Author's Note (2011/05/01): There have been some major revisions to the first four chapters, which I feel make the entire rest of the story read better. I hope you enjoy!
Standing in the mess hall, leaning against the counter while waiting for coffee to finish brewing, Commander Alice Shepard marveled at how quiet the Normandy seemed. She mused that Tali would say that for a spaceship it was always quiet, too quiet, that on a quarian ship quiet meant that there was a mechanical failure and you were all about to die. With the engines off and half the crew having departed for shore leave, even to Alice it had begun to feel very quiet. Aside from her, at the moment nobody was in the mess, and why would they be? For going on ten weeks now (or was it eleven?) the crew had to make due with nothing but Alliance provisions for food and each other for company. Funny, she thought, that when they finally managed to find enough time between missions to take a full night of leave, most of the crew wound up spending that time together anyway.
Albeit anywhere but here, though, she thought with a grin. Having been born and raised planetside, she appreciated the draw of getting off of the ship, of breathing un-recycled air, of standing on solid ground, smelling the scents and hearing the sounds of a living world. The semi-regular ground missions that she led were a welcome reprieve from the confines of the Alliance ship on which she now stood – the design of which had obviously valued military precision and efficiency over creature comforts – but they were still no substitute for an honest-to-God night without duty.
Alice sighed. Of course, wanting a night without duty didn't make it so. She was the Commander, the one in charge. In her eyes, that left very little room for relaxation.
When she heard the hiss of a door sliding open nearby, she froze and held her breath, as though by not moving she'd somehow become invisible to whoever was about to step through the door. Not that she really needed to hide from anyone, she simply wanted to avoid the question that she'd already been asked a dozen times so far tonight. Two of the engineering crew walked out of the elevator, one of them turning and smiling at her.
"Hey Commander," he called out, waving. His name was Crosby, or maybe it was Felawa… Given how much time she spent in engineering chatting with Tali she really felt that should have memorized everyone's name by now… "You hitting the town tonight?" he asked.
Alice fought back the urge to roll her eyes. So far everyone she had come across tonight had asked her that question in one form or another, and much as she'd like to reply in the affirmative – if only to shake things up – it wasn't going to happen. "Nah, not tonight, Crosby. You and Chase have fun out there," she took a shot with the names, hoping she wouldn't embarrass herself. "Just don't get into too much trouble. I'm not bailing anyone out of jail this time," she added with a wink.
Both men smiled. "We'll try, Commander. By the way, Chief Williams is looking for you. If I see her, I'll send her your way," Crosby mentioned with a wave goodbye.
Alice returned the wave as a sinking feeling entered her stomach. Chief Williams – Ashley, as the weeks had gone by – had been Alice's most vociferous advocate for going out tonight. That likely had more than a little to do with the possibility that Liara was planning on joining Ashley and the rest of the ground crew for drinks and dancing at a local club. Ever since Alice had – accidentally – mentioned to the Gunnery Chief that she felt a connection with Liara, Ash had been so aggravatingly helpful in trying to get the two of them together in some form or another.
But it's not going to happen, Alice thought to herself. Not tonight. And probably not ever, so long as you're the Commander…
She turned as the coffee machine let out a little *clack*, indicating it had finished its brew cycle. She briefly wondered if something a little more audible – like a blaring klaxon, complete with flashing lights and buzzers – would be more appropriate of a signal for fresh coffee, given how quickly the crew managed to go through the stuff. She smiled at the thought and poured herself a mug from the virginal pot, preparing herself for the rest of the night.
Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams stood in the hallway leading to the crew quarters. Most of the crew of the Normandy had already gone to ground for shore leave for the night, a fact that caused her impatience to rise. She'd been waiting for a night like this for weeks, and she didn't want a single minute to be wasted just 'cause some of the crew couldn't get dressed fast enough. She brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face, another reminder of the lengths she was going to in tonight. Her hair, normally pulled back in a tight bun, had been unleashed in all its long, wavy glory. Not something she'd ever allow in the field, but that's what nights like tonight were for. Still, having the hair brushing against her neck and shoulders had nearly driven her nuts, so she compromised by loosely pinning most of it back, leaving a few strands to frame her face and bother her occasionally by blocking her line of sight. She grumbled and crossed her arms, leaving heavily against the door jamb.
"Hey LT!" she called out over her shoulder. "You done powdering your nose, yet? I wanna go!"
She turned her head as the door opened and Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko stepped out, hands meticulously teasing his hair. Ashley casually eyed his physique through the loose-fitting dark blue shirt and far more form-hugging dark pants.
"Not bad, LT," she remarked with a grin.
