Kaidan felt his mouth hanging open. He snapped his jaw shut so hard that his teeth hurt.
I want you to know that your faith in me was not misplaced.
He pressed his fingers to his eyes.
Just like that, everything he’d assumed about Shepard for the past two days suddenly collapsed like a house of cards. And what he’d assumed for the past two days had been reconstructed out of the mess of his shattered beliefs about her for the past two years. He hardly knew what to think anymore, except to think that he had no idea how to form a clear picture of Shepard in his mind. The pieces just kept breaking as soon as he picked them up.
Shepard had written to him.
Alright, not *to * him precisely, but she’d sent him a message – almost two weeks ago, from the look of things. He had probably missed the message on Horizon because he never checked his email account when on assignment in the colonies. He frowned. It looked like that bad habit had come to bite him in the ass at last.
I want you to know that your faith in me was not misplaced.
Hell of a way to twist the knife, Kaidan thought. Here he’d been thinking how right he was in walking away from her, in calling her on her traitorous defection to Cerberus, and all the while she’d been undercover…
No, he thought, looking at the message again. She wasn’t undercover for the Alliance – or the Council either. She wouldn’t have blown her cover to send such an email, even over something like this. And an email with her name on it, labeled “bat-shit-crazy” would certainly have blown her cover.
Kaidan shook his head, torn between irritation and a feeling of…fond nostalgia? Shepard had a working knowledge of technology, but she’d never been much of a hacker. She hadn’t even bothered to try and encrypt the email. Maybe she hadn’t bothered because the data was so encrypted itself. Or maybe she still didn’t know how to do so. Either way, she had to know that Cerberus would find out about this. And yet, she had sent the message anyway.
But why ?
With a few taps to the keyboard, Kaidan traced the path by which the message had been sent: it was from an Eclipse merc account of all things, the signal originating on a planet called Lorek. That was one of the more remote systems of the Omega Nebula and Kaidan couldn’t imagine what had drawn Shepard out there of all places, nor why she would be using some merc’s account to send email. From the looks of things, Shepard really was working for Cerberus – though she was ready to stab them in the back – or rather, the front – to help the Alliance. It was like…like she was with Cerberus but deliberately rubbing her defection in their faces – all three faces of that three-headed dog, as it were.
So what the hell did that mean? Kaidan wondered. Aside from not working for the Alliance, he supposed that it meant her dealings with Cerberus were uneasy at best. But…clearly she wasn’t their prisoner or anything, not given the way she’d acted on Horizon. Cerberus must have known about this - after all, this had happened weeks ago, and yet Shepard had still been running the show during the rescue from the Collector attack. It was possible that Shepard had been brainwashed to join Cerberus, but that made no sense either, not given the way she had behaved then. She had seemed as much the leader as ever, and she didn’t seem worried that Cerberus was after her. Whatever her relationship with Cerberus, one thing was clear: there was more going on here than he had thought.
Kaidan frowned. So what the hell *was * going on between Shepard and Cerberus? It seemed that Shepard had joined them willingly, but he still didn’t know why. She said something about stopping the Collectors, but it didn’t make sense. Why would she have gone to *them * for help? Even if the Alliance had been dragging their heels regarding the colony attacks, why join Cerberus? She was a Spectre still. All she had to do was come back and ask the Council for resources, right? Then she could go do whatever was necessary to maintain galactic stability - in other words, do whatever the hell she wanted.
Maybe Anderson would know more, Kaidan thought. He would have to ask the man as soon as he was able. Not – he told himself – that he would reveal the nature of his relationship with Shepard – or the fact that she had sent him this email. For Shepard to send such a highly classified message to her old lieutenant might raise questions. Perhaps, Kaidan thought, glancing at the “Bcc” again, Shepard had been thinking the same thing, and even now she was trying to keep their relationship a secret.
Had she kept their relationship secret from Cerberus?
Kaidan’s eyes widened. Suddenly, Shepard’s reasons for not contacting him took on another possibility entirely. If Shepard hadn’t wanted Cerberus to know about the two of them, then maybe that was why she’d seemed so cold on Horizon. That Cerberus agent at her back might have been Shepard’s handler, as it were. And Kaidan had just blurted out that he loved Shepard right in front of that woman and whoever else might have been listening via a comm link.
That had been stupid, he thought, wincing at the memory. No wonder Shepard had looked like he’d slapped her when he said that. Even now, he cringed at the thought that he’d said such a private thing in front of an audience. He hadn’t meant to say it at all. Hell, he had been trying to come up with the right opportunity to tell Shepard that he loved her when…when she’d died. Back then, the setting had never seemed quite right. First the hotel room, then the ship… It seemed like the stronger his feelings grew, the worse the circumstances became. So Kaidan had kept that “I love you” to himself, like this gift he intended to give to Shepard, someday. Only he never had the chance to.
