Kaidan loved the gorgeous harmony of the ranch. Teetering on the ladder in the apple orchard, he plucked the first of the harvest. He’d never forget the fresh smell of hay wafting around him to the bright blue sky, wide like open palms. In the barn, newborn black-eyed lambs bleated their first cries to the world as their parents’ hooves pounded the earth in revelry. Summers were always simple as a steward to the land. Once his basket was full, he’d carry it to the pleasant coolness of the cellar where he’d emerge again to the pleasant breeze lifting the branches and carrying the fresh tartness of ripe fruit across his face. He remembers harvest seasons rife with crisp summer wines and al fresco luncheons, best shared.
Nora had never known a peace like this. In a past life, Kaidan hoped to bring her to the ranch during the summer months so they could commingle the city-dwelling, rural-dwelling and space-craving parts of themselves, watching the sunset over a bottle of Lambrusco. The humid air would smell sticky-sweet from blossoming trees, like syrup. Her illegal, gasoline powered motorbike canted on the hillside behind them. She’d chastise him for his taste in wines, and then make a jab about how it was just like him to pick something humble and dry. In a past life, before everything.
Placing the plaque on her memorial had been the proverbial final nail in the coffin. He hadn’t been able to tear his eyes off the shape of her name; fourteen letters that, in any other combination, would have meant little to him. Instead, he stood before them until his back stiffened and the other grieving had left him to stare down that strip of metal alone as if he might bring her back through sheer willpower.
She told him she loved him and left a hand lingering on the side of his face as he bled from his chest in Lieutenant Vega’s grip for what felt like an eternal moment. He recalled every crystallized detail: the rumble of the shuttle, the discordant thrum of Reaper beams, and Leonora Shepard’s lithe frame charging headfirst into the blinding beacon during the Battle of London, never to be seen again.
He was a soldier. Kaidan steeled himself for the misfortune of watching his comrades die. He was not prepared for Shepard, though.
Not the first time, where she succumbed to the unforgiving vacuum of space.
Not the second time, where she met a fate as enigmatic as it was undoubtedly heroic.
Not Nora, he thought. To say she was different would have been an egregious understatement.
“Kaidan.” The whisper brushed over him like delicate fingertips, sending a cold shiver down his neck. He spun to see the trees dancing in the gale accompanied by silence. When he turned back he no longer gazed at the barn’s red roof atop a lush green hill, but rubble.
Curious, he climbed down the ladder and ventured forth. Kaidan shuddered in the quiet dark, the gravel crunching under his shoes in a hissing echo. The ruin felt familiar, though it had been far too degraded to identify any mnemonic markers apart from the crumbled pillars framing a round chasm ahead. He could swear he’d seen them before.
A broken bridge cut through the darkness as if the other half had been snapped in ire like a wooden pencil. He peered into its mouth and saw nothing—a black hole, beckoning light into its inky center.
“Kaidan,” the voice washed over him again when he stood at the pit’s edge. He raised his head only to be faced with a bright glow.
Then, he awoke.
Dreams could be taunting sometimes, but dreams in grief were the most visceral. Last night’s felt especially so; a cloying combination of hopes and fears.
It had been almost a year to the day since the final goodbye.
Sleep was rare and fitful, so he wasn’t surprised when he woke sharply. It took a moment for him to place his surroundings, sprawled out on the bed he had once shared with Shepard. Now it was his, left to him in her will. For lack of a better place he used it—or maybe some part of his primitive senses convinced himself that it still smelled like her.
“Lieutenant Colonel Alenko, Dr. T’Soni wishes to see you.” An illuminated orb peered at him as his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the bedroom. “She has been calling you for, as she says, a hundred years.”
“Liara always had a flair for the dramatic.” Kaidan groaned, giving a yawn as he peeled himself out from under the duvet, shooing the drone away. Nora had wrapped herself up in the soft white fabric once after a night of drunken debauchery. He remembered entering the bedroom to see only tendrils of black hair emerging from the blanket like a hanar’s legs.
Over time, Shepard's allies were pulled this way and that, their guidance needed in place of her own. Kaidan requested permission to assist on the Citadel where the Shadow Broker also stationed herself. He jogged down the stairs, still yawning and surprised Liara had even bothered to knock this time.
“What have you been doing?" she demanded. "If you’ll recall, you were supposed to meet me half an hour ago.” Behind her, he could see the spherical drone that woke him bobbing and whirling through what little light the tinted windows provided.
