He's not kidding when he says she looks like Lola.
It's not that Shepard's drop-dead gorgeous or even that pretty, really, not with her square-shouldered military stride and her hair cut a little too short and the little detail that, oh, yeah, she's his commanding officer (who used to be his prisoner, kind of, but stripes are stripes, even in lockdown, and Jimmy Vega is no idiot), but Lola hadn't been gorgeous either. Not that he'd have done anything anyway – his best friend's sister, remember, and he knew better than to jeopardize his only access to Blasto 3: Blast Faster – but like Shepard, she'd just sidled right into his life without so much as a blink of hey, nice to meet you, and almost before he'd realized what had happened he'd found himself spending more time over at his buddy's place than his own without even Blasto, in any tentacled form, as an excuse.
She'd just been…magnetic. Like a neutron star, bright and hot as hell and impossible to escape, and when she'd smiled…
James figures if Shepard ever smiles at him like that, he might as well throw himself out the nearest airlock.
Of course, that's not something he has to worry about, considering he's seen Shepard smile all of maybe a dozen times since he met her. Real smiles, he means, not those half-smirking grins she gives him when he's bullshitting her about his past exploits or when she's managed to get another one over on him about the stuff her old crew got up to. He doesn't blame her, really – lockup is a hell of a thing, especially when it turns out that the nonexistent myths everyone's been ignoring for three years are, in fact, real, and are proving that reality by blowing his favorite planet to cosmic dust, but they've managed to get the sexiest ship he's ever served on safely out of orbit and they're all relatively unscratched, thank all the holy saints. Surely that's got to be worth a grin. A smirk. Something.
(Not that he feels much like smiling himself, he thinks, watching the fire-bright blooms of Reaper beams strafing across Earth's horizon. Not here. Not like this.)
Shepard stands beside him in the cargo bay for a long time, watching Earth grow smaller, quieter and more pristine with distance, and then when the Normandy gives just the faintest shift under their feet as the FTL drive kicks in and the little blue planet disappears altogether, she puts a hand on his shoulder. Even her hands look like Lola's.
"We'll get her back, Vega," she tells him, her eyes serious.
And the thing is: when she says it like that, he believes her.
Sure, he gets to knock off some Cerberus baddies and he'll never say no to hanging out with sharp-dressed women with big guns, but just as he's really hitting his stride with the rifle, ducking under Williams' sniper fire and clearing out the assault troopers that make it past Shepard's crazy biotic explosions, a ceiling vent coughs up a damn asari of all things, and before James can even start to switch from Deadly But Smoldering to Sexily Suave, Shepard kicks his ass back to the Normandy like a recruit in basic training who's just been caught lifting cigs from the sergeant's stash. Yeah, he's heard of Liara T'Soni and her history with the commander, and he doesn't miss that it's the closest Shepard has come to a real smile in about six weeks. Doesn't help the fact that he just got benched in favor of a blue alien he could use as a toothpick.
And then, of course, his one brief shining Moment of Heroism – and revenge against Shepard – gets shot to hell by the robot he'd crashed Esteban's shuttle into actually surviving the explosion, then proceeding to do its level best to bash Williams' skull right through to the other side of the aircar. It doesn't even matter that he hasn't known Ashley all that long; they've been through fire and flames together as fellow soldiers and he knows she's good people and he knows Shepard trusts her, and watching the thing that was Dr. Eva Coré beating the crap out of her really pisses him off.
That's the first time he really sees Commander Shepard in action.
He knows, objectively, that she's quick – he'd seen glimpses of it before she'd knocked him back to the Normandy – but he's never believed the rumors of her supposed cybernetics until now. Shepard moves so fast she just about disappears, popping back into existence about three meters away from Coré with a pistol in one hand and death in her face, and he's barely got his hand over his shoulder for his rifle before three shots pop out like firecrackers and Coré's head explodes in lightning and circuitry.
Everything happens quick after that. Shepard slings Williams over her shoulder like she weighs about ten pounds as he drags the robot lady inside, Dr. T'Soni scrambling after them into the Kodiak, both of them shouting for him to get the shuttle out of there like he's not already throttling the engines. They tear out of atmo like the Reapers themselves are after them – which, considering the facts that his proximity sensors are going off like shrieking infants and he can actually see their cockroach bodies dropping through the sky around him, is entirely probable – but somehow they make it to open space, and safety, and the Normandy hanging silent in the spread of stars.
