Bioware owns Mass Effect as usual.
Sorry for the wonky formatting on the email address. *Shakes fist*
From: Unknown Domain (error)
Sent: June 17, 2185 22:03 UT
To: Kaidan Alenko (kaidan. m. alenko (at) citadel. mil. sa)
Subject: Meet me
I know we didn't leave our last meeting under the best of terms, but I need your help.
Please meet me in the Zakera Ward C-Sec offices. Tali will be with me.
You don't have to stay; just hear me out.
This is a mistake, Kaidan thought, his eyes scanning the milling people in the C-Sec offices. But here he was all the same. Would he ever be able to resist that tone in her voice? He shifted on his feet. Granted, the email hadn't included voice, but he could hear her saying the words as if it had; could see the tilt of her head, the lifting of her eyebrows that he knew so well... Kaidan shook his head. Thought he knew.
It was the promise of Tali accompanying her that had swayed his decision. With Tali there, it wouldn't be a meeting tense with the words on Horizon between them, but it would be professional. Kaidan told himself he preferred it that way.
A human woman and a quarian appeared through the door, making Kaidan stand straighter. There she was. He'd recognize the set of those shoulders anywhere, even if housed in civilian clothes like now. He frowned to himself. Why civvies? Though, if she still followed habit, she'd be packing at least a shoulder holster. Sure enough, when she turned to talk to the blond captain at the desk, he saw the telltale bulge at her side. Still, it was odd to see her in long pants and a high-necked, long-sleeved jacket. When he knew Shepard, she'd never been conscious about her body, often wearing shorts and a fitted tank top—Stop it, Kaidan told himself with a mental shake. You have to stop pretending that you know this woman. What you knew was a front; a facade. Nothing more.
With that thought hardening his resolve, he strode forward through the crowd, catching the captain's eye over Shepard's shoulder.
"There he is, Commander," he grunted. "Sergeant Jarrah will show you to the gym."
Kaidan blinked, thrown off guard by the mention of "gym" and glanced at Shepard just as she was turning around. Then Tali was there before the inevitable awkwardness of their greeting, throwing her arms around him.
"Lieutenant Alenko! Keelah, it's good to see you again." She was taller than he remembered, and he met Shepard's eyes over Tali's shoulders. They were hesitant, uncertain, and he looked away.
"It's Staff Commander Alenko, now, Tali," Shepard corrected with a small smile.
"It's good to see you too, Tali." He stood back from her with a grin. "Looks like you've upgraded your suit since the last time I saw you. Looks nice."
Tali giggled, looking almost shy—well, as shy as one could be covered from head to toe. "It was a present for completing my Pilgrimage. And you're not the only one with a name change: I joined a crew. I am Tali'Zorah vas Neema, now."
"That's great, Tali. Congratulations." He looked over at Shepard. "So... anyone mind telling me what's going on besides a reunion?"
Shepard's face darkened, and she turned to gesture at a waiting turian behind them. "Let's follow Sergeant Jarrah first, and I'll explain when we get there."
They followed the uniformed turian past a few desks and through a door. Through the door was a set of stairs going down to another hallway with other doors—one leading off to a shooting range by the sign, another to a locker room with the rumble of voices within. Jarrah stopped at a set of double doors, the light on the locking console changing to green in response to his signature.
"Gym's yours for a couple of hours," he said. "Let me know you're done on your way out."
"Thanks, Sergeant," Shepard said, and the trio walked through. Lights came on automatically as they entered into a space about the size of the old Normandy's cargo bay but with much better lighting. A basketball hoop was set up at the far end and there were even a small set of bleachers. Grappling mats emanating the smell of old sweat and industrial disinfectant were off to the right of the door. This must be where the officers practice hand-to-hand techniques, Kaidan mused. No one else was in the gym; how did Shepard have enough clout with C-Sec to get it to herself?
Shepard stalked over the mats, testing them with her foot. "This will do. I wonder where their equipment is? I don't think I'll be doing any throwing today, but best to be prepared…"
"Over here, Shepard," Tali said, pointing out a rack of basketballs, smaller clawballs, and an assortment of weights in the corner.
"Comm—Shepard, what's going on?" Kaidan said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Shepard looked up, her face grim. "Cerberus upgrades," she said, voice clipped. She reached up and touched something at the back of her skull. "I didn't wake up completely... normal."
This old saw again, Kaidan thought with a frown. She was going to try to convince him that she had died again and been brought back to life. Shepard opened her mouth, then closed it, looking… was that embarrassed? When was the last time he'd seen her embarrassed?
"Stand back, Tali," she ordered, not looking at Kaidan. "If I do one of those charge things again, I don't to hurt you."
