“Is…he going to be okay?” Tali asked, her voice a little breathless behind the mask.
“I think so,” Shepard said, dropping to her knees at once. “He’s…” She breathed a sigh of relief as Kaidan lifted his head and shook it. “Conscious.”
“Ugh,” Kaidan grunted, grimacing. “I thought that one…had my number on it. But it just…punctured my suit is all.” He breathed heavily, grimacing as he rolled himself to a seated position. Shepard leaned over him, checking him for injuries. Tali said nothing, but from her silence, Shepard guessed that the quarian was sizing Kaidan up, thinking about the difference between a suit puncture for a human and for one of a member of her species.
“Oh,” was all Tali said.
“I’m okay, Shepard – commander,” Kaidan said, waving her off. “Really, I am.”
“That was a stupid move, Alenko,” Shepard snapped at him, not backing away. “You’re lucky the suit was all that got punctured.”
“I’m fine, commander,” he repeated. “You don’t need…”
“Kaidan,” she said, her breath catching in her throat. “You’re not okay – you’re burned.” She looked at his armor in horror, noting how the synthetic fabric had melted, fusing to his red, raw skin.
“I’ve got it,” he said, “Just…hand me some medigel and…”
“I know first aid, too, Kaidan,” Shepard told him. “Now stay still and let me help you for once.”
Kaidan looked like he was going to protest, but at Shepard’s glare, he said nothing. Tali shifted nervously behind them.
“Tali,” Shepard said, looking over her shoulder, “can you hack that terminal down there?”
“Of course,” Tali said. “Lieutenant Alenko did the hard part: taking down the Prime.”
“Yeah, and he used his bare hands to do it,” Shepard said, looking at Kaidan pointedly.
”“It went down,” he said simply.
“Only because you rushed with your biotics,” Shepard said. “I still can’t believe…”
“It was charging you,” Kaidan replied, growing irritated. “Damn it, Shepard, you just stood there.”
“I was waiting…”
“For what? For it to knock you flat?”
“To get enough energy to throw it,” she finished. “I just needed to let my powers recharge.”
“It would have been on top of you by then!”
“I *had * it, Kaidan!”
“Keelah,” Tali muttered, turning away. “I’ll go ge the data. You two can…figure things out.”
Shepard turned and blinked at the retreating quarian. She watched Tali wander down the slope to the remains of the geth encampment below, her three-toed boots crunching through the dry, brittle grass that covered the plateau they stood on. Off in the distance, a storm threatened, hanging heavily over the rough terrain of the empty planet. Behind them, the Mako was still sparking and sputtering. They’d had to jump out of it and use it for cover just minutes ago. Garrus wouldn’t be happy about that. He was still angry that Shepard had taken Tali and not him on this mission, but as long as they were out here searching for geth, the quarian was the natural person to bring along. And, of course, Shepard had insisted on having Kaidan in her team. She never let him leave her side, though given how he’d taken on that geth just now, she wondered if she should have told him to stay on the ship.
Shepard looked down at Kaidan to find him considering her with narrowed eyes. “What?” she asked him, testily.
“That was…unprofessional,” he said, slowly.
“Unprofessional?” she snapped. “Seriously? ‘Unprofessional’ Kaidan?”
“It was,” he repeated.
“Is that all you think about, Alenko? Just…what people will think? What people will say?”
“Don’t you?” he snapped back. “Hell, you’re the commander. You know how delicate a business running a ship can be. We can’t…” He broke off.
“We can’t what?” Shepard pressed, growing angry. “Be intimate? Have sex? Because if I recall…”
“I was going to say argue in front of the crew,” he said.
Shepard gritted her teeth and closed her eyes.
“You’re right,” she said after a moment. “No, you’re right.”
She sighed and readied a dose of medigel. Very carefully, she helped Kaidan unzip his jumpsuit and roll it down to his waist. Her stomach knotted as she gingerly pulled the fabric away from the burn. In spite of her care, some of the skin came off with it, and Kaidan hissed a curse under his breath.
“Sorry,” she said.
“It’s…alright,” he replied.
As Kaidan held his arms up, Shepard tore open the side of his undershirt and carefully began to apply medigel to the burn. Thankfully, the scratch where the geth prime’s energy pulse had ripped past him it didn’t look too deep. With medication, it began to heal quickly. Shepard felt her tension leaving her as she became certain that Kaidan would be alright.
“Thanks,” Kaidan murmured, not meeting her eyes.
“You’re welcome,” she told him.