Instead, he thought ruefully, he’d blurted out those feelings in a moment of anger, when he wasn’t even sure of them anymore. In doing so, he revealed his very inappropriate relationship with his commanding officer to a group of terrorists.
And Shepard had probably wanted to keep all that secret. The question remained, of course, if had Shepard tried to keep their relationship secret because it didn’t matter to her anymore, or if she had she said nothing because it still mattered to her and she was trying to protect him, even now.
God, Kaidan thought, scowling at the screen. Why hadn’t Shepard just told him what was really going on? And why use this merc’s account and send a Bcc? Why hadn’t she sent him a real message intended for him alone? But then, he thought, maybe she had been trying to tell him something on Horizon and he just hadn’t heard. Maybe this email really had been the first time she had been able to contact anyone. Maybe she was being spied on by Cerberus and that was why she hadn’t sent a message from her own account. Or maybe he’d been right in first his assessment of her and Shepard had left him for a group of terrorists and there was nothing more to say. Or maybe she had joined them for reasons that really weren’t all that bad – though, how that could be the case with a group like Cerberus, he could hardly imagine.
Still, whatever the terms of her arrangement with Cerberus, she had sent this information, and this information would hurt Cerberus and help the Alliance. She clearly had intended to bring her new allies to justice. And that showed that she still thought of herself as Alliance, whatever organization was funding her latest mission.
Kaidan squeezed his eyes shut as if in pain.
Shepard still thought of herself as Alliance.
He suddenly felt his stomach plummet as he remembered all the things he had said on Horizon. He had told her that she had betrayed the Alliance by joining Cerberus; he told her that she had betrayed him . And then he’d yelled at her when she tried to explain herself.
Kaidan, you know me…
Damn it, Kaidan thought, wincing, no wonder she’d looked so shocked and then so angry. All the while, an email proving her loyalty had been sitting in his inbox. It was clear, reading this message, that Shepard had remained true to the Alliance all along. And then he had gone and said…
Kaidan could scarcely stomach to think about what he had said. He had been so angry. And foolish. And just plain…mean. He frowned. He was never mean. In the past, he’d been raw around Shepard, unable to keep his lust and his frustration about the damn regs to himself. He knew some of that was because he had been closer to Shepard than he had ever been to anyone. She got to see both the best and the worst of him because of that.
But he’d never been mean to Shepard before, never cruel. At least…he didn’t think he had been. He liked to think that he was a gentlemanly kind of guy, but then, around Shepard, he stopped checking himself, stopped watching everything he said and did. There was something about her that made him both cautious and yet certain all at once – like he could say anything and she would always be there, but he had never quite figured out where they stood together, given the strange circumstances of being CO and subordinate.
Hell, Kaidan thought, that was part of the problem right there. On Horizon, he had been angrier than he’d ever been before, and once he got going, he stopped thinking of Shepard as his…lover. He swallowed to even admit the word to himself. No, he had treated her like an officer who needed a reality check. And since she was no longer his superior, not really, he hadn’t tempered it with his usual deference. He had told her exactly what he had thought about her and Cerberus, because he assumed that she could take it. Commander Shepard had faced down a Reaper; Commander Shepard had back-talked the Citadel Council. Surely Commander Shepard wouldn’t fold under criticism from her former lieutenant. He could tell her exactly what he thought and she would listen - then perhaps yell right back at him - but she would listen.
And she did listen, or so he thought. But, she hadn’t yelled - not really. She had been angry for a moment, but then she just…let him walk away, like she didn’t have any reason to stop him. At the time, Kaidan thought it was because she was with Cerberus and didn’t care. But now, he realized that maybe she hadn’t stopped him because she thought he didn’t care.
Kaidan began to feel sick. He may have just killed whatever lingering… anything had been between him and Shepard with his careless words on Horizon. He wanted to tell himself that Shepard had begun it all by disappearing on him for two years, but he wasn’t sure of that anymore, either. He wasn’t sure about anything. He had been so angry that he hadn’t stopped to find out what was really going on. And now, he realized, he might never know.
Kaidan opened his eyes.
He had to know. He simply had to know where he stood. Even if it was like handing Shepard his heart again - or rather, like inviting Shepard to see that she still held his heart and could do whatever she liked with it - he simply had to contact her.
