It was said that when waking up, sound is the first sense to filter through to an unconscious mind. For Kaidan, it had always been something else; gravity.
After so many years, he couldn't really remember a time when he wasn't aware of it; not in the crude manner of most people, as a second-hand report from the liquid-filled passages nested behind their ears, but as the all-encompassing tone that filled up every corner of the world. Something so pervasive and constant he usually forgot about it in the everyday business of living.
Before the implant, the sensation was too quiet and the world too loud for him to take notice. For a while, after the surgery, it made him nauseous as his brain tried to reconcile the new input with the established five senses. But the newcomer wasn't intrusive. It was never confused by the savageries of motion, never overwhelmed by excesses like sight and sound could be, its natural variations instead a slow and elegant waveform.
On better days, Kaidan liked to think he had a backstage pass to the universe, even if he usually felt like an ant trying to experience a skyscraper.
The sense of shift buffeted his mind, tugging him upwards through a haze of darkness. A disturbance in the tone that had since become almost familiar; no buildup, just a front-loaded concussive burst intended for little else but breaking. Kaidan knew how tiring those shock output spikes were, he also knew who did nothing but.
Gunfire, swallowed into an echo-less space, rattled against his brain.
A sound, a dreadful howl swept up from nothing into a layered keening that knifed through the air. The shock forced his eyes to open into a nightmare. Bright lights bore down on him, slashed with dark shapes that swam and doubled over themselves. A figure hung in the light, clawed arms shuddering and flailing, head swept back into horns. Sharp teeth and small, penetratingly bright eyes floated freely against the dark shape.
Sick, sluggish terror boiled in him as his body utterly refused to answer his will to move, get up and get away from the screaming monster, the phantom of his memory that was Vyrnnus raging and dying in one bloated instant.
Kaidan crammed his eyes shut against the ghost as his waking body wracked him with arcs of thick pain. The unholy scream suddenly vanished as if severed by a cut connection. Everything swam in a confused muddle of senses.
Voices. The ground under him shuddered with passing footsteps, the heavy tread of boots on metal. He cracked his eyes open again and saw more phantoms with crested heads and floating, piercing eyes. Something passed, close by, crowding out the figures.
Kaidan bent all his will to it, and finally, sluggishly, his body responded. He squinted and dragged his leaden arm up, extending his fingers and aiming for where there should be something. He felt solidity, reality, and reflexively gripped it.
There was movement as Kaidan was hooked under his shoulders and dragged sideways and up into a sitting position. He set his teeth against sudden vertigo as he felt something against his back. He forced his doubling vision to focus on the form right in front of him, and his heart thudded when his mind finally connected to the familiar camouflage green armor.
He tried to say something, but all that came out was a garbled mess. Shepard... it really was Shepard… crouched very close, touched the side of his helmet. He felt the slightly rough grip texture of her glove as she slid her thumb along the inside of the jaw-guard to touch his cheek and tipped his head back slightly to face her.
"You're safe," she said softly, and for a moment there was no other noise in the world but her voice. "We'll get you to a med-bay, the-"
"No!" he said, forcing the word out. The idea of being dragged away from her, stripped and prodded by a bunch of strangers and aliens was quite possibly the worst thing he could imagine at that moment.
Confusion crossed Shepard's face.
"Just... give me a few minutes," he mumbled. Everything seemed distant, made leaden by a background buzz in his head.
"Kaidan..." she said uncertainly.
He drew a ragged breath. "Please."
Shepard relented and turned away to look down the gangway. Kaidan suddenly realized he was still gripping her forearm when she turned back and gently pried his fingers loose.
"I have to talk to Garrus. Just... sit tight, I'll be back in a minute," she said, holding his hand for a moment longer before standing up and walking away.
Even as the prickle of fear gnawed at him, something in Kaidan's rational brain pushed through the haze and coldly informed him he was being ridiculous. But the maddening buzz didn't stop, nor did rationality dispel the smell of the blood running in rivulets down the metal walkway. A turian face stared vacantly at him, mandibles slack. There was an overlong moment of sickness as he tried to recognize the bare features but finally concluded he didn't.
