Miranda Versus the Next Step

Shepard had done it.

He had led us through the Omega 4 relay, fought his way into the Collector base, rescued the entire crew, blew the base to smithereens and escaped—all without losing a single squad or crew member.

Shepard also defied a direct order from the Illusive Man to preserve the Collector base and all its technology to fight the Reapers and ensure human dominance throughout the galaxy. When pressed, he said he wouldn't let fear—of the Reapers, of an uncertain future, of anything—compromise who he was and what humanity truly stood for. Later on, after we'd returned to the Sahrabarik system, he'd talked to the Illusive Man—after putting him off for two hours, thirty-nine minutes and eighteen seconds—and all but told him he was leaving Cerberus. (1)

To be honest, I wasn't too torn up about it. I'd become more than a little disillusioned by the tactics Cerberus was willing to employ and the people they were willing to betray or sacrifice in their attempts to gain some small advantage. I say 'attempt' because more than one project had failed spectacularly. All because they'd taken one too many shortcuts or turned a blind eye once too often.

I'd also bore witness to a new way of doing things.

So no, I wasn't sad about defying the Illusive Man or leaving Cerberus. In fact, I found the whole idea quite... well, quite thrilling. That might have played some small part in delaying Shepard before he held his last conversation with the Illusive Man as someone working with, not for, Cerberus. That, and the fact that I needed to work off some stress after surviving a suicide mission intact. And I was curious to see whether sex with Shepard would be just as great following a suicide mission—it was, by the way. Though we never actually made it to my bed.

After having lots and lots of sex, and after Shepard finished his conversation with the Illusive Man, we went down to join the rest of the squad—and Mr. Moreau—in the cargo hold. It was quite a mess after the Oculus drone tore through it and no one had gotten around to cleaning up. We could have gotten some other crew members to pitch a hand, but Shepard felt that, after the traumatic ordeal they'd been through, going back to a normal routine would be just what the proverbial doctor ordered. Moving crates, picking up debris and side-stepping giant gashes in the hull blocked only by kinetic barriers was definitely not part of anyone's definition of a normal routine. It wasn't normal for the squad either, but at least we hadn't been locked up in pods, helplessly watching while civilians got liquefied before their very eyes. (2)

By the time we got down, most of the work was done. The only thing left was repairing the large wounds in the Normandy's hull. So Shepard decided to celebrate with some Serrice Ice brandy for most of the squad and some turian brandy for Garrus and Tali. A little sweet for my liking—the Serrice Ice brandy that is. Turian brandy would either give me indigestion or send me into anaphylactic shock—but Shepard had good taste. The bottle he opened was from 2012. A good year.

I looked around to complement him on his choice. Ask whether he had any knowledge of such beverages—formal or otherwise—or whether it was merely a fortuitous accident. But I couldn't find him.

"He left."

I turned towards Garrus. "Shepard," he elaborated. "A few minutes ago, actually."

"What made you think I was looking for him?"

"Call it a hunch," he shrugged. "Based on all the times you two glanced at each other on the battlefield, and how that frequency increased over time."

Somehow, I had the presence of mind to keep a firm grip on my glass. "Kasumi said the same thing," I said numbly.

"Who do you think pointed it out to her?"

To borrow an oft-used aphorism, it was clear that you could take the turian out of C-Sec, but you can't take C-Sec out of the turian. "So you knew."

"Yes."

"All this time."

"Yes."

"Why didn't you stop me? Or warn Shepard? Or something?"

"I didn't have enough proof that you were a threat," Garrus replied.

Comforting. I started to turn away.

"And maybe I was hoping that my instincts weren't completely shot after the way I... mishandled Sidonis."

I turned back.

"Look around us," Garrus said, gesturing to the squad. "Look at every man and woman on this ship. Look back at everyone Shepard's met. He's helped so many of us. Listened to our problems. Offered a shoulder to cry on, as you humans say. Volunteered his services, often without asking for payment. He's made so many people happy.

"Did anyone ever return the favour?"

...

...

...

That question had never occurred to me. (3) "No," I admitted at last. "I suppose not."

