A/N: Here's a change of pace. Takes place directly after the previous chapter. I call it...Shepard Eats Everything. Many thanks to Reklar for his help editting.
"Mmmmph. What's going on, Gardner?"
"It's morning, sir. Miss T'Soni has requested the pleasure of your company for breakfast," he grunted, voice gravelly.
I sat up, the sheets twisted around me. Gardner was in greens, apron over them. He tapped a spatula against his shoulder idly, clearly impatient. My shoulder still smarted where Jack had tattooed me.
"Since when are you my valet?" I asked, rubbing sleep from my eyes.
"I always was, Commander. You're just noticing because I live with you now."
"Ha! You noticed, eh? Well sir, you don't have a damn monopoly on self-improvement. I've been taking etiquette courses. Figure you might actually need to entertain or something. Plus, it makes my demands for a raise a lot more reasonable, seein' as I'm such a skilled member of staff. Plus, it gives me something to do. Gives me purpose."
"No one ever said otherwise..."
"I know, Commander. Just giving you a hard time. C'mon, Liara's waiting."
I grunted and rolled out of bed, pulling on a shirt. Flannel pants would have to do for Liara. I stretched, cracking my bad shoulder. I scratched myself, took a breath, and walked down the stairs.
Liara sat at the kitchen island. She looked like hell. She leaned over the glass table, bags under here eyes and chin supported by her palm. I could almost hear her eyelids thunk together as she blinked - a truly horrible hangover if I've ever seen one. She was wearing one of my old drop-troop longsleeve shirts, and one of my set of workout pants. They reached past her ankles, all of it obviously too big for her. I hadn't even heard her come in last night. There was a fluted glass in front of her, and a mug of tea. She finished the orange fluid in the flute and groaned a little. I pulled up a stool next to her. Gardner arrived, and placed a cup of coffee just how I liked in front of me - black and bitter.
"Mimosa for the Commander? Breakfast will be huevos rancheros, served in twenty minutes."
He nodded, and stepped away. Liara leaned into her palm and looked up at me.
"Remind me to never drink with my father again," she mumbled, wincing.
"That bad, huh?"
"As bad as any I've had with you, Shepherd," she managed with half a grin. She drained some more of her tea, blue skin sickly pale. Her freckles were incredibly clear on her face and hair. I reached out and wrapped my arm around her shoulders. She just sort of crumpled into me, leaning against my chest. I put my hand on top of her head, stroked it as if she had hair.
"C'mon, it can't feel that bad," I said, looking down at her.
"It is," she managed dryly. "The only sleep I have gotten has been on your couch after your entourage and Gardner let me in. I may in fact still be drunk."
I sighed, stroked her head a few more times before letting go of her, and taking a sip of my coffee.
"Which entourage might that be?"
"The fifteen-odd greenshirts ready for war outside your apartment and in the lobby. Goddess, I was lucky one recognized me and shuffled me in."
"And Gardner gave you some of my clothes to sleep in?"
"Luckily. There's a pile of my..."
Gardner arrived, ridiculous hat perched on his head. He slid two massive plates of eggs in front of us. The fried eggs rested on corn tortillas, covered in salsa, cheese, sour cream and guacamole. Refried beans were piled by the edge of the plate, along with some bacon. It smelled delicious.
"The lady's clothes should be nearly clean, actually. I took the liberty," he said as he put a mimosa in front of me.
"You've made an honest footman out of him, Shepard," Liara managed with a wince.
"Actually, I've been taking online courses from the University of New Canterbury. I figured the Commander might be a bit busy to cook for all the high-profile faces he gets into."
"You're a saint, Gardner," I managed. "Now, go grab some time for yourself. Thanks for everything."
"It's nothing new, Commander. I'll be in my quarters watching the highlights from last year's Superbowl. Just holler at Glyph if you need me."
That got a chuckle from Liara. We clinked glasses, and dug in.
"Sorry I'm late," I managed, putting one hand on Ashley's back. Her leather jacket creaked as she turned back towards me. She gave me a solid hug, and I returned it before sitting across from her in the smallish booth.
"What happened, sir?"
"Well, Liara dropped by. There's that. Plus, I had to yell at my self-appointed 'praetorian'," I said, jerking a thumb at the scowling turian wearing a beret and carrying a Phaeston. He glanced back at me, then turned back to guarding the little sports bar in Zakera that we found ourselves in.
