A/N: As with my post-Horizon fic, this is of a more serious mindset. It stands alone, but I recommend reading Of Duty, Of Trust first.

"Dammit, Kaidan."

The message had sucker punched her as she read it the first time, standing next to that damned observant Yeoman. Chambers had asked her if she was okay and even then it had taken Shepard a moment to steady herself before answering she was fine and casually marking the message as read and going on to the next.

Just because Cerberus wasn't obvious about spying on her didn't mean it wasn't happening.

She was convinced that Chambers, much more so than Miranda, kept her finger on the pulse of the Normandy crew. The woman was everywhere and as executive assistant had an almost legal reason to scan through the correspondence Shepard…or anyone else on the ship…received. Chambers was just 'helpful' that way. So nice and sunny all the time. So eager to please and be your new BFF.

Leaving the console, Shepard entered the elevator and made a gagging noise, not letting up until to the door to her cabin slid shut behind her and she let thoughts of Chambers go.

Using a cute little toy Mordin had given her after he came on board, she carefully began scanning and disarming the monitoring devices scattered casually about the cabin. This was becoming a habit and she had yet to be disappointed by not finding something. Disarm, destroy and then scan once more to make sure nothing was missed. Or added to.

She had to give Cerberus compliments about the cybernetic spy fish they'd stocked among her other ones. She'd missed that one at first. Then the rest had died leaving only the ringer swimming among the corpses and now she paid special attention to the fish. The fact that they regularly died on her, the little bastards, also helped.

Once she was certain she was alone…a scan showed EDI's platform still in its malfunctioning state courtesy of her sonic screwdriver…Shepard sat at her desk, carefully ignoring the picture on her desk that she had already certified as clean, and opened her messages again.


That was the first thought she had rereading the email.

Kaidan thought they had time. That he could finish the mission he was on, she could finish her little skirmish with the Collectors, and they would have time to figure things out. Time to see if what they felt for each other had survived.

That was the core of it, wasn't it?

She had died loving him. He had survived loving her.

Closing her eyes, Shepard settled back in her chair, tired with the soul drudging exhaustion of being surrounded by people she didn't completely trust and given a mission she wasn't completely sure she'd live through.

So what the hell was left? What did she say? How was she supposed to respond to that message? To his expectations of time that she in no way could give him?

She couldn't…didn't want to even think about, let alone experience what he had gone through when she died. But how much worse would she make it to respond to that message…to give him any kind of hope…when she had the Omega 4 Relay hanging over her like the sword of Damocles? But to not respond…to leave him hanging, wondering. How much worse was that?

She looked to his photo and scowled.

Dammit! Which deity had she pissed off so badly to put her in this situation? Yeah, maybe she could have been nicer and not punched that mouthy merc out the window. Maybe she could have been a little quicker with the med-gel on that Battarian on Omega with the plague, but come on! She had freakin' saved the universe! Didn't that count for anything? Couldn't she get a break?

Couldn't she have Kaidan and a nice little house with a cute little picket fence somewhere where she didn't have to go to bed each night with four different weapons stashed somewhere near the bed?

Of course after about a month of that they'd be killing each other from the boredom, Shepard mused with a wry cynicism born of knowing exactly who and what she was.

Maybe that was what had made the night before Ilos so special to them both. The stars had aligned to give them that moment. They were already in trouble for the little matter of stealing a ship and its crew and disobeying some of the stupidest orders ever issued, so tossing in fraternization on top of that would hardly be worth the paperwork it generated. What was it Kaidan had said? Something about even the Reapers coming around again, but not that moment.

For the briefest instant, Shepard's eyes closed as she surrendered to the pathetic whiny part of her soul that she had spent years trying to kill and never quite succeeded. Maybe it wasn't meant to be, her and Kaidan. Maybe the best thing she could do for him was let him go. Give him a 'ya know, it's been fun, but reality bites' speech and say they could just be friends. Maybe even friends with benefits, she mused thinking of how well he filled out his uniform.

Her eyes snapped open, narrowing in anger as she strangled the whiny bitch once more.

"Fuck. That." The words were hissed.

She was Commander Shepard. She'd saved the Universe once, those ungrateful sods, and she was going to do it again. She was going to come back from this damn mission and they were going to throw flowers at her feet kissing the ground she walked toward Kaidan on. Her heart was pure, her cause just…okay, maybe her heart wasn't as pure as it should be, but the cause was definitely just.

Chuckling softly with the self-deprecating humor that kept her sane and somewhat humble, Shepard read the message once more.

