Chapter 1: Prologue
My name is Maleea Robyn Shepard. I am seven-and-a-half-years-old-going-on-eight and I live with my father. Our home is a farm on the colony of Mindoir. I like being outside with my daddy when he’s working, and sometimes he even lets me help. I really like it when he drives the big harvester machine and lets me pretend to do the driving. He says someday I’ll be a good farmer just like him.
For almost two years now, it’s been just me and my daddy. Mama got really sick when I was little and passed away before they could get her fixed. For a long time we were sad. I didn’t want to eat or sleep or go to school, and at night I’d cry for mama to come back to us, but daddy said we had to be brave and keep going. He said mama would have wanted us to do that. So, we did.
Today’s a special day though. Today daddy’s going to show me how to shoot his gun. He thinks I’m old enough now. It’s a big ‘sponsibility, he says, but he thinks I’m smart enough to know how to judge if I need it. I think he’s scared, though, and wants me to know how to keep bad people away, just in case. What makes him scared? Well … I’ll tell you, but just don’t tell him I know, okay?
See, he doesn’t know I saw him the other night. But, I did. He was watching a report on the late news and thought I was in bed asleep. Only, I wasn’t. I was very thirsty and I’d got up to get a glass of water. That’s when I heard him downstairs. Well, I heard the news on the vid screen anyways. I came down all sneaky and quiet like, just to make sure he was okay. Mama would have wanted me to do that. To check up on him. Anyway, the man on the news was talking about some colony like ours, out here in the Traverse. They got attacked. People were taken away. Kids mostly, I think. Then, when we were in town today, I heard him and Mr. Warren talking about it, too. Daddy thought I was looking at the toys, but I have really good ears and I hear things. Even across a big store like that. I don’t know what a ‘tarian is? But I don’t think I want to if Mr. Warren and daddy are right about them.
Anyways, ‘nuff ‘bout that.
I go to school in town. My teacher is a nice lady - Mrs. Kinnick. Well, she’s nice as long as you’re quiet and you do as she says. Sammy Nichols doesn’t, though, and he’s always getting in trouble. He’ll pull girls’ hair, call us names, knocks our books off our desks, that sort of thing. Mr. Evans says Sammy’s just ‘flirting’ with the girls. I asked him what that meant, but he just laughed and said I’d know one day. That one day, Sammy would tell me because he liked me.
I don’t believe Mr. Evans, though. Sammy makes fun of my name, but only when we’re outside playing or on our way home. One of these days I’m gonna clock him good, I swear! He’s so mean and it makes me so mad! But daddy says we have to learn to pick carefully which battles we fight. He says that no matter how a boy might make fun of my name, it’s not a battle worth fighting because I already know the important thing -- that it’s my name, not Sammy’s, and if I’m proud of it, what does it matter what Sammy Nichols thinks?
Secretly, though, I still wanna clock him good! He still deserves it! I think daddy knows I want to, though. He reminds me each night when he tucks me in that he is proud I have such good ‘self restraint,’ whatever that is. If I didn’t think it would make daddy disappointed, I think I’d do it. Oh, well.
Oh, I see daddy coming back from checking the fields. That means it’s time for my shooting lessons, I guess. I hope daddy’s right that I’m ‘sponsible enough! I’ll show him best I can.
Chapter 2: Home Fires
There were days when during the wee hours of the morning as she prepared for hours filled with activity and chores, Maleea’s thoughts would drift. Preparation was routine -- habit formed out of necessity and years of repetition. The readying one’s body, spirit and soul for what was to come next, considering every potential possibility. Lack of preparation could lead to disaster -- Maleea knew that all too well. Life or death could hang in the balance. Focus was essential at times like this.
Drifting wasn’t such a bad thing, really. Gentle meanderings back to times that, while often more fraught with danger and uncertainty, were nonetheless dear to her heart because of whom she’d spent them with. Friends. Comrades. Brothers and sisters, all. Those whom she knew would have her back in times of need and whom she’d do the same for, no matter the time, situation or cost. She’d not joined the Systems Alliance so many years before expecting to find that; to come upon a second family to replace the one she’d lost. That just made the endurance all the sweeter.
Perhaps that was what made the friendships so special to her in the first place. By rights, they’d just been comrades-in-arms, soldiers with a job to do. But their lives had been brought together in a truly unexpected nature, and maybe that was the reason why they’d sparked so brightly, developed so strongly, and lasted well beyond the end of their service. The trials and tribulations they worked through together would have destroyed bonds with anyone else. And yet, they found a way to hold on to it all, helping each other survive -- through battle, campaign and war -- until the end.
It still had the ability to amaze her at times.
A bark at the back door alerted Maleea. Cup of tea in hand, she pulled the heavier barrier open, gently nudging the screen door to usher in both Chief and LT, allowing them access to their morning meals. For just a moment, she stood leaning against the door frame, brightening sky peeking through the door behind her, arms crossed, slight smirking smile tilting at her lips as she watched them. Each animal had their own bowl -- Maleea had found that out the hard way that neither wanted to share! -- and every now and then if one or the other got just a tad bit too invasive of the other’s personal space they would nip out, offering a less than subtle reminder of the other’s place in the grand scheme of things.
All in all, though, Maleea was quite pleased. Who would have ever thought that a German Shepherd and a biotic varren would even get along half so well as these two did? A quick glance over at the wall separating the kitchen from the front room and she was able to see that her assorted fish, survivors from her days on the Normandy SR2, were doing well. Mr. Wiggles, too, appeared quite content in his elaborate cage, a multi-tiered contraption also built into the wall just above the fishtank and a vast improvement over the square glass box he’d had on the ship. At the moment, he was peering at her through the slats of one of his ‘wheels of doom’ as she called them -- he had a tendency to fall out of the things when they began moving too fast -- but he seemed content in his observations. As a safety precaution, both his and the fish units were now operated by separate feeding VIs, and Maleea could safely count on the continued survival of her pets without much interference -- or forgetfulness -- on her part.
A sudden, persistent beeping from the back of the house broke into her ruminations then and Maleea turned towards it. It was a familiar sound, the indication of an incoming message. After the war and since her official departure from the Systems Alliance, there was only one person who would contact her like this, at any hour of the day. Only one who had unfettered access to her … and the permission to do so. Taking a seat, Maleea hit the ‘accept call’ button and smiled as a familiar face materialized before her. “Hey, Blue,” she greeted Liara, her warm, sleepy-sounding drawl echoing throughout the room. “Good to hear from you.”
“Shepard,” the asari returned with a smile just as warm. The nickname had arisen one evening after a few drinks too many, and was one that Liara had admitted she would only allow Maleea to use. An act of faith and trust that had been repaid a thousandfold since. “All is well, I take it?”
Maleea nodded. “Same old, same old,” she replied using the expression that had so confounded the poor asari when they’d first met. How can something be the same when everything changes? she’d asked repeatedly until finally, after several discussions with the rest of the crew, she’d understood. Taking a sip of her tea, Maleea added, “So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your call at …,” she glanced over at her chronometer, “five-thirty in the morning? Hmm? The sun’s not even up over the horizon, Blue!”
Where Liara at one point in time might have become flustered, afraid that she’d overstepped some boundary with Shepard of which she was unaware, she simply chuckled in amusement now. Evolution had turned it into a deep and abiding friendship, one built and tested over time and battle conditions. Chuckling, the asari gave her friend a knowing look. “Oh, nothing important,” she promised. “A bit of this, a bit of that. Also a heads up that by evening Jack and Zaeed will be there to visit, so make your dinner plans accordingly.”
Maleea snorted softly, managing to make the sound come across somewhat gracefully in her usual southern manner. “Well, this ought to make for a fine evening indeed,” she returned with a grin. “Any particular reason for this visit I should know about?”
“Well, I did ask Zaeed to bring a few things, but nothing out of the ordinary.”
Maleea nodded. She half expected vague answers like that these days. Not that she believed Liara was hiding anything from her, at least, nothing that would outwardly affect her, but still, she was the Shadow Broker. On the other hand, of all her friends, Zaeed and Jack were the two whom Maleea most expected to visit. It wasn’t often that they’d show up at the same time, though. Eyes narrowing, Maleea once again pondered that. “Oh? What sort of things?”
Another chuckle. “You’ll see,” she replied evasively. “However, I did finally manage to get my hands on that new prototype Claymore ….”
Maleea’s eyes widened. “You didn’t!” she gasped as she leaned towards the visual display. The Claymore had been her favorite weapon during service. “How did you manage that?”
“Well, I did have to sweet talk Wrex a little,” Liara admitted, “but you know he always was more than just a bit … susceptible to my charms.”
Maleea giggled as she saw Liara smirk. Though Wrex and Liara had flirted a lot during their years together, it had all been harmless enough. “You told him you were giving it to me, didn’t you?” she countered.
“Yes. I believe his exact words were, ‘If anybody can find a weakness in it, it’s Shepard.’”
Maleea snorted. “So he wants a guinea pig for his new toy.” Grinning, she nodded. “I can do that, I suppose.”
“He’s also sending along an assortment of mods for you to choose from. I think he thinks that if you approve of it, then it will give the sales a boost.”
Maleea chuckled this time. “Of course, he does. Well, please thank him for me and assure him I will give it a thorough test.” Sighing, she settled back into her chair. She had a few minutes to spare before chores and duty would call her attention away, and she did so miss her friends. “Heard from anyone else lately?” It was periodic chats like this that kept Maleea tuned into what was going on outside of Mindoir these days, too.
“Well, let’s see ….” As they talked, Maleea kept a vague eye on the clock. These chats were important to her, but she still had a farm to run. Thankfully, Liara was pretty good about staying to the point and not digressing too badly. “Oh,” the asari added a few moments later, “James has been promoted to Lieutenant Commander.”
Maleea laughed aloud in delight. “Oh, boy!” she exclaimed. “How’d he take that?”
“I believe his words were, ‘Well, if Lola could do it, then so can I,’ or something along those lines.”
Maleea nodded. She recalled the several occasions that she and James had chatted about his career, about the N7 program and about the future prospects of advancement. While there had been some … nervousness? there at first, by the end she had no doubts that he’d worked through whatever concerns he might have had on that end. “Good,” she replied. “Too bad he can’t stop by, though. It’s been far too long since I last saw him.”
“He still talks about that last visit,” Liara reminded her.
Maleea sighed. Somehow, Vega had figured out her penchant for old music. But instead of tracking down songs or vids, he’d gone in search of a guitar and given it to her on the year anniversary of the end of the war when he’d come to visit. He had heard about her refusal to attend the ‘official’ ceremony on the Citadel, as well as any Alliance functions, and had decided to track her down on his own, make certain she was doing alright. Or so he’d claimed. The guitar had been not so much a gift to celebrate the end of the Reaper War as much as it had been a way of celebrating the fact they’d both survived intact. Thing was, and he hadn’t realized it before, it had been the perfect gift for her. From the time she was little, her father had played for her, teaching her how in the process. But no one outside of her and her father knew that little fact. It was one of the few well kept secrets from her past that she’d never let slip. To this day, she still wasn’t certain if Vega had figured it out on his own, or if it had been a damned lucky guess, but she’d ended up playing the instrument during his visit that time. “I’m sure he does,” she returned with a fond smile. Whatever the truth behind it, the gift had been appreciated and she made certain he was aware of that before leaving. “How’s Steve doing?”
“He’s good. They’ve still got him aboard the Normandy. He claims it isn’t quite as glamorous as when he was shuttling Commander Shepard around, but he does that more to tease James, I think.”
Maleea smiled at that. She and Cortez had ended up with a friendship she’d trade nothing for. Having him as a friend was almost like having a brother. His dedication and loyalty to her remained to this day. “Yeah, he would. But he and James get along just as well as he and I ever did. Is Dr. Chakwas still aboard?”
“She is. Oh, and she says you aren’t to touch the included bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy until she visits next. I think she’s still put out about the last time she sent you some.”
“Hey!” Maleea protested. “That wasn’t my fault! Traynor and you, I believe, were the ones to polish that off … and that was before I even knew it existed!”
Liara chuckled. “Yes, but the good doctor doesn’t know that,” she reminded her friend.
Rolling her eyes, Maleea added, “Yet,” before rising to her feet.
Liara laughed aloud. “No doubt,” she agreed fondly. “I’m sure you must be off to start your day. From what Jack told me, she and Zaeed should arrive late-afternoon your time.”
Maleea nodded. “I will keep an eye out. Thank you for the heads up, Blue.”
“My pleasure. Stay well, Shepard.”
It didn’t occur to Maleea until she grabbed her jacket off the rack in the kitchen, allowed LT and Chief out of the door ahead of her and was walking towards the barn that Liara hadn’t mentioned anything about Kaidan. Garrus, she knew to be back on Palaven working with the Primarch to rebuild that planet. Tali, too, was far off on Rannoch once the relays were in working order, rejoining her people and coordinating with the geth to make the transition from a fleet-based society to a land-based one easier for the quarians. Miranda was … well, off somewhere, doing what she did best which most likely meant that Maleea would never find out. It was probably just as well, though. What she didn’t know wouldn’t harm her, right? Kasumi, Jacob, Grunt and Wrex … everyone from her past teams, Maleea had heard from at one point or another over the past two years. Everyone ....
Except for Major Kaidan Alenko.
It was difficult to explain -- to anyone else, should they ask, but most of all herself -- why his continued silence concerned her, all she knew was it did. Their past was complicated, to say the least, but after all they’d been through, she was pretty certain they’d parted friends. Truth was, all things considered, he was probably her closest lasting friend left from the SR1, excluding Joker and Dr. Chakwas, of course. But while she’d been close to them, too, her relationship with Kaidan was different. From practically the beginning, it had been her, Kaidan and Ashley, with Joker quite literally along for the ride.
A somber yet satisfied smile softened Maleea’s features as she remembered her friend lost on Virmire. Her eyes automatically drifted out to the open yard just outside the barn where she worked, loading the gear she needed into the truck. Eventually, she spotted her … Chief. She’d named the German Shepard after the woman, one of the best soldiers a commander could ever ask for and a fantastic friend to boot. Whim and fancy had caught her at the time -- Chief for the non-biotic canine, LT for the biotic varren. Maleea felt the corner of her lips quirk upwards. Life is filled with small ironies.
As she worked in the barn, preparing for the rest of the day to be spent in the fields, Maleea remembered her friends. The three of them together had been quite a team whether on the battlefield or on the Citadel. Maleea’s commanding presence, Kaidan’s cool thinking and Ashley’s fearlessness had blended into a team worthy of note. The decision Maleea had to make to leave Ash behind on Virmire had been one of the toughest choices in a career built on difficult ones. However, as Ash had said at the time, it was the right call to make. Kaidan hadn’t understood at first, or more accurately, hadn’t wanted to understand, insisting that it should have been him. Those first few hours after, as they were headed back towards the Citadel, Maleea had taken time to sit with him, alone, and explain. In the end, they reached a mutual understanding and it had been one that ultimately strengthened the bond of their friendship.
At least until Maleea ‘died.’ Two years later she’d woken up to find herself in one of life’s amazing and indescribable plot twists, allied with Cerberus. Alliance my ass! We were utilizing Cerberus’ resources to fight towards a common goal.
It amazed her that to this day, the suggestion that she’d allied herself to Cerberus could still draw such a reaction. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Dating back to her first encounter with the rogue Alliance black ops group, Cerberus and their worldview had been nothing but appalling to her. Admiral Kahoku had given his life to expose Cerberus for what they were, but it had been Maleea and her companions who finished the mission. To say that she was opposed to them was an understatement, and to this day she refused to view the relationship she had with Cerberus after they brought her back to life as anything close to a true ‘alliance.’
Kaidan hadn’t understood that at the time, though in all honesty Maleea couldn’t fault him for his reaction to the situation. She hadn’t particularly trusted the Illusive Man either, but he had been giving her the resources needed to fight against the Collector threat. And god, she sure could have used Kaidan’s help then. He was more than just a good friend -- he was a buffer for her, too. A sounding board. Another side of her moral compass, challenging her when she edged too close to the line and was threatening to cross it. She’d been gone for two years, and after waking up, there had been a whole lot more moments of the ‘getting too near the edge’ thing going on. His refusal to join her team at that time cut deep, no doubt about it, but after the Horizon mission she’d taken the time to consider his side of things. He was Alliance through and through, something she could respect. He didn’t like to cut corners, he’d warned her about that before, too. For the most part, she agreed with him to that end, but this … this had been different. Too many innocent lives at stake and the Alliance doing nothing to help protect or save them. It also hit just a bit too close to home for her after the way in which she left Mindoir fifteen years before that.
Maleea whistled and the dogs came running, bounding up to her. She opened the door to the truck and after a moment of mad scrambling over one another, they managed to get inside. Following them, she slid into the driver’s seat, started the vehicle and put it into gear. Slowly, she eased out of the yard and onto the road leading out to the pasture fields. As the scenery rolled by, Maleea’s thoughts returned to Kaidan.
After removing the Collectors as a threat and the incarceration that followed, she might have thought to blame his absence from her life then for her shorter temper and less than diplomatic approaches. But deep down she knew the only one to blame was herself. She became not so much irrational as she was desperate. Everything was tied into the the coming of the Reapers, and they were going to try again. Harbinger had made that clear enough to her. No, her frustration had come from trying to make those in positions of power understand the constant, unforgiving threat … until finally time ran out.
Running into Kaidan outside the Committee chambers in Vancouver after so long was unexpected, but the smile he’d gave her was mixed parts reassuring and a relief. Their contact since meeting on Horizon had been severely limited, but she knew him well enough that his went a long way to easing her worries that if not perfectly back to where they’d been before her death, they were well on their way to getting there. Of course, those reassurances took a huge hit when Cerberus showed up on Mars. That incident was a SNAFU of epic proportions and as bad if not worse than the word suggested. Maleea was left wondering if Kaidan would ever get over his distrust of her after that. She didn’t often let things spook her so bad she wouldn’t face them, but that time it was different. He was different. They’d been through so much by that point, ups and downs, a whole lot of leaning on one another when necessary, only to have that threatened by a manipulative bastard trying to wedge them apart.
Maleea pulled the truck into the pasture and rolled to a stop. She opened the doors for LT and Chief and they bounded out, jumping around, barking and yipping in their way of getting the attention of the animals. Everything on the farm was a team effort, and while they worked, Maleea climbed into the back of the truck and started to unload.
For the first time in her life, Maleea might have called herself a coward. Not because of the Reapers and certainly not because of Cerberus -- she was hell bent on facing them and removing those issues from the galaxy. No, this was more personal. After receiving the message from Kaidan to visit him at Huerta Memorial Hospital, Maleea had … well, balked. Plain and simple, she was scared. Afraid of what might happen when she walked in that room, of what she might see on his face, of what words might pass between them. She had a hell of a lot of respect for Kaidan, both as a friend and as a soldier, and truth be told she didn’t blame him for his reaction to finding Cerberus on Mars. If anything, she blamed the Illusive Man just as she had for how Horizon played out. After the severe beating he took on Mars, it was nearly two weeks plus a side trip to Solcrum before Maleea worked up enough courage to face him again. Afterwards, she mentally kicked herself. Kaidan surprised her, and later openly admitted that he’d been wrong about her, that he’d made some mistakes that he knew might have pushed her away for good. She didn’t let him take all the blame, of course, but it was a relief to hear he’d worked through it on his own.
The solidity of their friendship firmly re-established, the next time the Illusive Man tried to play one of them against the other, it backfired on him. And not a moment too soon. Maleea would have liked to savor the small victory, but there simply was no time. The last run to the end of the war was a killer. With the Reapers arriving en masse, their control of the galaxy nearly complete, the forces in the Milky Way were left constantly on the defensive. And more than ever they were facing two enemies instead of one. The stress was incomparable to anything she’d faced in the past, and Maleea found herself leaning on Kaidan -- his insights, suggestions, and solid strength -- more than ever. His presence alongside her on the Normandy as well as groundside was a reminder that they could succeed. He was grounding, a pillar of support at a time she desperately needed it.
Completing her current task, Maleea paused to survey the scene around her. Chief and LT were keeping an eye on the animals, making certain they all found their way to the new supply of food. Off in the distance she completed a mental scan of of fence lines, noting any irregularities, but ultimately taking in the view with a sigh of satisfaction.
There were times it was easy to forget the part she’d played in keeping the galaxy safe enough for this to happen. There were even occasions where she could almost push aside those memories and convince herself she had never left Mindoir in the first place. But it was with brutal honesty she didn’t do that often. From the moment the batarians attacked when she was sixteen until the day nearly two years ago when she returned, her life had been elsewhere. More than half her years focused on others; a way of mentally saving herself from what happened here, perhaps, but in the end it was who she was. Now, finally back, she could relax and build the home she’d once hoped for as a child.
It was only after the war that Maleea allowed herself to openly consider people, places and events in more depth, with more scrutiny and in a much broader yet more personal sense. During the weeks and months of her rehabilitation, her thoughts almost always came back to one person. But by then, Kaidan had disappeared. He had survived the war, James assured her of that on his first visit to her in the hospital. The injuries that Kaidan and Liara received during that last push to the conduit in London were serious, but not life-threatening.
That was a relief, of course, but after that? Kaidan had taken command of the Normandy when it fled the effects of the Crucible blast. While those who were able to return practically immediately searched for Maleea and got her the medical attention she required, entire Normandy crew was stuck on some tropical planet. It was months later when they finally made it back to Earth, returning with all the cheer and fanfare deserved of a crew who helped save the galaxy. By then, Maleea was beginning to return to consciousness more often than not. Everyone from the crew came to visit her, to check on her, to make certain for themselves that she survived. Those who weren’t around during the initial search and rescue phase where Maleea had been found now assisted in any way they could, usually resulting in frequent visits to her bedside.
Everyone visited ... except Kaidan.
It took time and a lot of inward reflection to come up with reasons why, or reasons that would satisfy her, but in the end it all came down to one thing. That last, horrified look on his face as Maleea ordered him and Liara leave the battlefield. What other reason could there be for him to avoid her like he was?
Shaking her head free from her reveries, Maleea whistled for LT and Chief. “Come on, you two,” she called, hopping down to the ground and opening the door to the truck. “We’ve got a couple more fields to check before the kids get here.”
When it came to her farm, Maleea was always down to business, but that didn’t mean the memories couldn’t be a part of it.
~ n ~
“Still say you need a goddamn -”
Jack tossed back a long pull of her beer. “Oh, give it a rest, asshole!” she jeered. “Shepard’s got things well enough under control. Any dumbass can see that!”
Why she was caught so off guard by the casual -- for Jack, at least -- remark, Maleea would never know, but she nearly spat out her drink. Jack followed it up with a knowing grin and a wink which didn’t help Maleea recover at all. However, her words apparently were effective enough. Zaeed, grumbling the entire time beneath his breath, turned back towards the barbeque to fuss over their dinner.
Keeping her eyes averted from Zaeed in the hopes of maintaining some sense of dignity, Maleea dared a quick glance over at Jack. “He loves it,” the biotic murmured with a smug laugh.
Maleea rolled her eyes. Inhaling deeply, she sat there with the evening sun lowering but not yet settled beyond the horizon with Eezo, LT and Chief chasing each other around the large yard like giant lovable lunatics. At the same time, she considered just how strange it was that she’d become so close to these two particular friends. Zaeed reminded Maleea a bit of her father, if she pictured her father as a battle worn, more mercenary of his nature and cursed up a blue streak with every sentence uttered, she supposed. And Jack … well, Jack was like a favorite little sister she never had. Or perhaps a cousin. Maleea wasn’t certain what either was really like, of course, not having had any, but despite the tenuous nature of their initial meetings, things had turned out rather well. “No doubt,” she finally managed before reaching over to grab a carrot stick to munch on.
Jack lounged back in her chair, tilting the bottle so she could finish draining it. After a minute or two, she rose and switched her empty out for another one. “So,” she began, dropping back into her chair, “things been quiet around here?”
Maleea snorted softly. “Too quiet for the likes of you, I’m sure,” she replied immediately. “It’s not like Mindoir is the Citadel during wartime or anything. No clones sneaking onto the property, no Cerberus trying to stage a coup, so yeah, it’s been quiet.”
Maleea chuckled. That was something she wouldn’t argue with. “I find that I like boring just fine,” she retorted. Sighing, she rolled her head and savored the small pops as daily tension slipped from her shoulders. “I’ve had my share of adventure, Jack. It’s time to let the younger kids take their turn.”
“Never would’ve taken you for a goddamn coward,” Zaeed tossed over.
Had Maleea had any other sort of relationship with the man, she might have taken offense to his words. As it was, both knew just how wrong that statement was. Hell, he’d been with the rescue party that had found her on the Citadel after the Crucible fired. His was the only face she vaguely remembered from that time, his voice a hazy, yet surprisingly distinct memory. Don’t you die on me, Shepard! I’ll not be the one to tell the others.
“Zaeed,” she called over to him mildly, “I never would have taken you to be such a softie.”
Both Jack and Maleea smothered giggles as Zaeed grunted and turned back towards the grill. It never ceased to amaze Maleea just how lucky she’d been in all of her friends, but these two in particular. Zaeed, the seemingly rough and gruff mercenary who, when one got right down to it, had a heart of … well, if it had been gold he might have sold it for all the credits it was worth, but if the chips were down, he was one man who could be counted on to be there. IF you were a friend. Maleea smirked slightly as she sipped at her drink. Thank god for that!
Jack, on the other hand …. Maleea eyed her biotic friend for a long moment. Not the best of starts to their friendship, guns held against one another as they both tried to escape the prison of Purgatory, but after that initial encounter, things between them gelled. It took some doing, some trust issues involved, and eventually a confrontation of a more personal nature. But after that, the trust started to show. It took nearly a year and the start of the Reaper War before Maleea found out, however. Finding Jack defending her biotic students at Grissom Academy was as jarring as it was mind-bending, but from that point forward their friendship was sealed. Loud, brash, and often obnoxious, the tattooed woman was, in many respects, one of Maleea’s best friends.
She was also responsible for the ink Maleea now sported on the left half of her torso. Leave it to Jack to find Maleea staring in the mirror at the hospital, bordering on depression as she gazed at the permanent scarring, on the verge of tears, to suggest a nearly body length tattoo to help put things into perspective. Oh, there’d been alcohol involved too, of course, and a hell of a lot of laughter. Some tears had leaked through as well, but all in all, an inspired idea. Maleea still wasn’t quite sure how the exact design came about (she highly suspected Miranda influenced it), but overall she liked it. And though Jack might brush it off by scoffing or cursing anytime Maleea brought it up, it showed another level of trust between them. Dr. Chakwas, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so sure. At the time, Maleea was barely six months out from her near fatal experience with the Crucible. But witnessing Jack and the doctor facing one another off had been a much needed morale boost. In the end, the doctor reluctantly agreed no real harm had been done and let it go.
“Hey, you crazy bastard,” Jack yelled over at Zaeed, “you almost done with that food? Some of us would like to eat this century!”
“Hold onto your goddamn horses!” he bristled.
Jack winked over at Maleea and countered, “Feeling your age today, Massani? Shit, man, that saying’s older than you are!”
Maleea chuckled. “But appropriate for the location,” she added diplomatically. Sighing softly, she rose to move to the table as Zaeed began placing their steaks on a plate. Having the two of them visit at the same time was a good, if rare, treat, but there was a reason for that. It was once pointed out to her that to have Zaeed and Jack together in the same place for more than a couple of minutes was risking having far too much cranky all in one place. Too much potential for violence to break out between them.
“There,” Zaeed groused, dropping the plate into the center of the table. “Feed your goddamn biotic face and enjoy it.”
Maleea blinked, head tilting a questioning look towards the mercenary, but it was Jack who responded first. The sound that escaped her could only be described as a bark … but at least it was a bark of laughter. And Maleea, had she not been watching him as closely as she was for his response, might have missed the wink Zaeed gave the biotic in return. He quickly spun towards Maleea, full scowl back in place before she knew it. “Now, eat up! Doc says you still need to gain weight back.”
Too stunned to react, Maleea stared at Zaeed for a long moment … until Jack threw an empty beer bottle at her. The motion out of the corner of her eye managed to get Maleea to react and she caught the bottle before it hit her shoulder. “Eat!” Jack echoed just before tucking into her own meal. “Don’t want Chakwas showing up here now, do you?”
Maleea grinned and reached for her fork. “Why not? At least then I could open that bottle of brandy she sent!”
~ n ~
Later that evening as she prepared for bed, Maleea found her thoughts drifting back to those from earlier that day. Routine had her checking her private message terminal in her bedroom last thing before climbing into bed and each night, and as she did so, she made a silent prayer before pulling up the list. Please, be there. Please!
However, as with each night since her return to Mindoir, the one person whom she hoped to hear from still hadn’t contacted her, leaving her to wonder just what, if anything, might remain between them. She ran a hand over her face, sighing softly and wondered if that final battlefield decision she’d made ruined everything between them. It was sad, really. He was more than a friend in so many ways. Her best friend in others. Then again, the trouble, she supposed, really stemmed from her end of things because she never told him, at least in so many words, how much a part of her life he’d become. She, like he was then, always put duty before anything more personal.
You’ve got no one to blame but yourself, Mal, she chided herself quietly.
The sad truth of it was, at night all curled up in bed all alone, blame made for a poor sleeping partner.
Chapter 3: Blast From the Past
“Are you ready to go?”
Two sets of bright yet earnest eyes looked over at her, heads bobbing up and down in affirmation. It took every effort of will power Maleea had to keep from laughing aloud at their sincere yet very eager reactions. This was to be their first attempt at handling the entire herd of cattle, not just their own individual animals. For weeks they’d been insisting they were ready. Today would be the test. Giving them each a cursory look, a last minute check on equipment and gear they had loaded into the vehicle, Maleea took a long time to evaluate their level of preparedness. It was the same sort of rundown she and her squadmates would give each other in the last moments before boarding the shuttle for a mission drop. Though this wasn’t the Normandy, and the Reapers were now two years gone, Maleea still gave it her complete attention.
“Right then,” she told the pair with a nod while handing over a key card. “Gavin, you’ll drive this time out. Shay, you get in the back and make sure we don’t lose anything along the way. Those roads can be bumpy.”
“Yes, ma’am!” the two boys chorused in excitement. One actually whooped for joy. They all knew passing ‘inspection’ with Captain Mal, as they affectionately called her, was difficult to do.
Maleea turned to face the third teenager, her soft voice rising above the hoopla of the moment. Lifting a hand to rub along her chin, Maleea pretended to ponder the situation carefully, though she already knew what her answer would be. “Hmm,” she hummed, the teasing green glint in her eyes flaring just a bit, “I don’t know ….” Behind the younger girl, Maleea could see the two boys trying to hide their amusement. Shauna was Shay’s twin sister. More quiet and reserved than her brother, it had been Shauna who had actually decided Maleea in favor of this plan.
Months before, when one of the teachers from the colony high school had approached Mal with the suggestion of apprenticing some of the local students, the former Alliance officer nearly balked at the idea. She had a farm to run, not a babysitting service. However, after further discussion she promised to give it due consideration. It took two weeks before Maleea finally agreed to visit the school and talk with the classes involved about the idea. Up front and center, she gave them her plans, procedures and expectations. She also listed the possibilities involved. Before that moment, she wasn’t fully on board with the idea. But once she could see them in person, watch as the interest perked, the hope rose, Maleea found she started warming up to it. After all, she was only one person trying to operate a rather large spread. Added help wouldn’t be amiss, and if students learned a thing or two along the way? Even better.
Like most business arrangements, it took longer to organize and put into place than Maleea might have wanted. She would have been willing to accept a few students that day, if it had been possible. In the end, it was another semester before she could. But that day was the deciding factor, no doubt there. Weeks later, she met with potential students, individually and in the small groups to which they were assigned. Her meeting with Shauna had been interesting. The girl was quiet, reserved, completely opposite from what Maleea might have expected … but there was a fire behind her eyes that reminded Maleea of friends long gone. Of purpose and determination.
It was all she needed to see. From that point on, the program was a go. Beginning the next semester, the students came out to the farm during the week after classes to assist Mal with the work. In exchange for their help, their ‘projects’ would be graded. This year each student took a calf from birth to raise as their own. Maleea opted to focus on cattle as she was still trying to grow her herd. Eventually, other opportunities would be present, namely showcasing their specific animals at the colony fair for competition. Any profits that came from selling their animals or winning awards and such at the fair, minus the base fee for the animal since Maleea was providing it, would be theirs to keep. All in all, a pretty good deal for all parties involved.
At the moment, however ….
Maleea’s lips finally curving upwards into a grin, she began in a casual tone, “Actually, Shauna, I was thinking that I might put you in overall command of today’s mission --”
She was cut off by a sudden shriek of an alarm coming from her omni-tool. For the briefest and most horrifying of moments, time froze around Maleea and everything shifted to slow motion. She swallowed past the tightness of trepidation -- this was a very different scenario than on a battlefield in her mind -- and she suffered through the sensations brought on by old, unresolved memories returning to her in a rush so intense she had to close her eyes until they passed. A heartbeat later, she felt everything shift back into proper place as the guise of Commander Shepard took over control with a speed and ferocity that the kids could not miss through their own fear and wide young eyes.
Cold control and calm guiding her movements now, Maleea nodded across the barn. “Go,” she told them. Behind the hidden panel in the center wall was a door leading to the safety and security of a panic room that had been installed below ground. It was situated halfway between the house and the barn and as such, it was accessible from either location in time of emergency. “Most likely it’s a false alarm and I’ll be calling you in ten minutes to give you the all clear, but better safe than sorry.”
When the teens, fear and caution restraining their movements and reaction, still hesitated, Maleea hardened her tone just a bit. “Go! Now,” she ordered, voice sharp with an edge of steel. “I will check it out.” Pausing to issue a shrill whistle, a command in its own right, she added, “Whatever you do, get to that room and stay there until I give you the all clear. Do I make myself clear?”
The kids finally broke out of their daze and nodded. Shay grasped his sister by the hand and tugged her after him and Gavin. One of the first things Maleea had trained them on since their arrival on the farm was for situations such as this: If the alarm went off, they were to head straight to the panic room. No questions asked, no hesitations. Mindoir was still in the Attican Traverse, no matter the changes that came about as a result of the past eighteen years, and there were still dangers … even if they now came from sources other than batarian slavers and Reapers.
Turning to exit the barn, Maleea reached for her shotgun, the new prototype that Wrex had sent to her via Liara. Barely ‘out of the box,’ Maleea was torn between giving it a good breaking in and the hope of not having to use it at all. She retired from the Alliance and from the Spectres to avoid such confrontations. However, she knew it to be ‘better safe than sorry,’ as the saying went, and in her hands the shotgun was as much a deadly weapon as it was a security blanket of sorts. Despite her days of soldiering being long over, it didn’t mean she’d forgotten how to defend herself. With each breath, each step outside of the barn, she could feel the past returning. Claiming her. Overtaking her. It was an armor of sorts. Soothing. Habit. Familiar. She was in control. Commander Maleea Shepard was in charge once again, not the sixteen year old child who witnessed her father’s murder at the hands of batarian slavers.
As Maleea strode across the open space between barn, house and the drive leading up to her home, LT and Chief bounded up to her, taking positions at her side. Squadmates of a sort, they both had been trained on what to do insofar as recognizing certain sounds as the security alarm. They knew their response was to remain with her, on alert until she gave them the signal otherwise. “Come on, guys,” she murmured, “let’s go see what’s what.” Though, if it was another animal tripping the alarm system, Maleea was going to give Liara a good piece of her mind on the company that created it. This was the third time in the past year that it went off. The previous two times were due to wild animals.
Quick surveillance of the immediate area helped Maleea to identify the direction from where the threat came. The sound of a vehicle making its way up the drive from the main road echoed around her as it approached. That alone negated the animal theory. Yet, it did nothing to ease her mind. She had an arrangement in place with Liara -- any and all approved visitors to the farm were announced ahead of time. This, Mal had no no prior warning on. That didn’t mean people wouldn’t occasionally arrive unannounced, particularly locals who weren’t aware of the ‘proper procedure’ for making a call at her homestead now that she’d returned to Mindoir.
Security around the farm had taken weeks to sort out between Mal, Liara, Zaeed and Garrus. This came after several months of discussion between her and her Shadow Broker friend about returning to Mindoir in the first place. Broken but not bowed after the end of the war, Mal originally thought to remain in service with the Alliance, or at least as a Council Spectre for years to come. But even she, after a long talks and hours of rehabilitation with Dr. Chakwas, Miranda Lawson and a few other medical specialists, had to admit that the damage done to her body had been extensive. Recovery was mentioned in years, not weeks or months, to reach the levels necessary for her to continue in the life of a soldier. Somewhere along the way, as they’d all pointed out to her at varying times, she came to acknowledge she’d earned a life of rest and retirement. It was time for her to move on to the next stage of her life.
When Liara presented Maleea with the deed to the homestead on Mindoir -- a combination of old family lands and new -- Mal had been floored. For a good fifteen minutes, she was only able to stare at the document in her hand in a mixture of horror and delight. Sure, returning to a piece of land and taking up farming had been something she’d once considered. But that was many years before. In more recent times, she and Liara spoke on several occasions about what they would do after the war, after the soldiering was all done and it was time to rest. But, beyond the simple, vague idea of ‘I want to follow in my father’s footsteps,’ Maleea had never really given it much thought. Those old dreams to continue with the family tradition departed upon entry into service. Or so she’d thought. With Liara’s gift, to finally have something in her hands, a piece of land she could call her own … well, that was something … and it brought those old dreams back to the forefront.
Visits with Zaeed and Garrus had only added onto that. Arriving after one of Maleea’s physical therapy sessions (it hadn’t gone well that day and she’d been irritable and in pain), she’d been rather down. Watching her two friends go at it -- this time soberly; memories of that last party on the Citadel were still clear in her mind -- with their suggestions on ways to keep her and the land and everything on it safe lightened Mal’s mood considerably. Several times, she’d exchanged slightly amused glances with Liara, and both had to struggle to keep from bursting out into full unabashed laughter when Zaeed and Garrus argued over the best methods of protection.
But ultimately, the decision was left up to her; once she was forced to accept the fact it had to happen in the first place. Liara assured her they were doing their best to cover up the tracks so no one would know it was Commander Maleea Shepard living on the farm, too. Even the locals knew her only as ‘Maleea Anderson.’ It was a small but fitting tribute to the man who was part of the Alliance unit that found Mal after the batarian raid. From that moment forward, he guided her, becoming something of a second father to her. The land itself was purchased under a completely different name. The home, the equipment, the cattle -- everything Maleea needed to start up the farm. All of it was channeled through a series of shell corporations that led back to absolutely nowhere. Anything and everything that could possibly identify Mal was scrubbed so clean that she wasn’t even certain she could prove her true identity ever again, even if she had to.
