The only thing Garrus savored more than catching a perp committing a crime was watching him try to wriggle out of it afterwards. And Shepard was squirming like a first time thief in an interrogation room. All that was missing were the tears and promises never to do it again. "You are in deep, deep trouble, my friend," Garrus said. "Why don't you just admit what you're doing here?"
Shepard sat rigidly with his arms crossed. "What do you want, Vakarian?"
"I'm disappointed, Commander. You should know better than anyone that bribes don't work with me."
"Yeah? How about threats?"
Garrus shook his head and smiled. "The worst thing you could do to me is nothing compared to what Miranda is capable of... or what's in store for you when she finds out. And you know it."
Shepard looked about nonchalantly. "I'm not afraid of her."
"Like hell you're not. Would we be having this conversation otherwise? Ducking out of the ship to sneak junk food... This may be the most pathetic thing I've ever seen."
"Worse than when you were dodging that chick in Bachjret Ward, and you had everybody pretend that Ash was your fiance?"
"In my defense, the woman was crazy. Certifiable. Plus, she was a lawyer. I did what I had to do."
Shepard began tapping on his datapad. "What was her name, again? Preeta Virama-something? Maybe I should give her a call. Let her know you're back in port."
"She moved back to Palaven over a year ago. You really think I'd set foot on this can without having done my homework?"
Shepard dropped the pad to the table.
Garrus grinned. "Nice try, though. Got anything else?"
"Whatever. It doesn't matter anyway, because it's just your word against-" Shepard looked toward the door. "Oh you gotta be kidding me."
Tali, Joker and Chakwas sheepishly approached the booth, their eyes lowered, each wearing a guilty expression.
Garrus's smile, however, grew wider. Sometimes, the timing of the universe worked perfectly. "You were saying, Shepard?"
"What the hell?" Shepard looked over his shoulder, half expecting the Illusive Man to stroll out of the kitchen, trailing a stream of smoke from the cigarette permanently grafted between his fingers. "Is the whole damn crew down here?"
Chakwas put her hands on her hips when she saw the pizza and there was no mistaking the disappointment in her voice and on her face. "Oh, Commander..."
"Oh, Commander, indeed!" Garrus could hardly contain his glee. "Let's see you get out of this one, Shepard!"
Chakwas leaned over Shepard, trying to look him in the eye, but he became very interested in the view outside the restaurant's windows. She pointed a long, slender finger toward the offending entree. "Please tell me this is not the reason we're down here."
Garrus sighed heavily. "It is, Doctor, it grieves me to say. It is."
"You're so full of shit," Shepard said, ignoring Chakwas. "You're loving this!"
"Every minute of it."
"I don't get it." Tali looked around. "What reason?"
"That," Garrus said and pointed to the pizza.
"That?" Tali squinted at the round dish on the table. Covered in glistening red and yellow liquid, sprinkled with torn shreds of meat, it looked more like a giant third-degree burn than anything edible. "That looks like an under-suit skin infection. Why is it on a table where they serve food?"
Joker poked his head between the two women at the end of the table. "Uh... Is that real pepperoni?"
Shepard's eyes lit up. "Why, yes it is! Only place on the Citadel that has it!" He stood and pushed Chakwas and Tali aside, then gently guided Joker to the bench by his shoulders. "And it's all yours."
Joker glanced around in shock as he sat before half a meter of heaven in a pizza dish. The smell of garlic, herbs and spiced meat wafting up made his mouth water. He looked quizzically at Shepard. "It is?"
"Absolutely!" Shepard said. "It's, ah, the fifth anniversary of that time, uh, we went to that place and and did that thing. We set this up weeks ago to celebrate, remember?"
Garrus rolled his eyes. "I take it back. This is the most pathetic thing I've ever seen."
Shepard stared intently at Joker. "Remember?"
"Oh, riiight!" Joker gave an exaggerated nod. "I can't believe I forgot! That's just like me, isn't it? Thanks, Commander!" He picked up a slice, molten cheese dripping from its edges, and shoved it into his face. The burning sensation on the roof of his mouth was exquisite.