He had about a half an hour before his ship arrived, he saw, glancing at the time. He was tired, shell-shocked and only somewhat lucid; he’d have to use some pretty fancy tech to encrypt a message from his Alliance account to hers, but he knew he had to try and reach her. He figured that a short message, from one officer to another would not raise too many eyebrows, and at least the Alliance servers would be secure from Cerberus.
At the very least, he owned her an apology.
He just hoped it wasn’t already too late.
“Get down!” Shepard cried, dropping down behind cover. The explosion rocked the entire complex, causing cement to crumble from the high walls to her right. Shepard checked her radar as her shields recovered, then sighed in relief to see the field was clear.
“Nice work, Shepard,” came the voice of Kal’Reegar over the comm. The quarian had only recently made Shepard’s acquaintance, and already the respect was mutual between the two soldiers. “You go get Tali. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Right” Shepard said, holstering her heavy weapon and dropping the heat sink from her pistol. “Now that was impressive,” she said, grinning at Mordin, who was crouched beside her. “I’ve only taken out a Colossus on foot once before, and it was an ugly business. Well done.”
“Yes,” Mordin said approvingly. He brushed off his lab coat with a nod. “Well-timed use of heavy weapons for damage and singularity skill to pin geth in place. Prevented repair protocol. Glad you are growing accustomed to upgraded biotic skills.”
“Me too,” Shepard agreed. “And you, Mordin, good work. I didn’t know salarians could be that deadly.” She smiled and held up her hand for a high five.
The salarian looked at her quizzically, then held up his three-fingered hand as well, mirroring Shepard in some sort of bizarre salute.
“It’s a high five, Mordin,” Shepard said, almost laughing as she looked from her hand to his. “You’re supposed to hit my hand.”
“Oh.” The alien blinked, then punched Shepard’s open hand with his fist.
“No,” Shepard frowned. “Okay, first, you punch like a girl, Mordin. We’re going to need to work on that wrist action. Secondly, you’re supposed to hit with an open hand.”
“Kaidan and I had to teach Garrus this at first, too. He can demonstrate. Garrus?” Shepard looked over her shoulder to where Garrus had been at her back. “Can you…? Oh shit!” Shepard felt her heart drop into her toes as she saw the turian’s limp body, crumpled against the crates behind her.
“Garrus!” she shouted, readying a dose of medigel, but Mordin beat her to it.
“No lasting trauma,” the salarian informed her as he ran his omnitool over Garrus’ body. “Concussed, dehydrated, fracture to left front plate, crack will heal by the end of the week.”
“Garrus…” Shepard frowned as she waited for his eyes to open. A moment later, Garrus looked up at her with a dazed expression. He blinked, his small blue eyes unfocused for a moment before they settled on her face. Shepard’s initial panic turned to fury.
“The hell ?” she snapped. “You were supposed to stay down. How’d you get hit?”
Garrus groaned, sitting up and leaning against the crate beside him. “Nice to see you, too, Shepard,” he said.
“I…” Shepard frowned. I’m sorry, I’ve been on edge, lately , she wanted to say, but she decided against it. Everyone knew she’d been on edge, so there really was no point in bringing it up.
“You scared me there, Garrus,” she told him. “You were supposed to keep that thick head of yours behind cover, not use it as a target for the geth.”
“I’m not going to sit still while you finish the fight for me,” he grumbled.
“I barely got that Destroyer off of your ass in time,” she glared at him. “You were supposed to rest and let Mordin and me handle the big one while you kept an eye out for reinforcements.”
“Well, I was keeping an eye out,” he said, flexing his arms gingerly. “I just decided you needed some help and I got knocked out for my efforts.”
Shepard shook her head at him. “You need to play it safe, Garrus. You can’t pull stunts like that and expect to live.”
“Says the woman who ran across a battlefield while being shot at by geth to dive behind a crate,” Garrus snorted. “I thought that Colossus had your digit on it.”
Shepard blinked at the strange phrase, her anger shot down by confusion. “My…digit?”
“Did I get the phrase wrong?” Garrus asked. “Wasn’t that what you said when you got knocked out that one time? ‘That one had my digit’?”
“No,” Shepard said, now laughing. “No, it’s ‘number’ – ‘That one almost had my number on it.’ And I didn’t say that – that was what Kaidan…”
She broke off. She and Garrus exchanged an awkward glance before both looked away.
“Let’s find Tali,” Shepard said quickly.
“Right,” Garrus said, trying to stand. His legs buckled under him and he fell heavily to the ground.
“Rest for now,” Shepard said, holding a hand out. “I’ve got Tali.”
“What, Garrus?” Shepard asked him, sparing him a pained look. “She knows I’m alive and with Cerberus. I doubt she’s going to chew me out in front of my team. And if she did, I don’t want an audience for it.”
