Author's note:

This is undergoing a rewrite, so there may be the occasional minor continuity error and you'll likely see a shift in writing quality or style at some point when you hit the originally posted chapters.

"Keelah, this is insane!"

Those four simple words had led to a rather lively exchange while the Mako had bounced, hopped, swerved, and performed every stomach-lurching move Shepard could muster, all while under fire from four geth colossi as they sped toward a miniature mass relay. The words were no stranger to Tali'Zorah's mind, but she usually kept them from escaping her lips. She had always been proud of her ability to keep her composure, doing her best to emulate her commander and the centuries-old krogan battlemaster in their team, but the situation had progressively been escalating from bad to worse. Much worse.

Leaping thousands of light-years in a split second in a starship designed for such travel had always been a nearly unbelievable act, even to a brilliant young quarian engineer who understood the theory. Doing it in a light tank designed for planetary surfaces – and poorly designed at that, in her opinion – was nothing short of insane. She'd held her tongue as long as she was able, even when her asari companion had been repeatedly asking the commander if they were really about to take a ground vehicle through a relay, but when Shepard hopped the Mako over a siege pulse that would have obliterated their shields, her mouth had moved independent of her brain.

"We'll be fine!" had been Shepard's terse reply. When they found themselves in an overturned tank on the darkened, burning Citadel, she had become a believer. Even when they advanced along the outside of the tower leading to the Council chambers while a two-kilometer dreadnought clung to its apex, she still believed. But when an immense piece of smoldering wreckage from that dreadnought crashed through the window of the chambers, she knew his quickly uttered promise hadn't been kept in its entirety. 'We' had become 'you'.

Tali stared into the darkness of their prison beside Liara in silence. The asari had roused her from unconsciousness half an hour before, terribly relieved, but it had only taken a moment for them to remember the events that had left them trapped in a cage of Sovereign's wreckage. They had watched while turian and human ships fired dozens of merciless volleys into the sapient dreadnought, finally bursting it open in a storm of fire and angry red energy discharges that left them cheering. Beside them, Shepard had been quiet, but the small, tight smile on his lips was the first one in days that she had seen free of the tension that had weighed him down since the loss of one of their own. It had been over; their mission was accomplished, the galaxy was saved from the Reaper invasion, and they could all go on the shore leave their commander had promised.

But that happy moment had lasted only seconds. The tension had suddenly returned to Shepard's face, azure eyes opening wide while he yelled at them to move. His strong hands on been on their backs, propelling them from the window with every ounce of strength and biotic energy he could muster, and the last Tali had seen of him was a dim shadow of charcoal grey diving in a futile attempt to escape ten metric tons of metal.

She couldn't even muster the energy to protest the injustice of it all. Tali was vaguely aware of Liara's hesitant, quivering voice but didn't hear the words. Even the flickering of the light on the asari's omni-tool didn't stir her. A half hour passed in agonizing slowness, but she was lost in memories of three months spent on a human ship. Three months of combat, pain, stress, and fear. But there had also been camaraderie, pride, excitement, and friendship.

Tali finally moved, her head shaking slowly while she recalled their human commander and felt the weight of his gift to her in an arm pocket of her suit. The key to her return to the Migrant Fleet, it was a pilgrimage gift greater than almost any that had been given before. But it felt like little more than a ruined memory. She, a quarian, branded as a thief or vagrant by the galaxy, had been given a priceless gift by the first alien to have ever trusted her completely.

But she would have traded it in a heartbeat to bring him back from the dead.

"Wait, you thought he was dead?"

The mischievous, incredulous voice broke Tali from the events she'd been recounting and she looked up to see Jeff Moreau grinning at her, a bit of white foam clinging to his mustache and beard. "You did, didn't you?"

"Oh, shut up," Tali muttered, quickly busying herself with reinserting the straw attached to her drink through her mask while the others at the table had a laugh at her expense. Shepard's respected reputation as a soldier had only grown since he was inducted into the ranks of the Spectres and the crew had begun to joke that their commander could only be killed by a silver bullet fired from a consecrated gun forged during a solar eclipse. The pulsing music of Flux was subtly muted in deference to the assembly of heroes that had the club all to themselves, but Tali found herself wishing it was louder.

"Prothean beacons, buried nukes, a Reaper-possessed Spectre... he survived all that, and you thought a chunk of debris got him?" Garrus' flanging voice was dry and amused, and he took another sip of his drink while he leaned back in his chair.

"You're forgetting the hundred krogan," Ashley added, slapping Wrex's armored shoulder. The immense krogan opened his toothy maw in a wide grin.

