Come on, you didn’t think I’d rob you of the reunion, did you?
three years ago, Normandy SR1, enroute to Ilos
It was as if time had slowed to a near stop, drifting gently like the stars outside. Blue lights and blue shadows shimmered in the air like the trailing veils of the galactic arms. Every sound, from the hum of the engines to the lingering exhalations of breath, seemed to be winding down to a standstill. Only his deep, steady heartbeat signaled that time was marching on.
Kaidan lifted his head, brushing his lips over Shepard’s neck, her jaw, her temple. One hand still held her breast; the other supported his weight behind her head, his fingers threaded through her hair. Kaidan breathed in once more, then let out a long, shuddering breath.
Had he really said that this couldn’t change anything? He’d spoken those words just a short while ago, but the present moment proved them false. Now that he felt the heat of her skin, now that he had dropped the reigns of his careful self-control, he knew the truth:
This had changed everything.
Shepard shifted slightly beneath him. “Hey,” she murmured, her lips right beside his ear.
“Hey,” Kaidan murmured back. He pushed himself up onto his elbows to peer down at her face. For a moment, Shepard’s features were lost behind the flickering blue-white sheen of her biotic barrier, but then the ripples of energy faded, revealing a soft, wondering expression in her eyes. Kaidan swallowed hard as an unfamiliar feeling rose in her chest. His barrier faded as well, and whatever Shepard read in his expression caused her lips to curl up into a brilliant smile.
And now I know what Commander Shepard looks like when she’s satisfied , Kaidan thought, gazing down at her. It was a sight he wasn’t likely to ever forget. More than that, he felt a strange pride that *he * was the one to make her feel this way. After all these months of wanting her, it was odd to find that he’d given so much of himself.
“Well,” Kaidan said, his voice even deeper and huskier than usual. He reached up and ran a finger along her cheek.
“Well?” Shepard asked, tipping her chin up.
“That was…” Kaidan sighed and let his hand drop. His eyes trailed down to her lips and then back again.
It was so many things he hardly knew where to begin. It was as if, for the first time, he wasn’t being asked to leave half of himself outside of the door. In the past, his biotics had always been unwelcome, for a start. His previous girlfriends, all two of them and that one fling, had made it very clear that such powers were fine as long as they didn’t enter the apartment or, God forbid, the bedroom. The striking similarities between their attitudes and his stepmother’s house rules had been a bit of a turn off, to say the least. Kaidan had tried to point out that biotic flaring was little more than heat and static. When explanations failed, he just learned to keep tight control of himself. Not surprisingly, that physical reservation had translated to an emotional one and that, in turn, had become a sexual one. Kaidan had enjoyed himself in the past, sure, but in a vague, distant kind of way. He just hadn’t realized just how much he’d been missing until now.
“That was…?” Shepard prompted. She reached up and threaded her fingers into his hair, drawing him back to the present moment. Kaidan leaned into her hand, kissed her wrist, then lowered himself onto his side. He drew her to his chest, wrapping his arms around her.
“That was incredible,” Kaidan said, pressing his lips to her hair. “ You are incredible.”
It was true, Kaidan thought. He hadn’t held back at all, not from the beginning, when her first kiss had sent him reeling and flaring, and not even at the end, when she’d clung to him and gasped into his kiss as they both had burned. Instead of drawing back from him, Shepard had embraced him, even his energy - even met his energy with her own. Being with her had been like making love during a thunderstorm: fierce power all around, yet with a tenderness at the core.
Kaidan ran his hand absently down her shoulder, wondering if she had any idea how unusual it was, what they just shared, wondering if she felt even remotely the same.
Incredible , Shepard thought, as Kaidan stroked her shoulder. Yeah, that pretty much summed it up. Incredible how everything had worked out, for once in her life. Incredible that instead of another lonely night, someone cared enough to come looking for her. Incredible that said someone was such a good guy: decent and smart and possessed of an actual sense of humor. Incredible that she’d been able to finish what she started, instead of everything spinning out of control and going all to hell. Well, things had spun out of control, she thought, but in a good way - in a *very * good way.
Shepard smiled. And most incredible that it should be Kaidan, her first real friend in a long time, who made it all happen.
Shepard rested her face against Kaidan’s chest, her nose tickled by his chest hair, and breathed in the smell of his skin. He smelled good, which was seriously weird since he mostly just smelled like sweat. Clearly afterglow had shifted something in her brain, because instead of grossing her out, that salty scent was making her mouth water. She also felt relaxed in a way that couldn’t entirely be explained away as physical exertion. Kaidan seemed to have drawn out some inner part of herself that she’d always kept hidden. And judging from how playful she felt right now, it seemed that inner part of herself held a happiness she thought she’d lost forever.
“Yeah,” Shepard murmured. “I am pretty incredible, aren’t I?” She stretched, rubbing her breasts against Kaidan’s chest. “ So incredible.”
“And so modest, too,” Kaidan added wryly.
“When you’ve got it, flaunt it,” she sighed. “Or something like that.”
“Flaunt away,” he said softly, trailing a finger down one breast. Shepard moaned and rewarded him for that move with a kiss.
“So,” Kaidan asked, pulling back. “Did I pass muster?”
“Hmm?” Shepard pressed a kiss to the center of his chest, right above his breastbone.
“Did you enjoy that?”
“You mean you couldn’t tell?” She grinned and lightly tongued his nipple. Kaidan drew in a breath, then let it out on a groan.
“You’re not always…that easy to read, Shepard,” he managed.
“I’m sure I gave myself away just now,” she said, meaningfully, resting her forehead on his chest. “In more ways than one.”
“Yeah,” Kaidan replied. “Speaking of which, did I hurt you?”
“What, with the biotics?” Shepard replied. “Nope. Two biotics on the the right frequency actually create really good… is ‘thrummings’ the word I’m looking for? No, vibrations .” Shepard smiled and made a deep sound in the back of her throat. “Mmm, yes. Vibrations. I was so fevered I thought I’d burn you for sure…” She trailed off, then sleepily added. “I didn’t hurt you , did I?”
“No. Barriers, you know. Soaks up the energy flares.”
“Hmmm,” Shepard grinned again, her eyes still closed. “Energy flares.”
“But I, ah…,” Kaidan shifted beside her and sat up, allowing Shepard’s head to slide down onto the pillow. “Actually, I sort of meant the other thing.”
“Other thing?” Shepard asked softly, her words muffled by the pillow.
“You said you’d never…”
“Oh,” Shepard frowned, realization dawning. “Uh, I said ‘technically.’ Technically. As in, I, um… yeah. Just technically.”
