Micah wasn't certain what she'd been expecting upon arrival at basic. The shuttle she'd taken had been filled with an assorted mix of recruits, men and women from around Earth who had made the decision to serve the Alliance. Or at least, try. She wasn't certain what the wash-out percentage was these days, but Micah had spent the past twelve years or so making certain she wouldn't be one of them. Besides, having grown up a military brat, she'd figured she'd be prepared for just about anything they'd toss in her direction.

That was her first mistake, and one she vowed never to repeat.

From the moment they were woken up each morning until they dropped into their bunks at night, heads hitting the pillows as eyes closed in slumber, they were kept busy in training. Micah couldn't say she was surprised really. After all, that was the reason she was here. To become one of the best. A defender, protector, like her father had been. It was who she was meant to be.

But damn, it would have been nice to at least have a moment, say once a week, to just breathe for herself without having to have someone over her shoulder shouting reminders at her to do so. Just one moment is all I need ...

The first time she she had that opportunity was about four weeks into her training. Her daily schedule was established, her class pretty much set as those who hadn't been up to par had been weeded out. She'd even been told that she was being considered for officer school, an announcement that had startled her to a point, but she'd simply nodded, saluted and carried on. But that night, after climbing into her bunk, she'd managed a quick message out on her omni-tool before falling to sleep.

To: Kaidan Alenko

From: Shepard, Micah

RE: Hi

Hey, Kaidan. Just wanted to let you know ... so far, so good. Still a ways to go, but each day is getting easier. Oh, they seem impressed, too. Told me today they want to send me to officer candidate school after basic, so I guess sometime later this year I might finally graduate and actually get out there for a visit? Went on about my 'leadership skills' and such. Not sure where that came from, but oh well. I won't argue, I guess. Hope all is well at your end. M

To: Micah Shepard

From: Kaidan Alenko

RE: RE: Hi

Congratulations! I will admit, I'm not overly surprised by their decision to place you in an officer track. Plus, you've got family history on your side too. I have all the confidence in the world that you'll do well. Hell, you might even teach them a thing or two!

All is well here, though working at the orchard after so much time in London seems a bit of a let down, I suppose. Still, it is what it is. And there is a kind of ... peace to be found working with the land, I guess.

I'd half thought of telling you to 'stay safe' or 'keep focused' or the like, but I suppose you hear that too much at the moment from your drill sergeant, so I'll refrain. Instead, I'll just tell you that I look forward to hearing from you again sometime in the not too distant future. K

To: Kaidan Alenko

From, Shepard, Micah

RE: Aches and Pains

Kaidan ... tell me a story. Anything, please? I need the distraction. So damned sore and aching right now. Oh, it's not what you think, either. No, this was something else altogether. We were out on an overnight trek, no problem, right? Simulated battle conditions, wanting to see us react under pressure, that kind of thing. Well, one of my squaddies apparently had some deep seated issues ... something none of us was aware of ahead of time. When the 'attack' came, he just ... freaked. Of the four of us, one ended up with a broken hip, another with a separated shoulder. Me, I'm just banged and bruised a bit, no major issues there, but ... damn! Ended up using a stasis field on him just to keep him restrained until help could get there. I just ...

Okay, not being maudlin here really, but I'm going to tell you this anyway, just so you know. Just in case ... well ... Alright, I know I haven't talked about things much, my background before I met you, I mean. But, you came into my life at a time I really needed someone - to talk to, to lean on, just to be a friend. I-I want you to know how much that meant to me then, and still means to me now. Thank you, Kaidan. With all I am, thank you.

Right then ... moment of weakness over. Can I have that story now? Seriously, I need the distraction or I might just start tossing singularities around and swooping up nurses and medical staff in them just for the fun of it. I know you can imagine the kind of havoc I could cause ... M

To: Micah Shepard

From: Kaidan Alenko

RE: RE: Aches and Pains

So ... a story ... hmm ... I could tell you about the time that ... no, wait. Okay, not that time.

Hmm. What about ... Nope, not that one either. Sorry.