"Bah. Nothing but cannon fodder. Me, on the other hand? I-"

"Have looks and breath that would make a geth colossus flee in terror, Wrex."

The occupants of the table looked up with smiles and laughs when their commander walked up, one arm in a sling and the other clutching a large mug of dark beer. "What's the topic? Aside from Wrex's generally hideous appearance, that is."

While Shepard dropped into his chair, Karin Chakwas eyed Tali and Liara with a sly grin. "Oh, they were poking fun at Tali for believing you had met your end beneath a few metric tons of scrap metal."

Over the course of three months he had become quite adept at reading the quarian's body language, by necessity given that her mouth was hidden by a vocal modulator and only a hint of her features were revealed through the tinted glass of her visor. The tension in her shoulders and the lowering of her eyes made him grin. Embarrassment, was it? Well, he wouldn't let her suffer alone.

"She wasn't the only one. You should have seen Anderson and Liara's faces."

While the blue-skinned asari tried to hide her faint blush with a roll of her eyes, the others laughed and Joker grinned wide. "I knew it. See, when I saw that huge chunk hit the Presidium Spire I knew Shepard would dodge it or punch it back into space or something, but Liara and Tali? Yeah, heart attacks." The teased quarian and asari exchanged smirks.

"Hardly," Liara replied smoothly. "We were too busy nimbly and heroically dodging debris to be worried about some human."

"Uh huh," Joker replied doubtfully before turning his gaze to Shepard with mischief in his eyes. "So which of them got all teary-eyed and hugged you first? And was there dramatic music playing?"

Shepard leaned back in his chair with a calm smile, drumming the fingertips of his right hand on his mug while the squad waited. After a long moment he simply shrugged and nodded his head toward Tali and Liara. "Ask them."

The two harassed females glared at their commander for a few seconds but Tali finally sighed and answered first, folding her arms while she looked back at Joker. "Anderson."

"But there were no tears," Shepard added between sips, putting an appropriately gruff tone in his voice. "And it was a manly hug, of course."

"You're joking," Garrus remarked dryly, accompanying his disbelief with a swallow of turian ale while Ash smirked and Joker shook his head.

Tali stood fast, laughing. "I'm serious. No, forget all about his friends, the ones he dragged across the galaxy, the ones he almost got crushed by an ancient sapient dreadnought with a creepy voice-"

"It reminded me of Wrex's voice, actually," Shepard interjected, flashing a crooked smile over the rim of his mug while the krogan downed another half liter of beer. Joker gave him a knowing grin, though, and the girls his input, giving his commander some defense.

"Yeah, well, Anderson and Shepard go back a long ways."

"Riiight," Garrus drawled, "I think it's more likely he just took the safe route and avoided playing favorites."

He resisted the urge to chuckle at Tali and Liara's subtle squirming. The crew seemed to have an inordinate fascination with his relationship with the two women after they'd fallen asleep in his cabin on the way to Ilos. "It wasn't that," Shepard spoke up with another relaxed smile, gazing over at Liara and Tali. "I just knew they'd overlook my broken arm and try to crush me through my armor." He couldn't help it. They were both rather precious when they got embarrassed.

Liara blushed subtly, a deeper shade of blue coloring her cheeks, and Tali's fingers wriggled together atop the table, but the quarian smirked beneath her mask and turned toward the asari. "Liara did that anyway. But you know... I think Shepard might have squeaked out a little yelp." Turning to the commander, she blinked her eyes playfully while he glared at her.

Wrex laughed and slapped his mug back on the table while Joker sighed and slid a credit chit across the table to him. The krogan pocketed it with a toothy grin. That earned a curious arch of a brow from Shepard, who poked Tali's side under the table and elicited a quiet yelp. "Joker, did you really bet against Wrex? I told you he was crafty."

"Yeah, well, Garrus said Tali was a sure thing," Joker grumbled, but he snickered despite his loss when he saw Tali's helmet drooping slightly, a sure sign of her own blush. Liara patted a two-fingered hand atop the table in consolation.

"That'll teach you to trust C-Sec," Ash said, laughing and tossing back the remains of her drink. Shepard smiled at the embarrassed asari and quarian.

"So, Joker... how does it feel to be the pilot who blew apart a two-kilometer dreadnought with dreams of galactic conquest?" Shepard mercifully changed the subject with a grin as he reached across to pat Liara and Tali's hands, earning a warm smile and a gaze from shrouded silver eyes that twinkled a little brighter beneath their mask.

