More shall they speak; for now I am bent to know,
By the worst means, the worst. For mine own good,
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er:
At that moment, Kaidan was hard pressed to imagine a happier place to be than back within the cramped mess hall of the SSV Normandy. Well, perhaps there were a few other happier places to be, he amended wistfully, but all things considered, the narrow frigate felt far more like home than anything else had in the last few weeks.
The only thing clear in the wake of Saren's attack on the Citadel – or rather, attack on all sentient beings - was that nothing was very clear anymore.
For her part, Commander Shepard had no intention of waiting around for the disorganized Alliance brass to honor her crew for their hard-fought, and in some ways solitary, victory. Six days after the battle, an abrupt order went out for the whole crew to present itself at what turned out to be a small but lavishly appointed club in the undamaged section of the Presidium. With little preamble, Shepard swept in and, wearing her sly smile, opened the bar, simply ordering everyone to have a good time.
The days and weeks of tension finally came unraveled as the night descended quickly into unabashed revelry. As the drinks flowed, so did the tale-telling, and Kaidan couldn't help but think Ashley would have approved of being remembered in good stories and boisterous toasts as opposed to the stuffy and solemn uniformed ceremony that would undoubtedly soon occur.
Kaidan had been conservative about drinking, overly conscious of the giddy feeling that still bloomed in his chest whenever he looked at Shepard. He'd spent quite a while with Garrus and Tali, letting himself get ensnared in their technical conversation and casually curious as to what exactly dextro-amino acid-based biologies consumed to have fun.
As the evening had worn on, Kaidan could not quite succeed in overcoming the background malaise that haunted his mind. It was perhaps appropriate, if not entirely predictable, that Joker would be the one to bluntly call him out on it.
"You're overcompensating," Joker had drawled casually, his nearly full beer held near his lips as if it might attempt to escape if given a moment alone. "I have it on good authority that women like it when you talk to them."
"I'm not going to hang off her all night like a lost puppy," Kaidan retorted defensively. "I'm sure the rumor mill is busy enough as it is." He glanced across the room to where Shepard was recounting some story or other to a half-dozen Normandy crewmen. Whether from alcohol or simply the company of trusted friends, her face was open and animated as she talked and laughed, a far cry from her usual cool reserve.
Joker smirked. "Are you seriously the only human ever born who gets more uptight when you drink? Come on man, we just saved the world! Now beat it, you're cramping my reputation as a surly asshole."
Kaidan could never be entirely sure what drove Joker's little moments. Sometimes he worried the pilot was nursing resentment over Ashley's death, but most times he was sure the pilot simply considered Kaidan's predicament to be his own personal source of entertainment.
The lieutenant was still wrestling with how best to approach the moving target that was the appropriate boundary for interacting with Shepard in public when she all but pounced on him in the empty stairwell leading to the balconies.
"There a reason you're avoiding me?" she asked archly, cornering him in an alcove.
"Uh... not a good one," he said lamely. "I just-"
"If you're going to deprive me of your company for the party," she said, her voice a low purr as she leaned scandalously close to him, "you better not be thinking I'm going home alone tonight."
Goosebumps crawled up his arms. "I... wouldn't dream of it."
She lingered, close enough for him to feel the heat of her body and just long enough to nearly override his better judgment before she stepped away. "Good," she pronounced, favoring him with her sly smile as she turned and vanished back down the hall.
In the days afterward, he often found himself drifting back to the memory of those following hours. Not only for the time spent lost in the delirious fire, but just as much for the pure pleasure of not having to go anywhere the next morning. Seemingly by unspoken agreement, neither of them brought up anything of consequence, letting nothing spoil those precious hours, a brief oasis free of uncertainty.
For though Sovereign had not succeeded in its ultimate goal, Kaidan had to wonder if the turmoil left in its wake wouldn't have still pleased the synthetic destroyer-god.
The fleets that had once kept order in Citadel space had been badly mauled by the Reaper's devastating assault. Sensing opportunity, pirate activity spiked, causing the governments of the Citadel races to pull back their ships in defense of their own holdings, all the while expecting their neighbor to pick up the slack elsewhere.
While he couldn't speak for what must have been happening inside the workings of the other races' military structures, Kaidan felt sure it wasn't far from what the Alliance was going through. The wholesale destruction of several major ships left large holes in the command structure, opening up political power plays as different factions moved to fill the power vacuums left over from the deaths of several high-ranking officials.