Okay, you've forced my hand. I guess I'll have to tell you about the time I met this tiny slip of a girl who had the entire medical staff of the hospital standing back at least ten feet, all alarmed for some reason. She had the most expressive eyes I'd ever seen, but they had such a sadness in them, a sense of loss and despair. Our paths only crossed for a moment before she looked away, but in that one moment, I knew enough. We shared something in common, you see. As I turned and walked away, I heard a voice cry out behind me - "Don't touch me!" she said. But it wasn't what she said as much as it was how she said it that spoke to me. I returned, thinking she might need help, but instead I found her holding off the entire medical staff all by herself. They say ignorance is bliss, and in this case I suppose they were right, because I stepped forward to help when no one else would, without any clue as to what had happened other than to see a frightened young woman holding down a man nearly twice her size with hardly any effort at all. After a few minutes, she realized I was not there to harm, that I only wanted to help ... and she's now my best friend.

Micah, I have to tell you that you did just as much for me, coming into my life that day, as you say I've done for you. You have helped me put a few things from my past into perspective, I guess. Certainly, you've given me a lot to think about. But I wouldn't trade any of that for anything. Just so you know.

Now just one question ... if you're just 'banged up,' why are you in hospital threatening the medical staff again? What are you not telling me? K

To: Kaidan Alenko

From: Shepard, Micah

RE: I'm peeved

Okay, why is it they won't let me use a shotgun here? Or a rifle? Those are by far the weapons I'm best with! GAH! I've been using a shotgun since dad taught me when I was ten! TEN! And a rifle almost as long! But no, they give me this tiny little pistol and just expect ... I ... grrrrrrrrrrrrr ...

To: Micah Shepard

From: Kaidan Alenko

RE: RE: I'm peeved

I get the feeling you aren't very impressed? (Right. I'll make sure to have my barriers in place when next we meet just to avoid injury in response to that.)

Anyway, where's the harm in getting better with another weapon? Besides, someone as lightweight as you would only be weighed down by such a clunker. Try the pistol. I bet anything you grow to like it ... K

To: Kaidan Alenko

From: Shepard, Micah

RE: You're so dead ...

Dammit, Kaidan!

Fine, I'll admit it ... the pistol isn't so bad (quit being so damned smug about it!). I've kinda grown to like it, actually. But now they want me to focus on an SMG. If I hear one more recitation about how I need to use lighter weight weapons to keep from hindering my biotics, I'm going to throw someone through the center of the target, I swear ... M

To: Micah Shepard My Little Firecracker

From: Kaidan Alenko

RE: RE: You're so dead ...

You are such a firecracker, you know that? But seriously, they are right. The less encumbered you are, the better it will be for you in the long run. I'm sure you've figured out by now that it's a lot less strain on your biotics when you carry less weight. And if not, it's about time you did learn it. If you're so adamant about using your rifle skills, come to the orchard on leave and we'll go hunting.

Oh, and dying at your hands? What a way to go ... K

To: Kaidan Alenko

From: Shepard, Micah

RE: Sorry

Sorry it's been so much longer in between messages this time. We had field maneuvers again. Longer trip, just got back. This time, things went much better, thank god.

Graduation will be day after tomorrow and, as of a few minutes ago, I got the official notification they ARE sending me on to officer candidate school immediately following graduation. I mentioned it in passing to Uncle David and he seemed pleased enough. He assured me mom would be too. I hope so.

Unfortunately, I think any chance you and I might have had (as small as it might have been) to see each other after basic has been lost because of it. It'll likely be New Years before I have any sort of leave, even if it's only for a few hours. I don't suppose you'd want to get away then at all? I'm sure by then I'll be nearly crazy to see a familiar face ... M

To: My Little Firecracker

From: Kaidan Alenko

RE: RE: Sorry

No apologies necessary. Congratulations on graduating, by the way. You'll probably get this message about a week afterwards, but just know I will be thinking of you. Wish I could see you in your uniform. Looking all smart and proper. A real marine. Just like you wanted. I'm sure you'll hear a lot of this, but I'm proud of you, Micah. You did it. And then some!

As for New Years, as much as I would love to meet up with you - a few hours or more, whatever leave you could grab - I'm afraid it just won't be possible. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Bear with me here as I try to explain this, okay?

There's something you need to know about my background. When I met you, I was coming off a very bad experience at BAaT. I won't go into details here, but at some point, I will tell you about it if you want. Anyway, for a long time, I felt like I was ... lost. Confused. I didn't know what to do, where to turn, how my life would end. I was, to put it mildly, messed up. For several years I tried to sort things out, decide what I wanted out of life, figure out where I needed to be.

