Chapter Seventy Six: Two Scrooges, and the Fruitcake Chicken

Someone had come along, and put cloth reindeer antlers on Colt's head. Then they had promptly disappeared into a cloud of giggles. He was just trying to peacefully avoid holiday merriment at a Mess table when the bastard had come along with the antlers, and a pro-holiday agenda. They were damn uncomfortable against his shaved head, (it was reminiscent of sticking his head into a boiling broth of poison ivy) but he supposed it was in the Normandy crew's best interest to avoid being a scrooge.

It would be a difficult week of trying not to crush everyone's picturesque visions of the holidays. Consulting Javik on how he made it through life when everyone around him was disgustingly happy was definitely in Colt's future.

Shepard's completely oblivious, yet totally lovable, friends whisked around all the decks with tacky decorations, and music so awful Rosebud sometimes felt the need to howl with it. The mixture of various holiday scents sprayed into the air combined to form an almost visible smog of a smell akin to Santa's beard after a workout. It also didn't help that his friends thought that the time of year brought new skills to their cooking game. Time after time, hard fought meat came out of the oven looking more dead than its original, unfortunate trip out of the butcher's. On several occasions, Colt thought about arranging funerals for the sad, charcoal-like lumps that could've been his dinner. But he was an optimist, and chose not to dwell on his unfortunate surroundings. Instead he thought of something a trillion times worse. Time.

Twelve hours, forty eight minutes was how long it took to fly from the Citadel to Palaven, including the refueling process and dispelling the built up heat from the stealth system. Twelve hours, forty eight minutes was the time he had to formulate a plan that would liberate Palaven. One hour in, and he could already feel the schedule strangling him. How many turians were there? How many were left? Shepard didn't know the numbers, but he did know that a whole race would be relying on him in twelve hours.

Colt needed to get going on his plan. "EDI, figure what the most informative documentary on Reaper design is, and play it for me," Colt tried to keep the nerves out of his voice. She responded with something super intelligent, but Colt wasn't really listening. He was watching the vid screens in the Mess Hall descend from the ceiling.

He readied his paper, and pencil in front of him as soon as the vid started to play. It started with capital ships. Their magnetohydrodynamic cannon's had a yield of 132 to 450 kilotons of TNT, making Everest class dreadnoughts of the Alliance seem like bath toys. No ship had ever survived a hit from a weapon like that. Capitol ships' other cannons, GARDIAN like anti-projectile systems, extremely durable kinetic barriers, and thick armor all combined to make Colt feel like winning the war was next impossible. It also reinforced his belief that traditional space battles with the Reapers was an insane notion. Palaven wouldn't be won that way.

Troop transports, and processors didn't have the staggering firepower or armour of capital ships. They seemed like plausible targets, but they only made up a little more than third of the Reaper ships around Palaven. Plus, capital ships and destroyers guarded them heavily. The destroyers could be killed individually or in small packs, but they would be overwhelming in the massive numbers around Palaven.

Shepard already had fourteen pages of notes when the most interesting thing came up.

He knew that the Reapers allowed political leaders into their interiors for the sole purpose of indoctrination. Colt knew it better than anyone. Some of his good friends had been convinced that they could negotiate peace with the Reapers, so they took the Reapers invitation to come aboard. A few days later they were released. They were invited back into political organizations with open arms (no one knowing they were corrupted) only to detonate bombs or shoot fellow politicians.

Colt didn't know two things about the process, however. The first being that destroyers also took in people. The second being the number of people Reapers could bring in. Learning something new about the Reapers, and being reminded of their ability to allow people onto them sparked a tiny flame of an idea...

"Whatcha' doin?" Liara's voice broke the bubble around him that had blocked out all the holiday festivities, and had kept in ideas on Reaper killing. The sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays flooded back to Shepard with headache inducing speed. He checked the time, only to find out that an hour and a half had already passed. Shepard switched his Reaper program off, and turned the channel to something random.