"Oh, man, I'm going to be the poster boy for the Alliance Navy for years!" Joker exclaimed, drawing a round of rolling eyes.

"What do you mean, you can't dance?" Ashley set her hands on her hips and stared imperiously down at her commander who sat alone at the table. The others had gathered at the bar or on the dance floor, leaving him free to watch them enjoy themselves with a smile on his lips. Contentedly people-watching his crew had become one of his pastimes, something picked up from his mentor.

"Just what it sounds like, Ash. Your commander has a fatal flaw: he can't coordinate himself anywhere but on a battlefield."

"Sounds like an excuse to me, Commander," Ash teased, taking his hand in hers and gently tugging him to his feet while he laughed softly. He should have known she wouldn't take no for an answer. Despite putting a gentle end to the flirtation that had arisen shortly after meeting her, they had a tendency to banter good-naturedly. He had a feeling she sometimes did it in the name of a little wicked humor at Tali and Liara's expense but never voiced that thought. Wisely, to his thinking.

"Officers aren't afforded the luxury of excuses," he chided, accompanying her toward the dance floor where Liara, Tali, and Garrus were laughing and dancing... or at least two of them were. Garrus really did look like he had a stick up his ass, Shepard observed with a sinister chuckle, earning a smirk from Ash when she determined the focus of his amusement.

"At least he's trying, Skipper." She tugged him onto the dance floor by his good arm and poked him on the hip while he rolled his eyes at her. "Move those hips...sir. Remember, no excuses," she teased with a grin, falling smoothly into a rhythm in time to the music while Shepard sighed theatrically and did the same.. in his own way. He tended to avoid dancing whenever possible.

"You'd better remember that when you're attending Officer Candidate School, Williams."

The straightforward way he spoke the words made the swaying of her hips stop. She stared at him for a moment, then curled her lips into a smirk and shook her head. "Very funny, Commander, but you're not getting out of this that easily."

Shepard ceased his poor imitation of dancing and held up his good arm in front of the hand emerging from the sling, tapping on his omni-tool and pulling up a document for Ash to view. She rolled her eyes but leaned in to scan the document anyways while he only watched, smirking mischievously when she leaned back up and turned to stare at him. "Orders.. to report to OCS next month."

"Signed by Admiral Hackett, Commander of the Fifth Fleet, at the recommendation of Commander Shepard, Spectre, Galactic Savior, et cetera," he confirmed, but her stunned expression didn't leave her face. Chuckling, he shut down the omni-tool and set a hand on her waist, nudging her back into motion. "Ash, I chased a rogue Spectre across the galaxy, defeated an incredibly powerful dreadnought, and got humanity a seat on the Council... according to the media, at least. Family curses are as much of an obstacle to me now as a salarian would be between Wrex and a buffet table."

His sense of humor had made Ash groan before, but this time she only smiled, wrapping her arms around him in a hug. To his surprise, it was rather gentle on his wounded side. And to his utter shock, there was a hint of moisture in the corners of her eyes.

"See? I am getting rid of you that easily," he said, ignoring the breach in protocol and returning her hug while Joker grinned across the room at him from the table, already in the know.

Ash sniffed and leaned away after a long moment, chuckling quietly and shaking her head while trying valiantly to keep the emotion out of her voice. "I'm only going if you've got a second set of orders ready to reassign me to the Normandy when I'm commissioned."

"You don't get to make demands, Chief." His emphasis on her rank made her step away, glare, and fold her arms defiantly across his chest. He only laughed. Setting a hand on her shoulder, he guided her her toward their friends who were waiting with smiles on their faces.

"I take it she knows?" Liara asked, beaming. Shepard's own smile wasn't only the result of having made Ashley's night, but from finding the isolated aliens he'd brought aboard enjoying the friendships they'd formed with each other. Some of the tension had taken a while to break, along with one round of bellowing at Ashley and Pressly over indiscreet comments about quarians.

"She knows," Ashley answered with a husky voice before she renewed her glare at the Spectre by her side. "But I told him I'm not going unless I'm returning to the Normandy when I'm done."

Shepard waved a hand dismissively. "I'm sure you can hitch a ride to Ilos from an Alliance research vessel. Anderson might hate me for making him a politician, but I'm sure he'll lean on Hackett again if I ask."

Liara's head and eyes perked up at the very mention of the planet rich in Prothean ruins and she spoke up before anyone else had a chance. "Ilos? We're going back to Ilos?"

"Right, because one visit to a ruined planet with creepy art wasn't enough," Garrus remarked dryly. Liara ignored him, smiling with barely contained anticipation at the commander.

