A/N: This is just a one-shot I wrote for the masseffectkink meme over at LJ after having played the demo for ME3 and had all those darn feelings. There are some minor spoilers for the demo, but most of it just speculation and people interacting. .
Trust your heart if the seas catch fire
(and live by love though the stars walk backwards)
"Welcome aboard, Shepard."
She looks down at the dog tag in her hands, her own name glaring up at her. The turmoil as the ship takes off makes it hard to read the letters but she knows they're there, firmly there, like a reminder of a past she seems to have lost. No reinstatement in the galaxy can cure that sensation or mend that breach. Too much distrust has risen between them lately - between fleets and fractions, commanders and soldiers, between Shepard and the rest of the Alliance.
"Did you know he wasn't coming with us?"
Kaidan observes her for a moment before responding. His voice is low and there's the familiar trace of restraint in it but something else too, something a little more polished than she remembers. He carries himself with an extra layer of gravity these days, a new raster of confidence to match his rank. Major Alenko. He has always been a career man. I'm proud of you, she thinks but there seems to be no way of actually saying it so she merely meets his gaze in an attempt to fade out all the destruction around them.
"Anderson? Yeah. I figured as much."
Before their eyes, two shuttles full of refugees get blown to pieces and Shepard forces herself to watch, to remain right where she is. The screams are drowned in the noise from the attacking ships and the explosions tearing through everything but she imagines she can still make out their dying voices. She notices Kaidan watching, too, with a grim expression on his face.
"He'll get killed down there. They all will." She frowns, shoving the dog tag into her pocket as she brushes past him and walks into the heart of the vessel that in no way feels like hers.
Perhaps because nothing here does.
They have been aboard the Normandy for eleven hours and the situation still hasn't settled in her bones but she's already familiarized herself with the crew, has tried to force their faces and voices into her head in the same manner she always does.
My people. Routine-compassion and standardized dedication to cover up the overwhelming confusion they all feel.
There's still no word from Admiral Hackett, while the footage and alerts from all across Earth are flooding all channels and eating their way through their forced calm. She's got no real tie to the planet yet she can feel the loss of it in her throat now, the taste of defeat thick at the back of her tongue as they speak of cities and countries that she remembers from her parent's old books. There's homelessness in it, a raw wound.
"So you used to know Major Alenko, Commander?" James asks and something inside her snaps shut at the name as always, like an instinctive set of armour. She's always been good at that. Shutting off, powering down, and going on pure logic and autopilot. It's a habitual thing, refined to perfection during her time with Cerberus.
She taps the datapad in front of her, scrolling the text down so she can finish reading. 50 000 human colonists are reported dead out on the fringes of the Terminus system. Supposed Reaper activity.
"He was my staff lieutenant," she replies, not looking up. "On the original Normandy."
"Right. He mentioned that." Her current lieutenant shifts position. She wonders what he's really after. James Vega is a true marine, Anderson had reassured her. As loyal and dedicated as they come- as though she was buying a watchdog. "I hear he's one of the most powerful biotics in the fleet."
"Yeah." She leans back in her seat, crossing her legs and searching for balance as the ship jerks slightly. Lots of debris floating around, Joker had mentioned earlier. That's how you can measure destruction even in deep space. Debris. "He's the best I've served with anyway."
When she glances up again, James is still there, hovering in what she's sure he believes is a discreet fashion. Whatever unofficial orders Anderson has given him, Shepard is fed up with it already. He's a good man, a good soldier, but she doesn't need a bodyguard any more than she needs to be coddled.
"Dismissed," she says. "Go get some sleep, lieutenant."
"Yes. You too, ma'am." He lingers for a few more seconds, then he leaves her cabin and she is left alone with the digits on her screen and that thread of worry that slowly wraps itself around all of her thoughts until she can no longer separate one from the other.
Normandy isn't the same.
The low hum from the engine seems off somehow, its rhythm different to her ears. Perhaps, she tells herself, she's just unused to it after so long behind that damn desk. Waiting, reading, watching and then eventually turning papers while looking over her shoulder for the invasion – if someone had told her five years ago that she'd ever endure that kind of thing, she'd have laughed.
