Oh, Kaidan. Your outburst on Horizon broke my Shepard's (and my) heart, and now you force me to write fanfiction to justify why you were so mean. Unfortunately, I don't think everything he went through can be fixed in one story, so there will be a sequel to this fic soon making things a little better. :) This takes place in my "canon" Mass Effect 'verse and links to all my other ME stories, especially "Days or Decades."
Thanks so much to HeavenlyMuse for being the best beta ever, and to Lywnna for helping me so much and letting me bounce ideas off her. Thanks for reading!
Kaidan Alenko still couldn't believe he was actually doing this.
After two years of mourning, two years where he'd tried and failed to get over her, Irien Shepard had strolled back into his life two days ago and acted like she'd never left. If it had been anyone else who'd shown up to save him, he would have been more grateful – after all, she did prevent the Collectors from taking both himself and the rest of the colonists from Horizon.
But it was her, and he couldn't be happy because he was too pissed off at her. And himself.
She'd been dead for two years. Or so he'd thought.
"Clinically dead," whatever that means, he thought, annoyed. Cerberus kept her alive after the Normandy was destroyed, and now she thinks she owes them for it. He shook his head, sighing to himself. He'd thought she was loyal to the Alliance, and him. But when they'd brought her back, she runs off to her next mission without a thought about the rest of us.
So why was it that he immediately agreed to meet with her when she'd emailed him yesterday asking to talk?
Because you're an idiot, he scolded himself, motioning to the bartender for another drink. He was sitting at a small bar on the Citadel, where he'd returned to report to Anderson about what had happened the day before yesterday on Horizon.
At the moment, he was having a drink, trying to calm his nerves, and waiting for Irien to show up. There weren't many people there, fortunately, since he was hoping they wouldn't be recognized. Despite the threat of someone realizing who they were, he'd told her to meet him in a public place; just in case he couldn't stay as strong as he was yesterday, he would still be able to leave. Even though she's working with Cerberus, you can't let go of what you had. What you thought you had, he corrected himself.
He'd never managed to completely get over her, even in the two years of thinking – apparently incorrectly – that she was dead, and her showing up without warning didn't do him any favors. He wondered if she'd been able to tell that he was shaking during their entire conversation. Whether that was from anger or fear or nerves, he didn't know, though it was probably a combination of the three.
Lately, it wasn't often that he felt any emotion other than sadness and depression and grief and loss and guilt, so much guilt at getting on that escape pod and leaving her behind to die. Or not, as the case may be. But the anger he was going through right now wasn't much better.
He glanced to his left to see her standing there, and he barely recognized her at first. She looked... different, somehow. She didn't look like she'd aged a day, but he still felt like something had still changed about her. What it was, though, he had no idea. Her blonde hair was still parted slightly off-center, her eyes still as vibrant and green, her features still as beautiful as he remembered.
He was surprised to see that she wasn't wearing armor, just a jacket over a standard Alliance casual dress uniform like the one she used to wear around the ship – and he stopped that memory before it went too far and made him too nostalgic. I have to stop living in the past, he thought, giving himself a mental shake. Thinking about her in casual dress isn't going to help there.
Forcing himself to think logically, he knew that any difference was because he hadn't seen her in person in two years. He'd been clinging to an extremely worn picture that was always, even now, in his pocket, just in case he needed to see her again, but people could change a lot in that amount of time.
However, she definitely seemed more frazzled than he could ever remember her being. Even when they'd fought Saren and Sovereign together, he remembered glancing over at her in worry several times, convinced that this time she would actually look concerned, or even scared. After all, they were heading toward what he'd assumed at the time was certain death. But every time, she was just as calm as ever. Or appeared that way.
She's working with Cerberus. She left the Alliance. She let you think she was dead for two years.
"Irien," he finally replied, standing. He held out his hand to shake hers, and after a moment's pause, she shook it. For a second, he wished that she was wearing armor, even if it would have made her infinitely more recognizable. That brief second of their bare skin touching brought back too many memories.
He's nervous. "Commander?"
A sad smile on her face. "Aren't we a little past titles?"
He steps closer. "We're a little past a lot of things."
He hated how easily he remembered the wonderful times they'd had together, so he kept reminding himself that he was supposed to be mad at her. He knew, looking at her face, that if he let his guard down for even a second, he'd fall back into old habits, and ask her what was wrong and how he could help.
