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Chronicles of Armax Arena

Chapter Text

Move in somewhere new and the junk mail will come.

Shepard flips the orange pieces of paper over and over in her hands. They'd arrived at her apartment along with rest of the unwanted solicitations piled on the kitchen counter, but perhaps they could be useful? She pulls out some frozen breakfasts and instant caffeine drinks while she thinks things over.

Her boyfriend -- such an odd phrase to use the older she got, but he seems to like it -- comes up behind her and wraps a three-fingered hand around her waist. "You win. This apartment is so much better than my rent-controlled flat in Kithoi Ward. Even if it does have too many windows." He nips lightly along her neck and she makes pleased humming noises as she pours the drinks. "Keep that up," he rumbles, "and I'll never leave."

"Shore leave is a wonderful thing ... but I thought we might go out exploring. We have the sleeping together thing down pat, but maybe we could try the dating thing more often. You're really good at it." She turns and kisses him. "Really, really good at it."

Garrus chuckles and rubs the back of his head awkwardly. It's adorable, if a little perplexing that he doesn't seem to realize how absolutely perfect he is.

The microwave chimes and Shepard turns to set out their breakfast. "Besides, we're off ship. I'm sure you're going to get tired of rations, and it's the only thing I know how to make."

"I'd make you dinner if you could eat dextro food." He pokes a hole in the plastic over his breakfast. "Maybe I could try learning some levo recipes."

"Anytime you want to start the experiments, I'm game. I'm told I have no sense of taste, so I'm easy to please." She holds up the orange tickets for him to see. "But I thought we could stick with our strengths and shoot things."

He looks over the tickets and the little introductory note:

Welcome to the Armax Arena, where the danger is fake, but the excitement is real!

New athletes can challenge the Cerberus and Geth enemy sets at the Foot Soldier level. Additional layouts, enemies, and ally licenses can be purchased from the Armax store on the main level of the arena.

Completing any match awards a bronze, silver, or gold prize depending on your point totals. These prizes are redeemable at the arena store for credits or to unlock play options.

Bonus points can be acquired by finishing the match quickly, capturing bonus objectives, kill streaks, or taking voluntary handicaps. Voluntary advantages can be taken, but these reduce the final score.

See you in the sim!
-The Armax Arsenal Arena Team

"Hmmm... I suppose it could be fun to see how we stack up." Garrus examines the large cube of potted meat product in front of him as if trying to identify what it was originally before ripping into it with his talons.

"Ever played before?" Shepard gingerly pushes her burrito forward in its paper wrapper, waiting for it to cool down.

"Sure. Armax Arsenal is the supplier to most of the elite turian units. It's New Year's tradition for the various C-Sec units to have a playoff. They give us the tickets for free and the commander and the purchasing officers look over their latest wares. It's great for morale."

"So, what say we play a round and then hit the hotdog stand or whatever the turian equivalent is for lunch? Pretend we're normal people?"

"Alright, Shepard. Sounds fun."

"You know, you could call me Shepard a bit less. Everyone calls me Shepard." She takes a bite of her breakfast burrito.

"Alright, sweetie."

Shepard makes a face like she's bitten into a lemon. "Not that."

"Dearest?" he watches her more closely this time.

"No."

"Queen of hearts?"

"No."

"Schmoopy?" he says with an evil look in his eye.

"Hell no." She taps him lightly on the nose with a finger. "Now you're doing it on purpose and I really want to know what you said in turian to get 'stereotyped sickeningly sweet not word' as your translation."

"See, you're not really a terms of endearment kind of girl." He chews thoughtfully on his shredded meat.

"What kind of girl am I?"

"Mine," he says reflexively.

"Now that, I like."

#

"Commander Shepard! You came!" exclaims a round little volus in a red suit. "I'm Khal Vin. Management is so pleased to have you patronizing our venue."

Shepard turns from the VI greeter and ticket taker, surprised at the attention. "You're welcome."

"Can we get you anything? Towels? Humans always want towels."

"Just tell us where to go." She smiles and steps a little closer to Garrus.

"Down the stairs there to the players' locker room." He points and touches his chin thoughtfully. "Do you like Tupari? I could bring you some tupari."

"We're fine. Thanks."

"Well then..." Vin nervously twiddles his fingers. "Well then, on behalf of the Armax Arsenal Arena Team, I hope you have a great time!"

"Thanks. You, too." She walks in the direction he pointed and says over her shoulder to Garrus, "Well, that was shades of Conrad Verner."

"It wasn't that bad," he retorts.

"Not yet, but neither was Conrad when he started."

"You're getting that crease in your brow."

"I don't need more fans."

"Don't worry about it. We're just here for some fun -- before you forget how to have fun."

"Oh, I know how to have fun ..." she pulls him into a kiss outside the locker room door. "Prepared to shoot your way through hoards of-" she looks at their very limited options "-geth to get to me?"

"That's my average Wednesday." He looks over the menu. "Hmm... this is pared down. They must have redesigned the place since I was last here. Too bad we can't play a few times, go for best score."

"It just means lunch and the walk home will come sooner." She tugs tauntingly at his waist.

"Good point. Geth it is."

#

Geth foot soldiers are not a challenge of any kind for Shepard and Vakarian. There is little point to Garrus using his beloved Mantis sniper rifle when he can headshot more enemies with the automatic. And while there is some joy in taking down piles of enemies trying to cluster around her on the battlefield, in the arena, with no threat of death, the feeling of accomplishment is lacking for Shepard.

They stand shoulder to shoulder looking at the scoreboard above the Wingman Arena, watching the points total.

"I can't believe we get a bonus for finishing in under five minutes. I'm barely even started." Shepard looks at Garrus. "Who takes longer than five minutes to finish off foot soldiers?"

"When I played with one squad vs. the other, it was more of a challenge. A five minute game would deserve a bonus. Or the shame to the losing team if they were that awful." Garrus looks around the arena. "But this does have one advantage."

"Oh?"

"It reminds me of when we first started working together." He smirks.

"So many geth."

"Yes. But it was back then I first saw what a great team we made: You out in front drawing all the fire and me hiding behind rocks and picking off the geth attached to walls that you hadn't noticed."

"I was waiting for them to get into bludgeoning range. You just saved me a few bruises. I could handle it."

"Then I should check you over and make sure I haven't lost my touch." His hand strokes along her back before resting on her hip.

She leans into him. "After lunch. I know better than to live on my own cooking." Then she snorts as their 2886 point total flashes on the board. "Looks like the Great Commander Shepard and the King of the Bottle Shooters just barely rate a silver prize."

"That puts us behind ... Aria T'Loak? She must be bored sitting around Purgatory." His browplate spikes upward. "And Barla Von!?"

"How are we not as good as my volus financier?" Shepard scowls at the scoreboard. "Maybe I should trade jobs with him and he can lead the Alliance offensive?"

"I think we can do better than this."

"Yeah. Maybe I'll buy a few more tickets. It can't be as expensive as that fish VI. See if we can beat our own scores."

"You're on."

But when they talk to the ticket VI, she rejects Shepard's credit chip.

Embarrassed, Shepard turns the chip over and over in her hands. "I swear I have money on this."

Khal Vin appears again as if by magic. "Trouble, commander?"

I was trying to buy more tickets, but this stupid program won't accept my money."

"Buy more tickets?" says Din, scandalized. "Never! I arranged for you two to have a season pass. It's the least we can do for our men and women in uniform."

Shepard beams at the sudden gift of a private practice range where she can go all out. "Good point. How many silver prizes would buy season passes for the entire crew?"

"Actually," says the volus helpfully, "A season pass costs one bronze prize, and you can buy three bronze prizes with one silver prize."