"Cato there is actually a pretty good guy, but he insists I travel with about a dozen men."
Ash rolled her eyes and lifted her right hand. Bright pink bands of scar tissue wrapped around her ring and pinky fingers where the vat-grown parts had been reattached.
"He may have a point, Commander," she remarked wryly. Turning back to the screen, she tapped her fingers on the table. She was watching the same thing that Gardner was - last year's Superbowl. She seemed distracted.
"Penny for your thoughts?"
She smiled, easing herself back.
"When's the last time we acted like this?" she said with a cocked eyebrow, gesturing to herself. She had on a ratty old t-shirt, jeans. "I mean, I'd do anything to get out of that Goddamn dress they issued me, but...Commander, when's the last time we got to act like normal people?"
"Now, I guess," I managed, giving her a light shove. She slapped my hand away with a smirk. I caught the eye of the waitress, a female turian. She smiled shyly and stepped closer, serving tray pressed against her stomach.
"Pitcher and and two pounds of honey garlic wings, please."
She nodded and nearly hopped. Ashley squinted up at her.
"Is this your first day or something, kiddo?"
"N-No, I just mean..."
Cato coughed politely.
"She has never seen a celebrity, Commander. Attia, go get the commander his beer."
"But...but father, he hasn't told me what kind..."
Ash and I just sort of stared. Cato looked down at me, eyes narrowing.
"You simply had to choose this bar, Commander?"
"Hey, this was her idea," I said, pointing at Ash. She shrugged.
"It's not like I knew," was about all she could muster.
"Well, now you've met my daughter, Commander," he said, rolling his eyes. "I'll be outside, keeping watch."
We nodded along as the girl stood there, watching anxiously. Ash turned to her as Cato rolled his eyes and stepped back outside. The bar was nearly empty, and an elcor stayed behind to watch over us.
"Shiner, if you have it. Sam Adams if you don't," she said.
"Yes ma'am," the young turian managed. She scurried off, and I leaned back. Ash looked at me, mouth twisting into a half smile.
"You really do have all the luck, don't you Commander?" she said, putting her hands onto the table and drumming them slowly. We didn't say much until the pitcher and two tall frosted glasses arrived. She poured two tall glasses for us, with hardly any head on them.
"So, I hate to bring it up, Shepard...but could you tell me what I missed?"
"What you missed?"
"On the new Normandy. I mean, not the big events. I've read the reports. The little things."
"Well, I got into a fistfight with my XO..."
We spent almost the entire afternoon trading stories. We laughed, drank beer. Both of us ended wearing a fair amount of sauce, trading stories. We ignored the screens, just focused on each other, the stories, the good times. Eating wings. Drinking beer.
"And then...and then he breaks into showtunes as he's running the still," I gasp out, pointing at her with a drumstick. She tossed back her head, sending dark hair flying. She finished her beer and gestured for the bill.
"We oughtta do this again, Commander. I missed having you around, you know. And I'm sorry I doubted you," she said quietly. I tossed the bone in the bowl between us.
"You've said that a dozen times already, Ash. I've forgiven you. Let's move on...and get one more for the road."
"Thanks, Commander. Once this is all over..."
"Once this is all over, if we're alive, we can do this any damn time you want."
Samara stared at me evenly across the table, fingers steepled. Firelight glistened across her armor, danced in her eyes.
"This is not at all what I expected, Shepard, when you said that you had a task of some enormity for us to handle," she told me with a wry smile, eyes locking with mine. I spun my fork idly.
" Well, Gardner made the pasta fresh, and the pesto. I didn't want to clog up Anderson's fridge with the leftovers. Come on, Samara, look at how much there is!" I told her. It was true, there was entirely too much pasta for two people, much less three or five. Gardner had taken to trying to exploit his position as my majordomo by cooking lavishly and ensuring everything ran smoothly around the apartment/base of operations/mess hall. She toyed with the linguini, bringing it up rather daintily to her mouth.
"You could have simply said that you wanted to have dinner with me."
"And would you have come?" I shot back. She shrugged minutely, and took another bite before dabbing at her lips with the napkin. The fire and the candlelight was a nice change, I had to say. Gardner came by, bottle of sparkling wine in hand. His linens, along with every set Anderson owned, were now starched, pressed, and immaculate. The silverware - actual silver, no less - gleamed in our hands.