Previously empty Mess tables were now filled with nauseatingly dressed crew. Rosebud totted a sweater so hideous it might actually be crucial to fighting Reapers. Garrus wore something that looked suspiciously like a Santa suit. Chakwas, Cortez, Ashley, and James were wearing the same antler/headband combo that still adorned Colt's head. Javik wore nothing festive, and earned a tiny piece of respect back. Traynor, and Liara wore sweaters made out of sad, mismatched cloth. Actually Liarloo looked really hot.

You'll screw up her life, no doubt. "Just getting to know our enemy better, Doctor," Shepard tried to sound as monotone as possible. Hurt flashed in her eyes a moment before it burned through his brain.

"Ask him," James' voice trying to whisper turned Colt's attention away from the asari.

"Ask me what?" Colt asked.

Cortez looked at James, shrugged, and then turned back to the Commander. He said, "Shepard, who's your favorite?"

"S-sorry,what?" When he turned his head back around, Liara was walking towards the kitchen. Away from him.

"Which one of us do you like the best?" Cortez wore a wicked grin, and gestured to everyone sitting at all the tables. Goofy smiles stretched across all his friends' faces as they waited his answer.

"I like you all equally," Colt meant it.

"Bullshit. Obviously you like Doc the best or else you wouldn't-" James' mouth closed faster than the Normandy's average FTL jump.

"Or else I wouldn't what?" Shepard smirked. If he were James, he would've just said it and then let everyone deal with it.

"Nothin' Commander," James took a sudden interest in his deformed dinner.

Colt beamed before returning to the original question, "Think of it like Ryncol. Each bottle has a unique flavor that is no better or worse than the next. It's just...different."

"Did you just compare us to Krogan poison?" Garrus said.

"Don't talk shit about Ryncol. It-it's my buddy," Colt caught movement out of the side of his eye. Rosebud had come a little closer, and was prepping a place to lie down. "Actually I lied a little. I do have a favorite. It's Rosebud."

"Why is that?" Traynor said.

"Rosebud loves me unconditionally," Shepard said. Colt whistled to the varren, and started stroking her head when she came over.

"We all lo-like you unconditionally Shepard," Garrus said.

The fact was that all of these people probably wouldn't like him at all if he wasn't famous, or a good fighter, or one of the only things standing between them and death. "I highly doubt you'd feel the same if I lose the war. I'm not saying I will. I'm just saying all of you like me with very specific conditions," Colt said.

The silence that followed only confirmed what Colt had known all along.

In the silence, someone turned the channel to ANN. It was only natural that the news channel remind Colt of the holidays in the first two seconds it was on. The reporter Cathy Adam led with, "On behalf of all of ANN, I'd like to wish Commander Shepard, and his entire crew a Merry Christmas-"

"Shove that Merry Christmas up your as-," Shepard paused, and looked at all the shocked faces staring back at him. "I mean tis' the season to be happy." What a way for his crew to find out about his feelings towards the season. The only one who didn't look offended was Rosebud, who was almost grinning from the numerous pets she was receiving.

"It's jolly. Tis' the season to be jolly, Commander," Traynor said. He knew he had screwed up the moment his title switched from Shepard to Commander.

"Whatever. Same basic food group," Colt muttered.

"Do you not like the holidays?" James shook his head incredulously.

"Of course I like the holidays. What's not to like? The attempts at cooking always warms the cockles of my heart. Plus, who doesn't like everyone's interpretation of traditions," Shepard scanned whatever the hell Garrus was wearing.

"What about being surrounded by family?" James was the one to ask the question that always came up.

There was several ways to answer the question. Colt could appease his friends, and confirm that the time of year only brought feelings of belonging and contentedness. Or he could tell the truth. He could remind them that his entire family had been dead or missing for the past ten years. Jog their memories with the fact that he had been deployed every Christmas since Elysium. Perhaps he should tell them what it felt like to be the only one who didn't need to use the QEC to contact home, or how it felt to get a holiday bonus with no one to spend it on. But he doubted he could make them understand that one of his personal hells was December, so he settled on a happy medium.

