She can’t sleep.
Though, this isn’t new, exactly. Most nights Commander Shepard paces her cabin, parsing data, planning missions. She’s taken to writing the old fashioned way when her thoughts are especially turbulent; there is something almost calming about the feel of a stylus in her fingers, crisp paper under her swiftly moving hand.
She remembers Kasumi collects old fashioned books. Maybe she’ll get her hands on these old-fashioned pages one day, these old worries.
She feels old. Her machine heart thuds in the bone cage of her chest, thrumming in time with the engines vibrating beneath her feet. She’s lived most of her life on ships, and the sound of a humming engine used to put her to sleep faster than her mother’s voice, threaded low in song.
They’re hours away from the Cerberus base. Hackett was clear; this is phase one. This is the calm before the storm, the deadly quiet before all hell breaks loose. A bitter chuckle escapes her lips; how in the hell did she think she’d be able to turn her mind off long enough to sleep?
Not that she’s sleeping well any other nights. She’s haunted by ghosts. Like a long-condemned building, infested with the whispers of those who lived before. Last night, she heard Mordin greet her a thousand times, each more painful than the last. Had to be me, he said finally, owlish eyes blinking. Someone else might have gotten it wrong.
She’d woken with tears dried on her cheeks.
She tosses the datapad she’d been perusing down, watching it skitter across her desk before clattering on the floor. She bends to retrieve it when a knock startles her.
It takes her a moment to realize it’s only Kaidan. Her heart beats anew, though not from surprise.
“Can’t sleep?” he asks her. There are shadows under his eyes.
“Hm.” He stands in the doorway, waiting for her to invite her in.
“Come on,” she gestures him in. “Might as well not sleep together.”
“Thanks, Shepard.” He touches her arm briefly before brushing past, and it sends a rush of feeling through her. She is suddenly so grateful for his presence she can’t speak. “Have a drink with me?”
“It’s as good a time for one as any, I guess.” She sits across from him, watching him pour a glass for her before pouring one for himself. She notices his hands shake. But when he catches her glance, he smiles for her, and the sight of it is profoundly beautiful.
They don’t speak for a moment. There is a weight in this silence, stretching between them vast as the void, heavy with the questions and fears they’ve both trained themselves to swallow for the sake of others. It’s still unnatural to let down their guard long enough to lean on another.
“Are you ready?” he finally asks her.
She’s tired of lying. She has to lie every minute of every day, when her friends and allies beseech her for encouragement and strategy, when her subordinates and superiors demand her attention. “No,” she said, voice breaking.
“Shepard,” he says, touching her shoulder. “You’ve done everything you could. More than anyone could. You know that, don’t you?”
“It isn’t enough.” Her hands are shaking too; even her machine heart can’t keep her steady now. “It’s never enough.”
He’s shaking his head, and his eyes are beautifully earnest. “Don’t say that.”
“I . . . Kaidan, I-“ She closes her eyes. “So many have died. So many will die. And I’ve never been able to mourn. You asked me how I do it – stay so calm and focused? I’m good liar, I guess,” she says, swallowing. “I’m never calm. Every death, every failure. I feel it.”
He takes her in his arms, his fingers pressing into her skin; there is comfort in his embrace, and something more – something harder, sharped edged. Something desperate.
“I don’t know how much longer I can do this,” she whispers into his shoulder.
He’s quiet for a moment. She always loved how thoughtful he was, how he measured his words like beads in an abacus, parsing this way and that toward the perfect expression. “I know you’re tired,” he says. “I am too. But you can count that when you stumble, I’ll be there to pick you up. When you need an arm or a shoulder, I’d give them gladly a thousand times. Promise me you’ll keep going, and I’ll be right there at your side for as long as I’m alive.”
He’s so serious, looking at her as if she is precious, to be supported, guarded. She’s so used to being looked at as if she is the unmovable stone of an idol, the unwavering steel of a Commander. Kaidan looks at her as if she is a woman, the full measure of it, and she loves him more than she knows how to express.
She kisses him fiercely. She’s a warrior by trade and a warrior in love, and he responds with the same. He pulls her closely so only their clothes separate their bodies and threads his hand in her hair. He trails burning kisses up her neck, along the line of her jaw. She can feel his breath on her ear and it sends a shiver running through her.
Now they’re standing, desperate hands seeking zippers and belts, finding and undoing with feverish haste. Each inch of bare skin revealed is a triumph. He’s golden brown and tautly muscled, just as beautiful as she remembers from those three years ago, overcome and yet still waiting for the hammer to fall, still worried for an out. There are no such considerations now, here at the end of the world.
He fumbles with her bra before tearing it, a growl of frustration coming from between clenched teeth. She laughs and the sound of it is strange to her; she hasn’t laughed in years. He’s not insulted, of course- he takes her amusement as a challenge, his lips curving, eyes predatory. He captures her breast in his mouth and she gasps from the unexpected pleasure of it.
She pushes him down onto the bed and he pulls her after. They topple, limbs tangled, entwined, joined. She gasps, he moans; their hands slide over skin uncaught and untamed, desperate now. It has been so long and yet it is so new, still, and she marvels that she still feels the capacity for pleasure and the hot burn of desire in her gut. She marvels at the feel of him inside her, the feel of his skin on hers, the way he looks at her as if she is precious and needed and loved.
After, he pulls her close, wrapping his arms around her and burying his head on her chest. She watches it rise and fall in time with her breathing, and the sight of it is so tender. It’s only after a long while she notices his eyes are bright.
“What is it?” she asks him, brushing her thumb across his cheek.
“This isn’t it for us,” he says fiercely. “Okay? After this is over, we can really begin.”
And she sees what he sees in that brief, Reaper-less moment; a home somewhere, a retirement well earned. Children, maybe with her red hair or his beautiful brown eyes. Many long years of peace stretching onward. A chance to grow old together. She doesn’t want to cry but something about his words strips her raw.
“After this is over, no matter what happens, we’ll find each other, okay?” he tells her.
“No matter what happens,” she echoes with his intensity, and the words are the truest she’s ever spoken.
Shepard was first aware of the sound of scraping, straining metal; the Citadel twisting in the void. Her eyes were crusted shut- from the blood, she guessed. She couldn’t move. Every bone in her body felt broken, snapped like flimsy twigs. Her armor had since been blasted right into her flesh, the plastic and metal burning into her skin.
She should be dead, but she was not.
There was pain like she’s never felt before. A howling, burning agony, reverberating through her bones like a struck gong, and yet her machine heart beat on. The weight of the Citadel rested on her broken chest, and that heart refused to stop.
She wondered how she was still alive. The Catalyst had twisted its words cunningly, guiding her away from the Reapers’ destruction. It had reminded her of her own synthetic parts, and insinuated that they would cease should she choose to end the Reapers, should she choose to fulfill her goal.
She had been swayed, just for a moment. The thought of controlling the Reapers had begun to align itself in a way that felt like truth. She could do it, the Catalyst said. She could turn the Reapers away. Or should she judge herself unworthy, she could choose to use the Crucible to create synthesis between organics and synthetics, just as Saren had tried to do all those years ago.
She remembered not trusting the Crucible. She remembered not trusting herself to control. She remembered the thought of forcing synthesis to be repulsive, a heavy-handed solution to a problem she’d solved without force only weeks ago, between the Quarians and the Geth. She remembered walking toward the conduit, firing her pistol, gaining strength as she did so. She remembered the Catalyst’s cry of fury before it flickered out, and the explosion enveloped her.
She wrenched open her eyes through colossal effort, blinking to reorient herself. She saw blasted stone and twisted metal, and above her the void was littered with the detritus of battle, the corpses of ships and Reapers alike. There were no streaks of gunfire dotting the darkened sky, and she knew. It was over.
The Reapers were gone.
It was strange, to suddenly be relieved of her purpose. One would certainly resurface, she supposed. But for now, there was nothing. There was a sense of victory, yes; slowly sinking in. There was relief.
In that brief moment of relief, she remembered Kaidan and the Normandy. She remembered it streaking through the blast-scarred sky, slowly as if in slow-motion. She remembered Kaidan’s face, his eyes wide and pleading. She remembered telling him she loved him before dashing away, toward the beam.
The Normandy. The Normandy was her purpose now. She chased away all speculation that the ship might have met its end in the course of the battle, incinerating everyone aboard, pulsing outward in chunks of metal and flesh. She ignored the thought of it being forever out of her grasp. She would find the Normandy if it killed her, and she would find Kaidan.
She had promised, after all.
She let her head thud back into the rubble. Breathing was painful and her head spun. She knew she had lost a lot of blood. She wondered how many broken bones she had. There were likely internal injuries as well. She counted them all distantly, her thoughts far away. There would probably be some overzealous medic elated with the prospect of caring for Commander Shepard, the great hero.
She thought of Mordin and his clinic, the many times he’d patched her up after a mission gone south. She thought of Dr. Chakwas. tutting as she fidgeted on a gurney, impatient with the proceedings.
She entertained thoughts of escape, still half-broken, limping to a ship and taking to the sky, in search of Kaidan. It was selfish, of course. She knew that. She figured she had earned the right to be a little selfish.
She drifted. She resurfaced from unconsciousness at odd intervals. She looked up, through the glass above her head; the patterns of the stars changed too randomly to be marked. She lost all conception of time, and as it passed, even the pain began to fade.
She realized she was dying.
It was a nearly involuntary reaction to fight death. She clung to consciousness like a drowning man clings to detritus floating on the sea. She clung to her memories, and they sustained her. Kaidan, holding her hand. Kaidan, his glowing barrier rippling against enemy fire. Kaidan, his lips on hers.
“No matter what happens, after this is over we find each other, okay?” he said in her memories. Or were they memories?
She thought she saw him through her blood crusted eyes, picking through rubble. Just as he had three years ago, after they had defeated Saren. He hadn’t given up then. He’d clawed through the rubble even though his leg was broken and his hands were bleeding. His thumbnail had been pried off, and he hadn’t even noticed the pain of it in his desperation. It had never grown back, she remembered.
That month after the defeat of Saren had been the best of her life. They had two weeks of shore leave in Chicago. Their combined status as heroes of the Alliance and saviors of the galaxy granted them special consideration, which they used to rent a hotel on Lakeshore Drive. They didn’t leave their room for six days. She’d grown accustomed to everything he was, outside of being a soldier; his stories, his failures and triumphs, his quirks. She’d memorized the constellation of moles dotting his shoulders and back. She’d kissed every inch of his skin.
“No matter what happens,” he reminded her. She reached for him but he slipped through her fingers, and she realized he wasn’t really there. Just a shadow, a memory. If she had tears left to cry, she would have then.
“Kaidan!” she rasped, as if she could summon him. There was no answer.
It was later when she heard voices. She dismissed them as shadows, just like Kaidan had been, just like the grieving phantoms of her dreams. Even though she was aware of hands on her body, pulling away pieces of blasted rubble, she ignored them.
“We got a body here,” one said, through a great distance. “Barely alive.”
“It’s Commander Shepard!” another said.
“Careful with her, careful! Get that crap off her legs!”
“She’s not going to make it.” This voice was deeper, rasping. Grizzled, maybe. Zaeed? He’d said the same thing over Garrus after he took that Blue Sun missile to the face.
“She will,” the other said. Feminine. “Get the medi-gel!”
She struggled to open her eyes, but only vague shapes loomed before her eyes. “Where is. . . the Normandy?” she rasped, struggling to speak. Her tongue was like lead.
“Hold on, Shepard,” the feminine voice said. “We’ll get you out of here.”
She would have fought, if she could. Her question became a demand the longer it went unanswered, rankling like an insult, a wound, a splinter in the mind. She clenched and unclenched her fists, struggling to make herself well enough to stand, to speak, to make herself heard and obeyed but she could not. She was mostly dead, she remembered. She’d lain in a puddle of her own blood for who knows how long.
Her brief hold on consciousness faltered and she sunk into the darkness, haunted by her ghosts. Her last thought was of Kaidan and his promise; then a salve, now a wound.
He was hoarse from screaming. He felt as if he had screamed for years, only forcing out sound through brute effort instead of ability.
The Normandy’s engines rose to an impossible pitch. Though a dim part of his mind knew it was futile, he thrashed in Garrus’ arms, struggling to break free and return to her side. The turian was strong and immovable as stone, though, and unable to speak. He was so focused on Shepard that he didn’t notice his own wounds, pooling blood in his armor, his throbbing headache; he only saw her.
She stood across the widening breech as the Normandy took to the sky. Her red hair whipped about her head like a flaming halo, like a lash from the sun. Her visor had long been lost and a wound to her brow had trickled blood down the side of her face, giving her a feral, disturbed look. Her eyes appeared bruised.
“I love you,” she said, though he could only tell by the sight of her lips moving; the engines were too loud to catch anything else. He thrashed with renewed vigor but Garrus hauled him away and the hatch closed behind them. Through the metal, he heard the feedback scream of a Reaper, echoing through his rattling skull, his bones.
He had been careless. He hadn’t scanned his surroundings constantly. Instead, there had been one moment of distraction, of fear; he had seen Shepard stumble and the world seemed to contract onto the sight of her crashing to the ground. He had rushed to her side, hand outstretched. He hadn’t seen the Reaper turn its red gaze in his direction, blasting the ground from under his feet and sending him crashing into a smoldering wreck.
Garrus dragged him to the med bay and said something in a low voice to Dr. Chakwas, though Kaidan barely heard. The scream of the Reaper still rattled in his ears. He wondered if Shepard had already made it to the beam, or if she’d been struck down like he had.
Kaidan wasn’t a dramatic man, prone to outbursts and declarations of feeling. He was thoughtful and pragmatic. He avoided hyperbole on principle; too much room for misdirection. It was better to understate a small truth than overstate a large one. And yet, he felt as if his heart literally twisted and died in his chest.
Suddenly, he could not escape the sick feeling of foreboding that hounded him. Shepard could already be dead, he feared. She could be lying in the rubble of London, body broken, heart stalled. Though he struggled to keep himself from hysterics, he felt dangerously close to losing control of himself. His hands shook so badly he wondered vaguely if he was having a seizure.
“Come on, Major,” said Dr. Chakwas gently. “Let’s get you out of that armor so I can take a look at you.”
He obeyed, too sick to do anything else. His grief and fear was private, not to be seen or shared. He undid the latches and let the armor thud to the medbay floor. His head throbbed, as if someone had used his skull as a drum. He felt violently sick, clenching his teeth against the bile that burned in his throat.
Dr. Chakwas fished a light out of her pocket and flipped it on with her thumb. “Look here,” she instructed, shining the light into his pupil. He blinked, swallowing, altogether unable to bite back his horror. He thought of Shepard, so small, so soft, and the Reaper in the distance, who could kill with a glance. He felt the mechanical scream of a Reaper rattle his teeth, and saw it blasting her to ash.
“You have a concussion, Kaidan,” Dr. Chakwas said, holding out her hand to steady herself as the ship rocked around them.
When the end came, they fled.
If Kaidan had been in the cockpit, standing opposite of Garrus, they would have hovered around the shuddering Citadel until death came for them. If Kaidan hadn’t been restrained in the med bay, the conversation would have gone very differently.
As it was, they fled the wave of energy that chased them through the relays.
Kaidan was only half conscious when the energy caught up with them and sent them crashing planetside. He didn’t hear EDI slump to the floor of the cockpit or Joker’s denials rising to a terrible wail. He didn’t learn what had happen until much later, after EDI’s body had been carried through the medbay to the AI core, laid to rest where her second life had begun.
It was clear, however inexplicably, that Shepard had succeeded. She had made it to the Citadel and activated the Crucible. The Reapers were destroyed. In fact, the same signal that had destroyed the Reapers and fried the ship had destroyed EDI just the same- it did not discriminate.
They were stranded, cut off. Comms were non-functional. The ship was badly damaged, though Garrus assured them it could be repaired. Joker had snapped at him, lunging at the turian with clawed hands, feral in his grief.
They were all of them weighed by that grief, shared and personal. The Reapers were destroyed, but at terrible cost.
Kaidan knew it was selfish. He knew Joker’s grief was just as terrible as his own, and that their predicament was dire. Yet for those first days in their exile, he could not think of anything aside from Shepard as he’d last seen her; wounded from battle, bare in his arms. He could not feel anything but a slow, desperate hope that took root and refused to die. He knew she was alive.
Shepard opened her eyes, slowly at first. The light hurt after what felt like years living in darkness. She heard the steady beeping of a monitor, felt a IV prickle in her arm. Her entire body was sore, somehow; as if she had been processed through a wood chipper, a really big one.
She blinked slowly, struggling to adjust to the light. She was in a hospital of some kind; she recognized the feel of a crinkly hospital issue blanket under her hands. As she adjusted to the light, she saw her room was filled with color; crude gifts fashioned from the detritus of Earth, so many that they filled the room and lined the hallway outside of her door.
Beside her, she heard someone clear their throat. A man with a rough voice. “Was wondering when you’d wake the hell up,” he said.
She blinked again, turned her head. “Zaeed?”
“Good to see you’re not blind.”
“What are you doing here?”
“What does it look like?” He chuckled. “I’ve been waiting for you to wake up.”
Shepard swallowed, closing her eyes. “You didn’t die,” she said. Her voice sounded rough to her ears.
“It’ll take more than a few Reapers to kill me, and you know it,” Zaeed said roughly. “Same goes for you, though I’d wager you might have had a rougher time of it.”
“Heh.” Zaeed looked around, fidgeting a bit. She realized he was still clad in his customary armor, still singed from battle; he looked so ridiculous and yet familiar she smiled, though it hurt her mouth to move too much. “The others should be back soon.”
“Your former crew,” Zaeed told her. “We’ve been running shifts.”
“Don’t you have better things to do than moon around my sickbed?” Shepard asked hoarsely, smirking.
“Ah, there it is. Missed your smart mouth.”
“Not as much as I missed yours.”
“Heh.” Zaeed stood, rested his hand on her arm briefly. “I’d say you did good if I was into that mushy shit.”
“Can’t have that,” she said, though her eyes burned.
“Goddamn right. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m starving and hospitals make my ass itch.” He patted her hand once. “I’ll get the nurse.”
“Wait!” she broke in just as he turned away. “Zaeed?”
She pressed her lips together. “How long was I out?”
“Long time,” he said. “A few weeks. Almost a month, now that I think about it.”
“Yeah. They said something about a coma. Whatever happened up there beat you up goddamn good.”
A month! She thought of Kaidan and her heart began to pound anew. He must be here! Maybe sleeping somewhere or getting something to eat. She craned her head around, desperate to see even just a glimpse of him, his sweet smile and earnest eyes. “The Normandy?” she asked Zaeed.
He didn’t respond for a moment, and her heart sank at the uncomfortable expression on his face. “There’s been no word,” he said slowly. “Not yet, anyway. The blast knocked the comms and relays all to hell.”
“They weren’t in the system?” she pleaded.
Zaeed shook his head. “Hackett ordered a retreat and rendezvous. Who knows where they ended up when the blast hit.”
She couldn’t speak for a moment, the grief threatening to spill over, as if she was no better than a child sobbing its heart out. “I see,” she said distantly.
Zaeed cleared his throat, uncomfortable. “They’ll turn up eventually, Shepard.”
She swallowed, pushing away her shameful reaction. “Of course they will,” she said firmly. She was Shepard, and there was no place for Shepard to bare her heart. She blinked up at Zaeed, grabbing the first unrelated question she could think of. “You found me, didn’t you?”
Zaeed looked relieved at the change of subject. “Yeah, I did. Me and some other volunteers. It took thousands of people and a few days to sift through the rubble of that station enough to find you,” Zaeed explained, looking grim.
“A few days . . .?”
“Yeah. I don’t know Shepard, there’s some grit in you. I don’t know who else could have survived your wounds with no treatment for that long.”
“Probably my cybernetics,” she equivocated. “I’m half machine.”
“Then you should have died, along with the Reapers and the Geth, right? No, I think there’s some grit in you.”
She swallowed, throat tight. “Thanks Zaeed. Go eat something before you say anything nicer.”
“Sure,” he said, waving her off. “Don’t go anywhere.” He laughed at his joke.
He lumbered out the door and down the hall, leaving her alone with her thoughts.
It was over, just like she’d known in the pile of rubble she’d lain in for days. And yet the full measure of loss was stark, raw like a wound. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t considered her choice and the effect it would have on the galaxy. She knew the Reapers would die, but so would the Geth. So would EDI. She had judged that the freedom of the entire galaxy to be worth that price, and fully acknowledged she had no place to make that judgment.
It had to be done. She comforted herself with the thought for a long time, her fists bunched up in the hospital blanket. She would never echo Mordin on this; it may have had to be her, but she didn’t believe that someone else might have gotten it wrong. The other choices were repulsive, repugnant. If she could have rejected them all and secured victory for the galaxy, she would have.
She grieved silently, without tears, for Legion and the Geth, for EDI, for Mordin and Thane, for Ashley and Anderson and everyone else who had died senselessly, all for the sake of order.
She grieved for Kaidan.
Though she couldn’t know for certain, she felt he was alive, so it was perhaps foolish to grieve for him. But she felt oddly as if the war would not truly have ended until she saw his face and held him, solid and reassuring and as lovely as she’d ever known.
She thought of their last night before it had all began, of their promise. “No matter what,” he had said. She had echoed him, and she had meant it. If they were stranded somewhere, she would find them. She would bring them home.
“Commander Shepard?” said a voice, startling her from her thoughts. It was a nurse, clipboard in hand. Her uniform was somehow clean, and it suddenly struck Shepard as odd- how was it there was no rubble anywhere, no debris?
“What is it?” she asked, clearing her throat.
“I need to – your IV needs changing,” the nurse said, looking away. Shepard focused on her, her shifting expression and discomfort. She looked as if she struggled to broach an uncomfortable subject.
“Is there a problem?” Shepard asked.
The nurse hesitated, changing the IV bag quickly. “Not exactly. Your injuries are healing well. Your vitals are stable.”
“What were my injuries?”
“You had sixteen fractures and an assortment of internal injuries. I’ve never seen anyone survive the damage that you had.” The nurse said this in an almost reverential tone, looking away when she met Shepard’s gaze.
“So then what is it?” Shepard demanded, and thought she attempted to inject some of the old Commander steel into her voice, it was undercut by how hoarse and weak she sounded.
The nurse shifted uncomfortably, looking down at her clipboard and flipping through the pages. “I . . . I’m sorry, I don’t know quite how to say this.”
“So just say it.”
The nurse blinked up from her clipboard. “You’re pregnant.”
The world went silent for half a second. Shepard gaped at the woman, struggling to process a thought. Any thought would do. “What did you say?”
“You’re pregnant,” the nurse said again.
“Well . . . if you’ve been with anyone . . .”
“For the love of- I know how it happened,” Shepard snapped. “How is this possible, considering my injuries?” She swallowed, struggling to calm herself. “Did you test more than once?”
At this, the nurse seemed to regain some of herself. “Of course,” she said tersely. “I’m a professional.”
Shepard let this slide. “So how is this possible?”
“I don’t know, Commander. I don’t even know how you survived.” The nurse frowned a bit. “I’m sorry to spring this on you just now. I thought it would be best if you knew right away.”
“Thank you,” Shepard heard herself say. The world suddenly seemed far away, each word and sound coming as if from a great distance. “I’m tired, if you don’t mind . . . “
“Of course not! I’m – again, I’m sorry.” The nurse scurried around Shepard’s bed toward the door, but before she left she peeked into the room again, her eyes comically wide. “I just wanted to say thank you.”
“Thank you for what?”
The nurse blinked. “For . . . the Reapers? Destroying the Reapers?”
She’d completely forgotten. “Right. You’re welcome,” she said as graciously as she could manage through her bald shock.
She was pregnant. She and Kaidan were going to have a child. It seemed utterly impossible, considering she had lain in a pile of rubble with more broken bones than she’d cumulatively had before in her life, not to mention the countless internal injuries, and yet somehow through that she’d managed to become and stay pregnant. She shook her head a little, biting the inside of her cheek in an attempt to wake up.
No good. She was already awake. Wide awake, now.
It seemed nonsensical, somehow. She was Shepard, a soldier and a biotic. She’d united the races of the galaxy and commanded them against an ancient threat. She’d cured the genophage and brought peace between the Geth and the Quarians. She’d secured victory against the Reapers for good. Somehow, these impossible things seemed more probable than becoming pregnant.
Of course she’d entertained thoughts about having children, but it had been an abstract daydream at best. She and Kaidan had talked about it once before, during their shore leave in Chicago. He’d traced his fingers along the lines of her stomach, muscled as tightly as a drum then, and wondered if she’d thought about kids. She’d said yes, because it was the truth- she had, in those days. She’d wanted to start a family after she retired, just as her mom had done.
She thought about Kaidan’s reaction to the news. She wondered if he’d even be happy, or irritated that he’d lost control enough not to be careful. Though, neither of them had worried about birth control in the moment. They’d been careless . . . distracted. Would he see this news as a joy or as a burden? Whatever time spent between them now would be joined by pregnancy or a child, depending on how long it took to find Kaidan.
She nearly choked on the thought. She was not religious, or even particularly faithful, but she prayed that it would not take more than nine months to find Kaidan. She’d fought Reapers and thresher maws and mercenaries and enough Cerberus troops to populate an entire system, but the thought of carrying this pregnancy to term without Kaidan made her stomach coil on itself in horror.
And yet, even as she considered, she knew it was not an option. She would carry this pregnancy, this . . . baby because it was theirs. Both of theirs. Together, in a moment of desperation and desire and love, they had created it and because of that, she realized she loved it already. She knew he would too.
With a deep breath, Shepard swallowed and began to plan. She was not a coward. If she had a thousand reasons to find Kaidan now, they had more than doubled in the last five minutes.
Half the galaxy away, Kaidan held a plate bearing Shepard’s name in front of the memorial wall, surrounded by the rest of the Normandy’s crew. He ran his fingers over her name, hesitating. He remembered her smile, her voice, the bruised look in her eyes that only surfaced when she thought she was alone. She remembered her touch, her lips mouthing the words ‘I love you’.
He tucked the plate under his arm and strode away, leaving the crew to stare at the empty place on the memorial wall where her name should have gone.
They were like teenagers when they checked into their hotel on Lakeshore Drive, giggling, kissing inappropriately, whispering. They made such a scene that the concierge asked them where the wedding had been, assuming they were newlyweds. Shepard snorted into Kaidan’s neck as he handed over his credit chit, struggling desperately to keep a straight face.
Newlyweds; it was as close to the truth as it would come for Commander Shepard and Lieutenant Alenko. Big Alliance Hero types as they were. Saren and the Reaper threated were defeated for now, and the way Kaidan figured, they were owed a bit of a break.
It was Shepard who suggested Chicago. Her mother had told her stories of the great North American metropolis, one of the most vibrant cities on Earth. She’d talked about the Field Museum and Navy Pier and Sears Tower and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a thousand other wonderful and romantic places. Young Shepard had vowed to one day see them, and that she wanted to share it with Kaidan was tender beyond his ability to properly describe.
They stumbled into the elevator, giggling like drunkards, drunk on each other. As the doors closed, he pulled her close and kissed her deeply, his hands sliding down her back to her hips. She moaned under his mouth, and the feel of her body against his was intoxicating.
They somehow made to the room despite their carrying on, even earning a few disproving clucks from an elderly couple as Kaidan fumbled with the key, Shepard’s breath on his ear and her teasing hands sliding lower. He almost choked on his tongue when she squeezed his butt, her grin delightfully coy.
“Feeling brave, Shepard?” he growled in her ear.
“Ooh,” she fired back. “Shaking in my boots over here.”
He shoved open the door with so much force that it crashed against the wall, the sound like a blast from a gun. He dragged her into the room and crushed his mouth to hers again, but she did not wilt against him. She was fire made flesh, she burned against his skin, fingers seeking, stroking, pulling taut. They tossed aside their bags and toppled to the bed, clinging to one another.
They did not sleep much that night.
He woke with a migraine the next morning. The familiar pain lanced through his skull, pulsing and thick, making his stomach churn. Of course, he thought bitterly. Of course he’d get a migraine his first day away with Shepard. He held a hand to his brow to shield his eyes and sat up, searching for her.
She was still in her underwear, drinking coffee and watching the sun rise over Lake Michigan. Though he’d seen every inch of her last night, there was something new and thrilling about seeing her now, legs propped up on the windowsill, sipping her coffee and smiling as the sun reflected a thousand times on the surface of the lake.
“Hey,” she said, smiling. “Good morning.”
“Morning,” he echoed.
She frowned as she watched him. “What’s wrong? You look hungover.”
Though he was miserable, a part of him was pleased she could tell just from a glance. “Close enough. It’s a migraine.”
“Shit, really?” She got up and wrenched the blinds shut before padding back to the bed. “Oh, Kaidan.”
He waved away her concern. “It’s not a big deal.”
“I’ve known badasses of the highest degree laid low by migraines. You don’t have to play tough,” she said, crossing her arms.
“I’m not playing tough,” he argued. “I get migraines all of the time. From the implant, right? Just have to wait for it to pass.” He opened an eye and watched her. “I’m sorry.”
“Jesus, you don’t have to apologize for getting a migraine Kaidan,” she said, brushing a lock of his hair off his brow.
“Well, I thought you might have plans that I’m getting in the way of.”
She smirked. “Yeah, I got some plans,” she said. “My plan is to park myself next to you and stay in my underwear all day. Can you handle that?”
He chuckled. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Good.” She leaned closer and brushed his lips with hers. “Now hold on. I’m going to get you some ice.”
“Sam, come on,” he said, reaching for her. “You don’t have to fuss.”
“What if I want to?” she said, riffling through her knapsack and shrugging into an oversized button-down. “Let me take care of you.”
He’d never had anyone ask to care for him. He’d never really needed it, honestly, but there was something wonderful about being needed and loved and cared for. “All right,” he said. “Only if I get to return the favor.”
“Sure,” she said. “You’ll get your chance.”
And so he lay back in bed, the sheets still strewn about from when they had made love, and let Shepard press a bag of ice cubes to his brow before cuddling into his side. They watched bad TV the entire day until his migraine passed, and he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so happy.
As the ranking officer on the Normandy, many of Shepard’s previous duties now fell to Kaidan. He coordinated the repair efforts and set the shifts. He personally inventoried the supplies on the ship, calculating that they would last sixteen months before starvation with no supplements from the planet they had landed on.
The planet itself was an unknown. Joker maintained that he hadn’t marked the relays as they had passed through, and he had no idea which one they had finally crashed through before the blast caught up with them. Kaidan had been annoyed with this, but he’d understood. No one had exactly been thinking clearly at that moment, except perhaps Garrus.
Well, he was thinking clearly now. He organized exploration efforts and led them himself, looking for any distinguishing feature of the planet or the night sky that would give any indication to their position in the galaxy. If they knew where they were, it would be that much easier to find their way home.
He wasn’t specifically required to, as the standing protocol for stranding was to repair and rendezvous (or failing that, dig in and wait for rescue), but he pulled Garrus and Tali aside in the first month of repairs.
“We’re likely going to attempt to return to Sol first, depending on our position,” he said cautiously. “This means you might not see your homes for a while.”
They’d exchanged a glance. “That’s sort of what we expected,” Garrus said, shrugging. “Way I figure it, we all want to find Shepard if she’s alive. I know that means I might not see Palaven for a while, but in the end it’ll be worth it.”
“Rannoch will be there for a long time,” Tali supplied. “There is more to do now.”
He’d known Tali and Garrus were close to Shepard, but he’d never fully realized the depth of their loyalty. He struggled to speak for a moment, working his suddenly tight throat. “Thank you,” he said before making a hasty retreat.
The mood aboard the Normandy was strange, subversively joyful. When he rounded corners, he would find crewman hugging tearfully and praising Shepard for ending the war, but they were careful to keep their joy hidden from Kaidan and Joker. They all knew what there had been between Joker and EDI. And they all suspected what there had been between Kaidan and Shepard.
Kaidan thought of her- in fact, he doubted he could stop even if he wanted to. He descended into productivity, which allowed him to actively work toward seeing her again and also keep his mind occupied. Busy hands made for a calm mind, and he needed that calm. He needed to keep away from the sickened speculation that beckoned whenever he stopped for just a moment, overcome by memories.
They were there, looming around corners, waiting to strike. He’d see Shepard striding down the hallway, datapad in hand. He’d see her at the mess, smirking at whatever dopey thing Joker had said. He’d remember her in the war room, looking as if she’d never smiled in her life. He’d remember her in her quarters, pacing, lips pressed together, the sound of her voice.
Traynor had informed him that due to his status as ranking officer, he was now authorized to use her old quarters. His first reaction had been shock and a bit of repulsion. Those were her quarters, her things. It was strange to invade them as if she was already gone, as if she was beyond their reach.
Traynor had shrugged. “You don’t have to,” she backtracked, alarmed by the look on his face. “It would make things more official, that’s all.”
After some thought, he’d agreed on those terms. He wouldn’t confess that part of him longed to be there, in the last place they’d been truly together before the end. He wouldn’t confess that he needed to be near at least a trace of her presence, her papers strewn across the desk, her scent still in the sheets.
The news that Commander Shepard had woken from her coma spread much faster than should have been possible, considering the state of the comm systems. Only a few days had passed before a line formed outside of the Alliance Headquarters hospital in Vancouver, filled with those desperate to thank their savior, the woman who had ended the Reaper threat.
The hospital staff tried their best to give Shepard space, but they were not prepared to deal with the tenacity of the reporters, who cheated, lied, and stole their way into the hospital to capture holoprints and soundbytes with ruthless efficiency. The entire system knew it, now; Shepard was alive. Their savior had survived.
Shepard didn’t mind the constant stream of people, if she was being honest. It allowed her to keep her mind and body occupied. She shook hands with thousands of people, posed for pictures (as well as she could in her hospital bed, anyway). She accepted gifts with as much grace as she could manage, though the thought of these stricken and destitute people scraping what little they had to offer to her seemed exploitative.
The third day after she awoke, she was visited by Admiral Hackett. She’d been warned beforehand, thankfully, and the hospital staff managed to corral the waiting visitors away, wrenching shut curtains and sealing windows. A tech even came by to sweep for bugs, which was prudent considering the underhanded tactics of the paparazzi.
Hackett slipped into her room, careful to close the door behind him before taking a seat at the side of her bed. For a moment, he seemed as if words failed him. He looked much older than she remembered, grizzled and battle-weary. Only the blue of his eyes had maintained its familiar fire.
“Commander Shepard,” he finally said. “I confess; I’m at a bit of a loss.”
She laughed as well as she could, though she was still hoarse. “I’d say the feeling is mutual, Admiral.”
“I don’t think mere thanks are appropriate, considering.”
“Thanks will do just fine, sir,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said, and he rested his hand on hers for just a moment. “I don’t know exactly what happened up there, but I know you did your job. Billions are alive today because of you.”
“I-,” she paused, cleared her throat. She had no choice but to be gracious to the civilians, but praise coming from the Admiral felt unwarranted. Billions were alive, but billions had died just the same. “I just did what anyone would have done.”
“Regardless, thank you all the same. Because of you, every species in the galaxy has a future of their making now.”
She’d known that; it’d been why she rejected controlling or synthesizing the Reapers. “Thank you, sir.”
He chuckled a bit. “I’ll leave it, for now. You never were good at accepting the accolades you were due.”
“You might not remember what happened at the Elysium ceremony, but I sure do.”
