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Temperamental Weather

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That last morning of shore leave, Kaidan awoke to a pre-dawn sky and a gnawing sense of anxiety. Shepard was already out of bed, and judging from the absence of her running shoes by the door, already off on her morning run. In just a few short hours, they'd board the Orbita and fly out to Arcturus Station. She’d reserved one of the ship’s private cabins so they could spend as much time together as possible; one last treat before getting back to business on the Normandy.

He stood slowly, yawned, and stretched. He briefly considered lacing up his own running shoes, trying to catch up with her. But his stomach rumbled almost as soon as the thought crossed his mind, reminding him that his biotics demanded breakfast. By the time Shepard was back, she’d need to eat too.

This past week with her had been better than he could have imagined. They’d rented a little cottage in the foothills of the Cascade mountains, several hours south of Vancouver, just the two of them. They spent their days exploring the forest around them, hiking the trails, swimming and kayaking in the nearby lake. They spent their evenings watching old vids, cuddling, talking, making love. They'd grown even closer than before, getting to know each in a way they couldn’t on the ship, with everyone around and everything going on. They had time to catch their breath. She'd started letting her guard down. She talked a little about her life on Mindoir and showed him the photos she had of her family. He learned she’d once had a little brother, seven years younger than her, with their dad’s green eyes and their mother’s knack for science. He’d started getting comfortable, learning to trust this thing they had. He’d told her stories from his childhood, his college days, his first years with the Alliance. He learned new ways to make her laugh. She learned that she could make him squirm and giggle by nibbling very gently on his ear. There’d been bumps along the ways - misunderstandings, anxieties - but they were getting better and better at dealing with them as they came up.

But just as they were getting used to this new state of things, another change was on the horizon.

They'd carefully avoided talking about what was next for them, the two of them. Occasionally one of them would say something about the Reapers: how the alpine-scented air and blue skies made it hard believe that somewhere out in dark space, monstrous machines lurked and planned their destruction. How unsure they were of what the next step was. Or one of them would say something about Ash, what she’d say if she were there with them, or anywhere at all. But mostly they focused on the present. Mostly they focused on each other.

Still, the question had weighed on his mind. How were they going to handle being back on the Normandy? What were they to each other, exactly, now? It had been one thing to put it away and wait for shore leave while they were hunting Saren. But that night before Ilos had muddled things. He was pretty sure most of the crew knew about them - had known, actually, well before that night. It had been hard enough keeping it separated from duty then. But now, after that night, after thinking he’d lost her when Sovereign fell, after this week together…. What was her plan, exactly? What did she want?

He trudged out to the kitchen and peered into the refrigerator. It was mostly empty, at this point. A few eggs, some bacon, a tiny bit of milk and slab of butter. Just enough coffee beans left to make a few cups. One orange. He could make it work.

The bacon was frying in the pan when Shepard got back. She waved at him and grabbed her water bottle from the counter, downing it as she made her way to the bedroom. A few moments later, he heard the shower start.

He’d just finished pouring their coffee when she re-emerged, hair damp and smelling of soap.

They took their breakfast in the living room, sitting side-by-side on the leather sofa where they could watch the sunrise through the picture window. For along time, neither spoke. They just sat together, sipping coffee, watching the day start.

“How’s your run?” he asked after awhile.

“Fine,” she answered, but her voice sounded distant. He glanced over at her.

She’d barely made a dent in her breakfast. When she noticed him looking, she stabbed at the scrambled eggs on her plate with a look of grim determination.

"That bad, huh?" He asked, raising an eyebrow and quirking his mouth in a slight grin.

She took a rather forced looking bite. "What?" Then she grimaced. "Shit, sorry, Kaidan. Breakfast is fine. I mean, good. It’s good. It's great. It's all great."

"Uh-huh. Real convincing."

"Sorry. Guess I'm just distracted," she offered with a small smile.

“Oh?” he teased, “Is it my ruggedly handsome good looks?”

She leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on his cheek. “Always.”

