Standing on the balcony of his parent's house, Kaidan absently sipped his scotch as he contemplated the events of the evening. Leaning on the balcony railing, he tried once again to decide if he actually liked the fiery alcohol; a taste of his father's that he'd never quite acquired despite repeated attempts.
The night was cool, humid but not uncomfortable. The smell of the sea drifted along the breeze, and high up, wispy clouds scudded across the starry sky. The house was built into a slope, and the back balcony stood nearly a story off the ground over the yard, where it faced the Pacific Ocean. Decades ago, there had been more of this rocky coastline, but the rising sea had claimed a quarter kilometer of land and the coastal inhabitants had been forced to tear down their homes, leaving the suburb to reorganize itself around the new waterline.
There was a hiss from the balcony door's well-oiled tracks, and Kaidan looked around to see his brother step onto the balcony behind him.
"At ease, soldier," Andres said with a wry smile.
Andres Alenko stood a scant few inches taller than Kaidan, with a leaner build and his father's hawkish eyes. Black hair hung down to his shoulders, brushed back and framing his square face in the illusion of casual negligence. With long fingers he fished in the pocket of his loose shirt and withdrew a thin box of brushed steel, flipping it open and producing a hand-rolled cigarette. Kaidan watched with a raised eyebrow as the metal case vanished back into a pocket and was replaced with a lighter. A bloom of orange flame lit up Andres' face.
"Didn't you quit?" Kaidan asked with a tone of mild reproach.
Andres smirked at the predictable question. "Yeah," his brother said, exhaling. A beatific expression crossed his face as the smoke rolled out of his mouth. "But after all that between Mom and Dad, I think I can excuse myself a little indulgence."
Kaidan idly swirled the amber liquid around in the bottom of his glass. There was a strangeness to being home, as if everything he'd been through in the past few months had changed the texture of things. It was still home, but recent events only added to the disjointed feeling that grew with passing years.
The knowledge he'd gained on board the Normandy was starting to feel poisonous. The bulk of all the things he couldn't tell his family seemed to fill up the room until it was stifling. For a long few hours he contemplated breaking the oath of silence and telling his father the truth of the Reapers. He argued with himself at length, alternately that his father deserved to know, or that his father deserved to live out his life in peace not knowing about the genocidal monsters that lurked in the nothingness beyond the galaxy's edge.
In the end, Kaidan didn't so much decide as avoid deciding. It was approaching midnight, and everyone else had retired, leaving the two brothers alone.
"I guess... it's not like we couldn't have seen something like this coming," Kaidan mused. "But if I hear 'it's not your fault' one more time, I think I'll scream."
Andres smirked. "Well, it isn't," he remarked, drawing a long pull from his cigarette. "It's mine."
His brother shrugged. "You've heard them, arguing about nothing. Arguing even when they agree. Sometimes I think they've been at it so long it's all they know how to do. It's ridiculous, feeling like the adult in the room when they start up. You're not around much anymore, but it's getting worse."
"I'd always hoped it would get better once I- well, we, got out of their hair."
"Me too. I had dinner with Dad a couple of months ago, and I finally just got tired of his complaints. I told him point-blank what I thought. Mom and Dad, they're shortening each other's lives going on like this."
"That must have gone over well," Kaidan said with thin sarcasm.
"I wasn't any fun," Andres agreed. "I didn't think anything would come of it, but I must've hit a nerve."
Kaidan leaned against the railing, absorbing the evening. "I guess... it doesn't change a lot for us," he ventured.
"I'm trying to see it as a good thing," Andres said. "At least it's a mutual agreement, right? They'll get some space, and maybe... Oh, I don't know. But it isn't, y'know."
Kaidan scowled at his brother warningly.
"I know, but I know you," Andres replied coolly, "and the neighborhood freak will try to blame himself anyway. It isn't us, Kaid, it's them. We could have been furniture and they'd still be in the same place today."
An old hurt many years dead knifed Kaidan's chest. He didn't know whether to hug his sibling or sock him one in the teeth, a common theme between them that even the passage of years hadn't seemed to dull. But in the often contentious relationship marked by periods of mutual jealousy and competition for the attention of an absent father, when outside forces threatened, things crystallized. It had taken the perspective of time and distance to properly appreciate how many times Andres had stood up for his introverted, occasionally weird little brother.
Childhood insults aside, Kaidan was forced to admit his brother was right. Since hearing their parents' decision, old fears had resurfaced. The tension, arguments and uncertainty that his biotic mutation had spawned over the years still weighed on him, and a stubborn voice inevitably asked the deadly question- would they have been better off without him?
