W/N - Just got back from Oklahoma City and the Mighty Vanguard of Freedom. Ready to get back to P90X. This is just a three part drabble filling in the time after the Battle of the Citadel and before the encounter with the Collector. Sort of a Shenko Shoreleave Shenanigan. A fine howdy and thankee to my betas Kaarlo and Joe! Many many thanks for stopping in and enjoying ME with me. Thug, no worries on the musical. I figured it was more of a chick thing.

Other Malarkey - Had my fill of bbq, country western music and two steppin'. "She was the queen of my double-wide trailer..." "Whiskey makes her clothes fall off..." Yee haw. Back to sushi and shinai.

Calm Before the Storm

The alarm in the Citadel Council Chambers rang like a gong, echoing in the cavernous halls. Staccato bursts of automatic weapons fire punctuated the ringing with an occasional grenade burst here and there. The acrid smell of burning metal hung thick in the smoke-filled air, the product of the hellish inferno that both raged and smoldered, casting a red pallor across what had been, only an hour before, the center of government for most of the known galaxy.

Geth troopers held the high ground, tracer rounds spitting from the muzzles of their pulse rifles, splattering onto the floor at the base of the grand staircase. A rocket sizzled into a cluster of 'cherry' trees, the resulting blast flinging wood and metal shrapnel around the area in a deadly shower.

Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams loved those trees. She would be pissed if she were here…if she were alive.

Bathed in the glow of the flaming trees, Lieutenant Commander Claire Shepard knelt just behind the wall leading to the bottom of the staircase. She held her fist up, stopping the advance of her small team and a ragtag band of C-Sec officers that she had rallied in the chamber. She glanced back at her force – Kaidan was right at her six, a faint blue swirl of biotic energy coating his body; Liara T'Soni was behind him with Garrus Vakarian and Tali'Zorah nar Rayya mixed in the C-Sec troops. The C-Sec group looked desperate…terrified, with jaws slack and eyes as big as saucers. Shepard could empathize with them – they were just sucker punched by the most fearsome entity in recorded history. It was a lot to wrap your brain around.

Shepard pointed right at Garrus. "Covering fire. Take out the rockets. We can handle the others."

The turian's mandibles twitched as his mouth formed a grim smile. No words were necessary and he merely gave a single nod. His three-fingered hands were wrapped around the stock and foregrip of his HMWSR sniper rifle, a gift from the commander after they saved the colony on Feros. In terms of small arms, it was the finest long-range killing tool of any sapient race.

"Okay, on three," the commander said as she focused her attention back on the Geth threat. She went through the countdown and her adrenals kicked in, firing her muscles into action. The world seemed to slow as she bolted from cover, raising the muzzle of her assault rifle towards the enemy. She placed the optics of the Spectre weapon on the head of a Geth trooper and the mass effect generator of the rifle spat specially shaped rounds into the flashlight face, shattering metal and glass. It emitted a stuttering squeak and as it crumpled to the ground. Perhaps they could feel pain. Shepard hoped so.

A storm of Geth fire erupted from the top of the staircase and tracers tore the air all around her. Her shields flashed briefly as she lined up another shot. The flames in the background helped silhouette the Geth, making targeting just a little easier. She saw another flashlight head through her optics and pressed the trigger. Its 'eye' went dark and parts of its head flew off, clanging on the ground.

"Up the stairs! Follow me!" she bellowed, taking the steps two and three at a time.

As always, it was utter chaos. Parts of a Geth trooper's body rolled down the stairs as the commander jumped over the burning hulk of a dead keeper. A deafening explosion rang in her ears and she could feel bits of shrapnel clattering off of her armor. A Geth rocket trooper poked his head up over a wall and took aim at Shepard just before a sniper round shattered his AI brain.

They were nearly at the top now. Saren had to be close and every second would count. If he opened the Conduit and the Reapers came forth…she didn't even want to think about that. More than 300 years before, Claire Shepard's ancestor charged up Cemetery Ridge in another do or die attack at a place called Gettysburg. He failed…and died.