Kaidan dropped her hand quickly and motioned toward a small, empty table in the back corner of the room. The place was near empty, but he'd rather not sit at the bar where they could easily be overheard, and since he didn't know exactly what she wanted to talk about, he'd rather be safe than sorry.
They sat down and looked across the table at each other for a long, awkward moment, and he met her eyes. He could remember so clearly the times she'd smiled just for him, her eyes sparkling, and he couldn't believe how much he loved her.
But now... No sparkle, and no smile. He could even see dark circles under her eyes, and she didn't have those even during the hardest parts of their fight against Saren. What's she doing out there?
"Thanks for agreeing to see me," she said quietly, breaking eye contact to look down at the table. "I know-" she began, then stopped, tried again. "You made it pretty clear that you don't want to talk." Her voice was even, but he could tell how hard she was trying to keep it that way. He wondered, briefly, if anyone else could do that, then reminded himself that it didn't matter.
He forced himself to stay sitting up straight, to stay on his toes when talking to her. He knew how easy it would be to fall back into familiar patterns with her, and how badly he wanted to do so.
She let you think she was dead for two years.
She'd always been there for him before. And still, after these hellish two years, he couldn't believe how badly she had let him down. She'd completely dropped off the grid without a word to anyone. She hadn't even cared enough to tell him she was still alive. The people you trust, he thought, are the people who can hurt you the worst.
"I don't mind talking," he said carefully. "I just thought we said everything that needed saying back on Horizon."
"But we didn't," she said, leaning in slightly and meeting his eyes again. She glanced around quickly, making sure no one was around or listening in on their conversation. "I didn't anyway. I don't think I made it clear to you what happened-"
"It was clear enough," he said flatly. "You betrayed us."
"I just-" she began, then stopped when she realized what he'd said. "What?"
"Don't pull that crap with me." He was getting angry, and he knew she could tell, but he didn't care anymore. "You float off into space and let us think you're dead," he began, keeping count of everything on his fingers. "You're off doing who knows what in the Terminus systems. You start working for Cerberus and seem to get along pretty damn well with them and their flunkies. And not only are they sending you out on big important missions, they spent millions rebuilding your old ship and getting a crew together for whatever it is you're doing for them now."
"And you just let us think you were dead," he finished, cutting her off. "Two years of thinking you were dead, Irien. Do you have any idea what that did to me?" He folded his arms. "Of course you know. You knew what would happen," he said, pointing at her accusingly. "But you let us think you were gone anyway. Did what we have not mean anything to you?"
"Is that really what you think?" She sounded so hurt that, despite his anger, he felt a pang of guilt. For a long moment, they simply looked across the table at each other, and from the way she looked at him, the love and pain and emotion that she wouldn't show anyone else, he thought for a second that the old Irien was back.
But she quickly closed off, breaking eye contact again and looking down at the table. "You have every right to be mad," she said, her voice low and perfectly even. Damn right I do! "But you don't know the whole story."
"Then explain it to me," he said. His voice almost cracked at this, and regretted speaking at all. He wished he could just go back to how he used to be for the years before he'd met her. He was happy enough. He hadn't had close friends or relationships or let anyone get close enough to hurt him when they inevitably left or changed. You let yourself get involved with her, he thought, and now you get to deal with the consequences of getting attached.
"It's... complicated," she began slowly. "I don't trust Cerberus either. I know you might not believe me because I'm working with them, but it's the truth," she insisted.
"Don't you remember what they did?" he demanded. "Admiral Kahoku and his men, the humans turned into husks, the rachni. All those colonists, all over the galaxy. All dead because of them!" He leveled a serious look at her. "They're concerned about colonies in the Traverse, but with what they've done, and if I didn't know better, I wouldn't have been surprised if they were the ones behind it instead of the Collectors." He shook his head. "You're choosing to work with Cerberus. I thought you were better than that, Irien. You have other options."
