The mission is going normally right up until it isn't. The concrete pings and Alenko lets out a soft whuff, enough to think he hit a hard corner dodging but when Shepard looks up from taking out the sniper he's still on the concrete, a look of confusion on his face. His suit is registering an error on her HUD, bright red lights blaring in her peripheral vision.
She just stares for a moment, unable to look away but frozen in place.
Oh, she thinks, this must be how it felt for him.
Then she turns back to scan for more enemies, gun raised and teeth on grit. Bad conditions for an ambush, low light and ambient smoke. No way to tell if there are any more out there, any more dangers lurking in the flickering shadows. She tracks them each, gun steady and breath a careful measure.
Someone is yelling. Vega. He's given up shouting into the comms to knock his helmet against hers and yell directly, futile as it is.
How long has he been yelling?
"We have to get him out of the open!" He points back at Alenko.
He's still alive, she realizes dully. He's moving and, oh, he's bleeding. There's red on the black, red on his hand, red on the floor.
Slam down the walls. Grieve later. The fact that Kaidan might die doesn't matter at this moment.
The fact that he might not doesn't even register.
"Move him, then. I'll cover."
She doesn't quite catch the edge in Vega's yes ma'am, though she'll remember it later - he's seeing his squad die for the mission again, feeling that helplessness rise up in his throat. What he needs is not what she's providing. Nevertheless, he drags Alenko into the nearest reasonable cover, a blasted out room a few meters behind them.
She quickly fabs some trip alarms, slapping them on the walls of the nearby junction. Enough for now. She retreats into the room.
Storage room, Shepard amends, giving a quick glance over the empty shelves, quiet with dust.
Kaidan is on the floor. Still alive.
They strip the damaged armor segment around his torso, leaving the rest sealed to take care of any minor injuries. It's bad, a shredded bloom of red and black in the worst possible place, where the plates are smaller, fitted, thinner to allow for the greater range of motion needed for biotic attacks. He'd have been better off taking a shot full in the chest.
Shepard's got the sealant spray and Vega debrides as well as he can, but it's not a field operation. Biotics are the worst trauma patients, burning through their reserves quickly; their bodies react to deprivation badly. Kaidan is a priority shock risk, skin clammy already and he's kind of out of it, grasping at their hands in his when he can catch them. Shepard ignores it. James disengages while trying to calm him down.
"Hey, hey," he says, his big hands gentle even through three layers of armor. "Hey."
There's blood everywhere, more blood than there should be. That's what she notices next, once she's got the spray and bandages on, she scrubs at her hands with a sterile wipe but there's blood everywhere, a smear on the floor where James dragged him in and pools where their knees smeared it around, blood on Kaidan and James and her hands, even as she tries to clean them. She's just smearing it around.
"Hey." A voice. "Shepard, hey, stop."
James is there and the action has died down and there's a weight on her chest when she looks at Kai- Alenko. He's not looking at her; his eyes are closed, brows furrowed as he tries to steady his breathing. It doesn't help, slowing down. You run out of air eventually.
She remembers that.
He's clearly in pain, but for now he'll have to make do with what his damaged suit is injecting. Can't drug him with the good shit in a combat zone, even if he's not about to get off the ground and pick up his rifle any time soon.
She knows it's bad. Neither she nor Vega have formal medic training, but she knows how dangerous a shot that makes it through the armor is, and she knows how dangerous it could be to move him with the limited amount of first aid they can provide.
Impossible, really. Alenko isn't making it back up through 300 meters of ruined research base, half rubble even before the raiders starting shooting.
It hadn't gone to shit all at once. That would have been too easy - she'd have scrubbed the mission and they'd be back on the Normandy by now, working through another plan. They'd been clearing the labs, slowly and carefully, room by room and floor by floor, and until they'd surprised that group of raiders looking for salvage in the lower depths they'd been fine.
Slowly and carefully but not carefully enough, not if she could let this happen to him. And for what? Contraband Prothean tech waiting like a pirate's cache at the bottom of the honeycombed asteroid, a secret research base long abandoned.
Not just Alliance, chasing those resources down on whispers and the words of a few turncoat scientists. She did her due diligence when planning the op, stocking repeaters to boost their comms underground, scheduling a regular flyby from Cortez to hit the sweet spot in communications between planetary orbit, lunar position and solar radiation.
Fucking stupid, Shepard, she thinks, for not being more vigilant after they passed max comms range, for not bringing more boosters to string the comms down farther as they went, for not-
There'd been no sign of the scavengers when she'd landed. No ship, and debris enough in the labs that they might have overlooked the indications of recent passage. Sloppy work. Stars, she knows that much.
Retrieval time can't be moved up unless Shepard can get several floors up, connect to their last repeater, hope Cortez can pick up the signal during a comm window and clear a path down to them. Shepard and Vega both know it, unsaid between them as they kneel over Kaidan, hands frozen.
It would be a manageable mess… if Kaidan wasn't injured. Without backup, without comms, with a fragile patient on their backs… it isn't a good situation. A rescue is unlikely.
A rescue in time, anyway.
There's a hole in her mind that she doesn't probe, that black, clutching space that whispers, "You're losing him." She won't think about it. She can't. Every time her mind drifts there, pokes and prods at it, Shepard slams it back down.
James is gently wiping her hands clean when she comes back to herself.
Shepard has to go up several floors to get in range of the nearest repeater. Vega will argue even though she's his superior and he knows she's right, because he's getting emotional now as the adrenaline bleeds off. He does that. A weakness, some part of her says, a distant part that needs that distance to lead. The part she has to section off before she can climb back into bed next to them. Before she can sleep.
