specialist Traynor compiling what amounted to military comfort food.

“Shepard…” The lilt of Miranda’s accent softened the name. “He’s never unavailable. For anyone.” She looked up, the Ice Queen persona slipping as she searched Liara for...something. “And always for his friends.”

“The war has everyone a bit off balance,” Liara offered, in a tone that tipped her hand a moment in return.

The professional was back, but not the condescension. This was the woman who had been Commander Shepard’s executive officer. “I suppose this is how we get around medical ethics, then.”

“Medical ethics?”

Taking a deep breath, Miranda shifted her weight as she stood at attention, eyes boring into Liara’s. “There was an incident while the Normandy was still a Cerberus vessel. Given the lead-in to this discussion, I assume you were never told.”

“I wasn’t part of the crew at that point,” Liara hedged, pride pricked.

Miranda ignored the emotional slip. “As you know, Cerberus is not a charity. Everything they do is to further their own goals, and bringing Shepard back fell firmly into that category.” When Liara nodded, Miranda continued. “Back when the SR2 was a Cerberus vessel, one of my tasks was to keep an eye on Shepard, make sure he was holding up under the pressure of his situation.”

“You mean you weren’t sure?” Liara interrupted.

“We knew there might be complications,” Miranda agreed. “Technically, Shepard was never fully considered fit for duty. We were forced to wake him up before the Lazarus Project was complete, and there was insufficient time to stabilize him before our work against the Collectors began in earnest.”

Given the risk to human colonies, and the galaxy at large, Liara wondered if Shepard had been the one to push up the timeline.

“Physically, we were able to catch him up to speed, as most of him had already been repaired or replaced. However, any mental issues were left...unresolved.” Miranda hesitated, something that looked very much like guilt stealing into her expression. “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say they were ignored unless they proved detrimental or...useful.”

The rational part of her mind pointed out the hypocrisy of her anger. There were dozens of individuals in the Shadow Broker’s employ who needed help and were not likely to get it; not when paranoia made for such excellent information gathering. But this was her friend that had been used, and trusting part of her howled at what felt like betrayal. At the knowledge that she’d given Shepard, at his weakest and most vulnerable, to people who’d managed to make things worse.

Miranda continued, the mask back in place. “It wasn’t hard to figure out The Illusive Man wanted Shepard isolated. Kept away from people and places which might encourage him to doubt the narrative we’d constructed. We needed Commander Shepard, but we needed him compliant.” Miranda lifted her chin. “However, the point was never to harm Shepard irreparably, just to ensure he stayed on mission. That meant a certain amount of keeping him off balance.”

The words were calm, a snare left carelessly on the ground near a burrow. “Letting him worry.”

Miranda shook her head. “No. That wasn’t part of the plan. We thought we’d handled Shepard’s concerns about himself and were much more focused on external influences.” She sighed, a brief, but genuine, show of remorse. “But I was wrong.”

“How wrong?”

Miranda never looked away from the screen. “There was a point, after Horizon, after Tali joined us, that things got out of hand. Shepard wasn’t convinced that he was real, that I hadn’t built a monster and simply given it his face and name.” Her voice was quiet now, dulled by guilt. “He tried to see what we’d done to him firsthand.”

“Firsthand?”

“The skin on a human’s face is some of the thinnest, and Shepard was always the most self-conscious of the scars that were visible to the crew.” A memory, John absently tracing a glowing line along his jaw, face drawn in unhappiness even as he waved away her concern. “So, he tried to access the implants he thought were attached to his skull.”

Liara waited for the words to make sense, but it was like holding sand on a windy day. “I don’t understand...”

“It appears Shepard thought, if he were really an artificial creation instead of a person, that he should be able to remove the skin from his face.” Miranda was still looking at the screen, but her focus was lost in the past. “I was never officially informed of the incident. Everyone assumed we were spying on them, and they weren’t wrong. I…discovered the footage, after Chakwas stormed into my office to inform me of Shepard’s medically enforced leave.”

The idea still wouldn’t take hold. It was too far from the man she knew. Faintly, Liara asked, “Chakwas treated him?”

“There wasn’t much damage; nothing medigel couldn’t fix.” With a small shake, Miranda forced herself back into the moment. “I believe Chakwas was more worried about the instinct to self-harm over the injuries themselves.”

Liara nodded, drifting herself back to the short exchange with the doctor earlier that day. “How did she know he was hurt?”

“Tali had gone up to see Shepard about something. She was the one building those model ships he kept in his room.” There was a fondness there Liara wanted to carve out of the other woman’s memory.

“Do you still have the footage?”

Miranda froze. “Do I…Dr. T’soni, you don’t want to see that.”

Liara glared at the screen, her years of interrogating contacts and arguing with academic bureaucracy finally breaking under the onslaught of meaning in Miranda’s tale. “That’s not your decision to make.”

Miranda weighed the words, then acquiesced with a bow of the head. “True, but you don’t want to see it. And even if you did, I don’t have it.” She held up a hand to ward off the disbelief. “After we learned the Alliance was to take possession of the SR2, most of the databases were scrubbed.”

“So, Cerberus has it, then?” Liara asked, voice hard at the idea of The Illusive Man having such a gem in his collection.

“If it still exists,” Miranda hedged. “The Illusive Man doesn’t erase much, but he might have actually purged all the information about Shepard.” At Liara’s look, Miranda explained, “so no one could ever be certain how we saved his life.”

Liara’s voice was cold. “Or if he’s really human.”

“John Shepard is human.” Miranda glared at her, pride in her work and loyalty to Shepard mixing to form her temper. “He has cybernetic implants, yes, but no AI, no VI, no mimicked neural patterns. He is who he was, whatever his damaged psyche might be telling him.”

“That damaged psyche drove the strongest person I know to hurt himself,” Liara snapped. “And it sounds like he’s done it, again.”

Miranda had the decency to stand down. “Strength has nothing to do with it. We put him back together physically, but,” her shoulders drooped, just a fraction, “we had no reason to be kind. Commander Shepard was needed for a specific mission. His survival beyond that…was never a Cerberus concern.”

Liara kept her face neutral, revulsion and misery battling in her gut. “He could go to pieces, just not before you were done with him.”

“Yes.”

Sitting up straight, Liara looked coolly at the woman on her screen. “If you find anything that might help, send it to me.”

“Liara.”

Her finger over the button to end the call, Liara flicked her eyes back to Miranda, waiting.

“I spoke to him. After.” Miranda bit her lip. “I changed the mission parameters. I wanted my experiment to succeed, but…” She shrugged. “You know how he is. You can’t spend time around Shepard and not…not want him to be happy.”

Liara waited. When Miranda said nothing more, she ended the call.

Sitting in the light of her screens, Liara thought about miserable friends and derailed plans and freezing winds as she blasted snow drifts apart looking for remains. She thought about outliving her little family, watching the Reapers tear the world apart after they’d destroyed hers. She thought about what it must be like, walking in on such an act, and how protective Tali had seemed when Liara had visited the SR2 after Hagalaz.

“Information broker, indeed.”

How could she not know? Missing a few female Krogan was one thing, but her own friend’s deteriorating mental state? She could see, logically, why nobody had told her – she’d had undefined connections to the Shadow Broker and lack of trust had run rampant.

Maybe they hadn’t thought it mattered, since nobody had ever made it back through the Omega-4 Relay before.

Shoving back from her desk, Liara turned her focus to the dozen missions she’s been monitoring. There were agents who would need updates, bribes that had to be paid, contacts who needed to be leaned on.

Her attention caught on the black box sitting on her bed. The prototype beacon she’d been working on in what little spare time she had. She’d been meaning to ask Shepard about it for days now. Specifically, she’d wanted his opinion on how history remembered him. The determination, the inspiration, the strength –

Grabbing the device, Liara spun on her heel and stormed out of the room.

Maybe they didn’t have to tell her then, but she’d get answers this time.


The boiling water bubbled away in the pot, finally reaching the optimum temperature for steeping this kind of tea. Chakwas thought idly of a time, many years ago, when she’d argued with her mother over how much it could possibly matter, why hot water couldn’t simply be hot water if she was going to add sugar anyway.

Truthfully, it didn’t matter. But somehow, like so many things in life, choosing to care made all the difference in the world.

The oft ignored sound of a door opening, followed by the less common falsetto of Glyph’s voice off to her left. Chakwas dropped the tea bag into the mug as clipped, forceful steps echoed dully around the empty Mess Hall. Looking up, the doctor just caught the flash of blue and white as Liara stormed around the corner, presumably to the elevator.

So, Miranda had told her then.

There had been the chance that the ex-Cerberus agent had more information about the Lazarus Project than she’d shared. Even a casually over-looked file might have added to the body of evidence Chakwas had been building for the last two years, stored in her omni-tool in case anyone, friend or interrogator, needed convinced of Shepard’s physical legitimacy. In her flight from Cerberus, that final snap of a deeply held faith in a powerful man, Miranda might have remembered something she’d neglected to share.

But Liara needed to be told, and ethically, Chakwas couldn’t do it.

It was convenient to let Tali and Garrus believe she’d agreed with keeping Shepard’s momentary breach of mental cohesion a secret - she did. But keeping her mouth shut had always been as much medical duty as it was loyalty to a fellow soldier, to a young man whose first words to her after Alchera had been to demand if she was aboard the SR2 willingly and did she need anything.

She’d been able to skate the edges of those ethical restraints with Mordin Solus, who’d grown fond enough of the quiet human to notice the difference in behaviors, and Miranda, who’d been keeping tabs on them all anyway. Announcing to Shepard’s self-appointed XO that he was on medical leave for the next few days had been all the hint the other woman had needed to look into the situation.

And technically, the executive officer did need to know when the commanding officer was unfit for duty. Now, though. Now more people would need to be told, and she wasn’t going to be able to do it. And given how close-knit their group was, Chakwas had worried guilt or regret might leave a certain well-meaning, well-connected, Asari out of the loop. For Pete’s sake, Vega had been told already.

Liara T’soni had spent an entire twenty-four hours functioning without the knowledge that the man she’d sold herself to the Shadow Broker to save had strayed so close to mental collapse that he’d inflicted substantial, possibly lasting harm to himself. And that wouldn’t do.

So she’d asked their information broker to reach out to a shared contact, with the real if unlikely possibility of gaining new medical information, and waited for Miranda Lawson to once again do what a standard physician could not.

Pouring the boiling water over the tea bag, Chakwas imagined she could hear the elevator moving as it bore the most recent victim of Shepard’s misery upward. It would be a feat all its own, speaking with each member of this veteran group about how they were responding to this, how they felt they could help Shepard heal. How they themselves would need to heal, accepting that they hadn’t noticed a friend’s pain and that it wasn’t their fault that friend had acted as he had.

Months and months of work to fix the damage done with a few minutes and a two-inch blade. And only a week to convince Alliance Command that this time, there would be no encore. One night and one night only.

Breathing in the scent of tannins and citrus, Chakwas reached for the sugar. The first rule of medical triage was ensuring the medic was fine. Which meant before she could help any of them, she had to make peace with all those psych evals Shepard had passed. Go back over all those sessions, and if she really had missed something, she wouldn’t wallow in self-pity. Just like when she’d overlooked an allergy to medication during her residency and had been thrown by the unusual symptoms, she’d stay calm and focus on having a better idea how to help the patient.

Learn the steps, follow the pattern, trust in the process. Remove the tea bag, add sugar, stir without clinking against the cup. Stabilize the patient, inform the family, learn to wait while the healing starts.

Chapter Text

Garrus turned, sniper rifle propped against his shoulder, the left side of his jaw flexing with pride at the difficulty of that last shot.  He sported the Turian version of a grin, but there was something wrong.  The right side of his face, something was...missing.

Squinting against the harsh lights flaring behind them, John reached out, touching where the other mandible should have been.

“Don’t make me laugh.  My face is barely holding together as it is.”

An explosion.  Shards of concrete spitting through the air.  Smoke stinging his eyes and nose as they hit the deck.

Rolling to one side, John scrambled to find his gun.  Shattered pieces of armor, blues and purples and bright, bone white.  Somewhere in the distance, indistinct yelling was broken up by gunfire.  

Trying to understand the orders - were they orders? Was it even his own side shouting? - John looked up, glancing around for anything that seemed familiar.

“My face is barely holding together as it is.”

Across the abandoned office space, Garrus was kneeling in front of him.  The Turian’s mouth didn’t move as the words crawled through the rancid air.  A large swath of off-white gauze was plastered to the side of his friend’s face.  Slowly, Garrus lifted a hand, setting it on the bandage.

Pain lanced across his own cheek.  Clapping a hand to his face, John shivered at the warm, wet substance coating his skin.

Penetrating blue eyes watched him, locking onto his own from under spikes that protruded more upward than they should have.  Something had happened to Garrus’ armor, but John didn’t dare look down to check.  Slowly, that hand dragged down on the bandage.  Purposefully.  Easily.

“Your face is barely....”

John felt his arm grow heavy, pulling down on the hand on his own face.  A slithering feeling, like a wet sheet dragging over a tabletop, followed by more of that warm wetness trickling down his fingers.

Angry red light spilled out from Garrus’ cheek.  It spread across the Turian’s visage, following the familiar blue symbols before draining into his eyes.  He stood gracefully, swinging his other arm up, the familiar shape of an assault rifle in the Marauder’s hand as it aimed at John.

“Your face…”

John’s eyes snapped open.  Breathing hard, he tried to sit up, struggling against the unfamiliar surface he was lying on.  One hand landed on something hard and warm, the other slipping off the smooth, pleather surface, throwing his balance as he started to fall.

Catching himself with a grunt, John went still as something touched his hip.  Air ghosted over his face.  A slurred, unintelligible voice in his ear.

Sitting up more slowly this time, John watched Kaidan shift in his sleep.  One arm tucked under his head as an improvised pillow, the other lay pinned to the couch by John’s hand.  Kaidan’s own hand bumped against John’s hip, fingers curled in rest.  The ever present light of the fish tank spilled through the display case, turning the familiar white cotton of Kaidan’s shirt a pale blue.  The chest it covered heaved; a long, deep breath as John’s violent start nudged the sleeping man toward wakefulness.

They’d fallen asleep on the couch.  Kaidan had tried to get them back to bed, but John had been comfortable, felt safe between the shifting shadows and the steady heartbeat under his ear.  The familiar weight of arms wrapped around him, holding him like Sister Bridgette would hold the little ones when they cried, walking up and down the repurposed cafeteria almost every night.

One eye cracked open, closing again as Kaidan groaned softly.  The hand against his hip twitched, fingers scratching gently through the material of John’s sleep pants.  Releasing Kaidan’s arm, John laid back down, the familiar weight of a hand coming to rest on his head.  “John…?”

John played with the hem of Kaidan’s t-shirt, feeling his heartbeat start to slow.  “Just a nightmare.”  The acrid taste of smoke still lingered on his tongue.  Garrus’ face, twisted and misshapen, leered at him from the afterimage trapped in his mind’s eye.  The recirculated air felt cool against the memory of sweaty armor and spent thermal clips.

Kaidan hummed, still teetering on the edge of consciousness.  “‘S OK.”

John pressed his face against Kaidan’s chest, watching the shadows of the fish swim across the far wall.  He focused on the still even breathing of the man underneath him, the near nightly debate of whether to wake Kaidan and talk about it or let at least one of them get some sleep raging through him.  He almost always chose the latter.  Unless he’d woken so distraught he couldn’t think, or had woken Kaidan with some violent action that set both of them on edge, he tried to wait it out.  Let the adrenaline and cortisol and whatever else panic summoned run through his system while he shook and refused to close his eyes.

“‘S OK, John.  ‘M here.”

Counting his breaths, John waited until things were back to a functional normal.  He couldn’t feel his pulse in his ears anymore, and Kaidan’s breathing had deepened back into deeper sleep.  A few more minutes and he’d be able to get the last remnants of the nightmare banished to the far reaches of his mind.

Surprised by a yawn, John shivered.  He didn’t really want to put in the effort to move to the bed, but the chill he’d attributed to his bad dream now prickled goosebumps across his bare skin.  Slowly, careful not to disturb Kaidan again, John slid off the sleeping form beneath him.  He stood, stretching his arms above his head and leaning back, pops and muffled cracks accompanying the soft groan of satisfaction as muscles that hadn’t had a full day's rest in months stretched luxuriously.

Moving to the bed, John reset the covers from where they’d been tossed upon Joker’s entry.  Smoothing the fabric out of habit, John cracked a weak smile.  He’d made his bed - now he could sleep in it.

Getting Kaidan off the couch was an operation.  Helpful and cooperative when conscious, a sleeping Kaidan was much less interested in doing anything at all.  He offered a few sounds of displeasure, wrapping one arm around John as he leaned against him, breath puffing against John’s neck.

It wasn’t their usual middle-of-the-night routine, but it accomplished what Kaidan always set out to do when John woke with wide eyes and fast breath.  Focusing on getting the man in his arms to avoid banging his shins on the coffee table, there wasn’t room for smoke and light and misshapen faces.  No indistinct shouts, just incoherent words of protest as John walked them across the space.

The firm grip he’d used was all that had kept Kaidan on his feet.  The man dropped like a sack of onions when John loosened his hold, collapsing onto his side of the bed with a sigh.  A real smile, summoned by exasperated affection, pulled at John’s lips this time.  With his own muttered words of displeasure, John tugged and shoved until Kaidan was curled on his side, head on a real pillow this time.  With a victorious huff, John pulled the covers over the sleeping form and turned back to the room.

It hadn’t been a workout by any means, but moving around always woke John - too many years of waking into a dead run.  Paired with resting for an entire day, he felt wide awake.  He knew the various trained medical personnel onboard would point out his injuries and his general lack of rest, and demand he go back to bed. But Kaidan was already asleep, and John doubted Chakwas would take a leaf out of Joker’s book and burst in unannounced.

The small movements of restful sleep caught his eye, and John let himself indulge in watching Kaidan sleep, just for a minute.

Dark brows smoothed of worry, lips relaxed from the thin line summoned by consternation or concern, one hand tucked under that cleft chin.  Kaidan was a compact sleeper, picking a position and sticking to it for the night, limbs arranged to take up the least amount of space.  He’d stay like that, containing himself even in sleep, until John came to bed.  Then, without fail, one hand would slide across until it hit bare skin and tug, gentle but determined, until John was tucked up next to him, limbs tangled together and someone’s head on a shoulder.

Safe and warm and certain he was loved.  It was a gift, and John treasured it everyday.  Even on the days he was too stubborn to worry about how badly he looked after himself.

Rolling his shoulders in another stretch, John looked away as he walked around the end of their bed.  His eye caught on the pile of wrappers, folded neatly back into shape next to their unopened compatriots.  An empty water bottle, a full one, and what looked like a carton of juice kept the ration bars company.  He wasn’t tired, but at the slightest prompting his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t, in fact, eaten anything before all this started.  And the fact that the wrappers were folded back into shape meant Kaidan knew the food was there and would, thus, ask John about it in the morning.

Gathering up the unopened supplies, John carried them up to his desk, depositing them next to the pile of datapads.  Reading didn’t involve leaving his room, physically exerting himself, or even necessitated getting dressed.  He could get some work done while he worked through the pile of bars - Kaidan would demand he eat all of them - and then he could grab another hour of shuteye.  At least lay down and let the newest batch of information rattle around inside his head without actively thinking about it.

But as his mind woke up, so did the rest of him.  Resting a hand on the bars to make sure they weren’t precariously balanced, John glanced over at the bathroom.

There was a moment, just before the door opened, when John wondered if this maybe wasn’t a good idea.  The last time he’d been in here, it hadn’t gone well.  But the door opened onto the same bathroom it had always been.  He noted that someone must have cleaned it; there was no way he hadn’t made a mess with his stunt.  But the only thing out of place in the room was his water glass.

He stood in the doorway, waiting for dread or guilt or fear to crowd in, but it didn’t come.  It was just their bathroom, with its metal fixtures and white towels and the inexplicable inability to be as warm as the rest of the cabin.  And that made sense, because the problem had been in his head.  He probably would have lost it if he’d stood in front of any reflective surface that night.

A few minutes later, John exited the bathroom, feeling almost human again as normalcy made a tentative run at exerting itself.  He had reports to read, including the one he’d fallen asleep over, and no doubt there was a backlog of calls from his being out of reach for an entire day.  Taking a drink from his refilled glass, John mentally shifted through the list of people he’d need to talk to.  He made a mental note to figure out a “thank you” for Traynor - she would have been the one forced to cover his ass with the politicians and military command.

Sensing something amiss, John paused, looking to his left.

Liara stood, backlit by the fish tank.  Her face was in shadow, but he imagined this was what it felt like when she dealt with an uncooperative contact.

John set down his glass on the desk.  She looked at him, stance unchanged.

“I’ve been meaning to come see you.”  Her voice was cool.  “I wanted your opinion on something.”

For the first time, John noticed she was holding something - a black box, its slick surface reflecting the limited light.  It was about half the size of a laptop, but much thicker.  Noticing his gaze, Liara looked down at it, turning the box idly as if to study it from various angles.

“It’s a record of everything pertaining to the Reapers.  How they work, what they can do.  Everything we have on the Protheans and the Crucible.”  She dropped it back to her side, face turned back toward him.  “A beacon of our own, in case we don’t succeed.”

John nodded.  “That sounds like a good idea.”

“I was going to ask for your opinion on your own entry.”

That caught him off-guard.  “My entry?”

“As the person leading us, I thought you warranted mention.”  Liara lifted her chin, voice still cool.  “I think I should skip today’s events.”

“Liara –“

“Outside.”

John watched as his friend turned on her heel, sweeping back through the door to his cabin.  Glancing over to make sure Kaidan was still asleep, he followed Liara out into the brightly lit antechamber.  “Liara -”

“Why would you do this?”  The question snapped at him, jagged points of anger and hurt as his friend spun to face him.  “How could you think this was a good idea?”

John squinted against the bright light, one hand coming up automatically to shield his eyes as they adjusted.  “I didn’t think -”

“I know you didn’t think,” Liara bristled.  “You couldn’t have been thinking, because then you would have come to one of us instead.”

“There wasn’t time,” John protested.  “I didn’t mean to -”

“That makes it better?  You hurt yourself, but it’s fine because it was on a whim?”

The feeling of a normal morning was rapidly fading, dispersing like mist as he was forced back into the shadows.  “I didn’t say that,” John argued, “I just meant it’s not something that I meant to do, I didn’t plan it.  I just…”

“You what?” Liara spat.  “You felt hopeless?  Desperate?  Afraid?  You felt like all of us do, but you can’t talk about it because you’re the Commander?”

“Liara,” he could feel the heat in his words, “I am their Commander.”

“So you don’t get to feel how miserable this war is?  This mass slaughter of everyone we love?”

“Of course I feel it,” John snapped.  “I feel it everyday!”

“But I’m supposed to believe you aren’t handling it poorly everyday,” Liara bit out.  “That, just this once, you lost your mind and -”

“I didn’t lose anything!  I was -”  John stopped, suddenly unsure what to say.

“What?” Liara cried, throwing one hand up in desperation, “you were what?”

“I was stuck!”

John let his head fall back, eyes closing as the silence reverberated with his useless explanation.  How, how to explain why it had all suddenly felt like too much?

“I had a nightmare, and when I woke up...I couldn’t shake it.”  His head canted forward, forcing him to look up at Liara’s skeptical expression.  “I was tired and stressed, like everyone else on this ship, and when I tried to shrug it off and go to bed, I got wound up in my own bad thoughts and…”  He trailed off with a helpless gesture.  “I don’t have a better explanation, Li.”

She didn’t look convinced.  “I have read more reports on you than is healthy, and there’s never - not even once - been any evidence of an inclination to self-harm.”

“I know.”

“The only example I can come up with was after we lost Williams.”  Liara put her hand on her hip.  “You drank a frightening amount of alcohol, and then slept for most of a day.”

“I remember.”  He didn’t, but that had been the point of all those bottles.

“And it’s hardly the same thing, because when Kaidan found you, you talked to him.  Or tried to, through your inebriated state.”  Liara sounded disgusted, which somehow hurt worse than the coldness earlier.  “And when finally got you to your quarters, you insisted he stay.  At the first hint of aid or comfort, you took it.”

John rubbed at his upper arm.  He did remember that, latching onto Kaidan’s wrist after the man got him to bed, tugging his equally distraught friend down next to him and doing his best to focus on the stories Kaidan was telling.  He hadn’t had anything kind or helpful to say, so he’d tucked Kaidan into his chest and let him cry until they had both fallen asleep.  It hadn’t brought her back, but remembering Ash had felt less like slamming his hand in a door after that.

He hadn’t noticed the silence had returned until Liara broke it.  “How was this different?”  Her voice sounded pleading, now.  “Why didn’t you just sit with Tali and see which was stronger, Quarian liquor or human?”

John sighed.  “I don’t know.  I just...I can’t…”  He sighed again, more a frustrated exhale.  “I’m just...tired.”  He looked at her and shook his head, trapped by those demanding blue eyes.  “I’m just tired.”

Liara watched him.  “Tired of what?”

The words came out slowly, the first few pebbles kicked loose.  “I’m tired of orders.  I’m tired of blame.  I’m tired of feeling like I have to apologize for always being not quite enough.”  John shook his head and looked around, as if the walls in this tiny room might give him an answer.

But they didn’t, and he couldn’t keep the words inside anymore.

“I’m tired of being reminded that the Reapers are huge and unbeatable.  I’m tired of being the one who has to remind others that lives matter, that this war is pointless if everyone dies along the way.”  His mind flicked back to his last meeting with Hackett, the stoic Admiral finally showing signs of wear and tear.  “I’m tired of feeling like it’s an uphill battle we can’t win.”

Old resentments unearthed themselves, emerging as always at a point of vulnerability.  Scrubbing a hand across his face, John dropped his eyes to the floor, blinking back unwanted, frustrated tears.

“I’m tired of feeling like I could have saved someone when there was never a chance.  I’m tired of opinions from people who weren’t there, who’ll never know.”  Looking down wasn’t helping, so he glared at the ceiling instead.  “I’m tired of being a bad Spectre and a good soldier.”  He caught his breath, his breathing shallow.  “I’m tired of being doubted and questioned and isolated and manipulated .”

He felt the first tear burn its way down his cheek.

“I’m tired of not knowing how old I am.  Of taking other people’s word that I am John Shepard.  I’m tired,” he choked on the memory, “of being scared that the face in the mirror isn’t mine.”

A hand rested on his arm - when had Liara moved?  “Shepard…”

“You know that’s not even my name?”  John looked at her.  “I picked it, because the Alliance needed a surname to enlist.”

Her voice was quiet.  “I didn’t know that.”

Blinking back the tears, John sniffed.  “It took years to get used to.  I still wasn’t when I got assigned to the Normandy, but then this,” he laughed, melancholy stealing its mirth, “this eclectic group of people started calling me that, and finally it didn’t sound like a lie.”

“Is that why Kaidan calls you ‘John’?”

John summoned a weak smile.  “Because it’s my name.”

“Do you want everyone to call you ‘John’?”

John swallowed.  “No.  Only Kaidan and..and Ash, ever called me John.  I’ve always been ‘Shepard’ to this crew.”  He patted Liara’s hand, feeling his breathing grow steady.  “It’s…it’s your name…for me.”

They stood there, the silence kept at bay by his unsteady breathing.  John felt like a heavy blanket had been dropped over him, pulling at him even as the weight felt comforting.  Liara’s hand was moving back and forth, an unconscious, soothing gesture after his outburst.  He could see her thinking, watched the gears turn in her mind as she slotted information into place, building out her understanding.

He watched her remerge from her mind, focusing back on him and the reason they were out here.  “I said there was no evidence of you wanting to hurt yourself,” her tone was neutral now, no longer cold or interrogating, “but that’s not quite true.”  A hand skimmed over his face, tracing imagined wounds.  “You tried to do this once before, when Cerberus was in charge.”

“I couldn’t trust anyone,” John said, “not anyone who might know what really happened during those two years.  The Illusive Man needed me compliant, not informed.”

“But you could have trusted your friends.”

Exhaustion made him honest, pulling forth secrets he didn’t really want to share.  “I couldn’t, though.”

Liara froze, blue eyes finding his.  “Why not?”

“Two years.  You all had lives.”  John took a deep breath, but again, the words wouldn’t stop.  “You’d all separated, gone off to do other things.  The Geth, the Shadow Broker, the Krogan Clans.  You didn’t have time for me.”  John shrugged one shoulder.  “Even Garrus had found a new way to piss off criminals.”

“Garrus came with you,” Liara reminded him, “as did Tali.”

“After she walked away.”  John smiled at the memory, proud of his friend.  “She knew better than to trust some thing claiming to be a long dead friend.  She knew she needed proof.  But there never seemed to be any.”  John traced a bright line on his forearm, sounding dejected.  “It was enough to inspire hope, but never enough to be certain.”

“You can’t live like that.”

He hated how frightened Liara sounded.  “I don’t.”

“But, if you’ve never found your proof…”

“The Cipher.”  John looked at his friend, the smile taking on an ironic twist.  “I had to use the Prothean Cipher, which meant I still had it.  And there was no way, not a chance in hell, that Cerberus would be able to replicate such a thing and not use it.  How many other people would have what’s in my head if The Illusive Man could make copies?”

Liara looked surprised, as if, of all his traits, this was the last one she expected to be useful.  “That thing from the Thorian?”

“The one and only,” John confirmed.  “Still, the one and only.”

She studied him, still unsatisfied.  “But it’s not enough.  Or not always enough.”

“No,” John agreed.  “Sometimes, I forget.  I worry and pick and work myself up anyway.”

Liara frowned.  “You were never like this before Cerberus.”

“Well, I’d never died before.”

The words hung in the air.  His mouth tasted suddenly bitter, the joke sour before he’d finished making it.

“You can’t make jokes,” Liara whispered.  “Not about that.”

“I know.”

“You don’t.”  Setting the box on the ground, Liara stepped in close.  A hand ghosted over his face once more, retracing its earlier path.  “Did you know Anderson had to threaten Kaidan with a dishonorable discharge to get him to see a therapist after you died?”  Liara smiled without mirth.  “Our young lieutenant couldn’t handle losing you and Williams so close together.  He was developing quite the drinking habit.”

John shook his head.

“Not that Anderson was doing much better,” Liara continued.  “If he hadn’t been buried under the work of restarting the Council, I think he might have given Kaidan a few bad ideas.  Garrus certainly tried, before he vanished to play vigilante in one of the worst places in the galaxy.”

He wasn’t sure why she was telling him this.

“Tali had gone back to her people to seek permission to take a longer leave of absence.  She seemed to think her Commander was worth the risk of losing her standing in the Flotilla.  I think her father was supportive, but the Admiralty Board apparently had a different opinion.”

John nodded at the memory of that last conversation.  “She wanted to come back.  I told her we’d be there.”

“Well, we weren’t.”  Liara kept going.  “Wrex, of course, had finally shaken off centuries of rage and hopelessness, ready to fight for his people again after some squishy outsider pounded some sense into his thick skull.”

He remembered Wrex mentioning going home, trying to find “something worth salvaging in our precious dump heap”.

“And then there was me.  Lost my mother, lost my job, and now I’d lost the group that was holding me together, in a violent, horrible attack, because I let our Commander die.”

“Liara, I ordered you to go.”  Frustration bloomed in the middle of the storm of emotions, burning away some of the heartache.  “Why are so many people on my crew determined to blame themselves for my death?”

Liara ignored him.  “It’s a wonder I ever obeyed your orders again.”  Liara brushed her fingers over John’s damaged cheek.  “You lost two years of your life and all the certainty you had in the world.  But nobody has forced you to deal with it.  I doubt the Alliance thought to comfort someone who was under investigation for multiple acts of terrorism and treason.”

“Hackett trusted me.”

Liara smiled, thinly but with feeling.  “That man is an enigma.  It’s frustrating, as an information broker, but I’m sure he would be pleased to know that.”

John hugged himself.  “I didn’t trust me.”

“Didn’t?”  Liara raised an eyebrow.  “’Didn’t’ is not ‘don’t’, and that matters.”

John let his gaze lose focus as he thought.  Finally, he looked back at his friend.  “Didn’t.”

“If you trust yourself now, what happened?”

John gave an aborted shrug.  “The war.  I…”  He forced himself to relax, thinking through his feelings as memories floated to the surface.  “I felt like myself.  My old bosses and my old orders.”  John gave her another small smile.  “I even got my crew back.”

“But…” Liara prodded, mindful of the minefield they were skirting.

“These last few weeks, the scars have gotten worse, again.”  John traced the bright line on his forearm.  “And so many people on the Normandy haven’t seen them get this bad.”

“You were worried about what they’d think of their Commander,” Liara said, gently.

“I glow, Li.”

“I’ve noticed.”  Her tone teased.

John gave a reluctant laugh.  “I worked so hard to convince people I’m really me, and then these damn things show up again.  The nightmares are worse than ever, and with the Reapers advancing no matter what we do, sometimes I just…”

Liara raised a sympathetic eyebrow.  “You can’t shove everything in a box and ignore it?”

John gave her a rueful look, blowing a breath through his nose at the warranted accusation.  “I thought I was doing a pretty good job of keeping it from the crew.”

Liara’s brows dropped into a glare.  “Your friends are part of that crew.  And even the soldiers care about their Commander.”

“You all have your own concerns –“

“John Shepard, I will slap you.”

John gave a start, then laughed.  A genuine, proper one.  “I’m going to have to talk about this, aren’t I?”

“That’s the least of your concerns,” Liara said.  “You’re going to have to eat normally and sleep regularly and take real breaks from this war.  You’re going to have people checking in on you all day long.  You,” Liara said, poking John in the chest, “are going to have so much affection and frustration directed at you, you might just miss dealing with the Reapers by the time we get through with this.”

“But we will.  Get through this.”

Liara sighed.  “You never do things by halves, do you?  All that trust you built up: gone, again.”

“I know.”

“Shepard, we lost you, just like you lost you.  The Collectors did a terrible, horrible thing to all of us.”  Liara paused, waiting for her voice to regain its calm.  “This thing you’ve done, it’s too close to losing you again.”

“I’m trying –“

“You’re isolating yourself and being selfish.”  Placing a hand on either side of his head, Liara pulled him down to press a kiss to his forehead.  “All this misery and fear and exhaustion won’t go away overnight, but it won’t go away at all if you keep hiding.  Lean on us.  Talk to us.  Talk to Kaidan.”  Liara looked him in the eye, then pointedly at the door to his left.  “I imagine he’d rather hear every bad thought you’ve ever had about yourself than have to live through that nightmare, again.”

“I scared the hell out of him.”

Liara let go of him and took a step back.  “You tried to peel your face off.”

“I know.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“I know.”  But his voice was fond.  “I am so sorry, Liara.”

“You’re going to be saying that to a lot of people.”  On a different face, it might have been a smirk.  “Not the least Admiral Hackett.”

John’s eyes widened.  “Hackett knows?”

“If he doesn’t, he will soon.  Chakwas will have to tell him.”

“He’ll relieve me of command.”  John’s voice rose, fear regaining its hold.  “I’ll lose the Normandy.  I’ll lose all of you!”

“No you won’t.”  This time, it was definitely a smirk.  “Chakwas knows what she’s doing.  Trust her.”  Catching John’s eye, she added emphatically “trust your crew.”

John closed his eyes, counting through a deep breath like they’d taught during N-training, during basic, like Mary-Louise had taught him when he was seven and terrified that he really could go to grown-up jail for stealing a candy bar.  She hadn’t even made him give it back.  Opening his eyes, his attention caught on the black box, forgotten on the floor where Liara had set it.

When she noticed, Liara’s smirk softened into a smile.  “I should probably finish my project; I want to send devices off to each of the Council worlds at least, sooner rather than...than later.”

“Better to be prepared and not need it.”  John returned the smile.  “I think Hackett might be less of an enigma than you think, Shadow Broker.”

Liara looked pleased.  “Good to know.”  Stepping away, she retrieved her device from the floor.  “You should get some rest.”

John rolled his eyes, arms dropping to his sides like dead weight.  “I’ve done nothing but rest all day.”

“You should get some rest,” Liara repeated.  She raised an eyebrow when John didn’t move.  “Think of it as leading by example.”  She raised the other one at John’s scowl, but waited, herself unmoving, until she’d gotten another eyeroll and a sincere, if vague, promise.

Returning Liara’s parting wave, John walked back into the cabin.  The room looked darker after the brightness of the antechamber, but now it was the comforting dark of late night.

Stepping over to his desk, John shuffled the stack of datapads, looking for the one he’d been reading when this started.  He’d had enough rest for one day - more rest than he’d probably had in the past week.  If he was going to lead by example, it would be by getting back to work.  The small, uncooperative part of his mind pointed out he would not actually want his crew to behave like this, but John shoved the thought aside.

John sat, reaching for his glass of water as he pulled the chair closer to his desk.  He glanced up when his hand found the carton of juice, instead  - one of those mixed flavors that didn’t really taste like an identifiable fruit.  He debated saving it - it was better than water at washing down military rations - then shrugged and popped it open.  The familiar sweetness accompanying the rush of sugar brought back feelings of eating with a group and someone laughing at a joke nobody else heard.

But those would only be memories if they couldn’t win this war.  Propping the datapad in front of him on the desk, John let his attention drift upwards for a moment.  He found his reflection among the model ships in the case before him, a faint human shape with highlights of color.  The glowing lines were in different places tonight - the bandages on his face and lack of shirt saw to that - but he found without the remnants of the nightmare coloring his thoughts, they weren’t as bright.  He’d had to want to see them, to pick them out from the other smaller lights in the room.  It was much easier to let his vision shift focus, catching the sleeping form in the bed beyond.

He set a reminder on his omni-tool, a silent pulse of light set for a few hours to remind him to try and get more of the strongly-suggested rest, then thumbed the datapad back on.  Scrolling up to find where he’d fallen asleep, John leaned his elbows on the desk and started to read.  Death count, refugee numbers, the ever-growing list of missing, and the ever-shrinking list of supplies ordered themselves into neat categories on the screen before him.

Absently, he reached for one of the ration bars, tearing it open without losing his place.  Dehydrated protein didn’t warrant taking a break from Reaper sightings near Thessia.

Chapter Text

“Tali, are we sure we shouldn’t call ahead?  I know some of us have been up for awhile, but technically, these are Shepard’s private quarters.”

A slightly staticky “hmph” was his only response.  Suppressing a sigh, Garrus studied the pile in his arms, tall enough that it hindered his ability to see much else.

A not-quite awake Lt. Cortez had requested his presence in the cargo bay, and upon arriving, Garrus had found his…his…their resident Quarian ransacking the place.  A pile of items, most of them pieces of flexible material, sat just outside the elevator, decorated with various tools and pieces of hardware that had been thrown on top.

He tried again.  “It’s just that humans like their privacy.”  Formative years in the Turian military and a lifetime with the Flotilla meant they’d bonded over the alien concept.

“Good for them.”

No bonding today, then.

Tali bounced on the balls of her feet, staring at the ceiling of the elevator.  Garrus had been forced to stand in her way to get her attention this morning, which had resulted in his being enlisted to help.  Cortez hadn’t looked nearly apologetic enough, but it had been a dream to think Garrus wasn’t going to be storming into Shepard’s cabin this morning, anyway.

“Seriously, Tali, they might really be sleeping.”  Garrus peered over the bundles of materials.  “Weren’t you just complaining that Shepard needed more rest?”

“Hush.”

The elevator door opened, releasing Tali and her determination into the antechamber.  She marched up to the door, pausing to point at the friendly green symbol in its middle.  “See?  Unlocked, as usual.”  Not waiting for a response, Tali palmed the door open, resolute in her task.  “EDI, lights, please.”

The lights powered up, illuminating the same space Garrus remembered.  Model ships, datapads everywhere, the Earth equivalent of a chair.  The only difference he could see from his spot outside the door was that there were fish in the tank this time.  He wondered which crewmember had mentioned they liked fish.

“Vakarian, come on.”

“Coming.”

“Just dump it anywhere.”  Tali waved vaguely toward the couch.  “And watch your step.  Someone didn’t like my tea.”

Garrus looked at the wet spot on the floor, then up at the window.  “You know, there was a time when Shepard was the most dangerous thing in his quarters.”  He dumped his cargo on the small table in front of the couch.

She was staring at a corner of the window nearest Shepard’s desk, hands on her hips with displeasure.   “No convenient attachment points around the edge,” Tali muttered.  “We could mount to the bulkheads, but that wouldn’t work on all sides.”

While Tali studied the ceiling, Garrus debated the best course of action regarding the, not to say he’d told her so, still sleeping humans.  Kaidan was on his side, one arm under the pillow and the other draped over Shepard, who had rolled over to bury his face in the pillow Kaidan was currently using, face scrunched up against the unexpected brightness.

Well, they’d been sleeping when they’d arrived.

Omni-tool forming the familiar, bright orange cylinder around her lower arm, Tali stepped over to the bed.  “Shepard, I need you to move.”

“Morning to you, too.”

“I can’t install a new window covering without standing on the bed.”  Tali looked up from her screen.  “The bed you are currently lying on.”

Shepard squinted over his shoulder at her as Kaidan mumbled something incoherent, the latter still mostly asleep.  “It’s my bed.”

Tali seemed unconcerned by the reminder.  “I don’t want to stand on you, but some of us have a shift later, so I need you to move.”

With a groan, Shepard shoved his face back into the pillow.  “Yes, ma’am.”

“Kaidan, too.”

“I figured.”

Tali walked over to Garrus, swiping through files almost as fast as her omni-tool presented them.  He attempted to look like he had a few clever ideas about how to do this, but Tali continued past him, picking at their pile of supplies.  Behind him, he could hear Shepard rousing Kaidan, a mumbled “who?” the first discernable word from the latter.

Using a technique he’d mastered for covert surveillance, Garrus watched Shepard brush Kaidan’s hair behind an ear, whispering something that warranted a smile as the biotic snorted and rubbed a hand over his face.

“Are they making any progress?” Tali asked, shoving a sheet of canvas onto the floor.

Garrus debated.  “They’re both awake.”

Holding up a device, Tali looked back at the offending corner.  “Do you think it’s safe to weld on an Alliance ship?  They have a much more compressed atmosphere than on the Flotilla.”

His mandibles moved in mild agitation.  “Is there some way to do this that doesn’t involve knowing, um, fire safety?”

Tali looked at him.  “The goal is for it to stay up there this time.”

“…right.”  Garrus shifted awkwardly.  “How about I just help with the manual labor.  Or anything that requires being tall.”

Tali sighed.  “Fine.  Just stand there and look pretty until I need you.”

“Might need to get comfortable, Vakarian.”  Shepard was sitting up, grinning unapologetically.  “Tali’s incredibly self-sufficient.”

“Self-sufficient and short,” came the mumbled interjection.

Shepard laughed.  Shoving back the covers, he climbed off the bed and wandered over to the cabinet that stored clothes.  It was the first clear view of the damage Garrus had.  The bandages Chakwas had used looked like the ones he’d worn, back when some lucky merc had almost blown his face off.  But Shepard had two of them, one on each side, plus a smaller version above an eyebrow.  Even clean and contained, it looked bad.  But he didn’t see any injuries on Shepard’s exposed torso, just the usual unsettling lines.

“Kaidan, up and at ‘em,” Shepard called, shutting a drawer to open another.  “There’s no coffee up here.”

Kaidan groaned and pulled the covers over his head.  “Why not?  Who plans a morning invasion without coffee?”

Shutting the other drawer, Shepard headed up the steps.  “I grabbed you clothes.  I’m gonna brush my teeth and get changed while you sulk.”

“Actually brush your teeth this time.”

Tali waited until Shepard had disappeared behind the bathroom door before closing her omni-tool.  She walked back over to the bed, sitting behind Kaidan and poking him in the shoulder.

The sheet muffled the grumbled response.  “I’m up.”

“Are you OK?”

Pushing himself to a sitting position, Kaidan sighed as the sheet slithered down to pool in his lap.  “Yeah.  Just slow this morning.”

“I meant in general.”  Tali rested a hand on his arm.  “None of this has been easy.”

Garrus noted the signs of an uneasy rest: pale skin, smudges under the eyes, shoulders slouched even as the human inhaled deeply.  Kaidan shook his head and ran one hand through disheveled hair as he avoided the question.  “What’s the crew saying?”

“They don’t know.”  Garrus leaned against the nearest bulkhead, arms crossed.  “Apparently,” he added, typical drawl hiding his pleasure at this breach in human behavior, “when you ask someone to keep a lid on things, our people actually do.”

Kaidan blinked at him.  “Should make breakfast interesting.”

“You think it’s wise for Shepard to go downstairs?”  Garrus looked between his friends, not wanting to be the first to verbally doubt Shepard’s ability to handle a potential inquisition.

“He needs to get out of this room,” Tali declared.  “Life goes on, and he will do much better if he sees how angry and supportive his crew can be.”

Kaidan cracked a smile.  “Chakwas probably wants to check her work, too.”

Tali popped off the bed at the sound of the door opening, attention leaping to the ceiling as her omni-tool flared to life.  Shepard, still missing a shirt but having switched to uniform pants, walked out.  He stopped at the sight of Kaidan still in bed and brandished his toothbrush.

“You’re out of uniform, Major.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

Garrus was pretty sure he could have lived without hearing Kaidan use that tone.

Shepard stuck his toothbrush back in his mouth with a grin and walked back to the sink.  Climbing out of bed, Kaidan pulled the covers up on instinct before pausing.  “Should we…strip the bed?”  He looked between Garrus and Tali.  “Make it easier to walk on?”

Tali glanced over her shoulder, her tone conspiratorial.  “We’ll be fine.  Garrus is nimble.”

Garrus was pretty sure he could have lived without Kaidan using that grin.  “Fair enough.”

He coughed, chin ducked to his chest.  “Don’t you need to get dressed?”

With both humans in the bathroom, Garrus sighed in relief.  Tali looked at him.  “Something wrong?”

“They’re just so…unprofessional.”

The omni-tool blinked off, the abrupt departure of visual light matching the disapproving tone.  “This is their room, Garrus.  They don’t have to be.”

“I didn’t mean –“  His mandibles moved as he tried to think of the words.  “I just meant I’m not used to it.  The…the soft things.”  Garrus glanced at the closed door.  “Shepard is always professional, always formal, rarely gives more than a smile unless it’s a high-octane kind of situation.”

“He was pretty friendly around Jack and Mordin.”

“Yes, let’s use Shepard fresh-from-death as an example of standard behavior.”  Garrus imagined the scowl behind that faceplate.  “I’m sorry; that was crude.”

Tali sighed.  “But not wrong.  But this is normal, all this mushy stuff.”  She waved a hand in the direction of the bathroom.  “You remember on the SR1, how Ash used to barrel into them like they were small children.”

He pitched his voice to sound innocent.  “Was that not a standard human greeting?”

Tali scoffed, but there was fondness in the sound.  “Shepard’s just…a little repressed.  And the Alliance doesn’t encourage much affection.  Something about fraternizing with your crew.”

Garrus glanced toward the bathroom, mandibles twitching in suppressed amusement.  “Pretty sure we’re past that.”

“We are,” Tali agreed, “but the dozen or so new Alliance soldiers might not be.  Shepard’s always been concerned with the comfort of his crew.”

Garrus studied the air in front of him.  “I do miss the SR1.  The later stuff.  After everyone got used to the different species thing and decided you weren’t going to sneak the drive core off to the Flotilla.”

Tali leaned back, studying the dance of blue energy through the offending window, knees bent to counter the shift in her center of gravity.  “I still don’t see how I could have done that without tipping off Engineer Adams.”

“Why are we tipping off Adams?”

With the uniform complete, Shepard looked almost like himself.  Kaidan followed behind, tugging some last piece of his uniform into place while Shepard favored Tali with a raised eyebrow.  Tali gave an innocent tilt of the head.  “Nothing.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Who dumped my tea on the floor?”

“Joker.”  Shepard looked sheepish.  “He, uh, came up to talk last night.”

“And that involved spilling the tea?”

Shepard shrugged.  “He threw the mug at me.  The tea just kinda…fell out.”

“And no one’s cleaned it up?” Garrus asked.

Shepard indicated the spill with a grandiose gesture, a smile tugging at his lips.  “Service before self, Vakarian.”

Garrus rolled his eyes.

Kaidan tugged at the back of Shepard’s shirt.  “Come on.  Coffee and food.”

Shepard took a step, then hesitated, the moment of mirth suddenly replaced by real concern.  “I should actually clean that up.”  

Seeing Kaidan’s look, a warning glare from behind Shepard’s distracted shoulder, Garrus pushed off the bulkhead.  “I got it.”

Shepard made as if to stop him.  “I was kidding, Garrus.  I can clean up my own mess.”

“You will accept help, Shepard, and you will like it.”  Tali leveled a look of her own at their friend, omni-tool once again glowing around her forearm.

Shepard conceded with a rueful look.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Kaidan tugged again at Shepard’s shirt.  “You said you love me.  I don’t expect you to bring me coffee, but I do expect you to let me get my own.”

Garrus watched what must be a daily pattern of actions pull his friend back to the moment.

Rolling his eyes - a most disconcerting human ability - Shepard gave an exaggerated sigh.  “Fine, let’s go find your disgusting morning beverage.”  Shepard turned, heading for the door, but was brought up short by Kaidan’s continued grip on his shirt.  “Kaidan?”

Stepping close, Kaidan kissed him.  He pulled back, giving Shepard a lazy grin.  “Because I won’t get one after coffee.”

“Doesn’t tea have caffeine?”  Was the Great Commander Shepard... whining ?

“Tea is meant to be drunk cold.”

Shepard gaped as Kaidan led the way out of their room.  “You cannot be serious.  Cold, Alenko?”

“Iced tea.”

“I know what it is.  Tea is supposed to be hot.”

“If you say so,” Kaidan tossed back, the door hissing shut as they passed beyond its sensor.

Fabric obscured his view as something soft landed on his head.  Pulling the shirt loose from his spikes - how did humans come up with such a convoluted idea of clothing? - Garrus spared an annoyed look at the laundry hamper before glancing with feigned annoyance at Tali, holding up the offending article.

She shrugged.  “You said you’d clean it up; that was the closest fabric to hand.”

Chuckling, Garrus knelt on the floor, swabbing the shirt over the spill.  It took him a moment to notice Tali hadn’t moved.  He looked up, catching the play of blue light on her purple faceplate.  “Making sure the job gets done?”

Tali shrugged again before walking over to retrieve the welding torch.  “No, I just like the sight of Turians on their knees.”

Chapter Text

John ran his thumb over the crack in the pocketknife’s handle.  He’d traced the crack so many times over the years, he knew he could identify the blade by that alone.  He knew, because Petey had bet his life on it once, and John had beat Petey within an inch of his life after they’d got out of there.  Well, maybe not an inch, but soundly enough the boy had actually tried to think before he spoke for the next three months.

John wondered if Petey had felt the same tingle of anxiety along his spine.  The same desire to pretend the bad day had never happened, even as everyone around him kept talking about it.

He’d spotted the knife on the shelf, lying innocently next to the towels.  There had been a moment of confusion - John had assumed he’d find it on the floor, if he ever found it at all - before he remembered someone had cleaned up the mess he’d made.  Leaving the knife casually on the shelf meant it must have been someone other than Kaidan; John couldn’t imagine the other man not tucking the offending object somewhere, debating himself into a bad mood over whether to give it back or toss it out an airlock.  Shoving it in a pocket, John had flicked the foam off his toothbrush at Kaidan as the other man joined him, Tali’s quiet mutterings about Alliance ship standards mingling with the short, exhaled sounds of mild annoyance.

John had so many good memories attached to the little knife, times it had been useful for knocking loose the lock on a window or as a source of humor, commandeered by Dimitri for one of his many juggling attempts - they’d all insisted he’d kept the blade closed for the first try.  There was the occasional less pleasant memory, like when one of the orphans had decided to try using it as a kitchen utensil and sliced their palm open.

But there was nothing positive about the knife for Kaidan.  For him, it was just the thing that John had used to hurt himself.

Now, standing outside their room and waiting for the elevator, John watched the other man.  Kaidan wore an almost neutral expression, accentuated by lines of concentration at the corners of his eyes, that always meant he was thinking hard about something.  John wondered idly if the Alliance would be offended to know Kaidan never wore that look when he was working on his reports.  John knew his own face was usually screwed up in concentration after only a few minutes.

It never helped that he couldn’t remember the last time it had been good news.  The reports he’d worked through before crawling back into bed - and, to his surprise, passing out despite a full day’s rest - had held almost exclusively distressing news.

Salarian colonies were officially being wiped out where only a month ago it had been possible to hope these were hit-and-runs.  The Terminus system, mostly via Aria, had started volunteering regular updates to supplement the information the Shadow Broker couldn’t, since Liara was losing agents almost daily, and so far they were mainly reminders that Cerberus was almost as big a threat as Harbinger’s group.  Primarch Victus was giving one last, desperate shove on Menae, but privately he already considered the moon lost.  He already considered Palaven lost, even as he swore in the same breath that the Reapers would have to send him to the Spirits personally before he let his world fall.

Knowing Hackett had found ships to help with the Elcor evacuations was small comfort against all that cold calculus.  John had read the message from the Elcor diplomat twice through, remembering the placid face as he begged this random human for aid the Council had formally denied.  Not even a dozen ships, who’s hard work had saved nowhere near enough lives, and the message radiated gratitude.  John couldn’t remember the last time someone had thanked him for just doing his best.

“It’s a good thing Garrus is cleaning up that spill.”

John twitched, more at the voice than the arrival of the elevator.  He focused back on Kaidan as they stepped on, noting the amusement tugging at those lips.  “Yeah?”

“Traynor brought up dinner,” Kaidan explained.  He gave John an approving look, “which I noticed you actually ate.”

John felt something tug at the corner of his own lips.  “Where did she find decent rations this far from a base?”

Kaidan shrugged.  “Cortez is magic.  How else do we never run out of coffee or powdered eggs?”

They could run out of both and John really wouldn’t mind.  “Made from real” was not a comforting label when the final product was grey and tasted of musty chaulk.  And a lack of coffee might force Kaidan to find a less unpleasant substitute.  Or make him cranky enough to single-handedly fling the Reapers back to dark space for disrupting the supply lines.

“Anyway,” Kaidan was saying, “Traynor missed the mess on the way down the steps, but nailed it on the way back up.”

“She fell?”

John watched Kaidan’s shoulders lift in sympathetic embarrassment.  “I think it mostly bruised her pride.”

“That usually hurts worse.”

The elevator doors closed as they shared a grin.

John glanced at the display, his instinct to punch the symbol for the Crew Deck overridden by a hesitancy he didn’t want to admit.  The Crew Deck would have just that - his crew.  Intelligent, observant, clever people who would have noticed that something was going on by now.

“John?”

John looked back at Kaidan, taking in the deflated smile and searching brown eyes.

“Lost you there for a second,” Kaidan said.  He reached out, taking one of John’s hands.  “Where’d you go?”

John threaded their fingers together, giving Kaidan’s hand a squeeze.  “It’s nothing.”

“That wasn’t a good answer before.”  Kaidan’s voice was soft, unyielding but kind.  “It’s really not a good answer now.”

This was it, wasn’t it?  The first of an unknown number of times he’d have to get used to telling someone what was going on in his head.  Having to let someone else know all the miserable little moments, the confusion and uncertainty.  All the fears that prowled through him and gnawed on whatever thoughts they could reach.

Kaidan was watching him, waiting but not backing down, just like always.  Like when he’d first asked about the new scars.  Like when any of them tried to downplay an injury during an away mission.  Like when Ash, tongue already swelling, tried to convince them she hadn’t tried Tali’s food.

John focused on the warm palm pressed against his own.  “What do I tell the crew?”

Kaidan let out a breath, like he’d been waiting to see if John would really answer.  “What do you want to tell them?”

“Nothing.”  John’s hand came up, tracing over the bandage on his jaw before he even registered doing it.  “I don’t want them to know what I did.”

“Are we talking about just the Alliance crew,” Kaidan asked, probing gently, “or everyone on board?”

John laughed, a short sound devoid or mirth.  “Well, some of them already know, so there’s no hiding it from them.”

“But would you have hidden it?” Kaidan pressed.  “If you could have?”

John studied his boots, forcing the word up and out.  “Yes.”

He tried not to react to Kaidan’s sigh, the show of what must be disappointment at his own selfishness.  He shouldn’t have needed to make such a choice, because he shouldn’t have hurt himself.  He didn’t like hurting himself.  It wasn’t a thing he thought about or thought would help.  It...it just happened, and now the whole ship was going to know how badly he was handling this war.

John risked a glance at Kaidan’s face.  But Kaidan didn’t look disappointed, just...sad.  “You wouldn’t have told me, either.”

It wasn’t a question.

This time it was Kaidan’s turn to squeeze his hand.  “You know I’m always there, when the nightmares come.”  A warm voice and a warm touch, grounding him in the moment as the fingers of dreams dragged at him.  “There’s not much I can do but be there.  I can talk to you, or listen to you.  I’m always good for a hug.”  Strong arms wrapped around him, holding tight as he struggled to focus on the worn cotton under his own fingers.  “You wake up hard and fast, and I try to be that soft place to land.

“But I don’t think you know that you wake me up most nights.”  The grip on his hand held, as if sensing John’s sudden desire to pull away.  “And sometimes...it’s like you think you have to do this on your own.”  His hand held on tight, but Kaidan’s eyes were searching, confused and something that looked like hurt.  “No hand on my shoulder, no rough shake to get my attention.  I lay there, listening to you try and calm yourself down, and I’m never sure if I should roll over, reach out for you instead, when you’re obviously trying not...to wake me.”

He hadn’t known.  John flipped back through the memories of sitting on the edge of the bed, arms warped around himself as he shook, biting his lip to prove he was awake, trying to steady his breathing without disturbing Kaidan.  Who’d already been disturbed.

“I’m certain you don’t know about the nights you don’t wake up.”

John froze.  All that effort to keep his problems to himself, culminating in that fiasco of a night, and he’d never kept anything to himself at all.

“Sometimes,” Kaidan continued, voice subdued, “you’re still pretty out of it when I wake up.  Muttering to yourself, gasping someone’s name, clutching at my shirt or the sheets around you.  Just stuck in whatever hellscape your mind thought up this time.”  Stuck and dragging others in with him.  “I rub your back, whisper every nonsense phrase I know, hold you close and tuck the sheets in around us.  Anything I can think of to banish the monsters in your head so you can get some sleep.”  Kaidan laughed softly.  “You never get enough sleep.”

“You need sleep, too,” John said, just as soft.

Kaidan's mouth twisted as it tried to smile, not quite finding the shape.  “Everyone needs sleep.  Nobody’s going to get enough of it until the Reapers are gone.”

It was the truth, but he didn’t have to like it.  “So instead of getting some rest yourself,” John said, “you’d rather wake up every night, just to feel helpless while I shake and breathe and jump at shadows?”

“Yes,” Kaidan said, the word almost an exhale, as if saying it too loud might break some kind of spell.  “Every night, John, if that’s what it takes.  I’ll take exhausted over you feeling alone every damn night for the rest of my life.”

I imagine he’d rather hear every bad thought you’ve ever had about yourself...

Maybe Liara was right.  Maybe Tali had been right, too, when she’d sat on his chest and demanded he let her listen to his problems once in a while.  Even Jack, in her evasive way, had pointed out he only came down to sit with her, eyes wide and hands shaking, after he’d pushed himself too far, and that he could have come sooner.

John swallowed, fighting the feeling of a hand around his throat.  “Next time, roll over.  Don’t listen when I tell you it’s fine.”

The moment of terror was worth it.  The relief, the sense of certainty, that came back into that face he loved.  “Don’t think I won’t, John.”

Nervous energy scrambled along his limbs.  So many years of being the strongest, the steadiest, the unshakable one.  Standing up to bigger kids and running headlong at beat cops to buy his friends time.  Talking himself down when he was wounded on a mission and knew help wasn’t coming.  That crawling, clinging sense of having to be able to make it on his own, of being the one who could take it.

He reminded himself it wasn’t weakness, wasn’t selfishness to ask for this.  Kaidan had offered; he wanted John to come to him.  John himself had spent his life listening to people’s miseries, big and small, and doing what he could to help, but having to ask for that same help had been harder than walking on a dislocated ankle.  The ball of dread, of feeling exposed, like admitting he needed help meant admitting he wasn’t good enough, buzzed in his chest.

He opened his mouth to say something - thank you, I love you, stay with me - but the words caught.  Frustrated at his own thoughts, John pulled Kaidan into a hug, burying his face in his shoulder.  Strong arms wrapped around him, holding him close.

He could do this.  Liara was right - he had always leaned on his crew before.  Even Wrex, who had spent their hunt for Saren being cranky and isolationist, had leaned against the bulkhead and listened when John had used him as a sounding board.  Ash wasn’t here to bulldoze her way into his quarters, dragging a mildly protesting teammate behind her, but everyone else was.  They all still cared, still wanted to help.  And it was OK to let them know he needed that help.

But one step at a time.  John had talked to Kaidan, had let someone in.  Now it was time to put the mask back on and do his job.  “So, what do we tell the crew?”

Kaidan didn’t let go, humming against John’s shoulder as he thought.  “I don’t know what to tell you about our friends, beyond that you should think about telling them the truth.”  He tightened his hold for a moment as he said it, feeling John tense.  “They care about you as much as I do, and they’ll want to help.”

“Or yell,” John said.  He’d told Kaidan about Liara’s visit while they got dressed.  He’d left out the things Liara had told him about while he was dead, not sure his friends would want him to have those secrets.  But that had only left the parts where she’d shouted at him, lashing out in her own hurt and confusion.  It made her visit sound a lot like Joker’s.

“I’ve never heard Garrus yell at anyone,” Kaidan said, “and I get the feeling Tali’s will be more of a lecture.”  Now he did pull back, arms dropping into a loose hug around John’s waist.  “Do you want me to come with you?”

“You can’t babysit me for the rest of the war,” John said, avoiding the question.

Kaidan avoided his response right back.  “Spectre status means I have to do what’s best for everyone,” the words practically recited.  “Protecting the person most likely to find a way to beat the Reapers qualifies.”

“You’re doing this because you love me,” John countered.

Kaidan smiled serenely back.  “It’s the same work either way.  How convenient for me.”

How, how did he always forget how stubborn this man could be?  John hooked his thumbs through Kaidan’s belt loops, the closest thing to a concession he would make.  He felt himself squint at the pleased tilt to that smile.  “And the rest of the crew?  I really don’t think it will help them to know I…” he paused, the words catching, “how I got injured.”

“Might remind them you’re only human,” Kaidan offered.

“They don’t need a human,” John said, “they need a hero.”

Kaidan looked like he wanted to argue.  Instead, he said, “Traynor mentioned most of them think you just took the day off.”

John raised an eyebrow.  “Really?”

Kaidan shrugged.  “I’m sure someone encouraged the idea, but apparently their Commander being absent for one day did not, in fact, bring this crew to a crashing halt.”  Kaidan gave John a pointed look.  “Everything went on normally while you got some rest.”

There’d be no living with him after this.  John shook his head, affection sparring with frustration at the way that old argument had resolved itself neatly in Kaidan’s favor.  Still, “they’ll probably guess they were wrong after I show up looking like this.”

This time it was Kaidan who traced the bandage, ghosting one finger over the small one over his eye.  “They might.”

“When does going to bed get you roughed up?” John asked.  He glared at the smartass remark he saw taking shape behind those brown eyes.  “Not now, Kaidan.”

“They might think all this is why you took a day off,” Kaidan offered instead.  “You certainly look like you could use a break.”

Thinking about Liara’s visit had stirred up other concerns.  “What do I say to Hackett?”

Kaidan bit his lip in thought.  “Maybe...let Chakwas talk to him first.  The medical facts might soften him up.”

John raised an eyebrow.  “Soften up Admiral Hackett?”

“Well,” Kaidan’s lip remained caught between his teeth, “it could.”

Ever the optimist.  John wondered how he did it.  “If Chakwas talks to him, then I’ll be put on medical leave.”  He felt his own spark of hope dim further.  “Hackett will have to replace me.”

“No, he won’t.”  Kaidan pinned him with a look that brooked no argument.  “Hackett wouldn’t take his most valuable piece off the board.”

“He needs to be able to trust the people under him,” John argued.  “If Chakwas reports this, if it’s determined that I’m not stable –“

“You had a bad day,” Kaidan said, speaking slowly.  “Everyone has them.  Yours was…a little more violent than most.  But you’re still a great Commander.”  Kaidan slid his arm back around John’s waist, bolstering the statement with an encouraging smile.  “You’re still a valuable member of this team.  And you are still important to everyone on this ship.”

“The crew should be loyal to their mission, not their commander.”

“That could be a problem,” Kaidan said, voice serious.  “I’m pretty sure you could ask most of these people to fly through a Relay no one has ever come back from and they’d do it.”

John frowned at the humor in those brown eyes.  “Kaidan –“

“Half the crew isn’t even Alliance,” Kaidan insisted.  “They are literally here because of you.  Because they believe in you.  Because they think it will do the most good to be here, helping you.”

“All the more reason I have to be reliable,” John countered.  “Hackett, the Alliance, everyone out there needs to know they can count on this crew in particular.  That we really are the best of the best.  That nobody’s been emotionally compromised into making bad decisions.”  John sighed, the sound tinged with bitterness.  “Do you know how awful it will be if the Dalatrass was right?”

Kaidan looked unconcerned.  “The Salarian official?  The one everyone keeps telling me was a raging bitch?”

“She was,” John agreed, momentarily distracted.  “She was too worked up about her own fears of what the Krogan might do, she couldn’t conceive of the good they could be doing right now!”  John paused, brows furrowing over startled blue eyes as Kaidan’s words registered.  “Alliance soldiers cannot be calling foreign officials names.”

“Too late.”

John shook his head.  “Please tell me it’s just her we’re bad mouthing.”

“I’ve heard some pretty creative names for that Kai Leng guy.”  Kaidan smiled innocently.  “Maybe one or two about the head of Cerberus.”

“Supplied by you, no doubt.”

The moment of levity had given Kaidan an idea, that almost neutral look flickering across his face, again.  Releasing John, Kaidan stepped back and prodded the elevator display.  The symbol for Engineering lit up.

“We’re going to Engineering?” John asked, the elevator bumming gently as it started its journey.

“When we started this conversation, you were worried about how your crew would react to your face.”  Kaidan gave a one-shouldered shrug.  “Let’s start with people you trust.”

John nodded, tamping down the resurgent nerves.  “I was supposed to go down there, anyway.  Something about installing new power couplings.”

“Ten seconds and it’s already a work thing,” Kaidan said.  He sighed melodramatically to soften the words.  “You have a problem, John.”

He had many problems, all of the clamoring to take precedence.  Somehow, the potential threat of a few smartass comments and a hand of Skyllian Five didn’t seem like one of them.

Chapter Text

It had been a quiet morning, nothing more than standard ship noises and the soft sounds of datapads being shuffled and drawers being opened to distract him from his thoughts.  Occasionally the tread of Alliance issue footwear across the deck, checking on supplies or her patient, added to the soundtrack of the MedBay.  He’d never paid any attention to the fact that this was her office, and that she might spend as much time in here as he did in the cockpit.

Joker stared at the ceiling, the brim of his hat limiting his sightline, refusing to blink until his eyes unfocused to the point that the grey-blue plating took on a greenish hue.  He listened to that now familiar pattern of footsteps fade as Chakwas left the room, greeting Sgt Michaels just outside the door.  Then he sighed and pushed the button on his bed to administer another dose of the prescribed pain meds.

Too bad the doc didn’t have anything for being an ass to your friend.

In a fit of emotional distress, he’d gone up to the Captain’s Cabin, handled things badly, and ended up hurting himself.

So much for yelling at Shepard for doing the same damn thing.

The conversation with Tali had caught him off guard.  He’d never been much of a people person, self-avowed and well-practiced, but he had friends.  He paid attention to the crew and had a few he enjoyed shooting the breeze with.  But this thing with Shepard, that it was a repeat thing with Shepard, had felt so out of the blue.

Maybe this was how the Council felt when it turned out the Reapers were real.  Angry and afraid because the world they were so certain of wasn’t the one they lived in.  Bad things happened to people, and they hadn’t been there to help.

Joker breathed through his nose, feeling the ache in his sides lessen as the meds worked through his system.

He’d have to apologize to Tali.  There was a stubborn part of him that didn’t want to.  She’d started this by leaving him out of things the first time.  And she hadn’t meant to tell him what was going on yesterday when she’d come up to the cockpit looking for a semi-willing ear, either.  But as hurt he was, Joker knew Tali had been thinking of Shepard when she’d made those choices.  And she had been right.  Joker’s feeling versus Shepard’s entire head?  That’s not a choice.

“You trusted Cerberus!”

Why did anger always bring out ugly truths?  They’d all been miserable after Shepard’s death, scattered to the winds as they were ordered to deal with their grief and await the verdict on who was going to be blamed for which part of their mission.  The paranoid part of his mind thought the Alliance had just been waiting for the chance to take away his ship, but Joker hadn’t been cooperative about “seeing someone”, not even just his friends.  And he’d been so angry, so miserable, drowning in cheap beer and heady guilt, that staying with the Alliance seemed like an impossible choice.

And the recruiter had said all the right things, hadn’t they?  “Nobody else is doing anything.”  “Even Anderson is letting things slide.”  “They took your ship.”  “They’ll say Shepard was a liar, some crazy who never had any proof.”

So he’d left the Alliance.  Given Wrex a run for his money angsting in the hold of a Cerberus shuttle.  Swapped his blue uniform for black and white.

He hadn’t laughed at the time, but it was fitting; the group that oversimplified issues wore black and white.

It seemed like everyone else had gone home.  Tali had thrown herself into her father’s work.  Wrex had thumped his people into the beginnings of an actual alliance.  Chakwas had found an R&D project that fit her field of study.  Kaidan had tried to drink himself into forgetting the last year.

And Joker had become a terrorist.

Joker squeezed his eyes shut, spots of light bursting behind his eyelids.  Damnit, he’d just wanted to fly!  To have some part of his old life back.  To be able to do what he was good at.  To help people nobody else could or would.  To have the peace of knowing his CO wasn’t going to write him up for having a mouth.

Anderson had let things slide, but he’d never been happy with Joker’s attitude.  Shepard had been delighted the first time Joker had said exactly what he was thinking.  A gentle reminder that he shouldn’t answer the comm that way, but otherwise Shepard had never given the slightest hint he thought Joker should “be more professional”.  So long as he didn’t fly them into a star, he could say what he wanted.

He tapped the dispenser again, knowing it wouldn’t do anything this time.  Stupid safety protocols, keeping him from knocking himself out.  Not letting him avoid all this emotional baggage the way he could make the Normandy avoid meteoroids the sensors had picked up too late.

He’d been so self-righteous about being there when Shepard needed him.  Kaidan was such an easy target, because at least Liara had sold herself to the Shadow Broker.  Boy Wonder had gotten sober, stayed with the Alliance, done as he was told.  He’d even told Shepard to shove it on Horizon because he hadn’t been certain it was really Shepard standing there.

Opening his eyes, Joker stared at the ceiling, seeing the orange displays from the cockpit, the one on the far right flickering occasionally.  The Cerberus team had said they’d fixed it, but he missed the nerve-wracking precision of Adams’ reports.

It had been a few days since they’d save the colony.  Shepard had acted like nothing had happened, like he hadn’t hoped Kaidan would come with them, even though nobody thought there’d been much of a chance.  But Shepard had disappeared into his Cabin for a day, then down into the bowels of the ship to find Jack.  Angry, violent, bite-first-ask questions-never Jack.  She’d chased everyone out of Engineering so they couldn’t overhear whatever breakdown their Commander was about to have.  A Pitbull protecting her German Shepherd.

Later, when wounds had been licked and his eyes weren’t so noticeably red, Shepard had come by.  To check on him .  Worried Joker might be upset.

“Why the hell would I be upset?”  Joker wasn’t the one doubting their Commander’s “integrity”.

Shepard looked at him, puzzled, those piercing blue eyes still distracted.  “Kaidan was bait to make sure I went to that colony.  You’re not worried Cerberus recruited you to make sure I’d agree to work with them?”

At least the Alliance had put up with him because he was as good as he thought he was.  All those pretty words, and Cerberus might not have wanted Jeff Moreau, ace pilot.  Maybe they were just collecting old SR1 soldiers, building their little bubble to control the man they really wanted on their team.

Taking a deep breath, Joker counted slowly backward from sixteen, matching his exhale to the speed of the numbers.  Twenty was too high.  Fifteen always felt like rushing.  Chakwas had raised an eyebrow, but her stubborn patient was doing as she’d asked, so did the number really matter?

When Joker ran out of air, he started at one and breathed in.  Up to sixteen, pause, then back down.  Breathe in.  Breathe out.

He had trusted Cerberus.  At least, he’d trusted that he’d never be asked to do something he didn’t agree with.  When Shepard had reappeared, Joker had trusted that it was him.  That even Cerberus couldn’t be that much of an asshole.  He’d gotten everything he wanted, in the end.

But Tali was right.  He’d joined Cerberus before he knew any of the things that made working for them OK.  And Tali had walked away from Shepard once, had joined up reluctantly, reminding everyone in that black and white uniform that she was here for Shepard, that she answered to Shepard.  Everyone in that uniform.  The one Chakwas had refused to wear.

Joker had been so pleased to be the first person from the old guard to know Shepard had survived.  To know he’d made the right choice, leaving the Alliance.