No. She couldn't give Kaidan the time he so clearly wanted. She couldn't promise she would return from this mission. She couldn't even promise the team she had spent so much time recruiting that they would survive and they were still willing to follow her to Hell. She owed it to them to lead them with a clear conscience and an even clearer dedication that everything in her would be directed toward getting the team in, destroying the enemy and getting the team out again, alive.

There was no time for Kaidan in any of that, no matter how much it hurt her heart to say it. Believe it.

In the end, she did reply. The message was brief, just two sentences and conveyed everything she felt in just six short words.

I love you. Be happy, Kaidan.

I love you. Be happy, Kaidan.

What the hell was that supposed to mean?

Kaidan stared at the message again. He double checked to make sure he hadn't missed a portion of it, maybe she'd accidentally sent it and another message was coming with the rest of her response. For several minutes he sat patiently and waited. Nothing.

That was it? That was all of it?

Two damn years she'd been dead, a handful of months she'd been up and mobile and THAT WAS IT?

He shoved back from his desk, pacing through the dingy apartment that contained more weapons than food, more communication and spying devices than entertainment. A mug of synthprotein shuddered in response to his biotic field manifesting. Staring at it, the old, hated rage and wrath spilled from its long imprisonment and surged toward the hardened plasthene. The supposedly unbreakable material shattered in a cascade of shards and cold liquid against the far wall. A dent remained behind where it had hit as if in silent mockery of his vaunted self control and Kaidan found he didn't care.

A chair followed, splintering. The tasteless black and pink wall tapestry of Blasto the Jelly Fish went poof in a shower of synthetic velvet fiber debris and even though he'd been wanting to do that since he first saw it, he wasn't satisfied.

So, that was it. A short, meaningless nothing. That was his answer.

He'd been expecting…something. A love declaration, yes, okay, he'd admit that. Something about how sorry she was that she was working with Cerberus and she was working on coming back to the Alliance. Coming back to him. Something, anything more than that final kiss off.

He'd just been dumped by his dead girlfriend.

Slamming his fist into the wall, adding another dent, Kaidan relished the physical pain. Something to leech his internal agony from the festering pit in his soul that had started rotting two years ago when he obeyed a direct order and left the woman he loved to die.

Bleeding, unable to summon any kind of concern about it, Kaidan turned about and let the wall hold his weight as he slid down to a sitting position, his eyes feverishly looking to the message console in hopes that it would ping and let him know a new message had arrived. Something, anything from her.

Maybe…maybe she'd found someone new. Maybe he'd been kidding himself that the night before Ilos had meant as much to her as it had to him. Maybe…maybe this was her way of saying they weren't worth fighting for.

Maybe she blamed him for leaving her to die.

Scrubbing his hands over his face completely unaware he was smearing himself with the blood from his torn knuckles, Kaidan stared at the dent his anger had made in the far wall.

Well, she'd be right to do so, wouldn't she? Blame him for leaving her. He could have helped her with Joker, made sure they both made it into the escape shuttle. Then they all could have joked about Shepard's wicked sense of humor that had her hiding all of his good armor that morning and leaving him to be rescued stuck in that pink monstrosity that not even she would wear. They could have laughed and called it another day at work. Joker could have bitched and moaned over losing the Normandy and they'd have taken him out to get a good drunk on.

Instead, Kaidan had opened a pod built for twelve that contained only one.

He hadn't thought much of it, at first. Shepard would have made sure Joker was secure and been off that pod checking the status of her people the minute she could, so her absence wasn't really all that noteworthy.

The expression on Joker's face had been his first clue something had gone horribly wrong. Joker, who had been among the few…possibly the one…who knew about Kaidan and Shepard, wouldn't meet his gaze. Kaidan had desperately wanted that pale, shocked, grieving expression on the pilot's features to be about the Normandy, but the cold sensation in his gut wouldn't ease. He waited, silent, wanting to put the confirmation off as long as possible. Joker hadn't been able to keep it in and began railing that it was Shepard's own fault. He hadn't asked her to come after him. He had wanted to go down with the ship and had the perfect position to do it from until her interfering had stuck him in an escape pod and Shepard…Shepard…

That was when Kaidan the man had shut down in favor of Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko. He'd gruffly asked Joker the status of his injuries, helping release him from the locking chest clamp. Joker had hit him. Demanded to know how in Hell Kaidan could pretend everything was okay when the woman he loved was dead. Joker hit him again when Kaidan had no answer for him and by that time others had arrived, separating them, getting Joker the medical help he required.