A Geth trooper flew into the air past the commander, a victim of Kaidan Alenko's biotic strength. Nearby, a vortex of Liara's power hurled metal bodies like toys. The Geth were wavering…disorganized. Shepard could smell a breakthrough. She had a nose for battle. "Head down the right side and set up a cross fire!" she ordered and Tali took a few men over the top of the stairs and down the enemy's flank.

Then, the commander saw it – a Geth Prime. Holy Jesus it was huge. A rocket shot from one of its arms into Tali's force, detonating at the tail end of the group. The shockwave tore the legs from one of the turian officers as shrapnel cut a salarian to pieces. Tali and another turian were knocked flat. Shepard stutter-stepped towards the downed team. But, there was no time help - the Prime turned its guns on Shepard.

Its two machineguns rattled, muzzles flashing, throwing a storm of 'lead' downrange. The deep pompom of the weapon's report immediately told her that this was a high-caliber threat. Shepard dove behind the lip of the staircase, rounds pinging off of the floor and wall. A turian was caught in the open and riddled before tumbling back down the steps in a bloody mess.

"We're pinned down, commander!" called Kaidan, lying flat behind the shattered form of a Geth soldier. She could see it in his eyes…he looked scared. And, by God, she was too. This shit never got any easier.

She choked down the bile forming in her throat and forced the sounds of wailing and screaming from her ears. If they didn't keep moving it wouldn't matter. Nothing would matter…fear, anger, hate…even love. From behind his cover, Kaidan made eye contact with her. It was his eyes that always stood out for her. It was those gentle, sad eyes that played her heartstrings. This time though, she hardened her heart. Sacrifices had to be made.

"You wanna die here? Get your asses moving!" she commanded Alenko and the rest. She flung a grenade over the top of the stairs and then seized a C-Sec man by his pants and hurled him upward. "Over the top, dammit, over the top!"

The grenade spewed dark gray smoke, obscuring any targeting across a multi-spectral band. The Prime fired randomly, unable to find a victim and Shepard sprinted past the men towards the towering Geth. She could hear the zip of rounds flying past her head along with the occasional detonation of a rocket. Heat and flash caressed her armored body as she accelerated into the smoke. She caught a glimpse of Kaidan and Liara, their faces twisted in terror, charging at her side. It was a rare thing for Liara to show anything but serenity.

Shepard switched to her shotgun, exiting the smoke a meter from the Prime. She swung the muzzle down and right at the metal monster's knee. There was no need to aim at this range. A cone of buckshot fried the Prime's shields and smashed its leg into gears and servos. She lined up another shot, but, as it fell, its massive arm slammed into her. Her shot flew harmlessly into the air and she skidded across the floor like a bouncing ball.

The commander's head spun and she saw white spots dancing in front of her. As quick as she could, she leapt to her feet and swung the shotgun back into position, but something was wrong – the barrel was bent. On instinct, she dropped the broken shotgun and her right hand swept down onto her secondary. In seemingly slow motion, she could feel the retention clasp in the holster release the pistol into her grip as the weapon came free. At the same time, the Prime, lying on its side, was swinging its arm in her direction. She could see a rocket chambering into a launcher. Her stomach tightened. Her heart skipped a beat.

As the rocket motor ignited, the Prime spasmed, an orange glow sweeping over its form. The missile streaked into the wall just past Shepard, blowing a hole into the Asari Councilor's office. In the next moment, Tali jumped through the smoke and fired a blast into the Prime's face. God love Tali and her tech shit. As the quarian pumped shotgun shells into the monster, Kaidan and Liara joined her in putting the geth out of its mechanical misery.

As quickly as the chaos began, it was over. Only the gonging of the alarm and the crackling of fires could be heard. Shepard exhaled a long breath. There was only one more assault to perform…only one more hill to take. She'd be damned if this was going to be another tragic Pickett's Charge. Only one more staircase remained between them and Saren Arterius, the greatest traitor in Citadel Council history. Only a few minutes separated them from costly victory or utter destruction.

