1. Cousin Zoe

First Lieutenant Hayley Storm, callsign Hailstorm sits at the table in the Normandy'smess hall, addressing the vid recorder sitting on the table before her. She's in the process of replying to the latest in a string of vidmail messages from her overly-excitable cousin Zoe. Ever since word of her transfer to the Normandy had made it beyond Storm's immediate family, Zoe had bombarded her with questions about her new posting.

Actually, most of Zoe's questions are about one thing in particular - Commander Shepard, Storm's CO and First Human Spectre. Cue fanfare and ticker tape parade Storm thinks wryly. Shepard's actions during the Geth War and her hunt for the rogue - and now very dead - Spectre Saren Arterius have become the stuff of legend, shamelessly exploited by the politicians to improve Humanity's standing among the other Council races. As a side effect of Shepard's heroics, enlistment in the Systems Alliance military is up. Way up. Particularly from the 'lower socio-economic' areas of Earth. People from the wrong side of the tracks, in other words. Storm wonders how Shepard handles it all: the weight of expectation and being used as some symbol by the politicians.

With a sigh, Storm leans in closer to the vid recorder; the recorder's lens whirs slightly as it keeps her in focus. Behind her she can hear booted footfalls on the deck; somebody else arriving in the mess. Time to wrap this up, she thinks.

"To answer your questions, yes Commander Shepard is as tall as she looks in the vids," Storm rolls her eyes "And no she doesn't lean that way. See you soon, Zoe," with that, Storm ends the recording and sits back shaking her head.

Gunnery Chief Williams, the owner of the booted footfalls takes a seat opposite Hailstorm, eyebrows raised slightly. "Commander Shepard doesn't lean which way, Ma'am?" she asks, placing a mug of coffee before her. Steam rises from the chipped ceramic mug and Williams blows gently on the black coffee before taking a sip.

Hailstorm smiles slightly. She gets on well with Williams, the other woman reminding her of a less screwed-up version of herself. Both women are close to their families and once started on the subject, it's difficult to get them to shut up. "That was my cousin Zoe. She's a little bit obsessed with the Commander."

"Obsessed how?" Williams asks, before taking another sip of coffee.

"She wants to have Shepard's babies," Storm deadpans just as Williams raises the mug to her lips. Williams chokes on her coffee and a fine mist of caffeinated beverage sprays from her lips over the table top.

Coughing, Williams slaps the mug back down, spilling more coffee. "She wants to do what with who?" she finally manages to gasp.

A smile playing over her lips, Storm says "Zoe wants to have Shepard's children. It's kinda sweet...in a perverse way."

Williams sits back in her seat, a look of stark disbelief on her face. "How would that even work?" she asks, tone of voice betraying shock.

Storm shrugs and absently traces the tip of her right index finger in random shapes through the spilled coffee. "Hypothetically," she begins, looking at the patterns drawn by her finger, "You'd extract an egg from the Commander, artificially inseminate it, implant it in Cousin Zoe and nine months later," Storm spreads her hands apart, "The Miracle of Childbirth."

Williams just stares blankly at Lieutenant Storm for several seconds before replying, "That is wrong. On so many levels." Standing, Williams retrieves a damp dishcloth from next to the food dispenser and uses it to mop up the spilled coffee, obliterating Storm's masterpiece in the process.

"Hey, I wasn't done with that yet!" Hailstorm protests. Williams shrugs apologetically before she leaves. Storm lets her go before retrieving her vid recorder and making for the elevator that connects the main deck to the garage.

She's met at the elevator by the very subject of her recent discourse with Williams.

"Commander," she salutes Shepard. Shepard returns the salute and presses the green-glowing control panel. The elevator seems to emit an almost tired-sounding sigh as the doors open, heralding the elevator journey that doesn't actually take twenty minutes, it just feels as though it does.

Most advanced, fastest ship in the fleet yet she has the slowest elevator Storm thinks as she and Shepard step inside the vacant elevator car.

"Up for another sparring session, Lieutenant?" Shepard asks, glancing briefly at the younger officer. The one on one unarmed combat sessions are ostensibly used to supplement the exercise routines of the Normandy's marines and crew. After all, there are only so many times you can bench-press your own body weight before the exercise becomes mind-numbing.

