A/N Although many of the romances in Mass Effect are larger in scope, I found the interaction with Steve Cortez to be full of humor, sweet flirtations and special moments that I felt the more common romances lacked. This is a "what might have been" story, set mostly post-game in the extended version.
Not One Moment for Granted
Ch. 1 - London
The cabin was filling rapidly with smoke. Judging by the way the shuttle was handling, he decided the port-side stabilizers were the major source of the choking fumes. They must have sustained some damage from small arms fire during the dustoff. Luckily, the bullet holes in the hull on that side appeared to be venting the worst of it. At least he could still see the HUD. He started scanning for a place to land and effect basic repairs. That way, the shuttle would be ready for evac if Shepard - he shook his head angrily - when Shepard finished taking out the AA gun.
With a screech of distressed metal, the entire rear of the shuttle exploded. "Damnit, I'm hit!" Cortez yelled. His hands froze on the controls as a single thought blazed in his mind. I'm coming, Robert...
"Steve!" The shout, almost a scream, jarred him out of his trance, and he was instantly back on the job, wrestling with the controls, fighting to keep the bird aloft. He had to: Shepard's voice had been too full of panic and despair and outright fear to deny.
"I'm all right," he gritted, feeling the familiar churning in his gut. Damn you, Shepard. You've got Alenko. Why do you keep haunting me?
"You sure?" Now the voice was calm, almost conversational. Shepard had himself under control again.
Cortez struggled to match the Commander's tone - crisp and professional. "But I won't be picking you up. I've gotta land this bird quick." There. Finally, a defensible, intact rooftop. His hands flew over the control panels, diverting auxiliary power to the thrusters. It was going to be rough, but the inertial dampeners were still holding, so the impact shouldn't be too bad. Thankfully, the fucking worm-necks had decided he wasn't worth following.
It was a command, yes, but he could hear the underlying emotion, and he replied in kind without concern for how it might sound to anyone else on the frequency. "Anything for you."
Do the same for me, Shepard. Stay alive.
Cortez huddled inside the cockpit of the burning shuttle. The bulkhead door would protect him, and with all external systems powered down, there shouldn't be anything overt to attract attention from random reaper troops. It seemed like the initial wave of hostility towards the Hammer landings was dying down, and soon enough he'd be able to risk an encrypted query about where to head for extraction. He needed to get into another shuttle and back where he could do something useful.
"Nope, nothing to see here, guys," he muttered under his breath," imagining all the husks and cannibals swarming through the streets below. "Just another burning hunk of junk shot out of the sky..." His suit comm crackled, and he made out a few words through the static.
"...tez. *crackle* Normandy *hiss* uttle ... copy?" Steve hit the slider and boosted internal power slightly, transferring the channel to interior speakers.
"Cortez, you asshole. Do you copy?" Joker's voice was unmistakable, and the irritation was fairly burning through the link.
In spite of his current situation, Cortez smiled a bit. "I copy, Joker. Just keep it down, okay? I don't need any more company. Is there some way you can flag my location for pick-up?"
"Damn, it's good to hear your voice, Steve. Wait, you said 'pick up'? Are you telling me Mr. Steven Cortez, pilot without peer, has wrecked a shuttle?" Joker snickered.
"Yeah, dad, I wrecked the car. Ground me later, okay?" Cortez countered. "So, how 'bout that lift? I'll need an ETA so I'll know when to power up the fire-suppression system - but not until last minute. The fire currently going on aft of the cabin is protecting me more than it's bothering my shield generator...," he cut off abruptly, sure he'd heard something. He muted the comm, just as the whole shuttle rocked, and there was an echoing, guttural roar from outside. Brute? he thought, and swallowed. He closed the face plate on his helmet and readied his shotgun, eyes glued to the door. It was sturdy, sure, but he doubted it could withstand a determined assault by one of the krogan/turian Reaper hybrids for very long.
The seconds seemed to drag, and he saw the light signalling incoming comm messages flashing out of the corner of his eye. Later, Joker... if there IS a later.
Then he heard a wonderful sound ... shuttle engines in hover mode, and the crackle and thud of heavy arms fire. He activated the external virtual screens, and saw a shuttle preparing to land on the roof right next to him, but no sign of any reapers. He did a quick 360 pan with the camera, and when the huge mushroom cloud came into view, he realized what had caused the earlier shaking. Damned if you didn't do it, Shepard, he thought in admiration. With a few quick gestures, Steve activated the fire extinguishers and restored the volume on the comm, as well as powering up the video.
"You were asking for a ride, I believe?" Joker's tone was bland, but he was smirking.
"Roger that," Cortez replied. "You're a pain in the ass, Mr. Moreau - but you know, given your impeccable timing, I think I can live with it." He paused for a second, hardly daring to ask. "Joker? That Hades cannon ... was Shepard..." he trailed off.
