Shepard turned away and took a couple steps, hands behind her back. When she turned back, she could see all of them. Most were packed into the glass-walled conference room, gathered around the meeting table, but six or so were just outside, still within earshot.
She had meant to have the mask on for this, Commander Shepard addressing her crew, but as she looked at them, she couldn't help herself. She broke into a wide, honest smile.
"God, it's good to see you people again."
A wave of grins and quiet pride spread across the room. "Feeling's mutual, ma'am," one of them called from the back. Shepard couldn't tell who it was, but her heart swelled. She allowed herself another moment to enjoy the feeling of being back where she belonged, and then she got right down to business.
"Suppose you all want to know why I've dragged you out of bed at such an ungodly hour," she said lightly. "I haven't had a chance to tell you since I got back yesterday, but I wanted you to know exactly what's happening.
"The Normandy isn't back on active duty just yet. The brass, and more importantly the ground crew, want her to take a little shakedown cruise first. Ease out the kinks and make sure she's running as smooth as she can be. She'll probably be due for another refit when time and resources allow, but right now she's spaceworthy, and she's needed. That's good enough for me.
"Over the next two days, I'm going to be reviewing personnel files and dossiers, and requesting transfers. So there will be some new faces showing up here, as well as some old ones." Shepard's expression grew stern, and her tone serious. "I don't want any favoritism, or hazing, or any high school bullshit. I'm picking my people, same as always. If that isn't enough for you, then you can request a transfer to another ship."
Shepard paused a moment and her gaze roamed over the small crowd. Everyone seemed to stiffen, and no one said a word.
"In the meantime, we'll start with the obvious. Joker?" All eyes shifted to him, standing at the opposite head of the table. "I want to keep you on as flight lieutenant. Unless you've gotten a better offer."
"Shyeah, right!" Joker grinned and adjusted his ballcap. "Like there's any better ship than my baby."
She smiled, then looked to Joker's left and it quickly faded. "EDI, I'd like you to stay on as well, but if you're not ready-"
"I appreciate your concern, Commander." EDI's voice and tone were the same as always, businesslike, somehow both cold and warm. Her face, however, was different. Her expression was entirely impassive, and her lips didn't move when she spoke. "But I am able to perform my duties."
Shepard fought down a grimace. It had taken months, but the AI techs had finally managed to reboot EDI, with the help of some of the remaining geth. Initially, she could only communicate through text - the first thing she had done upon waking was print out the lyrics to 'Daisy Bell.' Shepard had never seen Joker so happy.
But while she had recovered most of her cognitive processes, she wasn't the same. She couldn't be everywhere with the ease she had before. No more taking her co-opted Cerberus synthetic body out on combat missions with the ground team. She could barely be in it at all, needing most of her processes to keep the ship running properly, so she didn't have the granularity of control that she had before. In a crisis, she'd have to dive out of the body entirely and devote all she had to the ship. But she had recovered greatly in a short amount of time. There was the hope that she would eventually be back to normal.
That didn't stop Shepard from feeling a sharp stab of guilt every time she turned that impassive gaze to her.
"I don't doubt it," she said. "But I don't want your duties to impede your recovery."
"They will not." EDI didn't blink. She hadn't blinked since she came in. Shepard doubted if she could anymore, not that she had ever needed to. "And besides," she said in a surprisingly human tone of amusement, casting a pointed glance at Joker, "I am not the only cripple aboard able to do their duty."
Joker's eyebrows shot up and he had to work very hard to stifle his laughter. Some of the other crewmen were not so successful. Shepard felt a smile tugging its way back onto her face.
"Fair enough." Shepard turned to the next crewman, but heard EDI say somewhat apologetically to Joker, "That was a joke, Jeff."
"Traynor," she called out. "You bring your toothbrush this time?"
Traynor actually reached into her pocket and pulled it out, holding it above her head. That sent another wave of laughter through the assembled crew.
Shepard smirked. "Then I suppose you're prepared to stay on at comms."
