A/N: Happy holidays, everybody. Here's the much-awaited return to fluff after several chapters of action :)


Chapter Twenty-One

Unlicensed


December 29th, 2183

5:22 p.m.

The shuttle was packed. Garrus sat across from Chellick, their knees uncomfortably wedged together, crammed in between two armed officers from another division. The retrieval of a captured Spectre was serious business. All in all, the private shuttle, designed to hold no more than four passengers comfortably, contained nine C-Sec operatives.

Garrus's omni-tool buzzed. Incoming call.

Garrus activated the mike. "Hello?"

"It's Kaidan."

"Oh."

Kaidan wasted no time. "Where is Shepard? I just got a buzz from her emergency seeker. I'm assuming it's not a malfunction."

"Shepard's MIA. I'm heading to her location right now with a team of eight." Garrus didn't waste time, either. "Are you coming?"

Kaidan's reply was clipped and terse. "I'll grab my gun and meet you there."

"Good."

December 29th, 2183

5:29 p.m.

Several minutes later, the C-Sec shuttle alighted on the curb outside a generic-looking apartment complex. Garrus stepped out of the shuttle just in time to hear the whir of an approaching skycar. A slim black vehicle set down behind the C-Sec shuttle and Alenko stepped out. He was wearing his synthetic combat suit, complete with helmet and sidearm.

Garrus nodded in greeting, and Alenko fell into step beside him seamlessly. They touched their headsets to link up comms almost simultaneously. This was familiar, more familiar even than having Shepard next to him as they headed into a firefight. The only thing missing was Shepard's combat suit-clad figure on point ahead of them.

"You're going to have to tell me what you two have been getting up to," Alenko said on the way up to the apartment. His tone was dry.

"I'll let Shepard take care of that," Garrus said evasively.

It was just them in the elevator. Chellick had opted to send half the team up the stairs and take the other half to the upper floors in the shuttle, just to make sure they had all exits covered. Garrus and Kaidan were their own unit, thanks to their experience as a fire team.

"I should have listened to Joker," lamented Kaidan. "He warned me that Shepard couldn't go a week without getting herself involved in something nasty. Why is that man always right?"

Garrus chuckled. There wasn't much mirth in it, but it was nice to relax a little. Despite the fact that just two days before, he had been advising Shepard to cut off her relationship with Alenko, he felt better having the human here. At least he knew that Kaidan would do everything in his not-inconsiderable power to bring Shepard out alive and unharmed. I'd still rather have Wrex.

"Wait until I tell you what happened yesterday. We shut down an entire slavery and exploitation operation in the Wards in about three hours."

Kaidan winced. "Ouch. Slavery. She couldn't have been happy about that. Were batarians involved?"

Garrus nodded. "Her reaction was understandable, given the circumstances."

"I'm both worried and morbidly curious."

"Well, I'll let her tell you the story herself."

"I can live with that. Okay, Vakarian. I need some specifics. What are we walking into here?"

Garrus briefly explained everything that had transpired during the first half of the day. Kaidan took everything in stride, although he sighed when Garrus mentioned the Kardosil poisoning and muttered something like, Thought one time would be enough. Which almost made Garrus ask, before he decided to press Shepard about it later, when neither of them were in immediate danger of dying.

"So, let me get this straight. You don't know who took her, how many there are, or whether they have a rocket launcher pointed at the front door. All we know is that Shepard's alive. Is that right?"

"Basically, yeah."

Kaidan sighed again. "Wonderful. Reminds me of the old days."

After an eternity, the elevator dinged to a stop. Garrus nodded to Kaidan, who unholstered his pistol. A light blue shimmer surrounded the human's body as he readied his biotics. Garrus checked the targeting parameters on his rifle one last time, then stepped out into the corridor.

Shepard's seeker was still broadcasting. Garrus could see the tiny red dot that represented her location pulsing in his visor. It appeared to have moved. That was a good sign. People didn't usually bother moving dead bodies.

Kaidan sealed his helmet and activated his mike. Garrus heard the human's voice over his comm, clear and free of static thanks to their close proximity. "Are we in radio contact with the rest of your team?"

"Right here." That was Chellick's voice, echoing in both their comms. "I took the liberty of establishing an uplink to your helmet, Lieutenant. I hope you don't mind."

"Not at all."

"Team One is covering the windows. Team Two has the stairs. If you meet armed resistance, I can have backup on your tail immediately. Right now I would suggest putting up shields and taking a look inside."