"Like what, exactly?" Now she sounded annoyed, and Shepard folded her arms across her chest defensively. "No one else is going to give me the support I need to deal with the this. The Council doesn't believe the Collectors are taking humans. Not that I'm surprised about that," she said bitterly. "They don't even think the Reapers exist and they had one right in front of their eyes. They threatened to prosecute me for treason just for showing up and bothering them again." She didn't even sound annoyed by this, just sad, like she was resigned to the fact that they weren't ever going to trust her. Kaidan felt a surge of empathy for her and tried to repress it.
"Screw the Council," he said vehemently. "You left the Alliance, they could have-"
"You really think the Alliance wants to be associated with me?" She laughed joylessly. "They're just as happy to see me as the Council. And you know things are tough for them right now." She shook her head. "As much as I'd rather work with them instead of Cerberus, they couldn't give me the kind of ship or the resources I need. And even if they could afford to help, do you really think they'd want to after all the things the Council said about me? Probably not the best press for them."
Kaidan had to admit that she had a point about her reputation at least. He'd heard all kinds of things from the Council after Irien's "death." They'd held a huge state funeral for her, of course, since she was the "savior of the Citadel and the Council," but a just a few weeks later the rumors started flying. She had visions, she foretold doom for the galaxy, she'd lost her mind. They turned her into something of a comic figure, someone to be laughed at, despite everything she'd done and everything she'd sacrificed to save them. All of them.
The Alliance remembers what she did, he thought with surety. They wouldn't turn their back on her, not after what she did.
"You think they'll abandon you because they're scared people will talk bad about them?" he asked in disbelief. "You saved them, Shepard, and people are going to be mad at the Alliance no matter what. You can't honestly think they'll turn you away if you asked them for help."
She looked away. "Maybe not," she admitted. "But they couldn't give me everything I need to do this. It's too much for them to deal with, Kaidan."
"So you're loyal to whoever can give you the best technology and ships and weapons, is that it?" he asked scornfully.
"Of course not!" she said, clearly getting defensive and looking a little hurt. "But you know how the Alliance can be. They're almost as bad as the Council half the time, with all the red tape and stalling and committees," she said, sounding frustrated.
"That's how government works! That's why we have governments, so we can make sure we're doing things the right way!" he insisted. "The kind of shortcuts that Cerberus takes..." He paused, thinking of Vyrnnus and his time at Brain Camp. He wondered if Irien even remembered that.
He's hesitant; he's never spoken this candidly with her before and doesn't want her to think he's criticizing her. "It's just my experience that once someone lets something slide, it tends to pick up speed. You get my meaning?"
She nods. "Talk to me, Kaidan." She smiles at him. "You've got a little black raincloud sitting over your head."
He chuckles. "I'll try to keep the deck dry."
Kaidan shook his head, clearing his thoughts. He'd done nothing but live in the past for two years; he had to focus now. "I know how these things go. Something isn't 'that bad' or it's 'necessary' or it's just more convenient and you think everything's all right, but eventually you're going to realize you're working with Cerberus. They aren't the 'good guys,' Shepard," he told her flatly. "We are. We stopped Saren and Sovereign on our own, even without the Council and with a smaller ship than you've got now. You can do this without them, I know you can."
She shook her head. "It's not that simple, Kaidan. That was one Reaper, and it took the entire Citadel fleet and the Alliance to bring him down. Cerberus has resources and contacts that I wouldn't have access to otherwise, and they're willing to help me however they can." She sighed and ran a hand through her already messy hair. "And I hate to admit it, but I need them. They get things done. I needed a ship, so they made me a new Normandy and got Joker to fly her. I needed a crew, and when you and everyone else were too busy with other things, the Illusive Man found the best of the best and told me where to find them. And I need to find out more about the Collectors and the Reapers so more colonies don't get taken, so he-" she paused, glancing up at him and speaking hesitantly. "So he purposely leaked the fact that I'm working with Cerberus. He knew the Collectors would go after you to get to me, and then he'd know where they were headed."
Kaidan's jaw almost dropped. "That's what you call 'getting things done?'" He was in shock – and so was Irien, apparently. She looked taken aback at how heated he was getting. "They're using you, Irien! They want that information too, and they know you're the only one who has the willpower and the determination to get it for them. You're making a deal with the devil and you don't even seem to care!" His hands clenched into fists. "You let them put the entire colony, including me, in danger. You just let them-"
"Never!" she said vehemently, then reached out to grab his hands. His heart pounded at the contact and he tried to pull away, but she wouldn't let him. After a moment, he met her eyes, trying to keep his emotions contained.