Shepard looks over at Garrus. "What do you say? A few more games for the troops?"

"Sounds better than doing it for your wounded pride," he teases.

"Shhh! You're supposed to pretend I don't have any flaws!" she says in self-mockery.

Garrus clears his throat. "I mean, of course, Shepard! What an obvious -- I mean brilliant! idea."

And so, Shepard and Vakarian go back to the arena to play a few more rounds and win some free passes for their friends, completely unaware of the cameras surrounding them.

Chapter Text

"I'll see you later, sweetheart." Garrus waves at her as Shepard pops her head over the top of the couch.

"Hunh? I thought you made me promise that there would be no work!" The strap of her camo top droops off of her shoulder. "Where are you going in that armor?"

"No work. I'm going to go catch up with the guys at C-Sec."

"That requires armor?"

"Sushi restaurants. They're killer."

"You know I'd like to argue with you, but I can't."

"I think I'll keep that one tucked down my shirt for the future."

"Calibrations!"

"Doesn't apply."

"Damn."

"If you're going to be lonely sitting on the couch reading a book, I have been told that the rest of the squad would visit if you'd check your e-mail."

"E-mail might involve work. Every time I sit down at the computer it's Hackett telling me that Cerberus has taken another base. Except this time I can't do anything about it because I don't have a ship to carry me to the Silean Nebula."

Garrus widens his mandibles. "That's why I wrote a program to filter your e-mail at your home terminal. Only friends and relatives can get through."

"I love you, too." She smiles up at him. "Alright, go on. I'll find someone else to entertain me." Maybe by this evening she'll have come up with a way to repay him.

In the meantime, she pulls up her e-mail. The box is practically full to the brim, and as promised, it's only friends. When did she manage to make this many friends? She opens her calendar and begins scheduling meetings.

Combat Sim

From: Jack

Shep!

I hear this Silversun Strip place has a combat simulator, and I felt like kicking the crap out of something. Get your ass down here if you're game.

While she hadn't planned on revisiting Armax Arena, it's still an appealing invite. It might also be filed under her good deed for the day, since of all the crew to be given a desk job, Jack is the most likely to chafe at the restraints. No one wants to see what happens when Jack gets cranky.

#

Shepard has barely surveyed the crowds in the lobby when the petite bald woman appears with a smile on her face. "Glad you could make it. I've got us set up."

"You're looking good, Jack. Who are the victims this time?" Shepard falls into step beside her.

"You have to ask? Cerberus."

"Glad you're getting some use out of the pass."

"Who wouldn't? Free goons to kill and I don't have to put up with those 'I'm soooo disappointed' looks from Miranda and Jacob."

"So who is our shield breaker?"

Jack rolls her eyes. "You're always so cautious. Relax and live a little. We're going to take'em down with huge fucking detonations."

"That's a little messy..."

"Did you ever learn the meaning of fun?"

"I like bringing the right tools to the table." Shepard shrugs. "But we can certainly do it your way."

"You had better fucking believe we're doing it my way," says Jack, punching a fist into her hand. "Time to let loose."

#

"HY-Yahhhh!" Shepard charges the knot of centurions and works on beating them to death with raw power. It's frustrating to put so much effort into attacks that will be easily absorbed by shields, even if the explosions are pretty.

She drops and rolls as an ATLAS mech falls out of the sky. Jack shoots at her nemesis and clears the shields with a shock wave. "I am gonna beat you until candy comes out!" The tattooed woman laughs. "Damn it's nice to relax: No worrying about the kids..."

Shepard smiles back. "It's worth the stress to watch the people you're commanding come into their own, though."

Jack wrinkles her nose. "Shut up."

"Who said I was talking about you?"

"Anyone with half a brain."

"Alright, then tell me you don't enjoy being a good girl with the adoring eyes of children looking up at you."

"Shut. Up." Jack punches Shepard in the shoulder.

"Never."

"Like you're so pure. The Queen of the Girl Scouts with a turian on the side? I don't think so. You don't get a guy like that in your bed if you're not more kinky and rebellious than you let on."

"Prying, are we?"

"Hell no. Speaking from experience. I've done turians."

"So what? You're going to make me blush?"

"As if I could. You like me and Miranda hates me for the same reason: I'm what you could be if you took the fucking brakes off. And I don't blush."

"Don't you? The pitter-patter of little feet seems to be doing strange things to you."

"Not stranger than what the vibration does when a turian co-"

Shepard punches Jack in the shoulder as a rocket blows away part of their cover. "I think we have a mech to deal with."

"I'll prime. You detonate." Jack throws a shockwave at the stomping colossus.

Shepard spins out of hiding and, in the mood to show off, throws a flare at the simbot, leading to an especially fiery explosion.

Jack looks transported as she stands in the wreckage of some forgotten or faked asari temple. "You know, if there is a God, that's what She sounds like. Just a big deep BWOMMM to let you know everything's gonna be okay."

"You have a funny idea of okay."

Jack arches an eyebrow at her. "Tell me a fucking reverb in your bones doesn't make you chill out after battle."

Shepard tilts her head with a bland expression and then lets a smirk steal over her face. "Hell yes."

They turn to walk out of the arena. "Thanks for coming, Shepard."

Shepard wraps an arm over her shoulders in a hug. "Wouldn't have missed it."

#

There's a green blinking sign as Shepard sets her bag on the counter to check that she has everything. It seems to indicate she has e-mail. But her e-mail account isn't linked to Armax Arena, is it? Curious, she presses the button . Nope. Standard e-mail screen for Shepard@armaxaa.gcom. But she doesn't know any of these people.

She opens a message.

Welcome to the club

From: This One is Number One

Commander,

This one just noticed your appearance on the leaderboards and wished to offer its congratulations. It advises that success in combat sports can bring out an enthusiastic fan base. Do not worry about them. Most are quite harmless.

Wishing you gentle tides,

Number One

Oh. He noticed her name on the boards. But what's this about a fan base? She's just playing a sim game with friends. A game that posts top scores just like any other vid game. She's not going to get that many fans from a few high scores on a local machine.

Wrecking Machines

From: CU Engineering Club

Commander,

Your match got you quite a following here at the Citadel U. Engineering Club. When we heard you were in the arena, we polled the club for what kind of dream matchup they'd like to see. Funny thing--the votes came in and not a lot of people wanted Reapers or Cerberus. (I guess that's too much like the news.) They wanted to see you take down the geth, like the old days. So they're getting some friends together and I wanted to ask, could you do one just for us? Geth, on the Blasteroid map?

We can't really afford to pay you, and you're probably doing pretty well for yourself anyway as a big-time Spectre and all that, but some of the engineers here are in weapons research. Give us a game, and we'll make you a mod? Is that too gauche?

Thanks

Dave Shanel

Anti-President, CU Engineering Club

See her take down...?

Oh. Crap.

"You okay, Shepard?" Jack puts a hand on her shoulder. "You're a little pale."

Shepard points at the screen.

"Yeah. So?"

"So they're videoing us and showing it across the wards! I'm currently serving in the navy! I could lose my commission for doing this without filing all the proper paperwork! Using the uniform to promote commercial goods!"

"Shep, I don't think they're going to decommission you during a Reaper invasion. They're not that fucking stu-" Jack shakes her head. "What am I saying? They locked you up. They are that fucking stupid."

Yes. Yes they are. After years of fighting to save people and facing down a war crimes charge, she's going to lose everything because of some greedy, unethical corporation. And they weren't even the greedy, unethical corporation that brought her back to life.

"But you're still a spectre," says Jack putting a hand on her back. "You can authorize yourself to do anything you want, right?"

