Endings and Endings

Part 4, Chapter 12 of Valkyrie

Daylight hit Kaidan full in the face. No gentle sunrise aided the transition from sleep to waking; no curtains softened the blinding light that streamed in through the windows. Instead, Kaidan had just a second to wince before it began again.

“Hello soldier!”

“No,” Kaidan groaned and threw his arm over his face. He found this simply put his glowing omnitool right over his eyes. With a scowl, he dropped his left arm to his chest.

“My internal clock says that it’s 8am, galactic standard time,” the Shepard VI said in its syrupy voice. “Time to get up!”

Kaidan scowled and threw his right arm over his head, hiding his eyes under the crook of his elbow. It did little to shut out the daylight and nothing to shut out the noise.

“I didn’t ask for a wake up call,” Kaidan told the VI. His voice was so roughened by sleep and muffled by his arm that it came out as little more than a moan. He didn’t bother to add that he hadn’t asked to be woken up all night, either. He had managed to sleep through some of the program’s cycles, but the constant interruption to his sleep left him feeling like he’d pulled an allnighter.

“You know,” the VI told him, as if he’d asked, “ find the best battlefield strategy is to have more bullets than the other guy.” Kaidan said nothing.

“Technically, it’s thermal clips, not bullets,” the VI explained. “But who says, ‘I filled him with five detachable heat sinks?’”

“Garrus would,” Kaidan said, his arm still over his face. Of course, Kaidan thought, Garrus would never waste a full five heat sinks on a target. One was enough.

“I can see you’ve been in some fights lately,” the almost-Shepard voice went on.

Kaidan figured be recovering from his fights a lot faster if this thing would let him rest.

“Install me in a combat mech,” the VI continued, “and I could do some pretty crazy damage myself.”

“Go away,” Kaidan grumbled. He was starting to get a headache, he was sure of it. Only this headache wasn’t biotically related.

“Wait, wait! Install me in one of those flying drones and stick a Cain on it.”

Kaidan paused at that one. The VI’s suggestion almost sounded like Shepard, if only for the sheer level of chaos and destruction that it would cause.

“Yeah,” Kaidan said, “like I’d let your programming near any kind of…” As he spoke, Kaidan looked down at the holographic figure standing on his omnitool, then instantly wished he hadn’t.

”…weapon,” he finished.

The Shepard VI was wearing an Alliance beret, the only concession to the fact that her appearance was based on that of a soldier. The rest of her outfit consisted of impossibly high-heeled shoes, a pair of tiny short shorts and a button-down shirt that hadn’t been buttoned. Instead, the tails of the shirt had been knotted right under the VI’s holographic breasts. In theory, the shirt covered just enough to keep holographic nipples from being exposed. In reality, the clothing was semi-transparent, just like the doll itself. Kaidan could see everything.

“Holy shit,” Kaidan said without thinking.

“I can see that you like this,” the VI said proudly. “Your heart rate is increasing.”

Kaidan just shook his head, his mouth still hanging open. Okay, so maybe his heart-rate was increasing, but the curves on the VI was only part of the equation. His heart was also pounding from the fear that Shepard would find out about this VI someday and destroy anyone who had ever used it - even unwittingly. Though on second thought, maybe Kaidan would aid her in that crusade. And he knew just where he would start.

“Joker,” Kaidan muttered under his breath. “You vindictive bastard.”

Kaidan hadn’t realized that Joker was so pissed off about Horizon, but clearly the man was. Because only the most twisted revenge scheme could explain why the pilot had subjected Kaidan to this torture. A quick perusal of the VI’s installation path had confirmed what Kaidan suspected from the first: the Shepard VI files had been sent from the databanks of the Normandy, altered and installed by the ship’s VI, EDI. And since the VI had been programmed by none other than Jeff Moreau, Kaidan knew where to lay the blame.

Sadly, the hospital staff had blamed Kaidan for the VI at first. It had taken him all of an hour to realize that the VI had earned him the scorn of every worker in Huerta Memorial. Kaidan had made a bad impression on everyone in the hospital and he hadn’t even been conscious when he’d done it.