"Absolutely, Commander!" Her British accent sounded a little less exotic after months of recovery in London. "Wouldn't miss it for the world!"
"And Chakwas, what are you still doing here?" Shepard said. "I'd say you've earned a very comfortable retirement."
The silver haired woman crossed her arms defiantly. "I should say so, Commander," she said in that haughty tone of voice only a ship's doctor could use on her captain, "but so have you. And yet, here you are."
Shepard smiled softly and nodded. "Here I am."
The doctor beamed. "And here we both shall stay."
That settled that, as far as Shepard was concerned. She moved onto the next. "Adams." He straightened, standing near the back. "You fine staying down in engineering?"
"Only if you'll have me, Commander." Ever the professional.
"Can't think of anyone better suited, Adams." He smiled and stood a little straighter. Shepard shifted her gaze over his shoulder. "And you two. You okay with serving under a captain who's better than the both of you at Skyllian Five?"
"Luckier, ma'am." Donnelly corrected in his Scottish brogue. "Not better."
Daniels turned and gave him a look of complete shock before elbowing him hard in the stomach. "Ken!" She turned and straightened. "We're more than happy to serve, Commander."
Daniels and Donnelly. Somehow, it just wouldn't be the same without them down in engineering. "Glad to have you both."
Shepard looked to the right side of the conference table. "Cortez, I know for a fact that you got an offer to serve aboard the Arcadia. It's a hell of a thing, to be posted on the flagship."
Cortez looked a bit surprised. "Thank you, ma'am," he said, "but... it's not the Normandy."
"You can go where you want, Steve. No one would think any less of you, least of all me."
Cortez actually seemed to consider it for a moment, but only a moment. His eyes said it all. "I'd like to stay, ma'am."
"Damn right, Esteban," Vega said to her left. "What would you do without me, anyway?"
Cortez grinned. "Have an intelligent conversation for once, Mr. Vega." A brief pulse of laughter spread through the group while Vega crossed his arms.
"Speaking of," Shepard said. "I want you as marine detail commander, Vega."
His eyebrows rose. Shepard plowed on ahead. "You're a bit overqualified to be cleaning guns down in the armory, I'm afraid. You ready for this?"
Vega blinked. He uncrossed his arms and straightened. "Hell, Lola, if you think I am," he said, "who am I to argue?"
"Damn right," Shepard mimicked with a small grin. "Don't make me regret it, James."
He shook his head. Vega could look serious when he wanted to. "Hell no, Commander."
And that left...
"Garrus." He stood across from Vega, on the opposite side of the table, and closest to Shepard. He linked his hands behind his back, at parade rest.
"You're my XO."
His mandibles moved. She could tell he had almost flared them out in surprise. She hadn't discussed it with him, but it had been the easiest decision she'd ever made.
She looked out at the whole of the crew. She kept her voice firm and her expression impassive. "If anyone has a problem with that, now is the time to speak. Your objection will be noted in my report."
Everyone stood stock still and at attention. A handful of crewmen, including Joker and Chakwas, glanced around ready to pounce on anyone who said anything. No one did.
Shepard counted to ten, then took a breath and lowered her eyes. She didn't think anyone would object, given their shared history, but it had still been a concern. "Very well. If anyone would prefer to talk in private afterwards, I'll be available."
She looked over near the door to the conference room. "Campbell? Westmoreland? You two are down in the armory. Doubt there's much need to guard the war room anymore. Copeland, I want to keep you on as yeoman. You've done a hell of a job so far. Patel, Rolston, I want you in the CIC..."
Shepard remembered every name, every position, and every service record. It wasn't much, since the ship was running a skeleton crew at the moment. But every time she said someone's name, they seemed to stand a little straighter, a little prouder. 'Commander Shepard remembered my name,' they thought. Of course she did. They were her crew.
When she was finished, she linked her hands behind her back and nodded.
"You all have your orders. In three days, we ship out to Alpha Centauri. I want the ship running at a hundred and ten percent by then."
"Exceeding the ship's design specifications by such a margin would be hazardous, Commander."