"Except you," Garrus said. "Every time he looked at you, he seemed to... relax. Just enough that he could maintain his balance. At first, I was worried that he might be getting distracted. That you were using your charms to influence him."

I raised an eyebrow. "What made you think otherwise?"

"The fact that you reacted the same way."

Oh.

Um.

Wow.

And damn it: how could I have been that obvious? How—you know what? Never mind. I could care less. There were more important questions. "Do you know where he might be?"

"Someplace where he could be alone and guarantee that he wouldn't be disturbed," Garrus replied.

A little too quickly, I realized. My eyes narrowed. "How do you know that?" I demanded.

He was silent for a moment. "Because it's what I would do if I failed," he said at last.

"'Failed'?" I repeated blankly. "We succeeded. Beyond all reasonable expectation. We stopped the Collectors. We saved the entire crew. We got out without losing anyone."

"Anyone from the Normandy," Garrus corrected. "We weren't in time to rescue any of the colonists that had been abducted. That must be weighing on him."

"Yes, but..." I stopped, recalling my earlier conversation with Shepard. Before the post-mission sex and Shepard flipping the bird to the Illusive Man. He'd expressed similar sentiments, which was completely different from his usual optimism. "You know what he's going through," I said softly.

"On Omega, back when I was 'Archangel'," Garrus confirmed. "My... my squad had a lot of successes. More than a few, given the way the Blue Suns, Eclipse and the Blood Pack joined forces to stop us. But... every time we ambushed a bunch of slavers and stopped a shipment, all I could think of was all the shipments we didn't stop. Every time we got a batch of weapons off the streets, all that crossed my mind was how it didn't seem to make a dent in all the assault rifles and shotguns making their way into the hands of stupid, desperate kids. Every time we blew up a lab producing red sand or Hallex or some other drug, I just kept picturing all the addicts that sold their possessions, their friends, their bodies... all for the next damn fix."

He still thought that way, judging by the bitterness in his voice. "You know you did all you could," I offered. "More than anyone could have expected. It might not have solved every problem on Omega, but you couldn't have been everywhere."

Garrus was silent for a moment. "I wish I could believe you," he smiled sadly. (4)

"Me too."

"Somehow, I think you'll have better luck with Shepard."

"I hope so," I nodded. "Thanks for the tip." I took a step towards the door.

"Miranda."

I halted and turned back again. "Yes?"

"Thanks for trying."

"Anytime."

A thought occurred to me, bringing me to a stop for a third time. "Garrus?"

"Yes?"

"I think you should refill Tali's glass."

Garrus cocked his head curiously. "Because..."

"It's the polite thing to do. And it's rude to hog all the brandy."

"Good point. Thanks." Garrus reached for the turian brandy, then paused. "Ah. I see. Thank you."

"You're welcome." (5)


Garrus was right, as it turned out. Shepard had gone off to be alone. To find a fortress of solitude, I suppose. And there was only one place on the Normandy where he might find that: Deck One.

As I got out of the elevator, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never been here. Oh, I had reviewed all the schematics. Made a few suggestions—when you grow up wining and dining amongst the rich and famous, you tend to develop an appreciation for the finer aspects of interior decorating. Watched through the lone surviving surveillance device in Shepard's quarters—when he didn't reroute the signal somewhere else. But I'd never been here.

Neither had anyone else. We'd all accepted that Shepard would go around to each and every one of us and ask about our day. But we'd never once thought to reciprocate. Even if visiting the commanding officer's quarters was just not done, we could have at least asked how he was doing. But we hadn't. Not once.

It was time to rectify that oversight.

With that in mind, I walked up to the door. Surprisingly, it wasn't locked. I guess the possibility of one of us visiting him was just as unheard of. Choosing not to look the gift horse in the mouth, I activated the door controls and entered Shepard's quarters as soon as they opened.