Kaidan stayed silent, listening to the nighttime sounds of suburbia as the smoke from his brother's cigarette eddied in the breeze. He sensed that Andres shared his feeling of ambivalence, and there was a measure of comfort in that. And it was good to hear his brother say that he didn't hold Kaidan in some way responsible for their parents' issues. He swallowed the leftover scotch and tried not to wince as it flamed down his throat.
"So, what about you, anyone in the picture?" Andres asked suddenly, flicking ash over the side of the balcony.
Kaidan rolled his eyes. "Oh, for the love of... Don't you start."
Andres laughed, waving a hand expansively. "C'mon now, I went out first and took the heat off, had kids and everything."
"You want a commendation from the Admiralty?"
"Damn right I do, getting up at 3am every night. But unlike Mom, I'm just curious. So?"
Kaidan shifted. "Maybe," he said evasively.
"What kind of answer is that?"
"Just that," Kaidan replied. "Yes, there's someone, but I don't exactly know what it is yet."
"You know, it helps if you go actually talk to them and let them know you're alive instead of admiring them from across the room," Andres teased.
"That isn't-" Kaidan flared, then shut his mouth. Andres knew exactly how to needle him, and it was hard not to fall into old habits.
But being around his father again had sharply renewed Kaidan's awareness of the rules he'd broken, and a little cloud of imagined disapproval seemed to follow him around the house. Taking a bit of flak for past errors of inaction was the price he could pay for not having to explain the fact that he'd slept with his commanding officer.
Andres chuckled. "Well, best of luck, then. I know it's no picnic out there in uniform, but you deserve some good mojo."
Taken slightly off-guard by the unadorned good wishes, Kaidan looked at his brother sidelong for a moment, searching for sarcasm.
"There are scarier things out there than lonely Saturday nights," he said eventually.
"Yeah, I heard you talking to Dad," Andres replied, "and I heard all the things you didn't say."
"I can't... Anyway, I don't think it would do anyone any good to explain in gory detail how I almost got my ticket punched a couple of times."
Andres looked at him for a long moment. "You'd think I'd be used to military secrets," he grouched irritably, then stubbed out the cigarette on the metal balcony railing and scrubbed the mark away with his palm before turning to face Kaidan. "Just tell me one thing; is any of it headed this way?"
Kaidan furrowed his brow. "I don't think so. I can't say for sure, but Earth shouldn't be in any immediate danger."
"'Immediate'...," Andres said with a wry twist of his mouth.
Kaidan shrugged. "I'm not going to say I know when I don't. I work with someone whose entire family was wiped out by pirates; I guess it does funny things to your illusions of security. But the relays are bottlenecks that work to our favor. Anyone who wants to hit Earth has to get through Arcturus first, unless they want to factor in thousands of years of transit time."
"That relay was a can of worms, wasn't it?" Andres mused. "To think, we could have just kept the door shut on all of it."
"I suppose so, yeah."
"Guess all we can do now is live with it." His brother raked his hand through his unruly hair. His haircut, or lack thereof, was a source of longstanding irritation for their father, and Kaidan was fairly sure Andres kept it that way just to spite the Alenko patriarch.
"We're not alone out there," Kaidan pointed out.
"What, the aliens?" Andres said with distaste. Sometimes Kaidan imagined all the dislike of aliens he was supposed to have gotten thanks to Brain Camp had somehow gotten deflected to his sibling. But on Earth, such feelings were hardly unusual. Andres had inherited his father's practicality, and the presence of his children naturally turned his thoughts inward.
"Yes, the aliens," Kaidan replied. "They're good people, a lot of them. And if nothing else, they have the same sense of self-preservation that we do. Their Council isn't perfect, but we've earned a place on it now. They can't ignore us anymore."
Andres grinned suddenly and looped an arm around Kaidan's neck, dragging him into an amiable half-headlock. "And my little brother, mister galactic hero. The Star of Terra, man! I can't wait for the ceremony. They're going to be able to see Dad's head explode from orbit."
Kaidan laughed and twisted easily out of the hold, balancing the glass still in his hand. Thanks to gene therapy and training, he was noticeably stronger than his brother, but took pains not to draw attention to it.
"As long as I don't have to listen to you whine about my getting a shinier toy than you..." Kaidan said, giving Andres a shove.
"Ah, you can have it," Andres said with wave of his hand. "This way I have the story and the awesome double-takes at the supermarket, but none of the uniforms and saluting. Anyway, forget about aliens and robots, I've got my hands full changing diapers."