I let myself relax, before, he reminded himself. I let myself fall for her, and look where that got me.
"I would never have let them say anything that would put you in danger," she said. He desperately wanted to believe her, but after she'd left him before, he didn't know what to believe. "He did it on his own, without telling me beforehand. I had no idea where you were, Kaidan. The Illusive Man didn't tell me you were on Horizon until he told me that the Collectors were targeting it, and when he told me he leaked the info. I hope you believe that I gave him a piece of my mind for that."
He had fond memories of her taking down her superiors, and for a fleeting moment, he wished he'd been there to see their argument – whoever this "Illusive Man" was, Kaidan seriously doubted he could handle an angry Irien Shepard. But he was determined not to get lost in happy memories. "You could have asked Anderson where I was-"
"I did." She smiled bitterly. "Oh I did. I'm sure he regretting having me come to the Citadel to see him after I pestered him so much. He told me you were on assignment and it was classified, and as long as I was working for Cerberus, he couldn't tell me a damn thing." She sighed and let go of him, running her hand through her messy blonde hair. "I'm not trying to justify what the Illusive Man did when he leaked the information. But once I knew that you were in danger, I left for Horizon. You may not believe that I'm not 'really' with Cerberus – and I really can't blame you, they can be really terrible. But I'm not one of them. And I won't ever be. Just, please," she said, almost begging him. "Please believe that I lo-" she cut herself off quickly, "-care about you," she finished.
She sounded sincere, and he missed her so badly these past two years. He wished that he could trust her. If she cared, he wondered, his heart aching, why did she leave me for so long?
"I know what the attack did to you," she told him. "And I know how upset you must be that I'm back after so long and that I'm working with Cerberus. And I'm so, so sorry about everything." He didn't respond; he was still trying to process everything she was saying. "Cerberus may not be 'good,' but they..." she trailed off, and he saw a faraway look in her eyes. "Well, I owe them. And with the Collectors and the Reapers out there..." Irien sighed. "No one else is going to take care of this. This is something I have to do."
The tone in her voice was so familiar. She sounded just like her old self again, so determined to fix everything and everyone. But who fixes her? he couldn't help but wonder. The memory of their time fighting Saren and Sovereign was so powerful that he could practically see her standing in front of the Council.
Her hands are in fists, but he can't tell if she's furious or sad. "If Saren finds the Conduit, we're all screwed! We have to go to Ilos!"
The turian councilor ignores her, pretends she hasn't said a word. "Ambassador Udina, I get the sense Commander Shepard isn't willing to let this go."
But now... "I don't have a choice about working with Cerberus if I want to stop the Collectors. They can be evil, but they're a necessary evil. There's nothing I can do."
She was giving up on finding other options. He'd never seen her give up before.
He didn't like it one bit.
As mad as he was that she'd left him, let him think she was dead, let him try in vain to get over her for two years, the thought of her thinking she was beaten was too much for him, and he felt the rage he'd so desperately been clinging to start to fade away. He looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time since she'd walked back into his life.
She usually looked pristine – to him anyway. Even after particularly intense fights, when she was sweating and dirty and looked about ready to collapse, he could still see her strength and determination shining through, and her grins after victories made her even more beautiful.
But he didn't see any of that now.
She sat there looking defeated, like nothing was going right and there wasn't anything she could do about it.
She looked broken.
Was her mission now so much more dangerous? Or had she just gotten worse at hiding her fear? Either way, he felt a surge of concern that he tried to suppress.
She seemed completely exhausted, and all he wanted to do was hold her and find out what was wrong. He wanted to take care of her, because he knew that he was the only one she'd show weakness to, the only person that made her feel comfortable enough to let her guard down.
But he'd let his guard down with her too, and all he'd gotten was betrayed and hurt.
I can't go through that again, he thought, almost desperately. Losing her was too much.
But she needs you, the more rational side of him argued. She's saving the galaxy, again, and she needs you.
He sighed again, and shook his head. I'm being too hard on her.
"You don't owe Cerberus anything," he said. I just wish I knew why she trusts them. "The Alliance is having some problems now, but I'm sure they can do something for you. If you're just working with Cerberus because they gave you a ship and helped you out after the Normandy was destroyed-"
"I wish it was just that," she replied, and she wouldn't meet his eyes.