Shepard paused there, hoping Kaidan wouldn’t press for details. She still couldn’t believe she’d admitted even a fraction of her awkward history to Kaidan. In the past, things had always fallen apart shy of the main event. Her biotic powers seemed to flare whenever she lost her cool, and that always freaked guys the hell out. No matter what they said beforehand, they always stopped the moment the static kicked in.
But Kaidan hadn’t minded the static, Shepard thought, or the heat, or the slight shift in gravity, just mild enough that they’d tumbled onto the bed for support. In fact, he’d taken it all in stride and then some. His powers had met her own in a way that had driven her crazy. Hell, if she’d realized this was possible between two biotics, she might have tried to date a biotic long ago. Then again, Shepard thought, opening her eyes to look up at the man gazing down at her, just any old biotic wouldn’t do. At least not anymore.
No, Shepard thought, it definitely had to be Kaidan.
“Okay, sure,” Kaidan said, evidently still concerned. “But the transition from ‘technically’ to ‘actually’ didn’t hurt, did it?”
“That’s my medic,” Shepard said teasingly. “Always looking out for me.”
“I’m serious, Shepard. I was pitching a frequency that was…”
“It’s okay,” Shepard assured him. She propped herself up on her elbow beside him and gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. “I know your biotics, Kaidan. I’ve worked with you in the field for how long now?” She reached out to brush her fingers against his cheek. “It takes a while to feel out a frequency, yeah, but I know where yours is at.”
“Just wanted to make sure you were alright,” Kaidan told her, his worried expression easing.
“I’m fine,” she assured him.
There was a pause in which Kaidan considered her words. “Just fine?”
Shepard let her fingers trail down to his mouth and brushed her thumb over his lower lip. “Just fine,” she said. Kaidan raised an eyebrow.
“But only fine?” he asked.
Shepard chuckled as she let her hands drop. “Are you fishing for compliments, Alenko?”
“Just wanting a status update, ma’am,” Kaidan replied evenly, but a slight curving of his lips gave him away. “I mean, I told you that you were pretty incredible, but I’m still waiting for my performance evaluation here.”
Shepard snorted loudly. “You are such a guy , Kaidan,” she said, breaking into a laugh.
“Do you really need to ask? Let me put it this way: it’s a good thing you kissed me when you did, otherwise I’d have screamed loud enough to bring the entire ship running. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
Kaidan eyes lit up and a slow grin spread over his face. “Yeah?”
“Yes, yeah ,” Shepard rolled her eyes. “And don’t tell me you don’t know it. You were absolutely… incredible, to use your own words. You know you were. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“Only if it’s true,” Kaidan replied.
Shepard smiled, then reached out and wrapped her arm around his neck. “It’s true,” she said, looking him right in the eye. For one long moment, she searched his dark eyes, then her smile grew sad.
“God, I wish we had more time.”
“I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I shouldn’t have brought that up.”
“Why not?” Kaidan said, his throat sounding tight. “It’s true. We have…” He let out a long sigh. “We have a lot to do.”
“Kaidan, you are the master of the understatement.”
He gave her a wry smile and a shrug.
“I wish…” Shepard began. She broke off and shook her head, “I really wish that we’d done this earlier.”
“You know why we didn’t.”
“Regs,” she said quietly.
“Regs,” Kaidan agreed.
“I know,” Shepard sighed. “Believe me, I know.”
“If it weren’t for the fact we’re already breaking so rules many to pull off this mission…”
“You wouldn’t have come here tonight?” Shepard suggested softly.
“Not tonight,” Kaidan agreed. “But eventually, I would have. Shore leave, you know.”
“Yeah,” Shepard said, pursing her lips. “But if that was our plan…” She frowned. “I suppose I should have seen this coming. I suppose I should have requested a transfer for you a while ago.”
Kaidan stiffened and pulled away from her. “A transfer?”
“As soon as I started having feelings for you, really. That’s the official way to deal with these things, right?”
Kaidan’s jaw tightened and his eyes filled with hurt. “Is *that * what you’re going to do?” he choked out. “You’re going to transfer me? I mean, for you to be with me like this and then for you to just shuffle me off… God, Shepard, I thought…”
“No!” Shepard said hastily, holding up a hand, then letting it drop to his chest. “No. Hear me out.” Kaidan gave her a wary look, so she pressed on: “I have no intention of losing you, Kaidan. Now or ever. When I think of what we have to do, of what’s at stake…” She broke off and shook her head.
“No,” she said firmly. “I need you. On the team and as a soldier. I’m not going to punish you for this.”
Kaidan looked at her for a moment. “That’s what I meant, you know,” he said, his voice low. “When I said this couldn’t change things. Well, it’s mostly what I meant. I don’t want to lose my posting here. I don’t want to lose you , Shepard. I mean…” He cleared his throat. “I don’t want to leave the Normandy. This is the best assignment I’ve ever had.”
“This?” Shepard asked doubtfully. “Committing mutiny in order to stop a rogue Spectre from allowing the Reapers to enter directly from dark space into the heart of the galaxy? This is your best posting?”
“I didn’t say it was the easiest,” Kaidan replied, folding his arms over his chest. “But yeah, if this is where the real fight is, you’d better believe this is where I want to be.”
Kaidan cocked his head at her, his stance exactly the same as when he was arguing some point in the comm room during a meeting. He wore a look of confidence that bordered on stubbornness, apparently unconcerned with the fact that he was completely naked. Shepard gazed at him fondly, sure that her admiration was written all over her face.
“And this is why I want you with me, Kaidan,” she said. “You’d march right into the fight even if it was the end of the world.”
“Come on, Shepard,” Kaidan said with a shrug. “So would you. So would Garrus or Wrex or even Liara. Anyone on this ship would do that.”
“And that’s why they’re here,” Shepard agreed. “That’s why you’re here. So believe me when I say that I don’t plan on giving you up, no matter what happens. Besides, I’m a Spectre now, so officially I’m outside the chain of command…”
“Yeah, but I’m not,” Kaidan reminded her.
“I know,” Shepard gave him a sad smile. “But we’ll figure it out. If we get that far.”
“You’ll get that far,” Kaidan told her. “If anyone can, it’s you.”
“It’s us,” Shepard said. She considered him a long moment, then ran her fingers through the hair at his temples. He had a single gray hair there, standing out amongst the black strands in the low, blue light of the room. Shepard figured that must be a recent addition. Given the past few months, it was hardly surprising. Still, she hadn’t noticed it before.