"I ... guess I could. I should run over to the Presidium and do that right now... Oh. Shit." She starts banging her head against the wall.

"Now what?"

"Umm... they were videoing and we were... having a private conversation." Heat floods her face.

Jack laughs. "Guess I can make you blush after all!"

"It is one thing for you to razz me about my boyfriend. It is an entirely different thing for the whole galaxy to watch me discuss my sex life. My mother is out there!" Shepard closes her eyes. "Oh, God. My mother is out there and she doesn't even know I'm dating someone, let alone outside my species. Maybe the Reapers can just kill me now."

"Oh, pick your balls up off the floor. No one records athletes on the field. They don't want to be sued for giving away gamer secrets. You'll be fine."

As much as Shepard wants to rage some more and possibly beat herself up for not reading what she suspects was in the fine print (cursed junk mail), she realizes she's ruining Jack's day off. "You're right. I think I could do with more punching giant robots." She pushes herself upright and squares her shoulders. "You want to go again?"

"Fuck yeah!"

Chapter Text

For reasons unknown, there are never any other spectres in the spectre office. Shepard breathes a sigh of relief and steps through the security door to catch a sky car home.

The door to Bailey's office slides open, and Shepard does a quick sidestep to avoid a collision -- with Garrus. She pivots to face him as he stops dead, the door swinging shut behind him.

"What are you doing here?" they exclaim.

"You're supposed to be on vacation!" The echoing continues. Shepard frowns and Garrus draws his mandibles close in annoyance.

Shepard lifts her hand and opens her mouth to try a third time, but Garrus grabs the hand and spins her around, ending with her at his side, her hand neatly tucked in the crook of his arm. "We should discuss this at home."

"Oh, thank God. If we said the same thing a third time, I was going to think we'd been spending too much time together."

"Maybe too much practice. I know James is upset by how little we need to talk."

"You mean I could get you to talk more if you didn't already know my every move? Hmmm... physical ease versus that voice..."

He leans near her ear as he calls up a sky car. "Aren't you lucky you get both?"

"Very lucky," she says as she slides into the car. It takes a few moments more for him to settle beside her.

"Though I still want to know why you were in Bailey's office."

Garrus grimaces. "Paperwork."

"For?"

"Pontius Betucius. He works security down on the docks with the refugees. There's a human girl there. Every day, she comes and stands at the arrivals board, waiting for news of her parents. She's friendly, polite, obedient, and devoted to her family. And every day she's a little bit thinner and dirtier. It's clear no one is coming for the girl until the war ends, if then. He wants to adopt her."

"I know it's unlikely, but her parents could still be alive."

"Of course. And she could have other family, not that she remembers any. But whether they are or aren't alive, she's a kid and she's doing worse on her own every day. Pontius worries over her every night when he goes home. He's volunteered for extra shifts just to keep an eye on her. I was talking to Bailey about setting something up for temporary custody."

"And you haven't asked me to help because...?"

"I only learned about it today and using spectre authority would be like using a flamethrower to light a candle. I'd like to try to do something more subtle and less likely to draw the attention of the council."

"Ah. You and your charity work." Shepard sighs.

"It's important!" he says heatedly.

"Absolutely." She puts a hand on his arm. "The truth is, it makes my heart melt to watch you organize supplies on the docks. You've been wonderful."

The skin on his neck flushes blue. "Oh. Um. Thank you."

"I just don't want you overworking yourself. I wish we could be everywhere, taking care of everyone, but we can't. And as someone pointed out to me, you need to come up for air sometime."

"I'll keep that in mind." He gives her hand a squeeze. "What were you doing in the spectre offices?"

"Paperwork."

"For?"

She grimaces. "The eSports thing Armax Arena scammed me into participating in."

"Scam?"

"Apparently they've been broadcasting our matches."

"Oh. OH! That makes so much more sense now."

"What does?"

"People were talking about us down in the bar. It was a little bit weird. I was wondering if I needed to check the Normandy for hidden cameras."

"There won't be much more to talk about. I'm hanging up my imaginary gun after one more match."

"Why one more?"

"Oh, some engineers offered to make me a new gun mod, and well, you know engineering students: It might be crap, but there's a chance it will be awesome. Want to come along?"

"I'm not sure. Shooting things sounds suspiciously like work."

"For other people, maybe. I thought you were good enough to do this in your sleep..."

"Darn. Trapped in my own words."

"That's the best kind of trap. So is it a date?"

"Definitely."

#

"You know, if they weren't recording us, this might be fun." Shepard watches the point totals. Seventh place. Not bad for a final round.

"Who says it isn't fun this way? The guys down in Kithoi Ward made a drinking game out of watching the Arena challenge. I like to think that with each perfect headshot, I'm buying them another round of drinks."

"Wait, there's a drinking game?"

"Ye-es." Garrus regards her cautiously.

"Tell me the rules. We need to do this again."

Garrus cocks his head at her. "You want to make a bar full of turians drunk, don't you?"

"I'm betting the turians aren't the only ones with a drinking game. Screw mods, I want to see how drunk we can make the Citadel."

"You're evil."

"I am not. I am doing my civic duty by boosting morale during times of war." She tries to look forthright.

"Oh, definitely. I see that now." He exaggeratedly nods in sarcasm.

"I am also teaching them a valuable lesson about managing risks when giving others power over your life."

"Always a life lesson and thinking of others, huh?"

"Absolutely."

#

Hours later, Shepard turns over their pile of silver prizes to Garrus.

"You're certain you want me to have all of them?"

"Yes. I've had my fun." She leans in, pressing her forehead to his in the locker room. "You said the refugees on the docks are still under-supplied. I know you're not going to ignore all of their problems just because we're supposed to be on vacation. Cash in the tokens to buy some food and grease some palms. We don't need the money."

He gives her a light kiss on the cheek. "Alright, sweetie. I'll take care of it the next time I go out." He heads upstairs to claim their prizes.

Shepard picks up a package from her arena mail. One SMG power amplifier. It's not as impressive as she'd hoped, but it's a nice effort.

Along with the amplifier, the only piece of mail at the moment is a request from a news crew to get some "safe" footage of her fighting Reapers by herself.

Damn. She wants this little sojourn into eSports to be over with, but for the good of the Alliance, she'll do the propaganda piece. That literally is part of her duties at the moment, no matter how disingenuous it feels.

But that's for another day.

Chapter Text

"Mierda!" James Vega shouts. For a moment, Shepard is worried he'll throw his beer at the vid screen. "He was out. You're blind, ref!"

"And it's good!" Much to his consternation, the asari sportscaster announces the final decision: "Sorcerers 68. Maestros 66. Seattle Sorcerers win!"

"Yes! They did it!" Cortez's normally sweet smile turns sardonic. He shifts pointedly in his seat and says, "Now pay up."

"Hey!" Shepard feels like a kid again, the military brat who got left behind because she didn't belong in their town cheering for their teams. "Why didn't you let me in on the betting?"

Vega looks sheepish. "We weren't exactly betting on who'd win."

Cortez is unperturbed. "We were betting on if you'd pick the winner. And everyone knows you don't bet against Shepard."

She puts up a good front for the compliment. She's the commander; it's her job to put on a brave face. For a minute, she'd felt like one of the guys, that she belonged on the couch throwing the occasional bits of popcorn and cheering for some amazing plays.  And now she's reverted to a curiosity because she has a sixth sense for the correct answers.

"Hey, guys. Game run late?" Garrus walks in the front door wearing a suit in three different shades of orange and two different shades of green. Clearly, hazmat is the latest turian trend. Shepard swears she put that atrocity in a pile for donations.

"You know how it is." Vega shrugs. "Always someone trying to run down the clock.