She’d been so young then. They’d pinned the medals to her chest and presented a mic for her to speak into. It had been broadcasting live to the entire Alliance, the entire galaxy. She’d muttered and stumbled over her words, flushing redder and redder until Hackett had shown her mercy and ushered her along. She’d been just a soldier then. Speaking in public was not something that came easily to her.
“God,” she said, closing her eyes against the warmth she felt in her cheeks. “I’d die happy if everyone forgot about that.”
“Slim chance, Commander.”
“Yes, sir.” She cleared her throat again. “I assume you’re in a better position than my nurse to tell me how things are going.”
“Always straight to business. I was going to ask how you were doing first.”
Truthfully, she was sore in ways she hadn’t even known were possible. She couldn’t move yet—too many mending bones. The internal injuries had healed somewhat, though she was still weak. And on top of it all, there was the pregnancy. It was still too early to notice any physical changes, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t stress about it. She coughed. “I’m fine, sir.”
“Sixteen broken bones, more internal injuries than they almost knew what to do with, and not to mention three days of exposure in a poorly oxygenated environment,” Hackett said, ticking each point off his fingers. “If that’s fine, I’m almost afraid to see what would really lay you low.”
“It’d probably kill me, sir.”
“You’re probably right.” He harrumphed. “Things are going well, considering a month ago we were fighting for our lives.”
“On schedule. Most of the major cities on Earth have been cleared and rudimentary repairs are nearly completed.”
“And the relays?” Shepard asked him quickly.
“Bit more complicated there. But the Quarians and Salarians assure me that all is progressing well enough. On the outside, we should have the major relays operational in a few months.”
She knew logically this was good news, and yet she still couldn’t help to be disappointed. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “And the Normandy?”
Hackett was too much of a professional to betray much emotion even at the worst of times, but he surprised her with a look of great pity. “No word yet.”
He looked away, and it struck her that he looked very uncomfortable then, as if struggling to word a difficult thought. “Shepard, when you heal up, I might need you again.”
She didn’t immediately respond. Of course she should have suspected this. She was Commander Shepard, savior of the galaxy many times over. “I don’t know how much use I’ll be, sir,” she said slowly. “What do you need me for?”
“Shepard, I don’t like asking you this. As far as I’m concerned, if anyone’s earned a nice retirement on a beach somewhere, it’s you. And while I don’t think we’ll need your for active duty, your visible presence will go a long way to uniting us all as we struggle to rebuild.”
“Have there been problems?” she asked.
“If you can believe it, yes.” Hackett frowned. “Now that the threat of the Reapers is gone, we’ve got people who are trying to take advantage of the situation. We’ve had heavy resistance to the official reformation of the Alliance and the Council.”
“I wish I was.”
It was human – or sentient – nature, she guessed. The Catalyst had said as much. And yet it was still upsetting to hear. “You’d think they’d wait just a bit, while we all catch our damn breath.”
“That would be sporting, wouldn’t it? These separatists are heavily opposing the reformation of our previous government. No open violence yet, though if we don’t get a handle on it, it’s only a matter of time.”
“Who are they? What the hell do they want?” Shepard demanded.
“Civilians and some veterans, if you can believe it. They’re claiming the government was responsible for our losses against the Reapers and we should have done more. They’re demanding every surviving government and military official be stripped of their positions so new ones of their choosing can be installed.”
“What- what more should we have done, exactly? Should I have done?!” she spluttered, and beside her the heart monitor squawked in reply, an absurd punctuation to her distress. “How does gutting the government and military make any sense considering the state of things?!”
“I know, Shepard,” he said, patting her hand and looking worried. “Frankly, it’s a damn insult to you and everything you’ve done.”
She took a slow breath through her nose and closed her eyes, willing herself to be calm. Sure, in the beginning the Council (and the Alliance, to a lesser extent) had been slow to act on her warnings. But to accuse them as completely responsible and therefore unworthy to reform was ignorant and offensive.
“So while I won’t need you to pick up a gun and charge these dissidents any time soon, I do need you in the public eye. You represent the Alliance and the Council, as a Spectre. I figure these jackals will think twice about accusing you of anything, considering your state.”
Ah- and she understood. She almost had to laugh at the Hackett’s infamous cunning, on display just as if nothing had changed. Because the way she looked was awful- no one could meet her gaze and accuse her of not doing enough, not when her body had been broken so many times her doctors wondered how she hadn’t died. “Yes, sir,” she said, bringing up her hand in a weak salute.
Hackett cleared his throat and stood. “So get well, Shepard. We need you back.”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
He saluted her and slipped through the door as quickly as he had come, and she was alone.
Of course it figured things wouldn’t go smoothly. She’d childishly entertained delusions of taking to the stars and finding Kaidan, bringing him home and enjoying a well-earned retirement at his side. The delusion had expanded to include their child. And now, it suddenly seemed as if she would never be finished. As if the galaxy would never stop needing her.
She wasn’t selfish, not really. She was willing to serve. She’d given her life and more to the Alliance and would continue to do so until they no longer needed her. Except, now she no longer could consider her own needs alone. She had another to think of.
She had vehemently demanded that the medical staff keep her pregnancy a secret. Even before she’d been aware of the current state of things, it had not seemed prudent to shout the news from the rooftops. And now that there was a band of dissidents who vehemently opposed the reformation of the government and by proxy considered her a threat, the thought of what they would do with such information filled her with equal parts cold fear and anger.
It was never simple, was it?
One tear tracked down her cheek, and she wiped it angrily away. It was weak, maybe, but she didn’t care; she desperately wished that Kaidan was at her side.
On the third day of their shore leave, Shepard sprawled over the rumpled bed, dewy and mused and more beautiful than he thought possible. “You think we’ll ever go outside?”
“What’s so great out there that isn’t better up here?”
She smirked. “You just want me all to yourself.”
“Guilty as charged.”
She rolled over and kissed his thigh. “I’ll have forgotten how to shoot a gun by the time this is over.”
“The Hero of Elysium? Never.”
“I guess we’ll see, huh?” She giggled. “Can you imagine going through basic again?”
The thought made his stomach churn. “Christ.”
“Right? “ She rolled over, on her back. “Sorry for bringing it up. You can ask me whatever awkward question you have in the back of that cute head of yours in retribution.”
“Awkward question, huh?”
“You have to have a few.”
“Mm. Maybe.” He traced a finger along the taut lines of her belly, relishing the way his touch made her shiver. “You ever think about kids?”
“Yowch. There’s an awkward question.”
“You said I could ask!”
“I sure did. Hm.” She lapsed into thought for a moment, idly wrapping a fiery red strand of hair around her index finger. “Yeah, I’ve thought about kids. When I retire, you know? Whenever the hell that is.”
“The great Commander Shepard; savior, Spectre, mom,” he teased. “I can see it.”
“Of course you can. I’d be a freaking amazing mom. Just look at all this maternal instinct rolling off me.” She snorted, poking him with her foot. “Mom of the year, right here.”
“You’re kidding around, but I really can see it,’ he said. “All that toughness and pride, but you’ve got some softness too. You care for people. You’d be one of the best.”
“Hm.” She paused, seeming to consider this, and some of her levity faded. “I’m sorry if this is weird, but I think you’d make a good dad.”
“That’s not weird,” he said.
She sat up suddenly, definitely serious now. Her brows pulled together in a straight line, and he was briefly startled by her quick intensity. “I think if I was to have kids with someone, I’d want it to be you,” she said quietly.
“This is weird, isn’t it? But I can’t shake this feeling that you’re supposed to be in my life. I’d never really thought about retirement and family and all that as a real thing in my future; it was always an abstract. But with you there, it’s real. It feels right.” She paused, self-conscious. “Does that make sense?”
He’d been too much of a chicken-shit to confess the exact same feeling to her when he realized it a few months ago. He saw it all, just as she’d said, exactly the same. A future, retirement, children. And together through it all. He was too overcome to speak. He pulled her close and brought his lips to hers, and they didn’t speak again for a long time.
Kaidan shot upright, still half-tangled in his sheets. His heart pounded furiously against his ribcage, as if struggling to escape.
For half a second, he believed she lay beside him, still sleeping, no longer plagued by nightmares. He reached out to stroke her hair when he realized it wasn’t Shepard, just a haphazard pile of pillows. Loss was a lump in his throat, one he couldn’t swallow.
He fell back into his pillows with a rough exhale. No matter what, he thought, that old promise turned mantra. I’m coming, Shepard.
He slept like the dead on the third night of leave, waking sometime in the early morning to see Shepard already awake, pacing the length of their hotel room. For a moment the scene was surreal, occupying that delicate space between waking and dreams, so easily shattered.
“Shepard?” he asked her blearily. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m restless,” she admitted after a moment. “I can’t stop thinking.”
He groaned a bit as he sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Talk to me about it,” he said, patting the bed beside him.
She paced one more length of the room before collapsing beside him, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes. “I’m just thinking about the Reapers,” she said. “It’s not over with them, you know? They’re coming.”
“Yeah.” He remembered, all right. He remembered the Prothean VI on Ilos and the conversation with Sovereign on Virmire. He would have liked to forget, if remembering wasn’t so important.
“The Council thinks I’m full of shit,” she said and though she attempted to sound blasé, he saw the lines of stress at the corners of her mouth. “They think this talk about Reapers was just some story Saren was feeding me. Sometimes I wonder if they’re right.”
“You know what you saw, Shepard,” he reminded her.
“Yeah, I know. Just . . . people call you a liar enough and you almost start believing it.”
“Hey.” He caught her chin and gently stroked it with his thumb. “I believe you. If you’re a liar, then I’m one right along with you.”
She smiled then, a slow smile that seemed to lighten her features from within. “You always say the nicest things.”
“I’m just being honest.”
“I know! That’s the best part.” She leaned close and kissed him before curling into his side. They didn’t speak for a long moment, and he relished the feel of her slow breathing, her palm laid flat on his chest.
“Still not tired?” he asked, grinning.
“Hungry, actually. You?”
“Starving.” He brought her hand to his lips. “I’ll order a pizza. Supposedly they’re good around here.”
“There’s no way in hell there’s a pizza joint open at 3am,” she laughed.
“20 credits say there is.”
“You’re on, Alenko. It’s almost a chore, taking your money like this.”
It took him five minutes to find a place willing to deliver to their hotel, and another half hour for the meal to come. Shepard passed him his credits, making a show of being disgruntled, though he knew she was pleased. They ate half their weight in pizza and pasta until sunrise, talking all the while. And when she finally fell asleep as the sun crested the horizon, he kissed her brow and settled beside her.
“Give me the report,” Kaidan said as Traynor fell into step beside him.
“Repairs are nearly complete,” she said smartly. “FTL drives are functional, navs are good. We’re waiting for the eezo core now.”
“What’s the hold up?”
“Joker doesn’t like the balance, he says. The calibration is off.”
“What does Adams say?”
“They’ve been going at it all day.” Traynor coughed delicately. “Words were exchanged.”
“Of course,” Kaidan groaned.
“I’m just the messenger,” Traynor shrugged. “I would mediate, but I lack the training. Ahem. And the perspective.”
“I’ll handle it,” he said shortly, striding off in the direction of the engineering deck.
It had been two months since the crash and they were almost able to leave. It had taken colossal effort and remarkable ingenuity of the entire crew, but somehow they had done it. They’d had to cannibalize one of the shuttles for material for physical repairs, and charting their location from planetside and short atmosphere shuttle runs had taken the collaborative effort of both him and the navigators. It had taken two weeks alone to find food and water, test their suitability, and supplement the Normandy’s provisions. But they had nearly done it.
Their location wasn’t ideal, but not as bad as Kaidan had feared. They’d calculated that it would take about seven months to reach Earth, and that was if they weren’t able to come across a functional main relay. He wouldn’t count on one, though; the relays in this system were for the most part uncharted, and he would rather take the sure and slow bet of FTL travel than gamble with the relays.
At first, morale had been high. The Reapers were defeated and despite EDI’s death, the crew was hopeful. They rallied around one another, worked nearly eighteen-hour days, and did not argue with the rationing. People sang songs about Shepard and played games. He caught Tali and Garrus locked in a passionate embrace, and even Javik had seemed to lose some of his old brusqueness, now that his task was done.
But the weeks grew longer and tempers grew short. Every small triumph was met with Joker’s grief and anger, and it began to poison the general mood. When they’d completed physical repairs, Joker had called the Normandy a corpse and retreated to the cockpit. When they’d finished provisioning, Joker had half-heartedly insisted they break his down and distribute it instead. It didn’t take a genius to guess the reason for his depression.
Kaidan had known grief. For two awful years he believed Shepard had been killed when the first Normandy had gone down. He’d raged, bargained, raged some more. He’d never quite reached acceptance but he’d gotten close. He remembered the nightmares as clearly as if they still plagued him; visions of her floating in the void, frozen solid like a lump of plastic. And when he’d discovered her alive and working for Cerberus, the whole process had begun again.
So he was the last man alive who would tell Joker how to grieve. But the fact remained Joker’s grief was now getting in the way of their directive. Kaidan’s own personal considerations aside, the Normandy was a ship full of mothers, fathers, husbands and wives who wanted to see their families again, let alone discover if they were even still alive.
Kaidan rode the elevator down two levels, striding onto the engineering deck. It must be bad, he thought with dismay; he could hear Adams – one of the most even-keeled men he knew – ranting through the doors.
“—sick of that damn hotshot pilot who thinks he knows propulsion theory,” Adams snapped to Gabby. “He wants to talk to me about the core, he needs to do a little better than how it feels.”
“Lieutenant Adams? What’s the problem?” Kaidan asked carefully.
“The problem is pretty simple,” Adams said, rounding on Kaidan. “We’ve got a pilot who refuses to fly because the eezo core doesn’t feel right. Feel right. Last I checked none of this business is about feelings.”
It was typical Joker, all right. “Has he said anything else?”
“What else is there to say? We came off the trial buzz in and out of atmo, and he’s talking about how the ship doesn’t feel right, how it’s listing or sputtering, etcetera. I can promise you, Major; these problems he’s talking about are fantasy. Nonexistent.”
“To be fair, he would be in a better position to note them,” Kaidan equivocated. “Since he’s flying the ship?”
It was the wrong thing to say. Now all three engineers looked at him as if he was not only wrong but monumentally stupid. “Let me tell you something, Major; it’s a miracle we’ve even got this bird in the air at all. We’ve cobbled together a working engine from string and paperclips, practically. Princess up there isn’t going to get a perfectly balanced engine from what we’ve got, but I’ll tell you it’s damn close,” Adams said fiercely, the other nodding behind his back. “What’s more important, it’s safe.”
“You right,” Kaidan said. “You know how he is, though.”
Adams looked around before taking a step closer. “Look, we all know what this is about,” he said in a lower, more sympathetic voice. “He doesn’t want to leave because of EDI.”
“I’ll talk to him,” Kaidan said, holding out his hands in placation. “We need to do a few more trials before we leave, anyway. Hopefully it’ll give him time to get acquainted with the idea.”
“Good luck,” Adams said, shaking his head. “No offense intended, Major, but if Shepard were here she’d kick his ass into gear so that he’d love her for it.”
Kaidan snorted. “None taken. Triple check the engine for me; we’ll do another test in two hours.”
“Yes, sir,” the engineers chorused as he strode from the room to the elevator. Adams was right; Kaidan was even-handed and understanding, far better suited as a mediator than a motivator. He didn’t have Shepard’s temper, her vital spark, her low tolerance for bullshit.
The trek to the cockpit took much less time than he would have liked.
The pilot didn’t answer at first, focused as he was with something in his lap. “What is it?”
“You got a minute?”
“I got a lot of ‘em,” Joker said, waving his hand, though Kaidan caught the sarcastic bite in his tone.
Kaidan decided to cut right to it. “You’ve been making trouble for the engineers.”
Joker snorted. “They’re a bunch of babies and you know it.”
“To hear them tell it, sounds a lot like you’re trying to tell them how to do their jobs.”
“I wasn’t telling them shit,” Joker said, rounding on Kaidan. “I gave them my feedback on the core. It doesn’t feel spaceworthy. My opinion is supposed to count for something, last I checked. I mean, I am the one who flies this ship.”
“That is true,” Kaidan equivocated. “You know we won’t get a perfectly balanced engine from the materials we have on hand. It doesn’t need to be perfect, just functional and reliable. Is it functional?”
“I guess,” Joker shrugged bitterly. “Aren’t you going to ask me if it’s reliable?”
“The engineers are more suited to that question.”
“Ah, right. Sure.”
Around this point in the conversation, Shepard would have snapped and told Joker to get his whiny ass in line; she did not appreciate people taking advantage of her goodwill. But Kaidan was not Shepard; he decided to broach a different tactic.
“Is this about EDI?” he asked, cutting straight to it.
Joker flinched but did not turn around. “No.”
“Joker. Is this about EDI?”
This time, he didn’t respond, his shoulders hunching as if he desperately wanted to block out the world and everything else that conspired to hurt him.
“I know this isn’t much comfort,” Kaidan said, crossing his arms and leaning against the bulkhead. “But I know grief. I know it makes life seem grey and dead compared to what it was, and it’s hard to keep that confined to yourself.”
“Is this where you to tell me to get over it?” Joker asked bitterly, his hands fisting in his hair.
“No. You can grieve as long as you need, even as long as you want. But the fact here is that there are others depending on you to do your job, and you can’t fall completely to pieces. Not yet.”
“So it’s not ‘get over it’, it’s ‘pull yourself together’.”
“If you want to put it like that, yeah,” Kaidan said. “We need you to fly the ship. I guess that’s all there is to it. Whatever else there is, it’s no one’s business as long as you don’t make it their business.”
Joker didn’t say anything for a long moment, so Kaidan pushed off of the bulkhead and began to make his way toward the CIC when Joker held out a hand to stop him. “Kaidan, wait-“ he cut in, his voice raw.
“What is it?”
Joker struggled for a moment. “How do you get over them? The ones that leave you?” he asked desperately.
Kaidan was taken aback. “I- I don’t think I’m the right person to ask.”
“Because you got her back?”
Kaidan shook his head. “No . . . because I never did get over it. And I don’t think it’s even possible to get over that kind of loss. “
“I . . . I should clarify, I guess. It doesn’t hurt as bad as time goes on. You don’t forget them. You continue on. You find something funny one day and surprise yourself when you laugh. Food has taste again. They’re always there, but you remember more of the good times than the bad. You remember them more than their absence.”
Joker didn’t say anything for a moment and Kaidan wondered if he had said the wrong thing, but finally Joker turned around and nodded, his eyes bright. “Thank you,” he said quietly, throat working.
“Ah- you’re welcome,” Kaidan said, relieved. “We’re going to do another low atmo test in a little under two hours, all right?”
Joker nodded again, more brusquely this time. “Yeah,” he said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “I’ll get on it.”
They didn’t speak of EDI after that, but Kaidan never heard another complaint regarding Joker again. When they finally took to the sky a few days later, Joker helmed their jury-rigged engine as masterfully as he ever had. He wasn’t cured of his grief, not really, but it was a small start. That were all one could ever do.
“Come on Shepard,” said Miranda, hands outstretched as if she were beckoning a toddler taking her first steps.
Shepard uttered a low string of curses no toddler could ever say. “I’m trying,” she hissed, taking a faltering step and stumbling; only catching herself on the bars at the last moment.
She was in physical therapy now, a month later, and most of her bones had healed well enough to begin the slow rehabilitation process. For a woman as disposed to action as she was, two months confined to her bed had been a new kind of hell, but if anything her physical therapy was even worse. Everything hurt much more than it should have, considering she had refused painkillers.
“You’re doing well,” Miranda coached. “Baby steps.” She seemed to be finding a perverse amusement in all this.
“I suppose you think you’re funny.”
“I’m trying to help you, Shepard.” Miranda’s mouth twitched. “You’re being difficult.”
“How about I break your legs a couple times and we’ll see how difficult it is.”
“I don’t remember you being this foul-tempered before.”
Shepard took another laboring step, her teeth gritted together so hard her jaw cracked. “I don’t remember last being in so much pain.”
“Right, I keep forgetting. It really must be awful if you’re admitting it.”
Shepard waved her free hand impatiently. “I could keep it to myself, maybe.”
“Sure, sure. Take another step and really let me have it,” Miranda said, lips quirking.
“You think you’re safe because my legs are broken, huh?” She took a heavy step, staggering as it sent a lance of hot pain up through her thigh to her groin. “I’m coming for you, Lawson.”
She took three more steps before sagging into the bars, sweat pouring from her brow. Her heart pounded in time with her churning gut and her eyes burned, as if scalded by the sun. God, when had she last felt this awful?
“All right, Shepard. That’s enough for now,” Miranda said. “Come on, let’s get you down.”
“I can take a few more,” Shepard insisted, staggering forward. “Back and forth one more time.”
“You’ll do more damage than good if you push yourself too hard.”
Shepard gritted her teeth. “I’m getting promoted in a month; ceremony and special honors and everything. There is no way in hell I’m wheeling across that stage. I’m walking or I’m not doing it at all.”
“Shepard . . .” Miranda warned, but Shepard had already slowly turned around, taking faltering steps with great focus and care. She was going to master this walking thing, even if it killed her. She would not suffer confinement to a bed or chair for the rest of her life, not if she had any choice in the matter.
It came on suddenly, as if some phantom hand clenched her gut into a tight fist. One moment she’d taken her last decisive step and the next she had fallen to the hard linoleum and curled into herself, vomiting spectacularly, her hands scrabbling against the floor.
“Shepard!” she heard Miranda call as if through a haze and yet she couldn’t stop. She was coughing, hacking desperately, trying to calm her roiling gut and burning throat, but it was for nothing. She dimly marveled that her stomach had even held so much to begin with.
It was a testament to Miranda’s character and loyalty that she knelt beside Shepard, vomit and all, pressing her hand to Shepard’s brow. “You don’t have a fever,” she said in a calm, businesslike tone. “Nurse!”
“I’m fine,” Shepard croaked, then vomited again.
“Clearly.” Miranda and the nurse gathered her up and helped her into the wheelchair, pressing a plastic lined bedpan into her lap just as another wave overcame her. By the time they wheeled her back to her room, the vomiting had subsided enough for them to help her out of her soiled gown and into a new one.
It was a perfect storm of humiliations, she thought bitterly as they bathed her. Too weak and broken to care for her own body. Too sick to keep from spilling her guts in the most literal fashion for the whole world to see. She wondered if one of the paparazzo had caught the show via the bugs they attempted to hide in all corners of the hospital. Supposedly techs were sweeping constantly now, but it only took one mistake for pictures of a vomit-splattered Shepard to show up on what passed for the news.
It would be just her luck, she figured.
There was a flurry of activity as her nurse performed the customary diagnostics, though it was really for Miranda’s sake. They both knew what the cause here was. After pronouncing Shepard with a relatively clean bill of health, the nurse scurried from the room with a basket of dirty laundry, closing the door behind her.
Miranda sat at the side of her bed, looking at Shepard in a very uncomfortable, searching fashion. “What?” Shepard asked, holding the bedpan closer.
“You’re not ill,” Miranda said. “Why do you think you were sick?”
Shepard ransacked her thoughts for an answer. “Food poisoning, probably.”
“Statistically unlikely. You’re in a hospital, and the best hospital in the country at that. The food is processed in a completely sterile kitchen.”
She knew, Shepard realized, cold fear freezing her roiling gut solid. “Must’ve been the pain, then. You know, from walking?”
“You’ve suffered much greater pain without that reaction,” Miranda countered calmly.
“I-I don’t know.”
“Shepard. You do know. And you know I know.” Miranda leaned closer, her expression heavy with solicitude. “Why can’t you say it?”
She felt like crying, then. As the last month had passed, she’d felt the slow changes overtake her body, the subtle swelling of her belly, the knowledge of what grew there. She’d hoarded it when a she’d wanted to shout it from the rooftops in the hope that wherever Kaidan was he’d hear her voice and know.
One tear tracked down her cheek, and she wiped it angrily away. “It’s dangerous,” she said. “There are those assholes that think Alliance and military are responsible for what happened with the Reapers. What do you think they would do if . . . if they knew?”
“You won’t be able to hide it for much longer,” Miranda said gently.
She almost lost the battle against her tears them, but with the practice of many years and sorrows she swallowed them. “Wouldn’t it be easier if I could?”
“I don’t know,” Miranda said, and there was something wistful and sad about her eyes, as if she struggled with her own sorrow. “A child is a joy, one that shouldn’t be hoarded.”
Shepard remembered the correspondence she had seen and the conversation she’d had with Miranda, before they’d taken the Collector base. Miranda had wanted children one day, but was unable to have them due to her artificial genetic conception. The act of wanting forever without hope of fulfillment was so hopelessly sad, she bit the inside of her cheek to keep her lips from trembling.
“. . . is it Kaidan’s?” Miranda asked her delicately.
She nodded. Another wave of nausea swelled in her gut and she brought the bedpan to her chest only just in time. Miranda rubbed her back as she vomited, and though she felt like death warmed over, she was suddenly so, so glad for Miranda’s presence.
When she was finished, Miranda laid her hand on Shepard’s, gently as one can be with comfort. “It’s only a matter of time,” she said fervently. “I know they survived and are on their way home. And in the meantime . . . well, you don’t have to go through this alone. You know that, don’t you?”
“Christ,” Shepard said, choking a bit. “Are you trying to make me cry?”
“No, but you can if you want to.”
“I don’t want to.” Shepard insisted, wiping her eyes again. “But . . . thank you. I . . . I do think I need help. It’s just . . . god. We talked about this and had it all figured out; retirement, kids. And now he’s half the galaxy away if he’s even still alive, and I’m here and I can’t even walk or shoot a gun or do anything that people need now; I’m just useless. And I start thinking . . . will this uselessness carry over? Will I be absolute shit for this child? I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Miranda folded her hands over Shepard’s, squeezing. “You know you’re not useless. And if you forget, I’ll remind you. I’ll hardly be the only one.”
“I hate this mushy shit,” Shepard half-sobbed. “I don’t even feel like myself; crying and mooning like a teenager. I hate it.”
“You know, I think you might have started believing your own press,” Miranda said, smiling a little. “You’re only human, Shepard. Isn’t that what you said to me, once?”
Shepard choked, half laughter, half tears. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “You don’t have to be, you know.”
“Even if I didn’t, I want to be.”
“Yeah, well . . . thank you anyways.”
Miranda stayed as long as the nurses allowed, rubbing her back as she periodically vomited and talking of happier things to keep her mind occupied. She told stories of the old Normandy days, before the Collectors; Jack’s habitual fighting with Joker, Garrus’ obsession with the Thanix canon, Jacob’s inflexible workout schedule. She told stories about Oriana, who had become indispensable to the rebuilding effort on Earth.
She told stories of all Shepard had said and done for them, and how they wouldn’t hesitate to return that same care in whatever way they could.
And though she missed Kaidan so desperately it was like a physical ache pressing against her heart, a subtle longing made manifest, she felt better than she had in a long time. She wasn’t alone, not truly.
After completing two successful laps in physical therapy and a lot of convincing, Shepard was deemed healthy enough to take daily trips to the Alliance training facility and the firing range. She could hardly contain her excitement; the interminable weeks and months in her hospital bed had started to drive her somewhat crazy, and the prospect of getting out in the open, with the reassuring weight of a pistol in her hands was more than relief, it was joy.
She wasn’t surprised to learn that Commander Shepard’s first excursion outside of the hospital since her admittance had become a media event (though that didn’t mean she was exactly happy about it). From the moment Admiral Hackett himself wheeled her from the hospital doors to the waiting Alliance transport, she was nearly blinded by the flashing of the holocameras, desperate for pictures and footage. She didn’t shield herself from the collective eye, however; she looked into the cameras unflinchingly.
In the transport, though, she allowed herself a smile. Truthfully, she was so excited it was a struggle to keep herself still and stoic, as was expected. Hackett looked over at her, amused. “Excited, Commander?”
She grinned and fidgeted a little, though careful not to wrinkle her dress blues. “I feel like a kid on Christmas, sir.”
“It’s nice to hear you missed the Alliance,” he said. “The Alliance missed you.”
“I can’t wait to see what you’ve done with the place,” she said. “And all due respect sir, I can’t wait to shoot my damn gun.”
Hackett surprised her by laughing; she realized she’d never heard him laugh before, or even smile. “I’m not surprised. The doctors assure me there is no risk, but we’ll start you out with the smaller guns first.”
“Yes, sir. Wouldn’t want to re-break anything.”
“Exactly.” He let out a deep sigh. “I tell you, it’ll do our men and women in uniform good to see you up and around.”
“I’m glad. Is there anything in particular you need me to do?”
“Not particularly. Talk to people, shake hands, have your picture taken. One of your easier jobs.”
“You could say that, sir.” It was definitely less strenuous to pose for the cameras than it was to charge a Collector base, but she wouldn’t say it was easier.
It wasn’t a long drive to the Alliance HQ, and before she knew it the driver was wheeling her out of the transport and up to the building. She could hardly believe her eyes. The last she’d seen HQ it’d been nearly leveled by the Reapers; she’d barely escaped with Kaidan, James and the rest of the Normandy crew. And yet looking at it now, one would never know; it was rebuilt to perfection, the windows reflecting the cobalt blue of the sky. The Alliance flags whipped in a crisp breeze.
It was the first thing she’d seen that gave any indication the war really was over and that things would one day return; not quite as they had been, but better. The only change was a memorial in the front of the building, the polished granite gleaming in the midday sun.
“Stop,” she said to the soldier pushing her chair.
“Yes ma’am.” He flipped the breaks and helped her stand, handing her the cane that had been specially made for her. The only sound to break the quiet was the flash-clicking of the holocams, but she didn’t notice. She took slow, laborious steps toward the memorial, leaning heavily on her cane. But she was walking, she was walking without help, and she would pay her respects.
The Alliance crest gleamed at the top and center, the etched stars catching a bit of the sunlight. There were too many names to count, and they only marked the Alliance lost in Vancouver alone. People insisted that she had avenged them and perhaps she had. It didn’t stop that hollow ache in the center of her chest, though; the wish that they could have all been here today, looking at the new Alliance headquarters and the rebuilt Vancouver with hope.
She thought of the Normandy, her crew and comrades. She thought of Kaidan.
Slowly, she brought her hand up in a solemn salute. The Alliance behind her followed suit.
After a long moment, she turned away from the memorial and made her way back to the wheelchair, settling as if she hadn’t sat in many years. It was too bright. She heard subdued weeping from somewhere in the crowd that had gathered.
The driver pushed her wheelchair through the commons and into HQ, the reporters and crowd not far behind. As they went, the solemnity faded and more voices broke through, small bits of conversation. There were hopeful murmurs now, and strains of laughter, and though what happened here was still heavy on her mind, Shepard thought it was now as it should be.
Just outside of the training quarters, Hackett waited for them. He didn’t say anything, but he nodded and briefly put his hand on Shepard’s shoulder, and she knew that he approved.
The reporters weren’t allowed in the firing range – technically, they weren’t allowed anywhere with live fire – but they made do by setting up camp outside of the transparent plexiglass window, adjusting the settings on their cameras so the flash wouldn’t ruin the picture. Shepard didn’t exactly approve of their presence, but she wasn’t so much of a curmudgeon that she couldn’t appreciate people who knew how to do their jobs.
Inexplicably, she was already tired and her legs throbbed so badly it was hard to stand, but she managed, pulling herself out of her chair and standing with her feet apart, the traditional firing stance. “Here, Commander,” Hackett said, passing her old Predator heavy pistol to her, safety still on.
“Thank you, sir.” She checked the gun unconsciously, entirely through force of habit. She brought the pistol up and sighted down the range, where her target was.
She was nervous. The holocams were rolling and if she missed the target, if she didn’t hit it dead center, she knew what that would look like to the world watching at home. It would seem to them that Commander Shepard was broken, and she had nothing left to give.
But the nerves faded and habit took over. She focused on the target and gritted her teeth, still sharp as her first day in basic. She emptied the entire clip in quick sucession, the sound of gunfire rattling in her teeth. And when they brought the target back, everyone saw that each shot had pierced the center ring, precise as if her instrument of choice was a scalpel.
Shepard allowed herself a small grin as she waved to the cameras. She still had it. She was a damn surgeon with this gun.
On Kaidan’s first posting after basic, his ship had suffered partial core failure. It was deemed too dangerous to finish their journey via relay, so the ship limped home using sub-FTL speeds. It had taken a month to return, and by the end of that much of the crew’s mental state had deteriorated to such a degree that many of them required counseling.
Most of them were green like him, Kaidan remembered. They’d signed on for the dream, for the adventure. They hadn’t counted on the fact that for the most part, space is vast and empty. It had been profoundly disturbing to look out the windows and see nothingness look back, as if they perched on the edge of a precipice, a breath away from oblivion.
Kaidan had been the sole crewman to be more or less unaffected. He’d gone about his duties as if nothing had changed, even picking up the slack for his other crewmates. He received his first commendation for ‘doing his duty in the face of adverse and trying conditions’. In his own estimation, he hadn’t done anything particularly special. He knew they rewarded him because of his relative composure; it’s easy to appear special when those around you are falling to pieces.
During sitrep, he’d been asked how he was able to remain calm despite those conditions, and Kaidan had merely replied that he’d always kept sight of the goal, even if he couldn’t physically see it in front of him.
So here he was, almost twelve years later, in an almost identical situation. The void outside the Normandy’s windows seemed to stretch on endlessly. The crew was becoming edgy as the days became longer. It would be very easy to forget that Earth was somewhere in that void, spinning safely in its orbit, just as it had for billions of years. And perhaps it was his age, but he found himself more susceptible to the same speculative terror that had overcome his first crewmates.
It became difficult to hold onto hope as the days stretched into weeks. They had provisions for more than half the time it would take to reach Earth, but their fuel reserves did not allow much room for trial and error; only a 30% surplus.
It became harder to sleep. People spoke in whispers, as though struggling not to disturb the silence, as if it was something to preserve.
It became harder to believe Shepard was still alive, half the galaxy away.
He saw her reaching for him in his dreams, his tormented memories of that last moment. The Reapers, the destruction of London. He saw her in the middle of it all like a singular point of focus and color in a world of grey. He knew she had survived beyond that moment, but what of actually destroying the Reapers? Perhaps activating the Crucible destroyed it and everyone inside. A million things could have gone wrong in the space of that moment, and he wouldn’t know until they landed on Earth. Maybe sooner if they got the comm systems back.
He’d found a collection of old photos on Shepard’s desk, and it helped somewhat to see them.
There was the official portrait that had been taken after she’d been made a Commander; typically austere, her hair brushed straight and behind her ears, a hint of sadness behind her eyes. That had been right after Elysium, he remembered. There was a picture of the two of them and Ashley, roaming the Citadel. They all looked so young, though it had only been three years ago; they were wide-eyed, fascinated.
- She looked a bit ridiculous in her happiness; her smile comically wide, eyes scrunched shut. He’d told a bad joke and she had laughed so hard that she claimed the picture was ruined. Who could have known only three short years later, it would be the only evidence he had that Shepard was happy once, and that they were young and in love with an untarnished future ahead of them?
It was the sixth day of leave and Shepard was perusing a tourism catalog, belly down on the bed and kicking her legs in the air. She wore one of his shirts, a blue button-down that skimmed the tops of her thighs, revealing the curve of her backside. Grinning, he trailed a hand up her leg to rest there, and she squealed.
