Kaidan lost track of time for a while.
He'd woken up once, his head pounding and his vision clouded with auras as he recognized the dimmed med-bay of the Normandy. He remembered disjointed images of Doctor Chakwas as she'd come to administer painkillers and a sedative. He'd looked over and caught a glimpse of Shepard lying on her side on the bed to his left, feeling relief through the roar of pain as he slipped off the edge back into unconsciousness again.
When he finally woke up a second time, Shepard was gone. Chakwas had rolled her eyes at his inquiry about the commander's whereabouts, grumbling about the Council demanding to see the commander as soon as she was able. Which, unsurprisingly, Shepard decided was right away, much to the doctor's chagrin. Chakwas made it quite clear to Kaidan no one else was escaping her care until she deemed them acceptably healthy.
He managed to get out after a day and a half, groggy and sore but more or less whole, his electrolyte and blood sugar levels finally somewhere close to normal after the beating he'd given his biotics.
Not that there was anywhere to go. They were in lockdown again, docked at a change dump station with no gantry access and all hands confined aboard with no external communications allowed without express permission from XO Pressley. The crew was allowed to compose messages to be sent to their families as a reassurance of their safety, but even these were screened for content. As an officer, Kaidan got to share the distasteful task of scanning a batch of messages for classified information. Which, in a case like this, was basically everything short of 'yes, I'm still alive'.
The ship seemed strangely empty despite everything. The alien team members had not returned before the lockdown was ordered. Garrus stayed ground-side to help C-Sec restore order, and Wrex disappeared into the damaged Citadel to follow whatever mercenary urge the krogan might have felt now that Saren was dead. Kaidan found himself badly missing Ashley's easy laugh, Garrus and Tali's stimulating conversations and even Liara's shy brilliance.
After three days of confinement, the mood on the Normandy began to get ugly. Pressley could only reassure the crew that Commander Shepard was alive and well, and the Citadel was being cleared of holdout geth forces. Predictably, it did little to quell rumors and speculation.
Kaidan mostly kept to himself, avoiding Joker and stepping into conversations and disputes only to try to keep morale up. But left in relative isolation over the interminable hours, Kaidan's usually considerable patience wore thin.
He worried about Shepard. He worried about why he hadn't heard anything from her. He knew she was probably under orders too, but still resented the lack of communication. He worried about what would become of them, if there even was a 'them'. He tried not to think about their stolen night, but consistently failed.
Finally, it came. No one on the ship missed the telltale sound of the docking clamps disengaging and the gentle pulse of the maneuvering thrusters. The message went out, all crew were called to gather on the main deck. Elation and trepidation boiled in equal measure in the buzz of conversation that ricocheted around the confines of the tiny frigate.
Only minutes later, from his personal commlink, came the quiet tone alerting him he'd received a message. His heart bounced off the inside of his ribcage when he saw it was a secure transmission from Shepard. A bunch of numbers that when he finally managed to think straight resolved themselves into an address within the Citadel Presidium, and the clearance to get there.
And so he was fairly bursting with impatience by the time he stood off to the side of the Normandy's raised CIC platform, hands clasped behind his back at parade rest. He was sincerely trying to make time move faster by sheer will alone when Joker unexpectedly took up position beside him, standing more or less straight as he leaned on his crutches.
The two men stayed silent for a moment, the hum of the ship and hushed conversation filling the air with white noise.
"You think it would reflect poorly on my service record if I dropped a stasis field on Pressley and bolted for the airlock?" Kaidan ventured without looking over, pitching his voice quiet enough not to travel across the room.
"I dunno," Joker drawled. "Would that go before or after fraternization on the court martial charges?"
Kaidan examined the far wall as he tried to gauge the other man. "Are we going to have a problem?" he asked evenly.
Joker let the question hang for a few seconds.
"Nah, just yanking you," the pilot said finally, his trademark smirk evident in his voice. "I think I've been shorted enough friends for one lifetime."
