Vega would find the only working car in London is a goddamned station wagon, Shepard thought with disappointment as she drove through the gray morning, about a half-hour before dawn. The Kodiak was in too much demand to serve as a personal transport for the grounded Normandy, and the Alliance had precious few vehicles to spare. So Lieutenant Vega took it upon himself to go hiking through the ruins of the city until he found a vehicle to fit the purpose. The sad thing sputtered along valiantly at a sedate forty miles an hour and nothing Shepard did would coax it to go faster. Wretched car.
Kaidan was nodding off in the passenger seat beside her. Rising early never came easy to him, no matter how much practice he acquired. Granted, the little sleep he got last night hardly qualified as a nap, and that surely wasn't helping matters.
Still, it wouldn't do to have him arrive in a mental fog. She prodded his shoulder. "Hey. Stay with me."
He made an unhappy little sound and sat up a bit, rubbing his eyes. "Are we there?"
"Almost. Another few miles."
"Right." He shuffled further up in the seat and fumbled in his pocket for a bottle of pills, swallowing two. Seeing her concerned look, he shook his head. "It's just going to be one of those days. I can feel it coming already. I'll be fine."
Shepard frowned. "I thought they were getting better. What else is the point of that nasty tea?"
"Better isn't the same thing as cured." Kaidan nodded towards the window. "Make a left here."
"I know where I'm going." She banked the car, bemused.
He held up his hands in mock surrender. "I rescind all offers of help."
Shepard smiled quietly. "I like your help." She paused, bit her lip. "Look, I'm not used to being on the friends and family side of this, and I don't do mushy well, but just… try not to die up there. Ok?"
"I'll do my best." His chuckle was warm, pushing past the tiredness. "Just please tell me we don't have to do a whole song and dance, it's too much like when my parents come to see me off."
"Nah, that's all I got." She smirked, and took his hand, and if they held on a little tighter than was strictly necessary, well, nobody was keeping score.
The Alliance established a temporary launch port in what used to be Green Park. It was relatively open and free of debris from the invasion, making it easy to quickly set up prefabs and landing zones. Right now, it served as official point of entry to the fleet for all of Europe. There was too much unrest, and too few traffic controllers remaining, to allow access to space from anywhere on the globe. Aria's mercenaries weren't the only faction to take advantage of the chaos. It was a particularly poor way to show off humanity for their alien guests.
Shepard skimmed closer to the ground and followed the directives of the rather bored-looking marines funneling visitors towards a guardhouse. They both submitted to ident scans and after only getting turned around twice succeeded in locating the correct launch area.
It might be a bloody station wagon, but Shepard couldn't resist indulging in a flourish as she set down on the gravel lot. Kaidan rolled his eyes, but in an affectionate sort of way. He'd been in a mako with her one too many times to not be resigned to her driving.
They stepped out of the car and stood there for an uncomfortable moment, hands in pockets, neither knowing what to do or say next.
She blew out a breath. "So, I guess-"
Brow furrowed, Shepard followed the voice back to its source. A young woman in a rough leather jacket stalked towards them aggressively, with another, even younger woman trailing a few paces behind. As she cleared the morning fog her tattoos became readily visible. Her streak of brown hair was still wet from a shower and pulled into a tight tail.
"Jack?" Shepard was at a loss.
"No, it's your fairy godmother, Shepard." Jack crossed her arms and scowled. "Who the fuck do you think?"
"I see the army put the razor edge back on your tongue."
"Fuck that noise," she replied with something like satisfaction. "This ain't a classroom. Sometimes the situation calls for all the words."
Shepard swallowed her laugh. Jack would think it was directed at her. "What're you doing here?"
Jack jerked her chin at Alenko. "I need to talk to your boy toy. I should've known you'd show up too, after all your bitchin' and moaning back on the Normandy."
"Should I know you?" Alenko looked between them, eyebrows raised.
Shepard gestured towards her. "This is Jack, though I think she goes by Ms. Nought these days. She was on my crew back when we were facing the collectors."
Jack put her hand on her hip and stuck her finger in Shepard's face. "That's Sergeant Nought to you."
Shepard lost it. She was shaking with laughter. "Of course it is."
"She's the… biotic you busted out of prison, right?" Alenko said after a moment to drag the details out of memory. Another light bulb flickered into life and he turned toward Jack. "Wait, you were the one with all those kids doing the barriers? From Grissom? That was good work."
"Yep." Jack was all smugness. "My guys are good."
"We appreciated it. You took a lot of the pressure off us during Hammer- pretty much let us get a jump on that banshee nest."
"You know each other?" Shepard blinked.
"Know of, sure." He shrugged.
Jack was exasperated. "Your Alliance isn't exactly stacked with biotics, Shep. Shit gets around."
Shepard turned towards Alenko. "Banshee nest?"
"You and Anderson's strike team was hit the hardest, but the rest of us had the job of cordoning your path, prevent you from being overwhelmed on all sides and holding your rear. Damn brutal fighting. Always is when you're just trying to buy time." He shook his head and glanced at Jack. "I still don't understand why you're here."
Jack looked back at the younger woman for the first time, who was fidgeting with her pockets several paces away, pretending not to listen in. "I got a request."
Both of them folded their arms. Jack rolled her eyes again.
"Look," she said, lowering her voice, "My kids- students- did well. They're shaken up, but holding together. Most of them have headed out to the Fleet already, and I'm on my way later today. I waited around because Rodriguez did more than well, and I think she should go with you. I saw what she's capable of and I know what your squad does."
