Shepard stood before Kaidan. She smiled at him, her different colored eyes twinkling, her golden hair caught up in the breeze. She smelled like soap and like…Shepard. Kaidan breathed in; she smelled so damn good. Her energy felt warm and electric around him, alive as her heartbeat.
Kaidan took her by the arm and drew her to him. There was no armor to separate them, no one standing around watching them. Shepard wrapped her arms around his waist, leaned in and kissed him along the soft skin of his jaw. Kaidan felt his pulse leap into triple time under the gentle pressure of her mouth. He exhaled, gripped her arms more tightly, thinking how he would pull away and tip her chin up with his hand, then bend down, drive his tongue into her mouth and…
Kaidan shot forward in his seat, coming up short against the restraining harness that held him into place. He gasped for breath, then looked around, bleary-eyed and confused.
Where the hell was he?
*All hands to stations, * a voice crackled over the comm. We have reached docking bay 36, Chandrasekhar fuel depot. Refueling stop for 30 minutes. Off duty staff may disembark. Please return to ship at 1200 hours. Staff Commander Alenko, please report to the bridge for instructions from Alliance Command.
Kaidan glared up at the intercom over his head, then looked back down at his chest. He had strapped in at the beginning of the flight, then completely passed out. He didn’t know how long he’d been sleeping, but he was still exhausted and he could feel a headache coming on.
But instead of pinching the bridge of his nose as he usually did when the headaches began, Kaidan absently pressed his fingers to the pulse point on his neck. He could still feel his heart racing. It felt like Shepard’s lips were still lingering on his skin. God, he thought, his eyes drifting shut, this was so…
Erotic? Maddening? Hell, embarrassing ? Kaidan scowled and dropped his hand. He couldn’t believe this: one meeting, one slight touch and it was like his body had completely returned to two years ago when all he wanted to do was to be close to Shepard, no matter the consequences, no matter what trouble his impulses landed him in. Kaidan ran a hand through his hair. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just his body that was filled with longing and regret. It would be easier if it really was lust, pure and simple, but he knew it wasn’t.
Kaidan had thought his heart had died the day that the Normandy went down, but now he realized he had been wrong. His heart had lived on in secret, just like Shepard had. It was fitting, he thought bitterly as he unstrapped his harness. His heart had been Shepard’s since he gave it away to her that night before Ilos, so of course, it would have been with *her * all this while. It seemed he was never going to get it back, either. Instead, Shepard was ripping his heart to shreds from afar – and using faint kisses to do so.
Kaidan frowned and rubbed his eyes. His reaction to her was insane and he knew it. What Shepard did to him, what her touch reduced him to, what his heart was hoping just now: it just didn’t make any sense. Here he was, dreaming about her, hell, aroused over some nothing kiss, when everything else about their meeting had gone completely wrong. And yet, he thought, looking out of the window at the dingy station before him, that one kiss had been so right. Nothing else about Horizon made any sense – nothing before Shepard’s arrival, nothing after, but that one kiss had been just like old times.
Like old times, Kaidan thought, his eyes closing. And old times had been so…complicated. He remembered that now. It seemed that every day back then brought up a new question, a new figuing of what he and Shepard were to each other, how they ought to be together, how they ought to treat each other. And yet, when they were together, when they truly just came together and focused on each other, then everything had seemed to fit. The biotics, their friendship, their…bodies. Kaidan sucked in a breath. Even the awkward moments had felt – right. He saw that now, looking back. That kiss on Horizon had felt right, too.
Kaidan scowled, rising from his chair. Why had she kissed him anyway? He still couldn’t figure that out. He hadn’t even thought of it before she left, but why would she kiss him at all unless she was trying to tell him something? He supposed it might have been impulse, but wouldn’t any such impulse have died if she had left him for Cerberus? He just couldn’t think of any reason why she would do that. It was enough to make him wonder if he shouldn’t have…
No, Kaidan thought, pushing the thought aside. He wouldn’t wonder if he ought to have joined her. He was an Alliance soldier. He would never leave his loyalties behind. Shepard may have…changed. Hell, he had changed, too, but no so much as to turn to Cerberus.
It was Shepard who had changed him, too, Kaidan thought sadly. She had drawn him out of himself, given him hope for a future and for love, made him believe he had a a friend who understood him and would stand by him. With her around, he became the kind of person who gave up on duty and rules to…follow her into whatever mad scheme she hatched. Alright, he admitted grudgingly, so she’d been right at the time, but he wasn’t about to break the rules now – not if Shepard was with Cerberus.