"Hackett wants us to do a sweep for geth leftovers for a couple of weeks, and the Alliance Navy will be busy rebuilding and repairing, but he agreed that a prothean expert and a man who had their cipher burned into his brain would make a good addition to the archaeological team that will be sneaking through the Terminus in a couple of months. Disguised and all that, of course."

"Shepard, I... I don't know what to say," Liara's smile was as soft as her voice, but he waved his hand again and then pointed at Ash.

"Just do me a favor and keep her from trying to make me dance again. She's too damned bossy."

The others laughed at the dangerous smirk on Ashley's lips but Tali quickly stepped over and grabbed his right hand, tugging him off with a grin evident in her voice. "You didn't ask her to keep me from dancing with you."

"Oh, hell," Shepard lamented, but he was laughing while Tali dragged him out to the middle of the floor, silver eyes sparkling up at him behind her visor. That expression, half-hidden as it was, was still enough to coax some movement from his hips while they smiled at each other. There was something about the young quarian engineer that had continued to grow on him, and he rarely found himself more content than when he was sitting with her discussing anything from ships to music.

Back on the sidelines, Garrus draped his arms onto Liara and Ash's shoulders.

"So, ladies..." They turned their gazes away from their commander and the graceful young quarian to glance suspiciously at the turian. "Which one of you wants the consolation prize of a dance with Wrex?"

"I heard that!" a deep voice bellowed from the vicinity of the bar.

Garrus had accompanied Wrex up into the hills and toward the mountain that loomed over them after the krogan had insisted on killing his own lunch, to the horror of the good doctor and the vegetarian quarian. Shepard, though, was under strict orders to do nothing but relax, walk, or wade, earning a bit of mockery from the hunters and leaving him at the mercies of the Normandy's tyrannical physician. "No hiking, no swimming, and absolutely no lifting!" Chakwas had ordered with the full attention of the crew, much to Joker's amusement.

"Welcome to my world, Commander!" their pilot had teased, receiving a wry smile and a shooing wave of the hand in return. Joker had obeyed eagerly as he accompanied Liara into the water for one of the few exercises he had at his disposal. Shepard couldn't help but admire the shapely curves of the blue-skinned body beneath the snug one-piece bathing suit the asari had picked up on the Citadel, but he'd torn his eyes away and chuckled at himself after a moment. Having half his ground team made up of curvaceous females had been enough of a distraction even when they were in armor or envirosuits. He should have known better than to pick a beach for their well-deserved shore leave. Though he supposed being a Spectre gave him some freedom from chain of command issues, falling into old bad habits hadn't seemed like a good idea while they were dashing from one part of the galaxy to another in a mission of galactic importance. Still, that seemed less important as time went by. And some of the hand-to-hand instruction had been rather... engaging.

Pushing thoughts of toned females aside, Shepard closed his eyes beneath the warmth of Bekenstein's sun and lay back on the towel draped over the sand. He took a slow, deep breath, feeling only the faintest of twinges from his recovering ribs and nothing at all from his mending arm, though he was careful to obey Chakwas' orders and leave it tucked in against his side when out of the sling. "Aw, come on, Doc, you can't let him get tan lines!" Ash had protested with a grin over at the smirk he'd shot her. But Chakwas had only laughed and given her assent, albeit with conditions. It was good enough, he thought as he laid out in the sun, eyes closed. Idly, he wondered how Anderson was doing in his new position as Councilor. No doubt he was cursing the name of his protege and lamenting the day he'd first met him as a troubled young lieutenant while they'd both been on shore leave on the Citadel. He hadn't realized it at the time, but that would end up being one of the best events in his life.

"Why did you join the Alliance, Lieutenant?" Anderson had asked as they stood leaning against the railing, gazing out through the windows of the wards at the glow of the Widow Nebula. The commander was relaxed, his voice calm and level, but Shepard was another story. He was tense, agitated, always taking glimpses of his surroundings. While he'd gazed out into the stellar gasses, he hadn't really cared about the view, a fact that the perceptive commander had picked up easily.

"To see space. To fight pirates, protect the Alliance. Family legacy." Shepard shrugged. "The same reasons most join, I suppose." Not that he had done much of that in the previous year, after recovering from the thresher maw disaster on Akuze and attending ICT where he earned his N1 designation. When he'd finished, he had discovered that the Alliance had carried out a retaliatory raid against batarian pirates on Torfan. It was an opportunity missed that had been gnawing at him, one that left him frustrated and reconsidering his future in the Alliance.