"Who won?"

"Sorcerers."

"Cortez." Shepard lifts an eyebrow at the man in question. "Apparently I'm winning him money again."

Garrus walks around behind her, leaning over her chair to give her a kiss on the top of her head. "Is he buying us dinner again?"

"I don't know, is he?" Shepard says a bit sharply.

"If you want a bottle of beer, sure," Cortez says unrepentantly. "This guy," he points to Vega, "Isn't worth what he used to be."

"Hey. You cleaned me out with your fancy dance moves."

"We worked hard for that," says Garrus defensively. "There were many kicked ankles."

"Oh, you want to talk about kicked ankles?" says Cortez. "At least Shep wasn't wearing combat boots at the time."

"Sorry, you picked me up in a combat zone. I had a fine selection of armor, armor, and . . . armor." Garrus slides a possessive arm across Shepard's chest.

"Can we go back to that?" She asks. "I like you better in silver and blue." She leans back against him, feeling the sense of isolation melt away.

"Not during shore leave." He taps a talon lightly on her nose. "You're supposed to be taking a break from the war."

"There is no such thing."

Garrus makes an annoyed rumble.

"Anyway," says Vega. "I have to rebuild my stash practically from scratch. It's not easy. I threw my shirt in the last poker pot and the asari started asking me if I was part elcor." He flexes, dragging attention back to himself. "Wasn't exactly what I was planning, but it got her distracted anyway."

Shepard can't help laughing at the giant ham, good humor and quiet settling around the room.

Vega continues showing off, making the muscles across his back dance before he cracks his neck. He stops at an odd angle, transfixed by the vid.  On screen, Shepard ducks behind a turbine as marauders shoot at her. She takes a couple slugs to the chest before the inferno bullets do their work. "Oof. Looks like you were having a bad day, Lola. Where's your back up? Did Scars run out of ammo?"

"I always have plenty of ammo," says Garrus.

"Apparently not enough to hit that guy. Or are you gonna tell me you missed?"

"It looks like no one else is there." Garru's subvocal growl vibrates across Shepard's neck. "You're supposed to be on vacation. Have you been running ops?"

"Actually," Shepard begins.

"Nah, man," says Vega. "I'm sure Shepard's taking a break. Tell him, Estaban, you know your planes. Which mission is this one?"

"Ships," he corrects. "That's ... uh... ummm...  wait. I'm not sure ..." The pilot squints at the screen. "That's an Everest-class winglet next to a Kilimanjaro spoiler. And isn't that the new turian heat-dispersal vent? Who would do that?"

Shepard sighs. "It's a fake."

"Well, obviously. No one would invest money on a mess like that. The hinges on the flaps are going to melt and you wouldn't be able to steer it after three missions, tops" says Cortez.

"Oh!" says Vega as if he stepped on a tack. "Oh, that's low. We're in the middle of a war and they're running fake news stories about you!"

"The only thing fake is the footage," says Shepard. "And my lack of coordination. Hour 20 with Azad Carter wanted some combat shots where people could actually see my face, so I ran the simulator alone." On screen, Shepard props her leg up on a recently felled brute. Artistically applied dirt and fake blood are smeared across one side of her face as she pants for breath and smiles at a distant point of nothing. That should sell people on hope for a brighter tomorrow. She smiles wickedly. "Oh, and I beat your high score Vega. By myself."

"You're still doing this?" Garrus asks "I thought you wanted out of that game."

"It's for the war effort." Inspirational music kicks in. Perfect!

"You need to take a rest, Shepard."

"I'll sleep when I'm dead."

Recognizing an argument brewing, Vega turns to his compatriot. "You ready to go, Estaban?"

 "Yeah. Great evening." Cortez tips his beer to her. "Thanks, Shepard."

"My pleasure."

Vega strolls out the door. "Don't forget, tomorrow comes early."

"For some people maybe. I am trapped on shore leave island, waiting for my ship to come in."

Her turian leans down and whispers in her ear, "Promise me no more work and maybe I could help with that ..."

"Last one, I promise."

But it wasn't.

Chapter Text

A second e-mail had followed on the heels of payment for the news footage: We want your many-eyed friend.  Shepard had promised herself -- hell, she'd promised Garrus -- that excursions to the arena would end. But she'd sworn an oath to do her job, and this... well, publicity and morale falls into the category of job.

"I am here, commander." Javik rotates his mushroom cap head, taking in the whole of her apartment.  "What did you want to speak with me about?"

"Come in. Sit down." She gestures at the black leather couch, wondering where she should start. Javik doesn't know how to appeal to the public. He's dour and grim when they want to hear about sunshine and rainbows waiting for them.

He eyes the couch suspiciously. "I would prefer not to touch anything, if you do not mind."

Shepard frowns. There's nothing wrong with her couch. It's a nice couch. "I vacuumed it after the party."

Javik sniffs the air. "That is ... not the issue."

 What... Oh! Is it just the alcohol, or do you have vids running through your head of us mostly naked, completely alone, and shamelessly rolling all over a couch. Like it or not, Javik can feel what happened later...  Ignoring that her entire life's story is possibly painted in the air for him to read, she asks, "What was hospitality like in your time?"

"In my cycle, there was no time for ... niceties." He tilts his head down accusingly. "This is all a waste of time."

"Alright. A lot of it is," Shepard agrees. "However, we need a functioning ship, and that requires waiting. I don't have a lot to do. You don't have a lot to do. We could talk."

"I am still not sitting on your couch. The ottoman is also questionable."

"Fine. That's not why I asked. I just don't see the point to being miserable while waiting around."

"And I do not see the point of pretending to like people I do not care about."

"I'm not pretending, Javik. I do like my crew. Even you."

"It is irrelevant how we feel."

"Mostly irrelevant. It still matters to us. You wouldn't be here if you didn't hate the Reapers. That's an emotion."

He crosses his arms. "You are trying very hard at being polite. You want something."

"True... I'd like you to join me in an Armax Arena simulation. There's a news team who wants footage of you. They think it will make for a great symbol of never-ending resistance to the Reapers. Lift spirits across the galaxy."

"I am a warrior, not a decoration for primitive games."

"Aren't you though? You said that you were the avatar of vengeance.  If you're an ideal, don't you want to spread that emotion to the rest of the universe? Video is a great medium to show the primitives what the wrath of an ancient race is like. Let them see the last prothean as a leader in our battle for the galaxy. They will follow you if you can get them to believe in you."

Javik snorts. "You are a clever woman, commander. Of that, there can be no doubt." He looks her up and down. "Cleverness will not kill a Reaper."

 "No, but adding athleticism and a targeting laser will," she challenges him. "Surely you can match me."

"Very well, I will ... play this game."

And this set goes to Shepard. "I'll make the arrangements."

#

The Reaper challenge is a breeze. Javik and Shepard set up choke points all over the so-called Pain Train. Between charges and lift grenades, the simulacra don't have a chance. Husks and marauders are easily guided. The only challenge is the brutes.

There are fewer places to take cover on the train, dodging their sledgehammer arms. They're too heavy for grenades and too well-armored for pure biotics to work quickly. Paling around with Jack made Shepard overconfident, and she has to haul Javik to safety once, dodging seats and running the length of the train with barely any health, dragging his body determinedly with her.

At last, there's a respite as they move into a new car, and she gets her companion back on his feet. He barely grunts in thanks.

The brute shoves its huge hands through the doorway, gouging deep grooves into the metal door of the train car, and bellows before charging.