"Keelah," Tali squealed as Joker took a bite out the giant festering wound. "You're eating that?"
Garrus pointed a talon at the pilot. "No, no, no. Joker, put that down. Put it down! Stop eating the evidence!"
Chakwas sighed. "Really, Commander?"
Shepard put a hand over his heart. "I'm just a captain trying to show appreciation for a job well done. Is that so wrong? Good, isn't it, Joker? Ordinarily they only serve Neapolitan, but if you ask them, they'll whip you up New York style or some good old-fashioned deep dish."
"Ordinarily, huh?" Garrus asked. "Just how many times have you been here, Shepard?"
"Who, me? Never. First time. Read about it on the extranet."
Joker swooned in his seat. It had been years since he'd experienced the genuine article. "Oh my god, this is awesome!"
Shepard smiled. "You probably need a beer to wash that down, don't you?"
"Mmph," Joker said around a mouthful of pizza, but his emphatic nod got his message across. He swallowed thickly. "You are the best commander ever!"
Shepard fixed Garrus with a stony gaze. "Glad somebody appreciates that." He glanced around for their server. "Now where'd Sandy go?"
"Would someone please tell me what's going on?" Tali interjected.
Garrus's brow plates converged into a scowl. "Joker's low-hanging fruit. It changes nothing. You are going down, my friend."
"Fuggh eww, Garruph," Joker tried to keep the hot cheese from touching the top of his mouth. While still chewing the last chunk of the first piece, he reached out to the tray for a second as Tali looked on in horror. Mesmerized, she watched the human gorge himself on the goo-covered bread.
Chakwas rubbed her temples. "Commander Shepard, you're on a diet for a reason. What you eat has a direct effect on your recovery. You are still healing."
Shepard ran his hand over the rough scarring on his cheek left over from the Lazarus Project. "You've given me a dozen physicals since I've been back. I've aced every one of them, have I not?"
"True," Chakwas admitted reluctantly. "You appear to be in perfect physical condition. That's not the point-"
"Uh-huh. And you told me yourself that these scars are purely cosmetic. There's no other damage. So let me ask you this: if I turned up in your office on my own every week for a physical, would you see me? Or would you chew my ass out for wasting your time?"
Chakwas sighed. She didn't enjoy the weekly examinations any more than Shepard did. "I agree that Miss Lawson's scheduling of these physicals is a bit excessive, but she-"
Shepard raised a finger. "And let's pretend that for, say, the past two months I had been eating my normal diet. This is just hypothetical, mind you, but let's say I'd been straying from the program for two months and it hadn't shown up on the test results, and no one had caught it thus far."
"Purely hypothetical, I'm sure," Garrus sneered.
"We're talking Land of Make-Believe, here," Shepard said. "But it would pretty much prove my recovery is not affected by, ah, anomalies in my diet, wouldn't it? It's just some line item on a report somewhere."
Again, Chakwas couldn't argue, but it wasn't up to her to decide. "I'm sorry, Commander. I don't have a choice. I'm going to have to report this."
"There isn't anything I can do to change your mind?"
"I can't just forget what I'm seeing here!"
Shepard reached across the table to the condiment holder and picked up a thin notebook bound in black leather. He opened it up to the first page and handed it to the Doctor. "Maybe you just need a little help."
Chakwas gawked at the wine list in front of her. She took it into her hands and sat down next to Garrus to inspect it, eyes aglow with delight. "Oh, my..."
Garrus stared at Chakwas, mouth agape. "Really? That's all it takes?"
Chakwas made a light shooing motion with her free hand.
"No, Doctor." Garrus pinched the wine list between his talons. "I can't let you do this."
"Mister Vakarian," Chakwas said calmly, holding tight. "If you don't remove your hand, I will remove it for you. Surgically." Garrus didn't let go of the list, but he didn't try to pull it away, either. She looked at him from the corner of her eye. "Without anesthesia."
The turian quietly released his grip.
"See anything you like?" Shepard took a seat across from her, next to Joker. "Check out the last page. They have a whole selection from Earth."
