If It Meant Living - Chapter 64
"Love and Other Tales of Counterinsurgency"
Title: If It Meant Living – Chapter 64: "Love and Other Tales of Counterinsurgency"
Game: Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2/Mass Effect 3
Disclaimer: Bioware owns all rights to Mass Effect and its characters
Content Warning: Language, Violence, Sexual Themes
Shepard gazed around the conference table. "I'm sure you all have questions about our new guest. His name is Javik, and he's…"
He stalked around the dimly lit Port Cargo Room like a caged predator. "Human, you found our beacons, you saw it all – our destruction, our warnings! Why weren't they heeded? Why didn't you prepare for the Reapers sooner?""…still getting adjusted to the idea of being alive after 50,000 years, and being the only one of his kind remaining. You all should probably give him some space for a while."
She stepped in front of his path and forced him to stop before her. "It's Commander – and we could make little sense of your warnings. Your beacons nearly killed me the first time I encountered one."
He dismissed her with a wave of his hand. "It was too much to hope for, that primitives could understand such things."
She regarded him calmly but coldly. "These primitives are the best hope the galaxy has for defeating the Reapers. These primitives have gotten a hell of a lot closer to finishing the Crucible than the Protheans ever did. Show some respect."
His pacing slowed as he eyed her curiously. "Perhaps I will show respect to those who deserve it. Who are the rulers of your cycle?"
"We have no rulers. A thousand entities govern a thousand worlds in a thousand different ways."
His eyes widened in surprise. "There is no empire?"
"No. We are free."
He scoffed. "Free to die."
She stared him down. "Free to live."
He returned the stare for a long moment, challenging her silently. But in the end, he broke. Of course he did – for in the end, they all broke in the face of Commander Fucking Shepard.
He turned away and resumed pacing, hands clasped behind his back. "You occupy a position of military authority in this war with the Reapers?"
Her voice was even and measured. "I do."
He nodded slowly. "Very well. I will remain on this ship and join you in your fight."
He walked to the pool of water in the back of the room. It almost resembled an altar…particularly when he knelt on one knee before it. "I am the anger of a dead people, demanding blood be spilled for blood lost. Only when the last Reaper has been destroyed will my purpose be fulfilled; I have no other reason to exist. I am Vengeance incarnate."
She straightened up in the chair and clasped her hands on the table. "In any case, that's not why we're here. At this point we've brought everyone to the fight, to the Crucible Project; everyone except, arguably, the Asari – and we're working on that. So Eden Prime marked the start of a new offensive for us. Cerberus knows about the Crucible; the fact that they are expending so many resources going after Prothean artifacts can only mean they are trying to discover the identity of the Catalyst."
She met each of their eyes in turn as she spoke. "Until the Crucible is complete, our job is to stop them from finding that information. Mind you, anything we can do to stop them from causing so much trouble for the war effort is also good."
Tali perked up. "If we're going after the same artifacts as Cerberus is, maybe we'll discover what the Catalyst is."
Shepard smiled. "Of course, that is definitely a primary goal. We will recover any artifacts or other data we find so Liara can study them." She nodded decisively. "So that's our marching orders – we hit Cerberus hard and fast, everywhere we can find them. First up on the agenda – Cerberus is trying to hack into and take over a major Alliance communications relay facility on Ontarom. Kaidan and Tali, you'll take the shuttle there. Disable the hacking programs, then please do the Alliance a favor and upgrade their security measures so Cerberus can't hack it again next week. James, you'll go with them."
His face scrunched up in confusion. "But Shepard, I don't know shit about communications or hacking…"
She rolled her eyes. "Sure, but somebody has to shoot all the bad guys while they take care of the comm relay…in fact, take Lieutenant Reegar with you too, just in case." He settled back in his chair, satisfied.
"Cerberus also has set up a base on Noveria, from which they are launching fighters for hit-and-run attacks on Alliance forces. My inclination would be to blow it to hell, but Admiral Hackett wants to seize it for use by the Alliance. It's protected by strong air defenses, so we'll take the Mako in under the radar, disable the defenses, kill the Cerberus forces, and hold it until Hackett sends in a team. EDI, Liara, Garrus, you'll come with me."