"Hmm," Anderson had hummed in a tone that revealed his skepticism. "I guess I can understand that. And you've done all of it. But here you are, ready to resign your commission. It doesn't seem to me that you've gotten any satisfaction out of it, despite saving thousands of lives on Elysium and seeing a lot of the galaxy."

Even though there was something about Anderson that had made it alarmingly easy to open up a bit, irritation came quickly to him at being psychoanalyzed. He pushed off the rail with a humorless snort. "Guess not."

"Killing all those batarians didn't give you the satisfaction you wanted, did it?" Anderson spoke as he continued gazing out the window, his voice even. "Your father and sister are still dead, your platoon still died on Akuze, and you're still just going through the motions." Anderson's words made Shepard tense in anger and open his mouth, but the commander kept speaking as he lightly pushed off the railing and turned to gaze at the younger man. "What are you living for, Lieutenant? To kill? To earn another Star of Terra?" He shrugged, ignoring Shepard's clenched fists and turning his head to gaze out the window again. "I'm living for views like this. To hear the laughter of my men on shore leave, to watch mothers point out the stars to their children. To listen to music, taste a new vintage of wine." Anderson shrugged and leaned forward against the rail once more. "It's not much, really, but they're my reasons, and they make me smile. If getting what you claim you wanted through service still doesn't satisfy you, then maybe you are in the wrong line of work."

Shepard's smile returned when the memory came to an end and he became aware of the heat of the sun on his face again, remembering the simple pleasure he used to have on Mindoir feeling the snowflakes falling on his cheeks as he laid back in the snow. He still preferred the cold, much to Wrex and Tali's horror on Noveria, but there was something peaceful about the intensity of the sun's rays and the ferocity of its light. Not to mention the voice that spoke up as something rustled quietly beside him, a soft accented timbre that always made him smile.

"You know, you're stuck up here on the beach but you're smiling," the faintly mechanical voice observed. "I think I have a better chance understanding why Garrus talks to his rifle than why you smile with a half-broken arm. And when you're shooting geth in the face with a shotgun."

Shepard didn't have to open his eyes to know Tali was sitting on the sand beside him with her arms wrapped around her bent knees. Over the span of three months she had become a wonderful friend, happy to stay awake with him deep into the night when his worries stirred him from his bed. Their conversations about anything and everything had distracted him from the stress of learning to be a captain and the leader of a team of aliens while pursuing one of the most dangerous beings in the galaxy. Teasing her when she butchered some of the idioms of his native language and spending hours talking about their lives had been quite enjoyable as well. Shrugging his bare shoulders, he adjusted his good hand where it cushioned the back of his head. "Liara smiles with the sun on her face, and Wrex does the same during a good fight. Maybe I'm part asari and part krogan."

"And part quarian," Tali teased, lying back on the sand beside him while he smirked with closed eyes. "I've never seen anyone blow apart a squad of mercs and scrounge through their weapons and mods like you do."

Shepard grunted and shook his head. "In case you hadn't noticed, I had to buy or scavenge almost all of our weapon and armor upgrades. I don't know if that turian councilor was just being a bosh'tet ," Tali smiled at the word, "or if they enjoy sending their elite agents out undergunned and underarmored."

"Maybe both?" she offered. Shepard laughed again, arching his back and stretching his arms out, jerking at a jolt of pain when his left moved too far from his side.

"Ach... damnit." He pulled his arm back in against his side with a grimace, but felt a tingle on his skin when a three-fingered hand slid gently onto his bicep. He opened his eyes to see Tali's silver orbs gazing through her visor at him with what he was reasonably sure was concern. Sometimes she was hard to read even for him. It was equally curious that his skin was so sensitive to the light touch of a gloved hand, and had been for a long time.

"Are you all right?" she asked softly, her accented voice soothing. Yes, that was definitely concern, gentle enough to warm his heart. He smiled and opened his mouth to reply but another accented female voice answered first.

"Oh, he's fine. He's just playing for sympathy since he can't go swimming," Karin Chakwas teased, folding her bare arms across her chest as Tali and Shepard looked her way, the latter with a grin.

"You know, it's a wonder I managed to get any work done, surrounded by such beautiful women," he stated in a tone that was both gallant and playful, bringing a smirk to the doctor's lips and a laugh from her throat while she shook her head.

"Flattery won't get you anywhere, Commander. At least, not with me. I may be wearing a swimsuit, and putting younger women to shame at that, but I'm still your doctor and mother hen and I say no swimming."

He shrugged his shoulders in resignation and laid his head back down. "Oh well. It was worth a shot."