Kaidan let out a long breath. It had taken a frighteningly long time to go through the Alliance casualty lists, but he'd been unwilling to simply skim the names. It was numbing, bringing a dull shock every time he recognized one. It felt necessary to read all of them, to try to absorb the scale of the conflict and ultimately the sacrifice it had taken to bring down Sovereign.
And it was, at least for a time, distracting.
Joker snickered softly beside him. "Anyway, the look on your face when I dropped the cockblock on you in front of the lockers was absolutely priceless. Keeps me warm at night."
Kaidan fought to keep his expression blank.
The pilot casually examined his fingernails. "If you're going to break my legs, just give me some warning so I can ask the doc to stock up on pins."
"Too easy," Kaidan answered balefully. "I'll just wait until you're asleep, then override your pod's emergency lock and play a loop of your favorite insipid kid's show over the comm channel on full volume for a while."
Joker sucked in a breath through his teeth. "Now that's just... nasty."
Kaidan was about to remind the pilot of the danger inherent in harassing someone who not only knows where you sleep but knows where to find the lockout codes to your bed when XO Pressley marched out of the comm room and ascended the ramp to the CIC. Ambient conversation ceased instantly as the assembled crew snapped hasty salutes.
To his credit, Pressley understood that being long-winded at that juncture would probably be detrimental to his health, and so made his points crisply and quickly. Kaidan already knew what the XO was going to say, so he ran over travel plans again in his head as he tried not to fidget. Mostly the speech was to do with discretion and secrecy; the crew was forbidden to talk about recent events until further notice.
"Well, that comes as a surprise to exactly no one," Joker commented when Pressley finished and most of the crew flew away like dry leaves in a stiff wind. "Think there's a decent bar still standing down there?"
"On a station overrun with soldiers?" Kaidan answered absently, checking his tool readout for the tenth time. "If there isn't, there's an awful lot of credits going unearned."
The pilot peered at him with a raised eyebrow, then sighed. "Yeah, you better get going before you have a massive coronary right here. When you come up for air you can buy a beer or six and tell me what the hell happened down there."
"Sure." Kaidan nodded with a grin.
"See ya," Joker said, hitching up his crutches and turning toward the door to the lower level.
It took a great deal of effort not to run as Kaidan made his way out the airlock and down the gangway to the elevator. C-Sec was a hive of activity as agents of all species hustled in and out. The familiar main hall was scored with blast marks and plasma burns where the geth had mounted an assault on the Presidium's security station, and a number of small makeshift memorials leaned against the damaged wall near the entrance.
The reminders were everywhere as he traveled. The bodies had been removed and the geths' transformative spikes taken away, but otherwise the Presidium still bore all the scars of Saren's vicious surprise attack. C-Sec agents roamed the streets in small teams, checking IDs and directing traffic away from sensitive locations. They were supported by units of soldiers from all Citadel species to enforce order until the damaged infrastructure was restored.
Kaidan tolerated the ID checks with badly contained impatience, and once it became apparent who he was, was forced to fend off everything from unconcealed awe to offers of an armed escort to his destination.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally made it to the apartment complex, and a secure door guarded by clearance-only retinal scans closed behind him. He'd never been more grateful for intrusive security measures in his life.
Compared to the noise and activity of the Presidium's main level, the apartment block was eerily quiet, apparently untouched by the geth attack. Set into the sloping side of the Presidium ring, a smooth-running elevator offered a birds-eye view that, a few days ago, would have been breathtaking. Kaidan hardly noticed it or the tiled hallway leading into the complex as he scanned the subdued holo-signs for the number he was looking for.
When he finally found it he stopped, trying to collect himself, his nerves alive with both trepidation and anticipation. He chewed his lip for a moment, then reached out and touched the door panel. The automated lock chimed as it recognized his comm-signal, then cycled the door open with a soft hiss. Kaidan walked in and looked around.
The room beyond the door was spacious without being grand, with high ceilings and delicately curving walls typical of asari architectural tastes. A small but practical-looking kitchen faced into a carpeted living space, where a large couch faced a sleek holo-projector unit. On one side of the room was an open doorway.
Kaidan stopped short of calling out and instead padded across the carpet to the door. The room beyond was sparse, dominated by a large, low bed neatly made up with light blue covers. The left-hand wall was a wide bay window letting out onto a balcony overlooking the Presidium.