“You know,” she said aloud. “For all the time we’ve spent together, I feel like I never knew you before tonight, Kaidan.”
Kaidan gave her a strange look. “How so?”
“I don’t know. I just…” She gave a small, one-shouldered shrug. “I knew you one way as a soldier. I knew you a different way as a friend. But tonight, I guess this is just a side of you I’ve never seen. And I’m glad I saw it, and I’m not just talking about seeing you out of your armor, though God knows, I like that.”
Shepard smiled and let her hand drop. Kaidan took her hand in his, but continued to give her a searching look. Shepard’s brows drew together as she realized how badly her words were falling short of what she wanted to say. She wished she could convey the sensation that Kaidan had not only drawn some inner part out of her, but had somehow made that inner part of her into a part of *him * and… Yeah, that sounded strange and was probably best left unsaid. Words were evidently not her strong suit, now or ever.
“I guess what I mean is,” Shepard said, charging on, “is that I’d wondered for a long while now what you’d be like in bed…” She broke off when Kaidan’s eyebrows shot up. “Uh… never mind.”
“Don’t stop now, Shepard,” he said, his startled expression now growing intrigued. “Go on.”
“Well, now that I know you in the Biblical sense…”
Kaidan gave her a curious look. “The what now?”
“You know that saying?”
“Uh, no, can’t say that I do. That some kind of colony euphemism?”
“Not really. It’s just a thing in scripture when prudish translators don’t want to write ‘and then so-and-so got some.’”
“I haven’t done much reading on the subject, but I imagine ‘got some’ would sound kind of strange in the Bible.”
“There’s more sex in there than you’d might think,” Shepard chuckled. “When I was a teenager back in that stuffy, white-walled chapel on Mindoir, I used to snicker every time I heard the pastors read, ‘And then he went unto her and he knew her.’ I mean, really. Who do they think they’re kidding? But,” she shrugged, “maybe there’s something to that after all. ‘Cause I kept wondering how it would be with you. And now I know. In the Biblical sense, you see.”
“I see.” Kaidan paused, then asked. “So, now that you know…?”
“Come on, you can’t say you wondered how I’d be and then not tell me what you decided.”
“Still fishing for compliments, Kaidan?”
” You brought it up.”
“Fine.” Shepard fixed him with a considering look and Kaidan sat up a little straighter, shoulders back. “Well,” she said, “I kept wondering if you’d be relaxed like you are when you’re off duty or intense like you are when you’re concentrating. I was wondering if I’d get the friend or the soldier, if I’d get the biotic or the tech guy.”
“And?” Kaidan prompted when she didn’t go on.
“And I didn’t think it was possible, but I got both.” She smiled. “I like both.”
Kaidan gave her such a satisfied look that she snorted with laughter. “Okay, and now I’ve gone and inflated your ego.”
“Among other things.”
“Oh really?” Shepard asked, looking down to his lap to check.
“So,” Kaidan asked, his voice nonchalant, “When were you doing this wondering about me and my bedroom capabilities? Was that at the same time we were out fighting for our lives against the geth, or was it one of the times I awkwardly attempted to flirt with you?”
“I think it was pretty much always,” Shepard admitted, glancing away.
“Good,” Kaidan said firmly. “Because I can’t think of a time that same question wasn’t somewhere in the back of my mind.”
“Yeah?” she asked, looking back at him.
“Yeah. Usually at the front of my mind, too. I wanted you from the moment I met you.”
“That soon, huh?” Shepard raised an eyebrow. “Awfully presumptuous of you, lieutenant.”
“Always,” he replied. “I’m surprised you didn’t have me court-martialed for it, commander.”
“I couldn’t tell, actually.”
“You must be joking.”
“You’re kind of hard to read, too, Kaidan.”
“Not as hard as some,” he replied quietly.
“Well, for the record, I wanted you pretty much from the start,” Shepard told him honestly.
“Sure you’re not just saying that to spare my feelings?”
After all this time and all the crap we’ve been through?” Shepard shook her head firmly and pulled Kaidan forward into her embrace. He followed her down onto the bed, and she found herself looking up at him once more.
“After we got our biotics in tune both on the battlefield and off?” Shepard leaned up to give him a long, lingering kiss that left the both of them breathless and the room crackling with the onset of biotic energy.
“After you finally got through to me in a way nobody ever has?” she murmured against his mouth.
Shepard pulled back to gaze into Kaidan’s eyes for a moment, and suddenly felt as though her heart had grown about three times too large for her ribcage.
“Come on, Kaidan,” she whispered softly, “You know me better than that.”
invasion day, 0935 hours
You know the commander?
I used to.
Kaidan strode down the hallway as if he could outrun the stupidity of those words.
Really, Kaidan thought wryly. *I used to. * What an understatement that was.
Yeah, Kaidan mused as he rounded a corner, he used to know Shepard. He used to know her in the most basic sense: he’d served with her and they were acquainted. And he used to know her, in the sense that his knowledge belonged to the past and he often felt that he had no idea who Shepard was anymore. But he also used to know Shepard, with full, innuendo-laden meanings thereof. And just now, when some soldier had asked him a completely innocent, reasonable question, Kaidan had stuck his foot in his mouth and nearly let slip his secret of the past three years.
I used to. Honestly.
Thankfully, Kaidan had gotten out of the courtroom antechamber before that soldier could ask anything more. He’d muttered something about serving on the original Normandy and then excused himself, saying he had to use the toilet. Where the toilet was, however, Kaidan hadn’t a clue, nor did he care. He just need to get away to a quiet spot where he could let himself think. He hadn’t been able to think very clearly back in that room, after all.
It was ridiculous, really, Kaidan thought as he slipped past a group of soldiers who were blocking the hall as they listened to orders from their squad leader. There was clearly a crisis at hand, and more than that, the crisis might very well be due to the arrival of the Reapers. His own personal life - or lack thereof - shouldn’t qualify as a primary consideration or even a secondary one. Hell, it shouldn’t even be on his radar. And besides, he’d had plenty of time to deal with his feelings for Shepard. By now, the memories should have faded. By now, the thought of her shouldn’t send him into a fog, wondering what went wrong. And the very sight of her shouldn’t hit him like a punch to the gut.
But it did. It had.
He supposed he should have been prepared for it. He knew Shepard was somewhere around Alliance HQ, after all. For a moment there this morning, he thought he spotted her. He saw some blonde looking out of a window as his shuttle had flown over the complex, anyway. But knowing he might see her and actually seeing her were two different things, apparently.