Thankfully, he had managed to regain the lost ground. He immediately set to work trying to remove the VI program. At first, everyone thought he was simply trying to cover up for his dirty taste in VI personalities, but after a while, the staff began to realize that Kaidan really couldn’t get the VI deactivated. Soon, every self-proclaimed tech expert in Huerta had stopped by to take a whack at Kaidan’s VI problem. None of them were able to help, not even Dr. Freylock. The salarian was incredibly put out to find he couldn’t shut down the VI, even with Kaidan’s user access to the files. The good doctor was only slightly less hostile now, but the rest of the hospital staff had warmed to him considerably. Instead of being the jerk who shoved his naughty VI program in other people’s faces, Kaidan was now known as the unfortunate recipient of an elaborate practical joke. Everyone avoided him room when they heard the VI chime, but the glances they shot him as they scurried away were sympathetic rather than revolted.

As for Kaidan, he spent his waking hours - and hours he would rather have been sleeping - trying to puzzle out a way to delete the VI. It was, in a perverse way, as though Joker had delivered Kaidan the ultimate logic puzzle - only the incentive to solve it wasn’t a mere mental exercise, but a fight for his own sleep and sanity.

“Oh, for God’s sake. Put some clothes on.”

The VI pouted, but mercifully, the shirt made a return. Instead, it now began to work its way through a series of pin-up girl poses and stock phrases, as if preparing for some lewd morning workout.

“VI,” Kaidan said, hoping to get through to the program before it found another reason to lose its clothing, “Deactivate.”

“I can’t do that,” the VI said cheerfully.

“Deactivate.” Kaidan spoke slowly and loudly, the way Earth-tourists sometimes did with aliens before they got used to translation programs.

“I can do anything you like - so long as it is within my protocols.”

“Deactivation is within your protocols,” Kaidan insisted. “It has to be.”

“It is!” the VI said happily. “But first, you need authorization from your…”

”…systems administrator,” Kaidan finished for it. “I understand. And I am the ranking officer of the Normandy. That gives me the necessary authorization. De-activate.”

“I’m sorry,” the VI said, cocking her head to one side. “You’ll have to contact…”

“Then contact Joker already!” Kaidan said, throwing up his hands. This caused the VI to stand out from his omnitool as if she were walking perpendicularly up his arm.

“I am sorry,” the VI said, her body at an angle to the floor. “But I cannot locate the Normandy at this time. It’s on a top secret mission.” The VI said this in a stage whisper, as if delighted to be in the know - and to keep Kaidan out in the dark.

“Come on,” Kaidan said, returning his arm to his chest. The VI came with the omnitool until it was standing right side up again. “Can’t you find anything on the Normandy’s location? Any wireless trace back to where you came from. Anything?”

“Nope!” the VI replied.

“Dammit, Shepard,” Kaidan murmured. “Where the hell are you?”

“I’m right here, silly,” the VI said, shaking her holographic head as if he were a simpleton.

Kaidan’s brows drew together, both the singed one and the one that had two thin pieces of surgical tape on it to close up a rather nasty gash.

“I mean the real Commander Shepard,” he clarified.

“That’s me!” the VI said. She rolled onto her back, stuck her legs up into the air, crossed her ankles and looked back at Kaidan expectantly. Lying on his wrist like that, the VI looked like a doll-sized stripper, lying right there on his chest.

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Kaidan rolled his eyes. “Okay, if you won’t shut off, and you won’t do anything useful, can you at least be a little less…obvious?”

“If my programming offends you, please contact your systems administrator,” the VI said cheerfully. “If my looks offend you, then you’re probably gay.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes,” the VI insisted. “This body mod was designed to appeal to straight human males, asari, and hanar fetishists.”

The VI displayed her chest proudly at this announcement. Kaidan recoiled from that last item on her list. Apparently that was the kind of person who used this thing for their own pleasure. And he really didn’t want to think about that. Really, he didn’t.

“The real Shepard is off limits,” Kaidan said without thinking. Though even as he spoke, Kaidan realized he really had no right to be defensive - not anymore. The thought made him grit his teeth.

“Besides,” he added, mostly to himself, “Shepard looks a lot better in person.”

“I can look just like her!” the VI said, jumping to her flickering feet eagerly. Instantly, the pin-up body was gone and Shepard was standing in something that looked like sane Alliance casual uniforms, though the pattern was from gear that had been phased out a few years ago. The VI put her hands behind her back in an approximation of a military pose.