"Already on it," said Garrus as he checked his thermal sensor. "I'm picking up only two warm bodies inside. One is presumably Shepard. I'm going to assume the second is a hostile."

"Don't bank on only one," warned Chellick. "We have no verification that the commander is alive. Approximately twenty-one minutes have passed since she began broadcasting. A lot could have happened since then."

"Understood," Garrus said tightly, though he ached to protest. Shepard is alive. She wouldn't be taken down by something as mundane as a kidnapper. A glance at Kaidan's stony face through his visor told him that the human was thinking the same. Both of them had witnessed Shepard in action firsthand. Chellick had not.

The front door to the apartment was doubly locked, with two layers of electronic security. Garrus set to work on the first; without being told, Kaidan activated his omni-tool and started on the second. Both were cracked within minutes, which was rather satisfying. Garrus had forgotten what it was like to work alongside someone who actually knew what a three-fourteen code protocol was and how to bypass it. Shepard had her talents, but hacking was not one of them.

"Nice work," Kaidan said through the comm.

"Likewise."

The console flared green and the door hissed open. Garrus led the way inside, amping up his shields to full capacity and scanning his thermal radar again. Still just the two dots, one nearly on top of the other. Whoever they were, the heat sources were quite close together.

"What's going on in there?" asked Chellick, making Garrus hiss in surprise. Fortunately, his helmet was soundproof. Three weeks back at C-Sec, and he still wasn't used to having a superior linked up to his comms whenever he was on a sensitive mission. It felt like Chellick was perched on his shoulder, watching whatever he did.

"We're inside. Still just the two heat sources. We're one room away."

"Proceed with caution."

Right. Like I couldn't have figured that out for myself.

"Ready," said Kaidan.

Garrus nodded. The next door wasn't locked. He and Kaidan took up positions on either side of the door, and Garrus pointed his omni-tool at the locking console. The door opened.

Inside, Garrus and Kaidan were greeted by a rather peculiar sight. A table had been upended in the middle of the room, and shards of glass—perhaps belonging to a shattered pitcher—lay scattered around a dark purple stain in the off-white carpet. There were two scorch marks on the opposite wall and the chandelier was dangling by a single strand of metal from the ceiling. More importantly, right in the middle of the wreckage sat Shepard, slumped against one of the table legs with her left hand clasping her right arm. Beside her lay an unconscious asari, manacled hand and foot with force cuffs.

"Shepard," exclaimed Kaidan, holstering his gun and running to her side. Garrus followed more cautiously and kept his rifle cocked, although his insides were performing some kind of ritual dance. Shepard's alive, she's all right, she's alive…

Shepard smiled weakly. Her face was paler than ever and blood trickled from one nostril. "About time you two showed up."

"Looks like you didn't need our help," noted Garrus, glancing around at the wreckage.

"Breaking out was one hell of a… God damn, don't touch that!"

Kaidan, who had been performing a field physical, quickly snatched back his hands. "Sorry. Sorry. Is it broken?"

"Dislocated. Had to get out of the handcuffs."

"How does dislocating your shoulder help you out of handcuffs?" Garrus asked, morbidly curious.

"Long story. Tell you later. Think… I'm going to pass out."

And she did.


December 29th, 2183

8:44 p.m.

For the second time in the same day, Shepard awoke in a hospital bed. This time she was pleased to find that her vision was normal—no painful photosensitivity or blurriness. The room was also empty of everything besides a chrome-plated medical VI and various monitors.

"Good evening, Commander Shepard," said the VI. "How are you feeling?"

Shepard ignored the robot and took stock of her situation. She felt… fine. Experimentally rotating her shoulder, she could detect no pain or soreness—just a little stiffness that she was sure would fade sooner or later. The burns on her skin were gone. Her face seemed to be in well enough order, despite having been bashed against a mattress temperature dial. That had not been one of the higher points of her career.

"Is there anything you need, Commander Shepard?" inquired the medical VI, apparently troubled by her lack of a response to its initial query. "Water? Painkillers? Your last dosage of industrial painkiller was over two hours ago. Are you in any pain?"

"No, I'm fine," Shepard said, if only to make the thing shut up. "Can I get a doctor in here? I want to leave."

"Your next checkup is scheduled in fourteen minutes. I am afraid that hospital regulations prevent summoning of medical staff outside the checkup routine except in the case of an emergency. I have not detected any anomalies that could constitute an emergency."

"So I just have to sit here for fourteen minutes?"