Kaidan, growing more puzzled by the minute, glanced at Tali to see if she understood the strange order, but the quarian woman had backed up without a word, her omni-tool active around her arm. He was about to ask what was going on when Shepard assumed a stance that looked familiar. Without a word, she executed a clumsy mnemonic and a biotic corona flared to life over her body.
Kaidan felt words dry up in his throat. She was a biotic. Her face was strained with the effort of keeping herself flared. Even then he could see it flickering; unsteady with a lack of control.
"How..." His throat closed up again. This was something she couldn't have lied about—he would have felt the static charge being near her, touching her, kissing her. He would have seen the tell-tale amp jack at the base of her skull. But he would have bet his life that when he last fought with her in battle, she had not used biotics, or even shown any indication that she had the talent.
Shepard's corona faded. "Among other things, Cerberus decided to give me biotics when they were reconstructing my body," she said with a scowl, flexing her hand where a remnant of blue energy flickered. "It's supposed to give me an edge, but I don't know how to use it. It'll happen accidentally in battle and before I know it, I've... gone through a table and charged straight into a krogan hard enough to knock him off balance. Yesterday, I nearly killed Miranda trying something else." Shepard shook her head. "I've had enough. I need to learn how to use it." She bit her bottom lip. "That's why I asked you to meet with me. I need to learn how to control this."
Kaidan's mouth closed, his mind buzzing. It was unbelievable—Shepard, a biotic. It was also disturbing. Modern science had declared the creation of biotic ability in a person who was not born with the eezo mutated nodules to be impossible. However, there was a theory that if you could completely rebuild a person from the skeletal system up, you might be able to introduce the nodes, but that was all hypothetical—the stuff of science fiction. The only possible way that Shepard was a biotic now was if she had lied and hid the abilities—very unlikely considering how close Kaidan had been to her at one point. Or...
"Kaidan, are you okay?" He felt a hand on his shoulder and realized he had his head in his hand.
He looked up, meeting Shepard's worried gaze. "You... you weren't lying when you said you died."
Her eyes searched his and something in her gaze softened. "No. I wasn't."
"Why me?" Kaidan asked finally. "That woman with you on Horizon—she's a biotic, right?"
Shepard sighed, running a hand through her hair. "There are five biotics on my team. Miranda—the one you saw—is good, there's no denying that. She was the one who taught me the basics, but she's..." Shepard's face expressed both frustration and regret. "She's a difficult teacher. She is not tolerant of incompetence, and apparently being Commander Shepard should be enough to instantly be the best biotic in the universe." She snorted. "Sadly, the reality is that I'm more like an elcor at a tap-dancing contest—completely out of my element."
Kaidan had to bite back a laugh. "What about the other four?"
"Jacob... well, he's a better teacher but..."
"He's infatuated with Shepard because she flirted with him," Tali offered, her voice amused.
"I did not!" Shepard shot back with a splutter. "I was simply trying to feel him out—"
Tali shook her head. "Shall I get you a shovel, Shepard?"
Shepard rubbed her eyebrow in a gesture of exasperation that Kaidan remembered all too well. "I wanted to see if I could get to know the man behind the Cerberus uniform. If I don't know my people I can't trust them. I said something the wrong way, and he took it the wrong way. That's all."
"In other words, it would be too awkward," Tali summed up.
Kaidan didn't know whether to be amused or jealous. He settled for amused; it was the safer emotion. "And the others?"
"Thane is an L3. He doesn't use his biotics very much—they're more like an accessory. Plus, there's something odd about his style. Maybe it comes with being a drell." Shepard shrugged. "He keeps to himself so much... I felt it would be intrusive to ask. As for Jack..." Shepard shook her head. "I'm not even going to go there. Samara is an asari justicar. Her techniques have been perfected over nine centuries of use. She does this glowy biotic ball thing that Miranda says she's never even seen. She's too advanced for me." She shrugged. "I found that when it came down to it, I was trying to remember your style. So here I am." Their eyes met and Kaidan felt something catch in his chest.
"Well," he said, moving to the mat, "I guess we should, uh, get started."
He started with the basics that he remembered from Brain Camp. It was odd, though, because he had to skip about a year's worth of training. Essentially, biotics had to learn to control their own nervous system to be able to use the eezo mutated nodes—normally this process took about a year, sometimes more. But if Shepard was consciously flaring and even producing external dark energy masses on her own… she was probably more like an infant asari, who were born naturally biotic and prone to creating biotic fields at random before being trained to control them.