"Now that's heroism."
Kaidan resented the fact he couldn't be there when Shepard landed on Earth. The decision was logical, since her sudden celebrity status made it impossible for her to arrive unnoticed, and neither of them wanted to draw attention to their relationship at this point. But he still would have liked to have seen her expression, shared the experience of returning to the cradle of humanity.
It had taken Kaidan a long time to decide on what to do for their little vacation. He'd grown mildly annoyed that Shepard had left the entire thing in his lap, if only because she hadn't left any hint as to what she was interested in, and Kaidan absolutely wanted to pick something she'd enjoy. So he was left to guess, trying to take her words about not caring to heart while sifting through an endless supply of choices.
In the end, Kaidan let his desire to see home win out. He'd had his fill of alien worlds for a while, hospitable and otherwise, and hoped Shepard might feel the same. Earth would still be somewhat alien to her, but at least it was full of friendly faces- the very people they'd fought so hard to protect.
Shepard was to meet the Admiral of the First Fleet, the homeguard of the Sol system, and so it worked out that Kaidan could take a few days to visit his family, then travel to his chosen destination and spend a day to himself before Shepard joined him there.
The chalet sat in a valley nestled in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, a stately five-story construction in a location easily accessible only since the advent of mass effect drives. It sat on a lake carved out by an ancient glacier long since vanished, framed on all sides by old growth forest and austere mountain peaks. The cost of the place still made Kaidan a little faint, but it promised solitude, peace and natural beauty, and an hour's flight by gravcar would take them down to Vancouver if they were in the mood for something more cosmopolitan.
The suite he'd rented was generously large, with a kitchen and living room. The walls and furnishing were rich, dark wood, giving the room a warmth that was a welcome change from the cold metal perfection of the Normandy and the Citadel. Wide bay windows looked out onto a balcony and a splendid view of the valley and its turquoise lake. Still, Kaidan was not about to abandon certain comforts, and so the rooms deceptively rustic fixtures concealed a large holo audio-visual terminal with a good satellite connection to the outside world.
Kaidan was pleased with his choice, but still fretted about Shepard's approval. Even after arriving, he found himself restless. Something itched at his mind since he'd left the Normandy, and he finally realized it was that he'd left his armor behind. He'd packed his biotic amp out of habit, then lingered over the pistol for a while in indecision before finally stuffing it into his bag as well. He tried not to think about why he felt better for doing so.
Dark things, dark thoughts crept out of the stillness. On board ship, the drone of duty could be relied upon to drown out distractions, but here, they stood out starkly against the quiet of the place. The scalding sun of Virmire, the click of a rachni's chitinous hide, the dripping heat of the thorian's lair skulked in the corners of his mind.
It had seemed to amplify since he'd visited his family, rearing up in stark contrast to what he used to consider normal. He told himself that, like Brain Camp, these things would pass. Time would dull the edges of them, or, he reflected in a moment of cynicism, replace them with new monsters. But it was the first time in his life he honestly felt better for being armed, despite the fact that, rationally, the likelihood it would actually be necessary was slim at best. He wasn't sure he was particularly happy with this new sensation.
Solitude had never bothered him; he usually found it restful. But unable to settle himself, he wiled away his day alone amusing himself in the hurly-burly of Earth's Internet.
The vast network known as the Extranet linked Earth and her colonies to the Citadel's galactic hubs, but off-world sites would only update their local mirror as often as the host could afford a tight-beam comms burst. Major corporations might update daily or even hourly, but smaller sites would sometimes have to wait a week or a month between updates. Such delays often spawned franchises and sub-cultures local to the given station or planet.
On the Citadel, the local network was filled with alien sites, which were interesting but culturally impenetrable. Most of the human sites hosted locally at the Citadel were dry corporate affairs, and what underground there was only existed in the larval stage.
But on Earth itself, millions of noisy, opinionated humans jostled for attention and entertainment in real-time. It was a mishmash of cultural and linguistic collisions catering to every conceivable human interest, spinning off into endless regressions of sub-culture on sub-culture. Sprawling virtual worlds competed for subscribers, some incredibly complex, others nothing more than a never-ending deathmatch across a fractally-generated wasteland. It was rare that a game had to be owned locally, or indeed could be, instead they were fully hosted on the owning company's servers, and a user simply had to log in from any computer terminal to play.