Chakwas laughed again and walked over to reach down toward his good hand, which he took as she helped him up. "Well, you can at least take Tali wading. She'll make sure a current doesn't finish the job Sovereign started. Come on, now." Tali stood as well but hesitated before Karin grinned at her. "Airtight equals waterproof, Tali. You need to get that sand off you anyway. Besides, you can duck your head underwater and watch the fish."

Tali smiled behind her visor and set a hand gently on Shepard's shoulder, accompanying the commander and doctor to the shore where they waded into the warm water. Ash, Liara, and Joker waved from where they were submerged up to their shoulders. "Damn it, and here I was all by myself with the ladies," Joker protested dramatically. Ashley shoved him playfully, sending him bumping into Liara and promptly triggering a return volley.

"Stop complaining, Joker," Shepard groused halfheartedly. "You can at least swim."

"Hey, you're the one that doesn't get to complain... sir," Joker shot back. "You're only a cripple for a few days, and then you can go back to beating up krogan and walking around the ship without worrying about snapping your tibia." Joker took a deep breath and floated on his back alongside Liara with a contented smile.

"Shepard, please refrain from engaging in fistfights with any krogan while on shore leave," Karin requested dryly. "I rather think I've earned a reprieve from patching you up."

Shepard smirked at her. "I see how it is. My well-being is a priority only because it keeps you from having to do your job."

"And if you did your job properly, you wouldn't spend so much time in my medbay!"

He sighed and shook his head, turning to Tali. "It's nice to feel appreciated."

"Don't feel bad, Shepard," she said brightly. "I appreciate you."

He eyed her with mock suspicion. "You're not just saying that because I'm the reason your Pilgrimage is going to be an epic success, are you?"

Tali shrugged innocently, looking away at an empty expanse of blue water. "Oh, look! Is that a fish?"

Shepard smirked and reached under the water, grabbing her leg behind her knee and upending her with a splash. Tali burst to the surface a moment later with a cry of 'bosh'tet!' and promptly began chasing the laughing Spectre, who had wisely already begun retreating in a storm of splashing despite Chakwas' loud objections.

Too absorbed with the spectacle of their injured commander being chased by his soaking wet engineer, no one noticed Wrex's victorious cry of 'Dinner!' from the shore where he had a dead furry quadruped slung over his hump.

Shepard sighed and tugged the right side of his dress uniform down for the fifth time while he waited with the others for the ceremony to start. If his clothing woes continued he would have to ask Chakwas to whip out old-fashioned sutures and stitch the damned uniform jacket to the waistband of his pants. Anderson had been insistent that he wear full dress, including the dozen medals now pinned to the left side of his chest. Fortunately, his Star of Terra hung around his neck instead of adding to the unbalanced weight. Beside him a muted, accented voice teased him quietly.

"Shepard, you can handle bitchy reporters and hostile admirals, but you can't manage your own clothing?"

He flicked his eyes over to see Tali's silver gaze on him, giving her an almost imperceptible grin with one half of his mouth. "It's not my fault they don't issue these things with counter ballast on the right side. A kilo's worth of metal pinned to one side of your chest makes for balance problems." His mischievous azure eyes lowered to take in the sight of her red and black Kassa Fabrication combination envirosuit and armor, practically gleaming from the polishing Tali had given it. "I'd tell you to try it, but I'm guessing it would take a dreadnought to loosen that suit of yours."

Her head followed her eyes, dropping with embarrassment. She still felt somewhat mortified that he'd spent so much money on her suit, a sum that would have kept the Rayya fueled for months. Shepard had waved off her protests by making the simple point that her home ship would cease to exist alongside the rest of the Migrant Fleet if Saren succeeded in his mission.

Still, practicality aside, she had to admit that she was rather fond of the dangerously elegant look of the black and crimson armor. She was well aware their functional suits were snug and rather flattering to the female quarian figure, but having it mentioned by him left her fingers twitching at her sides and her cheeks burning with warmth. He had a way of making almost any comment about her feel like flirtation, an observation she'd shyly shared with Karin Chakwas at one time when he had left the medbay after checking in on her and making her blush with a warm squeeze of her hand. The doctor had only laughed and suggested she enjoy it... and respond in kind. She'd had no idea how to reply to that, opting to remain silent and blush behind her mask.

Squaring her shoulders, Tali shrugged and glanced sidelong at him, deciding to take the older woman's advice. "Don't feel bad, Shepard; it's okay. I'm sure there are plenty of other things frigates are good at."