Out of ammo, Shepard rolls out of the way. There are only shreds of armor standing between the creature and death as the brute reaches the end of the corridor and begins to turn for another pass. "Javik. Hit it with dark channel. "

The prothean wrinkles his nose in disgust, but does as he's told. Shepard concentrates on a flare.  The brute roars and the car shakes as he runs at her again. Waxy flesh falls to the ground in gobbets sizzling off of its body until the creature falls to its face in front of them.

The end of game fanfare blares out of unseen speakers and Shepard takes a seat on the devastated train. "Good game."

"If this is what you consider fun." The prothean sits down across from her. "It is a mockery of battle."

"What kinds of things did you ever do for fun, Javik?"

"In my cycle, there was no frivolous waste of time. We fought to the last man."

"So will we. But there has to be something to fight for, something to live for other than killing."

Javik yawns. "And you think you have found such a thing with the turian. I have watched these stories before, commander."

"You also lost these battles before. I am not you, as you like to point out. I intend to win." She takes a deep breath. "And if not -- if you are right -- this is still my first time. Let me have it. Let me make my mistakes."

"We have no room for errors. For us to win, everything must go right."

 "Then correct me on essentials, but leave me to my choices elsewhere. You don't know what the right ending for the war looks like any more than I do. My personal life is mine. You may be able to run on anger, but I need a sliver of hope for the future." She chooses to be with a man who makes the fate of the galaxy feel weightless. If she had to bear it alone, it would crush her.

"Since you reject it, may you never need to learn how far anger can carry and how deeply it can burn." He bows his head in weariness. "I do not care how you fight so long as you do fight."

She exhales some tension and looks at him again in thought. "You never answered my question. What do you do for fun?"

"I watch primitives grapple with powers beyond comprehension." He stands. "This was a better day than the last we spent together. Good game, commander"

Chapter Text

"Cute outfit, Shepard." Miranda Lawson looks her up and down.

And even though Shepard's little black dress can't compete with Miranda's designer pink asari gown, she feels appreciated. "Sounds like you have some time to catch your breath."

"I do. Just ... not used to it." Miranda moves the chips around in front of the Sunset Casino roulette wheel before putting a bet on even. "Feeling a bit lost. It's kind of sad, really. Got to thinking we needed a break. No point saving the galaxy if we can't enjoy it once in a while."

"I thought you needed a reminder on your schedule to have fun. I take it the day marked in pink glitter finally came up?"

Miranda snorts. "I know I can be ... severe, but give me a break, Shepard."

"You're focused," says Shepard, leaning against the table next to her.  "Believe me, I understand."

Her ex-XO idly tosses some chips on the table and loses her bet. "Damn, I'm not very good at this. Truth is, Shepard, I'm not very good at being normal either. Bit of a disaster really. Any ideas?"

"Boy, are you asking the wrong woman. I don't know. Maybe we can talk about regular stuff. No evil clones, no ticking time bombs... just talk."

"Regular stuff? Like shoes or something?"

"Sure ..." Where to start? "Um... I saw this great pair of curb stompers guaranteed tough enough to break krogan fingers before they snap the sole off the boot..." She looks around the room and catches a few local celebrities eying her warily. Miranda at least has a high-class upbringing, but a kid who grew up with two outfits to her name and unable to wash regularly because of shipboard water rationing doesn't fit with this crowd. "We're not really girly girls, are we? You're not really going to expect me to talk about shoes, right?"

"No." Miranda chuckles. "We can't pretend to be anything other than troubleshooting space divas."

"You know, that does sound pretty cool." Maybe she could be a diva if she tried. And the rest fits.

"It does."

"Alright, let's quit worrying and just enjoy ourselves," says Shepard as the wheel spins again and another pile of Miranda's chips disappears. "... at least until we run out of credits."

"Right. Need more wine."

"Now you're talking. Waiter, space diva needs more wine!" Shepard grabs a fluted glass off a passing tray and hands it to her.

Miranda blushes. "Oh, God. I'm going to regret this."

"Being a diva or convincing me to come along for the ride?"

"Going out drinking with you on shore leave."

"Oh, come on, if I'm going to be attacked on shore leave, it usually only happens once. It's like they think I let my guard down when I'm not on assignment.  Once I body-check an invader so hard he falls off a ship, they usually rethink their strategy." Shepard watches the sandy-haired croupier toss the ball.

"They who?"

The wheel spins round and round with the slightest hitch of the ball at the double zero. "Everyone who thinks it's a good time to attack me or my general vicinity."

"That happens to you a lot?"

"You were there the last time I got shore leave and the Collectors tried to capture the Normandy." Shepard shrugs and places a single chip on black. "It's par for the course in the life of a space diva."

"I'm also regretting calling you that."

"No revoking my sorority membership right after you gave it to me. It's the first time anyone's offered." The croupier rakes up the chips, including Shepard's bet.

"You do realize that it's not real and that I've never pledged a sorority because I didn't have the time between degrees to also throw parties and talk to people about ... about shoes and make up and unimportant things?"

"I thought there was more to it than that. Something about sisterhood and loyalty." Shepard chews on her lip. "I don't know ... I thought it looked fun to go out with people you punched in the shoulder less and fixed your hair up more." There's a minor vibration in the table through the floor and the croupier has a slight cramp in his right hand. Shepard drops all of her chips on 21. "I wouldn't want that all the time, but being able to do fancy and frilly some nights is fun."

"Red 21" The croupier pushes a pile of chips back at Shepard.

Miranda laughs. "How do you do that?"

"Just lucky."  The ball spins round and round and there's a shift in the temperature as the environmental controls turn off. "Bet on 23." She tosses a few chips in.

Miranda glances at the small pile of chips in front of her and puts them all on red. "So, umm... how are things going with you and Garrus?"

"Wonderful." Shepard smiles. "I don't know why it took us as long to get together as it did. Maybe both of us had given up looking between ... between everything that happened and getting so much out of our friendship." She scoops up another pile of chips. "That should have been a clue, but it's harder to see when you're in the middle of it."

"You are an ... unusual pairing."

"Still believe in humans first?" The ball drops into pocket 23 and the croupier pushes a pile of chips at each of them.

"It's not that," says Miranda, blushing. "It's ... If you're with him, you're never going to have children. Doesn't that bother you?"

"I hadn't thought about it, actually. But no, it doesn't bother me."

"How can you just shrug that off? You're the pinnacle of what a human can be. The human race needs you. How can you not want to pass that on?"

The muscles across Shepard's back tense up in irritation. "Not everyone wants to be a parent, Miranda. I really don't care about having kids one way or the other. Besides, it's a little premature to be talking about families. Garrus and I haven't even talked about staying together. It's hard to think about the long term when you may not live to see tomorrow."

Miranda raises an eyebrow. "Your boyfriend prides himself on being one of the best tacticians in the galaxy. He has a long-term plan even if he hasn't talked it over with you."

Shepard opens her mouth to disagree and then closes it. Not because Miranda is right. It's possible to be a brilliant tactician by only have broad strokes of a long-term plan so long as you're also able to make adjustments on the fly. The trouble is, that describes her more than Garrus. Sometimes, they're so in sync that it draws Shepard up short when she runs into the alien and inscrutable differences. And since they don't talk about the future, there are probably a lot of things they haven't talked about, like family.

But all of that is for her and Garrus to figure out together. So she switches tracks to attack the probable heart of the matter: "Seeing Jacob at the party threw you, hunh?"

Miranda twists the stem of her glass. "Maybe a little."

"Did he tell you about Brynn?"

"Yes."

"I'm sorry."

"About Jacob?" She waves a hand negligently. "He and I broke up years ago, and it was my decision."

"No. Because I know how much you want children. And that you can't have them."

"Are you spying on me?"