Wherever he happened to be in space, Kaidan maintained certain Earth-based accounts, even if it just meant pinging them often enough to avoid being deleted for inactivity. In his little corner of this vast world, Kaidan was at home. He caught up with old friends, people he'd never met in person but with whom he'd shared long hours of gaming, conversation and hacking. He knew them by their tag lines, animated avatars and custom-made game characters. Over the years, they'd dropped little fragments of their real lives as they grew. One had kids and was a teacher. Another was a lead designer for a company that made virtual assets for game worlds. A third spent three years backpacking around the world, recording his experiences, before breaking his leg in a skiing accident and returning home.
Several of his online friends knew he was in the military, but it was just his job. Among them Kaidan was neither the smartest nor the most successful, but he was one of the gang, his biotic mutation meaningless in a world ruled by brains and the speed of your fingers. He sometimes wondered what they would think if they ever found out who he really was. But that never really mattered to him- they had been friends through the darkest time of his life, when the distance of anonymity had been the armor that had given him the courage to reach out to other people again.
Shepard had managed to catch a late-night flight on an Alliance transport, and with the travel time from the airport, that meant she would be arriving late in the night. When he finally went to bed, Kaidan slept fitfully, and it was well past midnight when he finally heard movement in the room. Shepard didn't turn on any light, but his heartbeat accelerated happily when he saw her familiar silhouette drop some clothes over the back of a chair and approach the bed.
Kaidan murmured a sleepy welcome when she climbed under the covers, gathering her close as she made some half-heard comment about Admirals and flight times before finally slipping into contented sleep.
There was no way to tell how much time had passed when Kaidan was suddenly jolted awake. It was still dark. He pushed himself up on his elbows and peered quizzically at the door, trying to force his brain into motion. It took him a sluggish few seconds to process that Shepard was no longer in the bed, and her abrupt departure from the room had left the door swinging slowly shut.
Confused, he clambered to his feet and padded to the door, tentatively pushing the door open on silent hinges.
Shepard was across the room, standing near the bay window, outlined in the glow of moonlight. Kaidan could hear her breath hissing between her teeth, see her shoulders shake. A knot of worry in his stomach, he crossed the room in quick strides and reached out to her.
Shepard startled violently, spinning around and backing into the window frame with a bang. Her eyes were round and wide, stark in the darkness. Kaidan felt the crawl of dark energy in the air.
"Whoa," he exclaimed, stepping back and spreading his hands. "It's me!"
Shepard drew a harsh breath, putting the heel of her hand to her temple and closing her eyes as she leaned heavily against the wall.
"Are you okay?" Kaidan asked. He edged forward but stopped again when she flinched.
"I... Yes," she said quietly, grunting a frustrated huff. "Sorry."
"Is it the beacon nightmare?" he ventured.
She nodded stiffly, rubbing her eyes.
"I didn't realize it was still this bad."
"It... isn't, really," she said after a moment, lowering her hand. "Liara's mind tricks have helped, but sometimes it just comes out of nowhere." She shook herself, then looked around with deliberation, taking in the dark room. "And I wake up to a strange place, completely disoriented... Just gave me a really good spook."
Uncertain, Kaidan simply offered an outstretched hand. Shepard hesitated for a second, then went to him and slipped her arms around his neck. He smiled slightly at the little spark of static that snapped between them as she did, feeling the quiver of tension in her body as he wrapped his arms around her.
She sighed, sounding irritated with herself. "I'm sorry I woke you up," she said.
"Don't be," Kaidan said firmly. "Look, if this happens again when I'm around and I don't wake up, promise me you'll get me up."
"I don't want to bother you-"
"Please? It bothers me a hell of a lot more that you have to deal with this alone all the time."
"It'll go away," she said, as much to herself as to him. "It just makes me jumpy for a little while."
"I'm sure it will, but in the meantime..." He steered Shepard to the couch and sat her down. "I'll be back in a sec."
Shaking off the grogginess, Kaidan went to the kitchen and re-emerged a minute later with a mug of warmed milk, which he handed to Shepard.
"Seriously?" she said, accepting the proffered cup with a lopsided smirk.
"Yeah," Kaidan replied, a little defensively. "There's nothing better for bad nights."
"Okay..." She chuckled faintly as he sat down beside her. He slouched comfortably on the sofa, stretched his arms out over the back and put his feet up on the wooden coffee table. He absently flexed his toes, and a loud snap popped from one of the joints of his foot.
"Ow," he murmured, flexing the maligned digit.
"I hope you didn't need that for anything," Shepard murmured, cupping the warm mug. She shifted to lean against his side, drawing her knees up in front of her.
