Kaidan stepped onto the Presidum, then winced as a headache seemed to split his skull. The bright lights had never been exactly soothing, but they seemed even more garish by comparison with the Wards below and the docks before that.
After nearly two years away, this place looked pretty much the same. The Wards had changed a lot, but then, on the Citadel, as with anywhere else, it was always a case of salvaging the rich people’s digs first. The Wards were still being rebuilt. Pinching his nose, Kaidan hitched the duffel bag onto his shoulder and made his way to the embassies. A short walk took him to a door that looked much like any other. He pressed the button for the chime and waited for the door to open.
When the doors slid apart, he walked inside. This place hadn’t changed at all.
“Commander,” an voice called to him. “Sit down. I’m just finishing up these reports.”
Kaidan started, just as he always did when addressed by his title. Few people used it. Whenever he met someone new, he encouraged them to call him ‘Alenko.’ ‘Commander’ was a title he still felt belonged to someone else – even though she had been a Lieutenant Commander and not a Staff Commander like him. And as for the name ‘Kaidan,’ well, she had called him that. He avoided that name now. It was easy enough to do so. Few people were that close to him these days.
“Sir,” he nodded, then found himself a seat across the desk from the older gentleman sitting there. Captain – no, Councilor – Anderson was looking a little tired these days, but he still had the bearing of a man who had seen a lot, shaken his head at it, and gotten down to business. Kaidan’s eyes trailed over the datapads on the man’s desk, then rested on the picture sitting on the corner. He stiffened.
It was Shepard.
The holograph image was one he hadn’t seen before. Though Kaidan tended to turn away whenever mention of Shepard came on the vids, he hadn’t been able to completely ignore all the hype that had followed her death. Even out in remote colonies, it was big news that the hero of the Blitz, first human Spectre, savior of the Citadel, and three-time winner of Fornax Magazine’s Hottest Female With a Gun poll had, well, died .
Kaidan didn’t want to think about that. He never wanted to think about that. In fact, he had spent most of his time these last two years trying not to think about that. And yet, here he was, back on the Citadel, seeing landmarks that reminded him of her everywhere, and now he was staring at an image of her face.
It was a good holograph, he had to admit. In it, she was wearing an officer’s uniform and appeared to be smiling slightly. That was unusual for Shepard. She didn’t smile much, especially not for photo ops. She also wasn’t the most photogenic woman in the world. She’d had a rather wicked scar on her cheek and rarely took the effort to pretty herself up. Most of the time, she’d been too busy running from one mission to another to do so. As a result, most images tended to make her look attractive, but in a harsh, remote kind of way. It was a persona she gladly let the world take hold of and run with.
But to him, Shepard had always looked like…well, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. When she had been with him alone, her hair falling about her face, her wide, different colored eyes looking at him with that mixture of mischief and adoration…
Kaidan shook his head as a wave of sorrow washed over him. She was dead, and now… He couldn’t go any further. He shoved the idea of Shepard away for what felt like the millionth time. Kaidan adjusted his chair so that he could no longer see her picture.
“Alenko,” Anderson mercifully looked up just then and set his datapad aside. “Good to see you.” He reached across the desk to shake Kaidan’s hand. Kaidan did the same, then both men sat back down.
“How did it go?” Anderson asked.
“As well as could be expected,” Kaidan replied. “They fought the installation of the new defense system tooth and nail, but in the end, they learned how to use it. I had to use biotics on at least one hot shot who thought he’d try and take down the Alliance Marine during milita practice, but the new commander of that outfit has since gotten the troops in line. In short, we were successful.”
” You were successful,” Anderson said, nodding. “Good work, commander.” He paused. “Ah, Alenko. I have bad news.”
“What?” Kaidan asked, immediately frowning.
“The colony on Freedom’s Progress went out of contact.”
“Shit,” Kaidan said. He then winced at his language. “Ah, sorry sir.”
“My feelings exactly, commander,” Anderson said, dryly.
“Any information, sir?”
“No,” Anderson shook his head sadly. “We’ll be sending in a search team as soon as we can get one authorized.”
“I see why you called me back,” Kaidan frowned. “Damn it. If only it hadn’t taken so long to set up the systems on Veda, I might have gotten to Freedom’s Progress in time to set them up with…”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Anderson said. “You were slowed by the brass from the start and the colonists didn’t help.”
“You read my report?” Kaidan blinked.
“It arrived here fifteen minutes before you did,” Anderson said. “You still using public extranet terminals to check your mail?”