"That's always nice, I suppose. Always makes the days feel magical," he only just kept the sarcasm in check.

Shepard refocused back to the vid screen, and wondered what the hell ANN was going on about today. A couple seconds in he realized they were droning on about his accomplishments through the war. That prompted him to change the channel to something asari. It was one of those channels that only aired soap operas, and advertisements for asari meds.

"Ho-ly shit… Nothing, nothing at all is on," Shepard thought for a moment about what he could do. There was a little over nine hours until Palaven, so he figured it was as good time as any to hold the inevitable meeting.

Colt grabbed his crutches, gave Rosebud a final pet, and rose from his seat. He got his leg ready for travel, and then turned to face everybody. "We have a lot to talk about everyone. Get to the War Room in half an hour, please."

...

Shepard stepped off the elevator into the CIC. Ten minutes until the meeting started, meaning that he had a relatively short time to firm things up with Victus. He crossed the almost empty CIC to the security checkpoint.

"Hello Privates. I didn't see you guys at dinner," he told the two guarding the War Room complex.

"It's pretty busy, Commander, we didn't think we should leave. Plus we heard you were a bit of scrooge at dinner," they grinned while looking down at their consoles.

"Yeah, my mood made Javik's personality look down right peachy," Shepard said. Orange scanners rotated around him with a slight whir.

"Wow Commander. That's actually pretty damn impressive," Private Campbell nodded with admiration. The orange scanners gave a final scan before they powered down.

They nodded at him to, and he lurched towards the War Room. "I'll have someone bring up dinner to you two," he said while exiting.

"Thanks Commander!" The two called in unison as the door closed. Walking through that odd part of the ship between the security checkpoint and War Room was as gloomy as ever. But the bustling War Room restored his sense of companionship.

"Victus, we missed you at dinner," Colt made his way to his friend. Crew members raced around the cramped room. Several people almost ran into Shepard.

"I'm sorry, but with you know what just a few hours away… Well, I just can't leave," the turian replied halfheartedly.

"I get it. Actually I was hoping to speak to you a little about it," Colt found something that was hopefully a seat, and sat down.

"Go ahead, Shepard. But-ahh-be careful what you say," Victus's eyes traveled around the room.

"My base line tactics for it are all figured out. I'm gonna take the rest of the night to iron out any problems. I just need to know that we'll be able to land on the...the place without getting shot down," Shepard told him.

"We'll make sure your trip will be safe, Shepard," the turian answered.

"One more thing, Victus. Can you make sure the LZ is secure? Same with the place where we're staying? I'm not exactly in any shape to fight," Shepard looked at his leg.

"No problem," Victus bowed his head, "Looks like everyone is pretty much here."

Colt scanned the group, noting that pretty much everyone really was there. "Alright everyone, listen up," his voice silenced the whispering, and brought everyone's attention to him. "From this point forward I am ordering a communications blackout, with the exception of the QEC. No email, or omni-tool usage. I know that sucks considering the time of year, but it has to happen. Our next mission is taking place nine hours from now, people. The following people need to prepare for it: Liara, Garrus, Javik, Traynor, EDI, Private Perez, Ensign Parker, Lieutenant Cooper, and Ensign Daniels. An-"

"Umm, Commander?" Traynor awkwardly raised her hand.

"Yes?"

"Do you think perhaps there was a mistake?" Traynor responded quietly.

"No mistake, Specialist," Colt said.

Garrus's hand shot up. "Yes Garrus?"

"Where are we heading?"

"That's classified," Shepard said. He took a deep breath, and tried not to think about how big this was. Retaking Palaven meant gaining a foothold in the fight. Screwing it up could potentially let the enemy know of their capabilities. The Reapers could just destroy Palaven if they deemed it an unnecessary risk. A lot of dreadful things could happen if this was screwed up.

