Chapter 21 of Valkyrie

Kaidan froze outside of the med bay supply room, unable to take another step. He had never realized how easily voices carried from the back room to this one. Under the circumstances, he simply could not help listening in.

“I am interested in you, Shepard,” the asari, Liara, was saying, her voice low and inviting. With just about any man, probably any woman, too, that voice would be hard to resist. Kaidan found himself sincerely wishing that Shepard would resist it.

“You’re interested in me?” Shepard’s voice sounded incredulous. “But we’re both women. Sort of.”

As Liara went on to explain the mono-gendered nature of her species, Kaidan wondered if he shouldn’t just leave. There was still time to slip out of the med bay. He knew he should do just that. But instead, he felt rooted to the spot.

“I read your file,” Liara was saying in her sultry voice. “What you did during the Blitz on Elysium – it was a remarkable act of heroism. I feel…drawn to you, Shepard.”

Well, Kaidan thought. If there was one way to piss Shepard off, it would be to mention the Blitz. True to form, Shepard’s tones were icy when she said, “You keeping tabs on me, doctor?”

“What? No!” Liara sounded worried now. Kaidan almost – almost – felt badly for her. “I just find you interesting.”

Shepard was silent for a moment, then answered. “Look, Liara, I’m flattered. But I’m interested in men – human men.”

Kaidan didn’t like to gloat, but a rush of triumph washed over him all the same.

“Human men?” Liara repeated.

“As in broad shoulders, deep soothing voice, five o’ clock shadow…” Shepard sounded as if she was smiling now. “Might not be quite to every species’ tastes, but…”

“You’re referring to Lieutenant Alenko, are you not?” the asari said quietly.

It was as if someone had suddenly stopped the galaxy. Kaidan could hear the sound of his own breathing as he waited for Shepard’s answer. Even the hum of the engines seemed to have died away. The thought occurred to him that he really should not be listening in, but he simply could not leave now.

“My relationships are none of your business,” Shepard said coldly. Kaidan could just picture the steely look in her eyes as he heard her voice. He knew that expression far too well.

“Of course not,” Liara said. “I just…I mean…” She sighed. “Humans are hard to understand, commander. I just thought that Lieutenant Alenko… Well, when you’re around him, you seem to be more…” Kaidan didn’t catch the next words.

“I care about Kaidan,” Shepard said, her steady voice startling him after he had been straining to hear Liara. He could scarcely believe the words and suddenly felt warm. “I care about him a lot,” Shepard continued. “But that’s not… Don’t spread that around. The mission comes first.”

There was no mistaking the chill in her voice now. She clearly thought the conversation was over. Kaidan suddenly realized that if he was caught standing out here, he would have more to worry about than whether Liara and the commander were spending time together. He’d have to worry about keeping his head on his shoulders.

“Of course, commander,” Liara was saying. “I’m so sorry…”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Shepard said, her voice softer now. As Kaidan turned to go, he heard Shepard say, “I value you as a friend, Liara. I hope that can be enough…”

I hope that can be enough.

The words rang over and over again in Kaidan’s head as he stood there, staring off into space next to his station, completely unable to concentrate. He knew he shouldn’t have listened in, but he had, and he simply couldn’t regret what he’d heard.

Shepard said she preferred men. She said she cared about him – him of all people. He wasn’t the sort of person to jump to conclusions, but he thought he just might go out on a limb here and assume that so far as he was concerned, Shepard might be open to something…more.

The thought made him feel both bolder and more cautious all at once. On the one hand, he no longer worried that she might not be interested in him. He had guessed as much – looking back, he saw that she had shown interest time and again in the past few months – ever since they had met, really. But on the other hand, the stakes were higher now. This wasn’t a simple flirtation. Something had grown up between them, something built on trust and respect and he didn’t quite know how to go about growing whatever they had into something more without damaging it.

I hope that can be enough.

Well, “just friends” might have to be enough for Liara, but Kaidan knew that it sure as hell wasn’t going to be enough for him. He just wasn’t quite sure what would be enough for him. Close friends? *Lovers? * Hell, what did he want? He knew that he wanted her. He just didn’t know quite how. He hadn’t allowed himself to think that way before. Whereas now…

Shepard chose just that moment to walk out of the med bay, rubbing her eyes and looking weary. Kaidan straightened at the sight of her. She turned and saw him, then came walking over with that purposeful stride of hers. Kaidan swallowed. She looked like she was on a mission. He just hoped he could play it cool.

“Commander?” he asked warily when she drew near.

“Kay – Lieutenant,” she said. “I just need to…to check in with you about the last mission.”

“The last mission?” he repeated.

“Yes,” she said decisively.

“You mean the one where we were asked to go clean up the Allaince’s mess once more or the one were we picked up Dr. T’Soni?”

“Doctor T’Soni,” Shepard said. “That’s what I meant. What do you think of her?”

Why was she asking him? he wondered. Kaidan shrugged and replied. “She seems nice enough. If you like the bookish sort.”

“You don’t like bookish women?” Shepard’s eyes narrowed.

“I like more adventurous women, commander,” he said. As soon as he said it, he wished the words back. That was probably too broad a hint, he thought, alarm rising in his chest. So much for trying to play it cool.

