The view was different, but still much the same. Instead of an overcrowded farm, it was an orchard on another continent with a house equally as old, the floorboards worn away from a few centuries' worth of pacing. It was quieter, too, in that there were less voices, though not if the overall volume was measured instead. Loud: that was how Kate was raising her son, and no one else seemed to disagree. Happy and loud was something they'd all earned.
But for the time being it was quiet, blissfully so, and the only noise at all aside from the birds chirping and the wind blowing outside the home were the quiet, slow sounds of measured breathing as the occupants of the home slept. In the big wooden bed probably nearly as old as the house itself, Kate slept on her side, buried beneath blankets. At her back was Garrus, spooning in close, his forehead resting at the nape of her neck, while her front was claimed by the only person left in the galaxy that carried some of her own bloodline. Nathan curled up into the fetal position, facing in towards his mother, his knees tucked to her abdomen, his face buried against her chest.
The autumn air wasn't the only thing to blame for how close the three of them gathered together across the mattress—although the warmth they provided each other certainly didn't hurt—but rather it was still an earlier learned behavior, stemming from that time they'd shared together across the world in a much smaller room and its far tinier bed. And though having the two and a half year old in their bed wasn't an every night occurrence, there was no denial from Kate that she felt safer with her boy drawn in close, not to mention it usually meant he fell asleep with greater ease and stayed that way for far longer than he tended to otherwise.
What felt like a lifetime ago, the subtlest of creaks in the house would have set her off, alert and awake and ready for harm. That part of her had been reprogrammed, replaced by a natural intuition for her own child's cries, and as the house hummed with the soft thumps and clacks of the front door unlocking and opening, all of it followed by the soft footfalls of someone passing through the floor below them, Kate only awoke at the outer periphery of her consciousness. It was a common sound, at least over the last few years, and her mind made the necessary adjustments without pulling Kate into full and alert wakefulness. Instead, she simply nudged her elbow lazily back into Garrus behind her.
"Get up," she said, voice muffled through sleep and the pillow she spoke half into.
Garrus groaned, shifting, but only slipped his arm around her, pulling her a fraction of an inch closer.
"Kaidan's home. Go make him coffee."
"You make him coffee," he grumbled, but each word was another step towards waking.
"Sleepy," she barely got out, and just as he'd done a moment before, she tightened her arm around her son, cradling the boy to her like he was still an infant. Nathan breathed out a content yawn from where he slept, nuzzling his cheek to the cloth of his mother's top. "Be a good turian," she teased, even still only partially-awake.
It was a battle he couldn't win, even if he was determined to be the victor one of these days. Forcing Kate to get up would mean Nate would also, with all likeliness, wake up, and in one of his grumpy moods, no doubt. In a perfect world, Nathan would simply roll over and take up Kate's spot against Garrus, but such large disturbances could only be glossed over when exhaustion was still a likelihood for the boy. It was morning though, and after a relatively decent bedtime, Nathan would probably just get up and whine for the next hour, frowning and refusing to eat breakfast for being woken up before he was ready.
Garrus climbed out of bed from the opposite side, tucking the blanket back around Kate to keep her back as warm as possible with the other body gone, and heading to the closet, pulled a tunic on over his bare chest. He didn't bother to fasten the sides as he walked, letting it hang open and loose and over the tighter fitted waistband of the pants he'd worn to bed.
"Good man," Kate said, a single eye open as she watched him go.
"Yeah, yeah," and though his voice was quite the opposite, the smile at the edge of his widely cut mouth lifted with the hint of a smile as he headed downstairs.
As it turned out, Kaidan was already manning the coffee pot, pouring the ground beans into the filter and pushing the uppermost portion closed as the water began the process of superheating itself in preparation for brewing. It was a skill Garrus had learned of at C-Sec and honed through his time with the mostly human crew of the Normandy even if turians had no such exact equivalent. Tea, however, seemed to be universal among the species, and with a nod of his head to Kaidan as he passed, Garrus put the kettle on the stove to begin to boil as well.