The first thing I saw—no, the first thing I heard was music. Shepard had played a wide range of music in the past, the only commonality being that they were all at least a century old. But he'd never played any jazz music before. Until now. My ears caught a mix of guitar, bass, piano and drums—all blending together in a marvelous auditory synergy. (6)

As for the first thing I saw, that would be the display case. That actually wasn't one of my ideas. Why a grown man would collect model ships was beyond me. However, I didn't see any other reason why it shouldn't be included when it was proposed. I had other things on my mind at the time, such as how to correct the hormonal imbalances in Shepard's body. As it turned out, the originator of that idea was onto something—Shepard had filled every available space on every rack with ships. The Normandy, the original Normandy, a quarian Flotilla vessel, the Destiny Ascension and several other vessels. He even had a scaled-down version of the Kodiak shuttle. Shepard had exhaustively combed every kiosk for every ship, with the same intensity he used to find upgrades or thermal clips or wall safes. I guess it was something he could look at while doing work at his desk.

If you could call it that. Hard to imagine how anyone could get any work done with all the datapads strewn across the desk. Part of me wanted to clean them up, as the mess could have been caused by all the rocking and tossing the Normandy had endured in the last twenty hours. Part of me resisted, as there might be some kind of system—a bizarre, chaotic and messy system, but a system nonetheless.

Something caught my eye as I was resisting the urge to straighten up his desk. There were a few... knick-knacks, I suppose you could call them, on either side of his computer. One of them was a green statue of some kind of humanoid. The other was a wooden carving of some kind of bird. Not exactly realistic, what with the markings...

That was when I identified them. The green—possibly jade—statue was Sun Wukong, more commonly known as the Monkey King, a character from Chinese literature. The wooden carving was indeed a bird—specifically, the Raven from First Nations/Native people of North America. At first glance, it might seem odd to have items from two very different cultures, particularly as Shepard had never displayed any interest in any form of anthropology. However, a closer look at the stories associated with these characters revealed certain commonalities.

Sun Wukong first ignored the tenets of tradition by studying magic, despite the fact that, up to that point, only humans had studied the arcane arts. He'd caused irrevocable changes in the underwater kingdoms by appropriating a magical staff, which had previously been used to control the ebb and flow of the tides, for his own use. He'd thwarted the efforts of Hell to collect his soul and force a reincarnation by erasing his name—and the names of all the monkeys he knew—from the Book of Life and Death. All of that chaos paled in comparison to an epic campaign in which he crashed a banquet of the gods, released their horses from the celestial stable, started a rebellion and single-handedly defeated 100 000 warriors before finally being defeated by the Buddha. But perhaps the Monkey King is best known for using all his wiles, wits and magical talents to protect a pilgrim on his journey to India to retrieve the Buddhist sutras, thus transforming the religious and cultural mosaic of the world.

The Raven was responsible for stealing the sun, moon and stars from a greedy being—whose identity ranged from a greedy Gray Eagle to a powerful chieftain, depending on which story you heard—thus bringing light to the world of man. He freed the first men from a clam and the first women from a chiton and watched over them ever since—or he discovered them roaming around on his own and felt pity for them. He brought fire to mankind by stealing it from the Grey Eagle, the Snowy Owl or some other greedy individual. He forced the Man Who Sits on the Tides to get up twice a day, thus creating the cycles of high and low tides—and giving mankind access to seafood that would otherwise be inaccessible. He did all of this because he liked to upset things—and because he wanted to help mankind.

Both of these beings were considered tricksters and mischief-makers. Both of them had fundamentally changed the status quo, upsetting many of the established powers in the process. Both of them had worked and strived to help other people who needed assistance. I wasn't sure when Shepard had bought them, or whether he'd just picked them up in the midst of his constant thievery, but I found their presence rather fitting.

Looking around, I saw other things as well. A case holding replicas of all the medals and awards Shepard had earned during his years—though I almost missed that. It was tucked away in the corner, half-buried under a small mound of datapads. A small stack of books on a bookshelf behind his desk—which was rather surprising. During one of our conversations, Kasumi said Shepard had teased her for her stacks of books, the ones made centuries ago with paper pages and ink printing—next to a cage holding a miniature space hamster that Shepard had bought at the Citadel.

Enough distractions, I decided. I came here to find Shepard, not tour his room. Turning around, I palmed the door control to Shepard's bathroom. No, he wasn't there either. Where was he?

"Down here."