Cortez raised his hand slightly. "Um, Commander, the Mako only holds three, remember?"
She shrugged. "Yeah…Liara can sit in Garrus' lap."
Liara's eyes widened. "But Shepard…Noveria is quite mountainous…"
She grinned, eyes twinkling. "I know."
Garrus leaned forward. "That's okay, Liara, you can have my seat. I have a call with Primarch Victus scheduled for tomorrow; I'm not going to be able to go." He didn't look over at Shepard as her eyes narrowed at the side of his head.
She sighed. "Okay…I'm sure we'll be fine with just EDI and Liara. Well, I think that about covers it. Any questions?"
James exhaled audibly. "Shepard, what do you think is really up with Cerberus? Why is the Illusive Man interfering with our efforts to defeat the Reapers? Doesn't he realize that if the Reapers win, everyone dies?"
She leaned back in the chair, crossing her legs, and was quiet a moment. "Honestly? I think he's indoctrinated, and has been for a very long time. Not too much – just enough for the Reapers to have their hooks in him, like Saren was in the beginning. They capitalize on his ego, let him plot and scheme for what he believes are his own purposes – but the side effects just happen to benefit the Reapers. When they either (a) have no further use for him or (b) have direct need of him, then they'll indoctrinate him completely – and only then will he realize that he's been their puppet all along."
He frowned. "But what about the Collectors? They were serving the Reapers, yet he went after them…"
"I don't pretend to understand the Reapers' motivations…but I do know they play the long game. And now, the Illusive Man is using Reaper tech recovered from the Collector base to fuel his fight against us, so…"
James shook his head ruefully. "Indoctrinated. Well that's just great."
She smiled. "But we know it, and that means we can use it. Okay, that's all for tonight. Dismissed."
Liara caught up with her on the way out of the conference room. "Shepard…I'm not sure I should go to Noveria. I have to admit, in these dark times I've been thinking about my mother a lot…and I'm afraid being there will stir up old memories. Bad memories."
Shepard sighed. "I understand; I'm sorry, I should have thought of that. Why don't you go with Kaidan and Tali, and I'll take James with me instead – or maybe I can get Garrus to reschedule his call."
Liara nodded. "Thank you, Shepard; I really appreciate it." She turned and walked away, waiting until she rounded the corner before rolling her eyes and exhaling in relief.
Shepard caught up with Garrus at the elevator, sliding in with him just before the door shut. "Hey Garrus, any chance you can reschedule your call and come with me to Noveria? Liara begged off."
He leaned against the back wall. "Shepard, didn't you read the note?"
She frowned. "The note? Oh, right…yeah, I read the note, but – "
"That's all I have to say on the matter." The door opened and he hurried out, leaving her in the elevator, eyes narrowed at the back of his head.
Shepard stopped at her desk – well, technically "their" desk, but Kaidan had unofficially adopted the desk by the bed for most of his work – to check her messages. One from Kasumi jumped out; it contained a single sentence:
I'm in position.Kaidan leaned over her shoulder, glancing at the screen. "Good."
"Yeah." She shut off the screen and turned around, pulling him down the steps and over to the couch before collapsing onto it. She snuggled back against him as he wrapped his arms around her from behind.
He kissed her gently along the neck. "It's been so wonderful going on missions together again."
She smiled, hugging his hands against her abdomen. "Oh, you have no idea…"
"Actually, I do."
She squeezed her eyes shut. "Right…two years…I'm so sorry."
He turned her around, grasping her face in his hands. "Don't be. It wasn't your fault, and it doesn't matter now. You're here." He kissed her softly, languorously, as she relaxed into him.
She whispered against his lips for a moment, then pulled back slightly. "You know, if you wanted to go with me to Noveria, EDI could go with Tali to Ontarom; she could handle the hacking as well as you…"
He shook his head slowly. "No."
"But – "
His expression was slightly puzzled. "Didn't you read the note?"
She exhaled in exasperation. "Yes, I read the note."
"And what did the note say?"
She dropped her head back and glared at the ceiling. "We present you with the gift of this M35 Mako. It comes with one and only one condition – we will never ride in it with you. Signed, Garrus and Kaidan." She looked back to find him staring at her, an eyebrow raised.