Of course, the true objective of the sparring sessions is to establish who among the ship's personnel is the best scrapper. Somewhat surprisingly, in Storm's view, it isn't Shepard. Williams either for that matter. Private Fredericks currently holds the championship belt. Or he would, if such a thing existed.

Absently Storm rubs her cheekbone where a bruise is fading to a yellowish green. "Gee, I don't know, Commander," she says dryly. "I already look like a victim of spousal abuse. On the other hand, I do owe you a few hits."

The two officers exit from the elevator, stepping into the Normandy's garage. Parked against the starboard bulkhead is the M35 Mako used to deliver the shore party to its objectives during combat. The M35 is the bane of Storm's existence - the steering is exceedingly twitchy at high speeds and the suspension tends to jostle the crew in their seats an excessive amount. Despite trying different suspension settings and installing updates to the electronic stability program, the Mako remains twitchy as ever.

"One of these days, that thing will get us killed," Storm has told Shepard on more than one occasion.

The Commander merely shrugged, "We all gotta die sometime, Hailstorm," she replied.

"Uh huh," Storm nodded, "I'd kinda like to avoid death by fishtailing into a boulder the size of my parents' house, Ma'am."

Presently Shepard and the younger woman step inside the yellow circle spray painted onto the grey decking of the garage. The rules are simple: no eye-gouging or hitting below the belt. Beyond that, anything goes.

As always, a small crowd gathers outside the Circle of Death as it's come to be known, to observe the two combatants. "What is it about watching two women fighting that gets men so excited, do you think?" Storm asks, observing the various crew members as she steps into the circle.

"Heh, too bad we can't get giant tub of jelly in here," Fredericks cracks. His buddies guffaw and slap him on the shoulder.

Storm and Shepard begin slowly circling one another, lashing out with a feint here and there to test the other's defenses. Storm fakes a right hook at Shepard's head and, as the Commander raises her arms to block the phantom blow, Storm snaps out a kick that connects solidly with Shepard's ribs, knocking her back a few paces and eliciting oohs and aahs from the onlookers.

Shepard nods at Storm before unleashing a volley of kicks and punches that Storm is only barely able to block. Shepard forces her back to the edge of the circle, almost pushing her out of it which would grant her victory by default.

For the next several minutes, the two combatants trade blows. Even after mentally reviewing her actions afterwards, Storm isn't quite sure how she managed it but somehow, she grabs hold of Shepard and dislocates her right shoulder. Upon hearing the pop, the crowd falls silent. The silence is broken only by the heavy respiration of the women...and the cry of pain that Shepard isn't quite able to hold back.

"Oh!" she gasps, falling to her knees.

Oh dear God, I broke the Commander, a mortified Hailstorm thinks.

"Oooh, that's gotta hurt," Fredericks says, giving voice to the crowd's collective thought.

Storm whirls to face him, "Get the doctor!" she barks. Fredericks nods and double-times it to the elevator.

"Commander?" Storm tentatively asks, crouching before the other woman. Shepard looks up at her, face white with pain, rivulets of perspiration running from her hairline and down her face like tears.

"Nicely done, Hayles," Shepard manages to get out past clenched teeth.

"I am so sorry!" Storm babbles.

"Why? You achieved your objective. OK so you busted my arm but.." Shepard shrugs with her other shoulder.

"What's taking the doc so long?" Williams asks.

"The friggin' elevator's probably still going," Mike the Requisitions Officer says.

"Lieutenant, be a sweetheart and pop my arm back in, would you?" Shepard says, breathing rapidly through her nose.

"Uh...OK." Storm gently takes hold of the Commander and says, "On three. One...three!" before resetting the shoulder joint.

Shepard tosses her head back, droplets of perspiration flying and voices a pained shriek. "What the hell?" she gasps.

"I said on three," Storm shrugs; Shepard glares at her, cradling her right arm in her other hand. The elevator doors wheeze open and Dr Chakwas arrives, accompanied by Fredericks.

"You missed 'two,'" Shepard grinds out before turning to face the doctor. "So good of you to arrive so quickly."

