A/N - This chapter makes a passing reference to the events of another story of mine (The Perks of Working Late), but it's not required reading to follow along.
The camera focuses on a woman, in her late thirties, maybe, with dark hair and an impatient expression. The infographic along the bottom of the screen identifies her as Ashley Williams, second human Spectre, who served under Commander Shepard in the Battle of the Citadel and the latter half of the Reaper War.
"Do you know how many documentaries have already been made?" Williams asks. She listens for a moment to whoever is behind the camera. "You're going to focus on what? I don't have time for this." She walks away, and the camera follows jerkily as the interviewer runs after her.
Ashley double-checked her rifle as the shuttle hit the atmosphere. Garrus sat on the bench across from her, doing the same. Shepard was next to him, their armor occasionally clanking against each other as one or the other of them shifted. Done with her own checks, Shepard stood as the shuttle began its final descent, watching the camera feeds for any sign of the mercenary group they were there to clean out.
The shuttle hit a patch of turbulence and tilted sharply. Shepard put a hand on Garrus's shoulder to steady herself, and he caught her by the hip at the same time. She let go as the shuttle righted itself, but he held on a second longer than was strictly necessary. Ashley repressed a frown. She liked Garrus, considered him a friend, but she did not understand interspecies relationships. Asari, maybe. They at least looked almost human. But turians? She looked at them and thought lizard. How could any human be attracted to that?
Ashley pushed those thoughts aside as they hit the landing zone. However incomprehensible she found Shepard's choice of romantic partners, there was a mission to do.
Shepard was out first and took her usual place at point. Garrus and Ashley followed, watching the perimeter as they moved into the mercenary base. The two guards by the entrance went down easily enough, but Ashley felt on edge as they failed to encounter any other resistance. The place was a warren, and making sure each passage was clear before continuing forward was slowing them down more than she liked.
They turned a corner and found their way blocked by a locked door.
"Bingo," Shepard said. Ashley could hear her grin even through the helmet. Shepard fiddled with the lock for a second, then shook her head. "You're up, Garrus." He set to work, and she motioned for Ashley to keep watch back the way they came.
"I'm still not reading anything beyond the door," Ashley said.
"I'm not either, but you disappeared from my scanner a couple of times coming in. Something in here is interfering." Shepard drummed her fingers against her shotgun impatiently. Garrus half-turned his head and she stopped.
"Got it," he said a few seconds later. The door slid open on a dozen or more well-armed mercs, all pointing their weapons toward the doorway. Garrus and Shepard dove for cover on either side of the doorway as the mercs opened fire. He had further to go than she did, and one of the rounds punched through his shields and into his shoulder. His curse didn't make it through the translator. Ashley sent an answering round of gunfire into the mercenaries, taking one down and making the rest scramble for cover of their own. She caught Garrus's nod to Shepard out of the corner of her eye, then Shepard whipped around the edge of the door, charging in to shoot the mercs at point-blank range. One of them tried to stab her in the back with his omni-blade, but the blade had barely materialized before his head jerked back from the force of a well-placed bullet.
Ashley hadn't even gotten a read on the man yet. She gave herself a mental shake and took up Shepard's vacated position by the door. The mercs were thoroughly distracted by Shepard's one-woman charge, and Ashley and Garrus were able to pick them off with ease. It was over in a matter of minutes.
"You okay?" Ashley asked Garrus as Shepard poked around the room to see if she could figure out what had interfered with their scanners.
He rolled his injured shoulder. "Went straight through. Didn't even lose much blood before the medigel kicked in."
Shepard finished her sweep and they headed back through the corridors to the exit. After a few minutes, Ashley realized she was waiting for Shepard to say or do something about Garrus's injury, and then felt ridiculous for doing so. The mission wasn't over till they were back on the Normandy, he was up and moving with no obvious discomfort, and he'd already indicated he was good to go. There was no reason for Shepard to address it now other than her relationship with him, and neither of them were the kind of people to let that get in the way of their duties.
It was only when they were safely back on the shuttle that Shepard ran a hand over his armor, frowning as she fingered the hole in the metal. "Just the one?" she asked.
"There's a matching one in the back," Garrus said, then had to lean forward as she pushed at his shoulder to see for herself. He caught Ashley's eye and sighed. In spite of her mixed feelings about them, her mouth twitched up at the picture he made of universal male forbearance.