“Much better,” Kaidan told the VI.

“No, this is better!” the VI exclaimed. Her shirt suddenly disappeared, revealing a nude chest. Kaidan’s mouth opened, but no sound came out for a moment.

“What the hell?” he said at last. “How do I get rid of you?”

“You can’t get rid of me,” the VI told him, helpful as ever.

“There has to be a way,” Kaidan muttered.

“If you would like to see more of my programming,” the VI encouraged him, “Then get me out of this damn demo mode.”

“You’ve been stuck in demo mode this whole time,” Kaidan snapped in frustration. “Strange how your demo mode involves so much nudity.”

“Soldier, you ain’t seen nothing until you buy my premium package,” the VI said with a wink.

Kaidan wasn’t sure if that thought was tempting or revolting.

Revolting, he told himself. Definitely revolting.

“Damn it,” Kaidan grumbled. “Where the hell are you, Shepard? Why did you leave me alone this thing?”

“Shepard didn’t leave you alone,” the VI said, its tiny shirt returning just as swiftly as it had disappeared. “I’m her gift.”

“Gift?” Kaidan blinked, and lifted his head to look down at the VI. That was the first new piece of information the VI had given him in the two dozen times it had popped up. Just one day awake with this thing, and Kaidan was already counting the encounters. “What do you mean, gift?”

“They say that when someone is in a coma, it helps if you talk to them, so they can hear voices and all…”

Kaidan’s eyes widened as he heard the words coming out of the omnitool. But this time, the VI was not moving its tiny mouth and the voice was deeper, huskier, and laced with the slight crackle of ambient noise that marked it as an actual recording.

”…since I can’t be here, this is the best I can do in a pinch.”

“And I’m the pinch!” the VI concluded brightly. The contrast between the syrupy, synthesized rendering of Shepard’s voice and the real thing so stark that Kaidan could hardly believe they were based on the same person.

“Wait, what was that?” Kaidan asked, half sitting up in his hospital bed.

“That’s a recording from when I was installed!” the VI announced happily.

A sudden, almost childish hope blossomed in Kaidan’s chest. Shepard had installed this? Shepard had left it with a message? No, Shepard had left it as a message.

That meant Shepard had been here. She’d thought of him, wanted to stay and then… Then what? She got a kinky blow-up doll version of herself? That made no sense. No matter how much Cerberus might have changed her perspective, Kaidan highly doubted that Shepard had lost her pride so completely. No, it must have been Joker’s idea. Joker must have tricked Shepard into installing this thing and then…

Well, that didn’t make much sense either. But either way, the message was clear: Shepard had been thinking of him. Kaidan’s insides suddenly felt like sunrise on a frosty morning, which begins to warm the world ever so slowly. He could almost feel one thin strand in his heart, trailing off to wherever Shepard was. And here he had thought all ties had been cut forever.

“VI, play that again,” Kaidan commanded.

“Play what again?” the VI asked innocently.

Kaidan’s eyes narrowed at once. “Give me more of that recording of Shepard.”

“What recording?”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Kaidan growled. “The recording you just played. Is there more of it?”

“This has been a great visit, soldier!” the VI said, returning to its pin-up outfit and saluting him. “But I have to go.”

“No!” Kaidan practically shouted at the VI. “Goddamnit, go back to that recording.”

This was just great, he thought. All this time, the damn thing had been going off all night, even interrupting his sleep, and now, the one time the VI had something useful to say, it was going to shut itself off. Well, Kaidan thought, at least it would be back in an hour. Though the chances of getting anything useful out of it again were highly unlikely. It seemed to have a protocol for stupidity built into it, along with that protocol for continually losing its clothing.

“It’s been a real treat, soldier,” the VI said with a wink. “Take care of yourself, and remember, you’re my favorite fan.”

“Wish that were true of the real Commander Shepard,” Kaidan muttered.

“I am Commander Shepard,” the VI pouted. And then it saluted itself away.

“Hey Kaidan.”

The voice spoke softly and low, but Kaidan heard it through all the humming instruments that crowded his hospital room. He turned in his bed at once.

