Kaidan stopped halfway through the message, then let his arm drop. He hadn’t realized how sore his arm was from holding his omnitool at reading height for so long. Of course, his biceps weren’t the only muscles that were tense.
His breathing was heavy, his neck muscles tight, and that wasn’t the only thing that was tight. Kaidan was damn glad he’d come back to his room, because his pants had gotten rather snug all of a sudden. He was sitting on his bed, back to the wall, and instead of finding cold, clinical data about Shepard’s doings and whereabouts in the last few emails, he’d found nothing but…
Damn, that pink stuff goes straight to my head.
I think Kasumi’s passed out on the couch now. With that creepy thing on her face its hard to tell. I’m looking out the observation deck the window now, and my head is spinning. But I like this window. I’m thinking it would be so hot to have sex up against that window. Can you imagine? I’d put my back against it, or maybe my front – your choice – and you could stand just there behind me. Think we could manage standing up? I like this idea.
I guess we’d want to kick Kasumi out of here. Don’t know about you,but I’m not really into exhibitionism. And don’t worry about the window. We’d glow so much you that couldn’t see anything - sort of like black shadows inside the blue, right? Damn, that sounds hot. I wanna see that. Let’s find a mirror next time and try it out. But it’s not like anyone would actually see us from the outside. It’s not like anyone would be just floating by. If they were, they’d have other things to worry about. So we could just see our own reflections in the glass. Yeah, I like this idea.
But you know, I don’t think it would work after all, ‘cause the Illusive Prick has this whole ship bugged. I’m hunching over my omnitool now so no one can see me type. See, I’m getting smarter about this tech stuff.
I think my quarters would be better, since I got the bugs out of there – ha! The elevator up takes a while, so that’s a place to start. Standing up again, though there is a railing there, which would help. And I have this thing with reflective surfaces right now, because I keep wondering about shoving you up against my fish tank. It’s a nice fish tank. I clean it a lot, so it doesn’t smell. The blue fish are pretty.
*The blue fish are pretty? * Kaidan thought, bemused, even as he felt himself hardening more.
Kaidan’s eyes widened at the next image her message brought up.
Dear God, he thought, swallowing hard as his face erupted into flame. He couldn’t believe she’d ever thought these sorts of things about him, much less would ever write them down. Of course, it sounded like she’d written this when drunk, and Kaidan knew Shepard tended to run off at the mouth when drunk. But messages could be deleted. He couldn’t imagine why she had kept this draft, unless she’d been too drunk at the time to even realize what she’d written.
Kaidan scarcely noticed the ache in his arm as he read about the virtues of Shepard’s nice warm shower, how she had a desk with his picture on it and how she had this crazy idea about having sex on the desk in front of that picture. Kaidan was treated to a virtual sex tour of Shepard’s room, from that first desk to the second one – which she pointed out was his as soon as he’d come and claim it – to the coffee table that was too “uncomfortable for anything but setting stuff on, but I’ve got a couple bottles of wine in the closet.”
Shepard paused her sex tour long enough for her to mention the new lingere collection that she had in that same closet, and how she’d model it for him while he rested from all this exercise on the couch. It sounded like he’d only get a short break, however, because as soon as she managed to find some bit of underwear that he liked (she figured he’d go for the matching stockings, thong, and bra that she’d never worn and Kaidan was inclined to agree), then they’d be right back at it. She detailed all manner of acrobatic positions she intended for the two of them to get into. From the sound of things, being shown around her small cabin would take at least a full day, if not a two, but she had reassured Kaidan in the email that she’d simply have the mess sergeant put food in the elevator and send it up to them so they wouldn’t have to break stride. Truthfully, Kaidan wasn’t sure it was physically possible to come that many times in such short succession, but hey, it did give a guy something to aim for.
Kaidan read her description of how she planned to pin him in the corner of the couch and what she planned to do to him once she had him there, now completely forgetting his original purpose in reading this letter. He was caught up in the fantasy she was describing, his eyes gone heavy-lidded and, well, other parts of him feeling rather heavy as well. The woman ought to be writing for Fornax, he thought. What she lacked in technical precision, she made up for in imagination.
But then, just as he was getting to the climax – yet again – her message suddenly changed tone.
Kaidan frowned at that, desire softening into something else as he read the last words of the message.
There, message ended abruptly. Kaidan looked up from the email, a lump lodged in his throat. The previous email was a drunken rant at him for his behavior on Horizon, and the one before that had been even more furious in tone. The irritation and hurt Kaidan had felt when reading those previous messages was now overshadowed by a new feeling entirely.
Of course, he felt ragingly horny – who wouldn’t? - but that feeling was tempered with a tenderness that seemed to turn his lust from something burning to something smoldering.
