Part 3, Chapter 35 of Valkyrie

Rain splattered down into Kaidan’s eyes as he walked on towards the comm station. It soaked his hair, dripped from his chin, trickled down the collar of his suit to pool behind his shoulder blades. It fit his mood, he decided - and his scattered thoughts.

She had been alive. Shepard had been alive.

*How could she possibly have been * alive ?

Kaidan heard a sudden roaring behind him. He tensed, turned around and readied his biotics, as he had no gun anymore. Then he saw that it wasn’t seeker swarms or that great, rock-like ship in the sky over the colony.

It was the Normandy.

Kaidan stared at the silhouette of the frigate as it passed between a gap in the cloud cover – a gap left by the retreating Collector ship. The lines were exactly the same, he thought, as he saw a small shuttle rise up to meet it.

And yet, it was different.

Even from here, he could see the glint of gold paint on the black-and-white hull, no doubt the Cerberus logo stamped proudly on its side. It was much bigger than the old Normandy, too. He could tell that even at this distance. So similar, and yet, completely different - reclaimed for Cerberus’ use.

Not unlike a certain commander he’d once been in love with.

Kaidan scowled.

How could she be with Cerberus?

He asked himself the question for what felt like the thousandth time, then turned his back on the ship. Behind him, the roar of its engines faded away, lost in the sound of rolling thunder and pounding rain.

If Shepard had been undercover for the Alliance, he could almost have understood, Kaidan told himself. If, after the Normandy went down, the Alliance had secretly recovered her, or she had somehow survived and contacted the Alliance, they might have asked her to stay hidden. It would have been useful, he could see, for the Alliance or the Council to have her presumed dead, to use her Missing-in-Action status as a cover while she took on covert missions for them. In such a case, it would have been her duty to avoid contacting her former crew members, even if she had wanted to. He could almost – almost – have forgiven that.

But that wasn’t what had happened. She had contacted Garrus, obviously, so clearly she had thought to get in touch with some old friends.

Just not him .

Kaidan stomped along through the empty streets, biotic energy roiling over his fists. Garrus had been there. Garrus had known she was alive. And Garrus had joined Cerberus, too. Kaidan had known Garrus to be a bit of a hot-head, but he never thought a former C-Sec officer would be able to stomach the injustice and anti-alien nature of Cerberus. And yet, the turian had been at Shepard’s back as always. And then there had been some woman there, – a biotic. Kaidan hadn’t missed the logo her uniform. She was Cerberus, too. And she’d been standing at Shepard’s back – at the place where Kaidan had once stood. It was like Shepard had found some other biotic to replace him.

He realized, of course, that if Shepard had led that rescue, then it meant Cerberus hadn’t let the attack on the colony. At least, Shepard and her new crew hadn’t let the attack. Cerberus might still be behind it all, pulling the strings, somehow. He believed Shepard when she’d said she wanted to help the colony. She was always trying to save colonies, after all. But Cerberus could be up to something, could be using her.

Hell, he thought, surely they were using her. The question was, how much of it had she agreed to?

Kaidan blinked, his anger pausing for a moment in its relentless pacing through his chest.

He hadn’t thought to ask that. In all his anger at finding Shepard with the enemy, he never thought to ask her what the terms of her arrangement with Cerberus was. Clearly, Cerberus wasn’t holding her captive. And she hadn’t seemed brainwashed, either. She had been lucid, if…changed. He now wished he had thought to ask her why she’d joined Cerberus in the first place, why she’d left the Alliance or how she’d managed to survive that attack or why she’d failed to contact him…

No , Kaidan thought angrily. He had asked her why she’d failed to contact him, and she’d said…

She’d said she was in a coma being rebuilt.

The thought instantly sickened him. He could scarcely believe that Shepard, Shepard who had always been self-conscious of her different colored eyes, who disliked the idea of genetic modification and once told him that she admired that he’d stuck with the older L2 biotic implants instead of going through a risky surgery to try and retrofit him, had allowed Cerberus to “rebuild” her.

Well, that explains her biotics , he thought disgustedly. She was probably an L4 now. He wouldn’t put it past Cerberus to have stolen the prototypes for it. He wondered what other things they’d done to upgrade her. He hadn’t thought to scan for modifications when she was standing there, but he didn’t doubt that several of them were quite experimental.

So Shepard had sold her soul to Cerberus for some upgrades to her body and a new ship. And all for what? For the chance to stop the Collectors?

Kaidan paused at that. He looked around the empty colony, the rain pelting down on the buildings, on the half-harvested fields. The Collectors, if, in fact, that was what those things were, needed to be stopped. This couldn’t happen again, he decided. He wouldn’t allow it. As soon as he got to the comm link, he’d get hold of Anderson and he’d make sure Alliance command knew about this and that the Alliance and the Council mobilized their forces to take out the Collectors.

