Is this how the gods reward the faithful through the ages?
Forcing us to prove that the hardest things we've done
He shouldn't really have been surprised.
Something like an hour into the middle watch, everyone else was either at their stations or in their sleeper pods, but even with fatigue draining him, reducing all hurts to a dull and omnipresent ache, Kaidan couldn't face the thought of trying to go to sleep. He'd wandered into the mess when he'd run out of anything else to distract himself with, only to find Commander Shepard already there. Alone at a table in the dim amber light of the otherwise empty mess, she sat with her elbows braced against the table and her head hanging between her forearms, fingers laced across the back of her neck, a posture of profound exhaustion.
Only a few days ago, he might have dared to cross the distance between them and put his hand on her shoulder, to let the simple contact remind the both of them that they were not alone. He wanted to touch her. Of all the commanding officers he'd had during his career as a marine, Shepard was one of the best, maybe the best. Kaidan had admired her from the start, watching the strength and the competence with which she led; you never forgot that she was an officer, but even if she hadn't been, people would have followed her anyhow, drawn to her by her quiet, steady confidence. When she said she'd do a thing, no matter how impossible, you believed it would happen.
That would have been enough for Kaidan. It had come as a surprise to realize, as she led them across the galaxy after Saren, that more than admiring and respecting Shepard, he liked her. Her strength, the compassion that she extended to everyone, the flashes of sharp-edged wit that surfaced from time to time... he liked being around her, had come to cherish the connection that had somehow formed between them however complicated it made things.
That was before Virmire. Now Ashley - tough, staunch, sassy Ash, who'd always been quick with a smartass quip and quicker to leap to a teammate's support in the heat of battle - was dead. Because Shepard had chosen him.
And now all he could do was stand there and watch Shepard sitting there in the dim amber light of the mess, bowed down under her own exhaustion.
"Shouldn't you be resting?" Shepard's voice was soft and without inflection, but Kaidan startled anyhow, wondering a little guiltily how long she'd been aware of his presence.
"Probably," she admitted, not lifting her head. "But I hate leaving things unfinished... I still have to record something to send to her family." Kaidan winced inwardly in sympathy. He had never had to take on the responsibility of contacting the family of a dead soldier, and could only imagine how hard it would have to be. "I've been putting it off. I don't know why we ever invented vid-mail," she said. "Used to be you could just write a letter."
There was nothing Kaidan could think to say to her. If there had been a way for him to lift some of the weight from her shoulders he would have taken it from her, but the easy camaraderie he'd felt between them before seemed very far away.
"A mother and three sisters," she murmured, more to herself than to him. "She told me about them. The youngest one's just out of high school."
"It won't make anything any worse if you wait until tomorrow," he said. Even to his own ears, his voice sounded awkward and unconvincing. How could he tell her to try to get some sleep when he was taking any excuse to keep from having to lie in a sleeper pod and think about Ash?
"It won't make it any easier, either," she said heavily. "Marines just shouldn't have families."
The uncharacteristic cynicism of the words had his throat tightening. It wasn't like her. "You don't mean that."
A breath escaped her with a short little hitch that was almost a laugh, and she lifted her head a little to look up at him, her face wan and strained. "No? When was the last time you saw yours?" He winced, because she was right - it had been too long, had always been too long, and there was never enough leave time. You made do with calls and mail; that was life in the military. "The one thing about being an orphan," Shepard said. "At least when it's my turn to go, there won't be anyone to have to break the news to."
Kaidan could barely breathe around the tightness in his chest. She was wrong, had to be wrong. There was no way that a woman like her could go down without leaving everyone she'd ever touched diminished by the loss. "Commander--" he began, only to stop himself.
She sighed, a long exhalation that seemed to deflate her, leaving her sagging into her seat. "If there's something you're wanting to say," she said, "I wish you'd just say it."
But the words wouldn't come. The more Kaidan tried to put into words what he was feeling, the less he could make sense of any of it; there was too much, too tangled up and conflicting, too many things he could say that would only hurt her more, and nothing he could say to make any of it right again. Only a short time ago he'd felt like he could talk to her about anything, but now all he could do was open his mouth and close it again, unable to voice the one question that hung over everything because he already knew that he didn't want to hear her answer: Why?
"Never mind." Shepard's voice was heavy with resignation, and she shook her head. "I can take a guess." Putting both hands on the table, she pushed herself up to her feet.
"You're grateful to be alive," she said, turning to face him and fixing him with a laser-focus stare, her eyes red-rimmed but clear and her expression very serious. "But it feels wrong, like being glad to be alive means being glad she's dead."