She gave EDI a skeptical look. Without even a perfunctory attempt at replicating human facial expressions, it could be even harder to tell when she joking. Shepard looked to Joker for clarification. He shrugged helplessly.
"I'm sure you'll find a way to make it happen," she said, hedging her bets on 'joke.' She returned her attention to the group at large.
"And once again?" Shepard smiled. "It's damn good to be here. Dismissed."
They began to file out. A few followed protocol and saluted, but most didn't. Shepard had never insisted on it, at least not for her.
"Shepard," Garrus said quietly. "Could I have a word?"
She nodded. "Sure. Just give me a minute. Joker!" she called out. He turned. "Stick around."
After everyone else had gone, and they were the last three left in the conference room, Shepard sighed.
"I didn't want to bring this up, Jeff," she said, the use of his given name making him tense, "but I know you got an offer too."
He crossed his arms. "Turned it down."
"I know." She rested her hands on her hips. "It was a pretty major promotion."
"Don't know what you want me to say, Shepard."
"I want you to say you didn't turn it down because of me," she said, keeping her voice tight and controlled. "That you're not hurting your career out of loyalty."
Joker's brow furrowed. "I don't see myself hurting my career at all. Some of us aren't eager to climb the ranks."
"You don't ever see yourself in a command position?"
He smiled wryly, almost a sneer. "I seem like an inspiring leader of men to you?"
Shepard opened her mouth again, but he cut her off. "Shepard, all I want to do - all I ever wanted to do - was fly. I'm doing that, and I'm doing it in the best ship in the fleet, with the best crew in the fleet, for the best commanding officer in the fleet. Why would I want to change any of that?"
After she chewed on that thought for a moment, her head bowed a little. "Well. Put it like that."
"You know me. The Great Communicator." Joker breathed out a laugh, then, looking a little awkward, stuck out his hand. "Appreciate the thought, though."
Shepard raised her eyes, but not her head. She clasped his hand and shook. "Last time I told someone they were better off without me, they weren't so understanding."
"Then stop doing it." Joker grinned. "Seriously, you're like the hottest, most stacked chick on campus who everyone wants to go out with, but you think you're hideous and you've secretly got anorexia or something. Metaphorically."
Shepard successfully fought down a smile, but she let it creep into her tone. "Thanks, Great Communicator."
"I do what I can." Joker glanced over at Garrus, who had been waiting patiently off to the side with his hands behind his back. "I'll leave you and your XO to, uh, debrief each other."
Joker quickly hobbled out after that last comment, leaving Shepard and Garrus alone. He closed the distance between them by a few steps but kept his hands behind his back. That bothered her more than it should.
"If you're not comfortable with the position I can find someone else," she blurted out. "It just made sense at the time."
"No, no," he said quickly, mandibles twitching. "I can do it. I just hope that... I hope it doesn't change anything between us."
Now that was unexpected. "Why would it change anything?"
Garrus looked a bit sheepish, a bit reluctant to meet her eyes, and he kept his posture too straight and stiff. It wasn't like him. "I'm a bad turian, Shepard. I believe in duty and service and all of the typical ideals, but I've never exactly been one to follow the rules or let orders go unquestioned. If you want me as your XO, I'll do the job to the best of my ability, but... I'm afraid I might not be what you need. And, well... it's selfish, but I'd rather that our work didn't affect our relationship."
Shepard laid a hand on top of his shoulder, against his collar. Planetside was one thing, but she was still a little uncomfortable being intimate with him aboard the ship. Outside of her cabin, anyway.
"Garrus, this isn't a turian ship. I don't know what you think an XO does, but if there's one thing they don't do, it's follow orders blindly. You remember Miranda. It was rare when she didn't have some critique of what I was doing."
His brow plates lowered. "But she always fell into line."
"And how is that any different from now?" A brief smile flickered across her face. "I know this is new for you. Back on the SR-1, you never really had a formal position, and the SR-2 wasn't exactly flying anyone's flag but mine. But this isn't different. I'm still a Spectre, for whatever that's worth these days, and this is my ship."