"What? I thought it was a joke."
"It wasn't a joke."
She was quiet for a moment, seeming to concede the matter as she settled back down against his chest. "You know…Ash would have gone with me. She loved the Mako."
He chuckled lightly. "Yes, well, Ash told me once that she wasn't afraid to die. I am."
Her eyes narrowed as she drew close to his face, stopping when her lips were a mere centimeter from his. "You know, I think I should make you pay for that insinuation…"
Shepard cackled in delight as the Mako flew over the top of the hill, soaring airborne for ten meters before bouncing back onto the snowy path.
James groaned as he held the stability bar in a death grip. "Fuck, Shepard – are you trying to kill us?"
"Oh, we're fine. It was just a little bump."
"Just a little…I'm going to have Garrus' ass for th– " He sucked in a breath as they cleared another "bump."
EDI looked back at James curiously. "I do not understand the concern. My motion dampeners adequately adjust for the periodic changes in direction and altitude."
Shepard grinned. "EDI, you and I are going to have some fun over the next few weeks."
EDI smiled brightly. "I look forward to it. I enjoy accompanying you on missions."
Shepard raised an eyebrow. "And taking out Cerberus forces?"
EDI paused a split-second – an eternity by her standards. "They have made their choice. They are the enemy now."
Shepard nodded, slowing as they crested the next hill. "Yes, they are. Speaking of…James, unglue your fingers from that bar and get on the cannon. It appears we have ourselves a couple of transport vehicles just hanging around waiting to be blown up."
He exhaled harshly, grateful at least for the slowed movement. "You got it."
Javik didn't look up when she walked in, instead continuing to gaze into the reflective depths of his pool. "Why do you waste time with these diversions? The Reapers will not wait for you to settle your petty squabbles before they kill you all."
She stared up at the ceiling, sighing quietly. "And this is why I haven't taken you on any of these little diversions. Until the Crucible is complete, this is how we can do the most good. We're dealing with indoctrinated forces; they could destroy our one chance at defeating the Reapers. I don't intend to let that happen."
He was quiet for a moment. "There is…logic…in your words. I will accompany you on your next mission if you wish."
She watched him. "Okay, if you think you're ready."
He turned away from the pool to look at her. "I have been ready for 50,000 years. Which of the other primitives will be accompanying us? You have so many on this ship, I cannot keep them straight."
"You know what, that is not going to work. We may have been primitives when you were…when you fought the Reapers, but we've had those 50,000 years to develop, and I happen to think we've done quite well for ourselves. Learn the names of the team – and treat them politely – or you don't come out with us."
He stared at her a moment, then nodded tightly. "Very well. In that regard…you should perhaps check in on your Asari – "
" – Liara. It is possible that I caused her some distress earlier today."
Liara slumped down in her chair. "I was such a foolish, naïve child. Romantic visions of kind, generous intellectuals, guiding and nurturing the younger species, spreading enlightenment across the galaxy…"
EDI leaned against the wall, eyes narrowing slightly. "I do not understand. Aren't you pleased to have a living Prothean to speak with? He can provide many of the answers you have been seeking."
Liara opened one eye and peered up at EDI. "Have you met him?"
"I…attempted to do so; once he realized I was an AI he said that he would never allow a synthetic in his quarters and ordered me to leave."
Liara chuckled slightly in spite of herself. "Trust me, you got off easy. But it's not even his demeanor or the rude things he says that's the problem; it's what he represents. The nullification of my life's work…of my core beliefs."
EDI's head tilted to the side. "You are a scientist, correct?"
"Among other things, yes…"
"Then you seek the truth. 'The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.' A human astrophysicist and advocate for the advancement of scientific knowledge once said that. Liara, you have spent much of your life seeking the truth of the Protheans; now, you have it within your grasp. Javik is not the nullification of your life's work; he is the culmination of it."
Liara was quiet for a moment…then nodded to herself. She looked up at EDI and smiled. "You're right. Thank you, EDI. You always seem to have such a clear perspective on things."
EDI returned the smile. "I am glad; I always like to be of assistance."
The door opened and Shepard walked in. "Is everything okay? I heard there might have been an…incident…with Javik?"