Chakwas ignores the jibe and waves the Lieutenant away. "What have you done to yourself now, Commander?" she asks in her dry voice.

"It's my fault," Storm says in a small voice. This is worse than the time she broke her mother's Ming vase. The doctor eyes her then returns her attention to the Commander.

"Well, whoever put the arm back into place did a good job."

"Me, again," Storm replies, face turning red. Chakwas nods.

"Good job, Lieutenant. I'll make a field medic out of you yet."

"This is all very pleasant but could somebody please shoot me up with some drugs, now?" Shepard mutters. Chakwas and Storm trade glances before they help the Commander to her feet.

The crew give Shepard, Storm and Chakwas plenty of concerned looks as the trio make their way to the medbay. With a sigh, Shepard slumps against an exam table. Storm hovers nervously near the door. "Should I leave now?"

Chakwas eyes the young woman coolly. Skin still moist from her recent exertions and flushed with embarrassment, regulation-length blonde hair lying damply across her forehead, fading bruises on her face. "When I say I'll make a field medic of you, I meant it, Lieutenant," Chakwas explains and nods in the direction of a supply cabinet mounted on the bulkhead. "Fetch me a sling."

Storm nods and moves to retrieve the item. Chakwas turns to her unwilling patient. "I'm fine," Shepard says, "I don't need anything else."

Chakwas merely prods Shepard in the right shoulder and nods as Shepard hisses in pain. "Yes," she says in her dry British accent, "You're completely combat-ready and your performance isn't at all compromised. Until further notice, I'm pulling you from the combat roster, Commander."

"Oh no," Storm whispers as she hands Chakwas the sling.

"Like hell you are!" Shepard barks.

Chakwas folds her arms over her chest and eyes Shepard like a nanny disappointed in an errant child. "You may be the CO of this vessel but this is a medical issue and as far as medical issues go, I am God."

Shepard's lips pull back from her teeth in an unconscious snarl before she slumps in defeat. "For how long?" she eventually says without looking up at the medic.

"Until I say otherwise. I'm sure the Lieutenant here is quite capable of leading the shore party should it become necessary."

For her part, Hailstorm says nothing. She merely stands back and wishes she were elsewhere. Anywhere else. Knee-deep in batarians, even. She turns to Shepard when the Commander addresses her. "Storm, head up to the bridge and confirm that we're still on schedule to arrive at the Citadel." Storm nods; Shepard could easily raise Joker on the comm but she's offering her the chance to make a dignified exit.

Before she leaves the Commander, her arm now in the sling, she says "I'm truly sorry, Ma'am...I was in a bit of a zone, you know?" Shepard nods wordlessly, knowing Storm will mentally flagellate herself plenty over this. That's what makes Storm such a good officer, Shepard thinks: she cares about those under her command. Of course, sometimes, she cares too much.

---

Flight Lieutenant Jeff "Joker" Moreau looked up as the tall First Lieutenant stepped up beside his station. "So I heard you broke the Commander's arm?" he said, a sardonic smile playing over his bearded features.

Storm frowned, a line appearing in her otherwise smooth forehead. "Right, I forgot you spend your life practically plugged into the grapevine," she said, her mood dark. Storm shoved her hands into the pockets of her fatigues, feeling tired. "Anyway, it was only dislocated. Chakwas took her off active duty though."

"Oh man," Joker said cheerfully, "Are you in the shit." Joker turned back to his warmly glowing control consoles. A practiced left to right sweep told him all systems were steady. Outside the forward viewports was a riot of reds shifting into blues and back again as the Normandy flew at FTL speeds through space towards her destination. The Citadel Council had summoned Shepard for a briefing and the crew had also been granted a week-long leave on the Citadel while Shepard played politics in the Tower.

"We still on schedule?" Storm asked. Joker turned a withering stare on her, as though asking if they were still due to arrive when they were due to arrive were an affront to his personal honour.

"Yes, Lieutenant, we are still on schedule."

"Good, at least I can give Shepard some good news," Storm said, morose.