"What? No!" Shepard considers her next words carefully. "A year ago, I came across Shadow Broker dossiers of everyone on the crew. You knew everything there was to know about me and I only had what you or the Illusive Man authorized. I wanted an edge. So I read them." It did make life easier, when Miranda attempted to give her suggestions that were meant to be orders, to remember that Miranda was a person who apparently cared deeply for her family even if she didn't show the softer side to anyone.

"I didn't think my ... medical condition was of that much interest to the Shadow Broker."

Shepard makes creepy spider motions with her fingers. "The Shadow Broker knows everything."

"And so do you," says Miranda with a trace of bitterness.

"I haven't told anyone," says Shepard. "Space diva honor." She places a few chips on odd for a bet. "Just ... if you're talking to me about family, it seems that it must be eating away at you."

"Father left a puzzle in my genetic code that I might never be able to solve. Not for me. Not for Oriana. It was another way to control us: We can't have any family but him."

"I don't know what would happen with a clone of a clone, but couldn't you try that?"

"And recreate another version of me with the same problems?" Miranda shakes her head. "Besides, I don't want a copy. I want to be a part of the human race, not a genetic dead end."

"Almost sounds like you wish the Reapers would win and we could all be primordial goo together."

"It's not like that. I like having my own mind.  I just ... it feels like everything else exists apart from me. I can see the human race, but I can't reach it: Two lines running parallel until mine stops."

Shepard puts her hand on top of Miranda's. "You brought me back from the dead. You'll figure it out. And in the meantime, we could always work on founding the Sorority of Space Divas."

"Your optimism never ends." Miranda's hand twitches as if to move away.

"I know it's not even half of what you're looking for, but it's a connection while you work on what you really want. Not everyone has a life like ours. We could build something amazing together."

Her hand stills. "How do we create a sorority?"

Shepard drops all of her chips on 28. "I don't know. You're the one who went to college."

"Hmmm... we need a party to get publicity. Even better would be a charity event."

Shepard looks around them. "Easy enough, we're in the middle of one."

"No, we would need to do our own charity event. And we need our own base."

"Alright. I'll keep my eyes open." She gives Miranda's hand a squeeze. "It will give me something to do when the war is over." She picks another glass off a passing tray. "Space divas?"

Miranda raises her glass and clinks it against hers. "Space divas."

The croupier calls out, "Black 28," and pushes a mound of chips at Shepard.

Miranda smiles. "But you're the one funding it all."

Shepard chuckles and raises her glass again. "To a future of freedom."

"To the future."

Chapter Text

Buzz!

Shepard blinks in the darkness. The stars don't look right. The lines are rectangular and sharp. The color is too yellowish...

They're not stars; they're the windows in the building across the strip.

Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

Miranda was a worthy drinking companion when she was in the mood, and she was in a hell of a mood last night. They'd been stumbling badly enough that  Shepard had hired a sky car to take her the whole two klicks to her apartment and then shoved more than enough credits into the system to take Miranda wherever she wanted.

Shepard had meant to go to her room, but the buttery soft leather of the couch beckoned. Maybe if she gets up, she'll be able to make it to a bed this time. She pushes herself to her feet and takes a few unsteady steps when someone begins pounding insistently against her door.

Well, assassins don't usually knock. She totters to the door and yanks it open.

"We need to talk, commander." Diana Allers stalks into Shepard's apartment.

"Allers?" Shepard rubs at her temples, trying to focus. "What's this about?"

"'What's this about?'" Allers repeats incredulously. The reporter scans the living room and spots the TV remote. "Why don't I show you?"  She turns on Channel 386 and rewinds to Hour 20 with Azad Carter. On screen, Javik sends a cluster of marauders into the sky with a grenade while Shepard throws a shockwave into their midst.

Damn. Overprotective reporter explosion coming in three... two...

"I know we're not exclusive, Shepard, but I'm the girl you brought to this dance. I'm the one on a ship in the middle of a war zone risking my life. You say jump, and I jump. You asked me to kill an editorial to maintain my place, and I killed it. Now I find one of my rivals has better footage than I do of two of my top stories? How did this even happen?"

"He, or rather his producer, asked."

"They asked. I see. They asked." She turns to pace. "You've been holding out on me, commander? I ask for recordings after every mission. I've never gotten anything of this quality! I've never even seen this mission before!"

"It's not what you think. The footage isn't real. It's from the Armax Arsenal simulation."

"Carter is running fake news?" Diana's face lights up. "The big shot with a show named after him? He can say goodbye to his credibility."

"Sweetheart?" Garrus calls out from the top of the stairs, "What's going on?"

"It's nothing, honey." Shepard dives for the remote, and unfortunately hits the volume button.

An explosion resounds on the vid screen. "It doesn't sound like nothing," says Garrus as he descends the stairs clad only in blue drawstring pants. "Oh, good afternoon, Ms. Allers."

"Advisor Vakarian." Diana gives nod and a half-hearted chuckle as she crosses her arms over her chest. "Possibly the best human-interest story of the war and I can't release that either." She turns to glare at Shepard. "You're not giving that away to Azad Carter, right?"

"No, we still like having private lives."

"Who is Azad Carter?" asks Garrus, trying to catch up on the conversation.

Shepard internally cringes.

Diana points at the screen where Shepard and Javik are melting a brute like a candle while a melodious deep voice talks them up: "Driven by one unforgettable goal, the prothean's rage cannot be quenched. He has united with the hero of this age to bring an end to the ancient galactic menace that threatens us all. I, for one, welcome him to the fight!"

"Talk about a lack of journalistic integrity!" The brunette smooths out her skin-tight dress. "He embellishes the story, he doesn't let the story tell itself."

A talon scrapes across Garrus's plated chin. "I don't remember this mission," he says thoughtfully.  "Yeah, the last time we ran a mission on a transport was Novaria. Shepard, what is going on?"

"What's going on is that I did my damn job," Shepard says irritably. She turns to Allers. "The stories aren't fake, only the footage is ... shot to enhance everyone involved. This is a war and we need everyone working together and playing nice. That includes the press. I 'brought you to this dance' to make the whole Alliance look good. There will be no dissent. This is not a war where we have a choice of making a stand for something or going peaceably about our lives. This is a war where we fight or we die. Standing together is the only choice, and morale is the keystone that keeps us from falling apart. We need hope. We need victories. We need this." She waves at the screen.

"Shepard," Garrus rumbles her name in disapproval. "You were supposed to be resting."

She holds up her hand, fingers spread. "Five minutes."

He glares at her, then pivots on his toes and she discovers that the turian version of stomping involves a lot of clattering noises as talons clack against wood and tile. From the hairs on the back of her neck, she'd guess a lot of subvocal grumbling is going on, too.

She looks back at Allers. "Winning this war is worth any price. You killed your story because I said so. Save your exposés for afterwards, Ms. Allers. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm officially on leave and have personal matters to attend to." Shepard walks to the door and holds it open.

"Commander?"

"Yes?" Shepard taps her foot impatiently.

"The war effort will be improved if everyone has such vivid footage to support their stories."

"I will keep that in mind, Ms. Allers."

The reporter takes a quick look around the apartment before walking out the door. Shepard shuts it behind her and takes a deep breath of relief before heading for her second battlefront.

Garrus has taken out a block of meat and is busily butchering it with a large knife.

Shepard leans back against the refrigerator. "I know. I know. I'm supposed to be on vacation."

ChopChopChopChopChop.

"I see a mission and it claws at the back of my mind until I do it."

"You didn't take me with you, Shepard."

"They didn't ask for you. Just for me, and then Javik. And I didn't want to fight you. I'm too tired to fight."

"So you lied to me instead." Garrus slams down the knife, embedding it in the cutting board. "What the hell are we doing, Shepard? You went out and left your boyfriend behind in the closet."