The light from the wide expanse of partially opaqued glass fell across Shepard, who lay on the bed curled on her side in a position not unlike that in which Kaidan had seen her last. The slight bulge over her shoulder under the light shirt betrayed the wound healing beneath. Her face was peaceful, hair loose. A datapad sat by her hand where it must have slipped free from her grip when she'd fallen asleep.
He gripped the door frame tightly as everything he'd carefully crammed in a box for the past few days surged against the restraints. Twin impulses warred in his head, the need to run to her fighting the urge to let her sleep.
Kaidan retreated from the door, taking a few stumbling steps before sinking onto one end of the couch. He slumped and dropped his face into his hands with a shudder as the anguish of those awful few minutes in the Citadel Tower washed over him.
God, what am I doing? Pretending I have a normal life and I can just-
Suddenly a weight depressed the couch beside him. He glanced up as Shepard eased his arms aside and slid up next to him.
"Kye..." he said in a shaking voice, consciously using her first name for the first time since meeting her.
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" she said with a small smile as she hugged him.
Harder than you think. In Kaidan's head it was another line crossed, a part of himself that still stubbornly held out finally giving in. He shifted, carefully pulling her with him as he lay back against the overstuffed couch arm and stretched his legs out. Shepard settled comfortably between him and the couch back, her wounded back out of harm's way, tucking her head in the crook of his shoulder like the night before Ilos. His aching ribs protested, but he ignored them.
"I'm sorry... it took so long," she said quietly. "The Council likes to listen to themselves pontificate and the Alliance brass are busy doing the headless chicken routine, everybody and their cousin wants to talk to me, wants a full report from beginning to end... everything's classified and my shoulder hurts and the meds make me so damn tired and for three days all I wanted was this."
Kaidan experienced a palpable sensation of release as the knot of tension and doubt that had slowly built up over the past few days started to unwind.
"You okay?" Shepard asked.
"Better now," he mumbled, holding her tightly.
In the blissful stillness, free of even the omnipresent hum of shipboard systems, Kaidan soaked in the warmth and smell of her, the feeling of her slow, steady breathing, letting it all gradually dull the ragged edges of recent days.
Spend all my time worrying about what'll cost me my control, and hardly ever what the control costs me.
But... I guess that's sort of who I am. She doesn't seem to mind so much.
After a while, she seemed to have fallen asleep, but he didn't mind, perfectly content to bear her comfortable weight for hours if necessary. He was starting to drift himself when she stirred and spoke.
"Whatever this is we have... I think it's worth fighting for."
"I'm happy to hear you say that," he answered, opting for plain truth.
"But... I don't know what that's going to mean yet," she murmured at length. "It's not going to be easy... I have to keep being a Spectre."
"I know." He absently smoothed back a stray lock of her hair. "I wouldn't expect otherwise."
"What we did wasn't right by the books but... I just don't regret it," Shepard said.
"Me neither." Kaidan was somewhat surprised at how much he meant it.
"You know, deep down, that's... what I was fighting for..." she continued quietly. "That little selfish thing. And all the other things. All the frivolous, irrational connections that spread out from one person into the weave that ends up encompassing all of us."
She traced light fingers over his chest. "All the things... no machine will ever understand."
Kaidan nuzzled the top of her head. Something in him said it was a just a justification, but he wasn't as sure as he might have been months ago. Even knowing something like the Reapers existed at all made him less sure of the order of his long-held priorities. Pragmatism aside, he couldn't deny her words made him happy in the deepest parts of his heart.
"Did you get a chance to check on Liara?" he asked after a while.
"Yeah, I visited her a couple of times," Shepard replied. "She's doing well, though it was touch and go for a while. We're lucky Anderson showed up when he did."
"I'm glad, we couldn't get any news while we were on the Normandy."
Shepard made a face. "I still don't know how to feel about the fact I turned an archaeologist into a combat veteran..."
"She chose to fight with us," Kaidan pointed out.
