He hadn't really expected to find out about this through Citadel News Network.
The round, irrepressibly cheerful face of Emily Wong just about glowed when she announced that Commander Shepard – savior of the Citadel and the Terminus now – had overseen the re-opening of the Museum of Galactic History. Anyone else who watched the footage would have focused on what Shepard had to say, or even the way the skin around her eyes and mouth creased as she went on about how happy she was to be there for that momentous occasion, having visited the museum a few times on shore leave.
But Kaidan didn't see any of this. He sat, poised on the very edge of his seat, a bowl of cereal in one hand and a spoon in the other, and watched everything else. He could tell she wasn't happy. There was a tightness in her smile that no one who wasn't close to her could notice. Her gestures weren't as fluid as they usually were. Her laugh wasn't as warm. Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong, and he hated the fact that his only desire was to make it better.
For so long, the mere sight of her face had caused him to turn off the television, to step back and brace himself on something sturdier than his feet. Knowing that she was alive made it easier, if only just, and slowly he began to regain that cloying worry that surged through him every time someone mentioned some random disaster, knowing she'd probably be there. Either that, or she'd caused it.
Her hair kept falling into her eyes. His fingers clutched around his spoon in an attempt to keep them from twitching, wanting nothing more than to push the blonde strands away from her forehead.
"Hearing that the Tayseri Ward suffered some of the worst damage from the geth attack," Shepard continued, her hands curled around the podium as she leaned into it and towards the rapt audience, "I was stunned. There was so much here and all of it was completely irreplaceable. I only hope that this Ward's restoration will be helped along by those generous enough to donate, helping bring Tayseri back from the destruction."
Shepard nodded to herself as the crowd began to clap politely. There were no shouts and there was no standing ovation, but she was used to that. She didn't do any of this for a pat on the back; she did it because these areas meant something to her, they were what she was looking to save.
Kaidan glanced down at his cereal for a moment. It was long past soggy, floating around in clumps on top of the milk. He took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. The banquet had been just last night. Was she still on the Citadel? Why hadn't she contacted him? She usually at least dropped a message or something of the sort. He didn't necessarily find it odd that she hadn't. She was busy, after all, and had much more important things to do. Not only that, but she had every reason not to want to see him.
Well, he knew about most of the reasons. Busy, angry about Horizon, unhappy with his idiotic slip about the doctor in his apology message. The last time they'd met for drinks, it'd been painfully awkward. Any (or all) of these things made sense as to why she might try to remain unattached during a few days shore leave on the Citadel.
Except she wasn't unattached. When Kaidan's eyes roamed back up to the television, the camera had changed. They were father away now, focused on nothing in particular. He saw Shepard step down from the podium as everyone began to break off and socialize. Taking the few steps down to the floor, Garrus was there to greet her. He watched as the turian settled his hand not on her shoulder or even her upper back, but at the small of it, his head ducking down low enough to make it obvious that this was no simple congratulations.
Thick brows bunching forwards, Kaidan shifted on his chair, his bowl cast aside and hunger forgotten. This was curiosity, if veiled, and nothing more. Not quite yet.
He could hear Emily Wong call out Shepard's name and see her lift an arm high in the air to get her attention. Shepard turned, glancing over her shoulder with a smile, clearly having recognized the woman's voice, and lifted her own hand to signal that she'd be right there. No matter how quickly Emily stepped in front of the camera in hopes of maintaining some level of privacy for Shepard, he still saw it.
He saw Garrus' hand sneak into Shepard's hair, and he saw her lean up onto the balls of her feet to press her forehead against his.
For a moment, Kaidan couldn't do any more than blink at the television.
"Garrus?" The single, questioning word left his mouth as his features skewed in confusion. His throat went dry as Emily stepped out of the camera's sights. Shepard twisted on her feet, moving away from Garrus' hand on her back. She lifted it up and away, but she lingered for a long moment, her five fingers curling through his three as she told him to wait right there.
When Shepard made her way up to the reporter, she was smiling again, but all the tightness in her cheeks was gone. The lines had melted away, giving the grin on her mouth leeway enough to climb all the way up to her now-sparkling blue eyes. He could feel his heart stutter in his chest.
"You can't just pull out an old-fashioned, 'It'll be alright,' can you?" Shepard tilted her head a little to the side, thick brows peaking high on her forehead.