And then there were the security measures themselves. Garrus and Zaeed truly outdid themselves. On his first visit, James added his own input. ‘New techniques,’ he explained, claiming his time training in N school was coming to use sooner than he thought it would. Mal didn’t bother to point out she doubted they had this scenario in mind at the time they were teaching him. She was too overcome by affection for the friends who so desperately and determinedly wanted to help her.
But right this minute ….
Shotgun resting easily in both hands, ready to rise and take aim if necessary, Maleea stepped forward as the vehicle pulled into view in the yard. She recognized it immediately for its simplicity and commonality. In a colony known across the galaxy for its agricultural pursuits, finding a couple of hundred of such vehicles was nothing uncommon. Plain. Simple. Utilitarian. Expected.
It also told Maleea absolutely nothing of what she was about to face. Prickles of unease lifted the hairs at the back of her neck. Raising the shotgun a bit higher, her finger now hovering over the trigger, rounds barely audible as they moved smoothly into the chamber, Maleea called out loudly and with authority while the vehicle came to a stop, “You’d best be getting out of that truck nice and slow with your hands up where I can see them at all times.” Gesturing LT to move to her left and Chief to her right, Maleea then took another step closer. Calmly, coolly, she drawled, “Nice and easy like.”
The driver’s side door rose first, slowly, and all the while Maleea kept her eyes and her weapon trained on whoever might be inside. No chances would be taken. Not when so much was at stake ….
Recognition, when it came, hit as strongly as a blow to her midsection and left her nearly as winded. Stunned, Maleea lowered the weapon and stared in confusion as one of her best friends in the galaxy stepped out to face her. “Liara?”
The asari moved around the door, her apology clear on her face as she spoke. “Shepard.”
Maleea blinked. “What …?” She’d barely started speaking again when the passenger side door opened. Glancing over, she was prepared to give Liara’s companion a cursory nod of greeting knowing that the asari wouldn’t bring anyone along who wasn’t ‘safe’ to know of Shepard’s whereabouts, but another surprise left her gasping aloud instead and she nearly lost hold of her weapon.
“Kaidan!” Their eyes met and for the longest of moments, they simply stared at one another. “I … what are you doing here?” she asked after a struggle to break her gaze from his. It took a concerted effort to not return her gaze to him immediately. His sudden and unexpected appearance after so long was triggering so many questions ….
Forcing herself to turn her attention fully on Liara, Maleea frowned, her tone a bit accusatory when she pointed out, “Blue, you’re the one who insisted on the security precautions we have set up.”
Liara sighed, a hand rising to press at her temple. “I know and I’m very sorry, Shepard. But I think you know I wouldn’t have broken those precautions if it wasn’t important. Something has come up. We need to talk.”
Maleea started nodding her agreement when she remembered two things. First, she lifted her fingers to her lips, producing a shrill whistle that was the signal for LT and Chief to stand down. Both animals visibly relaxed, moving away from the vehicle and its occupants they had been busily investigating and now trotted back to Maleea’s side. The second ….
Pressing a button on her omni-tool, Maleea spoke into the device. “Shay? It’s Mal. All’s good. False alarm.” Her eyes upon the asari, Maleea watched Liara nod confirmation of that. “Go ahead on out to the pasture. Once you’ve finished with the cattle, call it a day and head on home. The rest can wait until tomorrow.”
“Okay, Mal,” came the teen’s voice over the communications device, the relief in his tone nearly palpable.
Turning back to her friends, Maleea nodded her head towards the house. “Why don’t we go inside. I’m finding I’m suddenly very curious to know what has you both showing up on my doorstep today completely unannounced and ignoring all security protocols.” Her gaze met Kaidan’s again in passing. And after such a prolonged absence, she added silently.
~ n ~
Maleea directed her guests into the kitchen while she put away her shotgun and signaled LT and Chief into their respective areas. As had been the habit in the Shepard house before Mal’s mother’s death and later continued with her father, the kitchen was the heart of the house. By far the largest of all the rooms, Maleea had fallen in love with the old fashioned design the first time she’d seen it. Open and airy, large table, many chairs, plenty of storage and counterspace … it brought back good memories and reassured her that there was plenty of time for more to come in her life.
Crossing the room, Maleea grabbed a kettle and filled it from the sink before setting it atop the stove. Only once this was complete did she glance over at Liara. The asari had taken a seat at the table while Kaidan stood over by the wall, eyes upon the fish tank and then Mr. Wiggles as if he was greeting them. Mal couldn’t help but smile at that. She’d taken so much (friendly) grief from her crew and friends over the years aboard the SR2 with the pets. Kaidan hadn’t been the worst of them by a long shot (that was left as a tie between Garrus and Grunt), though he still dished out the teasing comments quite readily. In the end, though, Maleea had come to the conclusion that he’d somehow understood her need for the companionship.
During her silent observation, she noted didn’t seem to have changed much since those days. A bit more silver in his hair, perhaps. A small scar above his left eye, likely a result from injuries sustained during that last push to the beam in London. He was dressed casually today -- no one should be able to pull off that look like he did! -- but even if Maleea hadn’t known beforehand he was a marine, she would have guessed. Khaki pants in a style similar to Alliance BDUs, black boots and a turtleneck that seemed to enhance the sharpness of his features, the potential for lethality was obvious even in the graceful way he simply stood there and Maleea couldn’t miss it.
Her eyes focusing too long in one place, Maleea felt a blush heat her cheeks when Kaidan turned towards her a few moments later, just before he joining Liara at the table. She was saved when the kettle began to signal the water was ready, and she quickly turned to pour the water into mugs. Only then and very carefully did she lift them in her hands and make her way across the room to join the others at the table. As she seated herself, she commented, “So … I’m guessing this is more than just social call?”
Liara exchanged a quick look with Kaidan before facing Maleea. “Yes,” she agreed.
The seriousness of Liara’s tone was not lost on Maleea. True, since taking over as the Shadow Broker, her friend had matured into someone much more self-assured and confident in her abilities. Alongside that, though, had come the parallel traits of determination and decisiveness that honed the asari, still rather young for all of her responsibilities, into someone both genuine and no-nonsense at the same time. Maleea had, upon occasion, tried to coax the more innocent and carefree person back out. Those attempts were usually rewarded with a blush, a laugh and Liara’s promise to try to not be so much of a ‘stuffed shirt’ all the time.
Today though, when Liara began speaking, she made it clear from the outset that this was not to be one of those times. “Shepard … Maleea, we have every reason to believe that your life might be in danger.”
Maleea sat back in her chair, eyes widening just a bit at both the bluntness with which she spoke and the content of her friend’s words. After a moment, she turned her gaze upon Kaidan. Calm. Cool. Solid. Determined. The look in his eyes just then was one that Mal knew no sane person would ever want to encounter, and that was before anyone found out he was one of the strongest and deadliest biotics in the galaxy and a black ops specialist to boot.
“We?” Mal echoed.
Kaidan and Liara both nodded. “You know I’ve been monitoring things for you,” Liara continued, her fingers playing around the edges of her mug. “Monitoring … that hardly sounds the appropriate term.”
“And yet, it’s exactly what you’ve done,” Maleea reminded her. Leaning forward, she reached out and placed a hand over the one with which Liara had taken to thrumming her fingertips on the table. “I probably haven’t been as appreciative of what you’ve been doing for me as I should be --”
Gasping, Liara pulled back, a horrified expression crossing her features. “What? No! Oh, Shepard, no, I wasn’t complaining!” she insisted. “All I meant was … well ….”
Maleea smiled gently at her friend. “Liara, relax, okay? I wasn’t suggesting you were complaining. I was only saying that you’ve done so much to help me over the past couple of years … and I’ve done so very little by way of thanking you for that. Remember, I’ve seen you in action,” she accompanied this statement with a small wink. “I know just what the Shadow Broker is capable of.”
A light blush stained Liara’s cheeks, but she shook her head insistently. “No, Shepard,” she replied with a surreptitious glance over at Kaidan, “you really don’t owe me a thing. It’s I who owe you. Which … sort of brings me back around to the point I was trying to make.” Sighing, Liara took a sip of the drink. “This … this threat. It’s … Oh, how do I even begin to put it into words?”
Maleea, having learned to value the source of information, suggested, “Why don’t you begin by telling me where the information is from? Or, as much as you can. That might help?”
Again, she quietly observed Kaidan and Liara exchanging a long, steady look. Something was clearly going on there. What exactly, Mal didn’t know just yet, but she was beginning to think it might be important.
“It’s not any one thing,” Liara explained. “Or something as overtly obvious as such. Inquiries have been made into the fate of Commander Maleea Shepard. A casual mention that the ‘savior of the galaxy’ should be showing up to Alliance functions for the second anniversary of the defeat of the Reapers ….”
Maleea’s eyes closed and she sighed. “Dammit,” she muttered. “I told Hackett I wasn’t going.”
“Admiral Hackett is ready to send a personal escort to see that you do,” Liara pointed out. “Shepard, you can’t keep avoiding this.”
Frowning, Maleea rose suddenly, her chair tilting wildly with the unexpectedness of her action. Grasping it before it could fall, she righted it and turned away to cross the room. She needed something other than tea to serve them. Surely she had some cookies left after Jack’s visit the other night?
“Shepard, you need to go.”
Maleea froze halfway into the pantry, eyes closing for a long moment. Her hand caught the door frame, fingers tightening around it until her knuckles appeared white. For the first time since his arrival at her home, Kaidan spoke, and his voice was everything Mal remembered. Smooth, controlled, solid. The natural warmth and huskiness of it sent shivers through her, reminding her just how long it had been since they’d last spoken to one another.
It reminded her of other things, as well.
Forcing herself forward, Mal located the cookies. She grabbed the container and carried it back to the table, setting it in the center where they could all reach it as she took her chair again. “I don’t,” she insisted firmly. She lifted her eyes to meet his again. “I -- I … can’t.”
He held her gaze for a very long moment in which Maleea saw him trying to read what she was thinking. That wasn’t a surprise, really. He’d done it before when they served together. She knew the moment he thought he succeeded; he sighed, a look of sorrow crossing his features. “Mal,” he murmured, using the shortened and most affectionate of her nicknames, “refusing to attend isn’t going to bring him back.”
He’s still just as good at that trick as he was before. “I’m not a masochist, Kaidan,” she reminded him, though she had to wonder if some of the decisions she’d made over the years had actually proved the opposite. “I can’t go back there. Not yet. It’s too … soon.”
“Do you honestly think Anderson would want you to stay away from the Citadel because you feared seeing his ghost?” he challenged.
Maleea’s eyes darkened, narrowing in a more threatening manner. “Yes.”
“Look,” Liara broke in, “we’ve gone off track. I wasn’t intending to bring up the issue itself. What I was trying to get you to see is that there are all sorts of rumors and information out there floating around. Plenty of it is about you. We know that, of course, because some of it has been generated by us to use as red herrings so that we can tell the real from the fabricated.”
Still stinging slightly from Kaidan’s response, Mal turned her attention back over to Liara again. “Red herrings?” she echoed. “My, you have been busy.”
Liara chuckled. “Nature of the beast,” she replied. “But my point is that there are a lot of bits and pieces of information out there, floating around, being exchanged … and all of it about you.”
Maleea sighed. “And how is this different than at any other time?” she countered. Memories of infiltration and betrayal, of destruction from within, or at least nearly within returned along with a face that was her own and yet not ….
“Actions are now being taken as well,” Liara informed her. “Again, like the ‘talk,’ it’s happening in small ways. Small ways that, added together, lead up to much larger concerns.”
Maleea sighed, a light tremble moving through her shoulders. It sounded so similar, and yet she knew it wasn’t possible. Her clone was dead. Brooks, the mastermind behind it all, was dead. Could Cerberus have had more than one clone? “Look, Liara --”
Kaidan leaned forward, eyes as intense as Maleea had ever seen them before. “A small arms dealer makes a seemingly small purchase of weapons for a relatively unknown client. Nothing fancy, nothing that might trigger any worries or warning. That client takes possession and holds on to the weapons cache for a length of time sufficient enough that he knows he will remain under the radar. Only then does he pass the weapons off to someone else. This someone else follows a similar process before passing them on. End result, you have three or four small arms dealers in various locations around the galaxy making seemingly small and irrelevant purchases, all of which remain undetected ... until it becomes known that all of their weapons end up in the possession of one person. One person who, according to Liara, has also been buying up information in an attempt to narrow down your current location.”
Maleea’s eyes widened as Kaidan spoke. Okay, maybe they had a point. “Who?” she asked nearly breathlessly.
He shook his head as he sat back, clearly concerned. “We don’t know. Yet.”
There it was again. “We?” she repeated, her earlier question coming back.
“Kaidan has been helping me out on and off since the end of the war,” Liara explained. “In his duties for the Council, he’s come across several very valuable pieces of information. He was actually the first one to bring this potential threat to my attention.”
Maleea sighed. In that moment, she realized she should have figured it out long before now. Kaidan hadn’t been in touch because he’d been busy. Back on duty. Soldier. Spectre. Likely still angry with her for her decision in London, but …. “No doubt,” she returned. Sighing again, she took a long pull from her mug of tea. Irritation sparked a tiny flame deep inside her belly. At herself, for having not figured out before now why Kaidan hadn’t been by and thus allowing herself to get more than just a little out of sorts because of it. At the both of them for treating her as if she couldn’t defend herself. She counted to twenty in an effort to calm the simmering ripples, but it did little help. “I don’t suppose it’s occurred to either of you that I’m quite capable of defending myself if anything should --”
That had Maleea blinking. Not because it was a denial regarding her abilities to defend herself, but rather because they’d both spoken in unison. Quite forcefully, too. “Shepard,” Liara told her, “I’m fully up to date on the progress of your recovery from Miranda and Dr. Chakwas. You’re not near fully healed just yet.”
Okay, now that hit a sore spot. Especially since, the last time she’d checked in with the good doctor, Chakwas insisted her recovery was moving along quite well. “I’m fully capable of defending myself and my home,” Maleea insisted, irritation beginning to rise now. She threw an arm in the direction of the front of the house, on the other side of the wall from where she’d met them in the yard. “Or did you not notice --”
“We noticed,” Kaidan assured her, “and we’re not denying your abilities. I don’t think you fully appreciate what you’re up against here, Shepard.”
Crossing her arms, she leaned back in her seat again. It was either that or jump up and storm around the kitchen. For now, she fought to find a place of calm, even though deep inside she wanted to yell and scream and take it out on someone or something. They were her friends. They wanted her to be safe. She understood that, even if pride was pushing back in response. “Who then?” she demanded, more forcefully this time and repeating her earlier question.
“That’s just it,” Liara told her. “We don’t know. We know the arms are leading back to one person -- all trails are leading there, but it’s a front, like your setup, and a difficult one to trace. We’ve not yet been able to identify them.” She broke off for a moment, another shared look with Kaidan that had Maleea feeling on edge for some reason. Why was she dreading what her friend was going to say next? “That’s why we’ve gone ahead and made arrangements to have someone stay with you for a while. To help you out until we can find out who is behind it and just how much of a threat it is.”
“To have your back,” Kaidan added when Maleea sat forward, her mouth opening to protest vehemently.
His words, well chosen, had the power to stop her in her tracks. I’ve got your back, Commander. How could she argue with that? Had he not done the same aboard the Normandy? Then again, she wasn’t yet buying into the idea this threat was as severe as that. “Guys, these aren’t Reapers, you know.”
“No, but it does appear to be someone determined to find you. Someone willing to do anything, it seems, to get to you, including purchase enough weapons to arm a small army which probably is hinting that it’s someone who at the very least is holding a huge grudge against you,” Liara pointed out. “But given that is all we know, until we can identify who that someone is and eliminate the problem, you’re going to have a bodyguard.”
Sighing, Maleea shook her head. “Liara ….”
But Liara cut her off again. “Do you honestly think the reason so many of us have come by so frequently since you moved back here has been only for personal reasons?” she countered.
In all honesty, Maleea could admit curiosity in that regard. She couldn’t deny that she’d wondered at times. On average of once or twice a month for almost a year now she’d been opening her doors to her friends. It had struck her odd at first, though early on it was more understandable. Now however …. “I’m assuming you’re not just saying that to completely deflate my ego?”
“Of course not!” Liara insisted. “Shepard, you know as well as I do that if the threats were not an issue we would be here anyway!”
Maleea dared a quick glance over at Kaidan. She thought she could detect the slightest hint of a smirk on his lips at that exchange. Score one minor victory in all of this mess. At least it was something.
Another thought slipped in between the serious nature of the discussion. “So … Jack and Zaeed the other night?”
“Increasing numbers of visitors because of the nature of the threat?” Maleea asked.
“Actually,” Liara admitted a bit sheepishly, “more of a situation where both were free and I got tired of them fighting over who was going to go first.”
Maleea chuckled. Yeah, she could see that. Like oil and water, Jack and Zaeed didn’t mix well … unless they were with Maleea.
Sighing, Mal leaned forward, head falling into her hands as she rubbed them over her face. “So,” she managed after a long moment, “what’s the plan then?”
Hands lowering, Maleea lifted her gaze to meet Kaidan’s again. “Thought you were busy?” she murmured. “Besides, I’m no longer employed by the Council or Systems Alliance. Playing bodyguard to me I’m sure isn’t on either’s list of approved assignments.”
Kaidan’s smirk widened. “Perhaps, but protecting the ‘savior of the galaxy’ and the ‘first human Spectre’ might be,” he returned easily. “We once made a pretty good team, as I recall.”
She smiled. “That we did,” she agreed.
“And,” he added as further incentive, “who else would know how to help out around here?”
Maleea chuckled openly now. “There’s a bit of a difference between an orchard and a farm, Kaidan,” she pointed out. “Unless, of course, you plan to herd cattle by using your biotics?”
Kaidan laughed. “Now, there’s an idea,” he retorted easily and with a grin and suddenly, Maleea had an image of him using lift to get some of them into their pens at night. She also found herself easily falling back into that state of comfortable companionability she and Kaidan had found back during the war years. After the discussion the past fifteen minutes or so, it was a nice change.
“More assistance will come along later as their current assignments end and their time is freed up,” Liara assured her. “But for now ….”
Rising to her feet, Maleea began moving around the kitchen, pacing almost. It was an occupational hazard, really. Prowling about allowed her to think better. LT and Chief must have heard her, though, because they both came sauntering into the room soon after, plunking down over near their food dishes. From there, they could stay out of the way and keep an eye on her at the same time because, like the Normandy crew before them, they were used to this sort of behavior.
The sound of a chair scraping against the floor behind her startled Maleea back to the present after a few minutes. “I’ll just go get my things from the truck,” Kaidan murmured, effectively excusing himself from the discussion.
Sighing, Maleea nodded. What else could she do?
“Shepard …?” Mal turned towards Liara. “I’m sorry if you find this inconvenient, but --”
Maleea waved her off. “You’re right,” she admitted reluctantly. “I can’t argue with it. I’m a bit concerned I’m only finding out about threats against me now after all this time, but I suppose I can understand why you didn’t say anything.”
“Dr. Chakwas and Miranda both agreed that we shouldn’t worry you with it unless it was absolutely necessary,” Liara explained as she rose and crossed to her friend. “But honestly, it’s only recently that the pieces have started falling into place.”
Maleea bit her lip. “It’s that bad?”
Liara nodded. “It is,” she replied solemnly. Reaching out, she placed a comforting hand on Maleea’s arm. “And so were your injuries, don’t forget that.”
Maleea couldn’t keep from rolling her eyes. “Liara --”
“No, Shepard. You know as well as I do that you’ve been pushing too hard. Not too badly so you’d notice beyond some severe aches and pains perhaps, but you have. Please, allow Kaidan to help. Like you do your students. Take advantage of the opportunity and --”
“We’ll see,” was all that Maleea was willing to promise at this point.
“Fair enough,” Liara agreed after a moment.
Maleea rose and led the way back into the front of the house when she heard the door opening again. Kaidan entered, his standard issue military duffle hanging over his shoulder as he stood just inside the doorway. Maleea glanced over at Liara again. “You’re not staying?” she asked softly.
Liara shook her head. “Too much work to do,” she replied. “Someone has to track down this person, right?”
Maleea gave her friend a quick hug. “Thanks, Blue,” she murmured.
“I’ll be in touch,” Liara promised as she stepped back. She hesitated a moment, hands touching Maleea’s a brief moment longer than was probably necessary before she pulled away completely. “Stay safe, Shepard.”
Maleea flashed the asari a quick grin. “Hey, have some faith in me, please!”
Liara turned away, heading towards the door. Maleea, about to turn towards Kaidan and offer to give him the ‘grand tour’ of the house, hesitated when she saw him exchanging one last, lingering look with the asari. Like the previous ones, there was something more there; a message certainly, but one with more than a simple meaning. One in which only they could understand the language. One of which Maleea herself was not a part. In that heartbeat of recognition, Maleea recalled Ashley’s words to her down in the shuttle bay of the SR1. Scuttlebutt says he’s already sweet on someone …. Sighing, Maleea turned away. No wonder he’d stayed away. Ashley hadn’t ever had the opportunity to tell Maleea who that someone was, though Mal thought it pretty obvious now.
Returning into the kitchen, she busied herself with cleaning up, setting the mugs into the sink to be dealt with later before taking the cookies and replacing them in the pantry, safely away until Jack’s next visit.
Maleea hesitated for a moment before turning at the sound of Kaidan’s voice. Brushing her hands off against her pants, she offered him a semblance of a smile. “Why don’t we go find you a room, hmm?”
Crossing the kitchen, she paused only when he reached out to stop her with a hand to her shoulder. “You okay?” he asked. “I know this is a lot to take in and one hell of a surprise and all, but ….”
Maleea glanced up at him. “It is that,” she agreed, “and I’m sure you can imagine just how little I like the thought of someone having to be here as a bodyguard.”
He chuckled. “You never did like anyone taking on your battles for you.”
Her smiled was less forced this time. “Glad to see you remember,” she agreed. “Anyway, come on. Let me show you around the place.”
The tour, such as it was, took less than fifteen minutes. Since they’d been through the front room and the kitchen already, Mal ducked down the small hall off the kitchen to show him the extra room that, although it contained a bed on one side, it was the bookshelf and desk with state of the art communications equipment that made it more office than bedroom. He said nothing about it, but she saw that he did take note of the model collection (or what there was of it in this particular room), the one that she’d had aboard the SR2 and now was hanging on the wall over the bookcase, as well as the small weapons case in the far corner. From there, she led him upstairs, showed him the few extra rooms on that floor, and finally ended with Maleea opening the door to the guest room across the hall from her own. “It’s not anything so grand as Anderson’s apartment on the Citadel, but it’ll do,” she told him. She flashed him a teasing grin. “Though, I do miss the piano and the hot tub.”
Chuckling, Kaidan set his bag on the bed and walked over to look out the windows. “I can imagine,” he agreed. “This is nice, though. Different, but more … home-like, if that makes sense.” He turned to face her after peering out the windows. “Great view.”
Maleea snorted softly in amusement. “Sure,” she agreed, “if you don’t mind looking at the barn and the cattle pens.”
His smile was real enough, but she could see that he was all business when he asked, “Will you show me the rest of it? The farm, that is.”
Maleea nodded. Of course he’d want to see it all if he was going to be protecting her. He’d have to know all the ways from which direction danger could approach. “Tomorrow,” she promised. “Anyway, I’ll just … go start dinner. Feel free to make yourself at home.”
She was halfway out the door when he finally replied. “Thanks. And, Shepard?” She turned back to face him. “It’s good to see you after all this time.”
Maleea nodded again, a smile curving her lips upward. “You, too, Kaidan.”
It was only as she was entering the kitchen some minutes later that Maleea realized he’d called her ‘Shepard’ and not ‘Mal’ or ‘Maleea’ like he had earlier. During their years together aboard the Normandy, once the initial ice-breaking period was over, he’d often referred to her as Shepard in casual conversation. It had been about as informal as he’d allowed himself to be around her. The others had been the same. Once in a very long while, he’d call her by her given name, but the last time that happened had been …
Around the time of the clone. They’d been at the casino, trying to blend in while working a covert operation. Pretending to be a couple. Pretending. How much more awkward could you get than that?
Shuddering, Mal stared down at the salad she was putting together. The clone … Could it be there was another one? Did Cerberus somehow survive and … what, activate it? It was as sobering a thought as it had been earlier that afternoon. And if not them … who?
Footsteps behind her pulled Maleea’s attention back to the present. Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted Kaidan entering the kitchen. “How can I help?” he offered.
He still carried the look of a soldier. She guessed he probably always would, whether on active duty or not. “Well, I’ve got this under control,” she gestured to the salad bowl in front of her. “How about a beer? There’s some in the fridge.”
She was slicing up vegetables once again when he brought over a bottle. The hissing of air escaping as he twisted the lid caught her attention. “Thanks,” she murmured as he set the bottle within arm’s reach.
“Not a problem,” he murmured before taking a sip of his own while leaning his hip back against the edge of the counter.
Maleea grinned up at him at the sound he made in response, a small smirk on her lips. “Not exactly what you were expecting?” she challenged.
Kaidan eyed the bottle, examining the label a bit more closely. “Local, I see,” he mused.
She nodded. “Since the devastation of the war, well, they’ve tried to produce what they can for themselves. Cheaper for us here, anyway.” She reached over for her bottle and took a long pull. She was now used to the unique taste and didn’t wince at all. “And, gives the local farmers a wider selection in what they can produce.” Setting the bottle aside again, she nodded towards the main part of the house. “Feel free to look around while I work on this. Seriously, I’ve got it under control.”
“Are you sure about that?” he asked, a slow grin sliding into place. “I seem to recall an incident or two in the mess that --”
“I’ve survived for over a year here on my own without starving or poisoning myself, Alenko,” she bantered back while giving him a look that dared him to argue further.
He raised his arms in surrender, she noted, and wondered if he would always be this cooperative when it came to disagreements. She doubted it, and therefore tucked this one away to savor later. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.” With a last nod of agreement, Maleea watched as he exited the room, leaving her the time to prepare dinner and consider the turn of events that her life had taken in the past couple of hours. She suspected she was going to need a long time to consider it fully.
Chapter 4: Uneasy Truce
With bottle in hand, Kaidan made his way through the front of the house in a leisurely manner. It was clear to him that Maleea was uneasy with his sudden and unexpected presence in her life after so long, and in all honesty, he found he couldn’t blame her one bit. It had been far too long since they’d last seen each other. And in that time, well, things hadn’t exactly gone as planned. After two years, that final, lingering look they’d exchanged, the battle against the Reapers raging fully around them in London, still held the power to pull him from deep sleep and leave him breathless. At the time, fear had sliced through him so painfully, it was almost a physical blow to his chest. There had been a resoluteness there, behind green eyes with which he’d become so familiar, that was even more terrifying than the thought of fighting the Reapers. A steadfast determination to see the war through to its bitter end, no matter the cost. A dedication to give all that she had to the cause -- and more -- if necessary. But none of that was what bothered him most. No, what concerned him was, after everything they’d been through together -- the good, the bad and everything in between -- after having her exit and then return back into his life several times over the years, in the end, Shepard did as she always had: left him behind and fought ahead on her own.
The sensible, logical part of his brain recognized both then and now he’d been physically unable to finish the run to the beam. The Mako had nearly crushed him, broken his leg in two places and nearly severed his artery, as he found out later in the Normandy’s medbay. Maleea had been quite right to leave him behind, to evac him onto the ship with the rest of the crew and then head on by herself to finish the mission. They were trained soldiers; duty came first. The mission. The objective. Always. That was as it should be.
But despite the logic, those arguments hadn’t satisfied the irrational part of his brain -- the part that came to the conclusion all too late in the game that she wasn’t just his commander, his friend, his confidante. She was so much more than that … only he never worked up the courage to tell her. He did as he usually did; he kept it close, buried beneath the justification of regs and, now that he’d had years to think on it, fears of a repetition of his past. It wasn’t that he worried Maleea would call him a ‘monster’ as Rahna had, but any sort of a denial of a relationship between them coming from her, that would be much more devastating to his heart. Something had stood in his way, making him falter. He knew the blame was exclusively on his end.
Part of the hesitation stemmed from the remnants of events on Horizon. He realized almost from the moment he turned and walked away from her that day the fact that he’d all but destroyed any possible chance with her beyond that which could be found between an officer and subordinate -- or in their case, between officers of equal rank. It wasn’t until weeks later that Kaidan dared extend an olive branch to her, after calming and seeing things through over and over in his mind and inevitable nightmares. He needed the time to find a way to deal with the shame and guilt he carried away from that incident. The weeks he waited for her response nearly drove him mad, but finally she had, and it appeared, at long last,maybe they could, at the very least, salvage the friendship they once shared. But anything beyond that?
Finding his way outside, Kaidan stood on the wrap around porch, his eyes surveying it with appreciation. He first walked over to lean against the low railing, his back up against the painted corner column. Taking a sip of his beer, he looked around the area. He had to admit, this place was nice. And, while not nearly the same in design, it did, in its own way, sort of remind him of home. Smiling to himself, he tilted his bottle and drank again.
When had it all started? he wondered as he took in the view. That subtle shift from officer and commander to something more? He couldn’t recall a time he never felt at ease around her, but there was a difference between that and falling for someone. He recalled the journey to Ilos, after their quick departure from the Citadel. He’d run into her in the galley and they’s spoken for a time, eventually ending up in the observation lounge, staring out at the passing systems and stars. So much had been riding on that trip, on their belief that they finally understood what Saren was after. It was easy to look back at it and read more into it.
~ n ~
“What drives you, Alenko?” Maleea asked, staring out as they jumped from one mass relay to another.
She turned, eyes finding his, searching. “You play by the book,” she pointed out.
He nodded. “I do.”
“And yet, this,” she gestured towards the windows, “proves you can take the odd chance once in awhile and go against all that.”
Frowning, Kaidan stared out for a long moment.
“You could have relieved me of duty, you know. You had every right.”
Startled, Kaidan’s eyes flew to hers, wide and shocked. “I -- what?”
She nodded. “You could have … or requested Pressly do so since he’s XO. And yet, you didn’t. Why?”
“I …” He considered it further. “I believe in you,” he finally replied, watching her face carefully for any sign of what she might really be after with this line of questioning. “We have to stop Saren. If we don’t … Well, I’m not sure I want to find out what happens then.”
Maleea smiled and turned back towards the window. “Is it really as simple as that?” she asked softly. “To believe in me? I mean, hell, if we fail at this, I’ll likely be up for court martial and --”
“They wouldn’t dare.” He’d been surprised at the vehemence in his voice at that time. The idea was ludicrous, plain and simple. No one else could do what they were doing.
“Wouldn’t they?” Her eyes found his in their reflections on the glass. “I’ve seen others subjected to it for much less.”
Determination stiffened his spine and he straightened to his full height as he stood behind her. “They won’t,” he vowed.
~ n ~
She’d been right about Ilos, about Saren, about Sovereign. Vigil on Ilos had proven it, so had the attack that followed on the Citadel. There hadn’t been time to think about anything other than duty in all that followed, but in those last few moments, after it was all over and the world was suddenly crashing in around them … it had hit him then. The adrenaline wearing off, the worst of the battle over … only to be shattered by the raining crumble and crush of glass and metal and other debris as huge chunks of Sovereign crashed through the Citadel and down onto them in the Tower… Those initial minutes of thinking she’d been lost were difficult to recall in detail, but Kaidan later realized why. Within a month or so, they returned with a force and fury so menacing, it had been all he could do to find a way to move on.
Pushing himself away from the column, Kaidan wandered around the porch. As he turned a corner, he spotted a swing at the far end, inviting him to sit. It was an invitation he couldn’t resist.
Seeing Maleea in outside the Defense Committee panel brought back the memories in a hurry, but having the Reapers attack and the world, quite literally, fall apart around him only brought home just how much he could lose. If they hadn’t stopped on Mars on their way out of the Sol System, he might have told her then. If … If … If … As it ended up, he spent the better part of the months that followed alone in Huerta Memorial while Maleea ran around the galaxy taking on the Reapers. He’d wait with baited breath for news reports. Not to say there hadn’t been positive signs along the way. Maleea came by for a visit a few occasions after he’d contacted her the first time. What began as simply letting her know he was recovering and was making progress turned into an opportunity of sorts. They both walked away from that meeting agreeing to put Horizon behind them; and just for a moment, he’d found hope ….
Until Udina pulled him into the Spectres. Oh, there were advantages to the promotion, of course. He gained access to better information and resources, but in return was kept so busy he and Maleea could rarely see one another. It was ironic that Cerberus, who for so long had worked, intentional or not, to keep them apart, ultimately was responsible for bringing them back together again for the duration of the war.
Why did it always have to be Cerberus? The coup attempt against the Council occurred instead, and for one long and very frightening moment, they ended up on opposite sides of a gun barrel from the other. God, he still occasionally had nightmares about that incident. It was still frightening enough to take his breath away, leaving him waking up in a drenching sweat, labored breathing, eyes unfocused and wild as he searched the darkness to make sure he didn’t carry her blood on his hands. Always, she was at the other end of his pistol, stubbornly refusing to back down, his finger on the trigger as they both took aim and shot at the same time ….
And still he waited.
It never felt the right time to say anything, from that point on. He could have. He should have. In the end, though, he didn’t. What was the point if she was going to turn him away, right? They had a war to win, and distraction from that, no matter how well intentioned, was just that: distraction. He finally convinced himself that they’d have time after the war was over. Once the Reapers and Cerberus were defeated, then he could tell her …
Only then never arrived, and the next thing he knew she was sending him away on the Normandy.
Easing himself onto the swing, Kaidan stuck a booted foot out and pushed off, just the hint of momentum. He’d thought coming out here and getting some fresh air might help him clear his head, his heart, his mind … Eyes closing, he inhaled deeply.
Mindoir. The name had echoed through his head the moment that Liara finally gave in, telling him where Maleea ended up after the war. Shepard’s gone home to face her ghosts, Liara had explained. At the time, Kaidan wondered if that included ghosts from her career as well as her childhood.
After the war was over, once the Normandy returned from weeks, months away, bouncing around the galaxy and crash landing on an uninhabited planet, the crew all arrived home relatively safe and sound to hear that Shepard survived that final battle -- barely. Though horrified by the extent of her injuries, initially Kaidan was thrilled that she had lived ‘to fight another day,’ as the saying went. If nothing else, it held the potential of a future.
Time and Chakwas eventually helped him realize that, as extensive as her injuries had been, Shepard would never soldier again. Pulling him aside almost immediately, she pointed out the truth of things. He, of all people, would understand the full effect of Shepard’s injuries and that a future as a soldier and Spectre would likely not be possible. Even with Miranda’s guiding hand, cybernetic experience and technological advances, Shepard’s future now lay somewhere other than as a peacemaker.
But one solid fact remained -- the war was over and Shepard was alive.
Those two things elated Kaidan to indescribable levels. Now, NOW he would have the chance to maybe sit down and talk with her about things, about how their future might play out, about … them. Find out if she even held any interest in an old soldier like him. See if maybe there was something more than just friendship there. Upon occasion and dating back as far as his time on the SR1, he thought he’d detected some sort of interest on her part. A certain look in her eyes. A twinkle of a smile. The way she side glanced him whenever they were together, whether on duty or off. The exact angle as her lips tilted into a grin, just a hint of interest and appreciation in their curve. He’d almost been bold enough to broach the subject back then. Almost. Hell, Ashley had nearly flattened him when she’d found out he hadn’t said anything to the commander yet when they were on their way to Virmire. She’d threatened to use physical force if necessary to get him to approach Maleea afterwards ….
But, of course, that had never happened.
Kaidan flattened his foot, bringing the swing’s momentum to a halt. Leaning forward, Kaidan took another long pull from the bottle before resting his arms across his legs, eyes dropping to the floor as he allowed his thoughts to drift back and remember. Chief Ashley Madeleine Williams. So … vibrant. Alive. Outgoing. Unafraid of living life on her terms. She’d had such a burden to overcome in her lifetime with her family’s history … and he’d admired her for her efforts. Though stubborn to a fault at times, she’d had such a fiery spirit …. Kaidan lifted a hand to rub at the niggling throb threatening behind his temple. Chuckling to himself, he realized that she’d likely have his hide at that moment for being so melancholic about her, too.
~ n ~
“You’ve got to tell her, LT!”
Kaidan sighed. “And just why would I do that?” he countered. “She’s shown no signs of --”
Ash reached over and grabbed him by the front of his uniform, pulling him close, right up into her face. “How will she ever know if you don’t tell her?” she challenged. “She is the commanding officer, of course she’d hold back! Do you honestly think she’d want to possibly ruin your career by taking a chance? There’s a risk involved being the commander, you know. You’ve heard of harassment, haven’t you? While you probably wouldn’t ever accuse her of it, she could be afraid you might if she asked and you weren’t interested! She needs to know for SURE in her position before she says anything? She isn’t so selfish to dive in feet first without knowing how you feel, you know!”
“But that’s the point,” Kaidan argued. “There are regs against this for a reason, Chief. I --”
“I call bullshit.”
“I beg your pardon? What?”
“You heard me. Look, from the little I know about her and her background, she’s got good reason to hold back from personal involvement. Add into that she’s got to be one of the most dedicated officers I’ve ever met! I mean, have you ever met any other officer who works almost as many hours off duty as well as on?”
“I can think of a couple,” Kaidan pointed out.
“Gahhhh!” Ash released her hold on him, hands flying around in the air between them in frustration. “Okay, that’s it! I swear! I’ll give you until after this mission to tell her how you feel. If you don’t, I’m going to tell her myself!”
Kaidan was horrified at first. Frozen, he barely managed, “You wouldn’t!”
“The hell I wouldn’t! I’m completely serious, LT! There are plenty of reasons of why you two should be together … and only one why you shouldn’t. And that one is a lame ass reason that the rest of us wouldn’t care about anyway.”
“But it’s there for a reason,” he reminded her. “And I’m not just going to blatantly ignore it to --”
Joker’s voice came over the systems then, announcing that they were nearing Virmire. Turning to walk away, Ashley told him while pointing a finger into his chest, “You tell her, LT, or I will. End of story. Now, who do you think it would be better for her to hear it from, hmm?” And without another word, Ash entered the lift and began the descent to the shuttle bay, leaving Kaidan standing there flustered and yet somehow encouraged by her words….
~ n ~
The sound of an opening door nearby pulled Kaidan from his memories, and by the time he looked up, he was more or less composed. At least, he hoped so. She stood before him, casual as a summer breeze. She’d changed at some point since his arrival, now dressed in jeans, a dark red tank top and a lightweight button down shirt over it which she’d knotted at her waist. As she had during her years of service, she kept her dark auburn hair pulled back into a bun, but it wasn’t nearly as severe as it had been then. A few loose pieces hung free on either side of her face, curling slightly. It was enough to leave him momentarily speechless.
She was smiling in her usual casual manner, the one that had put him and the others of her crew so at ease from the moment they met. “I see you’ve found my swing,” she observed.