“Shepard! Hey!” Kaidan tried to sit up, then felt a sudden pain flare through the base of his skull. Wincing, he lay back down again and smiled lamely in the direction of the doorway.

Shepard stood there, the light from the Presidium shining around her. She was so lovely, Kaidan thought, wonderingly. Her fair hair seemed to shine, her pale skin to glow. But what struck him most of all was her expression: a furrowing of her brows and a parting of her lips and what appeared to be a deep a longing in her eyes. Kaidan suddenly felt as though his heart was twisting in his chest. Or rather, it felt like his heart was untwisting, fighting free of the ties that had constricted it for so long. Shepard tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and gave Kaidan a hopeful smile. Kaidan smiled back.

She looked just like an angel, he thought. An angel in dress blues, he added silently, his smile widening.

Then she opened her mouth. “My God, Kaidan,” she said. “You look awful.”

Kaidan blinked, that beautiful moment stumbling as though a jarring note had been played in an otherwise harmonious tune.

“Seriously,” she went on, taking a step forward. “It wasn’t this bad the last time I saw you. Then it was just all red. Now the bruising has turned green.”

Well, so much for that look of longing, Kaidan thought. The furrowed brows had probably meant disgust, not concern.

“Thanks Shepard,” Kaidan said wryly, his eyes sliding shut in embarrassment and - he hated to admit it - hurt. “Leave it to you to tell it like it is.”

“No, truly. Have you seen yourself?”

Kaidan gave a sound halfway between a cough and a laugh. “Wow, Shepard. Really?”

She frowned. “Okay, sorry. That probably sounded rude.”

“It did.”

“But look at yourself.”

“I can’t exactly look at my own face,” Kaidan told her.

“Don’t they have a mirror in here?” she asked, looking around the room as if searching for one. “With any luck the damage won’t be permanent.”

Kaidan winced and chuckled at the same time. “Leave it to you to see the bright side, Shepard.”

“No,” she said cheekily, “the bright side is that she didn’t attack that lovely hair of yours. Then you’d have been in real trouble. I know how you feel about your ‘do.”

“You’re cruel, Shepard, you know that?”

“Always was,” she agreed as she picked up the wastebasket by the door. It was a reflective metal, brushed to a shine. Shepard brought it to Kaidan and held it over his face.

“Here,” she said. “Read it and weep.”

“Damn,” Kaidan muttered, looking at his reflection.

Convex as the wastebasket was, it distorted his face in addition to showing him the bruising. She was right, Kaidan thought. He looked awful. He swallowed, feeling rather self-conscious all of a sudden. No wonder she had reacted so strongly. Kaidan certainly didn’t think of himself as vain, but there was no denying that Dr. Eva - or that synthetic or whatever it was - had made a gruesome mess of his face.

“Well,” he said, gingerly touching the bruised skin, “They did say I broke my nose and cheekbones. That’ll leave a mark.”

“Not a lasting one, I imagine,” Shepard said, setting the wastebasket down. “Besides, broken noses give a face character.”

“You have experience with this?” Kaidan asked her.

“Sure,” Shepard said with a shrug, “Take a look at Garrus, next time you see him. Hell, take a look at me,” she added, turning her face to the side. “No, wait. Cerberus fixed that after I…”

She seemed to realize what she was saying. Shepard flinched, then looked away. Kaidan looked down as well, uncertain of what to say.

“So, um, hey,” Kaidan said after a moment, trying to break the awkward silence. “I guess it’s a good thing you missed lunch. I’d have offered you some, but if the sight of me hadn’t turned your stomach, the food would have.”

“Okay, I’m sorry I said anything,” Shepard said, letting out a breath that fanned the hair from her eyes. She sat herself down in the chair beside the bed. It might have been Kaidan’s imagination, but she appeared to stare at his chest for a moment before drawing her eyes up to his face again.

“I just figured you’d rather have the truth,” she said. “If I pretended it was nothing, then you’d know you were in trouble.”

“Is that what you were doing?” Kaidan asked. He watched as Shepard’s eyes dropped to his chest again. Once more, she stared for a moment at his pectoral muscles before her gaze flicked back to his eyes.

“Don’t tell me I’m bruised there, too,” Kaidan said, trying to look down at his body.