"See Chakwas before you patch your armor up this time," Shepard said. She sat back down next to him and Ashley couldn't help but notice she was a little closer than she'd been on the shuttle ride down. Ashley tilted her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. If they could get the job done without their feelings for each other getting in the way, she needed to do the same. One more thing to pray about.
The camera catches up with Williams and she glares hard enough that the view pulls back a step.
"They were always professional on duty," she snaps. "Anything else was none of my business."
She stalks off again, and this time the camera stays put.
A well-muscled man in fatigues is standing at a bar, shaking his head. James Vega, Alliance Marine and N7 graduate, the banner beneath him says.
"Naw, I had no idea Shepard had a thing going with Vakarian. Found out after the Reapers hit. How? I need more drinks in me before I share that story."
The video feed goes black for a second. When it comes back on, Vega is at a table, four bottles in front of him.
"Still not drunk enough," he says.
The feed cuts out and back on again. There are ten bottles on the table now. Vega looks somewhere to the right of the camera and shakes his head. He mimes taking a drink and almost loses his balance as he leans too far back.
Another flicker of black, and Vega has his head on the table, snoring. Too many bottles to count litter the table. A hand enters the camera's field of vision and pokes Vega in the arm. He doesn't respond. A heavy sigh is heard, and the video cuts off permanently.
The camera hovers at a more respectful distance from the asari than it did its previous subjects. Liara T'Soni is sitting at a desk, hands folded in front of her. There are several datapads with blank screens spread out before her.
"It was common knowledge that their relationship began before Garrus rejoined the crew during the Reaper War." One of the datapads flashes, and T'Soni glances down and taps it a few times before it goes dark again. "You'll have to be more specific with your questions." She pauses for a moment. "Yes, I knew before that. We were – are – friends."
It was good to be back on the Normandy. Liara had been half-joking when she suggested that she and Shepard could catch up later on the ship. Shepard was in the middle of preparing for a suicide run after all, and Liara had to learn how to step into the shoes of the best known information broker in the galaxy. But Feron assured her he could handle things for a couple of hours, so here she was, getting a very thorough tour of the new Normandy. Liara was surprised Shepard hadn't pulled open a panel and invited her to go crawling through a maintenance shaft yet. In truth, she was more interested in simply listening to Shepard talk, happy to just be with her after two years of grief and worry and guilt.
She was still worried, if she was being honest with herself. Shepard seemed much the same, but even as she showed off the ship with evident delight, Liara didn't miss the way she withdrew a little as she interacted with the Cerberus crew. She doubted they noticed, but Liara remembered how Shepard had been on the first Normandy and could see the difference.
The tour ended in engineering, and Liara stayed to chat with Tali for a bit while Shepard took care of other business.
"I know," Tali sighed when Liara brought the subject up as obliquely as she could. "I worry too. She comes down a lot more than she did on the old Normandy. Are you sure you can't stay?"
Liara had never felt more torn. "I can't, Tali. I wish I could." Tali canted her head in her version of a wry smile and let Liara change the subject to lighter topics. Liara hugged Tali goodbye a little while later and after checking with the ship's AI, took the elevator up to the third level.
The mess was empty except for Shepard and Garrus. Liara paused as she rounded the corner from the elevator, struck by how relaxed they both looked. Shepard was leaning a hip on the counter, spoon in one hand, while Garrus cooked something on the stove. That subtle tension Shepard had carried was gone, and as Liara watched, she shook her head at something Garrus said and hopped up to sit on the counter.
"Is it supposed to look like a grey blob?" she asked, leaning forward precariously and poking at whatever was in the pan.
Garrus smacked her hand away. "This is a turian delicacy."
"It better be, for what I paid for it." Shepard sniffed the end of the spoon and made a face. "You didn't answer the question."
He didn't respond, and Shepard reached out and nudged his thigh with her foot. "No," he said. "I'm as bad at cooking as you are at dancing."
She pushed his leg again, harder. "You should have said. I'd have gotten it pre-cooked."
If a turian could look scandalized, Garrus did. "You don't pre-cook pultem," he told her. Liara blinked. Pultem was a kind of porridge, and certainly not a delicacy of any sort. "This will still taste good, even if it doesn't look right." He looked down at her foot and his neck darkened.