Kaidan turned at the voice and noticed for the first time Ashley's attire. His eyes widened slightly as he took in the sight. Gone was the armor, replaced with a snug, single-shouldered black tank-top and a long lavender skirt, cut so that the way she was leaning revealed a fair amount of her thigh. Her combat boots – armored and no-nonsense – had been replaced with black leather and high heels. The outfit certainly highlighted the finer features of her well-toned soldier's body. Coupled with the casual hairstyle she looked… pretty damn good.
"Wow," was all he could manage, eyes still scanning her.
"Damn right, wow!" Ashley haughtily smirked. "I bring it! And I just so happen to bring it faster than others…" She eyeballed his hands, still entangled in his hair. "You gonna mess with your hair all night, LT? You know some girl's just gonna run her fingers through it first chance she gets and all that work will be for nothing!"
"I think if she's running her hands through my hair, all that work will have paid off," he corrected with a small smile before self-consciously dropping his hands to his side. "Sorry I took so long, though. Not all of us can get ready as fast as you can."
"Fast?" Ashley balked, placing a hand on her hip. "I grew up with three sisters and one bathroom. Fast doesn't cut it. I could set records and still look this good!" She added, wagging a finger in his face.
"Ah, good. I was worried that I would make everyone late," came a soft voice from the other end of the hallway. Ashley and Kaidan turned to see Liara T'Soni making her way towards them.
Ashley's eyes scanned Liara. She had doffed her green and white scientist's lab suit, which Ashley always found a little too demure, even for someone as introverted as Liara. However, she had chosen to replace it with a floor-length dress with a high neck and long, full-length gloves which, much to Ashley's amusement, wound up covering even MORE skin than usual. Still, the shimmering, silvery material – with its dark blue accents – played well against her pale blue skin, and hugged her curves in some rather surprising ways, offering an obvious if a bit restrained sense of sexuality. Modest, but sexy. Two words that Ashley thought that a certain someone would agree described the good doctor quite well.
"Looking good, T'Soni!" Ashley grinned. "And you're right on time, we were just getting ready to head up."
"Thank you, Chief Williams," Liara said, self-consciously looking down at her outfit. "I hope that my attire is appropriate for the evening. You had mentioned that I should wear something 'scandalous,' but I am afraid my options were somewhat limited."
Kaidan shot an unamused look toward Ashley, who simply smiled and shrugged slightly. "Don't worry about it, Liara, you look fine," he said in a conciliatory voice. "Shall we head up to the bridge?"
"Yeah, Ashley said, as they began to make their way down the hallway. "Vakarian should already be upstairs, and—"
"Hang on, Garrus got ready before you?" Kaidan stopped her, smirking. "What was all that about 'setting records,' Ash?"
"Human records, LT! He's a turian, and a guy to boot! He doesn't have to deal with hair or any…" she trailed off as she caught sight of Tali disappearing around the corner. She gasped, eyes widening as a wicked grin crept across her face. "Hold tight! I'll be right back!" she said before dashing off after the quarian.
Liara watched as Ashley disappeared around the corner, leaving her standing alone with Kaidan. She turned her head towards the Lieutenant, who averted his gaze, slowly shifting his weight back and forth on his feet. After having lived with humans for several weeks, Liara had at last begun to be able to discern their body language, and she could see that Kaidan was uncomfortable. The ship was even quieter than usual, missing most of the subtle noises that having a full complement of crew on-board would provide. She understood that humans tended to dislike silence, though perhaps that was more silence between two people rather than general quietness of one's surroundings. Having worked for several decades on her own, she was used to silence, to not having to speak, or at least not having anyone to speak to. At the present, though, she felt a strange sense of tension between her and the Lieutenant, and she briefly wondered whether her own expressions of interest in their Commander had somehow butted up against some unspoken feelings that Kaidan had. Despite her comfort in the quiet, she felt compelled to break the silence.
"Lieutenant," she began.
"Have you been to this club that we will be going to tonight? I believe it is called—"
"Apex, yeah," he responded with a nod. "Ah… no, I haven't been off-ship since we docked. Ash found out about it while we were getting ready to land."
And just like that, the conversation was over, and the quiet returned. She wasn't sure why she thought such a simple question would result in conversation. Unsure how to proceed, she traced her fingertips along her thigh, hoping that the sensation of the material against her skin would provide a sufficient distraction. It didn't help much.
If the Lieutenant did in fact harbor feelings for Shepard, he hadn't mentioned them, either to her or to the Commander, so speaking about that directly felt a bit presumptuous. On the other hand, the silence was beginning to bother even her. She had to say something.
"Do you know who will be joining us tonight?"