James follows Shepard to the medbay, the hard burned shell of the robot heavier on his shoulder than he expects. T'Soni trails after them like a little concerned duck and, as it turns out, she isn't even a real doctor, just one of those people who spends all their time on backwater planets digging up, like, dinosaur bones. Figures.
Williams looks – well, like she's been on the wrong end of a fight with an aircar, but it's Shepard's face that has his gut twisting. Lola looked like that, once, when he'd come over after a day of ditching to find his best friend beat to hell and back by a couple of real assholes at school. She'd been sitting there at the kitchen table, holding an icepack to her little brother's shoulder, and as he'd pulled up a chair to figure out whose ass he needed to tear apart he'd caught just a corner of her silent rage. Didn't matter that he'd known it wasn't meant for him – it had still been enough to freeze him clean through.
Shepard's anger hits him like a cryo slug to the chest. His mouth dries out and his hands and feet practically go numb, and as soon as he can he takes off for someplace a little safer. The commander's dangerous like this, even if she doesn't mean to be, and he doesn't care if it means the doc's cojones are bigger than his that she stays behind.
"Hold on, Ash," he hears Shepard say behind him just before the doors swish shut, sounding way too worried and way too human for someone who's half cyborg and all brass. The Reapers have killed a lot of humans. They need somebody more than that.
He heads down to the cargo bay and throws all his excess adrenaline into pull-ups until his shirt soaks through with sweat. Esteban bitches at him for an hour about the damage to the Kodiak, and he plays along because it's what he does, but not even the memory of turning that flying brick into a precision air strike is enough to clear out the image of Williams' bruised face, or to warm the chill out of his bones.
And then they get to Palaven, and it's the worst thing he's ever seen. Not the worst like when he blasted himself at a buddy's bachelor party and woke up outside city limits under the wreckage of someone else's airbike; not the worst like Fehl Prime, where no matter his decision good people would be sent to brutal deaths. Not the worst like leaving Earth.
Palaven is burning, and the Reapers are burning it, and it is the worst thing he has ever seen.
He can't even count the fires. More bright orange and gold than not, he guesses, major cities marked out across the planet's surface like a kid fingerpainting with bombs. Even through Normandy's stealth dampener he can hear the weird metallic hum of Reaper beams strafing across the horizon, the tinny audio synthesizers lining the starboard viewport rumbling with artificial bass. Worse still, he knows the blazes are a thousand times larger on the ground, where the civilians can't get loose. Where there's nowhere left to run.
"Christ," he hears behind him, and glances back just in time to see Shepard's grief vanish behind military composure. She joins him at the viewport, staring at the ruin of a planet beneath them. "I knew the turians had dropped off the grid," she says quietly. "I didn't expect this."
"It's probably better than it looks."
Shepard cuts an exasperated glare his way and he feigns wide-eyed remorse, and for a second she's almost human enough that a smile cracks through. But it's gone before it lands, and instead she squares her shoulders and turns to him full-on. "Feel like going groundside, lieutenant?"
"That depends, ma'am. What's the chance I'll get to kick some Reaper ass?"
Shepard laughs. It's short and startled but it's a damn victory, and James thinks this whole stupid trip to fetch the primarch might be worth it after all. He can't play diplomat and he can't pretend he wants anything more than to head home on the first relay he can find, not like Shepard's going to have to—but he can make her laugh. Even with a world burning in the background. Hell, even Lola laughed at his jokes sometimes, and he can't imagine a tougher audience.
"Suit up, Vega," she tells him, and claps him on the shoulder as he salutes.
He glances back, once, just before the doors swish close behind him. She's still standing at the enormous window, staring out at Palaven, and the fires are bright enough that he can't see her face in the reflection. But he can see her shoulders bend and he can see her hands curl into fists, and just for a second, he thinks that to have so much of the galaxy resting on it, Shepard's back is pretty small.