In light of their immediate conversation, Shepard tried not to think of how much she wanted to continue on and rip the rest of the shirt right off of him, to pull him to her and assure herself that he was truly safe and alive. But she couldn’t do that, she told herself, and not just because of the wound. Tali was just within view, tapping away on that strange terminal out in the middle of a field, and besides, the Mako was still smoking behind them. It wasn’t exactly the best venue for an interlude, she realized, frowning. Not that cheap hotels or midnight gardens or her quarters were that much better. Shepard scowled to herself. She knew her thoughts weren’t at all appropriate, given that they had just been fighting for their lives, but she just couldn’t help it.
“Don’t take a risk like that again,” she told him, tension creeping into her voice.
“I should say the same to you,” he replied, his tone steely. Shepard met his eyes and frowned. He was glaring at her as if she had disobeyed his order – not the other way around.
“Watch it, lieutenant,” she said.
“So it’s ‘lieutenant’ now, is it?” Kaidan frowned. “Tell me something, Shepard: why is it that when you don’t like how things are going, you pull the commander card, but then whenever I act like an officer, too, it just pisses you off?”
“Bullshit,” he snapped, surprising her. “Just the other day you did that. You jump back and forth between being professional and being…otherwise so fast that it makes my head spin.”
“No, I don’t,” she practically sputtered. His words made her angry, but they also made her blush. Had she been doing that? She wondered. She didn’t think she had, but then again…
“Don’t you?” Kaidan asked. He started to fold his arms across his chest, then winced at the pain and let them fall to his sides. “What about when Wrex caught us at the lockers? Or the other day on our coffee break?”
“I…” She stopped and frowned. “I didn’t mean it like that. Okay, so I’m bossy,” she admitted. “I’m used to having my way.”
“Yeah, well,” Kaidan shrugged. “That’s fine when you’re the CO, but it makes things difficult when it’s…us.”
“Difficult enough for you to jump out in front of a Prime when I told you to stay down?” she snapped, eyes narrowing.
“It was charging you.”
“I had it,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Damn it, Shepard,” Kaidan cried, “Why can’t you just let me protect you?”
Shepard blinked in surprise, then sat back on her heels. Kaidan looked up at her in exasperation, then looked away.
“Is that what this is about?” she asked after a long moment.
“I just…” he sighed. “Look, I know you can handle yourself,” he gave a bitter laugh. “Yeah, you can handle yourself. The way you fight – It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen a biotic like you – hell, a soldier like you. Most of the time you’re careful, but then you pull these stunts and… It’s distracting, Shepard. Sometimes I can barely keep myself focused. I mean, I don’t want you to stop bringing me with you on these missions, but it’s hard to see you take those risks, you know?”
“So you were trying to put yourself in harm’s way…for me?”
“It was stupid, I know,” Kaidan said, shaking his head. “Look, Shepard,” he said, raising his eyes to hers. “You can’t keep…putting yourself in danger like that. On the battlefield – or on the ship,” he added, cutting her off when she opened her mouth to speak.
“On the ship?”
“People will talk,” he said, looking at her almost pleadingly. “You’ve got to stop…looking at me like you do. Stop teasing me like you do. Someone’s going to figure it out…”
“If they haven’t already,” she muttered.
”…and it’s going to get back to the brass.”
“You’ve been thinking about this a lot, haven’t you?” she asked.
“Haven’t you?” he wanted to know.
“Not really. I mean, if it comes up…” She shrugged. “I’m a Spectre.”
“And I’m a lieutenant,” Kaidan said angrily, glaring at her. “They’re not going to court martial you, but what do you think they’d do to me?” He shook his head and looked out over the view of the hills beyond, rolling golden under the purple sky. “If they knew about us, they’d transfer me, at the very least. How could I *not * think about that – all the damn time?”
“I wouldn’t let them do that,” Shepard said, firmly.
“Oh?” he raised an eyebrow. “And what are you going to do? Shout down the entire Alliance?”
“If I have to,” she said, raising her chin.
In spite of everything, Kaidan chuckled and shook his head. “I don’t doubt you would, Shepard. It’s just…I don’t think it would do any good. You answer to the Council now, but I still answer to the Alliance. That’s my job, you know?”
Shepard opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. Instead, she just watched Kaidan as his eyes grew more troubled.
“And you, Shepard,” he said at last, “God, if anyone knew what we were doing, your reputation would…”
“Come on, Kaidan,” she said, shaking her head. “My reputation already took a beating back in Basic. You can’t pin a scarlet letter on me more firmly than that did.”
Kaidan’s eyes darkened. “That’s not what I meant. And besides, I don’t want… Not because of me, anyway.” He raised his eyes to hers. “Shepard, you have to realize that what we’re doing could…”
“Get you in trouble?” she suggested, frowning.
“Get us both in trouble,” Kaidan said. “Hell, it could get the crew in trouble.”