"Actually, Commander, you have a visitor. Officer Vakarian is requesting entrance to the room. Would you like to admit him?"

"Thank God, some intelligent conversation. Yes, please."

The door slid open. Garrus was standing outside, still wearing his combat hardsuit, and carrying a plastic box. His eyes brightened at the sight of Shepard. "You're awake. That's great."

"Well, don't just stand there," Shepard said. Her mood was better already. "Come in. VI, close the door."

Garrus approached the bed and set the box down on the floor. "I think I can guess what you want to know. It's fifteen to nine, you've been unconscious for a little over three hours, you're in the San Juan Recovery Ward, and the asari who kidnapped you has been taken into custody."

Shepard leaned forward. "Riza, right?"

"Is that it? Last I checked, she was refusing to give a name. Chellick was running a DNA analysis."

"Buzz him the name. It should help. Where's my omni-tool?"

"That's one of the things I brought." Garrus reached into the plastic box and pulled out Shepard's omni-tool, handing it over. "All of your belongings were recovered from the apartment. I took your armor and weapons back home. Although I did bring you this, in case you got lonely."

"Excellent." Shepard smiled widely as he held out her HMWP Master X, black and glossy and seemingly none the worse for wear for its brief captivity.

As she took it, though, she was thinking about what Garrus had said. One word in particular. Home. It sounded nice.

I could get used to that, commented part of her brain, before Shepard shut it down.

No. Space is my home. I'm Alliance. Retirement is not in my near future.

Then she remembered something. "Melia."

Garrus cocked his head to one side. "Who?"

"Riza's sister. She was in the hospital. Maybe under a fake name. Can you run a check? Any asari females admitted to hospitals on the Citadel in the last twelve hours. Gunshot wounds."

Garrus didn't question her, for which she was grateful. He activated his omni-tool and keyed in the search parameters. "Hold on… I have three matches. None of them named Melia."

"Umm…" Shepard racked her brains, trying to remember the exact placement of Melia's wound. It had been the last thing she saw before Riza's biotic kick had hit her out of nowhere. Distracted by a civilian. Rookie mistake. Shameful. "Left side. Abdomen. Just one bullet."

"Ah. Is this her?" Garrus rotated the display so she could see a picture. "Checked in under the name Formosa."

"Yes. What's her condition?"

"Let's see… Stable. According to the medical notes, it was touch-and-go for a while, but she's out of the danger zone now."

"Good." Shepard couldn't put her finger on why exactly that relieved her so much, beyond the normal satisfaction of knowing that a civilian she had tried to protect was safe. Maybe… maybe it was for Riza. Because even though the asari had tried to kill her, Shepard couldn't get that confession out of her head. She had a feeling what Riza had said was going to stick with her for a long time.

"I managed to get Chellick to promise not to bother you about a report until tomorrow. I've already started on mine. He wanted one from Kaidan, too."

"Kaidan?" Shepard felt the memories flow back. "Oh, right. He was there, too. I remember now."

"He just stepped out to get coffee. Said he'd be back by eleven."

"Wait," interrupted Shepard. She looked suspiciously about the room. "What was that noise?"

"What noise?"

Shepard stared at Garrus. He was wearing an extremely innocent expression—as innocent as a turian could ever look, anyway. "It sounded like some kind of animal."

"There aren't any animals in here."

"Your box is moving."

"Damn."

Shepard watched in curiosity as Garrus reached into the box. When he straightened up again, there was a smaller box cradled awkwardly in his arms. The first thing she noticed was the ventilation holes punched around the rim. She raised her eyebrows. "You did bring an animal in here."

"I didn't know where else to put it. I was going to show you later."

"Let me see."

He set the box down gingerly on the mattress; Shepard shifted to make room. Impatient and dying to know what was inside, she went for the lid herself, but Garrus caught her by the wrist. "Careful. I think it's dangerous. It scratched me."

Shepard pulled back a little, eyeing the white lines running down his forearm. The claws, whatever they belonged to, had made next to no impression on his plates, but still. Her own flesh was a lot less scratch-resistant. "You brought a dangerous animal into a hospital?"

"Chellick said it was safe. He also said that you would probably know what to do with it."

"Me?" Shepard looked askance at the box. "Well, I suppose I did grow up on a farm…"

Garrus released her wrists and she went for the lid again. She pried it off carefully, one edge at a time, trying to get a look at whatever was inside. Through the holes in the sides, she could see… fur. It was too dark inside the box to tell the color for certain, but she thought it looked bluish. Blue fur? A distinct hiss emanated from inside the box; it didn't make her jump, but she did freeze momentarily.