Kaidan stared at the opposite wall, feeling more mixed up than he had in a long time – and that was saying something. Ever since Horizon, he’d been feeling conflicted beyond anything he’d ever felt before. It wasn’t just about Shepard, and he knew that. He felt conflicted about the Alliance, about Cerberus, about the damn Reapers – about all of it. Every time he thought he had a grasp on the facts, on whom he could trust and what his path of action ought to be, then some other bit of intel would come up and everything changed on him. The bad guys had saved Shepard; the good guys had started accusing her. And in the middle was Kaidan – just one man who had seen far too much to remain in blissful ignorance, but who knew far too little to be able to do anything about it.
Those problems stretched far beyond Shepard, and he knew that, but she did seem to be at the center of things. It didn’t help the confusion in his life that he couldn’t view Shepard dispassionately. Every time he thought he could tie up his feelings for her into something that had limits and a label, some new piece of information got added to the mix and the whole of his feelings for her threatened to spill out once again. In truth, the only time he’d successfully walled off his feelings for Shepard into one corner of his life and mind…
Was when he thought she was dead.
Kaidan blinked. Now there was a sobering thought.
It was true, though. When Shepard was alive, back on the old Normandy, things had been complicated, but there was a kind of simplicity to them as well. It was like being outside on a sunny day. Sure there were things that needed doing and tending to, but at the time, you could just rest for a while. When Shepard died, the ensuing simplicity was more like being in a bare-walled room.
The soft ping of his inbox announced another email had arrived. Kaidan checked it at once. He kept thinking that surely a final email would arrive from Shepard to explain or excuse the 63 that proceeded it. But instead, the new message simply contained a confirmation of his meeting with Anderson at 1100 in front of the council chambers.
Kaidan realized that it was getting late. He didn’t have much time to get his room in order before check-out in the morning, especially not if he was going to get a decent night of sleep. He looked around the room, then back down at his omnitool. He really ought to get some sleep, he thought.
Then, taking out a pillow to prop up his arm, Kaidan leaned up against the wall, opened up the next email, and kept on reading.
EDI’s soft voice was calling to her, but Shepard tried to resist.
“Commander,” the AI said more loudly, “you instructed me to wake you upon our approach to the Omega 4 relay. Shall I start your cabin’s automated morning routine?”
“Fine,” Shepard grumbled, turning her face into the pillow. There was a moment of blessed silence, and then, suddenly, a growling female voice sang soulfully and very loudly over the cabin radio.
From the Kinnn-tucky coal mine, to the California sun,
Yeah Bobby shared the secrets of my soouuuul…
“Nooo…” Shepard groaned and cursed into the pillow.
…Through all kinds of weather, through everything we done,
Yeah Bobby, baby, kept me from the cold world.
Shepard shoved herself out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. The shower was already blasting away, scaling hot – just the way she preferred it. Shepard stripped down in the doorway, slipped into the spray, and scrubbed her face.
The reason for her exhaustion came trickling back by degrees: the lack of sleep over the past few days, the upcoming suicide mission, the approaching unknown, and then, sadly, the memory of the idiotic mistake of just two hours ago.
…One day near Saleeeheeenaaahaaaa, I let ‘im slip awaayyyeee
He’s a-lookin’ for that home, and I hope he finds eeeeyyeeetttt…
“Ugh,” Shepard grunted, pounding her head against the hard wall of the bathroom.
Now she had another reason for just wanting to stay in bed.
…But I’d give up all my tomorrows for one single yesterdaaaayyeee.
To be holdin’ Bobby’s body next to miiiiinnnnee-hmmmmmhmmm.
“Janis, shut up ,” Shepard hollered, shutting off the water.
But Ms. Jopin was not a VI, and so the radio continued to blare as Shepard made her way back to her room, towel in hand and dripping all the way.
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
Nothin’, I mean nothin’ honey if it ain’t freeeeeyeahaaaah…
Shepard slammed her hand down on the radio, and the song abruptly ended. The sudden quiet of the room was almost worse. With a sigh, Shepard turned the radio back on, but turned it down so that the crazy five-minute organ and rock guitar solo at the end of the song didn’t give her a total headache. Playing softly, she could pretend the song was just an upbeat morning soundtrack, not a heartrending ballad about a strong, independent woman who was mourning the loss of the only man she’d ever loved. Shepard shoved that thought away as hastily pulled on her underwear, thermals, and then her beat-up armor.
She tried not to think about the messages she’d sent the night before, but failed. So instead, she tried to think about them quickly, so that she could get back to the far more important task at hand.
She couldn’t get the emails back, that much was clear. She had briefly considered sending some sort of follow up, “Oops! Please disregard my stupidity” sort of message, but she was now certain that would only make things worse. If she lived through this mission, she could send another message and explain. Or maybe she’d be better off trying to find Kaidan in person. Her track record with emails left something to be desired.