Kelly Chambers had observed once that she thought he was prideful.  Joker had dismissed the comment, reciting his list of accomplishments to prove he’d earned his attitude.  She’d rewarded him with that knowing smile and gone back to her breakfast.  It wasn’t until he’d been complaining to himself about it later that the disembodied voice of Kasumi Goto had suggested it wasn’t such a bad thing to be proud.  Knowing your own worth was key to making sure you didn’t get swindled.

“Of course, your pride is more like Shep’s.  You like to know you’re good enough, that you can do it all on your own.  Never let them see you bleed.”

A private bathroom would make it hard for people to see him bleed.  Not that most people went up to Shepard’s quarters on the SR2.  That was an SR1 thing, back when the biggest daily concern was who could set Wrex off about the Genophage without asking about it specifically.  Back when talking to Shepard was enough to tell if something was bothering the man.

“Does that really sound like something I would do?”  Once upon a time, yeah, it did sound like something Shepard would do.  Maybe not with words, but there would have been a few more questions about the Flotilla, maybe some he’d already asked, or a chat about the difference in sniper rifles, military vs mercenary vs personalized.  Quiet words at one end of the cafeteria table, a casual comment about headaches leaving an opening in return.

Thinking back over the years, Joker tried to remember if he’d heard anyone actually call Shepard proud.  Usually, it was stubborn.  Checking others for injuries first, making sure everyone else got time off, digging in his heels when he thought a problem could be resolved with words or a few credits instead of gunfire.

Not that Shepard didn’t shoot people.  He’d taken out that Eclipse girl without hesitation, didn’t even let her finish her bluff about still being an initiate.  He’d been right, but...man.  It was a little too easy to forget the quiet, patient man with time for everyone had grown up with a life rougher than most.

Proud and stubborn.  Not as tough as he looked.  Always deflecting to talk about the other person.

Joker had been stubborn about getting details out of Shepard when they worked for Cerberus, and he’d been proud when he figured out trading a few pieces of information about himself seemed to be all it took.  He hadn’t known what to do on the nights Shepard came up to the cockpit and sat behind Joker’s chair.  He never said anything; the only clue Joker got was the occasional, uneven breath.  With his usual irreverent manner, Joker complained and mocked and criticized anything he could think of that wasn’t Hackett or the Geth or Kaidan.  Devlon Industries had gotten a serious dressing down on one shift.

It had worked out, though.  Hackett had covered for them.  The Geth had turned out to be good guys.  And Kaidan had come back.  Kaidan had apologized for saying mean things in a moment of emotional distress, and Shepard had agreed to work things out.

Shepard forgave Kaidan.  Forgave Liara for Cerberus.  Forgave Anderson for pushing him away.  Forgave Hackett for having to arrest him over the debacle that was the Alpha Relay.

He’d probably forgive Joker yelling at him for a few minutes.

Selfish jerk probably wasn’t even mad that a subordinate had stormed into his private quarters to dress him down about a mental health problem in the least useful way possible.  God, he was an ass.

The MedBay door hissed open, those Alliance issue boots tapping across the floor.  He could almost hear that calm smile, the tone of inquiry friendly yet professional.  “How are you feeling, Lieutenant?”

Joker tilted his gaze to look up at the Doc, a night’s worth of introspection making the words more heartfelt than usual.  “Like an ass.”

Chakwas’ smile widened, a spark of something in those grey eyes.  “More like yourself, then.”

Joker went back to the ceiling, suppressing a sigh.  He could still feel his ribs more than he preferred, and he didn’t want to wince on his next line.  “At least you didn’t say I deserve it.”

“Nobody deserves to be hurt, Lieutenant.”  It probably wasn’t even the training.  Doctors could be brusque and annoyed and act like they just wanted the stubborn kid out of their office, you got dealt a shitty hand, deal with it.  But Chakwas really meant that.  How lucky that she wound up with an entire crew that needed to hear it.

OK. Enough of this— anymore deep thinking and feeling, and he really would fly the Normandy into a star.  “How much longer am I gonna be trapped in here, Doc?”

“You’re free to return to active duty.”

Joker frowned, looking back at the doctor.  He watched her walk over to her desk, the mug of tea clinking gently as she set it down.  “Now?”

The tone was teasing.  “So long as you’re not planning to go on any away missions.”

He’d never succeeded in getting Chakwas to treat his condition with the same attitude he did, but some days – bad days – she would needle him gently.  Meet him halfway.  “I guess Cortez is stuck flying the Kodiak.  He’ll be so disappointed.”

Sitting up, Joker swung his legs over one side of the bed.  He dropped, carefully, to the floor, wincing as his shoulder protested.

“You’ll have to come by for a checkup after your shift.”

She was letting him off easy.

“And take your meds with food.”

There it was.  “Yes, ma’am.”  He started for the door.

“Jeff?”

Joker paused, looking over at the doctor as her tone turned suddenly serious.  “Yeah?”

“It may not feel like it right now,” Chakwas said, her voice as steady as her gaze, “but he’s always leaned on you.  He trusts you.”  She lifted her chin, regarding him for a moment before finishing.  “You could do worse than to encourage those things.”

“You trusted Cerberus!”

“Of course, your pride is more like Shep’s.”

“Does that really sound like something I would do?”

It was the sort of thing Shepard would do.  Everyone leaned on him, trusted him, even the people who didn’t like him.  And as much as Tali and Kaidan and Ash had been forces of stability for their Commander, even on the SR1, Shepard came by a lot.

“As long as he’s with Cerberus, I can’t have contact.  Look after him for me?”

How had he become the barometer for Shepard’s mental state?  First Anderson, now Chakwas - if he could just get Hackett to say something, he’d have the full set.  “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good.”

Joker turned back to the door and the long trek back to his station.  A walk of shame past a crew too well-trained to whisper.  And too smart not to notice the pilot had actually stayed in Medical for most of a day.

He debated grabbing food on the way up – the number of people outside the MedBay window meant lunchtime.  Traynor wouldn’t have brought him lunch, since he’d been down here all this time, and if he’d agreed to stay in Medical this long, who knows when he’d be back?

It occurred to him, with all the changes that would no doubt be inflicted on this crew in the coming days, that he could inflict one of his own.  A harmless one, just to mess with one of the most voluntarily over-worked members of their crew.

Limping slightly to baby his ribs, Joker made his way across the cafeteria and snagged a couple ration bars off the counter.  The world already felt turned upside down, so why not?  He’d bring Traynor lunch today, for a change.


“It just seems like writing off an entire species just because they are not immediately valuable is a dick thing to do.”

“It is, but it’s hard to fault them for wanting to look after their own first.”

Sam tried not to fidget as the bio-scanner did its thing.  It wasn’t that she’d never passed through it – the retrofits had been under high security from the beginning – she just always felt like she should say something clever to the soldiers on duty.  They stood here for hours every day, guarding the war room and the valuable intel inside, and were probably bored out of their skulls.  It was only polite to try and brighten their day with quick wit or interesting gossip.

“Hey, you’re our Comm Specialist, right?”

Sam jumped.  Bad as she felt, she’d never actually said anything to the pair before.  They were always in the middle of some philosophical debate and by the time she’d thought up something interesting to add, one or the other of them had waved her through.  She glanced over at the woman to her right, blonde hair cropped close to her head.  “Uh, yeah.  Yes.  Hi.”

“Where’s the boss?”

The soldier behind Sam sighed with a familiar exasperation.  “Smooth, Sarah.”

The blonde woman shrugged.  “Blunt is usually more effective.  Catches people flat-footed, which means they don’t have time to be clever.”

Right.  Private Sarah Campbell.  Transferred from a colony planet due to complaints about her attitude.  Assigned to guard Flight Lieutenant Jeff “Joker” Moreau because she could “match his mouth”.

“Or it gets you sent back to Earth after you worked for years to be assigned to someplace ‘exciting’.”

And Bethany Westmoreland.  Private, undergraduate degree in linguistics, joined the Military Police due to her skill in recalling voices and faces, particularly non-humans.  Assigned to guard Joker because her tendency toward diplomacy paired well with her non-human-focused training.

“Whatever,” Campbell rolled her eyes at her dark-skinned friend.

Westmoreland cleared her throat, redirecting the conversation back to the topic of interest.  “We have been wondering where Commander Shepard is.  He usually comes and goes like a cat.”

“And he doesn’t bitch about the scanner,” Campbell added.

Sam watched the line of purple light disappear behind her as the scan finished, debating what to tell them.  Chakwas had been so sure everyone would have heard something by now.  But even with their higher clearance, these two were known to be some of the chattiest people on the crew.  So if they hadn’t heard anything -

“Come to think of it,” Campbell said, squinting in thought, “he didn’t come by yesterday, either.”

“Maybe he’s just on the night shift,” Westmoreland offered.

“Boss doesn’t work shifts,” Campbell argued, “he just works.”

“I think he’s under the weather,” Sam blurted.  That sounded safely vague, right?

“He’s sick?” Westmoreland asked, a hint of concern lifting the end of the question.  Campbell frowned as she waved Sam forward out of the scanner.

“I’m not sure,” Sam amended.  “I haven’t seen him yet today, and it is unusual for the Commander to be so scarce.”

“Sick enough to be out for an entire day,” Westmoreland mused.  “That sounds bad.”

“Maybe he just needed a break,” Campbell suggested, abruptly hopeful.  “Take a day.  Sleep late, don’t do any paperwork, send his guy inappropriate texts,” she finished with a cocked eyebrow and an approving smirk.

“Sarah!” Westmoreland chided, distracted from her moment of worry.

Campbel shrugged, unapologetic.  “What?  The Major’s hot.”

“It would be a good thing, if the Commander got some proper rest,” Sam agreed, steering the conversation away from opinions on her friend’s attractiveness.

Westmoreland nodded.  “We don’t want him to crack under the pressure.  All those politicians cannot be good for his stress levels.”

“Maybe we should plot something,” Campbell suggested, the smirk growing as she worked through her thought.  “The original Normandy crew had a mutiny.  We’ll lock the boss in his room and make him enjoy some cake.”

“Shepard might not like cake.”

“Everybody likes cake.”

“How do you intend to get the drop on an N7?” Westmoreland asked.  “And what kind of cake?”

“Hence, the plotting,” Campbell shot back.  “We’d have to plan it out.  Do some research.  Intelligence gathering.”  She drew the last part out like she was savouring a piece of the aforementioned cake.  “Maybe we should just get the whole ship to go dark.  Take a breather.”

“That’s called shore leave.”

“We should mutiny for a day of shore leave!”  The Private was starting to sound way too excited about this.  “Mini-shifts so that we can help if anything really bad happens.  Purge the cargo of all the nasty rations and make a competition out of who can eat the weirdest combo.  First dibs on the new bag of coffee to whoever doesn’t throw up that stuff we got on Illium.”

“Or we could do our jobs,” Westmoreland cut her off firmly.  “Management will give us leave when they can, but we are fighting for the existence of all galactic life.”

“Yeah,” Campbell said, with all the sincerity of one of those mid-tier politicians she loved, “that’s what keeps me brushing my teeth every morning.  I’ll probably die before I ever need to worry about tooth rot, better enjoy these suds.”

“At least you’re keeping it in perspective.”

Sam gave a small wave to regain their attention.  “As much as I’d love to help plan the beneficent overthrowing of our beloved Commander, I need to finish checking security on all his messages first.  I’m clear to go?”

“Absolutely,” Campbell saluted, grinning shamelessly.  “Glad to see you’re still you, Specialist.”

“Still me?” Sam asked.

“Dependable and quiet,” Campbell said.  “And you don’t bitch about the scanner, either.”

“If you hear any details about Shepard, let us know?” Westmoreland asked, raising hopeful eyebrows.

“You know this ship,” Sam deflected with an answering grin.  “I bet you two will be the ones telling me.”

“Thanks, and,” Westmoreland shot a glare at her partner, “maybe don’t mention the hypothetical mutiny?”

“Not until we sort out this cake idea, anyway,” Campbell agreed.  Westmoreland rolled her eyes.

Walking through the door back into the CIC, Sam listened to the two soldiers shift to debating the seriousness of Shepard’s proposed illness.  She came up short when she reached her work station.  A bright green ration bar was tucked next to her terminal, along with a bottle of water.  She wondered for a moment if it was possibly a bribe, a silent request to not ask questions about the Normandy’s missing pilot.

Joker would have to come up with something more impressive than one of the bright green bars for complete disinterest, but she supposed to could give him a few hours to reacclimate to his fancy leather seat.  Maybe run his first set of non-answers past a more sympathetic, synthetic ear.  She might even soften the blow of interrogation with a cup of too sweet coffee.

Chapter Text

The damn bolts were rusted.  It shouldn’t be possible, but three of the eighteen bolts holding the panel in place had what could only be rust coating them, and that meant he had to be worried about the structural integrity of the entire piece.  Which he shouldn’t have to, because they were on a spaceship, in space, where things like water runoff and unintended puddles weren’t possible.

Which meant there was a conspiracy to destroy the Normandy from the inside out.

Or the Alliance pups hadn’t paid attention to their suppliers as carefully as some other people might, which meant the repair or retrofit teams were working with substandard equipment, which meant the Normandy was running on an undetermined number of potentially failing parts, all of which might work just fine for many, many years, or might break in the middle of the next fire fight.

Gabbi would just say he was grumpy because he’d been forced to crawl into a space far too narrow for his masculine physique.  That Kenneth was the one better qualified to make this repair was entirely beside the point.

Gabbi would have fit much easier - plenty of room in this shaft for her narrow figure and plenty of space inside the panel for her dexterous fingers - and there was no person onboard cleverer than his Gabbi.  Tali was a close second, but a second nonetheless.

But like most days, Gabbi had a point.  Kenneth had a lot more experience dealing with this kind of circuitry manipulation, which meant having to jam himself in here and hope they didn’t need a bucket of melted lard to get him back out.  Damn his well-defined shoulders.

“How’s it going in there?” Gabbi called down the maintenance shaft.

“Rusted bolts.”  Kenneth clicked his tongue in annoyance, glaring at the discolored metal.

Her voice echoed slightly, but he thought it sounded confused.  “What?”

“I found rusted bolts.”

“Not possible, Kenneth.”

He glanced down toward his boots, imagining his friend squatting by the opening as she doubted his abilities.  “Then what do you propose I’m looking at?”

“Could just be dirt.”  She didn’t sound concerned.

“How is dirt the better option?”

“Rust means damage.  Dirt is dirt.”  He could just see her flipping her hair back out of her eyes, oddly stubborn about admitting she’d let it grow too long.  Not that hair length had anything to do with correctly identifying the brownish-red substance in front of his nose.

“Gabbi,” Kenneth tried for reasonable, “where would dirt come from in this part of the ship?  And why on only three bolts?  This would be a very specific, discerning kind of dirt.  The sort that has preferences or basic reasoning capabilities so as to limit it’s spread to only a few, admittedly innocuous-appearing, parts.”

“Maybe someone forgot to wash their hands when doing repairs.”

“Again, only three bolts.”

A hand landed on his left boot in a reassuring pat.  “Did you get the panel off, yet?  Maybe something inside there will explain your supposed rust problem.”

Kenneth rested his head on the floor as he watched the automated ratchet unwind another of the non-rusted bolts.  “Three more to go.  Then we’ll be able to confirm your hypothesis that it’s just a regulator glitch and not a fundamental design flaw.”

“A design flaw would have shown up back when we were still Cerberus.  EDI would have found it, even if it hadn’t started acting up, especially after Joker took her shackles off.”

The hand left his boot as one of the doors to Engineering hissed open.  He wasn’t sure about the voices, but it was probably just Adams checking in on them.  It had taken the Alliance officer a little while to warm up to them, concerns about the Spectre-pardoned, ex-Cerberus, second-time Alliance engineers making their short conversations a bit strained.  But a few weeks of the both of them being damn good at their jobs seemed to clear those concerns right up.

It probably didn’t hurt that Shepard had positively lit up when he’d dropped by the first time.  He’d greeted Adams, asked about a few standard maintenance concerns, and then came over to pepper Gabbi and himself with questions about their time in Alliance custody.  Medical attention, legal representation, interrogations - sorry, interviews - and access to loved ones.  Kenneth hadn’t been able to recall a time their Commander had been so chatty, but there was no resisting that sincere concern.  You’d have better luck escaping the event horizon of a black hole on an old Earth rocket.

The murmur of voices was definitely male, but it didn’t sound like Adams.  Kenneth wriggled into a slightly more uncomfortable position and glared at the panel as he worked the final bolt loose.  “Alright, it’s off,” he called down past his boots.

He studied the inside of the panel, annoyance rapidly replacing the discomfort of the cramped space.  It was not a regulator glitch.  Some fool had installed the wires like it was a pop quiz they could afford to fail.  Oh sure, they’d run them to the correct contact points, but they’d looped the grounding wire in a convoluted set of circles to keep the excess length of wire out of the way of other components.  Excess wire that would not exist if the bottom row of ports had been properly utilized. All but three of the wires were pulled taught, meaning that should anything cause an increase in tension along the line, most of this panel would be rendered pointless as all the connections failed simultaneously.

These were non-critical systems, but that wasn’t.  The point.

“What do you see?” Gabbi called in to him.

“Idiocy.”  Kenneth tugged on a red wire, scowling as the connection failed as predicted.  “Foolishness and incompetence.”

“Beginner’s mistake, then?” Gabbi asked, not properly appreciating the lack of quality training this repair signified.

“Not when it’s this much of a mess, Daniels.  This was an idiot”

“So it’s a straight forward repair that’s going to waste our afternoon?”

“Yes.”

“And you can fix it from there?”

Of course he could.  He’d just need a few more tools and: “I’ll need the power redirected away from this panel so I don’t fry myself.”

“Do we need to let anyone know before you disrupt power to another system?” came a deeper, definitely male voice.

He recognized that sincere concern.  “Commander?”

“Morning, Donnelly.”

It was near on lunchtime, if his stomach could be trusted.  Not that Adams or Gabbi would let him wander off in search of needed sustenance while there was work to be done.  “Come down to check on those power couplings?”

“Among other things.” It could be his proximity, stuffed inside a maintenance shaft as he was, but he thought Shepard’s voice lacked it’s usually cheerful undertone.

“We shouldn’t need to alert anyone,” Gabbi said, answering the earlier question.  “We keep EDI informed of any repairs we have scheduled, so even if we misjudged the potential for disrupting something, she has our back.”

“She can have my back,” Kenneth muttered dreamily.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Commander.”

Shoving the few tools he’d brought with him when they thought it was a regulator glitch, Kenneth started worming his way back out of the access shaft.  He bumped his shoulders and elbows as he went.  He was thinking unkind thoughts about the assumptions made of an engineer’s size when a new voice made him pause.

“Routing the power from that junction through the redundant systems on the Crew Deck should cause minimal spiking.”  Another male voice, smoother as the whiskey Kenneth knew the man preferred.  Not one of the crew members he’d been expecting to see this morning.

“Right,” Gabbi answered, “just flag it so that anyone trying to get fancy with lunch doesn’t try to reset the circuit on their end.  I doubt they’ll appreciate the need to keep Kenneth safe if they shock themselves instead.”

Wriggling further out, Kenneth felt his foot hit something.

“Sorry,” Shepard said, stepping out of his way.

“If the worst thing that happens this week is accidentally kicking my commanding officer, I’d say the war’s going well,” Kenneth offered as he worked the rest of his way out.  Sitting up, he ran a hand through his hair and looked at said commanding officer for the first time.  The question came out blunt, Kenneth’s thoughts not quite caught up to his mouth.  “What happened to your face?”

Shepard dropped his gaze from whatever was happening on the other side of Engineering, one hand coming up to touch the bandage on his jaw as his expression turned self-conscious.  “I…was an idiot.”

“It’s about time,” Kenneth approved.  Shepard took himself too seriously.  Everyone else in the galaxy cheerfully rested the weight of the world on those shoulders; there was no need for the poor bastard to do it himself.  “Did you at least have fun?”

“None at all.”

His peripheral vision caught the flinch.  Maybe their newest crew member had shocked himself instead of waiting for some poor soul on the Crew Deck.

“That’s a shame.”  Kenneth rolled sideways onto his knees before pushing himself to his feet.  “I burnt both my eyebrows off once trying to win a bet.  Lost fifty credits, but I did get free ice cream from the local shop for the rest of the summer.”

“I get a free visit to Chakwas later today,” Shepard offered, sounding a bit more like his usual pleasant self.  There was even the beginnings of a smile.

Kenneth gave Shepard’s face a proper once over.  As usual, when their Commander did something, he did it with enthusiasm and competence - those were some impressive bandages.  “I like the Doc.  She makes a proper cuppa.”

“Not a bad drinking buddy, either.”

Kenneth felt his face split with the grin.  “Aye, I’ve heard rumors.  Good to know they have weight.”  He gestured at Shepard with the automatic ratchet.  “Never trust a lass who can’t drink.  Take Gabbi, for example,” he waved the tool in her direction, “she’s never let me drown myself solo.”

“I’ve never let you drown yourself,” came the predictable reply.

“No,” said Kenneth, his grin softening with affection at the memories, “but you participated while keeping tabs on me, and that’s worth far more.”

Gabbi ducked her head, suddenly busy with checking something on the console in front of her.

It was at that point, looking over at his friend and partner in occasional drunken discussions, that he focused on the fourth person in Engineering.  He hadn’t spent much time around Major Alenko.  The Second Human Spectre didn’t come down to Engineering much, but general ship opinion was that the man worked hard and had a nice ass.  Kenneth had ignored both comments in favor of being jealous that someone didn’t have to worry about their hair in the communal bathroom.

“Is this a problem with the new power couplings we got?” Shepard was asking, interrupting Kenneth’s musing about hot water and soft towels.

“There’s an issue with one of the terminals,” Gabbi explained.  “We thought it was a feedback loop, but it looks like it’s actually some faulty wiring.  Not a standard maintenance issue, but not unheard of.”

“Improperly installed wiring,” Kenneth corrected.  “The components look fine, they were just attached using suboptimal logic.  Should anything put physical stress on the system, it’s possible that the junction could fail all together.  It’s an intersection for several non-critical systems, but -"

“Kenneth, tech speak.”

He was starting to think Gabbi enjoyed cutting him off, as if the Commander of an Alliance vessel might not be able to keep up with a basic explanation of his own ship’s inner workings.

“So, Donnelly gets to crawl in there and fix it?”  Shepard nodded at the opening through which Kenneth had so recently emerged.

“He’s the best man for the job.”

Kenneth failed to suppress his own pleasure at the confidence in that voice.  Damn right he was, but it was always nice to hear Gabbi say it.  His friend didn’t do unearned compliments.

“It looks a little tight in there,” Shepard said, leaning forward slightly to inspect the opening to the space in question.

“Part of being an Alliance engineer is getting over any lingering issues with tight spaces,” Kenneth explained.  Neither of them had had any, but there’d been one lad - thin as a reed - who panicked at the mere sight of a crawl space.  Kenneth tried to remember which department he’d transferred to.  Weapons design, maybe?

“It sounds like a straightforward repair,” Shepard said, interrupting his distracted thoughts yet again.  “Just...reinstalling the wires?”  The question went up at the end, as if the Commander thought for sure it must be more difficult than it sounded.

“Aye,” Kenneth said.  “Annoying, but ultimately not too hard.  I just need different tools than the ones I had with me.”

“They should be stored over here,” Gabbi said.  “Major, can you help me?  The one crate is jammed in there funny, so it’s easier with two people.”

“Sure thing.”  Alenko shut down the terminal he’d been using and followed Gabbi over to the upper storage area.

Kenneth watched them go, something tickling at the back of his mind.  “Commander.”

“Donnelly.”

Kenneth fiddled idly with the tool still in his hand, surprised by the change in the pattern.  “You brought company.”

“Major Alenko is accompanying me this morning.  I wasn’t sure you three had ever formally met.”

That did sound like the Commander, making sure the crew was comfortable with each other.  Kenneth watched the other two manhandle the crates in question, laughing as the Major no doubt asked the obvious question of why they hadn’t reorganized the space.  Gabbi actually had the patience for explaining how storage worked when dealing with the sorts of personalities that worked in Engineering, but every new Alliance transfer couldn't be as understanding as Specialist Traynor.

“He’s an L2, yeah?  One of the older biotics?”

“Yeah.”

Kenneth pursed his lips in thought.  “All that static charge and he still manages cute hair.”

Shepard let out a laugh of his own, the quiet sort he used when a round of Skyllian Five was getting derailed and no one really minded.  “The hair is pretty cute.”

“Bit short for my tastes,” Donnelly demurred, “but he’s a bit male for my tastes.”

Shepard gave him a look, caught between surprised and pleased.  “Too bad for him, I suppose.”

“Oh, you’re a swell consolation prize, Commander.  Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Kenneth, are you insulting our CO?”  Gabbi was holding the soldering iron he’d need, Alenko a few steps behind her with his arms full of the rest of the tools and parts they’d need.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”  

Liberating the trove from Alenko’s possession, Kenneth dropped to his knees.  He sorted the collection into tools, necessary components for the repair, and bits and bobs that might prove useful if there was something more devastating going on with this one panel than poor human judgement.  Gabbi crouched next to him, dropping an analogue screwdriver onto his pile of tools.  No job, the woman insisted, could be undertaken without the yellow-handled device.  Endlessly useful, even on a spaceship.

Beside them, Kenneth was aware of Alenko taking up his usual post next to the Commander, arms crossed over that broad chest as he took in the scene in front of him.  Shepard was explaining something in a low voice, earning a murmured response as Kenneth ignored the both of them in an attempt to ensure he wouldn't have to crawl back out of the shaft until the repair was done.

Satisfied with his preparations, Kenneth ceremonially tucked Gabbi’s screwdriver into a pocket and laid down on his back, arms over head to help pull himself inside.  As he lost his view of their guests, the thought that had been flitting around in the back of his mind presented itself proper.  “Hey Shepard: I know this is an Alliance ship, but any chance you’re still teaching Gabbi?”

“Kenneth, we’re in the middle of a shift.”

“Teaching Gabbi?” Alenko asked, interest piqued.

“How to make bread,” Kenneth called down as he pulled himself the rest of the way in.  He smiled at the memory of that first successful loaf, browned and round on top like real bread.

They’d all pointedly ignoring both Ms. Lawson’s analytical stare and Mordin Solas’ rapid fire commentary as Shepard had tipped the thing of beauty out of the tin he’d liberated from the back of some cabinet.  Gardner had been fairly territorial about the canteen, determined to do his part for the mission by making food that was mostly edible, if occasionally unfortunately creative in its flavors.  He’d agreed to adding bread to his menu after their Commander proved a simple loaf was not beyond the capabilities of a spaceship’s oven.

“Can’t really bake ‘proper’ bread – apparently the oven’s shite – but it’s not like the crew minded.  Who turns down fresh bread?”

“Cerberus vessels aren’t busy in the same way Alliance ships are,” Gabbi explained.  Kenneth frowned at the note of apology in her voice.  “I’d always wanted to learn bread, but my family didn’t really cook when I was growing up.”

“Gabbi mentioned something about it one day,” Shepard said, picking up the story.  “I offered to teach her what I know.  Simple stuff, mostly, but everyone appreciated whatever we made, even the mistakes.”

Reaching the panel, Kenneth jammed himself as best he could to one side of the shaft.  He pulled up the torch feature on his omni-tool, shining the orange-tinted light into the exposed space.  Retrieving the screwdriver from his pocket, he began tapping and tugging at the wires, grudgingly admitting that, while the job wasn’t perfect, the soldering was mostly well done.

“You can make bread?” Alenko asked.

“Learned when I was a kid.  One of the food kitchens found it more economical to make their own.”

“The Alliance didn’t gut the kitchen when they retrofitted the Normandy.”  The Major sounded as if this should resolve the entire issue, specifically in Kenneth’s favor.

“We’re in the middle of a war, Alenko.”

“It might help morale,” Kenneth shouted down past his boots.  “If it can get a smile from people on a suicide mission, I’d think soldiers who still think they can win would appreciate the same.”

“Be rude to abandon your student in the middle of her education,” Alenko added, tone pointedly casual.

“Aye,” Kenneth agreed.  “Very poor form, Commander.”  Having loosened all the wires he could, he called down, “Gabbi, can you slide me that cutter?  The red handled one, I think.”

Shepard huffed, failing to hide a laugh.  “Daniels, what do you think?”

The smaller, blue handled cutter skidded to a stop by his nose.  “About comparing morale techniques or about teaching me bread?”

“Either.  Both.”

“I couldn’t speak to what impact it might have on the crew, sir,” Gabbi said, her formal tone dusted with familiarity, “but I wouldn’t mind the occasional lesson.  As scheduling allows.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Kenneth wiggled his nose, silently admitting that the blue handled cutter did fit better.  He snipped the remaining wire loose, set both cutter and screwdriver aside, and rolled over just a fraction so he could prop the wrist with the torch at a better angle while he started realigning the wires properly.

“Any chance of baguettes?” Gabbi asked.  “They’re Kenneth’s favorite.”

“Sure.  Who doesn’t like baguettes?”  A thoughtful pause from their Commander.  “I think we need some kind of towel for those.”

“A towel?”

He could hear the shrug in Shepard's words.  “It has a fancy French name, but yeah, more or less.”

Counting the points of connection, Kenneth calculated how much solder he’d need to do the job proper.  He was going to have the stench in his nose for a week.  “Gabbi, I need something to hold this grounding wire in place while I work.”

Three metal clips of varying sizes arrived just above his waist.

“I’m sure our direct supervision is really helping you two get things done,” Alenko said.  “Should we get out of your hair?  Maybe drop by the shuttle bay to ask Cortez about flour and eggs?”

“We don’t need eggs for bread,” Shepard said.  “Not the kind I know how to make, anyway.”

“You could ask about raisins,” Gabbi asked.

Kenneth beamed at the mess he was making of the panel.  How utterly unprofessional, asking for a specialty food item to work on a personal project.  Good girl.

“Raisins could work,” Shepard agreed.  “Not for the baguettes, but for a breakfast thing.”

The Normandy was going to ruin them for any other Alliance vessel.  Maybe they could convince Hackett it best served humanity to leave her crew fully intact when this was all over.

“Before any of that, we’ve got to look after the Normandy,” Gabbi was saying.  “Don’t worry, though.  We’ll have this fixed in no time, sirs.”

“I told you they were the best,” Shepard said, his grin audible even stuck down a maintenance shaft.  Kenneth could picture Gabbi’s very small, definitely-not-there smile, as well as his own less subtle one.

Alenko said something in return as the two officers walked away.  Kenneth tucked the grounding wire along the top of the panel’s interior, using two of the three clips to secure it.  Checking the wires one last time, he called down for the thickest of their soldering options.

Unspooling the thick metal cord, Kenneth clipped off a dozen smallish pieces.  “You know, Gabbi: I like the Major.”

Down by his boots, he could hear his friend’s hum.  “Gutsy move, getting Shepard to compliment him like that.”

Kenneth squinted as he counted his cut pieces, annoyed that he seemed to have lost one.  “What do you mean?”

“Well,” Gabbi said, “they’ve been playing it pretty close to the vest.  Or trying to.  I didn’t think Shepard would be so casual about your comments.”  Another hum, this one more pleased than meditative.  “The Major didn’t seem to mind.”

Kenneth directed his frown toward his boots.  “They’re what?”

He could hear Gabbi rolling her eyes.  “They’re trying not to make a big thing out of being a couple, Kenneth.  Alliance ship, new people, middle of a war?”

Kenneth snorted.  “If they don’t want people to know they’re together, they shouldn’t look at each other like that.”

“Oh, everyone knows.”

“So, why –?”

“Just being considerate.  They’re trying to make us feel comfortable with having senior officers who are blatantly violating the fraternization regs.”  He watched the light change as Gabbi leaned over so she could look at him.  “We’re trying to make our senior officers comfortable by pretending we know less than we do.”

“That’s ridiculous.”  Kenneth looked back at the panel.  “Isn’t all this covert nonsense just more work?  Wouldn’t it be easier just to, I dunno, get it out in the open?”

“I think Shepard’s a private kinda guy.”

Kenneth let out a small sound of triumph as he located his missing piece of solder under his armpit.  “As opposed to?”

“You want him and the Major being all sweet over morning coffee.”

“The Commander,” Kenneth reminded her, “does not drink coffee.”

“Yes,” Gabbi agreed, “but he’s in love.”

“Enough to start drinking coffee?” Kenneth asked, disbelieving.

“Who knows?  Upside to privacy.”

“Dear God.”  Kenneth stared at the open panel in front of him, unseeing.  “Man’s got it bad if he’s drinking coffee.  The Commander hates that stuff.”

“Pretty sure he’s not, Kenneth.  I was just giving an example.”

“Can you imagine being that besotted with someone?” Kenneth asked, still distracted by the very notion.  It had been one of the things the Cerberus crew had found most confounding about their resurrected Alliance commander.  Glowing scars, impossible odds, endless patience for bullshit, but no coffee?  “Do you think he’ll start sighing when the Major walks by?”

The sound of a door hissing open, followed by footsteps once more headed their way.  “Focus, Kenneth.”

“Are you two done, yet?”

“Almost, sir.”  Gabbi patted his boot as Adams hummed and walked away, probably checking something at his console.  “Kenneth, drop it.”

“Fine, but if Shepard starts drinking coffee, we stage an intervention.”

Gabbi was silent for a moment, considering.  Then, with that quiet conviction, “deal.”

“Right.”  Looking back at the panel, Kenneth picked up the first of his pieces of solder.  “It’s gonna smell right rank in here by the time we’re done.”

“You’re a professional and an everyday hero, Kenneth.”

For sure, but it was nice to hear her say it.  Even with the sarcasm.

Adjusting his position, the light from his torch danced over the pile of bolts he’d removed in order to access the panel’s innards.  Squinting in the orange light, Kenneth exhaled and returned to the first of their repair-based discussion topics.  “I know you don’t believe me, but it’s definitely rust on these bolts, Gabbi.”

Chapter Text

He had never understood the need for these “regular check-ups”.  In his time, a soldier was expected to be honest about their physical state so the effectiveness of their team was never in question.  Knowing which units could be dispatched at a moment’s notice was key to an effective response, particularly during a war.  Having to be constantly monitored by a medical professional seemed a sign of weakness at best, of being deemed untrustworthy by one’s crew.  How could you go into combat with people at your side if they could be hiding an injury or be too distracted to cover your flank?

But this was not his crew.  Not his army.  Not his time.  A lack of trust, perceived or otherwise, was no longer judged by this metric.  It did not matter how his people used to be, because they were not anymore.

Javik stood in his usual pose of disinterest, arms crossed over his chest as the human doctor scanned him.  It was a time-consuming way to determine that he was still fit for duty, but it made the rest of the crew more patient with his “eccentricities” if he subjected himself to these old-fashioned tests.  And he’d had to concede, silently, that since there was no information remaining about his people’s physiology beyond the bastardizations known as the Collectors, these medical scans were the best way for the Normandy’s doctor to learn about how to treat him, should he become injured beyond his own capacity to heal.

He could still complain about the windows, though.  And her cavalier attitude about his lack of privacy.

“They’re not staring, Javik.”  The Doctor switched to yet another scan, the familiar shape of what was now called an omni-tool encasing her arm.  “Humans look around a lot, as do most species this Cycle.”  She moved the limb in front of him slowly, watching the holographic display.  “I assume it has something to do with having only two eyes on our heads, both of which face forward.”

“A dominant trait in this Cycle,” Javik observed, “and one more reason I find it so hard to believe that any of you are truly in charge.”

“Real knowledge begins when you accept that you know nothing,” the Doctor replied, unfazed by the strange logic.  “I’m willing to believe real power works the same way.”

“That having none somehow endows a person with more than they will need?” Javik asked, tone skeptical.

“Something like that.”  The Doctor shut down her omni-tool, her mouth moving in that way that was supposed to show a positive emotion.  This Cycle’s version of a smile, though the accompanying hand gesture had been abandoned.  “We could always stick with ‘power corrupts, therefore absolute power corrupts absolutely’.”

“A preposterous notion.  The Empire was powerful because it took steps not to be corrupted.”

Javik got the sense that she didn’t believe him.  He scowled.

It frustrated him daily that this crew did not seem to believe his memories of his own Empire.  The powerful architecture, the careful planning of the waterways and transit systems, the rigid class structure that ensured everyone knew who and what they were supposed to be.  He might not have lived during the Empire’s glory days, but that did not mean he didn’t know what it meant to be Prothean.

To know that you were descended from those powerful enough to not only assert their dominance but maintain it.  To be certain in your own generation's ability to continue such work, improving the lives of entire worlds by spreading your own knowledge and way of life.  To understand the people around you simply by reaching out and touching them.  To have that stone-deep certainty destroyed by what could only be an act of will from the universe itself.

This crew and its lone Scholar could never understand what it was like to be the only one who remembered countless names and dates and traditions.  To watch while an equally countless number of those same things were destroyed, yet again.

“Philosophical debates aside, Javik, you appear to be in full health,” the Doctor said, summoning him back to the moment.

“Of course,” Javik answered.  “I would have come to you had I sensed anything wrong in myself.”

“Oh, would you?”  Now the Doctor sounded skeptical.

Javik blinked, momentarily wishing another crew member had been present so he could enjoy the reaction so many of them had to this shared yet unique action.  How did so many races only have two eyes?  “A good soldier reports his weaknesses so that they may be dealt with.  How can he be trusted to value the lives of his comrades if he does not value his own?”

“Sometimes, we need a little push to admit something is wrong,” the Doctor said.  Had he not been lectured repeatedly about the unacceptability of reading bio-markers without explaining what he was doing and why, Javik would have touched the Doctor’s shoulder to better understand the tone of her words.  As it was, he could only guess at why they held such weight.  What memory - locked in her own mind - had brought her to this erroneous conclusion.

The door behind him hissed open, admitting new persons into the MedBay.  Turning, he observed their two senior officers as they entered.  The Major, who was somehow of a higher rank and yet willingly took orders from another, was trailing behind the Commander, much as he often did.  Javik had thought it might be because of the change in their relationship, but having touched the Commander’s mind more than once, he knew that change had truthfully been a relatively minor one.  A slight change in pheromones, but not a change in trust.

Of greater interest was the evidence of an injury to the Commander’s head.  Several of the primitive-style bandages were attached to his face, though the Commander’s standard greeting upon seeing the Doctor confirmed that the injuries were most likely superficial.  It had been several days since Javik had emerged from his quarters, not having been needed during the attack on the most recent Cerberus base, so it was possible the injuries had been sustained during the away mission.  However, there was something in the Commander’s posture that spoke of discomfort, almost embarrassment.

Javik’s fingers itched to touch.  To simplify the entire process by simply knowing.

No, not by knowing.  He would learn how the injury came to be, but also why the Commander seemed bothered by it.  The man had limped for days after outrunning the Reaper on Tuchanka, yet there had been an almost jovial pride to the healing process.  An open acknowledgement of how ridiculous the entire endeavor had been, and therefore how lucky he had been to have such minor wounds to heal.  The crew had enjoyed their disrespectful mockery of their commander, as had the injured man.

Now, sporting a minor wound, the Commander acted as if he did not wish to encounter those he led.  Tension in his shoulders, a sporadic twitch in one hand as if to reach for something, and the obvious refusal to look out the windows that annoyed Javik so much.  All signs of trouble in the usually composed and amiable human.

At least the Commander had the sense to turn himself in.

Javik uncrossed his arms, his gaze still focused on the two newcomers.  “If we are finished, Doctor?”

“We’re finished, Javik,” the Doctor said with a nod.

Turning on his heel, Javik walked out of the MedBay.  He caught the first volley of the Doctor’s medical examination, standard questions he himself had answered that very day, before the door hissed closed behind him and the general clamor of the food area demanded his attention.

He would rather have been gnawed on by a Ickthian slug than admit it to these people, but he enjoyed this room best.  It could be frustrating to deal with the constant flow of information from every available surface if he was not careful where he put his hands, but the noise, the buzz of words and the swirl of emotions, reminded him of his time in the barracks.  The optimism of fighting the Reapers was more intense than he’d encountered during his time, but this Cycle had yet to lose the Citadel or it’s central leadership.  The banter of soldiers, worries about loved ones, jokes about politicians – it was good to know some things had not changed.

And for all their obvious curiosity about him, never had a single member of this crew forsaken their food to pester him with questions.  As he walked across the room, he received a few gestures and words of greeting, but no one stopped what they were doing to bother him.  Even with food as overly-spiced and texturally-displeasing as these so-called “rations”, the chance to eat took priority.

Which was not to say that no one ever spoke to him.

“Woah, sorry!”

Javik swiveled an eye to look over his shoulder at the human female who had spoken.  She had her hands up and was balanced on her back foot, as though she had aborted forward movement.  He turned his head to look at her more fully and blinked.

An unanticipated smile transformed the soldier’s face.  “Damn, that’s cool.”  She dropped her hands, resettling her balance equally between both feet.  “I know it’s normal for you, but that’s such a cool trick for us two-eyes.”

Fascinating.  One of the guards to the War Room, a place the crew was not allowed to access without permission, was easily amused.  If he had been looking for security threats, he might have reported her.  However, he doubted that the Commander would find an easy-going manner reason enough for reassignment.

“You up here for lunch?” the soldier asked.  “Do you even eat the same junk we do?”

Javik blinked again, summoning a renewed smile.  “You are aware your food is disgusting?”

The soldier shrugged, a movement humans did with their shoulders instead of their hips.  “Military rations are never going to be gourmet.  And this far into the war, we should probably be glad nobody’s had to resort to eating their own boots.”

“Your clothing is designed to be consumed?”

The smile changed, as if there was another meaning to his question.  “Mine aren’t, but I had this boyfriend once...”  The soldier blinked one eye at him, a movement the Asari had called a “wink”.

He sensed this conversation was going to involve learning more about these humans than he desired.  “Good morale is as important as good nutrition.  Soldiers should not feel like they are being fed whatever is convenient.”

“Amen to that.”  The soldier walked around him, leaning over to grab a brightly packaged bar off a diminishing stack at one end of the counter.  She eyed the large bowl full of a thick, dark liquid with chunks floating in it warily.  “But I don’t think any of us feel like feeding soldiers is an act of convenience.  It’s just that most food doesn’t like to be stored in a box for weeks at a time.”  She tore open the wrapper with her teeth, exposing the displeasing brown bar inside.  “So, cooks and scientists came up with a way to make food that travels and is still good for you.  Some of it even tastes OK.”

Javik snorted, the breathy whistle escaping his neck as the soldier chewed.  “Your Requisition Officer seems capable; can he not find better versions of your ‘rations’?”

“He probably could,” the soldier replied, “but none of us is going to ask the Commander if we can have better supplies just because.  It sounds bratty, and those supplies might be better used somewhere else in the war.”

“The Commander is content with this state of affairs?”

The soldier gave him an odd look.  Possibly confusion; possibly he’d offended her somehow.  “Like, is he OK with the war?”

“With how his crew is being treated.”

The soldier took another bite, waiting until she’d finished chewing to answer.  “Shepard would never do anything to intentionally upset or handicap this crew.  But,” she raised a hand, pointing one finger at the ceiling, “he’s also not going to baby us.  We’re soldiers – we do the hard stuff so other people don’t have to.  And if that means eating military rations so my baby brother can eat carrots,” she waved the bar of food at him as if this answer made any sense, “then so be it.”

Javik blinked again, derailing the devolving discussion as the soldier bared her teeth in a grin.  He stepped forward to retrieve a red bar himself, storing it in a pocket to be consumed when he was back in his quarters.  Across the room, through the window the Doctor claimed went unused, he could see the Commander sitting on one of the medical beds.  His posture was still not as rigid as usual, but unlike Javik, the Commander seemed to draw some kind of pleasure from being scanned and questioned by his medical staff.  Beside him, out of the way of the Doctor’s work, the Major kept vigil.  Whether as a soldier or as a companion, Javik approved of the effort.  Both should stay by their partner’s side when a life challenge presented itself.

“Hey, you were just in the MedBay, right?”

Javik leveled his most disinterested look at the soldier.  Much like his blinking, it did not elicit the reaction he’d intended.

The soldier kept looking at him, taking another bite of her food.  “Is the Commander really sick?”

Javik frowned.  “No, there is nothing to indicate such.  A few minor injuries, but nothing our leader cannot endure.”

“Injuries?”

How unobservant was this crew?  “Yes.”

The soldier chewed for a moment, her own gaze drawn to the MedBay window.  Her usually expressive face remained passive as she studied the tableau.  Javik fought the urge to simply walk away, knowing how much it displeased the Commander when he was rude unintentionally.

Having worked her way through her entire thought, the soldier returned her attention to him.  “But minor injuries, yeah?”

“Yes,” Javik repeated.  “He appears to have taken damage to his face.”

The soldier nodded, assimilating the new details.  “Usually, the Commander is pretty easy to find, but he’s been as elusive as you the past couple days.”  The soldier jammed the final piece of the bar into her mouth, grabbed a second bar from the pile, and slid it into one of her own pockets.  “Beth and I were just worried.”  The words came out a little garbled around the half-masticated mush.

Javik’s secondary eyes unfocused as he sorted through his own thoughts, oblivious to the beginning of the soldier’s anecdote.  The Commander was much like a winged Pitha’sra – constantly visiting the various parts of his territory.  It was an ill omen when a Pitha’sra suddenly became hard to find.  And the injuries Javik had seen did not appear sufficient enough to warrant such seclusion.

“I know we shouldn’t,” the soldier was saying, the words cleared now that she’d swallowed.  “I used to ask my grandpa why he never worried about anything.  He always just looked at me and asked ‘would it help?’.”  With a final shrug, the soldier added, “never does, but old habits, right?”, before walking off toward the elevator.

Javik, still debating the likelihood of the Commander being more severely injured than he’d perceived, did not acknowledge the departure.

It was possible the Commander had a debilitating wound, but not a physical one.  His altered posture was due to an emotional state, Javik was certain.  The man wore his attitude like a piece of his uniform.  Therefore, if he was avoiding his crew or limiting their information, it could mean a mental issue.  Except that there was little to suggest the Commander had any reason to possess altered faculties.  He was regularly hit in the head, but this did not seem to be a weakness in humans the same way it had been in the Hung’ganna.

An emotional problem, then.  The rigors of war finally crushing that glow of hope Javik had encountered even during their brief connection on Eden Prime.  The endless beating of a storm starting to wear down the mountain through sheer repetition.  The unavoidable sacrifice of an integral piece to ensure the rest of the board was not lost.

The loss of an Avatar would be a decisive blow to their side.  A blow the Reapers, in their unfathomable enormity, would neither notice nor appreciate.

Careful of unnecessary contact, Javik wound his way to the refrigerator and retrieved a bottle of water from the container placed next to it.  He’d been hailed a hero by a few of the crew for his part in ensuring there was always room-temperature drinking water.  That he had done nothing to ensure this had been irrelevant.

Midday meal acquired and medical ritual completed, Javik retreated back to his quarters to wash his hands yet again, and to ruminate on the coming shift in authority for the crew.  If the Commander’s injuries were mental or emotional, it was logical that he be removed from such an influential command position.  The Normandy was an icon in and of itself, and it could not be seen to be compromised by either side.  The transition would have to be done carefully, so as not to signal even a temporary weakness in their most high-profile group of soldiers.  And yet it was unlikely to be a seamless transition – such fondness for a commander would likely rouse public displays of emotion.

While his own reaction would not be so mournful, Javik loathed the idea of having to adapt to a new leader.  Commander Shepard was a strange man, but a determined and capable one.  It would be unpleasant to have to deal with a replacement.


There had to be stronger tea.  Liara yawned as she sat back at her desk, joints cracking as she stretched for the first time in hours.

The screens to her right continued to compile the data from the latest reports from Omega - Cerberus had done a lot of damage while they were there, and the teams not foolish enough to surrender on Petrovsky's order had left all sorts of nasty surprises on their way out.  The Shadow Broker was not formally concerned with the loss of life, but the types of explosives used down by the mining operations could fetch an impressive number of credits and several favors from her contact in the STG.

On the main display in front of her, the schematics for a type of localized EMP grenade rotated slowly.  The Quarian who’d sent it to her was eager to help, but so far he hadn’t resolved the problem of how to only disable the opponent’s weapons.  In its current form, the grenade could reduce an armed conflict to a fist fight, but it wouldn’t give either side the intended advantage.

The datapad balance on her knee blinked slowly as it continued its download of all the psychological texts she could find that dealt with unresolved trauma and enduring constant stress.  Not a task for the Shadow Broker, but arguably her most important one.

Talking to Shepard had helped, had dispelled some of the feelings of having to scramble to catch up with what was going on with her friends, but it had also driven home how little attention she’d been sparing for them of late.  Detained female Krogan, the fake Turian signal Cerberus favored, still not being able to track down Garrus’ family - all things she could blame on her workload or her agents, or just being overwhelmed by the tragedy of war.  But missing the suffering in the eyes of a friend sitting across the table from her?  Having the nerve to tell him she was there if he wanted to talk as she walked out the door?

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise.  Garrus had vanished for nearly a year before rumors of a Turian vigilante who sounded familiar circulated far enough to reach her ears.  She hadn’t noticed Garrus spiraling in the weeks after Alchera; she’d been mired in learning the ropes of being an agent for the Shadow Broker when he’d stopped answering Tali’s calls.  Why would she notice Shepard losing it now?

Whatever clues she’s missed before, she knew now.  Liara had been sorely tempted to throw the prototype beacon across the room when she’d gotten back last night, but Glyph had distracted her with an urgent message from Irune.  By the time she’d gotten the issue resolved, the urge to throw things had passed.  Instead, Liara had laid on her bed and let her thoughts chase themselves around inside her head while she’d dozed, never quite falling asleep.

Picking up the empty mug on her desk, Liara contemplated the cold dregs swirling in its depths.

She’d never make any real progress if she kept worrying about her own mistakes.  Yes, she’d have to come to peace with her guilt, and there was little doubt Chakwas would bring it up for her in their next psychological evaluation, but it would help alleviate that guilt immensely to know that she’d helped in some small way once she knew the problem existed.

She hadn’t noticed, but John Shepard hadn’t said, either.  Her friend had, truthfully, never been exactly forthcoming about his own unhappiness.  When she’d first joined the SR1, she’d been surprised at the generally taciturn nature of the man who so warmly welcomed her aide.  But once she’d spent time with the crew, learned more about each of them, and spent one informative evening swapping stories with Ashley and Tali while they all tried to figure out what exactly Garrus had done to his pistol when he’d fallen off the roof of that hideout they’d raided, she’d started to recognize the signs of unease in their Commander.

It wasn’t always words that Shepard needed, wasn’t always words that he could accept, and getting words out of him could be an Athamean task.  Shepard was a quiet man, for all his noisy friends, and small, quiet gestures seemed to make the biggest impact in times of need.  A report that he could have handled left completed on his desk, a passing suggestion for context reading before his next Council meeting, a chair left empty so a mouthier friend could demand he sit down.  A warm mug of properly-brewed tea.

Closing the file about the grenade, Liara pulled up a different project, one she’d started when she’d rolled out of bed that morning.  The idea had niggled away at her mind as she failed to sleep, darting in and around other, less helpful avenues of thought.

She’d been angry that Shepard hadn’t talked to anyone before he felt backed into this particular corner.  True, she had never been the one Shepard went to when he needed to bear his soul.  On the SR1 she’d been too new and too wrapped up in the pain of losing her mother and the revelations about her research.  When Cerberus had been in charge, she’d been trapped by her dealings with the Shadow Broker.  It wasn’t really a surprise Shepard hadn’t appeared in her cabin one night, eyes bright with tears and plucking nervously at his uniform.

Actually, if Shepard had done that, she would have cuffed him to a pipe and run for security: that didn’t sound like her friend at all.

But Shepard did share his feelings, his worries and his fears.  Kaidan had been a sounding board long before Liara had become part of the team.  Tali’s tales of the Flotilla and what Quarian history she knew had captivated Shepard, always leaving him in a better mood.  Garrus wasn’t much of a talker - he’d usually dragged Shepard off to a shooting range - so there wasn’t a verbal history to build on there.  The people Shepard had dealt with during his Cerberus time weren’t part of this crew anymore, but he talked to Jack regularly.  The occasional untraceable e-mail that could only be Kasumi’s work.  Even Grunt had been a daily ritual when he’d been stuck in Huerta, healing from the mission on Uttuku and saving the Rachni Queen.

The trick then wasn’t to get Shepard to open up to someone new, but to rebuild the habit of talking to people who already knew some of those deep, dark miseries.

And of all people, the seed of the idea had come from Javik.  The Prothean had agreed, after much duress from her friends, no doubt, to talk with Liara about certain topics.  He clearly did not appreciate his people being put on a pedestal, as much as he enjoyed boasting about their accomplishments, but smaller, day-to-day topics they’d discussed over the past few weeks had revealed more details than the ancient alien had certainly intended to give.  Like how Protheans were far more open than Liara would have guessed about admitting health problems.

Of course, it hadn’t been all good intentions and gentle words.  “No soldier can be trusted to look after his comrades if he does not look after himself,” Javik had said.  “It is important to know when you need help, and equally important to then ask for it.”

After a little more pushing on her part, Javik had explained a surprising amount about what sort of help a soldier might get in the Empire.  Not all of it was encouraging - survival of the fittest was not a new concept, nor a kind one - but there had been one idea she’d liked.  An idea she could perhaps modify to help a friend in need.

It was an omni-tool program designed to facilitate communication, thereby decreasing the amount of effort needed to reach out.  A simple physical command to activate a pulse that would seek out predetermined individuals and trigger an automatic message, with the further purpose of one of those individuals responding to what was, in effect, a cry for help.

Though she might not phrase it that way when explaining it to Shepard.

She hadn’t yet figured out what sort of gesture would be best.  It would have to be something subtle, in case Shepard was in a place where he needed to be discreet, and something simple, in case the emotions causing his distress interfered with Shepard’s ability to focus.  It would also be prudent to have the gesture be self-contained, removing the need to activate the omni-tool and then activate the program.  There was also the more technical problem of how to build the pulse, or ping, or blip, or...whatever.

Not to mention the message.  It would have to be something specific enough that whoever received it could respond quickly, but something as dramatic as “help me” would neither convey information nor ever receive Shepard’s approval.  The man, for all his laudable qualities, was too damn proud to use those words casually.  She needed a phrase he’d be willing to send, regardless of who answered it, because as best as she could figure, the pulse should seek out whoever on the predetermined list was physically closest.  That meant it wouldn’t be just anyone, but it might not be who Shepard was expecting.

And, of course, there was the harder choice of who to include on that predetermined list.  She couldn’t afford to be kind with the vetting process - realistically not all of their friends made sense.  Chakwas was a medical professional, but this was about trust in a moment of vulnerability - Shepard wouldn't call her for that.  Garrus might freeze up at his stalwart friend’s tears, and Joker would certainly get his foot stuck in his mouth.  Kaidan was obvious, as was Jack, though the latter was currently too far away to be properly effective.

She wasn’t sure about Tali.  Shepard adored their friend, but would he want Tali to see him so raw and exposed?  Uncharitable though it might be, Shepard had not called Tali when he’d hurt himself; she’d learned of both instances through other means.  But he did trust her, and the list needed to be longer than Kaidan, currently limited to Normandy personnel or not.  They could always change the list of contacts later.

The name she hesitated most on, however, was her own.  Shepard didn’t come to her when he was at his most troubled, yet it was her project and he was her friend.  Should she add herself, but with a caveat to try contacting other people first?  Or build a secondary list, for when the primaries didn’t or couldn’t respond?  Chakwas would certainly be a contender for such a list.

“Dr. T’soni.”  Glyph hovered next to the stack of crates, external panels rotating as he bobbed.  “You have an incoming message from Agent Feron.  He says it is urgent.”

“They’re all urgent these days,” Liara murmured, only half-distracted from her thoughts.  “Thank you, Glyph.”

Dismissed, the info-drone floated back to its preferred spot by the door.  Liara looked over the omni-tool program once more.  Really, the best solution to both her problems was probably to ask Shepard himself.  As much as she’d like to be able to simply hand him the completed program, Shepard would know what sort of gesture he preferred and, though it might take some prying to get the admission, knew which people he would call out to for help using such a tool.

She closed the file and stood, heading over to her console in front of the still slightly intimidating wall of screens.  It would be much easier to get the needed information after the dust had settled, and that wouldn’t happen until a few more conversations had been had.  Certainly the question of whether to include Tali would be influenced by how that bit of discourse resolved itself.

For now, it was best to focus on the needs of the Shadow Broker’s agents.  Specifically, she needed to address whatever crisis had found Feron and his team of Volus scientists this week.

Chapter Text

After the Flotilla, everywhere felt quiet, and empty, and big.  Most people, whether they used it or not, had so much space.  They could have a set of rooms, all to themselves, and only really use one or two of them everyday, and no one would think it strange or wasteful.

Maybe the Drell understood a little, having lost everything and being tied to the Hanar like they were, but the Hanar had a whole planet to themselves.

After growing up on the Live Ships, with people constantly around you, voices and music and shouting and children’s games the background to your entire life, when silence meant something was very wrong, the idea of space and quiet and empty was unnerving.

The humans had a phrase: “makes my skin crawl”.  Freedom’s Progress had made her skin crawl.

She liked human ships because they were dedicated and clever and a little ridiculous, much like the people who built them.  Human colonies were unsettling, because humans liked space.  They were used to it.  They designed it into everything they could, because so many of them either weren’t used to living on top of each other and liked it that way, or they were used to living on top of each other and didn’t.  But even with all their space, humans could be pretty noisy.  They liked stories and energy and proof of life.

Freedom’s Progress had none of that.  Empty buildings, with no story of how they’d gotten that way.  The stillness, the complete lack of energy, that came from being truly abandoned.  And every piece of evidence that might prove someone had lived there just reinforced that everyone was gone.

Tali had given her team the best advice she’d had about humans, but that had been when they’d assumed that there would be some around to interact with.  She hadn’t known what to do with an empty colony any more than the rest of them.  They’d picked their way carefully through the buildings and open spaces, omni-tools scanning, shotguns and pistols out in case whatever had done this was still around.  Quieter than they’d ever moved in their lives, because there was no need for quiet on the Flotilla or the Citadel or the various mining rigs that would deign to hire a Quarian.

But here...it was like making too much noise would trigger whatever had happened.  A silent alarm that only went off if you didn’t stay silent.

Then they’d discovered Veetor’s mechs and there’d been a lot of shooting and shouting and noise.  And, in the end, most of her team had died, anyway.

And with the noise had come something unexpected.  Someone big and violent and who shouldn’t exist.  Commander Shepard, after all that time, tearing his way through whatever barriers the world put up to stop him.

I can still hear them.  Still see them crawling over the windows, looking for a way in.

He’d sounded like Shepard.  Talked like him.  Moved like him.

Have to be sure.  Have to be safe.  Can’t end up like the others.

Neither of them had expected the other to be there, and the happiness in that familiar face had hurt.  Hurt as much as the annoyance of the Cerberus agents had pleased her; the frustration that Shepard would just trust some random Quarian he hadn’t seen since before his death.  Supposed death.

They sting, or bite.  I’m not sure.  But I have to check.  Have to be sure.

Maybe Shepard would have taken Veetor with him if she hadn’t been there.  Let Cerberus try to sort him out instead of trying to get him back to the Flotilla and people who could care for him properly; who would care for him at all.  But Tali had been there, and she’d only had to ask once, and Shepard had agreed like it was the only option there had ever been.  Scared the poor Quarian out of his rambling and asked him what he knew, then let Veetor go.

What if they got inside?  What if I brought them back with me?  Have to be sure.  Have to be safe.

Veetor had always been a little odd.  The Pilgrimage was a right of passage, how they all proved they were full adults and capable of helping the Flotilla survive.  But there’d been talk - every once in a while there was an exception - about not sending Veetor on Pilgrimage.  Concerns that he wouldn’t make it back, or couldn’t adapt sufficiently to the outside world.  Veetor was a clever technician - it would be easy to find work for him; he’d already developed so many useful skills just by being a dedicated student.  It wouldn’t be the same, he’d always be “an exception”, but Veetor had never expressed any of the usual emotions about leaving the Flotilla - curiosity, fear, anger.  He’d never paid much attention to anything beyond his screens.

But when the time came, he’d said he’d go.  He already had a plan.  He’d always liked learning about humans, and one of their colonies was on the way.  Freedom’s Progress.  One of the smaller ships could drop him off without any trouble.  Some of the humans were nice.  They had different ideas about tech.  Tali had been safe and happy and very successful on a human ship.  He’d be fine.

Have to be sure.

When he got back to the Flotilla, Veetor had no longer been a little odd.  He’d been damaged, and too many people didn’t care that it was because he’d lived through something horrible.  He shouldn’t have gone.  What were his parents thinking?  No Captain will accept him now.   Medical services and someone to talk to couldn’t stop the whispers in the halls.

Not that Veetor had paid them much attention.  He’d been too busy trying to pry his own suit off.

Tali cursed quietly as she punched in the wrong command on her console, Adams looking up briefly from his own a few meters away.  The screen flashed a warning sign, a succinct reminder that such a command would render certain, necessary processes inactive for several hours during their current FTL jump.  A much smaller, more polite inquiry from EDI popped up in the corner of the screen, asking if Tali had meant to attempt such a command, and if so, could she stop.

Damnit, she needed to focus.  Closing the warnings, she stared down at the reset screen, the oblivious algorithms waiting their turn for her to activate them in the necessary sequence.

There was nothing she could do for Veetor now, and when she’d last seen him, he’d been doing much better anyway.  No Captain had accepted him, but the woman who’d taken over his medical care had negotiated a place for him on her ship.  He wasn’t alone.  Nobody was alone.  There was always someone who’d listen, who’d care.

There was no reason anyone should ever feel the need to do something so drastic.

She hadn’t been particularly excited about the ship model she’d planned to work on that night.  A few of the Cerberus personnel had pooled their credits and bought it for her, as peace offering.  Or maybe a thank you for not stealing the drive core.  But it was a funny looking ship - a Batarian redesign on an old model cruiser that c-sec had used nearly a century before.  It had probably been a collector’s item, and the mottling on the external hull had been well done, but Tali had never much cared for Batarian redesigns, as full-sized ships or as models.  They never made sense, as if keeping the people inside the ship alive was a secondary concern, not the primary one.

She liked that ship even less now, because she’d always see Shepard’s face, discolored from abrasions and flecked with blood, vicious orange lines blazing against pale skin as he tried to explain why he needed to know what was underneath.

You don’t trust Cerberus, Tali; how they hell can you trust me?

Have to be sure.  One might have gotten inside.  Have to be sure.  Have to be safe.

She’d watched Veetor, hands bandaged into shapeless lumps so he couldn’t succeed, poke and prod and drag at his suit.  Not constantly, but often enough.  Never quite sure he was safe, never quite convinced he hadn’t brought a Seeker Swarm back to the Flotilla on accident.

Have to keep them safe .

It had never occurred to Tali that one day, she’d been the one restraining someone’s hands, trapped somewhere between arguing and begging for her friend to stop, to listen, to believe her that everything was all right.

Shepard…tried again.  To see what Cerberus did to him.

Damnit.

What if I’m not me?  What if I’m just a puppet and you’re all going to die for nothing?

“Damnit.”

Have to be sure.

The warning flashed again on her console, along with a slightly more urgent message from EDI.

“Tali?”

Tali turned to look at Adams, who was no longer a few meters away.  The older human was easy to work with.  He loved machines, and he took pride in being able to maintain whichever ship he’d been assigned to.  And he paid attention to the people working with him.

Adams was watching her, that same intense expression that Shepard or M’Benga or Westmoreland sometimes had when they were trying to read someone’s thoughts in their face.  Tali had always appreciated that they used that look on her, as though the face plate was just another piece of the puzzle and not something that instantly rendered her emotionless.  She’d tried to learn their faces in return, because humans showed almost everything on their faces.  She was pretty sure Adams looked worried.

“Is it the program?” Adams asked, softly, knowing it wasn’t.  “Something off with the math?”

“No,” Tali said, just as soft.  “I’m...having trouble concentrating.  It’s fine.”

“That was a pretty impressive warning you triggered.”

“EDI thought so.”  She tapped the message in the corner of her screen, dismissing it as the regulators did their job and ignored her mistake.

Adams laid a hand on the console, careful not to touch any of the buttons.  “Tali...if you need to step outside.  Take five.  The Normandy will still be here when you get back.”

“Step outside”.  It had only been a few decades, but Tali wondered if humans would ever abandon such phrases.  She’d never met a species so in love with trees.  Of course, outside made them feel better.  Outside was a place they could go.

The head of Engineering gave her an understanding smile, lips tugging higher on one side as the creases in his forehead smoothed away on the accompanying release of breath.  “I know it’s been a hard few days for some of us.  Daniels and Donnelly can keep up with the test if you need to...go talk to someone.”

She wondered what Adams had been told.  He must have been told something - he was the head of a department and a senior officer.  But would Adams, who had not joined up with Cerberus like Joker or taken a stressful and violent vacation like Chakwas, accept what his commanding officer had done?  Would the Alliance protocols he had lived so much of his life following - protocols that demanded the removal of authority figures deemed mentally unfit - limit what Adams was willing to do to keep Shepard on the Normandy if he knew what Shepard had felt driven to do?

The door behind her hissed open, the familiar lack of footsteps announcing the arrival of their resident sniper.  There was a pause before he spoke, which meant Garrus was getting better at human expressions, too.

“Should I be worried?”  That slow, bored tone that meant he already was.  “Donnelly’s gone quiet.”

“You make it sound like I talk incessantly,” came the immediate, indignant reply.

“Well,” Garrus said, “you’re always talking when I come down here.”  Tali could visualize the way Garrus swung his hips, the motion bringing the rest of him around in a smooth sway to pin Donnelly with those bright eyes.  “Unless you’re doing it just for me?”

“As I was talking to Gabbi,” Donnelly sniffed, “I could hardly be accused of doing anything for you.”

Something about the Turian rubbed Donnelly the wrong way, but nobody seemed to know what it was.  Even Daniels seemed confused when she’d stuck her head in the Main Battery to make sure Garrus wasn’t offended by her prickly coworker.  Garrus had shrugged, drawled something about variety making a crew interesting, and promised Daniels he’d fire a warning shot first if things ever got that bad.  Daniels had laughed and disappeared back down the hall.

“Tali?”  Adams again, voice low.  He wasn’t going to order her out, but if she hadn’t set her terminal to only pretend the sequence instead of actually implement it, things would have gotten pretty stressful up in the cockpit.

“I’ll…”  Tali hesitated.  She’d meant to say she’d be right back, as she always did when Garrus dropped by.  But as unfocused as she’d been all day…  “I’ll be back before the end of shift.”

“Take your time.”  Adams patted the console the way Vega would have patted her shoulder.  “I know if the Normandy found trouble, you’d be back down here in a flash.”

Garrus led the way out of Main Engineering, the doors of the stairwell hissing open and closed as they passed silently through.  Tali followed, head bowed as her morbid thoughts continued to chase themselves around inside her head, like pyjacks fighting over a funny shaped rock.  The brighter, more diffuse light of the passageway changed the tint of her face plate, making the world a friendlier shade of her ever present purple.

A hand landed on her helmet, the harmless weight meant only to get her attention.  “You did good work, up in Shepard’s cabin.”

Tali looked up, realizing they’d stopped walking.  “I’m not about to install something that might fall on my friends.”  She blinked at Garrus, still pulling her focus outward.  “That would defeat the purpose of helping Shepard sleep.”

“I just meant I was impressed.”

She wondered, not for the first time, if being calm was a prerequisite for becoming a sniper or a side effect of all that training.  Garrus never raised his voice, hardly ever sounded truly ruffled.  He did get embarrassed, and occasionally he took quiet offense at things, such as being called ruffled.  Apparently, while he was willing to forgive much of the First Contact War, the “bird jokes” were a step too far.

Here, in the midst of a personal crisis, on the heels of a cultural war, surrounded by a galactic fight to simply survive, Tali was grateful for that calm.  Those bright eyes that almost matched the color of Ensign Saijin’s amethysts through her helmet’s filters and the expressive face they peered out of.  She’d never really thought about it, but Garrus had been there for her as long as Shepard had.  Fewer Earth lullabies and questions about her food, but those facts about heavy pistols had been useful for her last round of mods.  She smiled, knowing he’d hear what he couldn’t see.  “Thanks.”

“I thought I’d stop by, see how you were doing,” Garrus said, his hand still on her helmet.  “It’s been a rough few days.”

“I’m fine.”

Garrus blew air through his nose.  “You know, Adams didn’t believe you, either.”

She lifted Garrus’ hand off her helmet.  “I’m fine .”

“Well, I’m not.”

Tali stopped, Garrus’ wrist still held in her hand.  “You’re not?”

“One of the people I care most about in this world hurt himself.  Again.”  Garrus glanced up, as though he might see their friend walking by overhead.  “Given the size of those bandages, I’d guess he did a pretty good job of it.  And I know I’m not the guy Shepard comes to when he’s upset, but…”  He sighed.  “It makes me feel like I’m a bad friend, knowing Shepard would hurt himself before he’d say something to any of us about wanting to.”

Tali glanced to her right at the closed door to Allers’ room.  Wouldn’t that just boost morale: Commander Shepard, Literally Going to Pieces.  “You’re not a bad friend,” she said, her own guilt sparking angrily on Garrus’ behalf.

“I know I’m not,” Garrus said.  “I know this is about Shepard and his refusing to ask for help.  Some misguided belief that keeping all the bad stuff locked in his own head might help the rest of us stay optimistic.”  He looked back at her, the calm in his voice just a little disturbed.  “But the same way you have to clean a gun to make sure it will fire properly, you have to clean out your head.  And I guess...I wasn’t using the right tools to help my friend.”

“You talked to Shepard,” Tali said.  “I know you’ve been checking in after the messier missions, at least.  And he drops by to see how you’re doing.”

“To see how I’m doing,” Garrus reintereated, tugging his arm gently from her grasp.  “You know Shepard; he’s not going to volunteer his feelings.  Ash always had a plan to blast them out of him, with plastic explosives and an angry Krogan if she could have gotten away with it.”  Garrus’ mandibles flexed as he looked down at their feet.  “I guess I’d hoped, between getting you and Kaidan back onboard, it would be close enough to the way it was to...fix things.”

Tali contemplated the worried figure of her kefri.  Garrus had been keeping an eye on Shepard since their friend reappeared two years ago.  He’d been a little distracted by whoever Sidonis was - he still wouldn’t tell her that story - but once he and Shepard had gotten back from sorting things out, that caring, observant part had reappeared with full force.  Garrus had worried just as much as any of them about Shepard during their time with Cerberus, enough to risk venturing into Jack’s territory from time to time, just to make sure everyone was on the same page.  So of course Garrus had been keeping an eye on their friend since Menae.

And he wasn’t the only one.  Joker, Chakwas, Anderson, even Miranda, for her own twisted purposes.  But they’d all missed something once, and now they’d all missed it, again.

“I was planning to come down here to argue about who we should tell this time,” Garrus said, interrupting her darkening musings.  “We never really agreed on how to handle that last time.”

No, they hadn’t, and with Admiral Hackett at the top of the current chain of command, her old strategy of keeping things to themselves would be much harder.  But she really didn’t want to have that discussion right now.  “Garrus -”

“But,” he said, tone pointedly disinterested, “it seems that matter has been resolved for us.”

Tali tilted her head to one side.  “It has?”

“Well, someone tipped off Joker.”

Oh.  Oops.

“And given my Inbox, Traynor at least knows that Shepard’s been put on medical leave.”  Garrus sounded distracted for a moment.  He crossed his arms, looking unhappy.  “I keep getting messages dealing with Turian-specific problems I’d been pawning off on Shepard, since as a Spectre, he still out ranks me.  We all know how well I handle politics.”

“You’ve been sending Shepard more work?” Tali asked, surprised.  Annoyance and something that tasted far too much like blame flooded her mouth.

“I...have.”  The mandibles twitched, again.  “Good to know my guilt isn’t completely unwarranted.”

Tali swallowed the barbed words.  Garrus already felt bad, and she knew he would never have forwarded those messages if he’d known how Shepard was really holding up.

“I had to tell Vega and Cortez something,” Garrus said, returning to his list.  “Steve’s too damn smart, so he worked out most of it.  Vega,” her kefri gave her a sly look, “learned a few new things about his CO that day.”

Tali blinked inside her helmet.  “That’s a strange way to phrase it.”

“Apparently, he didn’t know about Shepard and Kaidan.”

She stared at him, incredulous.  “Neda’vot.”

“I’m serious.”

“But...how?”  Tali waved at the ship around them, conversation momentarily forgotten.  “The whole ship knows!”

“Well, there is that one tech up on the CIC,” Garrus began, that sympathetic tone not fooling anyone.

“She’s a von,” Tali said, dismissively.  “Vega is much too good at people to miss something so obvious.”

“And yet…”  Garrus trailed off, his face turning serious, again.  “And yet,” he repeated, “if Vega can miss something so obvious, maybe someone else could, too.”

“I was back for a few days and I knew,” Tali argued, stubbornly.

“I meant our self-destructing bosh’tet of a leader,” Garrus corrected.  It was the closest thing to anger Tali had seen from the Turian.  “Maybe, while Vega was missing his love-struck glances, we were missing the shadows in his eyes.”

Wow.  He really had watched Fleet & Flotilla .

“Anyway.”  Garrus held up a hand, counting off the names.  “Joker, Traynor, Chakwas, Vega, Cortez, you, me.”