Liara stood up. "It's fine, Shepard, nothing to worry about. But I am glad you're here – I wanted to talk with you about…that other thing."
For once, Shepard was late. She walked quickly into the conference room and sat down at the head of the table for what seemed like the hundredth time in the last two weeks. She gazed curiously around the room – not at the faces regarding her, but at the room itself.
"You know, I was thinking maybe we should get some artwork for in here, maybe paint the walls, spruce the place up a bit…" She grinned wickedly, leaning back in the chair and kicking her feet up on the table. "Alright. So we're going to have to keep splitting up if we want to stay ahead of Cerberus." She popped the cap on the beer in front of her and took a sip. "Next up is a lab on Sanctum where they are doing some of their research into Reaper tech – "
"Commander, is it wise to be planning military operations while imbibing alcoholic beverages?"
She shot Javik a withering glare and took another sip. "Javik will be accompanying me to the lab, as well as Liara." She looked over at Garrus. "Garrus, you know I need you on this one as well." He nodded in understanding. "We'll take the shuttle. Kaidan, take James and Lieutenant Reegar in the Mako to Benning. Cerberus is abducting people from the colony, and we need to find out why – and stop it if we can."
Kaidan frowned. "Shepard, there's no reason why we can't switch; let us take out the lab, and you go to Benning."
She smiled tenderly, her eyes saying thank you, but her head shaking no. "It's okay. I need to see firsthand what atrocities Cerberus is cooking up in that lab."
Traynor came over the speaker. "Commander, you have an incoming call from Kasumi Goto."
She nodded. "Okay, I think that's all for now. Dismissed. Traynor, I'll take that call in my quarters."
Shepard stepped lightly out of the shuttle into the bay, working to keep her stride energetic though she was bone tired. She smelled like fuel and smoke; her eyes still burned from the chemical clouds.
She hopped up onto the Mako's hood and motioned everyone over. "Great job down there guys. Cyone's fuel supplies are critical to the war effort, and now they're secure again. It got pretty hairy, but you all got it done. Tali, nice work getting the reactor restarted while under fire. James, well done rescuing Captain Riley."
Her legs swung idly as she ran a hand through her hair. "We've got a couple of potential leads on Cerberus installations we can hit next, but we need to firm up the information a bit more first – so it looks like tomorrow's a day off. Rest and relax, you've earned it…" She frowned at her Omni-tool, tapping it to open the incoming priority message.
Commander Shepard, there is an urgent matter I need to discuss with you in person. Please meet me on the Citadel as soon as possible.She stared at it for a moment, then looked back up at them, smiling. "Change of plans, guys. Looks like we're going to the Citadel."
-- Councilor Tevos
She input the desired settings then breathed in deeply as the treadmill ramped up to a solid but not grueling pace. Running when tired, when worn down, was a habit drilled into her at the Academy and never lost.
The point of it, according to the military, was to instill the ability to push, one step further; to learn that what you thought were your limits were, in fact, not; to get accustomed to continuing physical exertion well past the point of exhaustion, because that was the reality of combat.
All these were true and good lessons to learn, but they weren't why she still did it. When she was tired, so tired she could feel the resentment of each muscle as she asked it to move, then her mind became clear. So much of her brain was focused on the act of forcing an exhausted body to move, the only thoughts that could fight their way to the surface were the ones that truly mattered.
In the zen-like state brought on by the constant rhythm of the surface beneath her feet, the repetitive motion of muscles too worn to do anything but keep going, she could calmly, quietly examine the important things, contemplate the issues at play, and often come to decisions in a rather different way than how decisions were made on the field of battle.
They had racked up an impressive count – of treasures and bodies – in the previous three weeks. Three Prothean artifacts...four if you counted Javik as an artifact, which…well… A solid handful of Reaper tech, which had been immediately handed off to researchers under Hackett to be studied very carefully. One military base and a dozen fighter jets. Two colonies saved…twenty thousand people, give or take. One fuel reactor saved, representing 60% of the Asari, 15% of the Turian, and 8% of the Alliance fuel supplies. One communications hub secured, saving immeasurable lives in the long run of the war.