Chakwas sighed happily. "Oh, I do love French wine! But it's awfully expensive..."
"Price is no object. Nothing's too good for my crew." Shepard held up his hand and looked around. He made eye contact with the server and waved her over. "Sandy? We need a couple of Eden's Drafts, and for the lady here...?"
Chakwas smiled at the server like a child looking up from a toy catalog. "Have you tried the '73 Gevrey-Chambertin?"
Sandy's eyes reflected the shared love of a fellow epicurean. "Oh, It's one of my favorites. Absolutely wonderful."
Chakwas made a dainty 'smidge' gesture with her hand. "Could I trouble you for a glass, please?"
Shepard's smile oozed charm as he looked up at their server. "Oh, go ahead and bring the bottle, Sandy."
"Right away, sir! Will there be anything else?"
"Yeah," Joker said, trying to cover his mouth so he wouldn't have to pick up anything that fell out later. "Garlic bread!"
"Yes sir," Sandy asked. "Anything for our alien friends here?"
Garrus stared at Shepard. "This is just sickening."
"Agreed," Chakwas said. "You are a rotten influence, Commander." Though for having just sold her soul, she felt remarkably good about it.
Tali couldn't take her eyes from the helmsman as he tore into his fourth piece of... whatever it was. She winced with every bite the human took, ignoring the server next to her.
"I think they're fine." Shepard waved Sandy off with a smile. "But thank you!"
"Want a piece, Tali?" Joker asked. Chunky red residue caked around his mouth and dribbled down his chin. In actuality, he wouldn't ever have offered had she actually been able to eat it. Food this good he didn't feel like sharing.
"Is that blood?" Tali gasped.
Tali looked away as Joker chewed something that looked like it had been stripped from the belly of a live animal. "That's the most disgusting thing I've seen in my life. And I've been to Tuchanka."
"You don't know what you're missing," Joker said in between bites. "Damn, Tali, you should stalk Shepard more often. Where we going next time, Commander? I mean... for our next 'anniversary.'"
Shepard casually stretched his arm around Joker's shoulder, but the glare in his eyes belied his intent. "It's not polite to talk with your mouth full."
"Yes," Tali added, also attempting to murder Joker with her gaze. "You could definitely choke and die if you're not careful."
"Wouldn't want that to happen," Joker said, "at least not until I'm done." Seeing Tali was still watching again, he pulled his hand away from his face, leading a long, stretchy string of cheese from his lip. She gasped with disgust.
"Here you go!" Sandy returned with her tray and set down two pint glasses of pale ale in front of Joker and Shepard, and more glasses of water. Then, setting her tray down, she placed a long-stemmed crystal Burgundy glass in front of Chakwas, who nodded approvingly when the bottle was presented to her. Sandy slit the foil seal from the top and uncorked the bottle. Deep purple liquid poured into the glass. Chakwas lifted it to her nose for a long sniff then sat back against the cushion, eyes closed, wearing a warm smile.
"You should be ashamed of yourself, Doctor," Garrus grumbled.
Chakwas swirled the base of the glass against the table and the dark wine swished around its bowl. "Oh, I am. I am. But I expect after a sip or two of this, I won't care. It has been years since I've had Earth wine." She took a sip and her already low voice purred with pleasure. "Oh my. That is lovely."
Sandy beamed and poured a full serving into the glass. "Isn't it, though? Can I get anything else for any of you right now?"
"You wouldn't happen to have a charcuterie and cheese board, would you?"
"Yes ma'am. Would you like one for the table?"
Joker waved the hand that held no pizza. "Garlic bread!"
"It's in the oven now, sir. I'll go check on it."
"Thank you, dear," Chakwas said, taking another blissful sip of wine.
Shepard raised his glass. "To loyalty!"
"Hear, hear!" Chakwas said and gently tapped glasses.
"Cheers!" Joker added his own glass.
Garrus laughed derisively. "OK, Commander. You may have gotten the human contingent to sell out, but you can't ply Tali or myself with this poison, you know."
"Tali?" Shepard said, looking up at the quarian with a smile. "I don't have to worry about Tali. She'd never stab me in the back."