"Look tired," he said to Kaidan, using the countertop for support.
He sounded about as good as he looked, eyes heavy-lidded and dark. Kaidan scrubbed his palm over his face. "Not at all," he said with a bit of a joking grin, and after the break of silence, both men erupted into a shared moment of laughter.
"Got any good stories since your last leave?" Garrus asked. "We both know I've got to live vicariously through you now for my own thrills."
"Nothing too exciting," Kaidan remarked with almost a bit of sadness.
Though some small part of them both longed for the days of action and excitement—at least the days when things went right and no one came home missing any significant pieces of themselves—there was a certain appreciation for the easiness life had provided as of late. It was a constant.
"Should just get some sleep while you can," the turian suggested, rocking his head from side to side to work out the kinks from the sleep he'd gotten, sleep that Kaidan most definitely had not found in the last twenty four hours.
"They still in bed?" Kaidan chanced a glance to the ceiling to where Kate and Nathan slept above them, and then dropped his eyes with a shake of his head, laughing to himself. "I think they'd stay there all day if we left them alone together."
"They have," Garrus said with evidence of both humor and pride. "I can't remember whose idea it was or why it got started, but somehow I ended up being the one who had to cook and bring all their meals to them. Stayed in their pajamas until the next morning," he dismissed with a shake of his head.
"Better you than me."
"If I recall—" Kate appeared through the doorway, pushing the ever falling down strap of her tank top back in place, and then running both her hands through her hair, the short ends sticking up and out all over. "We invited you to dinner with us," she said, eyeing Garrus. "And you enjoyed it very much. Even got crumbs in the bed."
Sheepish, Garrus couldn't be bothered to truly attempt hiding his smile.
"Morning," Kaidan offered as Kate stepped by, a bee-line made directly for the coffee maker. She gave an aggravated sound at pulling the glass pot out just enough to sense in the weight, as well as the look of it, that it was still empty. The top hissed, however, telling her it would be done soon.
"Sorry," she said, and moved back to him, this time stopping to kiss his cheek—a gesture he returned—and rub his upper arm up and down, as though restoring some kind of warmth to him. "You know I'm not a morning person."
Garrus made a self-satisfied hum of agreement from where he was, pulling the teapot off the stove as it whistled loudly. Kate took a dishtowel from the counter and tossed it in his general direction, a warning for the smugness he displayed, but turned her attention again to Kaidan.
"Little guy?" He inquired.
"Not quite ready to get up," she answered, pulling three mugs from one of the cabinets, passing one to Garrus and keeping the other two for herself while the coffee began its slow drip. "How long are you home for?"
"Who knows," he said exasperatedly. "Couple weeks, maybe. Until someone calls and…"
"Just in time, then."
He raised a rather questioning eyebrow. "For what?"
"Those apples aren't going to pick themselves."
"I thought you had people who do that for you? You've always had people," he talked quick, backtracking and trying to excuse himself out of the responsibility. "Hell, even my parents had people."
"But it's more fun to have a biotic cursing because he thinks he can get the ones from the top without using a ladder."
"I can handle some fruit," he argued, taking the mug from her as she passed the steaming ration of morning caffeine.
"I've been working on a theory," Garrus spoke up, cup of herbal tea held to his mouth. "That Kaidan here always manages to plan his time off to make sure it doesn't coincide with any of the harvests, no matter the season. Crazy idea, huh?" He pointedly looked towards Kate, who was all too willing to play along.
"Suspicious," she agreed. "Even your parents are coming out to stay for a little while and help. What kind of role model are you? Shirking your duty so you can lay around and watch us do all the work. Poor Nathan's going to be out there with his wagon, picking up all the ones off the ground and dear old Dad's going to be on the couch with a beer."
"Oh shut up," he jokingly growled, and the room descended into mutual fits of light laughter. "When are they coming?"