She grinned wickedly when she saw his jaw drop for a split second. Recovering quickly, he smirked at her and arched an amused brow. "Oh, I don't know," he murmured, "sometimes subtlety is a lot more effective than a frontal charge. Take the asari, for example. You don't see horny aliens of every species fawning over krogan, do you?"

Tali's own jaw dropped behind her mask at the same time that Joker choked down a snicker and Liara shot Shepard a glare. He simply shrugged innocently and returned to attention when Admiral Hackett stepped up and gave a small hopeless shake of his head. "Commander, it's about to begin. Let's make the Alliance look good, shall we?"

"Yes sir," he replied smoothly. Satisfied, Hackett continued on his way though Tali saw a tiny grin curl the grizzled admiral's scarred lip.

"Commander Shepard, please step forward."

Councilor Tevos' smooth asari voice projected through the open, elegant room of the Council Chambers, bringing the gathering of soldiers and spectators to silence. Shepard's small smile fell away into an impassive mask, his chin lifting in proper military fashion. Protocol, however, didn't stop him from hesitating just long enough to get in the last word.

"Honestly, though, I don't think asari could make those envirosuits look half as good," he murmured, giving her a subtle wink before he stepped out of line and made his way in long, unhurried strides toward the petitioner's stage.

Tali was so flustered that she didn't notice Liara's sidelong stare and she missed half of Tevos' speech. Instead she found herself staring at Shepard's back, nervously wondering how to interpret his comments while Hackett draped a second Star of Terra around his neck and replaced the half-stripe on his shoulders with the third full stripe of a Staff Commander. By the time Sparatus had grudgingly pinned the turian Nova Cluster to Shepard's chest and Valern did the same for the salarian Silver Dagger, she was absently chewing on her lip and smiling widely alongside the others.

Somehow, Joker managed to maintain his Alliance discipline while Shepard made his way down the lineup of his crew, standing proudly at attention when his commander did the honors of pinning on the medals. Tali was envious of the pilot's composure, her toes clenching inside her boots while she struggled to keep her fingers from wriggling.

"Relax," Shepard murmured when he stepped before her. "I promise I won't puncture your suit. ...I think."

She glared at him with all the expression she could muster from behind her tinted visor but he was unfazed, attaching the medals to the top of the black fabric that draped over her right breast. She was once again grateful for the duraglass that concealed her burning cheeks but she smiled when he saluted her before moving on to Liara. Glancing down at the two gleaming awards pinned to her chest, she felt her chest swell with pride and wondered if her father would be as proud as her commander when he watched the recording of the ceremony.

"Cheater!" Liara accused him, laughing despite herself when Shepard tackled into her from behind after launching off the deck. Wrapping his arms around her waist while she bent over and hugged the ball tighter to her chest, he fought to tear it loose. Both of them floated across the hangar toward the opposite bulkhead in the almost nonexistent gravity that served as part of the evening's entertainment.

Shepard grinned and rolled them to take the soft impact across his back while he popped the ball free. "Don't blame me if you can't understand the rules," he teased, tossing the brown oval toward Wrex while fending the asari off with his free arm. The ball turned in a wobbly spiral as it flew straight to the krogan who waited near the 'end zone' by the hangar belly door. Garrus pushed off the deck to try to intercept it, but Wrex growled menacingly and grabbed the turian's leg to tug him down before he caught the ball cleanly and touched the door.

"Never challenge a krogan, even if the sport is bloodless," Shepard observed. Joker and Tali cheered, to the mild annoyance of Liara, Garrus, Ashley, Pressly, and Adams. Garrus had initially protested the uneven balance of the teams, claiming he needed no charity, but that argument had died quickly when they fell behind. Wrex grinned toothily over at the turian as he tossed the ball his way.

"We're up by two, Garrus. You should learn to listen to Shepard." The battlemaster smirked and pushed off the door, floating back toward the middle of the hangar to line up again. If anyone was shocked to see the ancient, gruff krogan participating in such a lighthearted contest, no one voiced the words.

"I bet Wrex just found a way to use biotics without the glow," Garrus huffed.

"If he did, he didn't tell me," Liara muttered, but she smiled when Shepard's arm slid around her waist. Pushing off the wall, he carried her along with him back to the deck before biotically nudging her toward Ashley with a faint blue glow from his hands. It was all the dark energy he could muster, sadly.

"Or me," he replied with a wink, clasping Tali's wrist while she pulled him down onto his feet on the deck, eyes sparkling behind her visor. Her magnetized boots were technically cheating, but her long-winded and nebulous argument in her own defense had been too clever and endearing to fight.