“What? No!” Shepard started guiltily. “No, just, um… Don’t they have hospital gowns in here or something?” Her voice sounded a little forced. To Kaidan’s amusement, she actually blushed.

Well what do you know? he thought distantly. Shepard is checking me out. And she was clearly disconcerted by that fact. That made him feel better - a little better, anyhow. Even if she found his face totally repulsive, she still liked his body. Well, then again, Kaidan thought, maybe she was just uncomfortable sitting next to a half-naked guy with a bashed-in face.

“They have these really ugly uniforms for the patients,” Kaidan told her. “But one of the nurses said they don’t have enough of them in my size. I dunno.” He shrugged. “Sorry if it bothers you.” He pulled the blanket up to his chin, leaving his feet sticking out at the other end.

“No,” Shepard said quickly. “It doesn’t bother me at all. Nope. It’s fine.”

Kaidan gave her a skeptical look, but said nothing. Shepard looked away again.

It wasn’t fine, actually, Shepard thought to herself. Because here she was, with Kaidan only recently recovered from a coma and his face all bashed to hell and here she was staring at his chest like he was a glass of water and she’d been in a desert for the past year.

Though, sexually speaking, that described the situation well enough.

To be fair, however, she wasn’t staring at his chest so much as staring at his nipples, because, well, hell, they were right there and had kind of caught her attention. And, of course, Kaidan had noticed her noticing. It was mortifying, really. Shepard tried to return her eyes to his face, but he looked so awful with his face all bruised like that and she hadn’t quite gotten used to it yet and so her eyes trailed right back down to the part of him that looked the same. Then she noticed the chest hair - and she did like his chest hair - and that lead back to the nipple-staring…

I am clearly losing my mind, Shepard thought to herself.

That had to be what it was. Either that, or it was just relief - relief over Kaidan being awake, being lucid, sounding just like himself even though he looked like hell. Add in the embarrassment of finding him mostly disrobed, and of course that had clearly triggered entirely inappropriate thoughts. Of course, it didn’t help that Shepard knew exactly what Kaidan’s body looked like under that thin blanket. Or at least she thought she did. She had a sudden itch to see if her memory served…

God, stop, woman, she told herself, dragging her eyes back to his face again. You’re staring at his crotch while the guy is still bleeding.

“Whoa,” Shepard said aloud, seeing said bleeding and finally registering it. “You’ve got blood running from your nose, Kaidan.”

“I do?” Kaidan asked. He touched his fingers to his face to check.

“What kind of second-rate hospital is this that they let you just lie here bleeding?” Shepard asked. “You were like that the last time I was here, too.”

“It’s the implants,” Kaidan said, touching his nose again. “They got rattled. Causes nose bleeds.”

“Rattled?” Shepard asked.

“That’s not the technical term for it, but that’s what I’m calling it,” Kaidan said. “Bashed up the amp jack, left scar tissue around the top vertebrae. I’m lucky it didn’t permanently damage the spinal column.”

“Ow,” Shepard winced, touching the back of her own head in sympathy.

“It’s getting better,” Kaidan said. “Actually, some of the stuff they did to stabilize the injury has cut back on the headaches a little. But with the new jack wiring, I get these nosebleeds. They should slow down as my system gets used to the new hardware.” He touched his fingers to his nose again, but the blood had already dried on his face and he came away with nothing.

“Here,” Shepard said, unable to look at that line of blood any more. She stood, crossed to the nearby counter and grabbed a tissue from a waiting box. She then returned to her seat, licked the tissue with her tongue to wet it, and went to wipe Kaidan’s face with it. Startled by the gesture, Kaidan pulled away. Shepard saw him flinch and caught herself with the tissue just above his nose.

“Uh…” She looked Kaidan, then at the tissue. “I can’t believe I just did that.” She let out a snort. “My mother used to do that to me and my brothers when we were kids and I swore I never would do that. But I almost did.” She smirked, then let the tissue fall into the basket. She stood, grabbed another tissue, and held it out in front of Kaidan’s face.

“You lick,” she said.

“Uh… Come again?” Kaidan asked with raised eyebrows.

“Lick it.” Shepard held the tissue over his mouth.