Following the voice, I stepped down into the lower level of Shepard's quarters, passing the large aquarium along the wall. That was one of my ideas, actually. I didn't know whether Shepard would actually buy any fish. For that matter, I wasn't sure if Shepard would actually remember to feed them. As it turned out, he did the former but had problems with the latter. At least, until the fish died. After that, and all the time and credits it took to find and buy replacements, his feeding schedules became extremely consistent.

Turning around, I saw why I couldn't see Shepard earlier: he was slouching on the sofa beneath the display case. His legs were propped up on the coffee table, the one holding the spherical artifact he recovered from a Prothean dig site on Kopis. I had to repress a shudder when I saw it, and not just because we had to kill a lot of Blue Sun mercenaries to get to it. Or the fact that one of the Cerberus scientists studying it was willing to sell it to the Collectors if they spared the colony where his wife lived. No, my unease was due to the fact that the relic was originally a lot larger. And by larger, I mean it had a diameter of roughly 7.62 metres. (7) When Shepard had touched it—because he just had to touch it—a ripple ran across its surface. Then, in a burst of green energy that rippled throughout the dig site—and beyond, as the Normandy's sensors recorded a massive data burst at the same time—the relic shrank to the size of a basketball. Naturally, Shepard insisted on taking it back with him. I spent the next few nights having nightmares of that relic abruptly returning to its original size and punching a hole through the hull.

Carefully stepping around the coffee table and the Prothean relic—I swear the thing glowed and briefly increased by 0.2 millimetres in diameter as I passed—I sat down beside Shepard. "Hey," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"Hey."

...

...

"You left early."

"I did."

...

...

"Felt like being alone?"

"Yeah."

...

...

Well, this was going well. "Still want to be alone?"

"Yeah."

Oh.

Um.

That hurt. More than it should have. "Well... okay," I said slowly, trying to keep the quavering out of my voice. "I-if you really, that is—I should go. Yeah, really—"

"Wait."

I froze halfway to a standing position. "Shepard?"

"Stay."

"Really?"

"Yeah."

Keeping the thought that he might be trying to talk to me like a dog, I sat back down. We sat there for another few minutes in silence. Maybe that was what he needed: someone who was willing to sit next to him and silently offer her support, without actually saying anything.

My resolve to test that particular hypothesis lasted three minutes and forty-eight seconds. At three minutes and forty-nine seconds, I decided that while this might be what he wanted, it wasn't what he needed. Time to try a different tack. "Why are you so ashamed of your medals?"

Shepard opened his eyes for the first time since I entered his quarters and stared at me in confusion. "What?"

"The medals and awards you received during your time in the Alliance," I elaborated. "Five Medals of Military Valour. Three Stars of Military Valour. The Cross of Military Valour. The Elysium Medal."

I noticed Shepard started to twitch. Clearly I was getting through to him. "The Combat Action Ribbon," I continued. "The Alliance Naval Expeditionary Medal. Two Terran Medals of Honour."

By this point, Shepard's hands had tightened into fists. "The N7 Achievement Medal. The Alliance Commendation Medal. The Star of Terra. The—"

"ALL RIGHT, ALREADY! I KNOW I'M A GODDAMNED HERO! I'VE ONLY BEEN TOLD A GAZILLION TIMES!"

A little more vehement than I expected—I'd never heard him raise his voice like that before—but at least I'd cracked his wall of silence. In addition, the way he'd jumped on the title of hero confirmed one of my theories on why the case of medals was so carelessly buried in the corner. "Why is it a big deal that you're called a hero?" I asked softly.

"Because of what it means," Shepard said bitterly—something else that was understandable, yet disturbingly new. "Every time I'm called a hero, it's just because I got stuck in something that smarter people would've seen and avoided. Every time some REMF pats me on the back and calls me a hero, they're just celebrating the fact that I had the dumb luck to survive, ignoring plenty of other people who deserved that praise more than I did. Every time some reporter or politician calls me a hero, it's just because no one could care to acknowledge the son, daughter, brother, sister, mother or father who never got to come home. Every time a parade was held in my honour, building was named after me or that godawful statue was raised, it just avoided the real issues in favour of something more sexy. It just... it doesn't mean anything anymore. Nothing that really matters." (8)

For the first time in, well, the first time that I could remember, I felt sorry for him. Sorry for someone other than myself, come to think of it. I racked my brain, devising all the things I could say to make him feel better. Naturally, it didn't take me long to generate a list. The choice that had the greatest probability of success, however, was something I'd thought of almost three years ago. Something about heroes in general and Shepard in particular.