Something is very wrong here, he thought. She'd never been so secretive before. "Iri," he said, using his old nickname for her, hoping it would get her to open up, "what do they have on you? What could they possibly have done to get you to work for them?" She still didn't reply, and he shook his head. "You wouldn't do this without a good reason. I know you well enough to know that, at least. Or I thought I did. So either they're manipulating you, or you really aren't the woman I used to know. So which is it?"
She looked up suddenly, her eyes bright with fury. "You knew I was gone," she said, and he nodded, half-stunned by her sudden outrage. "On Horizon, I told you I was 'clinically dead.' That's just an easier way for me to tell you that I was dead. I died," she told him flatly. "I died when the Normandy exploded."
His heart stopped. "You... what?"
"I told you to leave with the rest of the crew," she said flatly. "I went up to find Joker. I got him into an escape pod. I didn't make it inside. I was thrown into space by the explosions so I suffocated and died." She practically spat the word.
Kaidan had watched the Normandy explode, and he'd immediately tried contacting Shepard on the comm. system installed in their armor. But when she hadn't responded, even though everyone else in his escape pod had tried telling him that she certainly had made off in time, he'd known she was gone.
He hadn't taken it well, of course. He'd blamed himself. But in the last few weeks, rumors had been circulating that she was alive, and his first thought was that she'd gone undercover, using the "fact" that she was dead as an extra layer of cover. He was furious.
But he was wrong. She did die, he would still blame himself for letting her go get Joker without him, he would still blame Joker for refusing to leave the ship until she got him, just like he had when they'd argued two years ago and hadn't spoken to each other since.
It was almost too much for him to take. If I can barely stand hearing about it, he thought, how can she handle the fact that she went through it? She watched the rest of us escape and saw the Normandy explode as she died. How is she still functioning?
"Cerberus," she said the name with a grimace, as if it left a bad taste in her mouth, "has spent the last two years and billions of credits bringing me back to life. Some huge project called Lazarus. Dozens of scientists, an entire deep-space station, all for this one project. For me. Because they didn't think humanity had a chance without me."
She really died, he thought, still staring at her in shock. She died and now they bring her back just to tell her that she has more work to do. No time to get over whatever she's dealing with or recover from dying or anything.
Even immediately after being resurrected, she was thrust back into galactic politics and told, again, "the galaxy will end without your help." During the mission to stop Saren, she'd shouldered the responsibility and seemed fairly comfortable with it, though she knew the stakes were high. Now, she just seemed bitter and angry. Can't blame her, he thought, dazed. I was just yelling at her for her work with Cerberus and for not calling me. He took a moment to let that sink in. I was pissed that she didn't tell me she was alive, and she actually wasn't. I am such an ass. I can't believe-
But Shepard was making sure that he believed her this time. "An explosion blew me away from the escape pod that I helped Joker into, and I hit the button to launch the pod right before I was thrown back into a wall."
She wasn't looking at him anymore; there was that faraway look in her eyes, like she wasn't really seeing anyone around her. The look was quickly becoming familiar to him, and he realized suddenly why – after she died, he always had that same look. He'd spent so much time in memories that he knew no one else could understand, so he hadn't tried to explain to anyone else and lost himself in the past, just like she was.
"The Collector ship was moving on, all the escape pods were out of sight, and my ship was destroyed. Hitting that wall must have done some kind of damage to my suit, because I was floating away and tried to take a breath and couldn't. Then I saw the oxygen hissing away and I couldn't breathe and all I could think was-" She paused and shook her head, as if she couldn't believe she was saying this. "I thought, 'It can't end like this. I can't have survived Saren and Sovereign just to suffocate out here.' And I was so sure that the Alliance would come and save me at the last moment, and right up until those last seconds, I kept believing that. It felt like I was out there forever, waiting for them to come get me. And just before everything went black, I realized they weren't coming at all."
Now that she was actually telling him what happened, everything she was saying just made him feel more and more ill. A million questions raced through his mind, and he was suddenly glad to be sitting down, because the world seemed to spin. Dead? Really, actually dead? He could barely think. He felt like she was dying all over again, and everything he'd been going through after her death was coming back to him. The grief at losing her, the depression at living without her, the anger at himself for leaving without her, the anger at her for leaving him.