At the mention of her name, Tali snapped free from Joker's spell, abruptly remembering why they had come to this place to begin with. "I'm going to stab all of you if someone doesn't tell me what is going on."
Shepard sighed. "Garrus is just trying to ruin my life is all."
"It's for your own good, Shepard," Garrus countered. "It's a health issue, Tali. We're trying to protect the Commander from himself. That food he foisted off on Joker is not very good for him. It's loaded with all manor of harmful substances. Not to mention, very fattening. Isn't it Shepard?"
"Wouldn't know." Shepard pulled his neglected dinner salad in front of him, thankful Sandy had not absconded with it. "This is all I'm having."
"That's probably for the best." Tali batted her eyes. "You have been getting a little soft in the middle lately."
Shepard looked down at his salad, then back to his engineer. "You know what? You're fired!"
Tali giggled. "Don't be so sensitive. I'm just kidding."
"I'm in great shape!" Shepard poked himself in the abdomen. "I defy you to name one person on the ship more physically fit than me."
"Jacob," said all four of his crew mates, simultaneously.
Shepard stirred his salad and tried not to look hurt.
"Miranda's pretty ripped, too," Joker said.
"And there's me, of course," Garrus added.
"Crewman Goff." Chakwas raised her glass slightly. "He's a fine physical specimen."
"Mess Sergeant Gardner," Tali said.
Shepard wiped his lips with his napkin. "I think maybe it's time for all of you to leave."
"So that's it?" Tali's voice made her annoyance clear. "No big conspiracy, no need for a rescue. We chased you down here because you're cheating on your diet?"
Shepard stabbed his fork into the bowl and held up a chunk of romaine lettuce. "Allegedly."
"Allegedly, my ass," Garrus said. "You're busted, Shepard, admit it. We caught you. No amount of bribery or technicalities will change this fact."
"Is that so, Detective?" Shepard's voice dripped with sarcasm. "Tell me, what's going into your official report? You saw me eating a salad? That I ate my vegetables? Go ahead, take a blood sample. Won't show anything. You got nothing on me. Nothing. I mean, you've got motive, sure. You may even have opportunity..." He waved his fork over his salad. "But you've got no crime!"
Garrus's sharp teeth ground together in a menacing smile. "Oh, but there's criminal intent here. That's all I need to make the charges stick. You've been here before, don't deny it. I'll subpoena the transactional records of this restaurant, if I have to. You're not getting off that easy."
Shepard sighed sadly. "You really going to roll over on me like that?"
"Justice must be served," Garrus said firmly.
Shepard glanced up at Tali, who shook her head at him, disappointment evident in her eyes. He shrugged. "All right, fine. You want to snitch me out to Miranda, I guess there's nothing I can do to stop you."
Tali's eyes narrowed behind her mask. She turned to Garrus with menacing deliberation. "Miranda?"
"Uh," Garrus stammered.
Shepard stretched back with his hands behind his head and grinned as Garrus withered under Tali's scrutiny.
Tali seethed in her suit. "You're spying for Miranda?"
"He sure is," Shepard said. "Said as much right before you came in. Bet that's not going to make it into your official report, is it Garrus? You all believe that? One of the old crew, selling me out to Cerberus."
Chakwas set down her glass. "That is rather underhanded. And uncharacteristic of you, Garrus."
Joker dropped his last slice of pizza, half eaten. "A dick move is what it is. Pretty low."
Tali continued to stare down the turian. "Well, we came down here to find out if something was wrong. Maybe we did. I can't believe any of us would take sides against the original crew. Especially against Shepard!"
Shepard crunched on a chunk of lettuce. "Apparently, Garrus doesn't feel the same way."
Garrus hung his head. Shepard had brilliantly manipulated the crew into taking his side, but that really wasn't the problem. Garrus never should have been on the other side to begin with. He cleared his throat. "Admittedly, I may have crossed over the line a little here."
"Mmm-hmm," Shepard said.
"And?" Tali asked sternly.