“Kaidan!” she admonished, though she laughed. “I’ll spill my coffee.”
“You do too much at once.”
“I like multi-tasking,” she sniffed.
“So come over here and look at that,” he said suggestively.
“Wait your turn,” she said, swatting him away. “As much as I would love to stay in this room and screw your brains out for our entire leave, I think we’d both be pretty upset with ourselves if we didn’t see at least some of the city.”
“Don’t be like that.” Her smile became coy. “Besides, you can’t always get what you want when you want it. Sometimes delaying gratification makes it even better.”
“What a load of bunk.”
“Oh, really?” she said, tossing the catalogue datapad aside. She straddled him before he could react, her hands sliding up into his hair, and brought her lips to his neck. He had a brief moment of knowing exactly what she was trying to do before it became impossible to think or rationalize at all. Her hips pressed against his, moving in slow, dizzying motions, and he couldn’t breathe. His hand slid up her thigh, harder . . .
Without warning, she stood just as quickly as she had come, leaving him in the throes of unthinking arousal. “All right; I’m ready to go,” she said airily, pulling on a pair of fatigues and settling them over her hips.
“ . . .what?!” he said, struggling to form a thought.
“Come on, get dressed. I want to go to the museum,” she told him.
He gaped at her. “Are you trying to make a point, here?”
“Why would I ever do an awful thing like that?” she asked him, whipping his clothes in his face. “Come on. I need to get outside.”
He dressed grudgingly, still aching and dizzy from her advance. He watched as she brushed her hair with good-natured frustration, irked but amused. He pulled the door shut behind them and made their way to the elevator, still buzzing. Everything seemed suggestive to him now; the way she walked, the curve of her neck, her eyes and the slight quirk of her lips, as if enjoying a prank at his expense.
They wandered the museum for what felt like much too long. It was as if she completely forgot her challenge to him; she perused each exhibit with wide-eyed fascination, even a Prothean one comprised of the beacon she herself had found on Eden Prime.
And he had to grudgingly admit that she was right. The longer they were out, the more desperate he felt, as if she were spinning away, out of reach. He tried to enjoy the weather and the steady milling of the crowd, watching her slip through them like a point of focus in an impressionist painting, but always at the back of his mind was that delayed desire, growing too large to ignore.
At one point, she wandered away from the main thoroughfare to a secluded hallway in the basement, only barely lit. She reached for him and in that moment he was all too eager to oblige; he crushed his lips to hers as if they hadn’t kissed in many long years. She had started this as a game, a point to prove, but it had become more than either of them had bargained for. He hadn’t realized the force of his own desire for her, and she hadn’t realized her susceptibility to it.
She was the first to reach for his belt, eyes glassy with want. His hands shook as he fumbled with the button of her pants and forced them down. Her hands were everywhere; sliding down his stomach only to quickly reverse, teasingly. He spun her and pushed her against the wall, and she only barely bit down on a yelp of surprise.
He plunged himself hilt deep and she bucked into him, her fingers scrabbling on the wall. He wrapped one arm around her waist and pulled her closer, pulled her deeper, his other hand threading through her hair, pulling. He curled into her and kissed her shoulder, kissed her neck, relished the feel of her soft skin, the shape of her under his wanting hands.
After, he slumped into the wall above her, a shaky arm holding them both from toppling to the ground. She breathed heavily against him, her heart pounding so hard that he could feel it through her back on his own chest. “God,” she said shakily. “Serves me right, I guess.”
It only took a second for the guilt to come crashing down on fulfilled desire’s heels. “I’m sorry,” he blurted, humiliated. “I couldn’t-“
“You better not be sorry,” she said, buttoning his pants, fingers trailing over the skin there. “I . . . shit, I can’t even form a thought right now. I’ll be lucky if I can walk out of here.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he said, furious at himself.
“You didn’t hurt me!” Her eyes were wide, incredulous. “I mean, I can’t walk because it was amazing. Wasn’t it for you?”
He let out a shaky breath, relieved. “Yeah, I’d say so.”
“God. How do you keep all that pent up?”
“I used to be pretty good before I met you. Now, who knows?”
She laughed and pulled him close to her, kissing him gently, and he softened into her kiss. She made the world seem as if they looked down from a great height, watching the ant-like people scurry below. There was something about her that freed him, as if her mere presence could dissolve the chains wrapped across his body, his mind.
She smirked as she pulled away, brushing the corner of his mouth with her fingers. “Let’s get out of here before we get arrested for indecent exposure.”
Shepard hobbled to the bathroom, latching the door behind her. Today she was being officially discharged from the hospital. She’d healed enough where she could more or less get by on her own; even the large breaks had grown together nicely. Her right leg still pained her and it was hard to walk, but she would take it. She would make do.
Hackett had set up an apartment for her on Alliance HQ, an officer’s complex just outside of the office buildings and recruiting center. It was a nice arrangement for now; she was nearby the hospital should she need care, regarding both her injuries and her pregnancy, and she was near the Alliance, for whatever they would need of her.
Steadying herself on the counter, Shepard lifted the hospital gown over her head and let it fall to the floor. She studied her reflection, slowly coming to terms with this new Shepard who stared back at her. Same red hair, same blue eyes. She didn’t look much older, but no matter how much she slept there was always exhaustion in her eyes. She had more scars now too, including some long, jagged ones on her legs where they’d had to operate to properly set the bones.
She turned to the side, examining her stomach. It was no trick of the light, like she had though a few weeks ago. She was definitely showing. Her stomach was hard and round, taut as the skin of a drum. It was . . . there. Not it, she corrected mentally. Kaidan’s baby. Theirs.
At first, it had been surreal to think that there was an actual child inside her, but looking down at her stomach now there was no denying it. Just a small thing, now; a slight protuberance, still too unformed to move under her skin. She’d taken to calling it little bean at first, though she’d never admit it to anyone. If her mother was still alive, maybe she would have admitted it to her.
She felt her stomach roll and made it to the toilet just in time, fingernails curling on the seat. As much as she was nervous about beginning to show, she was anxious to leave the first trimester, because every morning without fail she was horribly sick. Her nurse had assured her it was perfectly normal, but that sure didn’t make it more pleasant.
You can stop making me violently sick any time now, little bean, she thought. Not that it would unless on its own schedule; he or she was just as stubborn as Kaidan.
“I hope you’re not dying in there. I’d rather not have to explain your corpse,” called Jack.
“Can a woman puke in peace?” Shepard shot back, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand.
“Not in this place. Better hurry up or I’m calling the vultures,” Jack taunted.
Shepard stood carefully before stepping into the shower. It was still new to be able to bathe and care for herself without a hovering set of nurses, watchful for a slip or stumble. Shepard doubted she’d ever be able to take advantage of independence again. Not after these last months.
She had nearly finished when she heard Jack let out a stream of expletives at the TV. She toweled off as quickly as she could manage before shrugging into her clothes and limping out of the bathroom. “What is it?” she asked quickly.
Jack shushed her, pointing to the TV.
What she saw knocked the breath from her, a sucker punch. It was live footage of downtown Seattle, one of the polling centers. A reporter was breathlessly trying to keep up with the images that rolled across the screen, to little success.
“—a bombing in downtown Seattle, sixty confirmed deaths with countless missing, third bombing of a political center this week –“
“Those assholes,” Jack spat. “Like it isn’t enough we just finished the war to end all wars. Now we have to fucking kill each other.”
“Hackett says they think some veterans are behind this.”
“Does anyone know what they even want?”
Shepard shook her head. “They oppose the reformation of the Alliance.”
“Yeah, but what do they want instead?”
“I don’t know.”
Jack frowned at the TV. “It stinks, you know? Bombing key points, terror-mongering. It sounds like something Cerberus would do.”
“Cerberus doesn’t exist anymore,” Shepard pointed out. “The Illusive Man is dead.”
“Did your Alliance pals kill every single one of them? Really?” Jack said, raising an eyebrow. “Like it would be difficult for some power-hungry wackjob to step up and fill the void to get what he wants.”
Shepard frowned. She had a point and it was a worrisome one. Her stomach rolled at the thought of the newly dead, relieved they’d made it through the war only to be killed so senselessly. Whoever was responsible needed to be caught, and soon. She scanned the story for details, for identifying features, already mentally tabulating a report to Hackett.
Jack seemed to notice Shepard’s distress, for she switched off the TV. “Aw, come on. Don’t want you getting so upset in your delicate condition.”
Shepard narrowed her eyes. “You can’t say stuff like that in public.”
“I don’t know what the deal is, Shepard; they’re all going to find out anyway when you start getting fat.”
She knew Jack was baiting her to get her mind off the bombings, and though it was wrong and selfish, she allowed it for now. “You know it’s not fat.”
“Whatever. Pregnant women look so fucking weird to me,” Jack shrugged, shouldering Shepard’s few belongings. “Especially you. You’re slender, right, but you’ll be all swollen up like a beach ball. Slim arms and legs, rounded out like a cantaloupe.”
Shepard smirked. “Are you trying to hurt my feelings? Because it’s not working.”
“Just calls ‘em like I sees ‘em.”
“Yeah, you’re a regular straight shooter.”
They checked out of the hospital and made their way to Jack’s rental car, a repurposed military transport with the typical utilitarian accoutrements. Jack grumbled about the seats being more like a slab of metal than a real place to put an ass, but Shepard liked the feel of them, the comforting familiarity. She remembered basic drills, buzzing in and out of practice combat situations on rough terrain, the ride rattling her skull.
Jack parked the car in front of the complex and hopped out, kicking the door shut and starting up the path. She handled the keys and held open the wide complex door for Shepard, allowing her to hobble under her arm. Shepard considered it a small victory that Jack did this with only minimal grumbling, muttering the odd expletive under her breath.
The apartment was spacious and clean, though bare. But Shepard smiled as she took it in; it was fine enough to call home for now. If – when, she mentally corrected herself – Kaidan returned, she hoped he’d like it just as much as she did.
“I didn’t think it would be furnished,” Shepard said with some surprise. “Where’d you find this stuff?”
Jack shrugged uncomfortably. “Me and the Cheerleader found a few things. Nothing to write home about.”
Shepard gaped. “You and Miranda went shopping together? Be honest; is she dead in a ditch somewhere?”
“Har, har,” Jack said, rolling her eyes. “No she’s still alive, unfortunately. I wanted to help get you some things but I’m not good at this homey shit. I asked her for some help.”
“You asked someone for help?!”
“Cram it, Shepard,” Jack said, plopping down on the couch and propping her feet on the coffee table, dirty boots and all. “It’s not bad though, is it?”
“It’s just want I needed,” Shepard assured her, carefully lowering herself on the couch next to her.
“Good,” Jack said. She reached for the remote and flicked on the TV, scanning until she found cartoon featuring a very familiar looking krogan. “Have you seen this shit?” she asked, laughing. “It’s Grunt!”
A closer looked revealed her to be right; the cartoon was apparently called Grunt the Great, and it detailed his exciting adventures to unexplored worlds. “Does Grunt know about this?”
“I bet it was his idea. He loves kiddy-shit like this.”
“I do too.” Shepard settled in, propping her cane against the arm of the couch and leaning her head back into the plushy couch cushions.
Jack watched her for a moment, a strange, speculative look in her eye. “I don’t like seeing you like this,” she said, and it surprised Shepard to hear genuine concern in her voice.
“Pregnant? Comfortable? Happy?”
“No! I make fun, but that’s your business. I dunno. I think you’ll make an alright mom. No, I mean I don’t like seeing you all broken up like this.”
“My injuries, you mean?”
“Yeah, partly. It’s so weird watching you limp around. I just keep seeing you charging into the Collector base, shooting and smashing things with warp fields and those little tricks from your Omni-tool. I thought for awhile that Cerberus had brought you back to be invulnerable. Invincible. It’s just . . . messed up seeing you hurt this bad.”
“I’m getting better every day,” Shepard pointed out. “And I can still shoot a gun as good as ever, you know.”
“That’s not the point, though. I just . . . looking at you makes me feel guilty. It’s fucked up. I start wondering if we had all done a little more, would you have had to take on the Crucible alone?” Jack trailed off, truly unhappy now. “I feel like we should have all been there with you.”
Shepard stared at Jack; this level of candor from the biotic was unprecedented. “You all had your own battles,” Shepard said slowly. “No one understands that better than I do.”
“But we were your squad!” Jack cried. “You swooped in and got us through our shit. You kept us alive in the Collector Base. You . . . you helped me at Pragia. And we repaid you by bugging out when the shit got deep. It doesn’t sit right with me.”
“Jack, I think it would sit even worse with you if you abandoned your students. It would have hurt Miranda to leave her sister to her fate. And can you imagine Jacob leaving his wife? Grunt leaving his clan? You all have your own lives now, your own squads. It worked out all right in the end.”
“It’s done, now,” Shepard interrupted. “Beating yourself up over it isn’t going to help matters. IF you really feel like you did me a bad turn – which let me just reiterate that you didn’t – I don’t know. I could always use friends. Especially now, you know?”
“Yeah,” Jack said, frowning. “For awhile I thought about packing up and leaving to go find the Normandy for you. Finding your crew and . . . and Kaidan. It didn’t really make sense, since comms and relays are still out, and I’d probably end up wandering around for a few years before running out of fuel, but I thought about it.”
Shepard swallowed the lump in her throat. “That means a lot.”
“Yeah, yeah . . . don’t start crying on me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
They sat in silence for a long while, watching the cartoon Grunt charge into a battle against an entire horde of rachni, led by their angry queen. They were two like souls, Shepard realized; both uncomfortable with outward expression and weakness, both struggling against an onslaught inside. It was good to sit in silence with someone who understood exactly what it was to battle being vulnerable, with someone who knew that fight better than any other.
“Thanks, Jack,” Shepard finally said.
She didn’t have to explain what the thanks were for. Jack said nothing but Shepard knew she’d accepted it, just as they had accepted each other.
There was a knock on the door, and Kaidan dropped the datapad he'd been reading, rubbing his tired eyes. "It's open," he called.
Diana Allers stepped into his quarters, looking around with interest. The long months away seemed to have worn her down; her hair was frizzy and though she still wore her customary skintight dress, it had definitely seen better days. "You haven't changed a thing," she noted, almost to herself. "It's just like when Shepard was here."
"What did you need, Ms. Allers?" he asked her pointedly.
"Oh, right. I finished putting together that footage you wanted. You know, for the crew."
"I appreciate it. Leave it there and I'll take a look."
She did as he requested, though she made no move to leave. Instead she continued her slow examination of the cabin, tapping her chin. "You know I'm doing a piece on this journey home, right?" she asked him. "The Flight of the Normandy: One Ship's Harrowing Journey Home' or something like that."
"I did know that."
"Right, of course you did. Do you think I could ask you a few questions?"
It surprised and somewhat amused Kaidan that it had taken over four months for Allers to summon the nerve to ask. "Sure," he said, shrugging.
"I appreciate it, Com- I mean, Major," she said.
"What do you need me to do?"
"Just stand over there and look impressive," she said, pointing to the empty fish tank. "And answer my questions honestly."
"All right," he said. He tried to ignore how her last directive filled him with a particular sense of foreboding.
Allers fiddled with her holocam for a moment before switching it on, and its bright eye fixed Kaidan motionless, making him feel oddly as if he looked down the barrel of a gun. She activated her Omni-tool and cleared her throat.
"Major Alenko, you've commanded the Normandy in the absence of Commander Shepard for four months and seven days, now. Have you found this transition difficult?"
Kaidan considered. "We all know this is the Commander's ship," he said. "I have no delusions of filling her shoes or something like that."
She waited for him to elaborate, frowning a bit when he did not. "Would you say this is the most difficult mission you've handled in your career?"
"It's not easy, that's for sure," he said. "We all train for prolonged missions in deep space, in the occasion of engine failure or the like. I suppose you never get completely used to how vast deep space is, though, and how long it takes to get anywhere without the relays." He rubbed his neck. "If you don't keep thinking about where you're going, it can mess with you."
"You wouldn't know it by looking at you, Major," Allers said, before remembering she was on camera for she cleared her throat and resumed her line of questioning. "Since the crash, we haven't seen any sign of the Reapers, so it seems likely that Shepard succeeded in destroying them. Do you think she survived the final battle?"
"I hope she did," he said quietly.
"What do you think she would say if she could see us all now?"
He couldn't help a fond smile, though any mention of Shepard was painful. "She'd wonder what was taking so long, probably. She'd be proud, happy. She'd want to leap right into rebuilding, fixing as much as she could. "
"What would you say to her right now, if you could say anything?" Allers pressed.
He didn't respond right away, and he didn't bother masking his discomfort. "I'd tell her she did us all proud, and that we're not giving up the fight out here. We're coming home." He cleared his throat. "All due respect, Ms. Allers; the rest of what I'd say would be for her ears alone."
"Fair enough, Major. Thank you for answering my questions," Allers said before switching off the holocam, a strange look in her eyes. "This'll make nice footage. You're great in front of the camera."
He wasn't and they both knew it. "Thank you, Ms. Allers. If you don't mind, I'd-"
"Call me Diana."
He cleared his throat. "Ms. Allers, if you don't mind, I need to get back to work now."
"Sure, sure. You need some company, you know where to find me," she said, before sauntering out of his quarters, the swaying of her hips decidedly exaggerated.
Kaidan stared at the door for a long moment before keying in the code that would lock the door from the outside.
"You're stir crazy," Kaidan accused good-naturedly.
"A bit," Shepard said, shrugging. "There's so much to see! And I'm torn, you know? I want to stay up here in our weird love bubble. And then I want to go out there and show off, you know?"
"I knew it. You just want a trophy."
"Guilty as charged," she grinned.
"Well, if it had to be anything, at least I make a decent wall ornament."
She pounced on him from across the room, wrapping her arms around his waist. "Oh, shush," she said. "Don't be put out."
"All right, look. Let's go do something tonight. Some kind of nightlife thing. There's an excellent jazz bar not far from here; do you like jazz?"
"Yeah, actually. But I thought you'd want to go dancing. You strike me as a dancing- type."
"Oh my god. No. No dancing!" she said, waving her hands emphatically.
"Are you kidding? I thought you'd eat that stuff up. I've heard dancing is a lot like combat."
"The hell it is! I'm good at fighting. I'm not so good at dancing."
He gaped. "You're kidding me."
"I am not!" she said indignantly. "Why don't you believe me?"
"Because you're good at everything, Shepard. I've never seen you do poorly at anything."
"You said you watched my Elysium awards speech; that was pretty awful, wasn't it?"
"That doesn't count. No normal person nails public speaking first attempt."
"We can agree on that," she said, smirking.
"I'm sorry, Shepard; you're going to have to prove that you're a terrible dancer, otherwise I won't believe you."
"When have I ever lied to you, Mr. Kaidan Alenko fancy-pants?"
"Don't give me that. Come on; dance with me," he wheedled. "I won't laugh."
She fixed him with a stern glare. "You better not, or I'm banishing you to sleep in the bathtub."
"Ouch! Nice to know you're a merciful woman."
"You bet your ass I am. If I wasn't, you'd sleep in the hallway."
"All right, all right. Show me your moves."
She looked up at him cheekily. "If you would so kind to provide the music?"
He chuckled before humming a popular song, half-singing the words that he remembered. And without further fanfare, Shepard began to dance.
He couldn't stop watching. She was right- she really was terrible. Her arms hung awkwardly at her side when they weren't jerkily windmilling around. She bent and shuffled this way and that, a look of fierce concentration etched in her beloved features. And yet, despite her terrible, graceless dancing, he couldn't think of a more beautiful woman.
Still humming, though changing the song from the popular hit to an ancient waltz, he pulled her into his arms and swept her around the room, dancing in a very silly and exaggerated fashioned. She giggled as they rammed into furniture and knocked over the lights, sending them crashing to the ground. He pulled his expression into one of hauteur before bringing her hand to his lips for a gentlemanly kiss. "For the pleasure of your company," he said in that same snooty voice.
She lost it. She doubled over in paroxysms of hilarity, clutching her sides. "It's official; you're the weird one."
"Oh come on; who the hell knows how to waltz? My grandparents didn't even know that."
"I like dancing! I'm not going to apologize for it."
She pulled him close and kissed him. "Never apologize for being a big nerd."
"Says the bigger one," he muttered before giving into her.
Shepard pulled her dress uniform jacket straight, frowning at the mirror. No matter how she arranged the fabric it definitely stretched tight across her belly now, and anyone with even average powers of deduction would quickly realize the cause.
It was just as well it came out now. Today was the promotion and awards ceremony for her role in defeating the Reapers. Hackett had postponed it as long as he could, since he understood her determination to present a healed and whole picture to the world. Well, she was still limping and still relying heavily on her cane. But it was better than before, much better.
She ran her fingers over a framed picture of Kaidan on her dresser, touching the shape of his nose, the curve of his mouth. It had been almost five months since the Reapers had been defeated, and there was still no sign of the Normandy.
It hadn't been the only ship to make its long way home. In the heat of battle, Hackett had called for a retreat and rendezvous, so for the last months a slow trickle of surviving ships had arrived home, to much celebration and relief. Now the trickle had nearly stopped completely, and it was assumed that if they weren't home now, they were never coming home.
Shepard tried to resist that conclusion. Joker was the most skilled pilot she knew, and he was similarly determined. She tried to avoid the thought that maybe Joker had given up due to the death of EDI – despite her personal wants, even she wouldn't have blamed him for that. Maybe they'd never even had a chance to escape; the void above Earth had been thick with Reapers.
It was selfish, she knew. It was awful. But when she ran her hand over her rounded stomach, over the new life growing within, she wished for Kaidan so desperately that it was hard to breathe, that it felt like an invisible hand crushed her heart in its fist.
"Come on, Mama Shep," called Jack from the hallway. "You'll be late to your own party."
Shepard wiped her eyes and took a steadying breath. She was a professional, a soldier. She arranged her face in a stoic, calm expression and strode from her bedroom like a woman going to war.
Jack raised a brow. "Damn, that bigger jacket isn't doing you any favors."
"Pretend you don't already know. Is it really noticeable?"
"Spin for me." Shepard obeyed, watching Jack narrow her eyes in thought, tapping her chin. "Yeah, it looks a little off. You were always so slender, you know? It's a miracle they haven't figured it out already."
Shepard let a breath out through her nose. "Well , like you said; they were bound to figure it out sooner or later."
"Congrats; you got later." Jack held open the door. "Let's get moving."
They arrived at the Alliance convocation center with time to spare. Jack was a notoriously reckless driver, and even a pregnant woman in the passenger's side wasn't enough to curb her habits. There were only a handful of spots in the lot left, so Jack swung around the front of the building to drop Shepard off.
"Go on," she said, reaching across and hitting the door latch. "I'll drive you home after."
Shepard grinned. "You know, I'm really glad the Alliance has got you teaching biotics here. It's so nice to have a chauffeur."
"Blow it out your asshole, Shepard. See you after," Jack said, but she was grinning. Shepard pushed the door shut and Jack sped off, rounding a corner so hard that the tires squealed in protest.
The ceremony was being televised to every corner of Earth and even some places beyond. Most of the comm systems in the systems surrounding Sol had been repaired enough that the ceremony would be broadcast live to a few of the newer colonies , with much pomp and fanfare. Shepard had seen a few advertisements run in the weeks before, all building up to this particular ceremony.
As the situation with the terrorist dissenters had not yet been resolved, security was high. There were Alliance guards and personnel posted at every entrance, and multiple security check stations were positioned through the floor.
It went without saying that Shepard was nervous. There was her pregnancy; always at the front of her thoughts. Every waking moment was spent assessing her surroundings in terms of safety and security, to protect Kaidan's child growing within her. There was the fact that the world was as of yet unaware and would likely learn of it soon. There was the situation with the terrorists; security at the convocation center was high, but one never knew.
She was given priority clearance through the various security checks to the backstage area, where Hackett and the rest of the surviving Admiralty waited for her. She shook their hands quickly, swallowing her nerves.
"Commander," said Hackett, nodding as she reached him. "Are you ready?"
"Yes, sir." She straightened her jacket through force of habit, fully aware it did nothing to hide the swell of her belly. Why did it seem as if everyone watched her every move, even here in this relative darkness? God, she thought with increasing panic. Every sentient from here to Horizon will see this.
The sound from behind the curtain grew louder and louder; a thousand conversations, the flash-clicking of cameras, laughter. Shepard's palms were slick with sweat and her mouth was dry as cotton. She struggled to swallow her panic; how was it that she could charge a Reaper with focused determination, but an outing in front of the cameras put the fear of god in her?
After a breathless wait, finally the crowd behind the curtain began to quiet, shushing one another in anticipation. Her heart beat a sickly tempo against her chest, and she felt suddenly as if she'd be sick. She bit the inside of her cheek, desperately willing herself to be calm, under control.
Hackett and the other Admirals took to the stage first, taking their places in front of the crowd. There was applause, cheering, and then Hackett began his introductory statement. He detailed the war with the Reapers, the catastrophic losses, and the final battle on Earth. He described everything he'd heard and seen; the ships falling one by one to the Reapers' superior might, the moment when hope seemed lost.
He described the moment when the Crucible had fired, destroying every Reaper in the galaxy and beyond. The crowd was totally silent now, engrossed with the old Admiral's retelling of all they had survived and won. Even Shepard was fascinated with Hackett's recollection, and she'd decidedly seen more than he ever had.
Finally, Hackett explained that their victory had been won by her heroic actions on the Crucible and her determination to unite the galactic community, when all seemed lost. He told the crowd that every one of them was alive today because of what she'd done, because of her unwavering devotion to the Alliance, the galactic community, and all life everywhere.
"I would like to bring Commander Shepard up here now, so that we can all thank her in person. Commander Shepard, please join us," he said, and even before he'd finished speaking the crowd erupted into wild applause, even louder than it had been for the admirals.
Taking a calming breath, Shepard strode onto the stage, leaning heavily on her cane. The crowd was even bigger than she had guessed; at least five thousand in the room alone, not counting the section of press that feverishly snapped pictures and captured footage of every single thing she did, streaming it live to the galaxy.
She looked out into all of their faces, their bright eyes, their smiles. Turian, Asari, Salarian, Krogan, Human. They all stood together in a crowded room with a singular thought; gratitude and overwhelming joy to be alive, in a galaxy without the Reaper threat. Heartened, she smiled and waved to them all, and the cheering seemed to grow even louder.
"Commander Shepard, it is our distinct joy to have you here tonight, so we can all thank you for what you have sacrificed for us and our continued freedom.
"Two years ago, you were presumed dead and I presided over your funeral. I don't think any of us could have imagined that you would stand before us today, very much alive and responsible for saving every man, woman, and child in the galaxy.
"In accordance with the Alliance Charter, I hereby present you with the Star of Terra, for your courageous and distinguished service, and for going above and beyond the call of duty."
Before the applause grew too loud, the Turian Councilor stood and strode to the podium, standing beside Shepard and pinning another medal to her chest. "For your sacrifice and heroism in the defense of the galaxy, the Turian Hierarchy hereby presents you with the Nova Cluster, so that all will know you a comrade and friend to the turian people, and a protector of the galactic community."
He stepped aside and the Salarian councilor took his place, his expression as inscrutable as always. "For your integrity and devotion, the Salarian Union hereby presents you with the Silver Dagger, so that all will recognize the service you've done for the Salarians, and for the galactic community as a whole."
Last was the Asari councilor, looking down on Shepard as if she were a beloved friend. "In recognition for your bravery and selfless devotion to all, the Asari Republics present you with the Sword of Athame, our highest military honor. And for all you have given to us, Commander Shepard, may we one day have the chance to return."
Hackett stepped forward again, and it surprised her to see that even he seemed moved. "Lastly, Commander, we present to you the designation of Captain, in recognition of your many years of devoted service and impeccable duty. You are a credit to the human race, Captain Shepard, and an expression of all that is best in us. And for all that you've done, we salute you."
He brought his hand up in a stiff salute, and she saw that his eyes were bright. Behind him, the Admirals and Council followed suit, and with that the crowd rose up into exultation, their applause like the sound of heavy rain after a drought. And she couldn't help it; she was tired and stressed and she missed Kaidan more than she could bear sometimes, but she smiled for them, for these people who needed to see Shepard whole and healthy and happy. She smiled for them, and accepted their thanks.
She stood at the podium and waited for the applause and cheering to die down. She waited for what the cameras would later show was almost ten minutes of uninterrupted applause. When the crowd finally quieted, she cleared her throat and stepped closer to the mic, gathering her turbulent thoughts as if they were pages scattered by wind.
"I wanted to say thank you to everyone first, before anything else. It's easy to thank one person and pin the word savior to their chest, but in my estimation, every one of you is exactly as important as you think I am. All of you played a part.
"You didn't give into the Reapers. You didn't succumb to fear when all seemed lost, when they destroyed your homes and your families, your loved ones. You looked them in the eyes and said 'no'. We shouted that word together, and in the end the Reapers heard us. In the end, it was the last thing they knew; that we would not submit. That we were free of them.
"Above anything else, I'm a soldier. I'm a servant and guardian of people and our galactic community, united like never before in history. It took the Reapers to bring us together, and my only hope is that we will remain so as the years become centuries.
"May we never forget what it took to see one another as allies. As friends. May we never forget what we sacrificed to earn our freedom." Shepard swallowed, her throat suddenly tight. "May we never forget those who died so we could live."
It was deadly silent in the convocation hall. Every person there listened to her words with rabid intensity; even the press kept themselves quiet, in respect to the occasion, Shepard hoped. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly.
"The war is over, and we are free. We are free to choose our future, now. May we choose a good one."
She would replay the next few seconds in her nightmares for the rest of her life. One moment the crowd was uniform in respect, a breath away from breaking into applause. The next, one of the press had broken away from the others, reaching into his camera case, pulling out something that looked horrifyingly familiar.
He took steady aim and emptied his entire clip in her direction before anyone could react. There was screaming as the shots fired, but Shepard barely heard. She descended in the strange focus that came over her whenever in combat, the deadly precision of adrenaline, honed into a weapon from long years of training. She had thrown up the barrier before all of the shots had been fired.
But it only took one to hit her.
As the situation on the Normandy became more serious, Kaidan made himself a constant presence in the sight of the crew. He talked to everyone, gave directives and offered words of encouragement. He’d seen Shepard do this in the months leading up to the final assault on Earth, and no one could deny she had a real knack for it. There was something so disarmingly open about her face, it made obeying and confiding in her easy.
He was not as adept at offering consolation and confidence as she was. He was sincere enough, sure, but the crew could sense his own fear hiding behind his carefully neutral expression and his hoarse voice. They suspected their situation was taking a toll on Kaidan, and that was the truth.
He hadn’t properly slept in a months. He was haunted by dreams and memories, a constant companion to his increasing desperation. The darkness loomed outside the Normandy, coiled as if in wait. There was so much that could go wrong; the jury-rigged engine could give out, the nav systems could fail, and they’d be consigned to float through the darkness until they starved to death.
Kaidan shook the thoughts away. It was his job to make sure that the crew kept the goal in sight, and he needed to do the same himself.
So he continued as best as he could. He had Allers’ footage of the Reaper war broken down and distributed in order to raise the crew’s morale, and he was pleased to see that it worked somewhat. They all saw the miraculous feat they had accomplished, when the odds had not been in their favor. They watched the thresher maw on Tuchunka take down one of the Reapers, dragging it into the sand. They watched Shepard – only a tiny dot on screen – draw the attention of another Reaper on Rannoch, giving the Quarian fleet time enough to bring it down.
They saw footage of Shepard striding through the decks, a woman on a mission. Liara commented it was almost like having her back and Allers had puffed up in pride. She was brash and a bit inconsiderate, but there was no denying her skill when it came to these matters.
“Major Alenko!” came Joker’s voice from the comm. “I got something on ladar!”
“On my way.”
He sprinted to the cockpit, alerted by the odd note of panic in Joker’s voice. The CIC was buzzing with nervousness as he threaded through the crewmen, their faces uniformly exhausted and worried. In the cockpit, Joker looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks either but he was somehow still alert, even a little frantic.
“What is it?” Kaidan asked him.
“I- I don’t know. It’s inactive, whatever it is. No heat or energy signatures.”
“Maintain a safe distance.”
“Aye, aye.” Joker squinted into his console, his eyes darting back and forth. “It . . . it looks like a Reaper.”
Kaidan’s stomach dropped. “You said it was inactive?”
“Yeah. It’s just floating there. Dead, I think.”
“You think or you know?” Kaidan asked pointedly.
“I know,” Joker said. “We found one like it back when we worked for Cerberus. They’d had a team of scientists working aboard, trying to learn more about it. They . . . it’s weird. Even though the Reaper was dead, they all ended up getting indoctrinated and turned into husks.”
“What the hell were you doing on a dead Reaper anyway?”
“It’s a long story,” Joker said, shrugging. “The short of it is we needed a Reaper IFF to get into the Collector Base.”
“Right.” Kaidan studied the ladar scans, frowning. Joker was right; there were no heat or energy signatures coming from the Reaper, but something about it raised the hairs on his neck. It was odd; a Reaper so far from civilized space, drifting out here in the blackened void, many light-years away from the relays. “Let’s move on,” he said warily.
“Aye,” Joker said, tapping something into his console. Kaidan felt the engines growl under his feet in response. “It’s nice to see, though, don’t you think?”
“I mean, because now we know for sure. She really did it.” Joker paused, somber. “She really destroyed them.”
They both stared at the Reaper through the viewport, only barely visible in the darkness of space. A few arcs of red energy ran over its body, but without a doubt the Reaper was dead. Its great red eye was black now, its body forever suspended in the void. Looking at the great dead construct, it suddenly struck Kaidan the magnitude of what they had all done, what Shepard had done. It hardly seemed real, some days. It hardly seemed possible.
At that moment a pang of loss struck him, like a long-rotting wound, sickly and seeping. It had been too long, drifting in this darkness. They should have been home by now, reunited with their loved ones. With his loved one. He gripped the back of Joker’s seat as they slowly passed the vast creature, each of them lost in their own thoughts.
Suddenly, a band of light leaped from the Reaper as they passed – the sound like a bolt of lightning striking deadened ground – and the ship went dark.
“Status report!” Kaidan shouted over the panicked shouting of the crew. “Get power back on, now!”
The back-up systems engaged and the lights flickered back on, though weakly now. They’d had to drain some of the backup systems power to re-ignite the eezo core back when they’d had to piece the Normandy back together. Of course, Kaidan thought bitterly. Of course they’d have need of it now.
“It was some kind of discharge!” Joker said, furiously pounding on his console. “I’m getting us the hell out of here!”
“Do it,” Kaidan said, stumbling out of the cockpit as Joker fired up the engines. The back-ups were considerably weaker than the primary systems so it felt as if they hardly put any distance between the ship and the Reaper.
“Get the nav systems back online!” he ordered.
“We’re trying, sir!”
He didn’t acknowledge this; instead he grabbed the intercom system and punched in the engineering deck, squinting to make out the engineers on the viewscreen. “Lieutenant Adams, I need a damage report,” he said shortly.
“Minimal, sir. What the hell happened up there?”
“We passed a dead Reaper. There was some kind of discharge that passed from it to us, blew out a few systems. Specifics, Lieutenant.”
“The engine is fine,” Adams said breathlessly, his picture distorting a bit on the viewscreen. “Emergency systems kicked in just in time to save it. Eezo core is fine, functional. We’re rerouting power as it becomes available.”