“An audience…” Garrus broke off, his mandibles flaring. “You mean me?”
“I don’t…” She took a breath, then said, “Horizon was embarrassing, Garrus.” Garrus just stared at her and she had to look away. She was sick of thinking about Horizon. They were on another mission now. She couldn’t spend the rest of her days dwelling on that moment when Kaidan walked away, just wishing she could do it all over again, wishing she could find something to say. She just had to…move on – even if she didn’t want to.
“Let Mordin patch you up and let me go find Tali,” she told Garrus, her eyes averted from his searching gaze.
“Alright, Shepard,” Garrus said at last. “Your call.”
“Thanks.” She gave him a weak smile before she turned away. The turian watched her go, then winced as the salarian poked him in the ribs.
“Ow!” Garrus scowled at Mordin. “Watch it.”
“Must stabilize fracture,” the salarian told him. “Likelihood of geth reinforcements slim, but…”
“Right,” Garrus grumbled. “Hurry up, then.”
“Yes,” Mordin nodded. “Also, between you and me, concerned about Shepard. Commander growing more aggressive under stress.”
“Well,” Garrus chuckled, “That’s Shepard for you…”
“Stress levels extremely high,” Mordin continued. “Yet not as a symptom of monthly cycles.”
“Monthly what?” Mordin clarified and Garrus stared.
“Oh,” the turian said, his eyes widening. “That…explains a lot.”
“Read mission reports about Horizon,” Mordin continued. “Perhaps…”
“Don’t talk about Horizon,” Garrus said warningly, looking over her shoulder. “She’s…”
“Concerned about Shepard,” Mordin repeated, frowning.
“Yeah,” Garrus agreed, mirroring that frown. “Me too.”
“Keelah,” Tali said, looking up at the large sphere above her. The drive core emanated a kind of blue, rippling energy all throughout the room. To Shepard, it was soothing, but no doubt the quarian wasn’t seeing anything but a dying star in her mind.
“I still can’t believe this,” Tali murmured. “I mean…my team…”
Shepard nodded, thinking back to their exit from the quarian ruin. As they walked back to the landing zone, Garrus had been thoughtful and silent, Tali equally so. Mordin, however, made up for the others. He would not shut up. He talked endlessly, recording as much data as he could into his omnitool, giving a running dictation on all his observations. More than once, Shepard had to drag the distracted professor out of the sunlight before his shields overheated. While the salarian had surprised her with his skill in combat, his ability to get side-tracked by his intellectual curiosity was a serious liability.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Shepard asked Tali, trying to see her expression behind her mask. “Today was…rough.”
“Yes,” Tali said, her accent stronger as her voice grew low. “I…those people… They died for me.”
“Yeah…” Shepard said frowning. While she was usually in the thick of the action, she knew it was never easy to feel someone else had taken a bullet so you didn’t have to. For a moment, her mind wandered to Kaidan. He certainly knew that feeling. Had he felt that way about Virmire, she wondered? Had he resented her interference, even now? She thought he’d gotten past it, but maybe…
“It helped to say the rites for them, though,” Tali said. “I’m sorry Kal and I took so long…”
Shepard remembered back to the strange sound of the two quarians chanting words that were foreign, untranslatable, and unmistakably holy. She hadn’t understood a word of it, but as soon as the quarians finished, she couldn’t help but mutter, “Amen.” Apparently, that word hadn’t translated either because Tali asked her about it afterward. Shepard had to explain it’s meaning. Then she confessed that she didn’t speak that word very often. The last time she had ended a prayer that way was at Ashley’s funeral.
“Not at all,” Shepard told her. “I’m sorry we couldn’t…do more.” She felt wrong leaving the bodies of Kal’s team, but there was no way to carry the corpses out when they had to move quickly to stay out of the sun and to avoid being seen by more geth. Besides, blasted and infected as the bodies had been, it wasn’t worth the risk.
Tali turned her head away, her mask now concealed by her head covering. “It was hard not to see them attended to,” she admitted, “but…” She shrugged. “They died on a world we once inhabited as a free people – free of these suits. Perhaps that is better than any other death.”
“It always sucks though,” Shepard said with a frown. “Loosing anyone.”
“Sucks?” Tali looked at her quizzically. “What is…sucks?”
“Ah…never mind,” Shepard said quickly.
“Sucks…” Tali repeated. “To…pull…with the mouth?” Shepard belatedly realized the quarian was looking the word up in her omnitool data banks.
“Really, never mind,” Shepard said. It was too late. Behind her mask, Tali’s pale eyes widened.