Kaidan crossed his arms. "Well, there's you, me and Ash, then Garrus," he turned his eyes down the hallway toward where Ashley had gone. "And if I know Ash, any minute she'll be dragging Tali along, whether she like it or not. I also think I heard she managed to convince Wrex to come out, too."
"Will Shepard be…" she blurted out before she could properly think. She tightened her throat, desperately wishing she could somehow pull the words back into her mouth before they reached his ears.
"I, ah…" he glanced out of the corner of his eye at Liara, hesitating. "I don't know. Ash said that the last time they talked, it sounded like she hadn't decided yet, but was leaning towards not…"
Oh well done, Liara, she scolded herself. You've managed to fail quite spectacularly at avoiding a potentially sensitive subject. Your mother would be SO proud…
Liara nodded, looking dejectedly at her feet, feeling both the regret for her words and more than a twinge of disappointment about hearing that Shepard would not be joining them. "I see."
"Yeah…" Kaidan quietly responded, bringing a hand to his face and pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingertips. "Yeah…"
Hurrying along the winding path towards the elevator which would take her towards the engineering bay, Tali did her best to pretend that she couldn't hear her name being called, that Ashley wasn't chasing her down in those high-heeled boots that she had seen human women sometimes wear. She hastily shifted the container of spare parts that she was carrying to her hip and pressed the controls to call the elevator.
"Come on, come on, come on, come on," she quietly whispered to herself, quickly mashing her palm against the controls.
"Tali!" Ashley came rushing towards her, heels clicking loudly against the metal floor. Her eyes were wide and her lips were pulled back in a smile as she pushed her way around to face Tali. "Tali, you have to come out with us!"
"I don't know…" Tali said, shaking her head, trying to avoid looking at Ashley. "I—"
"Oh come on, I've never seen a drunk quarian before!" Ashley cut her off.
"I think I'd rather—"
"Quarians can get drunk, right?"
"Well… yes… but I don't think—"
"Eh, you won't have to think, that's what I'm here for!"
"Do you have a change of clothes?" Ashley stepped back and looked Tali over.
"What's wrong with my… This is my enviro-suit, I cannot cha—"
"Hm, you know what?" Ashley said, waving off the thought. "You won't even need to change. Just wiggle those hips a little and I'm sure plenty of guys will—"
Tali's eyes went wide. "What?" She looked down at her body. "My hips—"
"Come on, throw out that junk and meet us on the bridge in five." Ashley maneuvered around Tali and patted her on the shoulder.
"This isn't junk," Tali balked, looking at the box of parts. "These can still be—"
Ashley, not listening, called out over her shoulder with a little wave. "Five minutes, Tali!"
Tali dejectedly let her shoulders slump. As the clop-clop of Ashley's high heels faded away, the elevator doors finally slid open.
"Thanks a lot," she grumbled as she stepped inside. She made sure to slap the controls extra hard in retaliation.
Jeff "Joker" Moreau slouched in the pilot's seat at the head of the Normandy, absent-mindedly dragging a finger along the short growth of hair on his bearded chin that rested in his hand. He watched with glazed-over eyes the orange lines of text scroll by on one of the several holo-consoles arranged before him. He drummed his fingers on the armrest until a green light blinked happily at him, indicating that the diagnostic program had completed successfully, and no issues had been found.
Whoop dee-doo, he thought to himself with a sigh. That program was one of at least a dozen more that he'd have to run tonight. Then he'd have to go through the results of each one and file an associated report, send them off to the Commander for review, and THEN… and then he'd get to start on the next batch. He flicked the results toward the bottom of the console, adding it to the growing pile of mindless busywork that would likely keep him in that seat for the rest of the night when he damn well could be going out with the rest of the ground crew.
"I can't believe you guys are making me stay on the ship tonight…" he complained as he angrily adjusted the black ballcap on his head. "We're not even flying, what are you gonna need a pilot for, anyway?" He spun his seat around to face Garrus Vakarian.
The turian, leaning against the bulkhead nearest the airlock, nonchalantly turned his head towards the frustrated pilot and offered a shrug. "You're the one who wanted to draw straws…"
"Yeah," Joker nodded, "when I thought I'd win! I still say you guys rigged it, somehow…"
Garrus' mandibles pulled back in a chitinous turian grin as he chuckled at Joker's frustration
"You know how long it's been since I've had a decent drink?" Joker continued as he stared out the viewport. He cupped his hands before him, looking at them longingly. "Or been able to rub my face in a decent pair of—"
"Exactly what kind of club do you think they're going to, Joker?" came a response floating from the hallway behind him. Garrus and Joker both turned to see their Alice sauntering towards them. She grinned a lopsided grin and brought up a hand to brush her dark red hair back behind her ear.