“Good work,” he said, letting out a breath. “Give me a full report when you’re able.”
Kaidan rubbed his raw eyes with the heel of his hand, still too keyed up to feel proper relief. “How are we doing?” he asked the navigators.
“Navs are back,” one of them said. “We’re on course.”
Kaidan let out a breath of relief. “Thank god.”
“We . . . uh, there is some bad news, sir,” Traynor cut in.
“What is it?”
“Whatever that Reaper did, it blew out the broadcasting array. We’re still able to pick up signals should we pass into comm range, but we won’t be able to broadcast anything,” she said in a weary voice.
“How the hell did this happen?” Kaidan demanded.
“The reduced power of the backups, sir. They kicked in to protect primary systems first; oxygen, gravity, the engine, etcetera. Most of the secondary systems were lost,”
Kaidan let this news sink in. They were effectively mute now, a soundless bird in a soundless place. Should they pass into comm range, they would not be able to call for help if they needed it. And they would not be able to alert the Alliance of their survival, not until they landed on Earth.
He would be able to discover if Shepard lived, perhaps, but he wouldn’t be able to assure her of the same.
Kaidan swallowed his frustration, instead nodding to Traynor. “We’ll have to do without,” he said in a much stronger voice than would have been natural for him. “Put us back on course, and pray nothing else goes wrong.”
“Aye, sir,” she said, curling over her console and resuming her work.
Kaidan stood and watched the CIC resume normal operations for a long while; hunched above the galaxy map and gripping the bars so hard that his knuckles cracked from the strain. He tried not to think of the lost broadcasting arrays as an ill omen, a portent of their impending demise. He kept his face strong and neutral, though inside he felt as if he’d swallowed a year’s worth of anxiety, where it curdled in his gut.
They were well on their way home, he knew, but suddenly it felt as if they had added a span of ten years or so, the time stretching before them endlessly.
Shepard would never be able to accurately remember the moments after she was shot. She remembered the fury, mostly; rage so acute that it felt as if it broke through her skin, revealing another creature, one made of blades and fire. She remembered the pain, too; hot knives in her chest, and so much blood. Too much. She remembered the grief.
She didn’t remember the shooter being tackled to the ground, or the screaming. She didn’t remember the ambulance, Hackett’s voice in her ears. She saw bright lights dance above her head, winking like stars. She heard a hysterical keening and realized it was coming from her lips.
Her baby, Kaidan’s baby. Theirs. Her hands were viselike over her stomach, as if she could create a barrier between it and the cruel world that conspired to hurt it, a shield better than her easily rent flesh.
They put her under for the surgery and she remembered no more. She saw the boy on Earth, burning under the Reaper’s sight, blasted to ash.
Kaidan wasn’t visited by happier memories that night. He dreamt of his crimes against the woman he loved. He dreamed of his betrayal.
He’d heard the rumors, of course. The dubious whispers at HQ, the frantic speculation of passers-by on the streets.
They had all said Shepard was alive.
He couldn’t believe it at first. He desperately wanted to, because it spelled an end to his interminable grief. It meant he could hear her voice again, touch her lips with his, spend all hours of day and night talking, endlessly sharing. He’d missed her perspective on things, and the way she bit the inside of her cheek when nervous. He’d missed a thousand tiny things, accumulating into something far too vast to ever excise.
Then the word came that she was working for Cerberus.
That rumor, he refused to believe on principle. Not Shepard, not the woman he knew as well as his own skin, his own heart. Not the Commander he’d followed to hell and back.
But there she stood before him, a bit bruised and bloody from battling the Collectors on Horizon, but alive. Alive! His first reaction was relief that grew too large for the word itself. He’d wanted to pull her into his arms and spin her around and kiss her for every moment they had lost.
He was cautious, instead. He pulled her into a safe, passionless embrace, and he saw confusion and a hint of hurt in her eyes; in that first reaction, she already knew something had changed between them.
“You’re with Cerberus, now,” he said, not a question.
“Kaidan, you don’t understand. The Collectors are abducting colonists, and we think they’re working for the Reapers,” she quickly tried to explain, but all he heard was ‘Cerberus’; that damning realization that the horrible rumors were right. It was all he heard, and he closed off.
All the frustration and anger and grief he’d felt over the last two years boiled to the surface now, and he couldn’t fight it off. He couldn’t keep his happiness that she was alive, at least. At least! As if it was a small thing to see her standing here, just as he remembered; hair askew, buzzing with indignation at her failure to save the colonists.
No, all he heard was Cerberus. And because of it, he shut her out.
He should have known that his stubbornness would come back to haunt him. It would take the form of his nightmares of her drifting in the void, with an accusation on her lips. He had lost her again, and all he could think of now was how much time he wasted holding onto his bitterness, his poorly justified betrayal.
He wondered if this endless exile was penance.
It took a long time to resurface, though this time there was no pain. There was only panic. Shepard’s eyes flew open and she struggled to leap from the bed so quickly that the IV tore out of her arm. At her side the heart monitor squawked, the shrill beeping summoning all the nurses on the floor.
“Captain Shepard,” she heard one say through her wide eyed panic as she struggled to reinsert the IV. “Calm down!”
“My baby.” Her voice trembled with rage. “My baby!”
“Captain, please! Your baby is fine,” the other said, an older woman with a kind face. “It’s just fine.”
It took Shepard a moment to process this information. Slowly rage and panic faded, and she felt so desperately relieved that she couldn’t properly breathe for a moment. She cradled her stomach with both hands. “It’s fine,” she whispered, laying back in the pillows. “Good.”
“You should be relieved to know that you’re fine too,” the older nurse told her as the other two filed out of the room. “It was only a glancing wound. Healed up quite well too. You’re very lucky,” she commented.
“Yeah,” Shepard echoed. “I am.”
The nurse shook her head. “There’s someone here to see you. I assume you’re calm enough to handle a guest?”
“Who is it?”
“Admiral Hackett. Shall I send him in?”
The nurse slipped from the room and a few minutes later Hackett came in her stead. His expression was more than his usual grim regard; he looked as if he’d aged a decade overnight. “Captain,” he said, nodding. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, sir. The nurses assure me the wound isn’t serious.”
“Glancing blow, they said. I don’t think you would have been so lucky if you hadn’t thrown up that barrier.”
“It’s good to know my instincts aren’t completely shot.”
“How in the hell did that man get a gun in the room?” she asked after a pause.
Hackett shook his head, disgusted. “We thought he hid his gun in a camera, to blend in with the other press. But when we took that thing apart, it didn’t look like any model we’d ever seen. He made that thing himself, best we can tell. Engineered it. Didn’t give the security checks even a hint of trouble.”
“Was it a garage job?”
“I don’t think so,” Hackett said. “Looked lab made. Experimental, almost.”
“Yeah . . . just what we need; terrorists who can fool the security scanners. Well, we have the damn thing now, so we should be able to update systems.”
“At least something good came of this.”
“Yeah.” Hackett paused, looking down at his hands, the corners of his mouth twitching into a solemn frown. “So.”
Shepard swallowed but did not reply.
“They told me you’re pregnant.”
“They’re correct, sir.”
“Is there a reason why you haven’t made this public knowledge?”
Shepard looked away. “It . . . it’s personal. Private. There are a lot of factors of the situation I wasn’t comfortable with sharing. I suppose there’s nothing doing, now.”
“You suppose correctly,” Hackett said wearily. “I’m going to make a suggestion, and it’s one you have the freedom to refuse if you prefer.”
Shepard sighed. “You want me to make this public knowledge.”
“I think it would accomplish a few things, yes. It would provide a very sympathetic picture to the galactic community; that the savior of us all is now carrying new life. That’s a powerful symbol, even more so considering our collective losses. It would also go a long way to discrediting these terrorists that have been hassling the Alliance and Council reformation. Nobody comes out on the moral high ground after shooting a pregnant woman, regardless of what they’re aiming for.”
“So it was the terrorists, then?”
“As far as we can tell, yes. Shooter isn’t answering questions, but he almost doesn’t need to. The message was clear enough.”
It was strange that so much around her had become symbolic. She was no longer just a person, just Shepard; she was a savior, a hero, and now a mother. She was a symbol of new growth, victory, rebirth. She felt as if her humanity was replaced in the face of such adulation, as if she was slowly becoming the granite and steel of the idols made in her name. And yet, she knew that it was the only service she could provide now.
It was a lonely realization. But she nodded, filled with bleak acceptance. “All right, sir. What do you need me to do?”
“I imagine the press and every sentient from here to the core will want to hear your side of things. I can set something up, let you answer some questions. Besides,” he added, scratching his chin. “I think it’ll do everyone good to see you weren’t hurt badly.”
“You’re probably right.”
He let out a heavy sigh and his expression was troubled. “You’re . . . alone in this?” he asked delicately.
“I don’t understand what you mean, sir.”
Hackett looked away. “The father . . . is he-?”
“It’s Kaidan,” she said shortly, bitterly. “Presumed missing. Possibly dead.”
“I had a hunch,” Hackett said wearily. “For what it’s worth, Shepard, I don’t think they’re dead. I think that crew is doing all they can to find their way home. We just have to keep believing that.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, watching her hands knotted together in her lap. Her eyes burned with the same unshed tears she’d been holding onto ever since she learned that she was pregnant, the same tears she’d held onto through each death, each separation, each loss.
Hackett seemed eager to change the subject. “They told me you can go home tomorrow, if you’re feeling well enough.”
“I’d go home now if they let me,” she said. “I’m sick of hospitals.”
Hackett smiled, though it did not reach his eyes at all. “I think we all are.”
They were walking on the Chicago lakeshore, hand in hand, bare toes digging in the sand. Kaidan watched the waves crest in the horizon, frothy white dotting deepest blue. Somewhere in the distance a gull cried, dipping in the idle breeze.
They did not speak, though it was a comfortable silence. He enjoyed the feel of her skin against his own, He traced one of the patterned scars on the back of her hand with his thumb, and relished the way she trembled at the feel of it. He enjoyed the way her hair billowed in the breeze, like the streaking red of flame. He enjoyed her far-away smile, her laughter filled eyes.
He thought about the wandering path his life had taken before he met her; seeking yet never finding. He thought of how he’d learned to always leave himself a way out of a situation. Yet as he looked at her, he no longer wanted an escape. He no longer guarded against pain or feeling. He plummeted headlong, and smiled through the plunge.
He stopped and when she faced him, a question in her eyes, he gently tucked a billowing strand of hair behind her ears, his fingers lingering on the line of her jaw, her cheek. “I love you,” he said simply.
She couldn’t reply at first, and he was tempted to make a joke about this being the phrase that struck her speechless. Finally, she answered him, but not with words. Her eyes were full of tears and in this moment she didn’t bother blinking them away, as she would have normally. She brought her lips softly to his, and they kissed for many years. He would go on kissing her in this moment for the rest of his life, long after they left, long after the footprints bearing proof of their passage faded.
For the press conference, they'd given her a properly tailored set of dress blues to accommodate her growing stomach. Now that Shepard was wearing it, however, it seemed less to accommodate and more to accentuate; her belly was rounded like an overly ripe piece of fruit, the skin stretched tight over the growing child within. Her state was more than obvious, now.
It was a load off her mind. Keeping her pregnancy secret had required a proclivity to deception that did not come naturally to her, not to mention the effort involved. She'd taken to wearing oversized clothes, hiding in bulky jackets and outwear. It was a relief that hiding was no longer necessary. However, it brought about a different set of problems.
The news circuits ran only two headlining stories and their infinite speculative variations for weeks. The first was about the growing terrorist threat that plagued the Alliance elections. The second was about the savior of humanity and the state of her pregnancy. And because of the attempt on her life weeks ago, those two stories were often blended into one thing.
Hackett had been right; whatever sympathy the terrorists had gained at first completely evaporated the moment the gunman had taken his shot at Shepard. Not only was she a hero, a savior of all life everywhere, she was now pregnant, and society wasn't so divorced from morality that it would forgive such an act against a pregnant woman, never mind who the woman herself was.
Miranda watched her settle the uniform against her straining stomach. Ever since the attempt on her life, Miranda, Jack and Zaeed had become almost constant fixtures in her daily life . Jack passed off her check-ups as mere boredom, saying that hanging at the Alliance HQ all day made her twitchy. Zaeed was not as cagey- after what had happened, he insisted he remain near Shepard so if someone was stupid enough to try it again, he'd have full leave to 'blow their goddamn head off.' Miranda didn't bother to dress up her concern in excuses.
Shepard appreciated their loyalty more than she knew how to properly express, though a part of her was irritated by the assumption that she needed protection to begin with. Hadn't she acquitted herself just fine? Had it not been for her instincts, all the bullets would have found their mark and she would be dead.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Miranda asked quietly.
"Yes, of course," Shepard replied, all business. "It will discredit the terrorists. It'll stop a lot of the speculation the press love to indulge in, too. You know how much I like depriving them of their lies."
"Those are all good reasons," Miranda said slowly, '' but that doesn't really answer my question. Do you want to do this?"
Shepard sighed. "Not particularly. But this is better than listening to another story on how instead of fighting the Reapers I was indulging in indiscretions."
Miranda's lips pulled into a tight frown. "I still can't believe they have the gall to air tripe like that."
"Like I said; telling the truth will put an end to a lot of it. And, as terrible as this is, I'm used to people discrediting me in all sorts of creative and offensive ways."
"Sadly true," said Miranda, but she swallowed any further protest. "Well, come on. Time to tell the truth."
Without any more discussion, they set out to the Alliance headquarters. Miranda was a much more careful driver than Jack was, doubly so due to Shepard's state. In fact, most of the time Miranda treated Shepard with implacable care, as if she were made of glass. It was a fair assessment of the baby, but Shepard herself was just as dangerous as she'd been before her pregnancy. Perhaps even more so, now; in a dangerous situation, she no longer cared for her own safety, only that of her unborn child.
She was escorted through the complex by Miranda and a contingent of elite guards, each of them armed to the teeth. There would be no failures in security this time; every member of the press had to go through extensive identification procedures and have their equipment scanned and disabled before they were allowed admittance.
Hackett was already waiting for her, standing just offstage and looking for the world as if he'd rather be anywhere else. Shepard found she could commiserate. But when he saw Shepard approach, he stood up straight and gave her a polite nod.
"Ready, Captain?" he asked her.
Reflexively, she cradled her stomach with one hand, feeling the fluttering of tiny limbs just through her skin. Stay with me, little bean, she thought. I can't do this alone. She pulled herself as straight as she could despite a sore back and throbbing leg and limped to Hackett's side. "As ready as I'll ever be."
With that, the two of them stepped from the darkness into scouring light of the stage, bright enough that she wondered if already her secrets were on display for the entire galaxy to see.
"Can I get an updated ETA?" Kaidan asked one of the navigators, swiping at his tired eyes with one hand.
"We're making good progress so far. Less than three months to go if nothing else goes wrong," he replied.
It wasn't great news, but he'd take it. "Thank you, ensign. Any major relays in range?"
"We're coming up on one now, but it's still out of commission," the navigator offered. "No other relays in range."
"Keep up the scan," Kaidan said. "Maybe we'll stumble over one."
"Yes, sir." The navigator returned his attention to his console, parsing data and correcting for drift.
Kaidan nearly let out a sigh. They were all so tired, and still three months to go if nothing else went wrong. It was too narrow a margin for error, he felt; the slightest trouble and they were stranded. There were a few outposts where they could make repairs, but since their broadcast array was shot, they had no way to hail to see if the outposts were staffed and functional, and they were far enough out of the way that Kaidan couldn't justify the cost in fuel. They'd have to continue on, slow and steady and praying nothing else went wrong.
After the broadcasting array failure, morale on the ship had taken a decided turn for the worse. It felt like he worked all hours to keep spirits high, though he had no idea if it worked or not. The crew handled their duties as always, but there was no denying the exhaustion and stress that plagued them all, evident in their hunched shoulders and weary eyes.
Kaidan was about to return to his quarters when Traynor's voice broke through his reverie. "Com-Major! You have to see this!" she cried.
He strode to her side, already preparing for the worst. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing!" she said, and he realized belatedly that her tone had been one of excitement. "We're in comm buoy range!"
"No, sir! I've been picking up a signal for the last thirty seconds!"
"Check it again."
She obeyed, and he prepared himself for disappointment when she realized it had only been a weak signal or a fluke, an errant pulse flung outward by a glitch in a broadcasting system or the like. But if anything her smile only grew wider, and she actually bounced in place, unable to contain her glee. "Sir, it's not a mistake! I've got access to the extranet!"
Around him, the CIC erupted into cheers, some even hugging before they fired up their Omni tools. This was the perfect thing for morale. Kaidan smiled, though he wasn't so relieved not to account for the practical considerations. "Let's not all jump on at once," he cautioned. "We don't want to overload the signal. Traynor, you have priority clearance for now; everyone else submit your requests to her and she'll find you want you need. We'll reassess the closer we get to Earth."
The crew saluted him and returned to their duties, but he saw that they openly smiled now, chattering excitedly among themselves. He didn't blame them, not in the least. Though he would never pull rank to search the extranet before the crew, he couldn't deny that the return of the extranet meant he'd finally be able to learn the answer to the question that had plagued him night and day for five months; is Shepard alive?
"Major . . ." Traynor said slowly. "You're going to want to see this."
He was at her side in an instant, alerted by the odd note in her tone. "What is it?" he demanded.
"I found this when I searched for any news on Shepard," she explained. "It's a live broadcast, aired three weeks ago."
He couldn't speak for a moment. "She-she's alive?"
"I- here, it's starting," Traynor said, pointing to the console.
The footage was grainy and the audio suffered from a bit of interference, but it was clear enough, and what he saw stopped his heart. It was Shepard, just as he remembered. She sat at a table with Admiral Hackett beside her, speaking to a collection of reporters and handling their questions with absurd ease. It wasn't a trick, no; he recognized the curve of her lips, the graceful lines of her neck, her eyes.
"Oh my god," he breathed.
"Captain Shepard, first of all let me say on behalf of my colleagues that we are relieved to see there was no lasting damage from the attack during your promotion. We hope this hasn't completely ruined your opinion of the press," said one of the reporters in front.
"Thank you for your concern. I can say honestly that the attack hasn't affected my opinion of you any more so than it already was," Shepard replied, her lips curling in a half-smirk; undoubtedly enjoying a private joke.
Another reporter rose, speaking over her fellows. "Captain, has there been any new information concerning the man who shot you?"
Shepard frowned and turned to Admiral Hackett, who jumped in to answer. "We suspect the assailant to be a part of a terrorist organization that opposes the reformation of the Alliance. I'm afraid we don't have any more information on the subject."
"Captain Shepard, I believe I speak for us all when I ask you if there was any damage done to your unborn child," said another reporter, a tall woman in a pink dress.
Kaidan was vaguely aware of the silence in the CIC, ringing paradoxically, nearly deafening. He was briefly convinced he'd misheard the reporter – he could have sworn she said something about an unborn child – but when he looked more closely at Shepard, he clearly saw the rounding of her belly, one of her hands resting protectively over it. His heart climbed to his throat, where he suspected it would stay for the rest of his life.
"Thankfully, there was no damage to my child," Shepard replied. "I'm told the wound was a glancing one, which tells me that whoever the shooter was, he was no disgruntled veteran. No Alliance soldier would empty his whole clip at such a broad target and only hit once," Shepard said lightly, and the entire room laughed along with her.
"Oh, my god," Traynor echoed.
"So, Captain, when are you due?"
"My doctor tells me the baby is coming sometime around Christmas," she answered, smiling fondly. "Cliché, right?"
"Is it a boy or a girl?" another reporter positively shrieked from the back of the room.
"I don't know," Shepard said, looking down at her rounded stomach. "I asked for it to be a surprise and they're kindly humoring me."
"Has your pregnancy affected your duties as an Alliance officer and the unofficial savior of the galaxy?"
"Well, thankfully right now we are no longer at war, so my duties are largely PR related. Even if I wasn't consigned to the easy stuff, I'm not sure they even make armor for pregnant women," she laughed, and once again the crowd laughed with her. It really was her, Kaidan marveled. She was just as funny and charming and bright as he'd always known, and she was alive! She was pregnant.
"Captain, I think we're all relieved to see you up and about these last few months. Your injuries from the final battle above Earth were dire."
"True enough," Shepard agreed. "I was in a coma for that first month alone."
"Do you intend to enter active duty once again after your baby is born and your injuries completely heal?"
"Well, I believe that's at the discretion of my superior, here," Shepard said, nodding toward Hackett. "I will be a mother, though. I don't think I'll be able to charge off into who knows what like before, killing Reapers and thresher maws and the like."
"Won't you miss active duty?"
"Well, sure. I'm a doer. Sitting around at home while everyone else is out doing the exciting stuff was never my cup of tea. But from what I understand of the whole parenting thing, there is very little sitting and resting involved. Besides, my own mother was military, and she didn't stop serving when she had me."
"Captain Shepard is welcome at the Alliance, in whatever capacity she chooses," Hackett cut in, and the room burst into applause.
"Who's the father?" someone screeched from the back of the room, effectively cowing the entire room into silence. Kaidan was suddenly aware of his own breathing, desperately loud and rattling in his chest. Behind him, he felt the crew shift uncomfortably, some muttering unintelligibly to themselves.
"That is too far," Hackett said sharply. "Shepard is here as a courtesy and is not under any obligation to answer questions she deems are too personal."
But Shepard shook her head. "It's all right; I'll answer." She seemed to gather herself– her eyes were hard and her hand tightened reflexively over her stomach. "His name is Major Kaidan Alenko, acting Captain of the Normandy."
"Holy shit," said a voice on the comm. Joker, he realized belatedly.
"As we understand it, Captain, the Normandy has not been heard from since the end of the Reaper war. What do you think is keeping them?"
"I ordered a retreat and rendezvous in the moments before the Crucible fired," Hackett cut in. "Many ships jumped away via the relays, and some managed to retreat a great distance before the blast disabled their ships. There is the time allowing for repairs, and then the time allowing for FTL travel. As it stands, we know that we will hear from the Normandy again, and soon. She's a tough old girl, helmed and commanded by the finest examples of men and women the Alliance has to offer."
"How long until there is no hope for the Normandy, Admiral?"
"On the outside, I think it's fair to assume it might take a few years for them to return, considering the factors I mentioned. We don't know what was damaged and if they were able to repair it. I can promise, though, that once the relays are operational, if the Normandy hasn't returned by then we will find her."
Kaidan watched Shepard as the Admiral spoke, the way her eyes seemed glassy, the way her fingers trembled over her stomach. He saw her bite the inside of her cheek, just as she always did when trying not to cry. He would have given anything to be at her side in that moment, to be home and able to wrap her in his arms.
"Now Captain, I can't help but do the math here, and it seems as if you and Major Alenko conceived this child before the end of the war."
"That hardly requires math," Shepard retorted acidly. "Considering Major Alenko isn't here in person to do any conceiving."
"What the hell kind of question is that?" Kaidan heard Garrus growl behind him, followed by a few murmured affirmatives of the crew.
The crowd of reporters laughed nervously, a bit frightened by the dangerous expression on Shepard's face. The reporter asking the question was not fazed. "Right, Captain. I'm just wondering how it will seem to the galactic community when they learn that instead of committing every bit of your focus to the war, you were indulging in reckless and recreational indiscretions."
"That is out of line!" Hackett bellowed. "This isn't a trial, here! This is a courtesy. Captain Shepard has done more for the sake of the galaxy than any sentient alive, and I won't tolerate this kind of slander mongering!"
Shepard, for her part, descended into cool disregard. "The way I see it, sir, is that Major Alenko and I are consenting adults who love each other. What we choose to do behind closed doors is our business. I'd also like to point out that if you tell me you weren't doing or thinking about doing the same damn thing when the end of the world was upon us, I'd say you are a liar."
The crowd of reporters and the crew alike burst into laughter at the sight of the reporter's guilty expression. Even through his shock, Kaidan couldn't help a small grin; she was still Shepard, all right. Anyone who baited that lash-sharp tongue obviously cared little for their well-being.
"I'll answer one more," Shepard said, wincing a bit. "You?"
The woman in pink stood again. "If you could say anything to Major Alenko right now, what would it be?"
Both the crowd and the Normandy fell into anxious silence. On the console, Shepard looked away, chewing the inside of her cheek again. He watched her pick the skin around her thumbnail. She looked so alone, then, so desperately bereft that he could hardly stand to watch. He covered his mouth with one hand and cupped his elbow with the other, holding himself upright, holding the onslaught at bay.
"I'd say I miss him," she began. "He's missed a lot. I'd probably ask him what the hell is taking so long in getting back. I'd try to explain this business," she said, smiling a little and gesturing to her stomach. "I . . . I'd say I'm waiting. We're both waiting for him to come home."
They watched the reporters clamor for more questions as the Admiral helped Shepard to her feet, handing her a cane. She limped off of the stage, and now the curve of her belly was even more obvious, straining against her uniform. She kept a hand there always, as if to protect it.
He heard Liara's hushed weeping and Tali sniffing through the feedback in her mask. He saw the crew watching him with thunderstruck expressions, unsure whether to congratulate him or offer him condolences. "Well, shit," he heard Joker mutter through the intercom.
Garrus was the first to recover. "Where I come from, congratulations usually follow this kind of news," he said and he held out a hand to Kaidan, who took it after a moment.
"Thank you," he said, his voice still sounding far away to his ears.
"Why the hell are you two crying?" Garrus demanded out of the corner of his mouth.
Liara wiped her eyes, trying to smile even though her lips quivered. "I'm just so happy," she said. "Shepard is alive! I . . . I had almost stopping believing."
"She's going to have a baby," Tali sobbed. "Keelah-selai." And she threw her arms around Kaidan, crying her heart out.
This broke the uncomfortable silence. There was laughter all around him, punctuated by Tali's hiccupping sobs. He was vaguely aware of what felt like every crew member clapping him on the back or offering to shake his hand, and slowly as the noise around him intensified, it dawned completely; Shepard was alive. She was having a child. Their child.
He might have shed a tear or two, wiping them away before anyone could properly see. He might have declared the rest of the day as a holiday and approved an impromptu party, where there was much drinking and celebrating. Even some of the old songs they'd made up about Shepard in the first months made a triumphant comeback, this time with a few new verses about her child.
He'd stoutly maintained their course toward Earth for the last five months, and yet now it was like the true brunt of their journey was upon him. He'd believed once that he was desperate to make it home, to learn her fate, but it was nothing compared to the way he felt now. His desire was intensified a thousand fold at the knowledge that she still lived, and that somehow, despite all she had suffered, she carried a child. Theirs.
"To Major and the Captain!" Cortez said, raising a glass. "Two of the finest officers, the finest people, and soon to be finest parents the world will ever see."
He drained his glass in one pull, surrounded by friends and comrades. I'm coming, Shepard, he promised her from many light years away. I'm coming home for you both.
Jack had insisted on taking the four of them out after the press conference. Shepard had balked at first – she was exhausted from dealing with pushy reporters for an entire afternoon – but once Jack got an idea in her brain there was no little one could do to dissuade her. She found it a bit ridiculous that three of the most unlikely people – Jack, Miranda, and Zaeed – would tolerate each other's presence for long enough to take her out, but somehow they did.
It turned out Zaeed was only interested in a free meal, a fact he was not shy in disclosing. "I ain't going to argue with whoever's paying," he said through a mouthful of burger. Shepard could commiserate; she was hungry all of the time, and for the oddest things, too. She ordered a plate of waffles with whipped cream and eggs, two plates of sausage, and three large glasses of orange juice.
"Christ, Shepard," Jack said, arching a brow. "Save some for the rest of us."
"Shut up," Shepard said through a mouthful of sausages doused in whipped cream. "You're a biotic, you should understand. Combine my caloric needs with the fact that I have a little parasite feeding off of me."
Jack shuddered. "Another great reason not to get pregnant."
Zaeed snorted into his fries.
"Aren't you going to eat anything?" Shepard asked Miranda.
She coughed delicately. "I'm not hungry."
"Is watching the Shep-inator making you lose your appetite?" Jack sneered.
"Of course not," Miranda said, but her tone struck false.
"You don't have to lie," Shepard said, smirking, "I know I'm hideous. Hide your children, hide your pets. BECAUSE I'M HUNGRY."
"You're not hideous," Miranda insisted, speaking over Jack's obnoxious laughter. "This is all part of the process."
"Yeah, so I've read," Shepard said thoughtfully. "You know, I get the worst cravings in the middle of the night. Couple days ago, I would have shanked a puppy for some pickles and ice cream. And you know what? I hate pickles. They taste like rot to me. But I would have done anything for some pickles right then and there.
"So I'm half awake and I roll over to the other side of the bed, to harass Kaidan to go get some, you know? I always forget he's gone in those first moments when I wake up. It's always some pile of pillows or blankets, where you see it in the shadow and can almost convince yourself it's them."
It startled her how quickly she veered from happiness to sorrow, but the thought of those first moments brought it back; that she was pregnant, that she was carrying Kaidan's baby, and he was so far away as to almost not exist.
She'd ruined the ebullient mood. All three of them were looking at her with expressions that ran the gamut of discomfort , pity, and empathy. "Shepard . . . " Miranda began.
"Ugh. Just forget about it," Shepard said, swiping at her eyes. "I'm the complete buzzkill package, right here."
Jack pushed a bit of her food around on her plate, ill at ease. "Hey, look. You know if you need someone to go out and get you your shitty food, you can call me, right?"
"I appreciate it, Jack," Shepard said. "Don't worry about me."
Zaeed grunted. "I'm no good at this feely shit," he muttered. "I'll get you food. Jack can go to those . . . appointments."
"What the hell, old man! I called dibs on craving calls!"
"If you think I'm going anywhere near those parasite x-rays, you're barking," he growled.
"You don't have to go to that stuff," Jack snarled. "You don't have to do anything!"
"Yeah, I do. I've got cravings runs."
"Fine, you old asshole. Fine. Shepard, if you need someone to help you with those . . . eugh. With those pregnant lady classes, I'll go," Jack said , shuddering.
"Christ, Jack. No one is twisting your arm," Shepard said, amused.
"Shut up, you fat cow. I want to help, so I'm going to help."
"You two are terrible," Miranda said witheringly. "Shepard, if you need anything, day or night – a ride, food, moral support – don't hesitate to call me," she said gently, shooting Jack and Zaeed a sanctimonious look as if to show them how selflessness is done.
"You realize I'm going to take you up on these offers, right?" Shepard warned. "You sure you're all right with being woken at four in the morning to go out and get . . . oh, I don't know, frozen cinnamon rolls, Zaeed?"
"I figure it's the least I can do," Zaeed equivocated, stuffing the rest of his burger in his mouth. "A debt's a debt and all."
"Well . . . thanks," Shepard said awkwardly, touched.
Zaeed waved her off and Jack turned her attention back to her food, but Miranda smiled and squeezed her hand briefly, and in their small gestures of support, Shepard felt perhaps as if she was not so alone.
Her thoughts wandered for the rest of the evening, well after Jack had dropped her off for the night. Her apartment was dark with only muted moonlight filtering through the windows, shimmering over the surface of English Bay. She thought of her baby fluttering beneath her skin and how it would feel to place Kaidan's hand there, where its little heart beat. She thought about curling into him, his hands slowly caressing, soothing, the gentle sound of his breathing.
She looked up to the endless stars, vast and unknowable, and tried to believe that somewhere among them, Kaidan was still alive and on his way home. It was a thought that required belief and conviction in the face of cruel logic and reality. It was a thought that required more faith that Shepard knew how to feel. She curled into the empty side of the bed where Kaidan would have slept, her hands bunching in the loose sheets as if to hold him close, or perhaps to summon him.
With the news of his impending fatherhood, Kaidan became the talk of the ship. Regardless of what was happening or what the crew was doing, when they saw him approach they always stopped to congratulate him, or at least grin as he passed. The news about Shepard had lifted their spirits more than anything he could have said or done, and he was glad for it.
He couldn't bring himself to be cross or strict. He lived in a cloud in those days. He would catch himself grinning for no reason in particular, only noticing it when another crewman would point it out. He whistled badly and was a general nuisance to all aboard the Normandy, but no one could hold it against him.
There was no doubt, now. Shepard was alive! She was pregnant.
He remembered their vague plans, hatched so long ago in those two weeks of shore leave. Retirement, children. He remembered the soft look she would get in her eyes when thinking about their future together. He'd mourned the loss of her and that future they'd both wanted, and now it was as if he'd been given a second chance to seize that dream and make it real.
He just had to make it home.
He had worried at first about how she was taking the pregnancy, considering he was at fault. It had happened too fast, too desperately. She'd reached for him and he'd succumbed, leaving all thought behind. Did she resent the change, the imposition? Had she wanted to have time to herself before starting a family? But he remembered her hands curling protectively over her stomach, as if to shield the life growing within, and he knew that she wanted it.
But as the days turned into weeks, he began to feel guilty. He was little better than those deadbeats who got their girlfriends pregnant and then high-tailed it out of there, leaving for adventure or women or whatever else men like them sought. He may not have intended it, but he'd gotten her pregnant and now that she needed him he'd left her to her own devices.
Logically, he knew was overthinking the situation. If it had been up to him, they'd be on Earth already. Then again, they might be dead if they hadn't followed Hackett's orders. And he figured it was better that he come home eventually rather than never. But these assurances didn't do much to ease his guilt.
Shepard needed him. And perhaps even closer to the truth, he needed her. He needed to feel the proof of what happened between them, swelling under skin. He needed to hear her laughter, touch her face, her hair, her lips. He couldn't imagine what they would end up doing upon being reunited first; talk endlessly or touch endlessly. Maybe both.
"Kaidan?" came a voice from the other side of his door. Garrus, he realized.
"Just a second." He blinked away the start of a migraine before opening the door, revealing Garrus and James leaning against either side of the doorway, fraternal twins in mischief. How the turian managed such a shit-eating expression, Kaidan would never know. "What is it?" he asked warily, unnerved by James' decidedly predatory grin.
"I think you've had enough hiding around in here," James said. "We're having a party."
Kaidan rubbed his raw eyes. "A what?"
"I've never seen you do anything but work and sleep since we crashed," Garrus said, and though turians couldn't grin exactly, there was a definite note of good humor in his eyes. "You're going to be a father- might as well cut loose and celebrate while you have the chance."
"I have work to do," he said, but before he could retreat James held his arm out, blocking Kaidan's path.
"You can't skip your own party, cabrón."
Kaidan sighed. "Is this some kind of bachelor ritual?"
"And he gets it," James said, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, genius. It's a party for you. A send off."
Kaidan looked at them askance. "I'm not going anywhere, you know."
James buried his face in one massive palm. "Ay, Dios mio," he groaned. "Garrus?"
"Don't be a – what's that human expression? Right- a stick in the mud. Let's have a drink and play some cards. We don't even have to call it a party if you don't want."
Kaidan looked back into the darkened room, the glowing console sending another lance of pain lacing through his skull. There was still much to do yet, but a game of cards couldn't hurt. "All right," he said, and though he made a show of being put out, he couldn't help a small grin. "A few games."
"And some drinking," James added as they took the lift down to the crew quarters. "Your choice of fine cigars."
"We may make you wear a special hat," Garrus chimed in.
"Wait, wait- where the hell did you guys find cigars?"
