Summary: Kaidan wonders if Shepard let Ashley die for nothing and how their relationship has changed.

Author's Notes: A more serious, angst-y romance fic this time. This is prompted by me being baffled that Kaidan goes from being angry at Shepard for letting Ashley die, then immediately being defensive of her in front of the Council and then having a near-kiss with her on the ship. This fic attempts to explain this sudden change and what Kaidan thinks of the whole thing. Constructive criticism and reviews are loved - I'm not totally comfortable writing this kind of thing, so any advice would be very much appreciated:)

Kaidan Alenko was still alive, and he didn't understand why.

Well, that wasn't completely true, he thought, leaning on the wall near the computer panel he often worked at. He knew Irien Shepard liked him – quite possibly loved him – but to sacrifice another soldier, a friend, was something else entirely.

It had been a situation he wasn't prepared for, and he prided himself on always being ready for whatever came at him, or having an escape plan in case it didn't work out. Virmire had been a mess. He knew something was wrong when the Salarians took Ashley with them in the first place, and when he found out it was her or himself, he'd made his plan, armed the bomb, and told Shepard to continue on. So why hadn't she?

Kaidan slid down the wall to sit and resisted the feeling he needed to bury his head in his hands and cry. Ash had been on several missions with Shepard. She was a valuable member of the crew and had been a good friend to all of them, and Shepard had let her die to save him when he'd been ready to sacrifice himself.

He sighed and stood up again to pretend like he was working on the panel, wincing as he moved – his ribs were still bruised from the beating he'd taken yesterday. He had tried not to think of the events afterwards – it had been a rough day and a sleepless night since then – but he couldn't help but replay what had happened over and over, trying to find a way where both of them would have been able to have come out alive.

After Shepard had left him to program the nuke while she got Ash back, the geth had shown up and surprised them all. Though he and the other soldiers were skilled, they weren't Spectres, and they had quickly been overwhelmed. He'd managed to send a message to Shepard that the bomb was armed before being shot and beaten into unconsciousness.

The next thing he knew, he was on the ground in the worst pain of his life, Shepard and Saren were fighting, and things were looking bad. Saren had grabbed her by the throat and held her in the air as she struggled, and as Kaidan tried to stand to do what he could to help, it seemed to distract the turian, making him look in Kaidan's direction. That bought Shepard the second she needed to punch the bastard with all her considerable strength and get out of his grasp.

As Saren fled, she had rushed to Kaidan's side to offer her hand. He grabbed it instantly and stood up, but the pain was too intense, especially in several of his ribs. Guess I managed to break something this time, he had thought with genuine surprise. His pain increased as Shepard, seeing he couldn't stand, much less walk, without assistance, had lifted and flung him over her shoulder. That was the last thing he could remember before passing out again.

The crew debriefing session was a disaster, and his eyes had constantly been drawn to Ash's empty chair. The entire crew was somber and in disbelief. Shepard let her die, he thought, feeling terribly guilty, both for thinking so and for being part of the reason it had happened. I would have stayed, but she came back and let Ash die.

"I'd never leave you behind," she'd said during the meeting, her voice cracking slightly. He knew she was looking at him, but he couldn't stand to meet her eyes – seeing her upset when she had been so strong the whole mission was more than he thought he could take. "I couldn't. You know that."

"I know," he'd told her, looking at the floor. "And I am grateful. But Ash died because of me. Because of us."

It was that fact that haunted him now. Though he loved Shepard, he couldn't forgive himself or the two of them. If he hadn't flirted with her so much, maybe Ash would still be alive.

Talking to her alone hadn't helped, either. Their conversation seemed forced and cold, not at all like the warm flirting they'd so often had before. Being alone with her had forced him to look her in the eyes as they'd spoken. Though her words were brave and sensible, her eyes, watery and red, told him a different story – she was just as miserable as he.

So why hadn't he told her what he was really thinking? Why hadn't he stopped her when she'd left and gone into her quarters?

As always, he'd needed a way out. He'd gotten more emotionally involved with Shepard than with any woman in his past, except for his Jump Zero love Rahna, and he'd never even kissed her. Ash's death had changed them both, and honestly, it frightened him. If she was willing to sacrifice Ashley for him, what other things was she willing to do? She had an important mission – was he just going to get in the way and get more people killed? How selfish was he being for acting on his feelings for her?

"Bridge to Commander Shepard." Joker's voice rang out over the comm system, making him jump. Though he didn't hear her reply, Joker's voice carried through the wall of her quarters – they were nearly to the Citadel and Shepard was needed on the bridge. She left her room a moment later and walked up the ramp without turning to look at him. He felt a pang in his chest, but tried to ignore it.

He jumped again when the pilot's voice came through his personal communicator.

"Joker to Lieutenant Alenko – you awake Kaidan?"

He sighed and unhooked the thing from his belt. "I'm here, Joker," he replied, trying to keep his voice upbeat. "Need me up there?"

"No, it's – well, it's just that-" Joker paused. "Go easy on her, okay? I'm sure you feel awful about what happened just like the rest of us do, but she's really beating herself up over it and thinks she deserves it." His voice lowered and Kaidan had to raise the communicator closer to his ear to hear him. "She sounds like she's been crying in there. She made a tough decision, everybody's sad, and we all have to keep going. I know how much you mean to her, so try not to screw her up even more."