She'd grown impatient with him in recent months. Perhaps it derived from her innate instinct to ensure he wasn’t moping around the apartment. Her violet eyes flicked over the bare expanse of his chest, rife with keloids from battle, and down the length of his exposed legs before she gave an understanding sigh.
“Admit it, Liara: this is not the worst thing you’ve ever seen," he said in his defense, standing aside to let her in. Kaidan avoided giving a glance at the clock knowing he wouldn’t be pleased with how long he’d laid in bed. There was a time when punctuality and predictability motivated him. There was a time when time mattered.
Time was funny that way.
“No, the worst thing I’ve ever seen was Vega’s maniacal face while he sprayed us down in the Kodiak bay, all because Shepard didn’t want corrupted rachni parts tracked all over the Normandy.” She walked past him, running her fingers over the untouched piano and leaving serpentine lines in the dust. “That, or my very first husk.”
“So, you’re comparing me to husks now? I’m not sure I like where this conversation is going.” He scratched the rough stubble at his throat, watching her sink onto the plush couch. He remembered shopping for the leather sofa with Nora and how she had flopped down onto the cushions and sighed happily, kicking off her grime-slicked boots over its arm.
“Yet you continue to participate.”
“Hey, it’s not every day the Shadow Broker barges into your apartment with barely a greeting. I figured insulting you would be detrimental to my health.”
"Since we are on the subject," she eyed him again, "you're looking pale."
He smoothed a hand over his jaw. "I just woke up."
"My sources tell me you're not eating properly. A human biotic should know better."
He gave a blithe shrug. "We're still in reparations. Nobody can eat properly until production's been stabilized."
She frowned at him and he turned, climbing back up the stairs to make himself presentable. He heard the clang of dishes as Liara helped herself to something from the cupboard. After splashing his face with cool water, he made quick work of getting dressed.
"You still haven't asked me why I came to visit," she called to him from the lower level.
Asari had a reputation for being cryptic, and she could be no different. Kaidan bundled up the fabric of his shirt between his hands. "You're right. What could Dr. Liara T'Soni need from the second human Spectre?"
“I’ve found your parents.” The words stopped him in his tracks.
“Where are they?” He almost couldn’t bring himself to ask. Liara would have told him outright, he reasoned, if they were dead.
“I've arranged for your father to be transported here for treatment at Huerta. Your mother is with him.” He tugged his shirt on and unhooked his armor from its mannequin. When he descended he found her watching him closely from the mouth of the stairs. “Communication channels have been bogged down for months. They only recently made contact, but they will be here within the day.”
“Within the day,” he repeated. “Is he…?”
“My contact says he’s stable, though he suffered several broken bones while scouring a toppled building for survivors.” Her words stoked a fond flame in his chest. Damn, he respected the man.
“Well. That’s the first good news I’ve heard in a while.” He fastened the final armor clasp over his forearm. “I guess I should go make sure their arrival is smooth.”
Liara nodded. That was their way now: comfortable silences and unspoken understanding. Her slender fingers hugged a dainty pink cup of tea brewed from Shepard’s private stock. Fine porcelain china, almost too delicate for Nora to have owned, though she was always one for irony.
He wondered when her inability to hold her tongue would rear its ugly head and flay him wide, sensing the meteor hovering in the atmosphere above him. Liara fiddled with her teacup and absently licked a fingertip to collect sugar granules off the saucer.
Here it comes, plummeting from the heavens.
"Do you think we go somewhere when we die?”
Ah. The meteor obliterated his equilibrium. No survivors.
It was a question he’d asked himself too many times, sitting in his quarters with Commander Vyrnnus’ blood on his hands; laying in his cot on the Normandy wedged next to what had been Jenkins' – and later, Ashley's. He noticed with dagger-sharp clarity that joy drained from those moments. He’d struggled with the concept of mortality in his youth, long before he’d encountered a ferocious space-farer with a passion for the symphony, brown liquor, and twentieth-century motorcycle repair.
The apartment's walls had been restored with what little resources were available. In the past, the incongruences would have irritated him, and the lack of balance would have inflamed his senses. But now, looking at the mosaic of mismatched materials coating the floors and ceilings, he realized that Leonora would have preferred it this way. A little imperfect. A little rugged. Made more unique for being broken.
Her cello’s remains were recovered in the aftermath. Kaidan laid them in plain view on a makeshift altar in the sunken living room as a memorial. He studied it then and found its decrepit state fitting. Almost like she took it with her and serenaded the lost into their next life.