Straightening, he started to rise until she waved him back. “Don’t leave on my account, Major.” As she neared, she extended a hand towards him and he spotted the fresh bottle. He accepted it when she handed it over then dropped into the swing beside him. “I figured I would join you for a while.”
When she sat, he noticed her lack of companionship. “Where are the … dogs?”
Maleea smiled. “Inside,” she replied. “They’ll be here in a heartbeat if necessary.” She gave him a quick side glance and his breath hitched softly. “But I think they know who the alpha is around here.” Kaidan lifted his brow and Maleea snorted softly. “I meant me,” she clarified.
Chuckling, Kaidan turned his gaze to look out over the expanse of the yard. “It really is a nice place here,” he murmured. She swiveled in her seat towards him and the swing moved gently with the motion. He watched as her eyes drifted out over the landscape and saw her lips curve. He even (and this might have been the old, romantic side of him indulging himself) imagined he heard her sigh softly.
“It’s not bad,” she agreed quietly. “I have to admit, I was more than a little stunned when Liara gave me the deed to this place. It … isn’t quite what I’d expected. Or remembered.”
Kaidan’s brow lifted with curiosity. “Oh? What were you expecting?”
She flashed him a grin and Kaidan found he couldn’t help but return it. “Something smaller! Actually, to be completely honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Given everything that’s happened here over the years ….”
“Hmm.” Kaidan turned his eyes back outward. “I seem to recall you mentioning something when we went to Eden Prime,” he murmured. “That last time, not the first. Something about how even though the colony was rebuilt, it wasn’t the same. I think based off of that, I figured you wouldn’t ever return here.”
Maleea shifted awkwardly, the movement drawing Kaidan’s gaze immediately. Dr. Chakwas and Miranda both had briefed him before he’d come, updating him completely on her medical progress. And while their warnings hadn’t implied any immediate concerns, he knew all too well that other factors could come into play. The movement itself had been awkward, jerky, and possibly indicative that some injury or another might be bothering her. Then again, he knew Maleea quite well and understood that she would have at the very least been embarrassed and at worst have her pride injured if he were to offer her assistance without her asking for it. Strong. Solid. Stubborn. Independent. That was Commander Maleea Shepard.
But she didn’t ask for assistance, and it took just a moment longer to realize that the awkwardness probably came more due to him making the connection between her comment and her current home than anything else. “When I woke up in the hospital,” she explained quietly, “I think I knew, even before Miranda and Karin told me, that my soldiering days were done.”
Kaidan nodded, though inside he was sighing. She’d been in a coma for nearly five months by the time she awoke. The Normandy returned the month prior to her waking. After his initial visit, after seeing what had become of her, after toying around with a few ideas of his own regarding retirement or what his place in the galaxy now might be, he had a realization: No matter what happened, or what path his life took, he wanted Maleea to be in it some way or another. So, when Admiral Hackett approached him, asking his intentions for the future, Kaidan found himself hedging. It was too soon to tell. Shepard was still unconscious. He desperately wanted to talk with her first, see if the things he was thinking would even be reasonable to consider, but the Admiral wasn’t going to give him that chance.
And so, he agreed to stay within the ranks. Sort of. Realizing his unique skillset offered him the chance at several possibilities, he opted for the one that, he hoped, might allow him to set his own schedule. Teaching his students had been one thing, but actively taking part in such missions now, and there had been a surprisingly great need for them after the war, well … Kaidan could admit to surprise at just how everything turned out. Where he hoped it would allow him time to be around Maleea more, he found instead it was requiring much more of his time. Then again, it was his efforts to that end that identified the beginnings of a threat to Maleea’s life in the first place, so maybe ....
“Is that such a bad thing?” he asked. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re a hell of a soldier, even without having saved the galaxy and all.”
Kaidan was only slightly surprised when she chuckled. “It’s okay, Kaidan,” she murmured. “I’ve resigned myself to the fact I won’t ever be running across battlefields or fighting my way through enemy lines again.” She sighed and turned to rest her arms against the swing back. “And no, this isn’t such a bad thing to come back to.” She made a sweeping motion with her hand holding her beer, inclusive of the yard, the buildings and the land beyond. “To be honest, it’s … well, a relief, I guess. And besides, this way I can rediscover my roots,” she announced with a half grin. “After a fashion, anyway.”
Kaidan chuckled softly too, for a moment. “Nurturing the land can be a healing thing,” he pointed out. The moment he said it, he began to wonder if she would notice the opportunity he was presenting her. It wouldn’t surprise him in the least if she --
“As it did for you?” she countered, answering his question. “After BAaT?”
Kaidan bowed his head towards her in acknowledgement. “You always were able to connect the dots so quickly,” he acknowledged.
He watched her shrug. “I took an interest in my people. And I remember things. Most of the time,” she added with a broad wink in his direction. “It’s not so difficult to put them together when necessary.”
“Hmm. But, yeah,” he finally agreed, “working the orchard with mom and dad after the debacle that was Brain Camp did help.”
She straightened then, turning forward again and leaning back. “This is helping, too. So, tell me, you know what I’ve been up to for the past two years. What exactly have you been doing?”
Kaidan chuckled. “Still as straightforward as ever, I see,” he teased.
Maleea grinned. “It has its uses,” she replied. “Seriously, though. I’d have figured you would have … oh, I don’t know ... gone home, met someone special and settled down by now. Maybe have a kid or two?” She shook her head in bemusement. “It sounds more like you’re still roaming across the galaxy.”
Kaidan felt a sharp pain twist at his heart, but when he spoke a moment later, he managed to keep his voice even enough. “Duty called, you know? My spectre status is currently on hiatus,” he admitted, “but when Admiral Hackett asked, what else could I do?”
Maleea smiled. “You didn’t have to go back, Kaidan,” she reminded him. “After all you’ve done, no one would have taken issue if you decided to walk away, once and for all.”
“Says you,” he replied automatically. He’d made the Alliance his career. It wasn’t in him not to answer the call. Even if he would have preferred certain things had turned out differently.
“Whatever you say, Mr. Integrity,” she bantered right back. His laughter mixed with hers.
“Actually, I have sort of been looking for someone I met a while back,” he finally dared as the laughter faded away. “During my downtime.” He saw her eyes lighten with curiosity. “What?”
Grinning widely, she nudged his shoulder just a bit with her hand. “Look at you being so secretive! Tell me!”
It was interesting, Kaidan thought, to see her so animated about this. So different than any other time during the years he’d known her. “Well … there’s not much to tell,” he replied, hand rising to rub at his chin in a thoughtful manner. “Like I said, I had other duties at the time. More pressing matters. When I did have downtime, there wasn’t a whole lot to go on.”
“What’s she like then?” Maleea apparently wasn’t going to be swayed from her line of thought.
Kaidan raised a brow at her before taking another drink. “What is this, an inquisition?” he asked.
“Fine, fine,” she countered easily. “Then at least tell me what it is about her that you like. What first caught your attention about her?” She paused, considered, then glanced up at his face. “Or is it a he?” she mused. Kaidan blinked, but she continued on before he could make any comment one way or the other. “Well, whatever the case, whoever it is, tell me!”
Kaidan couldn’t keep from rolling his eyes now. Surely he could get away with mentioning a few things without giving away his true feelings, right? This was such a rare side of Shepard to see, he hated the thought of pushing it away. He’d find a way to humor her, and to keep the truth to himself for now. He hoped.
“It was her voice,” he replied after a moment, acknowledging the accuracy of Maleea’s first line of inquiry. But along with that short statement, a memory returned with a strength that nearly felled him. The first time he’d seen her, heard her, greeting Anderson as she’d boarded the Normandy and took up her duties as XO.
~ n ~
Kaidan glanced down the row, mentally taking note of the exact angles that his marines were standing, who would need reprimanding later for not being precise enough about their posture. It was as he was turning to face forward again that he heard it for the first time.
Booted steps, firm and solid against the ship’s decking, came to a halt just behind the edge of his peripheral vision, slightly around the corner from his position. Out of the corner of his eye, still facing forward, Kaidan could only see Captain Anderson.
“Permission to come aboard, sir?”
He noticed the smooth and gentle Southern drawl of her voice first. It reminded him of sunshine for some reason. Of warmth. And yet there was a hint of something hidden as well. Something that warned him there was a core of solid steel just beneath the surface.
“Permission granted,” Anderson replied. Kaidan could see the man salute then reach for the newcomer’s hand. “Welcome aboard, Shepard.”
“Thank you, sir.”
The hint of movement became something more, and Kaidan straightened, calling out, “Ten hut!” as his hand rose in salute. Several more followed suit seconds later.
He’d read her personnel file before she’d arrived and, of course, committed it to memory. Anderson had given it to him though he hadn’t had to. Had it been intended more as a warning? So that someone would have an idea of who and what their new XO was? Kaidan wasn’t certain he’d ever understood the Captain’s reason, though it had been appreciated. Not only had it given him an inside look into who Shepard was, but her service record, at least the parts of it that hadn’t been redacted due to security clearance issues, had enabled him to prepare an appropriate welcome.
Their eyes met as their arms began to lower, and in that moment Kaidan understood that there was more behind Commander Maleea Shepard than a file filled with partial reports and lists of facts. There was a warmth there that matched the voice, a twinkling that hinted at a wicked sense of humor and a vibrancy that floated between them unlike any other Kaidan had ever met before.
“And you are?” she asked.
“Staff Lieutenant Alenko, Commander.”
Her lips quirked at the corners just a bit, but Kaidan couldn’t understand why. “At ease, Lieutenant,” she murmured before turning towards the others. Two rows of five marines each; she made a quick inspection, nodding approval. Though it was Anderson calling her attention away a moment later, offering to show her around the Normandy, Kaidan noticed her eyes lingered on his for just a moment longer before she turned away.
~ n ~
“Strong, sure and confident, and a beautiful, rich tone.” He blinked upon realizing how that sounded and gave her a slightly abashed look. “Sorry. That must sound corny as hell.”
Maleea chuckled softly. “Why be sorry? She caught your attention, so she must be interesting, right? Have you managed to track her down yet? Got any good leads? Anything I can help with?”
“It’s been difficult,” he hedged. “With the war and everything after ….” He allowed his voice to trail off. It wasn’t exactly a lie, he told himself. So many lives had been disrupted one way or another because of the Reapers. Repairs to the damaged mass relay system itself had taken nearly a full year to complete.
Kaidan sighed, but he couldn’t help a small smile. Some things hadn’t changed, he supposed. Of course, she wasn’t going to let this go until satisfied. She reminded him of a dog with a bone. “I … might have a lead,” he told her after a moment. “Nothing I can do anything about it right now, but it’s being looked into for me.” Lord, he hoped she would stop with this soon. If she didn’t, he was going to slip up. “What about you, though?” he countered, hoping to turn the tide away from him and onto her for a while. Maybe then she would let it go. For now, anyway. “Have you found ‘someone special’ yet?”
~ n ~
Maleea nearly choked on the sip of beer she’d been downing as he spoke. “Me?” she breathed through wheezes and coughs. “When am I going to have the time for that out here?”
He flashed her a wicked grin, though he shrugged his shoulders and affected an innocent stance. Maleea had no doubts he was paying her back for her own line of questioning. “Oh, I don’t know … wondered if maybe you’d fallen for a doctor at the hospital or one of the orderlies. For all I know you had some soldier you were seeing on the side and just never told any of us about it.” He tilted his head, eyes narrowing in thought. “Who was that guy … the one with Anderson in London? Curtz? He seemed rather familiar when you guys saw one another.”
“Coats? Oh, hell no!” Maleea groaned, laughing, and turned away from his knowing eyes. “He’s just a friend. Coats and I went through sniper training together ages ago. We somehow managed to stay friends despite duty assignments and transfers. It was a relief seeing a familiar face there, I’ll grant you that, but otherwise …? Nope. End of story.” Kaidan was beginning to narrow in too close, if he was guessing other Alliance soldiers. If she wasn’t careful, she’d blurt it all out here and now and make a complete fool of herself. Making a mental note to stop her alcohol intake after this beer, she warned, “Kaidan --”
Either he didn’t catch the hint, or he didn’t care. Maleea was betting on the second option. “So,” he continued, “… you’re not interested in anyone?”
“I never said that!” Maleea retorted sharply before she could stop herself.
“Aha!” he crowed, grin widening. “So there is someone!”
Maleea decided then and there that Kaidan gloating was something she found very annoying … even if it was her own fault in the first place. “I … All I will say is that I had the potential for someone once,” she allowed, quietly. It was difficult to push the ache away those memories brought. Potential that, apparently, is no longer there. Head dropping, she began toying with the label on her beer bottle, eyes refusing to meet his.
“I’m sorry,” he replied quickly, his teasing falling by the wayside. “What happened?”
Maleea shrugged and eventually drained the last of her bottle before she answered. “He was interested in someone else,” she told him honestly. She turned to face him for a long moment, daring to meet his gaze, if only briefly. “It was my fault,” she admitted -- all too easy a thing to do around him, even now. “I’d been warned by a friend to let him know how I felt, but I never did. Not in so many words, anyway. By the time I felt comfortable doing so, he moved on ...”
She was startled when he lifted a hand to her chin, tucking it beneath and gently guiding her head up so he could look more fully into her eyes. “More fool him,” he told her sincerely.
Shocked and stunned just a little bit speechless, Maleea fought hard to keep her emotions neutral. Oh, Kaidan … if you only knew. “Come on,” she told him a moment later when she was certain her voice would be steady enough and not crack. “Let’s move this back inside. Dinner should be about ready.”
Like life in the military, the days on Mindoir quickly fell into a regular and somewhat comfortable routine. Rising with the sun, it began with a hearty breakfast. Hot food and hotter coffee or tea, both Kaidan and Maleea had learned years before, was all the fortification required for a major mission or a consecutive string of smaller ones. During a second round of hot drinks and the loading of thermoses, chores needing immediate attention were prioritized. A handful of MREs out of the pantry -- which left Kaidan shaking his head in amusement more than anything, and Maleea just shrugging. “Some things you get used to, you know?” -- and a couple gallon jugs of water came next, all loaded in the truck for lunch later in the day. By the time they walked out the door, a battle plan was formed, and onward the day rolled until night fell. A few evening chores, mostly making sure they had the tools likely necessary for the next day followed by a large homemade dinner mixed thoroughly with casual conversation rounded out the evening. Only then did they part ways into separate rooms to rest until the time came to rise with the next dawn to repeat the process all over again.
The first real challenge came nearly a week after Kaidan’s arrival. It proved to be an interesting one for him on several levels. Maleea spent the better part of lunch -- today sandwiches at the house rather than MREs out in the fields working on fence lines -- explaining to him the program involving the high school kids. From background through process, she described the entire program and how it came about. By the time her additional helping hands appeared for the afternoon, introductions between him and the kids transitioned smoothly. The teens were polite enough, especially considering they had no warning, though they acted a bit nervous and awkward around him at first. Whether they knew him to be what he was or not remained to be seen, but given the fact that they did seem to be aware that Maleea was once a soldier ‘during the war,’ he figured the chances were good they might have heard his name mentioned a time or two.
The kids settled in for the afternoon after a quick snack and overview of their duties for the day. Kaidan and Maleea followed them as far as the barn, only changing direction when Maleea stopped him and gestured a different way. “Come on. Let’s go for that tour I promised you.”
Kaidan nodded and followed her over to one of the work vehicles. Chief and LT came bounding over to form up beside Maleea, but she waved them off, signaling them to stay with the teenagers. Kaidan watched in silence. He’d figured out pretty quick that she normally took the animals with her around the farm any time she left the main compound, but today she appeared to have a different plan. He wasn’t concerned so much for her protection -- he could handle that if she couldn’t -- and he wasn’t opposed to the kids having added protection if he and Maleea were going to be away for a while. Still, it left him wondering if there wasn’t some other reason why Mal purposely left them behind. From what Liara had told him on their trip here, they were never very far from her at any given time.
He eased into the passenger side of the vehicle, memories of prepping for a Mako drop teasing him in the process. There was no sense in arguing with her about driving -- this was the first time he’d get to see just how expansive her lands were, and until he got a look for himself, it was just as well to let her guide them. In another few days, perhaps, he might ask for the opportunity, but until then he would just take notes.
She drove them around the perimeter first, identifying the boundaries and pointing out landmarks that made it easy to remember. The land was, as far as he could tell, serving a dual purpose: pastures for the cattle and fields for crops. He knew she often did both at the same time, giving the kids a chance to work both sides of the industry, but he also understood there was a second reason for it. Mindoir was still recovering, just like every other colony and planet. Food needed to be grown whenever and wherever it could to help them survive. Even now, even after her role in saving the galaxy and her claim to prefer the anonymity that being ‘Maleea Anderson’ gave her, Kaidan understood she was still doing her part in helping everyone else. She might not come out and say it in so many words, and knowing her as he did she would likely outright contradict him, but Kaidan knew better.
“And you run this all by yourself?” he asked as they passed yet more fields, this time planted with corn.
“The kids help,” she replied. “A lot, actually. Before we had the program set, it wasn’t nearly so big. I had more fallow lands than anything.” She eased the vehicle through another intersection and turned towards the east. “When I first arrived, it was too late into the season and I couldn’t plant any crops. The next time, the kids were just coming on board. I got lucky with them -- they’re all from farming families -- and with their help and knowhow, we got a start on planting.” She sighed softly and Kaidan noticed she was staring straight ahead. “This year, we’ve doubled the number of fields. Couldn’t have done it without them.”
Her voice trailed off and Kaidan recognized almost immediately something was off, but he couldn’t quite put into words what it was. Tension tightened the air around them, heavier and much more noticeable between them now than it had been to that point. It reminded him of the times he would get a build-up of biotic energy, leaving the air surrounding him crackling and rough. For him, all it required was a discharge of the energy to let it go. For her, he didn’t think it would be that simple.
The road ahead of them curved sharply, and as they turned, Kaidan noticed her hands grasp tightly at the steering wheel. He also noted something even more telling.
Her hands were trembling.
For Kaidan, this was as shocking as if Maleea had reached out and slapped him across the face. Commander Shepard, Hero of the Citadel, Saviour of the Galaxy, the woman who faced fear on a daily, if not hourly, basis for half her life and forced it into submission, was shaking. It wasn’t overly obvious, he probably wouldn’t have even noticed it if he hadn’t been looking over at her at the time. But it was concerning. He watched as her left hand moved against the wheel, her knuckles blatantly white against otherwise tanned skin. He was tempted to call her out on it, but instead he forced his gaze back to the view ahead of them. Something was going on, but he didn’t know what. Something he wasn’t expecting, wasn’t told to expect. He frowned, eyes following the fence line to their right. Or maybe I should expect it? Karin told me what to watch for … could it be a symptom related to her injuries?
Whatever it was didn’t slow Maleea down. She continued down the otherwise empty road. As she drove, she continued speaking about her lands. When she ran out of farm-specific related things to discuss, she shifted to the history behind the colony and its farmers. He noted it, responding appropriately as needed, but at the same time he disconnected himself from the discussion, his thoughts whirling around in an attempt to process her. You’re rambling now, he noted silently. Another uncharacteristic trait for her.
His eyes drifted back to her, and he hoped he was masking just how concerned he was in the moment, but Maleea didn’t seem to be paying any attention to him. Though still fully engaged in the conversation, her eyes remained locked straight ahead of them. Something is troubling you. Something … what? He focused on her, on their surroundings and on what he knew of her to try to find some contextual clues. Mindoir … your home. Your farm. Your … what?
They hit a rough patch in the road that caused the truck to bump awkwardly. She gritted her teeth, Kaidan recognizing the look immediately. Grim determination. The last time I saw that, you were turning away, heading on towards the Conduit in London. She was paler than usual now, so much so he could identify each individual freckle scattered across her cheeks and nose. He wondered if he ought to say something, perhaps try to get her to talk. He didn’t think -- well, hoped anyway -- it was something he’d said or done since his arrival. In fact, until a little while ago, he thought things were going rather well for them.
Withdrawal could happen one of several ways, he was aware of that. The first came simply from not communicating in any way, shape or form. That obviously wasn’t what was at play here, and he didn’t think it would become an issue. Not for her, anyway. She was trained as a leader. Part of being a leader was the ability to communicate, even when something was had a more personal effect. In their careers, it could also be a matter of life or death if you didn’t.
But Kaidan was also aware there were ways to withdraw from someone internally while still maintaining a conversation. Like she was doing now.
He lost track of how long it had been going on and was about to ask her what was troubling her when he realized her voice trailed off and the vehicle slowed. Shifting his eyes forward again, he noticed the road opening up into a clearing of some sort. There were no crops or cattle in sight, just a wide open cleared patch of land with a small stone monument on the top of a hill. Maleea pulled the vehicle to a halt about halfway up the gentle slope, setting the brake and removing the key. Kaidan’s hand automatically released the catch on his safety harness, but his eyes never left her. He watched as she closed her eyes, inhaled deeply through her nose, then released it even more slowly past her lips. The tension was still present, in some ways worse than it had been just minutes before, but then the spell was broken and she reached for the door handle. “Come on,” she rasped in a rough voice. “There’s something I want to share with you.”
Share. An odd way to phrase it, but Kaidan followed without comment, recognizing that whatever it was that had pulled her from him, she was now willing to clue him in. He kept his eyes on her the short distance up the hill. His concern tripled when he realized she wasn’t watching where she was going, but seeing beyond it, as if looking at the past. He jogged the few steps between them, catching up with her just as she dropped to her knees. “Mal …?” Her eyes now focused on the stone monument before them. All it took was a look at the words carved into it to realize what it must be and with it, perfect clarity and insight into why she’d been so distant ...
~ n ~
Inside the house, she was just about to return downstairs from closing the windows for the approaching storm when she heard the first shot. Spinning on her heel, Maleea nearly tripped over her feet as she raced down. She grabbed her gun off the rack near the door and dropped a handful of ammunition into her pocket before yanking the barrier open. “Papa!”
Through the door window, about halfway across the yard and towards the barn, she found his familiar silhouette, and for the briefest moment, she was relieved. Until she noticed Red, their loyal as ever hound, standing beside him bristling.
“Go, Mal!” He didn’t turn, but shouted back over his shoulder at her. Something had his attention even though he was backing his way towards her. “Get out of here while you can! I’ll hold them off!”
“Them?” Her question was a whisper as she tried squinting through the fading light to see, but it was difficult. The sun was beginning to set, bathing everything on the horizon in brightness even as the rest of the surroundings were darkened. She saw … nothing. Absolutely nothing but a line of brightness haloed by a much darker rim. She trusted that whatever her father and Red were seeing was the threat they were suggesting, but her only reaction at the moment was to keep searching for the threat. In the distance, she caught another loud rumble of thunder, the storm menacing them yet again …
She frowned as that thought faded. Bright sunlight, even as it set? Thunder? There are no storms …
The rumble echoed a third time, and Maleea’s hands tightened around her weapon. That sounds more like an engine ….
“Go, girl! While you can! Live!”
Growling more ferociously than at any time Maleea had known the animal, Red leapt forward at something she still couldn’t see. She bit her lip, uncertainty causing hesitation. Her father raised his gun and took a shot at …
“Go!” he shouted again.
“Papa?” It was a whisper, a mixture of confusion and fear of something unknown. She trusted him like she had trusted no other in sixteen years. Why then was it so difficult to turn away and follow his orders now?
A pained yelp arced through the dying light, and it was the sound of her dog giving his life to protect them that finally spurred Maleea into movement. She turned on her heels, ramping up to a full-fledged run through the kitchen and out the back door to the woods beyond, never once looking back over her shoulder even when she heard a blood curdling cry that could only come from her father ...
~ n ~
As always when she visited, Maleea’s gaze surveyed the space with a critical eye. There were obvious signs that larger buildings once stood on this land though they no longer existed. Their absence didn’t matter. She knew exactly, down to the inch, to the centimeter where they stood so long ago. The barn. The house. Her father’s work shed with the attached overhang to protect their truck during storms. Behind the house had been a well, and beyond that the woods that had separated their lands from the Adamsons on the other side. All of it now gone. Destroyed. She never knew what survived the batarian attack and what was pulled down later, but that wasn’t important.
Her hands automatically moved to clear away weeds, leaves and other detritus that had gathered around the stone since her last visit. Once satisfied, she lifted a hand, fingers gently caressing over the words carved into the granite’s surface.
A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.**
Quiet booted steps crunched against the gravel and dry grass, but she wasn’t afraid. Not this time. “Mal …,” Kaidan murmured softly, taking to a knee beside her, his hand coming to rest against her shoulder.
“He gave his life so I could flee, you know,” Maleea said quietly, sniffling. “He … and Red.”
A rough laugh escaped past Maleea’s tight smile. “Our dog. He just … He was some stray mutt. Showed up one day and flopped down onto our front porch, as if declaring us his home. No tags, he acted like he belonged with us, and so we kept him.” She sighed, eyes closing briefly, and she wrapped her arms around her legs. “Papa tried to call him Rover a few times, but he wasn’t having any of that. Ended up calling him Red because of the reddish brown color of his coat.”
Kaidan’s hand tightened at her shoulder, and Maleea shuddered. She caught the inside of her cheek and bit it to keep from falling victim to the emotions those memories could still trigger. A moment later, she managed to lift her hand to cover his. Just a light fluttering of fingers, but it was the only way she could express her thanks just then.
“Sounds like he was a pretty smart dog,” he murmured.
Maleea’s laugh was somber. “He was. He used to walk me to the bus stop and back each day,” she added. “Always. Rain or shine. No matter what, he was there. And he and dad … they just …”
She ducked her head, a nearly strangled quality to her voice now. Around her, the world was darkening, all light fading, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Perhaps she would give in yet again to that darker side where the memories overpowered what had come after. Where the past had still could hurt, too much at times. She’d hoped the last visit might have cleansed them away once and for all, but ...
“Mal, you don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”
His words weren’t unexpected, not really. Always considerate, Maleea had figured him out during their mission against Saren. He could be decisive when he wanted, but he liked to keep as many options open as possible at all times. Which is why he always tried to give her, or whoever might be in her position, a way out if she chose it.
She shook her head, lifting it and wiping a sleeve across her eyes, refusing his offer. “No … I think … Kaidan, I think I need to.” Sitting back, she lifted her head towards the sky for a moment, seeking out the sun. Her eyes were closed, but she was well aware of her surroundings; sounds and smells registering with every subtle twitch at the corner of her eyes, every alteration to the angle of her tilting head. “I’ve held it in for far too long ….”
She opened her eyes when she heard the gravel shift and found Kaidan taking a seat next to her. He sat cross legged like she did, his eyes focused on her. He reached a hand, gently taking hers. “Then tell me,” he said simply.
And she did.
“It was evening,” she murmured. “I was inside cleaning up after dinner, Papa was outside closing things up for the night. He thought storms were rolling in, you know? The rumblings of thunder echoing in the distance. Even called inside to get me to make sure all of the windows were closed upstairs. Only, he got it wrong.” Her eyes opened and met his. “It was the sounds of the slavers’ ships approaching he heard, not thunder.
“I didn’t realize there was a problem until I heard a gunshot and Red growling furiously,” she whispered. Her hand tightened around his, that lifeline keeping her anchored to the present instead of losing herself inside of the memories again. “That’s when I grabbed my gun. I hurried to the door, thinking to go out and help Papa and Red with whatever the problem was, but Papa ….” Her shoulders trembled a bit. “He was retreating, backing up to the house, Red with him. I never got out the door, probably partly why I was able to survive. He told me to turn around and run. I didn’t understand what was going on and he called out to me a couple of times. The last thing I remember before turning away was the sound of Red taking a hit. Papa shouted at me, told me to head out the back and go as far as I could, to get away and find help, but most of all … to live.”
The trembling grew more pronounced and Maleea barely noticed Kaidan shift position until he pulled her closer, his arm moving to offer support around her shoulders now. “I heard Red go down before I’d managed to get out of the house,” she whispered, her old friend’s dying cry something she would never forget as long as she lived, no matter how many lifetimes that might be. “But I ran. Just like my father told me to.” Taking a deep breath, she sat up a bit, glanced around and finally pointed to their right. “I made it to the treeline before I heard him … go ....”
Kaidan tightened his hold around her. “Any father would have done the same for their child, you know that,” he murmured quietly near her ear. “We’ve seen enough over the years to --”
Maleea nodded, turning slightly so she could rest her head against his shoulder. “I know,” she agreed, though her voice was thick and raspy. “It took me a long while to fully understand and accept that, but I know.”
She told him about running, about not knowing exactly who or what was after her then, but the fear that chased her, as large and strong as any batarian slaver. She hid in the woods for days, finding what she could to eat from the land and when she couldn’t, going hungry. She lost track of time, and occasionally ran into something requiring attention from her shotgun. “I don’t know how many of them I killed in the end,” she rasped. The fingers of her right hand twisted and twined long strands of grass in an idle manner. “And when help finally arrived, I nearly shot them.”
Kaidan frowned. “Them?”
Maleea’s tears began afresh, these memories only more recently removed. “Anderson was leading the squad of marines that found me,” she replied.
She told him how she was taken away -- no hard feelings, Anderson promised -- and escorted back to his ship. From there, she was sent back to Earth, spending the next couple of years with a distant cousin and his family. “I didn’t know them, they didn't know me. I suppose it didn’t really matter, the Alliance thought they were doing me a favor, I suppose.” She sighed. “I heard later, after Mars but before you joined us again, that they’d been among the Reapers’ first victims. They didn’t deserve it,” she concluded. “None of them did.”
“I’m sorry,” he told her.
Maleea shrugged. “He was just … a body. Someone who shared a name they could put me with and not feel guilty about it afterwards. They hoped, I think, that being with ‘family’ might help me open up, tell them more about the attack, about the batarians and their tactics. How many. What weapons they used. Who they went after.” She shrugged again. Lifting her head, she looked up at Kaidan, asking, “Even if I’d known anything, which I didn’t, what was the point? It didn’t change what happened, it didn’t bring my father or Red back.”
Sighing heavily, she tilted her head up towards the sky again, lids closing to protect her eyes from the sun. “Never before did I feel so alone as I did there.”
“You don’t think talking about it might have helped with that?”
Another shrug. “Maybe. But Papa raised me to be self-reliant. If something bad happened, you dealt with it and moved on. Forward. From what I could tell, the Alliance wanted me to rehash and relive it all again, over and over.” Her eyes dropped to meet his again. “Papa tried to teach me to not let the past define my present. ‘You are you,’ he said. ‘You alone are responsible for your choices, your actions, how you handle things.’”
Maleea watched his brows dip, narrowing in concern. “That’s an awful lot for a child to have to learn.”
“Yeah, but it was how I was raised. And, this wasn’t the first time,” she told him. “I was six when I lost my mom to cancer. Papa and I grieved together but in our own ways at the same time, if that makes sense. Did it go away for good? Not really. I was a small child and there were plenty of times I cried myself to sleep at night over the years that followed. Just as I know there were times, especially as I hit my teenage years, when Papa felt overwhelmed. Several times I overheard him talking to Mama’s picture he kept in their bedroom, asking for her guidance. She was gone, nothing we could do would bring her back. We talked, we grieved, but the hurt never went away. Time and distance from it helped, but it was still there. Nothing ever changed. Not really.”
They sat together, beside the monument, each to their own thoughts for a long while. Maleea recalled Kaidan telling her about his own father’s fate during the war. Perhaps that was why he was encouraging her to talk about it now? Maybe he found it worked as a way to help deal with his pain? She could appreciate that no two people dealt with any given situation the same way. That was why she kept working with him, when he allowed it, through the years. They never saw anything exactly the same. And yet, they both managed to end up getting to the same place, the same conclusion. If that was what worked for him, great. She was all for it. But that didn’t mean it worked for her. Whatever the case, she was grateful he was here with her now.
After a time, Kaidan said, “The monument … it’s nice.”
Maleea smiled. Sitting up, she felt a moment of disappointment as his arm dropped away, but that was immediately chased away when his hand grasped hers again. “When I first came home after the war,” she explained, “I was still recovering physically. Several friends came to stay with me during those first few weeks to help me finish getting settled.” She felt a smile pull at her lips. That had been an interesting experience. Zaeed, Garrus, Samara … all of them living in a house, finishing up the security measures, setting up a household, making sure that Maleea could get around as needed as easily as possible after they left. “I drove out here one day with Samara. She … the idea was mine, but she helped me pull it together.” Maleea thought back to that day fondly. She had always felt an air of peace and calm around the justicar. When Samara offered to assist, to help Maleea find her own sense of peace with her past now that she was home, Maleea accepted without a second thought.
“I remember her,” he replied. Maleea knew the two had met. Both had been at the party she hosted on the Citadel before their final push to London. She’d spent time with all her guests that night, and had caught Kaidan and Samara discussing a number of different topics.
After a few more minutes of quiet which allowed Maleea to pull her thoughts together, she glanced over at Kaidan. “We probably ought to head back to the house just in case the kids need us.”
Kaidan stood first, offering a hand to assist Maleea if she needed it. She accepted, slowly rising to her feet, but before she could let go, he caught her off guard and pulled her close for one last hug. “You didn’t have to tell me what happened,” he murmured. When she opened her mouth to protest, he lifted a finger to cover her lips. “But I’m glad you did.”
Maleea sighed softly and smiled. “It’s not something I share,” she admitted as they walked back to the truck. “Just those I feel … closest to.”
“Then, I’m glad you count me among their number.”
They arrived at the truck and he reached out to open the door for her. Before letting go of his hand, Maleea squeezed it once more. He had no way of knowing, but he was the only one she had fully shared her story with. “So am I.”
~ n ~
Later that evening, as he prepared for bed, Kaidan paused in preparations to send a brief message to his mother. How long had it been since he last saw her? Far too long, he realized, checking the dates. Not since the Normandy’s return to Earth after being gone for many months. He sent her messages periodically, assuring her that he was just fine. She knew he was still working with the Alliance, and remained as proud of him as ever, too.
He walked over and stared out the window next. The sun was well past setting. Chores were complete, the kids had gotten home safely (Kaidan had seen to that without telling Maleea), and dinner eaten. Maleea had chased him out of the kitchen again, flat out refusing his assistance. She knew good and well he could cook, even teasing him about it on the Citadel right before war’s end. It wasn’t that he didn’t have any appreciation for her skills, either. If their meals over the past couple of days were any indication, she was quite good, too. But it would certainly put him at ease if she allowed him to help, and it might be fun, too.
With the lights out in his room, he could see the constellations and the moon rising in the distance. The planet’s rings were also visible, a reminder to him how much like and yet not the rest of the galaxy could be to Earth. He felt a brief tug in his chest at the sight, memories of other worlds he’d visited over the years returning in a flash. Other colonies. He would be the first to admit, if ever asked, that the opportunities he’d had over the years had taken him to places he never dreamed of going before. Of meeting all sorts of people and species. Asari. Turian. Salarian. Krogan. Quarian. Prothean.
But none of them intrigued him as much as one particular human female.
I had to join the Alliance and travel across the galaxy to meet the one person I wanted to be with, he mused. Life sure can be ironic at times.
** Quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.
Chapter 6: The Daily Grind
The days melted into weeks, and Kaidan found his the easy and somewhat familiar rhythm of life on Maleea’s farm a refreshing change. In a vague, ‘almost-but-not-quite’ sort of fashion, his time there was a gentle reminder of his years working on the family orchard back home.
Farm or orchard, there was always something requiring attention. Fence lines, herding cattle from one pasture to another, even working on the work truck when it started sputtering and spitting at them in protest. How Maleea had been managing everything on her own to this point was a bit of a wonder to him. Whenever he tried to get further details, she politely refused to give him the answers he sought, proving that certain traits -- like stubbornness -- still remained, and that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
That stubbornness showed in other ways, too. Watching her first hand on a daily basis, Kaidan noticed the former Commander often took on more of the physical work herself. It concerned him, especially at first and after his direct briefing from Dr. Chakwas before his arrival. For someone still recovering from such extensive injuries as she had received on the Citadel in that last battle, she probably should be easing into it more. Both Miranda and Chakwas had used the word ‘miracle’ in reference to Maleea’s survival, and after viewing her medical charts, Kaidan had to agree. Still, if only through stubbornness alone, Maleea managed to accomplish extraordinary things. Whether it be battlefield, negotiations or the farm on Mindoir, Maleea proved that Commander Shepard still existed, whether she was on active duty or not.
One surprise he stumbled upon -- the first of many, he was sure -- was that, while Maleea filled her days with hard work, the evenings became something … more. Dinnertime between them often turned into a blend of talking shop -- both as soldiers or from their separate upbringings on the farm or orchard -- mixed with reminiscences of times past sprinkled with just a bit of playfulness for fun. Quite early on he discovered the cooking wasn’t just a fluke -- Maleea was a rather good cook, as she had mentioned back on the Citadel years before. And because of this, or again, maybe it was that stubborn streak, it took him weeks before he could convince her to let him assist. He assured her it wasn’t that he didn’t distrust her cooking, but he wanted to take over some of the responsibility for their meals.
“Why?” Maleea demanded while drying off dishes one evening.
“How about for starters, it’s a way I can return the favor,” he replied.
“Giving me a place to stay on such short notice?”
She didn’t look as if she would agree, and Kaidan was ready with additional arguments, but eventually they worked out an amenable arrangement where they traded off every other day.
It didn’t take long before he could say he felt welcomed in Maleea’s home. The first to accept him were the animals. Chief -- all bark and growl on the outside, but a real softie inside, just like her namesake -- took to him after only an afternoon of standoffishness. She was followed shortly thereafter by LT. Kaidan was quick to realize that despite species differences, the two animals were dedicated to one another and refused to be apart, in thought as much as in manner. It didn’t hurt that Kaidan would take them out for long runs each morning and then again in the evenings, either. Toss in the odd treat, ‘accidentally on purpose’ while he was cooking, and the three were thick as thieves once the first chink in their armor had been breached. Mr. Wiggles, the space hamster, was a bit more stubborn than the larger animals, true to what he recalled from their time aboard the SR2, but even he couldn’t resist the added attentions after a month or so.
After several weeks of working with and around Kaidan on a daily basis, wariness and unease gave way to acceptance as even the teenagers succumbed to his charms. Kaidan put it down to his experience teaching, but Maleea argued against it. He accepted her arguments -- she had witnessed him in a number of situations in which he’d been able to put people, no matter race or species, at ease -- but he found it difficult to apply that to these kids.
“Why do you think the Council agreed to Udina’s request to make you Spectre?” Maleea challenged one evening over dessert.
“Because they wanted him to stop asking for another?” he countered awkwardly. It was a question that had troubled him for a long time, to this day even.
Maleea shook her head. “Don’t sell Sparatus, Tevos and Valern short,” she replied. “They might not have seen the truth of what Udina became so easily, they were pretty close to the situation after all, but they wouldn’t give in to his request just to shut him up.”