Kaidan was honestly surprised. He didn't know Joker that well, but from what he'd seen, the speech wasn't typical of the normally sarcastic soldier. But he had a point. "Yeah," he replied. "Yeah, I know. I just- I don't know what to do," he said. He felt helpless and he couldn't keep it out of his voice. He couldn't help Ash, he didn't know how to feel less guilty about her death, and he sure as hell didn't know what to do about his feelings for Shepard.

"Yeah, well neither does she," Joker told him dryly. There was the pilot he recognized. "Get up here, she's gonna need you when she goes to talk to the Council."

"Be up in a second." He reattached his communicator and tried to silence his doubts as he headed upstairs. It seemed that he was the only one who had been summoned to the navigation room, as none of the other crew members were present. No doubt they want to be alone, he thought. Unfortunately, Shepard and I don't have that luxury.

As if his thoughts had summoned her, she appeared in the doorway and caught his eye, nodding once before turning around and heading toward the airlock. He steeled his nerves and followed.

The walk over was awkward. Though Kaidan tried to think of something, anything to say to her to explain what he was feeling, the look on her face told him not to try at the moment. The Council meeting will be stress enough without trying to explain how I blame both of us for Ashley's death, he thought. But I'm not trying to make her feel worse, and it wasn't her fault – well, okay, it kind of was, but I just want her to understand – but I don't even understand it, he thought in frustration. If it sounds this bad even in my head I need to keep my mouth shut. Wisely, he followed his own advice and they were silent for the entire journey.

Udina and the Council members were waiting for them as they climbed the stairs.

"Good job, Shepard," Udina said, a scowl on his face even as he praised her. Shepard stopped next to him with her arms folded and an emotionless look on her face, not willing to let any of the sadness after the events on Virmire show. He knew the feeling and did the same, standing a few steps behind them. "Thanks to you, the Council's finally taking real action against Saren!"

"The ambassador is correct," the Asari councilor told them. "If Saren is foolish enough to attack the Citadel – as you believe – we will be ready for him."

The Turian councilor agreed, nodding sagely. "Patrols are stationed at every mass relay linking Citadel space to the Terminus Systems."

"How many ships are you sending to attack Ilos?" Shepard asked them, stubbornly unwilling to accept their answer. They haven't been this helpful before – there has to be a catch, Kaidan thought.

The Salarian councilor gave her a look of annoyance. That guy really doesn't like us, he thought with a frown."Ilos is only accessible through the Mu Relay, deep inside the Terminus Systems, Commander," he told her, speaking slower than normal, as if she were a small child who wouldn't understand. "If we send a fleet in there, the only possible outcome is a full-scale war."

Udina gave her a similar look. "Now is the time for discretion, Commander. Saren's greatest weapon was secrecy. Exposed, he is no longer a threat. This is over."

Shepard frowned. "One ship going into the Terminus Systems won't start a war," she said. "I can be discreet."

"You detonated a nuclear device on Virmire – I wouldn't call that discreet!" the Turian scoffed.

The Asari spoke with a kinder voice, but Kaidan could tell she thought very highly of her own superiority. "Your style served you well in the Traverse, Commander. We recognize this," she allowed. "But Ilos requires a deft touch. We have the situation under control."

"Sovereign's the real threat!" Shepard said, clearly getting frustrated. Why won't they just listen to her? Kaidan thought, his annoyance building as well. She knows what she's doing! "Saren's just a servant of the Reapers!"

"Only you have seen the Reapers," the Asari reminded her condescendingly. "And then only in visions. We won't invade the Terminus Systems because of a dream."

"But secrecy isn't his greatest weapon," she countered. "The Conduit is!"

The Salarian shook his head. "Saren is a master manipulator," he said in a voice that clearly said he thought she was foolish enough to "fall for" Saren's schemes. Kaidan clenched his fists in anger but managed to stay silent. "The Conduit is just a distraction from his real plan to attack the Citadel."

Shepard looked to Udina, desperately hoping for help from a man Kaidan knew would be the last one to offer it. "If Saren finds the Conduit, we're all screwed!" He could see her start to lose control. Did she sacrifice Ashley just to be stopped by politicians? he thought with shock. Are they really going to make Ash's death meaningless after all she did, all we gave upShe turned back to the Council. "We have to go to Ilos!"

"Ambassador Udina," the turian said, pointedly ignoring her comment. "I get the sense Commander Shepard isn't willing to let this go."

Udina glared at her, becoming even more venomous than usual. "There are serious political implications here, Shepard," he said warningly. "Humanity's made great gains thanks to you. But now you're becoming more trouble than you're worth.

He couldn't contain himself any longer. "You bastard!" he shouted, wishing he could do something to help. "You're selling us out!"

The ambassador took a few steps closer to the Council. "It's just politics, Commander," he said coldly. "You've done your job, now let me do mine." He turned to look at Shepard. "We locked out all the Normandy's primary systems. Until further notice, you're grounded."

