Kaidan walked into the plaza. He saw the chairs lined up in neat rows, saw a stage set up under the rhododendron trees. He saw a coffin on that stage. It would be empty, he knew, and he felt numb at the sight of it.
To the right of the stage was a wall that spanned several stories. The door in that wall was open, and through it, Kaidan could see a path, could see trees and flowering shrubs, and, half-hidden from view among the foliage, a gazebo made to look like a Japanese pagoda. It was painted deep red.
From across the plaza, Kaidan caught the scent of cedar. He closed his eyes, unable to stop the memories as surely as he was unable to stop breathing.
” Come here, lieutenant.”
” Still giving orders ma’am? I thought we were off duty for the evening.”
” This isn’t an order, Kaidan. This is that ambush you were talking about.”
Kaidan had chuckled, had let her pull him by the lapels into a gazebo in the center of the garden. The trees were dark around them, the path behind them barely visible in the dim light of the nebula, gleaming down from the glass ceiling above. He could no longer see the locked door from here. All around them, the air was damp and quiet.
“Wait a minute, Shepard,” he’d whispered. “Let me…” Kaidan let go of her to reach for his sleeve.
“You brought a condom?” she blinked. “We were headed to Ashley’s funeral this morning and you were that sure you’d get lucky?”
“No,” he said, caught between a laugh and a frown. “I wanted to shut off any security cams.” He tapped his arm and an omnitool flickered to life. After a few taps, he let it dim again. “It’s too dark for anyone to have seen us enter, but if our biotics start up…”
“Which they usually do,” she said. “In which case, we’d be giving off a light show.”
“Some kind of show,” he chuckled. “And no. I didn’t bring any condoms.”
“Hmm.” She considered that. “Well,” She gave a one shoulder shrug. “I had my shot last exam.”
“You got a birth-control shot?”
“It’s standard,” Shepard told him. “I should be good for a few months here. You clean, Alenko?”
“I was last exam,” he told her. No point in mentioning how long he had gone without really needing a sexual exam before meeting her.
“And here I was a virgin at last exam,” Shepard laughed. “Alright. Seems like we’re good to go.”
Kaidan swallowed and looked at her. “I didn’t think of all of that last time.”
“Neither did I,” she said, giving him a crooked grin. “But considering we were headed into possible death and certain dismemberment, it didn’t seem all that important, did it?”
“Yeah,” Kaidan nodded. “Speaking of dismemberment, how are your ribs?”
Shepard’s grin grew wider. “See, this is the great thing about having sex with a medic. They know the body so well.”
Kaidan frowned at her. “I’m serious.”
“So am I. Don’t worry so much, Kaidan. We can do this without hurting each other.”
“If you’re sure,” he said doubtfully.
“For an ambush,” Shepard told him, “You’re giving me plenty of time to rally my defenses.”
“Do you need defending, Shepard?”
“Against you?” she asked, “Never. Now, if you’re done worrying, let’s do this.”
“Do what?” Kaidan asked innocently. “I was just taking you for a walk.”
“Not anymore, you’re not,” Shepard said, grabbing his labels again and pulling him into the gazebo. There was a wide bench against one wall, and she turned him around and pushed him down to sit on it.
“For someone who’s new at this, you’re awfully certain about what you want,” Kaidan said with an appreciative smile. He grabbed her by the waist and pulled her towards him. Shepard straddled him, placing her knees on the bench on either side of him.
“I’m a quick learner,” she told him. “That, and I’ve had a long time to imagine what I want.”
“And what do you want?” he asked. His voice became rough as she began kissing her way along his jaw.
“Right now? You.” She began unbuttoning his jacket.
“On this bench?”
“Whatever the commander wants,” Kaidan murmured, reaching to unbutton her jacket.
Kaidan squeezed his eyes shut, unable to bear the memory anymore. Looking up, he saw that the plaza had begun to fill with people. He didn’t recognize any of them. There were diplomats, press reporters – a lot of reporters. He frowned. Of course, the media would have a field day with all this. The thought made him angry. He knew how much Shepard had disliked the press – all except for that one reporter, Emily Wong.
As Kaidan sized up the crowd, he saw a face he recognized. Ambassador Udina saw Kaidan as well and came bustling over to him.
“There you are,” the ambassador snapped. “You’re..ah…” He glanced down at his datapad.
“Commander Alenko,” Kaidan said. The new title still sounded wrong to his ears.
“Right,” Udina nodded. “Your seat is up there. You’ll be going after the asari.”
“The what?” Kaidan blinked.
“You’ll be speaking after the asari. Keep it simple; keep it short. We have about twenty speakers and we don’t have time for anyone to get long-winded.”
“You expect me to give a speech?” Kaidan was dumbfounded.
“Anderson didn’t tell you?” Udina frowned. “Well, come up with something quick,” he waved a hand impatiently. “Otherwise I’ll have to let that elcor make a speech like he threatened to do.”
Udina hurried away and Kaidan stared after the man.
He couldn’t make a speech.
He wasn’t even sure if he could get through this.
“You sure you’re going to be able to get through this, Shepard?”