Lucky for her, Shepard was a fast study. With little prompting, she was able to feel the gravity well of the space station, and repeat a couple of mnemonic forms perfectly without activating the actual biotic power. It was important, he explained, to get the feeling, the muscle memory built in so that in a tense situation like a battle, the motion came naturally. Tali recorded with her omni-tool, so Shepard could practice later.
"Alright. I want to try something now; see if I can actually control something." Shepard unzipped the jacket she was wearing and shrugged out of it, unclasping her shoulder holster as she went. She wore a simple tank top underneath, emblazoned with the N7 sigil.
Kaidan stared. Now he knew why Shepard had been hiding her arms. Her skin was crisscrossed with barely healed scars, like someone had tried to make a jigsaw puzzle out of her skin. Some were still so raw he could see a faint glow beneath. Cybernetics, his mind supplied. Out of its own volition, his hand reached out, his fingertips brushing a jagged line across her shoulder. She tensed at his touch, hands gripping the jacket still in her arms.
"Cate..." His voice caught in his throat. "What—"
"'Meat and tubes' is what I've heard my pre-alive body described as," Shepard said wryly, a faint flush spreading across her cheeks. "I wasn't done baking when they had to...take me out of the oven." She traced a scar on her forearm. "They're getting better—slowly. You should have seen my face when I first woke up." She smirked. "The skin is real, at least; its growth is just augmented by some kind of hormone." Her shoulders shifted. "Other parts of me, though... I'm pretty sure my right shoulder is mostly metal, and Tali's omni-tool detected a power source at the base of my spine."
His hands felt clumsy and useless at his sides. "I… I'm sorry I wasn't there," he said, the pent-up apology he'd wanted to say for two years coming to his lips. "I should have been the one to drag Joker out of his chair. It was my job as second–"
"Kaidan, stop." She bit her lip, face contorted with anguish; her clenched hands trembled at her sides. "If you had been the one to get Joker, then you would have died and while I would have spent my life's blood to bring you back, there was no way that Cerberus would."
Kaidan couldn't say anything to that. They stood in semi-awkward silence, made even more so by Tali's presence. To her credit, the quarian was trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, but in the stillness it was all too easy to hear her rebreather and the quiet chirping of her omni-tool.
Shepard stood up after a moment, face relaxing into a small smile, and the awkwardness faded. "Can you teach me to at least do a barrier? I'd like to be able to do something by the time we have to leave."
"Out of curiosity, what is your implant? Do you know?"
"An L5, I think." Shepard absently reached up to scratch at the base of her neck where the amp was plugged in.
Kaidan whistled. "Cerberus didn't spare any expense, that's for sure. I haven't actually met anyone with an L5, but supposedly they spike as high as L2s—without the nasty side effects." He grimaced. "Anyway, the mnemonic for a barrier is probably the easiest. I remember thinking it was like pulling a shield up to bear—like a knight fighting a duel." He performed the motions; arms moving smoothly into place.
"Like this?" Shepard copied his motions, but her posture was a bit off.
"Widen your stance a little," Kaidan advised. "At this early stage, you're more likely to throw yourself off balance."
She shifted her feet.
"That's it." Kaidan nodded. "Now, reach for the dark energy…" His own blue fire corona flared to life as he executed the barrier mnemonic. His stomach growled a little as he did so and he remembered another important facet of being a biotic. "Another thing you'll have to get used to is—Shepard!" Kaidan rushed over as Shepard pitched forward, her face pale. He caught her by the shoulders and eased her down to a sitting position. "You have to eat more now," he finished lamely. "Otherwise you're going to collapse like this on a regular basis." He turned to Tali. "Could you go get us something to eat? Make sure it has protein. And a nutrient drink too."
"Of course." The quarian woman hurried out of the gym.
"I'm not giving up yet," Shepard panted, face screwed up in concentration. Before Kaidan could mouth a warning about forcing herself, her corona blazed again.
Kaidan had never been this close to another flared biotic before. Even in training at BAaT, the kids were kept separate to simulate how they would actually use their abilities in a battle. Shepard's barrier sizzled against his like a second skin; every nerve in his body singing awareness of how close she was. Shepard felt it too; she stiffened in his arms, and looked up at him, eyes wide with apprehension… and want.
"Cate…" Kaidan fingers moved to brush a strand of her hair aside.
"Don't—" she said, voice choked.
"Don't call me that," she murmured, shaking her head against his hand. "It's too hard—"
But she didn't resist as he leaned over and brushed her lips with his own. She made a small sound against him and pulled him closer so hard that he lost his balance and fell on top of her.