Kaidan, as the now ranking officer, had taken charge and seen about the status of the survivors. He hadn't quit until he'd retrieved the black box records and accounted for every person on the Normandy as alive or dead.

Shepard had been listed as casualty number 01.

It hadn't sunk in until he'd reached his assigned quarters on the rescue ship and realized he was still wearing that damn pink armor that Shepard had suckered him into their last morning together.

He wondered if she still called it the 'Look at me, I'm shiny and bright and easy to see. Please shoot me now' armor.

His desk console pinged as it received a message.

Kaidan scrambled up, across the room before his conscious mind had even registered the sound, his fingers activating the console that had faded to conservation mode.

The message wasn't from her, it was from his contact on the Normandy and as he read a cold feeling in the bottom of his stomach grew until a numb cube of ice beat where his heart was.

The crew of the Normandy SR-2 had been taken by Collectors. The Special Ops team had been away at the time and was still whole. A rescue mission had been added to the already priority mission that would send them out past the Omega 4 relay into uncharted territory from which there was no certain return. The Normandy SR-2 had departed on this mission three hours before, Galactic Standard Time.

A suicide mission.

Led by Commander Shepard.

PS Kaidan still owed him a really fine bottle of Skyllian Whiskey and would he please drink it in memoriam to a handsome youth cut down in his prime? Oh, and if Kaidan would unwind from his rules and regulations enough to use all the credits in a secret account on Illium, info in a voice/DNA/retinal verification activated file attached, to get really drunk and have an orgy with several asari dancers, that would be great, too, thanks.

No. Not again. Please, not again.

The words played themselves over and over again in his mind as Kaidan reread the message, both of them.

Shepard hadn't been dumping him, she'd been saying goodbye. Giving him the only thing she could knowing she was about to take on the Universe again and her luck had pretty much been tapped out in the survival account.

His fingers darted over the board, accessing secure channels until the face of the man he needed to talk with appeared.

"Commander Alenko." Anderson's deep voice held curiosity.

"I'm heading to Omega Station." Kaidan said in implacable tones. "I'll make contact once I've settled there."

For a long breath, two, Anderson simply looked at him. "The Omega 4 Relay was activated two hours, twenty-two minutes ago. She's already gone, son."

Anger/grief/betrayal stabbed through him and blue sparks began to snap and dance about Kaidan.

"You knew." The words were a harsh whisper. "You knew what her mission was."

Anderson gave a brief, military nod. "Official policy dictates that the Reapers are a myth perpetuated by Saren to convince the Geth to help him launch an attack against the Citadel. Anything less would lead to widespread panic among all populations. That is the last thing the Council wants." A wry smile touched features that had only become more lined over the last two years. "My own, personal observation is that Shepard knows what she's talking about. And what she's up against."

"You let her go alone!" Kaidan shouted, fists clenched, furniture flying as his biotics spun a dervish about the room.

"This was Shepard's choice." Anderson said in flat tones. "She chose to work with Cerberus. She chose to not ask for the Council's back up…"

"Because you stonewalled her! You gave her the official policy! She had no choice but to believe you were sitting on your asses, doing nothing while the Reapers got ready to conquer the universe again!" Kaidan knew he shouldn't be shouting, should be respectful of the chain of command and he didn't care. Being respectful of the chain of command had cost his woman her life.

"And would it be better if we compromised your mission?" Anderson's voice never rose, never betrayed any emotion at all. "Commander Alenko…Kaidan. We need to know the info Cerberus has gathered on the Reapers. We need that information now, more than ever. She stopped them once, on the Citadel. If she succeeds now, she'll have stopped them twice. But if she fails…if she fails, we have to be prepared to throw everything we have at the Reapers. We have to have weapons capable of taking Reapers out and we have to have a lot of them. You need to finish your mission. Just as she needs to finish hers."

The blue field sparked and died, Kaidan's anger with it.

"Think about it, Kaidan. What would Shepard do?"

Sparks burst outward smashing everything within five feet of Kaidan to small pieces, the communication with Anderson obliterated in a shower of Kaidan's biotics.

"She'd have cut communications, too." Kaidan said with an evil smile.

It took him less than twenty minutes to wipe the apartment of any biological trace that Kaidan Alenko had been there. The utter destruction his temper had wrought made it a relatively easy process. He bought passage on a commercial liner headed toward Omega and boarded with a simple duffle. Weapons he could get from a contact on Omega.

I love you. Be happy, Kaidan.

Yeah, thing was, until he knew if she lived, until he was with her again, Kaidan knew he wasn't going to be happy.

Not happy at all.