“You are...smiling,” Liara said, her voice soft.
“I was just thinking. If we do go somewhere, then Shepard has already made her mark on it.” He was surprised at how much relief he felt at the thought; at how peaceful the tumultuous waters of mourning could be.
She nodded, turning her gaze to the instrument as well. “Of that, I am certain.”
Liara’s brand of mischief was something he was glad to have around, even if her questions so often left him wistful or lamenting. He supposed that it was better to have a friend that asked him the hard questions than to have a friend that didn’t care enough to ask any.
“There is something else.”
His stomach lurched like he'd been launched from zero gravity. “Fire away.”
“The casino is hosting a charity gala tomorrow. All proceeds support the Citadel’s rebuild effort. Would you care to accompany me?”
Kaidan bristled and that fleeting sense of serenity dissolved. “I can only handle one life-changing question per hour. What about Javik?" She had spent more time with the abrasive Prothean than anyone would consider reasonable.
Liara balked at the suggestion. "Javik at a charity gala?"
Fair enough. "…I see your point, but why me? Miranda would be a better choice, besides."
"Why are you trying to think of a reason not to go?”
That tingling pulse in his gut persisted. "Look, Liara. I'm not ready to be out in that sort of situation." The last time he set foot in the casino had been with her. Nora, in a dress that showed the cutting angles of her hip bones. Nora, with her hair curled and piled on top of her head. Nora, with her wicked smile and none-too-subtle flirtations.
"Fine, I’m not going to twist your arm.” The metaphor was too vulgar for her; almost Shepard-like. She gave a disappointed sigh. "You know, the asari practice taking refuge in community during times of sorrow.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” he asked, feigning ignorance. Grieving the same woman twice made him grow obstinate.
“It means I’ll ask Miranda, but Nora wouldn’t have wanted you to isolate yourself."
"Who knows what she would have wanted? She's dead. For real this time." The words burned on his tongue like bitter medicine. He wished he hadn’t said them.
On the way to the hospital, his thoughts should have been occupied with visions of a warm family reunion. Instead, they once again spiraled into memories of her.
She's dead. For real this time. His own words haunted him like a second phantom.
There had been romance between them. Chaste and deep at times, sultry at others, and always shackled by the demands of a war that would eventually steal her away from him. Grieving questions plagued his thoughts about alternate possibilities if they’d been unbound by duty. Would he have done something different now? Would he have bundled her up into his arms on Earth on the day of the invasion? Would he have taken his one last chance to kiss her in the moments before she vanished forever into the Crucible? Would he have pulled her away as the shuttle departed? Would he have flung himself, bloodied and bruised, into the fray in pursuit of her?
Back then, he felt that if he reached out his fingers towards that spark of life in the empty void of space, he could give his life a deeper meaning. When he did, she reciprocated. Their reunion had been even more powerful. She fell back into step with him without resistance - they both needed something to hold onto. She needed a steadying force, he needed a safe harbor.
He shook his head before he succumbed to another painful memory. The drell called their recollections solipsism. Kaidan just called it hell.
Still, the future plagued him. What should he do now, having loved and lost two times over? How could he move on when her greatest achievement literally manufactured the galaxy's future?
Across the Milky Way gargantuan, docile Reapers delicately sewed the seams they'd shredded and worked in tandem to fix relays and homeworlds alike. The initial sight had been immensely unsettling. Nobody on the Normandy could have predicted the Crucible's outcome. He'd rather they'd all combusted, but their assistance quadrupled relief efforts.
Navigating the ghostly ruins of the once-indomitable Citadel, an ethereal calm enveloped him like a silken shroud. His biotics flourished from familiarity; a faint buzzing he'd felt before.
“I’m sorry," her words whispered in the soft light of her fish tanks after her tour of Thessia. The defeated sound had nearly broken him, the way she fractured before him and fell apart. Her hands landed gingerly in his, warm and fragile like baby birds. It was the first time he saw Commander Shepard falter.
He wasn’t sure why that of all things returned to him. Simulated winds rustled in the last of the plant life on the Citadel, a sweet sound that had him drawing breath.
His comm buzzed with static and he turned to look over his shoulder. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought he’d seen light vanishing around a corner, pale like moonlight reflected in the ripples of a lake. Liara's drone? No, Glyph bobbed to and fro in midair. This apparition seemed to extend from the floor.