"Well, obviously I don't know, Commander… But I'm sure there's a better chance of this," he cupped his hands in front of him again, "happening out there," he pointed out the viewport, "rather than in here," he finished, gesturing at the consoles behind him, blinking as they eagerly awaited the start of next diagnostic program.
Alice smirked, placing a hand on her hip. "Well, unless you can convince Garrus to draw straws again…" she said, jerking her head at the turian beside her.
Garrus smiled as he shook his head and held his hands up defensively. "I think I've pressed my luck far enough for one night."
Alice shrugged. "Then I guess you and I have got a date with data tonight," she brought up the datapad she'd been holding and gave it a waggle.
"Fine…" Joker sulked, turning back to his terminal.
Garrus turned his head in her direction. "Still planning on staying back tonight, Shepard?"
"Yeah…" she said, growing somewhat tired of hearing the question. "You guys go and have your fun. You need it."
"Are you sure? You probably have at least two more hours before Lieutenant Alenko and his hair are ready. Should give you plenty of time to make yourself presentable."
Alice's smirk widened once more. "What, standard-issue Alliance uniforms aren't in fashion anymore?" she joked, striking a pose.
"Well," he said, looking her over. "I'm no expert on human attire, but…"
"Aww, you're not dressed!" Ashley moaned as she caught sight of Alice.
Garrus chuckled. "Apparently they're not."
Alice turned to behold the transformed Gunnery Chief in her 'going out' attire. Hair down, skirt up, she'd gotten so used to seeing Ashley in her hardsuit or her casual fatigues that the woman was almost unrecognizable. Close behind her was Kaidan, hair – of course – perfectly coiffed, looking every bit like the quintessential handsome Alliance officer on a night out. Next to him was Liara who, though nearly covered from head to toe, managed to exude a certain… something which caused her face to suddenly feel very warm.
"Still haven't changed your mind about coming?" Ashley asked, raising her eyebrows hopefully.
Alice brushed the question away with a gesture. "I'm sure the last thing you guys need on your first night out in weeks is your C-O hanging around while you get blitzed."
"We always enjoy your company, Shepard," Liara commented warmly. "And tonight is your first night out in weeks, as well."
"See?" Ashley exclaimed, giving Alice a devious look. "T'Soni thinks you should join us!"
Alice shook her head and cast a wistful look in Liara's direction, letting out a small sigh as she did so. "I… ah… I really should stay with the ship tonight," she apologized.
"Fine…" Ashley moaned, frowning. Liara lowered her gaze, looking disappointed.
"Five minutes, as requested," Tali said, letting out an audible sigh as she walked up behind the group. Wrex came lumbering in close behind her.
"Wow," Alice said, clearly impressed. "Tali and Wrex? How'd Ash convince you two into going out with them?"
Wrex shrugged. "Ryncol."
Tali shook her head. "Force."
Alice grinned at her motley crew. The gathering just before going out was one of the times she remembered most fondly during her 'wilder' days. Everyone would be dressed to kill, anticipation would be high, and all thoughts about the day before and the day after would be forgotten starting at that moment.
"Alright!" Ashley said, clapping her hands together. "Before we go, I'm taking bets on who's gonna be the bigger lightweight, T'Soni or Tali?"
Kaidan shot Ashley another withering look. "Alright… Let's just move out," he said, shooing the crew toward the airlock.
As everyone shuffled out, Liara glanced over her shoulder and, with a small smile, waved goodbye to Alice. Alice returned the smile and waved back.
"Ash, hold up!" Joker called out. "Gimme 20 creds on Liara being the first one under the table…"
"You got it, flyboy!" Ashley said, winking.
Shepard rolled her eyes and looked toward Garrus. "Make sure they don't get into too much trouble."
Garrus smiled and offered a little salute. "Aye aye, Commander."
"Remember," Ashley said as she backed out of the airlock and onto the station platform. "If you change your mind, we'll be at club Apex!"
"Got it!" Alice nodded with a half-grin as the airlock doors hissed shut, leaving her standing alone on the bridge, trying to focus her mind on the evening of busywork that lay before her and not on the fun that her crew was bound to be having. Joker's voice interrupted her meandering thoughts.
She turned to face her pilot, still leaning out of his seat toward the recently departed crew, and smiled. Of course, she wasn't alone tonight. A skeleton crew was still stuck behind with her, and Joker was always good to have around to keep spirits up.
"Who's your money on?" Joker asked. "Liara may have a slight height and weight advantage, but I dunno… I'm thinking Tali might have a bit of a wild side to her that we haven't seen yet."
Alice's smile disappeared and she stared blankly at him for a moment, then turned on her heel and made her way to the back of the ship.