“Seriously, though. Something bothering you, Shepard?” As soon as the words left his mouth, he winced inwardly. They were headed back to the Normandy, back to keeping the galaxy safe, back to the world outside this little cottage. Of course there was something bothering her: the Reaper threat, the geth, the heavy burden that went along with being the first human Spectre.

For once, she didn't correct him with a bemused-yet-tired, “Alira, right?” She just stared into her coffee, frowning. “Not sure how the meeting with the brass tomorrow is going to go.”

“Hopefully they’ve got a lead for us to investigate by now.” He took a bite of bacon. “Maybe a recon team’s uncovered something on Ilos that’ll help point the way forward…..”

“How do you figure out a race of massive, hyper-intelligent, dark-space-dwelling machines’ Plan B for galactic genocide?” She gave a rueful laugh. “Or is it Plan C at this point? …Plan D?”

He abandoned his plate on the coffee table and turned towards her. “At least the Alliance knows what we’re up against, now. They know the threat is real.”

She frowned and put her plate down beside his.

He reached over, traced circles on her back. She sighed and scooted closer, relaxing into his touch.

“At least I’ve got you by my side,” she said.

He kissed the top of her head.

“The shuttle-car will be here to take us to ‘Port in twenty minutes. I should probably finish packing,” she said, checking her ‘tool. She stood up and began clearing their dishes.

He collected their coffee mugs and followed her into the kitchen. No point in putting it off any longer, he thought. “Alira…”

“Yeah, Kaidan?” She rinsed their plates and placed them in the dishwasher. He followed suit with the coffee mugs.

He pursed his lips, trying to compose his thoughts. The last thing he wanted to do was botch this conversation. “Do you think we should talk… about us? And what we want to do about working together, going forward?"

“Yeah. Okay.” She cocked an eyebrow at him and started running the dishwasher. “Let’s talk,” she said as she slipped out of the kitchen.

He followed her out. “It’s complicated now, isn’t it?”

“Is it?” She began gathering the stray data-pads strewn across the living room.

“Maybe even more complicated than it already was. Now we're..." He searched for the right word. "Now that we've had this time together."

“Hm.” She ducked into the bedroom, data-pads tucked under her arm.

He trailed after her, feeling a little like he was giving chase.

“Fifteen minutes, Kaidan.”

“Huh?”

“’Til the shuttle-car gets here.” She tossed the data-pads into the open suitcase on the bed. “Just a moment,” she said before disappearing into the bathroom. The door closed behind her with a soft click.

“Oh.” Left to his own company for the moment, Kaidan looked around for something to busy himself with. Something to distract him from the anxiety that still dogged him. His own suitcase was already packed and ready to go. Shepard’s was only half-packed at best, and her clothes still littered the room. He began collecting her errant belongings. A navy tank top draped over the pillow. Two bras slung over the chair by the window. Sunglasses on the bed-side table. A sock that looked clean but was for some reason hanging off the desk in the corner. And that terrible hoodie she loved from but always left crumpled on the floor.

As he bent over to pick it up, he heard the bathroom door slid open behind him.

“Nice view. I like it.”

He straightened and turned around. Shepard just stood there, holding her bag of toiletries and smirking at him.

“Look at you, making yourself useful,” she said, scanning the now-uncluttered room.

“A rare occasion, huh?” He said, offering her the pile of clothing he’d collected.

She grabbed her things with one hand, giving him a playful shove with the other. “Maybe not so rare. Thanks for getting my stuff around.” She stuck her sunglasses on her head and stuffed the rest of her things unceremoniously into her suitcase, then zipped it closed.

“Alira, hey.”

“Yeah, Kaidan?”

“Thanks for this. This whole week has been - “ He struggled to put it into words, what this time with her had meant to him. She waited patiently for him to gather his thoughts, smiling at him in that just-for-him way, like there was nowhere she’d rather be at that moment, like being with him was a happy accident she still couldn’t quite believe. It was the same smile she’d given him after they’d almost had their first kiss by the lockers just a few weeks ago….

Joker wasn’t around to interrupt them now.

