A/N: Takes place moments after Shepard boards the Normandy the first time.
Hadley was right. The soup did taste like ass. I must have made a face, because Kelly smiled at me sympathetically. I had just met her, right after coming back from Freedom's Progress. My stomach was trying to eat itself, so once she made her introduction, she escorted me down to the galley. I was surprised, I guess, that we had one. The old Normandy had a ration dispenser, which is why I ate on Citadel all the time.
"Could be worse, sir."
"Don't call me sir," I said, pointing my spoon at her dramatically, "I work for a living."
She laughed, a beautiful noise. Sort of reminded me of wind chimes.
"So how are you settling in?"
"Fine, so far. She's just like the old girl, except roomier. Maybe it's because I feel like I'm missing half my crew."
"Oh?" she murmured, head tilting.
"Ash. Tali. Wrex. Garrus. Liara. I'm going to try to get them back on board."
"I heard you saw Tali at the colony. Are you alright with that?"
I remembered sardonic comments, a quick wit and sarcasm. She always did the weird stutter-step when she turned to face me. Hell, she even did down there. She stopped, looked at me, and asked me to prove it was me. When I told her about the geth data, she did about three of them before making the other quarians put down their weapons. I forced a smile.
"She had other commitments. I'm just happy she's doing well- I mean, it's not like I can make her come with me. And I'm sure I'll see her again, I guess."
She frowned a bit, looking at the thickish gravy and canned meat-in-name-only that Gardner had combined out of two different ration packs to form an unappealing sludge. He had shrugged helplessly- I think he wasn't happy that his introduction to me had been over such crappy food. I mean, it didn't make him look good and he knew he could do better than the crap he shoveled onto the tray. Hell, I hadn't eaten in two years and I wasn't in a hurry to eat it.
"Tastes bettern' it looks," I whispered. She sort of nodded, but I think she knew I was just trying to put on a brave face.
"I heard that, sir!"
"Just Gardner, sir."
"Can you cook? Actually cook?"
"Yessir! Anything from gumbo to home-made bread, coq au vin to roast boar," he called back, puffing his chest proudly. "Got a great galley here, too. Too bad Cerberus didn't spring for actual food. Might have helped more than these shitty uniforms."
I nodded, grumbling. The uniforms were crappy. Glossy, hard on the eyes. Made everyone look the same, no markings of rank or specialty. They were comfortable enough, just ugly as hell.
"So, Yeoman...how's crew morale?"
"Hasn't changed much in the last hour, Shepard."
"I meant overall. I know they're all excited and nervous. I wanted more of a rundown than that."
"It's a big change. Almost everyone here is ex-military of one flavour or another. Some colonials, some Alliance, some Merchant Marine. Not too many die-hards from Cerberus, though."
I was taken aback. The Normandy, myself...we must have been a pretty significant investment for the organization. It seemed strange that they wouldn't pack it with their best, their brightest...and their most fanatically loyal.
"That comes as something of a surprise."
"Miranda tried to get them, but a lot of assets are 'tied up'. Apparently you did quite a number on them a couple of years ago, and along with the cost of bringing you back, they haven't quite rebuilt any sort of fighting force. A lot of people were scouted from units you were in or worked with already. Some were freelancers that Cerberus already had their eyes on."
I had done quite a bit of damage, sure. But not enough to put a ding in a large criminal organization like that. Kelly's eyes stayed on her cup of coffee.
"There's something you're not telling me," I said, leaning back and crossing my arms,"and right now is a pretty piss-poor time to be keeping secrets."
"Well...you didn't hear it from me, but about six months after you died, things started happening. Bad things. Somehow, someone leaked information about Cerberus to very specific sets of people. Alliance Special Forces, asari commandos, and the Special Tasks Group started hitting all at once. Cerberus no longer has a military wing. They're about a third of the size they were before, from what I've managed to gather."
I rocked back a little. That seemed...wild. Implausible. I had fought company-size elements of Cerberus soldiers on a number of occasions. Combined drone and infantry forces, hardened bunkers. Cerberus seems to have a military unto itself at the time.
"Wow. Any idea who's behind it?"
She shook her head, copper locks flying.
"There was just spray paint on the walls: Remember Akuze. Remember this, remember that. Usually Cerberus gets warnings when the Alliance is about to strike. Someone took a lot of time and trouble to take them apart."
I sat there thinking for awhile. Who would do that sort of thing? Contacting alien governments was risky, touchy. It took serious intent and resources.
"Something else, Shepard- the attack on Lazarus Station didn't make sense. It was Wilson, for sure. But he was never flagged as a threat. I recruited him. It was easy, mostly because he had huge gambling debts to some very bad men. He was never marked as a security threat. He had no motivation to do what he did- he had his debts paid, no past with Cerberus. Bribery seems pointless, especially since security would notice. That, and he didn't have a way off the station. It almost seems like he was one of those old-timey suicide bombers, but I still can't find a reason for him to betray us."
I didn't say anything. She seemed distraught, and more importantly, she was right. There were a dozen better ways for someone who knows where the station is to take it out. It clearly wasn't a military operation. He didn't expect to come out alive, but tried anyways. Not much motivation for a bribe there. I guess I must have let my mind wander, because Kelly nudged me.
"So, what's your first stop going to be?"
"I suppose I should get that Salarian scientist."
She nodded, staring at me over her mug. It hid her mouth.
"I'm still going to try to get my own people, you know."
"I expect it. Your psych profile said you have an unusual loyalty to your crew and friends."
"And I'm going to get some decent chow for my people. It's the least I can do, blech."
"I heard that, Commander!" yelled Gardner so loud I almost dropped my spoon. Well. I guess I shouldn't have been so blunt.
Even though he did deserve it.