"Luckily I have nine more," he said. "Anyway, I'm nowhere near as bad as my brother."
"Is he a knuckle-cracker?"
"Everything. I swear, he and his wife crack each other for fun. It's their little couple thing."
Shepard snickered. "Kinky."
Kaidan made a face. "Eeh, I didn't need to think about it that way..."
"After all the wild news stories, your family must have been happy to see you," Shepard said. "How are they?"
He sighed quietly. He wasn't sure he wanted to get into it all now. "They're... fine, my brother's kids are growing like weeds, and my mom thinks they're the greatest thing in the universe."
His nephew was old enough now to know about biotics, and had spent considerable effort pestering his uncle into showing it off. Kaidan found he wasn't particularly comfortable with the attention. In his mind, his abilities had become so closely associated with violence that he instinctively balked at using them around a child. Luckily, the three year-old was enraptured by only a small display, and his unrestrained, round-eyed wonder had an infectious quality Kaidan couldn't help but be warmed by.
Shepard must have heard the hesitant undertone in his voice, because she didn't press further. But he decided to get it over with anyway.
"My parents announced that... they're separating," Kaidan said, tasting the words as they came out. "My mom is moving out."
"What?" She twisted around to look at him. "Oh my god, Kaidan..."
Kaidan shook his head. "It's not like that, it wasn't a big shock. Something like this has been in the wind for years."
Shepard's eyes were wide with sympathy. "But what a thing to come home to."
"I dunno," he said, looking across the moonlit room. "It wasn't a big drama or anything, just a mutual decision. I'm still trying to decide how I feel about it. I mean, I just want them to be happy. In a way, it might be the best thing. Andres and I have our own lives now..."
"But it's still weird?"
Kaidan absently scratched the budding stubble on his jaw. "Yeah, that's a word for it."
"I wasn't trying to be flippant," Shepard said quietly.
"I know. I wasn't being sarcastic, it is weird. Like I feel bad for not feeling worse about it. I dunno, it hasn't quite sunk in yet."
A sense of peace settled over Kaidan. He hadn't been sure how to tell her, or even if he wanted to, but now that it was done and out of the way, something in him relaxed. Even the haunting noise of violent memories seemed to have diminished. He loved his family, but he felt overwhelmed by the enormity of trying to adequately articulate to them what he'd been through. He wasn't even sure he ever could. But with Shepard, he didn't have to. She'd been there, she understood.
She probably had a gun in her bag, too.
"I always sort of wondered, after the fact, how my mutation must have affected my parents," Shepard said after a while. "And now I know, I mean, they had Cerberus harassing them on top of it all."
Not for the first time, Kaidan was taken aback by her ability to pinpoint the source of his malaise, even obliquely. It didn't happen all the time, but sometimes it was eerie.
"Do you think that's why they went to Mindoir?" he ventured.
"It could be," she replied. "It would make a certain amount of sense, wouldn't it? My mother made a big deal about the new beginning thing, it just never occurred to me what she might have been leaving behind."
Kaidan had a chilly feeling that a few wrong turns down that alley of thought could lead to some very dark places. But her expression was calm and thoughtful as she sipped her drink.
"If you think I can get single-minded about a goal, you should have seen her," Shepard mused. "I think she could make plants grow by standing on the porch and glaring at them."
Kaidan chuckled. "At least you come by it honestly."
"She became the go-to woman to get projects through red tape. The councilors started to get a little wild-eyed when she showed up at council meetings, because they knew they'd have to justify themselves, and Mom could smell political bullshit from miles away."
Kaidan had no trouble whatsoever picturing an older Shepard verbally skinning a roomful of wilting bureaucrats, wearing the same expression of no-nonsense determination that her daughter wielded so skillfully.
"I should go back and visit my waterfall," she said with a small smile.
"You have a waterfall?" Kaidan asked mildly.
"In the forest that bordered our farmland. I found it when I was eleven. One day went much farther into the woods than I ever had before, and there it was. Totally random, but I still have the GPS coordinates memorized."
"See, now that's the kind of thing I used to dream about," Kaidan said wistfully. "To be the first human to discover something in space."
"It's just a small waterfall," Shepard laughed, "I doubt it'll come in under the list of great discoveries."
Kaidan shrugged. "Doesn't matter, you were still the first human to see it."
"And probably the only one who still knows where it is," Shepard mused. "The forests on Mindoir are pretty dense. The root systems stick up out of the ground like... what are those swamp trees? I know the name, but..."