She kicked the speed up just a notch…oh yes, and the bodies. At least four hundred dead Cerberus commandos across nine planets, and that was just since Rannoch. That, plus the losses of several bases of operation, had to hurt them…though in truth she had no idea how many Reaper tech-infused commandos Cerberus was churning out at this point.
But no Illusive Man. No Kai Leng. No Catalyst reveal. As viscerally rewarding as this strategy could be at times, it would not win the war; the most it could do was prevent the loss of the war…and that was only if nothing slipped through the cracks.
Had it? There was no way to know for certain, but she didn't believe the Illusive Man had discovered the identity of the Catalyst. There would have been a shift in Cerberus behavior, in the underlying focus of their actions. Also, he probably would have called her up to gloat about it…
Until the Crucible was complete, which thank god was rapidly drawing near, she was just buying them time…and trying like hell to stay ahead of the cracks.
Shepard sighed and turned around to find Diana Allers storming out of the airlock, dragging a bag behind her. She stopped directly in front of Shepard and dropped the bag, putting her hands on her hips defiantly. "You can't kick me off the Normandy!"
Shepard's voice was calm and measured. "Yes, I can. It's my ship."
Allers' eyes narrowed. "You know, I caught your Quarian in my quarters the other day taking measurements – are you going to give the space to her and her boyfriend as a lovers' den? Between them, and Chakwas and Adams, and you and Alenko, the Normandy's practically a 'Love Boat'; I wonder how the public would feel if they knew – "
Shepard took a step closer, her icy glare burning into Allers' skull. "Don't you ever question my professionalism or the professionalism of my crew again. Do you understand me? You spread a whisper of trashy gossip and you will never see the light of a camera again. Do I make myself clear?"
Allers took an unsteady step backwards. "Okay, okay. I didn't meant it, I know you're doing everything you can…it's just, you can't kick me off now. The war is coming to a critical turning point, I can feel it, and I – " A requisitions officer pushing a cart stacked high with unmarked boxes looked back over his shoulder at his co-worker pushing an identical cart as he turned towards the Normandy's airlock – and promptly bumped the cart into Allers' leg, knocking her sideways.
"Ow! Watch where you're going!" she growled at the officer pushing the cart. He nodded politely. "Sorry, ma'am." Then he and his co-worker turned and continued on into the airlock.
Shepard waited until Allers had turned back to her. "You're right. The war is coming to a critical turning point. And there are things going on, events in motion, that you simply cannot know about. I'm sorry."
Allers sighed, her shoulders dropping slightly. "But Commander, I've followed your rules to the letter. I haven't reported a single item you asked me to keep confidential."
Shepard nodded. "You're right, you haven't – and I thank you for that. I truly do. But this is too important; I can't take the risk. I'm sorry." She smiled slightly. "Listen, if you want to do any remote interviews, I'll be happy to do so; just contact me and we'll set it up. But your stay on the Normandy has to end now." She reached out and shook Allers' hand. "Thank you for your hard work. Keep getting the message out to people; know that it makes a difference."
She turned and walked towards the Citadel elevator, grinning slightly to herself. Chakwas and Adams…how had she missed that? She was going to have to pay Karin a visit when she got back on the Normandy…though it might require some Serrice Ice brandy to ply the truth out of Karin's circumspect lips. She activated her Omni-tool and put in an order for two bottles to be delivered later that afternoon.
"Commander Shepard, thank you for coming so quickly." Councilor Tevos motioned the security staff out; when the door had closed behind them she leaned against her desk, gazing down at the floor.
"I never thought I would see my people…where they are. I was so arrogant; we were all so arrogant, thinking we were untouchable, above it all." Her head lifted but she didn't meet Shepard's eyes. "We stand on the brink; if we look over the edge, we come face to face with our ruin…"
"When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
Tevos finally looked at Shepard, an odd expression on her face. Shepard smiled disarmingly. "One of humanity's more overdramatic philosophers. I'm sorry the Reapers are coming for the Asari, Councilor; but you must have known that sooner or later they would."
She nodded. "Yes, I did. But knowing something and believing it can be two very different things." She pushed off the desk. "But enough feeling sorry for ourselves, yes? You and I are warriors, each in our own way, and we will fight until the end. To that…I understand that your Crucible Project is missing a key component."