“Then it’s because of you,” he said. “They knew we’d worked together --”
“And we’d been on opposing sides for most of the year leading up to your appointment,” she added. Taking a swig of her beer, she continued, “They would see through it if Udina tried to smokescreen them. You more than proved yourself over the years, Kaidan. You are patient, kind, and deep down, you’re a good person. You listen carefully and you aren’t prone to making snap judgements.” She shrugged and grinned over at him. Kaidan felt his cheeks heating, even at this late date, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. “Face it, Kaidan, you were their poster boy.” She snickered softly when he choked on his beer. “Hell, they probably thought you might have some sort of stabilizing influence on me in the latter part of the war.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Why else would they allow the only two human Spectres serve together on the same ship?”
She gave him plenty to think about during that conversation, but he wasn’t about to admit that it had anything to do with the way the kids warmed up to him.
Of course, none of this meant he didn’t know how to have a bit of fun once in awhile.
On this particular afternoon, the plan was to transport additional feed out for the cattle. Gavin, with all the arrogance of a teenager sporting a newly-issued and hard-won driver’s license, carefully moved the truck into the barn so that everything could be loaded into the back. Kaidan and Shane quickly moved into place and began filling the bed with the hay and other equipment necessary for the day’s run. Maleea, ever the leader, stepped over to do her part and was in process of lifting herself into the bed of the truck when she felt a sharp tug of the long, thick braid trailing down her back. A tug hard enough to pull her off balance so that she had to release her grasp on the vehicle in order to land safely back onto the ground. Only then did she spin around to face off with Kaidan, coming nose to nose with him, hands at her hips, green eyes flaring, all amidst the somewhat childish giggles and sing-songy jeers of, “Ooooo! Someone’s gonna get it!”
Kaidan satisfied himself by biting back a grin and staring her down. Maleea murmured in a mildly threatening tone, “You know, the last person to pull my hair like that was Sammy Nichols.”
“Is that so?” he mused calmly. “And just what happened to this Sammy Nichols as a result?”
“He ended up with a well deserved bloody nose.”
The urge to burst out laughing was great, and it took every ounce of focus plus some of his biotic meditation methods to keep it locked away. “Is that so?” Kaidan’s gaze locked with hers and he saw the sparkle of amusement twinkling there. “Then it’s a good thing I know how to defend myself,” he countered, his voice dropping as he closed in another step towards her, “against such things.”
It struck him, in that moment, that their conversation could be considered ‘battlefield flirtations.’ And though their battlefield had changed over time, there was a sense of … rightness to it now. Sure, there had been a time or two over the years when they bantered back and forth, almost to a similar level, but something had held him back each time the opportunity was there to move it to the next level. Opportunities he had come to regret in recent years.
“I’ve learned a thing or three since I was seven years old, Alenko,” she warned, her own voice dropping to match his.
Leaning in further, Kaidan’s eyes flared just a bit more. “No doubt,” he murmured. She opened her mouth to add something, but before she could he snuck a quick kiss on the tip of her nose. In the next instant, he was guiding her out of his way without protest.
~ n ~
Though there were plenty of reasons she was both thankful and grateful Kaidan was around these days, there were some awkward moments, too. One of the more difficult aspects to having a more or less permanent, if only temporary, roommate were the days in which Maleea could not hide some of the more obvious and lingering evidence that the injuries sustained during the last battle on the Citadel were still in the process of healing even two years later. Flaws? She wasn’t quite ready to chalk them up as such, but given that she expected more out of herself than others, moments such as this were hard to accept on a personal level.
The first instance it happened, like many Maleea had been noticing since her recovery began, was on a cool and rainy day outside.
Seated at the table, Maleea wasn’t surprised to hear quiet booted steps approaching the doorway within seconds of her outburst. She sat with her back to him, having expected this might be the outcome.
“Mal?” he asked as he entered the room. “You all right?”
Maleea grumbled and she straightened, sitting upright. He moved towards her, she could hear his steps coming closer, and it did nothing to improve her mood. With a frustrated huff, she let the boot laces fall from her fingers in disgust. “It’s nothing,” she muttered, pointedly looking away from him. She was healing, dammit! She would not ask for help when she should be able to do this for herself by now!
Of course, it chose that moment to intervene and not in a subtle way. Maleea inhaled slowly and through her nose, the way she’d been taught, doing her best not to tense up. Maybe it was an echo of the pain, the way her skin felt like it crawled, rippling in reaction. Maybe it was the force required to keep her jaw clamped tight so she wouldn’t scream. Maybe this was all her imagination and she was simply dreaming he was walking in on her in a bad moment, one she didn’t want him to witness because he, like Chakwas and Miranda, would overreact ….
~ n ~
“Don’t let her stubbornness fool you, Major. The Commander is not nearly so well healed as she would like the rest of us to think.”
Surprised, Kaidan asked, “What do you mean, doctor?”
Chakwas sighed and in that sound, Kaidan heard more than just a little concern. “Shepard’s body has been through so much over the past few years,” she explained, “and often without proper time or conditions in which to fully heal before moving on to the next mission.”
Kaidan nodded. He knew that to be true enough for most marines. “Alright. I assume you’ve something specific you want me to watch for then?”
Again, Chakwas sighed. “That’s just it, Kaidan, I don’t. I can tell you that she left rehabilitation much too early. Her body was not fully healed, even this time. I have no doubts that she NEEDED to leave, if only for her own sanity, but that does not change the fact she still requires time to physically heal.” Shaking her head, Chakwas smirked as she turned to share a knowing look with him. “Commander Maleea Shepard is not one to be kept tied down when she does not wish to be, whether it be my professional medical opinion or not.”
Kaidan smiled widely. He knew that well enough, too. “She is a force of nature to be reckoned with,” he agreed. “Okay, doctor, tell me what I should be watching for then ….”
~ n ~
Though concern now gnawed away at his gut, Kaidan respected her view on the situation, and he was about to turn and leave when a movement out of the corner of his eyes caught his attention. She had brought her hands in front of her, in her lap, and was rubbing over one another, massaging them. As if they were stiff or sore or otherwise causing discomfort, the field medic in him noted quickly. Dr. Chakwas’ words of advice returned just as quickly, and he hesitated. He’d been fully briefed on her medical condition -- detailed on past injuries, implants and weaves and other technologies used on or implanted into her by Cerberus -- and he felt as fully prepared as he could be for a situation such as this.
Except … he was torn. According to the information he’d been given, this was a normal sort of reaction to healing wounds. Whether it be old injuries, plain arthritis, whatever the case. Her medical team fully believed she should take the time to rest, rely on the medications to help control the pain -- all of it. But she lived and breathed the farm these days. How was she to get the rest she needed when that was the case?
Taking a knee in front of her, Kaidan waited for a moment. She wouldn’t look at him, but he knew how to be patient. She didn’t say anything either, still fine by him. Part of him wanted to reach down, simply taking the laces and tie them up for her, helping her through the moment that was clearly awkward and, perhaps, humiliating for someone who’d been such a strong leader. But he recognized it was a bit presumptuous on his part, and as stubborn as she could be, she would not thank him for it.
So he continued waiting. The tension between them, noticeable as he’d knelt beside her, continued to grow and was now almost vibrating off her in waves. Only after it dissipated a few minutes later did he ask, “How can I help?”
Her head pulled back around, tilting so she could glance up at him. Though not fully facing him, she was looking, and that was a start. “I don’t need help,” she bit out through clenched teeth.
Her eyes closed tightly and Kaidan saw small beads of sweat build at the side of one temple. More pain. “Mal --”
But she cut him off by shaking her head. “Kaidan, don’t,” she pleaded. “Just … don’t. You have no idea --”
“Actually,” he interjected in a firm but mild tone, “I do.”
That brought her head fully up with a snapping glare. Her face was a mix of emotions ranging from curiosity to disbelief to flat out accusation. It took a moment, but he saw the question win out, could tell she was trying to sort her way through memories. A couple of minutes later, she figured it out. Her eyes widened, startled, and she sat up a bit straighter. “Mars,” she whispered. It was a statement of fact, not a question.
He nodded. “Mars. All those little breaks in my shoulders. Why do you think Dr. Michel insisted I stay at Huerta for so many weeks? And even then, it wasn’t as long as she would have preferred.”
She sighed, her head bobbing in a reluctant nod. “Cerberus had a way of messing with timetables.”
He couldn’t stop a wry chuckle from escaping. “That’s one way to put it. Anyway, my point is I had moments of pain flare up from time to time after that, still do once in awhile to this day, and that was after receiving proper medical attention and rest afterwards.”
Maleea managed a soft snort. “Dr. Michel was so protective of you,” she murmured. “I’d show up, ask how you were doing. She knew I wanted to get you back on the Normandy.” She lifted her eyes met his. “Did you ever know?”
Kaidan’s smile was ready. “Udina made some comment about it once around the time he floated the idea of me becoming a Spectre. I guess he wasn’t overly fond of her, either.”
“Not surprising.” Maleea dropped her gaze to stare at her hands again. “What did you do?”
Gently, he reached out and touched the back of one of her hands with his fingers. She hesitated at first, almost freezing in place, but with her next breath she relaxed. Eventually, she opened her hands, turning one towards him. At that point, he took it in his and carefully began massaging the back of it with his thumb. “At first, every time I moved -- too fast, awkwardly, something as simple as a pat on the shoulder or back -- I’d feel it flare up,” he explained quietly. “Later, once I was mostly recovered, it wasn’t as frequent or as bad, but there were times … and during a battle it could become a distraction.”
That had her head snapping up again. “You -- Why didn’t you say anything?”
He shrugged. “It was a challenge I could manage. Nothing nearly as bad as a migraine.”
She opened her mouth and Kaidan prepared for whatever arguments she might throw his way, but then she eased and sat back. “Point,” she agreed.
He watched as she drew her lip between her teeth, toying it with her teeth. In the moment, it shouldn’t have surprised him -- she’d done this many times in past when carefully considering a situation. In fact, he found it to be a rather endearing trait, all things said and done. This time, however, it had more punch to it. Endearing doesn’t begin to describe it. An ache tightened a little on the left side of his chest.
“Can I ask you something?”
Blinking away the direction his thoughts were headed, he nodded. “Anything, you know that.”
She ran her tongue over her lips, but wouldn’t meet his eyes for a moment. He waited patiently, and as he waited and she struggled, realization slowly dawned.
“I … would you …” She lifted her head while gesturing to her boots with her hands.
He didn’t smile, didn’t laugh, didn’t react in any way except for a nod. Only then did he reach for the laces of the first boot. He could tease her about it later, but now wasn’t the time. He knew this was difficult for her -- her stubborn streak ran deep, after all -- and he was content enough that she was willing to let him help.
When he finished, Kaidan pushed himself to his feet. Without further comment, he retrieved the cup of coffee she’d left waiting for him on the nearby counter.
It was several minutes later before he heard a soft, still slightly reluctant, “Thanks,” from behind him.
Setting his now nearly empty cup aside on the counter, Kaidan turned around to face her, arms folded across his chest, hips leaning back against the counter. The look in her eyes was wary, he noted, and her arms folded in a similar manner as she sat back in her chair, almost as if she expected him to challenge her on helping with the chores next
Kaidan knew better than that, instead asking quietly, “Where do you need me today?”
“The herd needs to be moved to the south pasture,” she said after a moment.
He nodded, but his eyes narrowed. The herd she ran wasn’t huge by any stretch of the imagination, just large enough for her needs and for the students to run in most cases, but …. “Wouldn’t that be a job best suited for the kids to do this afternoon?”
She sighed. “If I was here alone, sure,” she admitted, reluctance still tingeing her tone. He saw her lips tilt, offering the merest hint of a teasing sort of grin on one side. “But surely the first two human spectres can manage something as simple as crowd control, don’t you think?”
It took a moment for her words to fully register, but when they did, Kaidan grinned, a small laugh escaping. “Absolutely. If you think they’ll listen to reason and negotiate a peaceful move, why not?”
He watched her lips twitch for a moment at the ridiculous turn their conversation had just taken. Just one twitch. On the right side. Then her nose scrunched just a bit. That plus the fact she had to turn away had him wondering if he’d managed to get her ….
The first giggle that broke free sounded almost strangled, and for a moment he was concerned. Instinct had him reaching for the cabinet and a glass, filling it with water. But by the time he turned around again, she was bent over, full peals of laughter shaking her body. Setting the glass aside, he asked, “Are you alright?”
Still giggling, she nodded. “How -,” she rasped, “how can I not be? Picture it -- the two of us … trying to negotiate a herd of cattle into next pasture over …” She covered her hands with her face and Kaidan’s grin widened. He had to admit, it was an amusing thought. “Oh boy … you never saw them, but it reminds me of, of all things, the facing Primarch Victus, Urdnot Wrex and Dalatrass Linron in the conference room aboard the Normandy.” She snorted, unexpectedly, and that brought on another fit of giggling, resulting in full blown laughs and her arms wrapping tightly around her middle in a protective gesture.
“I heard about that later from Garrus,” he assured her, joining in the amusement. The turian had done an excellent job describing the situation, but at the moment what was really fueling his laughter was seeing her this relaxed and at east. It was such a change from how he’d ever seen her before. Time had not been kind to them in that regard. There had been moments of levity that broke up the tedium and more serious nature of their work, but right now she seemed so much more … carefree. Uninhibited. It was a sight -- and a joy -- to witness firsthand.
The moment was soon lost, however. Beginning to pull themselves back under control, both jumped when Chief suddenly bounded into the room and over to Maleea’s side, pressing her snout insistently onto Shepard’s arm, then nosing down into Maleea’s hand. After a moment, Maleea started speaking softly while petting and scratching behind the animal’s ears. Before he could get an explanation, he heard the soft beeping from the back room. Probably what brought her in here, he realized. “Liara’s calling,” Maleea explained as she pushed herself to her feet.
It did not escape his attention that she was leaning heavily against the table just then, but when he took a step towards her to offer help there as well, she brushed him away with a curt shake of her head. “Go on,” she told him. “You go take the call. I’ll be along in a moment.”
Sighing softly, Kaidan acquiesced and exited the room to the back office to answer the call.
He dropped into the seat and pressed the button to answer the call, Liara’s image popping up on the screen soon after. The asari’s features immediately took on a concerned expression. “Kaidan,” she said by way of greeting. “Is everything alright? Where’s Maleea?”
“She’ll be along in a moment,” he replied, silently wondering what happened on days when he wasn’t around to respond more quickly to the summons. Did Liara know why it was taking Maleea longer? Or did she just assume she was in a different part of the house when she didn’t answer right away? “What’s up?”
Liara sighed. “Nothing new, I’m afraid, though we have been able to connect additional arms purchases to the same person.” She grimaced. “The amount of weaponry this person is collecting … It’s rather worrying.”
He nodded. “That it is,” he agreed.
“It almost seems as if he is trying to supply an army.”
Kaidan winced. “They we better double our efforts to figure out who he is before said army decides to launch an attack.”
Liara nodded. “I agree. How are things at your end?” she asked.
Kaidan shrugged. “I’m getting settled in. Her students are finally relaxing around me.” He grinned at her. “I even talked her into letting me help cook.”
Liara giggled. “Now that is an achievement, from what I’ve been able to gather,” she teased. “I have it on good authority Mal is as much a commander of her kitchen as she was on the Normandy!”
Behind him he caught the scrabbling of canine and varren feet, and he paused to turn. Maleea was just entering the room and waving the animals off. “Hey, Blue,” she called in greeting as she took a few more slow steps. Kaidan shifted, preparing to vacate the chair for her use, but she shook her head and he stayed put. “Something going on?”
“Shepard,” Liara greeted her, a smile returning to her features. “No visitors incoming, unexpected or otherwise, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Maleea chuckled softly, finally coming to stand behind him. He felt the back of the chair accept her weight as she leaned against it, and he wondered again at what was causing it. “Oh good. Don’t know if I could handle Jack and Zaeed together again so soon.”
Liara grinned. “I will keep that in mind next time they both ask to stop by,” she replied. Her tone was serious, but there was a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “Anyway, I just called to update Kaidan on a couple of things.”
Maleea stiffened, Kaidan felt that through the chair. “And?”
Liara’s reply was prefaced with a sigh of frustration. “Sadly, we’ve not had much luck yet in identifying who is behind this. I’m sorry, Shepard, but -” He was a little surprised when she didn’t mention the additional weapons purchases, but kept his mouth shut.
Maleea waved Liara’s explanation off. “Don’t worry about it. I think we both know how these things go. Besides, Kaidan’s turning out to be quite the farmhand, so at least I’m getting something out of this.”
Kaidan chuckled. “Orchard, farm. Either way, I’m working muscles I forgot I even had. All in a day’s work, right?”
“So it would seem,” Liara replied with a warm smile. “I should get back to it, I suppose. We’ll never find who is behind this if I don’t.”
“Liara,” Maleea called while leaning over his shoulder to look directly into the monitor, “thank you.”
“Anytime, Shepard. Oh! And before I forget, end of the week you’ll have a delivery. Nothing major, but there will be some specialized equipment for Kaidan to install on your computer so we can be sure our transmissions aren’t compromised from here out.”
Maleea glanced down at him and he shrugged. “That’s fine,” she replied. “Usual suspects?”
A moment later, the screen dimmed leaving the two of them alone. Turning carefully in his chair so not to shift her center of balance, he echoed, “Usual suspects?”
“Hmm?” Slowly, she straightened. “Oh. That just means that she’ll have the Normandy swing by so she can ‘borrow’ Steve to run the delivery down.”
Startled and halfway to his feet, Kaidan the wheeled chair slipped out of his grasp. Recovering quickly, he grabbed it before it hit Maleea, but he couldn’t refrain from blinking in confusion. “Wait … what? Since when is your former shuttle pilot at the beck and call of the Shadow Broker?”
Maleea grinned. “He’s been doing most of the errand runs all along. Even bringing me home last year. And, tell me true, Kaidan,” she admonished lightly, “can you honestly imagine Admiral Hackett denying Liara use of him whenever she needed after all she did to help against the Reapers?”
She was smiling now, an honest to goodness smile that reached her eyes. Kaidan wasn’t really surprised, either. Her relationship with Cortez was one of mutual respect and friendship. It always had been. During the weeks the Normandy had been MIA, Steve had confided to Kaidan he hoped Shepard wouldn’t worry about him after the fiasco that had been his last run after dropping them off at the Hades cannon. Though he’d had a chance to speak with her before the final push and reassure her he was alright, he’d still been concerned.
Shaking his head, Kaidan pushed the chair back beneath the desk and moved over to her side. Gesturing for her to move beside him, he wasn’t going to take no for an answer this time. “I guess I can see your point,” he agreed.
They were at the back door when he stopped and glanced down at her once more. “So. Council Spectres on crowd control, huh?”
Maleea grinned. “That’s right.”
Hand rising to rub against his stubbled jaw, he asked, “There’s no chance of a reporter seeing us out there, is there?”
She snorted in amusement which apparently was enough of a call for Chief and LT to come bounding over. “Just give me my jacket.” Once he handed it over, she took it in hand and, before he could stop her, flicked him with the tail of it. “No, we should be fine unless you’ve been broadcasting to ANN or Westerlund where you’ve been working undercover these past weeks.”
Kaidan actually shuddered. “Perish the thought,” he muttered before opening the door, allowing the animals out and then following her through. But at least she hadn’t figured out he’d snagged the truck keys from her jacket pocket yet ….
Roughly once a month, Maleea gave the teenagers a full weekend to spend at the farm. The main purpose for this was to assist her with overnight care of the herd and other chores so that they received a well rounded experience. In the springtime, calving was the main focus and sometimes required more than one weekend of extra attention. Other times it could be weaning, inoculations, and other various duties associated with the business. But no matter the reason for the stayover, Maleea went out of her way to show them that despite the long hours of hard work necessary to keep the farm running, there were times in which levity and camaraderie and just plain fun could break through.
Since his arrival on Mindoir, Kaidan had been around for two such weekends. This one would make the third. Maleea also warned him it would the last one before the colony fair in three weeks time. At that point, the kids would take their animals to the fair to show them off to the community as well as to potential buyers. Since that would be such a busy, stress-filled time for them, Maleea warned him this weekend would be a bit more laid back than the previous ones.
School out for summer and the three teens arrived bright and early Thursday morning. Their duties would keep them around Sunday, at which point they would return home. The majority of that time was spent on the usual chores, another shifting of the entire herd into a different pasture, and last minute preparations for other parts of the individual projects -- charts, diagrams, detailed recordings of their animals and the like -- that they would display at the fair.
By the time Saturday evening rolled around, Maleea decided to let things loosen up. Declaring all but the essential evening chores complete for the weekend, including a final check over the rest of their projects, it was now time for fun. Which with the teens around involved a cookout and a lot of very loud music. Not for the first time, Maleea was very glad she had no neighbors within hearing distance to complain.
“Alenko, you get grill duty,” Maleea announced as they entered the house at the end of the day. “Shauna, you can help me in the kitchen. Gavin and Shane can -”
Pausing at the refrigerator with the door half open, Kaidan asked, “Wait a minute … how did I end up with grill detail?”
Reaching around him she retrieved a paper wrapped bundle and placed it, a bottle, and one other smaller package in his arms. “Beef. Bacon. Beer,” she announced with a grin and a bat of her eyelashes as she pointed to each item he now held. “I believe you once told me these were the foods of your people?”
Kaidan’s eyes met hers and for just a second, the Maleea was oblivious to the amused laughter of the teenagers. She finally managed to break away when Kaidan gave in to a deep chuckle while murmuring, “My own words thrown back at me. Guess I can’t argue with that.” A minute later, he was heading out the door to the back porch where the grill was located.
Maleea turned towards Gavin and Shane. Giving Shauna a broad wink, she told them, “You two have the unenviable job of setting the table out back. Complete with tablecloth.”
The protests began immediately, but fell upon deaf ears. Raising her hands above her head, flicking them outwards as if warding off bugs, Maleea responded, “No, Shane, this is not ‘a girl’s job,’ unless you’d rather be helping me in the kitchen?” Shifting her attention to Gavin, she continued, “And, Gavin, what do you think your grandmother would say if she heard you now?”
Grumbling but good natured protests fading away, Maleea directed Shauna to begin working on a salad while she started collecting the required elements for the boys. Within fifteen minutes, she dropped wearily into one of the kitchen chairs. “Whew! I thought they’d never get out there!”
From her position at the counter slicing up vegetables for the salad, Shauna glanced over at Maleea and laughed. “Mom says the same thing most of the time.”
Maleea grinned before rising to her feet. “Your mother is a very smart woman.” Joining Shauna at the counter, with her added input it didn’t take long before they had the salad complete. They then shifted to work on other meal essentials.
“So, Mal,” Shauna began, her voice as soft as usual, but Maleea understood that by using the shortened version of her name the teen was actually feeling quite comfortable around her, “can we?”
Maleea, in the middle of slicing a fresh loaf of bread, glanced over at Shauna. “Can we what?” she asked, though she suspected she could guess given the twinkle in the girl’s eyes.
“You know,” Shauna replied, her attempt at nonchalance almost successful.
Biting back a grin, Maleea placed the bread slices in a basket then grabbed it and the bowl of salad while Shauna carried the rest of the food. Both headed outside. “I’m sure I have no idea what you are talking about, Shauna,” she replied as she led the way over to the table.
Shane and Gavin were practically lying in wait by the door when they walked through it and heard Maleea’s last comment. Eyeing them and Shauna, she nodded in understanding. An ambush. Not bad.
“Awww, c’mon, Mal!” both boys chorused while relieving her of her items and setting them in the middle of the table. “Please?”
“Pfft,” Maleea mockingly scoffed. “What do you think I am, a pushover?” she challenged. “Just ask Alenko -- he knows better.”
Four sets of eyes turned towards Kaidan who chose that moment to look over at them. “Whoa … what?” His eyes met Maleea’s. “Though it’s hardly accurate, I think I like this ‘knowing better’ ability you claim I have.”
Maleea rolled her eyes at him. “Am I or am I not a pushover?” she asked, walking over beside him and reaching to snatch the bottle of beer from the small table beside the grill. Dangling it tantalizingly in front of him, she teased, “You might want to be careful how you answer that.”
“No fair!” Gavin called out. Shauna was laughing so hard she fell into one of the chairs. Shane stood beside his best friend, arms folded and nodding his support.
“Ah ah ah ah!” Maleea countered as she turned to face them. She used the index finger of the hand holding the bottle of beer and waggled it at the boys in a chastising fashion. Kaidan reached over her shoulder and snatched the bottle back while she was distracted. “Hey!” she protested, turning back on her heel to face him.
He shrugged, adopting an innocent look and retorted, “Someone had to rescue it from a power hungry mercenary like you!”
Rolling her eyes again, Maleea tossed him a look that told of her disbelief. “So … are you going to answer the question?”
His attention was taken in that moment by the contents of the grill as he piled the meat on a plate. Maleea took this from him when he turned back around and gave him a hard look demanding a response. “I thought I just did,” he countered with a smile.
Dinner was served up and eaten in a comfortable atmosphere filled with laughter and amused banter. They were just finishing the meal when Maleea noticed the three teens beginning to dart quick and furtive looks back and forth between them. She’d been expecting a repeat of the earlier confrontation. Sighing, she muttered, “You three are about as subtle as a pack of pyjacks breaking into a krogan supply cache, I swear.”
Shauna’s grin widened. “So … that’s a yes, right?”
“It’s not a ‘no’!” Shane crowed, pushing himself to his feet with excitement.
Maleea pursed her lips tightly, pretending reluctant agreement. A moment later, she murmured, “Clear the table first, and then we will see ...”
Maleea’s eyes met Kaidan’s across the table as the three hurriedly rose and began clearing things away. “Just make sure that the leftovers get --”
“Into the fridge,” Gavin shouted back over his shoulder as he held the door open for the other two. “We know.”
“What exactly is it they’re wanting to do?” Kaidan asked, a frown focused on the door.
Sighing, Maleea sat back in her chair and took a sip of her drink. “I will sometimes let them dig through my music collection,” she replied. “We’ll spend a couple of hours playing old songs, singing to them, that sort of thing. They seem to enjoy it.” She shook her head and chuckled. “Despite comments regarding how ‘old fashioned’ my taste in music can be.”
She met his gaze across the table, noting he looked slightly startled by her announcement. “Seriously?”
Maleea nodded. “I’m very serious about my music, Alenko,” she retorted. “You never noticed that before?”
“I remember Wrex making some comment about the music you had playing at that party on the Citadel,” he replied mildly.
Maleea smiled, memories sneaking in on her guided by his words. “Close enough,” she agreed after a minute. A sudden blast of loud music from inside the house had her turning. “We’d best get inside,” she told him. Not that she was really worried or anything. The volume was quickly adjusted, lowering to tolerable levels before she or Kaidan even reached the door.
“So,” he said, leaning towards her so she could hear, “not a pushover, hmm?”
Maleea rolled her eyes and turned to shove him towards the front room. “Go on, Alenko,” she ordered firmly.
But Kaidan wrapped a hand around her wrist, tugging her along. “Not without you,” he replied.
She shook her head firmly. “I’ll do the dishes first. You go on … you can regale them with stories of my prowess on the dance floor or something.”
He released his hold, chuckling softly. “Or something,” he agreed. Before he left, she saw his eyes drift over to the sink. “Are you sure you don’t want help?”
She gave him a winsome smile. “Nope. I’ve got this. Don’t tell me the second human spectre afraid of a few teenagers?”
He shook his head. “Not them,” he insisted as he walked away. “It’s their taste in music!”
Laughing, Maleea turned back towards the sink and pushed up her sleeves before getting to work.
~ n ~
The dishes proved to be a quick task, and Maleea soon turned to pulling out homemade cookies she’d baked the day before as a late night treat. Filling a plate, she started into the front room to join Kaidan and the teens … but found herself pausing in the doorway when she got there, unable to move any further inside as she took in the sight before her.
With Shauna standing off to the side, her arms wrapped around her middle as she laughed in an animated fashion at the antics of her brother and friend, Shane and Gavin were busily trying to keep up singing with Kaidan. Maleea swallowed back amusement -- the two younger boys had playful senses of humor and were attempting to try to outdo the other in the process -- but her eyes fell upon Kaidan just as he looked over in her direction. He flashed her a quick grin as his smooth baritone filled the room.
Through all these cities and all these towns
It's in my blood and it's all around
I love you now like I loved you then
This is the road and these are the hands
From Mozambique to those Memphis nights
The Khyber Pass to Vancouver's lights
The boys sang along with him for the next verse, but Maleea barely noticed. Even as she stepped further into the room to set the cookies on the table and the teens’ eyes all fell on her, she kept her focus locked one place -- one person -- only. Turning, he made his way over towards her in a dancing sort of fashion as the kids dove for the cookies. All the while, he crooned,
There ain't no load that I can't hold
Road so rough this I know
I'll be there when the light comes in
Just tell 'em we're survivors
The rest of the words to the song just sort of fell away after that, but she didn’t care. She was too … startled, shocked by both his talent and the words to the song. She knew the meaning behind the song -- it’d been favorite of hers while growing up and she’d hunted up as much information about it as possible back then. But since her years of service with the Alliance, the time spent with Kaidan and the rest of the crew of the Normandy … she’d forgotten just how fitting they were for that part of her life. A small twinge near her heart also connected certain lyrics to him especially. Swallowing past a sudden tightness in her throat, she managed what she hoped was a steady smile for him. “I ... I didn’t know you could sing.”
He grinned. “I still have a few secrets. Even from you.”
She rolled her eyes and turned away from him -- she had to or she’d give into the temptation to kiss that smug grin off his lips -- but Kaidan moved just as quickly and slid his arm around her waist, effectively holding her in place. “What about you?” he asked.
She inhaled deeply, gathering her thoughts. “What about me, what? Do I have secrets, you mean?”
Shaking his head, he countered, “Do you sing?”
“Oh,” Shauna piped up from across the room, “Mal sings beautifully!”
It wasn’t embarrassment that crept into her cheeks at the teen’s words, not really. More it was the sudden sharing of pieces of herself with Kaidan that she had no ultimate control over. Not that she didn’t want to share it with him -- in a situation like this it was bound to come out one way or another -- but she wasn’t ready to share it yet. She also didn’t need to look up at him to know he was giving her one of his intense, curiosity-filled looks. “Is that so?”
Lifting her arms, Maleea pushed against Kaidan’s chest just enough to create a bit of space. “Hardly. I really don’t think --”
All three teens began protesting then. Loudly. Gavin was quick to move over to the stereo system and switch songs to a piece that had four part harmony. Shane whooped before jumping over the coffee table and grabbing Maleea’s hand to pull her over beside him, Shauna and Gavin. “This one’s perfect!” he announced.
“Now wait just a minute --” Maleea began protesting, though she knew it would be useless. She’d allowed them to see this side of her too many times in the past.
Ignoring her protests, Shane started:
I feel no shame
I'm proud of where I came from
I was born and raised in the boondocks
One thing I know
No matter where I go
I keep my heart and soul
In the boondocks
Shauna and Gavin began singing along with him:
I can feel that
Muddy water runnin' through my veins
I can hear that
lullaby of the midnight train
And it sings to me and sounds familiar
Sighing, Maleea reluctantly gave in, her voice rising in harmony with the kids until the full four-parts blended seamlessly together and they continued through the remainder of the tune. It was a fun song and one that hit very close to home for Maleea and her roots on Mindoir. Being able to share it with the kids was a carefully guarded secret, though, and as such she would never be able to deny singing the song with them.
~ n ~
Kaidan stood off to the side of the room, arms folded across his chest, head tilted to the side as he watched and listened … and savored. The song wasn’t familiar to him, but the lyrics were easy enough and it didn’t take much insight to understand why it might appeal to colony born and bred individuals.
There was a certain … zing Kaidan liked about listening to music. That moment, more than just the music itself, or the words or the blending of harmonies, when a piece truly melded and became something more, speaking to the listener on an altogether different level. It was something that could be felt -- emotionally, physically, spiritually even. That was what he was hearing now.
He watched Maleea peek a glance over at him as the song neared it’s conclusion and noticed a brief moment of bewilderment as she met his eyes. His smile came easily and it seemed to ease her mind; she smiled back with just the faintest hint of a flush rising in her cheeks.
Kaidan straightened and took only two steps towards her when Gavin spoke. His words were unexpected enough that Kaidan paused, head tilting and brows furrowing in confusion. “Hey, Mal, where’s your guitar? We could really make this song --”
Maleea groaned, a sound he clearly remembered from the days back aboard the SR3 when Vega would make some odd request that she apparently was in a position to fulfill but clearly didn’t want to. He hid his amusement at her reaction behind a small cough.
“Nope,” she insisted firmly. “Not this time.”
A chorus of protests of, “Aw, Mal!” and “Please?” assaulted her, but Kaidan caught hints of the old Commander Shepard as she stood firm in her refusal. “Sorry, but I’m not the one on the ‘crack o’ dawn’ patrol,” she reminded them. “Finish up the cookies then off to bed with you.”
“I hope you saved some of those for us,” Kaidan rumbled softly behind her while the kids grabbed a couple of cookies each and dashed upstairs leaving crumbs and an empty plate in their wake.
She grabbed the plate, swept the crumbs up and turned towards him all in one smooth movement. “In the kitchen,” she promised. “Along with the beer. Why not grab us some and meet me out on the front porch? I’ll make sure they get off to bed without delay.”
He nodded, accepting the plate. “Back in a minute.”
~ n ~
Realistically, Maleea knew it was less than ten minutes before Kaidan joined her, cookie-filled plate in one hand and two bottles of beer in the other. She accepted the one he handed her with a nod of thanks and snatched a cookie as he dropped to sit on the steps. The movement was so easy and sure, a hint of the grace and beauty like she used to witness in the battlefield, that for a moment it left her breathless. Only the sound of the plate connecting with the porch as he settled it between them had her shaking the feeling away. Sighing softly at her own silliness, she settled back and took a long drink.
“They’re pretty good kids.”
Maleea couldn’t stop the fond smile that quickly curved her lips even as the sounds of said ‘kids’ clattered above them as they prepared for bed rose and fell over their conversation. “They are. I think I got very lucky.”
He chuckled, the soft rumble escaping into the night surrounding them, and she had to fight back another wave of nostalgia. “More like they did, I’d think.”
Turning to face him, her brow raised in curiosity. “Oh? How do you figure that?” She drew one leg up so she could wrap her arm around it and rest her chin atop her knee.
He was quiet for a moment, the soft sounds of the night a comfortable distraction until he found his words. “You never did quite understand how you managed to bring all of us together, did you?”
Maleea frowned, considering his words. “What do you mean? We were friends … comrades in arms. We worked well together, sure, but --”
“No,” he broke in while shaking his head. “It’s more than that.” Again, he was silent, and Maleea watched as he struggled to find the words he wanted. It was odd, she hadn’t seen him have this much trouble since their initial mission together on the first Normandy. “When we started out, we were Alliance only -- that was it. But that changed when you recruited Garrus and Wrex, and then Tali joined us. When Liara came on, by then it was … well, natural, if that makes any sense.”
She frowned. “Sorry, I’m still not sure I understand, Kaidan.”
“During that hunt for Saren, it was harder to see.” His eyes focused up at the darkened sky as he spoke. “Well, until the end, maybe. And after … Alchera.”
Maleea drew in a sharp breath, but she didn’t stop him from speaking. Alchera had taken its toll on everyone.
“We were a team … a cohesive unit. It didn’t matter that our ship belonged to the Alliance or that we had a krogan, a turian, a quarian and an asari as a part of it -- we were a team. A family, even. You were the one who made that happen.”
Maleea shook her head, arguing, “Anyone could have pulled them together,” she protested. “In fact, Anderson was supposed to be the one, you know that. I just happened to be the one in command at the time. You’re giving me too much --”
His eyes dropped, turning to meet hers, his head shaking. “It was more than that. You were the Commander, sure. But you were a Spectre, too, answerable only to the Council. It could have been Anderson, but as much as we all liked and admired him, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. We were loyal to you. You were the one constant that we all had in common.”
He lifted his hand and waved off her protests. “I’m serious, Mal. Ash was the first to notice it, I think. She didn’t say so, not in so many words, but she hinted that the only way we were able to get things done as well as we did was because of you. And she was right. Think about it -- after Alchera we all drifted apart. The one thing that held us all together was gone, and we split into pieces. You can argue all you want about that first deployment together, but when Cerberus brought you back, you did the same thing all over again.”
Sighing, Maleea reluctantly nodded. She understood what he was driving at now, though she didn’t necessarily agree with his take on things. Tipping her head back to rest against the railing, she closed her eyes before saying quietly, “Okay, that group I can see what you mean, maybe. How else could such a disparate group of people be brought together for a mission that, in all likelihood, should have killed us?”
His soft, amused chuckle settled around her. “Something like that, yeah.” She heard him sigh before he continued. “You know, I spoke to several of your squadmates from that mission when the Alliance had you under detention. They all told me the same thing -- if it hadn’t been for Shepard, you wouldn’t have made it out. You were the glue that held them together.” He paused and she opened her eyes again, bringing them to focus on him. “And then there was the war.”
A darkness, more mental than physical, crept in and tried to settle over Maleea. “That was different,” she bit out.
“No,” he insisted immediately, turning so he was facing her, his back resting against the railing, “it wasn’t. And I’m not just talking our team, which you did the same thing with. Look at the other evidence.”
Maleea snorted, taking a long drink from her beer. “What evidence?”
“To start with, you managed to bring the krogan and the turians together --”
“Luck,” she insisted with a wave of her hand. “Pure luck.”
“Skill,” he countered firmly. “You did the same with the quarians and the geth, later on, too. And despite their reactions to other choices you had to make along the way, you convinced the asari and the salarians to join. You wove an intergalactic alliance, greater in scope than any previously seen or known, and defeated an enemy that by all counts should have --”
Again, Maleea sighed. “Kaidan, stop. Please.” There was a hint of urgency in her tone she hoped he would catch on to. It wasn’t that she wanted to deny her role in any of what happened -- she accepted it. A job had to be done and she’d been the one in the right place at the right time with the available resources to do it. But she absolutely refused to take any glory for it. Too many had suffered and died in the process. Too many lives damaged. Looking back, she could see where she might have made alternative choices that could have affected the final outcome, but at the time she’d made her choices based on all available options. She knew better than to go back and relive the past, to keep torturing herself because of it. Yet, she still lived with the knowledge and guilt that she hadn’t acted fast enough -- hadn’t convinced the rest of the galaxy to act fast enough.
Kaidan lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender, a movement that she acknowledged by taking another drink. In the silence that followed, her attention drifted away from Mindoir for a time, but not entirely from the conversation. Familiar faces, now long gone and fuzzy around the edges, returned with striking clarity. Memories of time spent together focused on one mission or another, most of which were peaceful and allowed her the time to refocus her current thoughts.
Some time later, relaxed once again and leaning back against the railing, Maleea murmured softly, “You know, I remember sitting on our porch and looking up at the stars with my Papa of an evening.”