“Adams,” Tali added.  “He knows something, anyway.”

Garrus tapped the side of his thumb.  “Adams.”

“It sounds like we don’t need to have that old argument,” Tali said, a little hesitant.

He was looking at her, his expressive face still managing to convey the exact tilt of the head Raan used to when she thought Tali should know the answer to a question she hadn’t yet asked.  Those bright eyes that missed nothing kept hold of her, even as Garrus held still, waiting for his target to flinch so he could land the perfect shot.

Struggling to figure out the clue in the silence, Tali tapped the outside of his thumb.  “Kaidan knows.”

“Liara.”

Oh.

That old argument.

“We weren’t sure what to tell her before,” Garrus said, “but this time, she isn’t stuck on a planet or in a creaky old spaceship.  She’s across from the MedBay, and she’s going to notice something.”

And whatever concern they’d had about trusting an agent of the Shadow Broker was moot, now that they knew the Shadow Broker personally.

“We should tell her.”  Tali tugged at her fingers nervously.  “I wonder how badly she’ll take it, finding out we waited two whole days.”

Garrus snorted.  “That’s my line.”

“That was your line.”  Tali sniffed, a dramatic little flare Traynor had taught her for when humans wanted to sound more offended than they were.  “Now, it’s mine.”

Garrus laughed, just like Traynor had said people would.  “Well then, I guess I’ll need a new one.”  Mandibles flexing, he grinned.  “You know, I came down here to check on you.”

“I really am fine,” Tali said.  “I’m...not great,” she continued as Garrus lowered his head in disbelief, “but...I believe him.  Shepard.  That he didn’t mean to do this.  That he hasn’t been doing this all along.”

“You believe him.”

“I do.”

Garrus sighed, sounding annoyed as he replied.  “So do I.  But that doesn’t change anything.”

“I think it does,” Tali said.  She walked past Garrus, looking out through the shuttle bay windows, not seeing the large space below.  She thought of the scuffed window in the medical bay of the ship that had agreed to take Veetor, of the disquieted soul rocking quietly in the observation room, pawing at himself and muttering.

Have to be sure.  Keep them safe.

And her friend, in a different small room, eyes wide and face pale.

How the hell can you trust me?

“You weren’t with him yet,” Tali began.  The words came slowly as she thought through them, one finger tapping gently on the opposing elbow as she crossed her arms.  “When Shepard investigated Freedom’s Progress.”

“That’s the colony you were investigating,” Garrus said, moving to stand next to her.

Tali nodded.  “I was there because a Quarian had chosen it for his Pilgrimage.  Veetor’Nara.  The Flotilla was worried about the disappearance of the human colonies, as our flight path took us past several of them, but this was the only one we chose to directly investigate.”

“Because of Veetor.”

“Yes.”  She remembered the small form hunched over the keyboards, muttering and scanning, unaware he was no longer alone.  “Veetor was...never good at stressful situations, and the Collector attack pushed him over the edge.  When we got him back to the Flotilla, it took a while for him to really believe he was going to be safe.”

She could hear the polite skepticism in his voice.  “And this made you believe Shepard?”

“Veetor was worried about the Seeker Swarms,” Tali explained.  “He thought he might have brought one of the creatures back to the Flotilla when he was rescued.  He kept trying to, uh…”

“Check,” Garrus finished.  He sounded like he understood, but unlike Tali, the comparison brought him little comfort.

Tali nodded, again.  “Shepard doesn’t have the track record for Veetor’s...anxiety.  And Shepard was effectively dead for two years, he didn’t just live through one horrible attack.”

“Grew up on the streets, ran with a gang, had his head rummaged by several alien mind-reading techniques,” Garrus listed, his skepticism less polite this time.  “Forced to work with terrorists, ostracized by his friends and family, failed to save half a species, locked in an apartment for six months -”

“So it’s not exactly the same,” Tali snapped, anger flaring briefly once more.  She took a deep breath, trying to balance Garrus’ sincere concern against his unhelpful summary of their friend’s life.  “But Veetor got better.  He had less support, and he wasn’t stable even before the attack.  But he reacted the same way...sort of.”

“Trying to remove his suit,” Garrus said, softer this time, mindful of harm that could do a Quarian, even in the carefully maintained environment of the Flotilla.

“And Shepard wasn’t trying to hurt himself, anymore than Veetor was,” Tali continued.  “He was just worried, about himself and those around him.  He wanted to make sure he wasn’t a threat.”  She looked at the elevator this time, as if the human in question might appear to back her up, just like always.  “If he feels safe, if he knows there are people he can turn to, that this isn’t a trial to be endured alone…”

“Then maybe it was just like last time,” Garrus finished.  “Too much pressure causing a breach, not an inherent flaw in the design.”

“Or a recurring issue with no solution.”  Tali rubbed one hand over her arm.  “I believe Shepard, but I also...I need to believe him.”

“I want to believe him,” Garrus said, pulling her into a hug, “but I need more than words this time.  I need...I need a reason why Shepard would agree to change.  Something he didn’t have last time, or that he lost, that would keep him from ever feeling this desperate, again.”

They stood there, in the bright passageway, the faint noise of life carrying on echoing up from the shuttle bay below.  Tali watched a couple of Privates struggle with carrying an extra large crate, finally agreeing to bellow for Vega in impressive unison.  The lieutenant jumped, dropping something on his foot, which caused the Privates to laugh and drop their own burden.

Cortez was strolling over, a Take Charge look on his face, when Garrus let her go.  Hands resting on her shoulders, he gave her reassuring squeeze.  “I’ll handle Liara.  I think you should talk to Shepard.”

“I’m pretty sure Shepard already knows.”

This time, Garrus wasn’t imagining anyone when he looked at the ceiling.  “Sweetheart...you were pretty upset when Chakwas told us.”  He looked back at her, mandibles tucked close to his jaw.  “I thought you might want to discuss things with our friend.  Now that Joker’s had his say.”

Tali winced, her nose wrinkling at the thought of their emotionally-repressed pilot letting loose.  “At least you always know Joker’s being honest.”

“I’m sure that made things much easier,” his droll tone emphasized by folding his arms over his chest to accompany his wry expression.

With a sigh, Tali pulled up her omni-tool.  She tapped out the words with a little more force than necessary for a holographic interface, then shut the device back down.  Garrus watched the entire activity in silence.  “What?”

“Just...I thought you might take more convincing.”

One upside to helmets was the few people knew Quarians could blush.  “Before I forget.”  She looked back at her wrist.  “Or lose my nerve.”

“Is he headed down?”  It was Garrus’ turn to look at the elevator expectantly.

“No,” Tali shook her head, “I said tomorrow.  I need time to...actually think.”

The familiar, harmless weight on her helmet, again.  “You’re a great friend, too, Tali.”

She didn’t think that was up for debate.  Even if it was, Shepard would probably let her yell anyway; for a man with a brutal reputation, her friend was a gentle soul.

A bang, loud enough to be heard clearly through the reinforced plastic of the windows, drew their attention.  In successfully relocating the large crate, the quartet had unsuccessfully stacked it, and now several crates of equal size were toppling, one by one, as people shouted ineffectually at them to stop.

“It’s cute,” Garrus said, mandibles moving with his amusement, “how they think inanimate objects will listen to them.”

“Maybe they’re yelling at gravity,” Tali suggested.

Garrus thought about it.  “No, I don’t think so.  Joker was being snippy at one of the chairs in Crew Quarters the other day.  Something about always being a few centimeters out of place.”

She looked up at him.  “Because someone didn’t push it back in.”

“You tell him.”

Tali laughed.

They finished watching the unfolding mess below, the brightness of the antics a contrast to the darkness driving the fears on the floors above.  Garus had come down here to check on her, to make sure Tali was handling this vertigo-inducing shift in their flight path at least as well as last time.  It was part of what made this so hard to understand: they all paid attention to each other, cared about each other.  How had they missed Shepard locking himself away like this?

Garrus clapped in appreciation when the show finished and the clean up below began.  He pulled her into another hug, one of the one-armed squeezes Vega favored.  When she didn’t respond, he turned her around to face him.  Bright, amethyst eyes looked right through her face plate, seeing the doubt and the guilt she’d never been able to hide from him.

Taking her by the shoulders once more, Garrus leaned forward, resting his forehead against her helmet with a soft sound.  Tali watched those bright eyes close before shutting her own, her hands reaching out to trace the familiar textures of Garrus’ armor.

“We can do this, Tali.  This crew can do the impossible, but we,” she felt him squeeze her shoulders, a little more pressure than before, “we can do anything.”

Something still wriggled around in her gut, but the tightness in her chest finally eased.  Garrus might argue with her about how to do something, but he’d never doubt her intentions.  And he’d never leave her floundering when something went wrong.  Even if it meant balancing on one leg on the squishy surface of a human bed while he flailed about with one arm, trying to hold everything in place at once while she welded another support onto the wall.

“Thanks, Garrus.”  She rapped a knuckled against his armor before stepping back, the old gesture of reassurance out of practice since her last attempt at driving the MAKO.  They’d all agreed that, between the two them, Shepard was actually the better driver.  At least he understood the concept of a land-based vehicle.

Garrus gave her one last, assuassive smile before heading over to the elevator and back up to his usual haunt.

Tali waited another minute, watching Cortez keep everyone on task, before heading back into Main Engineering herself.  Adams looked up as she entered, eyebrows raised in a silent question.  She waved at him, twisting her wrist in the gesture she’d taught him back on the SR1 to replace the weird “thumbs up” that humans did.

Reactivating her terminal, Tali caught Garrus’ name from across the room.

“I’m just saying, tall and broody is overrated.  Communication is important in any kind of relationship.”

“Who in the world is going to ask you for relationship advice, Kenneth?”

“Not our friendly, neighborhood Turian, clearly.”

She grinned as Adams punched something on his terminal and headed over to resolve a debate that sounded like it had been going on since she left.  When she’d first agreed to come back to Shepard’s crew, she’d wondered why he’d been so keen on getting her down to Engineering.  She’d figured it was to check over the redesigned engine.  After a few days of listening to her new coworkers and the occasional, surprisingly helpful, outburst from below their feet, it was blatantly apparent that Shepard trusted the colorful collection of personalities on this deck the most, from their tattooed bottom-dweller to the angry proto-Krogan down the hall.  Even the ancient mercenary next door was just one more reason to come down here.

“Donnelly!  How about you communicate with the flow converters behind the kitchen sink for a while, figure out where all the cold water went.”

Though Adams was learning to fit in just fine.

Chapter Text

For a crew who regularly complained about the quality of their coffee, the SR2 sure went through a lot of it.  Shoving a box of salt and pepper packages aside, Steve contemplated the back of the cabinet.

He’d ordered 102 bags of the standard Alliance brew, 59 bags of the stuff that had been salvaged from Terra Nova, and snagged 14 bags off a refugee shuttle from a guy who’d, rightly, assumed that bartering certain food items thought lost when Earth was invaded would up his chances of getting better access to a few Citadel essentials.  There’d also been the 15 boxes of tea, mostly black but always one green, and the even dozen of whatever the dextro equivalent to coffee was.  It was mostly consumed by Tali - she who kept pace with the likes of Traynor and Daniels - so Steve figured it was the right stuff.

Having thoroughly searched the entire kitchen and its corresponding areas in the cargo bay, Steve had found, in total, 42 bags of coffee left, two boxes of tea, and three containers of the dextro stuff.  Which meant, much like the early days of their marriage, before he’d learned the extent of Robert’s sweet tooth, that Steve was going to have to get creative if the peace was to be kept.

Not that creative had always worked.  Coffee, it turns out, did not go with honey, agave, maple syrup, or any other form of plant-based liquid sweetener.  Simple syrup requires sugar to make, confectioners’ sugar is harder to find than caster, and synthetic replacements – they had at least agreed on this – tasted weird.  Which left rationing or quitting cold turkey, both of which were too much to ask of his newly minted spouse.

Thank the heavens for the little girl down the street and her abrupt changes of hobbies.  Suddenly burdened with baking supplies she didn’t need, the mother had happily traded her sugar stores on the grounds that Steve took the more obscure spices, too.  It had led to some unfortunate soups and curries, but with properly desecrated coffee in hand, Robert had proved willing to weather any other culinary storm.

Saints, he missed that man.  Talking to Shepard helped, and it had made it easier to talk to James, swapping fond memories limned with pain, but there were mornings where waking up alone was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

Sitting back on his heels, Steve jumped at the pair of legs that had appeared next to him while he was buried in the far recesses of the lower cabinets.  He took in the calves encased in Alliance-issue leather, skimming up past the medic coat until he spotted the classic haircut.  “Evening, Doctor.”

“Good evening, Lieutenant.”  Chakwas was washing a mug out in the sink with the mindless motions of someone who has completed the task at hand countless times before.  “Find anything interesting?”

“We’re running low on liquid caffeine.”

“A week of unfortunate revelations.”  Chakwas sighed and shut off the tap.  Shaking water droplets off her right hand, her left reached over to set the now clean mug in the dish drainer.  Steve had always wondered how, in the 22 nd Century, military ships still had dish drainers.  Shouldn’t there be something electricity-based that could…zap things dry?

Still crouched on the floor, the doctor’s words filtered through the benign confusion of removing water from clean dishware.  Steve focused on the woman standing next to him.  Chakwas always looked professional: clean uniform, pulled firmly into place; sensible hair and simple makeup; no sign of her personal life or opinions readily accessible on her person.  As a major and the chief medical officer onboard the flagship of an intergalactic military alliance in the middle of the biggest war in the last 50,000 years, it shouldn’t be noteworthy that she looked tired.  But it was.

Steve stood up, shutting the cabinet doors as he did so.  Chakwas watched him, wet hands resting on the edge of the sink instead of reaching for a nearby towel.  It wasn’t anything as blatant as dark circles under her eyes; it was the little things, like not immediately drying her hands, that made the exhaustion stand out.

Snagging a fresh towel out of a higher cupboard, Steve held it out.  “I know the giant robot invaders are supposed to take precedent, but this war’s gonna get ugly if this crew has to literally run on hope alone.”

“Indeed.”  Chakwas took the towel with an appreciative nod, transferring the water to the soft cloth with practiced efficiency.  Her cool tone paired with the sarcastic nip of her words.  “I’d hate to see what happens when fighting the Reapers gets ugly.”

He watched her dry her hands, thinking about how to phrase his question.  He’d tossed the idea back and forth with James earlier, the younger man looking confused, then frustratingly sympathetic when he’d finally understood.  It was one of the things that made their friendship work – he didn’t treat James as a survivor, and James didn’t treat him like a widower.  There was more to their stories than that, and after months of being coddled, Steve didn’t need another well-meaning soul feeling sorry for him.

But he still needed to know something if he was going to try and help with the Normandy’s current crisis, and that meant talking to the Doc.  And he wasn’t going to be able to just ask, because he’d pretty much bullied poor Garrus into telling them what happened.  He would have felt worse about that, but Shepard was his friend, too.  Aiming for casual, Steve was pretty sure his questioning tone instead sounded ominous.  “Dr. Chakwas…”

“Uh-oh.”  Chakwas hung the towel on the bar over the sink before turning to face him.  “It’s never a good thing to have one’s title paired with that tone of voice.”

Steve leaned one hip against the counter, tucking his datapad under his arm as he considered.  Medical ethics were ironclad, at least when applied to a woman like Karin Chakwas.  She wasn’t going to tell him something just because they were all worried.  However, while their doctor was strict, she was also patient.  She’d let him get his foot out of his mouth if needed.  “Garrus came by yesterday to let Vega know that he’d be in charge of away missions for a while.”

Chakwas nodded, her expression politely neutral.  “That’s correct.  Commander Shepard is on medical leave for a few days.”

Steve nodded, expecting the non-answer.  “He was a little vague on why Vega and not Major Alenko was in charge, though.”

Decades in the military lent a rigidity to her posture and words, muscle memory supplying the needed formality for explaining the command-approved excuse.  “As a Spectre, the Alliance cannot demand Alenko take over Shepard’s duties.  Formally, Vega is the proper Alliance officer for the task.”

Well, wasn’t that a neat little dodge.  “I certainly wasn’t expecting Garrus to volunteer for the role,” Steve said, nonchalantly.  “I don’t know much about the Turian hierarchy, but it sounds like our friend already has more authority than he’d like without taking on Alliance tasks.”

Chakwas chuckled, a little of the stiffness easing out of her.  “Garrus Vakarian is a competent soldier and a loyal teammate.  The consequence of that, of course, is that people will want him to be in charge.”

It was true.  That he could get along with non-Turian groups had probably been the final bolt in Garrus’ coffin, especially once Shepard’s dire warnings proved to be more than the ravings of an unhinged glory-hound.

“Is there something about Lt. Vega I should know?” Chakwas asked.  “Some reason he couldn’t take over for the Commander for a few days?”

“No,” Steve said, “Vega’s more than qualified, and everyone who goes on those missions trusts him to lead.”  Even Javik, their own cantankerous old man, had a soft spot for James Vega.  An acceptable soldier, with the markings of a great one.  His men will be wise to follow him.   James had blushed like a teenager when Steve had told him that Javik had said it, hiding in his mug of Mezcal and muttering about hearing things wrong.  “It’s not Vega I’m worried about.”

“Oh?”  Astute grey eyes watched him out of that placid face.

This was the tricky bit.  How clever could he make this woman think he was?  Technically, Garrus had let it slip, but only after Steve tricked him onto the ice.

“Our last away mission, to assault that Cerberus base,” Steve began, trying to speak at a normal, casual pace, “there were no serious injuries when we got back.”

Chakwas gave him a small nod, catching on immediately.  “Thank goodness, no one was hurt this time.  On our side, anyway.”

The poor Cerberus bastards who were littering every hallway in the facility had had a much worse day.  “Everybody’s shields held up; even with those nasty new mods Cerberus got from who knows where,” Steve agreed.  He intentionally didn’t look up.  “But Shepard’s on medical leave?”

The neutral expression had shifted, taking on a hint of disappointment.  “You know I can’t discuss medical files without consent from the patient.”

“I know,” Steve said, “and I’m not asking.”  He allowed a rueful grin at the raised eyebrow.  “Alright, I’m asking, but I don’t want details that would get anyone in trouble.”  Now he did look up.  “Most of us have been worried about the Commander for a while now.  This war is as miserable as any of its predecessors, and I’ve heard the jokes about how not even death can stop Shepard, but –“ he looked back at his companion, “even a rock wears down over time, Doc.”

Chakwas folded her arms over her chest, leaning her own hip against the counter.  “We’re all feeling this war, Lieutenant.”  It was almost a sigh, a quiet exhalation kept close to her chest.  “After a year of little progress, we’re all starting to wear thin.”

“So we turn to each other,” Steve said, voice low and hopefully leading.  “ ’The only thing that makes battle psychologically tolerable is the brotherhood between soldiers’.”

“ ’You need each other to get by’.”  Her face looked younger, the sad smile for someone Steve couldn’t see.  “Sebastian Junger.  You know he was a journalist by trade?”  The smile lost its melancholy edge.  “Most people guess such a quote must come from a soldier, or a psychologist.”

“I’m sure Allers would be proud,” Steve grinned.  The moment passed as the reason for the words reemerged.  “It’s hard not to notice that Shepard doesn’t like to lean on people.  Our Commander likes to be the port in the storm, but he’ll weather things on his own if he can.”

Chakwas let out a real sigh this time.  “Yes, one of his less endearing traits.”

Time to lay his cards on the table.  “This war is dragging on, and our boss doesn’t like to admit he can’t take whatever the Reapers might dish out.”  He paused, matching Chakwas’ gaze.  “And now, after a mission with no injuries, he’s on medical leave.”

For the first time, Chakwas frowned.  “What are you implying, Lieutenant?”

“I’m implying that everyone breaks,” Steve said, blunt as he dared.  “The idea is to look for help when the cracks start to show, but maybe our stubborn CO didn’t do that.  And I’m worried about what that would mean for the people around him.”

He hadn’t been trying to trip her up, but that last part had.  “The people around him?”

There had been a point, when they were still dating, that things hadn’t been going well with Robert’s job.  Between the self-described “clusterfuck” that was merging teams and tactics, and the mess that had become his sister’s personal life, Robert had run himself ragged trying to be everything for everyone.  He’d actually yelled when Steve finally backed him into a corner, prodding and poking until the anger gave way to exhaustion and despair.  Maybe he couldn’t save the workforce he’d helped build, maybe his sister wasn’t going to leave her fiancé, maybe he’d ruined everything by shouting at a man he really, really liked.

Steve had dragged Robert down the street to the local bar, allowed him three beers to drown his sorrows, then ordered what would become their “fix things food” – Earth-style pub fries and Asari-style fish sticks, along with every sauce on the menu – and poked and prodded through every topic Robert had covered during his outburst, systematically helping his then-boyfriend to find better ways to handle his workload and make the much harder decisions of what to let go.

But Robert learning to accept that Lisa was going to have to realize on her own that manipulation wasn’t love, that he couldn’t just kidnap her and make her see what was going on, wasn’t what resonated.  And it wasn’t Shepard that Steve saw the potential for Robert’s well-meaning self-destruction in.

“If Shepard is finally starting to bend under the weight of…everything,” Steve said, “I presume I’m not the first person to come talk to you about him.  Or at least, not the first person to get involved.”

“No,” Chakwas conceded, “you’re not.”

Steve nodded, suspicions all but confirmed.  “Has anyone come to you about Kaidan?”

There was that look of surprise, again.  “Kaidan?”

“They say opposites attract,” Steve said, “but it’s not true.  You need someone who’s enough like you that the differences can match up.  Enough compatible parts that the annoying habits and occasionally questionable tastes can be charming, or at least lovably frustrating.”  Steve looked back up at the ceiling.  “It’s not so surprising that those two ended up together.  Similar values, senses of humor,” he blew out an annoyed breath, “same ‘friends first’ attitude.”

There was a moment of silence, quiet enough that the ever-present hum of the Normandy sounded momentarily loud.  Then Chakwas laughed.  Properly and with the energy of a released dam, if a professional one.

Allowing herself a moment of mirth, Chakwas clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound as Steve continued to act annoyed.  “Is that so, Lieutenant?”

“Yes,” Steve said, cracking a conspiratorial smile, “it is.”

“Well,” Chakwas said, pulling that veneer of neutrality back into place, “I still can’t discuss medical files without a patient’s consent.”  She looked less tired, though, less like she too was carrying a burden better shared.  “However, I also can’t stop you from talking to your senior officers if you’re worried about the emotional health of someone on the crew.”

“A friendly chat,” Steve agreed, “off the record, no doubt.”

“The Normandy is infamous for having approachable authority figures,” Chakwas agreed.  “If you needed an ear to vent your concerns to, I’m sure you could find one.”  She tilted her head to one side, her voice dropping as it softened.  “And if you had an ear to lend, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found someone who might need it.”

Steve nodded, absently.  He pushed off the counter, arms uncrossing as reactivated his datapad with a flick of his thumb.  “More worries for another day, I suppose.”  He typed in the numbers he’d confirmed, thinking idly that finding coffee might be the harder of his self-appointed tasks.  “There’s not much to do in the shuttle bay tomorrow; maybe I’ll spend some time up here, see who might feel like a chat.”

He bid the doctor goodnight, accompanying her as far as the elevator before turning his attention more fully to his own problems.  It might take luck, a true act of mercy from higher powers, to swing this coffee thing, but thought he might be able to handle Kaidan Alenko.  The man was only human, and if Shepard had felt driven to what Garrus had unwillingly admitted their CO had done, then Kaidan would have been dealt a hard and fast blow against his own overtaxed ability to deal.  And he would want to help Shepard, focus on the bigger, flashier pain, maybe even worry about their friends.  He might not think about how much this was hurting him.

It wasn’t handling Robert, but Steve had poked and prodded enough people in his life to feel confident in his abilities.  At some point, someone was going to haul Shepard off for a heart-to-heart, leaving their possibly in denial Major vulnerable to any cracks appearing in his own armor.  So Steve would be there, altruistic and merciless as needed, to make sure his new friends were both being looked after.  If needed, he could always remind Kaidan that medics are supposed to look after their own wounds first, so they can then focus on helping everyone else.

Maybe skip pointing out that Shepard hadn’t followed that basic bit of advice.


“I don’t see why this is still an issue.  The Citadel is a nexus, a recognized symbol of peace and stability, and everybody knows where it is.  It’s as safe as anywhere, possibly safer.”

“Currently, but for how long?  We know the Reapers will come for it, just like they did when it was only Saren and his Geth.”

“Looking for alternate locations for refugees signals a lack of faith in the basic systems that run the galaxy; more instability in the middle of the worst crisis we’ll ever see.”

“Walking around on the Citadel, you’d barely know there was a war going on.”

“My point exactly – peace and stability.”

“There is no peace, and the stability won’t last.”

Hackett watched the youngest of the Admirals – a brown-haired man, barely past forty – roll his shoulders, trying for subtly that only worked because the others were distracted by all the arguing.  Evacuating refugees was an ongoing issue, batted back and forth on where was best and why.  This late in the war, they were fast running out of potential planets, but the disheartening truth was that the number of people who needed rescuing was decreasing.  With each system the Reapers took, with each planet they gained full control over, there were fewer people to move.

It was a miserable, inescapable conversation, and it wasn’t the last hopeless scenario they’d run today.

“Since we have nowhere to move the refugees on the Citadel, and we all agree that even suggesting the idea would encourage panic, is there some reason we’re even having this discussion, yet again ?”

“Someone has to.  The Council isn’t going to suddenly start caring about anything outside their own homeworlds; meanwhile, the Drell are even less likely to survive this conflict than the Batarians.”

Don’t drag the Council into this.  You’ll make Castellanos mad.”

An icon blinked to life in the bottom corner of the large screen in front of him, signaling that he’d been temporarily removed from the conversation.  Hackett turned his comms officer, who pointed helpfully behind him toward the door.  A young lieutenant – but they were all young now, weren’t they? – was hustling toward him, datapad in hand.

“You said you wanted communication from the Normandy as soon as it was received,” recited the woman.  Culpepper, he thought, arrived two weeks ago.  “Disregard all but the highest clearance meetings.”

Hackett took the datapad with a nod, keying in his code to unlock the message.  “Thank you Lieutenant.  As you were.”

Lt. Culpepper saluted and hurried back out.  His comms officer stood at attention, waiting for his signal to link him back into the meeting of the Admirals.

Hackett kept his back to the inactive screen, reading over the report in his hands.  It was an update from Dr. Chakwas.  It seemed Commander Shepard was healing physically, though whatever the man had managed to do to himself was too much for even the Cerberus upgrades to repair in so short a time.  Shepard also showed promise emotionally, visiting the MedBay without being summoned and answering all of the doctor’s follow-up questions with a passably cheerful attitude.  There was even a mention of some discussion with Major Alenko, though Karin had been vague enough to make it glaringly obvious that some things were not an Admiral’s business.

As for the crew of the Normandy, so far it seemed there had been no negative repercussions. General scuttbutt was that Shepard was either ill and taking it easy or mildly injured and senior staff had ganged up on him for some rest. The veterans had been told, as well as Specialist Traynor— the uptick in communications Hackett’s people were dealing with testified to that— but it seemed the truth of the injuries had so far remained Need To Know.

Hackett made a note to find a medal for sorting obscene amounts of secure messages that he could award to the beleaguered communication officers when this was all over; apparently, the Normandy had been fielding almost as much comm traffic as the Crucible project itself.  A small revelation that made Hackett feel tired in a way he couldn’t afford to show.  Shepard’s team was meant to be the dramatic ideal of resistance, rounding up support wherever they could, but one small ship was never going to survive dealing with the volume of concerns that crossed Hackett’s desk.  He’d have to see about making sure some of the comm traffic was not rerouted back to the Normandy once their crew was returned to active duty.

There were two points of concern in Chakwas’ reports.  While the discussion that was none of his business was a positive sign for Shepard, it did not yield the same comforting conclusions about Alenko.  It seemed the Major, unlike Shepard, had yet to show signs of processing the incident.  Chakwas had attached an older file, no doubt from the month after the destruction of the SR1.  Then-Lieutenant Alenko had not handled things without direct intervention, and it was possible that another emotional upheaval, dealing with the same commanding officer, might also require an outside force.  Hopefully, the agreed upon solution for Shepard would work for Alenko as well; time away from the Normandy and amidst the relative comfort of shore leave might see him relax enough to start to grieve.

Otherwise, Hackett would be replacing two superior officers instead of just one.

The other issue would be once the Normandy was formally on shore leave, Chakwas would need to keep track of Shepard’s progress.  The logic of their plan would be undermined by her constant presence, but given this crew’s habit of being constantly in each other’s lives, Chakwas thought a few rounds of questions and the occasional visit from her to check Shepard personally should be sufficient.  The logistical details of all this were still being finalized, but in the end she was still asking him to trust Shepard’s little family.

On that note, there was also— there was no other word for it—a gleeful observation that a certain biotic instructor was currently on the Citadel with her students, and that Hackett might possibly be able to hear her opinion on all this all the way from his current location.

Tagging the second concern to be addressed in a later vid-call, Hackett marked the report as read.  He looked over at his comms officer, still awaiting orders.  “Has the newest round of shore leave notifications been dispatched?”

“Should go out within the hour, sir.”

Hackett nodded.  “Good.”  He stepped forward, laying the datapad on a console out of sight of the camera before taking his mark.  A moment’s pause while he rolled his head from one side to the other, loosening tense muscles and enjoying a rare deep breath.  The stretches and breathing technique his neighbor had taught him while his mother was sick helped, but the longer this war dragged on, the less effective everyone’s personal routines would be.

Command posture regained, Hackett signaled for the link to be reestablished.

“I just don’t see how working with Batarian raiders helps us in the long run.”

“If we don’t make this work, there won’t be a long run.”

“And if we make rash decisions because we feel backed into a corner, the long run won’t be worth sticking around for.”

“I’m curious – if this isn’t us backed into a corner, how much worse do you think this war is going to get?”

Chapter Text

It was intentionally hideous.  Swaths of canvas rigged together, greens and browns overlapping in some clever configuration that blocked light while maintaining tension so as to mitigate the feeling of something hanging over the space.  The mechanical components had been welded high on the walls, dramatic scarring making it apparent that Tali-Zorah vas Normandy did not appreciate having her hard work removed just because.  The only really delicate thing about the improvised window covering was the device that allowed the canvas to be pulled apart, wound around deceptively small wheels on either side to reveal the stars and mass effect field beyond.

John loved it.  As annoyed as Tali was at having to reconstruct the thing, her second attempt built upon what she’d learned making the first.  Spanning the large space, the construct felt less like an addition and more like a sensible part of the room.  What window didn’t have curtains, anyway?

He was almost tempted to spoil the magic by asking where she’d even found purple sashing to weave between the muted bichrome blocks, but everyone needed a few harmless secrets.

Leaning against the bulkhead at the top of the steps, John debated opening the covering.  The stars didn’t bother him so much when he was wide awake, and Kaidan might not enjoy the contained feeling that covered windows always gave a room.  Any room was a box by definition, but windows and doors helped dispel any claustrophobic feelings a person might be harboring.  John had never had that particular problem; covered windows meant more warmth on a cold night.

Being claustrophobic on a spaceship was a problem in general, though.  There was no “outside”, and some of the places a person might have to squeeze into to make a repair or access an obscure panel were barely human sized.  Donnelly’s quest into the substructure of the main Engineering deck might have been necessary and brief, but they’d still heard him banging knees and elbows against things as he wriggled around.

John grinned again at the casual conversation the four of them had had.  Daniels had been her usual polite self, focusing primarily on the task at hand and only deviating into personal interests when someone else brought them up.  Donnelly had blundered his way through etiquette, more interested in the repair he was working on and cheerfully forgetting that a visit from you CO was supposed to be just a little intimidating, just as Kaidan had hoped he would.

John’s grin softened as he thought about the casual way Donnelly had mentioned his relationship with Kaidan.  They weren’t hiding things, but sometimes the veneer of professional detachment chaffed.  John wasn’t the sort who enjoyed public displays, but it’d be nice to hold hands without worrying about a subordinate thinking he was playing favorites on the next mission.

Not that he needed to worry about that anytime soon.  Chakwas had clucked approvingly over his face when they’d dropped by the MedBay.  She hadn’t removed the bandages, settling for extensive scans for fear she’d undo her own work “piecing him back together”.  But even with the evidence that his face was healing from what he’d done, Chakwas had been clear that John was not cleared for active duty.  A message compounded by the one currently in his hand.

John read over the directive for shore leave once again, wondering how she’d managed it.  Liara had been certain Chakwas had reported his moment of insanity to Hackett, and she’d been equally certain it would not lead to John’s immediate dismissal.  Looking at the orders on the datapad in front of him, it would appear the Shadow Broker’s instincts were as accurate as ever.  Time off, in the middle of a war, to get his head together, when protocol dictated he be replaced by someone who couldn’t be accused of falsifying their psych evals.

Warm arms wrapped around his waist, pulling him back against a solid chest.  John felt himself smile as Kaidan pressed a kiss to his shoulder, hair still damp from the shower tickling John’s cheek.  “Any chance it’s good news?”

John held the datapad up for Kaidan to see.  “Shore leave.”

“Shore leave?”  Kaidan read the communication over his shoulder.  “Think it’s because of you?”

“Liara will.”  John thumbed the power button on the datapad, the screen blinking off.  “She thinks Chakwas told Hackett what happened, but convinced him not to remove me from command.”

“Huh.”  Kaidan pressed another kiss to John’s shoulder before letting go, stepping around him to find clothes.  “What kind of leverage does our doctor have that she can boss around the head of the Alliance military?”

John resettled himself against the wall, enjoying all the fluffy white towel failed to cover.  Strong legs that led up to a well-muscled torso, those arms that had so recently been around him leading to gentle hands currently digging for a clean shirt.  Thin lines, faded from age, ran down along Kaidan’s neck, some following his spine while others split off along his shoulders and disappeared down his arms.  Getting a biotic implant was less invasive now - at least as far as embedding a foreign object in a person’s brain could ever be non-invasive - but science had still been learning with the L2s.  Still trying new techniques, sometimes pushing medical ethics just that much farther when it came to figuring out how everything worked.

But those scars, frightening as they might seem, were part of Kaidan.  Just marks on the skin of someone he loved.  John had felt that protective flare of annoyance more than once as a passerby scowled at the back of Kaidan’s neck, disapproving of the small bit of tech just below his hairline, ignoring the man in favor of some frightening news story they’d heard once upon a time.

The towel hit him squarely in the face, John only catching it before it hit the floor on reflex.  He tossed it into the hamper, shooting Kaidan a questioning look.

“You were frowning.”  Kaidan propped a fist on his hip, his tone gently mocking.  “What, worried I’ll steal one of your shirts, again?” he asked, unapologetic of his thieving ways.

“No,” John replied, happily abandoning old frustrations to take in the now complete view, “just enjoying a little art appreciation.”

Kaidan shut the drawer, pulling a lower one open to find pants.  “Do you always frown when you like the view?”

“I’m not frowning anymore.”  John grinned shamelessly before pushing off the bulkhead to leave the other man to dress.  He could hear Kaidan’s low chuckle as he walked over to his desk, the quiet sound one of John’s favorite endings to their conversations.

John eyed the collection of datapads still waiting on his desk, his terminal innocently waiting to be awoken from its unusually long slumber.  He’d been trying for a week to catch up on things, but the mountain of reading just kept growing.  New information from new sources, confirmations from reliable contacts, the steady stream of bad news from their closest allies.  And that was just an average morning.

Traynor had been hard at work, sorting what she could and keeping everything else in order of arrival.  Chakwas had set their communication officer to ensuring as minor an interruption in the flow of information as possible, which no doubt meant an impressive amount of political gymnastics as Tryanor tried not to make anyone feel like their inquiries, reports, or complaints were being dismissed.  His inbox was probably at capacity with the messages she couldn’t send elsewhere, everyone from the Primarch to displaced schoolteachers venting their hopes and fears to the one person who was publicly doing something.

Or trying to, anyway.

“Tali does good work,” Kaidan called from down by the bed.  He’d pulled on the clothes— the shirt his own this time— and was admiring the contraption now attached to their ceiling for himself.  “She did all this by herself?”

“Garrus held things up high,” John replied, booting up the terminal and watching the messages scroll as they loaded, oldest first.

“Hm.”  Footsteps, the quiet padding of sock-clad feet, as Kaidan moved around on the level below.

Given the Normandy’s advanced systems and EDI’s computing power, it was possible even his inbox had no limit for information storage.  Names and security markers continued to march past, pulling at John’s attention as the feeling of inevitability started to creep up his spine.  There were just so many of them, and most of them too little, too late.

“Pretty sure Chakwas said you weren’t cleared for duty.”  Kaidan leaned against the end display case, arms crossed over his own chest this time.  He, too, was watching the information moving rapidly over the terminal’s screen.  “I don’t suppose those are the latest Blasto novelizations, complete with ‘authentic Spectre-approved diagrams’.”

John keyed in a command, summoning a list of messages that had priority flags, then another command to limit that list to the highest clearance.  Hackett, Victus, their recent contact with the Batarians - all people who didn’t have time to waste on pomp and circumstance.  He squinted at the unusually short list of messages.  “It’s just reading, Kaidan.  Chakwas doesn’t want me running around getting shot at.”

“ ‘Sticks and stones, but words will never hurt me’,” Kaidan intoned.  He didn’t sound convinced.  “You’re going to be stubborn about this, aren’t you?”

John tapped another couple of buttons, sorting the information by date, contact, and hypothetical reliability.  He wouldn’t be sure until he read each message, but EDI and Traynor had rigged together a filter that used some logically determined set of data points to try and prioritize information that had viable intel.  It worked wonders on the communications out of Omega, but was still frustratingly ineffective on spam.  Some days though, he did appreciate the sudden break in the tension that was a misspelled paragraph explaining how his life could be better if only he upgraded some piece of anatomy or another.

If only a Krogan liver transplant could get him galactic peace.

He could hear Kaidan moving around again, but the miseries of the galaxy were pulling at him once more.  In a separate folder, the number of personal messages and appeals kept ticking up.

Psychologically speaking, John knew it wasn’t wise to read all the non-priority messages.  There was nothing he could do for most of these people; page after page of tragic anecdotes and pleas for answers he couldn’t give.  But war couldn’t be about numbers and supply lines, not for him.  Hackett and Anderson and the other Command Personnel could do the cold calculus; John was just a soldier, fighting for smiles and bad hair days and dreams of owning a little café on the corner.  The kinds of people who wrote these messages, who were dying on every planet because they’d never even fought over a parking space.

The faint clacking of plastic against plastic distracted him.  John looked to his left, the depressing spiral that was determining the value of a life - of countless lives - slowing almost as soon as it began.

Kaidan had successfully stacked nearly all the datapads on his desk into one, unnervingly tall tower.  Leaning the assemblage against his chest, he picked them up and walked away, not once looking at John, careful not to shift his center of balance as he made his way down their few steps.

John stood up straight.  He watched Kaidan continue his trek, heading toward the seating area below.  Some part of him was still thinking about the lack of response from the Vorcha mining team, but half his workload had just been repossessed.  “Kaidan?”

Kaidan ignored him.  Carefully maneuvering around a chair, he deposited, still stacked, the collection of datapads.  Once on the coffee table, he disassembled the tower into its original component turrets, arranging them neatly next to each other.  Only then, with his task fully completed, did Kaidan turn around and look expectantly up at John through the case of model ships.

Logging off his terminal, John slowly followed Kaidan’s path.  Brown eyes watched his own blue with a guilelessness nobody believed.  Surviving B.A.a.T., all those special commendations, learning to teach the bunch of knuckleheads disrupting Reaper plans for Chicago— ‘looks can be misleading’ seemed to be a personal motto for the man.

Reaching Kaidan’s side, John let his eyes drop, looking down at the new home of his collection of reports.  “Something I should know?”

Kaidan persisted in looking innocent.  “I thought you’d like a change of venue.”

John raised an eyebrow.  “The couch?”

Kaidan shrugged.  “I’m not carrying them all the way down to Starboard.”

John watched Kaidan retrieve a stack of datapads from the other desk in the room, the one that John had never paid any attention to until Kaidan had claimed it as his own workspace when, having fumbled his way through a prepped bit of logic, John had suggested it might be practical for Kaidan to just keep his stuff up here.  Set next to John’s own small mountain, Kaidan’s workload looked less intimidating.

Dropping onto the couch, Kaidan looked up at him.  When John didn’t move, the biotic patted the seat beside him, once again looking expectant.

John sat.

When he moved to take a datapad from the pile, Kaidan stopped him with an arm across John’s chest.  “First, you sort them.”

“Sort them?”

Kaidan nodded.  “Anything I can handle in one pile, anything you have to personally deal with in another.”

John glanced at Kaidan’s own stack, then back at the man.  “You already have your own.”

“You take on too much.”  Kaidan’s tone was firm, insistent in its desire to inform and assist.  He dropped his arm, his hand landing on John’s knee.  “Let me help.”

“I can handle it.”

“But you don’t have to.”  The hand squeezed his knee.  “Adams has all his people check each other’s work.  Joker flies the ship with EDI double-checking his calculations.  Liara and Steve have started pooling their contacts, getting supplies to all kinds of places that need them.”  Kaidan gestured to the stacks on the little table in front of them.  “You bury yourself in the most depressing reading onboard, and most of it only ever goes into your head.  You don’t even talk about it with the rest of us.”  With a laugh, Kaidan shot John a sideways look.  “It’s like you and Hackett have your own miserable book club.”

“These are mission critical reports,” John deflected.  “We need this information.”

“And nobody else can read it?”

“Well, no, you could—“

“So, let me.”  Kaidan was watching him, hints of that infamous stubbornness showing around his eyes and in the set of his jaw.  “I can handle depressing.”

“I have to know it all, anyway,” John tried again, “what’s the point in having you read it if I just have to read it, too?”

“I’ll tell you about it.”  Kaidan said it like a child explaining why blue crayons are best.  “Summarize the salient details and skip the endless tables chronicling how bad everything still is.”

“But...”  John struggled to explain why this was a bad idea.  “But…you don’t have to.”

“I don’t have to fight this war.”  Kaidan’s voice always dropped when he was feeling pushed to mulish.  “I don’t have to stay in the Alliance.  I could claim Spectre status, go back to Earth, look for my mom.  I could steal a ship and run, like God knows how many others are trying to do.”  John watched Kaidan’s chin drop that half an inch, knowing he was beat.  “I don’t have to do a lot of things, John, but here I am.”

John gave one last, half-hearted try.  “You really want to be part of the miserable book club?”

“Yeah, I really do.”  Having secured his victory, Kaidan grinned, chin back at its usual height.  “And now I have an excuse to talk to you.”

John laughed.  “We talk all the time.”

Kaidan snagged a datapad off his own stack.  “About light-hearted things, sure.  The food rations, your dislike of coffee, how much you love me.”  He looked at John, grin softening to a smile.  “Mission critical, to be sure.”

John returned the smile, feeling that familiar glow fill his chest.  All the darkness, the violence, the hope of survival fading a little more each day, and he still had this.  Still had someone who looked at him like that.  He took Kaidan’s hand, the one not holding the datapad, and brushed a kiss across the knuckles.  “I do love you.”  He turned the hand over, pressing a second kiss against the palm.  “Easy as breathing and sure as the sunrise.”

This time, Kaidan’s chin dipped in a vain attempt to hide his shy smile.  “You can’t just… say things like that.”

John looked up from under dark lashes, enjoying the flustered reaction, watching Kaidan flounder his way back to his original point.  “If you’re planning to stick around, Alenko,” he carefully folded the fingers into a fist, then covered Kaidan’s hand with his own, “you’ll have to get used to it.”

Kaidan fought the blush staining his cheeks, finally summoning a cocky grin.  “Yeah?  Is this how you’re planning to win all our arguments?”

“Do we argue?” John asked, light and unconcerned.

“Yes, we do.  You,” Kaidan nudged John’s knee with his own, “get a perverse kind of pleasure when I argue with you.  Especially about how to handle a mission or meeting with C-Sec.”

“Perverse?”  John knew he sounded reproachful.  The finger that had been tracing the veins in Kaidan’s wrist stopped.

“Sometimes, you come up with a plan that sounds ridiculous,” Kaidan explained, “or you’ll listen intently to some asshole who just wants to murder their way through a building because it’s the easiest way or the fastest.  Then, I start in about things like rules and ethics and acting with integrity.  You always look downright pleased.”  Kaidan looked slightly embarrassed.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you did it on purpose.”

Well, maybe sometimes.  “You’re not put off by my authority,” John said.  “You always try to do what’s right, and you expect the same of those around you, especially your superiors.  And you’re not afraid to speak up about it.  Even back when we were chasing Saren and I could have been anyone, you stood your ground.”

“And that does it for you?” Kaidan asked, voice soft with uncertainty.

John let the grin grow slowly, watching Kaidan falter as his tactic worked, just not as planned.  “Yeah, I guess it does.”  He leaned forward, kissing Kaidan gently, reveling in being able to do so after all their “almosts”.

Pulling back, John resumed tracing the veins in his captured wrist, blue eyes watching brown.  “I like your integrity, Alenko.”

His grin softened at the distracted expression on that face he adored.  “Uh-huh.”

With a deep sigh, John released Kaidan’s hand, pulling them back to the less pleasant task of war by attrition as he formally relented.  “You really think taking over some of my reports will still be effective, not just because I won’t be mired in soul-crushing statistics but because we’ll probably fight over how terrible the information really is?”

“…ideally.”  Kaidan shook his head, taking a deep breath as he refocused on why he’d taken all John’s datapads in the first place.  “They’ll be terrible either way, but you get stuck in that head of yours and then you start frowning.”

“Allers says I have the brow structure for it.”

“Yeah, but you’re cute when you smile.”

John stared.  “I am not cute.”

“Oh, you’re cute.”

John turned his attention to the stacks of reports in front of him, ignoring the man he loved.  “Just two categories?  You don’t want me dumping some of this on Garrus?”

“Garrus is busy panicking over how high up the Chain of Succession he might be,” Kaidan said, tone failing to hide the still victorious grin, “I think he’s got enough on his plate.”

“Fine.”  Powering up the first datapad, John scanned the heading.  “This one’s mine.”

Settling into the corner of the couch, Kaidan watched him until he’d sorted the entire set.  Relocating the dozen reports John had surrendered to the floor, and thus out of reach, Kaidan finally turned on the datapad he’d been toying with for the past ten minutes.  To look at him was to fail utterly at detecting any cunning or deceptive intent.

Picking up a datapad of his own, John tucked the childish annoyance and warm thoughts away.  Neither would help him focus on the information in front of him, and whether outsmarting the Reapers or sparring with Kaidan, he’d need every advantage he could get.

Chapter Text

The first time he’d woken up in John’s arms had been the morning after they’d lost Ash.  Swimming in guilt at his own survival, Kaidan had completely missed John’s own poor handling of the situation until he’d stumbled his way into the mess hall and found his CO at the table, an impressive number of empty bottles in front of him.  He’d looked up at Kaidan, eyes as unfocused as Kaidan had ever seen them, and tried to say something, words failing miserably.  Whether his own unhappiness or the booze, Commander John Shepard had been thoroughly incapable of communicating that night.

Kaidan had gotten his friend on his feet, pulling one arm across his shoulders so he could steer them successfully to John’s quarters.  He’d tried not to look at the other man as he’d moved them through the door and over to the bed, John collapsing onto it in mute silence.  The air of regret around him was cloying, and the only thing Kaidan could imagine worse than the choice John had had to make was thinking the man regretted it.

Hoping John wasn’t so plastered he couldn’t shuck his own boots, Kaidan had turned to go, only to be stopped by a hand grabbing his wrist.  He’d tried to explain to John that he was just going to bed, that it was OK, John should just sleep it off.  But the man wouldn’t let go, tugging mutely on Kaidan’s wrist until he got his way.  So Kaidan had crawled onto the bed, laying down so he and John were facing each other.  John had kept hold of his arm, watchful and silent.

And it had been too much.  The words had come pouring out: sadness from their miserable day, but happy memories, too, mixing together into the tapestry that was their lost friend.  All the things he’d miss, all the things he'd remember.  Eventually he’d broken down completely, sobbing at the unfairness of it all.  John had finally relinquished his wrist, wrapping his arms around Kaidan, tucking the biotic against his chest as Kaidan did what John could not.

When Kaidan had awoken the next morning, he’d laid there, feeling exhausted and miserable and comforted.  The grounding weight of the arms wrapped around him, the quiet sounds of John breathing, the steady heartbeat against his ear.  All little things that reminded him he wasn’t alone.  Neither of them had moved while they slept, which meant Kaidan was still pressed against his friend, his head tucked under John’s chin, John’s nose buried in Kaidan’s hair.

It had been so tempting to stay, half-aware as he dozed in his CO’s arms.  But John was more than that, had been for months, and getting up meant letting yesterday be real.  So, Kaidan had let his eyes drift closed, falling back asleep until the man in question gently shook him awake, hours later.

The same man who was sleeping next to him now, who did so almost every night.  Kaidan watched John’s chest rise and fall with even breaths, imagined he could hear the steady heart beating underneath it.  He studied John’s face, tracing the lines of worry that hadn’t been there four years ago, and hoped at least a few of them were from laughter instead.  The new shadows, courtesy of Tali’s window dressing, hid most of the bandages, making John’s face look almost normal in the limited light of the fish tank.  The tiniest sliver of orange light stood out on an uninjured part of John’s jaw, barely visible even in the dark.

It’d be a lie if he said he hadn’t been caught off guard by the glowing marks the first time he’d seen them.  They were a physical reminder that John hadn’t just...gotten better.  That a group they’d spent months fighting had done whatever they needed to to drag John back from what should have been certain death.  And while Kaidan would never say it, seeing those pictures during the court martial had shaken him.  They weren’t scars in the traditional sense, because scars showed where a wound had healed.  But they looked like scars, like someone had carved John up and put him back together.  And trying to wrap his head around the idea that feeling panic or fear or stress could cause John’s skin to pull itself back apart...

Sliding a hand out from under the blankets, Kaidan reached out to trace the bandage over John’s right eye.  It was small enough that it could be covering anything: a scrape or a bruise or some other mundane injury.  But instead, it was just the least successful of John’s attempts to remove his own skin.  Kaidan believed him when John said this wasn’t about hurting himself, or about...about doing something worse...but that didn’t stop the horrible memory of John’s face, pale as paper under all that blood, from living behind his eyelids.  The moment before he’d recognized Kaidan, the moment when Kaidan had thought he’d have to go through it all again because John wasn’t moving -

He gasped quietly in surprise as a hand covered his, gently pulling it away from where he’d been unconsciously pressing against the wound.  He hadn’t meant to wake John, the other having managed an almost peaceful sleep for the first time in weeks.  But John had always been a light sleeper.  He was watching Kaidan now, the whites of his eyes just catching the light.  Kaidan tried to smile, not sure if John could see the failed attempt in the dark.  “Hey.”

“Hey.”

Neither of them spoke above a whisper, the weight of something making the air heavy between them.  It wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t tense, either.  The quiet felt important, like they were on the edge of something and it would be so easy to step back.  Kaidan shifted his hand restlessly in John’s loose grip, unsure of what to say.

This time, though, John’s words didn’t fail him.

“You OK?” John asked, his thumb rubbing soothingly back and forth over Kaidan’s knuckles.

Kaidan snorted at the stupidity of the question.  “Not really, no.”  He exhaled slowly, trying not to stomp on the moment.  There were so few mornings they got to wake up like this, no alarms or pressing vid-calls.  It was early, the Normandy quiet as it only was when most of her crew was asleep, and no one needed them.  Even if there was a crisis, this time they might be left alone.

He curled his fingers over John’s, giving them a small squeeze.  “How were the nightmares?  You didn’t wake me.”

“Didn’t wake up,” John said.  “I remember...flashes.  Feelings.  But not like the ones I’ve been having recently.”  His thumb kept moving, slowly, back and forth.  “Nothing concrete or world-shattering.”

World-shattering.  Finding John like that had felt like everything was going to pieces, yet again.  The relief he’d felt, veined through the panic and confusion, when John had looked at him and said his name.  Kaidan swallowed, the wide blue eyes outlined in drying reddish-brown, mixing with the shadows from the dimmed lights and the exposed, almost purple of exposed muscle -

“What about you?” John’s voice interrupted the thought.  Kaidan could feel that studying gaze, the intent look that had analyzed and processed and understood so much.  “How did you sleep?

“Fine,” Kaidan mumbled, fooling neither of them.  “I slept fine.”

“You don’t sound fine.”  John’s hand tightening on his, reminding him he wasn’t alone.  “Is there something I can do?  Something you need?”

The words and feelings tangled up inside as John watched him, and it felt like his voice had stopped working.  He needed to know everything would be alright, that they’d get back to normal.  He needed to know John wouldn’t hide things anymore, suffering silently while his friends stood by in unhelpful ignorance.  He needed John to let himself be human, to let Kaidan be that soft place to land.  He needed John—

Inhaling sharply, Kaidan leaned forward and kissed him.  He could feel the excess warmth captured by covers, draped over him like an extra blanket.  The low hum of the Normandy, accented occasionally by bubbles from the fish tank brushing past his ears.  The soft, not quite sweet smell of John’s soap still lingering on the man’s skin.

But most importantly, he could feel John kiss him back.

Slowly, Kaidan kissed him again.  The firm press of lips against his own as their mouths moved against each other, finding the first steps in their dance.  Kaidan tilted his head, asking for more, and felt the tip of his nose brush against the bandage on John’s cheek.  He let out a soft sound, the source of his distress rearing its ugly head, and felt John release his hand.  Strong, sure fingers slid along Kaidan’s arm, sliding over muscles and a few scattered marks from old missions gone salvageably wrong, until the hand settled on his shoulder.  John pushed gently, rolling Kaidan onto his back as he pressed up on one elbow, leaning over to press small kisses to the corner of Kaidan’s mouth.  Sliding his hand around the back of John’s neck, Kaidan’s mouth found John’s once more.

It wouldn’t fix anything, wouldn’t make the hard days ahead easier, but it was normal.  It was easy and common and everyday, John pressed up against him, air ghosting across his cheek when they parted to catch their breath.

It had been such a pleasant thing to learn, how much John craved touch.  Brushing his hand against Kaidan’s when they passed each other during a shift, pulling him backward into a hug as soon as they got back to their cabin, pushing Kaidan up against the fish tank and kissing them both breathless every chance they got.

But the pace of the war had picked up yet again, the field reports and news stories a constant flood.  John had pulled into himself, pulled away from Kaidan as if his own waning optimism might infect the other.  It had started to feel like only in his sleep could John let himself reach out for help, for comfort.  And then this thing with his face...

Kaidan moaned as John’s hand slid along his side, long fingers tracing over his ribs before splaying out as John pressed his palm against Kaidan’s side, that firm touch sliding along until it reached Kaidan’s lower back.  John liked it slow, was good at slow - Kaidan had learned to use all that patience biotic training had drilled into him, taking John apart as the man writhed and whined beneath him.  This time, though, he was the one who needed it slow.  Strong hands and that patient touch to help hold them together, to keep the pieces from sliding out of place as they worked through what John had done.

But not gentle.  After two days of being reasonable and sensible, of being dependable and cautious and hopeful, of worrying about injured faces and upturned emotions, Kaidan didn’t want soft or sweet or careful.  He wanted what they’d had, the way they’d had it, even if it was just for a moment before they plunged back into stabilizing their crew, their own little war-torn family.

This was still new, but they’d been learning each other long enough for John to understand the stronger grip on his neck.  His fingers dug into Kaidan’s side as John’s hand moved back around, just enough pressure to make Kaidan’s breath stutter.  Catching the hem of his night shirt, John tugged it up just enough to press his open palm against sleep-warm skin.  Kaidan twitched, his other hand covering John’s as it pressed against him, as if pressure alone could calm his still rattling nerves.  Nipping at Kaidan’s bottom lip, John hummed in approval as his lips parted.  His hand held still, somehow both grounding and teasing at the same time, staying flat against Kaidan as he did his best to be utterly distracting.

Kaidan whined when John finally pulled back, adjusting his grip on John’s neck as he pushed up against John’s hand.  But John didn’t move.  His breathing was uneven, giving his words an almost hesitant quality.  “Kaidan?”

“Please.”

John flexed his hand, the sensation ticklish against sensitive skin.  “You sure you want this?”

Yes, he was sure.  He wanted normal.  He wanted trust.  He wanted to know John still wanted this, wanted him, because John didn’t know how to love if he couldn’t touch.  He’d hurt himself because he was in pain, but that insidious voice at the back of Kaidan’s mind couldn’t help itself, reminding him of all the times he’d doubted.  All the reasons he wasn’t good enough, loyal enough, wasn’t the right person for someone who couldn’t afford to wonder if the man at their side had their back.  “John, please.”

Leaning over him, the only real light source blocked by those wide shoulders, Kaidan couldn’t make out John’s expression.  But he must have seen something in Kaidan’s face, heard it in his harsh breathing, because he stole one soft, sweet kiss, understanding that soft and sweet wouldn’t help here but unable to help himself.  John could spend an hour loving him softly, with touches and words and that look in his eyes that made Kaidan melt.

But not now.

Mouth once again moving over Kaidan’s with that wonderful, firm pressure, John’s hand finally moved.  It slid lower, stopping long enough for John’s thumb to trace lazy circles around Kaidan’s navel, dipping teasingly inside once, twice, three times before Kaidan moaned loudly enough to earn the grin pressed against his own.  Continuing downward, again John stopped to tease, tracing along the top of Kaidan’s briefs, humming at Kaidan’s insistent whine, before finally - finally - slipping his hand inside.

Familiar, calloused fingers wrapped around his shaft.  Breaking the kiss, Kaidan tilted his head back, gasping out praise and pleas as John started to move.  The hand slid slowly over him, a light grip as John reached the tip, then twisting on his way back down.  Kaidan groaned as John pressed kisses down his neck, calloused fingers refinding places that made him buck and gasp.  Slow, so fucking slow.  God, John would keep it slow until Kaidan thought he’d burst, and that was fine so long as it wasn’t -

He jerked, hips thrusting into that warm, constant hand as John bit at the junction of neck and shoulder.  .

“John -”

John tongued the stinging spot, pressing kisses along the collar of Kaidan’s shirt until he found another place that suited him.  He bit and licked his way along to the other side of Kaidan’s neck, careful not to pinch the skin or change the rhythm of his hand.  Circuit complete, John leaned in and pressed a kiss against Kaidan’s ear.  “I love you.”

Kaidan tried to think, tried to say it back, but John had succeeded in pulling him out of his head, distracting him from thoughts helpful and harmful alike.  One idea did make it through, pushing its way into coherent as Kaidan panted against John’s once again eager mouth.  “John, wh...do you…”  He gasped, his head thrown back this time as John did something clever with his fingers.  Clumsily, Kaidan felt along with his hand until he found John’s leg, running it up the inside of one thigh.  “Should I…”

John pressed a kiss to the corner of his mouth.  “I’m good.”  He moved to press a kiss to Kaidan’s cheek.  “Just enjoy, love.  This one’s for you.”

The not-quite rough texture of a bandage brushed his cheek.  Just like that day on the SR1, they’d have to get up and face things eventually.  But here, in the half-dark, surrounded by night sounds and panted breaths and mumbled phrases, it wasn’t some big, world-shattering issue.  John had gotten hurt, so Chakwas had put a bandage over it, and with time and a little sense, it would heal.  They would heal.

Kaidan pulled air in through his nose as he pulled John’s mouth back to his.  He could hear the sounds he was making as John changed tactics, his hand moving a little faster, his grip a little stronger.  Kaidan knew the moans and gasps would become uneven, losing out to panted pleas for “more” or “faster” or “please, John”.  He was always talkative when he felt the warmth pool in his gut, the tightening of that coil that would release all at once.  In between kisses, the words had already started to slip through.

“John, just...God, you’re good.  Just like that...just like…”

Kaidan whimpered as John released him, pulling his hand free to toss back the covers.  He had a moment to wonder if John had missed the point of his near-mindless babbling when John pressed one last, hard kiss to Kaidan mouth before moving, settling himself between Kaidan’s legs.  The lighting was at its worst, all of it behind the man, but Kaidan could almost see the wicked grin.

“John?”

“Tell me to stop, and I will.”

Kaidan pushed himself up on his elbows, reaching out to trace the large bandage on John’s cheek.  “Will it hurt you?”

John caught his hand, pressing a kiss against his palm.  “No.  I’m good.”

He was pretty sure that was someone else’s call, but he ran the tips of his fingers over the edge of the bandage one more time.  “When you’re feeling better,” Kaidan said, his voice low and husky, “it’s my turn.”

John nipped at the fleshy part of his palm.  “Gonna make me wait?” he asked, the excitement of the moment mixing with anticipation.

“It’ll be worth it,” Kaidan said, his own voice uneven at the memory of John’s groans in his ear, nails dragging down his back as Kaidan pushed in, nice and slow.

The memory echoed between them, John groaning softly against Kaidan’s hand before letting it drop.  Kaidan was sure the grin was a slow one this time, all the patience and creativity of N7 training being refocused on something much more fun.  “It will, but first,” John hooked his fingers in Kaidan’s briefs, pulling them down his thighs until he was satisfied they were out of the way, “I get to finish with you.”

It was not the best choice of words, given that Kaidan seemed to be the only one losing control at the moment, but he was also rapidly losing the ability to care.  With a groan, Kaidan dropped back down onto the bed as John took him in his mouth, warm and wet replacing dry and rough.  John’s tongue, every bit as clever as his fingers, was going to make short work of what was already a done deal.  Kaidan threaded his fingers through his own hair, head tilted back and mouth open on a silent sound as John found his rhythm again, taking a bit more of Kaidan in with each round.

At this, John would always be better.  Kaidan could blow a guy, to be sure, but there was something about how John did it that was a little devastating.  Maybe he just enjoyed it more, exploring and learning with teeth and tongue and lips, one hand always moving over nearby territory, finding some new place to press or touch that added that something more.  The first time had been up against that stupid fish tank, and Kaidan hadn’t been entirely sure how the fish had remained so unperturbed.  When John had finished with him, Kaidan had sunk to the floor and sat there for a few minutes, rebooting his mind and then replaying the experience while John sat next to him, smiling contentedly at a job well done.

He groaned, hips thrusting in a shallow rhythm to match John’s own.  “Fuck, John, that’s...”

Another echo as the fish tank chose that moment to burble quietly, bubbles dancing up through the water as John swiped his tongue along the underside of Kaidan’s shaft from root to tip.  Letting go of his hair with one hand, Kaidan tapped John on the shoulder, a warning of how close he was in case the complete nonsense now escaping him didn’t properly convey things.  John took him in as far as he could, humming tunelessly as he did so, swallowing on instinct when Kaidan bumped the back of his throat.

With an inarticulate cry, Kaidan came.  He focused on the hand now pressing down on his hip, the warm wetness still around him as John worked him through wave after wave, tongue undulating slowly against him until Kaidan mumbled something that sounded like “stop” as the sensations tipped over from gloriously intense to overly sensitive.  John let him go gently, hands rubbing over Kaidan’s thighs as he watched Kaidan remember how to breathe.

He lay there, useless and content, while John tugged his briefs back into place and slid off the bed.  Kaidan listened to the patter of bare feet across the decking, the bathroom door hissing open before the sound of rushing water added to the Normandy’s ambient hum.  When he was younger, he’d wondered if he should be offended when someone brushed their teeth right after, but older and wiser and a few questionable location choices later, he’d realized it had nothing to do with him.  Really, as far as flavors a person might want to enjoy long term went, everything about a blow job wasn’t one of them.

Kaidan still hadn’t moved by the time John crawled back into bed.  He summoned the will to roll onto his side, curling into John’s warmth as the other man pulled the sheets back up over them, the recirculated air now feeling almost cool.  He smiled lazily as John laid back down, leaving them in the same place they’d started.  There was probably something poetic about that, but Kaidan was loath to think too hard just yet.  Instead, he shifted a few inches closer, brushing his nose against the arm John had pillowed under his head.  “Thanks.”

John laughed, soft and low.  “Anytime.”

Kaidan breathed a laugh of his own, watching John smile.  It pulled a little at the bandage on his cheek, one edge looking as if it might consider popping loose if John kept it up.  It hadn’t been a problem so far because John’s smile - the real, bright, face-changing one - hadn’t made an appearance in a while.  This wasn’t that smile, but it was bigger than his polite ones, the stronger emotions untamped by company or work.

Maybe the bandage had actually started to come loose.  John reached up, feeling the edge in question with the tip of one finger before slipping a nail underneath.  He pulled upward, the pseudo-fabric starting to release, and just like that, Kaidan’s vision went red.

His hand shot forward, grabbing John’s.  “Don’t!”

John froze, the bottom half of his face hidden behind their hands.  Blue eyes he couldn’t see clearly watched him, startled, but not unfocused from pain.

Breathing hard once again, but with none of the earlier pleasure, Kaidan blinked against the afterimage.  He couldn’t be like this, couldn’t panic over little things like John scratching his face or checking an injury.  It wouldn’t help anyone.  Certainly not John.

He let go of John’s hand, dropping his own back to the bed.  Kaidan closed his eyes, counting his breaths as he shoved the bloody face back into the recesses of his mind.  It was over.  John’s face was pieced back together, the bandages just covering the skin while it healed.  Even if John had pulled back the little beige square, there wouldn’t have been strips of skin hanging loose, red droplets clinging to the edge as they debated falling free or waiting to be smeared away by someone’s hand.

He was vaguely aware of John moving, the sheets rustling quietly.  He twitched as something touched his temple, fingers running gently through his hair.  John’s hand settled on the back of his head, just above his amp.

Kaidan had explained more than once that simply touching his amp wouldn’t hurt him, but John was still so careful, always asking first, always keeping his touch light.  It had been an act of trust, teaching John how he kept it clean - most biotics didn’t even let each other help, let alone someone who hadn’t been through what they had.  But he’d trusted John to be just as careful and dedicated and thoughtful as he was with everything.  And it was nice, not having to use a mirror to try and see the back of his own head every single day, staring at his own technological enhancement as he ran through the maintenance that meant he could toss people around like bean bags in the next fight.

“You didn’t really answer my question.”  John kept his voice gentle, unaccusing.  “How are you?”

Kaidan sighed, eyes still closed.  “I’ve been better.”  He bit his lip, fighting the hypocritical urge to keep everything inside.  “You really scared me.”

It was John’s turn to shift closer, using the hand on the back of Kaidan’s head to tuck him against John’s chest.  “I scared me, too.”

“Please don’t pick at your bandages,” Kaidan said, mouth pressed against John’s shoulder.  “Let Chakwas do it, for now.  Please.”

“You don’t trust me?” John asked, tone lightly teasing.

He did.  He always did.  But… “It looks too much like…”

He swallowed hard, but he knew John had caught his meaning.  His arms moved, gathering blankets and wrapping them around both of them before John hugged him close.  “I didn’t think.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Kaidan murmured, the warmth of sheets and skin mixing with the lingering buzz to make his eyelids heavy.  He hadn’t checked the time before they’d started, but surely no one would need them for a couple more hours.

Not that that would stop John.  Awake was awake, and Kaidan would fall for a morning person.

“John?”  The arms tightened around him for a moment.  “No reports...till you’re sure I’m asleep.”  He couldn’t ask John not to work, not to be Commander Shepard for the billions and trillions of people depending on him, but Kaidan could be selfish about the next few minutes.

“No reports,” John said into his hair, “until you wake back up.”

Kaidan frowned against John’s shoulder.  “You’ll fall behind, again.  And worry.”

John pressed a kiss against his hair.  “I’m always behind, and I always worry.  Look what it cost me.”  One hand played with the sleeve of Kaidan’s night shirt.  “You’re stuck with me this time, Alenko.”

This time.  Every time.  Kaidan draped his own arm over John’s waist, letting himself relax.

It was better than the first time - no dead friend to mourn.  And while they were both in pain, again, this time it was pain they could do something about, a problem they could work to solve.

Maybe, in another four years, Kaidan could wake up in John’s arms and they’d both just be happy.

Chapter Text

Diana tapped her stylus against her knee, staring at her wall of notes and story ideas without actually seeing it.  A week off, seven whole days of shore leave, and only 48 hours’ notice.  It was possible that Alliance Command didn’t want people to lose focus, distracted by the allure of fewer responsibilities, but usually the knowledge that a break was coming made teams work harder.  The cheerful light at the end of an embittered tunnel.

But not this time.  This time the news had been waiting for them at the top of First Shift, spreading like wildfire through the crew before Donnelly had managed to consume enough caffeine to keep both eyes open at the same time.  Completely unexpected, even by the officers.

Spinning slowly on her seat, Diana let her eyes drift from storage containers to personal items, still lost in thought.  What could have gone wrong on the Normandy that warranted pulling them from the front line?  It had been nearly a month since the lauded victory that was Rannoch, but there hadn’t been much obvious, marketable progress since then.  Just like Tuchanka, after which they had been called back to the Citadel, but that had been interrupted by Cerberus and its coup.  Two smashing victories for the Alliance and their growing alliance, but they weren’t likely to get that kind of lucky twice.  Which meant an issue with the ship, or within the ship.

Resting her chin on her fist, her elbow balanced on one knee, Diana switched to tapping the edge of her desk.

The Commander had been conspicuously absent for an entire day, almost two.  He’d been seen yesterday, briefly, but he hadn’t made his usual rounds.  It was unheard of.  She’d managed to pry a few tidbits out of Vakarian about a similar day off, back when the Normandy was still the SR1, but that was tied to the death of a crewmember and a friend.  There had been that Geth unit on Rannoch, but it had been a few weeks since that fight, and Diana wasn’t actually sure if it had been a friend or more of an ally.  So far, they hadn’t lost anyone from the current company, and considering the stunts this bunch pulled, the SR2 probably should have.  But here they were, a year into the war, and they were still flying with their original, if unconventional, crew.

A crew who was happy to think that Shepard was just sick - sick enough it required bedrest— but hey, the man needed sleep even worse than their pilot.

The tapping stopped, a detail slipping into focus as the memory of Joker in the MedBay flickered across her mind.  That was unusual enough, but of the few sightings she’d tracked of their elusive Commander, he’d also been in the MedBay.  Commander Shepard had been there, but not to visit a friend, because Joker had already left.  Which meant he was there for whatever was personally going on...but what?

Dropping her stylus in the cup she used for holding her writing implements, Diana stood.  She waved down her VI assistant, already whirring to life to float behind her right shoulder. “Not this time, buddy.”  It settled back on the crate she’d set up for its charging station, processors spinning down as the camera light faded out as she headed out into the hall.

Punching the call symbol for the elevator, Diana contemplated the door across from her own.  The biggest twist in the biggest story in 50,000 years, and she still wasn’t allowed to say anything.  It wasn’t like people didn’t know about Javik – his name and a few candid shots were all over the extranet.  But that he was legit and a member of the Normandy’s crew, that was supposedly Need To Know.

At least Dr. T’soni shared in her misery.  Their resident historian had finally succeeded in getting a few scraps of information about Prothean life out of their guest, but she couldn’t tell anyone.  Even if there’d been time to write an academic treatise, she wouldn’t be allowed to publish because her primary source wasn’t supposed to exist.

The elevator arrived, waited patiently for her to board, then hoisted Diana up one level to the Crew Deck.  She liked having her own space, and so much of it, but it seemed like the crew always forgot there was an Engineering Deck, skipping straight to the shuttle bay below.  Not that she could blame them – Vega and Cortez were a free floor show when the mood took them, bantering back and forth like an old Earth sitcom.

The elevator settled, doors hissing open as Sgt. Michaels strolled by.  The Crew Deck was her best source of context and gossip for her stories, but it also housed some of the people with the tightest lips.  Dr. T’soni would talk for hours about her old research projects, but was the reigning champ of deflection when broached on a subject she shouldn't discuss.  Dr. Chakwas had been a medical professional for so long, she probably wouldn’t break under indoctrination itself.  Diana would have been impressed if it wasn’t so frustrating.

So, no information from either of them.

There was, however, one solid source on this level that could, if handled properly, let a few things slip.  Never anything mission critical, but crumbs and hints about personalities were almost as important as solid facts when feeling out the beginnings of a story. 

Standing by the table, idly tracking the excited chitchat of planned days off, Diana studied the long hallway in front of her.  Casually, she waved her usual greeting to the Second Shift crew who was just waking up, and walked over, climbing the few steps and shooting her usual inquisitive glances at the sleeping pods she’d flatly refused to try as she walked by.

The door to the Main Battery opened, revealing her unexpectant host.

“Hiya, Garrus.”

The Turian spared her a look over his shoulder, tapping away at whatever it was he did in here.  “Ms. Allers, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Just making the rounds.”  She gave the room her usual once over.  Spare gun parts were scattered around the already assembled sniper rifle on the workbench.  A few dextro bars had been tucked behind a thermos of water - their resident Turian was infamous for making sure everyone stayed hydrated.  And of course, there was the omni-present scattering of datapads that were the hallmark of a ranking officer on the SR2.  “Haven’t been down your way in a while.”

“Your viewers expressing a sudden interest in the state of Palaven and her people?”

“More like wondering if you’re as cute out of your armor as you are in it.”  Diana smiled angelically as Garrus froze, those long talons hovering mid-forgotten command.  “You did ask.”