Kaidan could not look away from her eyes. He had seen this look on her face before, had heard her speak in this low, controlled voice, but it had never been directed at him. A part of him couldn't help but wonder if this was how Fist had felt as she'd stared him down over her pistol and demanded that he tell her everything he knew - how Ethan Jeong had felt, back on Feros, in those last few moments before she'd calmly shot him in the face.
"So you keep playing it back over in your head," she went on, "Because there has to be something you could have done differently." She took a step towards him - just one, but he had to clamp down on the reflexive urge to retreat. "If you'd been just a little faster... or a little smarter... if you had just been able to hold out for a little longer, we could have gotten her out."
It hurt because she was right. And it hurt all the more to realize that she knew it because she was there herself, living through it - as she'd lived through it before, after Akuze, after Mindoir, after who knew how many other times.
"And you can't stop thinking," she said softly, "That she's dead because of you." Another step brought her that much closer. "Because of us." Another, her eyes still holding his, not allowing him to look away. "Because we crossed a line."
A part of Kaidan wanted to stop her before she could go any further, to protest that this was unfair, that there was no purpose in her doing this to him and to herself. But it was true. Unfair or not, hurtful or not, all of it was true, and there was nothing he could say to deny any of it.
She pushed on, a fierce and almost reckless look coming over her face, close enough to touch now if he'd dared to try. "And now you're wondering if you can still follow me," she said, "Knowing that I can leave someone behind to die--"
"No." Abruptly he found his voice, cutting her off. "You're wrong about that. Maybe you're right about everything else, but you're wrong about that. I was there, Shepard. I know what you were up against. If it had been me - I'll be honest, I don't know if I could have made that call. I might have frozen up. And if I had, we would have still been there when the nuke went off, and we'd have all died. Or the geth would have killed us and stopped the detonation, and Saren would still have his army of krogan, and there wouldn't be anyone left who knew what he was up to."
Shepard said nothing. She just kept watching him, the fierce look dying away from her face into something he couldn't read, and now that he'd gotten started Kaidan found that he couldn't stop. "We're marines," he said. "We go out there every time knowing that we might not be coming back. I don't pretend to understand everything that was going through your head, but I know there isn't anyone on this ship who doubts that you did what you had to do."
"...all right," she said at last, breaking eye contact and looking down towards the floor. "I was a little out of line. I just..." When she looked up again, that weary look was back. "I promised myself," she said. "After Akuze, I swore that if it ever came down to dying or leaving someone behind, I'd stay and fight rather than leave anyone to die to save myself." Her hands had curled into fists at her side, clenched white-knuckle tight. "But it wasn't just my life this time. It was the whole team, and Kirrahe's team, and everyone else on board the Normandy, and maybe the rest of the whole damn galaxy, and I had to choose."
The sudden rush of emotion seemed to burn itself out; she stopped herself, bringing up a hand to scrub over eyes, and let out an uneven breath. When she looked up to meet his eyes again, her face was tight with pain, her voice raw with it. "I wish to God I could tell you it was pure tactics, and not an emotional reaction. I could give you a whole list of reasons, but the truth is that there just wasn't time to think it all out."
"There's no good choice in a situation like that," he told her quietly, but the words felt cheap and unconvincing and horribly inadequate.
"I know that," she said with a bite of frustration coming into her voice, and then she stopped herself, dragging both hands back over her hair. "I know," she repeated, more calmly. "But that doesn't let me off the hook." Suddenly seeming restless, she turned away altogether, pacing a few steps away and turning back again. "I thought I'd be able to keep my feelings from getting in the way of duty. The regs exist for reason; I knew that the whole time, and I chose to ignore it. I thought it wouldn't matter."
"It wasn't just your call," Kaidan felt compelled to point out, although the direction this was taking gave him an inescapable sinking feeling. "I could have said no any time." If he had, he couldn't help but wonder, would Ash be alive now?
"Yes," she agreed evenly, "you could have. But I'm the commander." Her eyes were fixed on him again, with the same terrifying focus as before. "And if I were half as good as people say I am, I would put an end to this right now."
It felt as though the floor was dropping out from under him. He could almost feel himself falling.
"I'm not going to," she said softly, looking away again for a moment. "It's selfish and it's wrong, but I'm not. But I need to know that you understand... Whatever happens between you and me, the mission will always have to come first."
Intellectually, he understood what she was asking of him, and why. Knowing it did nothing to help the emotional turmoil, a storm of surprise and relief and shame and worry and hurt. "Have I ever asked for anything different?" he demanded, not entirely able to keep the hurt out of his voice. "Have I ever done anything to compromise your authority?"