"Yeah, mangroves. The whole forest floor is this giant knot of roots, so around the waterfall it looks like the trees themselves yanked up the rocks to let the water through. And above it is the only break in the canopy for kilometers around."
"I don't know much about the ecology of Mindoir," Kaidan admitted, somewhat guiltily. He'd spent time reading about the colony, but had gotten caught up in the politics, technology, and pirate attack.
"The forests don't cover a whole continent like they used to on Earth," Shepard explained. "They're small and localized; only a few hundred clicks square at most. It was a big mystery for a few years, we couldn't figure out why they grew in one area but not in others that seemed perfectly suitable. They just grow out to an arbitrary distance, then stop."
"Underground water sources maybe?" Kaidan suggested.
"That's part of it, but some researchers finally discovered that the trees within an area are all linked through root systems and throughout the canopy. All the trees in the mass share the same genes."
Kaidan blinked. "... wait, so each forest is an individual?"
"Something like that," Shepard nodded. "It gets weirder, because the internal structure of individual trees can vary from each other, as if they do different jobs for the whole, like cells. And some of them are loaded with conductive proteins... Like neurons."
A thrill of goosebumps ran through Kaidan as he contemplated the myriad possibilities in that statement. A giant web of neurological material stretched out over miles, in essence a macro-scale brain...
Shepard yawned before continuing. "No one's really sure - the researchers aren't even sure where to start. The forests live at such a long timescale that if they are actually intelligent in some capacity, it might take them twenty years to say hello."
"In pollen?" Kaidan said with a grin.
"There's a diplomatic knot for you," Shepard chuckled. "I wonder how you explain to someone that you're allergic to their language. But needless to say, there's a moratorium on clearing the forests. Luckily there's plenty of space for everyone so far."
Shepard contemplated the newly empty mug. "This was good," she said, sleepiness creeping into her voice.
"That's because it's actually seen the inside of a real cow," Kaidan replied.
He plucked the mug from her hand and set in on the coffee table, then wormed his arms around her back and under her knees. She laughed lightly and grabbed him around the neck as he picked her up, carefully skirting the furniture in the dark room as he made his way back into the bedroom.
Shepard had once said she rarely slept after the beacon nightmares, but Kaidan thought that with a bit of effort, the unpleasant routine could be broken.
Sometime in the morning, Kaidan managed to slip out of bed without waking Shepard. No mean feat, as she seemed to be a light sleeper, but the late night worked in his favor and she stayed buried in the thick comforter as he scooped up some pants and padded out of the room.
He had taken advantage of being home to indulge in some of the things he missed while packed away on a ship for months on end, especially fresh food and good beer. He'd provisioned the suite's kitchen with eggs, milk, bacon, pancake mix, and other sundries, and now his stomach growled in hungry anticipation for a spread of food that had never been freeze-dried and reconstituted by a machine.
Fishing about in the kitchen for frying pans and a spatula brought back fond memories of the Saturday morning breakfasts when his father was home; an elaborate ritual carried out with military precision, in which the Alenko patriarch tamed the boisterous hooliganism of his two boys with the promise of a mountain of food.
Trying to marshal skills grown rusty from disuse, Kaidan set about making a memorable breakfast, determined to make everything perfect. By the time he was well into cooking, Shepard appeared at the door.
"You're full of surprises," she said with a sly smile.
Kaidan was suddenly struck by the sheer surreality of it, to have her just standing there. Completely divorced from the military trappings in which he'd always known her, through all the moments too terrible, too amazing to believe possible, to here; the disheveled and tired-looking but bemused woman leaning against the door-frame. It was hard not to stare at her, wearing only a thin shirt and shorts.
"Don't get too excited," Kaidan replied modestly, "this is about the extent of my skills."
She smoothed her hair back absently. "It's better than I could do. If it doesn't have 'auto' somewhere in the instructions, I'm pretty much lost."
"It's hard to screw up pancakes."
Shepard rolled her eyes. "I'm sure I'd find a way."
Kaidan wormed the spatula under a pancake and flipped it neatly over. "I spent too much time in front of a terminal to pick up much, but my dad was always of the opinion that I didn't get to call myself a man until I could fry a decent strip of bacon."
"Wisdom for the ages," she said with a sage nod. She wandered over, arms folded as she looked over the various foodstuffs spread out over the wooden counter top. "What's this?"
He glanced over from turning the strips of bacon to see her looking at his real prize, an aluminum can. "Real maple syrup," he said cheerfully.