He just couldn’t understand why Shepard had decided to go through Cerberus to get this done. He shook his head once more.

Shepard had joined Cerberus willingly – joined terrorists willingly - because…

He simply couldn’t think why.

He thought again of the experiments Cerberus had done just two years ago, of the atrocities they had committed all for their deluded, human-centric agenda. If Shepard had joined them, then clearly she had turned her back on everything he thought she stood for, everything he thought she was as a friend, a lover…as a human being.

Or maybe, he thought, he had never really known her. He had once wondered if his memories of Shepard were accurate or the invention of a lonely soldier who had built up a vision of perfection in his own mind. Now he saw the truth:

He had been in love with a phantom. And Shepard hadn’t loved him at all.

Kaidan squeezed his eyes shut against the rain pelting his face. He was just glad he’d been able to speak his mind when she was there before him, that he had been able to tell her what he thought of Cerberus and what he thought of her . He hoped she’d heard him, but he doubted that she had. She was clearly too far gone into Cerberus’ clutches to care.

And Kaidan had lost her more certainly than if she really had died all those years ago.

“Shepard, good work on Horizon. Hopefully the Collectors will think twice before attacking another colony.”

Shepard blinked at the fuzzy image of the Illusive Man in the comm room before her. She had only just finished with a shower and had changed back into her utilities. Now that she was here, however, she rather wished she taken a little longer to cool off. She thought the shower had taken the edge off of her anger, but it hadn’t. She was still feeling as furious as before.

What she was furious at, she could hardly say. She was furious at Kaidan, certainly, but she was also furious about what had happened to the colony of Horizon. Even as she washed the puss from her face, she remembered the fight, the empty buildings, and all those frozen people.

And they had been the lucky ones.

Most of all, she was disgusted with herself. She couldn’t believe she had come all this way to save Kaidan – just to freeze up and lose him over some stupid fight. Only now that they were on their way to the Iera system’s mass relay, she knew it was too late to go back to Horizon. So instead, she’d meet with the Illusive Man, choose a course, and make the jump to…somewhere – all while desperately wishing she could go back.

Only she knew she couldn’t face Kaidan again. What he had said was true – all of it. Alright, so there were some pretty big details he was overlooking – details like being dead and being coerced and being brushed off by the Alliance and the council and feeling the need to keep Joker and Chakwas safe. She hadn’t gotten to explain her reasons, but in the end, what did they matter? He was right:

She had joined Cerberus willingly and she was still with them willingly, and motives aside, that meant she had joined the enemy.

Shepard frowned at the guilt that now fell over her like a shroud. While few people knew it, she had been no stranger to that emotion during her years as a soldier. Guilt over surviving Mindoir, guilt over her actions at the Blitz, the continual feeling that her war hero status was undeserved, had all gnawed at her in the past. She put those feelings aside because she had to. But though most days her confidence drove her in full force, there were moments where that doubt crept back in.

Two years ago, Kaidan had taken the doubt away. With him, Shepard found someone who understood her when no one else had. By telling him about her past, the guilt became like a nightmare faded when spoken aloud in the morning. Now that Kaidan was gone, however, she found herself in the uncomfortable position of returning to a very adolescent state of…insecurity.

It was infuriating. She was Commander Shepard: war hero, savior…whatever. And yet she felt like she didn’t know who she was anymore.

So for the Illusive prick to sit here and compliment her on what was now officially up there with the top ten most hellish days of her life – well, that was just too much.

“It’s not a victory,” she snapped at him. “We interrupted the Collectors but they still abducted half the colony.”

“That’s better than an entire colony,” he said, his voice sounding infuriatingly cheerful. “And more than we accomplished since the abductions began.” His eerie blue eyes seemed to flash in the holograph, and for a moment, they didn’t look quite…right. Shepard blinked. She must be imagining things.

“The collectors will be more careful now,” he went on. “But I think we can find another way to lure them in.”

Shepard found her mouth had dropped open. She shut it and shook her head.

“Another way…? Lure them…?” She made a sound halfway between a cough and a laugh – not unlike the sound that Kaidan had made in disgust less than a few hours ago. “I should have known.” She took a step forward, glared down at his flickering image in the air before her. “Kaidan said the Alliance got a tip about me and Cerberus. Was that you?”

The Illusive Man gave her a nonchalant shrug and took a drag from his cigarette. “I may have let it slip that you were alive and with Cerberus.”

Shepard saw red.