"More for the lady?" he inquired. I didn't figure him for much of a maitre'd, but...well, his domestic talents didn't really seem to have limits. She nodded demurely and lifted her champagne flute. I felt a little weird, using the Admiral's stuff, living in his home. Samara didn't seem to mind, though. She dabbed her lips once more, and set her napkin on the table. I leaned back, and without asking, Gardner set a snifter of needlessly expensive brandy in front of me.
"Would the couple care to retire to the bar area?" he asked with a half grin. Samara glanced down, and I must have blushed. She gave a small laugh, throwing her head back.
"Come, Shepard. Let us sit awhile, together. It has been a long while since I have permitted myself some time to simply socialize," she told me, standing. I put my napkin down, and grabbed the glass as Gardner began to clear the table. She sat down on the couch, looked out the window. I took a seat next to her, and we were quiet awhile. She leaned against me, hands on her lap. I tossed an arm around her, and we just sipped our drinks.
"Another life, Shepard."
"Never mind. It is good to be able to relax, that's all."
"Yeah. But I still feel like I should be out there, doing things."
"I know, Shepard. But even you require time to rest and recover. There is a time for all things, and now is our time to forget the universe a moment, enjoy the fire and each other's company. Let us make the best of it. "
The balls clacked, and I grunted. The room was thick with cigar smoke as Zaeed chalked the tip of his cue with surgical precision.
"I don't get it, old man," I told him as I circled the pool table, looking for a better shot than the obvious one.
"Ya never did, Shepard," Wrex said, taking a healthy gulp of ryncol. "Even on the old Normandy you turned a blind eye to it."
I lined up my shot and nearly sunk one of Zaeed's balls. I cursed and grabbed my beer from a turian greenshirt who was observing the game. A few more of them threw darts nearby while Grunt arm-wrestled another. My entourage and bodyguards must have made up half the bar, greenshirts lounging and drinking non-alcoholic drinks, listening in on our conversation. Oh, there were at least four of them outside, informing customers that the pool hall was closed for a private function.
"Heh. Heh heh. I get it, Shepard," Grunt managed, "And I'm five."
I pointed my cue at him.
"C'mon, Grunt. Give me a break. You HARDLY know more about women than I do."
Wrex and Zaeed looked at each other, not saying anything. Grunt did just that, and made his shot. The ball banked, and Zaeed took a sip of his gin and tonic.
"He's just sayin' that you don't see yourself like others; might be a damn fine shot, a good guy, a born leader...but you just can't see the things others do, y'hear?" he said slowly. "You've got Ash trying to rebuild her fling with you, Tali most likely plottin' the same, and you let Jack mark you. If the others ever find out about that...well, there'll be blood, mark my words, Shepard. Samara's a little sweet on you, Miranda's had eyes for you since she caught sight of your dead body, and Liara's been worshiping the ground you walked on for years. Christ Jesus, man...you broke her damn mind. Once you died, she tore the guts out of the underside of the galaxy. I'm not even going to mention the women you've met in passing."
"That's bullshit, Zaeed," I mumbled as Wrex got low on the table, a little wobbly. I really didn't have a rational argument against him. Honestly, I was just being a good guy. What was I supposed to do? Let Miranda's father hold Orinana hostage? Not tell Liara I'm alive? Not socialize with Ash?
"Oh yeah, Shep? Of those worthies I just listed, how many of them have you saved their lives more than once? What about their families? "
"What's the human expression?" Grunt asked, staring off into space. "White knight. You white knight, you charge to the rescue, and expect people to act like it's normal."
"You expect them to ask like saving their lives is no different than you washing the dishes, Shepard."
Wrex made his shot, and leaned back. He observed the table a moment, before his eyes widened.
"Speaking of women, Shepard...I have a present for you. Something to make you forget all about the girls in your life," he said, grunting and smiled to himself. He pulled out a few pads and tossed them at me, one by one. I caught them one at a time.
"What are they, Wrex?"
"Well, since you helped cure the genophage...more breeding requests."
"From krogan women?"
"Including Eve's sister. Some of the most beautiful and fertile krogan of our generation are throwing themselves at you. Take a look."
I did. And I almost immediately regretted it. The messages were lewd, crude, graphic...and often included photos. Grunt looked over my shoulder.
"Heh heh heh heh..." he managed, reaching for one pad. I slapped his scaled hand hard, and he withdrew it. I looked up at the de facto leader of the krogan race, one of my best friends. One of my oldest friends, one of the most loyal and wisest.
"This is why I drink."