Well, Kaidan thought as he hitched his duffel onto his shoulder, he’d be damned if he let this encounter change him. His body might still be reacting to her touch, tormenting him for walking away, but thankfully, he knew what he was about.
He wouldn’t let Shepard – or her memory – change him any more.
Shepard’s eyes flew open and she gasped for breath. The room was dark around her, all except for the window above her bed, which framed for her the stars in the sky above.
For a moment, Shepard panicked, thinking she had not woken at all, that the horrible nightmare was true and she was still drifting, still falling…
Shepard lay there, pulling herself back from the haze of sleep, convincing herself that she was not going to fly off of this bed, out into that black sky. She remembered this sensation from years ago, from her childhood, actually. She and some friends had been out late on a summer night, talking long after the Foundation Day fireworks had dimmed. They watched a meteor shower over Mindoir’s sky from the back lawn. Her friends had laughed, pointed at the stars, flirted with each other, and she even saw one sneak a kiss from another. But Shepard had an odd moment of disorientation that night: for the briefest moment as she had laid on her back against the dry grass, she felt as though she was going to fall up – out into the void, endlessly floating forever and ever.
Hell of a thing, she thought, when your childhood fears turn prophetic like that. That was so very close to the way she’d actually died.
Shepard felt solid and grounded enough to risk movement now. She rolled over, turned on the light beside her bed, then gathered herself against the headboard, knees up, elbows on her knees. Her hands were still shaking and the bed felt far too big. She desperately wished someone – a very specific someone – was here to hold her right now.
Shepard shivered, then focused her eyes on the room beyond the bed. The sheets were torn; one pillow lay at the far end of the room against the door. A chair was overturned and her wardrobe appeared to have exploded over the floor. Her biotics had apparently torn the place apart. Shepard let out a breath. In the past, the action would have blown her hair from her eyes. But now…
With a sigh, Shepard rubbed a hand over her hair was finally feeling like hair again, and not stubble. It almost - almost - bent forward slightly against her scalp. Shepard got out of bed and began to pick up the room. She put away the clothes and threaded the drawers back into their proper places. The door of the wardrobe hung askew from where it had been pulled off of its hinges and the mirror over the dresser had been shattered. Shepard pulled off the broken door and set it aside. She’d apologize to Gardiner about it in the morning.
Without meaning to, her gaze drifted up to the window over the bed. With the lights on, the view didn’t seem quite so frightening. It looked peaceful – like when she’d gone camping as a kid, she told herself. Only the stars were different out here. The stars…
Shepard shuddered as she remembered the dream. She had been in the Normandy, in this bed, even, as they were approaching Haestrom. When they reached the system, the glowing, red sun had appeared over the window above her. The Normandy suddenly stopped, but she did not. She flew up into that window, slid right through it like a ghost. She continued to slide, flailing wildly, as she skidded out past the dying star, past the planets, past all light. She continued on across the star system to its edge. Instead of blacking out, instead of dying, she was very much alive and concious. She kept on going: through a pink-tinged gas cloud, past debris, ice shards, and then, after a horrible moment of teetering on the edge of space, she slipped right out past the termination shock and out of the galaxy entirely.
The line that was the disk of the Milky Way had receded behind her. Before her, she could see the faintest pin pricks of light: many other galaxies beyond reckoning, beyond reach. She continued to slide away into the true nothing of dark space.
Then, she had seen them .
They filled her sight, their sleek outlines lit by the now-faint glow of the Milky Way. They were massive. They were endless.
And they were coming.
Shepard froze, looking at her own reflection in the cracked mirror.
The Reapers were still coming, and she was the only one who believed in it.
Shepard counted her breaths, reminding herself that she still had time, that she was still alive, but the fear of that dream had wound its way into her mind. She was just one person, she thought wildly, just one person against…what, really? An army? A harvest? She hardly knew what was coming for them. Hell, she hardly knew where her own worries ended and the visions from the beacons began.
Shepard clutched at her skull. It was hellish, really, to carry another person’s thoughts inside one’s brain. It was difficult enough dealing with her own thoughts and emotions. It was even wilder to carry around all these borrowed lives. She supposed she was lucky that her exhaustion each day had kept the nightmares at bay until now. But the thought of approaching the Far Rim had somehow triggered the nagging sensation that she was missing something – that dark energy or stars or…something was tied to the Reapers. She felt like there were clues hidden all over the galaxy, but she had no time to look for them. She did know one thing, however: she feared the galaxy’s edge, though she couldn’t say if it was something inside of her fearing it or if she feared it for herself.