Looking at her now, he noticed, for the first time, that her scars had changed. The two small ones on her eyebrow and chin that she'd gotten during the Blitz were completely gone, but there were three lines on her cheek that hadn't been there before, and he knew he would have remembered them. More "gifts" from Cerberus? he wondered.
"I don't know how Cerberus did it," she continued, as if his thought had reminded her. Her voice had gotten so quiet that he could barely hear her. "I don't think I really want to know. I just know they were working on me for two years." Shepard made a strangled coughing noise, and if he didn't know better, he would've thought it was a sob. She never cries. She can't cry. He wondered, faintly, if he was in denial. "And you know what the worst part is?" she asked, and he shook his head, still dumbfounded. "I don't remember any of those two years. I've been awake just a couple weeks now, and it still feels like everything happened just the other day. But you don't feel like that," she said, looking at him again.
Kaidan was startled for a moment when she directly addressed him again, but he nodded slowly. "It's been a long two years," he murmured.
"I wish I'd been here."
"So do I," he admitted.
They were silent for a moment, both coming to terms with what they'd said to each other. He wished he knew what she was thinking, because his thoughts were racing almost too quickly for him to follow. He was no longer angry, but sadder than he'd been in months. He couldn't believe that she'd truly died, or that he'd blamed her for making him think she was dead. How could I have thought that? he wondered. I know – knew – her well enough to know she'd never do something like that on purpose. But he knew why he'd thought it – still, after two years, he was still angry at himself for letting her go and irrationally angry at her for leaving him.
Shepard dying wasn't his fault. Logically, he knew this was the truth. But as much as he tried to control his emotions, he'd failed over and over where she was concerned. He'd fallen for her despite trying to remain professional, he'd gotten attached when he'd tried to stay distant, and he'd been devastated by her death while using all his energy to force himself to appear as if he was coping with it easily.
He couldn't handle getting close to her again just to lose her again.
"Cerberus brought you back to life," he said slowly. "So you're working with them because of that?"
She nodded. "And I know they're using me," she said with a sad shake of her head, "and they brought me back to use me. But they're using me to get the Collectors and the Reapers, and that's what I'd be doing even if they weren't involved. They're letting me do things my way, mostly." She sighed. "I know they did some terrible things, but the resources they're giving me help a lot."
"But how do they get those resources?" he asked. "Illegal experiments? Weapons? Genetic modification? Donations from rich people who think humans should be the most powerful race in the galaxy?" She didn't respond, and he continued. "If you're going to do this and try to save the galaxy again, you need to do it the right way."
"I can't do this the way we did things before," she insisted. "We stopped Saren, but it was so close. The Collectors are more powerful than Saren ever was, and they destroyed us before we even had a chance to fight back. I know the money that's funding this mission is from bad people with some equally bad goals. But if I can use their resources to do good things, then shouldn't I take advantage of that?"
"'Taking advantage' of anyone is something I never thought you would do." He shook his head. "I always knew you were stubborn, Shepard. You always think your way is the only way, and usually you're right. But you aren't this time." He pushed the chair back and stood, trying to ignore the hurt in her eyes. "I'm sorry for everything you went through. But the rest of us have had to deal with some really difficult situations, too, and most of us didn't go racing off to join Cerberus just because it would make things easier," he said, thinking of Joker. "We're still doing this the hard way because that's the right way. And if you don't see something wrong with what you're doing..." He trailed off, and she looked up at him sadly.
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Shepard. I just- I know this is something you need to do, and that working with Cerberus is the easiest and safest way for it to get done. And I really am sorry for everything that happened to you." He sighed. "I wish things were different. But I can't be a part of it this time. I can't work with Cerberus. I'm sorry." His heart ached as he said it, but he tried to stay strong.
Shepard stood, and he saw her whole body was tense. "I understand," she said. Her voice wavered a bit, but she looked him square in the eyes. "Thanks for coming to see me anyway."
And without another word, she turned on her heel and left, her shoulders and arms stiff, and he wondered if she was trying not to turn around.
Kaidan sunk back down into his chair and put his head in his hands. What am I doing? he wondered, and he couldn't come up with an answer.