Caught in the middle, the Citadel itself floundered. Undermanned, Citadel Security struggled to maintain order within the multi-racial populace of the massive city-state. Sovereign's devastating super-lasers had caused major damage to the infrastructure in some areas, and still more when parts of the mighty dreadnought had crashed into the station's inhabited Wards. On top of it all, the political upheaval disrupted the economy upon which the isolated space station relied for all of its resources.
Ten days after Sovereign's destruction, Kaidan had been abruptly assigned to lead a squad of marines into the Citadel's badly damaged Fourth Ward, where they spent two weeks camped out in the ruin of the C-Sec garrison assisting the local turian unit in restoring order and infrastructure. While they spoke little of it, Kaidan knew the turian unit was also tasked with guarding the retrieval of parts of Sovereign that had landed nearby.
Despite the lurch of sudden reassignment, Kaidan had been glad to be given something to do to help out that was nonetheless not too far from Shepard and the Normandy. Still, he lived those two weeks under a cloud of nagging fear that she would be called away from the Citadel without warning, and without him.
He missed her badly during those days. He even missed the rest of the Normandy crew, not the least for simply being around people who knew the truth behind the Reaper attack. His assigned squad was a mix of kids from the Moscow and two experienced NCOs that had escaped the destruction of the frigate Narva and now waited permanent reassignment. Good soldiers caught in the same lurch of politics and loss as Kaidan, looking for something stable to rally around. Kaidan did his best to be that stability, but it wasn't as easy as it should have been.
Above all else, Kaidan loathed being unable to tell them the truth. He wished they wouldn't ask about the battle of the Citadel, but of course they did, because they were all eager to hear the stories from the guy who'd been at Spectre Shepard's right hand. Kaidan hated having to carefully maneuver through the minefield of classified information. He wanted to be straight with them, be one of them like he always had, but every time the words "I can't talk about that" came out of his mouth, they drifted a little further away, and it left him caught between the ax and the grindstone of camaraderie and duty.
Finally, the garrison had been left with power, the all-important network linkup and an influx of new C-Sec troops to reinforce it. Kaidan was granted a few days' leave, contingent that he didn't leave the Citadel.
Not that it really felt like leave. There seemed to be a hundred things to worry about, a flood of messages and calls from friends and family. Everyone was eager to talk, to fill the empty spaces abruptly left by thousands of casualties, and to celebrate the hard-won victory. Again, though, Kaidan was repeatedly brought up short by the earnest curiosity of those who wanted, and indeed deserved, to know the truth Shepard had dug up about Saren and the Reapers.
They bid farewell to Tali, as she left on her way back to the quarian fleet. In a moment of frustration, Shepard had hinted that the Citadel Council had argued about whether or not Tali should be released at all, given her knowledge. Shepard had privately ranted at length about the Council's dim view of the quarians and their potential contribution to combating the Reaper threat. It was an ugly moment, but ultimately clearer heads prevailed and Tali was formally thanked by the Council and allowed to return home.
Perhaps to avoid similar entanglements, Wrex had simply slipped off the station altogether in the week after Saren's attack. Though obviously somewhat disappointed, Shepard had simply shrugged and said she couldn't blame him, and as days passed, it seemed evident the pragmatic mercenary had probably chosen wisely.
Liara recovered quickly from the injuries she'd sustained, but shortly thereafter was summoned to Thalassia to meet with a council of matriarchs. Kaidan was sure she'd be back at some point, but the asari weren't known for their alacrity in making major decisions. The battered behemoth of the Destiny Ascension still loomed near the Citadel, as much a message of reassurance to the station's populace as a warning that despite considerable damage, the dreadnought was still a force to be reckoned with.
In all of it, Kaidan was never really sure what he should do about Shepard, if anything. She was constantly in demand, so much so that it made his own long and painstaking debriefing seem quick and painless. He hovered on the periphery, trying at once to be there if needed but not wanting to get underfoot in the maelstrom.
And so it was with relief one morning, nearly a month after the destruction of Sovereign, that Kaidan flipped open his omni-tool and found a curt message ordering him to report to the Normandy with his equipment.
Shepard, for her part, was obviously relieved to have left the Citadel. In the time he'd known her, Kaidan had learned to better read her moods, and though she still seemed tense, the perpetual frustration of Citadel politics seemed to have drained away. Despite the fact it was a little bit maddening to be forced to be professionally distant, Kaidan was still more than happy to be sitting a few feet away from her again, in a place where his role was clear.