"I know, I guess I just like to imagine the world doesn't need more soldiers. But it's weirder to think that fighting Saren might be the only important thing we ever do, but for her it's just a few months out of a thousand years of experiences."
"You're going to give me a headache," he said mildly. "Where did Tali end up?"
"She made the mistake of offering to help C-Sec restore their internal network. She's developing quite a little entourage, we may have to sneak her off the station if she ever wants to go home."
Kaidan smirked. "Word gets around I guess. I had to fight through a bit of a crowd to get here myself."
"I haven't been out much," Shepard said tiredly. "Doctor Chakwas told me to stay in bed when at all possible, and anyway they're still trying to decide if they want to court martial me or not."
"Pardon?" He frowned incredulously as a flutter of worry ran through him.
She sighed in a long-suffering fashion. "Anderson thinks it's saber-rattling, mostly. Admiralty politics. The brass doesn't want to seem soft, doesn't want to be seen to condone a precipitous, illegal action by a ship commander no matter the circumstances.
"But on the other hand, there's some question as to validity of the order in the first place. Udina didn't have the military authority to issue such an order to me, so technically it came from the Council to me as a Spectre and had nothing to do with Alliance chain of command."
Kaidan chuckled softly. "Ah, jurisdiction."
"I'd hate to be the lawyer on this one, but yeah," Shepard answered. "Hackett is on our side at least, and he's got a lot of pull."
"I should damn well hope so," he said irritably. "If he suddenly forgot all those little messes we cleaned up for him..."
Shepard snickered. "We could always leave a certain defused nuclear probe on his front lawn, that might remind him.
"But the lockdown order itself isn't widely known outside of top-level command," she continued. "In the end, Anderson thinks it'll be suppressed. Too many people already know we were involved, and with all the ships we lost, it makes better political capital to hail heroes than throw people in jail. The Council seems to feel the same. Saren already stained the Spectres pretty badly, it doesn't make sense to hang another one."
"The fact that we saved their lives notwithstanding..." Kaidan said sarcastically.
Shepard shrugged. "They're still busy arguing about what to do next, knowing the truth about the Citadel and the Reapers. I'm sure you've noticed none of the news vids have talked about the Reapers or referred to Sovereign as anything other than a heretofore unseen geth dreadnought... Sovereign's sentience is still deeply classified right now."
Kaidan frowned up at the ceiling. "It doesn't seem right, not to make the truth known..."
"To me either," she agreed. "But there are arguments about what it would achieve, about social and economic panic and so on. There's even worry it would start up a rash of cults, people who would start trying to work for the Reapers under the same logic as Saren's. Those who would think the Reapers are gods and start fighting against their own people."
"Every death-obsessed lunatic's fantasy come to life."
"Yeah." She nodded. "I think... I still come down on the side of wanting everyone to know the truth, because we'll need unprecedented unity among species if we plan to survive a full-scale Reaper assault. We have to assume beings like the Reapers have contingency plans, but when they might put them into action is anyone's guess. It could be tomorrow, or five thousand years from now. They operate on a timescale that's outside even the asari's experience.
"Honestly, I'm just glad someone else can decide this one. I've got more than enough..." She shifted, trailing off.
A shudder ran through her body. "I miss Ash," she said quietly.
Kaidan closed his eyes against the well of guilt. Saren's defeat had blunted the knife edge of the feeling, some comfort coming from the knowledge that the chief's death had not been for nothing. But he still suspected it would be some time before the mention of her name stopped stinging.
"Me too," he said finally, tightening his hug. "You... haven't really had time to deal with it, have you?"
She shook her head slightly against his chest. "Any of it," she said, her voice quavering. "I couldn't, I had to just keep going, keep putting one foot in front of the other until the job was done.
"Everything. Ash, Cerberus... The people I thought... I thought I knew... I mean, none of us were model citizens or anything, but..."
Shepard seemed to curl in on herself. "But I just can't escape the feeling if I'd made a few different decisions I'd have been in there too, doing those awful things. I've never been a saint... But the past few days, all these people treating me like I'm some kind of savior... They use the word hero, and all I can think about is Kahoku and Toombs and all those people of Nodacrux and it just makes me nauseous."