He kissed her. Even if he couldn’t put it in words yet, he could be with her right here, right now, in this quickly passing moment, before regs and duty claimed their time and energy again. He kissed her, and she sighed softly, pressing closer, wrapping her arms around him. Their tongues met; their biotics sparked. Her fingers curled into his sides. She tasted of mint and sky. He wished they had another hour, another day, another week….

Her ‘tool chimed the arrival of a new message. She broke the kiss. “Shuttle-car,” she said, her voice low and husky. “Damn.”

“Ready to go?” He asked, tracing her jawline with his thumb.

Her eyes softened. “Just a moment,” she said, then tilted her head to kiss him again. He was more than happy to oblige.

A few heartbeats later, they were wheeling their suitcases out of the cottage, leaving shore leave behind. Kaidan paused by the dresser before following Shepard out, suddenly remembering something. He opened the top drawer and peered inside. It was still there. The vaguely heart-shaped pebble she’d picked up by the lake and jokingly offered him, their first day at the cottage. He plucked it from its resting place and tucked it in his pocket. Then he followed Shepard out, readying himself to meet whatever the future held for them.

Chapter Text

Shepard watched the scenery outside pass in a blur as the shuttle-car hurried them to ‘Port. She hated just sitting there. She wished she were driving. She wished they were already back on the Normandy. She wished she knew what to say to Kaidan.

He had tried to talk to her back at the cottage. She could tell from the tension in his shoulders and the way he kept rubbing the back of his head that he was still preoccupied about their future, their relationship. Knowing Kaidan, he wanted a plan, some clear way forward, complete with carefully marked exits along the way. “I always leave myself a way out.

Kaidan could adapt to surprises on the ground with almost alarming alacrity, but he preferred to have a plan. In some ways, he needed plans. Protocols. In their hunt for Saren, he’d learned to rely on her knack for figuring out their next step in even in the most tumultuous of conditions. It was her job.

Always a good idea to RTFM. But there was no manual on what to do when encountering geth for the first time since their disappearance centuries ago. No manual on how to deal with cranky old overgrown telepathic plants. No manual on intelligent, once war-faring but now seemingly peaceful space-traveling spiders who’d been presumed to be extinct for thousands of years. No manual on how to stop the Reapers. And no fucking manual on getting into a regs-breaking romantic relationship with a subordinate officer.

This was all so fucking new to her. What the fuck was she doing.

‘Port wasn’t too busy when they arrived. It was almost noon now. A Tuesday. The plan was to split up, go through separate security gates, try to keep a low profile, and meet up again on the other side. Try not to get recognized by anyone in the general public. Try to avoid any Conrad Verners. She had her over-sized hoodie, her sunglasses. Kaidan had a plain gray baseball cap and a scarf. They could do this.

Of course, the Alliance would notice that they processed through the same spaceport. She had a story ready, in case anyone asked: she and the Lieutenant knew they were spending their leave in the same vicinity, so they’d arranged to travel back to Arcturus together to get a head-start on things: making arrangements regarding personnel, securing resources, other administrative duties that required only some data-pads and a secure extra-net connection. And it wasn’t false, not exactly.

A sense of unease set in as soon as they parted ways. Silly, really. She knew they’d meet up again as soon as they got through security. But they’d also be one step closer to getting back to it. Back to duty, back to back regs, back to being in the shit. Back to being his superior officer. His commander. What the fuck was she doing. What the fuck had she gotten herself into.

She’d purposefully avoided getting involved with anyone in the Alliance. Her reputation as the survivor of Akuze tended to proceed her; people had this idea of who she was before they even met her. That’s who they wanted to fuck. Or some officers, usually men, felt threatened by her, and wanted to sleep with her to make themselves feel better. Others just wanted bragging rights about banging an N-7. They weren’t interested in her. And they weren’t interesting to her.

Civilians… it wasn’t much better with civilians. Sometimes they knew about Akuze, romanticized it, cast themselves in the role of her personal sexual healer. Or her grief counselor-and-lover. Or the one special person who might finally make her happy and fix her all up. Either way, they quickly found themselves feeling in over their head, the more they learned about her, her past, her baggage. Or her line of work. Her life was a series of deal-breakers.