But as it turns out, things change. At least in some ways, although the Systems Alliance is still the same blunt, bloated and sprawling organisation with the same narrow little paths for people like her to worn their way through, protocol be damned. And the appropriate condemnation of that very behaviour, of course. The shit you've done, Shepard.
"Coffee?" Kaidan's voice interrupts her irritation and she looks up, instinctively reaching for the mug he holds out to her – brimful of extra strong black coffee by the look and smell of it. "Three sweeteners, don't worry."
He holds her gaze, as though he wants to make sure she hasn't suddenly changed her preferences over the past few years and she's struck by a sudden, furious urge to tell him she's been genetically modified not to eat or drink. Judging by the stares she receives these days, she's certain it wouldn't even make it to the news if she announced herself a full-fledged cyborg tool.
I still miss sunlight and rain on my skin, she wants to say, as well, in another part of her consciousness where she's trapped the rest of her emotions. I still dream about Akuze and I still don't remember the details of my escape. I still prefer the taste of cheap brandy over expensive one and put too much salt on everything. And I remember your body under my hands better than I'll ever remember my own childhood.
"Thanks," she says instead.
Kaidan takes a seat beside her and the space between them fills with that low, almost indiscernible tremor that biotic energy causes.
"I read your report on the Alpha Relay," he says.
"Yeah?" She takes a mouthful of coffee, treasuring the too-hot sensation burning at the back of her throat. "Glad someone did. There's been a lot of jumping to conclusions going on."
At least some of the foul-smelling drama has been directed towards Admiral Hackett, but she bears the brunt of it all the same; she's the one with the blood on her hands, still fresh for everyone to see. She's the Cerberus tool, the one who, over the course of these past few months, has been poked and prodded more frequently than when she joined the military and her biotic powers were detected. Tests, questions, samples, scans all looking for the same thing: proof that she isn't what she's made out to be. Reasons why.
Well, at least you're still human, one of the white-coated women had told her, dryly. It had felt like a scant comfort, considering.
"There's nothing in that report that suggests you could have acted differently."
"I know. I wrote it."
Kaidan sits back, lowers his mug and looks at her. "You went there in good faith, Shepard. You followed orders. No one doubts that."
She winces into her coffee. This bitterness, harsh and sour in her chest, is her latest asset and she loathes it already. She's made for many things, but spite isn't one of them. Just give me a couple of days, she bargains with herself. A little time to forget the latest round of DNA-testing and interrogation and I'll be fit for fight.
"Oh, they don't? That was news to me, Major."
"We've never pulled ranks, Shepard." He gives her an unreadable glance that is betrayed by the harshness of his voice, thick with held-back emotion. "Don't call me that."
She exhales, cradling the mug in her hands to have something to do, something to focus on besides the flurry of unwanted memories. "I'm just... Anderson's right, the only thing that stands between me and a permanent holiday groundside is his good word. I'm just so fucking tired of being distrusted."
"He's not the only one who put in a good word for you." Kaidan shakes his head. "But you don't make it easy, Shepard."
"Yeah." It's something in his posture that makes her anger subside, something hidden in his words, something that appeases the wildest, most disobedient parts of her that a lifetime in the Alliance uniform hasn't been able to erase. He wants to believe her, she knows that. It's not his fault that he can't. But it isn't her damn fault either and she's a lot of things, but not a martyr. She finishes her coffee and gets to her feet. "That's part of my charm."
He looks like he's about to say something else, but when he doesn't, she leaves.
Sometimes her memory plays tricks on her.
It's the shadows, she tells herself. A slant of light or a familiar angle, a string of words that resounds against a shared past, a mutual experience that seems to mirror something else. That's all it takes. Everything is so heartbreakingly similar here.
Kaidan is stooped over a pile of work out in the mess, one hand rubbing his bared neck, the other swiftly working through the reports and notifications on his omni-tool. Focus, she thinks with an inward grin. He's always so absorbed in whatever he's doing, has such a presence in everything.
Kaidan is stooped over a pile of work and there are days when she thinks she can walk up to him and expect a smile or a moment – stretching out as far as the protocol would allow - of his time.
He looks at her differently now, as though she's not the only one who has been altered.
