Tidbit Tuesday: Tactical Retreat, Part 1

I crossed the open room toward Admiral Anderson, surrounded by people in familiar Alliance blues going about their business. Six months’ isolation had allowed me too much time to contemplate the fact that I had, as accused, blown up an entire star system and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The anticipated dramatic accusation, or at least gasps of recognition from the soldiers around me, never came. No one paid much attention to the notorious Commander Shepard in their midst, at least openly. I suppose I should have been relieved that the staff at HQ had that much discipline.

In all the time I’d been under arrest only Anderson and James Vega, the soldier who’d guarded my cell on the day shift, had been even vaguely friendly with me. I’d been held strictly incommunicado, even from my closest friends. Anderson had passed along a couple of declarations of support, though not the one I wanted most to hear. Otherwise it had been aloof guards and interrogators going over the same information for the hundredth time.

Vega and I had spent the bulk of our time talking. During my daily exercise periods we’d worked out and sparred together. He’d already known I was an N7 and what that said about my commitment to the Alliance. Hell, half the galaxy knew my service record. On top of that Anderson had been kind enough to take him out for drinks a few times and fill his head with stories that the media had distorted or that had been suppressed by the Council altogether.

We’d grown to be friendly, Vega and I, if not quite friends. Vega had believed early on that I’d destroyed the mass relay in the Bahak system as a delaying tactic, to slow the Reapers down once again. Hell, everything I’d done in the past few years, with the exception of being dead, had been toward that same goal. With Anderson’s backing James took my truthfulness as a given. I’d have thought that would have been as self-evident to everyone else but apparently the Alliance and the Council had found it otherwise, hence my incarceration.

Vega had balanced on a fine line with me. On one side lay the wariness that came from his assignment to guard me—both to keep me in and to keep anyone else from coming to get me, which Batarian mercenaries had tried on three separate occasions. No one from either of my old teams had made any misguided attempts to break me out of the place, although some days I was more thankful for that than others. It hurt that no one managed to succeed or, as far as I could tell, even try to sneak a message in through security.

On the other side of that line lurked admiration for my accomplishments and the closeness that came from spending every day together with little to do but talk. Despite his stereotypical meathead appearance I had come to respect him and his ability to do his job without treating me like a criminal. As the months passed and my isolation held he relaxed his guard with me, though he remained vigilant as ever in running the rest of the day team.

The building in which I’d “enjoyed” the Alliance’s hospitality hadn’t been designed as a prison as much as a safe house. The building was secured inside and out and my bedroom doubly so but most of my days had been spent wandering relatively freely inside. They’d included Spartan furnishings and no sense of décor or flair at all, a comfortingly military set of surroundings in my uncertain situation. I had had a lot more room to roam than on the ships on which I’d served but everything had still spoken of efficiency and discipline.

Vega followed me all day, at first obtrusive and a painful reminder of how the galaxy at large viewed one of the most painful decisions I’d ever had to make. For weeks I’d barely acknowledged him, despite his unfailing politeness and cheer. He’d arrive in the morning and greet me heartily. “Hey, Lola, how’d you sleep?”

He had talked to me, telling me inconsequential tidbits about which division had won the annual volleyball tournament but had regretfully refused to give me any real news, as the terms of my imprisonment had dictated. The Alliance had turned me into a mushroom, barred windows notwithstanding, but at least Vega’d tried to keep the shit entertaining.

After a while I hadn’t been able to help but respond to some of his more outrageous stories. I’d missed the camaraderie of being surrounded by a team. The isolation stripped my support and left me stewing in my own doubts and guilt with no one who’d been there, who could tell me that they, too, believed I’d made the right decisions. All I had had was this tiny, vicarious window into life outside my holding pattern. Eventually I’d started looking out of it and Vega had been kept up the show.

Once détente had been reached James had occupied some of our time together telling me about his childhood, growing up in a rowdy neighborhood where the folks on the block had been family. He’d described the elaborate handshakes they’d devised as a way of greeting one another, a sort of secret language or password that had let them present a united front in other parts of the city where rival gangs ruled.

I’d grown up on the streets, my parents a dim concept and my only family the revolving series of other kids squatting nearby. We’d had the same sorts of signals, though ours had been less overt, more about tactics and defense than posturing. James and I swapped stories of epic battles between kids barely into their double digit years, wars fought with chunks of concrete from decaying streets and broken bottles plucked out of gutters.

Eventually he had taught me those handshakes, open hands slapped together, fists pounded atop one another, even a snap of the fingers. “You know the score, Lola,” he’d told me with a smile. “I trust you to have my back, if it comes to that.” No matter the joking tone he’d used when offering to show me he had turned solemn when he actually did so. Each move had some significance and I saw how much it meant to him that I knew them.

Though we had teased and flirted from time to time, neither of us had wanted anything more. I had still had Kaidan Alenko on my mind and in my heart and Vega…well, I just wasn’t his type. He’d told me about old girlfriends and I knew he went for curvier women, ones that couldn’t kick his ass and outshoot him. It had been something of a relief to know that wasn’t going to be a problem.

When I’d been incarcerated, or “put into protective custody”, Anderson had still been on the Galactic Council where I’d left him three years before. He had been allowed to visit, as had any Councilor, but the trip from the Citadel had taken too much time away from his duties to make frequently. Five months after I’d returned through the Omega-4 relay he’d resigned his seat and come to see me as an admiral, instead.

“The political bullshit made me crazy, Shepard,” he’d told me. “I spent all my time worrying about concessions and trade agreements and I lost all my leverage to make the Alliance see reason. The people who most need to hear what you have to say didn’t even know you were on the planet.”

Ambassador Udina had taken Anderson’s place on the Council and the Alliance had welcomed my former CO back with open arms. It had taken weeks for him and Admiral Hackett to shove through clearance for my appearance before the brassiest of the brass. When Alliance stations across the galaxy had started going off-line, however, their campaign had gathered steam pretty quickly.

So, like I said, six months in extremely limited company, mostly alone with the fact that I’d killed a few hundred thousand people, had left me edgy and skittish around so many strangers. Anderson had told me what little he could but otherwise I’d been cut off from anyone that hadn’t been assigned to guard or question me. I had had a couple hundred long nights alone to think about things, including the fact that two years dead had removed me from the Navy’s payroll.

The bustle in Alliance HQ relieved that enforced silence almost too well; the constant noise and movement inundated my deprived senses. Every one of the soldiers around me knew who I was and I could hear whispers as we passed but they didn’t get postings at headquarters for being unable to control themselves. The men and women all gave the appearance of studiously discussing datapads or terminals where I could see them.

As I moved through the swirl of blues I was relieved to see a friendly face…or shape, at least. Vega’s overdeveloped shoulders and half-assed Mohawk loomed over the people around him. I smiled broadly as he turned and we shared one of our secret shakes, one that included elements of “we got this” and “stand strong”. Then he nodded and I stepped around him.

Behind his comforting bulk I found another familiar face, one that made my heart stutter. Kaidan stood there, looking more substantial than I remembered but with that same raised eyebrow. He’d started to grey a little since I’d seen him on Horizon and it looked fantastic. My body stopped dead, torn between my brains instructions to run away and to leap on him.

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