"You've been assigned to escort the Normandy back to Earth. Try to make sure she arrives without incident."
Councilor Anderson's words echoed in the commander's head as he strode down the Citadel dry docks. Kaidan Alenko knew the "she" applied to the ship's captain as much as the ship herself. The Normandy and her crew were seemingly unable to travel anywhere without incident. The most recent had involved an asteroid striking a relay and obliterating the surrounding system.
Now the brass on Earth needed someone to explain, preferably in a live broadcast to the rest of the galaxy, that this had not been a sanctioned Alliance act. Someone to clarify the exact reasons why three hundred thousand batarian colonists needed to die. Someone to stop the brewing war between humans and batarians.
That someone was Commander Elizabeth Shepard.
And Kaidan had been, for reasons known only to God and Council, tasked with making sure the infamous Shepard made it to the Local Cluster in one piece. Per Councilor Anderson's request, the Normandy had docked with the Citadel before returning to Alliance space. The crew had been given two months to make necessary repairs to the ship before returning to Earth.
Looming before him now, the SR-2 was twice the size of her predecessor. Despite the scorches and dents that marred her otherwise sleek hull, she was still a thing of beauty. Roughly patched holes peppered her cargo bay, evidence of a harsh foray into the Omega 4 relay. That she had returned at all was a miracle.
He paused a moment before the great starship. Immense size discrepancy aside, Kaidan could have been standing before the original Normandy. Scaffolds were being erected around her, turian and human engineers alike bent over schematics and chattering. Though the technicians were hard work repairing the cosmetic and structural damage to her hull rather than newly constructing it, the scene was the same as the first time he had beheld the SR-1. That had been three years ago, even before he had met her.
There was nothing remarkable about that meeting, though; a simple, curt nod across the mess hall the night before they departed dry dock on their first cruise. They had been formally introduced not long after, then-Captain Anderson familiarizing the XO with the rest of the crew. Shepard had come late to the Normandy, her prior mission, some classified N7 operative work, having run longer than expected. She had never told him what that mission was, why it was so important the higher-ups allowed her to report to the prototype frigate two weeks late. He hadn't thought to ask.
A shout across the dock startled Kaidan from his reverie, and he shook his head to clear it. Nothing good would come of losing himself in rosy-lensed nostalgia. He needed a clear head, couldn't risk a repeat of their last meeting. Another Horizon would permanently sever whatever tenuous bond remained between them.
"You know I heard they were giving us a Spectre to take us back to Earth, but I never thought you'd be stupid enough to take that assignment."
"Excuse me?" Kaidan frowned, turning. He wasn't surprised to see Joker standing behind him, arms crossed, smirking from beneath the bill of his cap. Something was different about him, but Kaidan couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was.
"After whatever that happy bullshit was on Horizon, I'd fear for my life if I was you, Alenko. You'd be safer on thresher maw insemination duty than talking to her." Taking one shuffling step forward, Joker extended his hand by way of greeting. "Still, good to see you, Kaidan."
"And you, Joker," Kaidan replied, grasping the offered hand. Surveying his old friend, Kaidan realized what it was that was different. "No crutches?"
"No crutches," Joker affirmed, shrugging. "One of the benefits of being the best pilot in the private sector, you get to demand your price. I'll always be glad Cerberus put me back in the cockpit of my baby," he said, jerking a thumb at the battered starship. "But it was real nice of them to toss in a set of mostly-functional legs, free of charge. They still break more easily than I'm really comfortable with, but I'll take it."
Kaidan nodded, chuckling. "Glad you're doing well," he said.
There was a moment of awkward silence, Joker adjusting his cap and Kaidan scuffing one foot on the dock.
"Suppose I should report to the commanding officer," Alenko said finally, turning a resigned gaze to the ship's airlock. "Get it over with now."
Joker laughed. "Relax, she's not even here. You get to keep your sac for a few more hours," the pilot said, smirking. "She took Jacob and Garrus on some sort of field trip to C-Sec. No idea when she's coming back."
A mixture of relief and disappointment welled in Kaidan's chest, and looked back to Joker. "So should I wait here, or…?"
Clapping a hand on the Spectre's shoulder, Joker turned him around and started walking away from the ship. "Hell, no. Let's go get fucked up."
"You're going to leave your ship unattended? Joker, I'm surprised at you."
"Just surface repairs right now, I feel secure that Miranda would not leave the Normandy and her shareholder's money in the hands of idiots," Joker explained. "And EDI's directing it all, and she might be overbearing but if I can trust anyone with my baby it's her."
Kaidan was so shocked his eyebrows were in danger of disappearing into his hairline. Whoever Edie was, she must be an incredible woman for Joker to leave alone with his ship.
They had encountered Tali as they walked down the peer, and somehow Joker had roped her into joining their excursion into the Wards. Arriving at Dark Star, Joker selected a table in the far corner of the room, and inelegantly seated himself. Kaidan followed suit, surveying the room.
Dark Star was relatively empty, the only other patrons being a few asari dancing lazily in one corner; three Alliance marines furtively watching them; and two salarians and a hanar at a table near the bar.
A cheerful asari waitress appeared next to their table, requesting their order.
"A pitcher of your finest krogan beer," said Joker, before anyone else could reply. "And three tequila shots."
"I can't drink that," Tali chirped. "…Whatever it is."
"Three tequila shots," Joker repeated. He pointed to Kaidan, "This guy needs two anyway."
"I'll be right back." The waitress turned and bustled away.
"Technically I'm on duty right now, Joker, I shouldn't be here," Kaidan protested when the drinks were set before them.
"You're a crewmember of the Normandy now, Alenko, and the crew has been given shore leave. So technically, you're on shore leave." Joker picked up a shot and pressed it into Kaidan's hand. "Drink up, Commander."