James preened. "I might've had a stash I was saving for a special occasion."
"I couldn't take those, James."
"Oh, shut up. Didn't your mother ever tell you it's rude to refuse a gift?"
"Heh. Yeah, I guess."
They frog-marched him into the lounge, where a game was already set up and waiting, Steve wore a dealer's visor and shifted the cards between surprisingly deft fingers, grinning up at them as they entered. "And here's the man of the hour," he said easily. "Take a seat, have a drink. James has some cigars around here."
James was already on it, placing one in Kaidan's open hand and lighting it. "Now if you don't smoke that, my feelings are going to be hurt."
Steve snorted. "Drama queen."
"Esteban! You're supposed to be on my side."
"Your head's plenty big enough for your own side."
They topped off his glass with some TM-88 Peruvian Whiskey, and he tried to forget why that was significant. Garrus placed a crude paper crown in the shape of a pacifier on his brow, to the snickers of the group. But he allowed it because this was thoughtful, and truth told he appreciated the chance to get out of his cabin and celebrate a little.
They played a few hands of Skyllian Five, and groaned good-naturedly when James cleaned them all out. "Try and make it a challenge, huh?" he boasted, sweeping his credits to his side of the table.
"Aren't you supposed to let the guest of honor win?" Kaidan asked, smirking.
"Where the hell's the fun in that?" James said, mock astounded. "Besides, that's what you all were expecting."
"I'm never playing cards with you again," Garrus groused. "I'd rather not be completely destitute by the time we get to Earth."
James smirked. "When we get to Earth, I'm buying myself a new car. One of those Nezo sports models, all sleek lines and power where you need it- Mm!"
Steve rolled his eyes. "Those cars are crap, Vega. You want something that looks nice, sure; go for it. You want something that runs nice, you need a Cord-Hislop."
James leaned back with his arms crossed behind his head. "Yeah, yeah, you know everything. Anyways, now that I've taken all your money I figure it's a good time for toast."
"Who made you head of ceremony?" Steve teased.
"I did, since I won all your money. Now shut it." He turned to Kaidan, still grinning like a fool, puffing on his cigar from the corner of his mouth. "Kaidan, Major Alenko sir, you're a damn fine soldier, a hell of an officer, and you're having a kid with the toughest, sexiest woman I've ever known in my life."
"Hey, now," Kaidan warned, but he grinned too.
"A man can't appreciate? Here's to you, sir. Here's to Shepard, and here's to your kid. The way I see it, that kid is one of the luckiest I can think of, with big hero type parents like you and Lola. Anyways, cheers." He raised his glass, and the others followed suit. "I don't have anything on this bucket that I can give, but I will once we get to Earth."
Kaidan clapped him on the shoulder. "I appreciate it."
"Yeah, yeah," James waved him off. "Smoke your cigar, Dad."
"You think about names yet?" Steve asked.
"I- honestly, I'm still over the moon about it. Still sinking in, you know?"
"You should have seen the look on your face," James smirked. "I could have bowled you over with a sneeze."
"Thanks for resisting."
"Anything for you, Major."
They drank and smoked cigars for most of the evening, ribbing Kaidan good-naturedly, and though missing Shepard had become a physical ache, he allowed himself an evening among friends, talking and laughing, sharing stories about the woman he loved more than anything and the child they'd made together.
Pursing her lips, Shepard conjured a singularity in the middle of their hotel room, laughing aloud as lamps and furniture were caught in its pull.
"What are you doing?"
"Don't tell me you never did stuff like this," she accused. "I used to get in so much trouble."
"BAaT was a little more serious," he equivocated. "Harsher punishments for goofing off, stricter regulations. You know."
She faltered a little as she remembered Vyrnnus and Rahna, and the terrible resonance of those memories, but her bright expression was back in the next moment. "Well, hey. Look. If you've never played with mass effect fields as a biotic, you are missing out. You need to get your ass over here and play."
"Oh really?" he asked, smirking. "I have to?"
"That's an order, Lieutenant."
"Pulling rank, huh? Well then, yes ma'am." He jumped off the bed and padded to her side, giving her a snappy little salute as he did so. She only rolled her eyes, playing with the dimensions of the singularity.
"Just a little bigger . . ."
"Careful. You don't want that thing to start pulling fixtures off the wall," he warned her.
"I know what I'm doing, Kaidan," she replied. "I'm an expert at shenanigans."
"Lucky me, then."
She didn't bother replying. With a quick breath, she leapt into the lazily spinning singularity until she floated, her hair fanning around her head like a halo in a Renaissance painting. She spun slowly, pirouetting as if weightlessness was as natural as breathing. "See something you like?" she asked cheekily as she spun.
"This is what you used to do?"
"Yeah. It's a bit like swimming, though without the whole come up for air or you die business." She somersaulted, trailing her fingers over his lips as she passed. "Aren't you going to join me?"
"I haven't decided yet."
"Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko! I hadn't figured you for a coward," she teased. "Better not come up then, wouldn't want you to get sick all over the room."
He knew intellectually that she was baiting him, challenging his pride. He knew it and still rose to the challenge regardless, because it wasn't serious; she didn't really think he was a coward, and he wouldn't really rise to such bait if it had been spoken seriously. "You asked for it."
He crouched and shot upward so powerfully that when he passed into the envelope of weightlessness, he crashed into Shepard and they spun together, limbs tangled and laughing stupidly.
"You just have to make things hard, don't you."
"I make things hard? Please."
He wrapped his arms around her so that they were entwined, twisted together like the braiding of ribbons. She relaxed into him as they watched the room spin around them, her grin becoming lazy and coy. "See? This isn't so bad, right?"
"It's tolerable," he allowed.
"You're so stubborn."
"Me? Nah." He snuck a kiss on her temple, winding her hair through his fingers and breathing her in. "Mm."
"What?" she giggled.
"You always smell so nice. We use the same soap in the shower and it smells so much better on you."
"Yeah." He kissed her again, sliding a hand up her shirt. "Something about you, I guess. You take something dull like the scent of soap and make it fascinating and beautiful."
"You think I'm much more interesting than I really am."
"Listen to you. All smitten." She grinned. "I won't say I hate the idea of you adoring me."
He didn't speak, kissing her instead. As they spun weightlessly in the singularity, he slid his hands up her back, bringing them around to her stomach, his nails raising her flesh under his fingers. She made a low sound in the back of her throat – an affirmation, or perhaps even a plea – and he brought his lips to her throat.
He could go his life only touching her and die a happy man. He pulled off her shirt and bra, letting them spin in separate orbits, occasionally stirred by their movements. She straddled him and crushed her mouth to his, her hands threading in his hair, teasing the flesh on his neck. She kissed him so fiercely that he wondered where she kept her desire, so far from the surface yet so easily summoned like this. He wondered if she struggled against it as he did.
Unencumbered by the weight of the world, he made love to her.
She was alive under his wanting hands. She pulled and demanded just as eagerly as he did, desperate. How long had they been here on leave, and yet there was no sign of tiring, of sliding into the route and uninspired. She was Commander out there; dutiful, principled, sometimes moved to bouts of temper, but in here she was Shepard, and so much more than what she showed most of the world.
Abruptly the singularity faded and they crashed to the bed in a tangle of limbs, surrounded by their clothes and various pieces of small furniture. Shepard snorted, burying her face into Kaidan's side, and even he couldn't contain his laughter.
"Fun, right?" she asked, a bit breathless.
He didn't reply; with a hungry grin, he rolled over and pinned her, and they continued right where they left off.
The weeks passed, and summer faded into autumn. In some ways, Shepard was growing used to her strange isolation in her apartment. She woke early most mornings – jolted awake by the baby kicking. She ate ridiculous amounts of food before heading to the Alliance training facility, where she attempted to work out as much as she could despite her pregnancy – mostly light weight training and jogging.
In the afternoons, she practiced on the firing range. The techs had fashioned a makeshift breastplate for her to use while in the range, so as to protect from unfortunate mistakes. But Shepard did not make mistakes with her guns; she was one of the top rated heavy pistol and sniper rifle specialists in the Alliance, and that was without accounting for her biotic and technical skills.
She and Kaidan had shared that. They'd traded tricks like children trade marbles or cards, debating the best biotic amps and omni-tools. He preferred the reliability of the Logic Arrest, she preferred the flash and power of the Savant.
Sometimes, she would look to the sky and almost convince herself that the Normandy was there. She would double back with her heart in her throat when she heard the rumble of an engine overhead, straining to see the Normandy's colors, the showy and assured piloting of Joker. It never was, though. The sight of a freighter could bring her on the verge of tears, the growl of a dreadnaught to broken weeping.
It was now that she realized she was going to have to confront the possibility that Kaidan wouldn't be there when she gave birth. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she had believed he'd be here by now. He would have never kept her waiting, not if he could help it. He would have fought tooth and nail to her side.
There had always been a small glimmer of hope in her mind, but that hope was fading fast. He wasn't coming. She was alone.
Jack tapped her foot in the foyer, arms crossed, brows pulled together. "Why does it always take you so fucking long to get ready?"
Shepard shrugged into an oversized jacket, the better to keep the chill in the air away. "Because I'm twice as large and fifty times as ungainly as I normally am," she snapped. "You try breaking records with a twenty pound bowling ball strapped to your stomach."
"You're exaggerating," Jack scoffed.
"Like hell, I am."
"Don't get touchy, Mama Shep. A lady in your condition has enough to worry about."
Shepard seethed. Her temper was always near the surface these days, as were the tears. Her moods fluctuated so wildly it gave her the uncomfortable sensation of clinging onto control on a carriage that preferred to be wild, that delighted in bringing her low.
"Remind me why you're here, again?" Shepard retorted, turning out the lights and limping out of the bedroom. "I could have sworn Miranda was more interested in doing this."
"Miranda is away doing important shit," Jack said, scowling. "Why? Would you rather the Cheerleader be here?"
"It sounds like you would."
"I'm here, aren't I?" Jack said, arms outstretched. "Let's go before I change my mind."
"Better hurry, then," Shepard snapped, but she followed Jack out of the apartment and to her car, easing herself into the uncomfortable seat. Jack had stapled in some cushions for Shepard's benefit, but there wasn't much improvement as they bumped and jostled through the streets of downtown Vancouver.
Shepard watched the world pass as they went. It had been a little more than six months since the final battle, and yet you never would know it by looking. Vancouver was its old self; minimalist skyscrapers gleaming like new, moderate traffic, people going about their business. She almost could forget that there had been a war here, one so terrible that billions were killed and the planet itself was reduced to rubble.
"Did you vote in the primaries?" she asked Jack.
"Yeah, for whatever good it did," Jack said, shrugging. "There was a bomb threat at the poll center, but nothing came of it."
"I don't know. Something big's going to come of it," Jack said, frowning. "It gets worse every time that ad featuring you airs."
Shepard knew the one she was talking about. A few months ago, Hackett had approached her and contracted her for a commercial stressing the importance of the elections and the Alliance as a whole. She'd acquiesced because it was really all she could do, considering her state. She couldn't fight or lead, but she could serve as a symbol to everyone, a symbol of unity and the Alliance.
Jack pulled into the hospital parking lot, the tires squealing in harsh protest. She kicked the door shut before running around to help Shepard out of the car. She was angry, Shepard saw; angry and upset. Her expressive face was pinched with temper or unhappiness, Shepard couldn't tell. She abruptly felt guilty for baiting Jack, considering all the biotic was doing to help her.
"Thanks," Shepard said.
"Come on," Jack said, passing Shepard her cane. "Hurry or I'll make them give you a wheelchair."
"You're a bastard."
They checked in without much hassle, and Shepard was allowed to refuse the wheelchair, to her small pleasure. They waited in a sterile waiting room for close to an hour, Jack scanning the pages of a tabloid without really reading them. Shepard closed her eyes while they waited, relishing the small relief that closing her eyes was.
Jack watched her closely. "You're not sleeping?" she asked.
Shepard shook her head. "It's fine."
"Don't play tough."
Shepard smirked. "Sage wisdom, coming from you."
"Fine, Shepard. Don't listen to me. What the fuck do I know about these things?"
"Jack, what the hell is wrong with you? You've been in a temper all day."
Jack shook her head, lips pressed together. "It's nothing. Look, the vulture is here."
Shepard was about to retort when she saw the nurse scanning her clipboard and looking vaguely at the half-filled waiting room. "Ms. Shepard?" she called. "This way, please!"
Jack helped Shepard to her feet and the two of them followed the nurse, a matronly woman with greying hair and laugh lines. She led them to a small, comfortable looking room stocked with the requisite birthing equipment, including the sonogram.
"Is this your first pregnancy, Ms. Shepard?"
Jack was incredulous. "Do you even know who she is? Of course it's her first."
The nurse was unruffled. "Are you the labor coach?"
"Yeah, that's me," Jack said, rolling her eyes.
The nurse's equitable expression faded, giving way to insulting concern. "Is the father not available, then?"
Shepard flinched. "I . . . yes."
"It really is the worst when the father refuses to take responsibility," the nurse tutted in what she probably imagined was a sympathetic tone, although to Shepard it sounded incredibly arrogant. "Next time perhaps be more careful, okay?"
"That's not at all how it is!" Shepard shouted, jerking away from the nurse's hands. She'd been trying so hard to ignore the fact that Kaidan wasn't here and that he probably wasn't coming back, and this woman had brought that thought back from its dark hiding place, squirming in the light. Equating him to some kind of deadbeat! The indignity and injustice of it all was too much to bear, and her eyes filled with furious tears.
Jack, however, focused her fury at the nurse. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she demanded. "Don't you watch the news? This is Captain Shepard. You know, the savior of mankind? The one with the missing ship with all her loved ones aboard, including the father?"
The nurse was horrified. "I'm-I'm so sorry, Captain. I don't watch much TV . . . I didn't know –"
"We'd like another technician, now. Preferably one who knows enough about the Captain to be discrete and considerate," Jack said, pointing the nurse out of the door. "Get the fuck out of here!" she shouted when the nurse didn't move.
Jack turned back to Shepard after the nurse ran out, positively quaking with temper. "I can't believe the morons they let work here! Even if you weren't Shepard, what the fuck kind of bedside manner is that? If the father was some kind of deadbeat, what the hell makes it her business?" Jack ranted, her hands balled into fists, biotic power coursing over them.
"C-calm down," Shepard hiccupped, trying desperately to swallow her humiliating tears.
Jack seemed to finally notice the extent of Shepard's distress, for she leaned closer to Shepard protectively. "Aw . . . hey, come on. Don't let that moron upset you," she said desperately.
Shepard shook her head, wiping her eyes angrily. "I'm sorry."
"You don't have to apologize for crying, Shepard," Jack said. "Hormones and all, right?"
"I hope so. I didn't break down at the drop of a hat before I got pregnant, that's for sure." She took a shuddering breath. "God. I just . . . I don't know. You're here, doing something you obviously don't want to do, and all I can do is . . . he's supposed to be here for this!" she said, the full measure of her anger and grief brought to bear.
"I'm not offended," Jack said. "If anything I'm a little pissed they didn't send you a technician who knew who the hell you are and what your shitty situation is."
Shepard took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I'm glad you're here. Can you imagine if it was Zaeed?"
"He'd be way too scared to come up here in the first place. He hates hospitals."
"I don't blame him," she said, hiccupping a little. "It seems like every shitty thing that happens to me happens or results in a hospital."
"Who knows, huh? Maybe Kaidan'll be back in time." She paused, as if struggling with a difficult concept. "You know . . . fuck, I'm not good at this motivational shit. Just don't give up yet, you know? Ugh," she said, rubbing her eyes. "It's like a damn after-school special in here."
But Shepard smiled, wiping her swollen eyes. "Well, look at you. Who would have thought that you were this nice and nurturing from when we first met? Didn't you threaten to kill me?"
"It wasn't my fault! You were flying a Cerberus ship! You should count yourself lucky I didn't punch that smug face of yours right out the airlock."
"Lucky, indeed," Shepard said. "Thanks, Jack."
"Yeah, yeah," she said, waving away the thanks like one swats away bugs. "Come on. Let's learn about the disgusting miracle of birth."
Kaidan took to his research during the ship's sleep cycle, when there was no one else who needed to use the weak extranet. He studied feverishly, learning all there was to learn about childbirth, about parenting, about the risks and dangers involved, even committing rare cases to memory, so that he'd always know what to do in the eventuality of an emergency.
He obsessed. His reactionary joy had faded finally, and in its place was a fierce desire to fight his way home and reunite. It was an obsession, now, a feverishly chanted mantra. No matter what. No matter what. If he thought he'd slept before these days, it was nothing compared to now.
The glare of the console never failed to trigger a migraine, and yet he continued.
Despite, or perhaps because of his desperation, he became distracted from pregnancy research, favoring articles detailing the months of Shepard's life that he'd missed. All of them were accompanied by an onslaught of pictures and video footage; since she'd woken from her coma, she had become something of a celebrity.
There were pictures of her in her hospital bed, limbs broken and wrapped in plaster, her face wan yet still attempting a smile for whoever took the picture. This had been right after she'd woken from her coma, a month after the attack. She'd lain in a pile of rubble on the Citadel for days, and when they found her and brought her to the hospital, she had been barely alive.
There were pictures and videos of her first excursion outside of the hospital; a trip to the new Alliance headquarters, naturally. She saluted a memorial with a face like granite, betraying nothing. There were pictures of her sighting down a target, her stance assured even though the slightest grimace betrayed the pain she was in. There was a picture he loved desperately; she stood next to a target with the center ring shot out – a perfect bit of marksmanship, and she knew it. Her grin could only be described as smug, that dash of insolence that he took as assurance and a challenge.
God, she looked so weak at first. But as the timestamps changed the pictures featured less of her in the wheelchair and more of her with a cane, hobbling from place to place. Here, a bit of the old spark in her eyes. There, some of the tenacity. She smiled more.
He watched the curve of her belly become more pronounced as the months passed.
With a heavy sigh, he switched off the console and made his way to the CIC, too anxious to sleep. During the sleep cycle the Normandy was manned by a skeleton detail; usually one or two people to a post instead of the full complement. They greeted him cursorily as he passed.
"0200 hours and all is well," said one of the navigators. "We're making good time, Major."
Kaidan nodded. "Any sign of functional relays?"
"None yet, sir."
He crossed his arms over his chest, watching the void from one of the windows. A few stars blinked through the darkness, but for the most part it was as solidly back as he'd ever seen, the kind of black one could lose themselves in. He rubbed his tired eyes until strange patterns bloomed behind them, whirling and collapsing in on themselves.
Each minute brought them closer to Earth, he reminded himself. Somewhere in that darkness was Shepard and their child.
He felt the explosion more than he heard it, the vacuum of space being what it was. Alarms screeched on every deck as the ship shuddered under them, the sound of scraping, protesting metal harsh in his ears. He ran to the nearest console and parsed through ship's functions, his heart beating so loudly it almost seemed to drown out the chaos around him.
"Joker, stop the ship and cut engines!" he shouted into the intercom.
And Joker obeyed; applying enough force to reverse thrusters until they had jerked to a stop, the engine cutting out not much later.
"Major, what in the-?" Traynor said, still half dressed in nightclothes.
"Get me engineering!" Kaidan ordered. "Now!"
She obeyed, her fingers moving so quickly over the console they almost blurred. "Here, Major."
"Adams? Are you there?"
"Sir!" Adams shouted through impossibly thick static.
"What the hell is going on down there!' he demanded, his hands clenched so tightly that his nails dug into his palm, breaking skin. In the moment he waited for an answer, he felt as if he'd swallowed a stone. As if he already knew whatever hope they'd found was gone.
"Sir, it's the fuel tanks! There . . . there was a malfunction. We're venting fuel as we speak!"
"Can you salvage the tanks?" Kaidan shouted, the comm distorting around his voice.
"Not the reserves. I don't know; the pressurization seals shut down before I could get a look," Adams said, breathing hard.
"Get your men the hell out of there! We need to seal it off the whole deck before it cripples the ship!" Kaidan ordered.
He waited, counting his breaths, his rapid heartbeat. No one spoke, though behind him he heard someone hyperventilating. After twenty seconds of listening to the groaning of the protesting hull, he initiated the lockdown sequence. Below them, they felt the slamming of the blast doors shudder through the ravaged metal.
"All right. James, Garrus, Tali; get your gear," he commanded, striding toward the emergency ladder.
"Right." James said, with Garrus nodding behind him.
He dressed in a haze, checked his oxygen tank completely through force of habit. He wasn't thinking now, he was reacting; much like a machine faced with predictable disturbances that are easily handled.
There was no power on the engineering deck, and Kaidan switched on his helmet flashlight, the powerful beam cutting through the darkness like a hot knife through butter. He made slow progress toward the tanks, the reassuringly loud footfalls of Garrus, James, and Tali thudding behind him. He had descended into a strange, airless place in his mind; where there was only action and reaction. Times like these he forgot his own name, his goals and purpose.
"Look," said Garrus from behind him, thudding closer to the tanks.
It was a horrific sight. Out of the eight fuel tanks the Normandy boasted, four of them had been completely obliterated by whatever caused the explosion. There was a gaping hole in the hull, where the void beckoned them obscenely.
"Shit," James breathed. "Shit, shit! It took out more than half our fuel!"
"Calm down, Lieutenant," Kaidan instructed. "We need to get the seal in place. Tali, see if you can figure out what cause this."
As Tali scanned the tanks, the three men carefully positioned the replacement plate, riveting it to the rest of the ship before welding it in place. For caution's sake, they used perhaps more of the plating than they strictly needed.
"Any ideas what caused this?" Kaidan asked Tali.
She shook her head. "There isn't much left to tell. Best guess would have to be a structural weakness, leftover from the crash, maybe? Probably buckled under the pressure in the tanks."
"How did we miss this? We checked everything, more than once," Kaidan asked her.
"It wouldn't have had to be a large one," Tali explained. "Anything can buckle under enough force. It would have been easy to miss."
"Come on. We need to pressurize this deck," Kaidan said blandly, the gravity of the situation sinking in. "Sooner we do, sooner we get under way."
"Don't you get it?" James snapped. "There is no more 'under way'! We are STUCK. Dead in the water! Best we can hope for is to crash on some planet like the one we left!"
"Lieutenant," Kaidan warned. "Save it."
James mashed his lips together in a hard line, and tried to swallow his temper and fear. No one spoke again until they clambered back onto the CIC deck, and then it was only to give the order to re-pressurize the engineering deck.
"What happened?" Traynor asked in a small voice.
"Best we can tell, some kind of structural failure," Kaidan explained. "The explosion took out what little we could have used to tell for sure."
"And the fuel?" asked one of the navigators. "What about the fuel?"
Kaidan didn't speak for a moment. "The reserves and two of the main tanks are gone," he said finally. "If my math is correct, we no longer have enough to get to Earth."
No one said anything as the terrible news gradually sunk in. Kaidan had known intellectually how important the goal of Earth was to the crew, but he couldn't have possibly predicted their visceral reaction to the news that it was no longer possible. Most of them stared dumbly ahead as the news slowly registered. He heard someone weeping brokenly behind him.
"What do we do now?" Traynor asked, her voice trembling.
They all looked to Kaidan, small glimmers of hope on their bleak features. Even in the face of such a dire situation they still believed that he could get them out of trouble. Just like they had believed of Shepard. Shepard . . .
He resisted despair as the thought of her threatened to lay him low. He ignored the thought of twisting in space until they starved. He resisted the thought of her forever out of reach. He steeled himself and searched methodically for alternatives, just as he'd been trained. "We have a long chance," he said slowly. "If we can find an outpost the requisite distance away, we can either refuel and make it home or repair the broadcasting array and call for help."
"And what if there is no fuel or broadcasting array there?" James demanded. "This is a stupid risk for something that might not even pan out! We'd have better luck just aiming for Earth and hoping the momentum will bring us in."
"That's not accounting for drift," Joker cut in, frowning. "It's not that easy. Maybe if we were pot-shotting from Luna, but not from this distance. We want to get to Earth, we're gonna need some fuel."
"I know it's not ideal," Kaidan told the crew. "I know it's a long chance. But that's all we have now."
"Damn it!" James shouted. "We were so close!"
"That's enough," Kaidan said firmly, pulling James close. "Pull yourself together or cool your heels in your quarters. We've got enough problems without you losing your shit in front of the crew."
James shrugged Kaidan off but he said no more.
"Specialist Traynor, find me the nearest outposts in a distance we can travel with our current fuel reserves," Kaidan ordered.
She blinked away her tears and focused on her console, wiping her cheek with her left hand. "I have a couple, Major," she told him. "Most are out of commission, but . . . wait! I have something!"
"Let's hear it."
"It's . . . well, it's an old Cerberus base. A supply cache, really."
"Set a course for these coordinates, Joker," Kaidan ordered. "Everyone, back to your posts. We've gotten out of worse situations than this. We're not out of the fight yet."
"Yes, sir," the crew said as one, and though they were still disturbed by what had just happened, they no longer looked as hopeless and desperate as before. And though Kaidan knew he was no Shepard, with the power to whip men and women into frenzy in even the most dire situations, he allowed himself a small bit of satisfaction.
He focused on that purpose and satisfaction, because otherwise he knew he would just as easily plummet over the edge of despair.
"Okay. First kiss; go."
Kaidan looked at her askance. "Why do you want to know?"
"Because I like knowing about you. What you did and how you were before we met. Aren't you a little curious about me?"
He shrugged noncommittally. "Maybe."
"Don't be coy, Alenko. Out with it."
"All right, but then it's a trade. Like for like. Okay?"
"Look at you; haggling like you have to twist my arm. Yes, fine; you have access to my secrets if I have access to yours."
"Okay. First kiss . . . god, that was a long time ago." He rubbed the back of his neck. "It's kind of a pathetic story, actually."
"Even better," Shepard smirked, scooting closer to where he sat.
He smiled ruefully. "There was a girl in secondary school. I don't remember what she looked like, but I remember that she had the most beautiful voice. She used to sing the anthem before functions and games and I would go to every one of them, just to have a chance to hear her sing."
"Wasn't she in choir?"
"Well, yeah, but I could never have joined the choir. Tone deaf is putting it lightly, in my case."
"Really . . . ?" she asked slowly, a Cheshire cat's grin twisting her lips.
"No, I'm not going to sing for you."
"You're no fun. Anyways, back to the girl with the voice of an angel. How did you make your move?"
"I didn't- that's the pathetic part. I had a friend, real outgoing kind of guy, brash, in your face – pretty much the exact opposite of me. He got tired of my mooning one day and just marched right up to her, spun this really sad, pathetic story about how I'd loved her since we were young and all I wanted was to ask her out, blah blah blah. She took pity on me and we went out. It was awful; I couldn't think of two things to say to her. When I dropped her off, I kind of lurched at her – meaning to kiss her cheek or something dumb – and instead ended up doing this weird, smushed mouth sort of thing."
"Oh my god," Shepard said, covering her mouth. "I wish I'd known you back then."
"You sound like an adorable teenager," she replied. "All bashful and cute. I would have been clay in your hands."
He grinned at her suggestively. "Aren't you now?"
"Kaidan!" She swatted his arm. "So smug."
"Can't I be a little smug? The most beautiful, fascinating woman in the world loves me, for some reason."
"Oh, shush." But she pulled him closer and buried herself in his arms.
"Your turn," he reminded her.
"Mine isn't as funny as yours," she said, shrugging. "I grew up on the ship my mother served on, and there was another kid there – a boy named Lee. We grew up as friends and kind of fell together as teenagers, then realized we were better as friends."
"Did he kiss you or you kiss him?"
"I kissed him. I was curious! He had nice looking lips. Not as nice as yours, though; not even close."
"You're just saying that."
"I would never!" Shepard said, aghast. "It's one of the first things I noticed. Well, that and your nose."
"My nose?" He rubbed it reflexively, self-conscious.
"Yeah! Stop trying it hide it. It's very straight, you know? Well shaped. I don't know, I just like it," she said, tracing the angle of it with deft fingers.
"So the first things you noticed were my lips and nose?"
"Well, and your eyes. Of course." She traced his brow, the lines there. "They are remarkable. Your smile, too; you didn't use it often at first, and so I would start baiting you. Being especially ridiculous, so you'd smile even just a little. Always worth it."
She was silent for a moment. "And . . . well, there was something solid about you. Something reliable and kind. I don't know. You move around as much as I did as a kid and you start to appreciate solid ground under your feet.
"Also . . . well, I looked at you and I knew I could trust you. I knew that I wouldn't have to keep up the defenses, you know? I could just be myself without worrying how it would reflect or how you would react; you would accept me wholesale." She paused. "You're the only person I've met that's made me feel that way."
He caught her wandering hand and pressed it to his lips, kissing her palm and the thrilling pulse in her wrist, her delicate skin. She watched him for a moment, seeming to track the path of his thoughts. "What were the first things you noticed about me?"
"Ah . . . well ,not that I'm stealing your answer or anything, but your eyes, definitely. They're a shade of blue I've never seen before. And regardless of how expressionless you get, your eyes always give away what's really going on."
"Huh. I'll have to work on that," she mused.
"It's good to have a poker face. You never know when you'll need one." She paused. "What else did you like about me?"
"It's not very romantic, but I loved your hair from the first. It's like fire, some days; like you've the wick of a lit candle." He trailed off, looking embarrassed. "Dumb, right?"
She trailed her fingers over the line of his jaw, smiling distantly. "Kids used to make fun of my hair," she said. "I don't really blame them, really; it is kind of odd."
"It's unique," he argued. "It suits you."
"Unique isn't always a good thing, you know," she pointed out.
"I think it is."
"Fine, fine. My eyes and hair."
"Well, more than that," he qualified. "I mean . . . you fascinated me from the start. The hero of the Skyllian Blitz, more commendations in your file than you can shake a stick at. I was expecting you to be some kind of intimidating hardass, but it surprised me how . . . well, human you were. How funny. You made a half-cocked joke about something Jenkins said – he was fawning and you said you hadn't really done all of those things ; some guy named Ham Snepard had, and it was all a terrible mixup."
"Not some of my finer material," Shepard muttered.
"It was half the joke and half that you were so uncomfortable with all the praise, like you didn't want Jenkins to build you up into something more than what you felt like you were. I was . . . well, I was fascinated from that moment."
"I can't even imagine," she said, craning around to look at him. "It really wasn't that funny a joke."
"I thought it was. Ham Snepard? Come on," he grinned. "So yeah. You had me from the very moment I met you."
"Are you sure it was me who bewitched you and not the elusive Ham Snepard?" she said, smiling under his fingers.
"Ham Snepard doesn't have anything on you," he said, and he kissed her deeply.
"You are really the worst," Miranda said, radiating icy disdain. "I don't know why I agreed to this."
"You agreed to this because you can't resist a chance to be a fucking know-it-all," Jack hissed delightedly. Nothing made her happier than baiting Miranda into a fight.
Shepard pinched her brow. "Can you guys give it a rest?" she asked. "Just for a couple of minutes?"
"Sure, Shepard," Jack said. "I'm not the one with a problem."
Miranda took a slow breath in an attempt to keep control of her temper. "I'm sorry, Shepard," she said.
They were at the new shopping center in Vancouver, gathering clothing and furniture for the baby, which was due in less than six weeks. Shepard had wanted to go alone, partially because she suspected the trip would be emotional and she was growing tired of losing her shit in front of people who once respected her, but both Jack and Miranda had insisted on helping.
"No way you're carrying all that baby shit by yourself," Jack had said, crossing her arms.
And in that manner, it was decided.
Of course, the trip itself was becoming contentious. Miranda and Jack, who had never gotten along at the best of times were even more on edge and often took out their anxiety on each other. They each had separate opinions on the best way to prepare for the coming baby. Miranda was orderly and methodical, insisting on an instrument for every occasion. Jack was stingy, claiming most of it was a waste of damn money, and it had launched an especially spirited tirade against the child- rearing market. Now that the Reaper war was over, she argued, couples were making babies, so corporations hiked the prices and manufactured bullshit that no one really needed but crazed parents would buy in the interest of being completely prepared.
It made a dumb sort of sense to Shepard, but she kept her mouth shut and tolerated the arguing as best she could.
"Look at this," Miranda was saying, holding up a miniscule set of shoes. "They're so tiny."
"It's still so strange to imagine how small this child will be," Shepard mused, toying with the shoelace. "And then stranger to realize we all start out that small, and this child someday won't be."
She was well into the third trimester, and the volatile emotions had given way to a strange sort of philosophical acceptance. Most days, anyway.
"Eh . . . they're only shoes," Jack said awkwardly. But even she couldn't muster anything worse to say about the tiny things, and Shepard saw a slight softening of her features before she looked away.
"You know, if we knew the sex of the baby, shopping would be easier," Miranda pointed out.
"Why?" Jack argued. "I never understood the big deal with color gender branding. Maybe some boys don't like blue, or some girls don't like pink."
"I hate pink," Shepard said, grinning. "My mother never dared to dress me in pink. No dresses, either. She tried a little yellow dress once, and I shredded the thing. And the only dolls I played with were John the N7's."
"Those are so old!" Jack screeched delightedly. "How old are you now, old lady?"
"Not too old to wipe the floor with you."
"Right, right. Careful with that bowling ball you call a stomach."
"It's just easier, though, don't you think?" said Miranda, still fingering the tiny shoes. "I mean, babies all look the same when they're that little."
"Like little squishy potatoes," Jack supplied helpfully. "Or misshapen garden gnomes."
Miranda ignored this. "I mean, aren't you even a little curious?"
"Well, of course," Shepard said, shrugging. "I . . . I don't know. I thought I would wait until it was born. I wanted to . . . well, I wanted to be surprised with Kaidan. When he gets here."
Both Jack and Miranda watched her with cautious expressions, the way one would watch a spinning cup about to shatter on the floor. But Shepard was not close to tears, not anymore. She wasn't sure if it was because she held onto her old convictions with her old tenacity, or if she had completely given up hope. Some days, it seemed like both extremes were true.
No, she didn't believe that. She desperately held onto the thought of Kaidan, still alive. Kaidan, on his way home. She clung to her memories of him, but already they had become scattered by the passage of time, like pages thrown in a harsh wind. She started to forget the exact shape of his mouth, the pattern of moles on his shoulder, his happy-sad eyes.
She refused to let herself mourn. He would be here by the time the baby was born; she knew it. She felt it in the cores of her bones, down to the very bottom of her entire self.
"Let's get something to eat," she suggested, partly as a mercy to Jack and Miranda, who both struggled for something to say.
With Jack carrying their purchases, they wandered through the shopping center until they found a suitable restaurant, a café boasting asari cuisine. They spoke cursorily of unimportant things, and Shepard laughed when she was supposed to. She supplied her end of the conversation as if everything was as it should be. They brought her home not long after and unloaded her purchases before wishing her a goodnight.
She slowly lowered herself onto the couch, wincing a bit as she did so, and surveyed the living room filled with unopened packages and bags - a crib, a carseat, a stroller, piles of adorable little clothes for an infant.
Shepard no longer recognized her own body. She'd always been small and fast, and as she'd grown to adulthood, she'd become powerful and precise as well. She knew countless ways to end a life. She could run long distances for hours at a time while wearing armor and weapons that weighed more cumulatively than she did. She could crush an enemy into a wall with biotics or fry them with a pulse fired from her omni-tool.