Across from her, Garrus looked very smart in his crisp, blue C-Sec uniform. The Citadel's star-shaped insignia on his shoulder was surmounted by the turian insignia for Praetor. The rank more or less meant 'special investigator', which to Kaidan evoked imagery of the lone gumshoe out to clean up the mean streets, a vision he thought suited his turian friend. He faintly wished he'd been around to watch Executor Pallin award the rank - the taciturn head of C-Sec must have been chewing on his mandibles.
It was, apparently, at Garrus' behest that the Normandy had left the Citadel. But Kaidan was having trouble getting anything else concrete out of either the turian or Shepard about what exactly they were doing in the Asgard system with a skeleton crew.
"Hopefully nothing," was Shepard's vague response to his inquiry about what they were looking for. "Garrus' intel is very loose... and the fleet is stretched so thin, no one is going to send a ship out on a rumor. But I trust his instincts, so here we are."
Kaidan was fairly sure Shepard had been at the point of taking any pretext offered to get away from the Citadel, and since he was included, he felt no desire to quibble.
Sitting to his right were the two marines Shepard had picked to fill out the ground team. Both were evidently still somewhat star-struck, and more than a little surprised that the legendary Commander Shepard deigned to sit in the same mess hall and drink her morning coffee with her teammates.
"It was a little short notice, but I borrowed them from a friend," Shepard had explained with a smirk. That friend, it turned out, was Rear Admiral Adam Tennyson, commander of the Fifth Fleet cruiser Hyderabad, which was undergoing extensive repairs. Kaidan's curiosity hit a dead end when he discovered a sizable portion of Tennyson's storied service record was classified, but the N designation next to his tag number spoke volumes.
Certainly the most vociferous of the two "borrowed" marines was Service Chief Alina Wickham, whose chin-length brown hair and long, expressive fingers danced around in time with her circuitous but emphatic argument, which currently had something to do with the nature of geth intelligence.
Corporal Suman Nayar obviously tried to do a better job of being casual, calmly facing into the verbal storm coming from the chief and valiantly trying to steer the conversation out of the stratosphere of esoteric AI theory and back to what had started it in the first place - the thorny question of sentience.
Unusually short for a marine, Nayar was young and solidly built, with an unlovely but practical face and a deep voice that lent him an air of gravitas beyond his years. Throughout the conversation, Nayar's gaze kept flicking across the table toward Garrus, but whether that was out of hostility or mere curiosity Kaidan couldn't tell.
"Come on, Wick, they're machines," Nayar was saying, cracking his knuckles absently. "How do you know that when one dies, the geth core doesn't just boot up a new one to replace it?"
"Haven't you been listening?" Wickham huffed irritably. "That's not how quantum computing works! They're all loaded with blue boxes, they're all individuals... as much as they can be within the distributed intelligence network. Look, it's like this-"
Nayar was saved from a new onslaught when the comm speaker clicked to life. "Bridge to Commander Shepard," Joker's voice spoke up. "You better come up and see this."
For a moment Shepard didn't move, eyeing the invisible speaker over the rim of her cup. "Ten more gray hairs," she muttered to no one in particular, then got up and headed for the stairs.
Garrus tapped his taloned fingers against the table, watching her go. The turian's blade-like mandibles flexed slightly. The subtleties of those movements were largely lost on Kaidan, but being around Garrus for some time had taught him that particular motion usually meant agitation of some kind.
"What's going on?" Wickham asked curiously.
Kaidan pushed the last of his food around his plate, his stomach suddenly tight. Hopefully nothing. "If it's important, we'll know soon enough," he said, standing up to return his tray to the cleaning system.
Joker's tone, crisply professional and devoid of his usual bantering drawl, had been enough to tell Kaidan the pilot was alerted to something worrisome. His suspicion was confirmed a scant few minutes later when booted footsteps rang out on the stairs, coming at a quick pace.
"Suit up!" Shepard announced, rounding the bulkhead at a brisk trot and heading for the lockers on the near end of the crew area.
Wickham and Nayar glanced at each other, wide-eyed. "We're..." the chief stammered, "uh, who, Ma'am?"
"Everyone!" the commander barked without stopping. "We're dropping in five, move it!"
The two marines lurched to their feet and scurried after Garrus, who was already heading for the elevator. Kaidan hesitated only briefly before following, flush with the sudden thrill and trepidation that always preceded a mission.
As the cargo elevator doors hissed shut, Kaidan watched those same emotions flicker across the faces of the two new marines, and was reminded of a day that felt like an eternity ago, the first day he'd jumped out of the belly of the Normandy beside Commander Shepard.