“You put Kaid…” She caught herself, paused, and went on in a deadly cold voice. “You risked the lives of my friend , my crew , and that entire colony – just to lure the Collectors there?” Her voice rose to a shout. “What the hell were you thinking?”

“A calculated risk. I suspected the Collectors were looking for you or people connected to you. Now I know for certain.”

Shepard sucked in a breath, dearly wishing the man was in the room with her so she could fire a biotic pulse at him. Watching that glowing Collector that had called himself “Harbinger” had given her a few ideas about how to adjust her warp missiles for heavier damage. She was just itching for something to try them out on, and the Illusive Man looked like an excellent target right about now.

“I told you I wouldn’t sit and wait until the Reapers and Collectors gather strength,” he told her, his tone sounding like he was speaking to a child. “Besides, they would have hit another colony eventually, and without a way to predict which one, they would have abducted everyone.”

That was true, she thought, pausing. She did save some people. She had saved Kaidan. Though if it wasn’t for this idiot here, Kaidan would never have been in danger in the first place.

“No more putting my friends at risk,” she told him. “Ever. Or your 5 billion credit Valkyrie general is walking out.”

The Illusive Man said nothing, just took a drag off of his cigarette and blew smoke into the air. Shepard’s eyes narrowed. She’d take that as a “maybe.” She suddenly felt tired. Yelling at this prick never got her anywhere. He just did as he pleased, jerking her around, and for all that she was pissed off at him, she was going to end up taking out the Collectors exactly as he had asked.

After all, having seen that colony, she knew she couldn’t let such attacks happen again.

“We have to make sure they don’t abduct anyone else,” she said, wearily. “So what’s our next step?”

“I want the Collectors stopped,” the Illusive Man said. “Remember, that’s why were doing this, Shepard.”

“Yeah,” she snapped. “I remember.”

“I’m devoting all resources to finding a way through the Omega 4 relay,” he went on. “We have to hit them where they live. Your team will need to be strong, as will their resolve. There’s no looking back, now. And the same goes for you. Can I assume you’ve put your past relationships behind you?”

Shepard bristled once more, drew herself up to her full height.

“None of your damn business,” she snapped at him.

“If it affects the mission, better you should leave it behind,” he told her, snuffing his cigarette out on the arm of his chair. *He has an ashtray built onto his chair? * Shepard thought, absently. Just how many packs does this guy go through in a day?

“Shepard,” he went on, calling her back to the present, “once you find a way through the Omega 4 relay to the Collector home world, there’s no guarantee you’ll return. To have any hope of surviving, you – and your entire team – must be fully committed to this.”

In other words, she thought wryly, forget about Kaidan so that you can concentrate on walking into certain death.

“Thanks for the pep talk,” she said sarcastically, “but we’ll be fine.”

The Illusive Man nodded and tapped a holographic display to his right. “I’ve forwarded three more dossiers. Keep building your team while I find a way through the relay. And be careful, Shepard. The Collectors will be watching you.”

With that, the holographic image of the Illusive Man disappeared. Shepard rested her hands on the railing before her and let out a breath.

She needed some time alone – time to think this all out. It was now clear to her that she was going on this mission after all. Perhaps it was silly, she thought, but some small part of her had held out hope that something could be done to get the Alliance involved in the end, get the Council involved in the end. She wasn’t afraid of the mission – no more than she’d been of any other dangerous mission that simply had to be done. But she was afraid now - though not because of the danger.

She was afraid of doing this mission with a team she didn’t trust. She was afraid of doing this without Kaidan beside her.

“I guess we’re really going to do it. Hit the Omega 4 relay. Take the fight to the Collectors.”

Shepard started as a voice suddenly spoke from the corner of the room. So much for private time. She hadn’t even heard Jacob come in.

“Lookin’ forward to the action,” the lieutenant went on as she turned to face him. “After what those bastards did on Horizon, makes you think…” He trailed off.

Shepard sighed inwardly. She was still furious, but seeing Jacob’s obvious worry brought her back at once to her role here: she was the commander. She didn’t like any of this, but she saw the truth of the Illusive Man’s words: this needed to be done, and she would have to steel herself to do it. Even if it wasn’t her choice to start with, she’d see it done.

“Something on your mind?” she asked Jacob as kindly as she could manage.

“No,” Jacob said. “Just…there’s a good chance we’re not coming back, even if we get it done. Gonna go take care of a little…unfinished business. I imagine everyone else is, too. Getting some…closure, you know?” He nodded to her by way of salute and walked off.

Closure , Shepard thought, ruefully. * Yeah, closure would be nice. Only…*

Only, even as pissed off as she was, she didn’t want closure.

She wanted Kaidan.