Kaidan had been caught between amusement and concern. The woman was determined to have sex with him right there on that bench, but she was in no condition to be making any sudden, athletic movements.
Though damn it if she didn’t keep trying to.
“Shepard,” he said, even as he leaned in to kiss her throat. “Maybe we should…”
“Stop?” she murmured. “No way. We don’t have a whole lot of chances to do this. I don’t intend to waste this one.”
“Your ribs, though…”
“Okay, Alenko, that’s it,” she said, drawing back from him. With her biotic energy shimmering over her face, Kaidan almost missed the wicked gleam in her eye. “If you keep that up, then we’re going to have to stop worrying about me and just worry about you.”
“What do you…?” Kaidan broke off and swallowed hard as Shepard slipped off of his lap. She knelt on the floor before him, then pushed his knees apart and reached for his belt.
“You’re not serious…” he began.
He didn’t get much further than that.
Kaidan felt a muscle in his jaw tense. There was no way that he could think up a speech. Not now. Not when all he could think about was the smell of cedar and the way that Shepard had touched him that night.
“My God,” Kaidan had breathed when she was done with him. He looked down at her, feeling suddenly awkward. All that faded though when she lifted her head and grinned up at him.
“Good,” she said smugly. “That is *exactly * the reaction I was going for.”
“You’re going to make me insane one of these days, you know that?” he murmured. He was awash in biotic fire, could scarcely think. His mind seemed to have gone blank. “What about you?” he asked at last.
“What about me?” she raised an eyebrow and began to gently button up his pants. Kaidan watched her in a daze as she straightened his uniform, then rose to sit beside him on the bench. She reached over, gently turned his face to hers and kissed him lightly on the lips.
“You’re…” he let his eyes drift shut at her kiss. “That’s just not fair.”
“How is that not fair?” she wanted to know.
“It’s just not.”
Shepard chuckled. “So what are you going to do about it?” she asked him.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “What can I do? If I touch you, I’m going to break something.”
“I know of one part of me that isn’t broken,” she murmured. “At least, I don’t think it is.” She paused. “On second thought, maybe I ought to get the opinion of a medical professional here.” She took his hand in hers and began to guide him to her belt.
“How the hell did you get a reputation as an ice maiden?” Kaidan asked, placing his hand where she directed him to.
“Beats me,” she shrugged. “Actually, I know why. It’s because only you know what I’m really like.”
Kaidan smiled at that and began to reach further down. “Yeah,” he said. “And what you’re *really * like is unbelievable. As in, no one would believe me if I told them.”
“You planning on telling someone?” Shepard’s laugh turned to a gasp as Kaidan touched her.
“Telling someone about this ?” he murmured, relishing the way she became liquid against him, the way she shimmered instantly with blue-white fire. “Not a chance in hell. This is between you and me, Shepard.”
“Alenko!” Kaidan broke free from that memory in time to see Captain Anderson striding over to him. Kaidan snapped to attention at once.
“Sir,” he said, his voice as rough as sandpaper.
“I’m sorry, lieutenant,” Anderson said. “I completely forgot to ask you about saying a few words. I…” The captain broke off as someone called for him via a comm link. The captain held his hand up to his ear.
“We don’t have room for…” He frowned. “Alright. I’ll be right there.” He looked to Kaidan apologetically. “It seems we don’t have enough seats,” he said. “Excuse me, Alenko.”
Kaidan nodded as the captain wandered away. That left him alone again, alone in the milling crowd, alone in the growing noise of people murmuring and of chairs being pulled back across the metal floor. Funny how people always came early for a funeral, he mused. Across species even, it seemed to be a trend.
Without meaning to, without wanting to, Kaidan’s eyes flicked back to the open doorway, the one leading into the garden, and he found the memory returning…
“What are you thinking, Shepard?” he whispered. His voice sounded strangely loud in the quiet garden.
“Thinking?” She gave a soft laugh that turned into a sigh. “Kaidan, that would imply that I was capable of thought right now.”
“You feeling okay?”
“More than okay. Like I said – medics.” She opened one eye and glanced up at him from where she’d buried her head against his chest.
Kaidan smiled, pulled her into his arms as tightly as he could without hurting her.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“Not at all,” she smiled, pushed her hair out of her eyes. She rested her head back against his chest and sighed. They sat like that for a long while, until finally Shepard said, “So, what was that about wanting to take me for a walk without any attacks? Seems to me we both got taken down.”
Kaidan chuckled. “Hey, you were the one who laid the ambush.”
“Did I?” she snorted. “I think the ambush was mutual.”
“Yeah,” he said. He swallowed and then looked out into the dark garden.
“Whoa,” she said, twisting away to look up at him, “What just happened there? I lost you, Kaidan. Where did you go?”
“I just…” He pressed his lips together. “I didn’t actually plan this, Shepard. I kind of hoped, but I didn’t plan.”
“It worked out well either way,” she told him. “What’s bothering you?”
“I…” He looked down at her and caught her eyes. Even in the low light, they were sparkling a little.
“You always looked right at me,” he told her.
Her brows furrowed. “This is a bad thing?