Commander Shepard had kept true to his word, and stayed up all night to finish his plan. Seven hours straight was spent watching vids on turians, Palaven, Menae, the Reapers, and tactics. A quick call to Hackett on the QEC, and another discussion with Victus made his plans concrete. Five hours in, and he had known exactly how they were going to kick the Reapers' metallic asses. It wouldn't be without sacrifice.

At one point during the marathon, he looked up to see the date projected on a wall. Today was the day. The seventeen-year anniversary of when everything got fucked up. When his life took a turn for the worse. The event that triggered his stint on the street, and then admittance into the Alliance. The day that ended in death. It was also the day that Colt intended to retake Palaven. Strange how everything happened at once.

They were an hour and a half away from the turian home world. The time had come to tell Joker their true destination, and fire up the stealth systems. Colt limped to the console connecting the Crew Deck with the helm. "Hey Joker, it's Shepard."

"What's up Commander?" His pilot asked. He sounded surprisingly fresh for six o'clock in the morning.

"Please engage the stealth systems, and head for the Mactare Relay," Shepard said. Now at least someone knew their destination. Everything was supposed to stay secret until they literally saw Palaven's surface, but Joker wasn't especially known for keeping things to himself. Perhaps EDI would remind him.

"Aye, aye Captain!" Joker's voice had gone up several octaves before the connection was severed. Shepard returned to his seat at the Mess, and started up the next vid. A whooshing noise just a little beyond him meant that the Forward Battery's very own Gar Bear was emerging.

"What in the ever-loving fuck is that?" Shepard said while Garrus strolled by with some sort of foliage. The turian struggled to walk a bit with the silvery looking plant thing. He checked the time to see it was just half an hour before everyone would be getting up.

"You humans dress up a tree from Earth, so why not dress a tree from Palaven?"

"I can think of a lot of reasons why, actually," Colt actually paused his documentary just to watch Garrus fumble around with the shrubbery. He didn't even want to think about how Garrus got a hold of the thing.

"Name one," the turian said. He pulled back one of its branches in an attempt to spread it out. Instead, the branch snapped back into place as soon as he let go, smacking Garrus straight in the face. Shepard was becoming a fan of the sassy Palaven tree. The Commander decided to check it out.

Colt's like for the tree evaporated as soon as he got close. The thing smelled like the love-child of fruitcake and mothballs. "Well first off it smells like a fruitcake Grandma forgot in a corner, and rediscovered fifteen years later," he said.

"Isn't it glorious?" Garrus stepped backwards, and looked at the tree like it was the one that would bear his children.

"Can we spray it with lavender smelly stuff or something?" Shepard asked.

"That stuff is flammable, do you want to burn to death?" Garrus started his assault on the branches again.

"My father would certainly approve," Colt muttered.

"What?" Garrus's spiky head turned to him while his talons continued their tasks.

"Garrus it looks like a chicken," Colt definitely would've spit out a drink at the revelation.

"Everything looks like a chicken to you...Spirits, it really does," Garrus's eyes grew big as he took in the view.

"Hey guys," Liara walked towards them. "That thing looks like a chicken...and smells like a musty fruitcake."

"That's what I said," Shepard felt honored just to stand in the tree's presence.

"Can we keep it?" Garrus said.

"As long as you secure it properly. We don't need the fruitcake chicken flying around the Normandy during evasive maneuvers," Colt managed to rip himself from the sight. He still had stuff to figure out for Palaven, so he went back to his table. Ensign Parker was standing in front of the vid screens flipping through channels, much to Shepard's annoyance. He intended to watch the rest of the Reaper documentary.

The Ensign settled on ANN, and went to the kitchen. Cathy Adam started off the day with something that froze Colt's veins. "On this day, seventeen years ago, Rowan the Relentless died in a-" Colt threw himself across the table to get the remote, then had turned the channel to another news station.

"Hey that reminds me. I found out a few days ago that you share the same last name as Rowan the Relentless. Did you know that?" Cortez said. Shepard was hoping he had turned the channel before anyone had heard that.