"An old friend," says Shepard, and then she and Dr. T'Soni throw each other some real significant looks in the back of the shuttle like James's either an idiot or just not there. He'd be pissed if he didn't see the worry in her eyes and the way her hands are still tight on her knees, but—well, he sees them, and he knows how it feels to watch good friends go missing without warning. There are husks to greet them on Menae, naturally, and naturally Esteban's worried enough about denting his precious Kodiak that they have to fight through about a million of them to get to the base camp, but he can't say he's not excited to be back at the front lines. It's where he's good. It's where he's great, rifle in his hands and his partners on both sides, watching his back, him watching theirs.
Doesn't hurt that T'Soni's not bad with her biotics. Doesn't hurt that Shepard gives him an approving nod when he clears a marauder sneaking up on her open three, and it makes him feel like he's just read his first commendation all over again.
And then they get to the camp, and Shepard finds the turian in charge, and, frankly, James tunes a lot of the next parts out. Hard to focus when there's a gigantic burning planet taking up most of the skyline, especially when it's got the only color that's not blue or grey. The turians are scattered all over the camp in tight groups, most of them huddled around someone's glowing omnitool or a handful of datapads in the shelter of the hastily-erected prefabs, a few others with their hands to their ears as they try to make out distorted chatter. Ears? The sides of their heads, anyway—he's never been great on turian anatomy when it isn't about where to kick 'em in a fight.
"Come on, Vega," Shepard says, and he realizes she's already a dozen yards away, looking over her shoulder with exasperation. She rolls her eyes as he catches up, falling into pace with Dr. T'Soni, and lets out a sigh that's audible even above the constant thudding of cannon. "Hope you brought your best gun. You're about to see how glamorous most of these missions really are."
"Shepard," T'Soni says, some undercurrent of warning in her voice, "there's no need to take it out on the lieutenant."
The commander's head swings sharply toward T'Soni, but whatever she sees makes her back down after a second and she sighs again. "Yeah. Listen, Vega. There's a busted comm tower about half a klik up the hill. We've got to get it running again before they can tell us where the primarch is. We'll storm the hill, take it, and see where that gets us. Understood?"
"Understood, Commander," he says, and shrugs. "Not sure why we're the ones going, but okay."
Shepard snorts. Smiles, though, and it's almost real. "Now you're getting it."
She sends Liara up the tower when they get there—probably for the best, he guesses, considering the last time she sent him on a rescue mission—so for a while it's just him and the commander, bellied up to a couple of spare rockpiles while Liara fiddles with electronics twenty years out of date. It's not bad, though, watching Shepard's face right before she charges out into a pile of husks so they scatter like bowling pins. He picks off a few with his rifle when they get too close, but Shepard's good, and he catches himself studying her more often than not. Her face doesn't change much when she fights, not like some of the guys he knew in basic who snarled like dogs before every punch; instead she's crazy focused, eyes narrow, arms loose, hips low and stable as she moves from cover to cover with her shotgun tucked against her stomach. Good technique. Good shot. Not flashy, except for the biotics. Not hard to watch work, either, and James prides himself on knowing quality when he sees it.
So they get the tower running, and they fight their way back again, and James real carefully hides how winded the thin air on Menae makes him as they jog back to the camp's command center. Shepard hops up the ramp to the general's level; he leans one elbow casually on an ammo kit to his right, blowing out a breath as he sets the assault rifle home on its mag-seal, and ignores the little glance T'Soni gives him out of the corner of her eye. He's tired enough of smoke and husks without an overly-concerned asari hovering over his shoulder.
Man. Not even a real doctor.
And then a new turian strides up, blue armor and a glowing visor on one eye and—well, he'd call it swagger on one of his buddies, though he's not sure how that fits in with the way a good turian soldier is supposed to serve the Hierarchy. Only he's not just a soldier, because the general salutes him, and Shepard jolts like a Widow's just kicked out of her hands.
She says, "Garrus."
So James watches Garrus Vakarian—and yeah, he knows that name, no matter how it's hidden under an old friend—greet the commander, and take her hand in both of his with his too-few fingers, and say, "I'm on it, Shepard."
Shepard smiles, a real one, wide and true and lighting her up from the inside out like a sun bursting as she looks up at this turian, and it's the most gorgeous damn thing he's ever seen. Garrus Vakarian, he thinks, and Palaven burning, and of all the comm towers on the moon this is the one that goes down. Bright and hot as hell and impossible to escape.
"Sorry, Lola," he mutters, moving up for introductions, but he's grinning.