"I used to think that too," I started. "I always thought heroes were just being rewarded for being too reckless. Or too blind to a universe that wasn't black and white. Or being smart enough to pull the wool over the eyes of people who were too gullible and stupid.

"But there's another kind of hero out there. One who goes above and beyond with words as well as deeds. One who stops to listen to people, no matter how big their credit account or what planet they came from. One who knows when to bend the little rules while holding fast and true to the ones that matter. One who looks past the facade, sees people for who they really are and encourages them to be their best... even when they don't think they deserve it.

"That's the kind of hero the galaxy needs more of. The hero who gives selflessly without any expectation of recognition or reward, even if he deserves all that and more. The kind of hero who makes life better one little act at a time, never realizing how much of a difference he will truly make.

"That's the kind of hero you are, Shepard," I finished, reaching over and turning his head towards me. "Don't lose sight of that." (9)

Shepard's mouth had dropped by this point. His eyes held this look of stunned bewilderment, as if he'd never heard these things before—from anyone. Sadly enough, he probably hadn't. "You... y-you really think that?" he whispered.

In response, I leaned forward and kissed him. And by kiss, I don't mean a little peck on the cheek out of friendship or casual affection. Not the smoldering, intense kiss full of sizzling delights and sinful promises. Just a simple, tender kiss that offered nothing but support. Fidelity.

And—most importantly—love.

When I pulled away, Shepard's eyes were still stunned. And swimming. A lone tear trickled down his cheek. I could've mentioned it. Or wiped it away. I could've done a lot of things.

Instead, I just pulled him into my arms and held him.

My mind told me that we stayed like that for nine minutes and forty-six seconds. The chronometer on my omni-tool would tell me, when I checked it later on, that we stayed like that for nine minutes, forty-six point one seconds.

My heart told me we stayed like that for what seemed like an eternity.

Eventually, Shepard stirred and pulled away. Not entirely, just enough to look me in the eye. "So."

"So," I echoed.

"Where do we go from here?"

With a start, I realized that I hadn't actually considered that. I started calculating and projecting all the possibilities. The result... surprised me. "I don't know," I finally admitted.

"Ditto," Shepard offered. He paused, then added "Doesn't that scare you?"

"It should," I replied, somewhat bewildered. "But... somehow it doesn't."

"Yeah," he nodded. "I know what you mean. I guess we'll just have to, well, improvise."

"Improvise," I repeated. From anyone else, that would have been cause for alarm. A sign that someone hadn't thought things through. From Shepard, however, that just seemed right.

"You know," I suddenly said, "there is something we could do. Well, you, actually."

"Go on," Shepard prompted.

"Tell me about yourself."

Shepard raised an eyebrow. "This coming from the woman with an IQ off the charts—"

"Not really," I disagreed. "It's actually—"

"The woman with a memory that only Thane or Kelly could beat," Shepard continued, as if I hadn't said anything. "The woman who spent two years poring through every record, report and certificate that ever had my name on it."

"That's me," I nodded. "I know all of that. And yet... there's so much I don't know about you. Things that aren't in any official record. Things I want to know because I... well, you know."

I'm not sure if he did know, but he managed to extrapolate my meaning. "All right," he nodded. "Hit me."

I did. Gently, of course. On his shoulder. A brief gasp of life from my atrophied sense of humour.

"Funny," Shepard deadpanned. "Seriously, what do you want to know? What's on your list?"

Naturally, I had generated a mental list by this point. Naturally, Shepard would know that. That was one of the things I was starting to love about him. "Well... what's with your name?"

"My name?"

"Yeah," I nodded. "Well, your first name."

"It's not really that important," Shepard claimed, clearly trying to dodge the question.

I wasn't about to let him off the hook that easily. "Your name is Chuck."

"So?"

"Your name is Chuck," I repeated.