"Few days, I think," and she looked back towards Garrus for confirmation. He only had an unsure shrug of his shoulders for her. "They came for the weekend two weeks ago—"
"Mommy?" A little voice called from the hallway, the vowels dragging for far longer than they should've. Again came the holler, growing more impatient and frenzied at no immediate response. "Down," Nathan said, repeating endlessly.
"Down?" Kaidan mouthed, but didn't say aloud, a glance given towards both Kate and Garrus.
"Slipped on the last stair last week and fell on his butt," Kate explained while she headed for the doorway.
"Which has apparently traumatized him from ever going down them again," Garrus finished for her. "Up, no problem. Down?" He shook his head.
Out in the hallway, Kaidan could hear Kate speaking to their son from the foot of the staircase. He didn't see her, but could imagine the hands on her hips, feet spaced slightly apart for good footing as she used her most compelling voice to convince Nathan to quite literally, pick himself up after the fall and try again.
"We're going to be having pancakes down here," she said, trying to lure Nathan through his stomach. "And you're going to be up there all alone because you're afraid of some stairs."
Nathan just whined, and though there was the sound of a cry, they'd all learned his particular pleas and manipulations by now to know there was no measure of real sadness there, just an attempt at getting his way.
"Mommy," he called again to tug on her heartstrings.
"Will you at least hold my hand and try it?"
He was vehement in his denial of the scenario. "No. No, no. No."
"Come down on your butt then, like you did when you were a baby."
"No," he responded, this time louder and firmer, and then tried another tactic. "Papa?" Nathan yelled, searching the home for Garrus.
Kaidan smiled as he sipped his coffee. All his son's difficult behavior aside—and boy, the kid came with a lot—he marveled at the way his personality had formed as time passed. He had interests: songs he favored, even sung along to in his own tone deaf nonsense language whenever he heard them; toys and objects he couldn't live without; mannerisms he'd inherited by biology or through learning them from his parents; even a preference for the order in which he ate the pieces of food on his plate. How so much personality could be packed into a child of that size, he didn't know, and all the more he regretted spending so much time away from Earth.
"What if I told you I had a surprise for you?"
There was no immediate answer from Nathan that time, likely considering the question and how to reply with his limited vocabulary. Kate took a step back, just far enough to see into the kitchen, motioning a hand in Kaidan's direction. He set his mug down, and with a smile that wouldn't easily leave his face, he stepped into the hallway and approached the foot of the stairs.
"Hey buddy. You gonna' come downstairs and say hello?"
It was hard to leave Earth behind—dare he say even harder than it had been when the Reapers had arrived and the planet was in jeopardy—because of the son he left there. He was in good hands—Kate had done a remarkable job, and Garrus, too, when he wasn't off-world and working for the hierarchy, but regardless, it was hard to say goodbye to Nathan, especially as he grew older and wiser and began to understand his father's absence. When he was a baby, it had been a kiss to his son's cheek and off he went with the hope he could return before Nathan had grown far too much, but now their farewells usually involved tears from both of them, and desperate little begging requests that his father say, or at the very least, take him with him. It was tempting, even if the boy wouldn't have made it ten miles from home before crying for his mother, but somehow the light on Nathan's face at seeing his father return made the pain almost worth it.
The toddler's expression was just that, one of joy and delight. No doubt that Kate had told him all about when his dad was expected to come home, but he knew all too well that reminders like that, especially with measures of time, tended to barely make an impression upon his young mind. Christmas, that's what it was like. Like every time Kaidan came home it was Christmas.
Nathan didn't move, just excitedly stomped his bare feet like he was walking in place, even bounced on his knees while holding onto the railing at the top of the stairs. He reached a single hand out towards Kaidan. "Daddy, get me down," he ordered, and though his understanding of language had grown, his words were still a mumbled mess, but a mess that they were all used to deciphering, at least.
"What if I meet you half way?"