"Any news?" Shepard folds her arms across her chest and sits down opposite him.
"Nothing that we don't already know. Anderson forwarded the full report on the situation in London." He inches one of the datapad closer to her, allowing her to read for herself.
"I got the visuals from the UK headquarters back on Earth," she says, skimming through the text anyway.
Kaidan nods. "I saw the ones from Berlin and Stockholm last night. Rome was flattened to the ground. Most of Europe has already been taken."
You know what you have to do, Anderson had said. She rarely doubts him - or herself for that matter - but this time the odds do seem monstrously high.
"Media's going to freak the hell out over this." The reality of it hits her as she speaks the words and she remembers seeing herself on those wide screens everywhere, declared so many different things over the years that she's lost track or at least pretended to forget some of the names. Bury them where she buries everything else for that laterthat never comes. "We need a strategy for that, too."
"You're right," Kaidan says, his voice coloured with distaste.
"Fighting for survival just isn't the same without a good serving of propaganda, you know."
He looks up, looks straight at her, and smirks a little despite the topic. She returns the half-smile with one of her own. And for a moment everything is like it used to be; she feels herself change, bleed into the image of the past where they'd crack desperate, sarcastic jokes about mutiny and capital offences because nothing else had made any sense.
Nothing makes any sense this time around either, but she finds that laughing is much harder than it used to be.
"I saw you on the news," Kaidan says suddenly. "Before Horizon."
"Oh." She almost jerks back in her seat, momentarily rendered useless by the dark swirl of images. She remembers that interview. Blundering through the Citadel like a living dead, reconfirmed as a sapient being on paper but still completely shaken, running into that damn camera and having to rattle off her well-rehearsed phrases once more. We all made sacrifices; we all share the losses. "Right."
"You bull rushed al-Jilani."
"Kaidan-" She remembers him too, his face as he approached her on Horizon, his voice, the way it was hard and tight and offin places.
"I didn't know you were alive." His tone is low, steady; she doesn't look at him. "I mean, there were rumours and I had spoken to Anderson, but I didn't know. Not until I saw you."
"I tried to contact you-" she cuts herself off. It's too close to the surface, too little distance between then and now. She had felt like a lab rat after Horizon, a test subject out on display for everyone to watch as she struggled to deal with her past alliancesand she can still feel the terror as she felt it when she understood that they had played games with her.
"It's not an accusation, Shepard." When she makes herself glance in his direction he winces visibly, and she looks away again. We all went to your memorial service, Anderson says in her head. I held a speech."And it's not an excuse. I just... I want to explain."
"Kaidan," she says again and this time their eyes meet over the datapads and the empty mugs on the table. There's a surge inside her, a violent protest. It seems like tearing up old injuries talking about it after so long, but that's what you get for being trained to contain all of your emotions and impulses, bottle it up inside until you burst at the seams. "We're not in high school. I read your letter."
He is silent for a while. "I wasn't sure you got that."
"Good." He sounds hesitant, like he's shuffling his own thoughts on the matter around before he says something else.
"Cerberus tracks all outgoing messages," she explains when he's not picking up the conversation again. She takes a deep, uneven breath. "I tried to cut all ties to protect you. All of you. I didn't want any more set-ups; Horizon was bad enough."
He frowns. "They told you I was there?"
"Yeah. They told me the Collectors might be going after you to get to me." She tries to smile, tries to slip back into a state of ease she hasn't felt in quite some time now. He looks at her like he understands what she isn't saying, a ghost of something crossing his features. "Hell, I'd go anywhere to pull your lazy ass out of the fire, Alenko. You know me. But I didn't want Cerberus to know that, too."
He chuckles at that and the sound of it shakes her slightly, a tremble through them both. This is why he undoes her, she knows again with full force. This way he has of simply accepting her unease and clumsily made-up covers for her own impulses, the way she treats her feelings like bullets – dodge and deflect, evade and move on. Until he simply stands there, dissolving all of her defences, accepting all of her emotions.
Around them, the borders of time and space seem to buckle.
"Commander," Jokers voice cuts into the air, demanding their attention. "Admiral Hackett on the line."