And then I met you. Your focus, your drive, your dedication ... all of that must have spoken to me on some level. Watching you go through all of this, seeing you continue on in the same manner, you have become an inspiration for me. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've decided to enlist myself. Right now, I'm helping mom and dad with the orchard through the end of the harvest - don't want to leave them short handed. But I got in touch with Anderson (at dad's suggestion, of all things) and he's helping me prepare. I've been in touch with the people I need to. I've taken some of the initial tests, my biotic skills are well known to them. Apparently, they're also taken with my tech skills. Anyway, as of New Years I'll be off to basic myself.

So. I guess we'll have to see how things fall into place after that? I'm sorry if this disappoints you, but I now know this is where I need to be. I hope you can understand and accept that. K

To: Kaidan Alenko

From: Shepard, Micah

RE: RE: RE: Sorry

I'm only going to tell you this once, Kaidan, so make sure you're listening. How can I be disappointed when my best friend tells me that he's finally found his calling? The one person who helped me find and reach my own?

Of course I can understand and accept your decision. And, I'm glad you got in touch with Uncle David, by the way. He'll help you get through any red tape faster than a hot knife through butter.

As for us, well, we'll just have to find another time to meet up. I will admit, I do miss you. Seeing you sooner would be a hell of a morale boost, that's for sure! But then again, now that I'm at officer's school, at least I'm not being run quite so ragged all the damned time like at basic, so I guess things are improving. And actually (don't laugh), I'm kind of liking it here. It isn't ... easy, by any means, but things are going well. I don't know how to explain it .. I just ... get it? Does that make sense? Anyway, I'm very happy for you, you know. Please believe me.

Oh, and don't think I didn't notice your little 'name change' there, Alenko. Be forewarned ... I WILL even the odds ... M

To: My Little Firecracker

From: Kaidan Alenko

RE: Yes, ma'am!

*salutes smartly* Should I be quaking in my boots here or something? Just let me know ... I'd hate to give you the wrong impression ...

With Christmas just around the corner and OCS about to wrap up, I'm sure they've got you on your toes, so I'll keep this brief. Merry Christmas, Micah. I'll be thinking of you while we celebrate around here. (Just know that I'd much rather be spending it with you!) K

Micah swallowed tightly as she exited the shuttle. The first thing she noticed was the cold, despite her heavy jacket, the bite of the wind managed to sneak right up her back leaving her shivering. She was taking a chance doing this, putting him on the spot in front of his family. But when she'd realized that OCS was ending just two days before Christmas, it was all she could do to pull herself together and, with his mother's assistance, put this plan into motion. After a quick message to Laura Alenko to verify that Kaidan would indeed be home still and that she would be more than welcome to join them for the holiday, Micah had then made arrangements for the week's worth of leave she had between OCS and her first posting to be spent at the Alenko orchard. She'd even gone so far as to clear it with Hannah Shepard who, deployed out far across the galaxy, had agreed that they would barely have time to meet up and see each other for more than just a few hours before Micah would have had to turn around and go back, had agreed with her plan.

"Lieutenant Shepard?"

Micah turned, hand rising to shield her eyes from the bright sunshine bouncing off the surrounding snow covered ground. She nearly gasped aloud when she realized she must be looking at Kaidan's father. Father and son were the spitting image of the other! Nodding, Micah extended her hand. "Sir."

He chuckled as he shook her hand. "Alex, please. As of four months ago, I'm retired."

Micah smiled. "Good to meet you, Alex."

The drive out to the orchard took all of about twenty minutes. When they arrived, Alex grabbed her bag for her and nodded towards the shed behind the house. "I'll take your bag for you. He's back there if you want to surprise him."

Micah eyed the elder Alenko for a moment before flashing him a quick smile. "Thank you, Alex." She shrugged deeper into her heavy coat as she crossed the yard, the wind tousling her hair about her face. She could also feel the sting of the cold against her cheeks, but she ignored it. Reaching the door, she opened it and stepped inside out of the cold.

It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the darker interior, so during that adjustment period she focused on listening. Off to her left, she heard a shuffling sound, the heavy clank of what sounded like metal or something heavy being moved. Stepping quietly over to the entrance, she peeked inside ... Spotting him across the room, Micah swallowed tightly past the sudden lump forming in her throat. What was it she'd told him before? Seeing him would be a boost for her morale? Damn, THAT had been an understatement! Clearing her throat, she leaned casually against the door frame, arms folded across her chest, and commented dryly, "That's funny, I don't see any quaking in those boots, recruit."