The memories of the days before her pregnancy were fleeting now. Her reality was this new cumbersome body, riddled with pain and inflammation, swollen with life and hurt. She could no longer walk long distances from the swelling in her feet. Though her leg had healed long ago, it still pained her every now and then. She couldn't run and leap and bend at the waist. If someone pushed her down, she figured she would roll, for now she more closely resembled an overly ripe piece of fruit.
Six more weeks, she thought.
She wanted her pregnancy to be over, and yet she wanted the baby to wait. She wanted the baby to understand that she needed Kaidan there, that she couldn't face this new life without standing at the side of the man she loved. The thought of bringing Kaidan's child into the world without him there was physically painful, much like it had felt with the weight of the Citadel on her chest.
Shepard had killed many in the name of peace. She'd charged into countless do or die situations, and in one case a mission that no one expected to survive. She'd united a galaxy and faced multiple Reapers with nothing shielding her but her own speed and ability to dodge. And yet, it was now Shepard realized she was a coward.
She remembered Kaidan's promise, the feel of him naked in her arms. "No matter what," he reminded her, but not with words.
What more could she do? She was a soldier, and in this stage in her life she obeyed orders. She'd been ordered to remain, to help the Alliance fight a subversive organization of terrorists hell bent on stopping the elections and reformation of government. And she was pregnant- she'd learned she was pregnant within hours of waking up. The only a handful of the relays were functional, and comm buoys had only begun to work on a galactic scale. The Normandy was hailed on hourly intervals every day, but there was no answer. There was never an answer.
She knew these things logically, and yet she still felt as if she had failed Kaidan. She hadn't searched every inch of the galaxy. She hadn't slipped away and stolen a ship and combed every planet, every system for him. For the Normandy, her crew and her friends. She was a coward and she had failed them all.
A low, ringing sound startled her out of her self-loathing. With a grunt of pain, she pushed herself upright and limped to her holoterminal, rubbing the pain out of her stiff back.
She gaped. "Wrex?"
"You look awful, Shepard. Was wondering if you'd quietly died somewhere."
"Not me. You know better."
"Yeah, yeah. Thought I'd see how you were."
She shrugged. "Same since last we talked, really. Terrorists blowing up polling centers. Protests. Hackett trying to keep calm long enough to get a damn Parliament and Prime Minister elected."
"I'd heard. But I asked how you were."
"About the same too."
Wrex chuckled. "You look pretty ripe."
"Yeah, sure. Laugh it up." She winced. "I hope you were a little more understanding with Bakara."
"Ah, well you know. Slept outside a few times. Also she broke my arm during the birth. But . . ." Wrex trailed off, and Shepard never thought she would see such an expression on a krogan's face; one of such intense love, it made her own heart twist. "Well. It was worth it."
"How is little Mordin?"
"Bah. Cursed with a salarian name," Wrex harrumphed, but he grinned again after a moment. "He's good. Strong! I've never seen such a thing in our young. He follows me everywhere, tries to be like me." It hardly seemed possible, but the old krogan's face softened. "I never thought I'd be a father, that I'd have a son. It's incredible."
"You and Bakara will have to give me pointers."
"Ah, Shepard. One thing you'll learn is how instinctive it is. Natural, you know?"
She didn't speak for a moment. "I hope you're right," she said softly.
Wrex's expression faded into careful concern. "No word from the Normandy?"
"Hm." Wrex looked away. "Hm! Well, you'll be the first I contact if I hear anything."
"I appreciate it, Wrex."
"I'll let you get to it. You look beat. Just wanted to check in."
"Give my best to Bakara and Mordin."
"Of course. Take care of yourself."
The holoterminal flickered off and she was alone again, in the ringing silence of her empty apartment.
Though she desperately wanted to be, she was not comforted. She looked at the packages strewn about her living room, the moonlight casting pale shadows on the floor. She was an exhibit, a touchstone. An idol. She felt the absence of many things and many people in an apartment that had become more like a mausoleum than a home.
Shepard did not go to the bedroom. She could no longer face that empty bed, sheets tangled like thorns. He'd never even been in that bed, but somehow the absence of Kaidan was even more poignant there than anywhere else. The memory of him curled around her that last night too strong to excise or ignore. It had poisoned the well.
Though it hurt her already stiff back, she wrapped herself in a blanket and lay back on the couch. She rested her hand under the curve of her belly, as if to support the child within. "Kaidan will be here soon," she insisted stubbornly. "But until then, it's just you and me, little bean."
There were only three days left of leave, and their duties began to demand their attention. Shepard had needed to approve a few crew transfers, and Kaidan had been required to submit some reports. The last one was particularly taxing, and it had taken him most of the evening to complete.
When he finally finished, he saw that Shepard had already fallen asleep. She was curled on her side, her hair spilling across the pillow, the sheets wrapped around her like a sinuous cotton fishtail. He stared for a moment, drinking the sight of her in as if he hadn't in many years.
Carefully, so as not to disturb her, he folded himself around her, sliding his arm around her waist and pulling her close. She shifted a bit but did not wake. "Kaidan . . ." she murmured.
He kissed the nape of her neck, the bones under smooth skin, a cluster of freckles on her shoulders. He thought of a hundred thousand nights like tonight, stretching out before them like a distant, well-loved horizon, where she would wait and curl into him, and they would sleep entwined.
The Normandy had become a ghost ship. The crew hardly spoke unless to relay commands and tasks to one another. There were no jokes or games in the lounge. There was no laughter. They focused on bringing the Normandy to the Cerberus cache, but Kaidan could see it in their eyes that they struggled to maintain hope that their predicament would resolve in a positive way.
He wondered what Shepard would have done in this situation. Gotten angry, probably. She would have yelled at her crew, demanded that they get their mopey asses in line. She would have insisted that as long as there was the will to do your duty and stay alive, there was hope. And he knew the crew would have responded to the ardor in her eyes, the fire in her voice. They would have come alive for her.
He tried in the best way he knew how. He kept his own despair so far from the surface that might have not existed, if only things worked in such a way. He rarely slept, barely ate. He pushed through the migraines through sheer will alone.
Calling it stress was a laughable understatement. It went so far beyond stress as if to defy the definition itself.
"Two hours, Major," Traynor reminded him softly.
"Thank you, Specialist." He leaned toward the intercom. "Garrus, Tali; get your gear."
They were two hours from the Cerberus cache, and it was as if the entire Normandy held its breath.
Kaidan knew what was at stake. Everyone did. If the Cerberus cache had no fuel or supplies, they were lost. If the cache had no means to repair the broadcasting array, they were lost. Either would suffice at this point; both would be almost too much to hope for.
Kaidan assembled his armor and checked his guns. He stretched, adjusting to the weight, the balance. He checked his primary O2 tank, then the spare. He scanned for leaks, cracks, malfunctions in his equipment. He was methodical and precise, exacting. He found a measure of peace in perfection.
"Inbound, Major," Joker's voice crackled on the comm. "Landing dock is prepped."
He strode toward the landing dock, ignoring the frantic thudding of his heart. He pushed away thoughts of failure, of drifting endlessly through the void and starving to death. He pushed away everything but his goal; Earth. Shepard.
He stepped into the dock, and the doors closed behind him.
It was nighttime in Chicago, and the streets were alive. Vibrant with voices and many different strains of music, blending in wonderful charivari. Kaidan laced his fingers through Shepard's, and together they slipped through the noise, buffeted gently like leaves in a spring breeze.
He couldn't stop looking at her. She wore a blue dress made of a gauzy material that swished around her knees, and the sight of it was oddly graceful. He'd never seen her wear a dress before, not even a casual one like this. Even when not in uniform, she preferred loose fatigues and buttoned shirts, rolled up to the elbow. She was beautiful regardless of what she wore, but he'd never seen her figure on display like this in public, and he'd be lying if he said it didn't excite him.
They ducked into a jazz club, seedy and dark, the air thick with smoke. There was a small platform where the combo played, with a clustered beam of lights shining on their heads, giving them the odd, disembodied appearance of rising from murky fog like creatures of legend.
There was the threading of the bass like a steady heartbeat, and a mournful sax dipping above and below, twisting sound, bending it like a mirror bends light. The drums shimmered; right now the music was free, but when it was time to catch and tame it, the drummer laid down a lazy beat, and it all snapped together.
Shepard ordered a whiskey on the rocks, smiling conspiratorially. "My mom and I used to share these," she said.
He ordered one too. "It's a good drink."
"I was twelve when she let me have my first sip. I felt so adult, so cool. It made me sick as hell, but it was worth it." She twirled her straw absently. "Every now and then, my mom and I would sit with our drinks and just talk, watch the ships, the stars. She was my best friend."
"What happened to her?"
Shepard's lips curved downward; this pain of hers was old, a scar. "She died. A few years back. It was a border skirmish, not a big battle or anything. But her ship was hit and she went down with everyone else aboard. It's the standard story, for people like us."
"What do you mean?"
"We all die on ships; on them or because of them. It's a lucky thing when you can die on the ground, feel the earth on your back and the sun on your face before you bleed out. Most of us will die in the endless dark of space, or in an explosion. Or both. That's what we choose to accept. We're marines. Alliance. Our frontier is space."
Kaidan was quiet. "I'm sorry about your mother, Shepard."
"It's done with," she said. "I miss her and I wish she was still alive. But she gave her life for the Alliance, for Earth. She may not have died in some big, flashy battle, but she died for them just the same. Just like I will."
"Hopefully not," Kaidan argued gently. "And hopefully not for many years."
She sighed. "I'm sorry. God, listen to me; going on about my mom and death. Just, I think about her whenever I have a whiskey and listen to music. I think about watching the ships float by, suspended in a sea of stars, and remember how fascinated I was by it all, by the vastness. How endless it is! And I remember her looking out at it calmly, as if she'd mastered it. Hannah Shepard; master of the void! Can you imagine?"
"She sounds like a fascinating woman."
"She was. Regardless of what waited for her or what bothered her, she was never ruffled or upset. Not even the endlessness of space upset her; all was as it should be. I can't even begin to imagine being able to look at life like that. Can you?"
"It would take substantial effort, that's for sure."
"More than that. And I know people look at me the same way: how do you keep it together, Shepard? How do you do such impossible things without losing your head, Shepard? And I can't answer like my mom did; that I had faith in my skill and mastery of my world. My secret is that I'm hungry, I'm desperate, I'm angry. I'm scared."
It was far too personal a confession for a public place. Yet perhaps Shepard felt as if she could confess it here, in the safety of the envelope of sound the musicians created. No one was watching her, or listening to her; they were watching and listening to the music happening all around them. Here in this cocoon of storied music, she was safe.
He didn't speak for a moment, weighing his words, measuring what would be correct and what would be offensive. "I think we're all hungry and desperate and scared. It's just that some are good at hiding it."
"Maybe," she allowed. "Are you?"
"Am I what? Ever hungry or angry, desperate or scared? Of course I am, Shepard. I'm not a machine."
"You never look it. You're so steady, reliable. You'd be solid ground to stand on."
"I'm good at compartmentalizing, I guess."
She captured one of his hands between hers and pressed it to her cheek. "Do you ever think about how random it was that we met?"
"All the time."
"I wasn't supposed to be transferred to the Normandy, you know. I had another posting all lined up, ready to go. Then they heard about me and some of my exploits and decided I could be human Spectre material, and so I got pushed over to Anderson's command."
"I'd say it's pretty lucky the way things turned out," Kaidan said, grinning. "I can't imagine my life without you in it."
"It'd be a lot duller, that's for sure." She smiled, and it was so lovely that it made his chest ache. She sighed as the musicians switched to something slow and dreamy, nodding her head to the familiar melody. "I love this song."
"I've Got You Under My Skin?" he asked, grinning.
"You do know jazz! I thought maybe you were agreeing so we'd have more in common."
"Please. I collect old CDs and LPs."
"Ah, a real aficionado then. So tell me, which is the best version?"
"Frank Sinatra, without a question."
"Boo! Come on, Ella Fitzgerald is objectively better," she challenged.
"Frank Sinatra's is the definitive version. Every other version out there is copping to his."
"We'll just have to agree to disagree then, won't we?"
"Yeah, I don't know," he teased. "I don't know if I can be seen with someone who doesn't love Sinatra."
"Who said I didn't love him? I just like Ella's arrangement better." She flicked her straw at him, lips twitching against a smile.
"I might have to take this as a challenge," he told her.
"Best of luck." She paused for a moment, watching the saxophonist coax the melody to life with steady, experienced fingers, eyes closed against the world. "I used to try and figure out the lyrics when I was a kid. I mean, 'I've got you under my skin' sounds kind of terrifying to a literal-minded child, you know?"
"Oh, god," he choked. "Your poor mother. Constantly guarding against colloquialisms."
"It's true; she had to! This song, though; it was so mysterious. Like a secret language that I had to be older to understand. 'I've got you under my skin. I've got you deep in the heart of me. So deep in my heart that you're really a part of me. I've got you under my skin.' I used to sit and listen so hard that my ears would ring when the track stopped. Something about it resonated on a level deeper than understanding, if that makes any sense at all."
"I think it does."
She smiled distantly and watched the musicians. "I understand it now."
He didn't speak for a moment, thrilled by what she said and what was still left unspoken, resonating between them like another kind of music. "Come on," he said, standing suddenly.
"Come dance with me."
"You know I can't dance," she said, eyebrows arching.
"This is easy, I promise. And nice. Just trust me."
And he saw that she did; he saw it in her eyes like a precious stone, a thing to be guarded. He took her hand and led her to the dance floor, where other couples already spun in self-concerned orbits, buzzing pairs of isolated dreamers. He wrapped his arm around her waist and took her right hand in his own, and pressed together they revolved slowly, back and forth, swaying in time with the music.
"This is dancing?"
"I told you it's nice."
He spun her gently so that her dress fanned out and he saw her smile, a flash of it like the streaking of flame. The sax crooned in a sound so much like singing, and together they danced in the wake of it. He felt the curve of her spine, a bit of sweat from the heat of the club, the firmness of her hands in his. He felt the lines of her as dearly as he knew his own.
She looked up at him then, and he saw worry there, but also a bit of acceptance. It softened into something else, something dazzling. "I love you, Kaidan," she said. "You know that, don't you?"
He did know, though she'd never said it aloud before. He brought his lips to hers and they kissed in that dingy jazz club, spinning and spinning further away until they were the only ones that remained; dancing alone save for the persistence of the music that would not leave them, not in this enchanted place.
He would revisit that memory every night for two years and sixteen days. As if somehow he could have forgotten what he lost, his dreams would delight in reminding him.
Shepard nursed a cup of hot chocolate, watching the sun dip below the horizon. Outside, it began to snow, small flakes that twisted lazily in the chill air before dissolving on the ground.
She ran her free hand over the pronounced curve of her belly, the life within. Less than two weeks to go, her doctor had said. The baby was healthy, though she had been warned that there was a slim chance it could come at any day now and she needed to be ready. She kept a half-packed knapsack by the door, filled with a change of clothes, toiletries, and some music.
Jack was due at her apartment any minute now. She'd promised to bring a giant bag of awful burgers and some beer (for her, of course – Shepard drank sparkling juice). Her students had been coming along nicely, she claimed; some of them almost ready for active duty. She waved away entreaties, but Shepard could see she genuinely cared for every one of her students. She saw part of herself in them.
There was a rumbling over the darkened horizon; not a storm but the growl of a dreadnaught overhead. They came and went all hours of the night, now; she imagined even if she was sleeping well, they would have kept her awake.
She had an odd feeling as she watched the cold jut of the mountains from beyond her window. It was a prickling sensation at the back of her neck, the small hairs there rising as if she'd heard a shuddering sound. It was the sensation of anticipation, of fear; she felt as if she stood on the edge of a precipice, teetering, moments away from plummeting headlong.
It was the sensation of deceptive calm, a breath away from shattering.
"Station in sight. Prepare for decompression," Joker said over the comm, his voice breaking in the static.
Kaidan checked his weapons again, the seals on his helmet, and nodded to Garrus and Tali. "Stay close to me and assume hostiles," he told them.
"You got it," Garrus said. Tali only nodded.
The Normandy's hatch hissed as it opened and they stepped into the landing dock. He immediately noticed the lack of gravity, the odd sensation of stretching. "Grav boots," he commanded, and behind him they followed suit.
The station door was blasted shut, but Tali made short work of it. Inside the station, the power was low and lights flickered before sputtering out. He switched the light on his rifle, peering into the small band of illumination. A bead of sweat trickled down the line of his back.
"Traynor, can you remote access any records?" he asked.
"Hold on . . . yes, I've got access."
"Can you tell me what this station supplied?"
"Small freighters, mostly. Independent operations. I see no official logs or records for several months."
"About the time of the end of the war?"
"I think so."
They moved deeper into the station, where the lights intermittently pulsed back on, only to go dark once again. There were no bodies, Kaidan noted, nor were there signs of struggle or battle. A chill ran up his neck and he shrugged it away.
"Look!" Tali hissed, pushing ahead of him to a broken mech on the floor. She scanned it with her Omni-tool, it's odd glow reflecting on her helmet. "Deactivated recently," she said.
"A few minutes," she said, turning to look up at him.
He swallowed, the sound of his increasing heartbeat thudding dully in his ears. "Come on."
Even if they hadn't found the mech, he would have known they weren't alone. It was too quiet; instead of the silence of absence, it was the silence of a watchful held breath, of eyes in the dark.
"Here I was, expecting to at least be able to have some of the food. Silly me and my hopes, right?" Jack asked, grinning wickedly.
Shepard wiped her mouth. "I couldn't help it!" she retorted. "I was starving. Serves you right for taking so long in getting your ass over here."
"Yeah, yeah, it's my fault. It's always my fault."
"And she gets it. Congratulations, you are now smart enough to succeed in this grotesque experiment we like to call 'life'. You'll get your certificate in two to six weeks."
Jack smirked. "Speaking of the grotesqueries of life, I hear you're less than two weeks out from the big arrival. Ready, Mama Shep?"
"Yeah, I think so. Are you ready, labor coach?"
Jack shifted in place, distinctly uncomfortable. "As ready as I'll ever be, I think."
"What do you have to worry about?"
"Shepard, I don't know if you've noticed, but birth is horrifying. Not that I'm squeamish or anything, but it's horror movie fare to have something bursting its way out of your body in a river of blood, causing terrific and immense pain."
"I would have thought you'd love horror movies," Shepard grinned. "Seems to cling pretty closely to your sensibilities."
"Yeah, no," Jack said, shuddering. "Eugh. Change the subject or I'm leaving."
"All right, all right. But Jack?"
Shepard smiled at her friend, curled on the other end of the couch, hugging her knees. "I'm glad you're here. I'm glad you're . . . you're helping me with this."
"Yeah, well . . . I couldn't leave you to it all alone, you know? Cheerleader would have done it if she wasn't off planet so much, but you'd probably have to pay Zaeed just to get him in the hospital."
"I wouldn't want him to see me in such a compromising position, anyways."
"Compromising, right." Jack shuddered again. "I'm just going to stay up by your head, if that's all right with you. Help you breathe and shit."
"That's all I'd ask."
"Well, then . . . good. Good." She attempted a smile then, though it faltered. Shepard was surprised to see how insecure she seemed, as if expecting some kind of rejection. "Shepard?"
Jack didn't respond at first, chewing on her thumbnail. "Never mind."
"Jack, what is it?"
"I swear to god if you laugh, I will punch you out the window."
"I'm not going to laugh! What's bothering you?"
Jack affected strength and toughness almost always, but right this moment Shepard saw a crack in that façade, revealing something very close to vulnerability. "Do you think the kid will like me at all?"
Shepard softened immediately. Jack –tough, swaggering, swearing Jack – fretting like a child afraid that her new sibling will hate her. "Of course it will."
"I mean, I don't care! But . . . I don't know. I'm not good with kids. They're . . . they look right up at you with those big, innocent eyes and it's like they can see all of you, your thoughts and the shit you've done. And it's not so bad being hated by people because people are mostly all shit; who cares if something shitty hates you? But if a kid hates you, you're really worthless. You have nothing to offer."
"Jack . . ."
"Ah, never mind. It's a dumb thought anyway."
Shepard knew enough about her to know that physical comfort and platitudes would have the opposite of the intended effect, so she leaned away. "For what it's worth, I think whatever this baby ends up being, they will think Aunt Jack is the coolest person in the world, and they'll beg to hang out with you because you're fun and you let them watch bad movies and stay up late and eat ice cream for dinner."
"How did you know?" Jack asked, a slow grin spreading over her expressive features.
"I know you," Shepard said. "I like you, so it stands to reason any kid of mine will too."
"Yeah . . . thanks." She looked at the clock on the console, frowning a bit. "I need to head out. I'll see you tomorrow, right?"
"You got it."
"All right. Don't stay up all night watching cartoons, Shepard. I'll know if you do."
"You're no fun."
Jack snorted. "Later," she said as she strode through the front door, the door shuddering in its frame as she slammed it shut.
Shepard watched the door, long after Jack herself had left. She wrapped herself tighter in her blankets and turned up the TV, which was almost like not being completely alone, but she couldn't focus on the sounds and shapes, the vague colors of the story.
She couldn't shake the odd feeling that slowly descended over her, sickly and oppressive like unwelcome heat. The hours stretched long and nothing changed, but she continued to glance at the door every few seconds.
It was the feeling of being watched, she realized. She dug around for her pistol when she heard a sound, so soft she wondered for a moment if she had imagined it.
That was when she saw the shadow.
"Kaidan!" came Tali's voice from around the corner, pitched higher than normal.
He and Garrus were at her side in an instant. Adrenaline spiked through his veins as he processed the situation from many angles. There had been no sound, no gunfire, but still his mind spun with fearful possibilities until she spoke again. "I found the cache," she said, voice trembling.
"Can you get the door open?"
She was already forcing it open with a pulse from her Omni-tool, positively shuddering with nervous anticipation. "Keelah," she muttered over and over again. "Keelah . . ."
Garrus put a bracing hand on her shoulder and she softened into it, steeling herself and gathering comfort from his touch. She had the door open in the next moment and the three of them peered into the cavernous darkness within.
Kaidan couldn't breathe at first. There was a heartbreaking moment where he believed the diversion to the Cerberus base had been a waste. He'd already begun preparing what he'd say to the crew when Garrus made a low sound, one of complete shock.
"What is it?"
He aimed his rifle light in an especially dark direction, and Kaidan clearly saw it the entire wall was lined with filled fuel tanks fitted for small freighters. "Oh my god," he breathed.
"What is it?" Traynor squeaked over the comm.
"There's fuel here," Kaidan said slowly. "More than enough."
He heard screaming and laughing over the comm, so loudly that it buzzed in his ears. "Shut it, you lot!" Traynor tried to say through sobs.
"Traynor, get the acquisition teams prepped and ready. Let's get this aboard and head home," he said, and even his voice was unsteady, trembling a little as he slowly allowed himself to recognize what they had found and what it meant.
He and Garrus fanned out through the rest of the cache, rummaging through supplies for anything they could use while Tali prepped the fuel tanks. Despite his mounting joy, he kept himself breathing steadily, calmly. He pushed himself back to the strange, airless place in his mind, where there was only data, action and reaction.
"Kaidan!" Garrus called. "There are some components I can use to repair the broadcasting array."
"We better get out of here before something goes wrong," Tali joked.
"No kidding," Kaidan muttered. "Gather up what you can and take it back. I'll coordinate the acquisition teams."
Garrus and Tali offered affirmatives before setting about their work, efficiently as they could manage through thrilling nerves. He saw them exchange a small gesture before gathering what they could.
It happened suddenly; the sound of blaster fire shattered the calm like glass. He threw himself into cover, drawing his rifle entirely through force of reaction. He caught a glimpse of a helmet, the light refracting on its visor. One, two . . . four people, all armed, all aggressive.
He was the first to react; he threw a biotic wave in the direction of the assailants. It caught two of them and slammed them into the wall, the crunch of bones deafening. Tali sent out a pulse from her Omni-tool that fried their weapons. They shouted and struggled to switch up, but Garrus was faster; he took aim and dropped the rest of them before they could react.
It was quiet again, save for the sound of their labored breathing. "Ground team to Normandy," Kaidan said quickly. "Hostiles present and dealt with. Wait for my okay before sending in the acquisition team."
Garrus had already vaulted over the boxes toward the bodies, nudging one with the barrel of his gun. "Looks like Cerberus to me," he said casually. "Just a skeleton detail, though. Wonder how long they've been here."
"Are there any more, do you think?" Tali asked him.
"I don't think so. We've been over this place a few times now," Garrus said, but he sounded unsure. "My recommendation is we get the fuel and get the hell out of here."
Kaidan didn't respond at first, narrowing his eyes at the bodies. He had an odd feeling again, though not necessarily related to what they were doing. "Yeah," he said finally. "Let's get going."
They were able to load up the fuel and integrate it into Normandy's systems in little under two hours, which Kaidan considered a small victory. The discovery of the fuel and broadcasting array had done wonders for morale; everyone worked just as they had in those first days after the crash, without thought to themselves, only the goal. They were under way in relatively no time at all.
Yet Kaidan was not assured. He was filled with a resounding impulse to speed their way back to Earth, regardless of the cost.
Shepard crouched behind her couch, pistol in hand. She was not panicked or frightened; she felt disconcertingly like her old self again – powerful and assured in the face of danger. She didn't scream when she heard the glass break or the sound of many boots landing in her bedroom; she took a breath and checked her pistol.
"She's not in here!" someone said, muffled. Wearing a mask.
"Fan out," another ordered. "Keep it quiet."
They struggled with her bedroom door before forcing it open. She had been ready, waiting; she took careful aim and shot the first two before they could react or even breathe. They were dead before they hit the ground.
"Shit!" one of them hissed.
They leaned from cover and fired in her direction indiscriminately, shattering the windows, the TV, some even slamming into the couch. She recoiled, dimly thankful Miranda had chosen such a sturdy model. She took careful aim and shot another when he popped out a heat clip.
"Knock her out before she fucking kills all of us!" she heard one of them growl.
Whoever was left obeyed- they lobbed a grenade in her direction. She tried to scramble away from it, but she was too unwieldy, too slow; it exploded in a puff of smoke. Knock out gas, she thought, holding her breath and scooting away.
She smiled, briefly; the morons had given her an entire room of cover now. She peered through the smoke and shot another two as they tried to file in the room, ducking under a spray of blaster fire just in time.
She was furious, alive; whoever these assholes were, they were messing with her unborn child, and she would see them dead as soon as take another breath. She took cover in the foyer, leaning out to spray them with cover fire.
She'd been warned against using biotics during pregnancy- the element zero already present in her body was enough of a risk to the child, and each time she used the biotics, it sent a dangerous spike through her system. She gritted her teeth; if she'd had access to the biotics, she could have ripped these shitheads apart.
There weren't that many left, she surmised. Only one leaned out of her bedroom, shooting indiscriminately in her direction. She gritted her teeth, waiting for him to empty his clip, her heart thrilling in her chest. He'd popped the clip one moment and slumped to the floor the next, a hole in his skull.
She didn't break cover immediately. She peered out and looked around, cautious. She covered her mouth to keep from breathing in the smoke. It was silent, save for the sound of broken glass raining down on the windowpane.
In that half-second she had let down her guard, she realized her mistake. She spun, too slow, much too slow. "Gotcha," said the last. He brought the butt of his gun down hard on the back of her skull, and she slid into darkness.
"Captain Samantha Shepard has been abducted from her home on Alliance Headquarters, sometime between the hours of 2300 and 0500. The guards posted around her apartment were found dead at 0556 hours this morning, and the authorities were subsequently alerted.
"Closer inspection of Captain Shepard's home reveals sign of desperate struggle. The abductors broke into her home via the bedroom windows, hoping to catch her while sleeping. Our forensic investigators tell us that Shepard was not in her room at the time. She was alerted by the sound and took cover in her living room, dispatching them with only a sidearm as they attempted to break through.
"Six unidentified men were found dead at the scene. Though Shepard was captured, she did not go without a fight.
"If you have any information on the abduction of the Captain, please immediately contact your nearest Alliance representative. Stay tuned for more details as they develop further."
Shepard slowly opened her eyes, wincing at the uncomfortable brightness. Her skull throbbed mercilessly and she swallowed a wave of nausea, biting her lip so hard that it bled.
She quickly assessed her physical situation, in much the way she had been trained. Her arms were tied behind her back. She tugged at the binding; tied to the chair she sat on, also. Her face felt raw, as if she'd been struck many times. There was a lump the size of an egg on the crown of her head. Badly bruised – maybe a concussion –but she'd live.
Whoever had captured her had left her stomach and unborn child alone. She felt incredible relief for that much, though she knew it wasn't indicative of anything.
As her eyes adjusted, she turned her head carefully, attempting to place where she was. Nondescript metal riveted walls. No windows, though there was a mirror. A holocam hovered across the room, its bright eye shining on her. She squinted, turning her face away.
She was being filmed.
"Tell me who you are," a garbled voice on the intercom said. Two way mirror, she realized quickly.
She said nothing, glaring up at the two-way mirror as though the force of her fury could kill whoever was on the other side.
"Tut, tut. If you refuse to cooperate, we will have to give you incentive to do so." The door opened and two soldiers entered the room, heavily armed and armored. Masks obscured their faces.
"Give our guest a proper welcome," the voice on the comm said.
One of the soldiers drew his gun, inspecting it cursorily. Without warning, he whipped her with the gun so hard that her head snapped to the side, her neck cracking from the force of it. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth.
"Now. Tell me who you are."
"You already know who I am," she spat, blood dribbling down her chin.
The soldier didn't bother with his gun this time; he slammed his fist into her face so hard that she felt her nose break.
"Don't be coy," said the voice.
She shook her head quickly, to orient herself. "My name is Captain Shepard," she said.
"Shepard, do you know why we have brought you here?"
"You're cowards," she hissed.
Another blow to the face.
"We've brought you here since the Alliance refuses to listen to our demands. The lives of their citizens apparently meant little enough, so we decided we would deprive them of their idol instead."
"Ah," she said. "The terrorists. No matter what you threaten or take, the Alliance won't give into your demands."
The first guard smashed her across the face with his pistol again. Her vision blurred, but she desperately clung to consciousness.
"An interesting notion," said the voice. "I think the Alliance will be more interested in our demands when it is you who is threatened. The savior of the galaxy, the Hero of the Reaper Wars. They couldn't afford to lose you."
"You're wrong," Shepard said, spitting out a mouthful of blood. "Keep me alive, I'm a figurehead. Kill me, I'm a martyr. I serve equally well in either capacity."
The voice was sounded decidedly cooler now. "You're bluffing, Captain Shepard. You'd very much prefer to stay alive because of what you're carrying."
"Oh, absolutely," Shepard said, biting down her anger, clenching her shaking hands. "I would prefer my child lives. But I am no bargaining chip, not one that will serve you any better than the threat of bombed out polling centers and rallies. You want the Alliance to fear you, fear for the loss of me? They won't."
"Care to explain?" said the voice.
"We've fought and destroyed Reapers," Shepard hissed. "A thing designed for one purpose only; destruction. And we defeated them. What are you compared to Reapers? A pathetic gathering of veterans and mercenaries, with your small goals and laughable tactics." She laughed, her pulse pounding in her ears. "Pathetic."
The voice said nothing for a long moment, and the two soldiers flanking her shifted uncomfortably. She spat out another mouthful of blood, staining the floor in a mottled arc. She waited, slow realization dawning. "This is airing live, isn't it?" she called. "The galaxy is listening to every word we say."
"You're wrong, Shepard!"
"Listen to him! Try and find a way to spin this in your favor, you cowards!" she shouted. Anger made her reckless; fury curdled her blood. She needed to keep them distracted just a moment longer.
"That is enough! To all false leaders and traitors of the Alliance; we have your savior and hero. If you want to see her alive again, you will dissolve the Alliance, disband the elections, and allow a new government to form, one of the people, by the people-"
"Admiral Hackett, do not send ANYONE for me," Shepard shouted over the voice. "Alliance personnel, stand down. These filth are not even worth the thermal clips it would take to end their miserable lives!"
"—we demand an immediate demotion of all ranking military personal who presided over the most catastrophic losses in human history—"
"Do not let these cowards disparage those who willingly gave their lives for the sake of us all! Ignore them, and you've denied them their power!"
"ENOUGH!" shouted the voice, so loudly it distorted on the comm. "You two, silence this miserable bitch!"
Her furious ranting had bought her the time she needed; she was ready. Fury and adrenaline pounded through her veins, fury at these cowards who would threaten her unborn child and the men and women of the Alliance. Suddenly, she didn't feel cumbersome or weak any longer. She felt like herself, strong and vital and alive.
While the voice had ranted impotently, she had undone the bindings behind her back, waiting for the right moment to strike. She chose now.
She lunged, making her hand a blade and slamming it into the first soldier's throat. While he choked, she grabbed his gun and blew the other away before he could react. She shot the choking soldier twice, three times.
"STOP!" shouted the voice. "Stop her!"
She looked into the camera, her hand tightening over the barrel of the gun. She stared calmly into its bright, all seeing eye and took careful aim before obliterating it with a single shot.
Since the success at the Cerberus cache hours ago, the mood on the Normandy had become cautiously optimistic. The crew was too battered to believe they were home free just yet – not after everything that had happened to them in the last months – but for the most part they carried out their tasks promptly and to the best of their abilities. There was laughter and idle conversation again, though never above a whispered pitch, as if afraid being too loud would invite disaster once again.
Kaidan was unable to join in their optimism. Since the raid on the Cerberus base, he'd been filled with sickening anxiety, the source for which he was unable to completely determine. He guessed that Shepard was close to giving birth now- considering the months that had passed since her announcement. Only a few weeks, according to his math.
And yet, there was something else, too- a vague feeling of danger. He had combed the extranet whenever it was available for news. There was nothing out of the ordinary; pictures of her shopping, speaking to a crowds on the importance of voting, usually flanked by a heavily tattooed woman, a hard-bitten old mercenary, and one of the most immaculate looking women he'd ever seen.
He saw logically nothing was amiss, but it did nothing to assuage his anxiety.
There was a brief scuffle over the intercom and Joker's voice filled his cabin. "Shit . . . holy shit! Major, get down here!"
"What is it, Joker?"
"You're not going to believe this . . ." Joker breathed. "Just get down here!"
Kaidan took the lift down to the CIC, rubbing the beginnings of a migraine pulsing in his temple. He was fast when he wanted to be, but not fast enough; Joker was bouncing impatiently in his seat. "Do you see that?" he asked as Kaidan entered the cockpit.
It had been many months, but Kaidan knew a mass relay when he saw one. "Shit . . ." he breathed.
"They've repaired them!" Joker said, craning around, and this was the first time Kaidan saw a real smile on Joker's face in months. "You know this relay connects to the Charon relay?"
"You're kidding me."
"Not on your life! "
"You bet your ass 'holy shit', Major! We made it!" Joker shouted, grinning. "We're almost home!"
"Hold on, Joker. We can't just charge into the relay," Kaidan said, holding his hands out. "We need to know what we're getting into first."
"Right . . . right. Tests and whatever. It's cool. Just hope you're not going to pass this by."
"I don't think I will," Kaidan said, watching the spinning relay. "But we've come too far to be reckless now."
"Yeah. Well, go tell the crew, Major."
It took half a moment, but slowly he felt real hope flood his senses, almost overwhelming in its intensity. It was surreal. They'd been stranded for months, slowly limping their way home through the unending darkness of space, and now it was almost over. It was as if they stood on the threshold of home, their feet planted firmly on the doormat, hand raised to knock.