He twisted around and took hold of the railing he was sitting against, then pulled himself painfully to his feet, using the handhold to bully his recalcitrant limbs into cooperation. The bulk of a small cargo freighter hung before him, but underneath it, the floor dropped away into nothing but the distant swirl of nebula. He stared into the endless abyssal space, and a new wave of vertigo rushed up his spine, making the world tip precariously.
Gripping the railing, Kaidan sank slowly to one knee, resting his head on the railing post. He closed his eyes and concentrated doggedly on the steady gravity all around him, the one sense that didn't seem to be bent on betraying him. He tried to will the buzzing away, but it continued.
A minute passed, then Shepard re-appeared at his elbow. "C'mon, we're done here," she said, crouching down to shoulder under his arm, pulling him to his feet.
The world tilted again, but Shepard's presence seemed to help. Kaidan leaned on her and let himself be steered down the gantry and into the dark hallway beyond, feeling better the minute he had something like solid ground underfoot.
"Nayar... s'he okay?" Kaidan asked, not trying to keep track of the confusing passages they were moving through.
"Yes," Shepard answered. "A C-Sec medic got him stable, they took him to their garrison. Garrus and Wickham are fine."
Kaidan nodded, relieved. He wanted to ask more about what happened, but didn't. He didn't really feel like going back to the confused, jagged memories past the moment when he'd been trying to hack the drone console.
Shapes moved past them in the hallway. He found himself gripping Shepard tighter when they appeared, even as part of him recognized the dark blue armor. Later, he would be properly awed by the disjointed memory of the massive arcs of electricity, but at the time Shepard was coaxing him across, it took every raw nerve he had left to put one foot in front of the other.
By the time they were back up in the warehouse, he was thrilled to be out of the claustrophobic tunnels. He leaned heavily on a random crate and tried to ignore the persistent itch of paranoia toward both the floor and the deactivated assault drones that littered it as Shepard talked to one of the many C-Sec agents hurrying to and fro. The rear cargo doors had been opened, and outside a small fleet of C-Sec vehicles were clustered around the entrance.
Shepard finally walked back over to him. "Is there somewhere... you want to go?" she asked.
Kaidan swallowed. The maddening buzz persisted, crowding coherency out of his thoughts. Anywhere you are.
Shepard regarded him for a long moment, helmeted head cocked slightly. "You're still in shock," she said quietly. "I'm guessing anywhere away from here is good."
Kaidan nodded slightly. There was an odd relief in her guess- it had been some time since he'd experienced full-blown shock, but it made a sudden kind of sense. But he'd been through it before, and knew it passed.
He stood straight and walked with Shepard, trying to force himself to calm down as they passed by the vehicles and stares of the C-Sec agents. She led him to an unmarked skycar guarded by a turian agent, who nodded to Shepard before walking away. Shepard opened the passenger side of the car and let Kaidan in before climbing in herself.
He leaned back into the seat and closed his eyes, absently flexing his hands as he concentrated on the gravity all around him. He felt the edges of the carefully controlled field that engaged and neutralized the mass of the car, letting it slide easily through the air.
His head throbbed sullenly, in tune with the persistent buzz between his ears. It became increasingly grating as minutes wore on. He lost track of time listening to it compete with the slowly shifting fields of gravity, hoping it would go away.
Some time later the car eased to a stop, and Shepard moved around. Finally, the door beside him opened and she was there, pulling him to his feet. He cracked his eyes open just enough to realize he was on a balcony, then being led inside to a smooth-walled room. He recognized Shepard's apartment with a small start. He'd seen skycars dock at the balconies of the Presidium's apartments before, but only from afar.
Shepard sat him down. On a sudden impulse, Kaidan clumsily stabbed the lock to the neck seal of his helmet and then shoved it off; it made a deadened thud as it landed on the floor. He heard Shepard say something as he clawed at his biotic amp, digging his fingers under the device and pulling it off with a sharp yank.