If pressed, Kaidan probably would have admitted, but only to his mother, that he was simply going through the motions at this point. He had a week until he was leaving for basic. The orchard was well in hand, extra hands hired to take over the duties he'd been performing up to that point. So really, he just had the time on his hands.

Which was why he'd started the process of reorganizing the storage shed. Never mind he'd done it just weeks before. He had time to kill, no one but family to spend it with (which wasn't a bad thing, per se, just not what he wanted), he just needed a distraction ...

Which, of course, was why he'd least expected one and therefore jumped like a kid with his hand caught in his grandmother's cookie jar when he heard her voice behind him. Spinning around, he caught sight of her immediately. Their eyes met and locked and he managed, somehow, to take a step towards her without tripping over his own feet, or the equipment that was laying about due to his earlier efforts. "Shall I salute you instead, Lieutenant?" he inquired, arm lifting in place, a small smirk forming at his lips.

He watched her straighten and enter the room, surveying him in a casual manner. He held the pose, like any soldier would to a superior officer, waiting for her to return the gesture as was protocol. But she surprised him, moving to his side and reaching out to turn his hand just a touch, altering the angle just the slightest bit. "There," she murmured, though he noted she did not look into his eyes for a moment, "that's better."

"Is it now?"

Taking a step back, she executed a quick salute in return before lowering her arm, her usual cheeky grin taking over. "Indeed," she replied.

Eyes holding, he took a step closer. Reaching out, he brushed some of the dark auburn waves back from her face, noting how the wind had reddened her cheeks. "I think I must be hallucinating," he heard himself mutter quietly, his hand dropping from her hair to run lightly along her jaw.

"Hmm," she murmured though he thought it sounded more like the purring of a cat, "No more so than I am, I suppose." Her hand lifted then, covering his, and he watched her smile widen. "Kaidan ..."

He sighed, the sound of her speaking his name one of the more settling things he'd heard in a long while. Leaning towards her, he kissed the tip of her nose, not failing to miss the sound of her gasp at the touch. "What are you doing here?" he asked, eyes searching hers again. "I thought you were still at OCS?"

Her hands moved to grasp the front of his jacket as her smile widened. "I, um, graduated yesterday," she explained. "When I talked to your mom, she said you weren't leaving for basic until -"

He frowned. "You talked to my mother? When?"

"When you weren't in the same room, obviously," she replied matter of factly.

"Riiiiight." He sighed softly. "So ... you and mom cooked up this idea?"

"Oh no," Micah immediately insisted. "Your mother came up with this on her own. However, I ... might have mentioned I had a week's leave before I have to report to my duty station. And then she might have suggest I spend it here ..."

That had him chuckling. "I see." Both hands now resting on her shoulders, he advised with a knowing look, "Give mom and inch and she'll take a mile."

Micah made a noise that was a cross between a squeak and a cough, and it nearly set him laughing, but he managed to hold his composure. "So I gather," she returned.

Silence fell around them for a few long minutes then, but neither seemed to notice or care as they just stood there, middle of the room, staring at one another. When finally they spoke again, it quickly devolved into nervous laughter as they realized they'd spoken the other's name at the same time. "You first," they then tripped over one another again, until at last Kaidan just smiled and gave her a pointed look while raising an eyebrow as an indication she was to go first. The blush on her cheeks then nearly had him kissing her properly, the way he was feeling an increasing need to do, but he managed to refrain for the moment.

Memories of their goodbye in London still in the back of her mind and Kaidan's insistence that she speak first had her acting bolder than she might otherwise have done. Hands still holding onto the edges of his heavy denim jacket, Micah lifted herself on her toes and tilted her head back slightly until their eyes met. Her smile widened as he moved closer, stopping just a hair's breadth away from her. "Merry Christmas, Kaidan," she murmured before pulling herself up the rest of the way, her lips meeting his. She chuckled at the soft growl she heard escape his lips in reaction to her move. Merry Christmas, indeed.

A/N: My greatest appreciation and thanks to MireliAmbar, my long-standing beta, and to LadyJess for her insights into some of the more military aspects of this chapter!