"That's not it." She sighs. "I can only fight so many battles at once. I'm trying to keep them to a minimum. I have to wage a war against the Reapers. I don't want to argue with public opinion over who I'm allowed to date. And I don't want to face down the legendary Vakarian temper. And I'm tired. I'm so damned tired." She traces circles on the countertop. "I don't know what I'm doing. I'd like this war to be over with so that I could have the time and space to figure it out."

Unreadable avian eyes fix her in place. Shepard stares back at Garrus until he looks away. He yanks the knife back out of the wood and scrapes meat chunks into a stew pot. When he resumes cutting, the speed is the same, but the tenor has changed.

"I'm sorry," she says.

"Because your current strategy failed."

"I don't have a better one."

"Ah, but you do have the best tactician in the galaxy. You could consult."

"And what does he say?"

"He says if you want a life together then you need to actually include him in your planning sessions."

"You might want to be careful, Garrus." She bumps her hip against him. "Sounds like he's trying to come between us."

Garrus brandishes his knife. "Anyone tries to get between me and my girl can join the nearest pile of Reaper corpses."

She laughs. "So your advice is to tell you everything?"

"Yes."

"What about when I don't understand everything?"

"We could be confused together."

"If I'm being honest ... I don't know if I can do that." She chews on her lip. "Do you tell me everything?" Like, for example, that your mother died while I was under arrest?

"I tell you everything important."

No. I guess not. Not that it matters. She's already decided to stay with Garrus through everything. Life is too short. There is only one moment in time, and she had better catch it while she can. "How about I work on it and in the meantime, you come with me to pick up my payment? I'll treat you to lunch."

"No more working in the arena? You'll get your rest?"

"No more working in the arena."

Garrus puts the filled pot in the fridge for later. "Deal."

#

Shepard walks down the stairs to the competitor's area for the last time. She presses her thumb into the verification machine for the last time.  She opens the arena e-mail. Credits go into her account and she scans her fan mail for a final pick-me-up.

And stops.

"Garrus ..."

"You're going to break your word, aren't you?"

She smiles at him. "You're going to insist that I do." She points. "Read."

He pulls out his omni-tool to translate the text into turian. His eyes run over the lines. He sighs. "Yes. You should do this."

"Only if you come with me to keep me honest."

Chapter Text

There's nothing like a real crowd: The sound of people screaming up in the rafters creates a cone of sound surrounding the tiny Wingman Arena. An image of a ship in flight is projected on a wall while the field of play is Cortez's unrealistic mock-up of a wing, with lots of room for dodging and rolling behind turbines and power grids. There's also a small chance of knocking opponents off the edge of the field.

Miranda brushes her hair back over her shoulder, her white Cerberus uniform clinging to every line of her body. "You certainly don't waste time when you've decided to do something, Shepard." She holds her submachine gun in the crook of her arm, posing for the fans.

"This sort of fell into my lap," Shepard says between her teeth as she tries to keep smiling  and waving at everyone. The letter had been simple:

Make a wish come true

From Manava T'Khanna

Dear Commander,

I hope you'll give me a minute of your time, because I'm not a fundraiser. I'm a parent. My daughter, Lati, was diagnosed with a cerebral tumor a year ago today. After endless tests, the doctors finally went in with microsurgery machines and removed the bad tissue. Her outlook is positive, but the recovery has been slow. She doesn't have full use of her limbs.

Lati wanted to be a huntress when she grew up, but she's afraid that the closest she will come is watching the games in the Citadel combat simulators. When she heard Commander Shepard was playing, she instantly knew what she wanted: to go to the Citadel and see you live. A small charity called Help a Dream brought her here, and now we want to make one small request: that you fight the toughest Reapers in the simulator and dedicate the mach to Help a Dream.

Thank you so much. We'll be watching.

There was no way for Shepard to end her career without one more match. It's supposed to be Help a Dream, not Crush a Dream. She glances over at Miranda. "I didn't think you'd object to supporting biotic children."

"Of course not. It's rather perfect, actually. I might even be able to use this to secure research funding when the war is over."

"Going to find a cheaper way to do brain surgery?" asks Garrus as he makes note that cover and lines of sight have not changed.

"It's a possible byproduct. I want to study Reaper cell replacement and regeneration, actually. There may be an a technique we can replicate."

"Replicate later." Shepard smiles. "Today, we kick their asses."

Garrus chuffs. "My third favorite hobby."

Miranda clicks off the safeties. "Whenever you're ready."

"Good. Oh! I canceled the medi-gel packs because we never use them," Shepard says, "and the spare ammo packs just because."

Garrus's mandibles shift horizontally. "You're going to limit your sniper's ammo?"

Shepard grins at him mischievously. "Don't tell me it will lower your kill counts."

"I'm more than just a big gun."

"No, you're very big gun. But can you keep up with me?"

"Every time," he says confidently.

Miranda turns away as she giggles.

A look of confusion crosses Garrus's eyes and then he shyly looks down as he gets it. "I ... um ..."

"You're right." Shepard claps him on the back as he raises his eyes. "Every time." She smirks. "But you wouldn't want to spoil your record." She signals to the VI that the team is ready.

The the buzzer sounds and the perky announcer voice cuts in: "Commander Shepard and the Normandy crew are dedicating this match to the Help a Dream Foundation."

Shepard jumps down onto the outstretched wing, landing behind a turbine as a crowd of marauders spawns. Unfortunately, this isn't what she needs. She ignores bullets rattling against her shelter to find a better target. She spots a pair of ravagers sneaking up on Miranda. "Overload on your left, Lawson!"

"Affirmative."

As Miranda lowers their shields, Shepard sets off a flare that partially strips their armor and kills a host of swarmers. It's unfortunate they don't count toward total points. "Hold them for as long as you can. I want the combos."

"It's far easier to kill things than to almost kill things," gripes Garrus.

"I know," says Shepard. "That's the other reason I asked you to come today: precision."

"And here I thought you brought the turian for flattery." The operative backs off, giving the ravagers the full force of flaming bullets from her submachine gun.

"Why not have both?" The marauders are making their way to the incline. Their shields are gone, and Garrus is slowly chipping away at the leaders with his automatic. Shepard taps her comm, "Alright, Vakarian, let'em have it."

"Got it." The two in front drop.

"Killstreak," proclaims the VI as the word is written across the ship where its name and designation would normally be and the crowd begins to cheer.

In the pause between his shots, Shepard charges the ravagers, taking them out, and ducks down behind a railing to scout for brutes. They should start showing up soon.

"Killstreak." Another marauder bites it.

Shepard's heart hammers impatiently against her chest when the ground vibrates and a pair of brutes exit the wing service area next to her. Game on.

"Target beside me, overload!"

"Acknowledged," says Garrus.

A pair of lightning bolts, one blue and one purple, hit and then jump back and forth, feeding off of each other. "Good. Concentrate your fire below. I've got this."

Shepard charges while they're still off balance and sets off a nova. It's not good enough to take them down, but it does weaken them a bit. She rolls away. Why is there not more cover up here?

She charges again. It's like hitting a rock.

"Killstreak."

"Need some help, Shepard?" Garrus taunts. "I'm all out of targets."

"No. I'm fine." Shepard punches the ground in another nova.

"Are you sure?"

"Well, I wouldn't say no to a proximity mine."

"Uh. . . Give me a minute."

"See. It's fine if you don't have it." Shepard shoots at brutes with full auto, but the combo timer runs down before they drop. Damn. That was only seven. She looks around for the bonus goal and sprints to the bottom of the arena to snag it since it only reacts to team leaders.

"Round Two."

Marauders materialize around her.