Shepard zipped up her jumpsuit and flipped her hair out from her collar. It was kind of nice to think that it had grown back so much that she now actually needed another trim. Shepard headed for the door. On the way, she passed Kaidan’s picture, gazing at her yet again with no change in emotion.
“Galaxy in the balance and I trip talking to you,” she muttered, remembering a similar conversation from years ago. “God, I’m a moron.”
By now, Kaidan was no doubt analyzing her messages and judging her as he would. For a moment, Shepard felt sick to her stomach just thinking of it. Thankfully, she told herself, the embarrassment was at least limited to just one person. EDI had seen to it that her mails would only be read by Kaidan. That was something, right? She turned away from the picture and headed to the elevator.
And maybe, she thought as the doors slid closed, maybe he’d find those emails funny or even endearing. Right?
Shepard frowned as she remembered some of the things she’d written.
Hmm. Maybe not.
“Commander Shepard,” she muttered as the elevator descended. “Hero of Elysium. Savior of the Citadel. Total tech idiot .”
But when the doors of the elevator slid open to reveal an empty command deck, Shepard swallowed, her embarrassment fading instantly at the sight.
If she needed a reminder of the stakes in this game, here it was. Her private problems – self-inflicted or not – were no longer a concern. Her crew was gone, the clock was ticking, and she had to get her head in the game, or she was going to get everyone killed in the battle to come. The email thing was a mistake she could write off as careless and silly, but there would be no room for errors today.
Today, she had to leading her team through the deadly mission into the galactic core and save her crew. Oh, and stop the Collectors. On their side, they had the home turf advantage, however many thousand drones, the ever-returning Harbinger, and who knows what other nasty tricks up their meaty sleeves. On her side, she had a ship – a good ship, but just one, twelve soldiers – most of whom were crazy, an injured pilot, and a traumatized technician who was probably still passed out in the med bay.
My kind of odds , she thought wryly. Nothing like possible death and certain injury to snap a person back to the present.
Shepard had only taken three steps from the elevator when EDI’s voice stopped her.
“I have an incoming call from the Illusive Man,” the AI said. “He wishes to speak to you before we enter the relay.”
“Now?” Shepard paused mid-stride, frowning.
“What, seriously?” Joker echoed Shepard over the comm link. “We’re just about to get within range of the relay.”
For a moment, Shepard considered ignoring the bastard and going into the relay without talking to him. After all, he’d ignored *her * just two hours before. But then, she did have a few questions for the guy and he might have something to tell her that she ought to know. Shepard scowled, then turned for the armory door.
“I’ll be right there,” she said. “Joker, drive around the block a few times until I’m done.”
“Aye, aye,” he replied.
Shepard nodded to Zaeed as she passed through the armory. Jacob, she figured, was no doubt at his station down in engineering, now that the actual crew was gone. Good thing they still had Tali, she thought, frowning. Jacob was no slouch, but it worried her that Ken and Gabby weren’t keeping an eye on the drive core. She didn’t even want to think about what might be happening to them right at this moment – at the moment the Illusive Man decided that he wanted to have a chat.
By the time she entered the comm room and stepped into the quantum entanglement holo-transmission, Shepard was feeling highly irritable. The grid seemed to take forever to scan her down and bring up the Illusive Man’s shape in the air before her. He turned to her, cigarette in hand. He was standing for a change, not sitting in that almighty tech-throne of his. It looked as though he’d been pacing the floor just now.
“Shepard,” he said. He let out a breath of smoke.
Shepard paused, waiting for him to continue, but when he didn’t, she was a little confused.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “was there some reason you interrupted us?”
“I wish I had more information for you,” he told her. “I don’t like you flying through that relay blind.”
“Funny,” Shepard replied, tapping her chin. “I don’t like flying through that relay with my entire crew gone .”
“Indeed,” he nodded, looking serious.
“Cut the act,” Shepard said, letting her hand drop. “Did you or did you not have any idea they’d be taken?”
“You’re at a disadvantage without your crew,” he replied, his voice flat. “I don’t foolishly jeopardize missions.”
Shepard snorted. “Yeah, I figured I wouldn’t get a straight answer out of you.”
“I don’t like the idea of sending you in there alone.”
“I’m not alone,” Shepard bristled. “I have some of the best working with me.” As she said it, she realized she meant it. “But whatever you know, *I * need to know. Level with me. You got anything to tell me, now’s the time – dirty secrets and all.”
“Whether you trust me or not,” the Illusive Man said, narrowing his eyes, “I trust you to get this done. This is a great opportunity. The first human to take a ship into the galactic core. Who knows what you might find.”