He let out a shuddering breath. His Shepard . . . his child! He would be there in time, he realized. He would be there for her when it was born. He still had a few weeks to spare! A few weeks of caring for her, lavishing her, telling her a thousand times that he loved her more than anything. Kissing her for every minute he'd been gone. He felt so hopelessly happy that he couldn't speak for a moment, staring at the bustling CIC, the crew going about their business as if nothing had changed.
He noticed Traynor, her horrified expression, the inexplicable paling of her dark skin and felt his own happiness vanish like a balloon popped by a pin. "What is it?" he demanded quickly.
She couldn't speak. She gestured lamely to the holoterminal, and what he saw stopped his heart.
They spent the second to last day inside. She'd become oddly melancholy as she watched the bustling of Chicago below their hotel window, the sun embedded in the surface of Lake Michigan like a thousand glistening gems.
"I don't want this to be over," she said softly, and he realized she was ashamed.
"I don't either."
"I mean . . . I don't like knowing this about myself. I don't like knowing that I would gladly let the galaxy go to hell if I could only just stay here with you for the rest of my selfish, horrible life." She leaned her head on the glass, contrite.
He touched her cheek. "You know the nice thing about going back to work, Shepard?"
"We work in the same place," he said gently, kissing her brow.
Suddenly, she threw herself in his arms. "I don't want us to change," she said softly. "I want us to stay like this."
"We're not going to change, Shepard," he said into her hair. "Nothing is going to change the way I feel about you."
"You can't possibly promise that," she said, looking up at him with eyes so stark and raw, it struck him as physical painful. "Who knows what could happen . . . I may get transferred, one of us could be killed. One of us could do something horrible. Would that really not change the way you felt about me?"
"Nothing could," he said simply. "Nothing will."
She relented in his arms, though he knew she was still troubled. "I hope life doesn't make a liar out of you," she said softly, her breath warming his skin.
Adrenaline coursed through her, making her faster than would have been possible otherwise. But because of it, her hands shook. She struggled to pry off the front section of a dead soldier's chestplate, stumbling a little when it finally relented.
Her stomach made wearing armor impossible, she knew. But she wasn't too weak to use this slab of reinforced alloy as a shield.
She spun back toward the door just in time and she was ready; crouching behind the armor plate, she fired four carefully aimed shots, and four soldiers fell dead in the doorway.
She didn't wait for reinforcements. Holding her impromptu shield in front of her stomach, she unsteadily got to her feet and stumbled over the corpses into the hallway.
Her first task- figure out where the hell she was. She was slow, methodical. She kept her pace even, though her entire body was sore and thrumming with furious adrenaline. She found a window and peered out if it quickly, discerning many things at once. She was on a base, not a station. Her first thought was one of the bases on Luna when she saw the familiar red planet beckon in the distance. One of Mars' moons then; it didn't matter which one.
Her second task- find a shuttle and get the hell out. She was aware this task might prove more difficult. Grasping the armor plate tightly, she resumed her progress when the voice screeched overhead, furious- "SHEPARD IS LOOSE. DO NOT LET HER ESCAPE. DO NOT KILL HER!"
She almost laughed aloud. If this man was so desperate to capture her alive, he was giving away his advantage. She was a heavy, cumbersome pregnant woman – hardly at her peak combat efficiency – and if they refused to engage her with everything they had, she would make easy work of them.
The thought amused her; a pregnant woman, decimating a terrorist base.
Adrenaline made her fast, cunning. She heard every footstep as if each sounded against her ear. Time slowed. She was a fine marksman at most times, but now her accuracy was unrivaled. Her own well-being was irrelevant. She was hounded, driven to extreme lengths by the fear she felt for her child, protected by that impenetrable slab of armor alloy.
Two soldiers tried to flank her and she blew them away easily, blood spattering the wall behind them. They tried to subdue her with gas, but that only made her angrier; she charged out of the cloud with her pistol blazing, her shield held tightly against her stomach. There had been no more to attempt anything else by the time she had finished.
It was close quarters, and they had given her the advantage; they refused to engage her with the same intensity that she engaged them. So she made short work of them all.
A klaxon sound broke through her icy focus. An alarm, she noted quickly, coming from what she hoped was the shuttle bay.
"INTRUDERS!" she heard someone scream, but it was quickly cut off by the sound of gunfire and . . . biotics? She heard the unmistakable pulse of a biotic detonation, and somewhere in her gut she knew.
She hurried down the hallway toward the sound of the disturbance, dispatching any soldiers in her way. Two there, three here. She was bloodied and battered and bruised, but she felt alive, better than she had in weeks, months even!
She realized she was at her best when fighting for something more than her own life.
Stepping awkwardly over a pile of corpses, she broke into the shuttle bay and what she saw nearly broke her out of her focus; it was Jack, Miranda, and Zaeed. Somehow, they had found her.
"There she is!" Miranda called, sending a soldier flying across the room.
"Shepard!" Jack screamed, her face almost unrecognizable from the expression of feral terror that twisted her features. "Get the fuck over here!"
Shepard shot a soldier who had been about to flank her and smashed another across the face with her makeshift shield before stepping gracelessly over their corpses. She hurried to the three of them, her heart shuddering in her chest.
Jack sent a clustered group of soldiers flying with a biotic shockwave before slamming them with a pulse; the detonation shook the foundation of the base, leveling crates and other detritus. The three of them clustered around Shepard, but she wasn't some meek damsel in distress; she was a damn surgeon with her pistol, and these cowards would know it.
She'd never seen Jack like this, not even in the Collector base, when she held a barrier through an onslaught of the swarms. She hurled biotic projectiles in every direction without remorse. She was nearly feral, screaming the force of her rage. Miranda and Zaeed acquitted themselves well, but they paled in the face of Jack's furious display.
Finally, all was relatively quiet, save for the sound of Shepard's heavy breathing and the furious thudding of her pulse in her ears.
"Jesus, Shepard. Your face is a mess," Miranda breathed, moving to her side to help. Jack's fury and concern seemed to go beyond words; she only stared at Shepard with blazing eyes.
Shepard blinked, wiping some of the blood away. "It's fine for now," she lied. Truthfully, now that the blaze of battle had passed, her head felt like a beaten drum, ringing and throbbing. If she didn't have a concussion before, she definitely had one now.
Zaeed was next to speak. He rested the butt of his rifle on his hip, smirking down at her. "Nicely done, Shepard."
She grinned, holding a shaking hand to her belly. "I still got it."
"Goddamn right, you do." He squinted closer at her. "You using an armor plate as a shield?"
She shrugged. "It was that or the chair."
His guffaws bounced off the high ceiling. "Too bad they don't make more like you, Shepard. These two thought they'd have to drag you broken and bleeding back home."
"Really?" she looked up at Jack and Miranda, who had the grace to appear somewhat sheepish. "I may be pregnant, but I'm still myself."
"I'll never doubt you again," Miranda said breathlessly.
Jack, however, was not appeased. "Let's all slap each other on the back when we're out of the fucking terrorist base, all right?" she hissed.
"Keep your shirt on," Zaeed growled. He hit the hatch on the shuttle they had rode in on when the bay doors groaned, the sound of metal scraping on metal. They watched in dismay as they thundered shut.
"Never easy, is it?" Shepard said. "I bet you anything the override is with that bastard screaming on the intercom."
"I'd guess you're right," Zaeed said, gesturing toward the hallway she'd come from. "Shall we?"
"Oh, no. You're going to sit in the shuttle and wait for us to sort it out," Jack said, brows a straight line over furious eyes.
"No, I'm not," Shepard said calmly. "Think about it. What happens if more come in while you're off finding the override? It makes more sense for us to stay together."
Shepard made perfect sense and Jack knew it. She didn't like it much, but she mashed her lips together tightly and nodded, and with that the four of them set out into the base, searching quickly for the override.
"Christ, Shepard," Miranda breathed. "You cut through most of them."
"I didn't even really notice," she said quietly. "I just . . . adrenaline, you know? They started talking about . . . they scared me. I thought they were going to hurt the baby."
"That's what everyone thought," Jack spat. "Why do you think we tracked your ass here?"
"Hackett staying out of it?" she wondered.
"Officially, yeah," Zaeed said. "Unofficially, well. Who do you think sent us?"
Shepard grinned; clever old bastard. "How'd you find me?"
"These aren't the brightest bunch of terrorists," Zaeed said conversationally, popping a heat clip out of his rifle. "Started broadcasting that live footage to whatever buoys in range without bothering to scramble the source of the signal. Morons."
"You two can shut up now," Jack hissed. "Let's just find the override and get the fuck out of here."
They fell into silence as they made their way through the hallways and passages of the base. Miranda was right- most of the terrorists on site had already fallen to Shepard's initial push. She hadn't kept tabs over who she'd killed and disarmed as she had made her way to the shuttle bay. She'd been furious and focused, guarding her child like a wounded animal protects its young.
All paths in the base led to a control room at the top. They hadn't run into anyone on their way, and Shepard half wondered if perhaps the leader had been killed or fled in the onslaught. But when they forced open the door, they found him hiding behind his desk, He jerked further behind it and launched a flurry of blaster fire in their direction, forcing them to take cover.
"Get away!" he hissed. "I'll kill you! I will!"
"Put the gun down, you crazy bastard," Zaeed growled.
Shepard held out a hand to Zaeed, motioning him to be quiet. She shifted closer to the edge of the doorway, gun held at the ready. "You're a veteran, aren't you?" she asked on a wild hunch.
"Not a veteran," the man hissed. "A survivor."
"Of the Reaper war, right?" Shepard asked calmly, carefully. "Why are you doing this, survivor?"
"Because of you!" the man spat venomously, shuddering with fury. "We waited for you, Shepard! Every day they said you were coming with the armies. You were coming to take Earth back! And we believed you. We fought for you! But you never came. . . you never came."
"I did," Shepard said. "The final battle, weren't you there? We struck at the Reapers with the Crucible and defeated them once and for all."
"For what?" the man shouted at her, spittle flecking his lips. "What was left, Shepard? Every man, woman and child I knew dead. Friends- dead. Family- dead. Wife . . . wife dead. Because of you. Because of the Alliance! And you come in when everyone is gone and save the day, and your filthy Alliance tries to pick up right where it left off. Like you had done all the fighting at home, like you deserved to start over!"
"We all lost something, survivor," Shepard said softly. "No one got out of this war without wounds."
"What did you lose, big Alliance hero?" the man scoffed. "Laid up in your cushy Alliance apartment, stewing with some other big Alliance hero's spawn, like a whore. What did you lose that you didn't get right back?"
Jack hissed under her breath; the man was deranged, beyond reasoning with. Shepard sighed heavily. "More than you know."
"Shut up! I won't let you take me alive, not while my true brothers and sisters still need me to lead the way toward a new Alliance . . . a better Alliance."
It all happened suddenly, in the span of a few heartbeats. Shepard shifted on sore feet and the man saw her; he fired wildly at the door, spraying blaster fire from cover like a man possessed. She vaguely felt something blast through her shoulder as she leaned over and took careful aim; though she felt pain and remorse, she did not allow either to affect her. She fired once, twice, and the man slumped to the ground, dead.
"What the fuck did you do that for?" Jack rounded on her. "You . . . you're hit! Do you ever think, Shepard?" She grabbed her roughly, angling for a closer look at the wound.
She let out a shaking breath. "I miscalculated."
"You have a fucking hero complex, you know that?"
"Don't apologize to me," Jack said sharply. "Apologize to your kid. What if he'd aimed a little lower, huh? What if that armor plate didn't hold up? Then what?"
Shepard cradled her stomach reflexively, taken off guard. She'd done this for her child, though as she watched Jack's expressive face cloud over in temper and fierce concern, she realized she had been reckless. She was not invincible. Adrenaline and experience didn't make her invulnerable. The crashing weight of the last hour flooded her and she began to shake as the stupid things she'd done to survive sunk in. "God," she whispered.
"Just hit the override and let's get the fuck out of here," Jack said, pulling Shepard away from the door.
Zaeed obeyed, ducking in the control room and poking around the console for a moment before striding out again. Below them somewhere, they heard the lock on the shuttle doors disengage, a shuddering scraping sound.
It did not take them long to reach the shuttle again. Miranda and Zaeed jumped into the front, firing up the engine and finalizing the launch vector. In front of them, the shuttle bay doors scraped against its metal frame as it slowly opened. They were in the air a moment later, Mars and its moons slowly disappearing behind them.
Jack sat in the back with her, applying medigel with her Omni-tool, her lips pressed together in a hard, straight line. Shepard had been about to apologize again when she gasped, her hand flying to her belly and the sudden, sharp pain there.
"It's just a blaster burn," Jack said in what she thought was a soothing voice. "Passed right through, didn't even bleed much. What are you whining for?"
"It's – enh! It's not that!" Shepard gasped. "Oh god -"
Jack's eyes slowly went wide as saucers, the whites of them almost seeming to glow in the odd light of the shuttle. "Shepard?" she asked her, grabbing her shoulders. "What is it?"
Shepard curled around another lash of pain, a low moan escaping from behind her lips.
"Shit . . . shit, shit shit! SHIT!"
"What the hell is going on back there?" Zaeed shouted.
"Shepard's going into labor!" Jack screamed at him.
"You gotta be kidding me."
"Do I sound like I'm kidding, you old asshole? Get us to the Alliance HQ Hospital!"
Miranda was talking under their shouting, squeezing Shepard's hand as the shuttle rocked around them. "You're going to be okay, Shepard," she said over and over. "You're going to be fine. We'll get you there in time."
"It's nothing," Shepard tried to say. "It's a false alarm. They told me this could happen."
"I'm not going to wait around to see if it's nothing, Shepard," Jack told her. "Hang on."
Shepard pulled away, curling around her belly. This was all wrong, she thought desperately. She'd spend so long playing as if she had all the time in the world, when in reality the deadline had snuck closer and closer. The child in her was rebelling; it no longer wanted to wait for Kaidan. It was ready now.
But she wasn't ready. She wouldn't ever be ready. She was possibly hours away from being a mother and Kaidan was still nowhere to be found. She begged the child in her to wait a little longer, but it ignored her.
It wasn't supposed to be like this! She was stubborn by nature, and in all things before this moment, her stubbornness had given her what she wanted and needed. It was heartbreaking to have this – the most important moment of her life – completely and utterly outside of her control.
She thought of Kaidan, who she'd always believed was still out there. Desperately, stubbornly; she'd held onto the delusional hope that he was making his way home. But she was wrong. She'd deluded herself, and now she was forced to stare the consequences of her willful self-deception in the face.
She was having Kaidan's child now. And he wasn't coming.
"No," Shepard whispered, tears stinging her eyes. The fury was back, rage and denial rolling hot through her veins, singing through her body like a live wire. "NO!"
"Breaking news: Captain Samantha Shepard has been recovered from the terrorists who abducted her earlier today. I've received reports that an Alliance strike team infiltrated the base to find Shepard holding her own, using stolen and improvised weapons to dispatch the terrorists.
"En route to Earth, we received word that Shepard has gone into labor and is having her child one week early. She's been rushed to the Alliance HQ Hospital in Vancouver, and is awaiting further care.
"We will update this report as we gather new information. Stay tuned."
The Normandy was completely silent; even the rumble of the engine through the floors had stopped. It took Kaidan several moments to completely process the information he'd just seen on the terminal. The impassive voice of the reporter was tonally dissonant; in his mind, relaying such dire and disastrous news warranted shouting, perhaps, or weeping.
"How old is that report, Specialist?" Kaidan asked, and his voice sounded oddly inflectionless to his ears, as if coming from a great distance.
"Only- only an hour old, sir," she said, trembling.
He had already set off in the direction of the cockpit, the crew leaping out of his way as he passed. Joker turned to face him, his features resolute, as if he already knew exactly what Kaidan was going to say.
"Take us through that relay, Joker," Kaidan said, hands clenching to fists. "And get us the hell to Earth."
Kaidan was not an impulsive man, but he was decisive. When he came to a conclusion he stuck to it staunchly. When he came to a realization, it was all he could do not to affirm it to the entire world, shouting it from the rooftops like a very measured madman.
On the last day of their leave, he was careful not to alert Shepard that anything was out of the ordinary. While she slept, he slipped out, leaving her a note telling her he'd gone to pick up a few things. But instead of heading to the market, he took a cab to Michigan Avenue and stepped into Tiffany and Co.
Ordinarily, he would have been nervous in such a place. He wasn't rich, not in the sense most were. He was careful with money and saved most of what he earned, but even so nearly all of the pieces in the store were well outside his means.
Also, they were for women who wore dresses every day and cooed over glittering things. Not that there was anything wrong with women like that, but Shepard was decidedly not like them. If they were flowers, Shepard was a sprig of holly, perhaps, or a thorny rose. Beautiful but tough. Strong. Irresistible.
"Can I help you find something, sir?" said the clerk, smiling in a manner that seemed false to Kaidan.
"I'll let you know," he replied.
And after a moment, he found it; exactly what he was looking for to the letter. It was a silver band inlaid with swirling designs and small diamonds, alternating textured and smooth, so that it gave the appearance of braiding.
He flagged the clerk over. "I'd like to buy this ring."
Shepard resisted labor. She fought it like she'd once fought a krogan, smashing her head into its skull plate. She'd had an awful headache for days after, but she'd persisted. She'd persevered. She was not used to her persistence coming to nothing.
It had taken much longer to reach Earth than Shepard expected, though she dimly suspected the pain of her increasing contractions and the beating she'd endured at the hands of the terrorists toyed with how she felt time. It lurched forward violently only to shudder to a stop; if time was personified, Shepard imagined it maliciously grinning with bared teeth.
The shuttle rattled around them as they entered Earth's atmosphere, jostling her already aching head and throbbing stomach. A moan escaped behind her clenched teeth, and it was not lost on Jack.
"For fuck's sake, Zaeed, can you not fly like a drunken shithead?" she snarled.
"You want to get up here and show me how it's done?" he snapped. "Shut the hell up and let me land this thing."
"Hold on, Shepard," Miranda was saying. "Hold on."
She didn't want to hold on. She wanted to fight.
She tried begging. Not yet, little bean. Please, not yet. Please . . .
She tried getting angry. I am in charge here, and I say NO.
She tried bargaining. Anything you want, I'll give if you just wait. I'll give you anything regardless. Just do this for me.
It was all to no avail. She knew in her gut that this was no false alarm. This baby was coming whether she liked it or not.
She didn't like it. Each contraction was like a lance, pulling her tight, a thousand times worse than she had expected, than she had felt in her life. She shuddered as another one rolled through her, worse than the one before, lasting for much longer than seemed possible.
"How far apart are they coming?" Miranda asked Jack.
"Hold on, Shepard," she kept saying, over and over. Shepard wondered if she was losing grasp on reality or if everyone around her really did keep repeating themselves.
"Alliance HQ Hospice, we've got Captain Shepard aboard," Zaeed spoke into the comm. "She's in labor and beat up pretty bad."
"Acknowledged. Landing pad is prepped and ready for you."
The shuttle slowed jerkily before coming to a rattling stop, jostling Shepard's bones. The shuttle door flew open and she immediately saw a flock of nurses approaching with a wheelchair, half jogging across the tarmac.
Jack helped her up because it had become difficult to stand, and they transferred her into the wheelchair, speeding her across the tarmac and into the hospital. She vaguely saw the sun setting over the horizon before the doors whooshed shut in front of her.
One of the nurses dipped in and out of her line of sight, fluttering like a bird. "She probably has a concussion," she said to her fellows. "We need to get her cleaned up."
"How far apart are the contractions?" one of the other nurses was asking Jack.
"Seven minutes, last I checked. They're hurting her pretty bad, though."
"She needs to calm down. Panic and anxiety make them worse," the nurse said. "Shepard? You're going to be just fine. You made it."
She shook her head, pushing their loud, oppressive voices away. It wasn't going to be just fine. She was alone. Though some small analytical part of her mind accused herself as being ridiculous, she felt betrayed by the baby who insisted on coming early and by Kaidan, who had promised to be here nine months ago.
She panicked. She wasn't ready. What were these last nine months spent doing, anyway? Clinging to some childish fantasy that her lover would return just because she wanted him to. It was spent failing to handle this terrorist situation, which had spiraled out of control and possibly caused her early labor. It was spent preparing her home for three, when two was more likely.
"Shepard, stay with me," Jack was saying, desperate.
She shook her ringing head, tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes. "No," she whispered.
The Normandy tore through the relay into the Sol system as if chased by the hounds of hell. Kaidan would catch himself gasping for air at random intervals, and he realized he was holding his breath. He couldn't do anything but cling to the back of Joker's seat and watch the familiar landmarks of Sol fly past them.
"Can't you go faster?" he hissed.
"I'm going as fast as I can," Joker replied in a patient voice, one Kaidan hardly deserved.
He knew logically he no longer could justify calling himself a Systems Alliance officer considering his actions. Tearing through a relay without conducting the requisite tests, on a ship with documented structural weaknesses and past failures was a violation of so many codes of conduct, he imagined in normal circumstances they would strip him of his rank as soon as his feet touched earth.
He couldn't bring himself to care. They were close, now. Jupiter was behind them and then a few minutes later Mars. His hand clenched into a desperate fist on the back of Joker's chair as the tiny blue dot in front of them grew larger and larger until Earth was suspended before them, as large and comforting and beautiful as anything he'd ever seen.
"My god," Joker breathed. "Like nothing happened at all. . . ."
"Someone please tell me you got the broadcasting array working!" Kaidan shouted into the intercom as they entered atmosphere. "Otherwise this is going to be a really violent welcome."
"It's ready," Garrus shouted back. "Just barely."
Kaidan didn't thank Garrus, as he knew he should have. He leaned down to the comm, clutching it so tightly in one hard fist that he felt his knuckles crack. "Alliance control, this is SSV Normandy requesting emergency clearance for landing."
Static for six seconds too long, and then a bewildered voice. "SSV Normandy? Uh- please submit priority clearance codes."
"For the love of god, we've been marooned for the last nine months- we don't know the codes!" Kaidan shouted. "We're requesting emergency clearance for landing because this is an emergency!"
"What is your name, sir?" said the voice on the comm.
"Major Kaidan Alenko."
"I'm sorry, I can't grant clearance without the codes-"
"Let me make myself plain; if you do not authorize our landing, we will land this prototype Alliance vessel somewhere unauthorized," Kaidan said, his voice low and deadly.
"Kaidan, what are you doing?" Joker hissed through clenched teeth. "You're going to get us shot out of the sky!"
"I repeat, I cannot grant clearance without the codes. If you persist in your current trajectory, defensive actions will be taken."
"You- you- moron!" Kaidan shouted, a migraine blasting in his temple. "We were crashed and stranded. We've had to limp home using FTL for months. We have only just re-entered Alliance space. We have only just repaired our broadcasting array. We have not been in a position to keep current on the clearance codes!"
"Sir, I repeat, break off your current trajectory or-"
"Lieutenant, STAND DOWN!" another voice on the comm cut in. "This is Admiral Steven Hackett issuing override 72-6834. Allow this vessel priority clearance at once and prepare a transport to the hospital for Major Alenko immediately."
"Welcome back to Earth, Major. See you groundside," said the Admiral.
Joker let out a shaky breath. "Jesus, Kaidan. I thought they were going to blast us out of the sky."
Kaidan didn't respond to this. He had entered a strange, buzzing place in his mind; not the airless space of calm focus, but a violent place full of desperation and nine months of frustrated love and desire. He would make it in time, he fiercely promised, just as he had that night before the siege on the Illusive Man's base.
No matter what, he'd told her, knowing full well the entire weight of those words, the vastness of that promise.
He watched the Normandy slowly dock, furious and impatient. Had docking procedures always taken so long? Was Joker being slow on purpose? He pressed his shaking fists into his sides and desperately tried to keep himself from shouting.
It felt like an age had passed when the Normandy's hatch door finally opened, revealing the startlingly familiar Alliance base; the same save for a few marked differences here and there, as if the Reapers had been nothing but a dream. Hackett was there to greet him.
"Come with me," he said quickly. No pleasantries were exchanged, for which Kaidan was thankful. He wondered if he'd have been able to bite back shouting at the old Admiral if he'd insisted on small talk.
That night, he took Shepard to Navy Pier. He'd suggested they save it for last so their final memory of Chicago together would be walking through the stalls and exhibits, arm in arm, enjoying the sights and sounds and smells.
It had been the right thing to do, he observed as he watched her. She'd completely forgotten her melancholy from the day before. She was almost childlike as she roamed from stall to stall, delighted with the boisterous atmosphere. He'd never seen such a smile on her face before; lit from within like a candle inside a paper lantern.
He watched her roam, utterly charmed. He couldn't have loved her more in that moment if he tried.
He was nervous. He was not a man blessed with endless reservoirs of confidence and blustering self-regard. He was thoughtful, worried. He mulled over situations. He was staunch and steadfast when he reached a decision about something, but he also deliberated for long stretches of time. Weighing pros and cons, balancing them back and forth like sand on a scale.
He was cautious. But today, he would not be cautious. Today he would be bold, fierce. Worthy of her.
"What do you say we ride the Ferris wheel?" he asked her.
"I don't know," she said, looking up at the towering structure with some apprehension.
"The great Shepard, vanquisher of Saren the rogue Spectre, afraid of a little old Ferris wheel?" he teased.
It was a juvenile taunt, but it worked; he saw the flash of challenge dance in her eyes. "I'm not scared," she insisted. "Just was trying to be considerate of you."
"Well, thank you kindly. Shall we?"
They waited in line and it struck him as mildly hilarious that their roles were suddenly reversed; she waited patiently and he fidgeted, anxious. When it was their turn to get into one of the carts, he slipped the operator a fifty credit note, and the man nodded once.
Shepard resisted. As the contractions became more frequent she fought them with increasing desperation. Jack and the familiar nurses begged her to breathe, to calm down, to let them care for her wounds but she couldn't. They were a portent of future pain; a new child in her arms and its father conspicuously absent.
She should have never allowed herself to believe he would make it. It would have been better if she accepted that he was never coming home, that he had died months ago. Even thinking such a thing sent a wave of pain rolling through her and she curled around it, desperately shunting the thought away.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be! This wasn't their plan- retirement, children. Long years of happiness that they both patently deserved a thousand times. How much had they sacrificed for the Alliance? Weren't they owed that much?
"Shepard, you need to breathe," Jack was saying as one of the nurses washed the blood off her aching face, and Shepard saw that her hands shook.
She couldn't breathe, at least not properly. Her breaths came in inefficient shuddering gasps. She realized she was hyperventilating.
"I'm not ready," she gasped, curling around herself on the hospital bed. "I'm not ready."
"Yes you are," Jack said, grabbing her hand and squeezing it. "You're ready for this, you know you are."
"No," Shepard moaned. "I can't do this without him!"
"Shepard, you are the toughest, craziest fucking asshole in this galaxy. You've killed Reapers and thresher maws and enough Cerberus dicks to fill an entire system. If anyone can do this, you can. You know you can!"
She was sobbing now. "I can't do this alone."
Jack's grabbed either side of Shepard's face with both her hands, holding her closely as if to protect her. "You won't be alone," she said fiercely. "You'll have me and Miranda and Zaeed and an entire galaxy of people who will love this kid just as much as they love you."
Shepard shuddered as another contraction rolled through her, flame and sharp edges. She couldn't get enough air, no matter how desperately she gasped. The weight of all her injuries from the past day brought themselves to bear; her head throbbed, her nose throbbed, her entire body throbbed like the thrumming of some perverse kind of music.
She dimly heard the nurses talking, only clips of phrases that should have made sense. "Contractions are there minutes apart." "Almost fully dilated." She knew all of this, she had prepared. So why did she feel so ridiculously caught off guard? This was an exam, and she was failing. She'd stayed up all night with her delusions instead.
"Dammit, Shepard! You can do this. You know you can," Jack said, shaking with the force of her fervor.
And she did. Finally, she did know. She was Shepard; Spectre, soldier, mother. She was stubborn and strong. She'd borne the fate of the galaxy as an incredible weight and saved it in the end, freed it from the threat of the Reapers.
She could do this. She dug down, beyond her grief, and forced her breathing to become deep and slow. Another contraction roared through her but she was ready for it this time, and instead of fighting against it, she allowed it to wash over her. She accepted the pain.
She was selfish and weak, only human. But there was another side to that dismissal; and it was the side that recognized humanity as capable of feats of strength beyond the flesh. It was the side that knew willpower and steadiness. It knew love.
And that was it at the core; she loved Kaidan, wherever he was. She loved her irascible friend Jack, who was still holding either side of her throbbing face. And she loved their child.
"Stay with me, Jack," she said, and she was gratified to hear the strength in her own voice. Though she'd since been promoted beyond, she was a Commander, even in here.
"I'm not going anywhere, not on your fucking life," Jack told her, grabbing her hands.
"It's time to go, Shepard. Are you ready?" one of the nurses asked her.
Her answer was a guttural yell, bloody as the pain crested to incredible heights, but an affirmation as well.
"Look at that," she breathed, awestruck. The lights of Navy Pier danced on the surface of Lake Michigan, and above them the moon shone in full, a bright eye doubled by its reflection. There was music and laughter all around, and when Kaidan put his arm around her, she rested her head on his shoulder.
"Beautiful," he said, though he no longer looked out to the world.
"I could live in this moment forever," she said softly. "Don't you think?"
"These last weeks are full of moments like those," he said.
"Hah, you're right. Which was your favorite?"
"I can't decide," he told her, laughing.
"You have to have liked one of the others," she insisted. "Was it making love in the museum? The jazz club? That sunset on the beach? Shit, now I can't decide."
"Fine, fine; you win. You're so amazing that all moments spent with you are universally and equally amazing."
As they approached the very top, the Ferris wheel came to a slow halt. Kaidan felt his heart take off, pounding an anxious pulse against his chest. His hands shook. He loved her, yes, but he was also afraid. He wasn't so divorced from himself that he couldn't feel fear of rejection.
But as he watched her dreamy smile, he couldn't hold back the question that had lodged itself in his throat any longer. There was no way out of this , no way to play it safe. He reached inside his jacket, fumbling a bit, and she looked up at him. Perhaps they had spent too much time together, for she already seemed to understand what was going on; her expression wasn't confused or dismayed, but rather stunned.
"What are you doing?" she asked him slowly, and his resolve strengthened. He steadied himself in the endless depths of her eyes.
Hackett seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, for he did not waste time with careful driving. He sped, swerving around cars and honking at the slower witted drivers that had the misfortune of being in their way. Kaidan normally did not like reckless drivers, but in this desperate moment he found he couldn't give a shit.
He would have time to marvel at the rebuilding later, the Alliance Headquarters, the grounds, the lights of Vancouver beckoning them in the distance. Right this moment, his sole focus was the hospital before them.
"I have to say, Major," Hackett said as he skidded to a stop at the hospital entrance. "Your timing is impeccable."
Kaidan took a breath. "If it was, I would have been here nine months ago."
He didn't wait for a reply before sprinting through the hospital doors.
"What are you doing, Kaidan?" she asked him again.
He thought it would be rude ignore her question, considering the alarm that was slowly changing her features. "I'm asking you to marry me."
"Come on, Shepard!" Jack was shouting over her screams. "You can do this! Push like you mean it, you lazy asshole!"
Shepard obeyed, bringing it down to bear through every bit of willpower she possessed. The scream tore out of her with violence she had never imagined possible, not in all her years as a soldier and broker of war.
Kaidan tore through the hospital to the registration desk. A dim part of his mind recognized he was a fearful sight – eyes wide, breathing heavily, hands shaking. He looked more like a madman than a soon to be father. The receptionist seemed to be thinking along the same lines, taking note of his disheveled uniform and his knuckles going white on the desk.
"Samantha Shepard," he demanded desperately. "Where is she?"
"She's in delivery, sir." The receptionist's eyebrows quirked in a definite gesture of skepticism. "Who are you?"
"Major Kaidan Alenko," he said. "I'm – I'm the father."
She flipped through Shepard's file. "Yes, that's right. Do you have any identification?"
He wanted to scream. "No, I don't have identification," he said through clenched teeth. "I literally just returned to Earth after being stranded for nine months."
"That's . . . convenient, isn't it?"
"No," he hissed. "It's increasingly frustrating."
"Sir, this is just procedure. We've had security breaches related to Captain Shepard before." She reached for the intercom. "Hold, please."
Kaidan was not a violent man and he was not prone to bouts of temper, but he had to actively control the urge to break something, possibly one of the knick-knacks on the receptionist's desk.
He was saved again by Hackett, who strode through the hospital doors looking murderous. "What the hell are you doing?" he asked the receptionist.
"Sir- he said he's Major Alenko, he didn't have identification—"
"That's because he IS Major Alenko!" Hackett growled. "Tell him where his child is being born right this damn second!"
She reached for Shepard's file again, shaking. "Fifth floor, room 2B; the delivery ward," she said.
Kaidan was already gone, boarding the elevator, the doors whooshing shut behind him.
Shepard blinked, stunned. "What?"
He was so nervous he was half-afraid he would drop the ring box into the lake due to the shaking of his hands. But he mastered himself, swallowing. "I- I love you," she told her, leaving the ring in his jacket and gathering her hands between his. "I think about these last days and I can't help it; I want more of them. I don't want this to be it. I want what we talked about. Retirement and- and kids. Fighting and serving together, growing old, all of it. I want it with you. And – well, if you want those same things . . . please say you'll marry me."
She was speechless and he feared he'd misread everything; that this had been a dalliance for her, nothing serious, nothing special. That was when he saw the glint of sorrow in her eyes. "Why me?" she whispered.
Shepard lived in a red haze. The ordeal she'd endured countless hours before combined with the physical toll of birth had turned her mind into a foggy place. There was no refuge here, though, no refuge from the pain. She followed commands as they were given – push, Shepard! Breathe, Shepard! Come on, Shepard!
Yes, sir; yes, sir; yes, sir. She would have saluted if she'd had the energy to do so.
"Holy shit," Jack breathed above her, the sound of her voice very far away.
Kaidan endured the decontamination procedures as best he could. He felt ready to fly out of his skin, the faster to be at her side, the sooner to see her with his own eyes, well and alive and with their child. Theirs.
They dressed him in scrubs and commanded he wash his hands for a full minute, and he submitted. "Thousands of years of technological advancement," said a cheerful doctor at his side, ''but nothing beats a good hand washing."
He submitted only because he'd come this far.
He moved closer to the room where she was, where Shepard was. He heard her screams, though they were weakening. He heard the yelling of the tattooed girl, the ministrations of the midwife.
He moved as if in a dream.
"Why me?" Shepard whispered, and he knew it wasn't the complaint of a person confronted with a situation they would have preferred to avoid. It was the genuine, heartfelt question of someone who did not yet know their incredible worth.
"Because I love you," he said simply. "Everything you are. Everything you do and say. I'm – I try to explain the breadth of it and come up short because there are no words. I just know that when I look at you, I see everything I need."
He wasn't nervous now, and his hands were steady as stone. He didn't fumble when he fished out the little black box from his jacket and opened it for her, the ring glinting in the low light.
"Oh my god," Shepard whispered.
"Will you marry me?" he asked her again, presenting her with the ring as it were a physical expression of his regard, as if this immense question and insignificant trinket were all he could do to show the depth of what he'd recognized in himself, the vastness of it.