Tevos motioned for Shepard to follow her out on the balcony. Outside, Shepard leaned against the ledge next to the Councilor, gazing down at the Presidium Lake below.
Tevos' voice was low. "For all my security, there is always someone more clever; one can never be absolutely certain there isn't a bug lurking in the walls." She took a deep breath. "On Thessia, there is an artifact that may be of use to you."
Shepard was quiet for a moment, contemplating. Then she turned to Tevos, leaning against her arm on the ledge. "Councilor, I could stand here and play this diplomatic dance; I can be very good at it when I care to. But the simple fact is, the fate of all life in the galaxy is at stake, and I just don't have the time or patience for it. What, precisely, is on Thessia?"
Tevos nodded in resignation. "Very well. In one of our most sacred Temples is a Prothean artifact of significant power. I'm not being cryptic, Commander; I simply don't know the details of its nature. But I do have reason to believe it holds Prothean secrets – and I believe a Prothean secret is what you are need of, yes?"
"Why withhold this information until now?"
Tevos sighed heavily. "Every species has their secrets, Commander. The Asari enjoy many advantages from the perception that we are the oldest, wisest, most advanced species in the galaxy. Anything that challenges our mystique is a threat to our way of life. The truth is, this artifact very well may have boosted our advancement at several key points in our cultural development…which would mean that our achievements are not entirely our own."
Shepard bit her lower lip, suppressing a grin as she gazed up at the artificial sky. "I see. Rest assured Councilor, I don't see any reason why that information should get out to a…wider audience." She looked back at Tevos, wearing a broad smile that would seem to anyone in the world, save two or three or possibly four people, to be genuine. "Thank you for trusting me with this secret; we are actively seeking Prothean artifacts that can yield any additional…enlightenment. I will head to Thessia first thing in the morning."
Tevos nodded somberly, still staring out at the Lake. "I hope it holds the answers you seek, Commander, I truly do…lest the Reapers be the end of us all."
She turned then, and dipped her head towards Shepard's shoulder in the Asari gesture of farewell. "May the Goddess be with you, Commander."
"And with you, Councilor."
On the way to the elevator she spied Liara and Javik standing over at the window. Liara was gesturing animatedly, Javik gazing at wherever she pointed with interest. Shepard chuckled lightly and hit the elevator, deciding not to disturb a good thing.
After spending the afternoon running around the Citadel being Aria's bitch in the pursuit of gaining a whole hell of a lot of needed, if unsavory, support, she had returned to Purgatory that evening in order to make certain Aria was crystal clear that she had performed her end of the bargain to spectacular effect.
She had not returned to Purgatory to play matchmaker.
Yet when she walked out of Purgatory thirty minutes later, matchmaker was exactly what she had been. Twice.
She had seen Joker and EDI over to her left when she had walked in, but had ignored them for the moment to head straight for Aria. Get the most unpleasant business done first. She had glared and rolled her eyes and smarted off and danced the dance and walked away with Aria thinking she was satisfied and Shepard actually satisfied.
She fell in next to Joker, leaning casually against the bar. He glanced over at her. "Commander. Thanks for the extra couple of hours off…I think the crew needed it."
She grinned teasingly. "But not you, of course."
He scoffed. "Of course not, I'm good, just point me towards…ah hell, Shepard. Whatever. You ask me to do something and I'll do it; so long as you're not asking me to do something, I'll be…here. At the bar." His eyes slid over to EDI, sitting alone at a table in the corner, before quickly returning to Shepard.
She gazed at him perceptively. "She loves you, you know."
His eyes widened. "Really? I mean…what?"
"Joker, you don't have to hide behind your trademark bravado with me; you know that."
His face contorted for several seconds as he struggled with competing directives from his brain. Finally he sighed heavily and dropped his weight onto his arms crossed atop the bar. "But it's insane. She's not real. I know having a 'body' makes her seem more real – and god does it – but she's merely…borrowing it. She's just lines of code. No matter how funny and endearing and playful and sweet she is…Shepard, how can I be in love with lines of code?" He groaned and flung his head into his arms.
She dropped her chin to her palm as she thought it for a moment. "You know, maybe this is why AI's have always been fucked up…they're so coldly logical, so unemotional…because they lack even the most basic attachments to other entities. They are alive; they are self-aware, sentient, living beings…but they've had no anchor to the world around them…they've had no reason to care."