Liara made a small sound of surprise, and they both startled and looked at her. "I'm sorry," she said, wondering how well-versed Shepard was at turian body language. "I didn't mean to interrupt."
"It's all right. I was just making sure Garrus got some decent food for a change."
Garrus met Liara's eyes over Shepard's head. He knew she knew what pultem was. "It sounds delicious," she said and he gave her a grateful look.
"It is," he said. "It's nice to have something besides MREs for once."
"Good." Shepard jumped down from the counter. "We can finish catching up in my cabin, Liara. Garrus, I'll leave you and your turian delicacy alone together." He snorted and waved them off.
Shepard stayed relaxed up to her cabin, for which Liara was immensely grateful. It would hurt more than she wanted to admit if Shepard closed up again around her. Shepard's continued open demeanor gave Liara the courage to ask about her and Garrus. If her instincts were right, she would feel much less conflicted about her decision not to rejoin the Normandy's crew.
"It's new," Shepard admitted. "And this is a Cerberus ship, so we're trying not to spread it around."
Liara wanted to laugh in relief. If Shepard had even one person she could be her old self with, Liara could return to her own ship with a lighter heart. "He's good for you," she said. "I think you smiled more just now than all the rest of my visit."
"I'm more worried about being good for him," Shepard sighed. "The past couple of years were pretty hard." Her eyes unfocused for a moment as she stared past her fish tank, then she shook herself and threaded her arm through Liara's. "But thanks. And I'm sorry if it seemed like I wasn't glad to have you."
Liara shook her head. "I'm sorry I can't go with you. But I am glad you have friends aboard."
"Me too," Shepard said. "All right, enough of this. I know I have alcohol up here and I'm not passing up the chance to get the Shadow Broker drunk."
T'Soni smiles off into the distance, and it takes several tries to recall her attention.
"I was happy they had each other," she says. She listens and her smile fades. "I asked and she told me." T'Soni sits up straighter, looking every inch the daughter of Matriarch Benezia. "Might I suggest you do the same?"
The dismissal in her voice is obvious and the camera backs out of the room before switching off.
"It's not often I'm on this side of the camera."
A view of London stretches out behind the table the woman sits at. There is no helpful infographic to identify her. The longest running host of Battlespace needs none. She raises her eyebrows.
"What, no 'Did I know?' That's what I hear you've been asking everyone else." Diana Allers takes a sip of her drink. "It was the perfect human interest story. I never covered it because Shepard wouldn't have let it leave the ship. First and only time I've handed over editorial power, but it was worth it to be on the Normandy."
She lets out an exasperated breath at another question. "Look, if you want to do this kind of work, you need to learn to listen better." Allers pauses as if waiting for a response, then shakes her head when none is forthcoming. She leans forward. "I'm not on the Normandy now."
It was different, living on a ship for an extended period of time. Diana was used to traveling all over the galaxy, but those were there-and-back trips. Here she wasn't a passenger and wasn't part of the crew, putting her in a strange, undefined position that left the Alliance soldiers faintly hostile when they weren't ignoring her altogether. The hostility she could handle. Being ignored was a new experience.
Even her job was altered. She was doing almost nothing but straight reporting. She'd had one brief interview with Shepard shortly after arriving on board, but mostly she was just passing along information. The latest front in the war, the latest, necessarily vague, news from the resistance movements, the latest planets hit, the latest casualty numbers. To keep herself sane, she'd started to investigate little mysteries on the ship. Like why the panel near the men's bathroom kept coming loose (James Vega had a tendency to bang his fist against it when he had to wait in line), or who kept eating all the outer leaves off of the inoa fruits (Gabby Daniels liked to chew on them when she was working through a sticky engineering problem).
Diana's current puzzle involved one of the chairs in the lounge and why one side was more worn than the other. The upper right side, to be precise. The back had a small dip there, and the fabric was softer and looser than on the other side. She'd tried sitting in the chair and resting her elbow behind her in that spot, but the back was too tall to do so comfortably. Maybe if she was a turian.
That was a good thought, but while the few times she'd found Vakarian in the lounge he'd been sitting in that particular chair, he'd had the wrong arm slung over its back. Further excursions to the lounge during the various shifts failed to turn up anything else. It was almost to the point where she was seriously considering breaking one of her self-appointed rules not to ask EDI for information. Almost.