“Ew. Shepard…” Kaidan tried to grab the tissue from her, but she snatched her hand away and gave him a mock glare.

“Hey, I’m trying to help you, here,” she said. “I couldn’t be here for the past few weeks. I figure the least I can do for you is wipe your nose.” She shoved the tissue in front of his mouth again.

“Stop. Let me do it myself,” Kaidan said, holding his hand out to block her.

“Alright.” Shepard handed him the tissue, then frowned as he dabbed at his upper lip. “No, Kaidan, you’re not getting it.” She reached for his hand, trying to snag the tissue back.

“Hey,” Kaidan said, yanking his hand away.

“You’ve still got blood all over you,” she complained. “Give it here.”

“I’ve got it,” Kaidan said, holding his the tissue away so she could not reach it.

“No you don’t, Kaidan.” Shepard scowled and leaned over him to grab at his hand. The motion put her breasts right over his chest and if he looked down, he had a really good view of them from the side. Given the cut of her casual uniform, those breasts were outlined very nicely by the heavy black kevlon of the front of her shirt and the tight, blue rayon on the side.

“Here,” Shepard grunted, her shirt front now brushing his skin. “Just…”

“Just what?” Kaidan asked, trying not to get too excited by her sudden proximity. After all, the blanket covering his legs was rather thin and he didn’t need to be giving the hospital a show just now. Shepard turned her head and glared at him for just a moment. Then a familiar, competitive glint sparked in her eyes. She pursed her lips together and lunged for the tissue. Kaidan snaked his hand out of the way and Shepard’s hand followed, weaving after his in pursuit of that poor, mangled bit of paper.

Kaidan couldn’t help himself. The situation was so incredibly ludicrous that a laugh escaped him. Shepard scowled in response, but betrayed herself when her frown turned up at the edges. She was clearly fighting back laughter as she followed the motion of his hand with her own. Kaidan waved the tissue at her, knowing that would bait her all the more. She fell for it, of course, and swore under her breath as she got up on her tiptoes to lean over him. The struggle crushed her chest against Kaidan’s, and he found he didn’t mind that one bit.

“I’ve got this, ma’am,” Kaidan said, grinning at her.

“Obviously you don’t, sir,” Shepard countered. Her hand closed around Kaidan’s wrist and she tried to pull his arm so she could grab the tissue with her other hand. She was knocking him off balance now. So of course - of course - Kaidan had to wrap his other arm around her waist to keep from falling off of the bed.

“Oh, that’s right,” Kaidan said, thoroughly enjoying the excuse to have his hand on her. “I outrank you now.”

He held his left arm out as far as he could without rolling off of the narrow hospital bed and taking Shepard with him. Although, that didn’t seem like such a bad idea, provided they didn’t get tangled in the IV setup on the way down.

“Gonna take advantage of your rank, are you, sir?” Shepard grunted, tugging at his arm.

“Damn straight,” he replied, sliding his right hand down to grab hold of her hip. “Let me wipe my own nose, soldier.”

“But you missed a spot, sir… Kaidan… Seriously!” she cried, lunging again for the tissue with each word. “You are so…damn…stubborn!”

On the last word, she snagged the tissue, but it tore in half as Kaidan yanked his left hand away. Shepard pushed away from him and he let go of her rather than fall off of the bed. Shepard collapsed back into her chair. For a moment, she just glared at him.

Then, suddenly, she burst into laughter. It transformed her whole face, making the light from the Presidium seem even brighter. Kaidan felt his heart doing that whole twisting/untwisting thing again. He found he was grinning like an idiot, even though he knew that he still had blood all down his face.

“Oh, God,” Shepard chuckled, holding up her half of the tissue.

“I have never had someone fight me for the honor of wiping my nose,” Kaidan said, chuckling as well. Shepard was laughing so hard she couldn’t reply.

“I didn’t realize my runny nose was so important to you,” Kaidan said, still amused by how hard she was laughing. “It’s gratifying. Really.”

“No, it’s not that,” Shepard said trying to bring herself back under control. “‘I had it ma’am,‘” she said, pitching her voice low in what Kaidan guessed was supposed to be an approximation of his voice. “‘I had it. As soon as the geth Prime was done melting my armor to my skin, I was going to eat it with my teeth.’”