She stood there, unable to move or say anything for a moment – she looked about ready to burst into tears, but he could, he thought, read her better than anyone else, so he doubted the others could tell. "Are you insane?" she finally asked, sounding incredulous. "After everything I've done-" her voice cracked for a moment and Kaidan's heart ached for her, "you still don't believe me?"

"I think it's time for you and your team to leave, Commander," Udina said, turning away from her. "This no longer concerns you. The Council can handle this. With my help, of course," he added obsequiously.

Shepard stood still for a moment longer before turning on her heel and practically flying down the stairs, and Kaidan looked at the Council in stunned disbelief for a moment before following her.

He let her alone for a little while after they got back to the Normandy and stopped by to ask Liara what the situation was. Apparently, Joker had learned before they did that the ship was grounded, so Shepard had no need to make a report to him or anyone else, as he'd let everyone know over the comm system before they'd gotten back. He spent a few minutes with the asari before leaving the medbay. He planned to return to his post until he spotted Shepard going through her locker with a scowl on her face.

I have to talk to her, he thought. Even if she regrets saving me, even if she hates me, if she blames me for letting Ash get killed, I have to say something so I know where we stand.He approached her, and she looked up, sighed, and turned to sit and lean against the cold metal of the ship.

"Commander? Are you all right?" he asked her quietly. Seeing the withering scowl she gave him, he shrugged and gave her a sad half-smile. "I'm sure there's a way to appeal," he said, trying to cheer her up. "We're under Alliance authority, after all. Not the Council."

She shook her head, her messy blonde hair waving gently. "Official channels are closed," she said, sounding resigned as she ran a hand through her hair to attempt to straighten it. "They were quite clear about that."

"Closed," he said flatly. He couldn't believe that she was willing to give up. He'd never met a stronger or more passionate woman in his life, and he wasn't going to let that jackass Udina get her down. "And we're supposed to accept that?" he asked her. "So where do you think the best view will be when the Reapers roll through? If we have to sit it out, may as well get a good seat," he offered, hoping for a smile.

It was a small success; a corner of her mouth twitched up as she looked up at him, her green eyes practically glowing from the light reflected in them. "We'll think of something," she said. "I just need some time to figure things out."

"If I can help, let me know," he said. Though he wanted to leave it at that, his doubts ate away at him, and he had to qualify the statement. "I hope I'm not out of line saying that."

Shepard smiled again, bigger this time. "You always this cautious with a sure thing?"

Kaidan chuckled, glad she still thought it was a "sure thing" as his mood improved with the two of them returning to old habits. "Yeah, I always leave a way out. You know that," he said somewhat apologetically. "I'm here for you. But we're in a rough spot, and the last thing I want to do is muddy things." He snorted. "Like it's all that clear to start with. Are we valued agents or just peons?"

"Can't just pull out a good old fashioned 'it'll be all right,' can you?" she teased with a grin.

"It's that easy, huh?" he asked with a laugh. "Okay then. Everything will be fine, Shepard," he said slowly, nodding as he did. "You know that."

"That wasn't so hard, now was it?" she asked him with a sweet smile.

"I could get used to it," he admitted. Why did I worry about this? he wondered. Being daring for once, he half-smiled at her with a questioning look. "I guess we have some downtime to figure out what we are, huh?" he offered.

She looked pleasantly surprised then started to stand as he offered his hand to her. She raised her eyebrows and beamed at him, then accepted, and a combination of his strength pulling her up and hers pulling down on him got them both so off-balance that they fell into each other's arms. It was the closest they'd ever been, and Kaidan felt his heart start beating so fast he felt sure she'd be able to hear it clearly.

It was like a dream. Though he'd never admit it, he'd had a few of them where he wound up kissing her, but this was better, more perfect than any dream could be. He looked into her eyes, and he imagined he could see everything she was – strong, kind, loving, and a true public servant, but he could also see a self-doubt that made her brutally analyze every action she'd taken, every person she'd helped, every human or alien or geth or creature she'd been forced to kill. She was never really sure of herself.

"I believe in you," he murmured, reaching up to touch her cheek gently. "You're an incredible woman, Irien Shepard."

She smiled slowly, her eyes lighting up, and they both leaned forward simultaneously.

"Sorry to interrupt, Commander," Joker's voice said loudly over the comm., making him jump for the second time that day. "Got a message from Captain Anderson."

The two of them swiftly moved apart, and he stood there, trying to stop himself from looking as awkward and uncomfortable as he felt.

"Were you spying on us, Joker?" Shepard asked, sounding more than a little annoyed.

"No ma'am. Just knew you were on the ship and figured I'd pass the message on," the pilot replied, sounding innocent. "Captain Anderson said to meet him at Flux. That club down in the wards."

They both sighed quietly, then looked at each other with identical grins. Shepard let out a little giggle unlike anything he'd ever heard her make before, which made him laugh.

He gave her a regretful smile. "Well, I guess you'd better go then," he told her, and she nodded and started toward the ramp upstairs, but not before stepping closer to him and giving him an unexpected and gentle kiss on the cheek.

"Thanks, Kaidan."

He smiled at her as she left. "Any time," he said quietly.