She took the advice of a colleague instead. Diana and Emily Wong weren't exactly friends – they worked for competing networks and the topics they covered were different enough that they rarely ran into each other in the field – but there was enough mutual respect between them that Diana had felt comfortable telling Emily that she'd really wanted Emily's job when she first started. Making elcors cry was satisfying in its own way, but Diana got into journalism with the notion that she'd be doing investigative work, exposing corruption and breaking the big story that no one else had even known was a story. She'd turned out not to have the patience for it, a point Emily drove home when Diana expressed admiration for her latest exposé on eezo contamination in human colony food.
"That story took me two years to put together," Emily had said over the vidlink. "I hit a brick wall after the first year and had to put it aside for other stories. Sometimes you run out of leads and have to let the story come to you in its own time."
So Diana put the Mystery of the Lounge Chair to the side. She still went to the lounge from time to time; it had the only bar on the ship and after some reports she needed a stiff drink. Like now. She'd just finished her report on Cerberus' attack on Grissom Academy, and while she'd focused on the rescue, she kept thinking about all of the kids the Normandy hadn't been in time for.
The lounge was empty except for Vakarian, seated in his usual spot with a beer in one hand. He looked up when she entered and she got the impression that he expected someone else. She poured herself some whiskey and sat. The observation window was open, so she looked out at the stars and tried not to think about what a terrorist group with a history of human experimentation was going to do with a bunch of frightened teenagers. Vakarian didn't try to make small talk, though he did tip his beer toward her in acknowledgment when she glanced at him. Diana wondered what he thought about the whole thing.
The door to the lounge opened and Shepard walked in. Vakarian sat up a little straighter and she smiled at him as she went to the bar. "Allers," she said by way of greeting. "That any good?" She looked at the glass in Diana's hand.
"It's . . . strong," Diana said.
"Sounds perfect." Shepard poured herself a double. "I reviewed your story and sent it on. It was much cheerier than my briefing." She half-perched on the back of Vakarian's chair, one foot resting on the arm, the other on the floor. The position pressed her thigh against his shoulder and she leaned her weight on a hand put oh-so-casually behind his cowl. With anyone else, the contact would have looked incidental. For Shepard, it was tantamount to sitting in Vakarian's lap and cooing pet names at him.
"I have the luxury of leaving details out. There aren't going to be many happy stories in this war." Diana compared where Shepard was sitting to the dip on the chair's back. It matched exactly. She drew a line through her mental list in satisfaction.
Shepard gave a tight laugh. "True. Well, should we drink to putting lipstick on a pig?" Diana met her smile with one of her own and they raised their glasses to each other. Vakarian looked back and forth between them, confused.
"Why would you – ?"
Shepard patted his shoulder. "Old human saying. I'll explain it later." She downed half of her drink in a quick motion that had Diana's throat burning in sympathy. Diana sipped at her own drink, not missing how Shepard's hand lingered on Vakarian's shoulder, or how his hand had wrapped itself loosely around her ankle. There was another story, if she wanted it. She could probably even convince Shepard to let her run it. Two lovers finding each other on the battlefield, overcoming the differences between their species to fight against the biggest threat the galaxy had ever known? The day she couldn't sell that as a morale booster was the day she stopped being a reporter.
And the day she needed that to raise morale was the day she didn't deserve to be a reporter anymore. It was the easy story, and Diana Allers did not do easy.
She finished her drink and excused herself. Even a short break was enough to fill her inbox and the next report wasn't going to write itself. Diana glanced back as she left and saw Shepard starting to lean down, Vakarian's hand moving up to her knee, before the door closed on them.
There is a pregnant pause when Allers finishes her story.
"Not what you were looking for?" she asks. "Look, what are you trying to do here? Do you want this to be honest or are you just looking to make a quick buck?" The camera jerks in consternation. "Okay, okay." Allers makes calming motions with her hands. "I just don't understand why you haven't gone to the source yet. First rule of journalism, right?"
There is another, longer pause. Allers sighs and shakes her head. "Your choice." She leans back, amusement on her face. "Send me a copy when you're done. Who knows, you might prove me wrong."