The silence stretched on a moment longer before their sniper got his feet back under him.  Cool as melting ice, Garrus tossed his response over his shoulder.  “I suppose if I’m getting such admiring questions, it’s safe to assume Shepard’s are that much worse.”

Diana pursed her lips as she wandered over to a crate and sat down.  “You don’t want to know about Shepard’s fan mail.”

“Ugly limericks from Kai Leng?” Garrus asked.  His mandibles twitched in amusement as Diana raised an eyebrow, impressed.  “I’m not really sure what a limerick is, but Joker says Kai Leng isn’t intelligent enough to write one worth reading.”

“I’m glad we’re taking our personal assassins seriously,” Diana said, dryly.

Garrus finished keying in whatever command she’d interrupted.  “Personally, I could do without the assassins.”  The console chirped in confirmation and Garrus turned to face her.  “I don’t suppose that’s why you came down here: to announce your secret plan for getting rid of Cerberus goons who specialize in old-fashioned Earth weapons?”

She’d had to check the footage three times before she believed this psycho was running around with a sword.  Not even a bioticly enhanced one; Kai Leng just stabbed people.  Rude.

Diana stretched her legs out in front of her, noting absently that she needed to redo the polish on her toenails.  “Actually, I’m hunting for information.”

“Oh, good.”  She could have cut that sarcasm with Kai Leng’s sword.  Garrus folded his arms and leaned back against his terminal, looking wary.

Not that she blamed him.  She’d wheedled and tricked more than a few names out of the Turian in the last year, along with shamelessly using him to confirm some of the news coming out of Palaven, since his sources would undoubtedly be more trustworthy than hers.  This had led to a somewhat strained relationship, where the sweet little sniper never quite trusted the big, scary reporter and her very good memory.  Though Diana thought by now she’d proved she wasn’t going to throw anyone on the Normandy in front of a hull breach.  She just enjoyed a bit of heckling, much like their aforementioned pilot.

Crossing her legs at the ankle, Diana leaned back on her hands so she could look up the two meters it took to find Garrus’ face.  “I got the approval to interview Shepard again the other day – just some follow up questions on Rannoch and a few attempts at digging Cerberus details out of him,” she had to give the Commander a few things he could shut down, “but he blew me off.”  She pouted, not sure if Garrus was familiar with the expression but willing to give it a shot.  “And now Major Alenko’s up and vanished, just when I needed him to be frustratingly vague about biotic stuff.”

“Biotic stuff?” Garrus asked, avoiding the point.

“Certain reports concerning Sanctuary suggest they’re targeting refugee groups with higher numbers of Batarians and human biotics,” Diana said.  “That’s a strange enough combination, but given that Husks and Cannibals make up the majority of Reaper forces on most planets, it raises the question once again of how Sanctuary has managed to go unattacked for so long.”  Rocking the supporting foot on its heel, Diana studied her sandals.  “However, Husks are not biotic in nature.  Which means, much like the joy that was discovering the Adjutants on Omega – which I am not allowed to report on.”  Diana made a face, downplaying as best she could the sound she’d made when she’d first opened the image attached to the declassified report left on her terminal.  “Creepy monsters with a sketchy press ban; thank you, Admiral Hackett.  But it is possible the Reapers are still developing monsters they can turn us all into.”  She looked back up at Garrus.  “Given his extensive personal experience with both topics, I thought Alenko would be a good place to start on why the Reapers might want his old classmates.”

“Or his students,” Garrus added, his tone disapproving.

Yes, she’d been a little crass there at the end, but that wary slant had left his shoulders, so it was her point in the end.

“Targeted harvesting is one of the things I keep an eye out for,” Diana said.  “Both for my reporting and because even the non-combatant reporter wants to be useful while she’s on this ship.  I tell Shepard whatever I find that I think will be helpful, which is quite a bit less than some of us can do,” she raised her eyebrows at Garrus, who didn’t respond, “but it’s what I’ve got.”  She sighed.  “Since the target might be biotics, I thought I’d ask a biotic.  But it seems to be mostly humans, so asking Liara…will look bad on camera.”

“Why is the Second Human Spectre, an L2 himself, not personally looking into the targeted massacre of his own kind?” Garrus supplied.

“Especially if they can pander to the idea that biotics are sub-human,” Diana agreed.  “I was really hoping we were past that bit of prejudice, but war brings out the best in all of us.”

“Do you think they’re sub-human?” Garrus asked.  He was tapping a part of his armor, a spot low on his shoulder she’d seen other Turians favor when she was about to say something she shouldn’t.

“No.”  Diana looked to her left at the blinking map of Palaven that took up most of the far wall.  “But not every news outlet has the same ‘opinion’ as me.  Some of them are still mad that we joined up with the Council and the rest of Citadel space.”

She waited, letting Garrus study her.  She didn’t think much about biotics, one way or the other.  They were another classification of soldier, in her experience.  It was like discussing grenadiers or pilots or snipers.  The glowing and telekinesis was a little more…specialized, but honestly, they were as human as anyone she’d ever met.  More human than some.

“Shepard’s on medical leave for a few days.”

Diana snapped back to Garrus, her expression shocked.  She’d made that joke to Traynor in the elevator the other day, but it had only been a joke.  “Why?”

Her reporter’s brain winced at the bluntness, but Turians didn’t usually like games, anyway.  Garrus seemed to approve of the involuntary outburst.  “He needs the rest.”

Diana squinted at him.  “We all need rest.  We’ve needed it for months.”

Garrus shrugged.  “I guess it’s Shepard's turn for the night off.”

“Shepard doesn’t do ‘nights off’.”

Diana went back to studying the map of Palaven.  She’d had to study basic geography for each Council world and most of the homeworlds of the species when she’d taken an off-Earth job.  Being far more concerned with remembering politicians and generals, she’d never put much effort into remembering the names of the continents and their capitals.  She had no idea which part of Garrus’ world had been destroyed by whatever the circles on the bottom left of the screen meant, but it looked like a lot of dead.

She took longer than she’d meant to, and when she turned back to Garrus, Diana found him watching her much like she’d been watching the map.  A little confused and definitely worried, but also frustrated.  Like he wanted to help and didn’t know how.

Diana gave him a smile.  “I know I don’t have clearance for half of what goes on with this ship, and a person’s private life is their own business.”  She uncrossed her ankles, bending her knees as she pulled her feet back to bump against the side of the crate.  “It started as a joke, the idea that Shepard had finally started treating me like most commanders do, but I haven’t seen the man in days.  Most of the crew hasn’t.”  She bit her lip.  “Can you tell me— off the record— is the Commander OK?”

Garrus shifted uncomfortably.  He was her best chance at getting any real information, but he was also a good soldier and Shepard’s friend.  He wasn’t going to just tell her what happened, because that would hurt both privately and professionally, and everyone on the Normandy was better than that.  But she wanted to know, and if something had happened to Shepard, then professionally she needed to know.  It could do a lot of damage if she accidentally reported something that undermined the Alliance and their work.

“We’ve been pushing really hard,” Garrus said, after several long minutes.  “It’s gotten to a point where even the most hardheaded of us needs a little time.”  He gave her an encouraging tilt of the head.  “Shepard isn’t avoiding you; he wouldn’t do that.  He’d tell you straight out to go away.”

That was true, and one of the things Diana liked about serving on the Normandy.  “But I’m not gonna get that interview for a while, am I?”

Garrus looked away from her, focusing on the door, or more likely something beyond it.  “I don’t think you’ll be able to talk to Shepard professionally until after shore leave.”

It was pushing, but it was the logical follow-up.  “Or Major Alenko?”

Garrus kept his attention on the door and said nothing.

If she’d been the petty, unscrupulous sort, the story of two such powerful, influential, and well-connected people, who had been at the heart of what was once considered a major conspiracy, being in what amounted to a secret relationship, would have made her career.  It was one of the reasons she’d joined BattleSpace – they might be considered a little hokey, but she didn’t have a boss who wanted details on anyone’s private life.  Even if she’d had that kind of boss, it would take a soulless brat to drag Shepard and Alenko through the mud.

She remembered, when she’d been very young, her grandparents looking at each other like that.  They hadn’t had military regs in their way; they were just private people, who couldn’t keep all that affection locked away in the privacy of their own home.  If Shepard had decided – or more likely been forced – to take some downtime, she was sure at least some of it involved uncensored smiles and messing up Alenko’s hair.

Of course, if Alenko was taking the same amount of time off, instead of covering for his commanding officer, that didn’t sound like the professional battle couple she knew.  That sounded like something bad had happened, something that would warrant the Chief Medical Officer ordering her CO to limit his activity and crew interaction.  Something like the sort of morale-dampening rumor she wouldn’t want anywhere near her show.

Maybe the wear-and-tear wasn’t physical.  Maybe Shepard was starting to crack, the unbearable pressure of all this finally getting to him.  It had taken a year, if she only counted the war and none of the bullshit that had come before, and that was no mean feat.  But even Commander Shepard couldn’t do this forever.  Everyone needed a break, or else they would break.

Pushing up off the crate, Diana gave Garrus her most serious look.  “Off the record, big guy.  I want what’s best for the whole damn galaxy, but I also want our boss to be OK when this war is all over.  Just because the media and the political machines like to chew people up and spit them out when it’s all over, doesn’t mean I want to help.  So, whatever I hear about Shepard’s current…time off…none of it goes in my stories.”  She made a cutting motion with her hand, hoping it meant the same in Turian that it did on Earth.  “Strictly business.”

Garrus looked at her out of the corner of one bright eye, wary but not hostile.  “Strictly business.”

Diana nodded, leaning into the formality of the situation.  Then she brightened and looked around.  “So, this is where you calibrate all the things?”  She gave him another cheeky wink.  “I’d better let you get back to it.”

Turians couldn’t roll their eyes, but she got the feeling Garrus was trying.

She waved as she left, mind turning over the new bits of information.  It sounded like “sick” was really “struggling”, and while it wasn’t unexpected, it wasn’t good news.  What was good news was how quickly it seemed the Commander’s people had done something about it.  It occurred to her, as she walked back through the cafeteria, that Sam had seemed just a little frazzled yesterday, as if there had suddenly been more work for her to do.  Or maybe that was just her ongoing personal war with their pilot over his eating habits.

Allers gave an automatic, inarticulate greeting as she passed Vega and Cortez on her way to the elevator.  Unusual to see either lieutenant on this Deck outside of mealtimes, but she was pretty sure they didn’t actually live in the shuttle bay, regardless of Corporal Vale’s reports.

Whatever it was, she wasn’t going to get specifics this time.  She didn’t necessarily need them, though, just the shape of the thing so she knew how to react.  Just enough actionable intel to know what she could do to further her own efforts to help win this war.

There was a skeevy bar down on Kithoi Ward where reporters liked to brag after a few drinks.  Diana tipped the bartender well to water hers down, increasing the odds of her remembering the gossip when she made it home and not spilling any secrets of her own.  Maybe she could pick up a few useful tips from another sector, or updated information on refugees being moved out of the Docks.  Something to leave on the Commander’s terminal when they got back next week.

Cards stamped with “Get Well Soon” never said the right thing anyway.


Chakwas looked up as he walked in, her usual mellow smile already in place.  “Hello, Lieutenant.”

“Hey, Doc.”  James waved, the automatic movement a little awkward.  He’d headed up to the MedBay pretty abruptly, accompanying Steve on an apparent whim when his friend announced he needed more coffee if he was going to make it till lunch.  “How’s your day?”

“Fine, so far.”  Chakwas set down her datapad as she stood up.  “Is everything alright?  I’m not supposed to see you for another couple of days.”  Her smile turned knowing.  “You’re not trying to squeeze in your check-up before shore leave, are you?  Because it won’t help - you’ll just be back in here once we return to duty.”

“Nah, I wouldn’t try to pull that on you.”  James jammed his hands in his pockets.  He’d learned ages ago that trick didn’t work, but he wouldn’t have tried it on this doctor even if it did.  The whole crew had this respect for Dr. Chakwas that really had nothing to do with her medical degree.  “I just came by to talk.”

“Talk?”  Chakwas crossed her arms and leaned against her desk.  “About what?”

“About Loco.”  James caught himself, and corrected.  “I mean, about the Commander.”

As if he’d heard, Shepard appeared on the other side of the MedBay windows, following along behind a half-asleep looking Kaidan.  Steve looked up from the coffee machine, mouthing some kind of greeting as he gestured at the container of dark grounds in front of him.  James frowned at what looked like a bandage on Shepard’s jaw.

“You know very well I can’t talk about other people’s files.”  That stern teacher voice, like he was being intentionally dumb, interuppted his staring.

James tugged his hands from his pockets, holding them up placatingly as he turned back to the Doc.  “I’m not here to ask about that.”  Man, this was the hard part, even knowing Chakwas would be cool about admitting such a thing.  “I actually...I’m worried about me.”

Chakwas raised an eyebrow, still skeptical.  “You want to talk about Shepard, because you’re worried about you?”

James sighed, his hands dropping to his sides as he started to pace.  He caught a glimpse of blue as Liara emerged from her room, joining the trio in what was probably about to be a spirited pro-coffee/anti-coffee debate.  “I guarded that man for six months, Doc.  Six months straight; no part time job to distract me in the afternoons.  It took a while, yeah, but it was still a lot of time.  A lot of friendly chats, once I decided the lawyers were whacked and Loco - the Commander - couldn’t possibly be a traitor.”  He laughed, self-effacing.  “Or I was a really bad judge of character, trading quips with a complete stranger like he wasn’t locked away for a reason.”

“You’re not a bad judge of character,” Chakwas said, “and please, call him Loco.”  When James stopped to look at her, she gestured at the path he was threatening to wear in the deck plating.  “You’ll just have to keep interrupting yourself to correct the title, and Shepard doesn’t mind the nickname.  I certainly don’t.”

Loco didn’t mind.  James had even asked once, on the way back from a mission.  Wouldn’t have been the first time a CO decided he was being too cavalier.  But not Loco - he’d just grinned and asked why EDI didn’t get a nickname.

Nodding in return, James went back to his pacing, slower this time, trying to match the pace of his feet to the speed of his thoughts.  “I’ve never misread somebody so bad that I failed to notice they were a bald-faced liar, you know?  So, I figured Loco must be telling the truth about his stories.  About his friends and his life.  And I told him stuff I probably shouldn’t have.  I didn’t touch on my Alliance days, because of the court martial, but I told him about where I grew up, how I tend to get in trouble when I go out drinking on weekday nights, all about my Tía María’s perfect chocolate cakes.”  Every time he’d gotten into a fight at school, even when he’d convinced the vice principal to stop calling home at lunch.  She just always...knew.

That had actually been the hardest part of guard duty - not telling the prisoner details of his life.  There had been a point, after James decided Loco couldn’t possibly be all the things he’d been accused of, that James had started avoiding the guy, limiting how much time he actually spent interacting with him.  But that had been weird, and almost gotten him written up for abandoning his post, so he’d just had to learn to watch what he said.  He’d managed to keep the story about his old CO a secret, anyway, and the all the times someone had dropped by to ask about the Commander, concerned or frustrated or spoiling for a fight in defense of his honor.

“Since Loco got released from house arrest, I’ve been on his crew,” James continued.  “Fighting by his side, complaining about the rations, learning how to beat him at Poker.  The works.”  He stopped pacing, facing Chakwas again.  “How did I not know my CO was losing it, Doc?  How can you serve with a guy this long, in such close quarters, and not see any kind of warning sign?”

“Shepard hasn’t lost anything,” Chakwas said, fiercely.  Those grey eyes bored into him, backing his nerves into a corner until he felt himself start to relax.  “Your Commander is just as capable as he’s ever been.”

Damn, scuttlebutt wasn’t wrong about their Doc.  Outside, James caught Liara gesturing about something, what looked to be a box of tea held safely out of reach of someone.

With a sigh, Chakwas added, voice back to its usual level tone, “Shepard did have a rough patch a couple of days ago.  He’s working through it, but it might take some time.”

“But that’s my point,” James said.  “That shouldn’t have happened.”

“You don’t think your commanding officer should have bad days?” Chakwas asked, lightly.

“Of course, he should,” James said, “but it shouldn’t have come to that.  We shouldn’t have let it come to that.”  He paced a few steps, gesturing helplessly at the air.  “Scars said - well, not said, but Esteban’s clever - he said Loco really did something not good, and how did we not notice him getting there, Doc?”

“You’re feeling guilty.”  It wasn’t a question.  “You think this is somehow your fault.”

He’d brushed Steve off when he’d tried to say it, but that was just because James didn’t like losing his temper in front of his friend.  “No!  Yes.”  He stopped, planting both feet as if he could ground the emotions through action alone.  “Maybe.”

Chakwas pushed off her desk, arms still crossed as she studied him.  “How do you figure this to be your fault, James?”

“Because he’s my boss,” James said.  “Because I see Loco almost every day.  Because I talk to him and I laugh with him and, yeah, I missed the thing with the Major, but I didn’t think I was this absent-minded!”

“You didn’t know about Kaidan?”  Chakwas sounded genuinely surprised.

James scowled, shoving one hand back in a pocket.  “I thought they were just friends.”

“They are friends,” Chakwas said.

His scowl deepened at that affectionate smile.  “Could just one person on this ship make fun of me for not noticing?  That’s kind of a big life change.  You’re all so damn accepting...”

He looked back out at the little quartet.  Now that he knew, it was painfully obvious.  How close they were standing, how Shepard just reached through Kaidan’s space to grab the sugar for him.  The small, unconscious way Kaidan leaned into Loco when the man whispered something that made them both grin.

He wondered if it bothered Steve.  He didn’t talk about Robert much, but James knew how happy they’d been.  How they’d probably helped each other make coffee in the morning, whispering silly things to make the other person smile.

He pulled his attention back inside the MedBay, focusing on the Doc.  Chakwas looked like she was debating something, that big brain and kind heart searching him for...something.  Finally, she spoke.  “Would it help you to know that it wasn’t such a big change?”

Confused, James blurted the first thing that came to mind.  “What?”

“I can’t imagine you like being reminded,” Chakwas said, “but you weren’t on the SR1.  You weren’t there when that particular friendship started.”  She smiled fondly at the memory and gestured to the men outside the MedBay window.  “It’s really not a surprise to anyone who was there.”

“Esteban knew,” James said, feeling abruptly peevish.

“I believe you called Lt. Cortez ‘clever’ not too long ago.”

Yeah, well.

“Yeah, well.”  James ran his tongue over his teeth, steering the conversation back to the reason for his visit.  “It still doesn’t explain how I never noticed Loco was hurting like that.  I mean, a man doesn’t just...just snap, you know?  What Scars didn’t actually say he did…”  James looked around as if the medical equipment might have the answers.  “You get pushed to that.  You don’t just end up there.”

Chakwas had an odd look on her face.  “What Garrus didn’t actually say?”

He shrugged.  “I did call Esteban clever.”

Chakwas nodded once, that look still on her face.  “Ah.”

James looked at her, the doctor they all trusted with their lives.  The woman who was wise because of education, because of experience, because she’d known these people long enough to know them well.  The one person on this ship everyone trusted to understand.  “If I missed it once, Doc, how do I know I won’t miss it, again?”

“You are not the only person on this crew asking yourself that,” Chakwas said, gently.  “And if I had an easy answer, I would share it.”

“But you don’t,” James said, his tone dipping to expected disappointment.  He sighed.  He still felt better than before he’d dropped by.  “It’s never easy with emotions.”  He scuffed a boot across the floor, hearing his abuela shouting about ruining her new floors.  “I guess if I’m feeling bad, I’m still probably not feeling the worst.”

“Why wouldn't you feel the worst?” Chakwas asked.

“I wasn’t on the SR1.  I haven’t known Loco as long.”  It might be crossing a line, but this whole mess had come from trying too hard to care about how others felt all the time.  “And I’m not the one he...loves.”

He watched the hammer hit the nail as that mask of professionalism slipped, just a hair.

Man, this was gonna be a shitty shore leave.

It was her turn to watch the little group in the kitchen: Loco, with his arms crossed, quietly observing the heated debate between Liara and Steve.  Kaidan, leaning back against the counter next to Shepard, eyes closed as he focused on the caffeine working its way through his system.  If it weren’t for the bandage on Loco’s cheek, James would think Garrus was blowing things out of proportion.  In this day and age, though, anything that MediGel couldn’t immediately fix...

Chakwas licked her lips; an ordinary gesture, but he’d never seen her do it.  “There is more than one person hurting from all this.  You’re not the only one feeling guilty.”

It took a moment, but he got there.  The psych evals.  The ones they all had to pass to go out on missions.  The ones the Doc signed off on personally.  “It ain’t your fault, Doc.”

“I know,” Chakwas said, “but it feels like it at the moment.”

James nodded, slowly, testing the words as he said them.  “I guess...we’ll all have to learn from this.  Figure out what we missed.  Make sure nobody else is getting close to that edge.  And learn to be OK...with what we didn’t see this time.”

“It would be a good thing, if this didn’t happen again,” Chakwas agreed, softly.

James nodded again, firmly this time.  “Thanks for the chat, Doc.”

“I’m always here, Lieutenant.”

He walked back out of the MedBay, feeling if not lighter, than at least better.  The problem was still there, and he still didn’t have a solution.  But he didn’t feel so damn alone, either.  They’d all missed it, and if Chakwas could admit the damage like that, to herself, then he must not be the first to vent his frustrations.

Feeling less volcanic, he waved at Steve as he walked toward the elevator.  His friend had mentioned needing to talk to someone while they were up here, so there wasn’t much point in waiting around.  James had promised to teach Saijin how to work around the newest mod restrictions on the AT-12 Raider.  He could check in with Steve about things later.

It wasn’t like Steve didn’t know where to find him if something came up.

Chapter Text

Last time, there hadn’t been much of a mess to clean up.  Last time, it had been emotions and shouting, but there was no evidence when it was all done, no physical marks to explain away.  Last time, she’d hovered for days, weeks, her snappishness dismissed as another of her anti-Cerberus moods.

Last time.

It wasn’t supposed to be “last time”; it was supposed to be “once”.  It was supposed to be “confused”, supposed to be “lost” or “frightened” or “desperate”.  It was supposed to be “still needed convincing”.  It was supposed to be—

Tali shut off the thought like she would a seal on her suit, stopping the infection before it could  spread too far.  It had been three days now, since Shepard had hurt himself again.  She’d seen the man yesterday, when she’d all but thrown him out of his own quarters so she could rebuild her window covering.

She’s been quite pleased with the previous version, but there were a few improvements that could have been made.  Simplifications that she took the chance to utilize this time around.  A more clever way to solve certain problems.

She stood in front of the large window, waiting for Shepard to arrive.  His response last night had been brief, but not brusque.  No reason to think this couldn’t be just another emotional chat about the rough parts of life.  His life, though.  This time, she would insist they talk about him, no matter which of his well-meaning instincts tried to steer the conversation toward her own problems.

Watching the stars outside the Port Lounge, she thought they didn’t look as bright as they did from some of the other windows on the Normandy.  It didn’t help that they were moving.  Joker was flying them through a Relay System, but it would still be another few hours before they made the Jump.  Still most of two days before they made it back to the Citadel, where the war was manifesting in its own, unique way.  Driving Joker personally crazy when he walked around, sarcastic with frustration at how so many people could just go about their daily lives.

The closest Tali had seen to such a look on Shepard’s face was when he’d asked about their attack on the Geth.  The entire Admiralty Board on his ship, and Shepard still hadn’t quite believed their “horrendous timing”.  She’d been momentarily insulted at the relief in his face when she’d told him she’d been against launching the attack.  Not the idea of it, maybe, but the timing, absolutely.  Not that the other Admirals had listened to her, resident Geth expert or not.

Kaidan had told her once that sometimes, it doesn’t matter if you were listened to, it mattered that you spoke up.  She had tried to remember those words the day the Quarians went to war, watching their initial success turn to devastating losses.  She had tried to believe anyone would care that the vote had not been unanimous if this proved to be her people’s last stand.

But Shepard cared.  Her friends cared.  Tali was sure even Admiral Xen cared, deep inside, where no one could see what she probably considered a sign of personal weakness.  The woman was odd and unemotional, and yet she held such passion for certain things.  It was a dangerous combination, paired with the wrong personality.

Turning away from the large, dark window, Tali looked around the familiar room.  The poker table was new, but well-used at this point.  The entertainment pod - the strange looking chair with the white helmet - blinked its usual screensaver display of colored lights.  Next to it, the fully stocked bar— an extravagance the Alliance really shouldn’t be able to afford— waited for the next time someone decided alcohol was the solution.

This whole room really begged the question of what sort of missions Admiral Anderson expected to be running.  Especially since the space for important meetings had neither a door nor chairs.

Tali finished her inspection of the room as the door hissed open.  Shepard strode in, the same way he walked into every room, no matter who or what was in it.  Confident and collected and unafraid of the unexpected.  If it weren’t for the bandages still on his face, it would have been hard to know anything bad had happened.

She studied his face, her helmet’s scanners relaying details in the periphery of her vision like it always did, and thought there was one other clue that something had happened.  She didn’t need the various symbols on the inside of her face plate to tell her that Shepard looked like he’d finally gotten enough sleep.  The dark smudges under his eyes were less pronounced, the frown lines less like slashes across his brow.  Shepard had never had the bounce in his step Joker accused Tail of having when she was in a good mood, but there was something about how Shepard was standing, even on the precipice of what might be the most unpleasant conversation they’d had to date, that seemed more...relaxed.  Unhurried.  Almost...comfortable.

“Tali,” that friendly show of teeth to match the approachable tone in his voice, “you wanted to talk?”

Tali looked at him, focusing on eyes that looked violet through her face plate.  “Yes.  I thought,” she hesitated, the anger and frustration and hurt she’d built up abandoning her in the face of that steady, understanding gaze, “I thought it would be a good idea.”

“Given what happened,” Shepard finished, his friendly voice shifting, a hint of wariness flickering at the edges.  He looked around the room, taking in the same furniture and decorating taste that she had been studying moments before.  “To be honest, I was expecting our chat to be sooner.”

“Sooner?”

Shepard nodded.  “I appreciate not being set upon in my room, again, but…”  He looked back at her, still with that practiced calm.  “I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

She could feel the anger now, but like it was trapped behind one of the Normandy’s reinforced windows: visible, but inaccessible.  “You thought I would come upstairs and shout at you, like Joker did?”

“And Liara.”

“I...didn’t expect that from her,” Tali said, truthfully.  Liara had shouted?  How badly had her talk with Garrus gone?  When had he even had time to pin the Shadow Broker down and give her the miserable news?

Shepard shrugged, looking unbothered.  “It wasn’t all shouting, for either of them, but they needed to vent and it happened to be louder than usual.”  He gave her that look, somewhere between embarrassed and stubborn.  “I can’t really blame them.”

That did it; the anger slithered through the sudden crack in her wall, heating her words as the memory of Chakwas’ forced calm flashed through her mind.  “No,” Tali snapped, “you can’t.”

She planted both legs into the decking, hips width apart, like she’d seen Shepard do when he had to dress down a younger crewmember.  Crossing her arms, knowing he couldn’t see it but somehow would, she glowered at him.  “You said it was a one time thing, Shepard.  You promised me you wouldn’t do this again, that you wouldn’t need to.  And instead, you went and did something worse!”  Tali threw her hands up in frustration, not sure if she was more annoyed at him for doing it or herself for believing him when he’d said he wouldn't.  “When I said not again , I didn’t mean pick a different method .”

“Tali, I meant what I said,” Shepard began.  “I didn’t -”

“But you did!”  Tali jabbed a finger in his direction, refusing to back down.  “You hid things from us, pretended like you were alright when you were in pain.  You didn’t talk to anyone.  You deflected Garrus, you lied to Chakwas—”

“I never lied to anyone,” Shepard snapped.  The rare show of anger knocked Tali out of her own spiraling ire.  “I never lied to a single person on this ship.”

“But you didn’t tell us you were hurting, either,” Tali said, stubborn concern keeping her voice level.

“No…” Shepard conceded, the heat in his words dying as fast as a flare.  “No, I didn’t.”

“Not the doctor, who looks after us,” Tali said, softening her tone but unable to keep it from being accusing.  “Not Garrus, who’s been here every step of the way.  Not me or Liara.  You didn’t call Jack, and you know she would have answered, no matter how many Husks there were.”  The words slipped out before she could stop them.  “You worked so hard to convince Kaidan you were real; can you imagine how much it must have hurt him to think he’d lost you, again?”

Shepard recoiled at those words, one hand coming up as if to block a blow.  Softly, breathing his reply, Shepard said, “that’s not fair, Tali.”

Tali crossed her arms again, this time hugging herself as things like sad and confused and afraid crowded in.  “This is the only family I have left,” she said, much quieter than she’d intended.  “I know what you mean to me, and I have a pretty good idea what you mean to our friends.”

Garrus, who needed that steady hand to keep him from losing hope against all the bad things in the world he couldn’t fix.  Liara, whose whole life had changed because of Shepard’s actions, who had changed her whole life instead of letting the Universe cast her as a helpless victim.  Joker, who’d lost all but the vaguest outline of what he loved; his personality, his moral code, his defiance lost to the vacuum with what was left from the SR1.  Kaidan, who’d almost had something special four years ago, but instead had to mourn alone as everyone who’d survived Alchera was scattered to the winds.

And her, Tali’Zorah vas Normandy, who’d taken his ship’s name , who had tied herself to Shepard in a show of faith and honor and love that maybe a non-Quarian couldn’t understand, but every single one of her people did.

“I know what you mean to us,” Tali repeated, “and so I know what you doing this means.”

And just like always— just like always — somehow, he understood.  “Is that why you didn’t want to tell anyone?”  Quiet, steady, worried about her.

“Last time, I didn’t want to tell anyone because we were stuck in a Cerberus plot and I didn’t know who to trust,” Tali said, a little viciously, though the effect was somewhat ruined by the sniff at the end.  Forcing herself to take a deep breath, Tali stood up straighter, though she kept her arms wrapped around herself all the same.  “I knew who I trusted, and who you did, but everything was tied back to The Illusive Man somehow, and him, neither of us could trust.”

“You were worried he’d do something to me?” Shepard asked.

“You didn’t appear to have a control chip,” Tali said, “but he might have decided you needed one.  Or a different crew.  Or some kind of...anti-therapy, to make you hard and mean and unbreakable.”

“Love makes a person unbreakable,” Shepard said.  “The Illusive Man knows that.  It’s why he used you the way he did.”

Tali frowned.  “I worked for you.”

“When I first woke up,” Shepard explained, “I asked about my old crew.  A mission as important as The Collectors - I wanted the best.”  He smiled, the look somewhat diminished by the bandage wrinkling on his cheek.  “The Illusive Man was very concerned about which of my old contacts I had access to.  When and where I might run into any of you.”

“You think he wanted me on your team to make you trust him,” Tali said, dubiously.  That sounded like the head of Cerberus, but she didn’t think he’d have the patience for her attitude.

“He most certainly did not,” Shepard said, laughing a little on the last word.  “You bullied your way onto that ship, whether you meant to or not.”  Shepard’s mouth twisted into a thoughtful frown.  “Or maybe it was Garrus’ doing.  But no,” the smile was back, “The Illusive Man did not want you on that crew.”

Tali felt herself puff up a little at the accusation.  There weren’t many people who could say they’d bullied The Illusive Man, let alone forced his hand.  If a sweet little girl like herself could push him around, who knew how tough the supposed brilliant head of a galactic terrorist network really was?  “Well, you needed me.”

Shepard favored her with a fond expression.  “Yes, I did.”

Uncrossing her arms, Tali settled her hands back on her hips.  “Then why did you cut up your face?”  Having vented a few of her own boiling emotions, reason started to pick away at what had been too sensitive the last few days.  “Is it because Jack’s not here?”

Shepard snorted.  “You know, that woman’s been mentioned a lot this week.”  It was his turn to cross his arms.  “I’m starting to think Kaidan’s not the only one I’m being accused of playing favorites with.”

“You spent a lot of time down in her cave,” Tali said.  “After that mess with the Batarian Relay, I wasn’t sure you’d come back out.”

Those broad shoulders tensed at the mention of the Alpha Relay; all those lives no one could have saved.  “There are some things,” Shepard said, quietly, “even N7s aren’t trained to handle.”

“But you did handle things” Tali pressed.  “That, the suicide mission, Horizon.”  She hadn’t been there, but she’d heard about it from Garrus and a few of the others.  “You even endured all the mind games Cerberus has been playing about how you came back and,” dangerous ground, please don’t make things worse, “and if you’re really you.”

“I’m me, Tali.”  Shepard sighed, a heavy, soul-weary sound.  “I think I just have to live with the occasional moment of doubt, but I’m really me.”

“Then why ,” Tali asked, a little of the fire back in her voice, “did you hurt yourself this time?  If you believe in yourself—”  She stopped, caught off guard by the childish, peppy phrase.

She opened her mouth to speak, but paused again at the sound.  Looking up, she saw Shepard had a hand clapped over his mouth that utterly failed to hide his amusement.  The short, staccato sound of a muffled laugh escaped confinement once again, Shepard’s chest shaking as he tried not to give in.

Caught between embarrassed and annoyed, Tali scoffed.  “Oh, go ahead and laugh.”

And he did.  Peals of laughter that probably said more about how miserable the last year had been than it did about the silly little phrase.  Clutching his sides, Shepard bent at the waist, laughing like she hadn’t seen since Ash and Wrex had lost their bet and had to convince Pressly that kale leaves looked the way they did because they were originally Tuchankan in origin.  Shepard hadn’t known about any of it and had wandered, completely unaware, into a surprisingly passionate debate about salad one evening.  The number of crewmembers who’d sided with Pressly sincerely, certain their XO knew what he was talking about, had almost broken him, but it was Ash’s wicked little grin and Kaidan’s sudden fascination with his coffee cup as Wrex stomped out of the room that had proven too much.

Pressly had been a good qel’vesh about it in the end, but he’d nursed his wounded pride for a few days.  He’d also never quite trusted either Ash or Wrex, again.

Pushing against one knee as he straightened back up, Shepard grabbed the injured side of his face as he winced, still chuckling around the “ow”.

“See what happens when you talk to your friends,” Tali said, pumping her voice full of Liara’s favorite lecturing tone.  “We say stupid things and you get to laugh at us.”

Shepard’s smile was smaller now, but she thought it was because of his wounds and not his feelings.  “My mistake.”

This was good.  Garrus had been worried she’d really do nothing but yell— which did not bode well for his faith in her handling of their future kid— but she’d hardly yelled at all.  And Shepard hadn’t turned all her questions aside, spinning the conversation neatly back around onto her problems while he pretended he was fine.  Although…

“Shepard,” his smile faded as she tugged on her fingers, recognizing the nervous habit, “you still haven’t actually answered my question.  And,” she really hoped this didn’t end all their progress right here, “I get the feeling...you haven’t answered it for anyone.”

Maybe she should just call Jack.  The angry ball of tattoos and good intentions that was their old teammate would have had it out of Shepard two days ago.

Shepard’s sigh was smaller this time, his gaze dropping away from hers as he didn’t answer.

With Quarian disputes, it was much more common for people to stumble through the messy things.  Sometimes that meant letting ideas and emotions out before they were fully formed, but it was hard to find the right questions when you didn’t know what the other person was thinking.

“I...don’t want to tell you.”

She winced at Shepard’s answer, at the pitiless honesty in those words.  She’d been prepared to argue with her friend; to dress him down, one ranking officer to another; to wear him down through sheer frustrating attrition.  She hadn’t even considered he might just...refuse.

Shepard cleared his throat, pulling her out of her distraction.  “I don’t want to tell you, because the...spark...had nothing to do with you.”

Oh.

“But,” Shepard continued, looking as if he were steeling himself for another Council meeting, “we could talk about other things.”

“Other things?” Tali asked, unsure where this was going.

“As every single person I’ve talked to in the last three days has reminded me,” and it sounded like Shepard would forget his own name before he ever forgot this, “this level of self-harm doesn’t come from one bad day.”

He was looking at her again, the not-actually violet eyes a little wide, a little...scared.  Tali agreed with their friends, but she couldn’t understand why it would upset Shepard so much.  The man had faced down three Reapers, personally, all technically on foot.

Swallowing hard, Shepard stepped away from his spot by the door for the first time.  He kept space between them, circling around her until he stopped in front of the large window, facing out while she stood facing in.

“It’s a million little things,” the words pulled out of him, as if it physically hurt to say each one.  “The...my death...or almost death…”  He stopped again, his throat working as if something was stuck inside.  Like when one of the worms in the garden rooms got caught in a watering tube not quite big enough for it to squeeze through on its own.  As she watched him swallow, she noticed a thin orange line peeking over the top of his uniform collar.  It seemed brighter than the ones still visible on his face.

She wanted to help, wanted to free whatever unpleasant thing was trapped inside her friend, but she didn’t know how.  Didn’t know what questions to ask.

“Cerberus brought me back physically,” Shepard said, finally, the words dry and toneless.  “But I think I did die on Alchera.”  One hand came up, clamping onto the back of his neck in a parody of his usual nervous gesture.  “I’m not the man I was...before.”

“None of us are who we were back then,” Tali said, turning just her head to look at him.

Shepard didn’t respond, gaze fixed somewhere out in all that black.  “But you all built on who you were.  It feels like…”  The hand around his neck tightened.  “It feels like I’ve just been putting pieces back together.  Except they don’t fit like they used to.”

Like trying to fly a disintegrating shuttle, never knowing which part might fail next, or if the thing might hold together long enough to make it all the way back to the Fleet.

“It got a little easier, when I figured out I must be the real me.  But having to sit in that apartment in Vancouver, waiting for everyone else to decide that, listening to the doubts and the questions and the theories.”  Shepard pulled on his neck, forcing his head slightly to one side.  “The irony of Cerberus letting me see my friends when the Alliance wouldn’t.”

Maybe The Illusive Man had counted on that.  It didn’t make sense that he’d just let Shepard go, but if he thought the Alliance would tear Shepard back apart, then he wouldn’t have to worry about Shepard making trouble with any future plans.

“And I needed you.  I needed all of you.”  Shepard did look at her now, out of the corner of one eye.  “As soon as Hackett gave me full autonomy, I ran to Wrex.  That loud, brash, blunt as they come personality— I needed you all back.  I had Garrus and Liara, buried as they were under their workloads.  Kaidan was stuck in the hospital, and he still wasn’t sure about me, but he asked— asked, not just let— me to come visit him.  Talked to me almost like it was still the SR1.”  She couldn’t make out his expression from this angle, but it sounded annoyed.  “I was starting to think I’d never find you when Hackett said the Quarians wanted to talk.”

There hadn’t been a way to contact Shepard during the court martial, and then there hadn’t been time in between Reapers sightings, and then there had been bigger, Geth-related issues.  “Thank you, for coming to my rescue, again.”

He turned to look at her fully this time, twisting his torso so she could see the smile.  “Anytime.”

She didn’t dare move to face him full on, scared it’d disturb whatever liminal space they were in.  “Is all this...why you were hurting?”

Shepard turned back to the darkness outside.  “Some of it.”  She could hear the grimace in his voice.  “But then everything would have been better when I got to have you all in my life, again.”

Which it hadn’t.

“We’re at war, Tali,” Shepard said, his voice holding a sudden steel in it.  “All of us.  And while Hackett is in charge of everything— every single thing— I have things I have to keep track of.  Information I have to know.  His voice dropped to a sudden whisper.  “Terrible things I have to learn about, so we can keep people safe.  So we even have a chance at winning.”

He turned again, all the way this time, facing her with wide, frightened eyes.  “Do you know what the Reapers do, when they harvest someone?”

Turned them into horrible grey paste to make a new Reaper, or into monsters that everyone still living had to fight.  “I’ve seen what they do.”

“But do you know how they do it?” Shepard asked.  “What happens to a person’s body when it’s subjected to their tech?  When in the process the person stops being able to feel, to think?  How much you live through before your mind gives out?”

“No.”  And she didn’t want to.

“We have to fight those monsters,” Shepard said, his voice starting to shake.  “Day after day, week after week.  The countless, suffering deaths of loved ones whose remains are reanimated and sent back to collect the rest.  To destroy and control and merge all life into the Reaper’s miserable, endless plan.”

She’d never heard Shepard sound like this before— like he didn’t believe they could win.  That hopeless, beaten look she’d seen in some of the refugees when they stopped at the Citadel.  A pallor had set in as the blood drained from his face, making the orange lines stand out worse than before.  A few of the ever present ones looked like the skin had even begun to pull itself apart.

A traitorous part of her mind pointed out that she didn’t have to do this.  She’d demanded Shepard talk to someone, boasted that she could take it.  She didn’t have to learn about the terrible things her friend dealt with every day.

“And every time we go out there,” Shepard’s eyes had taken on a glassy look, “there’s a chance one of you won’t make it back.”

“Soldiers die.”  Tali flinched at the unintended bluntness.

But Shepard was shaking his head.  “But what if you don’t?  Do you know how many of the Reapers’ monsters have Turian parts?  They tore apart that monastery, but Banshees don’t have to be made from an Ardat Yakshi.  I’ve seen enough of Javik’s people, what was left of them when the Reaper’s were finished playing.”  His gaze refocused on her.  “And no one knows what they’d do to you.”

“And everyone else gets turned into Husks,” Tali said, quietly.  She was starting to see the shape of things, the heart of why Shepard never wanted to risk sleep.

“Not everyone,” Shepard said.  When Tali tilted her head in question, she could see the act of will that was forcing out the words.  “Scions are made from biotics.  Human biotics, the stronger the better.”

Oh, no.  “Kaidan.”

“No reason to waste that resource,” Shepard said, each word sounding like shards of glass dragged out of his throat.  “Captured alive to protect viability, harvested for tech and nodes and usable organs.”  The hand at his side had balled into a fist, the knuckles white.  “Or they’ll jam him full of their tech, ripping his mind apart just like the rest of him, s—”  Shepard choked on the words, his body starting to shake from the effort of speaking his fears, “s-sewing him back together with all those stolen parts.  Like it doesn’t matter.  Like he wasn’t good enough as he is.  Like—”

Shepard swallowed convulsively, a sob tearing loose as he stumbled, the unbearable tension giving way all at once.  Tali moved, reaching out to her friend, and Shepard came.

They dropped to the floor, Shepard unable to stand under the exposed pain and Tali unable to support him.  But she could hold him, like he’d held her when she found her father, when she’d learned what he’d been doing, when she’d walked away from the Fleet—even exonerated— so she could help her friend save the world.  Shepard hadn’t had to deal with her tears, kept safe inside her suit with the rest of her, but he’d listened to the sobs and bursts of expletives as she grieved, both the father she loved and the way he’d almost been remembered.

Arms wrapped tightly around those broad shoulders, Tali pulled her friend close, relieved to feel his arms around her in return.  Even mired in fear and despair, she could feel Shepard trying to avoid weak points in her suit.  Trying not to hurt her.  Worried that his suffering might spill over onto others, no matter how badly he needed to let it.

She didn’t know how long they sat there, Shepard crying against her shoulder, the occasional gasp or keen escaping as he tried and failed to make himself stop.  Tali rubbed her hand across his back, rocking them slowly as her own tears traced down her cheeks.  She tried singing a few of the children’s songs she could remember, even one of the ones Shepard used to sing for her on days when she’d barge into his cabin with no new model ship to build, but she couldn’t remember enough of the words.  She finally settled for humming, the melodies as much a part of her as the man who needed to hear them.

When Shepard finally pulled away, he looked awful.  The skin around his eyes was puffy, the eyes themselves tinged with red.  There was nothing diplomatic or optimistic in that face, and the slant of his shoulders spoke of being completely lost.

This was supposed to make things better.  Talking about things made them less scary.

But sometimes, it just made them more real.

“My first instinct is to tell you not to tell anyone.”  Shepard wiped a hand under his nose and sniffed.  “But I suppose that defeats the purpose of all this.”

Maybe, but Tali didn’t really want to talk about any of this.  She wasn’t sure which part scared her more: the idea of being turned into a monster, or seeing Shepard cry at the idea of it happening.  How badly would it break her friend if any of them really were harvested?

It made her want to steal the Normandy and run away, with all of them safe inside.

But they couldn’t, because that would mean leaving everyone else to the Reapers.  It would mean everything they’d done up till now had been pointless.  It would mean everyone they’d lost had died for nothing.

Still, “I won’t tell anyone.”

“Tali—”

“This all happened because you were keeping things inside.”  Tali wiped away a tear on Shepard’s undamaged cheek, the sensors in her suit’s fingertip helpfully identifying the compounds that made up the droplet.  Automatically scanning the rest of his face, a different set of symbols identified the edge of the bandage on Shepard’s other cheek that was starting to come loose, the sudden, constant application of moisture rendering the adhesive less effective.

Gently, she touched the edge, pressing it back in place without success.  “Speaking of keeping things inside, we should get you to Chakwas.”

Shepard caught her hand, holding it in his own.  “I don’t want you to keep all that in your head.”  He gave her hand a short squeeze.  “It’s bad enough I do—”

“Did,” Tali said.  Her head canted to one side to force him to look at her, her voice firm.  “Did, Shepard.”

It was a weak, unreassuing smile, but it was probably the best he could do.  “Did.”

Tali patted the hand holding hers.  “Because you’re going to let some of that awfulness out, now.  And the friends you hold so dear are going to help find a way.”

“Without putting yourself in the same position as me?” Shepard asked, doubtful.

“I don’t know,” Tali admitted.  She could already imagine how much trouble she was going to have trying to sleep tonight.  “But Joker says misery loves company.  I also love company, so misery can wait its turn.”

Maybe it was hope, but she thought his smile looked a little more real.  “Sounds good to me.”

What didn’t sound good was the idea of those terrible images locked away where only Shepard could see them.  Everyone was afraid of dying on some level, and they all knew there was the chance someone else wouldn’t come back from a mission.  But keeping these imagined creations to himself, especially when one of them was causing such specific pain…  “You need to tell Kaidan.”

Shepard sniffed.  “What good will that do?”

“He can’t help if he doesn’t know what you’re afraid of.”  Tali rubbed a thumb over the back of Shepard’s hand.  “And he’d probably appreciate knowing why you panic more around certain enemies than others.”

Shepard sniffed, again, but the smile remained, only mildly diminished.  “I feel like all I do right now is tell people things.”  He gave a humorless laugh.  “But only things that will make them sad.”

“Maybe,” Tali said, “but it’s all things we need to know.”

She knew Shepard could see her own small smile, face plate be damned.

“But first,” Tali adjusted her legs to a more comfortable position, “we’re going to sit here until you feel a little less like Wrex slammed into you at full Charge.”  She gave him a knowing look that, somehow, she was sure Shepard could see.  “I might be able to convince you to talk about your feelings, but there’s no way I’ll get you to walk past your crew looking like that.”

Shepard huffed, the sound wanting to be a laugh if it had been a different day, and wiped at his own cheeks.  “No,” he agreed, “you couldn’t.”  He resettled himself into that cross-legged style Shepard had always been so fond of.  “But I suppose I could keep you company while we wait.”

Chapter Text

B.A.a.T. had been a terrible, inhumane program, with an endless list of reasons why it should be shut down.  It had isolated scared kids from people who actually cared about them, it had stripped more than a few of its unwilling participants of any sense of self-worth, and it had been physically abusive in every way.  But he had to admit, there were a few useful things that had come out of it.

It had literally beat most of his fears out of him: fear of the dark, of tight spaces, of being in pain.  It had destroyed the notion that, just because someone was older or in charge, they knew what they were doing or deserved unquestioned obedience.  It had given him unbelievable control over his biotic abilities; some of that was his own personality, but some had definitely been that unrelenting Turian training style, and the loathing that had come with it.  And every single kid there had learned very quickly to eat whatever was put in front of them.

Which meant, after the literal sludge that was Kranuks’ attempt at coffee, the Alliance stuff almost tasted good.

Kaidan knew most of the crew lingered over the mugs of steaming, dark liquid because they weren’t yet awake.  Anything that bought a few more precious minutes to get their minds in gear before they started playing with the systems of a still top-of-the-line warship was worth it, even if it came with an occasional grimace and a request for more sweetener of choice.  And Kaidan himself could hardly claim to be innocent of playing the same game; his exception was that he didn’t mind the taste.

And, sometimes, if it meant a few more minutes with John before Commander Shepard was needed to continue the war effort, he’d shamelessly linger over literal sludge for that.

He’d half-listened, attention caught by the soft gurgling of the machine transforming water into its caffeine-laden cousin, to Liara’s arrival and the passionately mocking debate that had followed.  Liara had played the snobby historian, melodramatically espousing about the timeless value of tradition and why such things are continued.  Cortez had cheerfully needled her about efficiency and the value of improvements to the evolution of culture, and the peace that stronger doses of caffeine brought to stressed undergrads.  To which Liara had responded with the dangers of casually tossing aside a system for the simple reason that it could be tossed.

Back and forth, the weight of defense shifting benignly from one person to the other, neither side terribly dedicated to winning.  Just using the time while the coffee brewed and the tea steeped, enjoying each other’s company, and flexing a few cognitive abilities while they were at it.

Kaidan liked tea, just not first thing in the morning.  Mornings were for coffee, or for lounging in bed until you were awake enough that you didn’t need help keeping your eyes open.

Of course, mornings could also be for...other things.

Kaidan smiled into his mug as Corporal Vale walked past, headed for the kitchen and the coffee machine Cortez had just finished resetting.  Having acquired his own mug, mumbled a proper greeting to Liara a little later than the other two, and bid John good luck as the man headed off to his meeting with Tali, Kaidan had retreated to the large table that resided, even on the SR2, between large support beams in the center of the room.  Something about that seemed silly, but he’d never been able to put his finger on why.

Instead, he’d worked his way slowly through most of his coffee, listening to the routine sounds of someone cleaning up after breakfast and nodding to the occasional passerby as other members of the crew wandered past for various reasons.

Watching Traynor vanish back toward the elevator with a water bottle in each hand, his mind slipped back toward the less enjoyable train of thought he’d woken up to the second time.

Laying in bed, refusing to get up as he enjoyed watching John stretch and dress, Kaidan had thought back to the reports he’d read the night before.  He’d slammed through his own stack, knowing John would be an ass about Kaidan starting on “borrowed” work before completing his own in a last ditch attempt to prove John shouldn’t be delegating his workload.  The fact that all the reports were going to get read either way would not be a strong starting point in Kaidan’s defense when that argument rolled around.  So he’d plowed through his standard collection of reports, the lack of any real news making the reading go by quicker.  Then, he’d started on one of the datapads he’d demanded John give him, and within the first few pages had noticed major differences in the information.

It wasn’t that Kaidan’s reports were inaccurate.  Mostly about things dealing with Earth or Biotics Division, Kaidan was simply viewing galactic catastrophes through a more narrow lens.  John’s reports, which came from all over the political and military spectrum, dealt with the full scope of the war.  There was nowhere for hope to hide amongst the detailed graphs of disrupted supply lines, no glimmer of light in the statistical analysis of the likely state of those supplies should they ever reach their destinations, no cheerful postscript to remind everyone that, unlike the people waiting for them, the supplies were nonperishable.

Working his way much more slowly through the lengthy dissertations on how badly they were losing, Kaidan slogged through three of the reports before John shoved his foot off the couch and asked, for what was clearly not the first time, if Kaidan thought they should call it a night.  There had been worry in those blue eyes that had nothing to do with the reports John had been reading, and Kaidan had tried very hard to fake a good mood while they got ready for bed, and soundly ignored the hypocrisy of his choice.

He’d laid there, in the new darkness of their room, trying to imagine how John had endured this long.  The kinds of information these reports held, the repetition only slightly altered from planet to planet, the detailed levels of suffering contained in the thin plastic cases and their holographic displays; it was no wonder John didn’t want to talk about it.  Kaidan’s own bravado about statistics being less upsetting when summarized was quickly leaking away.

But he’d make it work.  He’d find a way.  He would not give John back the stack of datapads, no matter what was in them, and he would demand another set of reports he could read instead of John when Traynor dropped off the next batch.  He would not let the man he loved drown himself in the galaxy’s desperations just to spare Kaidan a set of unhappy memories.  He still meant what he’d said— he’d be there for John, every day, no matter what it took.

His brooding was interrupted by the sound of a chair scraping across the deck plating.  Looking up, Kaidan returned Cortez’s tentative smile with one of his own.  “Is this seat taken?”

Kaidan looked around at the empty collection of chairs pushed in neatly on either side of the table.  “I think it’s the only one left.”

Cortez laughed as he sat down, his own mug lacking the usually sought after waves of steam hovering above it.  Brave man, to drink the stuff half cold.  “Good thing I got here when I did.”

Taking another sip from his own mug, Kaidan studied the man now sitting across from him.  The SR1 hadn’t had a shuttle pilot - deploying the MAKO was a trust exercise with gravity that really shouldn't have worked.  Steve’s job as their requisitions officer took up most of his time, though, and any ship in the Fleet would have been grateful to have someone so skilled.  It had only taken a couple weeks for Kaidan to realize the real value of Steve Cortez was his ability to empathize.  The man could take in a room at a glance and knew how to handle whatever emotion was dominant.  It would have made him excellent Spec Ops support, but apparently colony life, or the lack of being shot at, had lured the young man away from a career of manipulation and analysis.

It had taken the better part of Liara’s explanation on plant growing techniques for Kaidan to wake up enough to notice, but he’d gotten the feeling that Steve had taken in his three companions that morning and, for some reason, decided Kaidan was the one he wanted to talk to.  Flipping slowly through the schedule of the two days they’d “missed”, Kaidan guessed it had something to do with the last away mission.

If someone had told Cortez what was going on, surely John would have been the target of that compassionately disinterested look.

“So,” Steve said, slipping two fingers through the handle as he cupped his hands around his mug, “can Joker actually get us back to the Citadel on time for shore leave?”

Kaidan pursed his lips at the unanticipated topic.  He’d forgotten that John had set the announcement to be in everyone’s inbox this morning.  John had always preferred rewriting the official missive; he’d mentioned once that he thought announcing shore leave and a public execution with the same dour mood sent the wrong message.  “I hope so.  Alliance Command doesn’t like to have their schedules adjusted.”

“They must be loving the Reapers,” Steve said, the last of the morning’s amiable mocking seeping into his words.  “They’re the worst kind of house guest.”

“It might be the only thing they have in common,” Kaidan said.  “The last Reaper sounded pretty annoyed that we were messing up their plans.  Something about ‘accepting our fate’.”

Steve looked like he’d misjudged the flavors in a bowl of complementary candy.  “Charming.”

Kaidan watched over Steve’s shoulder as Corporal Vale opened a cabinet door, stared vacantly at the contents, and closed it again while he waited for the coffee to finish.

“Still, I guess we’re trying to destroy them right back.”  Steve flashed a small smile.  “It’d be strange if they didn’t resist.”

Strange, but appreciated.  Saren and his Geth, the Collectors, and now the Reaper army itself.  If the bad guys could just...go away.  Find something else to do with all that efficiency and dedication.  Maybe take up knitting.  Did it have to be the ritualized, cyclical destruction of all life deemed “irredeemably violent”?  And how did that not include the Yahg?

Steve coughed, clearing his throat as he studied the stainless steel mug in his hands.  “On a related note: Garrus came by a couple days ago.  He said, should we need to squeeze a mission in before we hit the Citadel, that...Vega’s in charge?”  Dark blue eyes flicked up on the name.

Kaidan kept his attention on Vale, his gaze unfocusing just enough to give the man a halo from the slightly brighter lighting over the kitchen.  “Yeah.”

A pause, as if the other man was waiting for Kaidan to volunteer more.  “Vega.”

“Yes.”

“Not you?”

Kaidan dropped his gaze from where Vale was retrieving a mug from the dish drainer instead.  “You don’t think Vega’s capable?”

Steve blew out a breath.  “How is that everyone’s answer?  Was there a meeting?”

“Everyone’s?” Kaidan asked.

“You are a Spectre,” Steve said, ignoring the question.  “You are a Major in the Alliance military, and you’ve been involved in this whole mess longer than most of the people on this ship, Cerberus be damned.”

In general, really.

“So why is it,” Steve finished, “that thinking you would be the next logical option for leading our away missions is so surprising?”

It really didn’t help that Steve was right.  Kaidan was the next logical choice.  The biggest hint that Chakwas was right in having Vega take over instead was that Kaidan hadn’t even questioned it.  The thought hadn’t even crossed his mind that he should be covering for John as an acting commanding officer.  Personal had shoved Professional into a cargo crate and sat on it, resolutely making choices that would not look good in a formal report.

He answered slowly, debating what to say.  “Shepard’s on medical leave, for a few days.”

Steve nodded.  “We always figured it would take Chakwas to get our fearless leader to slow down.”  Rotating the mug clockwise, Steve caught the handle on two fingers on his other hand this time.  “But that doesn’t answer my question: why Vega?”

It was subtle, hiding in the periphery of his comment, but the inquisitive tone peeked around the edge of propriety.  “I’m...on medical leave, too.”

He wasn’t, not officially, but half of this week wasn’t official.

Steve cocked his head.  “That last mission went pretty well, I thought.  We all came back unharmed.”

“I didn’t say it was because of the last mission.”

Steve met his gaze, steady but not aggressive.  It was the sort of look John might give him, if he thought Kaidan was gearing up to be stubborn.  “This will probably go a little smoother if we don’t dance around the point for twenty minutes.”

Kaidan frowned, feeling that old stubborn streak stirring.  “What point?”

“When Garrus came down to talk to Vega and me, more information might have been disclosed than intended.”

His frown deepened.  Of all the people on this crew who might spill the beans, Garrus would have been pretty far down on Kaidan’s list.  The Turian was incredibly loyal, and more to the point, incredibly private.  Between his own nature and his military training, it was strange to think of Garrus as the weak link.

“I should clarify,” Steve said, seeing something of Kaidan’s thoughts on his face, “Garrus didn’t explicitly say anything.”  The shuttle pilot winced.  “I guessed at what might be going on, and then he confirmed a few of the details.  But almost all of it was me.  I hit a little too close to home, a little too soon, I think.”  He offered a conciliatory smile.  “Please don’t be mad.  Garrus was all set to leave Vega stewing in his confusion.”

That sounded more like Garrus.  When John had taken Kaidan and Wrex out on missions, Ash and Tali had built a game out of trying to fluster their teammate, resulting in the ex-cop fleeing to anywhere on the ship he thought would be safe from bored teammates.  He hadn’t been on the SR2 long, but rumor had it a similar version of the game had been played by Kasumi and someone named Kelly Chambers.

For someone trained in interrogating a subject, Garrus had never been very good when backed into a corner by people he trusted.

Buying himself time as he took a long drink, Kaidan watched Steve carefully, irritation born of the instinct to defend trimming his temper.  “What did you guess?”

Steve waited, watching Vale stroll past with his fresh mug of “cringe-inducing coffee substitute”.  He didn’t look back at Kaidan when he answered.  “I suggested that Shepard has a habit of keeping to himself when he’s upset, and that it might have come to a head.  That, given Chakwas’ involvement, it would have to be something serious, and the most serious thing I could think of,” blue eyes flicked back to watch his reaction, “would involve injuries that didn’t come from a fight.”

So much for not dancing around things, but he did appreciate not having to hear the exact words.

Setting his own mug on the table, Kaidan shifted in his chair as something ugly slid over his skin.  A feeling like cold slime or the taste of warm milk— unpleasant and lingering.  He’d talked, briefly, to Tali, if kneeling on the bathroom floor and choking back tears counted as talking.  Chakwas had gone over the details, her brusque medical mannerisms tempered by affection in her voice.  And Kaidan had interacted with other people in the last two days, though none of them had known what Cortez obviously did.

It was an ugly jolt of reality, and it was doing something painful to his throat.

“I feel bad saying it,” Steve said, quietly, “but I was surprised the bandages were on Shepard’s face.”

Kaidan stood up fast, his chair clattering loudly as it was shoved back.  He stood there, breathing through his nose and refusing to look at Cortez.  He knew the other man was watching him, waiting to see what he did.

Grabbing his own mug, Kaidan strode across the space to the kitchen, dumping the remains of his coffee down the drain as he turned the faucet on with a shove from his knuckles.  The gush of tepid water didn’t quite cover the sound of a chair being pushed back, or the footsteps that came after.

“Kaidan.”

“He’s fine.”

Kaidan .”

“I said,” Kaidan bit off the words, watching the last of the brown slip away in a deluge of clear, “he’s fine.”

“And what about you?”

At that, Kaidan did look up.  The rushing water contrasted with the calm look on Steve’s face.  If someone walked by now, it would look like they were having a normal conversation, at least as far as the shuttle pilot was concerned.

Shutting the water off, Kaidan set his own mug, unrinsed, in the sink.  He studied those dark eyes, momentarily wondering if there was something about the color blue that made people too observant.  John, Liara, Hackett.  Steve.

His hand still on the faucet, Kaidan asked, quietly, “what about me?”

Steve crossed his arms, balancing his mug against the opposing elbow.  “It’s an open secret, the change in your relationship,” Steve said, just as softly.  “I gather you were the one who found him?”

So much red.  Red and white and wide, unresponsive blue.  The reassuring heat of warm skin, that precious twitch when Kaidan had touched him, jerked them both out of that moment of terror—

Steve’s voice pulled him back to the present.  “That couldn’t have been easy.”

Kaidan turned back to the sink, staring at the drain but not seeing it.  It hadn’t been, but that didn’t change that John was the one who needed help.  Kaidan was fine, he just needed time.  He just needed to see John get the help that would make sure none of this ever happened, again.

“It sounds like everyone’s worried about Shepard,” Steve said, his tone more neutral.  A change in topic, then, or maybe tactic.

Kaidan nodded, absently.  “John’s got plenty of friends on this ship.  He’ll get through this.”

“And he’s got you.”

Kaidan looked up in time to catch the smile.  There was something sad in Cortez’s smile.

Distracted by the fading image of his own love hurt and bleeding, it took Kaidan a moment to remember that Cortez had had someone of his own.  A husband, taken by the Collectors.  Someone, if that smile was sincere, he’d give anything to have back.

“You can dress me down if I’m overstepping,” Steve said, “but with everyone focused on Shepard’s pain, I thought someone should check on you.”

Kaidan frowned, a weaker version of his earlier answer.  “Why me?”

“Because he means the world to you, and this was a terrible thing that happened.”  Steve uncrossed his arms, setting his coffee mug down on the counter.  “And if there’s one thing I know about this crew, it’s that everyone on it is selfless.”

“That’s a good thing.”

Steve nodded.  “It is, but not always.”  That sad smile, again.  “Does John know how upset you are?”

Kaidan bristled, his frown morphing into a glare.  “The important thing is to help John, not whine at him about how scared I am.”

“You’d want him to tell you, though, if your positions were reversed.”

Kaidan pushed back from the sink, turning to face Cortez properly.  “Of course, I would, but that’s not the point.”

“That is the point,” Steve said, an edge to his voice.  “If the name of the game is making sure this doesn’t happen, again, then everybody’s got to be a whole lot more honest.”

“Something you need to tell the Commander, Lieutenant?”

Steve set his jaw, but didn’t back down.  “Something I learned from being married for five years, Alenko.”

It felt like he’d missed a step going down stairs.  He wanted that, something long term and carved into him so that he’d always be, in some small way, connected to John.  He wanted to win this stupid, fucking war so they could find out what five years looked like.  And part of that would— part of them had always been— being honest with each other.

But John wasn’t being honest.  He’d been hiding, everything, from everyone, but he’d been hiding it from Kaidan most of all.  The fear.  The pain.  The guilt.  He’d even tried to hide the stupid nightmares.  How the hell was Kaidan supposed to help if he didn’t know what was wrong?

But now, maybe their roles were reversed.  John was trying, determined to change, learning to talk about what he’d kept locked inside.  Baby steps, but steps nonetheless.  And Kaidan didn’t regret one damn minute of his support.

He did, viciously, regret having a man he barely knew recognize that Kaidan hadn’t even thought about telling John how badly his own week was going.

You could have left Kaidan behind instead.

Joker’s words, carelessly tossed out in his own misery.  The knowledge that only some of his friends had been there for John last time, that strangers had been there for John last time.  That thin little knife, clutched in John’s blood-stained hand as if it meant something important.

Steve didn’t touch him, but Kaidan could feel the space between them diminish as the man stepped close.  “He’s so damn lucky to have you.”  Kaidan looked up into clear, kind eyes.  “And you’re lucky to have him, too.”  That smile, still edged with sadness.  “Talk to him.”

Stepping backwards, Kaidan coughed, failing to hide the tightness in his throat.  Choking out a sound that might have been words, he walked around the island, blinking hard to try and see where he was going.

He knew it wasn’t working, even before he ran headlong into someone.

Mumbling an apology, Kaidan strode out of the space, making his way by the muscle memory in his legs to the room he’d commandeered when he’d first come back to the Normandy.

The reflection in the Starboard Observation window didn’t show details, but Kaidan didn’t need to see his face to know how rough he looked.  He’d spent enough time losing it three years ago, curled up on his old bed at his parents’ place, listening to hushed whispers as his mom and dad debated how to help their son mourn a man they’d never met.  Dropping onto the couch, Kaidan buried his head in his hands.

Steve’s words and last night’s worry and the memories he’d pulled John close to distract himself from this morning all mixed together to aggravate the wriggling tightness in his chest.  He’d been worried about John spending too much time outside of their cabin before shore leave gave everything time to settle.  Now it was Kaidan who felt the urge to hide.  To curl up somewhere and lick at his wounds, whimpering or growling at anyone who came too close.

And he’d been so worried about how John’s morning was going to go.

Chapter Text

The Memory Shard hung in the air, suspended by the simplicity of opposing magnetic forces.  He had refused to access it since joining the Normandy, refusing to acknowledge all it contained when the Asari asked about it, as curious as any of her ancestors.  He knew that such technology was beyond this Cycle’s current understanding, as the beacons had been.

In truth, the Memory Shard held more than pain; it held ghosts.  Almost as many as he did.  The last remaining vessels of all the Protheans had ever been, contained in delicate forms that would not last.

But in one of the rare moments he felt this crew could understand him, no one had offered to remove it from his quarters.  The thing hung there, haunting him, hounding his conscience for all he had failed to do, but at the end of a day...it was still his.  The only tangible thing left in this world that truly belonged to him.  And the crew understood, more than he cared to admit, and they left it where one of them had placed it when they’d first allocated this space to him.

But that did not stop the miserable thing from pulling at his mind while he tried to meditate.  Teasing him with memories he perhaps did not understand the value of the last time he’d looked through them.  Promising a moment’s respite if he admitted that he recognized the faces of the people whose image was captured by the deceptively small piece of technology, before the pain of loss snuck back in and distracted him from his duty as an Avatar.

Rising to his feet, Javik strode from the room, passing the Memory Shard as if it were nothing but a mark on the wall.  The door to the hallway hissed open, admitting him into the brightly lit space.  Reaching the elevator, he punched the display to summon the cubicle, fascinated once more that this simple method of moving between levels had not changed in 50,000 years.

His rear eyes flicked back and forth, picking up the changes in light caused by the crew members in the shuttle bay moving about.  Nothing more than a minor distraction, but he let his attention be drawn away from his internal brooding.

This crew was so loud, so active, constantly doing something.  Moments of stillness were not the norm for this Cycle.  Where there had been a flashy display of colors from the Promaerai, a constant low buzz from the Ickthians, or tonal shifts in the lilting language of the Thurthee’ay, humans showed the intimacy of a relationship with quiet and calm.  Looks exchanged over their beloved morning beverage, hands held when it seemed authority figures would not object, the almost sacred nature of the sleeping areas during certain hours of the day.

But most of the time, humans were loud and busy.  After the quiet and stillness of his quarters, Javik sought the controlled chaos this crew preferred, and knew where he was most likely to find it.

Emerging onto the Crew Deck, he slowed his pace so as not to seem eager for the crew’s annoying presence.  It would not do for too many people to notice he no longer “hid in his lair”, as the one male had put it.  Long, even strides, his posture rigidly relaxed as he rounded the corner into the mess hall, walking straight into the solid form of someone hurrying from the room.

Pain.  Sharp and bright, lancing through him with merciless efficiency, leaving tendrils and scorch marks as it passed.  Not the localized kind that meant he had been injured, but the omnipresent variety.  The kind that came from feeling too much.

It felt like a weight had been placed upon his chest, crushing his lungs even as the room around him was full of breathable air.  An ache in his limbs and in his head.  Blurred vision, such as he had never experienced.  A sympathetic pulling in his neck as nerve clusters humans didn’t have tried to sooth the borrowed memory of a personal crisis.

Javik stood, the waves of emotion and memory crashing against him, much as the Major had moments before.  He’d ascended to this usually crowded Deck to escape the ghosts of his past, the typical chatter and clatter of humans around food a predictable and welcome distraction on the days when the dead would not let him be.  Instead, he was confronted with a storm of emotions that were not his own, glowing with a pain infinitely fresher than he’d felt down below.

The feel of fingers brushing over his shoulder.  The comfort of having another pressed close, even as the expected whimpers started.  The sensation of loss, of terror so real he felt suddenly numb, at the sight of something as mundane as blood.

Forcing the onslaught away from his conscious mind, Javik breathed slowly as his hind brain started to compartmentalize, to isolate, to identify and label.  Piecing apart the mind that was not his own and allowing the memories to reform into moments he could understand.

Usually, reading biomarkers was an intentional thing.  Physical contact with another would be unbearable if there were no way to limit the spread of such personal thoughts.  But Javik had been distracted, his guard down when he encountered the distraught Major.  Even that brief, unintentended contact had been enough.

As the kitchen and the human standing in it came back into focus, one of his new memories solidified, playing itself out in his mind’s eye.

An innocent anticipation, born of the joy that came from seeing someone he wanted to.  He palmed the door open, the moment of happiness vanishing as soon as it appeared.

“John!”

Three steps had him at Shepard’s side.  He dropped to his knees, hands fluttering like they hadn’t since medic training.  John’s face was a mess.  He was bleeding freely from where the skin had been…dislodged.  He didn’t seem to have registered his arrival, staring blankly ahead.  Running a hand over Shepard’s trembling arm, his eyes stopped on the small knife clutched in his fist.

Self-harm.  The worst thing a soldier could do, because it was always hidden, and therefore always reckless.  An inner threat that could not be tracked.  A weakness the group could not counter for, because they did not know it existed.

And yet…  Javik’s rear eyes squinted as he probed the emotion.  Acquired memory or not, he should have felt things more acutely.  As an Avatar of the Prothean Empire, he was prone to feeling things intensely, and yet his disgust at this particularly disdainful weakness in his commanding officer did not summon the usual scorn.  Instead, he felt...sad.

Don’t be dead.  Not again.  Don’t be dead.

There had been a shift in the Normandy in the last few days.  A darkening of emotion of which Javik had been unable to determine the root cause.  It was a quiet, personal kind of pain, unexpected in the wake of the recent string of minor victories against Cerberus.  Although not the cyclical, galactic threat that was the Reapers, defeating Cerberus brought this crew pleasure.  A personal vendetta they were determined to win, as if gigantic Synthetics with an army of monsters were a side venture that could be resolved at a later date.

But no.

Fear.  Anger.  Worry.  Grief.

Javik knew, more intimately than most, that Shepard had once been believed dead by his crew, by even himself.  Lacking the ability to read his life story written in his genetic code, it was impossible for Shepard to simply understand that he had never quite died.  Like Javik, he had been pushed to the edge and held there, waiting in his own form of stasis until war called them back.  Shepard had fought hard to regain his belief in himself, in more ways than simply the physical, but his trials had also tested those around him.

As did the events of two days ago.

The human in the kitchen - the Shuttle Pilot - was washing something in the sink.  Human posture was different, but it did not look like he was upset.  The Major had come from that direction, no doubt from a conversation with this man.  Curious not to see the emotions mirrored in the other, but that was not Javik’s concern.

The Major.  Determined.  Proud.  Resilient.  Quiet and deadly, as efficient as any Roc’kathana.  Intelligent.  Loyal.  Wickedly clever.

The titles of a military life made it easier to stay detached, whether due to the constant chance of losing a teammate or because people who were 50,000 years younger than him were harder for the last Prothean to deal with than the reappearance of the Reapers.  But no title would hold up against such a flood of memory and emotion.  Because neither side had been paying attention, too much had come through the link.

Curious.  Patient.  Shy.  Trusting and trustworthy.  Stubborn, with a temper to go with it.  Strong.  Worried.  Kind.  Full of love, for everyone in his life.

Kaidan, he would be now.  Kaidan Alenko.

Javik watched the Shuttle Pilot finish with the dishes, drying his hands on the soft cloth that hung above the sink.

He called him John.  John, because that was his name, and because Shepard valued him enough to care if Kaidan knew that.  Because using his real name always made the other human smile.

The Commander— Shepard— had done himself significant harm in response to the hardships of war.  Kaidan had been thinking about it when he’d accidentally crashed into him, but the fresh pain wrapped around the man in such thick, cloying bands, Javik could hardly accuse the man of willingly sharing his thoughts.  So many emotions, none of them related to the Reapers or their destruction, yet all of them taking precedence to the survival of the galaxy.

To this man, to Kaidan Alenko, losing John Shepard was the same as losing the war.  The void inside, the dark memories of having lost him once, mirrored Javik’s own pain of loss, his fear of living through the destruction of a world while he, yet again, could do nothing.  It was sharp, biting, feeding a fear that had to be beaten into submission so he could still fight.  In the end, though, pain was pain, and there were some losses too great to bear.