"It's not really about that, it's..." He sighed in exasperation. "I don't know. It seems like a big change."
"It's not." She let her hand reach up and rest on his cheek. Downright scandalous, Shepard."Believe me, the reason I wanted you as XO is because of how we work together."
"Then..." He leaned unconsciously into her touch. "What's changed?"
"What's changed is you won't be spending all day cooped up in the damn battery calibrating giant guns anymore." Shepard grinned. "What's changed is you have your own office and you'll interact with the crew more. You'll be in charge of day-to-day operations, you'll aid in tactical planning and execution, and if I leave the ship without you, as unlikely as that scenario is, you'll be in command."
He seemed particularly surprised at that last part, but Shepard soldiered on, not letting him interrupt.
"And if I do or say something profoundly stupid, you tell me. I start stepping out of line, you pull me back. I start to slip -" she reached out her other hand and pulled one of his from behind his back, placing it on her waist, "- you catch me."
Garrus seemed unsure for another second or so, then he visibly relaxed. "I can do that."
Shepard's hand slipped down from his mandible to his collar. She looked off to the side somewhere. "I hate to bring this up again, after what Joker just said, but-"
"Shepard." He pulled her a bit closer. "If there's anywhere I belong, anywhere I've ever wanted to be, it's on your six or by your side. Wherever you need me."
Shepard saw the look in his eyes, the simple, honest intensity. She really had to stop trying to push people away. If she did it to Garrus again, he might actually take offense.
"Besides, Victus can take care of himself." He shrugged, that easy charm making its way back into his flanging voice and body language. "And I doubt he really needs a Reaper advisor anymore, now that you've, you know. Killed them all."
"How sad for you," she said with a grin, more than happy that she'd eased his mind. "I'll be sure to consider how it will affect your livelihood next time I save the galaxy."
Garrus tilted his head in that way she'd come to identify as 'amused.' "Please do."
Shepard, with some reluctance, pulled his hand away from her waist and stepped back. "I should start making some calls."
"Yeah," he replied with a nod. "I suppose I should go and acquaint myself with my new office."
"Don't let it go to your head," she said, heading for the door. "It's still not as big as my cabin."
"My old apartment wasn't as big as your cabin," he shot back as he followed. Shepard headed left, Garrus right. Before she left the room, she cast a glance back over her shoulder and found him doing the same. She turned away and blushed. God, they were such fucking teenagers, sometimes.
She headed into what had once been the war room. Now, rather than monitoring the construction of the Crucible, it monitored the movements and activities of the galactic fleet in the Sol system. A giant holo-image of Earth, surrounded by a cloud of ships with shuttles and fighters slowly buzzing around between them, occupied the center of the room.
She skirted around it and went towards the private comm room in the back. The quantum entanglement communicator had somehow remained undamaged in the final battle of the war. Good thing, since it was unlikely they would have been able to properly repair it afterwards, given their limited resources.
She fired it up. "EDI," she spoke to the air. It took an instant too long for the blue holographic orb to project itself over a nearby console. Shepard felt another pang of guilt, imagining EDI's head slumping as she left her body to speak with her.
"Yes, Commander?" EDI, for her part, sounded entirely normal. Shepard quashed the guilt and remained professional.
"Can you get me Liara on the horn? I haven't had her contact information uploaded to this console yet."
"Of course, Shepard." A brief pause. "I have her."
"Logging you out, Shepard." The blue orb disappeared, and Shepard breathed a little easier. Liara's image flickered into life in front of her, large as life and tinged blue and white with the grid of the holoprojector.
"Shepard." She smiled, looking up from a datapad. "Did you need something?"
Shepard smiled wryly. Liara was the only private citizen she knew who had her own QEC. She wondered where she got it and how, whether it was something the old Shadow Broker had or not, but maybe she didn't actually want to know.
"Remember when I asked you to put together some dossiers for me?"
"Of course. You need them now?"
"The sooner, the better."
"I'll have them sent to your private terminal." She looked down at her datapad and began typing something out. "How's the Normandy?"