She nods, as though her helmsman can see her; as she rakes her fingers through her hair she notices Kaidan is still watching her, his expression unreadable to most people, but not to her. "Patch him through."
In her memory, there's this:
The quiet mutiny in everything they do, the uproar in his hands settling around her waist and her fingers mapping out the plane of his back that is warm and hard under her fingertips. The memory of his fingers in turn, mapping the way from her right breast to an impatient groan.
She has always wanted everything and here it is.
It's in the inches of skin, the small rises and crooks of unexpected scars; the way he touches and the way his breath catches as she slowly rocks them over the edge once more, one final time, a lame joke about stamina falling from her lips and his smile then, exhausted and wide-open.
"When this is over..." She breathes heavily, her lips brushing over the damp hair on his chest. "I have a list of about a hundred things I'd like to do with you."
"Only a hundred?" She can still hear traces of what they've just done in his voice, just as she can taste herself on his tongue, smell him on her hands. "Disappointing, ma'am."
"Don't 'ma'am'' me, soldier."
She lifts her gaze and catches a flicker of his grin. They're half-way through the most absurd decision of their careers and they're full of life and rebellion yet, their bodies carrying acts of bravery to last them at least a lifetime. Kaidan's hand tangles in her hair, his mouth seeking hers once more and she is wholly content and sated right there and then; she thinks of death and her own lack of fear; she thinks this is enough, as though she has finally managed to outrun her own greed.
"Here we go then," he says, pausing for a second outside the Citadel tower. "Looks like we're all alone again."
Shepard shrugs. She's past the point of managing to hide her uncertainty and it changes another pattern between them, reshaping all the little things that make them who they are to each other.
"Aren't we usually? The rank outsiders."
"I don't think you've ever qualified as a rank outsider, Shepard." He shakes his head, half-amused, half-dejected. She battles the urge to reach out and touch his face, hoping that by soothing it, she will soothe herself.
"The war isn't over yet."
"No." When he says it, it sounds like a sigh and she holds his gaze as she manages to catch it, wrapping one hand around his wrist. The corners of his mouth twitch.
There is mutiny is this, too. Their lives have always been shaped by oaths and outlined by regulations, orders, creeds. Even on the original Normandy, even as they broke all rules they had learned by heart - and occasionally mistaken for eternal truths - they had been guided by something else. Shrugging off the weight of all of that is a cause in itself. She's paid a heavy price for it. Too heavy, she thinks, as that little shadow flutters across Kaidan's face and disappears again in his firm glance.
"Do you think we stand a chance?"
Once, the question would have been ludicrous but now it seems to stretch out until it encompasses everything that has happened and everything that will happen before this is over. Their war has barely begun but it's already in their veins, dark and beckoning. One day, she swears to herself, closing the distance between them. One day when the constant measuring is over and they find the buffer zones and truces. One day when they live without scrutiny and observation she will stand before him with nothing but honesty and her lips will no longer close over the words trapped somewhere between regs and protocol.
One day, trust will not be dangerous.
"I don't think anything can stop you," he says and it's not the answer she wanted but somehow it's the right one, all the same.
Nothing is the same, but eventually everything's similar enough.
In the end, it's all about reclamation.
In her memory, he is precisely the same: his way of framing his intent with formalities, masking his questions with neutrality, levelling out everything with diplomacy and reason. His self-control, his dry sense of humour tickling at the back of her mind, the way he says her name when no one listens.
His mouth looks the same, the cadence of his voice unmistakably right when he responds.
His eyes, too, are the same, flashing with split-second hesitation but not an ounce of doubt and that distinction has always made all the difference to her. It's not as clear now; it's been muddied by time and experience and betrayal, by mistakes made and regrets kept deep in their hearts or worn bright on their sleeves. War paints everything in heavy streaks of grey.
But she finds, as he returns her kiss and deepens it, that it doesn't matter.
This matters: the feel of him, the taste, his self-contained smile and her cocky satisfaction to wring it out of him, the different angle on old memories and new scars. His energy alongside of her own, forming a shivering shield. How her hands over his chest mirror his teeth grazing the veins on her bare neck as they give in and let go.
And the rest is symmetry.