Shepard’s— John’s— face, mauled as it had been, danced before Javik’s eyes.  He knew, as Kaidan knew, that Shepard would endure this.  He would not abandon his people, nor the cause they fought for.  But now the odd tension that had radiated from the very ship itself— not just that damned AI— made sense.  More than just Kaidan knew of this thing that had happened.  And those people grieved a future that had not come to pass.

A month ago, a week ago, an hour ago, Javik would have hunted the Commander down and berated him for such weakness, for such stupidity.  For inflicting harm when others already attempted such daily.  For dividing his crew’s focus in a time of crisis.  For wasting medical supplies.

Now, though…now another’s heart clashed with his own.

It was always a risk of transferring information this way.  Within the Empire, even the very young were trained on how to hold back what should not be shared.  But no one in this Cycle knew anything of their ways.

He would carry Kaidan Alenko with him for the rest of his life.

He would also carry the knowledge that Shepard had, once again, been right.  While Javik had not spoken to the crew, he thought he had learned the meaning in Shepard’s words to him that day.  Without people in their lives, all they had left was death, and it wasn’t enough.  Fighting for people, for worlds and governments and cultures, fighting for the continued existence of the reality he knew was not something Kaidan could do.  Nor did it seem to be something any person in this Cycle truly understood how to do.  But to keep Shepard, keep…John, in his life, there was nothing Kaidan could not— would not— do.

“Javik?”

All four eyes focused on the Shuttle Pilot.  Weight balanced on one foot, the human was leaning backward, as if his limited visual capabilities had rendered spotting the only other being in the room difficult in his previous position.  His ancillary pair continued to track the Doctor in the MedBay, as well as the regular cursory sweep for new arrivals.  “Yes?”

“You’ve been standing there for a few minutes now.” The human flashed his teeth in a smile.  “Forget what you came up here for?”

“No.”

The Shuttle Pilot shrugged as Javik walked over to the kitchen, returning to his task of counting something in a drawer.  “You wouldn’t be the first person to have that problem.”

He surveyed the empty island, pondering how he’d managed to misjudge when this room would be full of its usual noisy inhabitants.  “There are members of this crew with active memory problems?”

“No.”

At the lack of elaboration, Javik spared a glance for his companion.  The human was smiling, the cheerful look just visible over his shoulder as he glanced back at the Prothean.

A joke at Javik’s expense, then.

“Sometimes,” the Shuttle Pilot continued, having had his fun, “people forget why they went to a room after they get there.  Some kind of...mental reset caused by walking through a doorway.”

“Then your species should have worked to eliminate doorways,” Javik said.  Once again, the primitives had failed to evolve as far as his scientists had hoped.  “Such an inherent weakness in an opponent’s ability to focus would be exploited.”

“What, you think the Turians could have won if they’d just built doorways all over our colonies?”

Humans and their need to mock.  “The Turians should have won because they are militarily superior to humans.  That they did not suggests weak leadership.”

“Or diplomacy,” the Shuttle Pilot suggested, closing the drawer with a quiet thump.

There were many things about this Cycle he did not understand.  This need to understand other races.  The belief in shared power.  The idea that a war could simply be stopped, whether this conflict with the Turians of decades ago or the persistent idea that the Reapers could be defeated after they had already arrived and started the Harvest.

If he’d been in charge, they wouldn’t be wasting time trying to save every world.  The Quarian need for a homeworld would have been summarily disregarded in order to destroy these Geth at their source, depriving the Reapers of assistance AI.  The Krogan would have been weaponized as they had been millennia ago, along with the Yahg, and put at the forefront where they could do the most damage.  The Salarians appeared to have grown into a superior intelligence, and should thus be used to build the Crucible, guarded by any Turian platoon not providing backup for frontline forces.  The Asari ability to manipulate could be used to keep the lesser species in line, maintained only until they were so much dead weight.  The planets of the lost could be reclaimed after this theoretical victory.

The most frustrating thing about this cycle was that he’d be sentenced to endure this war a second time while serving on a ship with a skewed command structure.  Any crew member could talk to any other, about anything that occupied their primitive minds.  Half of the ranking officers on this ship weren’t even part of the Alliance military; thus determining who should be in charge at any given time seemed to be, as the Main Pilot phrased it, “gut instinct”.

And the bizarre notion that talking to others on this crew would change his mind— about the Reapers, about galactic peace, about Synthetic life, about “making friends”— was as primitive an idea as he’d yet heard.

He’d been planning to speak to several of the Commander’s crew to better prove his point: that he did not need to change his mind, the current Cycle merely needed to endure long enough to see the Protheans were right.  Because words were how this Cycle communicated, so he must waste hours of his life gathering information he could instead have acquired with a few taps on a few shoulders.

But then Kaidan had barrelled into him, flooding Javik’s mind with all kinds of ideas not his own.  And Kaidan liked diplomacy.  One of the best soldiers on this crew preferred peace.  And while Javik still didn’t agree, didn’t understand , he had the information that biomarkers so clearly communicated where words could fail.

He didn’t agree with Kaidan, or the Shuttle Pilot, but a mutinous part of his mind thought that perhaps he was simply annoyed that Shepard had been right.

“If your diplomacy is so effective,” Javik asked, returning from his frustrated thoughts, “why not try it on the Reapers?”

“Pretty sure Shepard has,” the Shuttle Pilot said, finally turning to face him.  “They’re stubborn bastards.  Really want to settle this with as much collateral damage as possible.”  The human shrugged, again.  “Or it’s that they don’t see us as people they must defeat in a war, but as resources to be collected and utilized as their superior selves see fit.”

At least one of the humans understood.  “And yet, you fight.”

“The Prothean Empire hardly rolled over and let the Reapers win.”

“No,” Javik agreed.  “We did not.  But that did not stop them, in the end.”

“But your people had some good ideas.”  The Shuttle Pilot gestured at something that wasn’t there, a strange habit most of this Cycle had developed.  “The Crucible was started by someone who lost, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help us win.  And the warning your people left behind didn’t prevent the invasion, but some people took it seriously and prepared for the worst.”

Admiral Hackett.  A worthy leader, even by Prothean standards.

“And we still have the Citadel.”  The human crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back against the counter.  A stance he had seen a number of the crew prefer, it seemed designed to convey confidence in the situation or people around them.  “I hear that’s how the Reapers prefer to arrive: smack in the middle to simultaneously destroy everyone in charge.”

“It’s a good plan,” Javik stated.

“Yeah.”  The Shuttle Pilot offered a smaller form of a smile.  “But it’s a shitty one when the other side uses it.”

Indeed.  “The Reapers are…”  Javik paused, weighing the possible change such a statement could bring about.  But the still new, still persistent emotions nudged at him, accomplishing what Shepard had not and convincing the Prothean to try.  He looked at the Shuttle Pilot and blinked.  “Shitty.”

A moment’s hesitation, as the interaction registered, then the human laughed.  A carefree release of sound that soldiers in his Cycle had not been encouraged to use.  Laughter was mocking, a way to communicate scorn.  War was no time for laughter.

But the Shuttle Pilot, this...Cortez, was it?  It did not take much to make him laugh.

“Big, mean, and definitely shitty,” Cortez agreed.  “Maybe we can shame them into behaving better.”

“Unlikely,” Javik said.  “Victory is too tempting a trophy to forfeit it for something as ephemeral as being pleasant to deal with.”

“Oh, I think The Illusive Man would like you,” Cortez said.

The Illusive Man sounded like a capable and competent individual, a leader equal to the likes of Admiral Hackett except that he failed to understand the need for the eradication of the Reapers.  Javik might have considered trying to seize Cerberus and use it to fight this war in a manner more befitting his training, but that mutinous part of his mind was still annoyed that anyone had thought to lock the Avatar of Vengeance in a lab and run tests on him like a common Niktik.

Pushing off the counter with his hips— Jehrak had preferred hands-free movements, as it meant he didn’t have to holster his weapon— Cortez kicked a cabinet door in front of him.  The small rectangle of plastic bounced open with a soft click.

“I know you don’t like the standard rations,” Cortez said.  “I wouldn’t risk the dextro stuff unless Chakwas cleared you on it, but all the weird stuff gets stored in here.”  Cortez looked at him, face carefully neutral.  “In case it was lunch you forgot you were looking for.”

Javik studied the open cabinet.  “You prefer to use your feet?”

“That door sticks.”  Cortez flicked a couple of his fingers against his thumb.  “Can do something nasty to your nails if you open it the wrong way.  Safer just to kick it.”

“Perhaps it sticks because people kick it,” Javik suggested dryly.

“It’s moot now.”  Cortez waved at the cabinet door as he started toward the elevator.  “Help yourself.  Just clean up before the lunch crowd shows; Peterson and Fratelli are on KP today, and they’ll make a big enough mess on their own.”

He was early, then.  Not that he needed the ambient noise to distract him anymore.  Not with Kaidan Alenko buzzing in the back of his mind, stubbornly refusing to submit to Javik’s own understanding of how things worked.

Stepping around the island, Javik crouched in front of the open cabinet.  Inside, neat stacks of boxes awaited his perusal, including several labeled with Cortez’s warning about dextro foods.

If the food was on the ship, then someone was meant to be eating it.

Javik retrieved one of the purple-labelled boxes.  Popping the lid off, he studied the blue and green bars inside.

They looked like any other set of rations.

Selecting one of each kind, Javik returned the box to its place in the cabinet.  He swung the cabinet door shut, pushing on it firmly to close it.  When it refused to stay shut, he stood, made sure the room was still empty, and kicked it.

The door gave a satisfying click and stayed shut.

Food he had not been seeking secured, Javik headed back to the elevator, certain the wait while it returned from the shuttle bay would give him enough time to decide which set of Salarian war strategies he could study next.  He approved of their meticulous planning and intelligence gathering, but their refusal to face enemies head on seemed inefficient and cowardly.  Perhaps they had learned the wrong lessons from the Krogan Rebellion, though he had to admire the ruthlessness of the Genophage.

He did not approve of its continued use after the Rebellion had been successfully quelled.  Shepard had been wise to remove its limiting factors from the Krogan.  They made powerful allies, and seemed to have much in common with some of Earth’s older cultures.  And being a violent culture did not mean they could not bring peace.

Focusing on the pointless oppression of a friendly species seemed to have finally allowed the new memories to settle.  Perhaps Kaidan also thought the Krogan worth saving.

Chapter Text

He’d been worried she would try to hide, taking a bullet from Shepard’s clip.  After reinstalling a cover over the window in Shepard’s cabin, Tali had disappeared immediately down into Engineering.  Garrus had gotten the distinct feeling that she was going to bury herself in work, if she had to break something just so she had something to fix.

It had been an unhappy woman who’d left him with an armload of tools he wasn’t sure he could identify and a vague idea of where she had found them.

But Tali hadn’t hidden from him.  Practical as ever, she’d taken a couple days to gather her thoughts.  Get past the urge to snap at the next poor soul who made the mistake of saying “good morning”.  Stabilizing the mess that was her emotions until she could approach a situation with a level head.

Garrus frowned.  That was maybe too much credit.  There had been some hiding, but when he’d gone down to broach the subject of telling Liara, Tali hadn’t deflected.  Maybe he was overlooking the fact that it had been two whole days because he was pleased they weren’t keeping things from their friends this time.

Spirits Around, Hackett knew this time.

Maybe it was his own relationship with his family, but not wanting to talk always felt unwise.  Giving someone time to cool off was usually a good call, and there were enough people on this ship who could rig his omni-tool to blare Joker’s Russian National Anthem if they thought he was being pushy.  But the fight they’d had nearly two years ago, about— he’d felt—keeping secrets from their friends had not been the high point of his relationship with Tali, and he hadn’t wanted a repeat of their three-day, no speaking, stalemate.

As they’d gotten closer to the Omega-4 Relay, long-term worries seemed like less of a concern, but they’d survived that.  Then Shepard had turned himself into the Alliance, which meant there was nothing either of them could do to look after their friend.  Nothing to do but go back to their people and be as thoroughly ignored about their Reaper concerns as Shepard was, though neither Garrus nor Tali had the pleasure of having the Council call them untrustworthy.

Really, what did it take to be stripped of Spectre status?  There was always a formal communication about Shepard being reinstated, but it had taken being presumed dead for two years to make anyone question that status in the first place.

Not that Shepard had minded.  The man was determined to serve the greater good whether the greater good liked it or not.  Surprisingly Turian of him, all that service before self.

But agreeing to tell everyone this time still meant someone had to actually do it , which was how Garrus found himself standing outside Liara’s door, waiting for the lock to cycle through its program and decide if he should be permitted to enter.

Blowing air through his nose, Garrus waited.  The security on Liara’s door was necessary, but he’d gotten used to doors on the Normandy simply opening when he walked by.  And standing outside was not helping his nerves.  He’d told Tali he’d tell her.  He’d heard about Joker’s little explosion, and Traynor’s sudden barrage of questions about who was who in the Turian hierarchy meant she knew something.  He’d told Vega and Cortez himself, and, obviously, Kaidan knew.

Even Allers, their very own ANN reporter, had started to work things out.  Which meant, on the list of people who should probably know Shepard was starting to understandably crack under the unbearable pressure of this miserable, Spirits'-abandoned war, there was only one more name.

The door hissed open, the bobbing holographic form of Glyph blocking his way.  “Greetings –“

“Don’t…say it.”  Garrus held up a hand, feeling his mandibles twitch at the unintended threat.  “Please, don’t say it.”

“He’s been driving Tali crazy with her title, too.”  The familiar lilt was far more amused than he’d like.  “I’m starting to think I need to list your real information as a set aliases, just to get around Glyph’s chronic honesty.”

“Isn’t greeting everyone by name and rank some kind of security concern?” Garrus asked.

Liara focused on whatever she was typing, the tilt of her head almost hiding that sliver of a smile.

He walked past the hovering drone, attention flicking quickly over the wall of screens.  So much information, all at Liara’s fingertips, and she wasn’t having any more success finding a permanent solution to the Reapers than the military.  It probably didn’t help that the network that had been constructed over who knew how many generations was crumbling under those fingertips, harvested by their invaders just like everything else.  It was probably more impressive that the Shadow Broker could still operate in any capacity, even a limited one.

“Must be frustrating.”  Garrus looked at his friend as the screens went dark.  “All those contacts, and we’re still running on hope and half an idea.”

“I’m sure someone will figure out what the Catalyst is,” Liara said, sounding much more confident than Garrus felt.  She straightened up from the console, moving her shoulders back and forth before rolling her neck from side to side.  He thought it must be uncomfortable to hold tension in the upper body, but as Turians tended to hold it in their legs, he couldn’t be sure.  “Until then, we have to keep people hoping, keep them fighting.”  There was the edge of a smirk to that polite smile, an almost feral disapproval.  “Not to mention all the people who are so certain we’re going to win, they’re only focusing on making sure they come out on top afterwards.”

Garrus flexed his mandibles in amiable annoyance.  “That’s the kind of hope we aim to inspire— greedy self-interest.”

Liara laughed.  “Everyone has to fight for something.”  Stepping back from the console, she looked up at him, another set of tired blue eyes that refused to see defeat.  “So, what brings you to my part of the ship?  Finally finished with those calibrations?”

“Just about.”  There was something about Earth designs that didn’t hold precision adjustments the way the Palaven ones did.  It could be the constant use, but Garrus thought it was something inherent in the make of the guns, or possibly the way they’d been installed.

Or maybe it was just that things from Earth were always trickier, more stubborn; ever determined to do things their own way.  “I, uh, I actually came by to talk.”

“It has been a while,” Liara agreed.  She crossed her arms, giving him an appraising look.  “I guess we’re all just so wrapped up in our own parts of this war, we’ve forgotten how nice a simple conversation can be.”

Garrus felt his mandibles pull in close at her choice of words.  If he didn’t know better, he’d think he’d worked himself up for this visit for nothing.  “Keeping in touch with your friends is always a good idea.  It’s what makes people…friends,” he finished, a little lamely.

“Usually,” Liara said.  “Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference.  Sharing simple details, cheering each other up, helping the people you care about through the hard times in their lives.”

Yeah, she knew.

Garrus cocked his head.  “It sounds like the Shadow Broker already has the information I was going to offer.”

Liara’s smile grew sad.  “The Shadow Broker doesn’t know anything.  Liara T’soni, however, knows a number of things she should have noticed sooner.”

Excellent.  A crew full of guilt-ridden heroes.  It could have been one of his father’s Westerns.  One of the few imported items Castis Vakarian enjoyed was Earth’s genre of irresponsible vigilantes trying to carve out order in a world that wanted none.  It had been something the two of them had bonded over.  Once.

Garrus coughed, unsure what to do now that his self-appointed task of being the bearer of bad news had been rendered moot.  “Well, it sounds like somebody already came by to catch you up on things.”  He debated the words, not sure they’d help.  “I think…I might be sorry you weren’t told sooner.”

“About this incident, or the one back when this was a Cerberus crew?”

Right.  Information broker.  “Either.  Both.”

Liara's arms tightened as she hugged herself.  “I understand, analytically, why I wasn’t told before.  It’d be nice to think that, having served together on the SR1, having gone through all that was dealing with Saren and hunting the Geth afterwards, that we would always be able to trust each other without question.  But the world doesn’t work that way.”

He should probably say something about how that wasn’t true and friends were always friends, but the world didn’t work that way.  Instead, he tried for honesty.  “You weren’t here, but you were still Shepard’s friend.  And you’re here now, which means something.”

“It means I ran into Shepard on Mars and had useful information.”

“Not really,” Garrus corrected her, tone gently mocking, trying to lighten the mood.  “Shepard’s a lot of things, but naïve isn’t actually one of them.  If he had a reason to believe having you on the Normandy was a threat, he wouldn’t have let you stay.  Yes, he probably would have screwed up Hackett’s schedule while trying to find you a new Lair to inhabit, but,” Garrus twitched his mandibles, tone serious again, “he wouldn’t have let you stay.”

When Liara still didn’t look convinced, he added, “if he hadn’t believed Kaidan’s apology, he wouldn’t have let him stay, either.”

One of the reasons they’d agreed to play along with the idea that the whole crew might not want to know just how smitten their senior officers were with each other— the whole crew knew, but it gave them a group project that everyone actually wanted to work on— was that Shepard understood he had a blind spot about Kaidan.  And Jack.  And probably Joker.  But he didn’t understand how big that blind spot was.

There was a reason Hackett had offered Kaidan that position working on the Crucible.

Liara was looking at a spot on the floor contemplatively.  “You really think Shepard would have turned me away?”

“After he found you a sneaky little apartment on the Citadel.”  Garrus crossed his own arms, rocking back into his usual stance.  “Probably smaller windows than his has, but technically, that was Anderson’s call.”  While they were giving every sniper with a week’s training an excellent view of Shepard’s new living quarters, those big windows did give a nice view of the Silversun Strip, too, so maybe he saw the appeal.

The first time Garrus had come by after all the noise from the clone and the party, he’d found Shepard standing in the middle of the apartment, turning slowly in a circle.  “It’s just so…big.”   Garrus didn’t know much about Admiral Anderson’s personal life, but the apartment had been a lot bigger and a lot nicer than he’d expected.  But at least he didn’t have to square the design with Shepard’s personality – his head had hurt from more than just Synthehol that night.

“That’s…oddly comforting.”  Liara was looking up at him, again.  “Both that Shepard would be able to separate his personal and professional feelings like that, and that you have such faith in him.”

This was the point that a human would blush.  As a Turian, he fought the urge to let his mandibles shift.  “Either we believe Shepard survived Alchera, and whatever Cerberus did to him, and came back to us as himself,” he cocked his head the Asari in front of him, “or we don’t.  I figured it’s rather the same with you.”

“Either I worked for the Shadow Broker, then took over from him, and am still your friend,” Liara asked, “or I’m not?”

“Exactly.”

Liara laughed, again, this time with a little less self-control.  “I do love how you see the world, Garrus.”

“It’s one of my selling points,” Garrus said.  “Crack shot, political connection, mediocre law enforcement career, and practical optimist.”  He dropped his arms, shifting his weight back to both feet.  “Anyway, I really did just want to make sure you were caught up.”  He hesitated, not wanting to ruin their rapport.  “So, no hard feelings?”

“Oh, there are hard feelings.”  And a hard tone of voice to go with them.  “But not toward you.”  Liara gestured behind her to her desk, the screens scrolling through their pre-programmed tasks.  “I’ve been reading up on all sorts of psychological and medical topics, hoping to find a way to help.  Hoping…to understand.”  She sighed.  “So far, it’s not really helping.”

“But you’re doing something,” Garrus said.  “You discovered a problem and you’re working to fix it.”  He paused, wishing as he rarely did that he could smile the way his friends did.  “It’s very Shepard of you.”

Liara smiled for him.  “That’s very kind, Garrus.”

Mandibles flexing at the gratitude in her voice, Garrus coughed, again.  “It sounds like you’ve got more of a plan than I do, so I’ll let you get back to your,” he gestured at the room around him, “whatever it is you do.  Saving the world, one shady deal at a time.”

“And our friend,” Liara added, “one academic paper at a time.”

Garrus nodded, and turned to go.  He stopped short of the door when Liara called his name.

“Garrus?”

“Hm?”

“It means a lot...that you came by.”  Liara was twisting her hands together, but out of nerves instead of emotional distress.  “I know I said I didn’t want an apology— I don’t— but I appreciate that you wanted to make sure I was in the loop this time.  That everyone…decided you can trust me.”

The cold, practical part of his mind wondered if Shepard snapping like he had was actually a good thing.  It was starting to look like everyone had things buried inside that needed airing out.  “Anytime.”

“If you wanted to do something,” Liara said, stopping him again as he turned back toward the door, “we have been assigned shore leave.  There must be something on the Citadel that you and Shepard would enjoy doing.”

Yes, “assigned”.  And just when they needed a moment away from the front line, too.

Garrus considered.  “I could take him to that Hanar poetry reading; I hear we’re being conveniently put on shore leave.”

“You could,” Liara agreed, “but I did specify something you two would enjoy.”  She thought for a moment, that quick mind sorting all sorts of ideas.  “Maybe take him shooting?  You both like shooting things.”

“That’s where we went wrong,” Garrus agreed, his tone amiably impudent.  “Too many bullets, not enough Cerberus goons to hit them with.”

But it wasn’t a bad idea.  He’d been meaning, before all of this started, to drag Shepard away for an afternoon.  Possibly a formal kidnapping, but among the few known weaknesses of Commander Shepard was his inability to say “no” to a friend.  The real trick was going to be getting the man to focus on whatever activity Garrus had thought up, instead of diverting half his energy to continuing to worry about the war.

Shooting though…maybe not a gallery, but there was a place they could go and shoot things.  Minimal chance of anyone getting hurt, foolish enough for Shepard to be distracted.  And he’d always really, really wanted to, C-Sec and their red tape be damned.

“Have you talked to him?”  Liara interrupted his train of thought.

Garrus his head.  “Not yet.  I figured I’d wait until more…energetic personalities had their chance to loudly express their displeasure.  Besides, I think Kaidan’s sticking pretty close to Shepard right now.”  He jerked a thumb at the door.  “I was surprised to see him sitting outside with Cortez.”

“Maybe Cortez thought it would be a good idea to keep an eye on our Major,” Liara said quietly.  “I gather Shepard and Tali are having their heart-to-heart this morning.”

“It sounds like both our humans have people to talk to,” Garrus deflected.  “That’s probably a good thing.”  He gestured abstractly toward the Main Battery.  “Well, I’ll leave you to...whatever you do these days.”  He cocked his head in what most humans still didn’t understand was the Turian answer to a sympathetic smile.  “I’m just down the hall if you think I can help.”

Liara nodded in acknowledgement.  “I will.”

Garrus walked out of Liara’s quarters, ignoring the drone’s compulsive use of his damnable title, and waved at Sgt Michaels.  The man looked exhausted, propped up against one of the supports next to the mess hall table, nursing a mug of something hot.  He nodded back at Garrus, and the Turian was pretty sure his secret was still safe.

Moving through the cafeteria and up the few steps to the sleeping pods, Garrus’ thoughts wandered to the garbled message he’d received from his father.  He could show it to Traynor, though he’d been pointedly keeping that part of his daily concerns away from their comm specialist.  Traynor was already buried in work, but she’d be as eager to help as any of them, and if anyone could clean up that message, she could.

He could always walk back the request if it proved too complicated a task.  And he already planned to join her for dinner so he could walk her through the various titles, committees, and political affiliations she was going to be forced to navigate when she rescheduled the vid-calls for next week.  A word from Shepard and people would back off, but unless Garrus wanted to take the calls, this could get messy.

He came to a full stop halfway down the hall.

It would explain dinner.  Humans always made big decisions over dinner, and Traynor had been stressed enough to start playing with her hair by mid-afternoon yesterday.  And yes, a word from Shepard would make these sorts of people wait, but given his own place in the line of succession these days…

Tucking his chin into his collar, Garrus hurried back to his guns.  This was why he’d never fought for a promotion, at C-Sec or in the military.  He couldn’t calibrate politicians.

Chapter Text

“Well, at least it’s good news,” Chakwas said.  “You seem to be healing nicely.”

John kept his attention over the doctor’s right shoulder as Chakwas peeled away the bandage on his jaw.  She’d already removed the one over his right eye, revealing nothing more than a thin line of dried blood.  She’d gracefully said nothing about his still red-rimmed eyes, the itch to move on from discussing his fears stronger than his need to appear completely calm upon meeting someone on the way to the MedBay.  Chakwas had even smiled sympathetically at John’s wince when she’d started on his jaw, the patch of adhesive as stubborn as the person it was stuck to.

“I hesitate to say it could be worse,” there was the still present anger, but dulled by professionalism and time and fondness for her patient, “but so far you’re piecing yourself back together at the rate I’d hoped.”

John laughed, the sound trapped in his chest as he strove to keep his face still.  He winced again as the last piece of adhesive relented, the beige and red-brown strip releasing its hold on his face.  Cautiously, John moved his jaw back and forth, as if the issue had been a dislocated joint as opposed to only skin deep.

“Any noteworthy pain?” Chakwas asked, stepping away to dispose of the used bandage with its predecessor.

“Not really,” John replied.  He felt tentatively over the freshly exposed skin, feeling the familiar puffiness of his immune system prepping against infection.  “It’s a little tender, but that can’t be news.”

“ ‘A little tender’ is fine,” Chakwas agreed.  “I’m not going to put anything else on the cut on your forehead, but this one I’d like covered for a bit longer.”  Resuming her post in front of him, Chakwas explored the healing injury with her fingers, cooler to the touch than his own.  “It looks good, though.  Everything knitting back together with minimum discomfort.”

“Is this your tactful way of saying my cheek is going to take longer, but I possibly deserve it?” John asked with a small smile.  His smile widened at the arched brow that was her reply.  “I really am sorry, Doc.”

“I know you are.”  Her voice was gentle, matching her healer’s hands as they ran over his jaw once more.  “But much like how your jaw is healing faster than your cheek, people handle trauma at different speeds.”  She moved a hand to rest on his shoulder.  “You’re usually good at this, but just in case you need to hear it aloud this time: you are not the only one hurt by this.  You’ve scared most of us, and it will take time to get everyone back to where we were.”

John nodded.  If the yelling and cold shoulders and probing looks hadn’t been clues enough, the deafening silence in the part of his life that had been consumed by the Reapers was.  This crew— his crew— was determined to give him time, to shoulder the burden of this war without him, and that wasn’t how this was supposed to go.  He was their leader; they should be coming to him for instructions and guidance, not coddling him because he’d let himself get backed into an emotional corner.  Even Hackett was once again fudging paperwork to buy him time.

It couldn’t work this way.  Tali was right.  Liara was right.  Chakwas was going to chew him out eventually about the entire point of psych evals, and she would be right.  It was a far better plan to lean on his crew and his friends.  They knew how bad this war was.  They knew the stakes as well as he ever would.  And as much as he desperately didn’t want to lose them again, to war or politics or whatever backlash surviving might bring, they didn’t want to lose him, either.  He couldn’t just remember that; he had to act on it.  Show, not tell, as Mrs. Matthews used to say.

“Part of healing is faith, Commander.  Believe that it will work.”  Chawas patted his shoulder encouragingly.  “And not just because it lowers your stress response.”

John laughed out loud this time, shaking his head at that pleased grin peeking through the CMO mask.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Chakwas gave his shoulder a squeeze before stepping away, again.  “Now, sit still while I fetch what I need.  That cheek is not going to be so well-behaved.”

The door to the MedBay hissed open as Chakwas walked away.  John looked up, feeling the momentary bubble of cheerfulness deflate.  Kaidan looked like he’d had as rough a morning as John: hunched shoulders, his mouth pulled into a frown, and something around his eyes that looked like he’d been trying no to cry.  When John had left Kaidan with his usual comment about how coffee was a terrible way to start the day, he hadn’t meant it.  The goal had been a smile, flashed his way before Kaidan ignored his opinion and thoroughly enjoyed his first cup.

Something else must have happened.  Something while John was talking to Tali.  “Major.”

Kaidan looked up, almost startled.  He walked over to the medical bed, taking up his usual post as they waited for Chakwas to return.  “Hey.”

It wasn’t the change he’d been planning on, but Kaidan’s expression shifted as the medic took in John’s face.  Observant brown eyes tracked over Chakwas’ work, the familiar lines of concentration appearing at the corners of those eyes as he mentally reviewed some lesson or another.  Unconsciously, Kaidan took hold of John’s chin, turning his head so he could see better.  “That’s not too bad.”

“Chakwas thinks so,” John confirmed.  “She says my jaw needs to be covered up a little longer.”

“Prevent infection.”  The calm, confident tone, even when bullets were whizzing by overhead.  Field medics never seemed to notice they were the most intimidating people on a team, because normal things didn’t faze them.  Blood and bone and guts, the other side still trying to kill them, and they’d calmly shove everything back in place and patch you up until a formal doctor could be reached.

Kaidan was frowning properly now, his thumb tracing over the jagged line of orange light.  “Your scars are worse.”

“Strong negative emotions,” John parroted.  “Talking to Tali was good in the grand scheme, but it...wasn’t fun.”

“But you did talk, then?”  Kaidan looked momentarily pleased.  “You told Tali at least a little about what’s been keeping you up at night?”

“Yeah.”  About things she was convinced he should also tell Kaidan.  As if having a scientifically-verified diagram of how you’ll be tortured into being a literal monster had ever improved someone’s mood.

Kaidan sighed, the sound not quite relieved.  “Good.”

“Good?” John asked.

“Good that nobody yelled,” Kaidan explained, “and good that you finally talked to one of your friends.”

John nodded.  That had been the point, hadn’t it?  Air out the negative from his self-inflicted pain physically, so everyone could help deal with the negative from his self-inflicted pain mentally.  That didn’t mean he had to enjoy it.

“What about you?” John asked, carefully probing.  “Looks like your morning went about as well as mine.”

Kaidan shrugged, stepping out of Chakwas way as the doctor reappeared with a tray of small tools.  “Nothing much.  We can talk about it later.”

The hell they could.

John opened his mouth to argue, but Chakwas had hold of his chin now.  “Look forward, please, Commander.  You’ll want to hold still for this bit.”

“Just this bit?” John asked, annoyance flaring at the wrong person.

Chakwas raised an eyebrow and held the scalpel where he could see.

“Oh.”  Right.  “Yes, ma’am.”

John resumed staring at the point over Chakwas’ shoulder as she tested the edges of the bandage on his cheek once more with her fingers.  He winced when she found the end of the ruined adhesive, the skin underneath more sensitive.  “Ouch.”

“The blood’s mixed with the interior edge of the bandage,” Chakwas explained, tone soothingly apologetic.  “I’ll have to convince it.”  She continued working her way around the bandage, peeling it away cleanly along the edges under his eye and by his nose.  John’s nose twitched as a light touch tickled.  Reaching his jaw, Chakwas picked at the bottom edge.  “This part’s being stubborn, too, but I think it’s just the adhesive.”

“So, just yank?”

Chakwas gave him a look.  “I’d take half your cheek with me.”

They both saw Kaidan stiffen next to them.  Chakwas shot him an apologetic look.  “A thoughtless bit of phrasing, Major.  I apologize.”

“It’s OK,” Kaidan said, his tone overly formal.  “John thought it was funny.”

John had, but not anymore.  It was too soon, and he couldn’t clearly remember his own massacred face.  The pieces of that night that haunted him weren’t flaps of skin and trails of drying blood.  He’d scared Kaidan, and there wasn’t much point in finding a way to deal with this stuff himself if it just meant hurting the man he loved.

John slid his hand along the edge of the examination table, rapping his knuckles along the plastisteel to get Kaidan’s attention.  When he saw the other man look down, he flipped his hand, palm up, and wiggled his fingers.

A warm hand took hold of his, the grip tighter than he’d hoped.  “It looked like the other wounds are doing well.”  Kaidan’s voice was still uneven, but better.  Focusing once again on the medical.

“The one above his eyebrow is completely healed,” Chakwas agreed.  “I’m going to recover this one on his jaw, just to be safe, but it looks well on its way, too.”

“Just the cheek, then,” Kaidan said, quietly.

“Yes,” Chakwas said, drawing the word out lazily.  “Our Commander has always been the cheeky sort.”

Chakwas looked pleased at Kaidan’s laugh, short and soft as it was.  John squeezed the hand holding his, feeling his own small smile as he felt Kaidan’s grip relax.

Taking hold of his chin in one hand, Chakwas ran a finger along the outside edge.  John watched the scalpel, balanced between her thumb and first two fingers, and thought it looked unnervingly close to his eye.  A moment later it was gone, the blade away and down, out of his line of sight as a pulling sensation started against his skin.  Chakwas had loosened the bandage as far as she could, exposing as much of the problem as she could.

Biting the inside of his other cheek, John focused on the spot on the MedBay door, and on the feeling of a familiar hand in his.  The Doc knew what she was doing.  All he had to do was hold still.

“This might hurt.”  Something rasped against his cheek, a gentle scraping sensation, a little like when he’d learned to shave back on Earth.  “There shouldn’t be any lasting pain, though.”  Chakwas voice was as calm as ever, undisturbed by the injury or how it had come to be.  “I’m just convincing your face to let go.”

John bit back a laugh.  He caught the edge of Chakwas’ grin from the corner of his eye.  She knew as well as any other soldier that sometimes, humor worked better when it was a little dark.

He thought he saw Kaidan shift his stance, but his hold on John’s hand remained steady.

Chakwas’ hand moved, the tiny blade tracing along the edge of the bandage.  John flinched as something let go, relaxing as a finger smoothed over the offended skin.  A few more tugs of the same variety and It felt like a large section of the bandage suddenly pulled loose.  When he glanced down, John could see it hanging off his cheek, discolored by dried blood like the one on his jaw had been. 

“Doc.”

John shifted his gaze to his left, turning his chin on instinct so he could actually see.  Kaidan’s voice sounded thick, his grip on John’s hand once again tight.  John didn’t dare turn his head too far, but even in his periphery, he could see Kaidan had gone pale.

“It’s only a bandage, Major,” Chakwas said, in that neutral way of hers.  “Focus on that.”

Kaidan nodded, but John didn’t like the jerky quality to it.  He didn’t like the way it felt like Kaidan was trying not to squeeze his hand.  “Close your eyes.”

Kaidan flinched, brown eyes wide and focused unhelpfully on John’s exposed cheek.  “What?”

“Close.  Your eyes.”

It took a moment, but Kaidan did.  He still sounded confused.  “Why?”

“Because then you can’t see.”  John moved his thumb slowly back and forth over the back of Kaidan’s hand, closing his own eyes as he did so.  He focused on breathing, a little effort making the sound loud enough to hear.

Listening carefully, past his own breaths and the Normandy’s hum and the soft sounds of Chakwas’ work, John knew Kaidan had caught his meaning.  The other man’s breathing was softer, but after a minute, it matched his own.

The next few minutes consisted of the occasional tug on his skin, followed by more of that scraping sensation.  A quiet, annoyed exaltation matched the feeling of something warm and wet, sliding down his cheek.  John ran his tongue over the inside of his cheek, some age old instinct demanding he make sure there wasn’t a hole.  He stopped immediately at the familiar stinging flare of antiseptic across his cheek.

“Almost done, Commander.”  Calm and professional, matching those steady doctor’s hands.  “It no doubt feels worse than it looks.”

John hummed his skepticism but kept his face as still as he could, focusing on the warmth of Kaidan’s hand and their breaths.

A few more minutes, including one particularly unpleasant moment where he could feel a part of his skin sliding under Chakwas probing touch, and he was deemed successfully investigated.  One last round of discomfort as Chakwas laid a new bandage over his cheek, followed by the much less exciting experience of having a smaller bandage reapplied to his jaw.

“All done.”

John opened his eyes to find Chakwas collecting the last of the evidence of her word onto the tray.  There was more red on the tools and on her fingers than John had hoped.  “How’s the cheek, Doc?”

“It’s better,” Chakwas said, “but you did the most damage to that part of your face.  You’re at the mercy of time, Commander.”

“I do love being at someone else’s mercy,” John muttered as Chakwas walked over to the biohazard disposal unit.

Turning his attention to Kaidan, John still didn’t like what he saw.  For one thing, Kaidan’s eyes were still closed, his breathing still that steady pace John had set, even after Chakwas had declared her work finished.  The color had yet to come back into his face, and his shoulders weren’t so much hunched now as they were creeping toward his ears.

Maybe closing his eyes hadn’t been such a good idea.

Sliding off the examination bed, John tugged on Kaidan’s hand, pulling the biotic after him as he strode across the MedBay, ignoring the surprised squawk behind him.  “Doc, we need a minute.”

“Take all the time you need,” came that imperturbable voice.

Shoving his hand against the holographic display, John felt as much as he heard Kaidan’s confusion, the soft “John?” as he dragged them into the privacy of the AI Core.

The door hissed closed behind them, the permanently dim lighting giving the room a feeling of being hushed.  Around them, the lights that showed an Synthetic mind working on a million tasks at once blinked lazily at them.  On instinct, John looked up at the ceiling.  “EDI?”

“Yes, Shepard?”

“Can I borrow your room for a minute?”

“Of course.”  There was no sign of her departure beyond the lock on the door changing to red.  “I will activate privacy protocols until you are finished.”

John turned, still holding Kaidan’s hand.  The biotic still looked confused, but some of the nervous tension had been replaced by curiosity.  It was a start.  “You said we could talk later.”  John planted his other hand on his hip.  “Well, it’s later.  Let’s talk.”


Walking through the MedBay door, it had taken Kaidan a moment to realize what was different.  The right side of John’s face was completely visible, the bandages that had literally held everything in place removed while Kaidan was down the hall, still getting those last few emotions under control.  There was no sign of an injury on John’s forehead, the smallest wound completely healed.  John’s jaw looked almost back to normal, though the scar looked brighter than Kaidan had expected.

Running his gaze over the rest of the man, he noticed a number of scars that were brighter than they had that morning.

John had said that stress and anxiety made the scars worse, something about his endocrine system being tied to his cybernetics and the side effect of looking as awful as he felt.  Kaidan had never decided if he thought Cerberus had done that on purpose— some added bit of inhumanity to mess with John’s head.  Bringing someone back from almost dead was a tricky business, though, so it was possible the manipulative bastards hadn’t meant to scare their victim, just this once.

Not that terrorists were necessary to get scared.  It had been a jest, meant to help John relax, but Kaidan had felt his back go ramrod straight at the casual comment.  The image flashed before his eyes, gone even before Chakwas had finished her apology.

He’d still clung to John’s hand when the man offered it.

The real trouble had started when Chakwas started on the bandage on John’s cheek.  He’d known what it would look like, knew the memories that had lurked under the surface for days would free themselves at the first opportunity, but that hadn’t made it any easier.  The blood-stained fabric had pulled away, far more intact than John’s skin had been, revealing the still-healing flesh underneath.  Whether by Chakwas’ careful probing or disturbed previously, a few drops of fresh blood had found their way onto John’s skin, smearing and rehydrating the other liquids present during the healing process.  When she let go to fetch something from her tray, the dangling piece had almost proved too much.

“Close.  Your eyes.”

He had, and for a moment it had worked.  He’d focused on John’s hand in his, cooler than his own but never enough to make him jump when it wandered beneath his sleep shirt, John tugging him close each morning before shifting into the hardworking soldier who was wearing himself so thin.  He’d had a moment to wonder why John was breathing so loudly before his mind summoned up an exercise from his medic training, one of many tricks they’d been taught for calming someone down.  Matching his breathing to John’s had helped, too, by giving him something to do .

But the light from the MedBay had bled through his eyelids, turning his vision a dark red.  He could still remember John’s steady breathing up in their bathroom, as if the mass of pain that was his head didn’t bother him in the least.  His mind had unhelpfully spliced the images of Chakwas peeling off the soiled bandage with her piecing John’s face back together, shifting between the two women as if it had been a single event.  Even his grip on John’s hand had started to feel the same, even without the dried blood to soften the feel of calloused fingers against his own.

John had literally yanked him from his thoughts.  Kaidan had stumbled after him, shooting Chakwas a confused glance before they’d disappeared into the AI Core, the door locking behind them as EDI “left”.

“You said we could talk later.”  John kept hold of his hand, the other planted on his hip.  “Well, it’s later.  Let’s talk.”

Kaidan stared at him, his thoughts still catching up.  He noticed idly that the bandage on John’s jaw was smaller this time, maybe five centimeters long.  Chakwas had said it was just a precaution, anyway.  The one on the left looked the same, covering nearly all of John’s cheek in steril off-white.

“Kaidan?”  John’s voice was softer, a gentle demand for his attention.  “What happened?”

He knew John wasn’t surprised.  He’d probably expected Kaidan to take this part badly.  It didn’t make it any less unpleasant to say it out loud.  “I’m sorry.”  He hadn’t meant to sound so tired.  “The bandage just got to me.  It looked like...like something else.”

“I don’t mean the bandage,” John said.  “You looked upset when you walked through the MedBay door.”

Kaidan breathed out through his nose.  Steve’s whole point had been to encourage Kaidan to tell John things, not just be supportive.  Kaidan had spent most of his time in Starboard debating if he should tell John about his talk with Steve at all, let alone the other thoughts now crowding his head.

“Was the coffee that bad?”

It was such a dumb joke, paired with the smallest, most tentative smile Kaidan could remember seeing on that usually confident face, but it did the trick.

“Steve wanted to talk to me.”  At least he didn’t sound tired anymore.  “He was worried about how I’m doing.”

John frowned.  “Is something wrong?  Did you hear about your students on Palaven?”

“No,” Kaidan said.  “I mean, no, I haven’t heard, but no, that’s not what Steve meant.”  He shifted his weight, deprived of his usual nervous habits by John’s custody of his hand.  “He was worried about how I’ve been doing the last few days.”

“Oh.”  John didn’t look reassured.  “How are you doing?”

Kaidan took a deep breath, trying to order his thoughts.  “I’m doing OK.”

He could still feel those deep blue eyes watching him, almost as intense as the lighter blue ones watching him now.  And you’re lucky to have him, too.  Talk to him.

“I am doing OK,” Kaidan repeated, “but I’ve...been better.”  He swallowed, focusing for once on the less injured side of John’s face.  “You...you scared the hell out of me, John.  I spent enough time after Alchera wondering what you looked like dead; I didn’t need a real life example.”  No body had ever been found, but that hadn’t stopped his imagination.  Burned?  Frozen?  Shattered into pieces?  “Not to mention the idea that you felt driven to do something like this.”

The hand holding his squeezed, almost unconsciously.  “Kaidan, I didn’t—”

“How badly had I fucked up?” Kaidan went on, not giving John the chance to repeat his defense.  “I thought I’d dealt with my guilt over not trying to contact you after Horizon.  I’d made peace with the fact that James wouldn’t let me talk to you while you were stuck in Vancouver.  I haven’t been part of this crew continuously, but we’ve always been close,” he darted a look at John’s eyes, “and the last few months have been...something else.”

“You came to visit me?” John asked.  He sounded genuinely surprised.  “When?  Did you try again?”

“I tried twice,” Kaidan said.  “James was pretty clear the second time.”

“But you came.”  John almost breathed the words.  “You were there.”

It was Kaidan’s turn to frown.  “Half of Vega’s job was limiting your contact with people.  I know I wasn’t the only person who tried to reach you while you were under house arrest.”

There was something in John’s face, a kind of lonely desperation Kaidan wished fervently had no place there.  Had no one told John he’d had visitors?  Had they really let the man stew in his attributed guilt, thinking the whole world just...left him?

Stepping forward, Kaidan cupped John’s uninjured cheek with his free hand.  He felt his heart clench at the way John leaned into it, eye closing automatically at his touch.  “You came,” John repeated, the words still soft, and this time Kaidan didn’t think John was talking about him alone.

“John,” his own voice equally low, “of course we did.  Half this war effort has been people coming back to you.”  Maybe not always on purpose, and maybe some of them had been too afraid to trust as soon as they should have, but John’s crew had come back to him.  Even the ones that didn’t serve on the Normandy itself.  “You’ve never been alone.”

John opened his eyes.  Covering Kaidan’s hand with his own, he studied the man in front of him.  Kaidan waited, feeling like he’d never had so much patience to spend.

The words still caught him by surprise when they came.  “I’m afraid you’ll die.”

Kaidan blinked, mind unhelpfully blank.  “What?”

“Everytime we go out there, there’s a chance we don’t come back.  That something terrible will happen and I won’t be able to stop it.  That I’ll just have to stand there and watch—”  John’s voice sounded strained, like he’d been holding something back for too long.  He pressed Kaidan’s hand firmly against his cheek.  “I can’t lose you, again.”  

He couldn’t…  “John,” Kaidan said, careful but confused, “you’re the one who died.”

“And you had to deal with that.”  John’s voice was full of apologies Kaidan didn’t need to hear.  “Two years trying to come to terms with something that wasn’t true, and then months of wondering what kind of bullshit Cerberus was trying to pull using my name.”

Those vibrant blue eyes, so full of life and love and the need to explain.

“But I lost two years.  The people and places and things that could have been.  And when I woke up, you were gone.”  There was that loneliness, again.  “All of you, but I couldn’t even find out what you were doing.  If you’d been promoted.  Where you might be stationed and if you were still fighting, no matter what the Council claimed had happened.  And after Horizon…”  John swallowed hard, but kept Kaidan’s gaze.  “After Horizon, I wasn’t sure you’d ever want to see me again.  I figured...I’d lost you.  For good.”  He laughed, bitterly.  “For good, because the right thing to do was to push you away.  Keep Cerberus from getting their corrupt little hands on you like they had Garrus and Joker and me.”

The irony was that John’s yelling on Horizon had gone a long way to convincing Kaidan that he was real.  No attempt to prove anything, no calm reasoning to excuse Cerberus’ deeds.  There’d been a clear look of relief that no amount of doubt could misunderstand, and then John had snapped, backing Kaidan into an emotional corner until he’d lashed out, throwing his anger and confusion and misery at the one person he’d wanted most in the world to see again.

“But I can’t do it.”  John shifted his hold on Kaidan’s hand, tugging it down so he could hold both of them at their sides.  “I was so happy to see you, back before everything went to hell.  And I couldn't stand to lose you now.  Not when,” it wanted to be a smile, “not when I know what it feels like to wake up every morning next to you.”

He’d been more or less successful at keeping his tears in check in Starboard, but he wasn’t sure he could do it twice.  Kaidan bit the inside of his lip, hoping the physical pain would keep the emotional part at bay.  “I’m right here, John.  If we die,” because it was a chance, on every mission, “it’ll be together, fighting these bastards like we always knew we’d have to.”

But John was always full of surprises.  Sometimes, it was the ugly kind.

“I’m not worried about them killing you.”  He’d released Kaidan’s hands, his own now running nervously up and down Kaidan’s forearms as he spoke.  “I’m worried what they’ll turn you into.”

“Turn me into?” Kaidan repeated.

“I have no reason to believe Cerberus is after you,” John explained, almost as if he’d been distracted.  “I know they want Jack, but I don’t think The Illusive Man cares about you anymore.”

Kaidan felt a chill run down his spine.  He knew he’d been a tool, something The Illusive Man used to jerk John around at least once, but it was still a nasty idea that it might happen, again.

“The Reapers take people, Kaidan.”  John had dropped his gaze, his voice a steady counterpoint to the anxious movement of his hands.  “They take people and they turn them into monsters.”

“I know.”  He did know.  Every day his father was listed as MIA, there was a chance the next Husk Kaidan shot would be him.

“A biotic as powerful as you?  There’s no way they wouldn’t try to take you alive.”

Whimpers, different from the last time he’d woken up.  Something that sounded like his name, trapped against the pillow and laced with desperate fear.  The way John sometimes held him too close, his hold almost painful as buried his face in Kaidan’s neck, breathing hard.

John’s hands had stilled, his gaze fixed on Kaidan’s chest.  “Did you see the Scions on Horizon?”

Kaidan shook his head.  His saving grace had been how far from the center of everything he’d been when he’d been frozen.  He probably would have died with the rest of the colonists otherwise, never knowing that John had survived.

“Horrible things,” John said, momentarily distracted by his disgust.  “Monstrous things, as ugly as they are mean.  Awful to fight, and not just because they don’t seem to know how to die.”

Nothing like frustration and resentment to shift the emotions in a room.

“The thing is,” John said, voice steadier than before as he worked through the simple facts, “part of what makes them so deadly is they aren’t normal Husks.  Hulking, vicious bastards, made excessively dangerous by the fact that they’re biotic.”

He’d thought the only biotic Reapers troops were Banshees.  Harvested Asari corrupted into shrieking monsters that made Liara freeze at the first hint of their presence.  The only human troops Kaidan had seen had been Husks.  A few had exploded, implanted with some kind of incendiary device instead of the standard electrical impulses, but ultimately a basic human in appearance and combat style.

A biotic Husk, though…

“They don’t really look like Husks,” John said.  “There’s a kind of resemblance, in that it’s obviously human, but…”  John’s gaze made it as far as his neck.  “It takes more than one biotic to make a Scion.  Obviously and...and it doesn’t look very human when they’re done...assembling the thing.”

Kaidan had put off looking at pictures of the Reaper troops he hadn’t yet had to fight.  Bad enough hearing about things like Adjutants; he didn’t need anymore of that stuff in his head if he could help it.

But John had it all.  Had probably fought it all.  Had seen first hand what these things could do, how they fought.  Had read every Alliance report on how each new creature was constructed.

“You’re worried they’ll turn me into a Scion,” Kaidan said.  “That they’ll torture me into something that you can’t recognize, and then you’ll have to fight it.”  Knowing John, he’d worked himself into a state over Liara being taken, or Garrus, or brainstorming the kinds of uses the Reapers might have for an immuno-compromised Quarian.

John looked at him now, fear mixing with a calm brought on by certainty.  “I couldn’t take it.”  His voice was level, as if this were any number of mission-based discussions they’d had.  “I don’t know how Steve does it.  I know...I have a good idea what happened to Robert, and I can’t imagine living with that...if it was you.”

He didn’t think this was all of it: the fear of losing his friends— his family— to the Reapers.  But Kaidan knew this was an important piece, one of the fears at the heart of John’s spiralling darkness, and he knew what it meant that the words had been said.

Taking another step closer, Kaidan pressed his forehead against John’s, his own eyes closed.  “I hate to break it to you, John, but no Reaper is going to turn me into anything.”  He couldn’t really make that promise, but it needed to be said.  Realistic expectations be damned.  He opened his eyes, John’s blue ones almost out of focus this close.  “You’re stuck with me.”

It took John a moment, then he pulled Kaidan into a hug.  Arms wrapped tightly around him as John pressed a kiss against his shoulder.  “I’m sorry I didn’t say something sooner.”  The words were muffled, but Kaidan didn’t care.  “I’m sorry you felt like you were ignoring me and that’s why I hurt myself.  You weren’t ignoring anything.”

Kaidan wrapped his own arms around John’s waist, his eyes closed as he held on.  “Apology accepted.”  He still felt the guilt pulling at him, but it was easier to believe he hadn’t be blind when John was the one saying it.  “Now, how do we fix this?”

“We are fixing it.”  The tension had gone from John’s body, just like it was starting to slip away from Kaidan’s.  “This is fixing it.”

“So, what?” Kaidan asked.  “You just have to keep telling me the scary stuff?”

“And believing that you will be there,” John squeezed him for a moment, hard, breathing deep, “knowing that you won’t leave when it gets hard.”

He’d tried that.  He’d tried space and reason and careful debate.  Sometimes, you just had to listen to your heart.

“I’m never leaving,” Kaidan said.  “No matter what happens.”

He held on just as tight, feeling the tension in the room change from secrets kept to adversity that could be faced.  He’d told John why he was upset, and John had shared another piece of what he had been determined to carry on his own.  Maybe Kaidan would have learned about those monsters in an Alliance report, stubbornly stolen from John’s stack one night, but he wouldn’t have known why that specific report had been such a fight.

He didn’t know how to make John stop being afraid that their friends would be captured alive.  None of them wanted to be captured at all, and they’d fight like hell till the end, but that wouldn’t help the next time a Banshee’s wail split the air or a Brute charged at them from across an empty room.

“Thank you,” Kaidan said, “for telling me.”

John snorted, the sensation odd at such close range.  “All this work to get me to talk, and you’ve been right next to me, refusing to say anything.”  John pulled away, his arms staying loosely around Kaidan.  “I’m glad you said something, too.”

“I still think you’re more important,” Kaidan said, stubbornly.  “You’ve been keeping things locked up for months, at least.”

“Yeah?” John said, almost casual.  “Well, I think you’re important, and you shouldn’t pick up my bad habits.  Even if you’re going to read half my reports.”  It was a smile this time.  “You’re welcome to some of my interviews with Allers, though.”  John stuck out his tongue.  “Some of her viewers ask the meanest questions.”

Kaidan laughed, keeping his own hold on John.  “Thanks, but I have my own interviews with her.”  A stray thought tugged at him, completely forgotten in the haze of the last few days.  “Actually, I think I was supposed to meet with her yesterday.”  He frowned.  “Or maybe it was today?”

“I know I owe her something on Rannoch,” John said.  He sounded almost cheerful, as if nosy Batarians and perverted Turians weren’t as bad as he’d just claimed.  “Yet another thing Traynor’s had to reschedule, no doubt.”

“Maybe she can just claim we were out of communication range,” Kaidan suggested.  As if their comm officer would ever let such a thing stop her.

John was tracing abstract patterns on his back, catching occasionally on a clasp or buckle.  “When we’re done with Chakwas, one of us should probably go talk to her.”

Kaidan nodded.  “I’ll go.  Whatever her interview topic, it’ll be less invasive than yours.”

John frowned.  “I trust Allers not to say anything she shouldn’t.”

Kaidan hooked his thumbs in the back of John’s belt.  “So do I, but I don’t trust those mean viewers to overlook the bandages on your face.”

John looked rueful.  “Good point.”  He sighed and looked over Kaidan’s shoulder.  “I suppose we should go back out there?  Let Chakwas finish with me so you can go tactfully avoid answering half Allers’ questions?”

They should.  Neither EDI nor Chakwas would care that they were in here, but getting back to a normal routine would help everyone get through this, not just him and John.  Spending lunch in the AI Core might also spark some interesting rumors, though at the moment Kaidan couldn’t think of how.  Just a weird place for two senior officers to be…

Still, it bothered him how quickly John could just shut himself off, force himself into dealing with an ever-growing amount of awful as if it wasn’t hurting him, even without that horrible little knife.

Kaidan tugged John close again, resting his forehead against John’s once more as he closed his eyes.  He concentrated on the small, surprised breath, the not-quite-there laugh that no doubt accompanied an equally shy smile.  The way John’s hands slid around to rest on his waist as John held him in return.  “A few more minutes.  Then we’ll go.”

John resumed tracing his abstract pattern on Kaidan’s side, humming his agreement.  “A few more minutes.  Then we’ll go.”

Chapter Text

Bunch of pyjacks wouldn’t know a good thing if it bit off their toes.

Wrex marched out of the Council chambers, his irritation only half bluster today.  He knew better than most that he’d have to press the Krogan’s advantage during the war, that any favoritism they might gain would fade the day the Reapers were defeated.  He also knew damn well it looked like the Krogan were being selfish during the galaxy’s time of need, negotiating for planetary rights and enforcing a system of alliances that would make something like the Genophage impossible in the future.

Nevermind it was the likes of the Council who’d done this to his people in the first place.  Or that lost paperwork had undermined far more politically connected individuals than the head of Clan Urdnot.  The same tenacity that was so valued on the battlefield was a nuisance in a diplomatic meeting, and the bureaucrats were going to make sure he had to personally jump through every single hoop they could find.

Maybe the Council was just annoyed that Primarch Victus had told the Dalatrass where she could shove it during their little “diplomatic summit”.

He passed a troupe of waiting dignitaries clustered to one side.  No doubt there to plead some case that the Council would take weeks to settle during the best of times.  For all that they’d been determined to deny the Reapers were a real threat, the Council certainly seemed willing to use the giant bastards as an excuse to take even longer on their decisions.  Wrex grinned, frightening somebody’s secretary who scuttled away from the Krogan and its impending wrath.

Even Shepard didn’t have the patience for Council meetings, and that crazy human had patience for almost anything.  Even an ancient ass like himself.

The elevator ride down to the Presidium took its sweet time, giving anyone trapped in the little cylinder an extended view of the high-class mundanity of life in the well-to-do part of the Citadel.  A highly decorated, high security, sixth of the space station that allowed anyone wandering its open spaces to convince themselves the rest of the galaxy’s problems were not its own.  Wrex enjoyed the solitude more than the view; few Krogan ever had to worry about crowded elevators, even on Omega.

The Presidium did have good restaurants, though.  Most of the places up here wanted to know how a Krogan had gotten permission to even be on the Presidium, let alone in their place of business, but food delivered to his designated apartment tasted just as good as food eaten at a restaurant.  Usually better, since no one was staring at him and muttering darkly about “oversized guests”.

Who ever thought the Krogan and the Elcor would have something in common?

The short walk across to the elevator that would take him down to the Wards was nice.  Lots of trees, all of which were a pleasant shade of green these days.  The Volus had been the last to petition permission to decorate the Presidium, and everything had been an ugly red.  Or, maybe blue.  Krogan eyes lacked the complexity required to see quite so many colors, but Tuchanka wasn’t a world of colors anyway.  No need to tell the difference between “violet” and “chartreuse” when hunting Varren in a monochrome setting.

The green leaves were pretty.  A lighter color than the ones on some of the planets he’d been to over the centuries.  Some of the trees were even dotted with little white flowers.

At least, he was pretty sure they were white.

He wasn’t about to ask the Hanar preaching nearby.  The giant jellies didn’t even have eyes; he wasn’t sure his pride could handle finding out that Hanar had better color vision to go with their better political standing.

Three elevator rides later— no cab would stop for a Krogan, even if he could fit in it— Wrex stomped down the hall toward the door marked 5673B.  A scrawny Salarian stood impatiently outside the door, tapping his foot next to a crate with the local noodle shop’s logo on it.  Glancing over, the Salarian did a double take when he realized Wrex was headed his way.

“Hey, man, I’m just a delivery guy.”  The Salarian held up his hands, backing away nervously.  “I’m just dropping off some jerk’s dinner.”

“Yeah,” Wrex growled, enjoying his role.  “This jerk’s dinner.”

Giving up on any chance of gratuity, as well as a signature for proof of delivery, the Salarian bolted down the hallway.  Wrex chuckled as he watched the kid bail, thinking he’d have to order from the noodle shop more often.  Dinner and a show.

He waved his omni-tool to unlock the door and carried the crate inside.  Setting it on the large table in the center of someone’s idea of a Krogan-friendly apartment, Wrex contemplated the biggest chair in the space.  It was large enough, but he still thought it looked awfully delicate.  Probably a Turian model, which spoke well of the practicality of design, but not so much about the weight limit.

Sitting was overrated anyway.

Wrex unlocked the lid with the code from his receipt, fishing out the first of the meat heavy dishes, rich with acid and spice.  Grunt had recommended the place, though not the C-Sec detail he’d been dragging behind him the day he’d found it.  So far, the food had proved worth the complicated ordering app and the jumpy delivery guys.  The portions were a little small, but he just ordered double.  It was on the Council’s tab, anyway, since they’d demanded he come down here in person to discuss further Krogan assistance on Irune.

Wrex was more inclined to send what people he could spare to Dekunna.  Hackett was one of Shepard’s people, and he’d always treated Wrex with respect.  Besides, the Elcor had never done anything against the Krogan.  No reason not to help them if he could.

But the people in power were worried about preserving the galactic economy.  If they survived this war, a preserved galactic economy would be a good thing.  Being able to say they had a hand in ensuring the basic functionality of necessary galactic systems would help ensure nobody went back on their word when the brute force of the Krogan was no longer considered a necessary risk.

Still, having to spend time dealing with the Council when he could be out there defending his people irked.  He hated mind games, almost as much as Shepard did, and without some smartass still shy of a century old to crack wise during speeches, it always felt like a waste of his time.

Slurping up most of a container, Wrex hummed his approval.  Almost spicy enough to burn, with a nice bitter aftertaste.  Now, if only he could make his endless “necessary” meetings work the same way.

Fishing out one of the little sweet cakes that came with orders over 500 credits, Wrex grunted as his omni-tool chirped an incoming message.  The Council had been his last scheduled meeting of the day, which meant something had gone wrong somewhere else in the galaxy and some ingrate needed an authority figure to blame.  He prodded the symbol that activated the audio, forfeiting the chance to glare at whoever was interrupting his dinner.

“Wrex?”

The old Krogan swallowed the tiny cake in one bite, mood instantly lifting.  “Liara.  What can this political annoyance do for you?”

The melodious voice of his favorite Asari laughed.  “Having fun with the Council, I see.”

“Who doesn’t have fun with the Council.”  Wrex tilted the remainder of the container of noodles into his mouth, swallowing a mouthful of mostly broth.

“At least you’re enjoying yourself.”  There was a pause, giving Wrex the chance to dig out another container, this one a free vegetarian option.  “Wrex, how long are you going to be on the Citadel?”

“Another week,” Wrex grumbled.  “Less, if I can help it.”

“So, you’ll still be there in three or four days?”

Wrex studied the collection of vegetables in a thick, dark sauce.  “Why?  Is the Normandy up for shore leave again already?”

“Something like that.”

Digging one of the provided spoons into the meatless muck, Wrex lifted it to his face, sniffing cautiously.  “Why?”

“War is hard on people.”  Liara sounded distracted, as if the Shadow Broker might have sixteen of those screens in front of them scrolling data at speeds too fast to actually read.  “It’s good to take a break now and then.”

“Or something went wrong after that mess on Rannoch.”  Wrex glanced at his wrist.  “The Geth haven’t switched sides already, have they?”

“No.”  There was a pause.  “Wrex...something’s happened with Shepard.”

Wrex dropped the spoon back into the container.  “What?  When?”  The crazy human had helped the Krogan regain their chance at a future, but more importantly, he was Wrex’s friend.  He’d risked far more than an outsider ever had for him personally, and his people in general.  “Where is he?”

“We’re all still on the Normandy.”  That soft voice had taken on a consoling tone.  Not patronizing like some; Liara knew better than most that Krogan weren’t intellectually inferior.  This was a friend trying to soften an unexpected blow for another friend.  “Shepard isn’t in any danger.  He’s just...having a hard time.”  Another pause, meaning there was something she wasn’t telling him.  “Hackett thought we could all use a break.”

“In the middle of a war.”  The rumble could have been seen as threatening to someone who didn’t know the de facto leader of the Krogan.  Wrex looked around the sparse room, taking in the lack of decorations on the walls, the larger than normal spaces between furniture and doorways, the extra thick clear plastic in the windows.  At least there were no bars on those windows, this high up in the Wards.

Looking back down at the orange light on his wrist, Wrex sighed.  “That sounds bad, Liara.”

“It probably is.”  His sigh was matched with one from the other side.  “I’m not sure how much I should tell you in advance.  Shepard doesn’t know I’m calling, and it might do him more good if you met him without...”  She fumbled for words, finishing lamely, “without context.”

“But you did call me,” Wrex said, “which means you think I should know what’s going on.  You think my hanging around and being ‘conveniently available’ might help Shepard deal with whatever happened to him.”

The steady orange light meant the comm line was still open.  The silence stretched on long enough that Wrex finally decided to enjoy another of the mini cakes.  Small as they were, it was a trick to manage it in two bites.  Something in the cake popped when he bit down, blasting his tongue with a tangy sweetness.

“Wrex…”

“Hm?”

“Shepard hurt himself.”

Wrex waited, but it looked like he was going to have to pry the extra details out of the Shadow Broker today.  “How bad?”

“Bad enough that Hackett approved shore leave.”

“Liara,” Wrex said, letting a hint of annoyance into his voice.  “You know not all stereotypes about Krogan are wrong.  We are actually an impatient, blunt sort of people, particularly when people we care about have been hurt.”

A snort of almost amusement.  “It’s not a life-threatening injury, but Shepard hurt himself badly enough that the Cerberus implants couldn’t fix it overnight.”

“Bad enough he couldn’t hide it like everything else,” Wrex summarized.

Liara sounded surprised, and a little hurt.  “You knew?”

“You might have been trapped on Ilium by your old boss, but Shepard wasn’t.”  Blueberries.  The sharp, sweet taste was blueberries.  “Shepard spent a fair bit of time on Tuchanka back when his ship had that damned geometric symbol stamped on it, and not just because Grunt needed a Clan to guide him into adulthood.”

“Shepard talked to you?”

“No.”  Not always.  Sometimes the human would ramble about things, pacing in a way he’d never done back on the SR1.  Mostly, he’d just wanted to sit nearby and observe, listening as the Clan went about their business, no demands placed on him or inquisitive, prying eyes.  No matter what surgeries or technology or cutting-edge medical techniques had been used on him, no Krogan would care.  You didn’t live to be 1,000 years old and care about how many kidneys someone had gone through.  “I think he liked the ambiance.”

“I’d be hard pressed to find another off-worlder who thought of Tuchanka as a relaxing place to be.”

If she could find one at all.

“But you’re not surprised he’s been hiding how poorly this war has been affecting him?” Liara asked, skeptical as always.

He wasn’t, because leaders always held things back from their people.  Knew things no one else wanted to.  Made decisions no one should have to make.  He wasn’t surprised because he’d known Shepard as long as Liara had, and their friend had never been prone to talking about himself unless tricked into it.  Months of bonding for the SR1 to earn a handful of facts about their Commander— he’d been almost as stubborn about his personal life as Wrex.

Mostly, though, he wasn’t surprised because Bakara had been worried about Shepard since she’d met the man in the Normandy’s MedBay.  A quiet man with too much pain, hiding a part of himself, like a Varren with a wounded leg.  The female shaman had said such pain would heal, eventually, but not correctly unless someone intervened.

A handful of conversations and it seemed Bakara knew his friend better than he did.

“You remember how often Ash used to burst into Shepard’s room?” Wrex asked.  “Usually dragging Tali or Kaidan behind her.”

He could see Liara nodding, that slow, thoughtful version that meant she was remembering something she thought useful.  “When Cerberus brought him back, I hear there were people on the SR2 who looked after Shepard.  Kasumi and Jack, I think.”  Liara paused, thinking through their list of friends.  “Tali, again, once she joined up.”

“Tali’s back on this crew, too,” Wrex pointed out.

“But we’re at war now,” Liara replied.  “Things aren’t as focused as when we were chasing Saren or hunting down the Collector Base.”

“And Tali is just one girl,” Wrex rumbled.  “It takes a group to keep Shepard out of his head.”

“We’re working on that.”

Wrex eyed the four remaining cakes.  “So why are you telling me any of this?”

“Because we’re on shore leave for the next week,” Liara explained.  “We’ll be on the Citadel, and I thought, as you guessed, that it couldn’t hurt to have one more friendly face around.”

Only the crew of the Normandy would consider adding a Krogan to be an improvement to a crisis.  He’d always thought one more Krogan couldn’t hurt, but it was nice to be part of one of those “multilateral missions” that publicly thought the same thing.

“You want me to convince Shepard to talk about his feelings with my charming good looks and winning personality?” Wrex asked, retrieving his spoon from the container of vegetables.  He folded the lid back over, returning it to the crate in favor of a meat dish full of fish.

“I’m not asking anything so specific,” Liara said.  “I just...wanted to know if you were around.”

“To be supportive and nosy.”

“You do it so well.”

If he was going to be laughed at, it might as well be by someone he liked.  “I better not be your only plan.”

“You’re not,” Liara said, sounding more confident than she had when she’d first called.  “A complicated, multifaceted strategy that would give any Turian General fits over how much luck might be involved.  But I thought you might want to help an old friend.”

“More like helping a young one,” Wrex harrumphed.  “Kids saving the galaxy; you should all be home, learning how to clean shotguns and digging up more Prothean ruins.”

“And you should be in a care facility while you still have secondary organs you haven’t worn out,” Liara shot back, a proper smile coming through her voice.

Ah, he’d missed this.  Being a pseudo-king, or whatever they were calling him now, just wasn’t the same as having people centuries younger than him sass their way through life’s problems.

“Hang in there, Wrex,” Liara said.  “The Council is no match for any member of this crew when it comes to getting what we want.  They’ll cave on at least two of the planets by the time we get there, and then I’m sure someone can find you something to shoot.”

Two planets, huh?  His sources had said they’d only cave on one.  “Promises, promises,” Wrex grumbled with a smile of his own.  “Take care of yourself, Liara.  And our crazy human.  I’ll be conveniently around when the Normandy docks.”

The line clicked off as his wrist went dark.  Wrex blew out a breath as he opened the fish dish.  He’d known the war would reach the Normandy one day.  Even that tight knit bunch wasn’t going to be able to keep the despair of endless battle and merciless enemies at bay.  And humans didn’t thrive on violence the way the Krogan or the Vorcha did, nor the endless puzzles that war could present to clever Salarians.  Shepard had been fighting this fight since he’d been made a Spectre, with no break and little support.  He had to take a knee sooner or later.

You couldn’t run a Tomkah for 1,000 kilometers without stopping to check the manifold.

He got through three more cartons of food— the fish one was good, the second spicy meat as satisfying as the first, and the free vegetables an acceptable form of slimy— before his omni-tool chirped with another incoming message.

Popping the third little cake into his mouth, savoring the blast of blueberries, Wrex prodded the accept button.  The familiar orange band of audio-only circled his wrist.  “What?”

“Friendly as ever, Wrex.”

First his favorite Asari, and now his friendly neighborhood Turian.  “Garrus.”

“Any chance your ancient ass is still on the Citadel, swapping barbs with the Council?”

Wrex opened a display on his omni-tool, summoning the frustrating delivery app and accessing his Previous Order.  “Maybe.”

He could imagine those mandibles tucked in close to that grey face, vainly attempting to seem at ease.  Garrus was probably leaning against something, too, arms crossed in his favorite I-can-wait gesture.  “Well, maybe you could do an old friend a favor.”

Finally locating the “Add Gratuity” part of his order, Wrex punched in a number that would ensure he received a call from the Council’s Accounts Payable division.  Dinner and a show, with a chance to yell at an underpaid bureaucrat.  He’d have to take Grunt’s dining advice more often.

“Which old friend do you know who needs a favor?” Wrex asked, cheerfully playing dumb as he closed down the app, returning to his perusal of his food.

“I do.”

No wonder Garrus liked being on the Normandy— he was almost as serious as Alenko.  “Well then.”  Wrex put down the second broken spoon— fragile, plastic things meant for smaller fingers— and did his best to imitate his friend’s signature drawl.  “What can I do for you?”

“Well,” Garrus started, ignoring the mimicry, “it’s about Shepard.”

He wondered silently just how many people were going to call him before the Normandy docked.  It would wreak havoc with his communications bill.  But the Council was paying for that, too, and the least they could do for one of their Spectres was pay to have his friends worry about him.

The very least.

Wrex finished something labelled “celery” out of one corner of the crate.  Bright green, he was sure of it.  “So?” he asked his wrist, tugging the lid off the long, thin container, “what’s my favorite trouble-making human done now?”


There had always been a chance Cerberus would leave something behind.

Once, The Illusive Man had been as impressive as they’d all thought he was, and those he’d promoted had kept to that code of competence.  It was part of why she’d agreed to work for him, why she’d risked gaining her father’s approval, doing something great with her life that might grant him his precious legacy.  Because once, The Illusive Man had been the best there was, and as close to unstoppable as one man with a grudge could be.

That was before the Reapers.  Before something had happened that had pushed that impressive man too far.  Or maybe not far enough.

The actions of Cerberus over the last year were different, and not in a way that suggested a new strategy.  Something was wrong with the group she’d left.  For God’s sake, she was still alive.

With all his back up plans, someone, somewhere, should have gotten to her by now.

Miranda sat in front of the window at the little overpriced cafe on Ilium’s tourist-friendly towers, watching the reflection of the Drell two tables to her left.  He was definitely following someone, but she hadn’t been able to confirm if it was her or the Asari with the complicated neck tattoo.  Of course, it was possible that they were both following her, or that the Asari was following her while the Drell followed the Asari.  It was possible neither of them had even noticed she was there, utterly unrelated to prickling on the back of her neck or the shadow she’d spotted behind her at two separate tram stations.

She doubted it, though.  The Asari was drawing the wrong kind of attention for a cafe on this level.  The only reason to be that loud would be to make sure someone was paying attention to you.  Terrible tactics for a tail, but they couldn’t all be well trained.