He wanted to stick to Kate's plan, wanted to try to convince the boy to not be so afraid after such a small fall, but the kid knew how to play his cards and after his absence—only seeing one another in their routine vidcomms every other night—Kaidan was a sap. He jogged up the stairs like they were nothing, and when his little boy raised his hands skyward, Kaidan had him in his arms, kissing at the crown of his head while Nathan pawed at him all over, from the stubble of his beard to the collar of his shirt, even the lobes of his ears.
"I missed you too," Kaidan breathed the words quietly against the shoulder of his son's brightly colored pajama set.
Back on the ground floor, Kate couldn't stay out of the middle of it and joined in, kissing Nathan's cheek and receiving one immediately in return, as per their morning ritual.
"What about Daddy?" She prompted, more so than asked.
Nathan shook his head in a shy, guilty expression and then immediately went in for the kill, leaving a sloppy kiss to the middle of Kaidan's cheek. It was unskilled, and in the right light there was even the glistening remains of saliva left to mark its place, but his father didn't wipe it away.
Kaidan beamed with pride. "That's my boy."
"Pancakes?" Nathan said, already distracted, and looked back to his mother expectantly.
Her eyes rolled, shoulders slumping. "Guess we have to make them now. Hey baby, why don't you go ask Papa if he'll help you make breakfast for us? You're so good at mixing the batter, aren't you?"
"I heard that," Garrus halfheartedly protested while the rest of them returned to the kitchen. Kate tucked herself into his side apologetically, arm curling behind his waist. "Thanks for volunteering me."
"You love it," she argued, rolling up onto the balls of her feet to lay a kiss to his mandible, tame and reserved which was par for the course when they weren't alone. "Now get cooking. I'm hungry."
"You just going to stand here and watch?"
"Mm, Kaidan and I are going to have coffee on the porch."
"We are?" He looked up from where Nathan was pulling at his tiny shirt, showing off the character printed there to his dad.
"Yeah, now hand the kid over, grab your cup, and pray we still have some maple syrup so you don't implode if we make you use the fake stuff."
"I find it hard to believe," he scoffed, and only put Nathan down when the boy patted at his arm hurriedly, "you could find that imitation garbage anywhere within five hundred miles of here."
Kate abandoned Garrus' side to lead Kaidan by the elbow, her own mug in the other hand. "That's right, keep talking, let the rage flow through you right outside. And you two—" she turned sharply at the last minute, "behave."
But Garrus and Nathan were already lost to her, the boy perched on the counter's edge kicking his legs out and letting them fall back into the cabinet door below. Excitedly, he mimed the action of mixing an imaginary spoon into the empty glass bowl Garrus had already set out. They were laughing together about something, Garrus stopping to tickle the boy's neck and sides with his blunted talons and fingertips, and Nathan responding with shrieking giggles, squirming where he sat as he tried to avoid the gentle torture.
"Okay, okay," she heard Garrus say and saw him lift his hands to give up, and just when Nate was breathing easy, he dove back in, returning to the previous small thrill. Breakfast would be ready in two hours at this rate, but the growl in her stomach would have to cope with it. She wouldn't bother the two of them for anything in the world.
Kaidan had taken the initiative to continue on out the front door by time Kate looked back to him, and when she caught up he'd already found a comfortable seat in one of the chairs on the covered porch.
"I used to play out here when I was little," he said.
"Yeah? I thought your parents didn't get this place until you were a teenager."
"They didn't," he clarified, "but it's been in the family forever. It was my grandparents' place, and whenever my dad returned to extended service, Mom and I usually came out here. I used to think she did it to give me a distraction from him being gone, but I think she needed it too."
He was probably right, Kate knew from having gotten to know his folks over the last two years. They were very much a unit, people that functioned best with the other, and she knew now firsthand as a mother how hard it was to be alone sometimes when both Kaidan and Garrus were gone at overlapping intervals. Kaidan's mother had more than once dropped by to give her and Nathan the much appreciated company during those times.
"What'd you want to talk about?"
Kate leaned her hip into the railing, her back against one of the supporting posts. "Maybe I just wanted to avoid cooking and clean-up."
"Maybe," he nodded, "but I know you better than that."