"Fine, don't wanna discuss strategy. I get it…" Joker said to the now-empty bridge.
Two Hours Later…
Alone in her chambers, Alice quietly sat at her private console, scanning yet another report through half-open eyelids. Finished with the document, she paused and glanced around the large, empty room. Despite the frequent twinges of guilt at having such spacious quarters when the rest of the crew had so little in the way of personal space, most of the time she appreciated the extra room. Tonight, though, the emptiness seemed almost oppressive.
Turning back to her console, she blew out a long sigh, her 26th since she began counting. Being a Spectre was an honor, but damned if it didn't heap on the busywork. Forms and reports and requisitions and status updates…
If Spectres get to work with more freedom than the rest of Citadel space, she thought to herself, how much crap do normal operatives have to sift through? She sighed again.
Straightening in her chair, she mentally kicked herself for having started counting sighs in the first place.
Come on, Alice. This is just another part of what you signed up for, she tried to rationalize. More power and freedom also means more responsibility, and you're the first human Spectre, so you get heaps of all three. She shook herself awake and brought up the next report. She read the title:
Effects of Exposure to Element Zero in Active-Duty Biotics in Regular, Semi-Regular, and Irregular Intervals Over the Course of Low-Gravity, High-Gravity, and Zero-Gravity Missions
Oh my god… Alice thought as she rested her forehead in her hand.
(Part 1 of 7)
OH MY GOD… she groaned, hanging her head. She let out another sigh.
That brought another inward groan for her continued counting. She raised her head and scanned the first few lines of the document, skipping every other word, then every two words, her eyes desperately trying to speed through it and move on to…
On to... what? The next report? The next ten? She rubbed her face with her hands, and gently slapped her cheeks, trying to wake herself up. Opting for a brief mental break, she rolled her head back and allowed her thoughts to drift to her crew.
Wonder what they're up to now, she thought. Alice imagined Ashley would be feeding an increasingly inebriated Tali drink after drink and then trying to get her to dance on a table or something else equally embarrassing, though Garrus or Kaidan would probably stop her before things went too far with Tali. She chuckled, curious as to what a drunken quarian would look and sound like. The idea of dancing got her to thinking who the dancers would be among her crew. She knew that not everyone shared her love of being out on the dance floor, that it took a certain personality type to cut loose and shake your body while surrounded by a group of total strangers.
Ashley? She thought about how easily the gunnery chief had shed her military attire, throwing herself as fully in the night off just as she would have in any mission. Yeah, I could definitely see her on the dance floor… She leaned back in her chair, resting her head in her hands as she continued avoiding work at all costs.
Kaidan? Hmm… I dunno… Kaidan could go either way. I doubt he'd ever CHOOSE to go out and dance, though. Maybe if a girl forced him, or something. Alice smiled as she thought about Ashley, who had somehow become the instigator of the group in her mind, dragging a less-than-enthusiastic Lieutenant onto the dance floor.
Tali? Alice pursed her lips. Somehow the idea of Tali shaking her backside on a dark dance floor, surrounded by dozens of anonymous faces as the music pulsed around her seemed to fit. Maybe it was the quarian's ability to adapt to a new environment so quickly, or the built-in sense of anonymity that wearing a full-body enviro-suit afforded.
Or maybe Joker's right, and she is a party animal under that suit. Alice smirked and shook her head at the thought.
Garrus? Mm… She narrowed her eyes as she tried to think about what a turian would look like dancing. Even if he were to dance, with his broad shoulders and long, slender limbs, Alice found it hard to believe he'd be terribly graceful. That would be a sight, though. Alice chuckled.
Wrex? Alice laughed aloud, thinking of the large, surly krogan doing something so obviously carefree and without purpose… THAT would be a sight. She closed her eyes and imagined Wrex, huge, scarred face turned up in a scowl, bopping to the beat of the music.
Liara… Alice opened her eyes. She had seen asari dance before at numerous clubs and events. It had always been a sight to behold, so fluid and graceful, like they were born to do it, like music was invented just so that they could dance. Alice wondered for a moment if the seemingly shy, bookish Liara had ever found herself on a dance floor. Alice closed her eyes again and tried to envision the bashful doctor dancing.
She stands on the dimly-lit dance floor, nervously eyeing the other dancers lost in their reverie. The music is slow, bass-heavy, with a simple, hypnotic, sensual melody. She closes her eyes and lowers her head, feeling the beat thump in her chest. Feeling it as if it were her own pulse. Soon, her hips find the rhythm, she swings them slowly. Back and forth. Back and forth. Inch by inch, the movement radiates outward from her core. Her legs follow the example of her hips, her feet begin making small steps, bringing her entire body into motion. Her arms flow with the music, weaving their way around her body, leaving invisible streams of lights in their wake. Her eyes open slightly, seeming to glow of their own power in the low light. She blinks and her eyes fall on me. She extends a blue hand forward, beckoning me towards her. Her lips part… ever so slightly…
Alice gasped. She bolted up in her chair, eyes suddenly wide open. Her heart pounded in her chest, echoing the music she had been imagining. She struggled to catch her breath.