She caught the movement of Kaidan’s head as he turned to look over at her. “You knew you wanted to join the Alliance?” His voice was a quiet rumble in the night.
“Not always,” she explained. “A few months before the attack, Papa and I started talking -- seriously talking -- about what I really wanted to do with myself after I finished school. That’s when the idea of joining the Alliance first came up. But even before that, we used to sit out here and he’d show me the constellations and stuff.” Her eyes closed for a long moment, memories returning. “They were different from the ones back home, he said.” She paused, glancing over at Kaidan and adding, “My parents were from the southeastern section of the UNAS on Earth. They came to Mindoir for a chance at new beginning.”
“It sounds like they were successful.”
Maleea sighed softly, but nodded. “For a time. Losing Mom was difficult for us both, but Papa found a way to keep going.” Her eyes drifted to gaze out beyond the yard, in the distance, following the path that she’d taken him along when they’d visited the original homestead.
“And so did you.”
A smile pulled at Maleea’s lips. “Eventually,” she agreed. “‘Cancer’ is a hard word for a young child to understand. I felt … robbed. Cheated. Like I told you before, I was angry and wanted my mom back for a very long time, and I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t ever come home.”
“I acted out, making things difficult for Papa at times, but he was so patient.” Leaning against the side railing, she sighed and her eyes drifted back to rest on Kaidan. “You know, in some ways, you remind me of him.”
He was clearly startled by her announcement, and started choking on the sip of beer he’d been taking. “I … what?!”
Biting her lip in consternation, Maleea couldn’t stop a giggle from escaping. “No, no,” she hurried on to explain, “I mean that in a good way. You have that same sort of patience he had. Calm, cool, collected under fire. You don’t let things rattle you. You know how to keep control of a situation.”
There was a wariness in his eyes as they found hers again, and Maleea smiled warmly. “Thank you. That … that means a lot.”
Maleea’s impish side kicked in just then and her smile slipped into a smirk. “Relax, Major Alenko,” she told him with a soft chuckle. “I don’t have ‘daddy issues.’”
Rising to her feet, Maleea stretched, feeling the day’s aches and pains pull and pop and settle back into a somewhat more comfortable position. It was a not so gentle reminder of everything she’d been through in her life to this point, certainly, but also proof that she was, as they’d sung earlier, a survivor.
Kaidan’s voice, quiet as it was, had her jumping. She hadn’t realized he’d stood too and moved up behind her. “Yeah, I’m good,” she replied. She sensed him shifting and wondered what he was up to, but a moment later, understanding came as sure fingers moved with unerring accuracy along her shoulders. Strength. That was the first thing that came to mind as he worked away the aches from tight and sore muscles. The steady, smooth rhythm as he worked at the kinks, the faintest hint of warmth -- from his biotics, no doubt -- helped ease away any lingering pain. “Mmmmm,” she moaned softly as his fingers worked such a delightful magic.
His chuckle was a deep rumbling near her ear, and Maleea found it difficult to resist purring yet again. “Like that, do you?”
She bit her lower lip and nodded instead of speaking. When he shifted his hands down her arms, Maleea feared for a moment that she might just melt into a puddle of goo. She must have made some sort of sound of distress, though, because Kaidan soon was turning her to face him. “Mal?”
She heard a tinge of worry in his tone. “I’m … okay,” she insisted. “That was … was nice.” She swallowed tightly. “Very nice.” Lifting her eyes to meet his, she managed a somewhat shaky smile. She saw his brow lift, as if he didn’t really believe her. “Seriously, Kaidan, I’m good,” she insisted. “That just … it was ….” She let her voice trail off for two reasons, only one of which had to do with the fact she couldn’t find the words she wanted to describe how she’d felt during his attentions. It was more than just the physical relief of a massage. So much more. The other reason ….
With him this close, Maleea found it difficult to look anywhere but directly into his eyes, and what she found there … she couldn’t quite decipher. There was an intensity burning inside them. A fire almost. It caught her, held her and pulled her in deeper, had her breath catching almost painfully in her chest for reasons she could not explain, even had she wanted to. And all the while as she lost herself in his amber depths, she could only think that she was so damned tired of having that one age-old regret, the one that had been haunting her since her time aboard the SR1 ....
Go for it, Skipper!
A sudden and unexpected surge rolled through her as she imagined she heard Ashley urging her on; an impulse she no longer was willing to deny and thus, she reacted without thinking. Lifting herself onto her toes, shifting ever so slightly closer to him, Maleea’s eyes fluttered shut as some of her old Commander Shepard spark took over. Taking charge of the situation, she moved in and pressed her lips against Kaidan’s.
The contact resulted in a brief moment of shock, a physical and emotional charge so strong that it left her gasping in its wake. She retreated the slightest bit, just a fraction of space, eyes opening to meet his in stunned surprise. Time stood still for a very long moment before Maleea leaned in again, closing the distance between them. That was real, wasn’t it? She had to know.
His hands settled at her waist, holding her steady while she curled her fingers into the fabric of his shirt. She thought she heard him moan, was fairly certain she could feel the vibration of it through his chest beneath her touch even as it echoed in the air around them. She definitely felt his hand sliding beneath the edge of her shirt, calloused fingers skimming along her lower back and tracing the edge of skin just above the waistline of her jeans. Maleea whimpered softly even as her fingers tightened their grip in his shirt, and her lips spasmed against his.
He tasted like cinnamon and spice … and beer. Or maybe she was being influenced by the scent of him as well as his taste. Whatever the cause, it was a heady sensation and she recognized that if she wasn’t careful she could wind up throwing all caution to the wind and damning the consequences right here and right now. Then again, she’d survived the attack on Mindoir when she was sixteen. She’d made it through Elysium in one piece some years later, succeeding where others had failed. She’d come back from the dead and defeated the Reapers, plus any number of other miraculous achievements over the years … Hell, did consequences even matter anymore, did they? All she knew in that moment was that it felt right. The way their bodies seemed to fit together perfectly as they stood there. The rush and thrill of the way his lips met hers and moved against them in a dance as demanding as her own, his tongue darting out to teasingly entwine with hers. The searing heat as his fingers ghosted against her skin.
Why did I ever think waiting was the right choice?
On the heels of that thought came the inevitable recollection of words that he’d spoken shortly after his arrival. It had been playing at the back of her mind ever since, and just for a moment she’d forgotten about them. Kaidan was actively looking for someone from his past, someone he’d made it quite clear that he wanted to be with. He already had other plans.
Missed opportunities ….
The sickening crash of sudden self-doubt and hesitancy that had held her back from admitting anything to him years before quickly returned and overwhelmed her.
He is looking for the one he wants … but it is not me.
Skipper, don’t you dare!
Maleea knew better than to listen to the ghost of Ashley’s memory this time. Her chance had come and gone long before today, and there was no way to reclaim it.
~ n ~
Maleea’s initiative caught Kaidan by surprise -- she’d done that frequently over the years they’d known one another and he wasn’t afraid to admit it -- but from the get go, even back then, he’d felt like he was always racing to keep up. This time was no different. The delightful sensation of her lips on his, the hint of fire behind every soft moan she let escape, and brush of fingers against his chest inflicted the sweetest pain imaginable.
Which is why it took him several pounding heartbeats to realize that she was pulling away from him for reasons other than catching her breath. In the blink of an eye, she retreated; physically, emotionally. Head lowered, she did not, or would not, look him in the eye. Confused, he murmured, “Mal -?”
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was a soft whisper. Kaidan blinked, finding himself at a complete loss. He heard pain there, too. What is going on? She retreated further, releasing her hold on him even as he reached out for her. Physically she took a step backwards, firmly putting more space between them. Before he could say anything in response, she spoke again. Her voice a bit louder than before but still a little shaky, she added, “Forgive me,” before turning and fleeing indoors, leaving him standing alone on the front porch staring after her in bewilderment. What the hell just happened? As he retreated indoors to his own room, he wondered if he’d ever know.
Songs mentioned above are:
1) “Life is a Highway” - Rascal Flatts version
2) “Boondocks” - Little Big Town
Shame in the form of embarrassment, awkwardness, and distance dogged Maleea’s steps in the days immediately following her miscalculated blunder, but she eventually dug deep inside of herself and found ways to move past it. She was a survivor, right? She was Commander fucking Shepard. She could do this, had done this before, would likely have to do it periodically in her life to come. She was now a master at finding ways through the difficult times and moving forward. She would salvage what she could from the relationship she had with Kaidan -- she’d done that before too, hadn’t she? It had taken a while, but they’d managed to re-establish that balance after Horizon and Cerberus and Mars. If they could do it before, they could do so again. Couldn’t they? She would savor the memories of his tasted and touch and feel, tucking them away for the lonely, more difficult times. When it came right down to brass tacks, however, she would simply keep on marching. Life went on, or so it was said. So would she. And no one would be any the wiser for what had happened. Or nearly happened, to be more accurate.
That the ache in her heart whenever she looked over at him or the replaying of the kiss in her dreams at night would be there, were a constant reminder as well as overt hints at what could possibly have been between them.
However, for the immediate future she was able to find much needed distraction in the preparations for the upcoming colonial fair. There were cattle to be moved to the fairgrounds and the kids had presentations to get set up for the competition. While requiring some organizational efforts from her end of things, most of the responsibility fell to the kids. Together and with Kaidan’s help, Maleea managed to bring her focus fully onto the task at hand and finalize arrangements. Stalls at the fairgrounds were secured. Necessary gear was loaded into the truck and the cattle prepared for travel via trailer. And above all, teenage nerves were soothed as best as Maleea could manage in the days leading up to the event.
When the big day finally did arrive, Gavin and Shay hitched the trailer while Shauna helped load the animals. Bright and early they arrived at the farm to assist with the last minute scramble, but all in all things proceeded well and more or less according to plan. Checking the time as the kids scrambled into the vehicle, Maleea noted they were a few minutes ahead of schedule.
Leaning into the vehicle through the open window, Maleea handed over the keys to Gavin and telling him, “Kaidan and I will meet you over there in a few hours, but this is your show now. Go on over and get set up.”
There was a moment of silence, heavy with anticipation and worry, before Gavin accepted the keys and started the truck.
“We’ll be ready,” Shane promised when his friend still didn’t speak. Gavin nodded his agreement.
Pulling free of the vehicle, Maleea took a couple of steps back, a smile filled with pride tilting at her lips. “I know you will. Good luck.” Slowly, Gavin pulled the vehicle down the drive towards the main road. Chief and LT came bounding out from corners unknown, chasing after them until Maleea whistled sharply to call them back to her side. She turned around to return to the house only once the kids were out of her line of sight.
She found Kaidan waiting for her at the top of the steps, arms crossed as he leaned against the railing. It took every bit of strength and willpower Maleea possessed to not walk over and repeat her performance from a few weeks before. Her first thought as she took in the sight of him was that he did casual too damned well. Bold lines and strong, sharp edges, each and every one she was used to seeing when they were in full armor, were even more defined now when clad in denim and cotton.
It’s not fair, she groaned inwardly as she climbed the steps to walk past. Why must I be tested like this?
“I’m ready when you are.”
By themselves, the words were nothing out of the ordinary. But in her current state, her thoughts running rampant already, her mind clearly on him even though she kept trying to shove it away, it was practically enough to make her willpower break. Maleea had to force her steps forward even as his deep baritone echoed inside her head. Sweet Lord, Kaidan, so am I! “We’ll leave in a couple hours,” she finally managed in response, wondering if he noticed the way her voice cracked just the tiniest bit as she spoke. A couple of hours would give her plenty of time to get ready and hopefully by then she would have herself pulled together mentally as well. If not, it was going to be one hell of a long day.
~ n ~
As he had since that night on the porch, Kaidan kept his eyes on Maleea closely as she walked by. She had displayed an increased level of wariness in the days following that encounter. It was to be expected, he supposed, given what had happened between them, but it was frustrating. Even though he still didn’t fully understand what had gone wrong or why, he realized that whatever the cause, it was making her uncomfortable. That being the case and despite any personal feelings of dismay he might have felt, Kaidan made the decision to give her distance, no pressure. He didn’t want her feeling awkward or embarrassed about what happened by any means, though he would have preferred a chance to continue what she started. But, she had made it clear she was pulling away for her own reasons, and he wasn’t about to force the situation, or himself, on her.
So, while Maleea took the time to get ready for the fair, Kaidan kept himself busy outside making one last tour of the barn and immediate area. All necessary chores for the day were completed, but given that they would be gone most of the day he figured one last check wouldn’t hurt. With LT and Chief bounding around him happily (they would be remaining home), he killed off the minutes of waiting in rapid fashion. By the time he returned to the house, he found Maleea descending the stairs … and the sight of her was enough to cause him to stop in the doorway and simply stare up at her in wonderment.
~ n ~
Maleea chewed her lip nervously as she descended to the main floor. Though she knew what she was wearing was comfortable and practical enough for a day at the fair, she was nervous at what Kaidan’s reaction to it might be. He and her other friends and former crew members were used to seeing her ‘dress up’ in a completely different light when she was out of uniform, certainly in classier clothing than what she was currently wearing. For that matter, a part of Maleea half expected Kasumi to pop up out of nowhere with yet another of her fancy get-ups like the one Maleea had worn to Donovan Hock’s party. Miranda, she suspected, would shudder in horror if she could see the former commander just now. But for Maleea, whose roots had always remained in her comfortable yet simple family upbringing, her new wardrobe was as much a reflection of that as was the sleepy southern drawl that still characterized her voice.
Eyes meeting Kaidan’s when she was about halfway down, they only broke apart when the two animals nearly bowled him over trying to get through the door. Chuckling softly, Maleea quickly descended the rest of the way. “You okay?” she asked, ushering the animals into the other room and out of underfoot.
Kaidan nodded, but Maleea thought she saw something in his eyes. Shock, maybe? “Um, yeah,” he managed after a moment. “You look … good.”
Blinking back surprise, she realized she should have expected his response to be somewhat neutral. When it came to critiquing such things, Kaidan wasn’t nearly as brash as, say, someone like Jack. Flashing him an appreciative, if somewhat tentative, smile, Maleea automatically smoothed her hands over the material of the lightweight flower printed skirt she was wearing. “Thanks.” Because the summer days of Mindoir could become quite hot without much warning, she’d selected a darker tank top (she knew all too well that the chances of things going from ‘good’ to ‘I need help this instant’ at the colony fair was high, so she’d dressed somewhat accordingly in case she was needed) beneath a lighter weight and longer sleeved cotton shirt she wore tied at the waist. It was a look she’d pulled off many times as a teenager (with jeans as often as possible or until her father gave her that ‘you’ll wear a skirt or you’ll be grounded’ sort of look), which had come about after she had discovered a picture of her mother from her youth dressed in a similar manner back home on Earth. In the end, Maleea didn’t really care what others thought, she was comfortable. That was all that mattered.
“Ready to go?”
Kaidan’s question broke through the memories, and Maleea nodded. She’d opted to pull her dark auburn curls back into a loose and somewhat messy twist atop her head, but it seemed to be holding for now. If it became an issue later, she’d pocketed a couple of hair ties that could hold the mass up off her neck. “Let’s get this show on the road,” she replied and turned with a bit of a spin and added force, just enough to make the skirt flare out a little around her knees. She chuckled when she noticed his eyes drawn to the movement and wondered how much she could distract him, but he moved to open the door for her quickly enough. “What’s wrong?” she asked lightly as she walked past. “You’ve seen me in a skirt before.”
His cheeks darkened a little, and Maleea wondered if he was recalling that time they’d gone undercover at the Casino on the Citadel. “This is different.”
“How so?” Maleea challenged as she skipped down the steps.
“Well … you look more …”
His hesitation wasn’t unexpected. Looking over at him, she offered, “Less sophisticated?”
His eyes widened in surprise. “No! Of course not!” he insisted. “I mean --”
Laughing, Maleea reached the truck and opened the passenger door. Damn the man, but he’d already snatched her keys. “Relax, Kaidan,” she assured him as she pulled the door shut. “I was teasing.”
He sighed softly as he slid into the seat behind the controls. “I just meant that you look more … relaxed? Comfortable, maybe? Less Commander Shepard and more … Maleea.”
Smiling, she leaned back in her seat while pointing out, “Well, remember, most people here don’t know I’m Commander Shepard, Savior of the Galaxy and all. What better way to continue to put them off than by dressing in a way that the rest of the galaxy would never even dream Commander Shepard would dress. Right?”
Kaidan shifted the truck into gear and guided it down the drive onto the main road, glancing over at her. “You know, your logic can be truly frightening at times.”
Maleea grinned. “But, am I right?” she countered.
He shook his head back and forth a couple of times. “I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.”
She gasped softly, feigning shock and dismay. “Why, Major Alenko,” she teased, purposely thickening her drawl and lowering her tone, “don’t tell me you are …,” she glanced out his window, then her own and then back at him though she was unable to hide the teasing smirk, “chicken?”
Kaidan scowled, a reaction that had her grinning even wider. She had a more playful side to her personality, one that rarely had ever come out during her soldiering career, for obvious reasons, and somehow it had fallen easily into place today.
“That’s funny,” he replied. “I thought we were dealing with beef.”
Maleea snorted softly. “Clever,” she returned, though she had to admit the little bit of bantering seemed to have eased the tension she’d felt between them for the moment, “but if I have to listen to more comments about the foods of your people today …”
~ n ~
The drive to the fairgrounds didn’t take long. Maleea directed Kaidan to a parking place from where they headed across the grounds to find the kids. After checking in with the three teens and reassuring herself that they were as prepared as they could be, Maleea led Kaidan off to the side so they could watch the events without causing too much of a distraction. There were quite a few competitors from around the colony entered, and Maleea hoped the fair’s events would turn out well for all of the kids involved. Overall, she knew the best indication would come if someone placed an offer on the animal after the fair was over, but kids liked more immediate results.
Time passed at a comfortable, easy pace. They found a place where they could sit and watch with the rest of the crowd, and it was several hours later and only when Maleea’s stomach began to rumble and indicate its need for food that she caught Kaidan’s attention. She led him away from the grandstands for the main part of the fairgrounds.
“They won’t need us?” Kaidan asked as they departed.
Maleea shook her head. “They’ll be fine. Their major part is done, at least. If they should need us for some reason, they’ll track us down.” She grinned at him. “Never fails, trust me!”
Kaidan chuckled. “Alright. So, where to next?”
A sparkle lit Maleea’s green eyes. Noticing his sudden wariness, she laughed. “Relax, Kaidan,” she told him. “I promise, it’s all good. Actually, I figured we’d go to the stand Shane and Shauna’s mother is running.” She gave him a hearty wink and quickened her step. “I hear she’s got steak sandwiches.” Her laughter was full and deep when he grabbed her hand, pulling her in the direction of the food stalls even though he didn’t know where exactly he was headed. “To your left!”
The afternoon passed amiably enough. After lunch -- Maleea made a mental note to send a note of explanation to Shane and Shauna’s mother as to why Kaidan had practically inhaled three sandwiches all on his own -- they strolled around the other stalls in the area. The fair would run for three days, though Maleea only had plans to attend this first day, and there were plenty of opportunities for amusement as well as work related activities.
She showed Kaidan around, pointing out the different areas, identifying certain games that they both agreed seemed to transcend time and place while continuing to entice participants young and old through the centuries.
After a while, Maleea noticed Kaidan seemed to withdraw. “Something wrong?” she asked.
He shook his head. They were walking along the midway together, and though crowded they were essentially alone. “Not necessarily,” he began quietly. “But … tell me something. After what happened when you were sixteen, the batarian attack I mean, how can the colonists here remain so relaxed at a time like this? I would think an event like this, where you have so much of the population together at once, would make a good target for pirates or slavers. Shouldn’t there be a guard on watch?”
Though Maleea smiled, there was a sadness to it as the memories inevitably returned. “Trust me, Kaidan,” she replied softly, “there is a watch. There’s always a watch. It’s just kept as inconspicuous as possible so as not to be a worry or a constant reminder to the general population. They know it’s there, but they don’t need to have it in their face all the time.”
She noticed her response did little to ease his concern. “Do you think keeping them in the dark is a wise --” he started.
“They aren’t,” she insisted. “Changes -- many changes -- were made when they rebuilt after 2170. All public locations such as this have panic rooms available, all houses have their own, that sort of thing. The Alliance has a stronger presence here, too, but it’s kept as minimized as possible.” She sighed. “I think the philosophy is that after what happened last time, we’ve learned to take our pleasures where we can when we can, but we will have safety measures in place even if you can’t see them.”
They continued on in silence for a time, but it was while they reached the other end of the midway that Maleea finally spotted the one activity she’d been keeping an eye out for since their arrival. Her interest dated back to an experience the previous summer.
Nudging Kaidan’s arm with her elbow, she murmured, “Fancy a bit of target practice?”
He looked confused, but shrugged, replying, “I guess?”
Chuckling softly, Maleea assured him, “You’ll see why in a minute.” Walking over to the vendor, Maleea smiled warmly at the older man, the same one as the year before, she noticed immediately. “Good to see you back this year, Nicholas,” she greeted him.
Maleea nearly laughed aloud as the man’s face moved from pleasant greeting to shocked silence and then straight on to absolute denial and immediate protest. “No,” he groaned, hands moving out before him, waving her off in a frantic manner. “Not again, please!”
Maleea pretended to pout, but it only lasted a moment before laughter finally erupted. Raising her hands in surrender, she announced, “I promise, Nicholas, not this year! I mean it! Besides,” she glanced around the immediate area, “you don’t see a hoard of children following me around this time, do you?”
“They didn’t show up until after you won the first round!” Nicholas protested.
Rolling her eyes, Maleea let them land on Kaidan. “I have apparently been banned for life,” she pointed out. Though Kaidan maintained a calm and controlled look, Maleea noticed a hint of amusement behind his eyes. She wondered if the pieces of her puzzle were falling into place for him yet.
“Perhaps I can restore your reputation?” Kaidan offered.
BAM! Maleea fluttered her lashes over at Nicholas. “Will you allow my friend here to give it a try?”
Nicholas opened his mouth, and Maleea was certain he was about to protest, but there were too many people wandering in close proximity to the stall for the man to enforce his ban against Kaidan. Maleea figured he was intelligent enough to realize that to do so could lead to loud protestations. As a business proprietor, he wouldn’t want to lose all of his business. Not that she or Kaidan would do that, but he couldn’t know that. Sighing heavily, Nicholas reluctantly nodded and moved to prepare the laser gun and targets.
While doing so, Kaidan whispered near Maleea’s ear, “Care to clue me in?”
Maleea chuckled. “Last year I sort of cleaned him out of all of his prizes on the first day of the fair,” she replied. She shrugged at Kaidan’s knowing grin. “What can I say?” she asked. “There were a bunch of kids hanging around, and many of them either didn’t have the money or the skill to shoot. I was available, sooooo ….”
“So you won the prizes for them?”
Maleea nodded. “Something like that, yeah,” she added more quietly as Nicholas handed over the weapon to Kaidan.
“You always were a soft touch.”
Startled, Maleea glanced up at him, but his focus was now on the targets before him. She’d have to ask him what he meant by that later if she wanted an answer.
Nicholas groaned when Kaidan’s first shot hit dead center, setting off all kinds of bells and whistles. It was, apparently, the moment he realized her friend was at least as good of a shot as she’d been the previous year. A few curious looks were directed at the stall, and Maleea had to bite back a laugh.
She watched Kaidan line up his second shot. He was just as careful and precise as she remembered from their times out on the battlefield; slow, steady, accurate. Again, the bells and whistles started going off. Out of the corner of her eye, Maleea noticed the curiosity was giving way to genuine interest. She counted a half dozen people starting towards the stall
Precision was a word Maleea would pin on Kaidan any day of the week. Mr. By the Book was, after all, an excellent shot. The bells and whistles sounded for a third time, lights flashing wildly, all indicating Kaidan’s success. Nicholas tossed his hands in the air, pleading, “Please, just pick your prize and go. Leave me something this year!”
Kaidan glanced over at Maleea nodding that she should select the prize. She turned and gave thoughtful consideration to the assortment hanging along the wall. Finally selecting a plush-filled varren that closely resembled LT, Nicholas traded it to Kaidan in return for the weapon. As they walked away, Maleea noticed even more fair goers were making their way over to the shooting gallery now. She chuckled softly to herself. To Kaidan, she said, “Thanks.”
Kaidan smiled back. “I suspect we will both be turned away next time,” he observed casually.
Though she found herself laughing along with him at the thought, deep inside, Maleea found that the truth of his words was more than a little bit painful. Next time. The phrase kept repeating itself in the back of her mind as they continued to walk through the venues. If only. She wanted to believe there was a chance, that he could really mean it instead of it being the usual, casual platitude it often was used as, but she didn’t want to get her hopes up. Wouldn’t. Not when he’d been so adamant before ….
She was startled from her reverie by a light shock at her elbow that made her jump. “Ow! What?” Turning, Maleea glanced up at Kaidan, confusion clear on her face. “What the hell …?”
Kaidan chuckled and lifted his hand between them so she could see the residual biotic energy fading away from his fingertips. “I called your name three times. You weren’t responding, so I resorted to drastic measures.”
“I ….” Maleea blinked. “Sorry, I guess I wasn’t,” she agreed, half-heartedly rubbing at the abused area. “What did you ask?”
“I wanted to know how much longer you intended to stay,” he replied, pulling up his omni-tool to check the time.
Maleea glanced at it. Sighing, she pondered the question a moment. “Well, there’ll be music and dancing later after dark,” she explained while pointing towards the decorated platform the end of the midway.
“I think I have a pretty good idea how that will turn out,” he countered mildly.
Frowning, she hit him on the arm with the varren. “Oh, hush! My dancing wasn’t that bad!”
Chuckling, he took the plush from her and returned, “Um, Mal, I saw you in action, so to speak? Don’t kid yourself.”
She grasped the toy, yanked it back into her hands and whacked him on the arm with it one last time for good measure. “So, … you may have a point,” she agreed after a moment. “But it’s the only one I’ll grant you.” She was, technically, still healing after all. That could account for any residual stumbling or difficulties in dancing.
Sighing softly after a moment, she nodded towards the car park area. “Seriously though, we can head back any time. I’d be just as good with a quiet night at home than staying here for the loud music and crowds. Unless you want to stay for ….” He turned to face her at the same time, eyes meeting hers, and as she trailed off, Maleea couldn’t help but feel that he was weighing his decision. Tilting her head to the side a little, her brows furrowed in question. “You okay?” she asked.
He nodded, though. “Yeah. A night in sounds good, though.”
The drive home was done in companionable silence. The only words spoken between them came as they pulled the truck up beside the barn when Kaidan voiced a question regarding the other truck. “The kids’ll bring it back with their animals at the end of the fair,” she explained. “We can get by without it for a few days.”
LT and Chief came bounding out from behind the barn then, bouncing around between Maleea and Kaidan as the two humans walked towards the house. At one point, as Maleea was making the last step up onto the porch, Kaidan directly behind her, Chief became just a bit more exuberant than absolutely necessary caused Maleea to lose her balance and fall backwards. Yipping barks of concern mixed with frantic growls, but it was the feel of Kaidan’s arms around her that had Maleea sighing with relief. “Thanks,” she murmured a moment later, soundly back on her feet again.
Inside the house, he asked, “You … you’re alright?”
She caught the concern in his tone and nodded. “Fine,” she assured him, though she felt the stain of embarrassment still heating her cheeks. Some Commander Shepard she was! Biting on her lip, she added, “I should ... go … make dinner, I guess.”
As she entered the kitchen, she leaned heavily against the wall and listened to Kaidan’s booted steps moving up above her. Covering her face for just a moment, she breathed in deeply and mentally scolded herself. I can DO this ...
~ n ~
A quick shower and a change of clothing went a long way to help clear his mind. The entire time, Kaidan allowed his thoughts free rein and during the process came to realize that the several instances of verbal stumbling with her this afternoon were, in all likelihood, lingering after effects of the kiss she’d given him a few weeks ago. That realization came as a bit of a shock and took longer to analyze. He followed it with a long look in the mirror and eventually a few meditation exercises whose usual purpose was for warding off the severe pain from migraines. It now served as a way for him to gather himself and his self control where she was concerned. He had openly admitted, to himself if no one else, that he had feelings for Maleea. That they had been there for a number of years. But until she showed some outward acceptance of those attentions herself, he had vowed to keep it to himself. That was to be expected, wasn’t it?
So what was the other night if not acceptance?
He took his time dressing, utilizing more of his meditations, until he was reasonably assured his self control was in check. Only then did he head back down to the kitchen in search of Maleea and whatever help he might be able to provide for the meal.
As he turned into the room, though, all the resolve he’d gained upstairs nearly flew right out the window. What he came upon made clear the things he hadn’t expected. The shortness of breath at finding her there, barefoot (she’d kicked off her shoes at some point and they now lay atop one another by the back door) and still dressed in her skirt and blouse. Her hair was still mostly twisted up into a loose knot atop her head, a few loose tendrils escaping down her back and shoulders. The increased tempo of his pulse -- he could hear it thrumming along so clearly, couldn’t she even across the distance separating them? -- as she stood beside the counter chopping away at something, the sound of her knife offering a steady rhythm in time with the music she had turned on in the other room and could be heard filtering into the cooking area.
He paused for a very long moment in the doorway to drink in the sight of her, so relaxed and casual and unlike the commander he’d first come to know. At the same time, any doubts he might have had, that she wasn’t who he remembered, fled. Kaidan inhaled slowly, silently reconsidering his resolutions from just minutes before and wondering if he should just find the nerve to tell her how he felt. He could face her rejection, if that truly was what she wanted, but seeing her like this and not knowing, that was even worse.
Her humming switched to singing, her voice a soft counterpoint to the duet on the stereo. It gave Kaidan another moment’s pause. He was discovering so many small things, personal things, about her that he’d never known before, things he suspected no one outside of her parents might ever have known. Maleea had always been a private person. The fact that she’d been a survivor of Mindoir had been general knowledge during her years in the Alliance surprised him, actually. Most of the bits commonly known about her were stories from her years during her service. Then again, he reasoned silently, maybe there had been others who were close enough to be given the privilege of knowing about her past. After all, it had been two years since he’d last seen her. Liara told him members of the Normandy crew had visited with her on a regular basis. And of course, Maleea herself told him of that one person she’d been interested in from her past. Maybe Kaidan had been too focused on finding out how she felt about him to learn more specific things about her? Maybe he’d missed out on more than he’d thought over the past couple of years ….
Maleea did a half spin then, turning towards the refrigerator to pull out some carrots from the look of things, all the while still half singing and half humming to the music. He remained where he stood, though, hesitant to step forward because he really was enjoying seeing her this way. But she surprised him, raising her voice in harmony with the song just a little -- a throaty, husky sound -- and it hit him like a solid punch to his gut. No one should be allowed to have a voice that sounded like liquid sin ….
Take me as I am
Someone you could know
Even as we speak
You could change your mind
Take me while you can
Even if you shine a light into a mirror
You won't see me any clearer**
~ n ~
The song was an old and familiar one, a constant companion during the couple of years between her rescue from Mindoir and joining up with the Alliance, but also a mantra of sorts. If there had been anything Maleea was sure of during those years, despite the tragedy that befell her family and the other colonists, it was a sense of self. She’d held close during the following couple of years spent with family so distant they were barely more than polite guests to one another her entire stay. During her years of service, it helped guide her along the way, especially during difficult times. And god knew there’d been a lot of those. But it was upon her return to Mindoir, she’d fallen back into the habit of listening to it again, of reminding herself that she was who she was no matter what others thought, of reminding herself she was an individual, strong and sure and just as in command of her own life as she was during her service, ignoring when doubts began to creep in ….
Her thoughts clearly occupied far from the kitchen, Maleea was startled at a sound behind her. Just the merest hint of fabric brushing against itself, but her ears caught it. Years of instinct clearly not forgotten, Maleea spun around, knife at the ready, dropping into a light combat stance. Even as she did so, a small part of her brain wondered if she’d ever grow out of that habit. A moment longer and she fervently hoped she never would.
Of course, the minute she turned around, Maleea realized who it was behind her and she relaxed. An embarrassed chuckle escaped her lips as she turned back to set the knife on the counter behind her. Reaching for a rag to wipe off her hands, she nodded towards the refrigerator, offering, “There’s beer in there if you want one. Dinner will be ready in a little bit.”
She was already turning back to her preparations when she noticed he was still standing in place, unmoving in action or response of any kind. Glancing back, she asked, “Kaidan? Are you alright?” His eyes met hers, but he remained silent. Crossing the room, she stopped a few steps away from him. “Kaidan?”
~ n ~
Once, when Kaidan had been very young, his father and grandfather took him deer hunting. He was familiar with being at the firing end of a rifle, of bringing a target into focus, of holding it in the crosshairs as he gently pulled the trigger. Today, for the first time in his life, Kaidan was beginning to understand what it must feel like to be the deer caught in the crosshairs. “I’m okay,” he finally managed, offering what he hoped was a reassuring smile, because if she had any idea how muddled his thoughts were just then and all because of her ….
Taking a deep breath, he crossed and retrieved the drinks, handing her one before opening his own. When she reached out to gently knock the neck of her bottle against his, he followed suit. The silent toast was normal, routine, but for the first time he had no idea what they were toasting or why.
She returned to meal preparations, calling over her shoulder at him, “So, what did you think about the fair?”
He took a seat at the table. Maleea would ask for his assistance if she needed it and would grouse about him hovering if she didn’t. For right now, it was probably the better option anyway, as muddleheaded as he felt. “I find myself wishing I’d been around last year to see exactly what happened with your friend Nicholas,” he finally responded.
Her laughter was warm. “Yes, well, despite his grumblings, Nicholas was quite well reimbursed for his inconvenience,” she assured him with quick grin. “I think perhaps he was more concerned that he was caught so off guard as he was. Quite literally, every child from the youngest toddlers to older teens found me at his booth as I was shooting. How could I deny them?”
“Reminds me of a couple of your visits to the refugee camps on the Citadel,” he mused, putting a voice to memories from the war. She looked at him, surprise causing her green eyes to widen almost impossibly huge. “What?” he countered. “It was after the clone attack. I followed you a few times -- at a distance -- just to make sure you were safe. So did Garrus, Liara, Tali. I think even Cortez took duty once or twice.”
He would have had to be blind not to see her temper rising, green eyes taking on the stubborn glint he recognized. “We were worried about your safety. Think about it -- If Brooks and the clone could manage to infiltrate and manipulate you so easily ….”
Her glare held for a long moment and he refused to back down. He was starting to wonder whether or not she would ever back down when she sighed and looked away, returning to meal preparations. “Okay, point. But damn, I wish you guys would quit spying on me!”
He pushed himself to his feet and moved over by the counter. “Is that what you think we were doing?”
Knife in hand, Maleea used it to point at him. “Liara all but admitted as much when she was here,” she reminded him. “At least you had the decency to tell me before you decided to stay.”
Kaidan set his beer aside, leaned his hip against the counter and folded his arms across his chest. “So … you’re upset that we care about you?”
“No,” she insisted with a shake of her head. “Just that I seem to be the last one to always know about these things! I was your commander! Why you all felt you had to hide it from me in the first place --”
It wasn’t anger fueling him now, and he wasn’t quite sure he’d qualify it as irritation, but something flared up from deep inside. “How about because you were already under enough strain and pressure during the war?” he challenged. His voice remained low and steady, but there was a new intensity to it. “You were too busy worrying about the next battle, finding the resources Hackett needed for the Crucible, making the necessary alliances, fighting a two front war by taking on Cerberus and the Reapers at the same time. We all knew that. We also knew it wasn’t a one person sort of job and we wanted to help how we could, to make it easier for you to focus on the important things.” Reaching out, Kaidan grasped her by her arms and turned her to face him fully. “I can’t speak for the others, but I wanted to help because I care, Mal.”
The hold he had on her was gentle but firm at the same time, a clear refusal to allow her to pull away and leave just yet. She seemed ...shocked by his announcement, her eyes widening even further, if it was possible. She wasn’t afraid, he could see that, but there was a hint of emotion in her voice when she whispered, “Kaidan …?”
**Take Me As I Am” by October Project
Chapter 9: Walls Come Tumbling Down
It was the whisper of her voice that spurred Kaidan into action. A mixture of question, concern and hesitation that reached out and reeled him in so fast it left his head spinning. Throwing caution to the wind along with a silent prayer that he wasn’t about to ruin everything between them by what he intended next, he altered the pressure of his fingers against her arms, urging her to take another step towards him. Only then releasing his hold on her, he lifted one hand to brush some of the loose strands of hair back from her eyes. “Haven’t you figured it out yet?” he asked quietly. She looked confused and he decided that there was one way to show her exactly what he meant. Leaning towards her, he sought out her lips with his own.
Warmth. Softness. That hint of sweetness and spice that was all her. The longer his lips lingered against hers, the less he wanted to release her. It could have been seconds or minutes later when he pulled back, just enough to give them both space to breathe, but he also lowered his forehead against hers. She didn’t pull away, and he wasn’t certain if it was because she wanted to stay or if she was too startled to react. “Mal --”
Her hand rose between them, pushing against his chest, but he could still see her eyes and what he found there concerned him on multiple levels. A deep sadness welled there, and he felt a corresponding and rather painful lurch inside his chest. Apparently, he’d judged the situation wrong.
“Kaidan, … we can’t,” she whispered, an edge of pain and regret to her tone as she spoke, her hand increasing pressure against him.
“Why?” he asked. His voice came out sounding harsher than he intended, but he had come too far to step back from this now. Not without some answers, anyway. It was going to have to be all or nothing with her -- like always. “It’s not like we have fraternization regs to worry about here.” She shuddered and Kaidan grasped her arms again. “Talk to me, Maleea,” he pleaded. “Tell me why!” Sighing, he added, “Look, if it’s me, I’ll back off. I promise. I will -”
He saw her eyes close, her lips parting as she breathed in a manner that insisted she was just as affected physically as he was, but her outward reaction was clearly fighting against it. “No! It isn’t you,” she whispered, her chin dropping to her chest. “I mean, it is you … You -- Kaidan, you told me you are looking for someone else!” She seemed to gather herself, and a moment later she lifted her head, eyes opened to face him once again. “You told me that yourself! I’m not the one you --”
Groaning, Kaidan’s hands moved to cradle her face. “Maleea, look at me,” he begged when her eyes closed again. “Please!” It took her another long minute, but she finally did open her eyes to meet his. “I meant you,” he promised. “It was always you. You were -- are -- the one woman I have been looking for. The woman I met so long ago, back on the SR1 who took life by the horns and met it on her own terms. The commanding officer who gave as good as she took, who led her team to hell and back and had them all following out of personal dedication and loyalty.”
His eyes now closing for a long moment, Kaidan struggled to find a way to explain. “I know I had doubts after Cerberus brought you back,” he rasped, “and I know that lasted a lot longer than it should have ....”