Garrus gave Tali a dirty glance then turned back to Shepard. "I would never go behind your back to Cerberus with anything, and you know it. It's entirely possible that my desire to see you sweat may have gotten the better of me. You know I can't stand when someone tries to get away with something. Really, though, I think what bothered me most was that you felt the need to hide something from us."
Like in a tennis match, the spectators of the court turned their heads to follow the volley. Surprisingly, Shepard did not have an immediate return. "Okay I can see that. But I tell you, there are some times when I need to be by myself and not be under everyone's scrutiny. Even if it's well-intentioned. Now there are times when I can't tell you something because of operational security, but outside of that, I shouldn't be keeping secrets from my friends. Especially the four of you."
Chakwas looked around the table. "This whole thing has been rather silly, hasn't it?"
"I know I feel thoroughly embarrassed," Garrus said.
"Me, too," Tali said.
Joker wolfed down the last scraps of the final slice of the pizza. "Well, I'm happy with how things turned out."
"Actually, I am too." Shepard said. "It's good to know all of you have my back. I mean it." He looked at the ring of faces surrounding him. They may have interrupted his meal, but what he got in its place was much more satisfying.
Garrus shook his head sadly. "But I was so close..."
"Close to what?"
"Getting you to confess."
Shepard plucked a straggling piece of pepperoni from the pizza tray and popped it in his mouth. He smiled with innocence in his eyes. "Confess what?" He checked the time on his datapad and stood. "Well I'd love to stick around, but I've got to get going if I'm going to be on time to see Anderson. Thank you all very much for ruining my lunch."
Joker let out a belch. "Our pleasure, Commander!"
Across from him, Doctor Chakwas gently tapped the wine bottle in front of her. "I may need another one of these to take back to the ship, just to make sure my memory loss is complete."
Shepard sighed. "I'll have Sandy bring another bottle to the table when I settle up. Anybody else want to get in one last jab before I go? Anyone? Okay, I'll see you all back on the ship. And I presume I shouldn't ask Miranda if you got her permission to come down here, should I?" Suddenly, the space around Shepard assumed the amazing ability to deflect line of sight, as each of his crew looked away simultaneously. "That's what I thought. Guess it's a good thing none of us have anything to hide from her then, huh?"
As he started to walk away, Tali stepped in front of him, her hands working overtime as she rubbed them nervously together. "I'm sorry about all of this, Shepard. I- I mean we were just worried about you."
"Thanks, Tali. I really appreciate the fact that you care." Shepard smiled and patted her warmly on her shoulder as he walked past.
Tali turned to watch him go, her mind among the stars, energized like she'd not been for weeks. The look in his eyes, his touch on her shoulder would be enough to make her smile all day... until she heard a loud, puckering sound behind her.
Joker clasped his hands against his cheek and looked skyward with his lips pursed, making an obnoxious kissing sound. Garrus caressed himself with his eyes closed and cooed, "Oh, Commander, you're making my mask all foggy!"
Tali's omnitool flared around her left arm, erupting with a static shock that made both men sit up and take notice.
Meanwhile, Doctor Chakwas just leaned back with her eyes closed and took long, luxurious sips from her glass, blissfully content in the knowledge that she would have another bottle to savor back on the Normandy.
"And another bottle of whatever wine that was," Shepard said as he handed his credit chit to Sandy at the restaurant's front counter.
The young woman took it and scanned it into her data pad. "You know I could have taken care of this at the table."
"No," Shepard looked back where his crew sat. Tali was furiously pounding Garrus's chest and Joker's face was turning red with laughter. "I should go."
"Well, we thank you for coming in. That will be nine hundred and eighty-six credits."
Shepard blinked. "What? How much?"
"The wine," Sandy said apologetically. "It's kind of on the pricey side. You still want that other bottle?"
With a resigned sigh, Shepard nodded and pointed to the check. You just had the most expensive salad in history, he thought.
Sandy gave him a sympathetic smile. "It's very sweet of you, sir. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Well, that depends." Shepard looked over his shoulder to make sure none of his friends at the table were paying attention. He leaned over the counter, his voice a whisper. "Do you deliver to the Presidium?"
The End - followed by the story "Second"