She chuckled lightly. "Look, in no way am I suggesting that we make you and EDI the subjects in an experiment or anything…first, we have more important things to worry about, and second, I think too highly of you both to do that to either of you. But maybe you have unwittingly discovered the answer that has eluded so many for so long, the one thing that can truly, finally bridge the gap between organic and synthetic."
He looked up at her from underneath his cap, an eyebrow raised skeptically. "I swear Commander, if you say 'love' I'm going to puke, right here, probably on your boots."
She dropped her head, laughing softly. "Thanks for the warning; I won't say 'love' then. Besides, I know none of that really matters to you, here, now. So here's what I really think. EDI is the most pure, innocent, wondrous being I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. She's far more intelligent than all of us combined, yet she's amazed and enraptured by the simple beauty of nature, the quirks of people's behavior, the meaning of life."
She smiled at him gently. "And above all that, she loves you. More than figuring out Reaper brainwaves or the most efficient route to dark space or the reason why the universal constant is what it is, she wants to understand you…and make you happy. Jeff, she's as alive as any of us – maybe more so. Consider yourself lucky that she finds you the most interesting thing in the universe."
He stared at her suspiciously for a long moment…then slowly, he began grinning. Eventually, he laughed. His shoulders straightened up – as much as they could – and he looked back at EDI, grinning. "Well okay then…thanks for the pep-talk, Shepard." He sauntered over towards EDI and eased into the chair next to her.
Shepard smiled to herself, choosing to postpone thinking too hard about the cosmic consequences for another time. Not wanting to hover over the burgeoning romance scene, she headed upstairs to get her drink.
She found James hanging out at the upstairs bar. She leaned against the bar – again – next to him. "Did you find your uncle's name on the refugee lists?"
He shook his head vaguely. "Nah…"
"I'm sorry. But don't give up hope." She glanced around and noticed Cortez sitting casually at a café table in the corner, sipping a beer. She looked back at James. "Vega, what are you doing?"
He ignored the question, instead gazing over at her and nodding appreciatively. "You know, you're looking good this evening."
She rolled her eyes. "Shut up. What are you doing?"
His eyes widened innocently. "Um…ordering a beer? Checking out the chicks?"
She smirked at him. "Right. You finally manage to get Steve off the Normandy and into an actual club, and you're over here hanging out at the bar and 'checking out the chicks'?"
He looked away uncomfortably. "I don't know what you mean. It's nice you got Esteban relaxed enough to take a little down time though, I'm good with that…"
She grabbed the remarkably large muscle of his upper arm. "James, look at me. Now I'm not sure whether you're being an idiot or you think I'm an idiot. Either way, you're smarter than that. Now what are you doing here at the bar instead of over at that table?"
"Yeah, well…" He stared out at nothing in particular. "I just don't want to…I mean, I want him to be happy again. I don't want to intrude on…memories…"
She smiled kindly at him, letting her hand fall away from his arm and to her side. "He thinks a lot of you, James. A whole lot. Start with that, and see where it goes."
He pursed his lips together for a moment, then took a long swig of the beer in his hand and nodded. "Okay, Shepard. Maybe I'll do that."
She smiled to herself, yet again, as she watched him walk back to the table where Cortez sat…then left her barely-touched drink sitting on the bar and walked downstairs and out the door.
Shepard walked into her quarters and turned to head for the shower, when something caught her eye. She walked down the stairs curiously.
Laid out on the bed was a gorgeous cocktail dress…a purple hue so deep it was almost black, simple lines, spaghetti straps crossing the low draped back. Exactly the style she had always preferred. Matching sling-back heels rested on the floor at the foot of the bed.
A note was positioned carefully atop the dress. She picked it up, a delighted smile blooming on her face as she read it.
"Presidium Pointe restaurant. 18:00 GST."She glanced at the clock, then turned and bolted for the shower.
She walked in at 18:01. Her eyes took in the candlelit, white-clothed tables, the jazz trio in the corner playing softly, the floor-to-ceiling fishtank along the back wall, the balcony overlooking Presidium Lake, as they scanned about for him…there.