"No one ever told me low-grav sports could be this fun," Ash said happily as she and Liara slowly tumbled away after colliding. Pressly and Adams were quick to catch them, grinning as wide as the others.

"How do you think I manage to stay in shape without snapping all my bones?" Joker asked wryly as both teams settled back down and lined up. "We don't exactly have a swimming pool on board."

"If you were a biotic, keeping weight off would be easy," Liara said, yelping when Ashley pinched her slender forearm.

"I guess that explains why you're so skinny without ever joining me at the weights," she teased. Liara simply smirked and set her hands on her hips.

Shepard laughed, gesturing at Pressly to center the ball. "Enough yammering. Wrex and I aren't leaving until we're up by ten."

An hour later, with the gravity dialed back up, they were all lounging around the hangar wiping sweat from their foreheads and sipping drinks. Some were grinning, others were scowling, but there was little conviction behind the losers' expressions. Shepard's remark about being up by ten had turned out to be accurate, and he and Wrex leaned against the weapons lockers, arms folded while they looked out at the crew.

"They're a good krantt, Shepard. It's been an honor being part of it," Wrex rumbled quietly.

"The honor's been mine, Wrex. But... I'm guessing you've got business to attend to." He turned his head toward the krogan with a faint smile. He'd known it was coming, and they'd already suffered the loss of Kaidan, but the breaking of the team stole some of the happiness of the day. It was a reminder that vacations didn't last forever and there was work to be done. In the case of the Normandy and her crew, it was work with what seemed like an impossible goal: permanently stopping the Reapers. Shepard fought the urge to sigh.

Wrex nodded and glanced over at the crate by his locker which contained his family's armor. "It's time I returned to Tuchanka. I can't just hire myself out for credits while my people feud among themselves and piss their days away. Alenko didn't hesitate when he gave his life to protect the future for the rest of us. Least I can do is honor that kind of bravery by trying to do the same for the krogan."

Shepard nodded silently, remembering Kaidan's words and the kind of man he'd been while he gazed at Ash, who had taken their friend's death as hard as the commander who had known him for years. "I'm sure he'd be honored."

Wrex pulled his shotgun and rifle from his locker and attached them to his armor. Bending, he picked up the crate and held it under one arm while he turned to Shepard and extended his free hand. The commander clasped Wrex's wrist as the krogan did the same, blue eyes meeting red. "Krogan might not welcome outsiders, and you might have to crack a few plates, but if you ever find yourself there, Tuchanka and I would be honored."

Shepard summoned a crooked smile and arched a brow. "Yeah, you definitely need to get back. You're getting soft on this pleasure yacht of ours."

Wrex barked a laugh and released his friend's arm, turning toward the elevator and calling back over his shoulder as he stepped inside. "It's been fun, Shepard." He raised a hand to Garrus and the rest of the crew as well. "Same to the rest of you. Keep piling up the corpses and you'll become legends!"

The squad and crew laughed and most of them waved as Wrex hit the button to ascend. Before the doors closed, though, the battlemaster got in a parting shot. "And Shepard? Make up your mind already!" Shepard smirked but found his cheeks warming when most of the crew turned toward him.

"Make up your mind about what? Commander, are you blushing?" Joker's grin was wide while his CO folded his arms across his chest.

"It's a krogan thing. You wouldn't understand."

Author's note:

A bit of background regarding the way I'm writing Shepard:

He's a soldier proficient with just about any weapon. He has minor biotic affinity, mostly using it to nudge off-balance enemies and throw off weapon aim. He's no Kaidan and certainly no Liara. That said, the Lazarus Project gives an interesting opportunity to change things up.

In trying to choose an origin, I had a tough time choosing and ultimately decided to create a hybrid of colonist and spacer. I thought it would be interesting to make the tragedy on Mindoir an experience shared between mother and son, a relationship I look forward to writing about.

I faced a similar dilemma with the service history, and decided to blend war hero and sole survivor, who missed out on his chance for revenge on Torfan, to his anger at the time.

I had concerns about creating a Shepard with such extensive experiences, but ultimately decided that this is my story, and I'd be writing it even without anyone to publish it to. I also felt that such a legendary character could be well served by having a history of severe trials that served to shape him. Besides, I just find it more interesting. There's no rule in fiction that says the squad can only be three strong or that Tali and Liara can't use an assault rifle, after all.

Looking back at my first few chapters almost a year later, I couldn't help but wince at many parts. A lot of repetition in descriptions and expressions, some parts that feel too melodramatic, etc. This chapter has been rewritten, and I'm planning to update them progressively as new chapters are published.