The plug in the back of Kaidan's skull came free with a crack that ricocheted through his head, bringing a burst of pain and sound. Everything seemed to go blank, but it only lasted a moment. As the world started to refocus, Kaidan heard Shepard saying his name, shaking him. She was beside him, half kneeling on the bed.
"I'm... I'm okay," he said, breathing deeply as the fog receded. "The amp was... feeding back or something. That batarian... had some kind of shock-prod..." The buzz was gone, and everything suddenly seemed clearer.
"He hit you with... Kaidan, why didn't you tell me?" she demanded, giving him another shake. Something at the back of his neck stung fiercely, and he absently reached up to it.
She grabbed his hand and pushed it down. "Don't touch it," she said. "You've got a contact burn from where the amp was sitting." She took a breath, then tapped his forearm lightly. "Power down."
He absently entered the command into his armor and it shut down, loosening around his body in a wave. Shepard pulled off her gloves and retrieved a small medi-gel pack from her storage compartments. He let her tug his collar open and ease his head forward, relishing the feel of her hand against his neck. The cooling analgesic of the medi-gel extinguished the fiery sting of the burn, tightening the skin slightly as it set into a protective layer.
"Anywhere else?" she asked quietly.
He almost said no, preferring not to call up all the details of those desperate seconds, but he could feel the little knives of pain on his back near his left shoulder. He wordlessly reached up and indicated the spot. Shepard quickly unclipped the secondary catches on his torso and eased the armor off. Kaidan flinched when the thin temperature control undersuit peeled off his back, pulling on the raw burns.
"It's not bad," she said reassuringly as she lifted the armor free of his arms and set it aside. "The shock-prods hurt like hell, but they don't cause permanent damage."
Kaidan didn't really need to be enlightened as to why that was. He focused instead on the warm touch and the soothing medi-gel as it banished the pain as if by magic. The choking fear and shock had receded, and he was finally starting to feel like himself again, exhausted but whole. As the immediacy of everything began to fade, the ugly lump of conflict from the past few days remained.
He forced the words out before his tired brain had a chance to get the doubt machine fully engaged. "Shepard, I'm sorry."
He felt Shepard freeze, and her touch disappeared. "For what, being right?" she said bitterly.
The acid in her voice made Kaidan's skin crawl. "I... I don't know that I was," he stammered.
She snorted softly. He turned and looked at her, sitting on the edge of the bed, shoulders hunched. She'd taken her helmet off, and her face was drawn and tired from days of stress.
"I... hate them... I hate them so much," Shepard breathed. In the stillness of the room, he could hear the joints of her armor creak with the rigid tension in her body.
"I try to tell myself that somewhere, there must be normal... normal batarians..." she continued, staring blankly ahead. "But every single one I've ever met has been a murderer... a slaver. I couldn't- I just couldn't let Balak get away. 'Just a slave run' one of them said... Just." She growled wordlessly.
"They like to get us young because once the training takes, there's often nothing left but the slave. Some of those people, they might as well be... organic robots. You take the jack off and tell them they're free and they just stare at you. They'd starve to death in front of a plate of food because their master wasn't around to tell them to eat.
"That asari... you know how much she must have cost? They're luxury items. All their mental training makes them really hard to break, and you can't breed them forcefully."
A nauseous flutter went through Kaidan's stomach at the implications of that statement.
"Godammit, I don't want to know any of this any more!" she snapped harshly, grating the words out between her teeth. "But I can't make it go away. I can't vote the slavers out of office. I can't demand the Alliance sanction their trade routes or threaten diplomatic repercussions..."
"We fight them," Kaidan ventured warily. "I mean, Torfan-"
"Torfan... hah, what a giant clusterfuck that was," Shepard snarled. "The Alliance gets its hands burned, and it stops even trying for a few years. A bunch of politicians sit around a table and yell at each other about money and diplomatic repercussions. Meanwhile, slave prices go up, the slavers lick their wounds and come up with better ways to control their merchandise. They experiment with breeding us like cows.