“These colonies you keep sending me to aren’t exactly on the grid,” Kaidan said wryly. “Besides, I’ve been busy. I have to wait until I get into bigger ports of call to check my inbox.”
“I see,” Anderson said, “Well, you can check it now. I imagine it will be full as long as you’ve been out in the traverse.”
“Sir?” Kaidan asked. He knew he didn’t have any messages. No one had been writing him – other than Anderson himself – for months.
“You may as well settle in, commander. I’ve arranged a room for you in the barracks.”
“I’m not going to Freedom’s Progress?” he asked.
“That’s another team’s assignment,” Anderson replied. “Truthfully, it may be a few weeks before we send you out again. We need to review our defense systems and which colonies we think are likely to be hit next. See if you can’t enjoy yourself for the next few days. I’ll send for you when I have more information from the brass.”
“For now,” Anderson said. He paused, then frowned. He shifted in his chair, then looked at the picture on his desk uncomfortably.
“You still haven’t heard anything…conclusive, have you, commander?”
Kaidan knew at once what the older man was referring to. So he was sure his face didn’t register any emotion at the question. He’d gotten too good at acting like a machine for that to happen. Even now, he felt numb as he replied: “About…her, you mean, sir?”
“About Shepard, yes,” Anderson nodded.
“I’ve heard rumors,” Kaidan said. “That’s all.” He didn’t like to think about them, much less repeat them. He wished that they didn’t have the power to stir a faint hope in him after all this time, but they did. Even though he knew that hope was a complete illusion, they did. “I don’t believe them,” he said, more to himself than Anderson.
“Sir?” Kaidan asked, curiosity getting the better of his sense of protocol. “I would help me here, if I…knew what you know. There are rumors that she’s…working with Cerberus, and while I don’t…”
“I can’t tell you anything,” Anderson said, standing. “I know you don’t like it, but information is a one way street here, commander. I need you to give it to me, and I can’t give it to you. I’m sorry.”
Kaidan frowned, but he nodded all the same.
“I can tell you,” Anderson went on, “That I still think Cerberus is up to something, even if you haven’t found any proof of it yet.”
“In two years, my assignments have only accomplished the stated objective,” Kaidan told him. “I’ve gotten ten colonies outfitted with towers and found nothing on Cerberus.”
“Cerberus still hasn’t reared any of its heads,” Anderson said wryly. “I don’t know whether to be pleased or…worried. You’re one scout of many, Alenko, but you’re the one I trust the most.”
“It’s…nothing,” Anderson said with a weak smile. “Just…the worries of an old man. Dismissed, commander.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Kaidan said, standing to salute. He wanted to ask more, to insist that Anderson tell him something about his suspicions about Cerberus. But he knew the Councilor wouldn’t. He hadn’t for two years now.
Kaidan gave the Councilor one last worried look, then picked up his duffel and left for Alliance barracks.
When Kaidan had been called back to the Citadel, he hadn’t expected to even unpack. He figured he’d be right on his way to Freedom’s Progress after a status update with Anderson. Of course, he had wondered why Anderson had called him all the way back from the traverse, and now he knew. If the next location on his list of colonies to set up with defense systems was gone now…
Kaidan frowned. This whole assignment was one giant effort in frustration and futility. He liked to think that what he was doing in covertly setting up non-Alliance affiliated colonies with Alliance defense systems was going to protect them, but there was really no way to know. He left the colonies behind as soon as he was done installing the systems and orgainizing a milita and had no contact with them after that. So far he’d set up ten such colonies. They were always ungrateful for the help – they saw it as Alliance interference. Still, he liked to think that it was going to keep them safe should slavers or pirates hit.
Now if he could just find something useful on Cerberus.
He simply couldn’t believe the rumors that Shepard was working for them. If she’d lived - and she hadn’t - she would have come back to the Alliance at once, not gone off with terrorists. Still, Kaidan heard the rumors from time to time and they annoyed him to no end. So he simply buried his head in his work, these days focusing more on the goal of outfitting colonies with defense systems than investigating Cerberus.
If only the Alliance had helped these colonies this years ago, Kaidan thought, they might have been able to save colonies like Mindoir, Shepard’s home. Though, if that had happened, she might never have joined the Alliance, might never have become the woman she was.
And he might never have met her.
Some days, Kaidan almost wished he had never met Shepard. He had now been living without her for longer than he’d known her and he still felt as raw and lonely as he had that first day she died. He’d covered the wound well, though. He had tried to shove his feelings about her down deep inside where they could not bother him. They might be festering there, for all he knew, his heart might be dead down there, but his chest had scarred over at least.