So when Kaidan had come out of that meeting with the admirals and Shepard was there, just right there, he had frozen. He had been paralyzed by the overwhelming thought that Shepard really was alive - that her survival wasn’t just something his brain had come up with to spare him continual guilt and pain. And somewhere in all of that, a greeting escaped his lips. Kaidan croaked out her name as if the word had grown thistles and lodged itself somewhere halfway down his throat.
Then Shepard turned around and Kaidan had fully expected to be struck dumb by her beauty.
Only he wasn’t.
There might have been a spark of something when she first spotted him over her shoulder, but by the time she faced him, an icy mask had fallen over her features. A wary distrust filled her eyes and Kaidan was left wondering if she had always looked that tired, that utterly jaded. There were dark circles under her eyes and some fine lines around her mouth that hadn’t been there before. Her hair had grown out since the last time he had seen her, which was to say she was no longer bald as a biotic cultist. But she looked older, frankly, as though the last year had aged her by a decade.
Was it time that had dimmed the fire inside of her, Kaidan wondered, or was it Cerberus? He found himself paralyzed again, but this time from disappointment and confusion.
As for Shepard, she walked up to him with an attitude so aloof and guarded that Kaidan noticed little else. Even when Anderson asked him questions about the meeting, Kaidan had a hard time dragging himself back to the immediate conversation. The next thing Kaidan knew, Anderson had announced Kaidan’s promotion to major. Shepard started at that, emotion finally peeking through the mask, but then she did the oddest thing. She closed her eyes briefly and muttered:
“Of course. Major . Damn Alliance database queries.”
Kaidan had no idea what that was supposed to mean.
He had muttered something like an apology, though what he was apologizing for, he couldn’t say. Shepard had responded with a thin half-smile and for a moment, she almost - *almost - * looked like her old self again.
“It’s been a long time, Kaidan,” she said.
But then she frowned, like she had caught herself being friendly and couldn’t allow that to happen. Suddenly, the shutters closed again and the light in Shepard dimmed. Then Anderson had whisked her away and the moment ended. The reunion Kaidan been looking forward to for months was over and done.
Kaidan shook his head and resumed his pace over the skybridge to the next building. That was the problem, really. He had been looking forward to a reunion with Shepard for so long that his expectations had been raised pretty high. But that reunion back there was just so…so… pedestrian .
He was supposed to have met Shepard in Rio. He was supposed to greet her shuttle at the landing pad, preferably in his dress blues. He was supposed to have reservations at a nice beach-side restaurant and she was supposed to have worn a sundress… Okay, maybe that last one was a stretch, considering it was Shepard he was dealing with, but hell, they were supposed to have time at the very least.
But instead of a rose-colored sunset, he and Shepard had met under the garish fluorescent lighting of the courtroom antechamber. Instead of privacy, there had been a small crowd of people urging them in opposite directions. Instead of having something charming or clever to say, Kaidan had just stood there like a stone and Shepard had stared at him like a stranger.
Kaidan had to admit that it wasn’t the worst reunion he could imagine. In fact, he could imagine a worst reunion with startling clarity. It had already happened about a year ago on a remote colony called Horizon.
Looking back, Kaidan couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said back on Horizon. He just remembered saying it in anger. But Kaidan most certainly remembered that feeling of complete and utter betrayal: that after two years of believing Shepard to be dead, she wasn’t. She had an explanation, but it involved comas and terrorists and being rebuilt into an L5 biotic and Kaidan could hardly believe that she’d put him through two years of hell for that .
Kaidan halted suddenly as he came to a crossing in the hall. The skybridge met with another corridor that curved around a corner to his left and led off into a block of offices to his right. Before him was a wide glass doorway that opened onto what appeared to be a dining hall. The bright sunshine might have lent it a cheerful air if not for the sterile decor: metal tables and chairs, a linoleum floor and a far wall made entirely made out of windows.
Kaidan had no idea which direction to go, so he let his steps slow to a stop outside the dining hall doors. There, he stared off into space, his mind still wandering.
Because now that he thought about it, Kaidan felt he had finally come to the heart of the matter: he had *trusted * Shepard. He’d trusted her as he’d never trusted anyone before or since. That had been the foundation of everything that had grown up between them. In friendship, in sex, as a soldier, as an officer, he had trusted her.
And then, when he’d seen her on Horizon, that trust had been torn out by the root and tossed aside. It left a gaping hole in him that nothing seemed to fill. Shepard’s death had nearly destroyed him, but her survival hadn’t healed him. Instead, it left him in ruins.
He still had feelings for Shepard, Kaidan realized, but he had no trust. What the hell was a guy supposed to do with that ?
They still don’t trust me , Shepard thought, glaring up at the admirals as they whispered behind their tall desk. *There’s no time left to prepare and they * still * don’t trust me. *
She couldn’t see the admirals’ faces very well from down here, but she could hear the condescension in their voices, right along with the fear. It seemed like this meeting was turning into a popularity contest, with her the losing contestant.
“Where is Admiral Hackett?” Anderson muttered next to her. “Surely he’s got the information they want.”
“The problem doesn’t appear to be intel,” Shepard murmured back, nodding to the technicians. “They’ve got that in spades.”
“True enough,” Anderson murmured wryly.
No, intel wasn’t the problem, Shepard thought with a scowl. She didn’t have the details on whatever Liara had found on Mars, but there was still plenty of other data. EDI’s hard drive held codes for Reaper IFF frequencies, diagnostics on Reaper shield technologies, and Reaper laser cannon schematics and Shepard had a copy of Liara’s three volume series on the Prothean extinction cycle on her datapads.
But more than that, Shepard had the proof right in her own head. The Prothean visions gave her a knowledge of the Reapers like no one else had - save Liara, of course, who had touched her mind long enough to catch a glimpse.
Shepard hated the nightmares the visions gave her, but she’d endured them for months now with recon in mind. She’d followed Liara’s advice and written down everything she saw in her dreams. Some of it was clearly stuff from her own head: visions of Mindoir burning, the Batarians, the cages, the empty colonies and piles of dead bodies in a ship built like a hive. But there were Prothean memories jumbled in there, too: command posts hit in the first wave, colony worlds left for last, indoctrinated refugees giving away the location of hidden bases until all the spacefaring worlds were wiped clean.
There was a method to the Reapers’ holocaust, and Shepard was the only person who had insight into it. She intended to use that knowledge, as soon as she could sort out a pattern. Understanding how the Reapers fought could be the difference between survival and annihilation.
The trouble was, however, that the admirals had called her in here and they still didn’t seem to be ready to listen to her. They still didn’t believe her.