"We learned about the jacks the hard way, the Ns. The Attican Beta assault was supposed to be the new wave of joint-operations anti-piracy action, and lucky me, I was chosen for the infiltration team. We powered down a prison mainframe, and while we're all busy high-fiving each other like idiots, the signal rollover happens... and there's no callback from the central computer..." Her hands balled into fists, bunching up the bedsheets.
Kaidan swallowed hard.
Her voice dropped to a weary rasp. "And you know what they decide? They decide the problem is too big and spread out. The Citadel won't touch the Terminus Systems with a ten-foot pole, so the Alliance just decides to keep the worst news under wraps and write the rest off to the dangers of the new frontier. So here we are, the full might of the Systems Alliance Military... perpetually arriving a little too late."
Kaidan chewed his lip, trying in vain to process it all. "Well, it's true, we just don't have the resources to-"
Shepard stood up suddenly, a grimace flickering across her face. "Look, never mind," she said, her voice thick. "Just... get some rest." She walked to the door.
Kaidan fought to find something, anything, to say.
She stopped, one hand on the door frame. "I will never... Ever! Give a single inch to a slaver," she said without turning around. "Because in that inch they will destroy a thousand lives." With that, she stepped through and the door hissed closed behind her.
Kaidan shuddered in the sudden stillness, hunched over and ran his hands through his sweat-damp hair. Just have to go and keep pushing the button, don't you? Good job.
At heart, Kaidan was a problem solver, someone who thrived on the satisfaction of conquering tough challenges. But something in him unconsciously recoiled from questions that had no answers, and often his mind would go on stubbornly searching for a solution long after the problem had ceased to be relevant. In a lot of ways, the easiest thing to do, as Garrus had so bluntly pointed out, was leave those quandaries to someone else.
Even after listening to such a heart-wrenching rant, some part of him was still idiotically arguing there was some angle Shepard was missing. He angrily shoved the rest of his armor off and let it slump to the floor.
It burned him to concede that there was no good answer to Balak. The real failure was his; without really realizing it, he'd allowed himself to think he was somehow entitled to question her command, and in one moment of shock, that entitlement had escaped his control. Now he faced the possibility he'd broken something irreparably.
Stripped to his shorts, Kaidan curled up on the bed, dragging the cover over himself as if it would keep the lurking despair at bay.
Kaidan woke with a start from a confused dream of fire and screaming and the buzzing whine of electrical charge. He lay still for a minute, breathing hard and staring at the bedside table in front of him and the mostly empty water glass and compact medi-gel dispenser, until memory pulled him out of a maze of disorientation.
The room was dim. He'd stripped his omni-tool off with his armor, so couldn't tell what time it was, but it seemed to have slipped into the Presidium's artificial night cycle.
He tried to move and instantly regretted it. Every muscle in his body felt like it had run it's very own marathon and was now stewing in a bath of lactic acid, complaining bitterly with the smallest movement. He groaned quietly as muscles he didn't know he had felt the need to make themselves heard. He could swear it hurt to move his eyelids.
Lying still wasn't going to help. After a minute, Kaidan set his teeth and crawled stiffly out of the bed and stood up. He leaned heavily against the wall for a few moments, rolling his head to try and loosen his neck and back, then finally set about methodically stretching his major muscle groups. In the process, he looked around the room.
It wasn't just that the room was spartan, but there was something empty about it, like a hotel room. A full duffel bag sat on the chest of drawers, as if Shepard were ready to pick up and leave at any moment, even though as far as Kaidan knew, the apartment was hers so long as she served as a Spectre.
The meager light shone off of something round on the far side of the bag, and Kaidan approached it curiously. It turned out to be a hardsuit helmet. He walked over and picked it up. In the dim light he couldn't really see the color, but it was impossible to mistake the shattered visor and the deeply scored brow-plate, the legacy of Sovereign's final attack.
The rest of her mangled Predator armor had since been shipped back to Armax Industries, where the turian engineers were eager to study the effects of catastrophic damage on one of their premium suits. Armax had tripped all over themselves in their haste to provide Shepard with a replacement, knowing the value of having their expensive product publicly worn by the now-famous Spectre.