“Kaidan,” Maleea whispered. Her fingertips brushed across his lips. “Don’t.”
He shook his head free of her touch. “I have to Mal. You need to know. I --” he sighed and used his thumb to trace her cheekbone in a gentle sweep. “Almost from the moment we met, there’s been no one else for me but you.”
Her eyes were locked onto his now, her attention solely focused on him. “What?” she asked, her voice now a ragged whisper. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Kaidan shrugged. “I couldn’t. I didn’t want to make things complicated for you,” he admitted. “You were my commander. You showed no interest in me or anyone beyond friendship. Besides, you know the fraternization regs as well as I do. Why would I even think --”
“No interest?” Maleea paled a little then and Kaidan could see the spray of darker freckles across her face that much more clearly against her skin. “Kaidan ….” She sighed, but she did not pull away from him. Instead, her fingers rose to touch along his cheek, brushing lightly, almost tentatively. She sighed then and muttered, “Dammit! Ash was always on my case trying to get me to tell you how I felt about you.”
Kaidan blinked as comprehension hit him fully. “Me?”
She nodded. Regret filled her eyes and for a moment, he wondered if she was thinking about their friend. “Yeah. Remember the one I told you I let get away?”
Kaidan froze, ears ringing even as his head bobbed automatically in affirmation.
“That was you.”
He groaned, low and pained. Lowering his forehead, he rested it against hers.
~ n ~
Closing the distance between them, Maleea wrapped her arms around him. He had a similar idea because even as she tilted her head so that her lips could meet his, he was already there, all heat and hunger and urgent need. Maleea wasted no time and did not hesitate or attempt to pull away this time. Instead, she opted to slide her arms around his shoulders as his hands settled at her waist; firm, an anchor in the storm that was suddenly raging around them now that the walls between them were gone. She reveled in the taste of him again, that hint of spice mixed with beer and just enough of a spark of electricity to wonder if it was his biotics or just the natural chemical reaction between the two of them causing it.
The contact broke when he lifted her off her feet unexpectedly. She gasped, arms tightening around his neck as he turned, simply lifting her to sit on the tabletop. It was a move that brought her closer to eye level with him. As soon as she felt the solid surface beneath her, his hands rose to frame her face again. For one long, intense moment they stared at one another and Maleea felt winded in the aftermath. He’d held so much inside, so deep and for so long, and she’d never even known! In the next moment, she lifted her head to meet his as he brought them together once more. A soft groan of need and want escaped as she leaned towards him. She threaded her fingers through his hair, darting her tongue out to meet his when he traced the shape of her lips. He shuddered beneath her touch as her fingers brushed against his biotic implant, and she started to retreat. Breaking the kiss, he grasped her hand quickly and stopped her motion..
“It’s … okay,” he managed after a moment even as he rubbed his nose alongside of her temple. “It doesn’t hurt, just … sensitive. Actually, it feels really nice …” Gently, he moved her hand back to where it had been until she repeated the movement. This time, he emitted a soft yet encouraging growl along with the shuddering.
Savoring his response, she didn’t become aware of his hands moving until they reached to her midsection, fluttering lightly against her ribcage through her clothing, just enough for the sensations to charge across her sensitive skin. Gasping roughly, Maleea yanked her head back from his, breaking another kiss. She reached down, capturing his wrists in a tight grasp. “Uh … okay,” she rasped roughly, eyes closed but a soft if somewhat desperate chuckle escaping her lips, “um … rule number one ….”
Her eyes were closed, but she could hear his heavy breathing, practically hear amusement in his tone as he rasped, “Okay.”
Still breathing heavily, her eyes opened to mere slits as she panted, “N-no … tickling ….”
He looked stunned for a moment, until realization must have set in because he laughed. Light and carefree, but he also nodded. “You - you’re ticklish?” he breathed.
Maleea’s eyes narrowed in warning. “Don’t be thinking that means you can -”
His laughter continued, but he kept his hands at a safe distance and in a non-threatening position. “It’s just nice to know that the unflappable Commander Shepard has some weaknesses, is all,” he promised.
Kaidan brought his hands up to her shoulders, opting to caress her there rather than around her midsection. “You doubt me?”
Maleea sighed. “Not … exactly,” she admitted brokenly as one hand slipped beneath the collar of her shirt, skimming lightly along the overly sensitized skin of her neck. “Oh god,” she groaned as they reached tender spot. She shuddered, felt his fingers slide across the same area again, and noticed a spark of pure desire lighten his eyes.
Swallowing tightly, she breathed in sharply when he leaned down to press a kiss there, the juncture of her neck and shoulders. He was quick, a lightning fast sneak attack, and Maleea groaned. “Like that, do you?”
~ n ~
There was more than just a reply in that whisper, he thought. He could hear a plea. A note of desperation. More than just a hint of desire at what could possibly come next. Standing before her as he was, Kaidan made certain Maleea had room enough to break free if she so chose. Kissing and touching were one thing, especially at this early stage when it was still so new. He was not about to presume to be able to read her mind, but her tone of voice, the way she trembled beneath his touches, even the unsteady rasping of breaths as she fought for air when their lips broke free after each kiss, were leading him to one inevitable conclusion. It was time to step things up.
Slowly, carefully, he reached for the material of Maleea’s skirt. He used one hand to pull the material upwards. First one inch. Then another. She didn’t seem to notice, probably because she was now laying with her back flat on the table, but by the time the hem of the garment was near his fingertips, just across the top of her knee, he heard her soft gasp of understanding and watched as her eyes darted up to his. Her breathing hitched in anticipation, but he waited patiently. Only when she growled in frustration, leaning towards him and initiating a fierce kiss between them did he allow the tips of his fingers to slip beneath the material and brush against the bare skin of her thigh. He groaned, or maybe it was the both of them, he wasn’t sure. He was certain he was the offender, but the way she broke their kiss, arching sharply backwards against the arm he had wrapped around her, left him wondering if she might not be echoing his reaction.
His hand moved slowly, hesitantly, uncertain if she would be receptive to this idea. But even as his right hand rested on the inside of her left thigh, he lowered his head towards hers. This time he placed a series of kisses along the edge of her jaw, trailing a path downwards along her exposed neck, still dropped backwards. She gasped again, shifting, attempting to move up into a seated position. Guiding her slowly, he helped her straighten. Once upright, his lips moved back to meet hers. Using his left hand, he grasped hers and guided it to the knot of material at her waist.
While she worked the knot of material, his fingers kept moving along her leg. He smiled against her lips when he felt her hands shake unsteadily as she worked at the knot. She grew frustrated with the knot, or perhaps he was simply distracting her too much, but in the end she finally managed to pull it free. At that point, he ran his hand beneath the material, across the bare skin of her shoulder as she shrugged out from beneath it. It left the tank top between them, but the rest of the excessive fabric pooled onto the table next to her hips.
Kaidan broke the kiss, heaving in a breath even as he reached for the shirt and tossed it out of the way …
~ n ~
Maleea wasn’t certain what she’d ever expected from him if they’d ever gotten this far, but she would never say she was disappointed. Glancing up at him as he pulled back, she was struck by the look she saw in his eyes. The only word that came close to describing it was … incredible. Pure desire; hunger mixed with awe and ….
His eyes shifted, dropping to her left shoulder and arm then starting to lower. Even before they narrowed in curiosity, his head tilting slightly, she expected the pause.
“What?” she breathed before dropping her own gaze to follow.
“When did you get this?” he asked. With his medic training, he’d assisted with field treatments numerous times over the years when she required immediate care and attention. Once it had even required the removal of a damaged piece of armor and the clothing beneath it to tend to a particularly nasty wound on her left arm.
“This past year,” she told him, hands moving to the hem of her tank. Lifting the garment over her head, his gasp washed over her, but she was finally able to reveal the extent of the artwork. “Jack did it,” she explained. “Covered up some of the worst scars left over from my surgeries ….”
His eyes rose, meeting hers, and she saw the sadness lurking behind them. “Mal …”
Smiling, she leaned towards him and gave him a long, lingering and very gentle kiss. “It’s over,” she told him, reaching to take his hand from her leg and and bring it to the marked area. She groaned as he started tracing the top of the design with calloused fingertips. “The design is a symbol of rebirth.” She chuckled. “Sort of,” she amended. “At least, that’s how Jack interpreted it.”
She could see his eyes tracing the pattern as his fingers marked it, the intricate paths and curves, the way it ran down and around her arm ending near her wrist, as well as down the entire left side of her torso. The only thing hindering the view was her bra. With a continued smile, she reached to unhook that, lowering the fabric. His eyes widened as he realized the extent of it. It followed her curves, around the globe, both above and beneath. Tentatively, he reached out and followed it around. Maleea shuddered, the skin very sensitive.
Their eyes met and she would have been blind not to see the question. With a soft whimper, she nodded. Slowly, gently, he lowered his lips to the area and ran his tongue over it. Her arms moved back around his shoulders so she could hold on without fear of falling.
“Lie back,” he murmured, easing her back onto the table. She followed without question, infinite trust guiding her way. When he lowered his head this time, Maleea’s groan was louder than before. He lifted his head again. “Sensitive?”
“Very,” she rasped. But before he could pull away, she tugged him back. “Don’t stop!”
~ n ~
Licking and laving his way around the tattoo’s pattern, Kaidan took silent delight in each and every sound escaping her throat just then. It was heady and exciting and continued to stoke the building fire inside him. Hearing her, feeling her tremble beneath his touch was just adding fuel to that fire.
Retreating briefly to give her a moment to recover, his eyes followed the marks down to her waist. “Where does it end?” he whispered.
“At my hip,” she whispered. “Dr. Chakwas and Miranda would have had Jack’s and my heads if we’d gone lower. I was still recovering from the most recent surgery at the time, you see, and ….”
Her words brought Kaidan up short. That was something he hadn’t considered. “Mal?” he murmured, breaking his gaze away from the design to meet hers. “Speaking of surgery, are you physically able to ….”
Her smile was part reassurance, part hunger and need, and part grim determination. “I’d like to see someone stop me,” she told him, her voice dropping into more of a purring growl.
It took a moment before Kaidan realized that her declaration was the permission he needed to continue, but once he did he chuckled softly. “So fierce,” he murmured, leaning over to kiss her again on the lips. At the same time, one hand dropped back to its earlier attentions along her legs. His trailed along the side of her neck, across the tender skin. He moved lower, this time paying more attention to the unadorned side of her body. The sounds she made this time were nearly enough to drive him mad, but he was used to discipline, to being in control, and this was one time that he was very glad of it. She continued to tremble beneath him, another soft whimper breaking free from her lips followed quickly by another as his right hand slowly, surely caressed its way up her leg. Lightly, he brushed against the fabric he found there. This time, Maleea reacted with a hoarse cry, her hips involuntarily moving against his hand. “K-kaidan!”
Smiling against her skin, Kaidan kissed a path along the edge of the waist of her skirt, while at the same time he continued seeking entrance with his fingers. She squirmed beneath his touch, and a moment later when he slipped a finger beneath the elastic edge, she cried out loud and long. Her hips moved against his fingers out of instinct, and Kaidan was careful to keep his body in position to protect her from rolling off the table by accident as she lost herself to sensation. The position of his fingers shifted ever so slightly, carefully, gently caressing her tender flesh while moving with purpose. He glanced up at her, finding her eyes closed, head rocking back and forth on the table, and cautiously, he slid one inside her. Slick and warm, he couldn’t keep himself from groaning softly as she closed around him. It was barely a hint of what was to still come, they both knew that, and yet a much louder cry was torn from her. “Dear … god,” she whimpered.
Kaidan chuckled softly, knowingly. Leaning back up towards her ear, he murmured, “We’ve only just started.” He accompanied his words with another movement of his hand. She cried out.
~ n ~
She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and held it, attempting -- in vain -- to control herself. He caught her, his eyes targeting her lips, and Maleea lifted her head to meet his when he kissed her. Her hands had returned to grasp at the front of his shirt at some point and she now tugged and fumbled, trying her damnedest to loosen the buttons there.
Where one struggle ended in failure, she sought success elsewhere, closing her hands around the material and pulling herself upwards. She knew she caught him off guard when both of his hands suddenly relocated to her waist, holding her steady. Though it meant the loss of his touch, she made another attempt, tugging until she had the hem of his shirt removed from beneath the waist of his pants. Sliding her hands beneath, moving them quickly, lightly across his skin, she ghosted them upwards. The shirt followed suit until it was bunched beneath his arms, the tails hanging down in back and covering her hands.
“Get it off,” she whimpered, “or I’ll rip it off!”
He reacted by laughing, but the look in his eyes countered any amusement. Sliding the shirt from his shoulders, he tossed it over with hers before stepping close to her once more.
While he’d been busy, Maleea unfastened the waist of her skirt, a simple three button wrap job, and it fell open for him. When he closed the step of space between him, his hands reaching for her hips, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and levered herself up so they were nearly eye to eye. As she’d hoped, his fingers quickly moved to lower the remaining material from her hips, sliding it all away until she was bare before him. His hands, firm in their grasp, slid under her legs to give her support as he pulled her close, forcing her to open wider so he could roll his hips against her. Cradled together in such a way, it proved to her in no uncertain terms that she was affecting him just as much as he was her.
“Mal,” she heard him murmur in concern, one hand rising to lift her by her chin and search her eyes, “are you sure about this?”
“Kaidan,” she gasped, her fingers curling and scraping lightly along his chest even as she tightened her legs around his waist, “don’t you dare back away from me now!”
His head tilted inward again, their lips meeting with a fierceness that belied the gentle caressing motions of his hands as they continued to press her close. Maleea groaned again. He lifted her, carefully, and gave her a moment for her to settle around him. She nodded her readiness and he turned to exit the room. When he would have headed for the stairs leading up to their rooms, she was quick to redirect him. “No … the back room is closer.”
Kaidan moved particularly slow for someone whose pulse she could feel racing at breakneck speeds beneath his skin. While he focused on getting them to the room, she decided that it was an opportunity for her to do a little bit of exploring of her own. Imitating his earlier attentions to her, Mal started at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, smiling in a pleased fashion when she heard him grunt and hiss softly in reaction to her teeth scraping just lightly there. But instead of moving lower, she chose to trail her kisses along his neck, pausing momentarily to pay particular attention to his Adam’s apple, then chuckling throatily when he both groaned and then swallowed tightly. Only then did she repeat the process up the other side. From there, she ventured up the side of his neck, capturing his ear lobe gently between her teeth and tugging.
Kaidan stumbled, hissing in her ear, “Christ, Mal!” just before turning to press his body firmly against the wall with her body sandwiched between.
Maleea chuckled. “Oops?” He rolled his hips against her again, in a vivid reminder of where he stood on matters. It was also an action that left her groaning in response as a new wave of awareness heightened within.
He took a step backwards, turned and finally entered the room. It was only a few steps to the bed, and Maleea sighed as he attempted to lay her gently on the mattress. Moving quickly, she lowered her legs to the floor first so she could stand instead.
Hands grasping him by his belt, she shook her head. “Not yet,” she told him while moving quickly and with purpose to loosen his belt and unfasten the jeans. Her hands didn’t hesitate until she came across a stark reminder of their former lives.
Lifting a hand to caress her cheek, he reminded her, “You’ve seen me like this before. Or have you forgotten Gellix?”
Maleea shook her head negatively, eyes closing as the memories came back with little prompting. He and Jacob had gone ahead, providing covering fire while she and Garrus had herded the remaining scientists to the shuttle. Just as the doors were opening to let the shuttle and them outside, a lucky shot by Cerberus troops made it through the gap of the door, hitting Kaidan in his hip area. Maleea had heard him cry out, turned to find Jacob helping him along behind some crates, and it had been all that she could do to keep her and Garrus focused on the Cerberus attackers.
“Slightly different circumstances,” she pointed out, eyes finally rising from the mark to meet his again.
“True enough,” he agreed, “but all I meant was that you shouldn’t be so surprised.”
She released her hold on his pants, allowing them to fall to the floor. He cooperated then, at least, carefully stepping out of them. The lighting in the room highlighted the merest hint of a scar remaining, but it was enough. Right above his hip bone. Funny, she thought, fingers reaching out and brushing against it, it nearly matches mine. Acting on instinct, she knelt down so she could press a light kiss to it.
Kaidan, of course, protested. “Mal, that wasn’t what I --”
She started to push herself back to her feet, but accepted his help up when he cut himself off and offered assistance instead. “I want to know every mark on you,” she whispered in a fiercely possessive tone with a look in her eyes to match. “The ones from Saren and the geth. The ones from Cerberus and the Reapers.” Her fingers lifted to the corner of his lip that had fascinated her almost from the moment they’d met even as she pushed herself up on her toes and whispered, “The ones from before we ever knew one another ….”
~ n ~
With her this close, Kaidan easily wrapped an arm around her waist. He caught one of her hands and pressed it to his chest. “How about the mark that only you could leave on me?”
She scowled, grousing good naturedly and pushing at his chest lightly. “You are such a sap, Alenko!”
He chuckled, but a moment later he was groaning when she pressed her lips against the skin there. Hands rising to her hair, he searched for the pins that held the mass in place. “And you love it,” he struggled to counter, finally finding the one clip that held it in place. Removing it, he gasped when the dark mass of curls cascaded down around her shoulders and over his fingers. Standing before him like this, he thought she looked more avenging angel than tender lover.
“Just shut up and kiss me, hmm?” she growled, cementing the image in his mind.
“I can do much more than that,” he replied, but he acquiesced nonetheless. It was easy, especially since he could honestly say he was enjoying this with her. The give, the take; the heat of desire and passion broken with moments of humor and fun. It didn’t surprise him in the least, not with Maleea, and it felt … right. Perfect.
The fire between them rekindling now, it didn’t take long before the last of his clothing was removed and they were lying beside one another on the bed. Soft sighs mixed with groans and whimpers, and all the while bold exploration continued. Throughout it all, Kaidan watched her move, memorizing every sensual expression that crossed her features, every erotic sound that passed her lips, and he savored it all.
In a move similar to the one he’d used to get her attention earlier at the fairgrounds, he utilized his biotics while touching her. She jumped at first, clearly startled even though he murmured a warning in her ear, but soon she relaxed, willingly opening herself to the unfamiliarity of it. Her eyes remained on his the entire time, and as close as they were he could see the desire building within. He continued pulling the energy close and it suffused his skin. She broke eye contact as it began spreading over him, and he could see the path it took by watching her eyes follow the trail. She’d seen him like this before, the hint of bluish aura over his skin, on the battlefield and tossing enemies around as if they weighed little. But now, like this, he showed her another side of it, unintended uses that teased and tantalized and hinted at so much more ….
Kaidan pushed himself into a kneeling position in the center of the bed. Reaching for Maleea, he eased her upwards to straddle his lap until she came to rest on his knees. Her breathy cries, sensual groans, and gasps of delight encouraged his daring this first time for them. The feel of her skin against his; her voice rising in harmony with his. Slowly, carefully, he guided her body over his. She stretched around him in the sweetest most generous caress he could ever imagine, and it was almost too much.
“Leea?” he breathed, hand at her hip and holding her steady even as he fought back the urge to complete the act there and now.
She shuddered against him, wave after wave of tiny tremors in his arms. Her forehead resting against his shoulder, she finally nodded as she struggled for a deep breath. “Oh my god, Kaidan!”
Concern broke his concentration for a moment and he looked down at her, reaching to lift her chin. “Are you alright? I can --”
She drew her lip between her teeth and shook her head once. “If you stop now, I swear, I’ll --”
His hands slid upward, one behind her head, and the other her shoulders as he pulled her close. Kissing her fully on her mouth, one hand retreated back to her hips … then reached for the biotic energy he’d been holding in check for just this moment. It spread across his skin in a rush, surrounding him and, by extension, her. Patiently, he waited for her to realize what was happening. Her head shot up from his shoulder and he witnessed the sudden shock and surprise filling her eyes. She had no way to resist it, he knew that, since she had no biotic experience of her own. And as a result, she started crying out his name over and over as her body convulsed around him, her head dropping backward and exposing her neck to as she shuddered repeatedly within his embrace.
It didn’t take him long to follow her over the edge. Following her into the abyss, his arms banded tightly across her back, Kaidan held her close. His only cry was a hoarse rasp near her ear, “Leea …”
~ n ~
The unexpectedness of a warm body lying beside her, curled around her, was nearly enough to cause Maleea’s lips to part into a mixture of a battle cry and a shout of alarm. But in that momentary shift between sleep and wakefulness, recollection returned and the added press of a warm hand sliding an erotic caress across her midsection went a long way to reminding her of the circumstances leading up to this moment. “There you are,” she heard his familiar baritone rumble near her ear.
Stretching like a cat, arms extended over her head, Maleea rolled in his arms, a welcoming smile on her lips. She brought a hand to lightly caress the darkening stubble at his jaw. “No place I would rather be,” she told him around a yawn.
He smiled and her heart did a flip just as he leaned over to kiss her. When he lifted his head a moment later, though, Maleea noticed a look of concern that hadn’t been there before. “Something wrong?” she asked.
He reached out to tuck some of her curls behind a delicately shaped ear, replying, “I was going to ask you that. I wasn’t exactly … gentle.”
The speed with which the heat raced up her neck and into her cheeks caught Maleea off guard. “I’m … I’ll be fine, Kaidan,” she finally managed, ducking her head just a bit to keep him from noticing. She should have known better.
He smiled and kissed her forehead this time while sliding his arm around her waist, pulling her close. “Good,” he murmured, “because I might have further plans for you.”
Maleea gave up fighting the blush that she could feel deepening. “That’s funny,” she mused, altering her position slightly, “because I was thinking the same about you.” Launching herself upwards, they rolled until she lay across his chest, pinning him to the mattress.
Maleea grinned and felt his hands slide down to her hips to keep her steady. Winking at him, she dropped her voice and teased, “You’ll soon see I’ve still got them.”
She shouldn’t have been surprised when he moved as quickly as she had, flipping them both over again until their positions were reversed. Laughing, eyes sparkling with a mix of enjoyment and desire, she moved her arms around his shoulders and murmured, “Apparently, so do you.”
“Most definitely,” he promised. He leaned towards her, first kissing her and then nuzzling against her neck.
Maleea was torn between desire and caving to the ticklishness that plagued her where his whiskers brushed against sensitive skin.
In the end, it didn’t matter. A sudden beep filled the air repeatedly, originating from across the room. They both froze, old honed instincts kicking in, and the mood was instantly shot. Kaidan groaned in dismay and rested his forehead against hers briefly before rising from the bed.
Maleea started to follow suit, but he shook his head, instead pulling the bedclothes up over her. “Stay,” he insisted, reluctance clear in his tone. “I’ll talk to her.”
Maleea sighed. “Kaidan, I --”
“Leea, stay,” he repeated, brushing a quick kiss against her cheek before grabbing his jeans.
As nicknames went, it wasn’t one Maleea had ever had applied to her before, but she had to admit she liked how it sounded coming from his lips …
“Liara.” Her attention was pulled across the room when he sat in front of the computer, greeting their friend a few moments later. Maleea noticed he’d barely gotten his arms into his shirt in the process.
“Kaidan.” Maleea could barely see the monitor around him once he sat, and holding the bedclothes to her body, she shifted position just a little to try to get a better look. She finally caught a view of her friend, noticing what looked to be a smirk of amusement on the asari’s face. Oh, boy...
“What can I do for you this evening?” Kaidan asked.
“I was going to update you on the situation,” Liara explained, “but it looks as if you are otherwise … occupied.”
The full meaning of her friend’s comment didn’t hit her until Maleea saw Kaidan turning in his chair. Grinning over at him, she lay on her side, head propped up by her arm. She was tempted to tug up on the sheets, but she fought off the urge, her eyes intent upon both him and the screen with Liara. “That’s one way to put it,” she murmured with a hint of laughter.
Liara’s chuckled. “It can wait,” she assured Kaidan. “Far be it from me to interrupt --”
He started protesting, but the asari shook her head. She smiled warmly and finished, “Go on. We’ll talk later.” With that and the faintest of giggles, the screen faded.
Kaidan remained seated for a moment and swiveled his chair so he could face Maleea. “It’s never going to be easy for us, is it?”
Still chuckling, Maleea pushed herself into a seated position, allowing the bedclothes to fall away and pool at her waist. “Kaidan, this is me … my life … I would have thought that in the years you’ve known me, you’d have figured that out already,” she teased. “It doesn’t change just because I’m no longer in the Alliance or a Spectre.”
He stood, crossing back to sit on the edge of the bed beside her. Leaning over towards her, he paused and hovered just above her lips. “I suppose I’ll just have to learn to live with it then.”
Maleea, eyes finding his, sighed. “Kaidan?”
“Just shut up and --”
“Kiss you?” he finished, voice husky with returning desire. Closing the distance between them, he did just that … and so much more.
Chapter 10: High Alert
My apologies for the delay in posting. Dad was in town this weekend for my birthday and brought me Mom's old Mac. My second apology for any formatting errors or inconsistencies as I struggle to get used to said Mac! lol. Anyway, here is today's chapter!
When it came right down to it, Maleea was delighted to discover Kaidan was quite exceptional when it came to the kissing and other sort of things. However, as much as she might have liked -- and seriously, she would have in a heartbeat if it had been at all possible -- to toss all responsibility out the window and give herself just a few hours of hard earned and well-deserved self-indulgence, she realized that with the kids away at the fair the duties of keeping the farm going lay solely upon their shoulders. Years of being a responsible leader left her in habitual practice, even when the urge to not do so came along. Though, this time when morning came (much, much too early to her way of thinking), Maleea found it more of a struggle than usual to comply.
Kaidan, thank goodness, seemed to understand her dilemma. He rose with her, and though she did sense an air of reluctance on his part as well, he assisted in whatever ways he could. That at least made the start of the day just a bit more bearable. He also proved to Maleea that, despite duty and responsibility forcing her hand (and who else of her friends could have understood that more?), there could be enjoyment in it as well.
A lingering kiss just inside the kitchen that promised so much more for later before walking out of the house towards the barn.
A seemingly innocent brushing of shoulders as they loaded up the feed and equipment into the truck in order to take it out to the herd.
The simple act of holding of a hand; long, calloused fingers curled and tucked securely around hers as they drove along the trail leading to the pasture where the cattle were currently located.
The look in his eyes as he paused on the back of the truck once the feeding was done to use the sleeve of his shirt to wipe a rolling trail of sweat from the side of her temple.
Never before had Maleea been so aware of how simple, everyday chores could become something so much more meaningful, incredible even, when shared with someone she cared about. She’d heard it said that anticipation could enhance almost any experience. It was something she was discovering quite happily that she could fully agree with at this point.
Currently, from her position belted into the vehicle passenger side, Maleea turned to face Kaidan as he pulled out from the pasture back onto the trail. This particular set of chores completed, it was time to head back to the barn to work on something else. “You do realize, don’t you, that I’m onto you, Alenko. I know exactly what you’re up to,” Maleea murmured softly as she leaned over on his shoulder to speak quietly near his ear.
Kaidan glanced out of the corner of his eye down at her. “Oh? And what might that be?” She didn’t miss the hint of amusement in his tone or the smirk on his lips. It made it that much more of a challenge for her to keep a straight face.
Eyes narrowing, she told him, “I will get my keys back, you know.”
“Hmm.” His hand moved to shift the gears as they began climbing a rather steep hill. She didn’t fail to notice that the hand that moved was quite deliberate in avoiding contact with her. Good to know. “Quaking in my boots over here,” he countered in a somewhat mild tone after a moment.
As they began to top the rise, Maleea sat back up on her side of the vehicle, turning to stick her tongue out at him playfully. “Smart ass.” The affection in her voice offset any real heat behind the words. “We’ll see just how you start quaking once we get back to the house and I -”
In the span of mere fractions of a second, her voice trailed off as she caught sight of an obstruction in the road at the base of the hill ahead they were descending. It took another instant to recognize that it wasn’t just any blockage, but one manned by two heavily armed and armored humans, one of whom had just shouldered a rocket launcher.
A rocket launcher that was aimed directly at them.
Maleea barely had time to gasp in surprise, but Kaidan was already reacting, steering sharply to the right and sending their vehicle over the edge of the road and into the scruff and brush that lined the hill beyond. They bounced around awkwardly in the vehicle, though both were strapped securely into their harnesses, and Maleea heard Kaidan grunt as he struggled to keep the vehicle moving in a safe and upright manner. At first, it seemed like it might be enough -- they remained upright though violently jerking and bouncing down the embankment. But that luck wasn’t to last. The truck inevitably collided with an object larger and more resistant to its maneuvers, thus ending their attempts at escape. In the heartbeat that sent them airborne, Maleea braced herself for the inevitable impact waiting to greet them on the other side, and prayed to whatever spirits, gods or goddesses would listen -- she wasn’t overly picky or choosy at a time like this! -- that she and Kaidan would somehow come out of this alright.
~ n ~
Instinct. It was what guided Kaidan’s hands at the wheel and what made him reach out for Maleea’s at the last moment, grasping it firmly in his as his biotics flared, sending out a barrier to encapsulate them both just seconds before impact. It wouldn’t keep them from all injury, he knew that, but in a situation where they had absolutely no armor at all and a vehicle that was acting like a ten ton drunken Mako falling face down the side of a mountain at full speed --oh the memories that brought back! -- it was better than nothing.
He must have blacked out for a moment upon impact. The next Kaidan was aware, he was hanging upside down, his harness the only thing keeping him from being thrown through the front windshield. He could feel something damp trickling along the side of his cheek, nearing his eye. A brush of his hand brought away the reddish tinged droplet. Reaching towards the harness release, he bit back a groan as it gave way and he dropped like a dead weight. Only then did he turn … and nearly felt his heart stop and his breath catch when he spotted Maleea, unconscious, unresponsive, and bleeding in the seat next to him.
~ n ~
The first sounds to reach her ear was a scrambling rustle, and Maleea thought she could hear a hoarsely whispered voice filled with concern pairing with careful yet desperate movements as it approached. Hazily, she was reminded of her conversation with the Catalyst two years before. That sort of echoing, raspiness that seemed to make time feel like it was in some sort of phasing shift or suspension. She thought she heard her name, but couldn’t be certain. She ached; the harness was digging rather painfully into an old shoulder injury that was still healing two years later. Something solid, strong and unforgiving in its touch grasped her shoulder and in that instant, panic gave in and Maleea struck out as best she could, her eyes snapping wide open. She would not go down without a fight!
“Leea, stop! It’s me!”
The protest, framed by a familiar voice, broke through before her fists made contact. “Kaidan!” Her gasp was sharp, her hand shot out and found him as she blinked into focus.
“Hold still,” he told her. She felt his hands moving at her waist. “Let me loosen this first.”
He half caught her, she half fell atop him, but a moment later she was free and no longer hanging upside down. Blood rushed quickly, spreading throughout her body and for a brief moment her vision was spotted. Swallowing back concern, she slowly met his gaze again. “Are you … are you alright?” she managed.
Kaidan nodded, but she lifted a finger to a cut at his lower lip. “It’s okay, Leea,” he murmured, pulling her close for a moment. Maleea shuddered once, the full weight of what could have happened versus the reality of their situation settling over her. “We need to get out of here.”
Her hand shook as she lifted it to her temple and Maleea wasn’t surprised when she felt something sticky and warm. Pulling it into view, she found blood there as well. Must’ve hit my head against the door when we rolled. “We don’t know what’s out there,” she reminded him as she pressed the cuff of her sleeve to the bloodied area for a long moment to stem the flow. For now, she tried her best to ignore the growing ache in her shoulder.
“No,” he agreed, “but I know what they’ll have to face.”
Maleea blinked as she watched him roll on his hip. Using his legs, he started kicking at the windshield. Breaking the glass free took a few minutes, but once he succeeded, he turned back towards her. He nodded behind her and Maleea looked over, belatedly realizing what he wanted. Wincing with the movement, she freed her hunting rifle and handed it over to him then retrieved her shotgun for herself. Only then did he start out through the opening he’d created. As she broke free of the wreckage, he offered her a hand which she accepted and helped her to her feet.
“Bet they know who we are,” she said.
She stood next to him for a moment, carefully taking inventory of bumps and bruises and any areas that were cause for concern, but was caught off guard when he reached over, unexpectedly pulling her into his arms as he placed a kiss to the middle of her forehead. Looking up at him, he replied, “A couple of thoroughly pissed off Alliance marines?”
Maleea bit her lip against the pain as she chuckled, wondering if maybe she’d cracked a rib, but she managed a lopsided smile for him. “Something like that, I guess,” she returned. She checked her gun, loaded the chamber and then nodded. “Let’s go.”
He spoke before she could turn away, his hand coming to rest solidly against her good shoulder, holding her in place. She heard the concern in the softness of his tone, knew what he was asking as she looked back up at him. Eyes hardening, she held his gaze firmly. “I will be fine, Kaidan,” she insisted firmly. “I have to be.”
A sound off in the distance alerted them they were no longer alone. Kaidan grabbed her hand, pulling her away from the crash site and scrambling into cover before Maleea could actively make the decision to move. “Come on,” he breathed.
They made it behind a dense cluster of brush and scrub nearby, ducking down just before footsteps broke into the partially cleared area created by the rolling vehicle. Peeking through branches of the bush she was behind, Maleea’s eyes were drawn in that direction. Beside her, Kaidan crouched low, murmuring near her ear, “Rocket Launcher.”
Maleea nodded, her eyes focused on the man. But what of the other one? There’d been two men at the bottom of that hill as she recalled. One with the rocket launcher, the other with … Maleea frowned as she tried to recall what she had seen. There were two of them, weren’t there? I could have sworn there were ... “I thought I saw two,” she hissed softly over at Kaidan but he said nothing.
Rocket Launcher moved into the clearing, weapon held at the ready, eyes clearly trying to see around the side of the vehicle without having to move in too close while attempting to decide if someone was still left inside. The entire time, Maleea considered how best to eliminate the threat he posed. She was only two years removed from service in the Alliance. They’d trained her to think and react a certain way, a specific skill set. It was what had helped her through N7 training, too, and eventually led to her defeat of both Cerberus and the Reapers. It wasn’t something she could forget simply because she was no longer an active duty marine.
She used her elbow to dig lightly into Kaidan’s side and catch his attention. He leaned towards her, giving her the opportunity to whisper in a barely audible voice, “Yank the launcher from his hands with your biotics while I shoot him with the rifle.” He showed his agreement by handing the rifle over to her.
She set the shotgun to her side, taking the other weapon in hand and shouldering it. She winced only slightly at the soreness from where the seat belt had restrained her and settled it for the shot. Though the surgery on it had come post War, the injury itself was not a product of more recent events. It actually predated the Reaper War, one of the few lingering reminders of their original encounter with Sovereign on Eden Prime so many years before. Over the years, injuries sustained during the battle on the Citadel had aggravated it, and the sudden jolt now had it acting up yet again, but despite that Maleea was reasonably certain that it was not a severe injury. If history had proved anything, it would take awhile to get rid of, but it would eventually fade.
Kaidan pulled away from her, moving further down the foliage to get a better angle for his biotics. Maleea kept her eyes on him until he stopped, only then turning to sight her weapon. Giving Kaidan a quick nod, she lifted it and lined up her shot. She waited until the launcher was moved out of the range of her scope, a look of stunned amazement crossing the man’s face, before she fired at him.
The rifle, even as new as it was, wasn’t modded which resulted in the sound of the shot echoing through the wooded area around them. Maleea shook her head as she lowered the weapon and reloaded the rifle. She’d missed her target, too. Garrus would be laughing at me right about now, she thought. My days of headshots are long gone, I fear. The shotgun had always been her weapon of choice, but Maleea had been quite good with the sniper rifle too. Though Garrus often beat her in their ‘headshot competitions,’ Maleea had held her own. Now two years removed from that, she was left less than satisfied with her results.
With rifle reloaded, she lifted it to aim for a second shot … only to find her opponent sliding to the ground, hand rising to his chest. It took a moment to realize the dark stain she was seeing covering his fingertips was actually proof of her success. Instead of a headshot, she’d apparently hit him in his chest. The wound was bad, but it wasn’t the guaranteed elimination of a threat that a headshot would have been. That reassurance was lost. They would now have to check to be sure that he was down for good. Kaidan returned to her side and Maleea handed him the rifle before retrieving her shotgun.
~ n ~
Maleea started to move, but Kaidan stopped her, opting to communicate via their old hand signals system employed back during their Alliance years together. He, too, had seen the second figure before he’d veered down the side of the hill, but he had no idea of their enemy’s current status. Rocket Launcher, at least, was down. The only question that remained where he was concerned was would he get back up.
After warning her of his intentions, Kaidan carefully crept back towards the overturned vehicle. A quick look back assured him she hadn’t started to follow, so he ducked around the truck to see if he could determine Rocket Launcher’s status. Barrier in place, he slowly moved towards him, dropping to his knee and reaching out to check for a pulse. It might not have been a headshot, but Maleea had hit him square in the chest. Blood stained the armor and a growing pool on the ground hinted he was down for good. A quick check of his pulse only assured Kaidan that was the case.
A cry from behind him followed by the sound of a gun had Kaidan spinning around on his heel, but there was no immediate threat in sight. Someone, or something, could be heard scrambling across the broken brush and limbs to his right, but a quick assessment assured him it was most likely Maleea repositioning herself. In the interest of ‘better safe than sorry,’ however, he moved around the end of the vehicle to check for certain.
Dropping behind the truck, he found Maleea there crouched low, heaving in deep breaths. Her shotgun was up and ready for use and aimed in the direction from which the unaccounted gunshot had come. He moved to her side and dropped to a knee beside her. She nodded in the direction she was aiming. “I heard him,” she murmured. “He took a pot shot at me, but I didn’t actually see him.”
Turning and using the vehicle for cover, Kaidan peeked over the edge and searched the far side. He waited patiently, keeping an eye out for movement of any kind, and was eventually rewarded with a sudden awkward jerking of some branches. “I think I see him,” he told her, reaching out to help her further behind cover. “Stay down for a minute.”
She nodded her agreement, and he then crept around the side of the truck to see if he could get a better look. The ricochet of a shot aimed at him was enough to indicate their opponent knew well and good where they were hiding. Returning to her side, Kaidan dropped his hand to her shoulder, reinstating another biotic barrier field. “Stay beside me,” he hissed softly. It was the only way he could effectively offer her any sort of protection by keeping her in contact with him and his barrier shield.
“But, I can take him!” she protested, her own voice a hoarse whisper.
Kaidan carefully lifted the rifle she’d given him to use and placed it on the overturned truck before taking aim. “I have the better angle.” He heard her make a sound of acknowledgement, and a moment later he fired. A startled grunt was the only noise of reaction. Signaling her to wait, he cautiously approached the area. After several moments, he found what he was looking for, and assured their opponent was down for good, he retraced his steps.
Maleea was watching for him and rose when he approached. “We need to get out of here,” he said.