And neither did her former friends, Shepard thought with a scowl. Kaidan’s face came unbidden to her mind, as did the meeting that had happened just minutes before in the hallway outside. Kaidan had looked so wary, so judging. And it wasn’t like she had been given any time to explain herself, either, Shepard reflected. Running into him like that had to be the worst reunion in the history of reunions.
No, Shepard reminded herself. There had been Horizon.
Right, she thought. There was that.
It was one thing to know Kaidan was in Vancouver and another thing entirely to actually run into him. It was one thing to know that he had a deep, raspy voice that reminded her of bedroom sighs and groans and another entirely to hear that voice call her name from across a crowded room. It was one thing to know his eyes were a deep, whiskey brown and another to see them narrowed at her as if he was weighing her every move. And it was one thing to know she was under constant surveillance here at HQ and another entirely to have Anderson and James both standing right there beside her. Was it any wonder then, that she’d frozen up like an idiot and barely managed to force a few inane words past her lips?
Of course, Kaidan, damn him, looked as handsome and composed as ever. He wasn’t wearing a sweatsuit. He wasn’t a current resident of Alliance Command’s detention wing. No, he was walking around free and clear and properly dressed, just like an officer ought to be. And, as always, he had acted perfectly charming. He’d even been promoted to a major, for God’s sake. Which, come to think of it, explained why he hadn’t shown up in the databases yesterday when she’d asked the secretary to look him up.
Shepard for her part, had completely choked. She’d muttered a few awkward, non-committal greetings and then she’d opened up her mouth and said, “It’s been a long time, Kaidan.”
Mortification swamped her as she realized the last time she’d said those words: that horrible meeting on Horizon, where everything had gone so wrong. But if Kaidan remembered, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t really have a chance to. Anderson had reminded her of the meeting and she had forced herself to return to the task at hand. There were, after all, more important things to do. There were always more important things to do, she thought bitterly.
But then, Shepard recalled, her mind drifting back to that meeting once more, there had been a moment there, right at the end, when Kaidan had smiled at her. His smile had lit up the entire room, cheap military lighting notwithstanding.
It was a small thing, that smile. But maybe, just maybe, it meant that meeting hadn’t gone as badly as she thought.
Yeah, Kaidan thought to himself, that meeting really had gone horribly wrong from start to finish. And the most embarrassing thing was that his body was in disagreement with his mind, apparently. His body seemed to think that the reunion had gone wonderfully.
Because when Shepard walked by with that pained half-smile, Kaidan had fought back the sudden urge to reach out and grab her arm, to just pull her away to a quiet corner where they could…talk.
Okay, Kaidan admitted. Talking had not been on his mind just then.
For as Shepard walked away, Kaidan’s eyes had traveled involuntarily down from her face to her rear end and he found himself staring after her backside for a moment before the doors to the committee chambers slammed shut. Even in sweatpants, maybe especially in sweatpants, Shepard’s posterior was remarkably toned. He’d kind of forgotten that. He’d also forgotten how tall she was - the better to glare directly into the eyes of anyone who presumed such a thing. Or how long limbed she was, the better to wrap her arms and legs around a guy. And all that long, lean body had sauntered off with a graceless swagger that looked far more athletic than alluring.
Kaidan figured most guys wouldn’t appreciate a woman who walked like Shepard did, but he had to admit, he kind of liked it. Shepard always carried herself as if she assumed she was the toughest person in the room and she defied anyone to test her on that. Her confidence had been her most attractive feature at first, long before Kaidan had become partial to her pale, irregular features. So when Shepard walked away in that stomping gait that made her rear end swing side to side…
Kaidan stopped himself with a scowl. Really, he thought, this was ridiculous. Still, he could hardly blame his body for the impulse. It knew what it wanted. And the last three years had been very long in that regard.
Shepard gave herself a small shake, forcing her mind back to the present. The admirals were still whispering amongst themselves, even though the technicians on one end of the room were looking back and forth at one another’s computers and frowning.
Clearly, Shepard told herself, she needed to get her head back to the task at hand, not dwell on the mistakes of five minutes ago - or a year ago or even three years ago.
Kaidan didn’t fit into her life anyway, Shepard told herself firmly. She should have known better than to mess around with someone under her command. She should have known better than to flout regs. Actually, she did know better. She had just been on such a hormonal high at the time that she didn’t care.
Though even as she thought that, Shepard knew she was partially lying to herself. Yes, she’d made some really, really stupid choices where Kaidan was concerned, but it had been more than hormones that drove her. Because there had been far deeper reasons that she had stayed with Kaidan, even when she knew it was wrong.
Being with Kaidan had been like finding the right biotic pitch to cast a combination attack on. You couldn’t say it; you couldn’t see it, but it was there, just as real as anything. For one brief, blessed moment, she had connected with him. She felt like he understood her, through and through. It was silly and romantic and utterly unlike anything Shepard had ever experienced in the long, cold, professional stretch of her life before or since.
And now she had to return to that professionalism, Shepard told herself sternly. Because even if she did manage to catch up with Kaidan and persuade him to trust her again, what would come of it? She was incarcerated. That was going to put a serious crimp in her style. And even if she got reinstated any time soon, she couldn’t very well ask Kaidan to drop whatever posting he now had as a major and just follow her around being her dirty secret. He deserved better than that. She only wished she’d treated him better than that right from the beginning.
It didn’t matter, Shepard told herself firmly. As she waited for the admirals to finally turn back to the task at hand, she realized that it really didn’t matter what she’d done: back three years ago or even just now in the hallway.
Because if the Reapers were well and truly on their way, then she had no time to set things right. If the Reapers were here, there was time left to fight for survival, and nothing more.
The most depressing thing was, Kaidan thought, staring distantly at the windows on the far end of the mess hall, that the reunion back there might very well be the last time he would ever see her.
Horizon had been awful, true, but even then, Kaidan had been sure he’d see Shepard again. He had no idea why he’d assumed that, but he had. He doubted he would have gotten so angry if he’d truly thought it was his last chance to speak with her. But now, a battle was brewing. If the Reapers were on their way, then Kaidan would be sent back to Rio and deployed with his unit. He might be leaving this very afternoon. As for Shepard, well, she’d probably be reinstated and sent off with the Normandy, right? That seemed most likely.
And he probably wouldn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.
Kaidan started as someone elbowed him hard in the shoulder. He winced and stepped aside, thinking it was just an accident from some person in a hurry. But then Kaidan realized the offending soldier hadn’t moved on.
“You lost?” the guy asked. Kaidan turned to find a tall, broad shouldered Marine in a white t-shirt looking at him expectantly. It took a second for recognition to dawn.