He stood leaning casually against the bar, two wine glasses in hand, wearing a striking black suit over a pale blue dress shirt open at the collar. The sight took her breath away, and she stood there a moment before remembering how to move forward. As she walked towards him he turned and saw her, his eyes lighting up and the corner of his mouth pulling up in a wondrous smile.
His voice was low and breathy. "My god you are stunning…"
She grinned, eyes sparkling. "You cut quite a figure yourself."
He shrugged abashedly, handed her one of the glasses, then grasped her other hand lightly. "Come, our table is waiting for us."
She eyed him as they walked into the dining area. "I was under the impression this restaurant was booked months in advance."
"It is." They reached a table along the edge of the balcony and he pulled her chair out for her formally. "Access to the best weapons isn't the only perk to being a Spectre, you know."
She sat down and took a sip of the wine…and knew it instantly as the wine from Vancouver. She smiled at him as he sat down across from her. "Thank you for the dress, it's more beautiful than any I've owned. Though I didn't realize you were paying such close attention…before."
He returned the smile in full. "I was always paying close attention to you, Shepard. From the moment I met you, I wanted to understand everything about you."
"I…" She flushed slightly, unaccountably at a loss for words. "So what exactly is this all about, Major Alenko?"
"I just realized that we had never been on a single actual date, and thought I should take this rare opportunity to rectify that mistake."
"Well, I recall a night or two in Vancouver that seemed an awful lot like a date to me…"
He nodded slightly. "Be that as it may, you deserve at least one proper date, and a proper date you shall have. Now, please, take a look at the menu and decide what you'd like."
She shook her head, grinning, and obliged him. After the waiter had taken their orders and refilled their wine glasses, he reached across the table and grasped her hands in his, gently running a thumb across her knuckles.
"So I was thinking, and I…Graceyn, see…" He pursed his lips; god but he was bad at this. "Here's the thing…I want to – "
Her Omni-tool beeped. She frowned, pulling her hand back to look at it. "I'm sorry, I thought I muted this…hmm, Priority Red call from EDI." She turned it on. "Yes, EDI, what is it?"
"I have been monitoring Cerberus communications through the back channels I retained – "
She couldn't keep the annoyance out of her voice. "I know; what's so urgent?"
"Shepard, Cerberus knows about the Prothean artifact on Thessia."
"Fuck!" Several heads from nearby tables turned in their direction. "How? Never mind, it doesn't matter right now. EDI, recall everyone to the ship – we pull out in half an hour."
She cut the link and looked up; Kaidan had already motioned the waiter over to the table and was paying the bill. She sighed. "I'm sorry. And you were about to say something romantic…"
He smiled tenderly as they stood, leaning over and kissing her softly. "I was. But it will keep. Come on, we have to get back to the Normandy."
"Shepard, all crew members have returned to the Normandy and we are clear to depart."
She glanced at the clock and smiled. Twenty-four minutes. "Thank you, EDI. Set a course for Thessia; get us there as quickly as you can."
"Of course, Shepard. We will arrive there in approximately 6.7 hours."
Kaidan went down the stairs to the small bar and opened a bottle of wine, smiling and again handing her a glass as she joined him. "There's no reason that we can't at least somewhat continue our date, now that we're underway."
She took a sip and looked over the rim of the glass at him, eyes twinkling. "Yes…I believe when we were interrupted you were just about to be ridiculously romantic…?"
He put a hand on her waist and smiled slightly. "I was just going to tell you I loved you."
Her eyes narrowed. "No you weren't."
He chuckled lightly in resignation. "Okay, fine; I wasn't…at least, not just that. But the rest will have to wait for another, better time."
She watched him suspiciously as they sat down on the couch. "Alright, but I'm onto you…" She rested her head on his shoulder and watched the fish swim lazily about. "Listen, we should talk about tomorrow. There's something I need to ask you to do…and you're not going to like it."
"Will I need to do it in the next six hours?"
She eyed the clock. "That's a close one, but no."
He sat his glass on the table and moved his hand under her chin, gently turning it to face him. "Then ask me in the morning. For tonight, just be here with me."
She smiled, sitting her glass down beside his then draping her arms around his neck. "If you insist…"