~ n ~
Maleea shook her head, determination flooding her system. “We need answers,” she contradicted him. “Is he down? Can he talk?”
She took a step in the direction from which he’d returned, but Kaidan caught her arm, effectively stopping her movement. “He’s dead, Leea.”
She looked up at him. “You’re sure?” He nodded. “Damn.” It was a hiss more than a curse, but amounted to the same. “So we still have no idea who sent them.”
“No.” He sighed softly and ran a hand over his face. “We should go,” he told her, nodding at her shoulder. “I need to get you somewhere I can check out the damage.”
“I’m fine,” she protested when he lifted his fingers to touch her cheek. It was a little strange, suddenly having his concern focused on her in a more personal manner like this instead of just as commander. She wasn’t used to it. Still, she didn’t push him away when his fingers began searching the area. “Kaidan, really, I’m -”
“I need to get you indoors somewhere safe. I highly doubt these two acted alone.”
What started as concern hardened into something more, something stronger, and it was more than a little jarring to be reminded in such a fashion of his real purpose for being on Mindoir in the first place. Or maybe it was the shock due to events that was finally beginning to settle in. Whichever it was, Maleea sensed the beginning of a separation of sorts between herself and him, between herself and the events, and between herself and her own reactions. That wall that she’d always kept in place during her years as Commander Shepard.
After a long moment and an internal battle against herself, she relented. Nodding her agreement, she pointed down the hill, telling him, “The house is about a mile that way. There won’t be much in the way of places to hide between here and there, but it’s straight across open fields. So, unless there’s someone out roaming my pastures without my express permission, it should be safe enough.”
Kaidan hesitated a moment and she looked up at him to find his eyes searching their immediate area, most likely, evaluating all options available to them. “Let’s go,” he finally said.
Kaidan led the way, never more than a few steps ahead of her the entire time. Before leaving the cover presented by the trees and brush, she waited as he checked the immediate vicinity for further threats. He’d gone all professional on her from the moment they’d veered off the road atop the hill, and though she was grateful for it -- two sets of eyes keeping track were better than one, after all -- she couldn’t tamp down a growing frustration. She was a soldier. She was trained for situations like this, or if not like this exactly, close enough. She hadn’t lost it all in the past two years, and certainly he was being a little overprotective, wasn’t he? It was sweet and understandable, to a point, but that point had come and gone back at the wreckage. She’d proven she still had what it took, even if it wasn’t headshots anymore.
But each jarring step of the way she was clearly reminded she wasn’t who she’d once been. It didn’t matter that she’d been through much much worse over the years, or that she’d developed, particularly after receiving Cerberus’ enhancements, a high tolerance for pain. That made little difference and certainly wasn’t helping make the assorted aches and injuries from their tumble tolerable just then. By the time they were entering the homestead proper and Chief and LT who had been left guarding the area came running up to them, Maleea was grinding her teeth to keep from crying out in agony. It wasn’t just the ache in her shoulder, either. Or the cut to the side of her head. Or her ribs. It was all of it, and more. It was the knowledge that, despite everything she and Liara had done to separate herself from the Alliance and her past it wasn’t enough. It was the fact that despite knowing there was a threat and having added help watching for it, she and Kaidan still hadn’t been prepared for the attack, nor did they have any idea who was behind it or why. It was also the fact that they -- whoever they was -- knew clearly knew who she was and where and likely in what strength and who all was closely associated with her ...
~ n ~
They were halfway between the barn and the house when Maleea pulled up suddenly. Kaidan was still a few steps ahead of her, eyes keenly watching all around them for any additional threats, but it was the sudden barking first of Chief and followed LT that clued him into trouble. Spinning on his heel, he found her wobbling awkwardly, barely able to stay on her feet. Kaidan hurried over to her. “Leea! Are you alright?”
Maleea shook her head and Kaidan took her reaction at face value, lifting her into his arms.
Her protest was pained and though she struggled briefly, he managed to get a good enough grasp he wouldn’t drop her. Carrying her inside while leaving the animals out, he immediately headed to the back room on the first floor. For now, it was closer and would have to do. As gently as he could, he set her down on the bed, sheets and blankets still mussed from their previous evening together. Setting the weapons aside, he reached for the buttons to her shirt. “Where does it hurt?” he asked.
Maleea batted his hands away this time. “No!” Her voice was still a rasp and he noticed she was struggling to draw in air. She carefully lowered herself to lie flat on the mattress as he sat down beside her. “The kids!” she finally managed. “Kaidan, you have to go make sure they’re okay!”
Internally, he winced. Concern for their safety hadn’t slipped past him. In fact, he’d been trying to figure the best way to determine their current status as they returned to the house, but he couldn’t leave her alone to find out. His mission was to protect her, not them. “I’m not leaving you,” he informed her after a long moment. She wasn’t going to like his response, he knew that, but he had no other choice. “My job is to keep you safe.”
Maleea’s eyes narrowed angrily. “Is that all I am to you?” she growled. “A job?”
Kaidan pushed himself to his feet and crossed the room to call up the computer console. “Of course not!” he argued. “But I’m not going to leave you here, injured and alone and unable to protect yourself so I can go check on -”
With this machine currently connected directly to a terminal at the Shadow Broker’s end, the moment it turned on, communications were established. “Injured?” Liara’s concerned tone filtered into the room. Maleea groaned in response. “By the goddess, what’s happened?” A moment later, her image appeared on the screen.
“Nothing important, Blue,” Maleea called out before Kaidan could say a word.
Turning, he cut her off with a sharp look. “There was an attack, Liara.” He took the next several minutes to describe everything that they’d been through in minute detail -- what they knew, what they didn’t, and everything in between. As he spoke, he could feel the tension in the room building. Another quick glance over at Maleea as he finished relaying the information assured him she was the source.
“How badly is she hurt?” Liara asked.
Kaidan walked over to Maleea. Ignoring the glare she directed at him, he pulled up his his omni-tool and started to run the medical scan program he’d been given by Dr. Chakwas. It was an improved version over the one he used in the past with additional adjustments to account for Maleea’s cybernetic implants, bone weaves and other medical changes over the years. Once completed, he hit a couple of buttons which sent the information directly to Liara and one other person. “Can we get Karin in here without it looking suspicious?” he asked when he finished.
“Kaidan!” Her protest was instantaneous, and she started to sit up. The pained groan that escaped her lips wasn’t missed by him or the asari.
“I can’t be both your doctor and your protector,” he reasoned. “And you know as well as I do that Dr. Chakwas can perform a more detailed examination for problems my program won’t pick up.” It might be the most up to date program, but he knew it was far from perfect. And while he had basic medical training, he was no medical professional.
“I just sent a message out to both the doctor and Steve,” Liara assured him a moment later. “I can have her brought in under the guise of delivering supplies. You’re about due for a shipment anyway. A couple of days early won’t be overly suspicious.” To anyone who might be watching.
“But … the kids!” Maleea lowered herself back to the bed. “They’re at the fair right now … we need to make sure they are safe!” Kaidan recognized the nearly desperate look in her eyes. He’d seen it more than a few times in the past during difficult missions. “Go check on them. Please, Kaidan! I won’t have them becoming targets because of me -”
“Shepard,” Liara said in a calm and soothing tone, “relax. I’ve already alerted the Alliance base on Mindoir. Their spec ops units we had put in place before you moved back will be on the ground before we end this call. Teams are being sent not just to your students at the fairgrounds, but to their families’ homes to make certain they’re secure as well. They will be safe.”
Maleea shook her head. “If anything happens to them, it -”
“Won’t be your fault,” Kaidan assured her quickly. “Remember that. None of this is your fault.” She was still shaking her head, denying his response, and he reached for a distant memory, hoping it would help his cause. “Do you remember what you told me after Virmire?”
She sighed and remained silent for a moment before murmuring in protest, “Kaidan -”
But he was adamant. “Do you?”
Reluctantly, she nodded. “I told you that what happened to Ashley wasn’t your fault or mine, but Saren’s. He was fully to blame.”
“Exactly.” Careful not to jostle her too much, he sat on the edge of the bed beside her. His voice dropped, gentler and more intimate. “Leea, this isn’t your fault. Blame lies solely with whoever is behind it, no matter what happens. Remember that.” He placed a finger beneath her chin and urged her to look up at him. “Okay?”
She fought his touch for a moment, but he suspected it was pure obstinance fed by her generally stubborn nature. She was used to being in command and having her orders obeyed without question. He knew this had to be difficult for her, but at the moment it was the only option.
“Kaidan is correct,” Liara chimed in. “And, as for your students, I’m just awaiting confirmation that all is in … ah, there we go.” Liara leaned out of the the viewing area briefly before returning. A moment later, a buzz at Kaidan’s omni-tool indicated an incoming message and he brought it up so they both could see it. “Commander Gantry assures me that all is well with your students. He also informs me that additional units are being sent out to investigate the location where you both were attacked. I don’t expect they will find much, but you never know.”
Maleea appeared to finally relent, resulting in a lessening of tension between them as noticeable as the changing of night to day. A second vibration at his wrist alerted Kaidan to another incoming message. Marked ‘urgent,’ he darted a quick look over at Maleea, but she was lying with her eyes closed. Reading the second message quickly, he found it to be from Liara, informing him that she had asked the Alliance to activate an additional spec ops unit to help keep the area around Maleea’s house secure until the shuttle could get in and out of the area. He responded by looking back over at the computer and nodding once.
From behind him, Maleea replied, “Doubtful, but yeah. Good idea.”
“I agree.” He rose and moved back to sit in front of the console, but he left a line of sight open for Maleea in case she wanted to use it.
“And I’ve just heard back from both Steve and the doctor,” Liara told them a moment later. “They will be in this evening, likely after sunset your time.”
“We should be able to hold out until then,” Kaidan replied.
Maleea began stirring again, and he looked over at her. “You should just contact Jack,” she observed wryly. “Send her and Eezo in. Two for the price of one. They’ll rip the place apart looking for anyone left.”
Liara chuckled. “Ahhh, but then Zaeed will think you are playing favorites, Shepard,” the asari teased.
Maleea laughed, but Kaidan heard the tightness in it. Within seconds, she stopped, breaking off with a hissed curse of pain. “Blue, don’t make me laugh -- it hurts too much!”
He couldn’t stop himself from chuckling, though mostly it was out of relief as Maleea finally appeared to be relaxing as the situation began taking form and shape. “Let us know if anything changes, Liara,” he said, turning his attention back to the console.
“In the meantime, I’ll coordinate with the doctor directly for any treatments Maleea might need before they get here.”
Liara nodded. “Understood. Stay safe out there!”
“Working on it!” Maleea managed as Liara signed off.
Kaidan shut off the connection before returning to sit on the side of the bed. “Now,” he told her, gently chastising her protests as he reached for her shirt again, “are you going to let me assess the damage again before the doctor gets here?”
~ n ~
Maleea bit her lip, wincing as his fingers gently probed at her ribcage, but she distracted herself by teasing back at him, “What’ll you … ouch! … give me in return if I do?”
As he always had when one of the crew was injured in the field during a mission, Kaidan took on a certain level of professionalism. All business, he focused on the injuries and his ability to treat the situation as best he could before Dr. Chakwas could take over. During the years without him on the team, Maleea knew they’d suffered for his absence. Not in any great way, but the reassurance of having someone available to immediately triage and treat a wound on the battlefield was more than just the medical assistance provided. It was a relief -- to both patient and commander as well as the rest of the squad -- that could help get them through the remainder of a mission without losing focus.
Right now, she kept her eyes on his face, looking for any indication she’d gotten past the wall of professionalism he’d constructed. How long has it been? she mused silently. How long since I last saw you like this? London, probably.
A moment later she got her answer and her lips curved upwards when she noticed faintest hint of pink creeping up his neck and cheeks. Gotcha!
“Behave,” he scolded lightly. “You’re in no shape for anything like that at the moment.”
She bit back a laugh, but not in time enough to stop the sharp slice of pain across her chest. She groaned softly and was distracted as he gently pushed the edge of her shirt over her shoulder. As it eased into a lesser ache, she turned her head away from him and murmured, “Yeah.”
Once his initial evaluation concluded, Maleea settled into as comfortable position as possible. Lying still was the best possible option, but finding a position that helped with that was difficult. It might have helped if he’d opted to lie down with her, but he was intent on fulfilling his role as protector. And despite how she wanted to protest it, she reluctantly accepted that, at least for now, she needed it. She was in no way shape or form prepared to protect herself.
The rest of the day passed, at times rapidly -- adrenaline had a habit of speeding things up when unexpected noises could be heard and the senses were on heightened awareness -- and at other times, slower than molasses in winter. (Or so Kaidan told her. Maleea wasn’t quite sure, to be honest.) Boredom joined them for a visit as well, more so for her than for Kaidan, but it was also staggered out with occasional naps when she could tolerate the pain for a time.
Kaidan fixed them lunch after a while and Maleea was startled at how hungry she was. She drifted off for a nap after that, the realization that only two years out of service and finally with her life on the new path she’d chosen, she was more than a little susceptible to having her new schedule and rhythm so completely upended that it left her grasping at fading memories for how she’d dealt with it in years past. The thoughts were more than a little disconcerting.
Chapter 11: Reinforcements
Just as a heads up to everyone: NaNoWriMo begins this week and as over the past four or five years, I will be participating. That means my focus will be on something completely different for the month of November as I work on an original piece of fiction. Though I have some chapters ready for other stories, this one I’m not so fortunate to have further ahead. I will post what I have over the coming weeks, but this one will likely have to wait for Nano to finish before I can get back to it. However, I have several other stories with chapters readily available (Both Dragon Age and Mass Effect), and I have two new stories with enough chapters to get through the month (Both Mass Effect related) that I will begin posting this month as well. I promise I intend to come back to this one just as soon as I can! In the meantime, watch out for the others. (One will be Mass Effect Andromeda, the other will be ShepShep's next installation) Enjoy, and have a great November!
As promised, the shuttle arrived later that evening. At that point, reality shifted from civilian life on Mindoir to something more like their days aboard the Normandy, almost as if it had never changed in the years after the war and removal from the ship. While Dr. Chakwas kept Maleea in the back room to run her medical checks and mend what current issues at hand she could, Kaidan and Steve unloaded the supplies from the shuttle. It wasn’t until the last crate was brought in that Kaidan finally felt himself relax a little.
“This one,” Steve announced with a broad and knowing wink as he carefully set the oversized box in the front room, “is a little something extra from Commander Vega, with his regards. Though he couldn’t be here on such short notice, he is of the opinion you and Shepard might have need of it sooner rather than later.”
Curious, Kaidan stepped over and pulled the lid from the crate … then started chuckling. Leave it to James to make sure they had all any and everything they could possibly need to hold down the fort. Literally. “Better safe than sorry, right?” he murmured as he ran a hand over the stockpile of grenades, several types of ammunition and very carefully selected weapons that were more of a military design than civilian make.
Cortez grinned. “Indeed, sir.”
The sound of carefully shuffled footsteps caught their attention and both men turned to find Maleea moving slowly into the room. She held one arm snugly against her side and the other reaching out and trailing against the wall as she moved. “Oh stop looking at me like that!” she chastised them both gently. “It’s not like I’m at death’s door or anything.”
“One would certainly hope not on my watch,” the doctor added dryly as she joined them, her medical bag in hand.
Kaidan’s eyes met Maleea’s as she came to a stop and leaned heavily against one of the walls. “Should you be lying down?” he asked. Though his eyes were on her, his ears were prepared for the doctor’s response.
“I would highly suggest a long soak in the tub,” Chakwas announced while tossing Maleea another hard look, “and then an early night of it. Other than that, it will just take time.”
“I will be fine,” Maleea repeated. “Besides, the tub’s upstairs.” Kaidan caught a slight grimace as her eyes darted a wary glance over at the staircase.
“I will see that she cooperates, doctor,” Kaidan assured her while moving over to Maleea’s side.
“I have no doubt that you will, Major,” the doctor assured him with a smile. Turning towards Maleea, she added, “Now, see that you mind his suggestions.”
Maleea scowled fiercely, her eyes dropping as both the doctor and Cortez turned to leave. But she did not openly refuse, either, which to Kaidan’s way of thinking went a long way towards indicating just how badly her injuries were bothering her. “I’ll be right back,” he whispered near her ear before turning away to secure the door after Cortez and the doctor. As before, LT and Chief remained outside to keep an eye on things as well.
He returned to her side, sliding an arm around her waist as he nodded towards the steps. “So. About that bath ....”
Maleea’s eyes drifted upwards before turning away. “I will be fine with a shower, Kaidan.” Her voice was soft but almost clipped now, reminding him of the couple of occasions in their past when she’d acted embarrassed around him. “Quick, easy and -”
“Or,” he broke in, shifting to stand in front of her so he could catch her attention fully, “you could do as the doctor suggested and soak for a little while. It might help your ribs and shoulder feel better.”
She frowned and chewed her lower lip, another indication of … what? Discomfort around him? After what they’d been through together in the past twenty-four hours, he couldn’t understand why that would be an issue. “But that would mean -”
Kaidan’s hands, still at her waist, squeezed gently. Her voice trailed off when she looked back at him, and he smiled lazily, winking at her with the slightest hint of mischief in his eyes. He caught her off guard, he could see that by the way she tilted her head sideways. Keeping his eyes on hers, he noticed the moment that realization hit. Her breathing hitched softly, her eyes widening, and he saw her struggle to swallow.
Leaning towards her, he murmured softly, “Trust me.” She hesitated and he waited patiently until she finally nodded, dropping any and all protests. At that point, he returned to her side and led her upstairs.
~ n ~
Running … with feet made of lead. Or maybe it was the boots that were made of lead. It was difficult to tell. What Maleea did know was that she was unable to duck or dodge or even throw herself out of harm’s way like they’d taught her at basic. She couldn’t pick up any momentum whatsoever and speed she did have was awkward and herky jerky, and above all else SLOW. So slow she knew the enemy would catch up to her, overtake her, most likely kill her within moments, if that long. She was too old; they wanted the younger ones. Children who could be implanted, who could be trained to fear retribution and would do what they were told. She had lasting memories of such a child, though she it had been years later that they met ….
Frowning, Maleea stopped and looked around her. Heaving deep, painful breaths, she realized none of it made any sense. She was surrounded by the darkness of an overgrown forest. Charred trees. Falling leaves that looked more like burnt ash. Too many vague shadows and places for people, things, EVIL to hide. But no place for her. No safe place for her to take refuge. No shadows she could call her own when she needed security.
Where are they? she wondered. The ones I fear? This isn’t all a memory, is it? A lifetime of memories, perhaps, most of which are variations on a theme. But if it’s a memory, why doesn’t it feel … right? I don’t hide from evil, from things that scare me or others. I fight back. I make the shadows safe for those who REALLY need them to hide in. I -
Maleea stopped up short, stumbling through the ash and leaves and debris that reminded her of death and destruction. Her head shot around, first to her right and then to her left, searching the ever increasing darkness. She knew that voice. Old, hazy, but familiar nonetheless. She KNEW it!
You’ll be caught!
Turning again, Maleea thought she detected movement out of the corner of her eyes, coming from the shadows, about to leap out and pounce on top of her like a wild varren. She tried to move, to pull free of its grasp, that sickeningly cloying hold of the shadows, but her feet, feeling like lead again, would not move. A quick glance down identified a completely different reason altogether:: the shadows had secured hold around her feet and ankles and were rapidly climbing upwards. They were nearing her knees now, securing her in position. Worse than the lead boots from before. Much, much worse ….
Panic hit. Adrenaline. Old ‘fight or flight’ instinct tried to kick into high gear, but she was unable to obey. With all of her energy, focused solely on the one leg, Maleea managed to pull one up and out of the soupy mass now surrounding her. But even as she moved a step away, she realized it was too late. Gasping sharply, her eyes flew towards the mass behind her … and identified a set of four eyes breaking through ….
~ n ~
Kaidan didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep at first. His intent was simply to lie beside Maleea, offering her what reassurances he could, encouraging her to fall into a deep, healing, restful sleep. His own aches and pains from their earlier accident were minor by comparison and just a reminder that he needed to be vigilant in his duty to protect her. But Maleea had certainly been tired enough to fall asleep almost immediately. Their long soak in the tub together notwithstanding, the aches and pains of their adventures that day had been more than enough to exhaust her, body, mind and soul.
He’d watched as she drifted off. At first, it had gone well as she eased into slow and relaxed breathing. From the moment Maleea had carefully crawled into bed and collapsed, through the moment he moved to lay beside her, his arm wrapped securely around her to help her settle into something of a comfortable position lying half across his chest, he’d noticed her challenging it. Fighting against it. It began with the occasional fidgeting movement against him. It eventually grew to something more. Careful not to do anything that might leave her feeling restrained and make the struggle worse, he continued to hold her. And despite all of it, he wouldn’t have traded it for the world.
Until he heard her cry out. That was what had woken him. The haze of sleep disappearing with the sudden shot of adrenaline to his system. Instinct had his arms tightening around her, his biotics enveloping his hand with a bright flare through the dark in preparation to defend her if necessary … only to realize that the battle she was currently engaged in was one of her own making, a battlefield inside her head. She jerked against him, elbow planting itself in his ribcage just where the seatbelt had tightened against him earlier in the day and reminding him of the pain that would still take a few days to fade. “Leea,” he rasped, hands moving to catch her flailing arms, turning her away from him so that she wouldn’t inadvertently hit him again. “Leea, wake up, it’s just a dream!”
~ n ~
Maleea’s eyes fluttered slowly as Kaidan’s voice gave her a solid anchor by which she could pull herself from the dream. Shuddering, she curled in on herself, stiffening in something resembling a fetal position, as she fought the last clinging strands. She sensed as much as felt him leaning over her, fingers moving slowly and gently to brush her hair back from her face. Another shudder trembled through her, and with it the last shreds of trepidation and alarm fled.
“Better now?” he asked quietly.
She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and bit down on it hard. The pain, nothing by comparison to her injuries sustained the day before, helped her focus. After a minute or two, she managed a short nod. She wasn’t, not really, but he didn’t need to know that. Over the years, she’d kept her personal views on things of this nature completely to herself. If he or any of the others in her crew had figured it out, no one ever said.
Inhaling deeply through her nose, her eyelids fluttered open. She stared straight ahead into the darkness of the room, lit only by the faintest hint of moonlight sneaking past the drawn blinds of the windows. Without shifting her gaze at all, she whispered, “Sorry.”
His voice, strong and sure as always, was like a balm to her. Taking solace in that, she nodded again. “Something like that … yeah,” she admitted after a moment. Inhaling deeply again, she released it on a sigh. Kaidan’s body eased against hers which had the added effect of encouraging her to do the same. “It was just … I don’t know what it was.”
Kaidan remained wrapped around her, but his hold loosened. Still near her ear, he asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”
She couldn’t stop a flinch in reaction, beginning with the creasing of the corners of her eyes and followed instinctively by the jerk of her knees towards her chest. It was silly to think he wouldn’t notice.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to. That’s fine. I just -”
Closing her eyes, she shook her head against the pillow. “No,” she rasped hoarsely.
“No … what?”
She rolled onto her back, finally opening her eyes and looking up at him through the shadows. “It isn’t that I don’t want to talk about it,” she explained, “it’s more that it was so strange, I’m not sure I can talk about it. There are no words ...”
Relief rolled through her at his easy acceptance, and what remaining tension still inside her fled.
“Well, we can talk about something else instead,” he offered. “Your choice.”
He was gone before she could say anything, even protest. He pulled himself into a seated position against the headboard of the bed, a pillow offering support to his back. Once settled, he reached a hand out towards her. She didn’t need to think twice if she would follow, willingly moving up onto his lap. She faced him, straddling his legs and hips and curled herself around his torso so she could rest her cheek against his shoulder.
“Like what?” she asked.
He chuckled, a soft, deep rumbling in his chest that was as promising as protective when his arm tightened around her, holding her close. A tiny part of her, deep inside, was awestruck at the complete sense of security she felt with him like this. She knew he was one hell of a soldier. She’d witnessed that countless times over the years. He was also kind hearted and caring. Again, she’d witnessed that, too. But she’d never really ever had any of it directed at her, let alone under circumstances which were so private and intimate. She was Commander Fucking Shepard -- survivor of the Citadel, of Alchera, even of the Reaper War itself. By rights and reputation, she was afraid of nothing. Period.
Nothing doesn’t take into consideration dreams filled with vague symbolism that leave you clawing for breath ...
“Whatever you want, Leea,” he promised. “I wasn’t kidding when I said it would be up to you.”
She paused a moment, considering his proposition, before pushing herself away from his chest so she could look at him. Squinting through the near darkness, she stared at him for a long minute. Did he realize he what huge can of possible worms he’d opened with it? If he did, he didn’t appear to be nervous or worried about it. “Alright. Why ‘Leea?’” she asked quietly after a minute. “I’ve heard you call me Mal before, like the others do, but no one’s ever called me Leea.”
He reacted as if caught startled by her question, eyes blinking a few times. “I … well, I’m not sure, to be honest.” He hesitated briefly, swallowed tightly, the first sign of being uncomfortable she’d seen, but she remained silent. “I mean, it just sort of … felt right and fit the moment.” He looked away, over her shoulder and in the distance for a brief moment, and when they returned she noticed the smallest bit of worry there. “If you don’t like it, I won’t -”
“I didn’t say that,” she broke in quickly, her hand rising to rest her index finger across his lips to silence him. “Like I said, no one’s ever called me that before. Mom died when I was about six, but I remember her giving Papa a difficult time whenever he’d call me Mal around her. To her I was always Maleea or,” she smiled at him, “Maleea Robyn, if I was in trouble for something. After that it was just us and Papa mostly called me Mal.” Sighing, she lowered her cheek back to his shoulder before continuing. “After I enlisted, I was just called Shepard. Until joining the Normandy, anyway.” She dropped her hand to his chest, lightly caressing small, gentle circles across the muscular planes there. “I think … I like it.”
He was silent for a few minutes and she would have wondered if he’d fallen back to sleep if he hadn’t been echoing her movements with his fingers along her back. It was soothing in ways she recalled from her youth. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he murmured close to her ear, “I’m glad you do.”
Half turning her head so she could look up at him without straining her neck, she found him leaning towards her. Altering her position enough, she met the easy, lazy press of his lips against hers. Sighing into the contact, savoring his touch, his taste, and the general rightness to whatever this was building between them, Maleea slipped her arms around his shoulders.
Kaidan was the first to retreat, but Maleea was able to catch the lobe of his ear between her teeth for a gentle tug before allowing it to slip free. He made a sound at the back of his throat, the kind that pulled deeply at certain parts of her, though she knew he wasn’t about to start anything that would lead to any sort of satisfaction. Still, she wasn’t quite ready to go back to sleep just yet, but if he would remain here, beside her, she might be willing to give it a shot sooner rather than later.
“You should rest,” he murmured after a while and she’d settled back against his shoulder. “Morning will come too soon.”
“You should keep on doing that,” she countered in a more suggestive tone. Lifting her head, she nudged the top edge of her nose along his jaw. “And maybe … more.”
He sighed; she heard the sound as well as felt his shoulders move. “Leea, you need rest, not --”
Pulling back just enough so she could see him eye to eye, she shook her head. The last vestiges of the nightmare were gone now, she was aware of that, and what remained was something else entirely. “I need you, Kaidan.”
His forehead dropped against hers. “Leea, you tempt me, don’t ever think you don’t,” he began.
But she wasn’t in the mood to accept his arguments. “The worst of the bruises will be gone by morning. I’m fine … well, I will be,” she corrected herself, “especially if I have you with me.”
She thought her arguments might have failed until he framed her face in his hands. Gently, easily, he found her lips again. Maleea sighed happily, returning the pressure. But it wasn’t until his hand moved to her lower back and the room around her started to spin just a little she realized he had agreed….
~ n ~
After the attack, Kaidan increased the frequency of his updates with Liara. After their initial conversation, he began checking in at least three or four times daily. Sometimes he had information to pass along, though most was of little value, other times they were simple and brief conversations to assure their asari friend that all was well at their end of things, or that Maleea was well on her way to recovery, or even a chance for him to verify what progress had been made on the investigation.
“I’m afraid there isn’t much to tell,” Liara announced three days after the attack. Kaidan sat at the console in front of the screen with Maleea standing behind him, hands on his shoulders. He didn’t care what it might look like to Liara, but only he was aware that it was more than a simple sign of growing affection between them. Maleea had woken up stiff and sore that morning and none of her usual exercises had helped much in easing that. At the moment he served more as a physical source of support than anything. Though they’d discussed it in depth before coming downstairs for the day, he wasn’t going to deny her being in on the call. Besides, he was well aware that there were times in their years serving together she’d picked up on things he hadn’t and vice versa. A second set of eyes and ears wouldn’t be amiss.
“The investigation into your attackers has reached a dead end.”
Maleea’s fingers tightened almost imperceptibly at his shoulders and he darted a quick glance up at her as she asked, “What do you mean, Blue?”
“The team that came upon the bodies found them to be … well, mutilated, for lack of a better description.”
Kaidan’s eyes returned to the monitor. “How so?” he asked.
“Animals?” Maleea suggested.
It was a good question, but Kaidan found it difficult to think that any of the native wildlife would do such a thing. Though there were some predators out there, none were nearly that vicious.
“No. They look to have been doused in some sort of acid,” Liara explained. “The unit that went to investigate the site obtained a few samples and those were sent off for further testing, but Miranda tells me that whatever was used isn’t a common or naturally occurring substance. And, while there’s limited availability, without more details to go on, there is no way to check who might have obtained it.”
“So … whatever happened was done on purpose,” Maleea mused.
“So it would seem,” Liara agreed.
Again, Kaidan felt Maleea’s fingers flinch. “There is someone else in the area tied in with this,” she murmured.
Kaidan shook his head. “It’s doubtful anyone local would be directly involved, and I highly doubt Rocket Launcher and his buddy knew what would happen should they meet their fates as they did.”
“Would you travel with something like that?” Maleea countered. “Something that could disfigure a body so easily? Even if no one else was involved at this end, whatever they used was waiting for them here.”
The asari’s eyes narrowed. “You have a point,” she agreed after a moment.
Maleea shuddered a little more noticeably this time, and Kaidan rose to his feet. He guided her into the chair to sit before settling hand reassuringly at her shoulder in support. “When you put it that way, it’s hard to argue,” he agreed. Sighing softly, he looked directly at Liara. “From the beginning, when I first brought this to you, we both agreed the person behind it was hiding himself very carefully. He had his tracks so well covered, it took months before we were even sure there was only one person behind it.”
“But who is it?” Maleea asked, frustration evident in her tone. “Before the Reapers, I could probably come up with a list of a dozen or more people who might hold enough of a grudge against me to try something like this. But that was before the Reapers. We all know that most of those people are now long since dead.”
Liara sighed. “I think I’m going to run through that list again, just to be safe,” she announced. “It is possible some of them might have survived. I think I will also see if I can’t get any more information about who might have moved in to fill the power void left behind by those who are gone.”
“How are your contacts?” Kaidan asked. He recalled she’d lost many of them during the War.
Liara shrugged. “Not as extensive as I’d like, but they are pretty good at fulfilling my requests when necessary. Why do you ask?”
Maleea leaned forward in the chair. “I can think of a few people who might be able to help,” Maleea replied. “People who owe me a favor or two.” Liara’s eyebrow arched and Kaidan bit back a laugh. Maleea wasn’t so successful. “Relax, Blue, I’m not trying to challenge the Shadow Broker here.”
“Who did you have in mind?”
“You would have to verify they survived first,” Maleea pointed out, “but I’d think Aria T’Loak, Helena Blake and maybe even Sha’ira would be good places to begin.”
Kaidan saw Liara smile, but she was making note of the names at least. But the smile didn’t go away, and for some reason that he couldn’t put words to, that bothered him. “What’s so amusing?”
“Oh, I was just thinking it was ironic you Aria’s name came up,” Liara explained. “I meant to tell you earlier before we got sidetracked that the Queen of Omega has decided to send you some ‘help,’ in a roundabout sort of fashion.”
Kaidan frowned. “What the hell does that mean?” he asked. He glanced down at Maleea who shrugged.
Liara shrugged. “I told you what she told me. She assured me it was something that would ‘help and not harm,’ though. I found her choice of words to be very … interesting.”
Maleea sighed and sagged back in the chair. “Great, she’s sending us something.”
“No different than James’ gift the other day,” he pointed out, though he wouldn’t alert her that this did make him a bit uneasy. As far as he was concerned, no love was lost where Aria was concerned. Not after her antics during the War.
“Maybe. So, Blue, what are we watching for?”
“A shuttle, from what I understand, due anytime now. Standard issue, she says. It shouldn’t draw any undue interest from the rest of the colony from the sounds of it. Shepard,” Liara added in an almost hesitant tone, “for whatever reason, I think Aria is honestly trying to help.”
“What makes you say that?” Kaidan asked.
“It’s difficult to explain,” Liara admitted. “When I spoke with her, she seemed almost rattled by what I told her had happened. Startled, definitely. When I explained to her, generally speaking, what we thought might be going on, I got the feeling she might have an idea of who is behind it.”
~ n ~
Maleea stiffened and sat up straight. Was it possible? Could Aria know who was after her? “Did she give you any clues?”
Sighing again, Maleea sagged back in her seat and nodded. It wasn’t surprising. She didn’t think she’d ever met anyone who held everything so close to her vest all of the time more than that particular asari did. “Well, maybe whatever she’s sending will have more information with it,” she said, trying to sound hopeful.
Before she could add anything further to their conversation the security system began beeping. The wound was familiar enough -- something was entering the grounds through her security perimeter. “We’ll be in touch, Blue,” Maleea called out just seconds before disconnecting the call.
Moving slowly and stiffly, Maleea rose to her feet to find Kaidan already pulling out two pistols from the armory. “You’re in no shape for the shotgun today,” he reminded her.
Biting back a protest, she simply nodded and accepted the weapon, checking it to make sure it was ready. Nodding at him to lead the way, she followed him out of the back room and through the kitchen where they both turned towards the front of the house.
The yard was wide open when they stepped outside, nothing hinting at any visitors. Still, Maleea knew that the drive from the main road to the house, especially if taken slowly, could take some time. Kaidan descended to the main yard, crossing the open area to approach from that side. Maleea signaled him that she would stay on the porch for the moment and she followed it around the side of the house. By the time she neared the steps, she spotted an unfamiliar but general issue vehicle pulling to a stop. The door opened slowly, but it blocked view of anyone exiting. The first sign of the new arrival exiting the vehicle was a pair of booted feet, but that was about it. A minute later, the door started closing and the rest of a body moved into sight. It was as he turned towards Maleea that a peculiar sense of deja-vu took over. A flash of memory from long ago, tied exclusively to this place, hit her as the shape of their visitor settled before her. Without forethought, Maleea started walking slowly towards him, her pistol hand rising automatically. An ache in the center of her chest blossomed and she relived the last image of her father taking a shot, falling to the ground, Red barking like crazy ….
Two voices spoke as one and echoed inside her head. Maleea recognized the thread of Kaidan’s immediately. Out of the corner of her eye she saw he was prepared, his biotics glowing around one hand while he aimed his pistol with the other.
But it was the other voice that caught her attention. It, too, had the ring of familiarity in it despite the four eyes and ridged head. A different set of memories tickled at her head now, and with them recognition. Batarian. Citadel. Halting in her tracks suddenly, her arm dropping almost as quickly as it had risen, Maleea blinked. The armor was different than she recalled from their last meeting, and she could see the designation of the Blood Pack on the shoulder, but she knew him. “Narl?”
The batarian nodded and took a cautious step closer while Maleea signaled Kaidan to stand down. “It’s okay,” she called over to him before stepping forward. “Narl, what are you doing here?” She looked around, bewilderment suffusing her features as the reality of the moment hit her fully. “And on Mindoir, of all places?”
Narl chuckled wryly. “It was a risk worth taking, Shepard,” he announced. He kept his hands out in the open, glancing over at Kaidan briefly before turning his attention fully onto Maleea. “Aria sent me.”
Again, Maleea blinked. “You?” Help and not harm. It clicked.
“You helped us before; we now have a chance to return the favor,” Narl explained.
Maleea nodded her understanding and reset the safety on her pistol before tucking it into the back waist of her jeans. “Sorry about that,” she told him. “But -”
“No apologies needed, Shepard,” he assured her. “I knew the possibilities when Aria sent me here.”
“Why did Aria send you?”
Maleea and Narl both turned towards Kaidan as he voiced his question. “During the war,” Maleea hurried to explain, “I helped Narl … well, Aria really. There was a power struggle within the Blood Pack.”
“And Aria figured she finally had a way to pay you back for helping her retake Omega,” Narl added. His tone changed, becoming more serious. “Shepard, we’ve come across rumors that a group of pirates out in the Attican Traverse are specifically targeting you.”
Maleea’s eyes closed briefly. Finally, some information. “Any ideas on who exactly or why?”
“A few,” Narl replied. “Aria sent me because we were the ones to stumble across it.”
Eyes open again, Maleea glanced over at Kaidan. “Why don’t we go inside. I suspect this is going to take some time to tell.”
Chapter 12: Chink In the Armor
As I stated last week, I'm eyebrows deep in Nano right now and this is the last chapter I had ready to go. But never fear! I will hop back to it just as soon as Nano is over! In the meantime, I have a couple of new ME stories starting up tomorrow for N7 Day.
Pirates in the Traverse.
As far as colonial threats went, it wasn’t exactly unheard of. Pirates had been the bane of the Attican Traverse for years. Reports of their infamous activities were as common as the daily weather forecasts in these parts. Or nearly. Given her career experience, Maleea would normally have ranked this particular threat down at the lower rungs of the ladder as far as ability to withstand an attack or defend against it went. But that, she knew, was a professional reaction. She’d had years to come learn how to deal with the galaxy’s riff raff, and rumors like this did little to put her on edge.
But now that she was a civilian and Mindoir had to be considered as a colonial whole, however ....
The one and only real nightmare Maleea could not seem to rid herself of about her return to the place of her birth was the idea she might inadvertently bring trouble along with her, and with it, harm to the innocents who made this place their home. More than once she had woken during the night and drenched in sweat, images of the damage and destruction from her past mingling with the faces of the present. Of course, she and Liara had worked tirelessly implementing preventions for this as well as keeping the truth of her identity hidden well away. Zaeed and Garrus had helped with the most up to date gear and tactics for security both around the farm as well as planet-wide. The last thing in the galaxy Maleea wanted was a repeat of the past and she’d thought they were prepared.
But then Liara and Kaidan arrived, and with it an unknown threat targeting her. Narl’s arrival did nothing but reinforce that threat. Somehow, some way, the person behind it had managed to undermine all of the security measures put into place. More than that, it hinted that whoever was behind it knew. Knew who she really was. Knew her location. Knew the security plans put into place. Knew how to get around the secrecy of the Shadow Broker.