It was the guy who’d asked Kaidan about knowing Shepard. Great. Of all the luck.
“Uh, no,” Kaidan replied cautiously. “Not lost.”
“Oh, well you were just standing here like you didn’t know which way to go.”
“Just trying to figure out what to do with myself,” Kaidan replied. He almost kicked himself for that remark. Yet another understatement for this guy to have a field day with.
But then again, Kaidan thought, now that he got a good look at the guy, this soldier didn’t seem the type to pick up on subtle double-speak like I used to,” and *“Just trying to figure out what to do with myself.” * In fact, everything about the guy was most decidedly not subtle, from his wide muscles to his tight shirt to the tattoos creeping out of his collar along his neck and all up his forearms.
“Yeah,” the guy said with a knowing nod. “That’s the brass for you. Call you in, then let you sit for the whole day. Or longer. They don’t give a damn about anybody’s schedule but their own.”
At the soldier’s words, Kaidan relaxed. Yeah, this guy was definitely not one to pick up on conversational undertones. He didn’t seem dumb, exactly, but neither did he seem insightful. Thank God for that.
“You have experience with that, I take it?” Kaidan asked, glad to continue the conversation along those lines.
“Me? I’m always on someone else’s schedule. Pretty annoying, really. Looks like I have an hour or so to kill. Think I’m gonna get something to eat. Wanna join me? I hate eating by myself.”
“Is it lunch time already?” Kaidan asked, checking his omnitool.
“It’s always lunchtime,” the guy replied. “Besides, since all the brass are in town, they’re bound to have something decent on the menu.” He slapped Kaidan’s shoulder with the back of his hand and started to walk toward the mess hall doorway. Then he seemed to catch himself, turned around and stuck out his hand. “Oh, I’m James, by the way. Lieutenant Vega, if you want to get technical. But James works.”
“Major Kaidan Alenko,” Kaidan replied, shaking the offered hand.
“Major?” The guy - James - started at that. “Oh, shit! I mean, ah…” He yanked his hand out of Kaidan’s grip and saluted hastily, then dropped his hand with a cough. “Sorry about that. Didn’t realize you were so high in the ranks. Thought you were just a grunt like me.”
“Staff Lieutenant is hardly a grunt job,” Kaidan replied. “I remember those days, myself.” He tried not to think overmuch about that time - tried and failed. “So,” he said, trying to leave thoughts of serving with Shepard behind for the moment. “Am I uninvited to lunch now?”
“Uh…” James hesitated, then shrugged. “No sir. I don’t mind. So long as you don’t mind that I’m likely to cuss my way through the meal.”
“I think I can handle that,” Kaidan replied evenly.
“Alright then,” James said, but he looked a little more nervous than before. “Alright. Let’s get lunch. I’m hoping it’s roast beef. The actual cow kind.” He clapped his hands and rubbed them together, then took off for the lunch counter.
Kaidan stared after the guy - James, he corrected himself - for a moment more before he shrugged and followed after. What else was he going to do while he waited? Stand here and think melancholy thoughts about Shepard? That was hardly a way to spend the morning.
Besides, roast beef was roast beef. A Marine couldn’t argue with that.
Shepard shifted her weight from one foot to the other. It was the only sign of anxiousness that she dared to show. Beside her Admiral Anderson remained stock still; the admirals were still deliberating amongst themselves behind their giant desk. The technicians, however, looked decidedly nervous. A few of them were muttering together and looking over at one computer station in particular. All at once, the woman sitting at that computer station jumped to her feet.
“Sirs, ma’am,” she said, her voice rising in alarm. “We finally have a signal. U.K. headquarters is using one of the old radiowave channels, but it…”
“Put it on screen,” the bald admiral commanded. The woman did so at once.
“It’s just a visual,” she explained, “The sound feed is still…”
The woman broke off as the largest screen in the room filled in with the image of a man’s face. The building behind the soldier was burning as he screamed noiselessly into the camera. Suddenly the scene cut to black as the signal dropped out.
Every technician in the room stood in alarm. Shepard, already standing, stared numbly at the words that flashed across the screen:
Signal Loss .
Shepard instantly guessed what that meant.
The invasion wasn’t just weeks away, she thought wildy. It wasn’t days away. Holy hell, it probably wasn’t even hours away. It was happening now .
Shepard could scarcely breathe. She thought the brass would give her time to deliver her intel, but they hadn’t even given her that. A sudden fury filled her. She couldn’t believe their stupidity, but some of her anger was also directed at herself. She had been so trusting of them, so sure they’d come round in the end. She hadn’t pushed nearly as hard as she ought to have. She simply hadn’t seen the sands of the hourglass running out.
“What do we do?” one of the admirals called out.
Shepard turned around, astonished to find that he was looking at her.
Really ? a part of her mind distantly asked. *They’re asking * now?
Shepard strode right up to the desk and fixed him with a glare.
“How well stocked is the munitions depot?” she demanded.
“The what?” he blinked.
“We need weapons,” she replied. She then thought of the huge weapon that Liara had mentioned. Well, weapon-like thing. Whatever. It was weapon-ish, and that suited her purposes just fine.
“We need to get to Mars,” Shepard told them. “Requesting permission to take the Normandy to the Archives in order secure Dr. Liara T’Soni and her research data.”
“Mars?” one of the admirals blinked.
“What doctor?” another slanted a questioning glance at Anderson.
“What are you talking about, Shepard?” Anderson asked her sharply.
Shepard realized she hadn’t explained that part. She hadn’t explained much of anything. But right now, she didn’t have time to get into all of that.
“We can talk when we’re armed,” she told them. “For now, we need to get some guns and make sure the Normandy is secure and ready for the mission.”
“The fleet is in orbit over earth,” one admiral began. “Surely there’s no need…”
“That’s not enough,” Shepard shook her head. “Usual emergency protocols will be useless. We need to evacuate the city, get the civilians out into the countryside, spread out as thinly as possible….”
“I agree,” Anderson nodded beside her.
“That’s not how we…” the bald admiral began.
“You don’t understand,” Shepard interrupted. “The Reapers use civilizations against themselves. They round people up in cities, they find them on settled worlds. They herd crowds into a slaughtering ground. We’re like mice to them. We stay in a nest in the farmhouse, they catch us. We hide in the fields, it takes time to flush us out.”
“Mice?” the bald admiral balked. “You’re comparing us to mice?”
“To them, we’re less than that,” Shepard told him. “You have no idea how futile our usual battle plans are against this enemy. We have to think differently in order to survive.”