“So what are you saying, Kaidan?” Shepard asked. “Are we back ‘just officers’? ‘Just friends’ - again ? Breaking up with me for two weeks didn’t seem to work very well, but maybe that’s what you want after all.” She scowled and stood.
“I never…” Kaidan blinked at her, then hauled himself to his feet. “When did I break up with you?”
“Over a bowl of ramen, if I remember right,” Shepard said. She holstered her pistol and began to brush the grass from her knees. “At a damn sushi bar in the wards.”
“I didn’t…That wasn’t…” Kaidan looked at her in confusion, his dark brows drawn together.
“Wasn’t it?” Shepard fumed.
“No,” he said, quietly. “I just was telling you that we couldn’t bunk together, that’s all.”
Shepard tossed her head and brushed her hair from her eyes. The wind blew it back into her face at once. “So you didn’t intend…?”
“No!” he exclaimed. “I just…” He shrugged. “Hell, I don’t know.” He shook his head and raised his eyes to hers. “I don’t know, Shepard. I just…don’t.”
“You don’t know about us?” she asked, eyes narrowing, “Or you don’t know about us?”
He looked at her, confused. “Is there…a difference?”
“Are you not sure about us as a couple or…” She searched for a way to explain what she meant, but came up blank.
“I’m sure I…want you,” Kaidan said slowly, softly, “I just…this.” He waved a hand. “This – all of this. I don’t know how to do this. We said we’d be more, but…”
“But you still haven’t done a damn thing about it.”
“We’re on duty, Shepard,” he said wearily.
“We’re always on duty,” she scowled.
“Exactly,” he murmured. “Shepard, what the hell do you expect me to do?”
She sighed. “I have no idea,” she admitted.
“Okay, I got it,” Tali said, hurrying back to them. “It’s a lot of data, so it may take a while to sort through it all.”
Shepard and Kaidan turned to face her. As the quarian tapped on her omnitool, Kaidan came to stand behind Shepard. When Tali wasn’t looking, he swiftly tucked her hair behind her ear, then let his hand trail down her arm. He grabbed her gloved hand, giving it a small squeeze. Shepard swallowed, her throat suddenly dry. She still felt angry and hurt, but strangely she also felt the tension easing from her at Kaidan’s touch. She squeezed his hand back, then let his hand drop as Tali looked up at them again.
“Some of these geth outposts are as far away as the Omega Nebula,” she said. “Amada, Batalla… not as many as I expected, though,” she added thoughtfully. “That’s…strange. Given how many geth there must be, it’s odd we can’t find evidence of more of them. It’s like…only a fraction of their numbers have left the veil.”
“That could be a good thing or a bad thing,” Shepard said, suspicious. “Let’s just hope they aren’t planning for some major offensive. Well, let’s fix the Mako and get ourselves picked up.”
“Garrus is going to love what you did there, commander,” Kaidan said, nodding at the smoking tank.
“I thought the commander’s use of cover was quite clever, actually,” Tali replied.
“Kaidan’s being sarcastic, Tali,” Shepard explained. “I mean, Alenko…”
“I know what sarcasm is, commander,” Tali said, her voice sounding like she was holding back a laugh. “We quarians are quite good at it, actually. I was being sarcastic as well.”
“Oh,” Shepard said. She turned to see Kaidan hiding a smile behind his hand. “Okay,” she said, eyes narrowing, “if we’re done teasing the commander and mocking her driving, then let’s slap some omnigel on this thing and call for a pick up.”
“Joker’s going to be a while,” Kaidan told her. “He was scanning for mineral deposits.”
“That’s right,” Shepard said. “Well, better him than us. Good thing the mess sergeant packed us a lunch.”
“She did?” Tali asked, brightly.
“Sure thing,” Shepard said. She went to the Mako, carefully climbed up the side and returned with three small boxes. “One for the dextro-based mechanic and two for the eternally-hungry biotics,” she said, presenting them to her team. “Eat up.”
As Kaidan repaired the Mako, Shepard and Tali ate. Then Kaidan came and ate his lunch while Shepard drank from a thermos of luke-warm coffee and Tali analyzed the geth data. When Kaidan had finished eating, Shepard grudgingly shared her coffee with him, saying:
“We’ll talk again later, okay, Kaidan?”
“Sure thing, commander,” he said, nodding. “But I don’t know what else to say.”
“Yeah,” she murmured. “Me either.”
The two of them sat there on the hilltop, waiting for Joker, talking about the geth, talking about the mission, asking Tali questions about the Migrant Fleet and how, exactly, sarcasm worked in a culture where everyone was masked and you couldn’t read people’s expressions. They watched the purple sky cry rain over the distant fields of gold and felt the wind gather strength as it whistled over the land. Together, they enjoyed a rare moment of calm on that distant planet, looking out over the coming storm.