"Legally, it's Charles," Shepard pointed out.

"I know that," I conceded. "But the few people who actually call you by your given name call you Chuck instead of Charles."

"My parents were sadists."

Shepard just couldn't stop joking, could he? "Uh huh."

Shepard looked away. His eyes started tearing up again. "Seriously, though, no one's called me Charles in ages. Not since my dad, anyway."

Oh.

Ah.

I'd read about him in the course of my research. Stephen Shepard. A brilliant engineer in fields ranging from electrical and mechanical to aerospace and naval, not to mention one of the pioneers in computer and software design. By all accounts, a gentle and extremely curious man—just like a certain commanding officer of my acquaintance—who deeply loved his wife and son despite his chronic absentmindedness. Not to mention his many eccentricities. He was well known for going off on some random trip every now and then, only to forget to tell anyone where he was going, what he was doing or when he would return.

The last time he did that was about nineteen years ago. This time, however, he never returned. An exhaustive investigation turned up no trace of him. For all intents and purposes, Stephen Shepard had vanished from the galaxy.

As far as I could tell, the only things Shepard had of his father were his childhood memories... and the name his father gave him. And I'd just dredged that up again, along with any residual questions Shepard might have had on why his father left him.

Good job, Miranda, I scolded myself. Yet another failure to add to your record. (10)

Hopefully, I could redeem myself. "From what I've uncovered, most people call you Shepard. Why is that?"

"Started in Basic," Shepard explained. "I wasn't complaining. It was better than Irving."

"True," I admitted. "Besides, calling someone by their given name is more common than their middle name. Except for nicknames, of course. Which reminds me—how did that come about?"

"What? 'Chuck'? It was Ellie's idea."

Hmm. Chuck. It seemed right, for some reason.

"Don't tell me that's your only question," Shepard said.

Of course it wasn't. Maybe the next question would be a little less painful. "Is there anything in your quarters that's missing? Something you would've liked to carry with you if you had transferred to the new Normandy?"

"Ignoring the little logistical issue of transferring from a crashed Alliance vessel to a Cerberus ship," Shepard snorted. I detected a wry note in his voice, much to my relief. It seemed like he had rebounded from whatever pain I'd inadvertently caused him. And any issues—well-deserved, I had to admit—he might have with Cerberus were not directed at me specifically. "Maybe the scope from my first sniper rifle. Little self-reminder to stay far, far away from trouble. I know, I know," he added, seeing the incredulous look on my face. "Clearly I was more than a little forgetful. Either that, or I had the worst luck ever. But just because I never actually succeeded, doesn't mean it wasn't worth trying." (11)

"True," I admitted. "You could say that about a lot of things, I suppose."

"Yeah. What's next?"

"Where did you get your taste in music from?"

"My mom," Shepard replied. "Apparently her teenage act of rebellion involved finding some music to enjoy that didn't come from 'yet another teenybopper virgin-to-slut act or some loud obnoxious rapper that grew up on the streets.'"

I made a sound of approval.

"Of course, she was equally complimentary about the classical music that was 'forced on her by people trying to make her into a proper young lady.' No offence."

"None taken. I can understand her resistance to something being forced on her," I commiserated.

"And the classical music part?" Shepard asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Well," I sighed, "I can't say I agree with her taste, but I suppose nobody's perfect."

Shepard was silent. It took me a moment to realize why.

Wow. (12)

"Um, uh, so," I stammered, trying to recover, "your mother was responsible for culturing your appreciation in twentieth and early twenty-first century music?"

"Yep."

I had to ask: "And your habit of hacking into comm systems and playing that music over the speakers?"

"That's actually all me. But Mom approved."

That bit of data provided some tentative support for my hypothesis on where Shepard got his humour from. "What about your favourite song?"

"Wow," Shepard marvelled. "You really do have a list, don't you?"

"Of course I do," I sniffed. "Besides, getting to know each other is what normal people do."

"'Normal people'?" Shepard snorted. "Since when were we 'normal'?"