"Oh my god," Jack breathed, and Shepard felt her hand go slack. She felt Jack pulling away from her, somewhere beyond her ability to tether. She saw an expression of bewilderment on her expressive features, and she would have laughed if it were another time; she'd never seen Jack look such a way.
It was a day for firsts.
She saw her own empty hand reaching toward nothingness, blurring a bit as another wave of pain nearly choked the breath out of her lungs. She gasped, watching her grasping hand reach and reach, and then suddenly there was a different hand holding her down, solid ground to stand on.
She remembered the strength of it, the shape, the pattern of callouses on the palm. It closed around hers and she knew even before she blinked up and saw his face. Just as familiar and beloved as always, just as if she'd seen it only a minute ago and not the interminable span of months, the endless dirge of days.
"Kaidan?" she breathed.
He pushed her sweaty hair off her brow and bent low to press his lips there. She felt him shaking, his hand holding her down, holding her steady. Solid ground to stand on. "It's me," he whispered above her. She thought his eyes seemed oddly bright.
"You made it," she said, though her words cut off as another wash of pain pulled her down, threatened to overwhelm her.
But he held her safe, held her steady. His hand tightened over her own. "Come on," he said. "Let's do this."
And they did. With Kaidan holding one hand and Jack holding the other, she screamed and pushed and cried, and he was right alongside her; he never left her sight. She focused on him – a solid point in a world of shifting color and sound, a steady place in the storm. She never took his eyes away, nor did he.
It was a reunion of all kinds; flesh to flesh, soul to soul. She relished it through the pain, for there was joy too; the sight of him urging her onward, encouraging her, his brown eyes locked deeply on hers. When the time came, she bore down and drew her strength from his beloved hands around her own.
And together, they brought their daughter into the world.
"Will you marry me?" he asked her as the world spun without them. He didn't hear the hooting of the couple below them, who'd had full view of the scene. He didn't hear the cheering of the crowd waiting in line, watching for her answer. He didn't hear them and she didn't either.
They might as well have been alone when she nodded, smiling and trembling, tears spilling down her cheeks. They might as well have been the only two people in the world when they kissed, a seal on that sacred promise old as the age.
It was a long way to resurface.
Shepard had endured many things in her life. She'd been spaced and suffocated in the void, she'd charged a thresher maw, a Reaper on the ground, she'd lain in a puddle of blood while the Citadel shuddered around her, slowly dying. Yet, she would remember giving birth as one of the most difficult things she'd ever done in her battered life.
She opened her eyes, blinking to adjust to the light. She was exhausted in a way she'd never been before, as if she'd run the entire distance around the earth. More than once, now that she thought about it..
The memories were slow to come back to her, but when they did she felt panic choke her heart. For a horrible second, she believed them to be dreams, delirious fancies. She'd conjured what she needed, and now she'd have to view the stark absence in the cold light of day.
And then, she saw him. He was sitting beside her, his arms cradling his head. His breathing was slow, even; she saw new lines crease at his eyes and brow. His hand was still wrapped around her own.
"Kaidan," she breathed. He was no figment of delirium. He was as solid and beautiful as when she'd last seen him, curled naked into her, then streaked with blood and screaming for her not to leave him. He was whole and healthy – a bit tired, and she saw the ordeal he'd suffered had aged him slightly – but alive.
She reached for him without deciding to. She traced the angle of his nose, the lines of jaw, the corner of his eyes. She relished the warm feel of him under her hands, after months of attempting to steal comfort from cold memories.
He stirred as she shifted under his hands. He blinked blearily before focusing on her, and she would forever remember the expression on his face; the depth of love and relief and joy that seemed to go even beyond expression.
"You're alive," she whispered. "I can't believe you're alive."
Kaidan brought her hand to his cheek and held it there. "I would have told you sooner, if I could," he said. He sounded so hoarse, so exhausted, but he smiled at her. How she missed his smile. How she'd feared she'd never see it again.
"Get the hell over here," she commanded, reaching for the front of his shirt and pulling him to her lips. His hands threaded through her dirty hair as she ran hers over the roughness of the stubble on his cheek. She savored the feel of him, the softness of his lips, the warmth of them.
They kissed as if they hadn't in years, and in a manner of speaking, they hadn't.
He broke away first, though his hands continued, as if he struggled to commit her to memory again, as if he still couldn't believe she was here. "God, I don't know what to say," he said. "What are you supposed to do after something like this?"
"Never do something like it again," she said immediately.
He let out a shaky breath. "I think we can agree on that."
She moved to the other side of the bed. "Come here," she said, patting the space beside her.
He looked around, concerned. "Am I allowed?"
"I don't care."
He grinned at that, clambering up on the bed and wrapping his arms around her. She curled into his side and breathed in the familiar scent of him, her hand curling on his chest. They stayed like that for a long while, their breathing falling in sync, learning the feel of the other all over again.
"So," she finally said. "Who goes first?"
"You tell me what the hell took you so long getting back here, or I tell you about these last months?"
He grinned. "We had access to the extranet a few months in the journey. I saw a lot of what you've been up to."
"Why didn't you contact me?" she demanded, craning to glare up at him. The resurfacing of her temper was shocking, violent.
But to his eternal credit, he didn't shy away from her anger. "You know I would have if I could," he said quietly. "I would have talked to you every day, every minute I could get away from my responsibilities."
Her temper faded as she weighed these words as truth. "You're right," she said softly. "I'm sorry, Kaidan."
"Don't be." His lips turned, not quite a smile. "You have a right to be angry."
"At the situation; yes. Not at you." She took his hand. "Tell me what happened."
He took a slow breath, his brows pulling together as he remembered. "When Hackett ordered the retreat, Joker took it to heart. None of us really know how many relays we passed through before the beam that disabled the Reapers caught up with us. We crashed on an uncharted planet."
"Shit," she breathed.
"It took us around two months to get everything repaired and ready to go. We managed to chart our position and figured it would take us another seven months to get home, barring any trouble."
"But there was trouble."
"Of course," he said, and she was startled by the note of bitterness in his voice. "We passed a dead Reaper and a discharge from it blew out our broadcasting array, so when we passed into comm buoy range we weren't able to contact Earth and let them know we were alive. About a month ago four of our fuel tanks exploded and took out more than half our reserves."
"My god," she breathed. "You went through hell."
"Yeah, it was a bad time. We repaired best we were able and then took a risk; we knew we didn't have enough fuel to get home and we didn't have our broadcasting array to call for help, so we diverted to a Cerberus base in range and prayed they had what we needed."
"I'm assuming they did."
"It was a real lucky thing," he said distantly, rubbing his neck. "Only . . . was it a day ago? A few hours? I don't remember. Well, lastly we came upon a relay that connected to the Charon, right about the time we learned what had happened to you and where you were."
She looked up at him as he trailed off, worried. "What's wrong?"
"I- I was reckless," he said. "We didn't test the relay or take the proper precautions considering the reduced structural integrity of the Normandy by that time. I just . . . all I knew was that you were in labor and our – our daughter was coming. I had to get there in time."
"Would it be awful of me to say that I'm glad you did?"
"No," he told her, kissing her brow again. "I'm glad I did too."
"Hackett might give you a stern talking to, though." She smirked.
"Are you kidding? Hackett is the one who got me here in time."
"I'm dead serious!" he insisted. "God, just getting here was an ordeal. First, they wouldn't let us land. We'd been gone for nine damn months so of course we didn't have the landing clearance codes."
She covered her mouth, struggling not to laugh. "No."
"I'm not kidding! Hackett overrides it and drives me to the hospital, and let me tell you; that man does not care if he lives or dies en route. To be fair, I wasn't complaining."
"Hackett has a lead foot? You're making all this up."
"I am not! So I get to the hospital and I'm trying to get the receptionist to tell me where the hell you are and she won't."
"That's not right," she cut in. "I put you in my file. I made damn sure you were in my file."
"Well, I was, but I didn't have identification, so I couldn't prove I was myself. You know. Because we've been gone for nine damn months."
"Oh my god. How did you get in?"
"Hackett storms in and overrides the receptionist."
"What happened next?" she asked him, laughing. "Did they suspect you were caring some rare strain of virus and spend two years inoculating you?"
"Hah. Thankfully no; I scrubbed up and then I was here." He pulled her closer. "Just in time."
"Score it to some madcap music and you've got a comedy of errors on your hands."
He snorted. "I'm glad you think it's funny."
"I do! Oh my god. Our child has the best birth story in the entire world."
"You know, I think you're right."
She fell silent, running her fingers over his lips. "You look a little worse for wear, Kaidan."
"How I've missed your tact and kindness," he said, smirking.
"I'm serious. Have you slept at all in the last nine months?"
He sighed. "I slept enough. I don't know. When I have a goal, I hyper focus. I work until I've reached it."
"I'm sure the crew all have fantastic and depressing stories of you running around at all hours, trying to do everything at once."
He shrugged modestly. "I did my best. I'm no Commander Shepard. Ah- Captain now, I've heard. Congratulations, by the way."
She glanced up at him. "What's this 'I'm no Commander Shepard' business? Since when have you needed to be? You're just as sure and skilled and steady without needing to cop to me."
"I'm glad you think so," he said, but he didn't smile. He ran his fingers over the bandages binding her nose, lightly grazing the bruises on her face. "What happened to you?" he breathed.
She let out a slow breath. "There have been some . . . disgruntled veterans making trouble for the Alliance the last few months. I don't know if it was last night or the night before, but they got me. I broke free, fought my way out, met up with Jack and the others. The leader took a shot at me but I got him before he could do worse. We shuttled back and on the way I went into labor."
"I heard there is footage of your interrogation circulating."
"Yeah, I bet there is. You could probably see it if you wanted."
He shook his head. "I don't know if I could stand to see you getting beat around."
"Well, I got them," she said. "I personally think it was one of my finer moments. Breaking free of my bonds, taking out the guards. I used a chestplate as a shield, since I didn't have armor, you know?"
He stroked her hair, tucking a strand of it behind her ears. "Sounds like you."
She pressed one of his hands to her lips. "I don't know when I last told you I love you, so . . . I love you. God, how I do."
He pulled her closer. "I don't know what was worse; believing I had lost you again or knowing you were alive and pregnant and not being here."
"It's still sinking in, you know? It's still sinking in that's over and you're here and we have a daughter." She looked up at him. "Could I see her now?"
He jumped up and leaned over to kiss her brow, pushing her hair aside. "I'll get her."
Though Kaidan wasn't gone long, she felt the absence of him in a deeply physical way, just as painful as the absence of her daughter; the space at her side gaping like a wound. When he finally returned, she had to catch her breath at the sight of them.
His smile was so earnest, so wide and beautiful that she desperately imprinted it to her memory, so she would never lose it for as long as she lived. Nestled securely in his arms was their daughter. Shepard knew her instantly for the shock of black hair at the top of her little head. She stirred a bit in her swaddling, making sleepy noises, and Shepard couldn't help it; she reached for their baby without consciously deciding to.
Kaidan gently handed her over, placing their daughter in her arms, and Shepard knew what it was to love something instantly. She had worried in those early days that Kaidan and the child would have to divide her love between them, diminishing it in the process. There was no division here; there was growth. It was as if the capacity of her heart doubled the moment she held her daughter.
"Look at her," she breathed. She touched her child's little nose, her little fingers, her tiny lips as shockingly red as blood. "She has your hair!"
Kaidan ran a free hand over his head, ruffling his hair and looking away bashfully. "You know, baby hair falls out and is replaced, right? She could end up having your hair."
"I'll say a prayer that she's spared that much," Shepard grinned.
"Please! You have lovely hair and you know it."
Shepard shook her head. "I can't believe she's real," she said. "I . . . I carried her and she's here! I can't even fathom it. She's ours."
"I was the first one to hold her," Kaidan said, still astounded. "I loved her the moment I saw her."
Shepard bit her trembling lip, tears streaking down her cheeks. "God . . . I wish Mom could have seen her," she whispered. "She would have loved her too, you know? She would have looked down at her and stroked her little head and said exactly the right thing, just like she always did."
Tenderly, Kaidan wiped her tears away with his thumb. "What would be exactly the right thing to say?"
"Something calm and brave, probably; something loving. She would hold her and rock her and just . . . she'd start calling herself grandma. Proudly, you know? Like a badge of honor."
Shepard took a gulping breath, trying not to jostle the baby. "Kaidan, I didn't try to find your parents," she blurted. "Not as hard as I should have. I put their names in a registry and their pictures on the wall, but I was afraid I would find them . . . and have to tell them everything about you being gone. Or I was afraid that I'd find they were dead, and then have to tell you . . ." she broke down completely. "I was a coward. Please forgive me."
He shook his head, climbing up onto the bed beside her and wrapping her in his arms, baby and all. "I didn't expect you to find them," he said. "I wouldn't have wanted that burden on you alone. We can look for them now."
"I don't know," she said brokenly. "These last months are tales of Shepard the chicken shit. I tried keeping our baby a secret at first because I was afraid what people would do. I refused to believe you were dead, because I was afraid of the implications; raising the baby alone, without you, every single day a reminder."
"You're not a chicken shit," he said stoutly. "You're human."
She shook her head. "You're always so willing to forgive me for this kind of thing," she sniffed. "Ugh."
"Listen to me," he said, taking her chin between his thumb and forefinger. "I love you. I don't want to see you beat yourself up for things you wouldn't have been able to change, all right?"
She nodded, gulping a breath. "I'm sorry. I'm kind of a wreck."
"You're not," he argued gently. "You're just like I remember. You have any idea how much I missed you?"
"Not to cop a cliché or anything, but I'm pretty sure I missed you more," she sniffed.
He chuckled. "Right."
She leaned into him and let him stroke her hair, her tears drying on his shirt. In her arms, their daughter stirred a bit, her little fingers grasping the air. She ran her fingers over the baby's little head, the shock of dark hair that already looked so much like Kaidan's. She pressed her lips gently to her little brow, relishing the softness of her skin, the scent of it.
"What should we name her?" she asked after a while. "I- I wanted to wait for you to come home before I thought about names."
He was silent for a moment, fingers gentle. "How about Hannah?" he said finally. "After your mom?"
She knew immediately that it was perfect, but she argued in the interest of being considerate and selfless. "What about naming her after your mom?"
"We can do that for the next one," he said, and his grin struck her as decidedly wicked.
"Already you're thinking about another one?" She went limp in his arms, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. "I need a rest first."
He chuckled. "Yeah, I know," he said, kissing her brow. "So how about it?"
She smiled down at their daughter, holding one of her tiny hands. "Hannah it is."
The waiting room had been completely taken over by a gathering of fearsome looking individuals, armored to different degrees. They'd been forced to leave their weapons at security, of course, but each and every one of them looked fully able to start trouble without them. For all their impressiveness, however, they were not above exhaustion; most of them slept as the hours passed.
They slept, save for two. A heavily tattooed woman sat with her arms crossed firmly over her chest, expression pinched in obvious dislike. And a burly man leaned closer to the waiting room TV, his expression rapt.
Jack scowled at the TV, where footage of Shepard's interrogation and heroic escape was looping every few minutes, mixed with a different reporter commentating on the events. "I wish they'd turn that shit off."
"Shh!" the burly man hissed at her. "This is my favorite part."
On the TV, Shepard made her hand like a blade and smashed it into a guard's throat, grabbed his pistol, and blew them both away before either could react. She turned toward the camera, her expression of furious calm hardly visible underneath the blood and bruises, and blasted the camera with a single shot. The footage cut to static, only to loop to the beginning again.
Jack's lips twisted. "You one of those sick freaks who gets their rocks off watching women get hurt?"
"What? No!" the burly man said, disgusted.
"Uh-huh. Who the fuck are you supposed to be, anyway?"
"James Vega," he said, holding his hand out to her.
She ignored it, narrowing her eyes.
"And you are . . .?" he prompted.
"I'm not interested."
"Gotcha." He withdrew his hand but didn't look away, scrutinizing her. "Wait a minute, I remember you," he said after a moment. "That biotic we saved at Grissom. Bad attitude." He smirked. "Hauled off and hit Lola in the face."
"Shepard, of course."
"Jack, she said your name was. You go way back."
James chuckled. "Didn't think babies would be your kind of thing."
"You don't know me at all," Jack retorted, hackles rising. "You wouldn't know what my things are."
"Ease off, hey? I come in peace."
"Right." Jack's lips twisted.
Jack was pissed. She existed in a general state of irritation most days, but right now she was so far outside her comfort zone as to be on practically a different plane of existence altogether. She was exhausted from helping Shepard, she was exhausted from watching her reunite with Kaidan and the unexpected way it struck her, like loss or pain.
She was hurt and angry, and watching this meathead chuckle at footage of a heavily pregnant and hurting Shepard being beaten within an inch of her life was fucking with her last nerve.
"I don't know how you can watch this," Jack spat. "It makes me sick."
"Still on about the TV, hey? I'll turn it off if it bugs you so much," James said, reaching for the remote.
"Oh, no. Wouldn't want to deprive you of your fun."
James didn't immediately reply and instead watched her in a strange way, as if he struggled to make sense of her anger, as if he wanted to understand. "It isn't fun," he said finally. "Watching someone you care about get caught and hurt over and over isn't fun. You get angry seeing it. You get hurt right along with them."
She met his earnest gaze, stunned.
"You want to hit those pendejos so hard it knocks 'em back a few years. But then you see her break free and- and that's good! Something gets caught and trapped and hurt, it does you good to see them fight and take back their freedom. It's the way it should be.
"Those assholes thought they had Shepard. Maybe because she was pregnant and a woman, they thought she was weak. She played it just like that too, then blew them away. You see something like that in action, you just have to respect that kind of resourcefulness. That tenacity. That strength."
For the first time in recent memory, Jack couldn't think of a single thing to say. Maybe because he was right, or maybe because his words came too close to the things she'd done to be free, too close to the awful resonance of what she'd lived. She struggled ineffectually for a retort before giving up and turning away from his stupidly earnest face.
When one of the vultures came to get them, she would never have guessed that she'd actually feel relief. "Shepard/Alenko party?" the nurse asked.
"Yeah," James said. "Why? Are they ready?"
"Yes, they're ready to see you all now."
Like a big, dumb dog, he ran around the room shaking everyone awake, slobbering and jumping and laughing. If he'd had a tail, it would probably have wagged. "Wake up, cabrón!" he shouted at Garrus before bounding out of the room and down the hall. She saw he slipped a little on the spotless linoleum before disappearing in Shepard's room.
"Ugh," Garrus said, rubbing his face as Tali lifted her head from his shoulder. "They ready?"
"Yeah," Jack said. "Better hurry before that meathead wears them out."
Tali chuckled fondly. "Ah, James," she said.
Irritated, she strode out of the waiting room and through the disconcertingly blank hospital halls to Shepard's room. It annoyed her further to realize how nervous she was. She'd seen Shepard screaming bloody murder, she'd seen both Shepard and Kaidan cling to one another in a way that was too intimate for public, too loving for the eyes of others. She'd seen their daughter born.
She wasn't a coward, not even close. She spat in the face of fear and laughed at things grown men shit their pants over. Why, then, was she so anxious?
She peered nervously into the room, unsure of what to expect. It was . . . actually kind of a sweet scene, though she never would have admitted it. Kaidan and Shepard were curled on the hospital bed together, Kaidan with his arms around Shepard, and Shepard holding their child. They looked like a family already, exhausted but transcendent somehow. Irrevocably changed.
Even meathead James looked like a part of the picture. A bouncer or guard dog, or something.
"Come on," Shepard said, grinning up at her. "I'm not going to bite."
"I'm more worried about your 'friend' here," she retorted, but slowly came into the room and stood at the side of the bed, crossing her arms tight over her chest.
The others weren't far behind, and after a moment the little hospital room was completely filled with people who looked more comfortable wrecking shit than anything. But none of them seemed to be filled with her apprehension; they all looked at Shepard and Kaidan with varying degrees of happiness and joy. The winsome asari – Liara, Jack remembered – even began to cry.
"Everyone," Shepard said, still a bit hoarse, still so battered and bruised. "This is Hannah."
"After your mother?" asked Liara, wiping her eyes.
"It was Kaidan's idea," Shepard said, grinning up at him. "I guess it stuck."
"She looks like you both," Miranda breathed.
"I think she looks more like Kaidan," Shepard said. "The same hair, same chin. See?"
Kaidan ran a free hand over his hair, mussing it. "I'll have to apologize for that someday," he muttered.
"Oh shut up," Shepard teased.
Garrus cleared his throat. "Congratulations, you two. This is really . . ." he said in an odd voice, and Jack realized that tough as nails turian was overcome with emotion. It was wrong, somehow- personal, private. She already felt like an intruder, but the impulse to run away was now overpowering.
She faded into the back of the room as the others cooed and doted on the baby. They all wanted a turn holding little Hannah; even Javik the Prothean leaned over the child and spoke a strangely personal blessing in his dolorous voice. Shocking her further, Zaeed had something nice to say; something how he suspected the child would be the 'toughest goddamn sprite he ever saw', with parents like Shepard and Alenko.
She knew she should probably say something, like the others were. It was expected, and not unfairly so; she was happy that the baby was healthy and that everyone was fine, no harm done. But every time she opened her mouth to speak, she would snap it shut again; angry and humiliated. What could she say that the others hadn't already, much better than she ever could?
"Could I hold her?" James asked, and Jack could hardly control her temper; the balls on this one! Big, stupid, blundering-
"Sure," Shepard smiled up at him, and gently passed Hannah into his arms. "Careful with her."
Jack had been about to snap at the scene with some kind of blistering comment when she caught sight of the meathead. She stared, at a loss. It was odd to see such a big, ridiculously muscled man holding such a small creature with so much tenderness. James rocked her, held a large index finger to the child's brow, her little nose and lips. Incredibly, he began to sing under her breath to the fussing infant: "A dormir, a soñar; a dormir angelita…"
"Look at you," Shepard said, cocking her head. "An expert!"
James flashed her a dopey grin. "Hey, I used to take care of my cousins. I know a few things."
"Can you babysit?"
"Sure, Lola. Whatever you need."
Jack didn't really know why, but this felt like the last straw. She was about to edge out of the room when Shepard turned to her with that same, contented smile on her face. "Do you want to hold her, Jack?"
"I-" she trailed off. On the one hand, she felt like she had a larger claim on that child than meathead and the rest of them, but on the other the little creature terrified her. It was so small, so fragile. Her hands shook at the thought of what could go wrong, what could hurt the baby, what she could do.
"Here, triste," James said, deciding for her. He passed the baby to her with that same tenderness that seemed so ill-suited to such a powerful man. She looked up at him, half chewing on an angry barb and half desperate for some kind of assurance from him, anything. He nodded at her encouragingly and then his hands were gone and she was holding the baby, feeling for the entire world like a lost child herself.
Hannah blinked up at her, no longer fussing. She remembered pressing her hand to Shepard's stomach and feeling this child kick under her fingers. She remembered lending her own strength to Shepard, the both of them screaming to bring this child into the world. She and Hannah looked at each other, and it was as if they already knew. This wasn't an introduction, not to them; this was a reunion.
She knew that she loved Shepard, in her own, weird abusive way, in that way you love family and people you've bled with; she loved that stupid, reckless woman more than she would ever feel comfortable sharing. And– in that strange moment in a hospital room – she loved Hannah too.
Her eyes burned and the room blurred, the little child in her arms going fuzzy around the edges.
It wasn't like Jack had never cried before. She had, sure. When she was a fucked up kid hiding under her desk, buzzing from a fight and hoping the voices on the other side of the door would just go away. Then somewhere along the line, she pushed the tears down where they festered and chose rage instead. It was a surprise to feel this now, something outside of anger.
She was affected beyond her ability or inclination to express, but she wasn't so far removed from herself that she'd allow herself to break down and sob in front of people she'd worked with and bled with, Shepard and meathead especially. So she blinked quickly and handed Hannah back to Shepard, wiping her nose.
"I sure hope she had your hard head, Shepard," Jack said, forcing bravado and nonchalance. But from the look on Shepard's face – that solicitude, that wordless understanding – Jack knew the others might not know, but Shepard would. Just as always.
My name is Hannah Alenko Shepard, I'm five years old, and today I'm going to be a big sister.
Daddy cried when Mama told him she had a baby inside her. I asked him why he was crying, because I was happy. I told them over and over again that I wanted to be a big sister, and they would always say 'maybe' or 'finish your dinner' or 'stop tormenting Uncle James'.
He said he was crying because he was happy. He picked Mama up and they spun around laughing, and then he picked me up and spun me around too, and we were all laughing and happy.
I asked him why he was so happy he started crying, and he said it had a lot to do with how I was born, a really long time ago. Before when I asked how I was born, Mama and Daddy never said much about it. But on that day, they told me.
"Well, sit down, Hannah," Mama said. "Do you want to hear the whole thing?"
"Yes, please! Please, yes I do, I do very much!" I said. Because I did!
"It's a long story," Mama warned. "Are you sure?"
"Yes please, please, please!"
So they told me, and it's the best story. I told them they should write it down and sell it in a book, because it would make a lot of money, and Mama said that I might be overstating it. And Daddy laughed because he said I have a healthy sense of self-importance. When I asked what that meant, he said I like myself a lot and that was good, because he likes me a lot too.
Anyways, it's the best story in the world.
A really long time ago, there was a really bad war. There were things called Reapers that came back to the galaxy and started killing everyone. A lot of people died and there were a lot of families with no daddies or mamas, and everybody was really sad. Mama and Daddy were soldiers in the Alliance, and when they learned about the Reapers, they tried to tell everyone at first, but nobody listened, not until it was too late.
I learned this part in class, and I get in trouble sometimes because they say I brag, but Mama and Daddy are the biggest heroes in the galaxy. I don't understand how it's bragging, because everyone else says it about Mama and Daddy, but they don't get accused of bragging about it.
Mama and Daddy were such big heroes that they went around the galaxy uniting all the different species so that they would all attack the Reapers as one, since before they all fought with each other and no one ever got anything done.
I watched a video of some of the parts in school. There is a video of Mama talking to everyone about standing together. There is a video of her walking around in the Normandy, looking very busy and a little sad. Daddy is there too, standing next to her in the room I'm not allowed to go in, with all the maps and consoles. The other videos they say we can't watch until we're older, because they're scary and a lot of people die in them.
Anyways, so finally Mama and Daddy and the galaxy figured out how to stop the Reapers, and they made this big thing called the Crucible that would stop them. There was going to be a big final battle, and it would be on Earth. And the night before the big final battle happened, they made me.
At this point in the story, Mama and Daddy got embarrassed. I asked them how they made me, and they both looked at each other really uneasily. Daddy said it's something two people do when they love each other, and sometimes a baby can happen because of it. When I asked what it was that people do, Mama pinched the top of her nose and said that she'll tell me more about it when I was a little older.
They don't know that when they tell me to wait and ask when I'm older, I always go ask Aunt Jack right away because she tells me. But when I asked Aunt Jack about the thing people do when they love each other, she got really embarrassed and told me to ask when I was older.
So this part of the story, I don't really know. They did something and then I was in Mama's belly.
But then in the last battle, Daddy got hurt and had to get taken away on the Normandy. He didn't like this part of the story; he held Mama's hand really tight when she told it, and his eyes got all sad. Mama had to activate the Crucible by herself, and she got hurt really bad and they didn't find her for days. And when the thing called the Crucible fired, all the ships tried to get away from the beam so they wouldn't be broken with the Reapers. The Normandy got really far away before it got hit, and then it crashed on a planet that was really far away from Earth.
So because they were really far away and everything was broken, Mama and Daddy didn't know that they were both alive. Mama found out I was in her belly and she was really sad because she thought Daddy was dead. And Daddy was on this far away planet and he was afraid that Mama was dead.
But then Daddy helped the crew put the Normandy back together again, and they had to fly the slow way through the galaxy, because the relays were all broken. And it took a really long time; nine months, he said. They even passed a dead Reaper on the way, and it broke the thing that lets them talk to other ships, so that they couldn't tell Earth that they were alive. So the whole time she had me in her belly, Mama thought Daddy was dead.
But then she said something that made Daddy hug her really tight and kiss her. She said that even though she was afraid Daddy had died, she never let herself believe it all the way.
Later the Normandy was able to pick up news and pictures again, and Daddy saw some pictures and videos of Mama talking to reporters about me and the final battle, and that's when he learned she had me in her belly. Everyone on the Normandy was so happy, they threw him a big party and Uncle James gave him smelly things to smoke and took all his money in a card game, and they were all really happy.
But then something bad happened and they lost their fuel, so they thought that they couldn't get home. And that's when Daddy reminded everyone that he is a big hero and he always knows the right thing to do when things get bad. He found a space station that had fuel in it and also stuff to repair the thing that lets them talk to other ships and so everyone was happy again.
But then something bad happened to Mama. These bad men didn't like her because they thought she didn't save enough people when the Reapers were killing everyone, so they kidnapped her, and everyone was really sad. But Aunt Jack and Aunt Miranda and Grandpa Zaeed got a shuttle and flew to the place where the bad men had taken Mama, and when they got there, they saw that Mama had already gotten free. Aunt Jack and Aunt Miranda were surprised, but Grandpa Zaeed wasn't because he knows that my Mama is a hero.
And then on the way back to Earth Mama started having me, and she was really sad because Daddy still hadn't come home and she was really scared. But she didn't know that Daddy was on his way home that minute! He made it to the hospital just in time, and they saw each other for the first time since the fighting with the Reapers ended, and then I was born.
At first we all lived in a big house by the Alliance building, but after a while Grandpa Hackett said that the galaxy needs Mama and Daddy because they're heroes and also something called Spectres. So we all moved onto the Normandy again.
So the reason Daddy was so happy he was crying was because this time while Mama grew the baby, he got to be there. We all got to be together on the Normandy as a big family.
And my family is really big! There's Mama and Daddy, and then there is Aunt Jack and Uncle James and Uncle Steve and Uncle Joker - they live on the Normandy with us. The rest don't live on the Normandy anymore, but they come by a lot. Aunt Tali and Uncle Garrus visit the most, even though they're really important on their own planets. There's Aunt Liara and Aunt Miranda, and Grandpa Javik, though I haven't seen him in a long time. Grandpa Zaeed comes sometimes too, and even though he's so grumpy all of the time he always has a present for me, and he says that when I'm old enough he'll teach me how to shoot. And then Mama says if I'm going to learn how to shoot from anyone, it'll be her because she's the best shot in the galaxy. And then Grandpa Zaeed whispers to me that Mama is crazy but that's why he likes her.
I told Mama and Daddy that when I grow up, I want to join the Alliance and be heroes like them. Mama got really serious and said it's a hard life and if you're not careful and really good, you can be killed, and I said that everyone on the Normandy would teach me how to be really good, because they all survived the Reapers. But she got sad, and said even if you're really careful and good, you'll have to make hard choices that you think about every day, and you'll see friends and people you love die.
I asked her if she had to make hard choices and watch her friends die, and she said that she had. She pulled me on her lap and told me about a lady named Ashley, who had saved both Mama and Daddy a long time ago. She told me about a salarian named Mordin who cured the thing that made all the krogan sick for a really long time, and the songs he used to sing. She told me about a drell named Thane who had saved the Council and helped her fight the Collectors, and taught her about acceptance. She told me about an AI named EDI who had learned what it was to be alive and what it was to love and fight for what you believe in. She told me about a geth named Legion, who sacrificed himself so that all the geth could be alive and free like everyone else. And she told me about a man named Admiral Anderson, who had been one of her closest friends because even when things were hard he was always there and always did his duty. He had saved Mama, but when the end came she couldn't save him.
She said that all of her dead friends were bigger heroes than she could ever be, because they had given their lives willingly for their ideals and the greater good. She said that every day that she was alive, she would try to be worthy of their sacrifice. I gave her a big hug because she was so sad and said that if they could see her today, they would probably be hugging her too.
They won't teach me how to shoot yet, but I do practice darts with Uncle James and Daddy, because Uncle James says it's a good idea to start when you're a little. They taught me how to tie knots and how to hide and how to watch really quiet and see everything that happens. It was a good thing they taught me because there was some bad business but I don't want to talk about that anymore, because everyone always wants to talk about what happened.
So today all my family is here because Mama is having the baby. We all flew to the Citadel so she could have it in the nice hospital there. Daddy is with her, just like last time except this time they got to be together while the baby grew in her belly. They kiss a lot, and Aunt Liara says it's nice to grow up with parents who love each other so much.
I'm waiting with Uncle James and Aunt Jack. Uncle James was playing a game with me. He can be really silly but I like him because he has a truth-telling face, and you always can trust what he says. I also like him because he picks me up and buzzes me around like a spaceship!
"Do the spaceship, Uncle James!" I say, tugging on his shirt.
"I don't know. I think you're getting too big for the spaceship, pequeñita," he says.
"Please, Uncle James?" I make my face sad.
"Oh, all right," he says and I can tell he was just giving me a hard time so I would say please. He sweeps me up and buzzes me around the waiting room and I laugh so hard I feel like I'm going to throw up.
"If I put you any higher, you're going to fly away on your own!"
Aunt Jack has her cranky face on. "You're going to drop her, James."
"Pequeñita, give Auntie Jack a kiss," he says, buzzing me right next to her face.
"You give her a kiss!"
"I will after you do."
So I give her a big sloppy kiss on the cheek, and I can tell she's trying to keep her cranky face on, but her lips are twitching and she looks like she's going to start laughing. Uncle James said that Aunt Jack used to be really angry and sad all of the time, but now she is only sometimes, and only when she's talking to him. I asked him if she really is angry and sad at him, and he says that she isn't really, she just likes to pretend to keep him on his toes.
"You're such an ass—er, a jerk," she says, biting her lips. Uncle James starts laughing, because we know she was going to swear at him.
He gives her a big kiss on the mouth and though she pretends she doesn't like it at first, later she brings up her hand to touch his cheek. I think they love each other, though Aunt Jack doesn't like to say lovey stuff like that.
I told Uncle James that I like seeing them together and I asked him why Aunt Jack tried to not like him for so long, and he said that the details were her business, but for a long time she had a hurt heart and was mean to everyone because she was afraid of her heart getting hurt more. I asked him if I could help her heart not hurt anymore, and he said that I already had.
After Uncle James puts me down, I look at the door and feel sad. "Uncle James?"
I feel embarrassed to ask this question because everyone says I don't need to worry but still I do. "Do you think Mama and Daddy will love me less when the new baby comes?"
"No, pequeñita. Their hearts will just get bigger, and they'll love you both."
"Will you and Aunt Jack love me less?"
He gives me a big hug. "No way. Right, Auntie Jack?"
Aunt Jack has that uncomfortable look she gets whenever we talk about feelings. But she holds my hand and squeezes it and I know she loves me.
When I see Daddy in the doorway I run up to him and he sweeps me up in his arms and spins me around. He looks really tired but he's smiling and he holds me tight. "Hey, punky. Have you been good?"
"I've been really good!" I tell him. "I've been the best! Is the new baby here?"
He nods and kisses me on my cheek, and his face is scratchy like sandpaper. "Are you ready to meet your little brother?"
And I'm so excited I'm wriggling in his arms because it feels like I've been waiting to meet my little brother my whole life. So Daddy takes me out of the waiting room to where Mama and the new baby are, and Uncle James and Aunt Jack are right behind us, and I know that when I'm grown up I'll still remember today just as it was because it was the day my family became complete.