Shepard picked up the can and examined the colorful label curiously. On it was a painting of a horse-drawn sleigh among a stand of leafless trees, each fitted with a small tap and bucket.
"That's like, tree sap, right?" she asked.
"Boiled down, but... well, yes," Kaidan said, prickling at the dubious hint in her voice. "It's good."
The species of tree from which the syrup came had suffered in the shifting climates of global warming, but a few determined people had managed to make sure it didn't die out, planting and replanting stands of the trees until they found a sub-climate that suited them. Few people had the patience for the slow and seasonal practice of harvesting the sap, but there were enough traditionalists left to keep it alive.
Even on the other side of the country from where it was made, the expensive syrup was an integral part of his father's breakfasts, and Kaidan was hardly inclined to abandon it in favor of the sub-par concoctions of cane sugar or corn syrup some uncivilized folk considered just as good.
Shepard smirked and put the can down. Set in the corner under the upper cupboards, there was a brushed steel contraption that purported to be a coffee machine. Kaidan had fussed with it for a few minutes, convinced it would either make toast or eat his fingers if he opened the wrong part, but finally it surrendered its secrets and deigned to grind some beans.
She made a small plaintive noise upon seeing the carafe empty.
"Just push the button," Kaidan said mildly. "I wasn't sure when you were getting up."
Once started, the machine gurgled obligingly. "And the Lord said, let there be java..." Shepard murmured with satisfaction.
Kaidan reached out with his free hand and looped his arm around Shepard's waist. "I'm fun and all, but I know better than to stand between an N7 and her morning coffee."
"Smart man," she murmured, leaning against him. She yawned wide, curling the tip of her tongue like a cat. "Do I have time to grab a shower?"
"Yeah, sure," Kaidan said. "You could have stayed in bed, you know."
"And sleep through that smell? Unlikely." Shepard favored the pan of bacon with a lascivious leer. She disengaged herself from his arm and slipped around behind him, trailing a hand along his back as she passed. "I'll be back in a few.... I have a diplomatic detente with kitchens- I stay out of them, and they don't catch fire. It's a good arrangement."
"I sense a story there," Kaidan said with a grin.
"Tales of a misspent youth..." Shepard replied airily as she vanished around the corner.
He suppressed the urge to drop everything and follow her to the shower and stuck to his task, which, he thought with pride, was shaping up nicely. In a few minutes he was able to heap his creations onto plates, then poured coffee and tracked down a bottle opener to punch holes in the maple syrup can.
The dining area was a simple four-seat table in a space adjacent to the living room, and when Kaidan emerged from the kitchen, Shepard was across the room by the bay windows, running a brush through her damp hair as she looked out. It was drizzling outside, and clouds obscured the mountaintops, drifting lazily all the way down to the lake, cloaking the valley in mist.
"I wish the weather was better," Kaidan remarked as he set the food out on the table.
"I like it," Shepard said. "It's... green, alive. Plus I can go outside and not melt."
He smirked, remembering the planets on which severely acidic rain was the norm. "I suppose that counts for something."
"Do you need a hand?" she asked as she crossed to the table.
"No, I got it." Kaidan handed her a mug of coffee, then waved toward the chair. "Have a seat."
He retrieved the last of the food from the kitchen and set it out with satisfaction. Shepard wore an appreciative grin as they shared it out between them.
"You never got back to me about how much I owe you for my half of this," Shepard said around a mouthful of bacon.
"Don't worry about it," he said in a sudden snap of decision.
She frowned. "Come on, I can't let you-"
"Yes you can." Kaidan put his chin in his palm and looked at her levelly across the table. "When was the last time you let someone spoil the hell out of you?"
For a moment, Shepard seemed utterly floored by the otherwise innocent question, some indeterminate conflict flickering across her face. She started to say something, then stopped.
"You're not going to let me win this one, are you?" she said finally, a slight scowl creasing her brow.
Kaidan fought the idiotically strong urge to fold under that stare. "Nope."
After some hesitation, the frown faded into a small smile as she seemed to relent. "Well... okay."
Idly, Kaidan imagined he could hear his bank account make strangling noises. But he put the feeling firmly out of his head- he had few material needs, no family to support, and a bonus on the way. He was never reckless with his money, maybe, he decided then, to a fault. Shepard's expression in that fleeting moment had been well worth the price.
Shepard helped herself to a few more pancakes and then scooped up the syrup can. "You're right, this is really good," she said as she drizzled the amber liquid onto her food.
"I'm glad you like it," he said with sincerity, warmed by her appreciation of something privately special to him. "It's like vanilla- you can get artificial stuff, but no matter how hard they try, it isn't the same."