Okay, Alice, get a hold of yourself, she thought, rapidly shaking her head to clear her mind. She covered her face with her hands.
You've dealt with this before, plenty of times.
You've had subordinates develop crushes on you.
You've even had your own fair share of crushes.
And have, on occasion… felt a deeper connection with some of them.
Like they understand you.
Like they look past who you THINK you are and see the real you.
And then you share an incredibly intimate mind meld with them… She hung her head and groaned.
Oh God, Alice, what the hell are you doing… she thought, letting out a small sigh.
"Ugh! Alright!" she exclaimed, slamming her console shut and standing up from her seat. "Time for a break!" She grabbed her now-empty coffee mug and headed for the mess.
Alice braced herself against the counter in the empty mess hall, leaning heavily on her arms. She stared at the empty coffee pot before her, silently cursing whoever had taken the lasts cup, and wondered whether she should bother making another.
Doesn't matter. There's probably not enough caffeine in the Traverse to get you through the rest of the night… she thought to herself. And it sure as hell won't help with the daydreams… She shook her head and breathed a short sigh.
She growled and shook her fists in compounded frustration.
"Commander," came a soft voice. "Is everything alright?"
She glanced over her shoulder to see Dr. Chakwas, her Chief Medical Officer. Her head was cocked to the side, a look of concern on her face. The woman's short gray hair, normally left to hang loose and frame her soft, weathered features, had been casually pinned back, and the gloves of her grey and white medical tunic had been removed, sleeves rolled up, indicating that she was not expecting neither excitement nor the need for formality that night. Alice turned to face the older woman and leaned back against the counter.
"Hey Doc. Just staring down the barrel of a night full of reports and wondering if I brought big enough ordinance," she said, indicating her mug.
"Ah, yes. I see," nodded Dr. Chakwas. "Well I'd offer you something from my personal reserves, but I'm afraid that it might get us both court-martialed. And something tells me that a rusty old doctor is more easily replaceable than the first Human Spectre," she joked, bringing a smile to Shepard's face. "To be quite honest, Commander, I'm surprised you're still here."
Alice shrugged. "I've faced worse things than maintenance reports and biotics briefings before."
"I meant that I expected that you would join the rest of the crew on the town tonight."
Alice began a response, but simply shrugged again. "I'm sure having their Commanding Officer tag along isn't most people's idea of 'fun'."
"So I've heard you say before." Dr. Chakwas said, pursing her lips. "Commander, may I speak freely?"
"Of course, doctor."
She paused pondering her next words. "I speak with all due respect, Commander, but I know that you are still somewhat new to a position of authority, and given your relative inexperience, you may believe that you must uphold this 'Commander' role – where you maintain a distance between yourself and your crew – at all times."
"Somehow I doubt that Captain Anderson ever went out drinking and dancing with his crew," Alice interjected, raising an eyebrow at her own cleverness.
Dr. Chakwas bemusedly pursed her lips. "Not to my knowledge. But as I understand it he also never spent much time getting to know his crew personally, he never had aliens on his ship, and – I say this fully respecting the man's elite reputation – he was never a Spectre."
Alice began to speak, but Dr. Chakwas took a sharp intake of breath and placed her hands together, as though begging to be allowed to continue. "I've served under a number of commanding officers in my time, and the only constant between every one of them was how differently they approached their role. Each had their own strengths and weaknesses, and their own way of garnering loyalty and respect from their crew.
"You, for example have managed to form personal connections with nearly everyone on this ship. It might seem unorthodox to some, but I believe that is why you were chosen for this rather unorthodox mission. The ground crew in particular has united behind you in a way I've never seen, and that sort of loyalty will likely be needed for whatever is on the horizon. And their loyalty to you has been earned because you have been you, not some nebulous concept of what a 'Commander' should be."
Alice lowered her eyes. The thought of maintaining her leadership role all day every day had occurred to her. It was more than a thought, it was a desire. The authority she'd been given was something that she was determined to not waste. It was important to her; the position gave her the ability to never let a tragedy like Akuze happen again. Her discomfort with the role was immediate, the camaraderie she experienced as "one of the crew" was a difficult thing to sacrifice. She hadn't realized that she hadn't sacrificed it at all, that without knowing it, she had sought out and made those connections with her crew regardless: Talking technology with Tali; Discussing Ashley's family; Learning about Kaidan's past as one of the first human biotics; Delving into Garrus' time at C-Sec; Even getting Wrex to open up to her. She chuckled at how oblivious she could be about some things.