Shepard just gaped at him. “This is a rescue operation, not a field trip,” she sputtered. “Good lord, do you really think I signed on for some sort of sightseeing vacation?” She took a step forward, pointing a finger at him. “Your crew – yeah, your crew – just got kidnapped and God only knows what’s happening to them. Do you really not give a shit about them, or are you that easily distracted from the task at hand?”
Through the holograph, it looked like his lips quirked in a wry grin. “They’re your crew now, Shepard,” he told her.
“Yeah,” she said, nodding, “You’re right. They are. If you won’t do a damn thing for them, then I guess they are mine.”
“I knew I brought you back for a reason,” he went on, beaming as if with pride at something he had created. “I’ve never seen a better leader.”
“I don’t need a pep talk,” Shepard informed him. “I need to get going. You got any useful intel, lay it on me. Otherwise, I have better things to do.”
“Just one thing, Shepard,” the Illusive Man said as she turned to go, “Remember what you’re really fighting here.”
“Ah…the Collectors?” Shepard asked, raising an eyebrow.
“The Reapers,” he corrected her coldly. “The abduction of those colonies is nothing compared to what will happen should they succeed. You, of all people, should know that.”
Shepard thought back to the nightmares of the past few months, of the past few years – minus the time she’d been dead. Too often had she seen the destruction that was coming.
Yeah, she thought, she knew what the stakes were.
“Your first objective is to stop the Collectors,” the Illusive Man went on, pointing the cigarette at her, “But if you can find intel on the Reapers – anything at all – you could turn the tide against them. This is the opportunity the Protheans never had – that no race ever had. Don’t waste it, Shepard.”
Shepard considered that. As annoyed as she was with the man, he had a point. But then a second thought occurred to he.
“Actually, our first objective is to live through the next hour or so. This could be a really short trip, you know. Then we try and save the crew and clear ourselves an escape route while also staying alive. We’ll try and take out the Collectors, but if I need to retreat out of that relay to regroup and resupply, I’ll damn well do it. I hope this is one-stop-shopping, but if it isn’t, I’d rather go back for a second trip than do something stupid.”
“Fair enough,” the Illusive Man said, nodding. “I trust to your plans. Regardless of your opinion of Cerberus – of me – you are a valuable asset to all of humanity.”
“Okay…” Shepard said, taken a bit aback at his obvious tone of respect. “Uh, thanks,”
“We’re counting on you,” he told her, and the link cut out. “Be careful, Shepard.”
Shepard stared at the empty space feeling strangely inspired by his words, and then a vaguely dirty at being so inspired.
“Why are you so worried about me all of a sudden, Illusive?” she muttered to herself, turning and striding from the room. She cut back through the tech lab, nodding to Mordin as she went. She quickly paced down the crew deck, past dozens of empty stations, and came to the helm, where Miranda was already pacing behind Joker, her tight, black catsuit creaking with every step.
“Isn’t that thing uncomfortable?” Shepard asked her.
“What?” Miranda blinked at her.
“Never mind,” Shepard shook her head.
“Took you long enough,” Joker told her.
“The boss kept me,” she replied. “How we doing?”
Joker explained the preparations that had been made to the Normandy and the state of the IFF.
“Good,” Shepard said, nodding. Hitting the comm link, she said, “Alright crew. Everyone at their stations.”
A chorus of “yeahs” and “Rogers” came back at her. EDI politely noted that everyone was where they should be, except for Jack, who had apparently been pacing the ship uneasily ever since they’d returned. Shepard decided to ignore that for the moment, and turned her attention to the glowing mass relay quickly approaching them.
“Why is it red?” Joker muttered. “Did the Collectors color code it, just to say, ‘Don’t come here’?”
Shepard nodded. “Gives it a nice, ominous flavor, doesn’t it?”
“Think the rest of the decor matches on the other side?” Joker asked her.
“We’ll find out soon enough,” Shepard replied, thinking of what the Illusive Man had just told her. Aside from decor, there could be something in there they could salvage – something they might be able to use… Miranda just looked worriedly out the window.
“Alright,” Joker said, taking a deep breath. “We all ready?”
“As we’ll ever be,” Shepard told him. “Hit it.”
“At the relay in ten,” Joker said into the comm. “Nine, eight…”
We’re going into the galactic core , Shepard mused. This is completely insane.
As Joker continued the countdown, she gripped the back of his seat. The relay loomed closer and closer, the spinning discs glinting in the red light.
*Well, at least if we die, * Shepard thought as red light enveloped the ship, I’ll never have to face Kaidan again.
The darkly humorous thought made her smile. Hero of the galaxy, indeed.
“Five, four, three, two…”
Joker’s “one” was lost in the sudden pitch and rush as the Normandy hit the relay and shot off into the unknown.