“Who’s there?” He called out anyway, dropping his hand to his pistol.
No answer came to him.
She thrived in darkness; in the tiniest crawlspace. Shepard took pride and a sadistic pleasure in her accuracy. She and Garrus bonded immediately over their shared skill. For how different human and turian societies were, they both shared the same tactic when it came to assassination: quick, clean and quiet.
The way her lips curled when her bullet struck her target from yards away, their blood spraying into the air in a macabre mist, profoundly disturbed him. No one ever met the end of her scope and lived to tell. That knowledge made him feel strangely vulnerable. Watched.
“Nora?” Stupid, stupid man. He wasn’t sure why a bitter hope had risen; as if the last few months were nothing but a posturing display of her cloaking skills, honed by rigorous stealth training.
As if, by some miracle, she wasn't gone.
Out of curiosity, he turned the corner to find no lamp nor body that could have made such a glow. The Presidium, as mutilated as it was, stood silent and dim.
“Lieutenant Colonel, sir?” He nearly fell over himself turning to face a turian soldier, stiff and saluting. She'd likely been on a security patrol. “Is everything all right?”
“Yeah. Sorry about that…” Kaidan scraped his fingernails over the implant in his neck. He recognized her insignias: Argos Rho, the same as Vyrnnus. The creamy white stood starkly against the dark brown of her plates. She looked young and carried herself with the conscientiousness of a new officer. “What’s your name, soldier?”
“Second Lieutenant Selia Cathrian, sir.” She saluted again.
“Selia, did you see any action?” Her grip tightened on her rigidly held weapon.
“No, sir. I’m a part of a relief crew from Palaven. I worked mostly behind the lines.” She said with a downward tilt of her head. “Kept supply routes open. Saw a lot of dead, though.” Her amber eyes dimmed. “If I may ask…what brought you here tonight?”
The buzzing in his head faded. Whatever faint desire lured him here, it was gone now.
"Chasing ghosts, apparently."
“Commander Shepard?” She jumped when he lifted his head sharply. “Apologies, sir! I shouldn't have assumed.” She stilled under his gaze, and in her curiosity, she distinctly reminded him of Liara.
“No," he sighed. "It’s fine, Lieutenant. Am I that easy to read?”
“Turians...we communicate with subvocals. I don't mean to pry, sir, but if you had any they'd be screaming right now.”
He winced. "That obvious, huh?"
She gave a reluctant nod. "So...is everything all right?"
Kaidan studied the rubble for a beat. "How much do you know about Commander Shepard?"
"Only that she led the fight against the Reapers, sir."
He smirked. "But what do you know about the real Commander Shepard?"
Selia's mandibles flared in consternation. "Nothing, sir."
Relaxing, he faced her fully and crossed his arms as if he were settling into an old arm chair. "She'd hate me for telling you this, but she knew everything about music yet couldn't dance to save her life. She had one signature move. The Normandy's pilot called it the Shepard Shimmy..."
Selia stood there beside him for longer than she was probably allotted; calm and listening intently. Collecting and cultivating his every word.
Once he began, more memories emerged. Kaidan recounted harrowing tales of her early career; of James Vega's multiple failed attempts to defeat her at arm wrestling; of her and Miranda Lawson's shared love of Carl Nielsen, particularly Jascha Horenstein's interpretation of his Fifth, as if siphoning pieces of their life could keep her flicker from going out. Every new face was fresh kindling to carry that flame forward. Perhaps, he thought, this was what he should do.
Let the world know she was funny. That she could belch the alphabet. That she bit her nails. That she always wanted to try skiing. That she loved breakfast for dinner. That she wasn’t pretty, but captivating. That she liked the saccharine taste of his biotic energy drinks more than he did, especially as a mixer. That she was shaped by a childhood of hardship. That she was confident. That she was lightning in a bottle. That she rose to meet her fate with humility. That she was complicated.
Once he subsided to silence, Selia spoke again. "She was your One?"
"Sorry. An old-fashioned turian belief. Guess I'm a bit of a romantic, sir." She shrugged her weapon over her shoulder.
That she was your One. Seemed fitting at the moment. "Deep down, I think I'm a bit of a romantic, too," he responded.
When Selia left, her omnitool summoning her elsewhere, his world felt all the darker for her absence. For a moment, Nora's ember reignited and warmed within the heart of another.
Kaidan took one last look at the crumbled Presidium before proceeding.