He wasn't entirely sure why she'd kept the helmet; Shepard did not seem prone to sentimentality. He suspected it was probably more like why she kept her scars- a certain memento mori.
The thought that had dogged him to sleep some hours before came back to him, but in a new light. He was, after all, here. Shepard could have dumped him anywhere, sent him to a med-bay or back to the Normandy, but in the end she'd brought him to her space. He suddenly realized that even angry and hurt, she must still be trying to bridge the gap, too.
Kaidan put the helmet down and walked stiffly to the doorway. The portal cycled softly open, revealing the dimly-lit living room beyond. Across from where he stood, the only light was a terminal holo-display that glowed amber, full of blocks of text. The chair in front of it was empty. A cold feeling settled across his shoulders as he took a few tentative steps forward, suddenly worried Shepard had left the apartment altogether.
The wide windows to his right opened into the Presidium's artificial night, the various apartments across the ring forming a constellation of perfectly aligned, gently sloping lights. A faint, rhythmic sound in the stillness drew his attention toward where the window met the wall.
He stepped back to the doorway, recognizing the familiar silhouette sitting against the wall, gazing out the window. Knees drawn up, Shepard seemed to be speaking softly into the empty space. The very faint sound abruptly made sense when Kaidan spotted the glint of light off of small earphones.
Shepard continued mouthing along to whatever she was listening to, apparently oblivious to his presence. Kaidan leaned carefully against the door frame, his muscles aching sullenly.
His heart fluttered just looking at her, beautiful in the dim light, her sharp features rim-lit by the artificial starlight. It was hard to think clearly when he really looked at her. Harder still to reconcile that image with that of the warrior who had so mercilessly scythed her way through the batarians, seemingly uncaring of the cost. Or who, deep in those tunnels, in shock, he'd felt so instinctively safe around.
What do I really know?
Because I read a few reports I have even the slightest idea what it's like to lose everything? Because for a while at sixteen I thought my life was over that I know what it's like to have no family, no friends to go back to at all?
Kaidan looked at the floor as the thoughts raged back and forth in his head. Slavery had always been one of those distant problems that happened to people far away on the fringes of his world. It was the kind of horror that stayed locked away behind a safe wall of text and statistics, the kind of reality one didn't really want to know in a more intimate way.
Now it was shoved up in his face, the dead eyes and metal skull-jacks. There wasn't even a heroic, tearful rescue to feel good about, just the struggle for a life that would always be a shadow of what it should have been. And his new reality was still just a fraction of what Shepard must have seen- this monster had sunk its claws deep into her long before he'd met her.
What... do I really know?
I know she runs her shields hot, I know she raised the kinetic impact tolerances on her medical exoskeleton above normal. I know she uses the older TRCP2 comms protocol for fights because it doesn't have a fraction of a second longer decryption lag. I know she tightened the rails on her pistol even if it heats up faster, because it hits a bit harder. I know she tends to break left attacking through a doorway, and she won't let anyone else go first.
But I have no idea what she's listening to right now.
Kaidan exhaled slowly and forced himself to look at her again. He wondered again what she'd been called to do in those years of special forces services, the experiences she'd touched on very briefly here and there. He tried again to fit the pieces together, the contradictory forces of the compassionate leader and the well-trained killer. These past few days weren't the first time he'd witnessed the evidence of that harder past, only the most stark.
He wondered then who else had stood where he was now, trying to untie the knot. A smart person would walk the other way before they got burned, or worse. Maybe some already have walked away.
He found himself padding softly across the carpet, skirting the broad couch and sculpted end table as he approached the window. I guess I'm not very smart.
Shepard startled from her reverie as he leaned against the wall and let himself slide down, against the vociferous complaints of his thigh muscles.
"Couldn't sleep?" she asked tentatively, pulling the little headphones out of her ears.
"No," he said, rubbing his eyes. "I tried, but some jerk kept trying to come after me with a cattle-prod." He hesitated, unsure of where to even start. "What are you listening to?" he inquired conversationally.
She fiddled with the small headphones. "Nothing exciting, just some old stuff."