“What?” Kaidan shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember that?” Shepard said. “When I was trying to give you first aid that one time? This is just like that. Only with a hospital bed involved. And your nose.”

“Oh, really?” Kaidan said, leaning up on one elbow. “Just how is wiping my nose with your spit anything like that day?”

“It’s exactly the same,” Shepard insisted.

“A bloody nose is like a prime charging us?”

“Sure. Or putting yourself between the damn robot on Mars and me…”

“If memory serves, you were the one who wouldn’t accept my help with that Prime all those years ago.”

“Oh come on,” Shepard folded her arms over her chest. “That was your stupid call. I could have handled myself, but you always insisted on stepping in like some white knight.”

“White knight? I was just doing what I had to.”

“Bullshit. Face it, Kaidan. You were always too stubborn to admit when you need help.”

“Look who’s talking,” Kaidan shot back.

Just like that, her laughter fizzled. Shepard coughed awkwardly and let the tissue fall into the wastebasket. Kaidan cleared his throat and looked away.

“It’s a fault we share, I think,” he said, trying to gentle his tone. He looked down at his half of the tissue, then dropped it into the wastebasket after Shepard’s half.

“Yeah,” Shepard said softly. She looked at her hands for a long moment, then her brows drew together.

“I am pretty difficult, aren’t I?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. She sighed and let her shoulders slump. “Well, when the galaxy is on the line, it’s hard to turn it off. The commander act, I mean. Then again,” she added, straightening her shoulders once more. “It’s probably best if I don’t.”

Kaidan wasn’t quite sure how she’d done it, but it was as if she’d dimmed the lights in the room. Or rather, it was as if Shepard had somehow slid back into some kind of shell that was molded to the outline of her body and had taken the brightness of the Presidium in there with her.

“Well, it works for you most of the time,” Kaidan said, already missing the easier banter of a moment ago and wondering how to get it back. He couldn’t think of anything else to say, however, and Shepard didn’t reply. Silence fell in the room.

“Your nose is still pretty bad, though,” Shepard said after a long pause.. “Let me… No, let me try that again. *May*I wipe your nose?”

Kaidan raised his eyebrows at her.

“Please? It’s bugging me.”

“You’re asking now?”

“Sir?” she added, hopefully. It was enough to ease things a little, and Kaidan felt himself relaxing just a bit.

“What the hell,” he said with a shrug.

Shepard immediately stood and grabbed another tissue. She looked around, then dunked one end of it into the glass of water on the beside table. Very deliberately, as if she was applying medigel to a wound, she leaned over Kaidan and dabbed at his upper lip. He lay still, looking up at her face from underneath her arms. The water was freezing and the situation was so odd that he found himself holding his breath.

She’s wiping my nose, Kaidan thought absently. Commander Shepard, savior of the Citadel, the woman I once fell in love with, the woman who spent the last few years working with terrorists, is wiping my nose. What. The. Hell?

The moment was so surreal, Kaidan didn’t move a muscle until she was done. Shepard gave a little frown, then tossed the tissue into the wastebasket with the others.

Kaidan meant to say something like “Thanks” or “Did you get it?” or something equally neutral. He meant to play it cool - as cool as one could when one’s nose had just been wiped by one’s former, well, whatever Shepard was to him. Instead, he found himself giving her a completely goofy smile and saying far too warmly:

“You know Shepard, being here with you like this. I’d forgotten how much I like you.”

Shepard’s head whipped around.

“I mean…” Kaidan said, beginning to backpedal and then wondering if backpedaling might make things worse. Shepard just stared at him for one long moment, and then she smiled. This time, the smile remained, and the room felt sunny once again.

“Thanks Kaidan,” she said softly. “I’d forgotten how much I like you, too.”

And… well, that’s what I’ve got.

I… yeah. That’s where I ended this. Thanks for reading. Thanks for understanding that this is where the story got to.

I don’t have much else to say but thank you for joining me thus far, and if you liked my writing, feel free to join me on my other projects - Daughters of Andraste (Dragon Age fic, currently ongoing), and eventually my original fic. I update each Wednesday and post updates on my tumblr (sagefic) and twitter (sagefic).