She swiped a stray drop off the rim of the can, then licked her finger. "If it's expensive, you better hide it well, or else I might succumb to the temptation to start swilling it straight from the can," she said mischievously.
"You wouldn't be the first," Kaidan laughed.
She contemplated a forkful of syrup-soaked pancake. "You know what's really nice?"
Kaidan raised an inquiring eyebrow.
"Not having to feel so self-conscious about the fact that I eat so damn much," she said.
He chuckled. Shepard was smiling, but there was an undertone of seriousness to her voice.
"When I was training, I didn't really notice it as much because all of us were the same," she went on. "But when I got to Terra Nova... I don't know, I wanted to feel normal, fit in with the normal world. But biotic appetites don't always make a good first impression on dates, you know?"
Kaidan nodded understandingly. "Yeah, there were more than a few times when I left somewhere hungry because I didn't feel like dealing with it. I guess I'm lucky my mom never batted an eyelash at what I ate. When I got home after Brain Camp, I... Well, I was pretty much intent on hiding in my room for the rest of my life."
"I'm glad you didn't," Shepard said, and reached across the table to give his hand a sympathetic squeeze.
"Me too," he agreed.
"Your brother is a few years older than you, right?"
"Man, two teenage boys, one with a biotic metabolism, and your dad away all the time? Your mom must be a superhero in the kitchen. Never mind everywhere else."
Kaidan nodded ruefully. "I think she'd approve of that title. Andres and I are close enough in age that everything was a competition, so we didn't exactly go out of our way to make her life easy."
Shepard shot him a knowing smirk. "My parents had the advantage of a whole big planet for me to run around on. Once I had my GPS, I could be relied upon to stay out of Mom's hair for hours."
For a time they traded stories of childhood indiscretions, skinned knees and adventure. It was easy; the times that for both of them marked an idyllic period before the darker intrusions of later years. Still, Kaidan was heartened by how easily the two of them could talk about biotics. For most of his life, it had been something he had kept to himself, unwilling to risk alienating those around him with things they didn't understand. He had undertaken no further training since Brain Camp, and biotics were still so rare in the Alliance Military that he'd never had the chance to really develop a friendship with someone who shared his peculiar mutation.
At length, having declared victory over the hearty breakfast, Shepard pushed her chair back and slouched comfortably. "So what's the plan?"
"I... don't really have one," Kaidan admitted. The rainy weather had put somewhat of a damper on his ideas for hiking in the woods, and he was still tired from the disrupted sleep.
She raised an eyebrow. "You mean to tell me we may be forced to sit around all day and watch vids?"
"Because that sounds fantastic. Can we start right away?"
Shepard got up and walked into the living room, peering into the wood cabinetry. In short order, she'd ferreted out the control console and the holo screen leaped to life, filling the wall. Menus for the various on-demand vid services bloomed.
"Sweet," she purred approvingly. "Entertain me!" she ordered the glowing display, then stepped straight over the coffee table and flopped onto the over-stuffed couch.
Kaidan laughed quietly as he stood up and began collecting plates.
"What are you doing?" she asked in an arch tone.
"Cleaning up?" Kaidan replied.
"Later," she declared imperiously. "I have some serious loafing to do, marine, and I expect you to back me up. Get over here!"
He considered arguing, but quickly decided that if there was ever a time he could safely take a break from his usual meticulous habits, this was it. Who was he to argue with his CO? He put the plates down with a grin. "Aye aye, ma'am."
He ambled over and sat down next to Shepard, who made a happy noise and curled up against him as she fiddled with the menus on the holo-screen. Kaidan stretched contentedly and dropped an arm around her.
"Much better," Shepard said, then her tone softened. "You know I wasn't actually expecting you to pay for this, right?"
"Yeah, I know."
"Good, because you don't have to try to impress me any more, you did that already. Repeatedly, I might add."
Kaidan felt a self-conscious warmth creep up his face. "Well, it doesn't mean I'm not going to try and make you happy," he said after a moment.
"Fair enough," she said with a small laugh, then hugged him. "Thank you. Breakfast was wonderful."
As Shepard continued to flip channels on the giant screen, Kaidan made a point of fixing the moment in his heart. Right then, their vacation was full of promise. But it would pass too fast, he knew already. If he wasn't careful, he would blink and it would be over, and they'd be back out there, maybe together... and maybe not.
Kaidan wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled her neck. Brief as the time would be, he planned to squeeze every second from it.