She looked at her crew. "You guys, on me," she said to the Normandy team. Looking at the others, she could see that the remaining C-Sec officers were spent. One turian had lost an arm and an asari had lost an eye. The other two were in no shape to fight. "You C-Sec officers fought bravely. I need you to stay here and keep Saren from slipping through," she told them and saw the immediate relief on their faces. They had no idea about the Reapers. Perhaps it was better that way. The truth just might be too horrifying to bear. Besides, Shepard had seen enough innocent people die today. Using them as fodder might have been tactically expedient at this point, but she was an N7, the best of the best, and doing something like that went against her code of honor…Spectre justice be damned.

As she turned to go one of the officers grasped her hand. "Commander Shepard," he said and she looked down to see a young man's face, full of shock and anger. It was Eddie Lang, the officer she'd met at the C-Sec vehicle lot. There was a deep gash across his forehead and he held his hand over a pair of bullet wounds. Blood oozed between his fingers. "Take him down, commander. Take him down," he said in a raspy voice full of pain.

She ran a hand across his face, wiping away some of the blood. "No worries, Eddie. I'll be back."

With a snap of her fingers, the team formed a tactical 'V' with Shepard at the left wing and Kaidan at the right. Garrus and the women filled in the rest of the 'V' with the turian covering the advance with his rifle. Garrus' sharp eye and steady hand had come through more times than she could count and there wasn't a single sniper in the galaxy that she'd rather have with her right now. This was her team – forged in the fires of hardship and battle, they had become as one mind, one beating heart. As they moved up the last staircase, Shepard reached out and gently squeezed Kaidan's arm. It was a quiet, gentle gesture, acknowledging his support and sacrifice...and that one, wild, wonderful night before Ilos. God, that was only a few hours ago.

He didn't even have to say anything or look at her. She knew they had to keep a sharp eye out for Saren. It was just the way his body relaxed that told her what he felt. There was a pang of guilt as she thought she may have started something that couldn't be finished. What did it matter? There was a galaxy to save.

They crested the top of the staircase and there he was, Saren Arterius. From a hovering platform, he threw a grenade that shattered part of the chamber platform, knocking the team about. Shepard scrambled for cover, her ears ringing. Somehow, she had lost her helmet. Everything seemed hazy and almost surreal and she heard Saren's voice distantly. As if on autopilot, she talked to the turian renegade, trying to coax him away from the Citadel controls. Despite his irredeemable fall, she could see the conflict in his soul.

"Some part of you must still realize this is wrong! You can fight this!" she declared to him.

Shepard saw the struggle in him and he cried out in agony as Sovereign's implants set his nerves on fire. Against all tactical soundness, she broke cover and lowered her weapon. She saw Kaidan's horrified look, but this was the time for boldness…tourjours l'audace.

"It's not over yet. You can still redeem yourself."

Saren wavered. She couldn't quite read his eyes. Turians were still tough for her to gauge in that regard. His chest heaved with ragged breaths and his hands quivered.

"Goodbye Shepard. Thank you." His pistol came up before she could react and the muzzle settled into the crook of his neck beneath the jaw. A shot rang out and Shepard saw blood and brains spray into the air over the turian's head. He staggered for a moment like an out of control puppet before crashing through a glass ceiling and onto the Council garden below.

A wave of relief flooded through her veins. She closed her eyes and ran her hand through her damp, matted hair. It was over. They quickly inputted Vigil's data file and opened the Citadel's arms. The fleet could deal with Sovereign now. One Reaper couldn't possibly fight the combined turian, asari, and human forces. And, with the arrival of the human fleet, the Destiny Ascension, the asari flagship, was saved along with the Council. Shepard smiled, but shook her head. Those freaking bureaucrats owed her. After a tense, chuckling snort, it was time to finish things and she motioned to Kaidan and Garrus. "Go make sure Saren's dead." They climbed down and fired rounds into the renegade's head and point-blank range. What an ignoble end for a once glorious warrior.

Shepard still felt hazy though, her vision dim and her tongue thick in her mouth. She shook her head to clear it, but the feeling was stubborn, clinging to her like a wet shirt. As she was licking her lips, out of nowhere, red sparks erupted everywhere and she thought it was a dream until the entire area began quaking. Tali grabbed her arm for stability, but the ground gave way and they slid uncontrollably into the garden. Waves of crimson energy bolted from Saren's body and his flesh peeled away like the skin of an onion, revealing a hideous skeleton of metal and gears beneath.