When Joker spoke again, his tone was softer, "Hey, I don't normally do this 'heart to heart' thing but you really need to quit beating yourself up over this. So you pulled Shepard's arm out of its socket? Big deal. She's been shot, stabbed, almost blown up and had a gigantic piece of alien ship fall on her. To be perfectly blunt, Storm, your attempts at inflicting bodily injury on Shepard are pretty pedestrian."

"And this is supposed to make me feel better?" Storm quipped with a smile.

Joker shrugged and turned back to his displays. "Like I said...heart to heart isn't my thing."

"So I'm noticing," Storm said and gestured to the vacant co-pilot's chair. "Mind if I sit?"

"You gonna start backseat-driving?"

"No, but I might put my feet up on your consoles. They look so shiny and inviting, don't they?" Storm smirked as she settled herself into the seat. Joker just turned that withering look on her again. "So, what are your plans for shore leave?" Storm asked, eyeing the displays. Flight operations were beyond her but her engineering training gave her the insight to divine what the various amber-glowing holo-displays meant. Everything was reassuringly normal.

"That your less than subtle way of coming onto me, Hailstorm?" Joker asked, giving her a sidelong glance.

Storm rolled her eyes, "Yes, Jeffrey. I am madly in love with you, have been since the moment our eyes first met across the mess-table and I just can't hold it in anymore! Take me now!" she said in a breathy little voice, batting her eyelashes furiously.

Joker snorted, "A simple 'get lost, Moreau' would have sufficed, you know."

"Seriously though, you're not spending a week-long leave on the ship, are you?"

Joker tapped the metal leg braces, that, along with his crutches allowed him to walk unaided. "I kinda have mobility issues. That and I hate the teeming hordes."

Storm shrugged. "If you change your mind and need company..." she trailed off.

"...then I'll book a session at the Consort's chambers," Joker finished.

Storm just shook her head, brushing aside a strand of hair. "Only you could manage to work prostitutes into a conversation so effortlessly."

"Now that was uncalled for, Storm," Joker admonished, wagging a finger at her. "The Consort's acolytes are a galaxy apart from simple hookers."

Storm nodded. "Of course. Class is everything. Be seeing you, Moreau," she said and rose from her seat. Joker touched two fingers to his forehead in salute as she left.

---

The Normandy settles smoothly into her berth, docking clamps embracing her hull like the arms of a long-lost lover. The vessel's airlock cycles open and members of her crew and marine detachment begin filing out to enjoy their week of leave, Gunnery Chief Williams and Hailstorm at the forefront.

Shepard is among the last to leave the ship. She's in dress uniform for this oh-so-important session with the Council. Rows of medals and ribbons are pinned to the uniform jacket, the Star of Terra awarded to her after the Geth War, among them. Her right arm hangs suspended in its sling. With a long-suffering sigh, Shepard boards the elevator. Times like this, she wonders what possessed her to become an officer in the first place. I'd be happier right now in Williams' position. Then she shakes her head briskly enough that a strand of black hair comes loose and falls across her forehead. "You are what you are and wishing things were different won't help anything," she tells herself. A sardonic voice from inside her head whispers, Of course, O Wise One.

The elevator doors open to reveal the C-Sec Academy and uniformed officers going about their business. Dodging around cops, perps and witnesses to various crimes, Shepard makes for the rapid transit terminal and punches in her destination: the Tower. "Once more into the breach, dear friends," she says to herself as the transit car arrives.

Meanwhile, First Lieutenant Storm accompanied by Gunnery Chief Williams decide to visit Flux. The reason for this is twofold: Flux is a somewhat less shady place than Chora's Den and they're less likely to be embroiled in somebody else's shootout and Chora's itself, according to the newsvids has been temporarily closed down following a raid in the last week.

"No great loss," Williams says as she and the LT settle into another transit car.

"So, drinks, gambling or dancing?" Storm asks as their transport zips through the Citadel's artificial skyline towards the Wards.

"Pardon?" Williams looks quizically at her.

"When we get to Flux," Storm explains, "Do you want to get some drinks, hit the Quasar machines or bust a move on the dance-floor?"

"Dance?" Williams looks down at her boots, "In these?"

"Fair point," Storm concedes as the transit car settles to a gentle stop outside Flux.