It was fine, though. Or anyway, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like she was anything other than a hazard-zone herself. It’d been six years since she even tried to be in a relationship. She was better off with flings. Brief affairs, lasting little longer than a shore leave. Friends with benefits, who understood the idea of no expectations past the present moment. She got by. A little human connection, a little physical affection, some pleasure. It was fine. It was good. It worked.

But now this thing had happened with Kaidan. Her lieutenant. He’d been such a surprise. Ever since their boots hit the ground on Eden Prime. He proved himself to be someone she could actually trust to have her six. And he was disarmingly sweet. And thoughtful. And intelligent and strong. Not starstruck. Not competitive, out to prove something. Not hung up on weird bullshit. Someone who actually understood what it was like to live through shit. He was a fucking treasure.

She’d almost lost him on Virmire.

And now she was dragging him back into it.

He was right. They should talk about what they were going to do. She just had no plan to offer.

 

****

 

Shepard got through security without much fuss. Just the slightly raised eyebrow of the personnel who scanned her through, followed by an equally slight smile and nod. The other travelers were too focused on their own their own concerns to pay attention to her. She hoped Kaidan was getting by with as much ease.

She pulled her hoodie down around her face and carefully scanned the atrium. Travelers rushing around with their suitcases. Recycled air, machine noise, The smell of cheap coffee and fast food. No one seemed to notice her. That was normal enough. Usually civilians didn’t, or at least they didn’t before she became a Spectre.

A Spectre. Every N-7’s dream, every N-1’s fantasy. To be the one to finally win that title for humanity, to get to wield that kind of authority. Or so the story went. It’d never been her dream, not her ambition. She told Anderson that, later, on the Citadel after Eden Prime. She knew it didn’t matter, and she didn’t mean it as criticism, but it had felt like a fact she needed to say anyway. He’d told her he’d figured as much, and that was what made her exactly the right person for the job. It’d felt good to turn it around on the old man later, especially when it was true: she had no doubt he’d make a better Councilor than Udina, or anyone else vying for the position.

Probably no one at ‘Port today expected to run into a Spectre, so when one showed up in jeans and a sweatshirt instead of armor and insignia, no one noticed. All these people - travelers, workers - they all had their own lives to live anyway. They had enough on their minds: keeping track of luggage and children and departure times. Thinking about work, loved ones, friends, family… She used to people-watch more, before she had to become wary of being a person watched herself.

She was meeting Kaidan at some Genericana pub near their departure gate. “American”-themed, standard fare: burgers and fried food and various other easy-to-find-elsewhere dishes. Kaidan had eaten there before. The food was as good as spaceport food gets, he said, and the portions were huge. She wondered if their waffles were any good. Or maybe she wanted lunch now. A grilled chicken sandwich. A pear salad. Maybe some mozzarella sticks. She wondered if they had mozzarella sticks. She could look the menu up on her ‘tool, if she could only remember the name of the place.

Fuck; she couldn’t remember the name of the place.

But she knew what to look for - a pub, by their gate, possibly with Kaidan already seated - so she’d just head that direction and see.

Shepard kept her head down as she made her way to their gate. As long as she kept her head down, she could pretend she was like any other traveler. Not a highly-trained killer. Not someone who could throw bodies around like rag-dolls when she glowed blue. Not someone who carried the bloody destruction of an entire alien race around in her head. Not someone with the weight of the galaxy on her shoulders. Not someone who automatically calculated how she’d neutralize every person in her eyesight if it came to it.

Just someone who was a little hungry, a little overwhelmed, with someplace to be and someone on her mind.