Kaidan frowned curiously. "You sound like you're afraid I'm going to make fun of you or something."
She smirked. "I'm not, not really. It's just... well, they're old friends and they've gotten me through a lot of stuff, and I'm not in the mood to be hassled about my eclectic taste in music right now."
"I wasn't planning on hassling you, I was just curious."
Shepard held up the datapad, and Kaidan recognized it as the one he had seen sitting on her bedside table a few times. It was a civilian model, a multi-media storage unit few years old and which had obviously seen the inside of many a travel bag.
"Some of it is pretty bad, I admit," she said with a lopsided smile. "But some of the stuff on here is from back... back before the Mindoir attack. It was one of the few things I got to keep. I've been through a few datapads since then, but I've managed to hold on to the collection through thick and thin and add to it over the years. So it's... I don't know, one of the few things that's really mine."
"I get it," Kaidan said reassuringly, suddenly understanding her protectiveness. It was sometimes odd what an individual marine could hold as sacred, but Kaidan had long ago stopped being surprised by the impulse. There was virtually no personal space in barracks or on a packed ship; some soldiers stopped caring, but most carved out their own little abstract corners and defended them fiercely.
"You don't use the comm implants to listen?" he asked. Every soldier was equipped with the tiny speakers nestled just inside the ear canal. Alone, they were inert, but they could be set to receive signals from a soldier's hardsuit or omni-tool communication software. Many civilians opted to receive similar implants for the convenience.
She wrinkled her nose as if he'd suggested attacking a firewall with a pointed stick. "Ugh, no. They're for speech, all midrange. They completely kill the bass, and the hard volume clip sucks donkey balls." She indicated the headphones. "These are okay, they'll do when I can't wake the neighbors. Nothing compares to good surround."
Kaidan tapped a knuckle against the wall behind him. "I hope there's soundproofing here."
Shepard snickered. "No one's threatened me yet, so it must be good. I'll give the asari one thing, they know how to make a sound system."
"D'you dance?" he ventured.
She ran a hand self-consciously through her hair. "Sometimes... I mean, I'm not good at it or anything, it's just to move. I used to sneak off to clubs when I could, with friends or sometimes alone, but it was a great way to just cut loose. There's nothing like the right song at the right time, and at the right volume. Makes everything else go away for a while."
Shepard sighed. "I probably can't really get away with it anymore."
Kaidan recognized the real regret in her voice. "This will blow over, give it time," he offered. "Some vid-star will break a fingernail and you'll be old news."
"I hope so," she said.
"Is... Nayar okay?" he asked after a moment.
Shepard nodded. "He lost a lot of blood, but the wounds aren't serious. He should be back on his feet in a day or two. He's a tough one... He wanted me to recommend him for N training."
"Really?" Kaidan said. "He seemed a little hot-headed to me, like he might have issues with aliens."
Shepard shrugged. "Like we don't know anyone like that? He's certainly not a lost cause, he respected Garrus... The right exposure and leadership would steer him straight. Anyway, a little fire is actually something they look for in special forces."
"I always sort of wondered if I'd qualify for that sort of thing," Kaidan mused.
Shepard was silent for a moment. "Do you really want to know?"
The tone of her voice had a hint of warning in it, but he couldn't resist. "Yeah."
"In my opinion, no," she said bluntly. "You think too much."
Kaidan blinked, stung.
"That isn't a disparagement of your skills, your intelligence or your courage," she said, her tone softening. "You're very good at what you do, but more than that, too. Not many people in this line of work take the time to look at all sides of things... that's a rare thing. But it's not a temperament that's suited to doing the Alliance's dirty work."
He smirked. "So instead I'm doing the Citadel's dirty work?"
"I do the Citadel's dirty work," she said quietly. "You follow orders. And you... keep me honest."
"I'm not some standard you have to live up to!" he snapped, then winced at the shortness. He drew a calming breath to still the childish resentment, then bulled ahead. "I can get all high on my horse, but the truth is I don't know the answers, either. I questioned your command in the field. I was..." No excuses. "I crossed the line. Badly."
"I need an officer, not a doormat," she stated.
