A Matter of Choice

"How does that even work?" Staff Commander Alenko pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. "A turian and a human?"

"S'easier than it looks," Joker replied, taking a swig of his bourbon. The officer's bar was lined with Alliance brass, all set to welcome Commander Inara Shepard back into the fold. Joker had agreed to come along as moral support (meaning he was here to drink booze and ignore everyone, Kaidan supposed). "Fornax did a huge layout when Garrus and–"

He stopped speaking and gave Kaidan an appraising look over the rim of his tumbler. "No, nevermind."

"What about Garrus?" Kaidan asked, his lips lifting in a small smile. "You were about to dish up some good gossip, if the grin on your face was any indication."

"It's nothing." Joker tipped his cap lower on his face.

"Joker." Kaidan gestured for another round, his own drink empty as well.

"Nope, I said nevermind." Joker waved a hand, the other setting the empty tumbler on the bar. He turned around in his seat, leaning his elbows against the bar and looking out into the crowd. "S'not for me to talk about, anyway."

Kaidan wasn't stupid – far from it. He caught the glance that Joker tossed at Shepard, who was moving through the crowd towards them. His heart sank as he put the pieces together. It was like a brick to the chest, hard and unyielding, and it left the slow burn of anger in its wake. He sagged back against the bar, trying to control himself as Inara approached.

"Kaidan," she said, and she smiled that smile that he thought was only for him. Something bitter and hurting in his chest asked him if she smiled at Garrus that way. Crackling biotic energy arced across his fingertips, and he took a deep breath in through his nose to control himself.

"We need to talk," he said, jerking his head at the door. His words were curt, and he knew they stung by the way her blue eyes narrowed, but she followed him through the throng of people. He waited until they reached the deserted corridor outside the ballroom before rounding on her. "When were you going to tell me about Garrus?"

Her lips thinned, and she glared at him. "I didn't think it was any of your business?"

"Really? Because I thought there was something between us, Shepard."

"Huh, funny you should say that, because I thought that you made your feelings clear on Horizon."

That stung like a slap to the face, and the crackling of Kaidan's biotics increased in pitch as a dark pulse of energy limned his form. He wrenched control of himself at the last moment, tamping down hard on the errant pulse.

"Horizon has nothing to do with this." Dark energy looped about a chair, overturning it and lifting it into the air.

"I don't know, I think it has everything to do with it, Alenko. You walked away. You didn't give me a chance to explain, and you jumped to conclusions about Cerberus and I. What was I supposed to do, overlook the fact that you turned your back on me when I needed you the most?"

"Shepard, I apologized for that. If it makes you feel better, I can apologize again." He was getting angrier the longer they spoke, and he knew it would be bad to continue this conversation.

"In an email, Kaidan. You also told me that you tried to move on while I was dead. Shouldn't I be allowed the same opportunity?" She folded her arms, her tense posture betraying her agitation. "You told me that you were sorry, yes, but you haven't said a word the entire night, even after I was proven innocent of the charges laid on me. This is the first time I've seen you since Horizon, and you lay into me about Garrus?"

"I think I have a right, Inara, after what you put me through." The chair sizzled across the room, buoyed by biotic prowess to smash against the wall. "I loved you, and you betrayed me, and everything we stood for. You even found someone new to break regs with, and you couldn't even be bothered to pick a human I can deck!"

He ran his hands through his hair, leaving it sticking up at wild angles.

"I – " He stopped, taking another deep breath. His anger cooled somewhat, but it still felt like his ribs had been crushed. "Look, this wasn't the right time for this. I'm sorry. We can talk about it later. Go enjoy your accolades."

He turned to go, but the sound of her voice slowed his footsteps, like he was walking in low gravity.

"You dragged me out here to talk, Kaidan. Let's talk." She canted her head to the side. He let out another shuddering breath as she stepped closer. "If you really want to know what was up with Garrus, I'll be happy to talk about it."

He took another deep breath to settle himself. He could choose to walk away again, but it would scald whatever he had left with Inara like a brand. Was he willing to do that, over Garrus? Anger at the thought of the turian fanned the coal of anger in his chest, and another chair went zinging across the room. A migraine was starting to build, pressing against his temples and behind his eyes with the sickly-sweet promise of pain to come. He stumbled to a bench along the wall and sank down onto it, his head in his hands.

"What has this done to me?" he asked, the throb of the migraine making his eyes water. "I've never had this happen to me. I've always been in control."

"Because you always left yourself a way out before, Kaidan." He felt the warmth of Inara's hands on the back of his neck, and he shied away. She was insistent, however, and soon he was lying across the bench with his head in her lap. "You painted yourself into a corner here, and you're still not sure whether I was worth the wait."

He said nothing, concentrating on breathing in and out in a steady rhythm. She was right, he knew she was, but something about the whole situation had set him off. He wasn't the controlled, steady Staff Commander that had made Spectre around her. She sent him spinning into something far more primal.

"Garrus was one of the few I knew before…I died." The hitch in her voice when she talked about the initial Collector attack was small, and only if one knew what to look for would one notice it. Kaidan noticed. "He stuck with me, and after Horizon, he and I became better friends than before. We tried to make it work, but he never got over the case of hero worship he had. I could never break the ideal that I was Shepard to him. I was on a pedestal, and no matter how much reach he had, there was no way to get me down."

Kaidan peered at her through cracked eyelids. She was staring at the wall, a faint smile on her face, as if sharing a private joke.

"I missed you, Kaidan. I was scared I was going to die, scared I was never going to come back through the Omega-4 Relay, and I needed someone to be there for me. Garrus was there for me." She gave a bitter laugh. "It sounds like I used Garrus. It feels like I used him. I never meant to hurt him or you."

"You were trying to move on, Inara. Like I said I had tried." Her fingers brushed though his hair, and he gave a small grunt. "I shouldn't have gotten so angry. I didn't stick around. I ran, like a coward."

"Kaidan, you've taken bullets that were meant for me. You've never been a coward."

He sucked another calming breath through his nose. "No, when it mattered most, I was a coward."

"We all make mistakes." It rang hollow in the face of all the issues they had with each other. Her hand stilled on his forehead, a solemn promise. "I don't expect anything out of you I wouldn't give myself, Kaidan. We don't have to pick up as if we left off. We don't even have to pick up at all, if that's what you want."

His chest constricted. She was giving him the way out that he craved, needed, his entire life. Instead, he realized that in this case, maybe he didn't need it after all. He reached up, taking her hand and dragging it down to rest across his chest, covered with his palm.

"I don't want to give up," he said. "I don't want to just let go."

"Then we'll work through this, after we finish this fight." Her lips quirked into a smile as she made a vague gesture at the starscape outside the windows of the Citadel. "With all the drama in my own life, I nearly forgot the Reapers."

"I'd never take Commander Shepard for a liar." His own smile was tentative.

"That's because she's not."

"I know."

The truth will set you free, someone had said, and they were right. The tightness in his chest eased, and he settled himself with her hand over his heart. The migraine was fading, melting away as if it hadn't existed, but they stayed like that for a long while, content in the fragile silence of the new bond they had forged from the ashes of the old one.

A/N: This is the first of four pieces I was commissioned for, all of whom requested the large wordcount. I'm very pleased by this. If you haven't heard already, I AM taking commissions for fic. Details are in my profile, and I will be glad to write you that idea you've had prickling the back of your mind but no time to write. My prices are pretty reasonable, too, I think. That said, Kaidan is harder to write, I think because he's so reserved. Still, it was a fun exercise to stretch my legs with.

As always, thanks for reading!