Someone, her someone. Not lost on Virmire. Not lost on Eden Prime. Not lost on Ilos, or the Citadel. And, miraculously, not lost over shore leave. No huge fights. No break ups. He’d seen parts of her that weren’t so heroic. The nightmares. The static. That first day, when she got overwhelmed and sat there by the lake unable to move. When she couldn’t - physical intimacy she could do but the rest - when she couldn’t, when she reached her limit, when she got overwhelmed, when someone else would have gotten fed up, given up, given her a piece of their mind… he just accepted, and helped her however he could. Didn’t push, didn’t leave.

And now she was bringing him back to the front lines, and he still relied on her to have a plan.

Fully functional human being,” he had said, “I won’t be a burden on you - on the crew.

Fully functional human being. Whatever the fuck that was. Maybe there was such a thing. Maybe he knew, because he’d fought for it. To become one, to be one. Maybe he thought she had done the same.

Well, she hadn’t.

She had managed to fight her way to becoming an extremely functional special operative, a leader, a technician, an L3 biotic. And beyond that, at best, a part-time semi-functional mostly human being. More or less. Which was an accomplishment in and of itself. And it was usually enough. It didn’t usually bother her.

But it might not be enough now. It hadn’t been enough for other people she’d cared about. Who’d once cared about her.

What she had with Kaidan now, what she’d allowed to happen…. She couldn’t lie to herself. It was selfish, and it was wrong. It was against regs. Against her better beliefs. Her fucking leadership ethos. But it was also something she’d fight for. It was something she wanted, and that didn’t happen very often anymore. It was something… inexplicable. She ran into the inexplicable often enough in her life, and while it was usually interesting, it wasn’t usually this… nice. This right. It was strange, how right it was. Strange to have something feel right, with everything happening around them. Everything at stake.

So she didn’t have a plan. No clear way forward. No easy way out. She was just going to have to make it up as she went along. Try not to fuck it up. And trust this thing they had. Let it grow. Hope it might work out, somehow.

She could do that much.

Chapter Text

Kaidan was killing time on Arcturus Station. Well, he wasn’t killing time, exactly. He had some errands he wanted to run. He needed to get some socks. He wanted to find a nice bottle of wine to share with Shepard, something to mark their return to the Normandy. And he wanted to stop by the tech shops and demo a few omni-tool upgrades.

He was glad to have errands to run, because running errands might help him keep his mind off things. Keep him from worrying too much about Shepard. About how her meeting with Anderson and Admiral Hackett was going. About what their next step to stop the Reapers would look like. About everything.

Now that they were on the station, the question he’d more or less set aside during shore leave nagged at him more and more insistently. What exactly did the Brass know about Shepard and him? And what would that mean for them, for their mission?

Maybe something, maybe nothing, maybe everything.

Not that anything could really be done about it now, but he could at least brace himself.

He made his way down the corridors to the market section, taking inventory of who might know what.

No question that there was scuttlebutt about it on the Normandy, all throughout their hunt for Saren.

Ash had known, of course. She’d been all too aware of his feelings for Shepard, even when he had yet to really admit them to himself. She’d seen… a lot. She’d watched his faltering attempts to keep it under control. She’d sympathized. She griped that it was painfully obvious that Shepard felt similarly… even when he had his doubts.

Yeah. Doubts.

After Virmire… things changed.

They lost Ash. Just left her behind. They’d barely gotten out themselves. It was his fault. He set the nuke that killed Ash. He activated it. And then he just laid there crumpled uselessly on the ground while Saren nearly killed Shepard. She had to haul him back to the ship, beating a hasty retreat while klaxons blared and Ashley screamed her last battle cries over the comms.

Crushing shame and grief and confusion hounded him that night, kept him from sleep. The next day, when he had the chance, he’d pulled Liara and Shepard aside. He hadn’t cared then about being discreet. He just needed to get a real answer, any answer, from Shepard. He needed something settled. The memory of blood and biotics running hot with anguish and uncertainty and overexertion reverberated relentlessly in his head, and he pressed Shepard to make yet another choice.

And she did.

Again.

She chose him.

He was still sorry Liara had gotten hurt. Still winced at the memory of leaving Shepard’s cabin to suit up for Ilos, only to lock eyes with Liara, who was herself emerging from the med-bay, dark circles under her eyes and clutching a data-pad. Neither of them had said a word.