"Not to worry, Cortez," Joker replied immediately, completely serious for once. "The Commander blew the fucker to hell and gone. As a matter of fact, your ride is also on the way to pick him up, so I suggest you get your butt moving - because sure as shit that explosion is going to bring all the monsters to the yard..."
He was talking to an empty screen. "All right, see ya," Joker muttered, and killed the comm link. "Okay, EDI, back at it," he said, and the Normandy arrowed back into battle.
"Flight Leftenant Moreau says you're a pilot?" The voice was polished, British. Cortez nodded, and the Alliance major waved him into the cockpit. "Chatham is a damned fine pilot, but he's a bloody artist on the mini-gun. Switch with him, please, so we can secure Commander Shepard and his team without delay."
Cortez nodded, and ducked around an older man standing by the viewscreen. He blinked at the Admiral's insignia on the well-worn uniform, but didn't pause; sliding into the pilot's seat as Chatham nodded and moved to the gunnery controls. Steve saw that the coordinates were already locked in, and as he spooled up the engines in prep for takeoff, the comm came on line. He heard Shepard's voice on the general frequency, requesting evac. Steve toggled his radio link to confirm, but the lingering fallout from the destruction of the Hades was evidently playing havoc with all links. "Hang on, guys," he whispered as the shuttle climbed from the roof and raced toward the wreckage of the silenced Reaper cannon.
As they came within sight of the ruined building where the other shuttle had gone down, it was hard to make sense of the chaotic battle swirling on its roof. But there, right in the middle, he saw an island of calm, with controlled patterns of tracer fire radiating outward from a central area, punctuated with occasional bursts of biotic energy. The major grabbed the wall-mounted mic in the main cabin and flipped a switch, so that the mechanical loudspeaker could be used.
"Commander, prepare for extraction!" The noise levels ramped up as Steve opened the starboard door, and he risked a quick glance away from the control panels to the viewscreen. The vortex of the firefight abruptly swung towards the upper side of the building, and he sideslipped the shuttle gracefully, bringing it to hover mere feet from the edge of the ruined wall. "Come on, we'll cover you," the Major shouted. Cortez took a deep breath, and held the ship rock steady. Then a whining hum drowned out the worst of the noise as Chatham opened fire with the mini-gun, laying down a withering cover fire. The shuttle rocked slightly, once - twice - three times.
"Get us out of here," the Major barked, and Cortez throttled up to maximum, taking them up and then curving past the smoldering wreck of the Hades.
"Got 'em all," Chatham said with quiet satisfaction, slipping into the co-pilot's seat. "That was some impressive flying, sir. Here, I'll give you the coordinates for the FOB." Cortez nodded, distracted. He'd been straining his ears, and finally heard what he'd been waiting for.
"I'm alive," Shepard said.
"All right, set her down there," Chatham said, indicating a wide area - probably originally a parking lot - that was flanked with troop transports and tall buildings.
"How many shuttles do you have?" Steve asked as he began final approach. "I sure would like to take this one back to Normandy, so we'll have evac capability." It wasn't a really question, and Chatham didn't treat it as one.
"Not too many, thanks to those AA guns," he admitted sourly. "But you're welcome to this one. Scuttlebutt says the next stage is ground-based, anyway."
"Good to know," Cortez said, and cut the engines when the shuttle kissed earth. The cabin pressure changed as someone in the main compartment opened the door, and he heard the voices which had been earnestly conversing about events of the past few months fading away as he hailed the Normandy. Chatham left the cockpit with a friendly nod.
"Joker? Hey, can we rendezvous? I've got us a new shuttle."
"Sure, Cortez. Name the time and location. We're mainly using EDI to keep firelines coordinated, but it's starting to turn into a bunch of dogfights with the bigger ships duking it out. Even after all Garrus' calibrations, the Thanix still isn't quite up to going toe-to-toe with the bigger Reapers." Joker's voice was showing the strain of all the demands being placed on him, but he was still managing a light tone.
An armored hand settled on Steve's shoulder and squeezed, firmly enough to feel through his suit material. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I'll get back to you ASAP, Joker. Give me a couple of minutes." He cut the channel, and turned his head to see Shepard standing behind him, apparently none the worse for wear. He swallowed, and put his hand over Shepard's.
"You kept your promise, Cortez." Shepard's voice was warm, and his smile was something to savor.
Steve swallowed again, and smiled back. "Like I said: anything for you." Shepard started to lean forward, but his comm chimed, and he paused.
"Marcus? Admiral Anderson wants to brief us on the assault," Kaiden Alenko's voice rang out clearly in the cabin, and Shepard straightened again.
"I have to go, Steve," he said. "But you stay safe, okay?"
"I will ... Marcus. You do the same. And I'll be ready to pick you up after this is finished."
Cortez turned back to the comm panel and hailed Joker. His shoulder was still tingling from the memory of Shepard's hand when he docked with the Normandy.