Kaidan clenched his jaw, then exhaled. "Fine. But not like that. Not... not hurting you. You didn't deserve that."
Shepard said nothing. In a moment of cold realization, Kaidan began to see he wasn't going to get the tongue-lashing he thought he'd earned, nor was she going to forgive him, because she seemed to have convinced herself she did deserve it. A flicker of cold rage burned in his chest.
He scrunched his toes in the thick carpet, trying to quell the ugly feeling. "I seem to have a well-developed ability to occasionally talk without thinking. It isn't usually good for worse than a laugh at my expense," he said ruefully. "But... I still can't believe I..."
He'd had enough. He wanted to be angry at the entire universe for its cruelty, but absolutely nothing he could do would take away what it had done to the woman sitting beside him, the slaves on the ship, or the countless others. And in the noise of it all, they'd both managed to overlook the fact they'd weeded out a dangerous pirate stronghold on the Citadel itself, and saved a whole colony from obliteration.
He reached over and wrapped his arms around Shepard, then dragged her bodily into his lap. For a moment she seemed utterly startled, and Kaidan though she might pull away.
"I'm so sorry, Kye," he murmured, stubbornly gathering her close to him. "I know you didn't want those engineers to die, and I know you're still beating yourself up about it. And my... little moment of self-important pique didn't do any damn thing to help them, or you. I'm sorry."
She squirmed in his grip and wormed her arms around his torso. "It scared me to death when you dropped out," she said, her voice a husky whisper as she favored him with a hug that made his ribs creak. For everything he'd gone through, he knew firsthand what it was like to be on the other side when that transponder signal went out.
He drew his knees up to further envelop her, greedily absorbing the soothing warmth of her body. Outside the windows, the Presidium's curving night sky drifted lazily past.
It was strange to Kaidan to see a hesitant, almost shy side of Shepard, but also wildly endearing. She was so good at putting on masks that there were times when he wondered how much of what he saw was really her, but it also made those rare moments when she opened up all the more meaningful. More than anything, he would have to be patient.
"I'm not... really very good at this, you know," she murmured at length.
"What?" he asked quizzically.
"This," she answered, indicating the both of them with a finger wag.
Kaidan chuckled. "It's not like they handed out a manual that you missed or something, I think everyone just makes it up as they go along."
"S'bad management," she mumbled, nuzzling his neck. A languid hum of arousal rippled through the lassitude of weariness. "You going to be okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I think so," Kaidan said, distantly resenting his aching body. "I might need a few days off, though."
"As long as you need. If there's anything I can do, tell me."
He squeezed her. "You're doing it. What about you? When was the last time you got a decent night's sleep?"
She sighed. "I dunno, probably after the party."
"That really isn't saying much," Kaidan said mildly. Sleep had been the last thing on their minds when they'd stumbled back here, and the night had been flirting with dawn by the time they'd gotten around to the business of actual sleep.
There had been a moment, that morning, when he'd drifted awake to find himself alone in the bed. He'd nursed a wounded sense of disappointment for all of ten seconds when the door to the bathroom opened softly, and Shepard had slipped back under the covers and snuggled up to him from behind, sliding an arm around his torso. It was with slightly sheepish but profound happiness that he'd fallen asleep again.
He thought of that moment often.
She started to say something, then trailed off.
"What?" he prompted.
"Can you do something for me?" she asked quietly.
"Figure out something you want to do, you know, for leave, and let me know."
"I don't care, honestly," she said. "Don't worry about money, just pick something that appeals to you. Tell me when and where and I'll be there, even if I have to break someone's jaw to get them to shut up long enough for me to escape."
Kaidan snickered, because he could picture her carrying out that threat, especially if Ambassador Udina was involved. "I can do that." He shifted his weight, wincing at the stiffening of his muscles.
"Should probably go back to bed before you congeal," she murmured.
"In a minute," he replied. "And only if you come with me."
"... in a minute."
Many thanks to my tireless beta, Lossefalme.
And thank you to my readers and reviewers for your time and support! You make this a great place to experiment and just have fun.