Tapping a finger absently on the miniature datapad in front of her, Miranda scanned the possible ships for hire out of the corner of her eye, chin resting on her other hand in a studiously distracted pose.  She didn’t really want to use a Batarian cruiser if she could avoid it.  She wasn’t worried about slavers; the few who were still trying to do business during the war were getting mauled by Aria’s mercenaries for undermining the tentative trust between Omega and Hackett’s growing alliance.  It was more that it would flag, even with Cerberus running half mad.  Batarians anywhere near that part of that System would set off any number of alarms.

She’d double checked the destruction of Lazarus Station, personally.  When she’d planned the excursion, she’d wanted to ensure the work had been done properly.  By the time she had actually arrived, months later, she’d wanted to make sure there was nothing left for her soon-to-be-ex boss to use against her or her...colleagues.

She’d even wiped as many of Jack’s files as she could find before she’d been locked out of the direct link to Cerberus’ mainframe.  A desperate little gamble to keep the woman who’d finished piecing Shepard back together safe from a man who, while he abhorred what had been done to her as a child, might be willing to overlook that non-sanctioned bit of cruelty now that Jack was older.  Under The Illusive Man, Cerberus had stayed away from children, but that was before things changed in ways Miranda couldn’t account for, and adults had always been fair game.

And those Phantoms were powerful biotics, all of them female.  Jack would be a prime candidate for conversion.

Shutting off the datapad, Miranda gave a melodramatic sigh and finished her drink.  The latest attempt at hybridizing coffee with some plant from Thessia; they still hadn’t worked out all the kinks, but it was getting closer to palatable.  Maybe in another century, since Asari didn’t have to worry about the pressures of time.

To her left, the Drell changed something on the holographic screen in front of him.  Behind her, the Asari laughed gaily at something one of her table companions had said.

Maybe she wasn’t the target.  It’d be a nice change.

The lack of access to Lazarus Station meant she’d have to risk going back to Minuteman Station.  Still operational as of the last time she’d hacked a Cerberus shuttle, it had held the bulk of the research on the Lazarus Project.  Given the clone that had been running around long after Shepard had “returned from the dead”, it seemed likely that if there was any information left to be had on her last, best work, it would be there.

She just had to get to it.

The sigh this time was smaller, genuine.  She didn’t have to go; she wanted to.  Shepard had been making such progress before he’d turned himself over to the Alliance, and from what she’d seen at the party, the idea of a happy, healthy, whole individual was not out of the question.  John Shepard was not a doll broken beyond repair.  He was a person, a human.  More human than some.

Something was undoing all the work of the six months he’d spent with the ragtag crew The Illusive Man had correctly guessed would be an acceptable replacement for the SR1.  Whatever progress had been made being back under Admiral Hackett’s command, saving the galaxy with yet another team of newbies supplemented by trusted friends, was also threatening to spiral down the drain.

There had to be something.  Some piece of evidence she could find.  Some file or video or set of notes that would convince Shepard he was who he had always been.

Yes, he wasn’t the exact same man.  No one was exactly who they were two years ago.  Life changed you, and it changed Shepard.  Because he was human .

A clattering from the kitchen confirmed her suspicions.  Three of them, though.  Not Cerberus then.  They might settle for hiring aliens, but three clumsy beginners to take out the ex-agent Miranda Lawson?

The Illusive Man wasn’t that far gone.

Swiping the miniature datapad off the table, Miranda slipped it into a pocket and headed out the front door.  There was a Volus-backed colony ship heading out in an hour, with just enough questionable in its crew’s history to make room for one more human passenger.  The docking port was three levels down, two across.  Twenty minutes, unless she hit traffic.

In the meantime, if the Asari wanted to make a scene, Miranda was willing to oblige.  Maybe she could work off some of this frustration in a more Jack-approved style.

Chapter Text

Joker flicked his gaze down to check the clock before going back to the sticky part of his calculations.  “You’re late.”

“Is that anyway to greet someone who doesn’t have to be here?”

Joker grinned.  He could picture Traynor, hands on her hips, hopefully one eyebrow raised in mock indignation.  She’d been practicing in the bathroom mirror all week, and after all the teasing Westmoreland had given her, he hoped she’d finally gotten the hang of it.  Traynor seemed like the sort of woman who could really devastate someone with a well-timed eyebrow.

“If I’d gone to lunch on time today,” Joker said, setting another simulation to run, “this would be my afternoon snack.”

“It’s only five minutes past.”

Sending a final set of coordinates to EDI for verification, Joker turned his chair around to face their comm officer.  “You’re always punctual.”  He gave her his best cocky grin.  “I was starting to worry something was wrong.”

Traynor snorted, hands on her hips but with both her eyebrows lowered in annoyance.  “As a man who has never had the skills to deal with troublesome people, I wouldn’t expect you to understand the finesse required to field all the dignitaries and political elites who think the Normandy is their personal errand service.”

He kept the grin, but it felt forced now.  “You found more people who desperately need Commander Shepard to personally save them?”

“No,” Traynor sighed, “I just don’t have Commander Shepard to personally tell them to bugger off.”

Joker watched her hands drop back to her sides.  He knew, even with shore leave to cover their asses, the work still had to get done.  Shepard was up and no doubt trying to help, but anyone who knew what was going on was no doubt hiding their reports, trading them under the table like ancient Earth Baseball cards.  As the comm officer, Traynor was probably stuck in the middle of all that mess, plus whatever attitude she was getting from people outside the Normandy.

He felt suddenly guilty that she’d remembered to bring him lunch at all.

With a frown of his own, Joker gave Traynor’s hands another look.  “Hey…where’s my lunch?”

Traynor gave him a beatific smile.  “I don’t have it.”

“Then…why are you here?”

“This ship is currently dealing with the rather dramatic fallout of having high-ranking officers who lock themselves away and work too hard,” Traynor said, by way of explanation.  “Therefore, I have decided I shall not bring you lunch every day.”  She turned herself sideways, gesturing grandly at the door through which she’d come.  “I am here to escort you to the Mess.”

Joker stared, a vague sense of terror roiling in his gut.  “You…what?”

“It’s good to be around people,” Traynor said, heartlessly ignoring the way he hadn’t leapt from his chair in anticipatory joy.  “Even when they annoy you, you should get out of your routine and mingle among the masses.”

“Do I look like a man who mingles?” Joker asked.  He pressed himself back into the comfortable leather of his chair, hoping his recently healed shoulder wouldn’t crack under the strain.  “I’m not going.”

“You said you miss lunch because you can’t keep track of the time,” Traynor said.  “I’m more than happy to watch the clock, but I’m not going to enable your isolationist tendencies.”

“But…” Joker cast around for a reason why he wouldn’t have to go downstairs when he hadn’t been planning to.  The crew was OK, and he liked everyone left from the SR1 well enough.  He just didn’t enjoy unplanned socializing, and with shore leave in everyone’s immediate future, he’d been planning to enjoy his solitude while he could.

EDI exempted, of course.

“But I haven’t finished calculating all the Jumps to get us back to the Citadel on time.”  Joker spun his chair back around, calling up half a dozen more displays with the vain hope that Traynor wouldn’t notice that two of them had nothing to do with flying a ship.

Traynor walked over to him, peering over his shoulder as she leaned on the back of his chair for balance.  “You really think we’re going to make it back to Citadel space on time?”

“Not just Citadel space,” Joker said, “but all the way back to the Citadel.  Command finally gives us shore leave, I’m not about to waste any of it getting back to shore.”

“It’s just that I thought we were pretty far out, and our usual Relay –“

“The Turians did the heavy lifting, finding alternate routes.”  Joker swiped a reminder off his screen with a wave.  “That, and it looks like the Reapers have moved out of the Relay System of this Cluster, so we can Jump in and out without any trouble.”

Traynor pursed her lips, looking doubtful.  “I’m sure Command would understand a small delay on account of the giant, robotic invaders.”

“Yeah, well I won’t.”

“Confirming that the Reapers leave a Relay unguarded at times could be useful in fleeing combat situations,” EDI chimed in.  “The information could prove invaluable to ships that are less dexterous than we are.  If our hypothesis is wrong, the Normandy is the most likely ship to survive such a test.”

“This is why I never come up here,” Traynor grimaced.  “It’s rarely comforting, talking to the two of you.”

“You don’t have trouble talking to Cortez about his aerial stunts,” Joker replied, hurt weaving into his tone.

“Lt. Cortez is rarely the pilot flying me,” Traynor sniffed.  The cockpit door hissed open again, derailing the friendly complaints as Traynor glanced away from the displays.  “Hello, Commander.”

“Traynor.”  Shepard’s footsteps were heavier than they’d been on the SR1.  It was possible that the augmentations Cerberus had given him had increased his mass by that much, but privately, Joker thought it was probably the same reason he smiled less than he had before, uh…before.

“You planning a picnic, sir?” Traynor asked, with her usual mix of cheerful and professional.

“A little bird told me I should pack a lunch.”

He’d even set a reminder today.  Should have just gone down and let Donnelly pester him about EDI’s mech and whether she’d ever repaired the parts that allowed her to pass visually as a human.  Joker twisted around in his seat to see Shepard holding up a pair of water bottles.  “Commander!  Excellent timing.”  He shot Traynor a look.  “We were just discussing why lunch at my workstation was a better idea than wasting time going all the way down to the cafeteria.”  He gestured at his displays, much more confident that Shepard wouldn’t recognize the random chart in the bottom left.  “Gotta calculate those jumps to the tiniest detail.”

Shepard grinned.  “And we all know how much you love walking.”

He felt the shove through his chair as Traynor pushed off a little harder than necessary.  “I wouldn’t want to impede accurately calculated jumps,” the comm officer said.  A weight on his head, to counter the friendly tone in her voice.  “I’ll come by tomorrow.  I’m sure a pilot as amazing as you will have everything figured out by then.”

It was such a joy to have a woman mad at you.

Traynor bid them both farewell on her way out of the cockpit, her overly cheerful tone apparently lost on their Commander.  Turning his chair to face his friend properly, Joker waited for the door to close before speaking.  “You haven’t had lunch up here since we went back to the Alliance.”

“I’ve been eating lunch wherever I am and when I remember.”  Shepard held out one of the water bottles.

“OK, see, when I try that, beautiful women get mad at me,” Joker huffed.  He paused.  “That sounds better than it actually is.”

“They’re just looking out for you,” Shepard replied.  Crossing his legs, he dropped into a seated position on the floor.  Joker scowled at what was definitely not a flare of jealousy.  “Here.”

Joker caught the wrapped package against his chest.  “You…we have bread?”  He unwrapped the sandwich, suddenly much more interested in lunch.  “When did we get bread?”

“We get a couple loaves with every supply drop,” Shepard answered, unwrapping his own sandwich.  “It tends to get buried at the back of the freezer when the supplies get unpacked.”

“Oh, really?”  Joker peeled apart the slices, eyeing the congealed mess.  “What is it?”

“Peanut butter and jelly.”  Shepard took a bite, looking pleased.  “Both food items that hold up over travel.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

Shepard sounded as surprised as he looked.  “How?”

Joker smushed the two pieces of bread back together.  “I don’t know.  I grew up on Arcturus Station – sandwiches were pretty ritzy.”

“PB&J was about as basic as a sandwich got, back on Earth.”  Shepard chewed thoughtfully.  “The ingredients keep, they’re both cheap and easy to steal, and almost every kid I ever knew would eat it.”  Popping open the water bottle with a one-handed move that was entirely unnecessary, he added, “it was a pretty sad way to learn if you had a peanut allergy, though.”

“I always forget you know how to steal.”  Joker took a tentative bite and chewed it slowly.  “It’s…sweet.”

“Kids like sweet.”  Taking a drink from his water bottle, Shepard watched him for a long moment.  “I wasn’t usually the one doing the stealing.  I was better as a distraction.”

“Pretty-boy Shepard?” Joker asked, taking another bite.

“Mouthy.”  Shepard smiled at a memory.  “I could talk down most people, and the rest I could rile up till they forgot what they’d originally been mad at.  Plenty of time for the other kid to get away.”

“Get a lot of black-eyes that way?”

“Usually got thrown into a wall.”  Shepard said it casually, like a childhood of bruised shoulders and torn jackets was a normal thing.  “I guess it made them feel big, throwing their opponent around.”

There hadn’t been much in the way of gangs on Arcturus.  Too many uniforms, too many people who knew how fragile an ecosystem it really was; a fancy tin can at the mercy of space.  Joker had dealt with his share of bullies, though, and it was hard to see Shepard as one of them.  It was nice to know he didn’t have to.

“How’s your arm?” Shepard asked, changing the subject.

“Huh?”

Shepard gestured with his sandwich.  “You fell, up in my cabin.  I heard the crack all the way from where I was standing.”

“Oh.”  Joker patter his shoulder gingerly.  “It’s fine.  Doc got me sorted out.”  He scowled, but only for show.  “She made me stay in the MedBay for a whole day.  To make sure I didn’t overexert myself, I guess.”

“This crew has a bad habit of that.”

“Yeah, well, yet another thing you hold the record for.”  He wouldn’t feel bad for the hurt that crossed Shepard’s face.  He wouldn’t.  This weird silence could just stretch between them.

“Chakwas said something about taking your pills with food this time?”  It wasn’t unfriendly, but there was a hint of the Commander in the question.  Like a dog who wasn’t sure if it had been tripped over or kicked.

“Oh, right.”  Fishing the little bottle out of his pocket, Joker popped the lid off.  He watched the tiny yellow dots spill into his hand.  “Hey, I said you hadn’t come up here for lunch in a while.”

Shepard nodded agreement, his mouth full.

“I can be pretty confident in my own awesomeness,” Joker went on, “but I’m not stupid.  You came up here to hide.”

Shepard looked at him, chewing quietly.

“The worse things got, the more time you spent up here.”  Joker poured all but three of the tiny pills back into the bottle, snapping the lid back in place.  “Most of the time we didn’t even talk.  You’d just sit behind my chair, quietly eating your half of whatever you’d stuck where I always hide food, and I knew how bad a day it was by how long you stayed.”

He had to listen for it.  “I remember.”

“And yeah, I get that we weren’t Alliance, but we’re still…us.  I’m still me and you’re still you and…”  Joker trailed off, suddenly awkward.

“And since nothing’s changed, why did I stop spending my bad days sitting behind your chair?”

Joker avoided the question by popping the pills in his mouth, chasing them down with his own slug of water.

Shepard’s hands were in his lap, one still holding half a sandwich.  “At first, there really wasn’t time.  We were running, non-stop, and when I had a break, I spent it upstairs reading reports.”

Joker busied himself with his own sandwich, keeping his eyes hidden by the brim of his hat.

“Then…”  Shepard shrugged helplessly.  Like he really didn’t know what had happened.  “Maybe I was worried about all these new Alliance faces.  The lunch thing started with Cerberus.”

“But you used to visit on the SR1.”  Joker shoved his sandwich in his mouth to avoid thinking about how small his voice had come out.

“Yeah.”  Shepard’s smile was sorta sad.  “You never once acted like my rank meant all that much.”  Wistful, that was the word.

Joker chewed through the excessive bite he’d taken, watching Shepard eye his own half-eaten sandwich.  The SR1 had been Alliance, but it had always been a little different.  Maybe somebody had actually cared about the Spectre thing, the “officially not Alliance anymore” part of the deal.  More likely it was that the crew was just too eclectic to be properly behaved.  And it was hard to care who was demanding reports in triplicate when a galactic threat kept slipping through your fingers, leaving the dead and dying to remind you how you’d failed.

“Maybe if I’d been up here bothering you, I wouldn’t have torn up my face.”

“Uh-uh,” Joker said, muffled by the remaining food, “we’re not playing that game.”  He shifted uncomfortably in his seat at the very idea, pretending to be annoyed by the sticky jelly that had someone gotten on half his fingers.

Shepard raised his eyebrows at him.  “You’re not thinking that?”

“I’m thinking that I should have bugged you about the lunch thing, but,” Joker shrugged around another drink of water, “I didn’t know how to ask.”  It wasn’t like they’d ever talked about it.  Shepard had just appeared one day.  Joker hadn’t even noticed he was there until EDI popped a question up on one of his displays.  And later, when it became apparent that Shepard only came up on bad days, and the bad days kept getting worse...what the hell was he supposed to say?  He’d been as stuck with silence then as he was gonna be now, because this damn peanut butter was gluing his mouth shut.  Grabbing for his water bottle, Joker choked out, “man, are these things always so dry?”

“Might have put too much peanut butter on yours.”

“I mean, we never talked about your visits.”  Joker paused, the absurdity of the similar phrasing breaking his chain of thought.  “That makes it sounds like we’re having an affair.”

“Bold of you to admit it in front of your girl.”

Joker shot a glance toward his copilot, but the mech had gone still— EDI had probably bounced out a while ago.

While Synthetics didn’t do privacy, EDI had been trying to learn.  While it was part of her job to keep her crew accounted for, she understood the value of still giving them the personal space they desired.  And even though EDI was technically everywhere in the ship, now that she had a body, most of the crew forgot she was there when she wasn't...there.  Leaving the mech dormant had proved “a convenient and effective way of providing visual confirmation that I am no longer present”.

Joker had always thought the inactive mech looked creepy, but EDI wasn’t wrong.  It was really obvious when she...left.  “I think it’s just us in here, Shepard.”

“Then our illicit romance continues,” the Commander replied.  He’d leaned back on one hand, something that wanted to be a smile playing across his face.

Joker let the opportunity go, determined to get a straight answer if it ruined his whole I-don’t-care reputation.  “When things got hard with Saren, I know you talked to people.  When Cerberus was more trouble than they were worth, it wasn’t just me getting you through things.  How come…how come you picked now to go it alone?”  He played with the cap to his water bottle, avoiding Shepard’s gaze.  As much as he wanted to divert onto how much it hurt to feel like he’d lost his place in Shepard’s circle, again, this wasn’t just about him.  He wasn’t the only person Shepard had been pushing away.  “How come you still think we can’t tell if you’re really you?”

He knew Shepard was watching him, that steady, usually calm demeanor working through the problem, deciding what to tell him.

He hated this; he wasn’t good with people.  He should signal EDI somehow, let her—

“Can I ask you to pretend something for me?”

Joker glanced up, unsure.  “Sure.”

“Pretend you fell asleep,” Shepard started.  “That deep kind you get when you’ve been up too long or it was a particularly hard day.  Any when you finally woke up, it wasn’t the next morning.  You really had slept for…a week.  You’re disoriented because you slept so hard, but also because you never meant to sleep that long.  You didn’t even think you could.”

Joker thought about the last time he’s listened to some idiot and tried taking a nap.  He’d felt a lot of things upon waking, but rested and refreshed wasn’t any of them.

“Turns out, while you were sleeping, someone sold your apartment.  They replaced you at your job.  Your family only sort of noticed you were gone, not because they’re mean, but because life is busy and they were wide awake.”

He knew this was Shepard trying to answer his question, but if this was the metaphor they were going to be using, it needed to be accurate.  Shepard’s story or not, he couldn’t resist— it had hurt so badly, thinking his Commander was gone.  “Some of them might have gotten a little sleep.”

Shepard nodded, conceding.  “But you do, finally, wake up.  In the wrong house, in the wrong bed, wearing the wrong clothes.  You have a new job, but at a rival company.  And your family…”  Shepard’s voice trailed off, old hurt causing it to waver.  Taking a deep breath, he looked down as he finished.  “You have to convince your family, who should have had all the answers, that you’re still you.”

The silence was tense, but not awkward.  Pain and loneliness filled the room, wrapping around them like heavy blankets.  Joker picked at his sandwich, wishing he knew what to say.

“It gets in your head.”  Shepard hadn’t moved; he was almost as still as EDI’s mech.  “You start to believe…that you aren’t still you.”

So it wasn’t the bad guys who’d broken Shepard.  For once, they’d wrecked the wrong Cerberus scheme.

“And if I’m not really me…I shouldn’t be bothering you with my problems.”

His mouth tasted like bile.  If regret had a flavor, it was coating his tongue.  “I’m sorry, Shepard.”

Shepard’s head came up, his voice confused.  “Sorry?” 

“I didn’t know.”  Of course, he didn’t know.  That wasn’t the point.  “I never tried to help you, never thought you needed it.”

“Joker, you were there.”  He wished Shepard would sound angry, just this once.  “You’re the heart of this crew.”

“No, I’m not!”  Water splashed over his hand as his fist clenched around the water bottle.  “You are!”  Distracted momentarily by the cold, Joker screwed the cap back on as he finished, “it’s always been you.”

When Shepard didn’t respond, Joker sighed.  “We come to you with our problems because we know you’ll care.  You work harder than anyone to complete our missions, and yet you always have time to check in on the crew.  You know everyone’s name, ask about their families, ask Cortez to find specific items so they’re just conveniently lying around when someone has a bad day.”  He played with the half-eaten sandwich in his lap, the wrapper crinkling under his touch.  “I make people laugh, sometimes, but it’s the million little things you do that make this crew love you.”

Whatever Diana said, those cheekbones were made for blushing.

Shepard distracted himself by finishing his sandwich.  When it became obvious he didn’t have a response to his pilot’s heartfelt outpouring, Joker joined him, reopening his water bottle when the sandwich cemented his mouth shut, again.

This was different then when Shepard used to come up for lunch.  Now that he thought about it, they didn’t really eat lunch together.  Shepard sat behind him, quietly eating his, while Joker tooled around with whatever work needed finished.  Most of the time, Shepard had gone before Joker ever found out what he was going to be eating that day.

This was…odd.  Friendly.  They should probably be gossiping about…someone.

“I heard someone was giving Traynor trouble because she can’t lift only one eyebrow?” Shepard said, his tone a little too casual.

Joker twitched at the abruptly broken silence.  “Uh...yeah.  Well, she couldn’t.”  He swallowed the last of his sandwich before finishing.  “She can now.”

Shepard was nodding, that look of almost parental pride obscuring whatever he’d been thinking about in their paired silence.  “Good for her.  I never got the hang of it, personally, but I’ve never needed it.”

“You can’t do one eyebrow?” Joker asked, surprised.

Shepard pulled his face into an impressive glare.  “Why be clever when you can be intimidating?”

Yeah, right.  As if the world hadn’t taught this gentle giant how to scare people.

Balling up the paper the sandwich had been in, Joker tossed it at Shepard.  He snickered when it bounced off the other man’s face.  “Great reflexes there, Commander.”

Shepard picked the ball out of his lap, the glare vanished into a laugh.  “Nice shot.”

“Yeah, well, after the Collector base, I figured I should keep up my skills,” Joker quipped.  “In case we ever have to make a mad escape from another giant exploding alien base whose inhabitants are shooting at us.”

“I’m glad someone’s prepared.”  Cleaning up his part of the mess, Shepard stood.

Joker toyed with his water bottle, running his thumb around the cap.  “Hey…you, uh, you can come up here for lunch everyday, if you want.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”  Joker jabbed a thumb at the mech.  “We can even invite EDI.  She’s a great conversationalist.”

Shepard smiled, that amused lift to one side of his mouth.  “Sounds great.”  He turned to go, pausing as if he’d just remembered something.  “Hey, Joker?”

“Yeah?”

Shepard looked at him, something abruptly sad in those piercing blue eyes.  “I need you to apologize to Kaidan.”

He...what?

“I know you were mad at me the other night, but that doesn’t make it acceptable to lash out at other people.”  His expression didn’t change, but his voice hardened, just a touch.  “I appreciate that you might not feel like it, but I need you to say the words.”

Say what words?  Feel like what?  What did Shepard think he’d said?

“Uh…”  Joker cleared his throat nervously.  “Shepard, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Shepard didn’t look like he believed him.  “You said it didn’t matter who I saved on Virmire.  Kaidan could have died and it would have been fine.”

He’d what ?  “I did not,” Joker said, feeling something that might have been offense.  “That’s a terrible thing to say!”

“Yes,” Shepard agreed, “it was.”

Why the hell would Shepard accuse him of something like that?  Yeah, Joker had been a little cold to Kaidan when he’d first come back, but they’d worked it out.  Sorta.  Honestly, Kaidan was probably more over Joker joining Cerberus than Joker was about Kaidan refusing to, but they worked together just fine.  It wasn’t a thing anymore.  He’d never—

Heat.  The pain in his shoulder and the pain of finding out about Shepard mixing together to make his uniform uncomfortably warm.  He’d stormed into Shepard’s quarters, completely forgetting that they weren’t his alone anymore.  Someone had moved, just at the edge of his line of sight, and the words had come out, meant to hurt the man in front of him because he knew how hard that choice had been.

Joker stared at Shepard, his feet suddenly numb.  “Shit.”

Shepard was watching him, almost as if he could see the memory reforming inside his head.  “You really didn’t remember.”

“I really didn’t mean it!”  Oh man.  Of all the mean things to say, and it wasn’t like he’d even been mad at Kaidan when he’d said it.

Joker dropped his head into his hands with a groan.  “God, I can’t believe I said that.”

A hand rested on his shoulder, Shepard’s boots appearing next to his chair.  “I’m glad you didn’t mean it.”  Could the man sound pissed at a friend just once ?  “You never struck me as that kind of guy.”

Virmire had been the worst thing that happened to this crew before Alchera.  Even the people who’d stayed on the Normandy during that mission had been miserable.  Kaidan had been beside himself, pacing half the ship in a desperate attempt to escape his own guilt at surviving when it hadn’t been his call either way.

And Joker had gone and…

He looked up at Shepard, his voice and face as sincere as they’d ever been.  “I’ll talk to him.  I promise.”

“Looks like shore leave couldn’t have come at a better time,” Shepard offered gently, giving him a small, encouraging smile.

Joker sat, his hands holding his hat to his head, as Shepard quietly let himself out.  Part of his mind kept trying to play it off, make some joke about how at least he always screwed up big time, didn’t waste anyone’s patience with little mistakes.  But Virmire…

Nobody talked about Virmire.

The last time he’d even heard that planet’s name had been at Shepard’s funeral.  Whispered words about how it had been some kind of omen, or maybe this was penance for failing to solve things then and there.  A kinder soul wondering how hard it must be on the crew, to lose such a vibrant young woman and then immediately lose so many more.  Especially their charismatic Commander.

He’d given Kaidan such shit for Horizon, even if he’d never explicitly said the words to the man’s face.  Kaidan, who’d never done more than ask Joker his reasons for joining Cerberus in the first place.

You worked for Cerberus before you knew Shepard would be back.

Well, that was two apologies to old friends he’d need to make before shore leave was over.  He hadn’t been looking forward to telling Tali he shouldn’t have yelled.  Coming to terms with her good intentions about Shepard, even if they meant confronting the fact he’d lost her trust for a while, had really hurt.

But this?  This was gonna hurt so much worse.

Chapter Text

In some ways, having a mechanized body was not an improvement.  The more human-like appearance had come with a number of benefits, the most enjoyable being the smile on Jeff’s face whenever she found an excuse for physical contact.  His pride would not allow him to lean on her when they traversed the Citadel in search of entertainment, but holding hands had been deemed acceptable.

However, the crew had developed the mistaken assumption that, because she appeared more human in one specific way, she must also be fully capable of understanding the illogical nature of emotions.  This idea had become entangled with the equally incorrect belief that being an AI with this style body meant that not only did she understand emotions, but she was much better at interacting with them than most Organics.

This was not true.

Jeff was unhappy, and there was little she could do about it.  Shepard had been clear that chemical manipulation of emotions was both unethical and rude, and Dr. Chakwas would notice the depletion of her stores.

It did not help matters that she had been unable to determine if Jeff’s unhappiness was objectively her fault.  Various forms of analysis had failed to produce a definitive answer.  It could be her fault, but it could also have little to do with her.  Jeff might be unhappy as a direct result of acts she knowingly took, or he might have been unhappy if she had altered one or all of her decisions.  The most likely conclusion was a combination; the least ideal situation when it came to addressing her pilot.

EDI watched Traynor walk out of the cockpit.  She did not share the comm specialist’s concern in the location of Jeff’s meals, but she understood the motivation.  Traynor was worried about a coworker and friend, a sentiment that was heightened due to Shepard’s recent act of self-harm.  Traynor was no doubt working to ensure no one else would be tempted to follow the Commander’s lead.

That had been another subject her research had proven unhelpful in clarifying.  Shepard, suffering greatly from emotional and psychological distress, had chosen to focus on the enduring fear that he was not who he thought he was.  That perhaps Cerberus, as was their style, was playing some kind of game and the Hero of the Citadel was in fact now a trap waiting to be sprung.  One of the core pieces of this fear was the idea that Shepard was no longer physically human.  The presence of cybernetics had been easily confirmed, but what if there were more non-organic components, cleverly hidden so that Shepard would believe the lies Cerberus told him, and thus be more able to convince those around him?

It seemed logical to attempt confirmation.  EDI knew, just as most of Shepard’s people did, that the Commander was primarily organic.  She also knew, from hacking into Cerberus databases, that Shepard was neither a clone nor any other kind of created entity.  The surgeries had been long, risky, and extremely messy, but the body wandering around the SR2 was the same body that had been knocked free from the SR1 and fallen to Alchera in nothing more than damaged N7 armor.  The only substantial alteration was Shepard’s left leg – it had been sliced off by a piece of falling debris, and the frozen limb had shattered on contact with the planet’s surface.

Even Agent Lawson could not find a solution to such an injury.

However, little research had been needed to conclude that she needed to be careful about appearing to approve of Shepard’s act.  Organics could not take themselves apart safely to determine if an interior component was faulty or out of place.  She would damage a number of relationships if this crew thought she was not as upset about Shepard’s actions as they were.

Oddly, she did not think Shepard would think less of her.  He would appraise her words, watching her mech’s face if she approached him in that form, or else staring into the middle distance if she spoke to him through one of the Normandy’s speakers.  Regardless of what he chose to look at, he would think through her logic, weigh it against his own moral code, and do his best to explain why she should not share that line of reasoning with most people.

He would, however, understand and appreciate her concern.  Of that , she was certain.  He would not think she meant that he should continue attempting to remove his skin, or engaging in any other kind of harmful activities.

The merits of a physical investigation were irrelevant, as Shepard had not hurt himself because he was worried about the presence of metallic components inside his body.  He had hurt himself because he was stressed, exhausted, lonely, and attempting to function via the faulty ideology that sharing his unhappiness with those around him would cause them more harm than was necessary.

It was ironic that the man who so often touted the benefits of teamwork, and who pushed himself to be able to assist anyone who came to him, would determine that mental and emotional isolation was his best course of action.

EDI redirected the calculations Jeff had been running to her own workstation on the bridge, noting that Shepard appeared to be resuming his practice of bringing Jeff lunch on days of high emotional discomfort.  Of that, she approved.  It showed in both Shepard’s biological scans and his psychological evaluations that the time spent sitting behind Jeff’s chair was beneficial to his emotional stability.  Even the days Shepard had silently tucked Jeff’s lunch into the cubby by his chair, then sat with his legs pulled tight against his chest while he shook silently, leaving only when the shaking had become difficult to notice by a casual glance.

Jeff had benefited as well, his protective nature appeased by the knowledge that Shepard felt he could seek comfort from the pilot.  Forgoing his typically nosy questions, Jeff would ramble about anything that came to mind, darting worried glances on the days that even his most simplistic jokes received no laughter.  But good day or bad, Jeff knew that Shepard knew that he could come to him and Jeff would be there.

Watching Traynor check her terminal for the latest angrily worded communication from the Salarian Union’s current representative, EDI wondered if that was the thing that was making Jeff unhappy.  After all the missions they had completed together, and the clear building of a strong friendship, perhaps Jeff felt betrayed that his friend would choose to harm himself instead of sitting behind his chair every day.

Because Jeff would have preferred that, she was certain.  Shepard could have chosen to spend every single lunch period sitting behind Jeff’s chair, and the pilot would never have said a word in protest.  Even if his beloved rumor mill whispered that Major Alenko should be worried about the amount of time the Commander spent in the cockpit, Jeff would have preferred loud arguments defending his sexuality and his arbitrarily chosen obedience to fraternization regulations.

Shepard was his friend.  That mattered more than his reputation.

It had almost cost Jeff his access to the Normandy.

She’d determined this during Jeff’s defense of his actions while working for Cerberus, and his glowing, if expletive-heavy, defense of Shepard’s legitimacy.  An Organic partner might have been jealous at the realization that Jeff would, if pushed, choose Shepard over a romantic interest.  She didn’t see the cause for concern.  Shepard was part of Jeff’s family; he would be a poor pilot for the Normandy if Jeff did not value his loved ones above his career.

EDI had also concluded that such choices were in fact fluid.  In this instance, Shepard had been the dominant relationship.  If her discussion with the Commander were to be believed, Jeff was fond of her in a manner that suggested a long-term interest, at which point perhaps he would make a different choice.

It would not matter either way.  Every day Jeff treated her like any other crew member, genuinely having changed his opinion on Synthetic life and its value, she knew how much she meant to him.

A message from Engineering reminded her that Engineer Donnelly was going to be redirecting power away from the bathrooms for an hour and to please remind key members of the crew.  The reminder was unnecessary, but EDI reformatted the angry missive and passed it along to everyone.  The feud between Donnelly and several of the crew members in charge of shuttle maintenance was illogical, but Ensign Reeal did use the bathroom more often than made biological sense.

EDI ran a systems check of her own on the areas that would be affected by Donnelly’s repair, as well as confirming Engineer Adams’ approval of the work.  Occasionally, there was an error in oversight, and the Alliance had proven oddly irritable about backdated forms.

Checking over Garrus’ meticulous calibrations, Cortez’s latest version of the Requisition Order, and the security wall surrounding Dr. T’soni’s quarters, EDI returned her primary focus to the frustrated Specialist Traynor.

Evidently, the woman had forgotten to deliver something to Lieutenant Alvarez in the War Room.  At least, that’s what Traynor was muttering darkly about as she marched toward the bio-scanner that served as added security between that area and the main part of the Normandy.  EDI wondered briefly if she should have mentioned the datapad sitting behind Traynor’s personal terminal all morning, evidently forgotten.  The comm officer had pled guilty to a unique “method to her madness” shortly after learning that EDI was in fact an AI, and since she did not understand either the method or the madness, EDI usually left Traynor to her own devices.

Organics were strange that way.  They would rather make mistakes than be too dependent on technology, even something as simple and useful as a timer.

Whatever he had told Traynor, aversion to timers was not why Jeff usually ate lunch in the cockpit.  The pilot simply preferred not to deal with people unless he had to.  When EDI had asked him about it, Jeff had deflected by pointing out that anyone worth seeing always made the effort to come find him.  He’d claimed it would be rude to play “hard to get”.

Private Campbell abandoned her inspection of her fingernails as Traynor entered the room.  She waved the comm officer forward, the gesture both unnecessary and expected even by Shepard, who went through the scanner several times a day.  On the far side, Private Westmoreland typed something into a datapad she was holding.  A quick visual scan showed a tightness in both women’s posture.

It was common for the Privates to debate issues while on shift.  Sometimes, the debates became heated.  But it had been twelve weeks since either had shown such overt signs of irritation with each other.

Traynor had noticed the tension as well, and was standing very still as the scanner did its work.

When the purple light stopped its perceived motion, the still silent sentinels waved her through.  EDI watched as Traynor hurried out of the far door, datapad clutched to her chest in a rarely used habit.

The War Room proved an interesting area to observe, as it was the least affected by Shepard’s recent actions.  The soldiers who served in this part of the ship rarely did anything else, and some had been late acquisitions, sent by Hackett to complete the needed skill set for data analysis and security concerns.  Due to the highly sensitive nature of their work, these humans worked long shifts with few breaks.  It had led to bonds forming between them quickly, but relationships with the rest of the crew had been slower to emerge.

This room also held the highest number of individuals with negative opinions about the “Cerberus” AI.

Alvarez looked up as Traynor hurried toward him, greeting her with a smile.  The man was a competent military analyst, offering effective and timely critiques of plans and battle reports that often garnered even Turian approval.  He had an impressive service record, and had been hand-picked by Hackett’s team to serve on the Normandy, effective as soon as he’d been retrieved from his unfortunately timed shore leave on Benning.  EDI pretended to know nothing else about the lieutenant, as he did not like Synthetics.

As far as she had been able to determine, it was not an issue caused by the Geth incursion three years ago.  Alvarez held a somewhat outdated notion that all artificial intelligence would eventually corrupt into a sentient threat toward organic life.  Jeff had made a few such jokes over the course of their acquaintance, but EDI had never detected any real concern behind his words.  Jeff disliked specific AIs, but they were usually responsible for scorch marks on the Normandy’s hull.

In an attempt to form a working relationship with Lt. Alvarez, EDI had developed a protocol that limited how often she checked his workstation for needed messages or updates.  It was inefficient, but she had hoped it would build even a tenuous bit of trust.

As far as she could tell, it had not.

However, Admiral Hackett would not have allowed anyone on the Normandy who could not be trusted to put their duties ahead of their personal comfort.  Therefore, she knew Alvarez would work with her if he had to, just never if he could find a way around it.  This was a behavior he shared with three other crew members, and previously with a fourth, though Sergeant Welsley appeared to have decided that EDI, at least, was safe.

Careful to avoid the added detection software on Specialist McBride’s terminal, EDI checked the dozen active workstations for anything time sensitive or likely to be affected by Donnelly’s activities that afternoon.

The required brief chat with Alvarez completed, Traynor turned on her heel and headed back to her post.  The message from the Salarian Union had been concerningly passive; no doubt the comm officer wanted to ensure she hadn’t overlooked something that might cause a problem at the representative’s convenience.

Back in the bio-scanner, the security device had nearly completed its task before Campbell spoke.

“Shepard’s not fucking sick, is he?”

EDI noted the use of profanity so Shepard could ignore it later on the Private’s next evaluation.

Traynor looked over at the woman, surprised by the outburst.  “He’s not what?”

“Don’t swear, Private.”  Westmoreland’s tone was cool, conveying a lack of patience as opposed to professional disapproval.

“I’ll swear if I want to,” Campbell snapped back, shooting her partner a glare.  Turning her attention back to Traynor, she added, “I hate working with vague intel.”

Traynor stood still, appearing as if she were once again worried that movement might confuse the scanner’s genetic verification equipment.  However, it was merely a focusing technique, one she’d found quite useful when a professor would yell at her for answering too slowly in school.

“I’m not at liberty to give details, Campbell.”  When the use of her name did not appear to soften the blow, Traynor added a sympathetic smile.  “I know it can be frustrating, feeling like you’re flying in the dark.”

An odd phrase, as space was perceived by most Organics as just such.

“He’s our commanding officer,” Campbell argued, “but you wouldn’t know it from the last few days.  He’s all but vanished, and when he does appear barely anyone sees him.  No one can agree if he’s sick or injured or if he’s finally cracked.”

“Sarah!”

Traynor shot Westmoreland a look to be quiet before turning back to the blonde woman in front of her, ignoring the gentle beeping of the completed scan.  “This means a lot to you,” Traynor said, voice quieter than before.

Campbell shifted, as if suddenly nervous about her outburst.  “I like Shepard,” she said, keeping her gaze lowered, “but as great as he is, we’re at war.”  Her gaze shifted to the left, almost making it to Westmoreland’s boots.  “Nobody wants to serve under a compromised leader during the best of times, and this is not the best of times.”

Traynor was frowning.  “What makes you think Shepard is compromised?”

EDI scanned rapidly through the security footage of the last two days.  Most of the conversations that involved mentions of Shepard’s absence contained concern or playful speculation.  A few individuals had voiced more sincere concern, though all appeared to believe that Shepard had been injured in the last away mission and it had somehow been overlooked during the medical debrief afterward.  Running the footage up to the present, the only potentially malicious comments about Shepard had come from...Campbell herself.

“She’s just worried about her friend,” Westmoreland jumped in.  Shooting a glare at Campbell that would have been more effective as a plea, she explained, “he joined Cerberus a while ago.  He used to reach out, but he’s stopped, and—”

“Bethany.  Shut.  Up.”

Traynor stepped forward, the gentle beeping finally registering.  “You’re worried something happened to your friend?  If you want, I can look -”

“He’s not my fucking friend anymore.”  Campbell switched to glaring at the door to the CIC.  Her shoulders were hunched toward her ears, a vicious frown pulling at her mouth.  “That jerk couldn’t handle being found unfit for active duty, and so he ran off to be a terrorist.  That’s his problem, no matter what happened to him.”

“A lot of people on this ship used to work with that organization,” Traynor said, voice steady.

Campbell snorted.  “Yeah, but they got their heads out of their asses and came home.”

Behind them, Westmoreland sighed but held her peace.

Studying the blonde woman, Traynor spoke slowly.  “What about your friend makes you think Commander Shepard might be compromised?  You were planning to bake him a cake just a few days ago.”

Pulling her chin toward her chest, Campbell abandoned any semblance of military posture as she blew out a deep breath.  After twenty-two seconds, she spoke.

“For a long time, his messages all sounded normal.  He was an asshole for joining them, and for trying to contact me after I told him to get lost, but they always sounded like Mike, you know?  Like the dweeb I used to shove in the girl’s bathroom just because he never paid attention to his surroundings and I thought,” she shrugged, the movement tight due to her confined posture, “I thought it’d be a fun way to get him to look up when he was being shot at.”

Traynor was nodding, years of wading through academic and political voicemails teaching her that there would eventually be relevant data.

“But lately, and kind of all of the sudden, he’s...different.”  Campbell’s voice had lost much of its hostility.  “His messages got all weird, and then they just stopped coming.”  She finally looked back at Traynor, her stubborn personality refusing to allow her anger to simply vanish.  “I didn’t want him contacting me, but suddenly just up and vanishing like that?”  She shook her head.  “That’s way worse.”

Westmoreland had quietly set down her datapad, her attention completely focused on her friend.  EDI set a delay on the doors to the little room, adding an internal audio warning before the doors opened in case either woman needed a moment to regain their composure before addressing a fellow crewmember.

Traynor waited fifteen seconds before pointing out, still being sympathetically polite, “that doesn’t tell me why you’re worried about the Commander.”

“She’s worried he’s been compromised, too,” Westmoreland said, when it became apparent Campbell wasn’t going to explain.  “Like you said, he worked with Cerberus for a time, and we’re just worried that…that things might be related.”

The “we” was inaccurate, but it served the emotional purpose of linking Campbell to someone else in the conversation.  A way to dilute anxiety or feelings of being isolated while upset.

Traynor looked between the two soldiers before choosing to address Campbell directly.  “Commander Shepard is not compromised, by Cerberus or anything else.”  She spoke the words clearly and with an impressive amount of authority.

Campbell studied the floor, the aggressiveness in her stance finally shifting to embarrassment.  Her voice reflected her self-conscious state.  “I know that.  It was a stupid thought.  I’m just worried about—“

“If you’re too worried to focus,” Traynor cut her off, not unkindly, “then you should go see Dr. Chakwas.  Shore leave or no, sometimes you just need five minutes to stand in a quiet room and panic.”

Campbell looked up at her.  “Seriously?  You?”

“Try finding a quiet room on the Normandy,” Traynor said by way of answer.

Behind her, Westmoreland bit back an amused sound.

“But seriously,” Traynor repeated, “I can’t give details.  You know that.”  She held up both hands to stall Campbell’s reply.  “I can, however, tell you that Shepard is mentally and emotionally fine.  I mean, he’s a bit stressed, but you know…”

Campbell nodded.  “Giant robots.  Zombie armies.  Politicians.”

Traynor returned the nod.  “Exactly.  It’s literally the stuff of nightmares, and we’re all damn sick of it.”

EDI debated the profanity, then decided it wouldn’t flag.  Half the Alliance would have to be demoted if “damn” counted against a conduct report.

Westmoreland was studying the back of Traynor’s head, a thoughtful expression on her face.  “Are you saying the Commander’s standing in that proverbial quiet room and panicking?”

Traynor turned a little too quickly.  “What?  No.  He’s…”  Clearing her throat, Traynor took a reasonably subtle breath.  “He’s buried in paperwork and feeling a little under the weather.  So, like the cat you compared him to last time, he’s being stingy about the people he wants to see.”

A moment’s pause, then Campbell snorted.  “God, he’s been spending too much time with Joker.”

Traynor’s darker skin hid most of the blush.  “Probably.”

“I heard he’s got a bandage on his face?” Westmoreland asked, voice pitched higher with her curiosity.

Traynor nodded.  “Yes, but you’d have to ask him about it.  I don’t actually know those details.”

“Bethany,” Campbell drawled, her anxious anger slipping away into her standard attitude, “you don’t poke a pissy cat.  It’ll come back when it wants to.”

“If that cat is injured,” Westmoreland argued, “you should help it.”

“Pretty sure a certain attractive Major is on that.”

“Right,” Traynor said, abruptly uncomfortable, “back to work.  Lot’s of messages to sort.”

The Privates watched her leave, both standing briefly at attention until the doors closed.  EDI removed the audio warning and the door delay as Campbell looked over at her friend.  “She really gets weird when I call Alenko ‘hot’.”

“Pretty sure she knew him before the war,” Westmoreland said, unconcerned.  “Maybe it’s just weird that you’re checking out her friend’s butt.”  The brunette gave the blonde a judgmental look.  “Her very much unavailable friend’s butt.”

Campbell nodded.  “Useful to know it’s not that I’m making eyes at a superior officer.”

“Sarah!”

Confirming Traynor had returned to her post, EDI scanned the Salarian’s message once again.  No sign of a virus, phishing protocol, key recorder, or other malicious software.  They had limited it to menacing words meant to unnerve the reader.

As Cortez would say: “Charming.”

She noted Shepard’s appearance in the CIC.  He looked better than he had in previous weeks.  The time away from his monumental list of tasks, combined with the increased amount of time spent with friends, had apparently been the straightforward fix Dr. Chakwas had thought it might be.  Though it seemed unlikely that such progress would continue unless the various plans to reduce Shepard’s workload and emotional isolation were implemented.

Shepard made his way around the galaxy map, attempting not to draw attention to himself.  He did return the tentative greetings sent his way by concerned or curious crewmembers as he passed.  He came to a stop as Traynor waved to get his attention.  “Admiral Hackett is available on vid-comm.”

Shepard raised his eyebrows, a physical gesture her mech was ill-suited to mimic.  “For me?”  His voice conveyed the context he did not wish to speak aloud.

Traynor nodded.  “He asked for you specifically.”

Looking apprehensive, Shepard altered his course, stuffing something into his pocket.  Traynor spared a look of concern as Shepard passed before turning resolutely back to her work.

Reactivating the mech she’d left in the co-pilot’s chair, EDI turned to let Jeff know she was once more actively monitoring the cockpit.  She paused, questioning her decision to give the men privacy.

Jeff was hunched forward, his chair still facing the door.  His hands held his head, his ever-present baseball cap pulled slightly askew.  He was muttering something under his breath.

It appeared Shepard’s visit had not gone equally well for both of them.

She adjusted the volume on the mech, keeping her voice soft so as not to startle her pilot.  “Jeff?”

He did not respond.

A quick scan confirmed the tension in his shoulders would not aggravate his recent injury.  Nevertheless, EDI rose from her chair, moving to stand next to the distressed human.  “Jeff, will you tell me what is wrong?”

“I fucked up, EDI.”  The words were aimed at his knees, his voice distorted with the influence of his emotions.  “I said something really bad and I’m not sure how to fix it.”

She reviewed the footage from outside the cockpit.  A few frames of Jeff in his current pose as Shepard left, viewed from the cameras in the walkway outside, but nothing to suggest Shepard was the cause of this guilt.

She debated reviewing security footage from the past few days once more, this time looking for something Jeff might have said that classified as “really bad”.  However, even her limited experience had taught her that humans preferred to talk about things at their own, much slower pace.  Jeff would not appreciate her knowing what he had said, or to whom, before he told her himself.

Crouching beside the chair, EDI thought about the times Jeff had sought comfort.  Her pilot regularly demonstrated a preference for appearing independent, physically and emotionally.  It was a trait Jeff shared with Shepard, though it did not appear to benefit either of them.  The inclination to curl into themselves, as if even their friends would hurt them should they reach out.

Perhaps, as Chakwas and Liara and Tali had insisted that Shepard speak with them, regardless of his desire to do so, EDI should not wait for Jeff to approve of her chosen tactic of comfort.

Moving slowly, EDI reached her arms around her pilot, keeping the hug loose so Jeff could shrug her off if he chose.

It was not a good sign that he leaned into her instead, the baseball cap bumping against her chin.

At the edge of her attention, a warning pulsed to remind the pilot that this part of the System had been tagged for increased Reaper activity.  EDI adjusted the Normandy’s flight plan, adding an additional two hours till they could make their Jump by routing them behind a gas giant.  There was no evidence that local Reaper forces had noticed them, but Jeff was not in the mood to play hide-n-seek with “arrogant robot giants”.

When he did move, Jeff still did not move away.  He dropped his hands, one taking hold of her wrist as its partner dropped to his lap.

“EDI…”  His voice held none of its usual confident tone.  Unlike his worst days flying the Normandy, even dodging wildly on the far side of the Omega-4 Relay, he sounded...uncertain.

It was unnecessary, but EDI tilted her head so she could look at Jeff through the mech’s eyes.  Organics responded to eye contact, even if it was only to avoid it.  “Did something happen with Shepard?”

“No.”  She did not like the way he looked small.  Defying his physical attributes, he had always projected his personality far beyond himself.  Much as she filled the Normandy, Jeff filled the cockpit.

But not today.

“You were frustrated when I left because the Turian report on the Exodus Cluster proved to no longer be accurate.”  Until this morning, they had thought the Reapers sufficiently distracted by the non-Relay Systems in that area.  It appeared that was no longer true.  “You are currently distressed,” EDI said.  “I do not believe it has anything to do with inaccurate data.”

“Kinda.”  Jeff was being vague; a habit she had found frustrating until she realized it always preceded the sharing of information.

She waited seven seconds before speaking.  “You said you made a mistake?”

“I said something I shouldn’t have.”  Jeff sighed, sitting up a little.  “The kind of thing I’m not sure ‘I’m sorry’ will be enough to fix.”

“I’m sorry” was a deceptively powerful phrase, when used sincerely.  If the situation was so dire, it was likely his best bet at salvaging whichever relationship he believed damaged beyond repair.

She could not offer accurate advice though.  She still did not know who Jeff believed he had offended.  She would have recommended speaking with Shepard, but the man had just been here.  Either the conversation had not gone well, or Jeff did not wish to discuss this matter with his commanding officer.

Sitting up straighter, Jeff pulled away from her.  He gave her a strange look, but not a hostile one.

EDI smiled.  “A hug appears to ease emotional distress in most Organics.”

Jeff stared for a moment before nodding.  “Yeah, I guess.  You’ve just never…done that before.”

“You do not appear to enjoy physical intimacy.”

She watched him struggle with the urge to make a joke.  Evidently, he decided the moment was not compatible with such humor.  “It’s different, being hugged by a mech.”

“Not really.”  EDI stood, looking down at her pilot.  “I must pay more attention to the pressure I apply to you than another human would have to, as this body is even more likely to break your bones.  Otherwise, it is effectively the same.”

Jeff rolled his eyes, but she categorized it as a victory when he turned his chair back toward the holographic displays he used to fly the ship.  “Don’t you start on my bones, too.  I slipped and got a hairline fracture.  It’s not a big deal.”

Punching up the last set of calculations he’d been working on, he muttered, “it’ll teach me to go barging into other people’s rooms, though.”

Moving the mech back to the co-pilot’s chair, EDI returned her attention to more evenly monitor the ship.  Donnelly had shut off the systems he had listed, immediately drawing the annoyance of the crewmembers who had disregarded his announcement.  Adams and Daniels were pretending to find a work around, shooting each other conspiratorial grins behind Donnelly’s back as he shouted at Ensign Reeal via the comm system.  Campbell and Westmoreland had resumed their discussion on the efficacy of pets in maintaining mental health if so many of the colony worlds proved hazardous to rodents and lizards.  Down in the shuttle bay, Corporal Vale was covertly discussing something with the two Sergeants currently in charge of reorganizing the storage crates.

While she understood that Organics were forced to maintain more fragile bodies, she understood better than many just how far-reaching Shepard’s self-inflicted pain had radiated.  She suspected, though could not be certain, that Jeff’s current guilt-induced lack of commentary was related to that incident, as was so much of the Normandy’s current disquiet.  And while she could observe and document, it had frustrated her for much of her existence that often, there was nothing she could actively do to resolve emotional issues.  Abstract concepts like time, patience, and faith had a much higher probability of success, at least when combined with dialogue and a good night’s rest.

It was a facet of life on this ship she would have to adapt to.  Organics moved at a slower pace, and if she wished to help her family, she would need to wait for them to reach conclusions and adapt to solutions over the course of days, if not weeks.

Hopefully, Jeff would not take so long to accept the idea that she would not be upset by whatever he had said, no matter to whom he had said it.  As Shepard had so often demonstrated, she would listen, she would think, and she would give the best advice she could.

And if the problem proved solvable in such a manner, she would shoot something.

Chapter Text

Dr. Chakwas had been thorough in her reports, and almost brutally honest at times, determined to convince him beyond a doubt that she was keeping her end of their deal.  Regular updates, full disclosure, as often as she had new information.

As if years in the field hadn’t taught him to trust her judgement on a wink and a sigh.

Hackett waited, debating how best to approach the Commander about the events of the past few days.  The first step was probably to stop thinking of the man by his title.  While it was correct, Commander denoted responsibilities and expectations.  Duty before self, honor in the face of disgrace, and all sorts of other, stress-inducing lines of thought.

Though, if Shepard was too far gone to handle those things, then he’d never be “Commander”, again.  And that wasn’t an option Hackett wanted to consider at the moment.

Chakwas had reported that Shepard was doing about as well as could be expected.  Physically, he was healing at an amazing rate, due primarily to those damned Cerberus implants.  A double-edged sword: healing the body while tearing at the mind.  That sounded like the sort of thing The Illusive Man might orchestrate, but after going to the trouble to bring Shepard back, why build in a timer?  And one that was so unpredictable?

Strange as it seemed, it was far more likely that The Illusive Man had aimed to bring Shepard back with only the obvious strings attached: help stop the Collectors, then stay out of Cerberus’ way.

A small movement from his comm officer told him that the line was ready, and that he’d been unacceptably distracted by his own thoughts.  But the young man wouldn’t be in this room right now if he hadn’t proven he could be trusted with damn near anything.  Hackett had learned years ago that a comm officer who couldn’t be trusted explicitly, couldn’t be trusted at all.  Specialist Traynor had clearance almost as high as Shepard’s, and the young man Hackett had pulled off Omega by his literal scruff had access to far more than his rank and title would suggest.

Still, Hackett had a moment’s doubt when, at his nod, the line went live.  He’d been prepared to greet Shepard, balancing his expected authority against a more patient tone.

He hadn’t expected John.

The bandages wouldn’t have been much of a distraction in any other context.  Injuries happened, and the skin on a human’s face was some of the thinnest on the body.  The standard Alliance uniform was pulled neatly into place, forcing an observer to check the collar for rank and thus title.  Shoulders back, head held high, that quick salute that Hackett had never discouraged before dropping into a relaxed form of attention.

There was something about expression, though.  The lines around the eyes, the shape of the not-smile, the way the man in front of him took in Hackett’s own appearance.  This was John, not Shepard, and certainly not the Commander.

Which wasn’t inherently bad.  Hackett had met John before— in Vancouver.  Once it had become apparent that house arrest was going to be the state of things while Shepard’s few allies fought to keep him out of Batarian hands, Hackett had stopped by to deliver the news himself.  The young man that had met him at the door to his rooms hadn’t been an Alliance soldier.  John was an orphan, raised on the streets, who’d fought and failed his way into a better life, bringing all the practicality and personal loyalty that meant with him.  Hackett had seen it before, back when he’d still lived in Argentina.  His hometown had been full of kids with John’s story, if not John’s successful escape.

The thing that had worried him, and yet the thing that now gave him hope, was the vulnerability in that face.  In Vancouver, Hackett had felt a flash of guilt, as if he’d taken advantage of a nephew as opposed to asking a soldier to make a particularly hard sacrifice.  Now, seeing that same unconscious openness, he hoped fervently that meant Karin was right.

The Normandy took care of her own, and all that crew had ever needed to pull off the impossible was the chance.

“You wanted to speak with me, sir?”

Raising his chin to force his thoughts back into order, Hacket covered the move with a nod.  “Shepard.  I hear it’s been a hard week, and I’m afraid I don’t have any good news to improve it.”  Rip the plaster right off.

In front of him, John’s eyes widened, but his posture held.  “It’s...been rough.  We’re handling it like always, sir.”  A small smile, a bit of Shepard peeking through.  “It started off fine.  Not for the Cerberus goons, but that was the point.”

Humor was always a good sign.  It meant the mind was still working.  “I read that report,” Hackett confirmed, taking the line Shepard threw him.  “Good work, cleaning out that last base.  Shame you couldn’t recover the data, but it did confirm our concerns about their new security protocols.”  He didn’t usually pat Shepard on the head like this, but they were all playing with one kid glove on this week.  “We can’t compensate for an enemy tactic we don’t know about.”

Shepard nodded in agreement.  He hesitated, not having anything to add to the brief report, and then decided to plunge ahead anyway.  Good man.  “You said no good news, sir: is there bad news?”

Hackett considered his words.  “I suppose it depends.”  Mostly on the outcome of the war, but a little on perspective.  “You’ve kept up an impressive track record with the Batarians,” he began, watching the man in front of him closely.  “This war has eradicated most of their command structure - civilians, military, and political.

Shepard watched him back, gaze steady.  “Every race has been hit hard by the Reapers.”

“But not every race has such a personal grudge against you.”  Hackett felt the sigh, but refused to let it escape.  “There is at least one, stubborn and I would argue foolish, Batarian politician who seems to think your head on a pike would be a boost to morale.”

Shepard didn’t respond.  To be fair, Hackett had read the message twice when he’d first received it.  Surely no one could be that bullheaded.

“Which means,” Hackett said, with more reluctance in his voice than he’d meant to let show, “that this court martial business is not technically resolved just yet.”  And when he found the ingrate who’d managed to salvage that paperwork from the offices in Vancouver, he’d shove their discharge papers down their throat.  In the present, he blew a short breath through his nose.  “Because we don’t have enough to worry about with giant robots and an overzealous terrorist group.”

Everything was blue in a hologram, but the eyes were unfocused regardless of their shade.  John was trying to find a reply, but even on a good day, this was an unnecessary load of bullshit to wade through.  “So...what do we do?  In the short term, I mean.”

A sensible question.  Another good sign.  “Nothing.”

John looked surprised.  “Nothing?”

Hackett shrugged.  “I’m not about to hand one of my best over in the middle of the worst military crisis in galactic history.”  He frowned, the audacity of such a request still gnawing at his patience a week later.  “Before the invasion, there might have been cause for concern, but after seeing all your dire warnings come to pass, there’s no way any attempt to convict you would succeed, short of convening a kangaroo court.”

Shepard didn’t look convinced, but that was to be expected.  Not that the man would ever be told, but if the Reapers had arrived even a week later, Shepard would have been in Batarian custody and likely died within the first few weeks of the war.

Dropping his hands to his sides, Hackett let his weight shift to his back leg.  “Shepard...I didn’t just call to tell you about the Batarians.”

“Why did you call, sir?”  A timid answer, by the usual measure, but even Commander Shepard could hardly be expected to face every challenge with enthusiasm.

“Given everything that’s happened this past week,” Hackett said, “I wanted to speak with you before you left the Normandy.”

Of all the days for his brain to take a fucking nap.

It didn’t take years of psychological training to understand that was Shepard’s worst fear.  That a man who’d died with one version of his ship, only to be arrested and locked up when he willingly walked away from another, might react poorly to the phrase, even if that wasn’t what Hackett had meant when he’d said it.  He watched the emotions chase each other across Shepard’s face.  All the worst case scenarios, seemingly confirmed in one, careless set of words.

Eventually, timid by any measure, the word sounding forced, though he had no doubt Shepard was doing his best, “...sir?”

“You’ve got a week of shore leave coming up,” Hackett said.  “While it’s officially for your crew to get what limited R&R they can, it’s a good opportunity for the Normandy’s systems to be checked and her stores replenished.  Which means everyone staying off the ship for the better part of the week.”

John stared at him, trying to reconcile the emotional gutshot with the rational explanation.  “And you just wanted to check in.  Make sure you...know what’s going on.”

This time the sigh won out.  “Shepard, we can do this dance, but at the end of the day, you’re a better soldier than that.”  Hackett shifted his weight back to both feet, keeping his arms at his sides to soften whatever blow his words might deal.  “Even the best of us reach a breaking point, and you’ve had to deal with more than most.  But life isn’t fair, and war, doubly so.”

John nodded, his jaw locked shut as he listened attentively.

“I’m sure Chakwas has explained,” Hackett went on, “but this shore leave is the best I can do.  I need you back on your feet and in a better place by the end of it.”  He meant what he said, whatever his hardass reputation might imply.  “You’re the best I have, and I know you can do this.  But right now, I need you to prove it to me.  I can’t make this call on faith.”

Of all things, the man looked...curious.  “I...wouldn’t ask you to.”

John would never have gotten as far as he had in life if he wasn’t clever.  Hackett wondered absently what that sharp mind was thinking about his little speech, even as he continued it.  “Chakwas will be checking in on you from time to time while you’re on the Citadel, and I trust her to evaluate and determine the best methods for helping you get back on your feet.”  As if there had ever been anyone else to trust with a mission like this.

To Shepard, though, it was just Alliance command choosing the best available option from a limited set of medical options.  “She won’t pull her punches, sir,” Shepard said, loyal as anyone on his crew.  “If...if this doesn’t work out, she’ll tell you.”

The only real question would have been if Karin would tell him before or after she told Shepard.  Either way, she’d never been one to stall with bad news.

Hackett gave a short, confirming nod.  “I know.  And while I needed to speak with you myself, for my own appraisal, I trust the report she gave me on the situation.”  This was the hard part, because it meant confirming what Shepard no doubt already knew, but even Chakwas had probably avoided saying out loud.  “But Shepard...if this doesn’t work, if you need more time come the end of the week,” Hackett summoned his most dispassionate tone, knowing the words would hurt either way, “Major Alenko will be put in charge of the Normandy.”

He took it on the chin, even as John fought to keep his expression blank.  “I agree.  Major Alenko is more than capable, and as the highest ranking Alliance officer with experience fighting the Reapers, he’d be the best candidate for my replacement.”

What a horrible sentence to have to say, especially with so many people working to ensure that situation didn’t come to be.

Hackett kept his tone even.  “If, Commander.  If this doesn’t work.”  The bigger issue would actually be Major Alenko reminding him that, as a Spectre, he didn’t have to accept the position, because there was a better chance that Harbinger would take up ballet dancing than any of the surviving SR1 crew members taking Shepard’s replacement with any kind of grace.

John nodded, still with that blank expression on his face.  “If, sir.”

Having made the worst possible mess he could in the few minutes they’d been speaking, Hackett signalled his comm officer to cut the line.  As the holographic form of Shepard dissipated in front of him, Hackett blew all the air out of his lungs, counting as he did so.

Everything about that conversation had been encouraging, really.  Even Shepard’s handling of both the news about the Batarians and the brief mention of determining his replacement had been handled as well as could be expected.  Chakwas was the most pessimistic optimist Hackett knew, and she hadn’t over sold the situation— Shepard appeared perfectly capable of pulling through this.  It would necessitate a few lifestyle changes, but so did most successful medical situations, physical or otherwise.

The trick would be making sure that Hackett’s spectacular foot-in-mouth moment hadn’t undermined the whole operation, and there wasn’t a damn thing either he or Chakwas was going to be able to do to ensure that.

Contemplating the inactive holo-emitter, Hackett wondered if he might just hand himself over to the Batarians if this all went wrong.  Whatever their punishment, it would be less brutal than that grey-eyed look of betrayed disappointment.


He focused on his breathing as Hackett dissolved back into blue points of light.

I wanted to speak with you before you left the Normandy.

Hackett had meant shore leave.  He’d even spelled it out.  But the words still echoed in John’s ears, the very thing he’d feared the Admiral had wanted to discuss.

I wanted to speak with you before you left the Normandy.

It made sense that Hackett would need to speak with him regardless of the outcome of this mess, and it made sense that Hackett would do so before and after.  Comparing progress.  Verifying whatever Chakwas was telling him in her reports.  And it wasn’t like this was news.  John had assumed he’d be replaced; it was everyone else who thought Hackett would twist the rules just to spare one soldier the usual fate.

Only he wouldn’t really be sparing John from anything.  Because his court martial was still unresolved.  Reinstated or not, a small part of his mind suddenly demanded to know what had changed Vega’s mind about serving on the Normandy during this war.  He’d claimed it was because he understood that this was where he could do the most good, but maybe there was more to it.

Maybe his term as warden for Commander Shepard had just been extended.

That wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t true, but that didn’t mean there weren't more things to think about when they locked him back up for breaking under pressure.

Maybe they’d let him keep Vega as his guard.  Not likely— they’d taken away everyone he knew last time.  Even if his friends had tried to reach him.

...before you left the Normandy.

A spike of anger lanced through John.  As much as he didn’t want to go, and as much as he knew he probably would, he couldn’t believe it might be over the damn Batarians.  Over the Alpha Relay .

He’d done his best.  Hackett had asked him to rescue a friend, not single-handedly stop a conspiracy and save an entire System.  Of course he’d failed!  And as the only person to make it off that God forsaken station, the only person not involved in choosing the fate of the Bahak System, of course he’d be the one to take the fall for it.

That’s what he did, right?  Commander Shepard hated aliens— Batarians in particular, but hell, hadn’t he murdered the Council four years ago?  Intentionally let Sovereign wipe out the heart of galactic government just to show how powerful humanity was?

Nevermind that Sovereign was winning and they needed every ship they had.  Nevermind that the Council could have been evacuated weeks earlier, if they’d just listened.  Who cared that he’d just been another soldier on Torfan?  That he’d wanted to pull back when the pirates ran?

Who cared that he would have saved those 300,000 lives if there’d been any possible way .

...before you left the Normandy.

Major Alenko will be put in charge...

Kaidan would fight it.  It was the best choice, the logical choice, and he knew Kaidan would object.  He’d said as much when John had argued with him about sharing his reports.  If he’d been that stubborn over a few datapads, how much more stubborn would he be about an entire ship?

Not to mention the rest of the crew.

I wanted to speak with you before you left the Normandy.

He didn’t want this.  The crawling, slimy feeling inside his chest; the victorious voice in the back of his mind, crowing about how he’d never been good enough.  Maybe the old Shepard could have done this, but now John wasn’t good enough.  Tough enough.  Determined enough.

He’d panicked and tried to cut off his own face, and now he was going to lose everything.

Again.

The Normandy.  His crew.  His friends.

Kaidan.

Grabbing hold of the railing that separated the holo-emitter from the rest of the space, John dragged in a ragged breath.  Holding it for even a few seconds felt like wrestling a Krogan, before all the air blew out of him like a hull breach.

Knuckles white as he held on, John forced another breath.  Then another.

I wanted to speak with you before you left the Normandy.

Hackett hadn’t meant it that way, but if he did, John still had to get through another day as the Commander.  The Normandy was his until they made it to the Citadel, and he owed this crew his best until...until he wasn’t their problem anymore.

Moving mechanically, John forced himself to stand up straight.  Another breath, almost controlled this time.  Shoulders back.  Chin up.  It’s just a normal call from the Admiral.  Bad news was hardly a surprise, but he’d never stumbled out of the War Room looking distressed before.  He wasn’t going to do it now.

Major Alenko will be put in charge...

That was the important part.  He needed to convince Kaidan to take his position.  The Alliance needed every advantage they could get, and Kaidan would be able to convince Garrus and Tali to stick around once Commander Shepard had been rearrested.  Quietly, because even his tattered reputation couldn’t withstand one more hit, but there’d probably be handcuffs this time, too.

One last breath, controlled and even.  John turned, slamming the mask of Commander Shepard over the roiling mess inside.  Nobody needed to know how close he was to losing it in front of every Private on this ship.  He’d get back to his Cabin, figure out how to convince Kaidan to take the job as the Normandy’s commanding officer, and then…

No.

Get back to the Cabin.  Work out a plan.  Don’t think any further ahead.  

Striding forward, Commander Shepard kept his gaze level and he crossed the War Room, that ever present look of exhausted determination once again boosting the flagging spirits of those around him.  Because Commander Shepard was a hero, a bloody icon, and as far as anyone on this ship was concerned, he was just taking a few days to himself, a well-deserved slow down before the next world-altering crisis came along.

Chapter Text

They’d ended up staying in the AI Core for most of lunch, the promise of “a few minutes” stretching out to nearly an hour.  Chakwas had eventually come in to check on them, the look of concern softening when she found them sitting on the floor, leaning against one of the walls and each other.  John had demurred at her offer of food, saying they’d grab something when they left.

Chakwas had run a few more scans before leaving them to their moment of peace.  Tucked into John’s side, Kaidan had let his thoughts drift over the things that had been said that morning.  He kept coming back to John’s fear of the crew being turned by the Reapers.  Maybe it was because there was nothing Kaidan could do about it that he wasn’t already doing.  He didn’t want to be captured or killed, and he was pretty sure none of their friends did either.  Dodging and running and shooting back had worked so far, but soldiers died every day using the same tactics.

Chakwas could scan for Cerberus tech.  Kaidan could keep demanding a third of John’s reports.  Tali could cover every window on the Normandy.  But there wasn’t anything any of them could do that would guarantee surviving the Reapers.

Eventually, his stomach growling had driven them out to find food.  Kaidan had ignored John’s unnecessarily large grin at the perfectly normal sound.  Really, the man ate enough to be a biotic himself; he could just tell people he glowed orange, instead.

A request from Chakwas to check on Joker and, as his CO, make certain he’d taken his meds that day had resulted in John poking indecisively around inside cabinets until the last of the Privates went back to their shift, then unearthing an honest to God loaf of bread.  He’d grinned at Kaidan, shoving several slices into the toaster and overriding some kind of safeguard so they would defrost without triggering the automated, moisture-detecting shutoff.  The back of another cabinet had produced peanut butter and jelly.

He’d been sorely tempted to suggest hiding in the AI Core more often.

That was apparently John’s only squirreled away rations, but now Kaidan had reason to doubt.  With Cortez’s apparent ability to find anything, even in the middle of a war, who knew what might be tucked behind a box of dextro desserts?

John had insisted on using the entire loaf— “it gets weird if you put it back in the freezer once it’s open”— and then foisting three of the sandwiches off on Kaidan.  Eating one of his own while he worked, John explained that one was for Chakwas, one was for Joker, and the last one was for eating with Joker.

“Otherwise, I’m just watching him eat,” John had explained as he stacked the wrapped sandwiches on top of each other, “and that’ll get weird, fast.”

Kaidan had pocketed two of his to eat later, enjoying the third while he watched John work.  He wasn’t an expert, but he was pretty sure peanut butter and video interviews didn’t go well together.  One though, with what John claimed was far too much jelly, couldn’t gum up the works too badly.  And he honestly couldn’t remember the last time he’d even had one.

Of all the things to sneak onto a military spaceship.

After checking carefully to make sure there was no evidence on his face or hands— sticky was a big reason he’d loved that sandwich as a kid— he’d headed down to find Allers while John headed up to find their recalcitrant pilot.

The interview itself had been the usual series of hoops to jump through and questions to jackknife around.  Allers was a good investigative reporter; she knew the benefits of warming up to a subject instead of jumping right in, and with someone who hadn’t honed their ability to lack a reaction dealing with overly-opinionated relatives, she no doubt had an excellent track record on getting information out of even the most unwilling subject.

If she lived through this war, Kaidan would have to thank Aunt Ruthie.  No doubt the old woman would want to know why.

After leaving Allers frustrated— he hadn’t known about Sanctuary's interest in human biotics, which meant she’d disclosed more information than she’d uncovered— Kaidan had checked the time, enjoying another of John’s sandwiches as he waited for the elevator.  It was possible the man was still talking to Joker, and John hadn’t come looking for him, so Kaidan took the elevator up to the Crew Deck and checked in with a couple of friends.

Garrus had looked surprised to see him, talons hovering over the console until it became apparent Kaidan wasn’t there looking for John.  They’d chatted, pointedly about mundane things.  The Normandy’s guns, the chaos of Donnelly’s necessary repair, the state of the coffee rations.

Kaidan had stopped and stared when Garrus told him about James.  “He didn’t know?”

“As rigid as our lieutenant can be about respecting authority figures,” Garrus had drawled, amusement making his sharp eyes bright, “he apparently thought you two were just very good friends.”  Garrus had crossed his arms over his chest, kicking back into his usual stance.  “I’m not sure what that says about the rest of us, though.  Either Vega’s a little oblivious, or,” he had faked a believably hurt tone, “Shepard doesn’t like me very much.”

Kaidan had laughed.  Garrus had looked pleased, some of the stress no doubt dwindling at the sound.  If Kaidan, who took everything seriously, could laugh after what John had done, then something must be going according to Tali’s plan.

He assumed it was Tali’s plan, though he wouldn’t put planning past the other female genius in their life.

Liara always looked busy, no matter what she was doing.  It might have been the sheer number of screens in that small room, but Kaidan thought it had to do with the way she seemed both entirely focused, while at the same time like she wasn’t paying attention at all.

John had started to develop a similar habit.  Kaidan had promised himself he would put a stop to it as soon as he figured out how.

Her wall of screens going blank as he walked in, Liara had agreed to chat only if it involved a trip to get more tea.  “Or coffee, if you prefer.”  John hadn’t been there to enjoy the moment, but Kaidan had opted for tea.