Kaidan frowned. "Come on, Kye-"
"I know," she whispered, drawing in a long shuddering breath. "What you said... was right. Cerberus doesn't decide who I am now... Intellectually I know. I just have to get it through my head." She rubbed her eyes.
Kaidan laid his hand lightly along her jawline. "Maybe you're exactly who you needed to be to win against something like the Reapers. And maybe the hard edges of you are just as important to that end as the humanity."
She was quiet for a long moment.
"Is it really that simple?" she said finally in an uncharacteristically small voice.
He shrugged. "Why complicate it? Can you really put Sovereign anywhere on the same moral yardstick we use for ourselves? If you think about it too much you'll just paint yourself into a corner and make yourself miserable."
Kaidan could almost feel the smirk on her face.
"Okay, yes, I'm throwing stones from my glass house," he conceded. "But... maybe that just means I know what I'm talking about," he said. "It's all so hard to absorb, because the numbers just... beggar the imagination. It's easy to feel good about saving one life, but trillions? And you... you did that."
"We did..." she said wearily.
"You're quick to say that, and don't think it isn't appreciated. But you're the one that had to have the willpower to deal with the beacon message, to stand up to the Council, to risk everything and defy them and our own military when they turned on us... You're the one who had to make all those choices, not us, and I don't know if any of us can really know what it was like."
Shepard was quiet again for a long time.
"Have I told you lately how nice it is to have someone around to talk sense?" she said finally. "It's got to be the biggest downside of rank... less and less people are willing to point out when you're being silly."
"Or, heaven forbid, human," Kaidan replied.
She sniffed dismissively. "I'm not human, I'm a Spectre. Grr, hiss and so on."
"When you walk through your first wall, let me know. Until then I have evidence to the contrary." He quite deliberately slipped a hand under her loose shirt and let it rove over smooth skin.
She pushed herself up on an elbow and looked him in the eyes. "It's not fair giving me ideas I'm too sore to follow through on," she said with a hint of reproach.
Kaidan grinned. "I can be patient."
"Maybe you can..." Shepard leaned forward and kissed him lingeringly.
A hot rush ran through him, a feeling lush with promise for the next time they could be together.
She broke the embrace but stayed close. "But I guess until I learn to do it with my mind I'll have to be."
"Embrace eternity?" he said with a lopsided smile.
Shepard rolled her eyes. "I don't have eternity," she said mildly. "I suspect one day Death is going to get angry that I keep missing his appointments."
"Do you have to talk that way?" he said in a pained tone.
Shepard cocked her head to one side. "What? It's the truth. I sort of doubt many Spectres die of old age."
"Maybe..." Kaidan hugged her tightly again. "But... give my heart at least a few days off from harsh realities, okay?"
"Oh, I have more than a few days in mind," she answered with an arch smile. "I think I earned some shore leave, and I intend to practice embracing the moment." The slightly predatory lilt in her voice made more of his blood supply head south of the border.
Kaidan met her warm brown-eyed gaze, suddenly feeling like there was nothing else in the world.
My life wasn't normal even before I was born. Nothing is perfect, but for a little while, maybe I have something damn close.
A few acknowledgments:
First, thank you to all the creators at Bioware for this wonderful new world to play in, and thank you for interesting, flawed and mature characters. I stood on the shoulders of giants.
Much gratitude to my beta Lossefalme, who took a chance agreeing to do something for a stranger on the internet then stayed on for the whole thing. There is simply no substitute for feedback and the extra level of polish, and I feel privileged to have had such a fantastic beta.
And finally a huge, sincere thank you to every single one of my readers and reviewers! I read (and re-read) every comment that was left. Your thoughts and support made a good experience much, much greater, especially for a total noob like me. I send you all virtual cookies.
A few people have asked me to continue... As much as I would love to make everyone happy, I would rather leave people asking for more than to force myself to keep going, then lose interest and leave you hanging. This particular arc has an ending, and the door stays open for future potential. Who knows where the muse will take me next!
Somewhere over the horizon is Mass Effect 2... ;)