“You must be joking,” the other male admiral laughed, but there was little humor in the sound.
“If you’d paid attention to any of the intel I sent to you,” Shepard snapped, her temper getting the better of her, “You’d know that I’m not.”
“Shepard’s right about that,” Anderson agreed. “And more than that, we need help. We need to call on our allies, send word to the Citadel. We need to rally the galactic fleets to meet this enemy head-on.”
“And have the turians swarming all over our skies?” the bald admiral scowled. “I think not.”
“Don’t be stupid!” Shepard glared at him, forgetting protocol in her anger.
“You’re going to see a lot more than turian fighters in our skies before too long,” Anderson said more diplomatically.
“Send me,” Shepard told them. “The Normandy can get to Mars and then to the Citadel faster than any other ship in the fleets. And I can handle the Council.” I hope , she added silently. Given how badly she was handling this meeting, she didn’t entirely believe that.
“The Normandy is being retrofitted,” the female admiral told her. “It’s not…”
“It’s almost done,” Shepard interrupted, ignoring the way that the admirals started in surprise to hear that she knew about that. “We need to move now. We don’t have any time to waste.”
“Clearly, Shepard, your time in the detention wing has done little to curb your impulsive ways,” the bald admiral remarked.
Shepard’s biotics flared as she felt her temper snap. “Well, it looks like sitting behind that desk has curbed your balls … “
“Shepard!” Anderson cut her off. “We don’t have time for this,” he glowered at her. Speaking more loudly, he fixed his gaze on the admirals. “We need to rally the Council, and with the Sol comms down, we need to send someone in person. I’ll go with Shepard, if it will make you feel more comfortable.”
“We need you here, Anderson,” the female admiral said. “You’ve already proven invaluable in setting up emergency plans for this eventuality.”
“You have?” Shepard said, looking at Anderson in surprise.
“Don’t look so shocked,” Anderson murmured back. “You’re not the only person who’s been preparing for the Reapers. “
“Thank God for that,” Shepard muttered.
“Shepard’s status as Spectre is our best chance to persuade the Council,” Anderson informed the room. “They owe her their very lives.”
“And she owes them her life as well,” the bald admiral countered. “Considering that they chose not to charge her with treason when she joined Cerberus.”
“Oh, for God’s sake…” Shepard growled under her breath.
“Besides,” the female admiral put in, “We need Shepard to give us intel about this doctor person and Mars. Someone else can go in her place. Perhaps that soldier we just heard from: Major Alenko, was it?”
“Yes, that makes more sense,” the bald admiral nodded. “Send him. Someone call the man back in.”
Shepard gritted her teeth. While she felt better about handing this mission over to Kaidan than anyone else, it grated on her that she was being cut out of the loop here. At least Kaidan knew the Normandy, Shepard thought. He also knew Liara and had met the Council he could keep his temper better than she could. He’d manage things fine.
So now she just had to sit through another awkward meeting with him as he took over her mission because the Alliance admirals still didn’t trust her.
Lovely, Shepard thought. Awkward meetings seemed to abound today. But what else could she do?
“Hey,” James whispered to Kaidan as they stood at the lunch counter, waiting for one of the cooks to return and serve them. “Sign says two sandwiches a person. Be sure and get two. If you don’t eat the second one, I want it.”
“You want three sandwiches?” Kaidan asked him, dubiously.
“Hey, I’d take four,” he shrugged. “Okay, that might be pushing it. Can’t eat quite as much as Shepard can, but I come close.”
“Shepard still eats a lot?” Kaidan couldn’t help ask.
“Like a horse,” James snorted. “Must be a biotic thing. But you probably knew all about her biotics, serving with her. Hey, actually, I wanted to ask you a question about her.”
And here was the conversation Kaidan had been hoping to avoid. Maybe he’d read this James wrong and the guy was going to turn out to be insightful after all.
“Don’t know what I can tell you about Shepard that she couldn’t tell you about herself,” Kaidan said, noncommittally.
“She doesn’t talk much,” James said. “She���s pretty quiet.”
“Really?” Kaidan frowned. “That doesn’t sound like…Well,” he amended. “That sounds like the old Shepard.”
“There’s an old one and a new one?” Vega asked, chuckling.
“Yeah… I mean,” Kaidan shook his head. “Never mind.”
Just then, Kaidan’s omnitool pinged. He set his tray down on the counter to check it, but by the time he’d pulled up the glowing yellow mitt, the channel was gone. That was strange, Kaidan thought. It must have been a mistake. Before he could check to see who had sent the message, James elbowed him again, catching his attention.
“See,” the Marine said, “I really want to know about Shepard’s training. Did she ever talk about it?”
“Her training?” Kaidan asked. That was not what he’d expected. “You mean her biotic training?”
“Biotics?” James snorted. “Why would I want to know about that? I may eat a lot, but I’m no biotic. No, I mean the N7 training. Did Shepard ever talk about it?”
“Uh,” Kaidan had to think for a moment. “No, not really. Why?”
“I’ve applied,” the guy said proudly. “For N7. Just wondering what I can expect.”
“Oh,” Kaidan said, relieved to find the conversation returning to safer grounds. “Well, I don’t know much about the N training program itself, but I’m stationed at the special forces center…”
“Wait,” James’ face lit up. “You’re from Rio?”
“Ah, actually I’m from here, but…”
“Great! See, here’s the thing,” James cut in. “It’s been a long time since I was in the field. Been stuck here way too long and I think I’m losing my edge, you know?”
“Why’s that?” Kaidan said. “I mean, if you don’t mind my asking. Ground team guys usually get sent back into rotation pretty quickly. They never give a good soldier much leave if they can help it.”
“Huh?” James blinked. “Leave?”
“Well if you’re not on leave…”
“Wait. You didn’t know?”
James raised his chin in greeting to the cook who had just arrived behind the lunch counter and was pulling on a pair of latex gloves. Then James turned back to Kaidan and explained:
“I’m Shepard’s guard.”
Kaidan blinked at that. “Her what ?”
“Guard,” James replied. “Extra protection against the Batarians, watchdog to make sure she doesn’t, I dunno, do whatever it is the brass thinks she gonna up and do.”
“She has a full-time guard?” Kaidan asked, amazed.
“Most-time, guard” James shrugged. “Just when she’s out of her cell for the day. Honestly, I’m hoping this ends soon. Six months is a long time to play MP and it’s boring as hell. If I’m lucky, I’ll hear back from Rio soon and can get some training in before the invasion hits. Then someone else can have this crap posting and I can get down in the field fighting Reapers.”