Dread started churning in Maleea’s stomach at the thought. Was this ever going to end? How many old grudges against her were left out there? Ticking time bombs simply waiting for the right opportunity and proper fuse to light it off? How many innocents would have to come into the line of fire before enough would be enough? All of this and more would have to be taken under careful consideration before a final battle plan was made.
I am their target. I will always be their target. Nothing I do will ever get me clear ...
Gut instinct was twisting guilt inside her, trying to break it free, but Maleea tamped it back. It wasn’t her fault, she knew that. She KNEW that. Remember Saren and what happened at Virmire? Kaidan’s words stuck with her, a lifeline of sorts to help her maintain her sanity just now. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe the words -- she never would have said them to him in the first place if she hadn’t believed them back then -- but she did not want to be responsible for any harm or destruction brought upon the community that had welcomed her back with open arms. Mindoir had suffered too many times over the years.
I just want my life back! Is that too much to ask?
Shaking off the trepidation gnawing at her heels, Maleea stood at the counter in the kitchen, hands grasping the edge tightly. Narl’s news was disappointing, frustrating, disheartening. And yet, not wholly unexpected. Naive as her wish to fall under a guise of anonymity, both she and Liara had understood it would only survive until someone found out who she really was. Just one person. As soon as that happened, it would spread exponentially and no one would be able to stop it. Neither she nor Liara had doubts it would eventually make it into hands belonging to those who wished her ill. Years of service had turned Maleea into somewhat of a cynic; that cynic now poked at her internally, reminding her this was the expected outcome.
Apparently, that ‘one’ has found out. And it’s now beyond clear someone out there has it in for me. Kaidan was right.
She had her definitive proof. No longer could she protest that Kaidan had merely been misinterpreting intel as he had offhandedly suggested upon his arrival. The threat was indeed real.
The sound of a glass bottle scraping against the hard countertop and coming to rest near her hand brought Maleea’s attention back. Tilting her head up, she found Kaidan standing beside her. A quick puff of cool air wafted off the bottle and across her hand. Taking a long moment, she searched his face, especially his expressive eyes, but she found no insight into his current state of mind concerning the situation waiting for her there. “Thank you,” she murmured, taking the drink. Taking a long pull as she turned back around, her eyes followed his movements across the room as he sat at the table across from Narl. The batarian, too, had accepted a beverage.
Time to get down to business.
“And what is Aria’s interest in all of this?” Maleea asked, though she remained standing, her hip leaning against the countertop.
“You know Aria,” Narl replied. “She has the pulse of everything that takes place on Omega. Since her return, she has complete control. Even the merc groups cooperate with her. Most of them anyway.”
Maleea snorted. “I knew there was more behind her request back on the Citadel.” Kaidan looked confused, but she waved his questioning look off for now. She could explain it to him later. “So, they all returned to Omega after the war?”
Narl nodded. “The only one she still doesn’t have a firm hold over at the moment is the Talons.” He shrugged. “They’ve been quiet, so it isn’t much of an issue.”
Maleea sighed. Probably not, she thought, memories of Nyreen Kandros and her sacrifice returned briefly. All it would take would be a few subtle threats from Aria to whatever poor schmuck had gotten lucky enough to lead the Talons next to keep them in check. As Maleea recalled, the rest of the group had known of Aria’s and Nyreen’s close association.
“So, how did you come across the information regarding me?” Maleea asked, directing the conversation in a different direction. “Pirates in the Traverse are as common as dirt, as the old saying goes. Hardly seems worth bothering Omega’s occupants let alone getting on Aria’s radar.”
Narl nodded. “Maybe,” he agreed, “but despite the chaos Cerberus left behind for Aria to deal with, Omega still attracts just about every sort of illegal activity.”
Maleea nodded her agreement. “Point.”
“Though the names have changed, there are plenty of people willing to bring weapons on to the station and put them up for sale. Most are small time dealers,” the batarian pointed out. “No really big players have moved to the top since the war.”
Maleea heard Kaidan draw in a sharp breath. “Who?” he asked.
Narl’s turned to face him. “All of them. I can name a couple dozen on Omega right now. In reality, there are probably ten times that number. Most run such small operations there’s only one or two people to deal with, which means they can work out of a home just as easily as a shop. Bigger ones take up more space and need warehouses, have a larger client lists, more stock to select from.” He shrugged. “But even then they’re still … what’s that human saying? Small potatoes?”
Nodding, Maleea murmured, “The bigger ones are probably easier to track through quantities sold.” Her eyes now locked onto Kaidan’s. “I’m guessing they aren’t the ones you’re looking for.”
He shook his head before taking a pull from his bottle. “No,” he agreed, “but those smaller ones …”
At Narl’s confused look, Maleea explained, “We’ve had our own intel on someone out there. He’s using very minor associates to purchase a few weapons here, another small batch of weapons there; ammunition; that sort of thing. The one behind it all is pulling together an arsenal big enough for an army, but he’s doing it one weapon at a time. Weapons are purchased and left in a particular place for pick up by another associate -- another small player, but one who can get several of these smaller packages pulled together and sent on to someone higher up the chain and so on until they reach the one at the top.”
“So far,” Kaidan continued, “we’ve only been able to track back to some of these smaller intermediaries. From what we can tell, there’s at least one other level in between, possibly two. We need to get to these people to make substantial progress in identifying who is behind it.”
Narl glanced between them. “We don’t have much in the way of details on the smaller sellers. There’s just too many to track. All we know for sure is there is one pirate running everything,” he told them. “Your ‘one behind it all,’ I’m guessing?”
“Sounds like it,” Maleea agreed with a nod.
The batarian made a grunting sound of agreement. “Why is he after you?”
Maleea sighed. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Narl acknowledged her reply with a grunt, his eyes closing for a moment. Maleea and Kaidan exchanged a quick look before the batarian straightened, eyes popping open again and he turned to face Maleea. “Aria instructed me to offer any and all assistance you need,” he informed her. “You helped her when she needed it, I am to help you in repayment of that debt. My weapon is yours, Shepard.”
Maleea blinked back surprise. “I thought her debt was paid off by the resources she gave the Alliance during the war?” she countered. She was not about to be manipulated into a position where she would end up owing Aria assistance again. Her fighting days were over.
Narl chuckled. “True,” he amended, “but the way Aria figures it is if something happens to you, it ends up leaving her open and vulnerable. Your reputation -”
Maleea groaned. “Do I even want to know how or why she is relying on my reputation?” she muttered.
Narl’s chuckling deepened. “Probably not. Let’s just say it is beneficial for Aria that you stay alive, even if you aren’t actively ‘in the picture’ anymore.”
~ n ~
With the necessary discussions out of the way, a loose plan was developed. Narl would stick around as added support for a while, giving Maleea the opportunity to fall back upon her normal routine of running the farm. There was strength in numbers, after all, and if it gave her a little peace of mind to focus on the farm, all the better.
Still, that meant chores out in the yard and open exposure to anyone who might already be planetside and watching closely. Exposure which Kaidan protested immediately. “Where’re you going?”
His tone was casual as he met her in the front hall, but Maleea heard the truth behind it in his tone. Giving him a long, hard look, she squared her shoulders and replied, “Out to the barn. I’m going to see about kicking some life back into that old beater of a truck, load it up and then head out to feed the cattle. Why?”
He didn’t bar her way exactly, but he stood there, arms folded across his chest in a manner suggesting he wasn’t going to make things easy for her. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea given current circumstances?”
Maleea bit back the immediate retort that sprang to her lips, instead responding, “Kaidan, we can’t stay inside forever. The cattle need tending.”
He stood in silence for a long minute, and Maleea figured he was trying to pick her argument apart piece by piece. It was his usual tactic -- evaluate, analyze, offer alternatives. She fully expected him to come back at her with something. She wasn’t disappointed.
“And what if the people who tried to kill us the other day have friends who are still out there?”
It was a weak argument and Maleea could see he knew it. But the fact that he made it anyway proved to her it was all he had. She stepped over to him and tilted her head so their eyes met. “We will deal with that as it comes,” she said. “If it will make you feel better, we’ll ask Narl to come along. He can be on guard while we do what needs to be done to keep the farm running.”
It took less than a minute for him to buckle under, but it wasn’t without protest. “Look, Leea, I know you’re right about this -”
“But,” he amended, “I have more than just a few concerns.”
Or, maybe he would. Her eyes narrowed and darkened with irritation. “Like what?”
~ n ~
Staring into suddenly blazing green eyes, Kaidan realized very quickly that instead of allowing practicality guide her, Maleea was giving in to … what? Irritation? Frustration? She had a temper, he knew that. He’d witnessed it on multiple occasions, most of which resulted in their ‘discussions’ devolving into varying levels of disagreement between the two of them that could last anywhere from a few hours to several days. It was with that in mind plus his supreme desire for that NOT to be the case this time, that he sought his next words carefully. “Your safety. Not,” he emphasized as he saw irritation smoldering behind green eyes, “because I don’t think you can do this. I know you can. I’ve seen you in action many times over now and you’ve overcome things that would keep most people down. I know exactly what you are capable of.” The smoldering shifted into a holding pattern that bordered on simmering. “But that doesn’t change the fact you are still a target and if you put yourself out in the open they will find a way to attack.”
“Kaidan, I -”
Reaching out, he placed his hands on her shoulders and held firmly. “Leea, I care about you, okay?” he told her. The sincerity in his tone was strong enough that his voice cracked a little. “I have for the longest time. Because of that, the thought of you being in any kind of danger is a bit unnerving.” One of these days he might break down and tell her how much her death over Alchera had affected him, of his reaction upon hearing, of how Anderson had pretty much had to talk him down, but not today. “If anything happened to you -”
Maleea pulled from his touch, folding her arms across her chest in a move that mimicked his earlier one. He saw her irritation flare again, but she remained silent. That was something at least, but it didn’t change the fact she hadn’t agreed. Yet. Reaching for the big guns, he reminded her, “I lost you once, and it almost broke me. After the end of the war, I thought for a while it might have a second time, only more successfully.”
Scowling, she spat out, “I nearly lost you on Mars, but I didn’t let that stop me from -”
Sighing, Kaidan ran a hand through his hair. “Leea, this isn’t some sort of competition! I know you are a fully trained and capable soldier. Had you not been, I doubt you would have survived what happened the other day as well as you did.”
Sniffing angrily, she retorted, “And yet you still don’t think I’m prepared for -”
“I didn’t say that!” Exasperation was working its way into his voice now and Kaidan stopped himself before he said something he would regret, opting to take a few moments to try to pull himself together instead. “Look … what we have together is great. The timing is a little unexpected, but at this point, I’m not going to argue with it. This is something I’ve wanted to explore with you for a very long time. Now that we finally have the chance, it would be nice to think that we will both live long enough for that to happen.”
“But you still don’t think I can take care of myself?” she challenged.
Kaidan sighed. One of the things he’d always loved about her was her stubbornness in the face of insurmountable odds. Little had he ever expected to have it tossed back at him like this. “Didn’t I just say that I thought you could? Look, I’m obviously saying this all wrong or you wouldn’t be misunderstanding me,” he tried one last time. “Plain and simple: I care about you. I’m worried about you, especially outside until we catch the person responsible for this because they clearly have no qualms about trying to attack you on your home ground.” He was at a loss, utterly and completely, and he tossed his hands in the air before grunting in exasperation and running his hands over his face, desperately searching for the right thing to say. “Just … just know that above all else, like back on the Normandy, I have your six. Okay?”
She said nothing but instead turned to leave and his eyes followed her retreating form across the room and out the door. At first, he thought she would leave without further comment, but she stopped and turned back to face him one last time. “I’m going out to take care of the cattle. Come or go as you will, but I’m not about to let whoever is behind this to keep me from living my life.”
~ n ~
Maleea cursed herself all sorts of fool as she grabbed her shotgun off the stand near the front door and stalked out of the house towards the barn. They were down one truck, the other still being at the fairgrounds, but the old clunker that she let the kids use when Shane’s even more beat up vehicle broke down was available. If she could get it to start.
Of all the ridiculous, idiotic, stupid …
Maleea set the weapon on the front seat of the truck as she got in and popped the hood. A quick inspection led her to a loose wire which she fixed. Testing it afterwards, the vehicle started up, loudly if not quite smoothly, and she backed it into the barn.
She’d be damned to hell if she’d allow the insane attempts of a madman or woman keep her from living her life. She was more than capable of taking care of herself -- even Kaidan had agreed on that point -- and she was going to prove it. To him. To herself. To the entire fucking galaxy, if required.
Slamming the door behind her, Maleea moved to lower the back gate so she could start loading the necessary supplies. All the while, she groused and grumbled silently, ignoring stiff muscles and other residual aches and pains of the attack. He didn’t have time for it right now. Besides, life went on. It always had, it always would. She was living proof of that, wasn’t she? She could tuck it away to deal with later, after the daily chores were complete.
Her thoughts were broken by the sound of approaching footsteps. Her first instinct was to reach for her weapon -- until she realized she recognized the weight and sound of the steps. Glancing over her shoulder she found Kaidan approaching. He said nothing, simply moving to her side to help her load the gear into the back of the vehicle. Beyond him, just outside the door of the barn she caught sight of Narl, his attention focused away from them and on the area surrounding the house and barn.
Anger, inexplicable and burning hot, surged through her. Instinct had her moving even before she consciously chose to do so. She took a step back, raising her foot and caught it beneath the tailgate kicking it upwards before using it to slam it shut.
At least that was the plan. Kaidan must have caught on to her intention because he jumped out of the way quickly enough, and Narl must have been warned because he didn’t even glance in their direction when things started banging. But in the process Maleea somehow misjudged her timing, or the speed of the tailgate, or maybe she was so overtaken by her frustration that her foot missed connecting with the metal completely and it slipped. Instead, it caught on the lower edge of the bumper, but at an odd angle which left her heel wedged awkwardly, and she couldn’t pull it free fast enough as she pitched forward. She threw her arms forward to catch herself, but before she made contact strong arms slid quickly around her waist. There they grasped hold, lifting her high enough she could work her boot free, then lowered her to the ground again.
The moment she had both feet on the ground, Maleea spun around to face Kaidan. She inhaled sharply, fully prepared to read him the riot act for interfering … until she realized he was just standing there, hands at his side, relaxed look on his face. For everything that had just happened -- and she could see in his eyes he wasn’t unaffected by any means -- he was standing there as if he was waiting for her to lay into him like a drill sergeant would to a raw recruit.
“Shit!” she hissed, turning away so she wouldn’t have to look at him for a moment. She wanted to rant and rail and curse up a blue streak at him for what he’d done, but the truth of it was she couldn’t. Not when she understood why he’d acted as he had. Arm shooting out, she pounded the nearby wall as hard as she could while releasing a loud growling grunt. Only then did she turn back to face him.
Their eyes met slowly, and the first thing Maleea noticed was that the concern he’d showed earlier had now been replaced by a neutral mask. It made sense, she supposed, and surprisingly, it helped drain the rest of her temper. “Christ, Kaidan!” she hissed, shaking out her injured hand twice and wincing before peeking down at it to make certain it was okay.
He took a step towards her, his arm lifting in an automatic motion she recalled so well from their years serving together as his medical scan program surveyed her limb. “Nothing broken,” he announced a minute later.
Sighing, she wiggled her fingers, opening and closing her fist a time or two, to prove his evaluation to her own eyes. “Get in the truck,” she muttered, starting to turn away. She stopped when she caught the look of surprise on his face. “What? You proved your point -- and you didn’t even have to get me out into the fields as a target to do so,” she pointed out. She waited a heartbeat. “Or did you change your mind about going with me?”
“Not on your life,” he replied. Not surprisingly, there was no hint of humor in his words.
~ n ~
By now Kaidan was used to life on the farm and save for the occasional unexpected issue, attacks by unknown enemies notwithstanding, he was reasonably assured he could handle anything that came their way. Narl, on the other hand, had some catching up to do. It didn’t take much in the way of observation to realize the batarian had little to no experience with anything like he found here. While he and Maleea fed the animals, Kaidan kept his eye on the batarian for his reactions. More often than not, he had to bite back a smile or amusement, too.
The first field they went to, Narl remained in the bed of the truck, refusing to come down. He claimed it gave him a better angle to keep an eye on things, but Kaidan suspected it was more a fear of the unknown animals keeping him there. By the time they were finishing at the second pasture, Narl ventured down long enough to make one circuit around the vehicle, remaining close enough to leap back in at sudden notice if he had to. By the end of their trip, however, he set his weapon aside for a few minutes and assisted Maleea in feeding the animals.
They were heading back to the house with Maleea driving when Kaidan said, “I’m guessing you didn’t grow up on a farm.”
Narl shook his head. “I was born and raised on Omega,” he said. “You never let anyone get this close to you. You’d be dead before realizing it was too late.”
Maleea chuckled softly. “I’m sure it’ll take a little getting used to.”
He nodded, continuing, “I’ve heard of such things, of course. Other Blood Pack members who worked out in the Traverse came back with tales, that sort of thing, but I’d never seen it myself. Do you really eat those things?”
Kaidan grinned. “Indeed we do.”
“A lot happens between the raising and serving them up on a table,” Maleea was quick to interject. “I raise them. When they’re full grown, I sell them and the buyer takes it from there. The only time I come back into contact with it is when I’m at the store buying dinner for the week.”
“Which she then pushes off on me to cook,” Kaidan added dryly. Maleea flashed him a quick smile.
“Which, funnily enough,” she concluded, “is on the menu tonight.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten real meat,” Narl admitted. “I’m more used to the types of things you’d find on Omega.”
The vehicle started to slow and Kaidan was distracted from responding. “Something wrong?” he asked when he found Maleea frowning down at the dashboard. The truck came to a complete stop as he finished speaking.
“Flat tire, I think,” she replied.
After the incident a few days earlier, this was more than enough to put Kaidan on full alert. He shared a quick look with the batarian who nodded back at him. “Wait here,” he said, opening the door. “I’ll take a look.”
Narl followed him out of the truck. “Keep an eye out while I look around,” Kaidan said quietly. “It could just be a flat, but …”
“Too much of a coincidence?” Narl finished.
Kaidan nodded. “Yeah.” He turned away and was just rounding the back end of the truck when he heard the batarian’s safety click off. It was enough to cause a shiver to ripple along his shoulders. How much more surreal can this situation get than this? he wondered.
“What do you see?”
Kaidan dropped to his knee beside the back tire as Maleea stuck her head out of the window and spoke. “Definitely flat,” he replied. He ran his hand over the tire lightly, pausing when it caught against something unexpected. It was in too far for him to see easily, but after a brief struggle he was able to pull it free. Frowning, he rose to his feet. The thing was small -- no bigger than his thumb, really -- and reminded him of an old child’s toy he’d once had when young. Only, this one had longer protuberances filed sharp to penetrate through even the thickest of materials … like rubber tires. “Shit!”
He walked over to show Maleea the device. “Caltrop,” he said. “Military grade, too.”
“A weapon favored by many pirates,” Narl added as he joined them. He took it in hand to examine it. “I’ve seen some like this before.”
“Recently?” Kaidan asked.
The batarian shook his head. “No, years ago. They were replaced by a newer style that was loaded with small explosive devices.” Both pairs of eyes blinked as he looked at Maleea and Kaidan. “I believe your saying is, ‘More bang for your buck?’”
Kaidan sighed and nodded, ignoring Maleea’s outburst for the moment. Turning, he glanced behind them then reached for his omnitool. “No one in the immediate area,” he said as he pulled up a localized radar display.
“Probably waiting for us to go walking into their ambush,” Maleea muttered. “This is the only road leading between the fields and home and there’s a perfect spot up ahead.”
That gave Kaidan a moment of pause and he scanned their surroundings. They had two options as far as he could tell. The first was to do like they had the other day and cross through the fields, putting themselves more or less in the open where anyone could shoot at them and they’d have no place to take cover. The other was to keep moving along the road, entering a wooded area less than a half mile ahead. While not hilly or as densely forested as some parts of the area, there would be plenty of good hiding places among the trees for anyone watching for them. It screamed ambush. “Shit, they’re herding us,” he said after a moment.
“Like my cattle,” Maleea agreed.
“Poor cover is better than no cover at all,” Narl offered, nodding in the direction of the trees.
“We have no idea how many there are,” Kaidan pointed out. “And they’ll be waiting for us.”
The door to the truck opened with a metallic creak and Maleea slipped out of the vehicle, her shotgun in hand. “Better than being a moving target,” she replied. “This way we’ve at least got a chance to defend ourselves.”
“With no armor and only basic weapons?” Narl asked.
A slow smile curved at Kaidan’s lips. Walking towards the back of the truck, he opened the lockbox secured to the bed and reached inside. They might have an advantage with their training, but without the proper tools it wouldn’t do them much good. “Not quite.” He handed a military grade shotgun to Maleea who, upon seeing it, passed it over to Narl. Kaidan grabbed another like it for himself as well as a small supply of grenades. All were part of the special shipment Cortez had dropped off. The first thing Kaidan had done was to make sure that all of Maleea’s vehicles were supplied. Just in case.
Maleea reached a hand over. “I’ll take a few of those, please.”
~ n ~
“You realize you owe me a truck,” Maleea murmured to Kaidan as they cautiously made their way towards the forested area.
“This is my fault now?”
She smirked. “I still have a farm to run, you know,” she reminded him, “and I’m down two trucks in less than a week. Three if you count the one the kids took.” She slowed, waving Kaidan and Narl off the side of the road. They were within a few hundred yards of the wooded area now. Maybe walking in the ditch would give them some sort of cover. “Anything showing up?”
“No,” Kaidan replied, turning his arm so she could see the display, “but I’m definitely encountering some sort of jamming frequency now.”
“So they are here,” Narl said.
Sighing, Maleea nodded. “Not that I didn’t think they were, but …” She chewed on her lip for a moment. “God! I swear it’s like fighting the geth all over again.”
“And we never did find a way to counter that,” Kaidan agreed.
“If Tali couldn’t come up with anything, I doubt anyone else could except Legion,” she reminded him, “and by then we had other things to worry about.” She ran a hand over her face. “We have no other option but to walk straight in. If they’re trained at all, they’ll be ready for us whichever way we go.” She lifted her hand and pointed to the right side. “They’ve got a good, open view of the fields from there.” Her hand moved left. “And they can’t miss us on the road from that side.”
“If you stay close to me I can give you some protection with my barrier,” Kaidan reminded her.
Maleea nodded. She’d already been planning on that. “What about you, Narl?”
The batarian grinned over at her, a surprisingly scary vision in the lessening daylight and the sun right behind him as the shadows played with his features. She had to swallow back a remembered panic, dating back to her youth, to keep from turning and running in the opposite direction. “I’ll be fine,” he replied, and a moment later Maleea caught the briefest shimmer shift and shields enveloped him. “I can take point, if you want,” he added.
Maleea nodded. “Probably best if you do,” she agreed. She was half tempted to launch a grenade ahead of them just to see if they couldn’t flush out anyone or thing that might be waiting, but she didn’t. While it might be a good deterrent, it would, ultimately, give their position up as well as alert their opponents what other tricks they might have in store. Sighing softly, she said, “Let’s go.”
~ n ~
Maleea dropped behind the thick trunk of a tree as she reloaded her shotgun. “How many left?” she called over to Narl.
“Four by my count,” he replied. “One to our right, one to the left and two at varying distances ahead of us.”
“Can you estimate their distance?” Narl was in the best position of the three of them to scout out their attackers.
“The two ahead are between one and two hundred yards out,” he offered. “That’s the best I have right now.”
“Want to ‘go to bat?’” Kaidan asked as he moved over and dropped behind the tree next to her.
Maleea’s lip curled into a grin at the memories that phrase brought back. She was about to ask if he had the biotic strength left to launch the attack when she looked over to see him take a bite of an energy bar he’d fished from his pocket. That, too, brought back memories. He’d never gone into battle without a few tucked away in his gear so he could recharge when necessary. Apparently, that still held true when wearing civvies. She nodded. “Yeah, let’s do it. Narl, take cover!”
Rising to her knee, Maleea waited for Kaidan to position himself so he could get an eye on the targeted distance. When he nodded, she pulled the pin on one of the grenades and tossed it into the air in front of him. Kaidan caught it in the biotic field now extending from his hand and launched it forward with the force of a Throw. Both of them quickly dropped behind their respective tree trunks before any debris from the resultant explosion could reach their location.
“Got one,” Narl called over. “Maybe both of them.”
In the distance, Maleea heard the shouts and cries of pain echoing around them. “Sounds like two,” she agreed, noting the differences between voices. “Where’s the next target?”
A shot flew in from their left, hitting the tree Maleea was behind and splintering part of the trunk. She flinched automatically, pain shooting up through her arm, but otherwise remained silent. “Left it is,” she grunted. She wasn’t sure if it was debris from the tree or if a shot had made contact, but whatever it was hurt. A quick look identified blood seeping into her shirt.
“I don’t see him,” Narl warned.
“Neither do I,” Kaidan added.
Not for the first time, Maleea wished Kasumi and her tactical cloak were around to sneak in and do some quick reconnaissance. “Best guess?” she asked.
Before either could answer, however, a shout from the right side caught them all off guard. Maleea turned quickly, eyes searching through the shadows and branches, but she couldn’t see anything. “Narl?”
“No idea,” the batarian replied. “Sounded like someone going down, but … how?”
There was a rustle of movement beside her as Kaidan joined Maleea behind her tree and pulled her into the safety of his biotic barrier. “Wrong step?” he suggested.
Maleea snorted. “We should be so lucky.” She saw his eyes focus on her arm, but she shook her head. “It’s not bad,” she told him, lying only a little.
“Too bad we don’t have a varren,” Narl added.
“You don’t suppose LT got loose?” Kaidan asked. Clearly ignoring her words, he pulled up his omnitool and ran a quick medical scan on her arm.
She jerked her head around to look at the results of the hit herself and was relieved to find it wasn’t a shot that had made torn through but a large splinter from the tree. It could wait until later. Shaking her head in response to Kaidan’s question, she said, “Chief would be with him and, as usual, barking up a storm. They don’t go anywhere unless it’s together.”
More rustling could be heard, this time closer to their position. Adrenaline shot through her and Maleea raised her shotgun as Narl and Kaidan both followed her example. Minor injury or not, she wasn’t about to let it become worse. Not without a fight.
“Hey, now, Lola, don’t be taking potshots at your friends!”
It took a second to register, but when it did, Maleea sagged back against the tree in relief. “James!”
Lieutenant Commander James Vega, Systems Alliance, N7, appeared as if out of thin air, crouching behind the tree near her and Kaidan. “I thought you retired?” he quipped, winking at Maleea.
She snorted. “They obviously didn’t get the memo.”
“How many left?” Kaidan asked.
“Just the one,” Vega replied, nodding to their left. “About sixty feet back.” He winked at Maleea before asking, “How about you let me go to bat this time, hmm?” With a half laugh, Maleea nodded, repositioning herself so she wouldn’t interfere with their aim.
Within minutes, it was done.
“You’re sure that’s it?” she asked.
Vega nodded. “You got most of them before I got here. And, sorry about the delay,” he added, shoulders shrugging in a typically Vega-esque sort of way. “My extraction team was late.”
He rose and offered her a hand which Maleea accepted. She barely reached his shoulder when standing next to him in full armor, and now that she only wore civilian clothing, she was sure she looked even smaller. “I’m surprised to see you here at all, to be honest,” she replied. “But grateful nonetheless.”
“Yeah, about that.” His eyes met hers and Maleea noted the seriousness in them. “We need to talk, Lola.”
“Who is ‘Lola?’” Narl asked as he walked over to join them.
Maleea chuckled, ignoring a spasm of pain through her arm as a result. “James used to call me that back when I was his commander,” she explained. “Vega, Narl is --”
Vega nodded. “It’s okay, Lola. We’ve met a time or two before,” he replied. He nodded a quick greeting over at the batarian. “Glad we’re on the same side, amigo. Again.”
Vega turned his attention fully onto Maleea. “Is there someplace we can talk?” he asked.
Maleea nodded. “The farm, but we’ll have to hoof it back. I’m fresh out of vehicles,” she added with a sigh.
“Don’t worry about it, Lola,” he replied, winking at her. “I’ve got a shuttle nearby.”
“And my truck?” she asked, hands on hips.
He shrugged again. “Narl and I’ll come back later and get it.”
Chapter 13: Lowdown
Sorry for the delay in getting back to this one! I've been stuck on this latest chapter for, well in all honesty for years. The reason I stopped the first attempt at posting this story was because I couldn't quite get this chapter to work. That said, I finally had a breakthrough last week! So, we're back at it. There may still be some posting delays as I get the last few chapters worked up, but they shouldn't be that substantial. In the meantime, enjoy!
Returning to the house, Kaidan guided Maleea to the kitchen table. “Stay here. I’m going to take care of that first,” he insisted quietly while nodding at the injury she’d received. She lifted her head, mouth opening to resist, and he quickly noted the signs of exhaustion and stress around her eyes. James’ unexpected arrival was a relief, but Kaidan was willing to bet it, too, threw her off kilter more than she wanted to admit. When combined with the rest, was it any wonder? “Sit. I’ll be right back.”
Releasing her, he gathered her weapons along with his own and deposited them into the security of the armory in the back room. He didn’t miss that she made no protest -- yet another clue to her current state - sinking into the seat before he was halfway across the room. A quick side trip to retrieve the first aid kit, he returned to the kitchen to join the others where James was already starting in on his explanations while grabbing a beer for everyone. Setting the medical supplies on the table, Kaidan gratefully accepted his with a nod of thanks, then sat next to Maleea, his attention focusing on the damage to her arm.
“Admiral Hackett got an urgent message from Doc after the last attack,” James told them as he took a seat. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, continuing, “I was already out on assignment, but he had one waiting for me when my team and I were extracted. Told me to hightail my butt over here to make sure you were okay.”
Kaidan’s eyes focused on Maleea’s injury, but he didn’t miss the rolling of hers in response to James’ announcement.
“Hackett just wants me alive to show up for the anniversary,” she muttered irritably.
Remaining silent, Kaidan opted to focus on his medical duties rather than give his opinion on the matter. Vega was on his own for the moment.
“Now, Lola, don’t sell the man short,” Vega countered. “Yeah, he’d like you there. Hell, we all would, in case you haven’t figured it out, but this is something else. Even you gotta admit, the idea someone’s been holding a grudge against you for so long is a bit scary. Guess it was too much to hope anyone that loco would have been taken out by the Reapers, huh?”
Maleea snorted and nearly choked on her beer. Kaidan stopped tending her arm until she was still again. “Yeah,” she managed after a moment.
“As Hackett sees it, the main problem is we don’t know who’s behind it,” Vega continued.
Kaidan nodded over at Vega. He’d floated the idea of having the N7 on Mindoir to the Admiral before he and Liara arrived but the Admiral informed him Vega was unavailable. Still, his arrival was as timely as it was appreciated. Not only would it give them another set of eyes to keep a look out for anything unusual, but having another N7 in the know helped in other ways. “How long are you staying?” Kaidan asked.
“Hackett gave me orders to stick around until it’s all over and you’re in the clear.” He pushed himself back in his chair and crossed his arms, tossing a casual wink in Maleea’s direction. “So, you’re stuck with me again, Lola, like it or not.”
~ n ~
It wasn’t too difficult to sort out sleeping arrangements for the night. Concerned, or perhaps hopeful, that Liara might contact them with an update, Maleea insisted taking the back room and Kaidan agreed. That left the two guest rooms upstairs for Narl and Vega which, according to Vega and quickly followed by a nod from Narl, suited their purposes well enough. Extra eyes, multiple angles, and elevation was always a good idea in situations like this, no matter the state of the art security in place.
Exhausted, Maleea left it to Kaidan to show Vega and Narl where to find things, and he was more than happy to do so. Narl took the room with a long range view down the main drive up to the house. Vega took one that opened out the opposite side.
“Did Hackett have any new ideas on who might be behind this?” Kaidan asked as he dropped some towels and a blanket on the bed in Vega’s room.
Vega shook his head as he pulled a shirt over his broad shoulders. “Not that he told me,” he said. “Though, he did seem surprised by your pal showing up.”
“Pal? Oh, you mean Narl?”
Vega nodded. “The admiral seemed to think Aria’s debt was already paid in full,” he added.
Kaidan nodded. “That’s what I was thinking too, but Shepard didn’t seem surprised.” He shrugged.
Footsteps just behind him alerted them both to the batarian’s arrival in the room. “Aria didn’t say it in so many words,” Narl explained, “but I think this was something personal. In return for something Shepard did for Aria when they were kicking Cerberus off Omega.”
Vega snorted. “Yeah, probably.”
“Still doesn’t help us narrow down who’s behind this,” Kaidan reminded them, “and it’s clear they’ve got their eyes set on Shepard.”
“Tomorrow,” Vega said, “Narl and I will go scout around. Make sure there’s nothing moving in too close, see if we can’t find any other clues left over from today.”
Narl traded a quick look with Kaidan. “Can you keep her from leaving the house?”
Kaidan nodded. “I’ll find a way to distract her,” he promised. He ignored Vega’s sudden coughing fit and left the room.
Returning downstairs, he entered the back room to find Maleea fast asleep on the bed. He paused a moment to just watch her, sprawled out on her back, breathing deeply. As much as he wanted to crawl into bed beside her, he decided not to take any chances bumping into her injured arm and instead took a seat in the desk chair. One night of discomfort would be worth it if it meant she slept well.
~ n ~
The expected call from Liara came near dawn shortly after Vega and Narl headed out for the day. Kaidan responded quickly, accepting the call with one hand while rubbing the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes with the other. “Hey,” he greeted her softly, voice still rough.
“Did I wake you?” Liara asked, brow narrowed in concern.
“Not really.” He moved to his left so she could see Maleea still asleep on the bed. “Have you found out anything new?”
Liara shook her head. “Our friend is very well hidden,” she replied in a quieter tone. “I’ve been able to eliminate two possibilities, but that still leaves three others, and each is taking too much time to investigate.”
“There’s still the chance it’s someone else,” he muttered.
“Exactly. I have the follow-up report from yesterday’s attack,” she continued.
Kaidan leaned toward the monitor, an expectant look on his face. “And?”
“Like last time -- bodies were mutilated, there’s nothing left to help us identify anything about them.”
He sighed heavily and rubbed his hands over his face. “Vega and Narl just left to take a good look around,” he told her. “I’m sure they’ll start there and take a look for themselves.”
“I doubt they’ll find anything different, but I’ll alert the commander in charge to expect them.” Liara turned away for a moment. “How is she doing?” she asked, bringing her attention back to him.
Kaidan glanced over his shoulder at Maleea. She was still resting, breathing evenly. “She took a hit to her arm, but it’s a flesh wound. I doubt she’ll require any additional treatment to it.”
When Liara’s voice trailed off, Kaidan looked back at her. “Yes?”
“I was just thinking. The colony fair is still going on for a few days yet, and I know Mal’s worried about her students. Do you think I should have the spec ops units alert them it should end early?” Liara pulled her lip between her teeth and started to worry it, a move not unlike Maleea used at times.
“No,” he replied, shaking his head to reinforce his decision. “I don’t think anyone else is in danger. Whoever is behind this is just after her.”
“So far,” Liara argued. “What if they decide to take hostages to force her hand?”
Kaidan shook his head, but he considered the idea before speaking. “I don’t think they will,” he finally replied. “Look at the attacks so far -- both have been well away from groups of people or anyone even loosely connected to her. No, I’m getting the impression this is some kind of personal vendetta. Whatever the reason for it, he or she is gunning for Maleea specifically.”
“So, a code of honor, maybe?” Liara frowned. “I can’t say we’ve ever come across anyone like that during our years with her. Alliance-specific targets at times, yes, but not really anyone who refused to pull innocents into the mix. Even Cerberus, as you recall, used that tactic a number of times, especially in the early years. And later --”
“This isn’t Cerberus.”
Liara gasped softly and Kaidan turned to find Maleea half propped up in bed on her good arm, green eyes bright and alert.
“You don’t think so?” Liara asked.
She shook her head. Slowly sitting up, she eased out of the bed and padded over to stand behind his chair. “Morning, Blue.”
“Good morning. Why don’t you think it’s Cerberus?” she asked.
“First, almost anyone left behind was lower level and wouldn’t hold that kind of a grudge,” Maleea said. “Second, if it was, they wouldn’t care about collateral damage. You’re right -- Cerberus has taken hostages before. We all saw what they did to Admiral Kahoku. But we also saw their tactics change with the coup attempt on the Citadel where they put anyone and everyone at risk.” Inhaling deeply, she shook her head again. “This isn’t Cerberus. It doesn’t fit. I think Kaidan’s right -- I think it’s someone with a personal grudge against me for whatever reason.”
Liara pursed her lips and glanced to her right off screen. “I still want to check the last few names I have on this list.”
“Don’t waste your time, Blue. It isn’t them.” Rolling her neck slowly, she sighed when it popped. “How many does that leave you with?”
Liara frowned. “None, actually.”
“Then we’re no better off than when I first arrived?” Kaidan asked.
“Aria said she had a few names for me, but I haven’t seen them yet,” she said. “I think I’ll give her a call after we finish here.”
Maleea chuckled. “Good luck with that, Blue. Perhaps the Shadow Broker can force her hand where I couldn’t.”
Liara grinned back at her. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”
The screen went dark and Kaidan turned to give her his full attention. “How do you feel?” he asked, his eyes traveling to the bandaged arm.
Maleea removed the bandages and gave the wounded area a look. “It feels fine,” she replied. “What’s your professional opinion?”
Kaidan inspected it briefly. There was barely even a mark where the shot had penetrated her skin. When he sat back, he shook his head. “This cybernetics thing amazes me,” he muttered.
Smiling, Maleea stepped closer to him, straddling his legs and sitting on his lap. “I thought healing quickly is a good thing?” She leaned in to kiss his lips. “Or are you just upset you don’t get to play doctor for as long?”
Kaidan rolled his eyes, but her response, a soft, honest to goodness belly laugh, meant more to him than anything. “Could be,” he teased. Helping her to her feet, he stood next to her. “Vega and Narl are heading out to check the area and scout around,” he said, changing topics. “I’m thinking you and I need to go back over the ‘early years’ to see if we’ve missed any other potential threats.”
Maleea dressed as quickly as she could before following him into the kitchen. “I don’t know who we could have missed. You and Liara know just as well as I who we’ve run into over the years and --”
“What about prior to our meeting on the Normandy?” he asked. Entering the room first, he headed towards the fridge to pull out the makings of breakfast.
Maleea frowned. “That information is available in my Alliance and N7 records,” she pointed out. “I’ve no doubt you both had that from Admiral Hackett long before you decided to come here and warn me.”
“Well, it has to be someone, and we already are on a short list thanks to either you dealing with them previously or the Reapers finishing it.” He started bacon in a pan on the stove before turning to scramble some eggs. “I’m fresh out of ideas.”
Maleea sighed softly and dropped into a chair at the table. “So am I.”