"We're not," I conceded, "but it's as close to normal as we'll ever get." Which was kind of sad, anyway. I used to... well, despise is a bit strong. Overrated might be better. Yes, in the past, I found the whole concept of normalcy to be overrated. People being unable to perform mass relay transit calculations or simple arithmetic because they're too reliant on their omni-tools. Being obsessed about the latest celebutante scandal instead of current galactic events. Throwing a fit over the price of starship tickets when entire colonies were going dark. And yet, there were times when I wished I could view life that way. It must be so relaxing to have simple problems like that.

Which reminded me that I was trying to be somewhat normal. "By the way, I'm still waiting for an answer."

"Which I didn't give because I was too busy finding the concept of being normal hilarious," Shepard replied. "The answer to your question is Ella Fitzgerald's rendition of 'Mack the Knife'."

"That's a remarkably specific answer," I said. "Is there a reason for that particular selection?"

The way Shepard's eyes lit up told me that was the right question. Which was why I asked it, of course.

"Okay," he said eagerly, turning to face me. "Picture this: it's the year 1960. Ella Fitzgerald is giving a live jazz performance at the Deutschlandhalle in Berlin. She's starts singing "Mack the Knife"... only to forget the lyrics! Which would be bad enough in and of itself, but Mack the Knife started out as a song in a German musical that premiered in the Theater am Schiff... Schiffbau..."

"Theater am Schiffbauerdamm," I finished, rescuing Shepard from his attempts to butcher the German language.

"Right," Shepard nodded. "Which means it's more than a little embarrassing. So what does Ella do? She improvises."

"She made up new lyrics," I said.

"On the spot," Shepard confirmed. "And it paid off. She got through the performance. Everyone loved it. She won two Grammy awards the following year. And her album, 'Live in Berlin,' would later be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame!" (13)

"She was in a bad situation and couldn't run away. The only thing she could do was take the tools she had available and make the best of it," I summarized.

"Exactly," Shepard nodded approvingly.

"Just like you do on just about every mission," I realized. "That's why you enjoy jazz music."

"That's what you get to do in jazz," Shepard grinned. "You get to make stuff up when things go wrong. Or even when everything's under control. You have the freedom to wing it. There was this other jazz artist, Dianne Reeves, who once said 'Jazz is synonymous with freedom.' That's totally true. It's so flexible, so broad, so open. Real life's not like that. I wish it was, but it isn't always the case."

"And when things aren't as open-minded or flexible as you'd like, at least you have jazz to fall back on," I finished.

"You got it!" Shepard was so excited at how thoroughly I'd understood his story and his affection for that particular genre of music that he reached out and pulled me into a hug. I had to laugh at the sheer infectious enthusiasm of his embrace. Then I realized just how warm his arms were. And his chest. And his eyes...

...

...

Er. Um. Was it me, or had the temperature controls suddenly malfunctioned?

Shepard looked just as flustered—and aroused—as I did. It appeared that what I was experiencing was not an isolated phenomenon.

"You know, I've never really listened to any jazz music before."

Shepard blinked. So did I. Part of me was scolding myself for opening my big mouth. Why did I say that? If I hadn't been talking, there was a 69% chance that we'd be making out by now. And an 84% chance that we'd be tearing each other's clothes off—either immediately or in the very near future. Why did I ruin the mood? Why?

Maybe because Shepard clearly had a strong passion for jazz music. A very strong and private one, given that he'd never played any jazz until now. It would be nice, as his whatever-I-was, if I could have some of that. Not that I wanted to be someone who completely changed my habits and interests to suit someone else. But it would be nice if we shared something in common.

Shepard blinked again. "Never?" he asked, sounding like someone who had been told that the Easter Bunny wasn't real.

"No," I shook my head.

"Never?" Shepard repeated, looking like someone who just discovered that 'Santa Claus' was actually his parents.

"Sorry," I shrugged. "I don't have any experience with jazz. No favourite sub-genres or artists. Not even a favourite song."

"No favourite song," Shepard frowned. At least he'd moved on from repeating 'Never'. "We're going to have to do something about that."