And then there was Joker, of course. Up there in the cockpit, with his cameras and his monitors, his notoriously loud mouth.

****

Kaidan’s career had brought him to Alliance Navy headquarters more times than he could count over the years. At this point he could probably find his way around 70% of the station blindfolded and in the midst of a migraine… though he’d rather not test that theory.

He bought the socks pretty much on auto-pilot. Alliance Outfitters carried the kind he was looking for: cushion sole, microbial, black. Four pairs. Just before he finalized his purchase, a pair of socks in the sales bin caught his attention. Chartreuse, featuring whimsical orange dinosaurs dancing in pink party hats. Awful, more of an eyesore than a form of footwear. He bought those too.

The wine was the bigger challenge. He wanted a red wine; a very specific one, if he could manage to find it. His search took him to several shops, and he’d almost resigned himself to picking an alternative. He’d found wine from Elysium, from Terra Nova, from Beckenstein. A few Asari vintages. But very few from Earth. Very few from UNAS.

Let alone British Columbia.

He was kicking himself that he hadn’t just bought a bottle when he was in Vancouver, that first day of shore leave. He’d been so distracted: by being back on Earth after what they’d been through on the Normandy, seeing his mom and dad again, anticipating an entire week of shore leave with Shepard just hours away, struggling not to let anything slip about her, about them, about their plans….

The worst part had been when, shortly after dinner, watching vids in the den, his mom mentioned that she “liked this new look” he had.

He glanced over at her, puzzled.

“You look… happy,” she explained. “You keep grinning. Especially when you don’t think anyone’s watching.”

His dad looked up from the data-pad in his lap. “I noticed that too.”

“I….” His mom and dad looked at him expectantly, smiling in that way that of theirs, half-playful but fully earnest.

He stammered out something about how rewarding it was to be doing important work with good people, how he couldn’t share the details of course but they knew that, they’ve seen the news vids anyway, how his L2 wasn’t acting up as much these days, how nice it was to get to spend time at home, visiting them.

His mom just listened, smiling. When he finally trailed off, she said it’d been a long time since she’d seen him so happy, and whatever the cause, she was glad to see it. Dad just said that they were both proud of him. Funny, how  even now that kind of sentiment from him still felt so novel.

He wished all over again he could have brought her to meet them.

Maybe someday.

****

Was he happy?

He had seen terrible things. He had grown close to people - Jenkins, but even more so Ash - only to lose them suddenly and violently. He knew terrible truths about the precariousness of existence. He knew there was a likely a war so terrifying as to defy imagination, looming just over the horizon.

****

He was about to resign to just getting a Shiraz from Elysium when he spotted a display in the corner that claimed to feature hard-to-find Earth vintages. It’d be foolish at this point to get his hopes up. But there on the second row was a bottle that would do the trick nicely. A deep red Zinfandel from Okanagan Valley, boasting of bouquet of blueberries and wildflowers and just a hint of orange peel; a smooth palate, a full body. Not inexpensive, exactly, but worth it.

He thought - he hoped she’d like it.

****

Kaidan stopped in Guardian Tech to check out the Logic Arrest’s new holo-cam and shield recovery enhancement. Still no message from Shepard.

She was probably fine, he reminded himself. She could handle a meeting with Admiral Hackett, and Anderson was definitely in her corner.

****

After making his purchase - the shield recovery enhancement was impressive, but the holo-cam’s functionality in low light settings was disappointing, especially for the price - he settled in at a nearby cafe.

Shortly after he sent in his order, his ‘tool chirped the arrival of a new message. It was from Shepard. Said she was out of the meeting, but was supposed to meet Anderson in a few minutes at a nearby bar. Apparently Anderson wanted to talk privately with her. She told Kaidan she’d give him the full update when she could, but for now had to delay their rendezvous.

Well. At least it wasn’t bad news.