“Keelah!” she exclaimed, looking up at Shepard.
“I…use bad language,” Shepard said, feeling sheepish. “And that’s not the worst of it. Best not to look up anything I…”
To Shepard’s surprise, Tali laughed. “I know. I think I learned more vulgar human sayings from you and Joker than all the Migrant Fleet ever knew in centuries before.”
“Gee, thanks,” Shepard said, blushing a little. She smiled to see Tali recovering though. On the one hand, it felt wrong to be laughing after a day like this one. But on the other hand, Shepard honestly didn’t know how else to deal with death and loss but to find the first opportunity to laugh.
“You gonna be okay with leaving Kal’Reegar behind?” she asked, trying to look beyond the mask to read Tali’s glowing gaze. “I mean, we could try and recruit him now that he’s delivered…”
“No,” Tali shook her head. “Kal is…a marine. His first duty is to the fleet.”
“I understand,” Shepard said quietly. Involuntarily, her mind went back to the last marine she’d spoken to, who had also returned to his fleet.
“Having any trouble settling back in on the Normandy?” she asked, pushing that thought aside. “It’s not unlike the last ship – except that this is the only place you can be sure you’re not being monitored,” she added, waving a hand at the drive core that loomed over them.
“I like the quiet,” Tali said, “I miss the old faces though.” Even behind the mask, Shepard could hear a wistful smile in her voice. “Presley, Engineer Adams – all of them. It doesn’t seem right having Cerberus in charge of this ship.”
“I fully expect them to betray us at some point,” Shepard said, making a face. “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“Shoe?” Tali asked, cocking her head.
“It’s…another human expression,” Shepard said, shaking her head. “Look, just… If I’ve got you and Joker with me, Garrus and Chakwas – we’ll see about the others, but, well, I want to be ready when that happens.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Shepard,” Tali said grimly. “I had wondered… Just let me know how I can help. For now,” she said, her voice sounding tired. “I should get back to work.”
“Sure,” Shepard nodded, walking with Tali back out of the engine room. “And Tali,” she said before she turned to go, “It’s good to have you back.” The quarian nodded to her and Shepard smiled.
As she walked away, Shepard reflected on how much more pleasant a day it had turned out to be than it had begun. Her old friend had survived the rescue mission, joined her in spite of her being with Cerberus, and had allowed her to explain the situation instead of yelling at her. Tali had even agreed to join her when the proverbial other shoe did, in fact, drop. Such a nice change from what had happened with Kaidan, Shepard thought, wryly.
And regarding Kaidan, Shepard didn’t doubt for a second that someone – probably Garrus – had filled Tali in on the situation with the former lieutenant. On the shuttle ride back, Kaidan’s name came up and no one said anything. Garrus looked to Shepard; Shepard looked away. Mordin started to say something about “cycles” - whatever that was - and Garrus had elbowed him in the ribs so hard that the salarian started gagging and had to apply some medigel to himself. Tali had looked curious, but didn’t press for clarification. And then, just now, she hadn’t asked at all. Tali had always been a curious one, so clearly, someone had warned her not to piss the commander off.
Shepard wandered back to the elevator, leaning heavily against the door until it reached the command deck. Then she straightened, forcing herself to look as leader-like as possible when she stepped out to face the crew.
“You have unread messages, commander,” Kelly informed Shepard as she approached the CIC.
“Thank you, Kelly,” Shepard said. In her head, she added, Frankly, I don’t give a shit.
But she didn’t say that. She had wasted enough time moping and being riddled by nightmares. For now, at least, she would act like everything was normal and get some chores done. Her team needed to get properly outfitted for this mission, and that meant she needed money and resources. She knew she had a whole backlog of assignments that ought to keep her busy for a while. So as long as they were this far out, near the rim, they might as well work their way back to the Citadel – and Anderson – slowly.
Shepard was of two minds about that eventual confrontation. On the one hand, she had half a mind to demand answers from Anderson immediately. On the other hand, she had little inclination to even talk to him. If he didn’t help her now – and she suspected he wouldn’t – then she really was on her own.
“Miranda would like to speak with you,” Kelly added helpfully.
“And yet, Miranda can still go screw herself,” Shepard muttered under her breath.
She opened her computer to check her messages, to remind herself of the assignments that Cerberus had for her. There was a new message from the migrant fleet, a veiled threat telling Shepard to treat Tali well. As if I wouldn’t, Shepard thought, frowning, but she couldn’t fault the quarians for being leery of Cerberus. The other message was more curious, the sender unknown. The heading just said…
Shepard felt a blush creep up her face and her heart suddenly skipped a beat.