The mass relays tossed us across the galaxy until we finally reached our destination. Joker let me know that we were within thirty minutes of docking and I made my way back to the bridge. I intended to be ready, in the airlock, the second we were cleared to open the door.
As I strapped on pieces of armor I imagined taking the chest plates in to have the hateful logo removed. I wasn’t about to throw away perfectly good armor any more than I’d let Cerberus have the Normandy back just because they’d built her but both needed a new paint job. At least my guns don’t have little traitorous symbols on them, I thought as I clipped them into place on my back and my hip. I wasn’t expecting trouble but I wanted to look as large and in charge as I possibly could.
I’d already asked Garrus and Jack to get suited up as well. They met me on the bridge. I should have thought to ask Jack what she had for armor because apparently she considered a belt around her nipples to be all the protection she needed. Biotic barrier or not, that left an awful lot of carefully-applied ink to get wrecked. Maybe we could stop somewhere and charge a new chest plate and some greaves to Cerberus before they figured out I’d jumped ship.
I hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to her but I could hardly have her so vulnerable if she stayed on my team. For the moment, she’d do. She certainly looked intimidating with that scowl and hand cannon. Garrus still wore his wrecked armor. Along with his livid new scars it gave him the air of a grizzled veteran. He’d earned it over the past couple of years though he was still quite young by turian standards. I clapped him on the shoulder, nodded at Jack, and stood behind Joker as we approached the station.
I had a moment of déjà vu, recalling my first visit to the Citadel three years earlier, standing just to Joker’s left as he’d piloted the Normandy between the massive arms, open in times of peace. Ship traffic bustled to and fro in all shapes and sizes while the fleet circled and ran maneuvers around and between them. The hulk of the Destiny Ascension hung to port, black and accusing, as we approached. I’d ordered the Alliance fleet to ignore the enormous vessel when Sovereign, that over-powered pile of mind-controlling rogue AI, had introduced the rest of the galaxy to the Reaper race by attacking the heart of galactic government with a fleet of geth ships in tow.
How it had come to be my decision I may never know but Alliance brass asked for my input and I’d thought the millions of civilians on the station and the billions in the rest of the galaxy more important than the few thousand on the ship, Council or no. Seeing the wreckage gave me a bit of a twinge no matter how right I believe I’d been. I wondered why, if I’d really been dead for two years, they hadn’t salvaged the thing yet. I hoped it wasn’t some sort of memorial that was going to make me feel like crap every time I came here.
Admiral Hackett had gotten all of the pertinent information from Joker and arranged clearance for us to land without awkward questions. Although Cerberus was not an illegal organization their anti-alien rhetoric and frankly bizarre experiments on other humans made them very unpopular on most hub worlds and stations. I’d been concerned about trying to land without advance notice but Joker would have come up with something. He was certainly known to the traffic control folks just about anywhere thanks to his smart mouth and inability to resist the temptation to show off to other pilots.
On his feet he couldn’t keep up with a four-year-old child but in that chair he really was the best and he overcompensated a bit whenever so many other console jockeys could see him. He gave our wings a waggle and looped unnecessarily as we swung in to the dock. The exclamations of the crew reminded me that they were not the same folks who had served with us for so many months. Garrus and I had known enough to brace ourselves for sudden changes in course and we grinned at each other. If this felt like coming home to me it must have been triply so for the Turian, who’d worked on the Citadel for years before joining my original team and who still had family on the station.
Demonstration over, Joker slid up to the docking clamps and smoothly aligned us. He was still a professional under all of that attitude. He tossed me a smile when I patted his shoulder. “Thanks. Now announce to the crew that they can have shore leave for no more than six hours and that they will bunk on-board tonight unless they’re in jail or dead.”
His smile widened. “Going to kick some ass, Commander?”
I feigned shock. “Joker! This is a civilized station. I am merely going to meet with officials in the Alliance and perhaps do some shopping. It’s not like I’ve come back from the dead and brought a replacement vessel for the one you got blown up or something.” I was dancing with anticipation.
“Bite me, Commander,” he laughed. “You’d better get the airlock cycled. We’ll be good to go in three minutes.”
Garrus, Jack, and I stepped out into a commercial docking bay rather than the Citadel Security port to which I’d been accustomed. We faced a security checkpoint where a very confused young man informed me that glitch must have been affecting his scanners because the computer informed him that I was dead. “I get that a lot,” I reassured him, promising to stop at the C-Sec office just inside. For all of the safety measures so prominently displayed I could simply have waltzed right in with my guns and a bag full of nuke while he was so flustered. Captain Bailey, whose desk I’d promised to visit, at least showed a little caution until he recognized Garrus. The minute he did he became overly solicitous. Apparently Papa Vakarian still held a high position in the department and no one wanted to be on his bad side. He also knew my name and seemed awfully impressed by my Spectre title.
“So you’re not dead after all, Commander Shepard,” he drawled.
“I’m back, baby,” I said, spreading my arms. Jack snorted her derision and Garrus guffawed beside me, ruining the stern look he’d been practicing on the captain. I threw an elbow into his side and smiled charmingly at Bailey. I couldn’t remember ever having been this excited. My life was a taxi ride away from that moment and it was all I could do to keep from shuffling my feet impatiently. He drawled on about normal procedures, which I took to mean I wasn’t going to have to follow them. Finally, he suggested that he “push this little button” and simply resurrect me in the computer.
I wished they’d had one of those for my body as well as my digital existence. Despite Dr. Chakwas’s best efforts I still had a few raw scars and metal-enclosed breaks in my bones that had only half healed by that point. My hair had mostly grown back but I had to be a lot more careful brushing it with an implant sticking out at the base of my skull where there had previously been none. I reminded myself again to have Miranda interrogated by Alliance goons about why it didn’t appear to do anything.
Bailey finally released us and we headed straight for the Alliance headquarters. Not only was I curious about what Hackett wanted, since I technically neither worked for the Alliance nor held vaunted Spectre status as a dead woman, but I wanted to find out where Kaidan was working. It had been weeks since I’d seen him and I couldn’t wait to see the look on his face. It felt so normal to walk into the offices that I could pretend the SR-1 was in dock and I was merely here for a routine briefing. That feeling lasted all of the way through the doors and until the first person I saw stared at my armor and then my face with a look of horror. My bubbly mood crashed around me. Oh, yeah, Cerberus.
“They don’t look to happy to see you, Shepard,” Jack said, smirking at my fallen face. After shooting a dark look her way I checked the directions on my omni-tool and led her and Garrus toward Hackett’s office. He’d moved since I’d last been here, and a lot of other familiar names had disappeared entirely. Few people stayed in one place for long in the military but seeing so many changes brought home to me how long it really had been.
I reminded myself that I was here to build bridges, not to burn them. I’d quickly get used to the new paint in the briefing room and the new titles on the doors as long as I had Kaidan back at my side and the Alliance again behind me. I set my shoulders and stalked down the hall holding that hope in my heart.