"Fuck."

The sparkle of a blue overload stuns the first couple of troops. Shepard charges for the one at the front of the pack, closest to her team, killing him instantly.

"Got that mine now," says Garrus. A blinking silver disc flies over Shepard's head as she hops to cover on the other side of a solar vent. The ensuing explosion takes out another three marauders.

"Game now. Yours later."

That's the last thing to go right for a while as brutes materialize on the wing tip. The Normandy squad can take down anything. Killing half-organic, half synthetic tanks of the Reaper world quickly is a different matter. They're barely able to stay in the fight as they're unable to create critical combos. And of course Shepard misses the bonus when it's placed behind several obstacles on the other side of the field.

"Round Three."

Four brutes and four ravagers appear at the top of the wing, where the team is resting. The maintenance walkway is a narrow trap. Below on the wing, another two brutes roar up at them. There's no question about which are the better odds.

"Down," orders Shepard. She charges below to buy her team a chance by knocking the brutes back.

Garrus jumps over the railing, landing neatly in a crouch behind a turbine. Miranda has to try to outrun the enemies on her own, skidding down a ramp and dodging behind a strut. It looks like she might escape the pursuing brute when one in front of her regains enough sense to leap into the air, over a conduit pipe, and knock her cold.

"Shit." Shepard estimates when the rest of the impossible pack will get here. "Alright. Garrus, we'll do the Bells of Kalros."

"I hate it when you play bait."

"And I hate that you can jump like a biotiball star and you still can't dodge. Do it." Shepard dodges between brutes to get their attention, and then more slowly jogs toward the ramp where the rest of the Reaper goons are lumbering toward them. Her heart pounds in her chest as she looks over her shoulder. Good. The brutes on the wing are preparing to blitz her from behind. She takes a breath, "Now,"  and charges into the mêlée.

An overload rips through the ravagers and brutes right before she hits. And then she's trapped in the middle of them, punching and dodging and stomping on spiders. At the bottom of her HUD, she can see her shields dropping. She flexes her big toe, checking to see if her powers are ready for another go. No luck.

"Have you got Miranda?" she asks as a ravager bites her arm and her vision goes red.

"No." A disc flies through the air, detonating when it hits the brute closest to her, and the enemies behind her reel back. "Now I'll get Miranda."

There's the tiniest hole in the press of monsters around her. All a vanguard ever needs is an opening and she's gone. Shepard shoves her shoulder deep into the mutant's eye, and breaks away on the top level of the field again. She takes shelter behind some piping as the minions collide with each other and then try to sort out a direction.

The Reapers are looking down, now, back to Garrus and Miranda. They need to follow her. Shepard begins stuffing the muzzle of her rifle with as many random scraps of metal as she can find. It's an old trick. It's Ashley's trick, if she's honest, but Shepard has improved it over time. The ensuing carnage as the shrapnel dents two of the minions' armor causes all heads to swivel in her direction. The brutes shove each other and the ravagers out of the way in their attempts to get to her.

Garrus pipes in, "Got her."

"Have a nice nap, Miri?" Shepard moves down the narrow corridor from one bit of cover to the next.

"I feel like the Hammerhead landed on me."

"It did." She grits her teeth and looks back over her shoulder as the ravager in the lead trips over one of Garrus's mines.  Boom! "I've got the sharks in a barrel. Want some revenge?"

"Absolutely."

Shepard pops out of hiding, squashing some of the smaller swarmers underfoot, and smashes into the lead ravager, bringing the Reapers to an abrupt halt strung out on the upper walkway. The rat-atat-tat of a submachine gun echoes around the stadium and the Reapers begin to fall.

"Killstreak."

Another ravager deflates as a single bullet sings through it.

"Killstreak."

"That makes it 14 to eight, Shepard," says Garrus. "What do I get if I kill twice as many Reapers as you?"

"You get to go home with me. Of course, you get the same option if I beat you."

"Killstreak"

"And if I beat you both?" queries Miranda.

"You haven't," says Garrus.

"Probably a good thing," says Shepard. "You don't want to come home with us. He whistles in his sleep and I snore."

"Killsteak."

"Still, can't have either of you showing me up. It might be bad for morale," Shepard says teasingly. "Third from the end: warp it." Ducking her head, she aims for the designated target and charges again.

"Killstreak."

Boom!

"Killstreak."

A halo of golden sparkles ripples out as Shepard triggers a nova.

BOOM!

"K-K-K-Killstreak-eek-eek-eek."

Shepard leans against the repair hutch, panting. "Tie."

"You couldn't do it alone," says Garrus over the comm as the crowd leaps to its feet, cheering.

"You're right. I never could," says Shepard.

Above their heads, the points begin to total. Please let us beat Aria and take the top score. Shepard crosses her fingers. The calculation hits 9999 and stops moving. Is it broken? Confetti rains down from above as the VI announces, "We have an new Armax Arsenal Arena champion! All proceeds from today's fight will go to Help a Dream! Congratulations, Commander Shepard!"

#

After the battle, after the showers, there's a knock on the door to the locker room.

"Everyone decent?" Shepard asks.

"Yes," says Miranda.

"I thought we were all good people," says Garrus.

"I mean do you have an appropriate amount of clothes on to talk to strangers?"

"Oh! Let me find my gloves. I think I left them in the other room." Garrus wanders off to search for ... gloves.

Shepard decides that there is a time for certain questions, and this isn't it. Instead, she opens the door to see a cornflower blue asari in long green skirts and an active lavender biotic aura carrying a medium-sized mauve asari child. "Manava and Lati?" she asks.

"You ... know me?" asks the child.

"Yes," Shepard smiles. "Your mother told me all about you." She reaches out to take the little girl, and after a brief hesitation, Manava hands her over.

"Thank you for this, commander," says the elder asari. "You've been kinder than I could have hoped."

"The larger concerns of the universe threaten to overwhelm us. Your story reminded me of the importance of one person's fight for life and how that should also be celebrated." She cants her hip as the child settles against her. "You're a strong girl, Lati," she says, pressing her brow against the child's, leaning in as if telling her a secret. "You're going to live a very long life. And if you want to be a huntress, even if it seems impossible, you will find a way."

The child wraps her arms around her hero's neck. "Really?"

"Really." Shepard turns to introduce her to the team and finds Garrus standing frozen, staring at her. She lifts an eyebrow at him, and when he doesn't move she huffs, "This is my boyfriend, Garrus Vakarian, the greatest sharpshooter in the galaxy. You will notice how completely silent he is, even now."

"Hi," says Lati shyly.

Garrus's mandibles twitch, and then he seems to jerk awake, offering his hand to the child to shake. "Hello."

Shepard points to Miranda. "And this is the greatest experimental doctor in the field of tissue regeneration, and also my close friend, Miranda Lawson."

"Hello, Lati," says Miranda with an uncertain smile. Lati reaches out to her, and Shepard shifts her burden into Miranda's surprised arms. A soft smile comes over her face as she looks into those innocent blue eyes and the smaller hands hold tight to her shoulder.

"Tissue regeneration?" asks Manava.

"Yes," says Miranda. "I've mostly worked on humans, but I specialize in biotics..."

Manava's eyes light up as she looks from Lati to Miranda. "Tell me more!"

"Well..." Miranda walks over to her locker to pull out a projection screen attachment for her omni-tool.

Shepard is smiling faintly when Garrus grabs her around the waist and kisses her. He lingers, brow pressed to hers, as she rests her arms on top of his. "What was that for?"

His mandibles flutter, and suddenly he's nervous, "Um... for ... for the future."

Shepard looks into his eyes and sees longing, tenderness, and worry. She kisses him. "To the future, then."