So the Reapers were coming, Shepard reminded herself, shaking her head. All the rest of the galaxy thought she was mad for believing in them, and some days – like right about now – she was inclined to think so too.
But no, she reminded herself. There were others who believed in the Reapers as well. Saren had seen the visions, though they had driven him mad. The Illusive Man believed her, though that was cold comfort. Her crew believed in the Collectors at least, though she wondered they believed her about the Reapers, too. Tali maybe, Garrus certainly. Joker, she wasn’t sure. Anderson had believed her, too, she thought, even if he was doing very little to help. Liara had believed her, had even seen the beacon’s message. And as for Kaidan…
Shepard let her eyes close. Kaidan had believed her once. He had seen the proof as clearly as she, every step of the way. He didn’t have the beacon’s visions, but he had seen every other piece of the puzzle. But then, on Horizon, he said he wanted to believe her, not that he did. He questioned if Cerberus wasn’t using the threat of the Reapers to manipulate her, implying that…
Implying what? She wondered. That he didn’t believe her anymore? That he just couldn’t see how stopping the Reapers went beyond factions or loyalties? She didn’t trust Cerberus any more than a brood of vipers, but if they were going to help her fight the Reapers…
*Then what? * She wondered, blinking at her broken reflection. Y ou’re going to allow them to guide you? To change you?
What else could she do? she thought, carefully picking up the shards of the mirror and laying them in a line on the dresser. Cerberus was using her, clearly they were. But that didn’t change the fact that the Reapers were coming and that she was the only one alive who had touched the beacon and Cerberus was the only group that had given her resources to move forward. She felt like she was taking gifts from demons, but how else was she to go on? She couldn’t blame Kaidan for not trusting Cerberus – she certainly didn’t. But she would blame herself if she failed to stop the Reaper threat when she had any chance of doing so.
That’s a pretty shitty justification, Shepard , she thought to herself.
It was, she realized ruefully. It was like holding the hand of the devil, she thought, warm against her own cold skin. Allowing the devil to lead her into hell was not the best way to get out of the pit on her own and she knew that. But she had tried to reach out to old allies and they had turned her down, every one.
Shepard set down the last piece of glass and placed the last drawer back in its place. Making up her mind at once, she crossed to her computer and opened it. Anderson needed to know. She had to remind him – had to tell him…
No extranet connection. Please contact your systems administrator.
Shepard frowned at the screen, ready to call on EDI, but then she remembered what she had read about Haestrom. The planet had some kind of force field around it that blocked all communications off-world. If the extranet connection was down, then that must mean…
“Bridge to commander Shepard,” she heard Joker’s voice crackle over the comm. “Hate to wake you, but…”
“I’m up,” she said at once. “How close are we, Joker?”
“Twenty minutes,” he said. “EDI’s got a lock on a quarian ship emission trail and we’ve used it to track down where they dropped in their team. Looks like they got here only a few days before we did.”
“Good work, Joker,” Shepard told him, “I’ll be down in a minute.”
As she turned to gather her armor, Shepard saw the light in the cabin change. Curious, she looked up at the window over her bed, then froze.
Her blood seemed to turn to ice as she saw it: a great, red star, flickering with patches of deep crimson, roiling as if with a storm of dark energy. It was exactly like her dream. She could feel herself falling up, sliding out into the void…
Shepard shook herself, forcing the nightmare back into her head. She didn’t have time for this right now. She had to rescue Tali.
But as she slipped on her armor for the mission, Shepard still felt that sun on her back, watching her like a devil’s eye.
Kaidan looked out of the grimy picture window at the smudgy, brown cloud that was the Hawking Eta nebula. Some parts of the nebula were beautiful, he knew, having passed through this area once before. There were clouds tinged by gold and pink, some even glowing a brilliant aquamarine. But the fuel depot had not been built in a senic spot. The view from here looked out on a sea of smog. Inside the station, a layer of film crusted over everything.
He really ought to sleep, Kaidan thought to himself, maybe on that bench over there, or at least find a restroom and wash his face. You’d think when the human councilor of the galactic government sent a frigate to pick you up, the flight would be non-stop, but you’d be wrong. He had been told to wait for about an hour before the next Alliance ship came to claim him. He was hungry, but the mere smell of the taco stand nearby made him feel queasy. He seriously doubted the meat inside was vat-grown cow as advertised. The cigar-smoking elcor behind the counter didn’t do much to recommend the cuisine either.
