The Mass Effect universe and characters belong to Bioware.
[Immediately following upon the events of Conviction. Currently includes references to events in Conviction and Arrival, and other Mass Effect spoilers as the story progresses]
"They sure know how to pick 'em."
The words, though soft-spoken, startled James out of his reverie as he stood in the open doorway. The source of the voice was hidden in the shadows on the far side of the darkened room. He belatedly realized that, while his quarry was hidden, he himself could be easily observed since he was standing in the pool of light flooding in from the hall. This put him at a distinct disadvantage. His soldier's mind, honed by years of tactical training and battle experience, screamed at him to find a better position.
He took a few steps to the left, away from the filter of light. With his back now safe to the wall, he let his eyes adjust to the low light in the brig. "I'm sorry?" he asked, absent-mindedly, as he surveyed his surroundings. The room was Spartan, bare cold metal, a bench cot on the far side, not much in the way of comfort, but it wasn't meant to be a cozy place.
"They're putting on such a show with my arrest and transfer. This nice cell, pretty little military-grade bracelets, and now you. I mean, look at you, are they paying you by muscle mass?"
There was teasing sarcasm in her words, but he didn't get as far he had in life, or as successful at gambling for that matter, without the ability to read people and their emotions. He sensed bitterness, and perhaps, anger. He stiffened, now wary, weighing his response carefully. He felt like he was locked in a room with a caged tiger, despite her restraints, and the last thing he wanted to do was pull her tail.
He chose to ignore her remark, for now, and found relative safety in a rare moment of diplomacy. "I'm James," he responded carefully, "Lieutenant James Vega. I've been assigned to guard you during your transfer back to Earth." His words echoed harshly in the small room, louder than he had intended.
He heard a sigh, so soft he might have missed it, except for the darkness in the room and the tenseness of the moment honing his hearing to alert precision. He mentally chided himself. He was better than this, cowering in the corner, afraid to say what he really wanted. He made a decision to retake control of the situation, if it was ever his to begin with.
He strode to the open side of the bench and stood a few small feet away from the woman who had saved the galaxy and was a personal hero to more of his fellow soldiers than he could count. He swiftly shook those thoughts away, and steeled himself to be cool and impassive, despite his nerves and sweaty palms. He realized now just how much he had been dreading this moment, seeing the derision in her gaze. He wished he could have met her under different circumstances, spoken with her about her experiences, learned from her decisions. But he knew she would probably resent him, even though he was just doing his job. Hell, he almost resented himself, and he didn't even want the damn job. He pushed his worry aside, and made a decision to stay calm, collected and polite. If she felt the need to vent, let her. He could take it, a small sacrifice in the face of everything she had suffered and accomplished. He forced himself to relax, realized too late that he had been painfully clenching his jaw, and turned to look down at her.
He had expected anger. Anger he could handle, understand, deflect. But nothing could prepare him for the moment when Shepard lifted her face and met his searching eyes with her own piercing gaze. He saw no anger directed at him. Perhaps there was a hint of idle curiosity, and something else that made him even more tense than before. Sadness is what he saw, tucked away in the depths where she probably thought it was hidden, and he had never been able to see it in a woman without wanting to cure her of it. He narrowed his gaze, jerking himself upright as he fought his natural instinct to reach out to her. He shifted abruptly, pacing away to his previous spot on the far wall, before he did something to embarrass himself, like try to soothe the caged tiger.
So much for taking control.
Shepard eyed her huge guard with unabashed curiosity. Now that he had moved away from her, she released the breath that she hadn't even realized she was holding. He was tense, and he looked uncomfortable, and she knew it was her fault. She sighed with resignation. It was always her fault, though it was never her intent. Her name and her past followed her everywhere. She laughed to herself at such a ridiculous interpretation of that situation. Of course they didn't follow her, they led her, preceded her, and no one met the woman who hadn't first encountered the legend.
It was damned irritating, but she had gotten good over the years at talking to people, making them comfortable, getting them to open up and forget for a moment who she was. It was a talent, and she was proud in her ability to talk to just about anyone, to make connections, maybe even a few friends along the way.