She smiled to herself, looking out over the stretch of fields that spread out for acres surrounding the main home. Some—most of it—was occupied with apple trees of varying types of the fruit coming in all kinds of mixtures of tartness and sweetness, while the rest was partitioned into hunks of land laid out for other crops that were in season or already long harvested in more ideal temperatures. Behind the home there was even the small greenhouse, the one they'd set up the year before and with much care, that now delivered to them a small yield of dextro crops. Not enough to sustain Garrus completely, but a pet project Kate maintained separate of the rest of the plant matter that was sold to feed the local areas.
"You think maybe you could watch Nathan for a few days?" she finally asked.
"Of course," he answered. "I wouldn't worry about me, just about how he's going to handle being away from you."
That was a concern of hers as well. Save for the odd night here and there, mother and son were yet to be separated. It would be quite the test.
"Where are you going?"
"Palaven, I think."
Kaidan lifted his head right away. "You and Garrus—you going to finally get married—bonded? Whatever they call it there."
A shake of her head dismissed the idea. "We're a long way off from that, if ever. Just thought it was finally time to actually, you know, meet his family, and it's not exactly the best place to bring a kid. Even if Nathan were to wear a suit—"
"The radiation, I know. Not worth the risk of exposing him to it. When were you thinking of going?"
"Soon, I guess, if you're going to be here. We've kind of just been waiting for the chance."
Kaidan set his cup on the small end table between his chair and the next. "I think I can manage him on my own for a few days."
"That's what you think," she teased, but the smile she wore fell away not too much later. Her lips pursed, the rest of her face tense.
"I can tell you're thinking about something—just spit it out."
"You still seeing that guy? The nurse?"
A twitchy, nervous hand was drawn to the back of his neck, scratching the hair and skin there as he avoided her gaze. "Yeah," he coughed. "From time to time."
"You can bring him here, you know."
"I know the situation we've got set up here is… a little unconventional. Me, Garrus, Nathan, you whenever you feel like popping in. Your parents showing up from time to time. But it's our home, you know? All of us. And Nate's your son—if someone's important to you, and you want to, I mean, you should bring them home to meet him."
His cheeks burned so hot he was sure his skin was bright red, embarrassment apparent on his face. "I'm just… not sure how serious it is, is all."
Kate nodded to herself, but it was the knowing kind of look that revealed she understood more than he gave away in his outward words. "It's okay to move on."
Kaidan didn't even glance up. That heat was replaced with a chill, a shiver down his spine. "Yeah. I know."
"No, I don't think you do."
"I never told anyone this, but after the Citadel, sometime between when things went to hell and I woke up, I saw Shepard."
That drew a sharp response out of him, his head shooting up to regard her.
"I don't know if I was dreaming or having a moment of psychosis or if it was really her or what," she said defensively. "But I was back on Mindoir with Shepard, back on the farm our parents had. She told me I had to come back, that it wasn't my time yet. And she said… Shepard said she missed you."
Had it been anyone else saying such a thing, the confession wouldn't have held any weight at all. Life after death, that wasn't something he truly believed in. Maybe it was something he hoped was real for the selfish reason of wanting to see Shepard again, but whether he truly believed in it or not… that was something he wouldn't ever understand until after his life had come to an end. For Kate to say it, though, especially after holding onto it as a private memory for so long—he had to admit, it had meaning he couldn't quantify.
"And she wouldn't want you to waste your life waiting for her. She'd be pissed, in fact."
A stunted laugh was caught in his throat. "Sounds like her."
"So be happy, Kaidan. And don't hold back on her account or mine or Nathan's. We're your family, you'll have us no matter what."
Though he wasn't able to manage it on the sly, Kaidan wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes with the side of his hand, blinking away the rest. Shepard. He missed her so much. But the things he had gained in her absence—this family Kate spoke of—it made it a little easier.
Kate came forward, brushing her fingertips across his cheekbone. "Now come on. You've got to be hungry."
They went back inside, and all together, the four of them shared breakfast.