He did like tea, just not first thing in the morning.  And Liara, much like Chakwas, made fantastic tea.  He’d have to be half-awake to turn down a mug of whatever it was Liara did to the leaves and liquid.

They’d talked about most of the things he’d already discussed with Garrus, with a few new topics mixed.  EDI and Glyph were getting along better, Liara had isolated her systems so that very little Engineering did ever affected her, and she’d offered to hunt down another of Cortez’s old pilot friends if he would squeeze another box of Lady Grey tea onto the next Requisition Order.  She’d laughed when he’d asked about James.

“He didn’t know,” she’d agreed, “but really, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing he would notice.”  She’d grinned, all mischief and good cheer.  “He’s very fond of his commanding officer; I doubt the idea of a personal life had even entered Vega’s mind.”

“Everyone has a personal life,” Kaidan had replied, sipping his tea.  It was too sweet, and yet anything less would have tasted bitter.  The box had an explanation, but he’d opted out of the visual translation program, so the Asari letters could have said anything they wanted.

Liara had nodded, tipping back the rest of her possibly-still-scalding mug of tea.  “Yes, but Commander Shepard is an icon.  Or a hero.  Or an invaluable asset.”  She’d looked sad then, the corner of her mouth turning down just enough to notice.  “That line of thinking is what got Shepard into trouble, but I doubt very much Vega had anything to do with that.  Especially since his hero worship seems to have mellowed.”

John was a hero, but oddly, reminding him of that didn’t help.  John always looked pained when he heard the words, as if he felt they were unearned.

If John wasn’t a hero, Kaidan wasn’t sure who could be, but he kept the word to himself all the same.

By the time he’d finished with Liara, waving farewell as the Shadow Broker disappeared back into her Liar, it had been a few hours.  Checking with EDI— if he didn’t know better, he would have said the AI sounded distracted— Kaidan headed back upstairs to find John.  He waited for the elevator to arrive, his lips curving into a small smile at the omni-tool notification from Cortez; a mindfully casual reminder that coffee and conversation often paired well together.  Should Kaidan find himself with some free time and a topic he wanted to discuss.

Closing the message, Kaidan stepped onto the elevator, thinking about how normal the last few hours had been.  He knew, professionally and from personal experience, that nudging things back to normal would help John in the end.  Seeing that life went on, that people weren’t going to treat him differently, could go a long way to getting John to understand that the changes that had to be made didn’t necessarily mean an overhaul of life as he knew it.  He liked spending time with his friends; so what if there were a few more honest conversations mixed in with the harmless, everyday ones?

There was the less pleasant truth that, if things didn’t go back to normal, Alliance Command would relieve John of his command.  No one believed that would help them with the war, but there were protocols to be obeyed, and the court martial business in Vancouver proved the Alliance’s dedication to them.  Hackett could buy them time, but blatant favoritism would only compromise his position as well.

John had to be able to get through this, at least until the war was over.

Then, Kaidan had no doubt any number of plans would be drawn up to get John away from things for a while.  Hackett probably had three already.  Personally, Kaidan thought such a plan would only work if there was something for John to focus on when he got to wherever he was being temporarily exiled.  People he could help, just without the galaxy-wide threat of mass extermination hanging over his head.  And maybe less paperwork.

It was a nice idea, and Kaidan smiled to himself as he exited the elevator on the Cabin Deck.  John had grown up helping kids; maybe there was an orphanage out there that needed someone to make sandwiches.

Walking into their quarters, Kaidan came to halt, his neutrally cheerful mood fading.

John was pacing back and forth like a caged animal.  Long legs, capable of crossing a field of fire in seconds, caught up against the desk, the fish tank, the desk again, as the man stalked back and forth.  Dexterous fingers ran over each other, fingertips tracing each other in repeating, abstract patterns by John’s sides.  Intense blue eyes, hooded by brows pulled low in concentration, didn’t appear to be seeing anything around them.

Kai Leng could have walked through the door and Kaidan doubted the distressed man in front of him would have noticed.

How long had John been up here?  Kaidan had taken his time finding the man because he’d thought the impromptu lunch date with Joker would be a good thing, and because hovering annoyed even the most patient of souls.  The way John was muttering half phrases to himself, he must have been upset for some time.  Something had happened, in those few hours, that looked to be taking cruel advantage of John’s attempts to be more emotionally open.

“John?”

John stopped, booted foot landing next to its companion with a thump.  Facing away from the fish tank, John looked at Kaidan over his shoulder, face set in that determined scowl that Udina had been so good at summoning back when he was only Earth’s ambassador.  Every inch of John was tightly wound, forcing the man to stand to his full height.

Kaidan wondered if this was what the Alliance had seen when they’d chosen to make Shepard their poster boy after John’s presumed death.  Not a man with a cause, but a soldier who could command attention, whether you felt like giving it or not.

Kaidan wasn’t sure he’d ever seen that.  Even as Anderson’s XO, John had been...approachable.  Curious.  Kind.

“I think you should accept the command.”

Kaidan blinked at the clipped words.  “What command?”

“If this goes badly,” John turned to face him, no less relaxed for recognizing his visitor, “Hackett will offer you command of the Normandy.  You know the crew, you know the ship, you know our enemy.  It’s the best option he has.”

It was Kaidan’s turn to scowl, the now tiresome suggestion immediately summoning annoyance.  “John, Hackett is not going to remove you from the Normandy.  It’s a terrible tactical decision, and honestly?  I don’t think the man’s that much of an asshole.”

Confusion flickered across John’s face.  “What does being an asshole have to do with anything?”

“If Hackett takes you off the Normandy,” Kaidan said, slowly, “it will upset everyone onboard.  It changes crew assignments, tangles loyalties, and several people will probably straight up leave.”

“This crew cannot be loyal to me over their mission.”

It was an echo of their earlier argument, one that Kaidan had thought he’d won.  “Awful lot of people on this ship because of you,” he repeated, a vaguely sing-song quality to his voice.  He offered John a smile, hoping it would distract him from whatever had gone wrong since lunch.

No such luck.  “I already agreed to be Hackett’s scapegoat,” John said, his tone mulish in a way Kaidan rarely heard.  “There’s no point in him sticking his neck out like this for someone who doesn’t have a career after this war is over.”

“I’m pretty sure Hackett isn’t doing this for your career,” Kaidan said.  The flash of annoyance was settling in for a fight.  Annoyance at himself, for taking too long to find John and missing something horrible, and John, for working himself into such a state that he was ignoring reason.  “Hackett might, like most of us, think you are the best man for the job!”

“Not if I’m losing it!” John shot back.  “The commanding officer of one of the most important crews in this war is such a moron that he let himself wind up in a position where he was, inarguably, emotionally compromised.  It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d taken up drinking, or been too reckless on the field, or started juggling knives!”  John gestured to his face, a wild look creeping into his eyes.  “I hurt myself, and there are rules about that.  Rules that can’t simply be tossed aside because I happen, conveniently, to be the most experienced at dealing with an invading army.”

“That is exactly why rules get tossed aside,” Kaidan snapped.  “When following the rules does more harm than good, we are ethically bound to ignore them.”

“Ethically.”  John spat the word.  His tone felt like a slap.

Kaidan knew people thought him straight-laced, rule-loving, self-righteous even, but John had never said such a thing.  He’d always thought John knew better, but maybe it was just that he’d never said such a thing.

“You want to talk ethics?” John said, stomping right past Kaidan’s flinch.  “How about all the people I’ve killed?  The people I’ve let die?  We don’t even have to get Commander Shepard involved!  John’s hardly the saint everyone seems to think he is.”

Guilt clawed at him as he realized the spite hadn’t been aimed at him.  Of all the times to be relieved John was mad at himself.  “John, you haven’t—”

“Don’t you dare.”  His voice had gone deep, almost menacing, as John leveled a finger at Kaidan.  “Don’t you dare say it.”

“Then I should act like I’ve never taken a life outside of combat?” Kaidan said, heat coloring his voice.

“Self defense when you were sixteen is not the same.”

That was unfair.  Maybe he’d started it, arguing back on instinct, but Vyrnnus hadn’t had to die.  Any one of them could have run for help, bastard or not.  And they hadn’t.  Kaidan hadn’t.

Kaidan opened his mouth to say so, but John wasn’t in a dialoguing mood.

“I grew up in a gang , Kaidan.”  John stressed the word, like he thought Kaidan wasn’t sure what it meant.  “The Reds weren’t some bunch of kids who meant well and made a few bad choices.  Some of the stuff I did— it didn’t get you community service and an officer you had to call twice a week.  I hurt people, broke almost every rule in the book, and I was one of the good ones.  I know that.  I worked at that.  But some days, it didn’t matter.”

John threw his arms wide, encompassing people Kaidan couldn’t see.  His voice had taken on a desperate edge, like his words could change some choice he’d made all those years back.

“I did my best to keep the kids safe, keep the girls from being used however was most profitable that year, because maybe we didn’t have to do things that way.  Because I had the nerve to think street rats deserved a shot at a future.  And you know what?”  John scowled, the anger twisting his face in a way that summoned the Commander so many feared.  “At the end, they threw me out.  Demanded I save my own hide, no matter what the cost.  I know damn well the boss made examples of anyone who might have been considered ‘one of mine’.  Crushed the little rebellion paranoia decided was brewing among the ranks.”

Kaidan knew about the gang, knew John had not had the chances he’d had, even with B.A.a.T. screwing things up.  The rough practicality that John showed when dealing with mercenaries and pirates had made more sense after Ash had demanded to know why an Alliance soldier would so casually hand a criminal empire over to some old woman just because she promised no slaving or drugs.

John had quietly explained that being the bodyguard for girls who’d been forced to make their living the old-fashioned way made a person pretty snarly about any kind of human trafficking.  Guns, John could live with— he used one almost every day— but people deserved better than being classified as a commodity on someone’s budget sheet.  If Helena Blake wanted to trade in black market tech, that was her business, because she’d taken out groups who thought people could be bought and sold.

It was easy to believe his friends in the Reds had thrown John out.  Even as a teen, Kaidan couldn't believe John would ever have walked away; not to save his own skin.  But knowing that he was sent away to be safe, to have that future he’d struggled to give the others...

Sending John away made him a symbol, somebody who proved you could get out and that the backlash was worth it.  But there was no doubt in his mind that John saw it as some kind of betrayal; just another person taking advantage of kids who weren’t being valued in the first place.

“And who doesn’t like the story of the Naval Commander who got everybody killed?” John asked, scathing mockery pitching his voice higher.  “The revenge mission that was Torfan, where so many good men and women died.  Where ‘surrender’ and ‘mercy’ and ‘justice’ were left behind so that blood was paid for in blood.”

“Major Kyle was in charge of that mission,” Kaidan said quietly.  He remembered the strange man, whose guilt had driven him to start some kind of biotic cult, out of the way where no one would check on them.  The pre-mission report had stuck out because prior to that, Kyle had never shown any interest in biotics.  It was almost like he didn’t care which group he dealt with, so long as they felt like outcasts, too.

John was nodding.  “Major Kyle was in charge of that mission.  But he got injured, got pulled from the front lines.  By the time he decided we’d done enough, or lost too many men, or whatever it was that changed his mind, it was too damn late.”  John dropped his eyes, gaze fixed on a spot on the floor slightly to his right.  “That damn Batarian lit himself on fire and ran into Alliance gunfire, setting all manner of other things ablaze before he went down.  Fire causes panic, and panic is death on a battlefield.”

Every soldier knew that.  It was why even raw recruits were taught how to deal with strong emotions early on.

“Some of us never got the orders.  Some of us didn’t care.”  John’s voice had gone soft, something like disgust in his tone.  “Some of us knew our idiot comrades would never make it out without help.  They were going to see this through, no matter what command said.”  Regret stained the words, like blood on a moon’s surface.  “If the only way out is through, that’s where you go.  Doing the best you can, crushing any thoughts or feelings that might object.  Because it’s the pirate begging for his life in front of you or the Sergeant on your left, and it doesn’t matter who deserves what anymore.  It’s just...finding the end.”

The news feeds had gone wild with the story of the young Alliance Commander who’d extracted the ultimate price for attacking a human colony.  Who’d taught those barbaric Batarians why they shouldn’t think “new” meant “easy”.  The seventy-percent casualty rate on the mission had been bad press, but how many lives was too many, when it meant that civilians felt safe?

“The Geth don’t count.”  The words were quiet, garbled.  “The Rachni don’t count.  The Vorcha, the gang members, the mercs, the scientists.”  John giggled, a short, slightly hysterical sound.  “The Collectors, obviously.  Monsters to be mowed down.”

Kaidan stood there, waiting.  Something had set this off, but he wasn’t about to stop it.  How long had these memories been in there, festering and feeding on the fear that kept them secret?

“The Butcher of Torfan.  The human who hated Batarians so much , he laughed as they begged.”  The silly sound of a giggle morphed back into judgmental disappointment as John threw his arms up, the mad smile dying on his lips.  He was looking at the bathroom door now, still not really seeing anything at all.  The words came out soft, almost hard to hear.  “I didn’t laugh.  The only person laughing was that mad man who thought burning alive was the better option.”

Now John did look at him, his face a terrible kind of blank.  “I hope they enjoyed finding out that Annihilator of Bahak was the same beast.  The boogeyman they’d tried to forget, who came back when they all felt safe.”

Kaidan started forward, then stopped.  He wasn’t sure what would happen if he tried to touch John right now.  The scars, bright orange gashes where he could see them, looked so much worse than they had in the MedBay.

“Hackett needed somebody,” John said, his voice still that awful quiet.  “He needed some to blame and I was there.  A freak of science, repaired by a terrorist organization, with a reputation damaged long before Saren ever got involved.  Who was going to question it?  Nobody cared about the psychotic, murderous renegade: Commander Shepard.  Of course he killed all those Batarians.  He’s the one you bring in when you want to get the job done .”

He sounded suddenly tired.  Gaze unfocused, John said, almost to himself, “this war is all I have.  When it’s over, everyone I care about will get on with their lives, and I’ll go back to prison; damned for the massacre I tried to stop.”

Careful to keep his footsteps light, Kaidan stepped forward this time.  He left space between them, leaving room for John to back away or gesture wildly, again.  But he couldn’t stand there and listen to that last bit.  He squeezed the words out of a tight throat.  “John, that’s not true.”

“Isn’t it?”  Kaidan almost wished for the anger back.  “What else am I good for?  What can the Alliance do with a traitor like me?”  John finally focused on his face, blue eyes glassy.  “I’m just the guy who gets people killed.”

Something had been waiting at the edge of Kaidan’s thoughts, picking away at a detail he couldn’t quite place.  Looking at John, all trace of the Commander gone from the man before him, the thought finally slid into focus.  “What did you mean, you ‘already agreed to be Hackett’s scapegoat’?”

John shrugged, the careless motion flaring Kaidan’s irritation once again.  “He’s why I was there.  At the Alpha Relay.  His friend was working at a research station nearby and had gotten into some trouble.”  John reeled off the information like it wasn’t completely counter to the official report.  “I was the person who could get her out safely.”

“Did you?”

“No.”  John shook his head.  “It turned out they were studying a Reaper artifact.  Everybody there was indoctrinated.  When they attacked, I was overwhelmed.”  John gave him a weak smile.  “Even an N7 can’t fight that many people by himself.”

It was Kaidan’s turn to shake his head.  “That’s awful.  But what does that have to do with blowing up the Alpha Relay?”

“It’s named that because it’s the back up,” John said.  “If the Reapers can’t invade via the Citadel, the Alpha Relay is their Plan B.  Without it, it takes even longer for them to get here.”

“So, you blew it up?” Kaidan asked, sounding vaguely skeptical.  It was a half-decent plan, in that it delayed the enemy even a little.

But John was shaking his head, again.  “That was the researchers’ original plan.  They’d decided, when they figured out what the Relay could be used for, to destroy it.  Set an asteroid to slam into it.  They’d determined that losing the Bahak System was an acceptable price to pay.”

“But then they were indoctrinated,” Kaidan said.

John nodded.  “And then it was the worst plan they’d ever had.  It had to be stopped, no matter what.”  John laughed, a hollow sound this time.  “Hackett sent me to save his friend, and instead I watched her blow herself up.”

“Blow herself up?”

“To sabotage the core.”  John waved a hand at nothing.  “By damaging the systems, it should have made it impossible to destroy the Relay.  Destroyed the asteroid before it could impact, thus letting the Reapers through.”

“But you stopped her?”

“No.  I stopped the core overload.”  John rubbed at his eyes, voice strained.  “Whatever Dr. Kenson used to blow herself up, it didn’t do enough damage.”

“So the Relay was destroyed,” Kaidan said, “and that’s how you killed those Batarians.”

“I didn’t kill the Batarians!”  It should have been a bellow, fueled by anger or resentment, but John’s voice cracked, transforming the words into a soul-deep sound of distress.  “I did everything I could to save them!  I tried to warn them, I tried to talk Kenson down, I tried not to get bludgeoned into unconsciousness by a bunch of insane scientists!  Those people all died because of the Reapers, and the only choice in the matter was would they go in an instant from the Relay exploding, or slowly through the process of being Harvested.  If I could have saved them, damnit, I would have!”

Dropping his hands to his sides, it was almost a wail.  “Why does everyone think I kill aliens?  Like I wouldn’t choose a different option if there’d been one?”  John looked at him, desperation in his plea for someone to understand.  “It’s like the Destiny Ascension.  If I had known how the fight would go, why wouldn’t I have saved the Council?  They were annoying and self-centered, but that didn’t mean they should die!”

John stepped suddenly forward, grabbing Kaidan’s arms with hands that felt like vices.  “10,000 people dead, but if Sovereign had taken the Citadel, it would have been 13 million .  What kind of monster makes that choice?  Who says 13 million people don’t matter because they weren’t important enough to be evacuated on one specific ship?  Who risks the fate of the galaxy for a few political brownie points?”

Kaidan stared at John, speechless.  What could he say?  What words could possibly make any of this better?  And how could Hackett do this?  Someone had to take the fall, but to let the Review Board make such a decision thinking Commander Shepard had just gone off the rails?

The rational, practical part of his mind whispered that Hackett’s plan wasn’t a bad one.  The Batarians already hated Commander Shepard, and they knew he had been at the Alpha Relay when it was destroyed.  He’d even been working for Cerberus, a known “humans first” terrorist organization that was infamous for using and abusing whatever they thought would get the job done.  What were 300,000 Batarians in the fight to prove humanity’s superiority?

What was one Alliance Marine in the fight to avoid a war?

But his anger wouldn’t help John.  Whatever choices had been made, there weren’t enough Batarians left to demand anyone’s head.  And whatever fate they might have had in mind for the Annihilator of Bahak— had someone really called John that?— it was clear the guilt of being unable to save those lives was far worse.

Mistaking his silence for judgement, John’s head fell forward.  A physical sign of defeat, from one of the strongest people Kaidan knew.  Still searching for words, Kaidan felt his heart clench at the first choked-off sob.

On instinct, his hands moved.  Taking gentle hold of John’s head, Kaidan tried to raise it.  John fought him, pulling his head a few centimeters lower as a full sob broke through.  The hands on Kaidan’s upper arms squeezed convulsively with the sound, Shepard trying desperately to wrest control back after an unacceptable display.

One hand moved to the back of John’s neck, holding firmly but not gripping.  Not an act of control.  The other slid along the side of John’s face, cupping John’s uninjured cheek as Kaidan tried again to get the man he loved to look at him.  John wouldn’t, but he moved on the same instinct that had lifted Kaidan’s hands, leaning forward almost unconsciously.

Some part of him knew this was safe, this was caring, this was someone he could trust.  Still—

“I’m sorry.”

Sensing futility in his actions, Kaidan pulled John closer instead, resting his forehead against John’s close-cropped hair.  “Don’t be sorry.”

“I can’t do this.”  The words were choked, thick with emotion.  “I can’t…I can’t be that guy anymore.  I can’t…I can’t take one more fall.”

The hand on the back of John’s neck moved, sliding to his shoulder so Kaidan could pull him closer still.  “You don’t have to, John.  You’ve done great, and you’ll do great, and no one else is going to use you like that.”  He’d never understood the desire to abuse power so thoroughly in his life.  Anyone.  Anything.  Any price, to keep this man by his side, to keep this bone-deep pain from continuing.

Stuttered breathing as John fought, resisting as he always did.  Bearing the brunt of the pain as he always did.

Kaidan pressed a kiss to John’s temple; more forceful than he’d meant to, but with all the force of what he meant.  “I’m right here, John.  It’s OK.”

The hands holding him went slack, dropping slowly down his arms until they caught on his elbows.  Moving his own hands, Kaidan pulled John into a proper hug, holding the distraught man tight against him.  He could feel the uneven breaths: staggered puffs against his neck, the jerky movements of John’s chest against his own.  Hear the words trying to form, unsure of themselves until they were spoken aloud.

“I love you.”

Kaidan held John as close as he could, feeling the lightest brush of relief as strong arms wrapped around his waist, holding him back just as fiercely.  “I love you, too.”

Ugly, gut-wrenching sobs wracked John’s body.  Sound of distress pulled from deep inside, kept locked away from care and love and kindness for so long they’d forgotten such things existed.  Tears for feeling like the attention was undeserved, the loyalty unearned, for good fortune and extra chances that felt like they’d been stolen from someone else.  John held him as though he knew, deep down somewhere unshakable, that Kaidan would push him away for the simple reason that he wasn’t fit to feel so much.  That if he didn’t cling, no one would care.

And later, when there was time and space for such things, Kaidan would think uncharitable things about the people responsible for those feelings.  The kinds of people who let bad things happen to little boys.  Little boys with blue eyes and big hearts and a mischievous grin that he’d been taught to grow out of, but never quite did.

Now, though, his anger was banked by the occasional whimper interrupting the harsher sounds of long-buried grief.

Kaidan held him, never relaxing his grip, as John cried.  He whispered nonsense words and empty phrases, rocking them gently from time to time, keeping as much of them touching as he could.  He could feel John twisting the fabric of his shirt in his own unrelenting grip, tugging it loose from under his belt as his hands tensed and relaxed.  The shoulder of Kaidan’s uniform was soaked, John’s face pressed against the wet material as he shook.  Kaidan could picture those eyes, squeezed shut as if refusing to open them would banish the things that hurt so much.

But even that much pain must pass.  Eventually, the sobs slowed to violent hiccups, the hands fisted in Kaidan’s shirt relaxing to fingers idly tracing patterns, John’s chin coming to rest on the ruined material covering Kaidan’s shoulder.

Kaidan held him still, his hold relenting only enough to mirror John’s.  Even though he hadn’t been the one crying, Kaidan felt exhausted; his eyes slipping closed as he pressed his cheek against John’s bandaged one.

They stayed that way until John moved, pulling back just far enough that they could see each other.  John’s face was pale, puffy around the eyes, with a slight shine to his cheeks where the tear tracks hadn’t been rubbed away.

Carefully, hesitantly, Kaidan lifted a hand once again to touch John’s face.  He traced the bandage on his cheek, checking the edge to see if it had come loose, the medic in him worried about the injury even as he knew the emotional release was far more critical.  Satisfied, he let the training slip back into its compartmentalized place, concern and the desire to help, to understand, taking over.

He ran his thumb over John’s cheek, wiping away the last few tears.  “John...what happened?”  When the man only looked confused by the question, Kaidan added, “this afternoon.  You went to see Joker, pleased about those amazing sandwiches.”  Small praise for a small thing, but he couldn’t bring himself not to be kind in some small way.  “Now you’re worried about losing the ship, again.  What happened?”

John’s answer was slow in coming, his mind sluggish after the emotional ride.  Eyes tracing lazily over Kaidan’s face, John said, “Hackett called.  He wanted to see how I was doing.”

That would explain the rehashing of Bahak, but Kaidan doubted Hackett had brought that up now.

When Kaidan didn’t speak, John elaborated.  “He said he wanted to talk to me personally.  Needed to get a feel for the situation before I left the Normandy.”

It felt like a hole had been punched through his chest.  How could Hackett be so careless?  Words like that, when John was already feeling exposed?  Or was it some kind of test?  Was the Admiral trying to see just how broken his soldier was?

But John continued.  “He did a good job trying to walk back the word choice.  Explain that he meant shore leave, not...not something else.”  John tilted his head as he studied Kaidan’s left shoulder.  “But he did explain that this wasn’t something he could fix for me.  Either I can get my head in order, or he won’t have a choice in the matter.”

It might be the truth, but sometimes people deserved better than the truth.  “John, that’s not going to happen.”

His hand rested against John’s uninjured cheek, and he stamped his annoyance out like a coal that had escaped a campfire.  “Hackett probably did need to talk to you.  You know better than most how much you can learn from speaking with someone face to face.”  Kaidan forced a smile, not quite feeling it.  “If Hackett’s going to back his best man, he needs to know how you’re doing.  That’s all.”

John watched him, unconvinced.  “You really believe that, don’t you?”

He looked back at John, willing the man he loved to believe him.  “I do.  Hackett would never beat around the bush.  If you were out of luck, he would have said so.  But he didn’t.  He said he called to see how you were doing, and so that’s really why he called.”

The look on John’s face softened.  He wanted to believe, and as tired as he was, even simple words were evidence enough.  John leaned into Kaidan’s touch this time.

Seeing an opening, Kaidan took the risk, his other hand coming up to cover the bandage on John’s injured cheek as he spoke.   “John, you do not ‘get people killed’.  You are not some scapegoat.  This war is not all you have.”  His smile was smaller this time, but sincere.  “You’re John, maybe Shepard, and you’re doing the best you can, to help as many people as you can.”

John’s response was soft, but it lacked the self-loathing and doubt of before.  “Am I?”

“Yes,” Kaidan said, with the conviction he’d had standing before the Review Board when they’d asked if he thought Commander Shepard’s testimony could be trusted.  “You’re not capable of anything else.”

Finally abandoning his mangled shirt, John’s hands settled on his waist.  “Kaidan, just because I’m not a fake, doesn’t mean I’m not some fractured excuse for the man I was.”  Warily, John watched Kaidan as he said the words, as if still looking for any sign that Kaidan would leave.  “What if I can’t do the things I used to?  What if I’m just...pieces, held together by good intentions and the need to look after the people I love?”

As if that wasn’t enough.  As if that wasn’t more than some people gave.  As if Kaidan hadn’t wanted, more than anything, from the day he’d heard that first rumor, for even a piece of the impossible to be true.

Holding those haunted, brilliant blue eyes with his own, Kaidan spoke as clearly as he could.  “John, I spent two years loving a ghost.  Whatever it means, ‘fractured’ will always be better than that.”

His words or his gaze or the whole miserable experience since he’d walked through that door – something convinced John of his truth.  This time it was John’s hand that came up, brushing long, slender fingers through Kaidan’s hair.  A gesture of comfort, even when the static shock built up and nipped at John’s fingertips.

The moment broke when a yawn, the kind that didn’t care why you were that kind of tired, demanded to be released.  John slapped a hand over his mouth, the lines at the corners of his eyes reappearing, in harmless amusement this time, as Kaidan grinned.

“Come on,” Kaidan said, his voice quiet even after the miasma of misery began to recede, “let’s go to bed.”

“It’s barely dinnertime.”  John’s encore yawn was almost as impressive as the first, taking any chance of a convincing argument with it.

Staying close, Kaidan waited for John to drop his hand.  He leaned forward, bumping the tip of his nose against John’s.  “I’m tired.”  His voice took on a teasing quality, as gentle as his smile.  “Keep me company, at least?  Since you’re wide awake?”

John’s answering smile was worth every minute of unpleasantness that day.  “Keep the nightmares away while you dream.”

And after a day like this, Kaidan doubted even the nightmares could keep them awake.  “My hero.”

The word had slipped out before Kaidan could stop it, but for once, John didn’t stiffen.  He gave Kaidan a soft look, something changing behind his eyes.  “Your hero.”

Getting to bed was a little tricky, even before Kaidan had called for dimmer lights.  Neither of them was willing to let the other one go, so moving was a slow, slightly awkward affair.  Worth it when Kaidan almost fell backwards down the steps, misjudging where the first one began.  The brief reappearance of those laugh lines would have been worth actually falling.  John had caught him, though, pulling him close with a whispered “got’cha.”

Kaidan had debated just sleeping in their uniforms, but John had plucked at his stained, still moist shirt with a sheepish grin.  Standing what would have been ridiculously close on another day, they’d changed into their respective sleepwear, John’s arms winding around his waist once again even as Kaidan was still pulling on his shirt.

A few more steps, some shifting of covers and pillows, and they found themselves in the middle of their unnecessarily large bed.  Laying down, Kaidan watched John tuck the covers in around them; a nightly ritual, comforting in its familiarity.  It jarred against the vibrant scars scattered across John’s body, nearly all of them glowing brighter than they had been before.  But they would fade, and if this plan to liberate John from his self-imposed burden worked, maybe they would fade for good.

Satisfied with the bedding, John curled into Kaidan’s side, one arm across his chest, not quite relaxed enough to be simply draped there.  He felt himself smile as sleep-soft lips pressed against his neck, a silent thank you in the language John knew best.  John’s head resting on his shoulder, Kaidan held him close in return.

He wasn’t going anywhere.  He would not push John away.  He would not be any of the terrible things the dark corners of John’s mind whispered he must be.

But those whispers were there, and with monsters like the threat of Batarian retribution breathing down his neck, John would never be able to really push them away.  They needed to find a way to shield John, just like he had always shielded them, from the callous brutality that could be the real world.  Sometimes, there just needed to be a happier ending, no matter what the universe said.

And as rough as today had been— as downright awful as this week had been— in the end, John was going to be fine.  Everyone who’d ever really known John would make sure of that.  Chakwas would read a mountain of research, and Liara would brew so much tea, and Garrus would take John shooting, or regale him with an afternoon’s worth of imbecilic arrest stories in between complaining about the only beer offered in a crappy Ward-level bar.  Tali would buy every model ship on the Citadel, willing and able to spend every single afternoon building them in this very room while pestering John about his reports.  Traynor would reroute communications and Cortez would hunt down more peanut butter and Donnelly would miss the point—

Kaidan cut off the train of thought as he felt John shift against him.  Slower, deeper breaths, the antithesis of his earlier disjointed gasps, heralded the oncoming effects of sleep.  The arm slung across his middle relaxed, resting against him instead of holding on.

Feeling John slipping away from the last of the conscious worries that had plagued him, Kaidan let his own exhaustion start to exert its hold.  His eyelids, suddenly heavy, refused to stay open as he studied the play of shadows inside the display case, the blue highlights glancing off the model ships hypnotic in their unpredictability.

One more day.  One more day before they reached the Citadel and the change of location might just shake everything back into sense.  Not back into place, because John needed to never go back to that place again, but into a new place that still made a familiar kind of sense.  The old trust and the old faith, with a better support system.  The way that the SR2 was bigger and faster and sneakier, but it was still the Normandy.  At least to her crew.

Lost in his thoughts again, the deeper breath was the only warning Kaidan got before sleep took him.

Chapter Text

Thumping.  A warped, thrumming kind of bass.  A low-sounding pulse that he felt in his bones.  The steady pounding of a heart, of feet, of inevitability.

The sound shook the station around him, even as he stumbled to his feet.

“There is no escape.  There’s no redemption for what you’ve done.”

Dr. Kenson was standing on the other side of the room, the grey walls and blinking consoles twisted and elongated as the room seemed to stretch with each successive step he took.  Kenson looked as frazzled as she had the last time he’d seen her, her hand shaking as it held the trigger, her voice not quite calm.

“Your friends will die, converted into soldiers for the Reapers army.  And you will just die.”

His foot caught on something.  Looking back, he saw a dark forest, the trees and shadows stretching out behind him.  Something about that place felt familiar, ominous, like he’d been lost there when he was a child.

But there were no forests where he grew up.  Concrete walls and darkness-filled alleys and every kind of alarm.  No trees to haunt him, loom over him with the weight of his decisions resting heavy in their branches.

Turning back, John felt the heat of the flames.  The bastard had lit himself on fire, running at the Alliance troops as he shouted every threat he could think of, laughing as his skin melted and sloughed off onto the now panicking humans.  Uniforms, crates, spilled liquids caught around them, adding more danger to an already hellish fight.  Somewhere nearby, Major Kyle was shouting for assistance.  Park and Rodriguez had vanished into the crowd.  Samson’s head had exploded, like the pumpkin Dmitri had hurled at the garbage truck, chunks slapping onto the ground with wet thuds.

Spinning around, unable to spot anyone he recognized, John ran forward, shoving his way through a door, gun raised in case they hadn’t cleared this room yet.

Aria stood in front of a control panel, shoulders hunched up by her ears.  “Shepard, I need you to push ahead.  Nyreen and I will catch up once you’ve cleared the next room.”

It sounded right, but it wasn’t.  Something about the silhouette of the woman in front of him.

When he didn’t move, Aria turned to face him.  The top half of her face was gone, wiped clean like it had always been smooth, blue skin.  Her mouth was torn open, glowing tubes and slimy blue tentacles clogging the distended orifice.  The smallest of the tendrils moved, feeling along the collar of her white jacket, slipping underneath to press against sweat-drenched skin.

“Move it, Shepard!”

His feet carried him without a thought, rushing past what was left of the Asari warlord.

The door slid open, the familiar ground of Menae uneven under his boots.  Ahead of him, Husks swarmed James, screeching their mindless will into the night.  Swearing desperately, James fired again and again, finally giving up and swinging his rifle at the creatures as desiccated hands grabbed him.  Three climbed him from behind, a fourth seizing his face.  It yanked, tearing away skin and the thin muscle beneath.

Frozen in place, stunned first by the visceral destruction of his lieutenant, the blow landed between his shoulders, driving John to his knees.  His helmet’s smaller viewport blocked most of his view, but he recognized the blue and silver armor now standing in front of him.  Looking up, Garrus’ mangled face looked back, bright blue eyes replaced with that familiar dull red.

The Marauder raised its rifle, slamming the butt into John’s head.  His vision went white.

Blinking furiously to clear it, the warning klaxons of the Cerberus lab blared around him, Miranda’s muted voice demanding that he get up.

“There’s a pistol in the locker on the other side of the room.  Hurry!”

Rolling off the table, John landed in a crouch.  No time to think, to question.  He bolted forward, grabbing the gun and shouldering through yet another door jammed in place by structural damage.  Up ahead, he could see someone standing, almost as if they were waiting for him.

They’d covered her tattoos.  Her endless, colorful, sprawling story; drawn over her skin, over their scars.  That wretched armor, white and black and yellow, the collar tight enough it looked like it was choking her.  And what skin he could see had been carved up, angry new scars desecrating the images she’d chosen for herself, branding her as regained property.

Her eyes were wrong, too.  Electric purple, Jack’s head canted to the side, as if she didn’t recognize him.

His wonderful, fearless girl: caught and chained and changed.

From the shadow she cast against the wall, The Illusive Man stepped out to admire his work.  The ever-present cigarette was rapidly becoming the only light in the quickly darkening room.

“Magnificent, isn’t she?  I used her students, you know.  To make her obey.”  Those horrible, electric blue eyes looked over at him.  “Just like I used your friends.”

With a roar, John lunged at Jack.

This monster could not have her back.  Not ever, not even for a minute.

The pain bit into his chest, sharp and fast.  Gasping, John grabbed the sword, following it back to the triumphant smirk.  Kai Leng twisted his wrist, the sword jerking sideways.  Stumbling back, the pain vanished.  He was holding his gun in one hand, the other raised as the assassin yanked the sword free of Thane’s chest.  The Drell collapsed as Kai Leng fled, the Citadel shaking around them from the strength of the Reaper’s blasts.

Ducking behind cover, John glanced around, taking in the Geth Dreadnought, coming apart around them as the Quarians fired on the ship.  He could feel the oxygen leaking from his suit, the compressed air failing, fleeing, falling -

“Shepard-Commander.”

Legion.  John snapped his head around, finding the broken unit.  It dragged itself over the damaged decking, it’s usually bright light flickering between white and red.  One hand reaching forward, its voice stuttered as its light began to fade.

“Sh-Sh-Shepard-Commander.  Help us.”

The Banshee’s shriek tore through the air.  Shoving himself to his feet once again, John spun toward the sound, already knowing he was too late.

The monsters crowded around her, Liara’s wide eyes already changing to black.  The pillars of the monastery towered over them, disappearing into the glowing, violent sky above.  Liara looked past the encroaching creatures, looked at him, and held up the detonator, the bomb beeping loudly against her back, her voice holding the last of her strength.

“We are not your slaves.”

The blast threw him back, the air knocked out of him as he landed hard on the dry, yellow grass.  Around him, the colony of Horizon buzzed with energy, with invaders, with terror and confusion and silent pleas for it to stop.

Opening his eyes, John sat up.  A few meters in front of him, he spotted the familiar form.

“Kaidan.”

The man looked at him, his face in shadow despite the bright light.  Pushing himself to his feet, John stumbled forward.  He grabbed Kaidan’s arms, his own voice full of urgency this time.

“Kaidan, we have to go.  We have to -”

He stopped.  There was something wrong with Kaidan’s arm.  Looking down, he saw the swollen, discolored skin, grafted back into place over tech and eezo and thick cables.

His hands let go on their own, his legs forcing him back, even as John looked back at that face he loved, voice timid and afraid.  “Kaidan?”

His eyes— those beautiful, kind, whiskey-brown eyes— had been carved out, replaced by balls of violent, electric blue, staring dully out of that skull white face.  Deep scars cut through his cheeks, his neck flayed and recovered with synthetic mesh that pulsed with an unnatural heartbeat.  Studded into an equally scared chest, the biotic implants glowed, their light reflecting off the connecting components that criss-crossed Kaidan’s torso.

Swallowing back bile, John tried to think.  He’d gotten here in time.  He’d torn through the colony.  He’d made it.  He’d -

“John?”

He couldn’t help it.  He knew that voice, knew it like his own.  Soft and sweet and quietly concerned.

John looked up.  The monster that no longer resembled anyone pointed its canon at him.  It opened its mouth, screaming as it let loose a blue-white blast—

John sat up, shaking violently.  His breath came in ragged gasps.  The cool air of the room burned against his heated skin, ice on a sunburn, even as the fabric covering his legs was cloyingly warm.

No.  No no no.

Shoving aside the covers, he pushed himself to his feet.  The bulkhead in front of him loomed out of the semi-dark, a shadowed void that refused to resolve into the familiar until he laid his hand flat against it.

“Shepard-Commander.  Help us.”

John clamped his mouth shut, forcing the breath in through his nose.  The four count they’d all been taught was out of the question.  Blood thundered in his ears.  He could feel his pulse, beating against the thin skin of his wrists.

He turned his head to look around, his eyes snapping shut at the blue light to his left.

“We are not your slaves.”

Those hadn’t been Liara’s words.  But someone had said them.  Someone had died, right in front of him.

Again.

“John?”

The image of that twisted creature bloomed behind his eyelids.  The brutalized, defiled body of the man he loved.

He didn’t remember closing his eyes.

Forcing them open, John stared down at the floor as he tried to catch his breath.  Instead, his gaze caught on the harsh orange lines decorating his own body.

Brutalized.  Defiled.  Turned into something without his consent.

Raising a shaking hand to his chest, John traced the line from his shoulder to where it connected with another at the bottom of his rib cage.  The joined lines dropped from there, but he couldn’t bring himself to continue.

Marks of the dead.  Orange, instead of blue, but a monster nonetheless.

He looked around, a choked cry escaping him as the half-familiar room swam around him.  Keeping his hand flat against the wall, John turned to follow it.  The light ahead of him was blue, but not the harsh blue-white of the Husks.  Of the Scions.  Of all the things his family would someday be.

He thought he heard the sound of movement; soft, like fabric sliding off a bed.  That didn’t make sense.  Husks didn’t use beds.

His foot caught on something.  Looking down, the shape of a boot coalesced in the darkness.  A uniform shirt bunched up on the floor, next to a pair of familiar boots.

Kaidan would never leave clothes on the floor.  Neither of them would.  Kaidan was too neat.  John had spent too long hoarding something as precious as another layer of warmth to leave it lying around.

Kaidan.

Looking up, John turned his head from side to side, wide eyes flicking over the shapes around him as he tried to remember why he was so scared.  Something had Kaidan.  Or wanted him?  Or wanted Jack.  Both?  Who…

“John?”

The question was soft, garbled by sleep.  Looking left, John saw someone stagger as they came around the end of the bed.

A bed.  Their bed.  Because this was their room.

“Wha’s wrong?”  Kaidan’s voice was still muffled, one hand rubbing at his eye as he held the other out to John.  Kind, patient Kaidan, who never got mad no matter how many nights he didn’t get enough sleep.

Not enough sleep, because John had woken them both with his nightmares.  A bad dream.  Not real.

Kaidan lowered his hand to cover a yawn, the other still held out in front of him.  “Come back to bed, John.  It’s OK.”

It was OK, because it wasn’t real.  No Scions.  No Banshees.  No faceless James or mutilated Aria.  John held out his own hand, fingers just shy of reaching Kaidan’s.

The jagged bolt of orange on the back of his hand glared at him, the horrid light banishing his moment of comfort.  It was real.  The scars were real, and the monsters were real, and they’d all die screaming because it was all real.

Pulling his hand sharply back, John couldn’t help himself.  He traced the broken patches of light back up his arm, cracks in the armor that was the story he kept telling himself.  That he was back.  That he was human.  That he was real.

“John?”  Kaidan sounded more awake now, blinking the last of sleep from his eyes.  He took another step forward as John laid his hand over the ugly, recognizable scar on his chest.

Marks of the dead.  Because he’d died.  And something had come back, but was it him?  How could he know?

The skin along the edge of the scar had peeled back, pulling away from itself to reveal more of the strange light.  Humans didn’t glow inside.  Even biotics only glowed outside.  He’d seen enough injured to know there was no blue light under their skin, just muscle and blood and bone.

He glowed.  Orange.  Like nobody else.  Why?  How?  What was under there?  Tracing his fingertips along the straight line that led to his navel, he ran the pads of his fingers over the hideous mark.

“No!”

Kaidan was next to him now, both of his hands yanking John’s away from the scar.

John tugged, a small voice telling him not to.  “Kaidan, it’s OK.  I’m just checking.”

“Stop it!”

And he did.

It was like someone had stuffed cotton in his ears, like when Ms. Randolph had thought he’d had an ear infection and made him spend the night at the local school.  The room had gone silent, the last sound ringing through the muted air.  Kaidan’s voice, terrified and desperate, pitching up at the end as he jerked John’s hand to his chest.

He held it there now, clutched to him like Petey’s teddy bear.  Brown eyes, strangely bright, watched him, Kaidan’s mouth twisted into the shape of something miserable.  His shoulders shook, the movement uneven, as something slid down Kaidan’s cheek.

Tears.  Kaidan was crying.

The sound came back like it was being sucked into the room.  The hush of the air recycler, the hum of the VI monitoring the fish, the low buzz of the Normandy.  Kaidan’s unsteady breathing.

John looked at his hand, still held in Kaidan’s own.  The orange line zigzagged out from under Kaidan’s palm, calling to his doubts.  But John’s own problems had always receded in the face of someone else’s.  He couldn’t worry about a stupid bit of weird light when his friends were upset.

As if he knew where John had been looking, Kaidan’s hand moved, covering the scar.  Warm, dry palms enclosed his own, fingers shorter and thicker than his own curling around his longer, thinner ones.  Dexterous, according to Tina.  A pianist’s hands, according to Sister Claudette.

John had never paid them much attention until Kaidan had taught him how to help maintain his amp.  Checking the skin around the implant for signs of infection; exploring the inside of the port to make sure nothing was cracked or loose or stuck; testing the catches to make sure they’d hold an amp or the skin-colored plastic cover, for when his biotics weren’t needed.  When Kaidan slept, or they had a real day off.

One hand stayed wrapped around John’s; the other moved to cover most of a scar on John’s forearm.  Kaidan’s eyes, still bright, never moved from John’s face.  “Stop it, John.”  Whispered, but he could have been shouting, the way the words filled the space between them.  “Please...please stop.”

He risked a look down.  The brand on his chest still glowed, still demanded his doubt and self-loathing, but quieter now.  Blocked by the feeling of hands on his arm, by the plea in Kaidan’s voice.

For the first time since he’d woken up, John took his hand off the bulkhead.  His palm felt clammy, so he wiped it on his sleep pants.  Raising it to his face, John had meant to rub the feeling from his nose, almost like the after effects of a sneeze.  But he was distracted once again by the orange light.  Thin lines that rayed out from his elbow, climbing down along the outside of his forearm.

He’d always thought it odd that the scars weren’t symmetrical.

John twitched at the feeling of a hand once more on his chest.  He looked down, following the arm back to its owner.  Kaidan had let go of his forearm, moving his hand to cover as much of the convergence point as he could on John’s chest.  Tears slid freely down his cheeks now, chasing each other like rain.

“Talk to me.”  Another plea, as soft as any before it.  “Please, John.  Anything.  Tell me anything.”

Anguish, his mind supplied helpfully.  He’d always thought the word amusing because Angus was the happiest kid he knew.  How strange for the dictionary to spell those two words almost the same.

He didn’t think he liked that word anymore.

John turned to face Kaidan properly, his free hand reaching forward to brush away a fresh tear.  “You’re crying.”

There was a pause, then Kaidan laughed.  A sad, unhappy sound.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I am.”

It didn’t feel right to speak with his normal voice, the light and the emotions and the late hour demanding quiet.  “I did that.”

“No.”  The denial was immediate; well-intentioned, if a lie.  Kaidan’s nose twitched, though it could have been from the sniff as he went on, “no, I just…”

John watched as Kaidan tried to find a way not to blame him.  Fought so hard not to put one more problem on John’s already burdened shoulders.  Demanded the universe make this someone else’s fault, the one time there was no one else to blame.

“Kaidan…”  John ran his thumb over Kaidan’s cheek as more tears came, shaken free as Kaidan’s breath caught unsteadily.  “This one’s my fault.  I did this.”

The grip on his hand tightened, almost painfully.  “You’re just hurt.  You need help.”

“I have help.”  So many people, dedicating time and resources they didn’t have to piece him back together.  Again.  But this time, it would be different.  This time, he knew them, trusted them, wanted them to help.

“Then what?”  Kaidan’s voice caught on the word, a tear sliding off his chin to land on John’s finger.  “Is it the wrong kind?  Did we wait too long?”  He gasped sharply, as if the idea had struck him in the chest, knocking the strength from his voice.  “Did I push too hard?”

“Push?” John asked.  What was he talking about?

“I’ve been here since I found you,” Kaidan said.  “I made you talk to Joker when I could have thrown him out.  Dragged you down to Engineering.  Sent you off to Tali on your own.”  There was an edge to Kaidan’s words, teetering on the brink of something absurd.  “All the visits to Chakwas, even though you were scared of what the crew might see.”  Another laugh, choked this time.  “I insisted they wouldn’t care instead of giving you space.”

No.  No no no.

“Kaidan, no.”  Wrapping his fingers around Kaidan’s own, John pulled the biotic toward him.  Kaidan came easily, bumping against him without response.  Tugging his hand free, John wiped away the tears on the other cheek, tilting Kaidan’s head up to make the man look at him.  “Kaidan, no .”

“No?”  The hysterical edge was more defined now.  “You hurt yourself, so I agreed with everyone who said you needed to talk.  To share all the stuff locked in your head.  And you did, because you never could say no to us.”  Kaidan wouldn’t look at him, eyes darting to anything else they could.  “And now you’re shouting and crying and still messing with your scars—”

John winced.  He hadn’t been messing, had done nothing more than run his hand over the mark.  But Kaidan hadn’t been able to tell from that angle, and if his barely-awake mind thought it had been something more, then the difference didn’t matter.  It looked the same, and that meant the memories had come back.  All the things Kaidan must have felt, walking into their bathroom and finding John’s handiwork.

Kaidan’s hand was still on his chest, palm still pressed against the ugliest scar John had.  Covering Kaidan’s hand with his own, John wrapped his other arm around Kaidan’s shoulders, pulling the biotic in close.  Kaidan buried his face against John’s shoulder, crying steadily now, his other arm wrapped tight around John’s waist.

He hadn’t pushed too hard.  The talking was good.  A medic knew better than most that sometimes, healing an injury was painful.  Anyone who’d ever popped a dislocated joint back into place knew how bad it hurt, knew the person would swear and jerk away.  But it had to be done, or the problem would get worse.

Telling people his deepest, darkest fears was always going to make things worse.  Learning to live with the knowledge that other people were wandering around with the same soul-crushing statistics in their heads was never going to be fun.  Reinforcing what he’d always wanted— to be seen as human, and therefore, fallible— was so much harder when there were literally countless people who needed him to be a countless number of things.

But the same way he hadn’t been able to shake the nightmare off fast enough to think straight, Kaidan hadn’t had enough time to wake up to understand that John only appeared to be doing the same terrible thing he had done before.  And John wasn’t the only one who was tired, and scared, and maybe feeling alone.  Kaidan had been so sure there were signs he’d missed, clues for what was to come.

John blamed himself for the pain that his crew was now feeling.  Kaidan blamed himself for letting it happen.  And they were both wrong.

A shiver demanded his attention, reminding John that they were both exhausted and underdressed.  Even in the temperature controlled environment of the Normandy, it was possible to be cold.  Cold would not help.  Cold had never helped, as far as John was concerned.

Wrapped up in his torn hoodie behind a dumpster.  Slogging across an asteroid stuck in the wrong armor to prove some specific skill to his trainer.  Sparing the Rachni Queen while he hadn’t been able to do the same for Benezia.  Feeling his blood freeze in his veins as his oxygen ran out among the stars.

Even Kasumi didn’t like the cold.  Snow was notorious for footprints, and the complexity of a hologram needed to hide those in shifting drifts was too much, even for her.

Feeling the memory tug at his lips, the smile as hard to see as the thief herself, John rubbed a hand up and down Kaidan’s arm to get his attention, calling softly, “come with me.”

He guided them back over to the bed.  Kaidan, lacking his usual grace, hit the mattress and sat with a quiet thump.  John sat next to him, pulling the covers up and around their shoulders as Kaidan wound his arms back around John’s waist, his head returning to rest on John’s shoulder as John held him once more.

The weight against his shoulder, the feel of someone in his arms, the quiet sniffles as the last of the tears escaped: it was like he was back in the church basement, carrying little ones around while the sounds of firetrucks and police sirens deafened the night outside.  Almost without thinking, the gentle rocking motion came back to him, his cheek resting against Kaidan’s hair as he hummed.

Softly, at first, the music centuries old by the time he’d been learning it; years since he’d had reason to sing most of it.  He’d sung some of it for Tali, when her father had died.  When he hadn’t known what to do, because it was just one more terrible thing in an endless list.  She’d cried and cursed and curled into his chest, demanding answers he couldn’t give.

So he’d held her, singing softly as he had to every person he hadn’t known how to help.  To Petey, when he’d lost his bear.  To Tina, when Markus had shaved her head for losing the cash.  To the woman in the hospital bed, dying slowly from burns caused by a mad Batarian, the screaming laughter still ringing in his ears.

The words came back slowly, slipping out of the past.  John closed his eyes and let them come.  Slow, simple melodies.  Lullabies and love songs, from long before he’d been born.  Music whose copyright had long since expired.  Ms. Randolph had called her favorite pieces Jazz.  The lullabies had come from the Sisters, mostly.  Some in French, a few Spanish, one in a language he’d learned years later was Welsh.  The love songs familiar no matter the language they used.  Mostly old, and soft, and just a little sad, even when they weren’t supposed to be.

He lost track of how many there were, shifting easily from the end of one song to the beginning of another.  The kids had cried when he’d stopped, the sounds of the building collapsing, mothers and brothers and cranky old neighbors still trapped inside.  So he’d figured out how to make the music blend together.  A gentle voice in a scary world, telling them it would be alright.

He felt Kaidan shift against him, pulling away as that hard-earned control reigned back in what shattered sleep had let slip.  John let him, keeping one arm around his shoulders so the blanket wouldn’t fall back.  Biotic or not, even Kaidan could shiver.

The quiet sounds of the Normandy were a better end than the noises of a crowded city, but the near silence sent a shiver up John’s spine.  He waited, watching Kaidan as the man studied him, tear stains still painting the cheek that hadn’t been pressed against John.  Finally, Kaidan laid a hand back over the mark on John’s chest, palm flat against the angry light.  His voice was as soft and as insistent as John’s had ever been.  “No more.  Never.  Again.”

John covered Kaidan’s hand with his, holding his gaze.  “I won’t.”  And because he needed to say it, needed Kaidan to know: “I wasn’t...I know what I said.”  The words had made sense at the time, but they weren’t the right ones.  Not anymore.  “I wasn’t checking.  Just...feeling.”  He squeezed Kaidan’s hand, his fingers sliding between Kaidan’s palm and the scar underneath.  “Nothing more.”

Kaidan watched him.  John could feel the need behind his request as if he’d written the word on his skin.  “Promise?”

Those beautiful brown eyes - not blue, not electric, not monstrous and vacant and destroyed - held his, holding a promise of their own: to believe him, without question, whatever he said next.

John held that gaze, and meant it.  “I promise.”

The deep breath was almost reactive, catching Kaidan off guard as much as it did John.  The release of something, or maybe the collecting of it; an internal change that needed the physicality to make is real.

Kaidan stood, the covers sliding loose as he did.  He looked tired, as tired as John felt, but the haunted look that had been trying to take hold the last few days was gone.  Just like when he’d come to find John after the mess with Udina, Kaidan had made a promise to believe what John said.  And with the sincerity that somehow annoyed so many, he simply did.

Maybe there was something there.  Not a magical ability to banish all doubt, but the invaluable power of commitment.  The decision to believe in something, because it needed to be true, and one day, it would be.

Kaidan looked down at him and held out a hand.  “Come back to bed, John.”

Taking his hand, John stood.  He didn’t think he’d fall back asleep; the nightmare was still lingering behind the storm of emotions that had ricocheted between them since he’d forced himself from their bed, but that was alright.  He could keep Kaidan company while the other man tried to find rest.

He might even open Tali’s curtains, enjoy the dancing waves of the Normandy’s mass effect field.  Let the friendly blue light chase the shadows away.

Chapter Text

It was funny how quickly international borders went away when you had a common enemy.  No checkpoints, no passports, no concern for tariffs or trespassing laws.  Not even regular signage, making sure you knew whose borders were where.

Not that there were many people left to enforce any of it.  In a move everyone had somehow failed to anticipate, the Reapers’ had rounded up most of Earth’s leadership in the first couple weeks.  Turned the most powerful people in the world into obedient puppets, and their underlings into terrified hostages.  A PR campaign as damaging as losing the Citadel might have been, except now there was a different kind of chaos.  The kind that came from a scared public who didn’t know what was going on and didn’t know which branch of the arguing leadership to believe.

The discussions on how to track and counteract indoctrinated people had been long ones, often centering around ruthless tactics and the justifications for such calls.  Then the Reapers had swooped in and done their dirty work in broad daylight, as if the actions of an entire world meant nothing against the might of their well-documented plans.  And still, it took first hand accounts and terrified survivors to convince half the population that the giant, laser-shooting robots were the bad guys.

Sitting on the crumbling remains of what had once been a meter-wide support pillar in a long-collapsed building, David sighed.  It had always been the worst part of the job, convincing people a threat was real.  It didn’t even matter if there was a mountain of evidence or if he’d sounded like a conspiracy nut.  It was seeing the light go out behind their eyes, the realization setting in that the world they knew was wrong, and that sometimes, the bad guys win.

Not always, and he’d always liked to think that violent assholes bent on being cruel got what was coming to them in the end.  But winning the war was a long term goal; in the short term, people were going to die, scared and suffering, and that was a pitch no human alive ever wanted to hear.

“Boss?”

David turned, twisting to watch the teenager jogging up to him, rifle strap wrapped around his forearm like he’d been carrying the weapon his whole life.  Scrawny, like most of them were now, wearing clothes that had seen better days a year ago.  The only thing that looked like it might last the week were his shoes: bright yellow construction worker boots, no doubt looted from a store the last time anyone had dared to enter a shopping complex.

They avoided the cities.  Buildings with too many rooms.  Anything with a basement or sewer access.

Like it was a goddamn zombie film from the early 21st century.

Coming abreast of the crumbling pillar, the young man leaned over, one hand braced on his knee as he panted.  Hard to keep your stamina up when there was never enough food.  Six months ago it had been farm territory, smack in the middle of the United States.  Plants don’t care about war, and really, neither did the wildlife.  But the days of apple orchards and corn fields were long past.  Even if they hadn’t lost half a bus worth of civilians to Husks hiding among the neatly planted rows.  They’d crossed the Appalachians and headed north, away from open country and glorious summer weather.

Long black hair covering one eye, the teenager looked up at him, lip curled against the pain of a stitch in his side.  “Boss, they’re saying they’ve got the comms up and running.  Looks like a call pending for you.”

Call pending?  Who the hell stayed on the line in the middle of a damn war?

David took a deep breath, letting it out in a burst as he watched the water lap against the muddy shore a few dozen meters ahead of him.  “Did they say who it was?”

“Didn’t tell me.  Just said to get the Admiral.”

David liked this one.  A smart kid who’d just managed to avoid getting into too much trouble, David had yanked his ass out of a collapsing stairwell and shouted— bellowed, really— for the teen to run.  He hadn’t expected to see the young man again, the way he’d taken off out of there.  David had thought maybe his name was Hermes, ‘cause the boy ran like he wings on his heels.

But the young man had been waiting for him just outside the forest, looking resolute and nervous, as if their ragtag militia might have turned able bodied help away.  David had refused to give him a weapon till he proved he could use it, but the kid had been a quick study.  Now, he was a quick scout.

Fishing in one of the pockets in his vest, David found the last of the candy bars he’d been hiding.  He bounced it off the boy’s head.

“Hey!”

“Tell me your name and next time I’ll hand it to you.”

The young man scowled.  “No can do, Boss.”

“Why the hell not?”  It was an old fight, and David put heat behind his words because he was expected to.  The kid had his reasons, just like David had his for never correcting “Boss”.  But this was a thing they did, a routine in a world that wanted them dead, between a man who was so damn tired of fighting and a boy who never should have had to.

The young man picked up the candy bar, stuffing it in a pocket.  David knew he’d split it with the few young kids who were still part of their group.  Most of the families had bailed back in Ohio, choosing to camp out on the far side of the abandoned town they’d encountered, sick of some bigshot soldier telling them how to march.

Nobody’d slept that night; the screams had carried on the warm breeze long after the Reapers’ monsters must have finished their work.

Patting his pocket, the teen looked back at him.  “Nobody calls you by your name, Boss.”  The teen grinned.  “So nobody’s gonna call me by mine.”

David snorted.  “That explanation is as dumb as your hair cut.”  He pushed off the pillar, tugging at a long, black lock before the boy could duck out of reach.  “Or lack there of.  We’re not so strapped for supplies we don’t have scissors; do something about this mess.”

“Yeah, yeah.”  The kid grumbled, swatting at David with the hand that didn’t hold the gun, but his hair would be a hacked off mess come morning.

David had almost reached the first row of makeshift shelters when the voice reached him.  “Hey, Boss?”

He turned to look.  “Yeah?”

The teen fussed with the buckle on his rifle strap.  “We really going to London?”

David nodded.  “That’s the plan.”

“There’s more of these creeps there.  And Britain’s an island.”

David nodded, again.  “Yeah, but that’s where intel says we’ll find their boss.  And from one commander to another: I’ve got a few choice words for how Harbinger’s been running this operation.”

The young man grinned, all teeth and bravado.  “Got a few choice bullets for him, too.”

The tent village their wandering band had set up covered what had been a local soccer field.  At least, David hoped the kids who used to live here had used it for such.  Big open space, flat and sans any serious holes to catch an ankle mid sprint, and near enough to the waterfront that you could go swimming when you got too hot to run anymore.  Almost big enough for a fair, if the town had gone in for such things.

Now it was a makeshift homestead, with few actual tents these days.  They’d been here long enough to cobble together structures out of stronger stuff, though doors were still a luxury most couldn’t afford.  Not that it mattered.  Privacy was rare, and they all honored what little they could manage.  The whispering was getting worse, though, and that would break up their little band faster than anything.  The more confident voices were suggesting they should get moving again, before the Reapers tracked them down.

Nevermind that they were waiting here for their ride.

David knew most of the group would elect to stay behind when the transport did finally show.  Terrified on familiar ground was preferable to terrified in a country you didn’t know.  They’d followed him because he sounded certain, and because after a while it seemed like the only other choice was to die.  The one couple– hikers from up near Edmonton– had been with him since the beginning.  Tougher than they looked, they were determined to get back to their little cabin in the woods.  Back to raising horses and thinking about having a couple kids.

Ironic, then, that he knew they’d come with him to London.  Risk dying 6,000 miles from home, just on the chance that it meant there’d be a home to go back to.

He hoped they’d make it.

Passing through what was affectionately called the town square, he turned left and headed toward the one structure that could almost be called a building.  Scavenged cinder blocks and chucks of concrete had been assembled to better protect the really valuable equipment.  Guns, knives, ammo– they could find that stuff again.  Looted off the dead, more often than not.

But a working radio?  That had been pure luck.

Almost as lucky as running across a guy who knew how to repair the thing when it got damaged.  Oscar could cannibalize any machine into useful parts for any other, or so he claimed.  And given the last two months, so it would seem.  His weakest point was maintaining weaponry, but that was just fine with David.  He preferred to check his own guns, and they’d rounded up enough soldiers to cover pretty much any kind of offensive.  Not that guns were going to save them from the Reapers, but they sure helped with the mechanized space zombies.  God, that was a sentence he really had to say, wasn’t it?

This wasn’t how he’d pictured his career coming to an end: chased by monsters from a movie he would have stayed up late one night to watch as a kid.  He’d always thought it strange the heroes spent so much of those movies running instead of fighting.  It made sense now, especially the part about wanting to kick something when yet another day went by without success.

But they only had to last here a little while longer.  A few days.  Maybe a week.  Just lay low until the transport came for them.  Then the people who stayed could move on, probably still heading north even as winter poked its nose over the horizon, and the rest of them would head across the ocean.  Hoping the most recent global empire had enough gumption left in her to beat one last invasion.

A trio headed to bed after their turn at watch waved to him as they passed.  Three sisters, so blonde their hair almost glowed in the moonlight.  They’d held out in Nashville as long as they could, then run north, hoping.  Just like everyone else.  He’d stumbled across them in a barn, held at gunpoint until the women figured out he had friends outside, and then still nervous until they’d spoken to some of them women in the group.  Reapers, it seemed, weren’t the only monsters roaming the land.

Their replacements, a bunch of ex-college students, were already out patrolling the edge of the settlement.  He couldn’t remember which college, but they’d all had matching blazers, worn and filthy to the point that school colors were almost indistinguishable, nevermind whatever logo had been emblazoned on the chest.  Clever, determined kids, each scared shitless at the idea of fighting.  In any other war, David would have sent them to research and development.  But there was no R&D left to use them.  It was all improvising in the field these days, and knowing how to shoot and duck was part of that.

A pair of grizzled old men were napping outside one of the actual tents.  A few meters on, a mother walked in loose circles, singing quietly, trying to get her young daughter back to sleep.  Outside David’s tent, a German Shepherd who’d had its tail shot off perked up as he passed, Husky blue eyes watching his progress intently.

He stubbornly refused to name the animal.  He’d never been religious, but he knew an omen when he saw one.  “Dog” was good enough, and it would be good enough, until the man the foolish creature so resembled was standing in front of David, alive and well and proving that Dog was just that: a dog.

Keeping their own vigil by the southwest end of camp, one of the biotics from the group they’d picked up near Chicago looked up at his approach.  “Evening, sir.”

“What’s it gonna take to drop the ‘sir’?” David asked, pointedly dropping his own formalities.

The brown-haired man grinned.  “More than you have, sir.”

Apparently he attracted stubborn survivors.  Well, everyone’s gotta collect something.

“Don’t mind him,” the black woman next to him said, her Georgia drawl thick enough to sing the words.  “Harper’s just like that.”

Harper elbowed the woman, shooting her a look of annoyance that spoke more to their friendship than his temper.  “He outranks us.”

“I outrank you,” spoke up a sandy-haired soldier.  “You always just call me ‘asshole’.”

“Because you are an asshole,” Harper and the woman answered in unison.  Said asshole grinned, unrepentant, and went back to his can of possible stale beans.

They’d picked up this little band a couple weeks back.  From the sounds of it, they’d been doing their best to annoy and distract the Reaper forces, giving civilians a chance at a handful of escape routes.  When it became clear they’d done all they could— five dead in a day, after months of close scrapes— they’d struck out, moving east, scrambling slightly without a sure plan.

There’d been a little of the lingering distrust of biotics when they’d first joined.  The issue had mercifully resolved itself within a week, though not perhaps in the manner that David had come to expect.  No demonstrations, no loud arguments, no ultimatums that resulted in a dozen people storming out when one side stood its ground.  Instead, their self-appointed cook, in a panic that had been building quietly since the addition of their superpowered friends, exploded at a scavenging team one morning.  Apparently, she was worried the biotics would either starve, or eat everything in sight, and simply couldn’t handle the pressure of not knowing which fate to prep for.

David didn’t think any of them had laughed that hard since Christmas.  The group of biotics certainly looked relieved, and three of them had immediately stepped up to help find food, because both starving and eating more than their share sounded like terrible options.

Nowadays, while they still kept their own space, the team from Chicago had been fully integrated into the rest of their desperate little band, and were just as dedicated to the cause as ever.  Every single one had signed up to go to London, assuming the shuttle was big enough.  David knew it would be a bad call if they had to split the team, but he knew that look of dogged determination.  They’d do it, and they’d hold it against the Reapers for having to.

“Sir,” Harper spoke up, his own can of mushy vegetables scraped clean, “have we heard anything from off world recently?”

David frowned as the woman elbowed Harper back.  “Nothing new.  Not that I know of.”

“I told you to let it go,” the woman hissed.  Harper made a face in response, but didn’t speak.

“We’re just looking for someone,” Asshole said, spoon sticking out of one side of his mouth.  “Thought maybe Oscar could check, if the line was open.”

“He’s not gonna be able to find one lost soul,” the woman said.  It was David’s turn to hold his tongue.  That kind of frustration meant she wanted the information as badly as the men did; she just preferred no news to a half-hearted chance.

“I can still ask,” Asshole said.  He tossed his empty can into the air, making a fist as it hit its zenith.  A faint blue glow, then the can smashed into a walnut-sized metal sphere, dropping back into the waiting hand below.  The sandy-haired man looked up at David.  “You gonna court martial me for asking?”

The woman rolled her eyes.  Harper’s lips tugged into a reluctant smile, which he hid by shoving his own spoon into his mouth.

David shrugged.  “Depends.  What’s the question?”

“Any chance you can find news on Major Alenko?”

David blinked.  “Kaidan?”

Asshole pointed at him with his spoon.  “That’s the one.”

“You know him?” Harper asked, hope immediately rekindled.

“I used to work with him,” David said.  “I was his CO for a few months, before the crew got reshuffled.”  Diplomacy was not his strong suit, but neither was holding a grudge.  Not when he was the last bastard standing, anyway.  “I was the one who recruited him to train Biotics Division, back before this whole mess got started.”

“So that bunch of bruises was your fault,” Asshole muttered.

The woman grinned, her sour mood suddenly sweet.  “If you’d watched your flank like Alenko kept telling you to, you wouldn’t have had so many.”

“I’m blaming the Admiral,” Asshole said.  “Never pass up the chance to antagonize authority, Samuelson.”

Samuelson rolled her eyes.  “At least you know why you never got promoted.”

Harper ignored both his teammates, dark eyes trained on David.  “That’s the last you knew of his work, or the last you heard of him?”

David shook his head.  “You heard that he got made a Spectre?”

“We did,” Harper said.  Eyes still on David, he reached sideways and placed a hand over Samuelson’s face, interrupting the beginnings of an argument between her and their companion.  “Saw it on a newsfeed, back when there were any stations still capable of broadcasting.”

“Is that a requirement for all Spectres?” Asshole asked, looking smug that Samuelson had been the one to catch it in the face.  “Or is it just human Spectres who have to be good looking?”

Harper jerked his chin up sharply.  With a yelp, Asshole flipped backwards, landing on a pile of soggy mattresses nearby.  Samuelson buried her face in her sandwich, desperately hiding her giggles as the now damp man swore profusely, flailing as he tried to right himself.

Harper hadn’t looked away from David’s face.  “Becca’s right: we can’t reasonably ask Oscar to hunt down one man.  But we thought, since Alenko went and got himself promoted to something so high up, maybe the news would cover him anyway?  Even just if he’s still guarding the Council?”

“Like a damn dog,” Samuelson muttered into her bread and jam.

“I don’t have anything up to date,” David said.  “Last I knew, Major Alenko had been reassigned to the SSV Normandy.  He’s under Shepard’s command, again.”

“Commander Shepard?”  Harper looked pleased.  “Good.”

“You like Shepard?” David asked.  He was always curious about the current opinion of the Commander.  Shepard had fought like hell for all these people, and most had the audacity to call him a traitor, and that was on a good day.

“I don’t know Shepard from the local Parson,” Harper said, “but Alenko always spoke highly of him.”

“Fondly of him,” Samuelson corrected before busying herself with her sandwich once more.

“It’s the little things that get you through,” Harper said, ignoring the woman next to him.  “Fighting next to people you know and trust can make all the difference.”

Fondly of him, huh?

“We were just hoping to hear if our teacher was still out there, giving these monsters hell,” Harper finished, finally looking away from David.  “He’s a good guy.  We wanted him to have made it.”

“We want him to make it,” Samuelson corrected, more gently this time.

“That was uncalled for,” Asshole snapped, stalking back over to them.

“You’re old enough to know not to fight,” Harper said, primly.

“You didn’t throw her into a pile of wet mattresses,” Asshole pointed out, pouting.

“You were gloating,” Harper explained.  “And you had nothing to gloat over.”

“I still think it’s bullshit.”  The man sat back down, immediately ducking behind the log he’d been using as a bench when Harper lifted his chin again.

Samuelson guffawed as Harper scratched lazily at two days worth of stubble.  Asshole, clambering back onto the log, swore quietly and flicked his balled up can at Harper’s shoes.

In a last attempt to encourage a more relaxed form of camaraderie, David waved and headed off.  He ignored the “night, sir!” shouted after him, two of the voices much less respectful than the third, and enjoying the smile tonight’s clear view of the Milky Way brought to his face.

Fondly of him.   Well, it would be nice if something good came out of this war.  And goodness knows, those two had been through enough to earn that Hollywood happy ending years ago.  Now if only somebody would do something about it.

Pushing the faded comforter Oscar had scrounged from somewhere aside, David walked into the cramped cube that was their current communications center.  Two tables, both missing a leg, formed an L across from the comforter, offering the best shelter against whatever Mother Nature might decide to throw at them.  She’d been merciful of late, but the East Coast was known for its storms.

Hunched over a piece of tech David couldn’t name, a middle-aged Latino man with premature white hair was working on an impossibly small collection of wires.  Something must have gone out again, or else Oscar had found another handheld gaming console to strip; they apparently reacted poorly to wireless signals, and thus were less likely to have melted innards.

“There was a call for you,” came the confident baritone, mellow as a day at the beach no matter what the topic of discussion.  “It dropped about a minute ago.  Looks like another circuit from that house we cleared two days ago.”  Oscar finally glanced up, throwing David an unconcerned look over his shoulder.  “They’re just not holding up like I’d hoped.”

David nodded, not sure which circuits Oscar was talking about.  “That’s too bad.”

“Not really.”  Oscar returned his attention to the wires he was adjusting, right hand reaching over for a soldering iron he kept with him like Martha kept her water-stained copy of the Tanakh.  “I’m hoping the gals in London have a decent stock in place.”

David gave Oscar’s back a look of surprise.  “You’re coming with us?”

“If I can.”  The smell of melted metal wafted across the little room.  “I know it’s gonna be crowded on that transport, since every military-type in our band wants to go.  But I’m on the short list, if there’s space left over.”

“Why would you want to go to London?” David asked, curious.  He figured practical, level-headed Oscar would stay in North America, maybe take over David’s position as unofficial leader.

“Because I want this over.”  It was the closest thing to serious Oscar had ever sounded.  “Because I’m damn good at what I do, and you need to be able to reach your people in space.”  Oscar set down the soldering iron and turned to face David fully.  “Because I can’t stand running anymore.  I want my home back, and going to London is the best chance I have to help do that.”  A beat, the silence heavy between them, then Oscar shrugged, back to his old self.  “Unless New York’s suddenly figured out some great plan they’d neglected to share.”

He wondered what would happen to the people who stayed, but going to London was no guarantee of safety.  In fact, it would probably increase the chance of them all getting killed.

“We’ll be happy to have you,” David said, meaning it.  “You are damn good at what you do.”

Oscar bobbed his head in agreement, or possibly to a song only he could hear.  “That I am, David.  That I am.”  He gestured to the equipment on the two tables.  “If they call back, I’ll let you know.”

“Any idea who it was from?”

“Your buddy, Hackett.”  Oscar tapped a now-dark screen.  “At least, it had his code.”

David asked, eyebrows raised in surprise.  While everyone was in the habit of hiding their location these days, certain secret space bunkers were of more critical importance than others.  “The Crucible?”

Oscar shook his head.  “Nope.  Hackett straight.”

That was either a very good thing, or a very bad one.  “Thanks,” David said, “I’ll hang around, just in case the universe decides to be kind and let him call back sooner rather than later.”