She sighed. "It's not perfect, it's still got most of the rough patches it did when we had to evacuate during the invasion, and it'll be a while before it can have a full and proper refit."
Liara's big eyes lifted up from her pad. A smile played at her lips. "But?"
"But it's home, Liara." Shepard took a deep breath. "Recycled air and all. I haven't felt this good in months."
"I'm glad to hear it, Shepard."
"You know there's always a place for you here, Liara."
"I know." Her eyes migrated back to the pad. "I can't. But I know."
"Yeah." Shepard hugged her elbows. "Same with Wrex and Tali."
Liara looked up and smiled reassuringly. "There's always Garrus."
Shepard grinned. Truer words had never been spoken. "There is."
"And Kaidan, as well."
"He's a Spectre, now," she said, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "He has his own work to do."
Liara looked back down to her datapad, fingers typing away. "I'm sure he'd appreciate the offer, though."
Shepard narrowed her eyes and averted her gaze. Liara was right, of course. She should make the offer. They'd cleared the air, things were fine between them. He would refuse, in all probability, but it would be a betrayal of their friendship not to ask.
"I'll call him later."
Liara nodded. "Dossiers should be making their way to you now, Shepard." She looked up. "If there's anything else, don't hesitate to ask."
"I won't." Shepard lowered her arms and nodded. "Thanks, Liara."
"Always." She turned and walked away and her image flickered out into nonexistence. Shepard began to turn and leave, head for the CIC, when EDI piped up.
"There's a priority call from Admiral Hackett for you Shepard."
"Patch it through." Subconsciously, she tugged the bottom of her jacket and straightened her uniform before lacing her hands behind her back. She may have been a Spectre, existing outside the chain of command, but she'd always respect Hackett. He had done too much for her not to.
His image flickered into being. The admiral's appearance hadn't changed much since the war - a bit more gray in his well-trimmed beard, a few more lines etched into his craggy face, another small scar added to a growing collection - but his eyes were as strong as ever, even through a hologram. "Commander."
"Admiral. What can I do for you?"
"Just wanted to confirm when you'll be departing for Alpha Centauri."
"We're expecting three days from now, sir."
He nodded curtly. "Good. The sooner, the better."
Shepard shifted her weight. "I'm still not entirely comfortable with this."
"I know. Believe me." Hackett sighed. "I'd feel the same way, if it were my ship."
"I don't know what I'm supposed to be looking for, and I can't discuss it with my XO?" Shepard grimaced. "I don't like being in the dark, sir, and I like keeping my crew in the dark even less."
"I understand, and I know you trust your people, but it is paramount that this not spread any further than it has to. For right now, that means you, me, and what remains of the Systems Alliance government. You'll receive further information once you're actually in the system and Normandy's stealth drive is engaged." He frowned. "Until then, you're just going to have to trust me when I say that this mission is the highest priority. I haven't seen reports like this since the war ended, Commander. And from what we can tell? The Reapers never even touched Alpha Centauri."
"Could be a coincidence," Shepard ventured. "Could be they didn't know we had an installation there."
"I don't believe in coincidences like that, Commander." He crossed his arms and his eyes drifted. "But I'd be more than happy to be wrong."
Shepard's jaw clenched. She hadn't seen him this worried since the war. It made him look old. Tired. She didn't like it.
"Whatever's out there, Admiral," she said, steeling her voice. "We'll take care of it."
He looked up and actually smiled. "If there's anyone who can, Shepard, it's you and that ship." He uncrossed his arms and nodded. "I'll contact you again in three days. Hackett out."
He stepped back and his image flickered and died. Shepard was left alone, and despite her words and the Admiral's confidence, she was somehow more worried than she'd been before. Her crew trusted that this was nothing more than routine. She had lied right to their faces, and despite it's apparent necessity, she'd hated every second of it.
Shepard thought about what happened on her last shakedown cruise. The maiden voyage of the Normandy SR-1, and where that had led.
She quickly turned and left. She had dossiers to consider and calls to make.