She snorted. What a crock, her own little fantasy. No one really knew her anymore, it was a rare occasion when someone took the time to look past all the heroics to understand the woman behind them, and with recent events catching up to her, she doubted anyone would take the chance again. This man was no different, would likely never see her as anything but a series of stupid titles and reports, the sum of her life, on paper. Despite knowing this, she found that she was yet again unable to stop herself from conversation, finding small comfort in her gift for gab, and desirous of a way to alleviate the tension in the room.
"Look, I'm sorry for my flippant comment. I know this can't be easy on you either, Lieutenant Vega. I was informed that Anderson chose you personally, and I have no doubt he picked the best. It is a pleasure to meet you, though I could wish it were under better circumstances."
He looked up at her suddenly, surprised anger in his gaze, which confused her. But when he spoke again it was quieter than before, albeit with the same gruff manner. "The pleasure is mine, Commander." He coughed, and after a long moment of hesitation in which he seemed to be contemplating his next move, he paced back to stand before her again. Meeting her gaze with a directness that she had not expected, he stared at her, and he appeared nonplussed and confident now.
She shifted awkwardly under his assessing gaze, biting back a sharp retort in favor of waiting to see how he would handle her. The slow smirk lifting one corner of his mouth was her only warning that he had reached some sort of a decision.
How dare she? He must be dreaming. In all of his mad, freaked out expectations of this moment, he had never thought, not once, that he would be the object of her sympathy. She saw right through him, saw that he was uncomfortable, and with the Reapers and galactic safety and 300,000 dead Batarians no doubt weighing heavy on her mind, she went easy on him.
It bothered him more than he cared to admit. Maybe he had wanted her to be angry, because he was so angry: angry at his past, at his current situation, at her. No, he corrected himself, he wasn't angry at her, he was angry for her. How could they treat her like this, after all she had done? He had taken out some of his anger at those Batarian mercs on Omega, but it wasn't enough, it was never enough. He was so angry he nearly choked on it, could almost taste the bile in the back of his throat, and he had wanted to see that anger in her, feel it mirroring and fueling his own. He could have handled that. He ached for it. If he could just focus on the anger, anyone's anger, then maybe, just maybe, the guilt wouldn't catch up to him.
But she wasn't angry. He had read her wrong, he hated that, and now he felt deflated, raw and open. No one had ever gotten under his skin so quickly. How dare she?
As he struggled with these thoughts he slowly regained control of his emotions. Slapping a mask of indifference on his face, he took his time moving back to stand before her again. As their eyes met for the second time, he saw that she too had taken care to hide her emotions, her gaze now guarded and unreadable. But he knew what lie underneath her inscrutable gaze, he knew it because he hid the same torment, and in that moment of realization, he made his decision.
"I hear you're good with your mouth."
The pleasure he gained from seeing her mask slip as the shock of his comment registered on her face was worth any possible sharp retort. "Excuse me?" she sputtered. He pressed his advantage while he had it, as he doubted many people left the commander without words for very long.
"You know, talking, making deals, diplomacy. Negotiation. I hear you're good at it. They say you're more than good at it. I hear tell you can even talk a hanar into just about anything."
He saw confusion replace the shock, and he was too caught up in his joke to wonder why he was able to read her so easily, this woman known for her calm, intractable demeanor. "I'm hoping you might do me a favor, negotiate for me." He leaned in closer, savoring the change of emotions dancing in her eyes, and he found himself so delighted that her sadness was gone for the moment that he almost lost his train of thought.
"Negotiate what?" she responded, now as wary as he had been earlier.
"My salary. I mean, I had never thought about it before, but you are absolutely right. These guns should not come cheap, you know?" He flexed his arms to highlight his argument, and leaned down even closer so that he was well within her reach. "Go on, have a feel, I know you wanna. I saw you checkin' out the view when I first walked through that door."
The slow smile warmed her face like the morning rays of the sun, and she threw back her head in a delighted laugh. He had seen no such thing, she had made certain of that, as she had chosen her spot in the room with measured care. But as she sensed his satisfaction in making her laugh, she wondered if she should have bothered so much with her petty defenses. She found herself even more curious about this strong soldier, gazing at her with a warmth that took little notice of the tenuousness of their newfound connection. She also found herself wanting to ignore the warning bells in her head that told her perhaps she should have bothered more.