"I think that – in this case – sacrificing one night of what must be dreadfully dull paperwork to enjoy some time with those people who consider you, possibly, to be more than just their Commander might just be worth it," Dr. Chakwas concluded.
Alice opened her mouth to speak, but stopped.
Still planning on staying back tonight, Shepard?
Still haven't changed your mind about coming?
We always enjoy your company, Shepard.
Alice glanced at her quarters, weighing those words.
"It's not too late, you know," Dr. Chakwas said, encouragingly.
She turned back to face the doctor. "Those reports will still be there when I get back…" she reasoned.
"Well I certainly won't be doing them for you!" Dr. Chakwas grinned.
Alice leaned forwardchewing her lower lip as she wrestled with the idea.
"Go!" Dr. Chakwas commanded. "And have fun, for once! I believe you've certainly earned it!"
"Thanks, doc," Alice smiled gave in and trotted off to her quarters.
Dr. Chakwas smiled as Alice disappeared into her chambers, letting out a reflective sigh.
When she got back to her quarters, Alice stripped off her uniform and knelt down to dig through her gear, hoping that she still had something that would be considered passable as "going-out" wear. Her early years in the Alliance had seen her playing just as hard as she worked. But after three years on a steady diet of equal parts training, bars, and strictly-casual sex, she had decided to get serious and joined the Alliance's Special Forces division. That meant that the bars and the sex had to go. The former proved difficult to give up. She missed the camaraderie; the rituals of going out, of seeing people let their hair down and shedding their responsibilities for a few hours. She missed how un-military and free everybody was on those nights.
The sex, by contrast, was far easier to let go of. Not that she didn't miss the sex – she enjoyed the sex. Those first few months of special forces training were filled with many restless nights and long private showers in an attempt to make up for her newfound celibacy. The sex had just never been fulfilling on anything other than a physical level. The men she had found were very much "military", and while it translated to some fairly vigorous intercourse, it was still "standard-issue," predictable, rigid, uninspired. Alice made it a point to never take things further than one or two nights with any of them. And the women… there hadn't been any women since before she joined the Alliance. Not after Nikki – her first love, her first kiss, her first everything – had left her with a split lip, a bruised ego, and a broken heart. After that, Alice had found herself gun-shy around women, preferring to take the 'easier' route with the men.
Alice sat back on her haunches and surveyed the findings on her bed. "So I guess you're it." On her sheets lay the one outfit which had survived station transfer after station transfer. Black leather pants, which she remembered as being very form-fitting, highlighting her well-muscled legs and backside (which she had always taken a fair bit of pride in), a crimson top, cut to leave very little to the imagination, and a pair of black high-heeled shoes.
"But this sure as hell won't cut it," referring to her white, nondescript, standard-issue Alliance naval undergarments, designed more to conceal and protect rather than reveal and enhance. "We're gonna need…" she mumbled as she rummaged through her belongings, "this!" She pulled out a decidedly non-military bra, all black lace and unapologetic sex-appeal.
Shoving the remainder of her gear back where she found it, she quickly peeled off the last remaining vestiges of her military attire. Piece by piece, she shimmied into her newly rediscovered outfit, taking a moment to marvel that everything still fit.
That's Alliance physical training, for you, she thought to herself. Then she turned towards the mirror to view the final results, and her breath caught in her throat.
"Well," she said, more than a little shocked. "At least we know how you were able to get laid so easily back in the day." The pants, true to memory, looked as though they had been crafted using her butt as a guide, following the contours of her thighs like a second skin. But the top surprised her the most. She remembered it being risqué, but coupled with her sex-bra, it seemed as though her breasts were being presented as an offering to some lecherous deity.
"Maybe no-one will notice," she reasoned.
Right, you walk around with those things all day long and they're still the first things YOU noticed… She continued looking at herself in the mirror, turning this way and that. She smiled, generally pleased with what she saw.
Bet none of them are gonna expect to see you in something like this! Wonder how Liara will… she began to think, then caught herself.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "We don't dress for others, we dress for ourselves," she said, repeating what she had learned from her past club-going days.
Still… A wry smile crossed her lips.
She moved closer to the mirror and examined her face. The small amount of eye-shadow she regularly wore was the only bit of femininity that she generally allowed herself on a regular basis. Any more make-up and the military-types seemed to take her less seriously. Any less and she felt as though she just wasn't trying. She turned her head and brought her fingers to her face, gently tracing some of the more noticeable scars. They had never bothered her, she'd earned every one. Each was a simple reminder of a moment in life that had left its mark. She ran her tongue over the thin scar that ran from her top lip down to her chin.