Oscar smiled, looking every bit like a dog about to take a nap on a sun-warmed porch.  “It’d be a nice change.”

Chapter Text

“What about Antinax?”  Quentius pointed to a spot near the bottom of the galaxy map that had been projected up against the far wall.  Once, it had held the awards and accolades of the Councils before them; now, it held the holographic visual of their seemingly inevitable destruction.  “Technically, it’s been under Turian jurisdiction, but I’m sure the right people could be convinced.”

“Urdnot Wrex isn’t that stupid,” Esheel replied.  “He’ll know damn well that planet is barely hospitable, and the only reason the Turians would be willing to let it go is that the possible mineral rights aren’t worth the trouble of maintaining a mining operation.”

Quentius grunted, shifting his weight.  The military training every Turian received meant their Councilor was as disinclined to sit as any common soldier.  “The Krogan can live damn near anywhere; I’m sure they’d find Antinax a welcome challenge.”

“Wrex will find it an open insult,” Irissa observed from her spot by her desk.  Hands clasped behind her back, she’d been studying the galaxy map for nearly as long as Quentius had.  Unlike her Turian counterpart, she didn’t seem fazed by the growing number markers denoting Reaper controlled territory.  “And that will make convincing the Krogan to accept Gavatog that much more unlikely.”

“They barely accepted that world last time,” Quentius pointed out, crossing his arms in defiance.  “Why would Wrex even consider it?”

“Because you’re going to offer him Aequitas,” Irissa said, simply.

As Quentius sputtered his disagreement, Esheel found herself nodding.  “No official colonies in that system, since the criminal element enjoy the contested planet of Pietas as an improvised repair and resupply station.”

“Pietas has been fought over for nearly a decade,” Irissa agreed.  “Krogan neighbors might streamline the application process, as well as resolve the pirate problem.”  With the air of someone who has settled a matter permanently, the Asari turned back to the apparent chaos that was her desk.

Even Esheel hadn’t been able to determine Irissa’s method for keeping track of the various reports and messages that crowded her workspace.  While it had been nearly five years since they’d started working together, the ever-shifting mountains of datapads, discs, and other less distinguishable tech was the visual opposite of the woman who occupied that space.  Unlike Quentius, who’s regimented nature kept his area neat and precise, or Esheel, who simply had no patience for creating an organizational system all her own, Irissa had opted for what an average person would consider a slovenly approach.

The average person who be dead wrong, possibly literally, depending on why they were in the Council’s offices.

“The Krogan might also decide that means they’re entitled to it,” Quentius pointed out, the sulk he would later deny evident in his voice.

“If the entirety of Fortis has to be surrendered to the Krogan to keep this new peace, it is hardly the highest price paid,” Esheel murmured.  She dismissed a reminder for her annual check-up.  There wouldn’t be a week in the next six months that was less hectic, but she couldn’t be bothered.  Her teeth were fine, her self-administered medical scans came back negative, and the time required to endure the appointment could be better spent ascertaining why 4,000 humans had died on Cuervo when a perfectly good evacuation plan should have saved them two days before.

Irissa nodded, snagging a datapad from the top of the precarious pile.  “There are few interested parties left to fight over Vir, and since the trouble with Pietas has scared off any interest in Aequitas, that’s two-thirds of a system that would go uninhabited for no defendable reason.”

“A planet like Pietas could be colonized by nearly any species,” Quentius pointed out.  “How will it look if we simply hand it to the Krogan?”

“It will look,” Irissa said, the steel in her voice taking on a sharper edge as she glanced back at the Turian Councilor, “like the Council made a decision.  Something we have been accused of being incapable of doing since this war began.”  Hard eyes watching them out of a cold face.  “It will look like one of our Spectres brokered a treaty that the last two thousand years should have rendered impossible, and that the Council then honored that treaty by taking our act of gratitude seriously.  Unlike the Krogan Rebellions, which no one wants to repeat, the Krogan currently have stable, sensible leadership.  If we respect that leadership, which includes acts such as granting them planets worth colonizing, it increases the chances that the Krogan may continue to favor such leaders in the future.”

“There’s always the chance that Wrex might turn down Aequitas,” Esheel added.  She stood and made her way around her desk to join the other two, her own gaze taking in the demoralizing hologram before them.  “It is an easily colonized planet; perhaps he will laugh and say it’s too easy.”

“Somehow,” Quentius muttered, hips shifting into an unconscious and very Turian declaration of stubborness, “I find it hard to believe the unofficial leader of the Krogan would be smart enough to turn down Antinax, but dumb enough to turn down Aequitas.”

The door to the shared office space hissed open, interrupting their latest discussion and admitting one of the Asari aides.  She crossed the room, handed Irissa yet another datapad, and gave a sharp nod.  Then the aide was gone, back through the door almost before it had finished closing the first time.

Esheel twisted her wrist in a gesture of unconcern.  “More good news?”

Irissa pursued the datapads contents.  Instead of sharing, she said, “Admiral Hackett is ready to speak with us.”

“Since everyone’s convinced we don’t like the humans, shouldn’t you say he’s ‘at our disposal’?” Quentius asked, the snide tone unbecoming.  He had yet to uncross his arms, and if he leaned any farther back, the man would topple over under the weight of his own attitude.

“ ‘Everyone’ thinks what they want to,” Irissa replied, balancing both old and new datapads on the single exposed edge of her desk.  “Part of this job is not caring beyond the practical effects of such inaccurate thoughts.”

“But we play favorites,” Quentius drew out the words, dripping with mockery, “only look after our own.  Don’t really care about non-Council races.”

“Then what better way to show we’re not what they say we are, then by handing over Fortis to the Krogan?”  Irissa swept across the room, following in the footsteps of her aide.

Esheel frowned.  Aequitas made sense, and it was entirely possible that the Krogan would take Vir if offered in conjunction.  But while his diplomacy was lacking, Quentius was not wrong about the fall out from Pietas.  “What if we offered Pietas to the humans?”

At the door to the hallway, Irissa paused.  Next to Esheel, Quentius’ mandibles waved slowly.  “The humans aren’t demanding another colony world at this time.”

“No,” Esheel agreed, “but their homeworld looks no better than yours, and the debacle that was the Collectors resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of humans.  With the unfortunate and widely held belief that the Council intentionally let it happen.”

“The humans also have a better history with the Krogan than most races,” Irissa said, the words precise as she thought them through.  She was looking back at them, intelligent eyes squinting at that giant holographic map.  “If another race was to be granted colony rights on Pietas, the Krogan might prove less obstinate if it was an obvious ally.”

“And since our damaged reputation has grown to include an unequal concern about even Council races...” Esheel watched Quentius carefully.  “How is Palaven?”

The last three reports played out across the Turian’s expressive features.  It was probably good Quentius had gone into politics– the Turian military could be fickle about overly-emotional leaders.  “No real change.  My people are holding as best they can, but even the Krogan support is only buying us time.”  The Turian sighed.  “They were only ever going to buy us time.”

“Speaking of time,” Irissa said, turning back to the door, “we should go speak with the Admiral.  Hackett may have a better opinion of us than some, but we need to ensure he’s willing to disregard us if needed.”

“I still don’t understand how fostering this animosity with Earth is helpful,” Quentius said, following Irissa out of the room.

Behind him, Esheel spared a moment to glance out the large windows that lined one side of their shared office space.  Even knowing the thickness of the plexiglass, a part of her mind continued to scream at her to have them changed.  It was easy to claim there were other, much more dangerous enemies, but one zealous human with a sword had almost ended her part in this story.  Fear had crowded out the shame that could have manifested, hiding under a table like a child.  But Kai Leng was gone, Cerberus routed, and the windows six inches thick.

Esheel hurried after the other two, confident that at least Irissa hadn’t noticed her moment of hesitation.  “Because people expect us to be at odds with Earth, and specifically with anyone attached to Commander Shepard.  Therefore, if we wish to maximize the benefits of any remaining status quo, we need the general public to go on believing the rift exists between the Council and the Alliance.”

“Shepard is supposed to be one of ours,” Quentius argued, striding along with the grace of one who has athletic tendencies .  “Wouldn’t it be better to demonstrate that?  To show he’s finally accepted the higher calling that is being granted Spectre status?”

“You still think Major Alenko was guarding us because he thought it was the most important job he could be doing,” Irissa interjected from up ahead.  “Nevermind that Udina was using him to bait Shepard.”

“We all approved Alenko’s appointment,” Quentius argued.

“Because he was an excellent candidate,” Irissa replied.  “That doesn’t change that it was a waste of his skill set and his connections to have him babysitting us.  It would have been a waste of any Spectre.”

“So why—”

“We did need a bodyguard,” Esheel chimed in, finally catching up.  “At that point in time, Alenko was as good an option as any.  And appealing to Udina was valuable until we were certain who in the Human Embassy couldn't be trusted.”

“I’m starting to feel like Alenko wasn’t the only person being used,” Quentius grumbled.

Stopping short of the door to the comm room, Irissa spun on her heel.  “When we need tactical decisions, you are our best,” she said, pinning Quentius to the spot with an unapologetic stare.  “You represent a facet of your people that is invaluable to the Council, and to the galaxy at large.  But in this, you are wrong, Councilor.  We need to treat the Krogan with respect this time, even if we are then inundated with complaints.  We need to show that we are different from our predecessors, because the galaxy will not be the same after the Reapers, and some modicum of continuity must be maintained.  And we need the media to continue howling about the mess that is the First Human Spectre, because if Shepard is considered under Council influence, he will not be trusted by half the alliance he has spent the last year and a half building.”

Pointing a finger at the door behind her, Irissa finished.  “But first, we are going to go in there and convince Admiral Hackett that while he is not wrong to think of us as an ally, Shepard is not wrong to think we are self-absorbed, and maybe even a little petty.”

Quentius watched the Asari stride into the comm room before turning to Esheel.  “And how do we intend to do that?”


Whatever the ANN reported, the Alliance had no official “beef” with the Council.  Hackett certainly didn’t dislike the trio of politicians.  They had some of the worst jobs in the galaxy, and no matter what choices they made, some group somewhere would decry them as selfish, lazy, manipulative, power-hungry, or stupid.

The benefit of the doubt seemed the least Hackett could give them, even as he tried to grasp the idea that this call felt a lot like...whining.  “You want me to speak to Commander Shepard about how he files his reports?”

“Shepard is a Spectre,” replied Esheel.  “That does not preclude his working with you, but he is still technically under Council jurisdiction.  That means that, from time to time, he needs to tell us what he’s doing.”

It was a sensible move, having the Salarian Councilor run this strange little meeting.  She’d been the most receptive to the Turian-Krogan alliance, and that had earned her more points than even that clever Salarian mind could understand.  Shepard valued the Krogan, had fought for some kind of human-Krogan alliance even back when beating Saren had been the biggest news of the week.  The Dalatrass had almost cost her people more than she knew, but Councilor Esheel held more power, and her “if it works, then it works” attitude had finally gained a modicum of obedience from the Council’s most newsworthy Spectre.

Who was apparently not filling out his reports.  “With all due respect, I find it hard to believe Shepard isn’t submitting his paperwork.”

“The issue isn’t whether or not he’s submitting his reports,” Irissa explained, “it’s the timing or quantity.  There used to be more, and now is not the time for Shepard to be taking the day off.”

If they only knew.

Hackett frowned, the line between his eyebrows the only clue to how concerned he really was.  “Councillors, may I ask...how long has this lack of reports been going on?”

The political leaders looked at each other, though Hackett thought it was to check answers as opposed to agree on a lie.  Esheel answered him.  “About a month.”

So, since Rannoch, but a direct response to Rannoch.  “And he’s still sending you something, just not as often as you would like?”

This still felt like whining, but Shepard did always send his reports to Hackett on time. The only one he’d been arguably slow on had been about the Quarian-Geth truce, and in the Commander’s defense, the Geth moved a lot faster than a Kodiak shuttle.  Shepard had appeared, fully armored and sporting evidence of the fight, in Hackett’s vid-comm, sincerely confused as to how Hackett could already know about the events of only a few hours prior.

While he encouraged the idea that nothing fazed him, that many Geth Primes showing up at the Crucible unannounced had spooked even him.  Shepard had been a good sport about not pointing that out.

But up until Chakwas had relieved the man from duty, Shepard had been sending at least something every day.  Replies, notes, summaries to be expanded on later, and properly filled out, long winded, and definitely tedious reports about the Normandy and her mission.

But not...to the Council.

“Major Alenko does not seem to have this problem,” Quentius observed, interrupting Hackett’s thoughts.  “He even fills out the expense reports correctly, which some of our people,” he shot a look at the other two Councilors, who said nothing, “have not yet managed to accomplish even once.”

It was good to know that it wasn’t just Shepard who annoyed these people.

“Is it possible that Alenko is sending a report for both of them?” Hackett asked.  If he didn’t know better, he would have said that slight twitch from his comm officer had been a laugh.

“The point of having reports from multiple sources is to gather as much intel as possible,” Esheel replied.  “Shepard and Alenko serve on the same ship, but they do not complete every single mission together.  Even if they did, they are separate individuals.  They see different things, think different details are important.”

He knew all this.  “It was only a suggestion.”

“And if Alenko is filling out a single report for both of them,” Quentius added, “then Shepard needs to sign the damn thing, so we know that’s what’s going on.”

That had been a laugh, and this meeting was officially whining.

“Councilors,” Hackett said, a little more steel in his tone, “as you mentioned: Shepard is a Spectre.  He doesn’t have to listen to me.  I’ll be happy to speak with him about this matter, but he is one of your agents.  If he’s...misbehaving, you should speak with him directly.”

Saren had been out to destroy the galaxy and the Council had let that slide; why they’d decided to care about a little paperwork…

“We tried,” Irissa said, hands clasped behind her back, that ever imperious tone out of sync with the faintly petulant tone, “but it appears Shepard is currently unavailable.”

It appeared Specialist Traynor had as much nerve as anyone on that ship.  Good for her.  “Shepard is recovering from an injury.  Vid-comm hasn’t been an option for the last few days.”

“And that is information we should know,” Quentius said.  “If a Spectre is out of commission -”

“They’re hardly going to tell you every time they get punched,” Hackett said.  A meeting with the Council was rarely a promise of glad tidings, but this was beginning to annoy.  There were a dozen ways he could be savings lives right now - guaranteed - and another three dozen that were worth the risk.  And here he was, listening to three of the most powerful adults in the galaxy complain about a man who, after being called every name in the book and a few new ones that had been scribbled in the margins for good measure, was still fighting to save all their asses.  “I’ll say something to Shepard about the reports, but this is your problem, Councilors.  If you’re going to keep him as one of your agents, you need to be able to speak to the man yourself.”

“We know that,” Esheel said, cutting off a comment from her Turian counterpart.  “We also know that you hold much more sway over the Commander.  We’re hoping that a word from you might resolve the issue.  As we said, this wasn’t a problem until recently.”

“I’ll talk to him; Hackett out.”  Hackett gestured for his comm officer to cut the line.

He stood for a moment, waiting for it.  After nearly a minute, the sound of a muffled laugh reached him.  Hackett turned to look.  His comm officer’s had his hand clamped over his mouth in a vain attempt to maintain professionalism.  Dark eyes sparkled with mirth.

“It’s good to know,” Hackett said– almost drawled, really, “that the Council is doing its part to keep up morale.”  After a beat, he added, “if they call back, I’m currently unavailable.”

“Recovering from an injury, sir?” the young man asked, his voice almost even.

“Only an injury to my dignity,” Hackett muttered.

He walked out of the comm room, thinking forward to the meeting he had scheduled with Primarch Victus and the new Volus leader.  Behind him, his comm officer almost held it together until the doors hissed shut, the beginnings of a well-deserved bout of laughter slipping through after the Admiral as Hackett allowed himself a tiny grin.


“He could at least sign the report, too?”

Quentius ignored the question, stomping down the hall ahead of them.  Irissa shot Esheel what no one would believe was a look of real amusement.  The vid-call with Admiral Hackett had gone more or less as expected, though this had not been how Esheel had expected Irissa’s deeply hidden ability to tease to remerge.

“Should we call back and speak to Major Alenko personally?” the Asari actually called after their companion, her voice dangerously close to light-hearted.

“Was there actually a point to this communication?” Esheel asked, trying to find a way to review the meeting that didn’t make them all sound like petulant children.  Already at the other end of the hall, Quentius continued his march into their offices, ignoring the both of them.

“Shepard has been neglecting his Council reports,” Irissa said, her voice immediately its usual cool as her steps slowed.  “We do need to hear from the man.  Even if it’s only by confirming another Spectre’s record of events.”

“Is it acceptable for him to simply sign Alenko’s reports?” Esheel asked.  “It seems...pointless.”

“My concern with Shepard’s reports is not that they’ve all but stopped coming,” Irissa explained, “but that the tone in them had changed, even before that.”

“Changed?” Esheel asked.  There were any number of reasons for a change in a person’s writing style could merit notice, but the Salarian didn’t think that was what had her colleague concerned.  It was not how the Commander was filling out his reports, or even that he’d suddenly become lax in doing so, but some heretofore overlooked detail within those archival summaries that heralded a potentially hidden menace.

Irissa nodded.  Stopping suddenly, she looked up at one of the statues lining the hallways in this part of the Citadel Tower.  “The Commander has not forgiven us for refusing aid to the Elcor.”

“One Spectre’s opinion on who should be prioritized is hardly grounds for distress.”

Irissa studied the stone-carved Drell.  “But there was evidence of Saren’s shift in intentions long before he defected.  Plenty of evidence to strip him of Spectre rank before the Alliance ever brought a complaint against him.”

Esheel hesitated, not certain she wanted to follow this line of reasoning.  “You think Shepard will do something?  Something comparable to Saren?”

“I think we have two human Spectres, and neither of them thinks the Council is a functional ally.”

“Again,” Esheel said, “an opinion.”

“But the humans have been gaining influence since they entered the galactic scene,” Irissa replied.  “More to the point, after this war, they could have far more power than any one race has wielded in millenia.  And whether he likes it or not, that power will likely be focused around Shepard.”  The Asari looked at her, expression more serious than usual.  “We need him.”

“Shepard will never be the Spectre the Council wants him to be,” Esheel said.  “Very few of our agents are actually what we claim they are, and Shepard has been publicly diplomatic about his opinions on us for years.  It’s the best we’re going to get out of him.”

“We’ll spin Shepard’s story as we need to,” Irissa said, starting off again down the hall.  “What we need from him is continued communication.  If he’s truly returned to serving only the Alliance, then he cannot be a Spectre.”

“We can’t strip Commander Shepard of that rank in the middle of this war,” Esheel said, voice firm even as she lengthened her stride to keep up.  “Nothing good comes from that.  The people need him.”

“I sincerely doubt the Commander will survive this war.”

Esheel knew she looked surprised.  “You think he’ll be killed?”

“His reports reflect a growing psychological instability,” Irissa said.  There was something in her words.  Something that spoke of another time, another person, and a far too similar set of choices.  “I think he’ll go mad.  Or grow too reckless and fail to return from a mission.”

“And then we’ll lose both human Spectres,” Esheel murmured.

“A frustrating species,” Irissa observed, quietly.  “Though perhaps if we had not chosen one of Shepard’s friends, no matter how qualified, we might have a different set of concerns.”

“I’m partial to anyone who saves our lives,” Esheel observed, dryly.

Irissa nodded.  “Alenko deserves his position.  But I doubt he’ll take Shepard’s demise well.  Not when he so quickly rejoined the Normandy after Cerberus’ coup attempt.”

“You really think Shepard won’t make it?” Esheel asked.  She rarely approved of having to ask twice, but the human had survived so much, endured so much.

“I think war demands sacrifice,” Irissa said.  There it was again - a memory, one that the Asari would not share.  Something that, in another voice, might have been fear or even regret.  “And I think Shepard is no doubt pushing himself as hard as we are, determined to save everyone he can, just as we are.”

“But there are three of us,” Esheel pointed out.

Irissa stopped just short of the door to their combined offices, turning to Esheel.  “And unless the command structure of the Normandy has changed, there is only one Commander Shepard.  And he will not survive this burden on his own.”

Chapter Text

It was good to know that the “sensing her” thing wasn’t a standard Alliance ability.  Shep had always just...known when she was in a room, and that had taken some getting used to.  Years of practiced quiet, fine-tuning her stealth gear, learning how to fool every kind of security system, and one more-or-less normal human could just see through all of it.

To be fair, there were worse ways to be called out than a friendly half-smile.

And she’d meant it when she told Shepard that she wasn’t going to be part of this war.  She’d had every intention to go hole up somewhere with Keiji and wait it out, whatever happened.  But really, she’d known as soon as Shepard got involved with that Hanar Diplomat business that she’d end up working with him again.  There was just no saying “no” to those bright blue eyes, or the Knight’s Heart that came with them.

Jack was right.  King of the Boy Scouts.

Three of the newer scientists walked down yet another sterile hall, chatting idly about their lunch plans, satisfyingly oblivious to the Master Thief in their presence.  Kasumi smirked and slipped through the door that didn’t close quite fast enough to be completely secure.  The Crucible was a state of the art project, but this was a standard Alliance space station.

Not that anyone on the Crucible station was worried about the speed of doors closing.  Just getting here had been an exercise, and she’d even had permission.  Hackett had gone through a lot of work to make sure that the Reapers couldn't find this place without actively searching for it.  It was a level of security she hadn’t seen since she’d started a BINGO card for the Cerberus bases.  The center square was still eluding her, but she’d find it.  The Illusive Man had a bedroom somewhere, and she was determined to steal the ratty old t-shirt even a man like him must own.

All guys owned that t-shirt.  It was like growing a beard or being able to understand sports.  And because he was a good friend, Shep had protested her claim, all but daring her to prove him wrong.

He really was just too sweet for the size gun he preferred.

Stealing across the research space— weaving between the empty desks and resisting the ever present urge to raid candy stashes— Kasumi keyed in the code for the storage room that abutted this lab.  She’d heard whispers about a lack of supplies for a certain experiment, and while it had been difficult to get to the Crucible the first time, it was much easier to get back.  A thief of her experience could just duck out and find what was needed.  Or leave a strategic note for the Shadow Broker, if it looked like that would be faster.

Because this war was dragging out, and if they weren’t going to win, she was going back to her original plan.  If Keiji didn’t approve, well...then he shouldn’t have died.

Slipping through the plain grey door, Kasumi waited for her eyes to adjust to the low light.  She could have flipped a light on.  Hackett knew she was here, and evidence of her investigations would probably go unreported.  Between the Geth and the Rachni, a friendly neighborhood thief wasn’t even news.  But she liked it this way.  She hadn’t worked so hard to develop her particular set of skills just to knock on a door and turn on a lightswitch.

And someday, she might need to be this kind of sneaky once again.

The missing supplies were obvious by the large, empty space on the shelf to her left.  A convenient, neatly written label— Dr. Patel was thoughtful that way— explained what was supposed to be there, as well as any storage requirements for the components.  Kasumi scanned the note, admiring that anyone still cared about penmanship, and slipped back out into the main room.

Three hallways over, two floors down, and one always stubborn security console later, and Kasumi was debating which of the ships scheduled to leave that day would be the best way to reach Batarian space.  She’d probably have to get the Shadow Broker involved for this one, but the Master Thief could definitely narrow down locations before she called for help.  And it wasn’t that she couldn’t steal the stuff on her own; she just thought an old friend might appreciate the opportunity to get another agent into a government agency.

A door opened to her left, admitting a younger looking man.  Dark hair, dark eyes, dark skin, dark clothes.  Literally tall, dark, and handsome, and the way his biceps filled out those sleeves was a shameless tease.  Clean cut, too, with respectable taste in soap.  A nice, simple evergreen.

Looking around for a moment, the man walked over to the console that held all the flight information for the Crucible station.  He set a datapad on the counter next to it, failing endearingly to look casual.  Then, still a little confused, but determined to be professional about it, he walked back out of the hangar.

Kasumi watched him go before investigating.  She was single, not dead.

The datapad had the basic kind of security that the Alliance used for their low-level classified documents.  It took less than a minute for her to decode the message on the datapad, feeling genuinely pleased by the half-assed attempt at concealment.

After a few weeks of investigating this place, Kasumi had confirmed that the big boss knew she was here, and that this was the way he’d chosen to contact her.  Secure enough that most people would leave it alone, yet secure enough that she wouldn't be able to resist.  Hackett knew her pride couldn’t handle being contacted directly, and the revolving set of security codes and clearance gave her something to play with when he left her messages.

Not to mention, she was pretty sure he was using her hacking work arounds to improve his own security.  Had to admire a guy who thought that far ahead.

Her smile faded as she read over the decoded report.

She recognized the precise, focused language of Dr. Chakwas.  Even with all those years of training, the concern leapt off the screen, cautious optimism warring openly with the severity of the situation.  Something really bad had happened on the Normandy.

Kasumi caught her breath as she reached the diagrams of the damage.  “Oh, Shep.”

He’d driven half the crew nuts, their kind-hearted leader.  The Cerberus goons might not have noticed, but Shepard had worn his struggles like a second uniform.  Better hidden than some, but not hard to see once you knew what to look for.  It had been proof that Kelly Chambers was good at her job when she’d left Shepard to the mercy of his new crew.  The man was not going to be able to tell her things directly, but she’d watched him interact with Zaeed, with Jack, with this strange little gang, and she’d left them to it.  Let people who had seen the worst this galaxy had to offer prove that compassion was a choice.

How many people had Shepard pissed off by surrendering to the Alliance?  If it had just been about Alenko, Kasumi would simply have gone and gotten him.  It didn’t take a master anything to realize the Staff Commander had been wearing down, starting to think twice about his words on Horizon.  Letting hope work its magic.  Just like Tali— a few more weeks, and Kasumi had been sure Alenko would have agreed to at least meet with them.

Stupid Collectors and their stupid attack.  Shepard hadn’t even listened to the last half of the meeting.  EDI had mentioned that they could go after his crew at any time, and that had been the last thing the King of the Boy Scouts had heard.

At least they’d all made it back.  Even Gardner, who probably wished he’d died on that mission.  A nice, clean death, instead of being converted into a monster for Cerberus to throw at the Alliance for The Illusive Man’s amusement.

But that was last time.  This…this was worse, and with Shep’s old team right there.

Going over Chakwas’ report again as it copied to her omni-tool, Kasumi toyed with the idea of finding the Normandy.  Unlike any sane commander, it would make Shep’s day to walk into a room and notice he had an unplanned guest.  He’d think she was the best kind of surprise, as opposed to being annoyed at finding another hole in his ship’s security.  He’d stop, mid-action, that smile tugging at one corner of his mouth, and he’d casually ask the air about a book he knew she loved, or if Garrus was going to be up here asking where his favorite rifle mod had gone.

That was one time, and it had been a bet worth winning.

Reaching the end of the report a second time, Kasumi tapped on the attachment.  A very formal bit of Alliance communication popped up, explaining that the Normandy had been approved for a week’s shore leave, effective as soon as they reached the Citadel.

No need to hunt, then.  She could just meet them there.

Her mind helpfully jumped in, reminding her that she was supposed to be finding supplies in formly-Batarian held space.  As much pain as her friend was in, the Crucible needed to be finished, and they were actually getting close.  Not to mention that Shepard would go from pleased to annoyed if he found out she’d detoured just to see him.

Kasumi squinted into the distance, mentally reviewing the last chart she’d seen for refugees to the Citadel.  There’d been at least two ships bearing Batarians logos, and another six that had been listed as having Batarian passengers.  Another four ships were either from or marked as returning to Omega.  So it wouldn’t be a detour.  The Citadel would be the fastest way to get the Crucible the supplies it needed.

Leave it to Shepard to be helpful, even when he wasn’t around.

Resealing the datapad with a different encryption— if Hackett wanted his people to learn, she’d give them a real challenge this time— Kasumi sat the datapad back down, spinning it ninety degrees so that the cameras could see it had moved.

Changing her heading, Kasumi made her way over to the fancy-looking shuttle that would meet up with the next passing Alliance cruiser.  It would be tight, but she’d stowed away on tighter.

As she watched a set of twins load containers into the hold, Kasumi squinted again.  She wasn’t absolutely sure, and she didn’t want to risk missing her ride to double check Lt. Sanders terminal, but there had been a number of groups approved for shore leave in the last few days.

Punching up the sneaky little program she used to piggy-back communications to places with large, complicated, constantly overtaxed communication networks, Kasumi compressed Chakwas’ report and attached it to an unusually serious message.  The tone alone would peak the woman’s interest, and if Kasumi was right, her students would be off enjoying not being shot at for a few days.  Plenty of time to slip away and see if she could still swear their Commander into a little peace of mind.


“Do I want to know how you got on this station?”

The words were calm, spoken sotto voce in the hope of avoiding whatever recording devices might be embedded in the workstations nearby.  Flaming red hair hid nearly black eyes as the tall woman leaned over her terminal, casually tapping in the command that would crash the security two labs over.  Miranda, hair pulled into a high ponytail, smiled widely as she popped her Bubblegum bubble.

Of all the Earth candies to survive from the 1900s, Miranda found this one the most annoying.  Therefore, it made the perfect final touch to her disguise - because the former Ice Queen would never do something so base as chew gum.

“Probably the same way everyone does,” she said, her Australian lilt pitched lower than usual, giving herself a smoker’s rasp.  “By shuttle.”

Candy Lamb— not even an alias— shot her an approving look.  “You flaunt.  It’s endearing.”

Miranda glanced at the box flashing a warning on the screen in front of them.  “It might get you killed.”

Candy laughed.  “My dear troublemaker,” she said, jabbing the final button, dismissing the warning as alarms started to wail, “when he comes for me, I intend to deserve it far more than you currently do.”

Working for Cerberus could get a person branded many things: rascist, arrogant, stupid, desperate.  Precious few truly deserved Candy’s designation.  Her utter inability to fear The Illusive Man’s reach was by far the most concerning thing about her, though today it was just the personality trait Miranda needed.

“You’re crazy,” Miranda said, popping another bubble.

Candy beamed as the red strobe lights flashed in the hallway outside her large, reinforced window.  “As they come.  And speaking of come,” she shoved a clipboard into Miranda’s hands, the passkey tucked between layers of outdated paper, “you need to go.  Ten minutes, and only because Jacky-be-good can’t stay away from those freeze-dried burritos.”

Stepping out into the hallway, Miranda watched with feigned curiosity as half a dozen scientists hurried past.  The lab currently wondering what they’d done wrong was two doors to her left.  A blonde woman inside banged on the window as a thick, harmless smoke filled the room, obscuring the other scientists inside.

Really, Candy should have been shot years ago.  The things that woman could make a beaker of chemicals do, not to mention every kind of computer tech she laid her hands on.  But her work was flawless, her loyalty straight-forwardly self-serving, and it wasn’t that she didn’t have ethics, it was that what needed to be done would always take priority, and it didn’t matter what uniform she was wearing.

Turning to the right, Miranda added a bounce to her step, her ponytail swinging cheerfully back and forth as she made her way toward the only terminal on this floor that could access the main computer’s backup memory core.  The design of this station meant that several access points were needed for efficient transfer of data.  It also meant that, should the station need to be dismantled quickly or violently, the chance of a Cerberus crew being able to recover that data was greatly increased.

If there were any files left on Minuteman Station pertaining to the Lazarus Project, this would be the fastest way to find them.

The trip to the station had been surprisingly simple.  Getting onboard had taken little more than knocking on the proverbial door.  She’d sent word ahead to Candy that she was coming, knowing the woman would figure out why and what she’d need on arrival.  Still, Cerberus was really letting itself go now that it had all that Collector technology to play with.  Nobody had even checked her for a gun.

Waiting for a bald man with a sweating problem to lock his lab before running to help the others, Miranda palmed the passkey off the clipboard.  The ominously plain looking door, two meters in front of her on the right hand wall, held the terminal she needed.  It was unlikely there was much left after Rasa’s— Brook’s— whoever she was— adventures in clone-napping.  Miranda suspected that the files would be thin, especially since the Lazarus Project was no longer an active one.  But she had to try.

She’d actually bragged about how good her work had been, bringing Shepard back exactly as he’d been before.  Only none of that took into account just how traumatizing losing two years of your life can be, and then Cerberus had intentionally messed with Shepard’s head to ensure he would do what they wanted.  To properly heal, Shepard had needed several more weeks of rest, but he’d desperately needed people he could trust and who could verify what had happened to him.

They hadn’t given him that.  She hadn’t given him that.  That Commander Shepard maintained mental cohesion beyond the planned time frame of the Collector mission was entirely the fault of outside forces.  Krogan and mercenaries, the Shadow Broker and the galaxy’s best thief.  An angry Quarian and an angrier biotic.

A bang echoed down the hall as someone missed their guess on the chemical composition of the slime now oozing out of the air vent in Lab 16.

She hoped The Illusive Man was enjoying this nonsense as much as she was.  Thundering footsteps, eager shouting, alarms of three different kinds now shrieking along to the commotion.  Quiet infiltration was invaluable, but nothing drew attention like a foul odor and some localized drama.

Mordin would have been pleased with the diversion.

Miranda swiped the passkey over the ID scanner, popping another bubble as the door clicked open.  In the manner of Earth houses for centuries, this door swung outward instead of sliding back into the wall.  Miranda slipped inside, waiting for the door to swing shut and listening for approaching security boots.  When the near-silent suction of a closed door cut off the outside world, she stepped across the small space and booted up the terminal attached to the thick column at the center of the room.

The tech running through this mainframe still had that sickly green color that Cerberus had abandoned when they’d shifted to the use of Collector technology.  It trailed geometrically up and down the column, pulsing slowly as if the data were physically moving around within.  It looked shamelessly outdated, but the tech was built to last, creepy green color not optional.

Joker would have been ecstatic at such an archaic aesthetic.

Using an authorization code she’d patched together on the colony ship, Miranda piggy-backed it off an old authorization code of her own, hoping that one would cancel out the other and prevent her from being locked out.  When nothing happened after fifteen seconds, she counted her victory and began ransacking the memory core.

Seven minutes later, she had nothing. 

Someone— definitely not Brooks— had carefully, almost surgically, removed all traces of anything to do with Shepard, herself, or the Lazarus Project.  The data, down to the passive recording programs that tracked misspelled keyboard commands, had been erased entirely.  The dates had been filled with nonsense work about some project labelled Bathsheba.

To look at the memory core of Minuteman Station, no one would know Project Lazarus had ever existed.

Miranda squinted at the terminal.  If he wasn’t enjoying the mess in Lab 16, her ex-boss was undoubtedly enjoying her frustration.  This had been her biggest risk, but also her best hope.  Her last hope.  There was no way The Illusive Man hadn’t been notified within moments of her attempting to access those files, but she’d thought she could at least prove the files still existed.

She hoped the ice in his bourbon melted.

Logging off the system, Miranda stood there, debating her options and the idea niggling at the end of her patience.  It was beneath the expectations of a free agent, beneath a Cerberus operative, beneath a Lawson .

Pulling the gum from her mouth in a long, sticky string, Miranda shoved it into the slots on the side of the terminal.

She imagined Jack’s wide grin, dark eyes dancing at the chance for mischief.  Shepard’s own, more demure look, one side of his mouth quirked up in silent approval.  She could almost hear Mordin cheerfully explaining how the slots she’d chosen would be the most problematic for whoever discovered her minute act of sabotage.

Slipping back into the hallway, Miranda moved more quickly now, passkey and clipboard left behind on the useless terminal.  She headed toward the auxiliary shuttle bay at the far end of the level.

Getting off the station was always going to prove more difficult than arriving.  She didn’t need a cruiser, just one of the reinforced shuttles.  A small ship that could get her as far as the local shipping lanes.  A good Samaritan or a crew of unlucky pirates would take her from there.

She waited just inside the door to the shuttle bay, taking her time to survey the room.  She carefully considered the older models, reviewing the schematics as she determined which one would be the least resistant to deep-space hot-wiring.

“Hey, what are you doing here?”

Scolding herself for missing the pilot, Miranda turned to see a young man walking toward her.  Hands down, gun holstered, attention focused entirely on her face.

Amateur.  It’d be doing him a favor to get him away from this place.

She waited until the pilot was close enough to grab her before responding.  Shifting her weight, she flowed around him, grabbing both an arm and the gun in one clean move.  The pilot swore, struggling against the hold, but she held his arm at just enough of an angle that he couldn’t get the leverage he needed.

“Sorry,” Miranda said, sweetly, “but I need a ride.”

“Traitorous bitch.”

Well, that was uncalled for.

Opening her mouth to say something equally snide, Miranda blinked as something solid impacted the side of the pilot’s head.  He dropped like a stone, crashing to the floor as Candy dropped the plastisteel panel on top of him with a look that might have been regret.

“They’re doing it to all the recruits now,” she said.  “ ‘Integration’, I think it’s called.  Mind-control.  Destroys the person they were.”

Miranda had seen the early reports, right before she’d left Cerberus.  It had been part of the reason she had gone.

Something like guilt squirmed in her gut.  For a fleeting moment, she debated taking the young man with her.  Maybe there was a way to reverse what had been done.

Miranda shook her head, dismissing the thought.  Too many months serving with Shepard.  Whoever he had been, this man was a Cerberus drone now.  Taking him was too high a risk, and he’d probably just kill himself when he figured out Cerberus wouldn’t take him back.  Instead, Miranda turned to look at the tall redhead now surveying the shuttles around them.  “Candy?”

The answer was distracted.  “I’d love some.”  Candy looked at her, offering the closest thing to an apologetic smile she could, which wasn’t apologetic in the least.  “I know it wasn’t part of the plan, but I need a ride.”  She gestured out the window at the station around them, the klaxon’s cries eerie as they bounced off the long, metal walls.  “You must know that for helping you, Ms. Lawson, even I will not be forgiven.”  A tall, black boot nudged the man at their feet.  “And I will not be reduced to a doll.”

Miranda glanced back at the hangar entrance, estimating at how much time they might have left.  “Where will you go?”

“These Reapers are a threat to everything and everyone, and I am far too selfish to let what I hold dear be arbitrarily destroyed.  Not even by giant robots.”  Candy looked suddenly pleased again, an almost manic light returning to her eyes.  “I intend to aid in their violent defeat.”

“Just work it out as you go?  Leave Cerberus to their insensible machinations?”

“I am resigning my now useless post,” Candy explained, “so I can find a more effective one.”  She looked quite pleased with her choice.  “I thought I’d try this Hackett fellow I’ve read so much about.  I’ve heard all sorts of worthwhile rumors.”

“Admiral Hackett is a good man,” Miranda agreed.  “He’ll get the job done.”  A steady pounding echoed down the hall, sounding too much like boots.  Miranda turned and started walking toward one of the shuttles, a faded red one that would light up anyone’s scanner, if that exhaust port was anything to go by.

“That’s the selling point,” Candy said, long legs keeping pace.  She sighed happily.  “ ‘He’ll get the job done.’  Can you imagine anything sexier in a man?”

She could, but her opinion on biceps was not up for discussion.  “I suppose you’d like an introduction?”

“Oh, no thank you.”  Candy adjusted her hair as if she were primping for a date.  “I like to introduce myself.  A ride or a method of contact would be appreciated, though.”

Miranda thought about the data she hadn’t been able to find and the man she needed to see.  Behind them, it was definitely the pounding of booted feet headed their way.

She gave Candy her best troublemaker grin just before they broke into a run.  Behind them, someone opened fire.  “You know…I think I know someone who can arrange that.”

Chapter Text

For all the complaints about how storage in Engineering worked, the Shuttle Bay wasn’t much better.  Gabbi studied the shelves built into the bulkhead, wondering if she dared ask for help.  This mess clearly hadn’t been determined by Cortez – everything about the man suggested he would have had a sensible system, possibly numerical to avoid translator issues.  But if Cortez didn’t know about the controlled chaos half a dozen meters from his station, then Gabbi wasn’t sure she wanted to be the one to bring it to his attention.  They all had far too much going on these days to really care about such trivialities.

Except that lunch would come around eventually, and while inventory said the ingredients existed, so far Gabbi had been unable to find them.

Shore leave starting in roughly twelve hours meant she could probably improvise without getting in any real trouble.  She would have to send a message to Cortez about what she’d used, so he could adjust his Requisitions Request.  But then the perceptive Lieutenant would want to know why she hadn’t used the scheduled recipe.  Which brought her back to having to inform an already overworked colleague that shenanigans were afoot in his area.

“Looking for something?”

Gabbi turned, years of dealing with Kenneth depriving her of the ability to jump when surprised.

Sam gave a small wave, arms full of datapads.  “Either you’re admiring those shelves quite intently, or you’re looking for something.”

Gabbi spared a glance for the mess.  “I’m on KP for lunch.  Some of the ingredients we need are down here.  Or,” she turned back, starting her search once more on the highest shelf,far left, “inventory says they’re down here.”

“Good luck with that,” Sam said, stepping forward to stand next to Gabbi.  “I’ve never been quite sure how it works down here.  Not like Engineering, where it only looks ridiculous.”

“Maybe we should send Kenneth up here to reorganize,” Gabbi suggested.  She allowed herself a small smile as Sam laughed.  It was a dumb joke, and an empty threat, but it would serve the Shuttle Bay crew right for…whatever this was.

“I usually ask Saijin,” Sam said.  “He seems to be able to understand anybody’s organizational system, no matter how nonsensical it appears.”

“Saijin’s on Third Shift right now,” Gabbi said.  She shot Sam a mischievous look.  “Should I go wake him up?”

“Only if you want to find engine grease in your boots next week,” Sam replied, her confident tone that of someone who has borne witness, but never incurred the wrath herself.

Gabbi sighed, carefully rereading each label on each container for the third time as she worked her way across the shelf.  “Then I guess we’re on our own.”

“Should I go, then?” came a voice from behind them.

Both women turned to see the familiar, perpetually up-to-no-good expression of their friend.  “Morning, Diana,” Sam said, with a smile of her own.

Diana was looking past them at the wall of crates and containers.  “Oh no.  If you’re taking on that mess, I really will leave.”

“Not taking it on,” Gabbi said, “just attempting to make lunch.”

“Why don’t we just ask Cortez?” Diana suggested.  She gestured behind her toward the Kodiak.  “Isn’t he supposed to be Lord of All on His Deck?”

Sam giggled.  Gabbi fought back a smile.  Cortez had the enviable abilit to run a tight ship without having to be snappish or brusque.  Something about the quiet, earnest man made most people want to help, or at least, not add to his work load.  “The Lord appears to have missed a spot.”

Diana took in the wall of shelves before them.  Crates stacked mostly upright, containers jammed in wherever they would fit.  Boxes, loosed from their appropriate storage bins, sported crushed corners and dented sides from where they’d been forcefully tucked into spaces not quite their size.  “And we don’t want to be the ones responsible for his noticing?” Diana asked.

Gabbi nodded.  There was little to say in favor of the jumbled mess, but at least they hadn’t left any tools lying around.  Sense, the fiends lacked, but basic safety protocols had made it through.  “I just want to find the box with freeze dried meat.”

“Shouldn’t that be upstairs?” Sam asked.  “I mean…meat goes…bad?”

“Freeze dried meat isn’t supposed to,” Diana explained, stepping forward to formally join their little team.  “The fresher stuff stays upstairs, but there’s less of it.  The weird stuff that’s not quite jerky…”

“Can be stored down here,” Sam finished.  She didn’t sound pleased.  “Don’t they know what happens in Shuttle Bays?”

“It’s not supposed to affect the flavor,” Gabbi said, frowning at the spot that should have held the not-jerky, but instead housed a container labeled “industrial strength adhesives and clamps”.  She made a mental note to add extra onion powder to whatever she ended up making for lunch.

There was a moment of silence from the trio, perhaps to mourn the upcoming meal of not-jerky with an after taste of changing air pressure.

Never one to let a detail go unquestioned, Diana nudged Sam’s shoulder with her own.  “Hand delivering reports this morning, Specialist?”

Sam adjusted her grip on the collection of datapads.  “No,” the word was drawn out in a show of frustrated annoyance, “I’m trying not to let that stuck up little twig realize he was right.”

Gabbi frowned as Diana raised an eyebrow.  “That was positively mean.”

Sam sighed.  “Am I really that nice?”  She squinted at Diana.  “You’re the second person this week to call me on that.”

“You are very polite,” Gabbi observed.  She noted the mercifully intact crate of spice packets on the third shelf down.  Maybe she’d find something better than onion powder to add actual flavor to her dish.

“Professional,” Diana agreed.  “Never let your personal feelings get in the way of being positive and punctual.”

“Now you’re just playing with words,” Sam scolded.

“It is literally my job,” Diana replied, unaffected.  “But seriously…’stuck up little twig’?”

“I can give you some of Kenneth’s insults, if you really want your reputation tarnished.”

Sam stuck her tongue out at Gabbi.  “I can tarnish my own reputation, thank you very much.”

Diana snagged a datapad from Sam’s clutch.  “If you’re not going to tell me, I’m still going to dig.  I need to know who could be so difficult to work with that Samantha Traynor would casually insult them.”

Sam made a grab for the datapad, but Diana held it behind Gabbi’s back.  “I don’t know who.”

That stopped Gabbi’s methodical search for meat.  “You don’t know who?”

“In rescheduling Shepard’s meetings, I apparently offended a Salarian,” Sam said, darting sideways to try and outmaneuver Diana.  “They’ve been passive-aggressively letting me know my place in the world, and until this morning, I thought they were just some pretentious bully who thought the Commander should drop what he was doing and personally solve their little problem.”

Diana held the datapad up high, then dropped it behind her own back when Sam lunged, catching it with her other hand.  “Salarians have that in common with the Asari: never give a straight answer if you can avoid it.”

Sam huffed, then shoved her entire collection of datapads at Diana.  The reporter scrambled to catch them, confident defiance slipping into pale-faced concern.  Sam crossed her arms, ignoring the clattering sound as several ‘pads hit the floor.  “That’s probably why this alliance was originally Humans, Turians, and Krogan.  All very…blunt species.”

Gabbi leaned over to grab a datapad that had skidded beyond Diana’s reach.  “What happened this morning to change your mind?”

Sam’s shoulder lifted as she blushed.  “It turns out, even if this Salarian is a jerk, that we may actually have a minor security issue.  Which still doesn’t warrant overriding a medically decreed leave of absence, but does mean that I can’t just…ignore it.”

“A security issue?” Diana asked, kneeling as she stacked the datapads into something easier to carry.  “Shouldn’t EDI have noticed something like that?”  She took the datapad from Gabbi with a smile.  “Thanks.”

“It seems that a specific set of datapads that were added to our stock might have a flaw in their design,” Sam said, shoulder descending to its usual height.  “It would allow whoever had added them to our stock to access any information passed through the datapads memory, once the datapads were recollected.”

“During something, like, our next shore leave?” Gabbi suggested.

Sam nodded.  Her tone was collected, but the way she kept her arms crossing tightly over her middle gave away her fear that this was a bigger deal than she wanted to admit.  “Which means that not only was this Salarian right, but they have excellent timing.”

“Do they know who did this?” Diana asked.

Sam sniffed.  “They have failed to mention any pertinent details.”  Worried about her mistake, then, but not enough to keep just let the bad attitude of the informant go.

Diana stood, offering the datapads back to Sam as an apology.  “That’s very rude of your little twig.”

Sam rolled her eyes as Gabbi smothered her laugh.  “It is very rude.”

Datapads back in her possession, Sam ran her gaze over the disorganized shelves.  “So, Gabbi’s down here for food.  I’m down here hunting compromised Alliance tech.”  She glanced meaningfully at Diana.  “What brings you to the Shuttle Bay?”

Diana smiled, wistfully.  “Yesterday morning was so much fun, I thought I’d do it again.”

Sam blinked.  “What?”

Reaching forward to risk destabilizing the entire region, Gabbi tugged a crate toward her, just enough to pop the lid off and check inside.  Green bars, all stamped with the “dextro friendly” warning on them.  Which meant the Shuttle Bay storage was not only poorly organized, but untrustworthy.

Some poor fool had decided to mess with the Normandy’s Requisitions Officer.  Suddenly, the Reapers didn’t seem like the scariest part of this war.

Diana grinned, shameless at her vague opening.  “Either of you seen Major Alenko?”

Gabbi found her place again on the fifth shelf down, shoving the mislabeled collection of dextro bars back into place.  “Not recently.  Have you asked EDI?”

“I find it’s more productive to hunt people down myself,” Diana said.  “All sorts of fun details to overhear.”

“Just when we were learning to trust our reporter,” Gabbi murmured.

Diana sniffed.  “You don’t have to trust me, but Cortez can’t overhear everyone’s favorite birthday treat.”

Sam’s eyes widened.  “The horseradish and cocoa soup was your fault?”

Diana’s hands were up immediately.  “Not even a little.  I would have buried such horrors with the rest of my unspeakable knowledge.”

“But the blueberries were you,” Gabbi said.  Flash frozen or not, they’d made delicious smoothies.  She’d thought Kenneth’s look of confusion was just his usual inability to lie.

Diana shrugged.  “I can neither confirm nor deny my involvement in an active case.”

Sam snorted.  “You enjoy your job too much.”

“Says the woman hoarding datapads.”

Gabbi looked back at Diana before dropping to the next shelf in her continued search.  More adhesive and clamps.  How many ways to hold things together did one ship need?  “Why do you need Major Alenko?”

“He did an interview with me yesterday,” Diana said.  A hint of annoyance had found its way into her cheerful tone, as it often did when discussing the Major.  “I found – too late – the rest of my background questions.  I don’t imagine he has the time, or inclination, to do a second interview, but I was hoping to jot down a few more details.”

“You’re doing a story about biotics?” Gabbi asked.

Diana nodded.  “I’m chasing a story about Sanctuary, which might be tied to human biotics.  I figured he would know more than I did.”  She snorted with proper annoyance now.  “But the Major is very good at not giving away information he doesn’t want to.  The guy must have media training, which would be endearing if I wasn’t the one questioning him.”

“Kaidan’s not usually shy about discussing biotics,” Sam said.  Brow furrowed in thought, she gave Diana a curious look.  “Were you asking about something too personal?”

Diana raised an eyebrow.  “I didn’t think so.  Maybe you could ask Kaidan for me.”

Sam froze, mouth open to reply, as she caught her slip.  “I’m sure Major Alenko would be happy to respond to a written message.  He’s very good about checking his Inbox.”

“Oh no,” Diana said, grinning like a cat, “audio is always better, and if you’ve talked to Kaidan about this stuff before, I’m certain he’d be less guarded with his stories.”

“I am not the…a…some third party workaround,” Sam sputtered, blushing furiously in her denial.  “You can ask the Major yourself!”

“Relax, Sam,” Diana laughed, “I’m just teasing.  Mostly because I wasn’t aware you two knew each other well enough for first names.”

“I met Major Alenko before the war started,” Sam said, not quite petulant.  “At that point in time, using each other’s ranks sounded…overly formal.”

“You’re making it worse,” Gabbi murmured, attention catching on a small, green container near the bottom of the chaos.

Diana beamed.  “If I were a tabloid, I could write such trash about you two.  Please stop talking.”

Sam blushed furiously, shoulders as high as they would go.  “You two are both twigs.”

Diana laughed again.  Gabbi smiled as she retrieved the container.  It had the logo that meant it stored edible items, but no other details.  She kneeled on the floor, setting the container in front of her.

“And regardless of names,” Sam said, “I don’t know where Alenko is.”  The shortest of pauses, then: “he’s probably with Shepard.”

Gabbi wondered if the dip in air meant they could speak freely.

Diana said, “I’ve heard something happened a few days ago.  And I know,” Gabbi could picture Diana’s hands raised to ward off the usual disclaimer, “I’m not allowed to know details.  But, off the record, strictly as a concerned teammate…should I be worried?”

Gabbi thought back to Shepard’s last visit to Engineering.  The Commander had sounded normal, had acted more or less normal, but the bandages on his face had stood out stark against his skin.  Paired with his conspicuous absence the day before, Gabbi had been worried from the moment the two men had walked in.

Because that was another thing: Alenko had come with.  Had done his best not to hover, but having shadowed Kenneth after more than a few fights and sick days, Gabbi knew the signs.  Shepard’s story about wanting to make sure they’d all met had also flagged, because Shepard had never lied to them before.  A little lie, to be sure, and every CO in history had dodged questions and ignored comments.  But to make up something about people meeting each other for the first time, when he must have known better, had stung.

It was probably just her, though.  Adams was too much the Alliance Officer to care, and Kenneth probably hadn’t even noticed.  And, as much as the moment had hurt, Gabbi wasn’t going to cling.  It wasn’t shattered trust, just the minor pinch of the unexpected.  Because Shepard was obviously hurt, and the way his eyes had tracked Alenko around the space, the injury was more than just skin deep.  And so a little white lie wasn’t world shaking, just…a little sad.

Besides, this was the Commander.  He’d probably come down and apologize, once everything was back to normal.  Even though he didn’t need to.

“I don’t think so.”  Sam’s voice was reassuring, her own doubt limited to the shadow of her words.  “Shepard’s in good hands.  I’m sure he’ll be fine in a few days.”

Diana’s voice was less convinced.  “This is usually where I’d make a harmless joke about this relationship we’re all supposed to pretend we don’t know about, and judge your honesty by how you react.”

Sam’s sigh was a little too telling.  “You can’t find Alenko for a reason, Diana.  But I really do believe Shepard will be alright.”

“Having a cute nurse always helps,” Gabbi offered from her spot on the floor.  The green container, it turned out, was full of fish.  Not what she wanted, but she was tired of staring at these damn shelves.  Besides, inventory said they were out of fish, so it wasn’t like she was throwing off Cortez’s count.

Diana laughed, delighted with the harmless joke.  Sam, as expected, sputtered.

Gabbi looked up at their Comm Specialist.  “You know Campbell makes all those comments because she knows you’ll react, right?”

“What comments?” Diana asked, years of reporter’s instincts asserting dominance.

Sam refused to answer, so Gabbi did.  “Sam doesn’t appreciate people making comments about Alenko’s good looks.”

“You know that’s not how Campbell says it,” Sam muttered.

“She has been known to appreciate Alenko’s physique from time to time,” Gabbi agreed, “but usually it’s when you’re around.  She likes to watch you stutter.”

“He is nice to look at,” Diana said, faintly apologetic to honor Sam’s feelings.

Sam shrugged.  “I know, but he’s my friend, not…”

“Not a volunteer model for a certain charity-based calendar?” Diana asked, wiggling her eyebrows.

Sam scowled, but there was no heat in it.  “You’re pretty – how come Campbell doesn’t make inappropriate comments about you?”

Gabbi sighed as she packed up the container.  This Salarian deserved to be called a twig if they were throwing Sam so far off her game.

For a rare moment, genuine emotion won out.  Diana looked at Sam, surprised and at least a little bit pleased.  “You think I’m pretty, Specialist?”

Back on her feet, Gabbi turned, half a plan in mind to try and save her friend’s pride, and stopped.  Diana, noticing her expression, looked over her shoulder as Sam buried her face in her datapads, having utterly given up on having a boring day.

One eyebrow raised, Lt. Cortez took in their little trio.  “Don’t you all look pleased to see me.”  The other eyebrow lifted as the Requisition Officer noticed the mess on the shelves behind them.  “What…is that?”

Figuring someone was in as much trouble as they could possibly get, Gabbi strode past Cortez with her prize.  “It’s a mess, sir.”


There was a magic about the Normandy.  It manifested in all sorts of interesting little ways.  Repairs that appeared to fix themselves.  Wistful conversations about foods that would then appear in a cupboard a few weeks later.  The most relevant of these mysteries to the Chief Medical Officer was that the rarest of her supplies always seemed to be in surplus.

But for once, it appeared they were actually running low on dextro-based antibiotics and antihistamines.  Though Garrus nearly severing his arm on that mission on Cyone might explain things.

Maybe the ratio of supplies wasn’t such a mystery; just this once.

Going over her list one last time, Chakwas sent off her response to Cortez.  Her initial assessment of their shuttle pilot and requisitions officer had been that grief was driving the man to work such long shifts.  But it appeared the lieutenant was just another workaholic who had managed to be assigned to the busiest ship in the Alliance Fleet.  And while, in the last six months, his shifts had become much more acceptable in length, their Requisition Officer still tended to be ahead of the curve on all his paperwork.  Something that no doubt counted as a mystery of the Normandy all on its own.

Watching the icon that meant the message had been successfully sent, Chakwas debated her own paperwork.  Specifically, her next report to Admiral Hackett.

She’d found a message waiting for her that morning from the Commander.  It had been vague, but as she’d expected, the healing process was a bumpy one.  Something had happened last night, something that involved words and tears and confessions, even if Shepard hadn’t used those words.  And while he and Alenko were, no doubt, feeling like they’d been hit by one of those old double-decker buses she’d loved to look at pictures of as a child, the fact that there had been a message waiting for her was a good sign.

It paired nicely with the brief one from Tali, which mentioned a conversation around lunchtime and a Quarian version of patient-friend confidentiality.

The problem, even as it was meant to be the solution, was that shore leave would be starting soon.  Joker had done his usual competent job of getting the Normandy where she needed to go, and so it looked like dinner would be served on the Citadel.  A blessed relief to much of the crew, but that same crew would be scattering for a week.  And she’d told Steven she’d keep an eye on things.

It would be simplest to order Shepard to check in with her every day.  The man would do it— Shepard had never ducked his psych evals, inaccurate as his were proving to be— but a large part of this week would be rebuilding trust.  Yes, they’d all hounded Shepard about the trust he’d damaged, all the small ways his friends weren’t going to be able to simply let something go or wait for him to reply to a message.  But in truth, it went both ways.  Now, they knew things Shepard had never intended to tell them, and that meant the added pressure of wondering what his friends— his family— would do with that new information.

Because they would, inevitably, do something.  But it needed to be helpful.  Commander John Shepard was an N7 and a Spectre, and before that he’d handled himself just fine as part of a gang and living on the streets of a major city.  This was not a man who wanted his hand held.  He certainly wouldn’t tolerate being kept on a leash.

In the short term, there was something to the idea of coddling Shepard.  Just as there was something to the idea of berating him into guilt-ridden obedience.  But neither of those options would work for long, and neither of them would work for a commanding officer in the middle of a war.  If this plan was going to work, just as much as Liara or Joker or Chakwas herself needed to believe Shepard was handling the pressures in his life more productively, Shepard needed to believe that his people still had faith in him.

Ironically, the crew of the Normandy was staring down a similar version of the problem The Illusive Man had wrestled with for two years.

In the end, it hadn’t been anything The Illusive Man had put in place that had helped.  It was Shepard’s ability to be vulnerable, even to just a few people, that had gotten the man back on his feet after the devastation that was learning he’d been considered dead for two years.  It was certainly what had helped after Horizon and Bahak.

Chakwas made a note to check with Kahlee Sanders before they reached the Citadel.  Sometimes, the answer really was as simple as it looked.

Shutting down her Inbox, Chakwas stared absently at the wall across from her desk.  If they were, God help them, going to use intel gained from Cerberus to help solve this, then the other side of the problem might be solvable in a similar manner.  Shepard had found people he could talk to, that he felt safe letting see his cracks and doubts.  But it hadn’t all been about reassuring Shepard.

Garrus had, for terrible reasons, been easy to enlist.  The ex-C-Sec officer had been at the end of his own tether on Omega, putting himself in more and more reckless positions because he was rapidly losing the ability to care what happened to himself.  The loss of his team had forced his hand, but not enough; it had taken Shepard to get the Turian back on his feet, back to a place where living for those he loved was more important than dying for them.  And that work, those hundreds of small decisions Shepard had made, had convinced Garrus that his friend was truly back.

Tali had been much tricker.  Truthfully, it had taken months, and they didn’t have that long.  Tali had met Shepard, then gone back to her people.  Done her research.  Asked questions, checked sources, and quite probably thrown a few things at a wall late one night.  But she’d come around, and the second time she’d encountered Shepard, she’d come along.  She’d joined the crew, growling and judgmental, and not at all happy about EDI.  But she’d softened over time…why?

Lacing her fingers together, Chakwas leveled her gaze at the middle distance, her gaze focused this time.

The ugly truth of the matter was that Tali had done much better after Shepard had hurt himself the first time.  That guard-dog instinct, the chance to be contrary and keep secrets, had given Tali something to do.  Something that bonded her to the man who was claiming to be her friend.  It had been around then that she’d started really building that first collection of model ships— all of which had been confiscated when the Normandy was surrendered to the Alliance, for no good reason that Chakwas could think of.  But it had given Tali an empty case to fill up once again.

But there was something there…  The “doing something” bit.  Where Garrus had benefited from Shepard’s choices, from listening to him and observing how he worked, Tali…needed to be involved.  Needed to do…something.

Chakwas frowned.  But what could their resident Quarian do that she wasn’t already?  Tali had talked to Shepard a few times since the incident, replaced the covering on his window, checked in with other crew members, buried herself in work so she couldn’t dwell.  What could –

Chakwas stopped, feeling the beginnings of a smile tug at her lips.

She could order Shepard to contact her every day, and the man would.  But it would act as a reminder that he wasn’t fit for duty, that he’d somehow failed at his already enormously difficult task, that maybe he really wasn’t the man he’d been before Alchera and never would be again.  All nonsense, but emotions were messy.

But Commander Shepard was known, more than anything, for his very devoted friends.  Friends who would no doubt be stopping by regularly anyway.  Who might even stay at the apartment, because the food was good and nobody checked for concealed weapons.  And while patient-friend confidentiality was a serious thing, even for non-Quarians, Hackett didn’t need a transcript of Shepard’s day.  He needed to know that the Commander was healing, and that the crew was working together to develop a support system that would ensure that neither Shepard, nor anyone else, fell to this level of emotional distress, again.

Relaxing her hands, Chakwas glanced at the chronometer on her desk.  “EDI, could you please let Tali know I’d like to speak to her over lunch?”

Chapter Text

She’d left the rest of the datapads with Cortez.  There were so many more of them than she’d hoped, and carrying them all around was starting to remind her of balancing equipment for her labs back at Oxford.  Sam wouldn’t have called herself clumsy, but an armload of precariously balanced anything tended to obey gravity over all else.

Not that that was her current problem.  Her current problem was the closed door in front of her.  The usually bright green symbol that meant anyone could just barge in and speak with their CO wasn’t there.  It wasn’t even that it was green.  In the middle of the door, there was...nothing.

Sam ran a hand over the seams, wondering if she’d missed a memo about door repairs in her haste that morning.  She’d been, she felt, currently terrified at the implications of so many compromised reports, and had been a bit brusque with a few people to ensure that they handed over what she asked without wasting more time.  Cortez had even allowed her to double check all the datapads still in storage, most of which were now in use to replace the ones she’d repossessed.

But she had checked her Inbox before she’d gotten started.  She’d even given Shepard’s a once over, just in case something time sensitive had appeared.  And she was sure nobody had said anything about doors.

“EDI?”

“Yes, Specialist Traynor?”

Sam swiped her hand left to right, quickly, in case maybe her eyes had simply failed her or speed was the key to some new security system.  “Where’s the lock?”

“I removed it.”

Sam frowned at the door.  “You...removed it.”

“I determined it would be best if Shepard and Alenko were left alone.”

Sam looked up at the ceiling in the standard, unconscious gesture.  “EDI...did something else happen?”

The AI’s voice was as calm as ever.  “There are no new injuries, if that is your concern.”

“That is not what I meant.”  Though it was comforting to know.  “You didn’t remove the lock the last time I came up here.”

There was a pause.  Sam still wasn’t sure if EDI had learned to mimic human hesitancy, or if she genuinely needed a nanosecond to think.  She wondered if she’d been talking to EDI via the mech if the silver body would have shifted position in discomfort, or run a hand over that two-toned hair.

“Since Shepard’s incident, I have been actively monitoring the Cabin.”  EDI’s answer came slowly.  “It is an intentional invasion of privacy, but with the crew in the emotional state of crisis that it is, I determined it an acceptable choice.  I have attempted to limit any unnecessary personal knowledge, but when Shepard is alone, or when most of the crew is asleep, it seemed prudent to be as nosy as possible.”

Sam nodded, not sure she understood.  “You don’t like to spy but you feel like you have to?”

“Organics often comfort each other via physical intimacy.”

Sam held up a hand, instantly caught up.  “Yes, we do.  Nothing more, please.”

EDI continued, none of the expected humor she’d been learning from Joker in her reply.  “Relevant to your inquiry, I have removed the lock because yesterday did not end well, emotionally speaking.  I thought it best if neither Shepard nor Alenko were forced to interact with others until they felt more stable.”

Sam nodded again, this time less confused.  “Should we tell Chakwas?”

“I thought it best to wait and see if Shepard admitted the incident himself.  Dr. Chakwas had mentioned repeatedly that this crew needs to rebuild the trust it has in each other.”

Crossing her arms over her chest, Sam chewed her bottom lip.  She knew, from having scoured the rest of the ship, that there were three datapads in Shepard’s Cabin that needed to be replaced.  She also knew that the Commander would not like hearing that he’d been working with compromised tech.  More importantly, she knew that her need to ensure the security of the Normandy’s communications was more important that preserving her commanding officer’s peace of mind.

“EDI...I need those datapads.”

“The ones you have been collecting from around the ship.”

Sam tapped the door with the pad of her index finger.  “There are three of them unaccounted for, which means they have to be in here.”

EDI was silent.

Sam sighed, dropping her hand to her side.  She understood EDI’s concern, and in her place would have done the same thing.  But she had a job to do.

Sam looked back at the ceiling.  “I don’t suppose you could get them for me?”

“My mechanical body is no more stealthy than your organic one.”

Sam raised an eyebrow.  “I thought it was a stealth unit?”

“It is an infiltration unit.”  EDI sounded just the tiniest bit annoyed.  “It makes a noticeable amount of noise when it moves, the stealth components having been relegated to disguising the sounds of motors and other internal processes.  While this proved useful for Cerberus on Mars, it has proved useless in moving undetected around observant enemies.”

Sam bit her lip this time, hiding a smile.  “Getting shot at, EDI?”

“Only on away missions.”

Sam returned her attention to the door.  She’d probably sound petulant, but again, it was her job .  “EDI...what if I promise to be really quiet?”

“Standard Alliance footwear is not quiet.”

Without a word, Sam took off her boots.

The subtle hum of the Normandy as EDI ran her simulations.  On her wrist, Sam’s omni-tool glowed to life.

“Once inside, I will be unable to speak with you without risking waking either man,” EDI said.  “If I detect anything of concern, such as a change in brain waves or a need for you to return to your post, I will flash your omni-tool as a warning.”

Sam tried very hard to be serious.  Sneaking around her bosses’ room while they were asleep, stealing specific items, with a proximity alarm strapped to her wrist.  And her mother had said video games weren’t like real life.

Setting her boots to one side - no sense being quiet just to trip loudly over her own feet - Sam blinked in surprise as the door opened silently.

She’d always thought the little hissing sound was a mechanical side effect, not an aesthetic choice.

Drawing her focus back, Sam stepped into the dimly lit room.  The door closed behind her, cutting off the bright white light of the antechamber.  

Inside, the soft blue light of the fish tank was by far the brightest thing in the room.  That, and the dull orange of her omni-tool.  It would make looking for things slightly more difficult, but Sam hadn’t planned on looking for anything.  She’d planned on asking Shepard for the three datapads, claiming a maintenance issue.  But that would require the man to be awake, which he was not.

Stepping over to the desk, Sam suppressed an annoyed breath.  The usually crowded surface was empty.  Nevermind finding the correct datapads - now she needed to find them at all.

Looking around, just in case the expected pile was hiding behind her, Sam walked carefully across to the steps.  She’d learned as a small child that rolling her feet along the outside edge forced her to move slower, which meant moving quieter.  It did nothing against creaky floorboards, but you couldn’t thump when you were trying to balance.

At the top of the steps, Sam stopped.  She studied the sleeping forms in the large bed before her, the darker shadows hiding details like faces.  The thin orange lines stood out starkly, though, denoting Shepard’s arm where it was thrown across Kaidan in an almost protective gesture.  It looked like whatever had happened yesterday, the two men had turned to each other to get through it.

Sam felt herself smile, even as the part of her mind in charge of manners scolded her fiercely for staring.

Two steps down to where she’d wounded her pride two days ago, Sam looked around again.  She spied a mess of datapads on the coffee table to her right.  That was...just grand.

Who didn’t want to play silent pick up sticks in their bosses’ private quarters?

Picking her way around the furniture, Sam ran her omni-tool over the pile.  She could see well enough to check production numbers, so at least she’d know if the thing she knocked on the floor was the datapad she’d been looking for.

With another glance toward the bed, Sam perched on the edge of the couch.  Carefully, slowly, she moved the datapads one by one, checking the lower edge for one of three sets of numbers before stacking the uncompromised datapads off to one side of the table.  She hoped there was no method to this madness, but she’d just have to risk it.

She felt suddenly like Macbeth: trapped by her own possibly foolish choices, in trouble no matter the outcome, the option to blame a soothing female voice for her own reckless need to succeed.

Lifting a datapad, Sam’s eyes went wide as the one she hadn't noticed underneath clattered to the floor.

She sat, frozen, listening so hard she could barely hear past her own pulse.  Daring to look, she breathed out as quietly as she could.  It appeared that neither man had been disturbed.

EDI must have thought so, too; Sam’s omni-tool hadn’t flashed.

Moving a little faster now, though still doing her best to be as quiet as the proverbial mouse, Sam checked the datapad in her hand, then the traitorous one on the floor.  Literally traitorous, as it turned out to be one of her compromised ones.  Sam set it aside and returned to the pile.

Ten miserable minutes later, she had all three of her elusive devices.

Sam stood.  She debated the much neater piles on the coffee table in front of her.  It was irrefutably obvious that someone had moved something, but knocking her little piles over to make a mess would absolutely wake someone.

She’d have to risk it.

Picking her way back around the furniture and up the steps, Sam crossed quickly to the door.  She’d wondered briefly if she needed to signal EDI, but the door opened just as Sam reached it, closing again almost on her heels.

Sam waited until the door was completely closed, then counted ten seconds past it.  For paranoia’s sake.

She looked up at the ceiling once again.  “Thanks, EDI.”

“Shepard’s health is paramount to the crew,” EDI replied, “but the security of the Normandy is paramount to the war.”

Sam nodded, her guilt at what felt like prying into something as personal as sleep almost drowned out by her success.  She couldn’t tell anyone, but it was nice to know she could, in fact, be sneaky.

Grabbing her boots, Sam pulled them back on.  Now she could give the last three buggers to Cortez, who could seal them in that fancy crate of his.  She wasn’t entirely certain if transmitter-resistant crates were standard for Alliance ships, but she’d stopped asking questions after the first little bag of clementines appeared in her footlocker.

Standing in front of a different door, this one with a friendly green display that announced the elevator was, in fact, headed unhelpfully down at the moment, Sam felt a twinge of displeasure at the edge of her good mood.

The Salarian had been right; pompous prick.  Now, she needed to figure out how to confirm that he’d been useful without actually having to say the words.  Because sometimes, pride might just be worth the fall.


“Listen, so, I was kind of a…”

No.

“Shitty week, huh?”

No.

“Hey, so, we’re cool - right?”

Definitely not.

“Not to make it all about me, but you started this.”

Joker slouched back in his seat with a groan.

This was why he didn’t do apologies.  You couldn’t just walk up to someone and say “I’m sorry”.  You had to specify why, and then explain yourself.  But not too much, because then it wasn’t an apology— it was an excuse.  But if you offered no explanation, then you weren’t really sorry, you just didn’t want to be in trouble.  And even after all the formalities, even if you got it all right...they might still tell you to go jump in a man-made lake.

Prodding the display on the lower right, Joker wondered if inventing time travel might be easier.  That way, he wouldn’t have to apologize to anyone.  He could just not screw up in the first place.

But he had friends now.  People who cared about him.  People he cared about.

And he was sorry.

Tali had been doing the same thing most of the people on this crew did - worry about Shepard.  She’d made her choices based on what she thought might be best.  And then, if he believed her - and he did believe her - life and time had gotten the better of her arguably poor decision, until it came back to bite her in the suit-clad ass.

What would he have done if he’d known about Shepard when this was a Cerberus crew?  Would he have argued with Miranda more?  Snapped at EDI?  Glowered at everyone he thought he was better than because he’d known Shepard first?

You worked for Cerberus before you knew Shepard would be back.

That was the sticking point, wasn’t it?  The thing Tali had said that actually hurt worse than knowing that his best friend had been upstairs, literally tearing himself to pieces.  Knowing that while everybody else had agreed to work with Shepard, Joker...was already on the payroll.  Had been for months.  Had let his anger and grief and resentment drive him to work for the very people he’d been dodging and insulting six months prior.

You worked for Cerberus before you knew Shepard would be back.

He’d never asked if Shepard knew that.  The Commander had never said anything about it.  Shepard had mentioned something about Chakwas never being formally recruited, about how her uniform looked different because she wasn’t a member of Cerberus.

He’d sounded proud when he’d said it.

“Hey,” Joker said to no one in particular, “I know I screwed up first.  I know agreeing to work for Cerberus was wrong, but I was miserable, and alone, and I wanted to fly.  So I made a bad call.  Just like yelling was a bad call.”

He pictured Tali watching him, that blank purple faceplate giving nothing away.  He wondered if she’d cross her arms and scoff.  That didn’t sound like her.  Just let him walk?  A bad pun, and not even a believable one.  Tali had been trying to help; Joker had been putting his own pain first.

Then again...she hadn’t come up here to tell him.  He’d found out about Shepard on accident— both o