Kaidan walked around to stretch his cramped legs. He fell asleep in a chair for all of five minutes before a clutch of screaming salarian toddlers woke him. He left the children and their beleagured father as quickly as possible, then rounded a corner to see a volus get up from an extranet station. The suited alien muttered something about lost stocks and idiotic assistant who couldn’t keep their fingers out of tainted red sand as he waddled away.
Kaidan glanced at the extranet terminal, then checked his omnitool for the time. He still had about forty-five minutes before his flight arrived, and that would be more than enough time to send Anderson a message about the fact that everything about Horizon had been complete bullshit. He wouldn’t put it in quite those words, of course, but he would be clear: Horizon had been a mess – and he wanted answers.
As Kaidan plunked himself down into the rickety plastic chair, the thought went through his head that he might send Shepard an email, too. He remembered watching that hysterical woman, Robyn, sending a message to Shepard, using the address he had given to her. It had been painful to watch the colonist hunt and peck the keys on the holographic interface, then yell at the computer when her fingers went right through the display because she didn’t know how to touch the screen with the right pressure.
It had been painful to watch in other ways, too. On the one hand, Kaidan had felt a little…wistful watching the woman ask Shepard for help. He realized that Shepard was the one person in the galaxy who probably could stop these attacks. On the other hand, however, he still felt bitter about…well, everything. He supposed he could send Shepard an email, just to ask about her plans for stopping the attacks, of course, but he squelched that thought at once. Whatever Shepard claimed she was trying to do, she worked with terrorists now. He couldn’t write to her. After all, what did you say to a woman you once loved but now didn’t trust? What did you say to a woman you had once loved but now didn’t know ?
Kaidan tapped on the holographic keyboard, bringing up his account. The secure files from the Alliance did not appear – it was, after all, a very unsecure terminal – but the rest of his email was visible. He noticed he’d gotten a few short messages from Lisa, something from Dean, a handful of notices from Alliance command regarding non-classified events and a few reminders about changes in protocol…
Kaidan stopped, staring at his account.
Present from Shepard: Classified Cerberus-is-Bat-Shit-Crazy Files. Some assembly and/or decryption required.
Kaidan blinked, closed his eyes, then blinked again.
That couldn’t possibly be from her , could it?
The unread message was wedged between an invitation to the annual regional Alliance officer’s ball in Vancouver and a reminder about not wearing class A uniforms for personal dates.
Kaidan ignored all that and stared at the message with Shepard’s name on it. She had sent it through her old email address with the Alliance. Well, he thought in a daze, that answered the question of whether or not she was checking her account. She could have written him earlier, he realized – she just hadn’t bother to.
Anger began to fill his gut, but it couldn’t quite get as firm a foothold as before. Regret and longing had taken up residence within him on the ship ride here, and curiousity was now crowding in as well, demanding to know what she had written.
Kaidan opened the message at once. A large file was attached to it, and it was addressed to:
To: Captain Anderson, Admiral Hackett
[Bcc: Staff Commander Alenko]
Kaidan couldn’t help it: he laughed aloud. She’d sent a message titled “bat shit crazy” to a councilor and an admiral? Either she hadn’t been thinking very clearly or she’d done that on purpose for maximum shock value. He wasn’t quite sure. After all, even when he’d worked with her, Shepard would sometimes step out of her cold, aloof persona to say and do things that completely confused him. He wondered what Anderson and Hackett had thought of that when they’d seen it. He would have to asked them…
No, he realized suddenly, he wouldn’t ask them. Because Shepard had sent this message to him as blind carbon copy, and so clearly she hadn’t meant for Hackett or Anderson to know she’d sent it to him as well. Even more curious now, Kaidan read the email:
Yours are the addresses I remember off the top of my head. It’s a long story, so I’ll keep it short. I found this evidence regarding the research Cerberus was doing on the rachni specimins they took from Saren’s labs on Noveria. This information may be able to link Cerberus to the murder of Admiral Kahoku and possibly other crimes as well. My former crew know the details of what we found two years ago and can fill in any questions.
Cerberus may try to recover this data. My accounts are being monitored. I have had difficultly contacting you over secure channels and may not be able to contact you again.
Keep yourselves safe.
P.S., I want you to know that your faith in me was not misplaced.
Kaidan stared at the keyboard, feeling as though he had been punched in the gut.
“Oh my God,” he whispered to no one in particular. “Shepard…”
He swallowed, then just stared.
“Shepard,” he whispered again.