"No." Her answer was calm and steady. "You haven't. That's the only reason I can take this chance. But everyone on this ship has to be able to trust my judgment. They have to believe that when I make a call, it's based in reason and not my feelings for you. All it takes is a little bit of doubt and this whole crew could fall apart, and there is too much at stake here to let that happen."
"Believe me," he said, as sincerely as he knew how, "I know that."
"And that means, if worst comes to worst, I might have to sacrifice you for the mission." It was a little shocking to hear her say it so bluntly. Worse still was the stark pain on her face, the roughness it brought to her quiet voice. "It means that at the first sign that the crew is starting to doubt my objectivity, this is over, unilaterally. If we're going to have any chance at all of making this work, I have to know that you can live with that."
It would have been easy to give an immediate answer - yes or no - but Kaidan bit down on the impulse. He would be doing neither of them any favors. Instead he took the time to think it over, trying hard to sort out his feelings enough to give an honest answer. It took a long, silent interval, while Shepard stood and watched him, waiting patiently.
Eventually he let out a long, slow breath. "If I were smart," he admitted, "I'd be taking a step back about now. This ship, this crew... it's once-in-a-lifetime stuff. But so are you." He watched her face closely, but the flicker of reaction across her face was too quick and too subtle for him to read. "I'll take whatever I can get with you, Shepard. If you have to leave yourself a way out... I can't blame you for that."
Slowly, the beginnings of a smile came over her face, weary and lopsided but warm with affection. "I don't think most men would be able to live with that kind of ultimatum," she said.
"I can't say it doesn't sting a little," he admitted. "But this is how it has to be. I get that. And besides," honesty compelled him to add, "if you didn't put the crew and the mission first, I wouldn't admire you as much as I do."
"I'm asking a lot of you," she said, a trace of an apology in her voice. "Just bear with me for a while. Something has to give soon."
Now, finally, Kaidan dared to reach out, closing the space between them to lay his hand gently on her shoulder. "If there's anything you need from me," he told her, "all you have to do is ask."
Her head inclined a little in acknowledgement. "I will," she said. "But right now I want you to get some sleep. The last thing I need is to have you flattened by a migraine tomorrow."
He winced a little at the prospect. He still wasn't entirely sure he'd be able to sleep, but she was right; fatigue and stress made the headaches that much more likely, and he couldn't afford to be out of commission. "Aye aye," he said, and then hesitated. "Not to overstep," he added slowly, "but you should really get some rest yourself."
"I will," she said, the words coming out in a sigh. "I just have to get that vid-mail recorded first."
Tact struggled briefly with concern; concern won. "You look pretty rough," he told her gently, and the breath hitched out of her in what was almost a laugh.
"All the better," she said with a bleak sort of humor. "It'll help them know I care."
There was nothing Kaidan could think to say. He couldn't stop thinking about Ashley - Ash, who would never again tease him about staring at Shepard's ass, never again bitch about hating politics, never again stand up to draw enemy fire off him in the heat of a firefight or hold the enemy at bay with the deep, rhythmic booming of her shotgun. The silence stretched out, growing steadily more and more awkward, until finally, helplessly, he let his hand fall away from Shepard's shoulder.
"How do you keep going?"
For a moment, Shepard looked startled. Then she smiled, a sad and infinitely weary little smile. "It's not hard," she said quietly. "The galaxy doesn't stop. You just..." she hesitated briefly, seeming to search for the words, and finally shrugged. "...keep breathing."
"That easy, huh?" he murmured, knowing full well that there were times when nothing was harder. "Just one foot in front of the other."
"Yeah." Her gaze dropped away to the floor, and he thought again of Akuze, and of all the distance spread out between there and where they were now. How many steps, to get that far? How many breaths would it take before he'd be able to look at her without thinking guiltily of Ash?
Trying to look ahead like that would be unbearable. Just keep breathing.
Before he could say anything else, she drew herself up with an audible indrawn breath. "Right," she said firmly. "No point in putting it off any longer. Go rest, Kaidan." This time, her voice held an unmistakable note of command. "There's no telling what's going to happen tomorrow."
"...Right." It was hard to step back, knowing that she wouldn't be going to rest herself until she'd finished the difficult task of figuring out how to tell Ashley's family that she wouldn't be coming home... But she was right, so Kaidan only nodded, and watched as she turned away.
Watching as she left the mess, headed for her own quarters and the grim job ahead of her, he felt as though he ought to say something to her, but there was nothing that he could think to say.