“No,” he shook his head. “Just an unusual one.”
“I look at you,” she repeated. “Does that mean other people don’t?”
“I think,” he said slowly, “other people see the biotics, or the L2 implants. They see the lieutenant - but not me. I get commendations for missions, I get credit where credit is due. But even so, I guess I’ve always thought of myself as, well, as the kind of guy who tends to get overlooked. And you’re the sort of person people notice, Shepard.”
“Are you saying you’re jealous of me?” She frowned, pushed herself up to a seated position.
“Not at all,” he told her. “You deserve the credit you got – that you’re getting. And I’m proud to have been a part of everything you’ve done here. It’s just – I’m not the kind of guy who stands out in a crowd.” He frowned and looked away. “It’s just strange to me that you noticed me.”
“Kaidan…” she murmured. Her heart felt like it was twisting at his words. “How can you say that? How could I not notice you? Aside from having the best ass on the Normandy, there’s no way I could ignore that hot biotic energy of yours.”
Kaidan frowned at her.
“Okay,” she said, forcing herself to look more serious, “I’m not quite sure that I understand. Why *wouldn’t * I notice you? You fascinated me from the moment I met you.”
Kaidan looked at her doubtfully.
“Besides,” she went on, “You’ve seen me for who *I * really am. For all the attention that I get, it’s mostly just publicity for the Alliance or the Council. The real me is a lot more messed up than the Spectre on the vids..”
“Shepard, you’re more than just the Spectre.”
“Yeah, well, you’re more than just the beautiful assistant.” When he still frowned, she gently touched his cheek. “Hey, look. We’re both more than the world gives us credit for – both good and bad. That’s what I like about us, Kaidan. When we’re together were just ourselves.”
He smiled at that. “You’re right. How is it that you got me to be myself when there were days I didn’t even know who I was anymore?”
“I dunno,” she replied. “You did the same thing to me.” She smiled, then made a face, “Okay, that’s too much mushy stuff. I think we need to move on, here.”
“You’re wanting more, ah…?” he asked, hopefully.
“Actually,” she admitted, “My back is killing me. This bench is pretty hard…”
“Damn it, Shepard,” he said, standing and hauling her to her feet, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I just did.”
“I mean before.”
“Well, I didn’t want to kill the moment. We were having a moment there, or didn’t you notice?”
Kaidan laughed as he began to button up her coat. “This time, Shepard, I definitely noticed the moment.”
Kaidan felt as though his throat was closing. Tears were crowding in on his vision.
He had managed to keep under control for days now, for a full week, but before there had been work to keep him occupied, protocol to guide him in the rare times that he had to speak to another human being. But here, now, he simply couldn’t keep the memories away, and it wasn’t the empty coffin on the stage that was causing it. It was that damn garden and the haunting smell of cedar.
He pulled his mind back from the memories, from the sorrow. He needed to clear his head. He needed to keep his mask from slipping.
And then Kaidan saw him:
Fury lept into Kaidan’s mind, followed quickly by sorrow. Raw emotion roiled inside of him, and he could feel his hold on himself loosening.
The helmsman was standing among a small circle of the Normandy’s crew. As if Kaidan’s vicious glare had signaled him, Joker turned. His eyes widened as he saw Kaidan. He opened his mouth, began to raise his hand as if to call out a greeting.
Kaidan’s teeth clenched.
If not for Joker, Shepard would still be alive, still be here with him. The man had been Kaidan’s best friend, and now, Kaidan hated the sight of him so much, it was a wonder he didn’t strike Joker down where he stood.
And yet, he thought, it wouldn’t bring Shepard back.
Kaidan felt a single tear streak down his cheek.
He couldn’t do this.
Kaidan turned on his heel and walked away, walked faster and faster to get away from this place, from that stage and that open garden as quickly as possible. He heard Joker call his name, thought he heard someone else call for him, too, but he ignored the cries. He nearly broke into a run.
Kaidan made it to the alleyway and turned the corner; he kept walking, counting his footfalls, imaging them as nails, each one driving his mask back into place over his face. He walked on and on, until at last he reached the Alliance barracks. The halls were completely deserted. Every other soldier had gone to Shepard’s memorial.
Kaidan walked into his room and only then did he stop. He let the doors slide shut behind him. As stiffy as a machine, he walked slowly to his bed, sat down, and looked straight ahead.
That was his mistake.
He saw himself reflected in the mirror on the wall, a shattered-looking man wearing an Alliance officer’s uniform.
“You know,” Shepard said as they slipped back out of the garden and into the bright lights of the Presidium, “I think I like you in your dress uniform.”
“Why’s that?” Kaidan had asked her. “Can’t resist a man in uniform?”
“Well, that, too,” she said with a wink. “But mostly, they give easier access than armor.”
Kaidan heard a bitter laugh burst from his lips. That was the thing he missed most about Shepard: her uncanny ability to make a joke out of any situation. And right now, the person he most wanted here to help him deal with the grief of loosing Shepard was…Shepard.
Kaidan’s imagined mask tumbled to the floor. Kaidan placed his head in his hands and for the first time since Shepard’s death, he wept.