"My squad trained together for months, Jack. In biotic combat, not shields and academic exercises. I respect what your team did more than I can say, but it's not the same thing." He was firm, but not disparaging, trying to let her down gently. It was the wrong tact to take with a person like Jack.
"Fuck that. You think I don't know what I'm saying? A marauder broke through the line of marines protecting us, and while everyone else was panicking and beating back its troops, Rodriguez darts ahead and manages to take out the thing almost single-handedly. Probably saved all our asses. I don't know one biotic in twenty that could've done it." Jack stared them down.
Alenko looked over at Shepard doubtfully, who shrugged. "If Jack said it happened, I trust her. She cares about those kids. She wouldn't recommend it if she thought it was suicide."
"She's really young."
"So was Ash."
Alenko snorted. "Younger. And look how well that turned out for her."
"Old enough to make a choice and not regret it." Shepard let the words hang in the air.
He ran his hand through his hair and thought a moment. "I'm not going to deny we lost some people, and their skills aren't easy to replace. But I don't have time to babysit a hysterical teenager, and where we're going there will be some bad things, maybe worse than here."
"She's stable," Jack assured him quickly. "Kept her head screwed on through all the fighting. Threw up like crazy afterwards, but hell, who didn't their first few times."
Shepard raised a brow. "I find it hard to imagine you vomiting after a fight."
"When I was five? Sure." Jack got that spooky half-smile on her face like she did sometimes, like she did when Pragia burned. "I did it into a box under my bed, and when they came to get me the next morning I threw it in their faces."
"Breakfast of champions," Alenko remarked, with uncharacteristically dark humor, catching Shepard by surprise.
"This is why I want her to go with you," Jack said. "There are plenty of units that would take some biotic artillery. None of them understand biotics or what it's like. They'll get her killed without even realizing they're doing it, but it's a waste keeping her back with my guys."
He gave the girl a final glance, making up his mind, and capitulated. "Did she bring her stuff?"
Jack's face lit up. "Eh, Rodriguez!"
The young woman started out of her reverie. Jack pointed off. "You're in. Get your bag."
Rodriguez whooped with excitement, punching the sky, and ran back towards their transport. Shepard couldn't help grinning, even as she shook her head. She hoped the enthusiasm would last.
"Thanks," Jack said, grudgingly, though not without the hint of a smile. "Maybe you're alright after all. Fucker."
He gave the casual insult all the respect and attention it deserved, and merely said, "Just make sure she's on board before we take off."
Jack sneered, and sauntered after the kid.
"She's fought Cerberus before. All of them have. She'll know what to expect," Shepard stated after she left, remembering Grissom, both the bodies of the students and the brainwashing attempts, trying for reassurance. She knew he took it hard whenever they lost crew, and it would only be worse if he thought Rodriguez was unprepared.
Alenko glanced at her sidelong. "They had the school for what, a few days at the outside? They've had Mars for months. I don't want to know what it looks like groundside there. I spent over a year of my life tracking Cerberus activity while you were dead, and I can say they probably taught the reapers more about evil and cruelty than the other way around."
Shepard was unable to repress a shudder, Akuze and Lazarus and Sanctuary and the Cerberus base all jumbled together for a moment in her mind. She could recall the weight of the pistol in her hand and she broke through the Illusive Man's purloined Reaper tech and shot him cleaning through his left breast. The circumstances robbed the deed of any satisfaction- the man who orchestrated every act of malice for the past thirty years was all but gone, disappeared by a mess of indoctrinating technology.
She returned his glance evenly. "You still think I don't know them, Kaidan? Because I do."
"Yeah. Yeah, I know, I'm sorry." He shivered a little himself, more than the chill of the dawn. "Just when I start to think about everything they've done it's- it's overwhelming. And infuriating."
"Believe me, if I could put my ship in the air I'd be right there with you."
He pulled her into a long embrace, not bothering to repeat any of the things they'd already said. She closed her eyes and tried to imprint the details on her mind, the smell of his hair, the feel of his hand at the small of her back, the warmth of his body. When she couldn't bear it any longer, she took a tiny, tidy step back, a polite separation. It wouldn't do to make a scene. "You better get to your shuttle. They're waiting for you."
Kaidan kissed her forehead and picked up his bag. "I'll see you when you get to the fleet, Nathaly."
She watched him walk away, with a cold feeling in the pit of her stomach. He was right. This was harder than she thought.
Then, about five paces out, he paused mid-step, shook his head, and dropped the bag.
The next thing she knew, she was pressed against the side of the car, their arms frantic around each other, legs twining together. He kissed her lips, her cheek, her neck, his voice rough and muffled. "I love you."
"I love you too." She tangled her fingers in his hair, undoubtedly mussing it out of all regulation and not caring even a little.
Shepard perched on the hood of the abominable car and watched the activity until mid-morning, when they finally launched, only slightly behind schedule. Then she climbed back inside and started her up, cruising out of the ad hoc base, and used the twenty minutes of navigating the torn-up streets back to the Normandy to organize her thoughts.
Upon arriving in the shuttle bay, she found Vega sitting on the end of his exercise bench, ignoring the chaos of engineers and techs scrambling all over the ship in favor of meditating on his iron. He glanced up at her as she approached. "Commander."
She jerked her chin towards the barbell. "Put that up, find a shower and get yourself into a real uniform. We have work to do."
A slow grin spread across his face. "Aye aye, ma'am."
Shepard strode towards the elevator, hit the button for her own quarters, and turned around. "I want you on deck in fifteen."
The Normandy might still be out of commission, but it was time she got back to doing her job.