Some moments leave more marks than others… she thought. She raised her arms over her head and pulled her crimson hair back in a twist. Her eyes widened as she saw that doing so caused her already aggressive cleavage to threaten to go supernova.
Whoah… must remember not to do that too often, she thought to herself. She finished pinning her hair back and was pleased with the results, but she still felt incomplete. Snapping her fingers, she turned to her bathroom bag. After a quick search, she produced the last tube of lipstick she had ever purchased. She moved in close to the mirror and applied a thin layer to her lips. She stepped back to observe the results, and noticed the image of a woman she long thought she'd left behind. An impish grin slowly made its way across Alice's face.
"Well hello, again, Ali-cat. Fancy seeing you here." She rarely ever used that moniker anymore, usually preferring to leave it in the past when she was still a kid running around the streets in Los Angeles. Somehow, though, with the hair, the eyes, the lips, the outfit… It just seemed to fit with the name. She capped the lipstick and tossed it onto her bed, smirking at the figure in the mirror. She gave a start, recalling a missing piece to the ensemble, and turned back to her gear bag once more. After several moments of rummaging, she gasped in surprise, marveling that she had managed to find it. She pulled forth a small, coiled black band, her choker, the last piece that would truly complete the outfit. She rose to her feet and returned to the mirror, letting the choker unfurl itself as she went. She brought it up to her neck and fastened it, gently adjusting the material to the right fit. Her fingertips lingered on the edge of the fabric, softly brushing up against the skin of her neck. For her, the neck had always been such a strange, wonderful part of the body – so vulnerable, so sensitive, so powerful, so intimate, so sensual. The choker drew attention to the neck, making it a focal point of the outfit.
Somehow, that little strip of material made it all so… blatant, it all seemed so much – the hair, the eyes, the lips, the neck… She worriedly chewed her lip, wondering for a brief moment if all of it… if any of it… if it was okay to for her be Ali-cat, even if it were just for tonight. Her eyes scanned the figure looking back at her for a moment.
Just for tonight, she thought to herself. Liara's words…
Tonight is your night... She nodded at her reflection.
Yeah… A smile slowly grew as she accepted the idea. It's just one night. Why not? Nodding again, she turned on the balls of her feet and, with a final glance in the mirror to admire her backside, she stepped out of the cabin.
As Alice climbed the last few steps leading to the CIC, she was struck with another twinge of self-consciousness. She thought about grabbing a coat to cover up, or pretending to work on her omni-tool as she walked to block the 'view'. She shook her head at both ideas.
Come on, Alice. They know you're a woman. She pressed the sensor to open the door, and stepped inside. The CIC was more quiet than usual, and the scant few members of the skeleton crew seemed to be able to focus on their work far more easily than she had – not a single head turned to her as she entered. She made her way around the galaxy map towards the bridge, glancing this way and that, seeing nothing but empty seats and busy crewmates.
See? She breathed a sigh of relief. And you were worried… Despite their apparent lack of interest, the noise her heels were making on the metal floors seemed to echo unnaturally throughout the entire ship. She quickened her pace as she headed toward the bridge.
"Joker," she called out on her approach, "I'm gonna head out and join the rest of the crew. You've got the bridge. If Saren destroys the galaxy while I'm out, well… Tell the Council I'm sorry."
"You gonna leave me here all alone?" Joker whined, spinning his chair around to face Alice. "What about our d-uhh…" he trailed off, finally catching sight of Alice.
So much for not being noticed, she thought to herself.
"What, our 'date with data'? Eh…" She shrugged. "Someone made me a better offer."
Joker tried to speak, his mouth opening and closing mutely, giving him the strange appearance of a bearded fish wearing a hat.
Unable to hold back a small smile at his newfound speechlessness, she allowed him a few moments to pick his jaw up off the floor.
"Uhh…" he finally managed after several moments of silent ogling.
Fun as it was, watching her pilot making a fool of himself, she had business elsewhere. "Joker!" she barked out. "Eyes up here!" she pointed towards her face.
"Hm?" Joker said, finally making eye contact. "Uh, right, sir… ma'am. Date with… galaxy and uh…" his eyes resumed their wandering. "and Saren's… bridges…"
Yeah… she thought, her grin returning. I've still got it.
"Keep up the good work, Lieutenant!" she called behind her as she stepped out of the airlock.
Once the airlock doors slid closed, Joker blinked several times, the spell broken. He looked around the bridge, exasperated, at the rest of the crew busy at their stations.
"And nobody else saw that?"