"You're rejoining the Normandy?" Tali inquired, with a note of surprise. "But we have not rejoined the Alliance, and I was told you would never consider joining Cerberus. Not that we were ever Cerberus agents, really, just working with a few of their operatives to the same goal… and since Shepard had some…" she paused, searching for the right word. "Coarse words with the Illusive Man, I don't think we-"
"Tali," Joker interjected. "You're starting to ramble like Mordin."
"Sorry… I just meant, I didn't think we'd see you on the Normandy for a while."
Kaidan threw back the shot, realizing he was definitely going to need it. "It wasn't exactly my first choice in duty stations."
"Alenko is the Spectre we were promised," Joker said, sipping at his beer. "Because we can't get ourselves to Earth without Council-sanctioned assistance."
"I had heard you were inducted," Tali said, turning towards him. He could hear the smile behind her mask as she said, "Congratulations. I was proud to see that."
"Thank you, Tali," Kaidan replied.
The trio quickly fell into the conversation of old friends long-unseen, reminiscing over their exploits on the original Normandy and catching up with what had happened over the previous two years. Tali animatedly described the SR-2's new FTL drives and reactor cores, while Joker extolled the virtues of improved handling and leather seats.
Two pitchers of beer later, Kaidan was feeling pleasantly warm as Tali recounted the latest ship's gossip, Joker throwing in snide commentary where necessary. He had no idea who half the people were, but Kaidan found it amusing to hear the quarian get so excited about Normandy personal affairs.
"…Ken and Gabby, who I think may be… what is the human term? Sleeping on each other? They are surprisingly ferocious at Skyllian five. The commander is terrible, she always sticks her tongue out when she's got a good hand," Tali laughed. "Shepard is…" she paused, and sat a little straighter. "Shepard. Have you seen her yet?"
Kaidan sighed, the pleasantness suddenly seeping away. "Not yet," he said, looking down at his half-empty glass. "She wasn't there when I tried to report. I haven't seen her since… in a while."
"Ah… does she know you'll be accompanying us to your homeworld?" she asked quietly.
He shook his head. "No. I don't think so, unless Anderson told her."
Tali looked down, absently tracing one gloved finger over the pattern on the table top. "She keeps a picture of you in her cabin. On her desk."
"She does not," Joker scoffed. "There's no way. Not after the things she said to me when… well, don't worry about the things she said to me. But I find that hard to believe."
"Thank you, Joker, I feel great about my chances now," Kaidan said flatly.
"I doubt you had much of a chance, bro," Joker replied, shrugging. "Personally I think she's going to punch you in the stomach so hard you throw up everything you've ever even considered eating. But sure, sure, she'll be completely fine with you lurking around her ship. My ship."
"Don't listen to Joker," Tali said, placing a hand reassuringly on Kaidan's forearm. "I don't think seeing her will go as poorly as either of you assume. Just… be careful. Shepard may be more fragile than you expect."
"She head butted a krogan," Joker blurted. "In the face."
"You're not help… you're shitting me," Kaidan turned an incredulous look on Joker. "You made that up to scare me."
"Oh no, it happened. I saw it," Joker replied, apparently serious. "She was planetside on Tuchanka. I can show you the footage back on the Normandy if you want."
Kaidan felt vaguely ill. "I don't think that's necessary, Joker."
Across the table, Tali pushed herself to her feet. "I should be going," she said. "It was pleasant to see you again, Commander Alenko."
"You too, Tali," Kaidan replied.
"Remember what I said, when you see her." With that, Tali'Zorah turned and walked away, nodding politely to the waitress as she left. A long silence stretched behind her, which Joker used to finish his beer and pour a last one from the nearly empty pitcher.
"Did she get my letter?" Kaidan asked softly, not looking up from his drink.
The glass paused halfway to Joker's mouth, and he slowly set it back on the table. "We got it past TIM, but what she did with it from there I don't know. She never mentioned it. To me, anyway."
Alenko nodded once, slowly.
"That doesn't mean she didn't read it. It just means she doesn't talk to me about… feelings… Or some shit." Joker was growing awkward. "Look, man, I don't do this touchy feely stuff."
Another long silence, even more painfully uncomfortable than the last.
"She asked about you, you know. Every chance she got. I got assigned to her, Garrus was a lucky coincidence, and Tali was a happy accident after Freedom's Progress. But she wanted you," Joker said at last, for once all sarcasm gone from his voice. Kaidan looked up, a modicum of surprise tickling the back of his mind. "Anderson and Cerberus both gave her the 'classified assignment' run around, Miranda wouldn't give her any intel, and then the Illusive Asshole dropped her on Horizon. You should be familiar with that part of the story."
"More than I'd like to be," Kaidan murmured.
"She caught a fatal case of the dead, and you gave her a reaming about it," Joker explained helpfully.
"I was there, Joker." Another silence. "What about… after?"
"She definitely punched a dent in the wall next to the airlock. That was pretty impressive," Joker paused, remembering the incident with a certain fondness, despite the damage to his ship. "First she told me it had gone 'less than well,' that night in the mess she told me all manner of rude things. And then… not much, really. She concentrated on the mission I guess, built a team out of what she had, and here we all are. Still alive because she felt like doing her job right, without worrying about the politics behind it."
"I guess I'm lucky she didn't punch a dent in me." It was all he could think to say. The mix of emotions currently at war in his chest was making him ineloquent.
"Yet," Kaidan agreed. "I suppose it's still a distinct possibility."
Joker laughed, and then turned uncharacteristically serious. "Don't fuck it up, Kaidan. You will not get a third chance."
With another sigh, Kaidan downed the last of his beer and pushed to his feet. "I know."