Kaidan fixed the guy a long look, trying to decide if he was braver than most or just clueless about what humanity was up against. James was currently holding up two fingers to indicate how many sandwiches he wanted.
“Don’t forget to get that second sandwich,” James added to Kaidan in an undertone. “He wants two,” he said aloud to the cook.
“Do you have any idea what the Reapers are like?” Kaidan asked James.
“Big and machine-like, I guess,” the Marine replied. “The commander isn’t supposed to talk about them, but she’s said a few things.”
“She isn’t supposed to…” Kaidan trailed off. The irony of the situation hit him at once. Right now, the brass were talking to her about that taboo topic, when it was probably too late to do anything about it.
“So yeah,” James was saying, heading to the end of the lunch counter, “Given my track record, N7 ought to take me. I mean, my sniping isn’t up to snuff, but I figure if you can lob a grenade that far, it’ll work in a pinch. I’m more a front-line kinda guy anyhow. I think they’ll respect that, right?”
Kaidan walked a few more steps in silence.
“Major?” James asked, frowning.
“Beg pardon?” Kaidan blinked and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m a little distracted here. The um, committee hearing. Reapers. Still mulling that over.”
“Oh, right,” James said, frowning. “Yeah. That’s…um… That’s a lot of shit to be hitting the fan just now, huh?”
“Yeah,” Kaidan said. He let that one word speak for itself.
“Geez,” James said, leading Kaidan into the mess hall. “To think Shepard’s been right about this all along.”
“Yeah,” Kaidan said again.
Really, what else was there to say?
“What do you mean you can’t get a message through to Major Alenko?” the bald admiral grumbled to his aide. “Well then, send someone down the hall to find him. Honestly.”
He turned and fixed his glare back on Shepard, as if he wanted her to be someone else - as if he wanted her to be saying something other than what she was saying.
Well screw it , Shepard thought. She would have told them the same thing months ago if they’d bothered to listen. It’s not as if she had ever changed her tune.
Suddenly, Shepard felt a buzzing to split her skull. She gasped at the pain and almost reached for her ears, but she caught herself just in time. She didn’t want the admirals thinking she was even crazier than they already seemed to believe.
But when she looked up, the admirals weren’t looking at her. Instead, they had stood and were now staring out of the window behind them.
And it seemed that Shepard wasn’t the only one who had heard that sound. The buzzing in her skull was underscored by a deep roar, a kind of scream on the lowest frequency a human could hear - probably lower than that, even. The sound shook the entire room.
It seemed to shake the world, Shepard thought.
Suddenly, James shouted and ducked like he’d hit his head on some invisible doorway. Kaidan winced as a headache hit him at the same time. But unlike his usual migraines, this one seemed to start at the back of his head, like someone had struck his amp jack with a hammer.
“Aaaah, shit!” James yelled. Kaidan just rubbed the back of his head.
“What was that?” James scowled. “That sound . It felt like something just got shoved into my ear.”
“Sound?” Kaidan asked. “What do you mean sound?”
“What the hell? Didn’t you hear it? It was like…? Ah!”
James swore again, and this time, through the headache, Kaidan heard it, too.
It was a sound Kaidan had never been able to forget: a low groan on a pitch that seemed to shake the very core of the Earth, accompanied by a high whine that pierced his head and seemed to skitter down his implant wires. And in the center of it was a buzzing - not a sound so much as a static throbbing in the air around them.
James clutched his ears and looked up at the ceiling. Kaidan threw on a biotic barrier and looked immediately to exits, then to the wall of windows.
And through the glass, Kaidan saw them.
“Oh my God,” one of the admirals breathed, gazing up at the windows. She and the others stared, stupefied, as the dark tentacles of a Reaper slid into view below the clouds.
For one moment, Shepard froze as she registered the familiar sight of the enemy. Then instinct roused her to action. She reached to her hip for a pistol. She had none. Damn. She drew on a barrier, gathered a pulse of biotic energy in her fist and backed toward the door.
“Get moving people,” she called out loudly, but calmly. “We need to get to the munitions depot.” Beside her, Anderson began to unbutton his jacket, no doubt going for his holster.
“Hey!” Shepard shouted now, deference and protocol entirely forgotten. “Get away from the windows!”
But no one moved. They were all still gaping at the sight of the Reapers descending from the sky, tentacles spread wide, like so many grasping hands.
Kaidan felt cold fear all along his skin, as if someone had doused him with ice water.
So many of them. * * Dear God. He hadn’t realized there would be so many of them.
“What the hell is that?” James asked, pointing. Kaidan shook his head, tried to answer, but his throat had gone dry.
“Don’t tell me those are Reapers ,” James said, his voice sounding as though he was hiding terror under joking irritation. “When Shepard said…”
But at at the same moment, Kaidan saw a red beam flare outside the window.
“Get down!” he shouted.
“Move!” Shepard yelled. But only she and Anderson had the sense to run.
Kaidan grabbed James by the shirt and yanked him down beside the lunch counter. At the same time, a claw hit the ground outside, shattering the complex in the same way a skyscraper might if it were flipped upside down and slammed into the street. The shockwave rattled the floor beneath their feet.
The glowing beam swung toward the building. Kaidan threw on a barrier, pushed it outward to include James - and then windows of the mess hall exploded.
The windows in the council chamber burst in a cascade of glass. The giant desk at the front of the room went whirling end over end through the chamber, crumpling bodies under its weight, tearing out equipment right and left.
Shepard narrowly ducked it, skidded to a halt just as the thing slammed into the doors, cutting off her escape route. She spun around, saw the second beam of light and then…
Kaidan held the barrier against the barrage of debris, his ears ringing from the blast, his head aching from the Reaper’s cry.
For a moment there was dust and smoke and screams, then silence.
Shepard clutched her head, distantly aware that she’d stopped falling, distantly aware that someone was calling her name.
Kaidan opened his eyes and let the barrier drop. Beside him, a scratched and bloodied James Vega unfolded himself from where he’d ducked down into cover and swore:
” Dios .”
Kaidan followed his gaze. There was nothing left of the mess hall but torn metal tables and an empty hole where the window had once been. James looked half in shock. The feeling was mutual, Kaidan thought distantly.
All of Shepard’s warnings had come to life, and they were left standing in the stuff of her nightmares. The sight was enough to force the air from Kaidan’s lungs.
Breathe , Kaidan told himself, trying to fight for calm.
Breathe , he told himself, slowly rising to his feet.
Breathe , he thought, looking out on the wreckage of the world outside the windows.