The monstrosity growled in a deep mechanized voice. "I am Sovereign and this station is mine."

The commander's skin crawled as she realized that the creature's jaw had burned away along with all traces of its organic origin. Saren Arterius was no more. As the team stood transfixed and horrified, it got down on all fours like a mutated metal cockroach and its red eyes flared at Shepard.

She screamed in terror.

"Wake up. Wake up, Claire, wake up!" It was Kaidan's voice yelling into her ear as someone shook her back and forth. Saren's ghastly form faded into blackness to be replaced by Kaidan's worried expression framed in the dim light of an alarm clock. His hand wiped a sheen of perspiration from her forehead. "You were having that nightmare again…the one about Saren."

She exhaled a long breath. "Holy shit, I can't take much more of this," she said in a voice heavy with fatigue as she rubbed the back of her neck. It had only been a few days since Sovereign had been destroyed…along with a lot of the Citadel and Shepard had been reliving it nightly.

Kaidan cupped her face with both hands. She found that she liked when he did that. He snorted with righteous indignation. "And that's why Captain…I mean Councilor Anderson forced you to take some leave. You don't fly into the heart of darkness and emerge unscathed."

"The Geth are still out there, Kaidan…and the Reapers are right behind them."

"All the more reason to recharge your batteries. You, above anyone, should know the limits of human endurance, genetic and cyber enhancements notwithstanding. And, if not, I'll refer you to Article 12 of the Alliance Navy Personnel Guidelines. With all due respect, ma'am, RTFM. Read the -"

"…Fucking manual," she finished with a chuckle. "With the consent of the ship's surgeon, a commanding officer may be temporarily relieved of command by the vessel's executive officer should both the XO and the ship's surgeon deem the CO to physically, mentally, or emotionally unfit for command. Yes, yes, I know."

Kaidan poked her on the nose with the tip of his finger. "And I, acting XO of the Normandy, do hereby temporarily relieve you of command."

Shepard shrugged, seemingly unconvinced. "I don't see Doctor Chakwas here. And besides, I was thinking of making Liara my acting XO in Pressly's absence."

He made a face that showed mock insult. "You're always banking me hard to port, aren't you?"

"That's my job, Alenko," she said and he threw his hands up in exasperation and lay back on his pillow with a plop of his head. She let out an uncharacteristic giggle at his discomfort. It was a good, if only temporary, feeling. Then, some motion caught her attention and Claire looked out of the window into the dim light beyond. "It's snowing." Her somber disposition quickly returned. She slid out of bed and across the wooden floor to the window. Her bare feet were cold, but she ignored it – a little chill shouldn't bother her when so many had perished for her cause. She stifled a shiver.

"Well, it is nearly Christmas in New England."

"Christmas…," she said distantly as if the word were foreign. "I use to enjoy the occasional holiday in this house. My parents kept this place for the rare times in which we weren't in space." A faint smile eased onto her lips as a couple of fond memories flitted through her mind.

Kaidan glanced around nervously as if looking for something on the wall. "Remind me again what your dad does for a living."

Claire blew a breath on the window pane, leaving a coat of steam. As if in a dream, she vacantly placed the palm of her hand on the pane and wiped it off. "He's the Director of Alliance Intelligence, but don't worry, this place isn't bugged. He already knows I'm screwing my squad leader."

Kaidan about flew out of bed. "What?" It was as if her dad had just walked in on them.

Shepard snorted and made a broad smirk. "He wouldn't be worth his salt if he didn't know." This time, she couldn't stifle the shiver. Then, she felt warm arms slide around her waist and across her belly. She was surprised that she didn't hear Kaidan get out of bed with her enhanced hearing and all. Her mind was elsewhere. She felt his chest against her back and her bare bottom pressed against his…. Her eyes popped open wide. What better way to keep her mind off of the recent madness? "Well, Merry Christmas to you," she cooed as they meandered back to bed.

CODEX

Secondary – military and law enforcement term for a second weapon, generally a pistol.

Pickett's Charge – Confederate attack on the Union entrenched positions during the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the US Civil War. Resulted in the decimation of Pickett's Division and the decisive defeat of General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, which turned the tide of the war.