Few people knew what Kaidan had gone through when Shepard died, because few people knew what Shepard was to him. He preferred it that way.
“Alenko!” Kaidan looked up in surprise. It took him a moment to recognize the man who was coming out of the barracks just now, but then he placed the face and found a name to go with it.
“Dean,” he said, reaching out and shaking the hand of the officer. “I thought you were out on some classified something or other.”
“Naw,” the Marine shrugged. “Been back from that for years. They’ve got me doing security on the Alliance message systems. Got a lot of hackers targeting humanity these days.”
“I bet,” Kaidan nodded.
“So what are you up to?” the Marine asked.
“Classified,” Kaidan replied.
“Of course,” Dean nodded. “You were always one of the poster boys for the Alliance. Well, you and that war-hero commander of yours. Shepard, right?”
Kaidan opened his mouth, but couldn’t find anything to say. His expression must have spoken for him, because Dean immediately looked troubled.
“Aw, shit man,” he said. “I didn’t mean… I saw the vids.”
“It’s okay,” Kaidan said hastily, hoping Dean wouldn’t go on. Thankfully, he didn’t.
“Hey, you around for a couple of days?” Dean asked.
“Apparently so,” Kaidan replied, hefting his duffel bag higher.
“Me and some friends are going out to this new club in the Wards tonight. They just finished re-building it. Come join us, man.”
Kaidan was ready to say no, thank you, I don’t drink, and besides I’ve got a meeting first thing in the morning – any of the usual excuses he had given in the past when invited out for the evening. But the thought of sitting alone in these barracks with nothing to do but brood on the last time he was here was a much bleaker prospect. The last time he was here, he’d skipped out on Shepard’s funeral and only barely kept it together in the following weeks. He didn’t feel like repeating that time in his life.
Honestly, Kaidan didn’t feel any more human now than he had the last time he was here on the Citadel. On good days he felt like a machine and on bad days he felt like a broken machine. But he could pretend, at least. Maybe after a while, pretending would make things seem more sane.
So he found himself opening his mouth and saying, “Okay, sure. What time?”
“1900 hours,” Dean replied. “I’ll stop by and get you. And Alenko, wear your dress uniform. The girls in the Wards really dig the Alliance dress uniforms, especially the asari.” He gave Kaidan a thumbs up and disappeared down the hall.
Kaidan shook his head as he went to find his room. Dean was a good guy. If he had only been able to fall in love with something other than his computer, he might have found a girl by now.
Kaidan found his room and went inside. He dropped his duffel bag onto the bed and began pulling out his clothes. He found his rumpled officer’s uniform and began to put it onto a hanger. He wouldn’t wear that tonight. Besides the fact that it struck him as a little ostentatious to wear such a thing to a club in the Wards, he had never quite gotten over the fact that the last time he’d worn it, it had been to Shepard’s funeral. The time before that, Shepard had been removing it from him.
Kaidan put the uniform into the closet and closed the closet door. He hated carrying that uniform around, but he’d been carrying everything he owned from colony to colony for a while now. When he’d taken the assignment two years back, he was frustrated at first, angry that the Alliance wasn’t doing more to seek out the mysterious ship that had attacked the Normandy and killed Shepard in that attack. Even so, he had been glad of the opportunity to get away from the Citadel and it’s memories. He figured that work out in the colonies would be perfect to distract him from thoughts of Shepard, that time in worlds they’d never been to together would keep her from his thoughts.
He’d figured wrong. Shepard had been a colony kid, so every damn port he’d landed in made him think of her. Every girl he saw, staring at him wide-eyed from the doorways of poor, pre-fab trailers made him wonder if Shepard had grown up in a similar way, if she had gone to school in such a dismal-looking building, or learned to play softball on a field of alien grass or empty red dirt. He realized that he’d asked her very little about her childhood, and he found himself wishing he’d stopped to do so sometime before she was gone.
Even the things that weren’t at all like her reminded him of her. A strange new food, a bizarre turn of colonist phraseology, and he found himself wondering what she would have thought of it, what she would have said about it. He kept finding himself thinking of everything, every goddamn thing in reference to her , even though she was gone and had been for so long.
He kept trying to set thoughts of her aside, but they just wouldn’t go away. At best, he could ignore them for a while, but they always came back. Until Kaidan tried to forget Shepard, he had never realized how much she had come to fill every part of his life. Until he tried to bury her memory, he had never realized how much she haunted him.
And he had never realized how much he loved her until ‘love’ became past tense.