“Did you know that I like to read, lieutenant?” Shepard asked him. Kaidan frowned. She was acting playful now. He could tell by the way that she was just barely keeping from smiling. He just wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

“Ah, I didn’t think you had much time for that sort of thing, ma’am.”

“I haven’t had much time for reading, no.”

She fell silent. They stood there rather awkwardly for a moment. Then:

“Kaidan…” she began, just as he said, “Shepard…”

They both blinked and stared at one another.

“Did you just call me by my name, lieutenant?” she asked him.

“I didn’t mean to, ma’am,” he said hastily. Then he added, “Though, I might point out to you that you did the same to me.”

Shepard smiled. “I suppose I did,” she murmured.

Well damn , she thought. He’d actually called her ‘Shepard.’

Shepard had abandoned her given name a long ago and her nickname was something she’d put in the file only because the Alliance required that she have a first name. But she had never encouraged people to use the moniker. If people got close enough to her, they called her ‘Shepard.’ And there had been few people who ever called her ‘Shepard.’

The aliens on this ship had begun to do so: Garrus and Tali, Wrex and Liara as well. But she had figured that was more out of a misunderstanding of human etiquette than genuine friendship. Though even there, she was beginning to wonder if perhaps they intended the informality. But Shepard’s crew all still accorded her the respect – and the distance – of the title “commander.” So the fact that Kaidan had just called her by her name was completely inappropriate.

It also made her heart start pounding.

“Not commander?” she said, trying not to show how much he’d affected her. “Not ma’am?”

“I…” Kaidan seemed lost for words for a moment.

”‘Shepard’ is not exactly the way to address your commanding officer,” she told him. Somehow, her voice came out teasing rather than reprimanding. Great , she thought. At this rate, she might as well invite him to call her by a pet name.

“I’m not speaking to you as my commanding officer,” Kaidan said then, his eyes looking at her steadily. There was no mistaking his meaning: I’m not taking it back.

Shepard suddenly felt as though she was melting a little, which was ridiculous, because she never felt melty.

“Listen, Shepard,” Kaidan said, looking at her in a way he never had before – in a direct and determined way. His manner was not at all appropriate, given their relationship as officers. Yet Shepard found herself welcoming it. She knew she shouldn’t, but she couldn’t help herself.

“I wanted to talk to you, if you have a minute,” he told her. “There’s something I’ve been wanting to talk to you about.”

“Of course,” she replied.

“I’m not questioning your decisions,” Kaidan said, looking at her with that same determined expression. “Let me be clear about that. I’m just trying to help you out, here. We’re in – well, you’re in – a rough spot. You’re being hung out to dry between the Alliance and the council and I just want you to know… I’m looking out for you.”

“I know that, Kay – lieutenant. You always have my back in battle.”

“I’m not just talking about battle, Shepard – ma’am. I’m talking about… Look, if you need me in any way, I’m here for you. You said the other day that you wanted me here to help you do the right thing, and I want to help you make it through all this.”

“Is there some particular reason you think I can’t make it through this myself?” she asked, torn between being charmed and wondering if he had some other reason for this conversation.

Kaidan took a breath and sighed. “Yeah, okay. Here’s the thing: I’ve been in situations where people started down the easy path and it ended badly.”

“Are we talking about me here?”

“No, ma’am. I’m talking about me. About my past.”

Shepard cocked her head to the side. Kaidan typically said very little about his past. She found herself curious, and listened intently as he related the way he’d been raised as a child – raised rather badly on a research station by a sadistic turian biotic.

“Damn,” Shepard said, when he’d finished relaying the details of how he’d been treated, how many of his classmates had gone insane or died. She guessed that Kaidan was purposefully leaving off the worst of it, and the omission made her want to know more.

“Can I…” she paused. How did one say, I’d like to help you get over that? How did one help another person get over such a past?

“You don’t need to do anything,” Kaidan told her. “I didn’t tell you this to gain your sympathy.” He shook his head. “My point is this. When someone is special to you, you help them out. That’s how it works. You help them through sticky situations and you protect them.”

“Special?” Shepard blinked. “Protect?” And just when I thought my heart couldn’t beat any faster…

Kaidan frowned at her obvious surprise. “I…didn’t mean to…ah…”

“Didn’t mean to what?” she asked, hoping he wouldn’t take back what he’d just said.

“I don’t make a habit of complicating the chain of command, Shepard. I’m just trying to help.”

“Help.” She repeated the word – her voice placing it halfway between a statement and a question.

“As in…”

“I just don’t get many people offering to help,” she told him. “Giving me orders, asking for help, sure, but just *offering * help? Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Anytime I need it?”

“Anytime you need it,” Kaidan said, his eyes full of sincerity. Shepard suddenly found that she was having trouble thinking straight. And if her heart didn’t stop pounding…

“Look, if I’m out of line…” Kaidan began.

“No,” she said hastily, finding that she had begun to grin. “You’re not out of line. Well, hell, maybe you are.” She shook her head. “There are regs, Kaidan, but…” She broke off lamely, not sure if she was making matters better or worse.

“Regs,” Kaidan let out a breath. “Right, I keep… Look, I’m here to help, not make things worse. Just think about what I said, Shepard.”

“I will…Kaidan,” she said, thoughtfully. “I need to go, but I will think about it. About this.” As she turned to go she added, quietly:

“Probably more than I should.”