Unlike Kaidan, Shepard hadn’t seemed particularly worried about whether others knew about them. He’d finally brought it up on their flight over. They hadn’t really talk much for most of the flight, at least not about them. They talked about seeing the crew again, they talked about logistics concerning the next several days, they talked about how strange it’d be on the Normandy without Wrex and Garrus, who had returned to their respective lives after the Battle for the Citadel. How strange it’d be without Ash. They’d watched a couple of bad sci-fi vids, and for awhile they fell asleep slumped against one another. When they woke up, they snacked on protein bars and speculated on how long the meeting with Hackett and Anderson would last.

True to form, it was only when he was almost out of time, when the Orbita’s VI had just announced they were just minutes away from docking at the station, that it’d all come tumbling out of him.

“I… uh… think people might know about us,” he’d said, breaking the silence pervading their private cabin.

She didn’t reply. Her head was still resting against his shoulder. Had she not heard the announcement? Had she fallen back asleep?

“Shepard?” he asked, nudging her gently.

“…Yeah. Here. What’s up.” Her voice was low and full of unfinished sleep.

“Did you hear me? Did you… did you already know?”

“That people ‘know’ about us? Sure, I guess. People ‘know’ about a lot of things.” She blinked and straightened in her seat.

“It doesn’t bother you?” He didn’t mean to sound quite so incredulous.

Shepard just shrugged. “Small ship? There’s always scuttlebutt.”

“I… guess so.” He probably didn’t sound very convinced. He wondered how Shepard could dismiss something like that so readily.

“And our ship? There’s scuttlebutt AND Joker.,” she quipped.

“Don’t remind me,” he groaned.

“Kaidan, look, I… I wouldn’t say it doesn’t bother me.” She twisted her hands in her lap as she spoke. “It’s just… it is what it is. As close as we worked, there was probably bound to be gossip about us. Whether or not we were actually a thing. If someone were to come to me or Anderson with a complaint, that’d be one thing… but otherwise….” She took a deep breath. “So what if people know?”

That had startled him. “‘So what”…?”

“Yeah. So what. People knowing doesn’t matter. Not really. People caring is what matters. People feeling like there’s favoritism.”

“I…” he started, then let the thought trail off, unsure of both what to say or whether he really wanted to say it.

The memory of Virmire hung heavy and unspoken between them.

Thirty heartbeats later, the ship’s VI announced that they had just docked and would be disembarking imminently.

“Hell,” Shepard said, finally, quietly. “It’s probably better if people do know. So they can decide for themselves if it’s a problem or not.”

If those people were still alive to make those decisions, of course.

She must have seen something of what he was thinking on his face. When she spoke again, her voice had softened. “That’s how I feel, anyway. But I understand if it’s too much, you know. If it’s not something you feel comfortable with doing anymore. I understand.”

He pondered over his next words. He appreciated what she said, and was by no means surprised she said it. At the same time, a part of him wished she weren’t so quick to volunteer him for the part of leaving. To so readily understand his hypothetical absence.

“No,” he’d been about to say, “I want this too, Alira.” Fraught and fragile as it was. But before he could get the words out of his mouth, a chime sounded and their cabin doors hissed open. It was time to disembark.

She was already on her feet, grabbing her suitcase and checking her omni-tool for new messages.

“I guess we’ll talk about it later, Kaidan,” she’d said, smiling half-heartedly and blowing him a kiss as she made her way to the door.

“Yeah. Okay. Good luck, Shepard,” he’d said.

And that’d been that.

****

Was he happy?

Ash had died.

Her blood was on his hands.

The Reapers were coming.

Shepard was…

Well, she was…

She was alive, she was human, she was a survivor, and when he held her close and breathed her in, he found the strength to stand with her against anything the universe might throw at them.

And maybe it was too soon to say, maybe he’d be proved wrong, but more and more he thought she loved him too. More and more, he was sure of it.

Happiness, he thought, was something that belonged to the quickly fading past or to a future that may never arrive. For now, happiness didn’t really matter. What he did have, right now, was… Purpose. The ability to take action. Freedom of thought and will. Life. Friendship. Family. Love.

And that was enough.