"I am aware, yes," Shepard answered. Standing up, and hobbling around would hopefully untie the knot that had tangled in his stomach. He moved towards the kitchen hoping to find the bottle of Determinol. It was going to be one of those days that tested his self-control.

"Rowan the Relentless?" Garrus's increasing volume told Shepard that he was walking towards them from the tree.

"Yep," Cortez confirmed. Shepard really did not want to talk about it any further.

"I'll tell you what Shepard, you humans are lucky to have you. If the galaxy only had people like Rowan to judge humans off of, your species wouldn't be very popular at all," Garrus said. Colt found the Determinol, and downed two pills as fast as humanly possible.

"Oh please. You only think that cuz' you're turian. You have to admit that his liberation of Shanxi was brilliant. The Second Fleet totally beat your asses. And we haven't even talked about his piloting abilities!" Cortez replied.

Garrus was apparently having none of that, "I will admit nothing. Rowan was a menace to the turian people, plain and simple…"

"Uh, Garrus-" Liara tried to interject. Colt was in the kitchen with his back turned to the group. She was positive he was hearing every word said. If Garrus didn't shut up soon, there would be a reenactment of the First Contact War.

"...he is the one responsible for the abysmal relations that followed the Relay 314 Incident," the turian was pressing on. The unmistakable build-up of biotic energy buzzed in her ears. Turmoil from Colt grew in her mind. Every word out of Garrus's mouth grew the black mass of emotions flashing through Shepard.

"Garrus!" Liara hissed. Blue started to spin around Shepard's legs and hands.

"Garrus!" Chakwas said. The doctor looked at Liara with a grimace. Her eyes told Liara that Chakwas knew exactly what the problem was.

"...if he had just tried negotiating with us, things would be a whole lot better."

A heavy thud that originated in the kitchen finally did shut up Garrus. Javik even stopped drinking to watch their Commander. Liara shot Garrus a nasty look before observing Colt again. His shoulders tensed up, and everything got very quiet. Shepard whipped around with incredible speed Liara hadn't seen since before the explosion. Raw biotic build-up that could make an empty room feel stuffy washed over the Mess. Blue aurora cloaked Colt's entire body, twisting around him and buzzing with primitive power. His teeth were bared, and his eyes glared at Garrus with a hateful shine.

The previously ignored news program offered some insight into the problem,"...Thanks Karin. In other news we'd like to remember Rowan the Relentless today. Seventeen years ago this day, the admiral died in a tragic house fire. Rowan Shepard was made famous first by his piloting skills in the United War on Earth, and later by his victory on Shanxi over the turians in the First Contact War. He is also father to Commander Shepard of the Alliance, and Spectres. Our deepest condolences go out to the Shepard family on this sad day. Now for a commercial break…"

Garrus flared his mandibles a little. Liara was not aware that the turian was capable of looking as terrified as he did. He stammered, "L-look Shepard. I di-"

"Silence," the Commander rumbled. He glared at Garrus for a moment, and then moved with a fury that only came with protecting family to the schedule of chores. Shepard erased all the names off for the week, and filled out the spaces with 'Garrus' in the neatest handwriting Liara had ever seen him muster. Then he walked back into the kitchen, opened one of the drawers, took out something, and made his way to the terrified turian. A toothbrush was set in front of Garrus.

"Don't worry Garrus. I'm sure he died slowly, and horribly...When we get back from this mission, every corner and crevice of my ship will sparkle. Do I make myself clear?" Shepard growled. His wrath wasn't even directed at Liara, but she felt scared. It was the first time ever in history that Colt had ever scared her.

"Yes, Shepard," Garrus gulped.

"It's Commander," Colt's eyes somehow managed to grow darker.

"Yes, Commander."

Joker's voice interrupted anymore exchanges between the two, "Prepare for a Mass Relay jump in fifteen minutes... It's crazy, Commander! The entire fifth fleet is just outside the relay!"

Shepard looked away from Garrus to the windows in the Mess, "I know."