This was what he'd missed; ached to feel for the past two years. Her hands caressing his face, his neck; her body arching against his, her mouth urgently seeking. He tasted salt on her face and wondered if it was her tears or his own. But it was almost too much; too soon. Sensing it, he reluctantly pulled away and helped her sit back up. They sat for a moment on the grappling mat, her head tucked under his chin, her heartbeat still rapid against his touch.
"Cate," he murmured, stroking the soft strands of hair at the back of her head. "Will you… come back with me? Anderson would welcome you with open arms—he's never really stopped believing in you—and Hackett blusters a lot for the sake of appearances, but I don't think he ever stopped trusting you either—"
She shook her head against his collarbone. "I'm a marine, Kaidan. I always will be. But you and I both know that the only thing waiting for me at the Alliance right now is a court-martial." He made as if to protest, but she continued. "After this whole thing is over, maybe. But unless you tell me that the Alliance and the Citadel Council are ready to open their eyes to the Reaper threat…?" She looked up, seeing the answer in his eyes and the smile she gave him was sad. "I hate Cerberus—I'll never forgive what they did to Toombs—to my whole unit. But right now they're the only ones willing to give me the resources I need. I'm not going to sit back and wait for the bureaucrats to get their heads out their asses. I'm going to find a way to stop the Collectors and then, the Reapers." She pulled back and looked him in the eye, an unasked question in her gaze.
Kaidan swallowed a lump in his throat. "Don't ask me that, Cate. You know I can't."
"I have a bigger cabin now," she said in a teasing tone, though something wistful was there too. "And a hamster. I named him Udina—they're both squirrelly little bastards."
Kaidan laughed out loud. "I wish I could." He kissed her forehead; her eyelids—heard her breath catch in her throat. "But Anderson needs me. I can't abandon ship—in some ways he's just as alone as you are. You have Garrus and Tali, at least. And this Jacob fellow." He rubbed his side, chuckling, as she shoved an elbow into his ribs. "Promise me," he said, serious again, "promise me you'll come back alive this time."
Shepard looked away. "I wish—"
"Cause when you do," Kaidan interrupted, holding her by the shoulders. "I swear, I'm going to kidnap you myself, take you to some planet where no one's heard of us, the Reapers, or any of this, and finally give you that ring I've had since the day after the Battle of the Citadel."
Shepard stared at him, eyes wide; her mouth open in surprise. "Kaidan—"
"I didn't know what to get, so I brought a lot of stuff," Tali said breathlessly, barging into the room. Protein bars, sandwiches wrapped in plastic, and unopened drink cylinders tumbled to the floor, slipping out of her laden arms. "Oh, you little bosh'tet—"
"Let me help," Shepard said, getting up from her position beside Kaidan. He let her go, watching as she helped Tali organize the sandwiches and protein bars, and then tossed him one without looking his direction.
He opened it without commenting, seeing that she was preoccupied. He wouldn't push this—it might have been too soon, after all, he hadn't even apologized for what he said to her on Horizon. Tali seemed to notice the tension as well. Her purple faceplate kept swinging in his direction and back to Shepard.
Stomach clenched, he watched as she finished her meal, some color coming back into her cheeks.
Tali glanced at her omni-tool. "Shepard, we'd better go. Garrus was really antsy about this Fade character…"
Shepard nodded and turned to Kaidan, searching his face. Grasping the sides of his head, she leaned forward to kiss him; then pulled back and wrapped her arms around him. "This isn't 'no,'" she murmured into his shoulder. "But I'd rather be sure that I'm going to live before I say 'yes.' Can you wait on me?"
Kaidan chuckled past the knot in his chest; kissed the top of her head. "I've been waiting for the past two years, Cate. What's another couple of months?"
She kissed him again, harder this time as if to imprint the memory of his mouth on hers.
"Keelah, are you two going to be at this any longer? I can wait outside." Tali had her arms crossed and her two-toed foot tapped the floor.
Shepard laughed and turned to go. Kaidan's stomach clenched.
She turned, eyes expectant.
"Uh…" His mind blanked. "Make sure you practice your biotics before using them in battle." He swallowed. "I wouldn't want you to... uh… fall."
Shepard smiled, the expression warming him from the inside out. "Don't worry," she said. "I won't."
He gave them a few minutes head start, watching them retreat down the corridor with hands in his pockets. She'd almost said yes when he asked her back to the Alliance—after all, she'd been born to it. Her mother was still captain of a significant ship in the fleet. But that was a problem for later. If Shepard was right—and he was now more inclined to believe that she was—the Collectors needed to be stopped. They'd made the first step toward repairing their relationship—now he just had to wait and be there when she needed him.
"I will, Cate," he said softly. "For as long as it takes."