Kaidan chuckled. "It's that easy, huh? Okay, then." Giving a short, put-upon sigh, he rolled his neck, shoulders bouncing a little as he pretended to ready himself. He'd always had trouble being concise when it came to things like this. He knew what superiors wanted to hear when they were down and out like Shepard was right now. They didn't want someone patting them on the shoulder and telling them to square up. Their superiors were there for that. What they wanted to hear was optimism. Realism had its place, but they needed a little spark of hope when things went to hell.
When he next spoke, his cheeks twitched and another quiet laugh wove its way through his words. "Everything will be okay, Shepard."
"That wasn't so hard now, was it?" Shepard teased in return, her lips curling into a pleased grin.
"Haha, yeah, I could... get used to it."
Even from this angle, with Shepard sitting on the floor, he could see her eyes soften a little, even as her smile widened enough to press her cheeks upwards. Clearing his throat, Kaidan shifted forward a little, his hands still clutched behind his back. "I guess we, ah, have some free time to figure out... what we are, huh?"
His eyes fell to Shepard's hand as she held it up for him to grab. Arching a brow, Kaidan slid his hand into hers, more than willing to help her up onto her feet. But she had other plans. Tugging him down, she let out a ripple of laughter when his other arm shot out to brace himself on the lockers, his face hovering mere inches away from hers. She looked so soft up close, so different. There was no better face for the typical hardass marine... usually. She'd surprised him.
This close, Shepard was almost a completely different person. The way her eyes lit up whenever she spoke to him at his station, the flirty lilt in her voice, the curve of her smile – they were all things he knew he'd never forget.
The burning in the backs of his eyes drove him to mutter a curse, the heels of his palms digging in just under his brows. "Damnit," he spat out, the pressure causing his eyesight to go blurry when he pulled them away when curiosity drove him to look to the television. He knew that face. It wasn't just Shepard's happy mask she put on when it was needed; he knew that face, too, and it was different. This one was genuine. This one was happy in a way he remembered far better than he should have.
The tug of worry he felt earlier was nothing compared to the little thrill that buzzed in his veins when he saw that face. But this wasn't because of him. This was because of Vakarian, who stood in the background, watching her from afar. That realization turned the thrill into a sharp pain.
"You sure look happy today, Commander," came Emily Wong's voice, cutting through the sudden cloud in his mind with a figurative knife. "Excited to see the museum reopen?"
Shepard shot a look over her shoulder at Garrus. "Yes, of course, I am!" Looking back at the camera, Kaidan bit down hard on his bottom lip as her eyes seemed to meet his, even through the camera lens. "The addition of an exhibit on Earth and human history is an excellent incentive for even more traffic through. I heard they were having trouble getting anyone in during the few months leading up to the attack. Hopefully that won't be the case anymore."
All it took was a fumbled pass of his fingers over the remote beside him for the screen to go black. Swallowing thickly, Kaidan rose from his chair and grabbed for his bowl. His walk surprised him in its casualness. Each breath was measured. He was composed. This was expected, wasn't it? He'd abandoned her on Horizon, yelled at her, turned his back on her when he'd only just confessed that he loved her.
Shepard didn't need him. Any attachment was sentimental, not necessary. She was strong. Independent. What did she need with a man who was too stupid to take her offer when she'd given it? She didn't need stubbornness. She didn't need another antagonizing force. She didn't need anything that he had been willing to give on that colony, and she clearly didn't want anything he was ready to give her now.
Dumping the cereal into the sink, Kaidan flipped on the water, uncaring as to the clumps of grain and clusters of whatever else stuck in the drain. The bowl clattered slightly where he dropped it, the steady stream of water filling it mere moments later.
Bracing himself over the sink, he shut his eyes. He didn't want to be here. He didn't want to think about her, about Garrus, about everything that had happened while he wasted time, lost opportunities, and missed out on the woman who still made his heart skip a beat every time he thought about her. The sound of gushing water and the heat that rose off of it helped displace him, if only slightly.
She was happy. He'd spent months figuring out different ways to make her smile like that. During their hunt for Saren, nothing had made him damn near giddy the way she did. Even among all the stress and the fire fights and the anger at being ignored by the Council, all it took was a curve of her lips to make things better.
She was happy. That was the important thing, wasn't it?
And yet, he couldn't find the strength to care.