He pulled away from me—and I cursed myself again for opening my big, genetically-tailored mouth—and activated his omni-tool. He started scrolling through his extensive list of music. "No," he muttered. "No... maybe... possibly... definitely not... no... maybe..." He shot me a look, then shook his head. "Nothing from this guy... no... doubt it... no... that could work…"

This went on for three minutes and seventeen seconds. I was about to tell him that it was all right, that there was no rush to find a song for me. Then I realized that no one had ever looked up or chosen a song for me before. No one had ever taken the time to do so. No one had ever cared enough to do anything like this. So I decided to keep my mouth shut and not spoil things like I had three minutes and, well, now it was three minutes and thirty-four seconds ago.

"No... heck, no... no... wait, wait, wait."

Shepard looked up, stared at me, looked back at his omni-tool. Jumping to his feet, he darted over to his sound system, passing another desk and the N7 helmet that he'd retrieved from the crash site of the first Normandy. He tapped a command on his omni-tool, froze, then slowly turned back to me.

"I think I've found the one," he said solemnly, giving one final tap of his omni-tool. "This is going to be your favourite jazz song."

I got to my feet as a woman's deep, tenor voice poured out of the speakers.

"Birds flying high, you know how I feel.
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel."

A smile spread over my face as I listened. "I like this," I admitted softly.

"Breeze driftin' on by, you know how I feel."

"Well," Shepard whispered, perhaps not wanting to ruin the mood, "that's a good start."

I had to agree. Especially when we kissed. Again and again and again.

"It's a new dawn,
It's a new day,
It's a new life for me.
Yeah, it's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life for me.
Oooohhh... and I'm feeling good."

Somehow we ended up on Shepard's bed. We stared up at the ceiling, listening in content as the woman crooned in the background. The warmth of her voice was matched only by the warmth of our bodies. The nurturing, comforting, primal joy found by fulfilling the need to be touched. The simple pleasure of a gentle embrace, one that offered safety. Comfort. Love.

An indeterminate amount of time passed before we looked at each other again.

"Stars when you shine, you know how I feel."

Shepard gave me a goofy little grin before raising his arm. Taking his cue, I pressed against him, snuggling under his chin as his arm wrapped around me.

"Scent of the pine, you know how I feel."

I didn't know how long this would last.

"Oh freedom is mine."

I didn't know what the future had in store for us.

"And I know how I feel."

But as Shepard tucked a stray lock of hair from my eyes…

"It's a new dawn."

…and I leaned in to kiss him again…

"It's a new day."

...I realized none of that mattered.

"It's a new life."

Shepard and I were together. Right here. Right now.

"For me."

And that was good enough.

"I'm feeling good!" (14)


(1): Naturally, Miranda would touch upon that—and recall just how long it lasted.

(2): Shepard never explained how it was that Joker and his squad wound up in the cargo bay. This account fills in that particular blank.

(3): To be fair, it hadn't occurred to the vast majority of sapients either.

(4): One wonders at how similar Garrus and Shepard were.

(5): No doubt Miranda hoped that Tali would have more luck convincing Garrus than he did.

(6): Shepard later revealed that that melody was a rendition of 'Stella by Starlight' played by George Benson and the McCoy Tyner Trio. Incidentally, while Shepard mentioned his fondness for jazz music in past reports, this was the first time someone else had come across him listening to it.

(7): Readers may recall that Shepard encountered a similar relic on Eletania, during his hunt for Saren. (8): Shepard had mentioned his reluctance to call himself a hero before. This would be the first time he was so brutally honest about why he disliked that title.

(9): I couldn't have put it better myself.

(10): Miranda was too hard on herself. By modern standards, his first name was rather unusual.

(11): Readers will recall that Shepard's mother had a different explanation for this particular piece of equipment. She believed it was his way of literally and figuratively 'seeing' where he came from, where he was, and where he was going. In other words, a way of gauging how much he had grown and changed over the years and what he could look forward to. One is hard-pressed to determine which explanation holds the greater truth.

(12): Quite.

(13): Ella Fitzgerald won the awards forBest Female Vocal Performance (Single) and Best Vocal Performance, Female (Album) at the 3rd Grammy Awards, held on April 13th, 1961. Her live album, 'Ella in Berlin,' would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

(14): 'Feeling Good,' written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse. The version Shepard played for Miranda, sung by Nina Simone, was released in 1965.