"Careful," Garrus said again, for all the world like a mother warning her children away from a busy street.

But Shepard was too enthralled to pay attention. Wide-eyed, she tossed the lid to the floor and reached into the box. When she drew her arms out again, she was holding something blue and fluffy, with pointed ears. "Oh my God."

"Chellick said it was called a cat."

"No, it's a kitten. Ouch!" The kitten let out another scorching hiss and raked its claws down Shepard's arm. She swore and dropped it reflexively. The animal leaped down from the bed and darted across the room, taking refuge between the chrome legs of the medical VI.

Shepard scooted over to the edge of the bed, staring at the kitten in amazement. "Where did you find it?"

"Some of Chellick's agents broke up a smuggling ring earlier, while we were chasing down Dee. Exotic pets." Garrus made a humming sound and tilted his head to one side, observing the kitten. "Stray bullet grazed the air tank. This one was the only one who made it. All the others suffocated."

"Damn." Shepard didn't attempt to approach the still-hissing kitten. Best to let it acclimate itself to its surroundings first. She took the time to examine the scratches that the animal had left on her arms. They hadn't been deep, and the skin was already knitting together, thanks to her gene mods. She might have to pop a couple of antibiotic pills later, just to completely eradicate the chance of infection. "I didn't think you were allowed to have cats on the Citadel."

"Most residents can't get permits for anything bigger than a fish." Garrus stared intently at the kitten. "So it is a cat? You said it was a kitten."

"A kitten is just a baby cat."

"Oh. I understand that they are related to your… tigers." His mandibles twitched. "I don't see the similarity."

"This one's a little fluffier than your average Siberian tiger, yes. But they're from the same family. This one's from gene-engineered stock—you can tell by the fur. That blue doesn't come naturally."

"Hmm. It wouldn't look out of place on Palaven."

Shepard's eyes widened. "Quick. I heard footsteps. Hide it!"

"Nurse Camry is approaching your ward, Commander," the medical VI commented helpfully. "Would you like me to turn over the unlicensed animal?"

"No. No, we're okay. Thanks." Shepard tore back the covers, looking wildly around for something to hide the cat with. The blue kitten hissed even more loudly at her movement, tail lashing back and forth.

"Don't get close to it, Shepard," warned Garrus.

Shepard froze and stared at him. "Wait. Make that noise again."

"What?"

"That noise. The purring! Do it again."

"I didn't make any—"

"Screw that, you do it all the time. Quick, say something the same way you just said what you said."

"Shepard, that makes no sense."

"Perfect!"

The kitten's hissing had lowered a few notches. It looked between Shepard and Garrus with suspicious yellow eyes. Garrus stared back, visibly confused. "Does it…?"

"Yes. It likes the sound of your voice." Moving as silently as she could, Shepard slipped out of the bed and crept around the side. "Keep talking."

"Uh… Heat sinks. Triggers. Rifles. I hear they have a new one coming. It's supposed to be revolutionary. Synthesized targeting, a mix of manual and automatic. They're still tossing around names for it. Witch? Widow? Upgraded silencers."

"No kidding," murmured Shepard, tongue clenched between her teeth as she approached the kitten. "Upgraded silencers."

"It's supposed to go to Spectre release only for the first year or so. I suppose it's just as well. I wouldn't be able to afford it anyway. Too bad I don't know any Spectres with a taste for sniper rifles and spending money."

"Is that… Oh my God. It's actually purring."

Shepard watched in amazement as the kitten threaded through the robot's legs and prowled cautiously over to Garrus, who held absolutely still and allowed the feline to rub against his ankle.

"Shepard. What's it doing? Is it going to attack?"

"I… I think it likes you."

Bending down, Garrus carefully lifted the kitten into his arms. "Its subharmonics sound marginally less hostile than before."

"You're kidding. The kitten—the Earth kitten—has subharmonics?"

"Very primitive. But yes."

Garrus made a noise that Shepard's translator dismissed as a "vocalization" and made no effort to decipher. Bizarrely enough, the kitten seemed to respond. It cocked its blue ears and gave a piercing meow.

"Okay. Nurse coming. Put him in the box."

Garrus obeyed. To Shepard's eternal wonder, the kitten went quietly. By the time the nurse entered the room, the kitten was safely stowed away and she and Garrus looked as innocent as cherubs.

Well, okay. Maybe not that innocent.