"I need to get back to the last repeater," she says, and she raises her hand to still Vega's objection even as his mouth opens to shape around it. "No. Someone needs to stay here with Kaidan, and I'll move faster-" without you "-on my own."
"Loosen up, James. You've got the biggest gun, you'll be fine down here alone." She tries for jocular, for confident, but she can read in his eyes that she's put her boot down wrong somewhere and missed it. Morbid, then.
As she rises, Kaidan grabs her hand.
There it is, that black hole again.
She places defense turrets as she leaves, far enough away and set to firing mode only. Not much of a defense if it takes out a support structure and brings the roof down on James and Kaidan.
She muses on it, as she quietly makes her way back up through floors of ruined labs and office spaces. It's nagging at her, distracting, even as she rounds corners with sharp, deadly precision.
He is alone. They all die alone, in the end, and she should know. She's done it once, and that's if you're only counting the times she went all the way.
Her squad on Akuze died alone, dragged under the sands one by one. Brody, Chakrabarti and Toombs, screams and blood and then silence. She was alone then, too, dead as they were, just taking more time. It was dark in the ruined storage container she took refuge in, silent except for the dull thudding of the improvised decoys she'd thrown as far from her hiding place as possible. Cold and still in the tomb, she waited for her time to come.
She died alone. Actually died, that time, not just a near miss. She'd spun out, wheeling in zero-G, surrounded by the black and the streaks of home burning above her. Flailed, trying to reach the breach in her line to seal it, but it was futile. She'd cut the comms, even as the panic gripped her. Any of her crew still in range couldn't do anything but listen to her gasp her last, and pretty soon not even that.
Three hundred meters of rock above her, lit only by their portable lamps. Dark enough, still enough, soon enough.
If she's being honest, it's why she shoved Alenko into Vega's arms that day, before she took off at a run toward the beacon. She was going to die alone, that much was certain, but not them. She hadn't known why that was important, before, hadn't known it for awhile even after the Normandy got back home, but she's spent years making up for lost time with them. Always together, even if it was harder, never alone.
She reaches her max comm depth, tapping her connection open as soon as she sees the faint green light pop up in the HUD.
"Normandy, requesting immediate pick up. Hostile forces encountered, unknown remaining strength. Advise combat unit. Primary team is located," she taps her omnitool, updating their available 3D map with more current scans, "here. Require extraction with medic support."
Her voice sticks in her throat.
"Kaidan's hurt bad. Please hurry."
If Cortez is following protocol, he'll only receive this transmission the next time he breaks his position on the dark side of lunar orbit. She should know when that is, but she doesn't remember. A lot of things don't make sense right now.
Of course, she muses, stepping over a downed equipment cart on her way back down the stairs she'd just ascended, the best way not to die alone isn't to die together, it's not to die at all.
London, but before the explosions and the blood and the stark white burn of the beam. A moment with James and Kaidan when they'd all said their own goodbyes as a squad. The last goodbye, the awkward silence broken only by Anderson slapping her on the shoulder and climbing up into the troop transport. There'd been something on their tongues even then, though none of them knew its name to speak it. She'd hugged them both hard, harder than the armor required, and when they'd broken apart it had felt something like leaving.
Running for the opening hatch of the Normandy as they disembarked, thin and haggard, the weight of a year at rations and sublight weighing on their faces. Blowing past the quarantine barrier, even though it meant she had to join them in the tents for the week afterward.
Kaidan had just looked at her, staring through her like he was seeing a ghost, and James had wrapped her in a bear hug, swinging her around and yelling into her ear. Kaidan had smiled, then. Relief, breaking over his face like a wave, and he'd hugged her next, almost as hard as James had. She felt, rather than heard, the soft sob he released into her shoulder. The way his body shuddered into hers, surrendering everything to her embrace. She was quickly swept up by the rest of the crew, but she never lost sight of them on the edges of the crowd.
James likes to kiss people when they're laughing, something that makes Kaidan laugh even harder against his lips. They're always professional during missions, discreet, not willing to test the limits of Alliance indulgence even for war heroes, but when they're home, well - they're home. Anderson's, then hers, then theirs, and even though it's been a decade at least since that first night, they still resume their familiar positions. James and Kaidan at the grill, always in each other's way, elbows to ribs and trading kisses between the chopping block and the stove. Shepard, perched on the counter, forbidden to interfere (really, you catch a pot of boiling water on fire one time,) content to watch as they play out a routine as familiar in its way as the one they deploy on the battlefield.
When she gets back, James has a gun nearby. Not in his hand - she placed defense turrets, after all, and things sure have gone to shit but not yet bad enough that he doubts her work.
Kaidan's head is in his lap instead. He's talking to him softly without reply, but one of Kaidan's hands clutches James' arm desperately, rubbing circles into it with his thumb. James is absently running a finger over his temple. He looks up, a bit guilty, a bit guarded and a bit mad.
Shepard doesn't speak, just crosses the room to kneel down beside them both. Grabs James' head in her elbow and pulls it down, presses a hard kiss to his temple. Kaidan looks up at them both, the line between his brows softening.
"I placed the signal," she says lamely.
Kaidan grabs at her forearm in his still-gloved hand.
"Shepard, I… before… want you to…"
James quickly disengages him, an uncharacteristic shushing noise hissing from between his teeth.
"Keep jumping the gun there, Major."
He pulls her aside.
"Been trying to do that since you left."
She squeezes his hand.
"I'll take over."
James knows it as a dismissal but doesn't trust it, it's written on his face. He moves anyway, taking up a watch at the blasted out doorway. Not that he needs to, but it's clear he's giving them space to… well, what?
She picks up where James left off, watching the muted life support alarms flash on her HUD. His suit self-repairs, to a degree, but reviving just in time to tell her what she already knows isn't any kind of helpful.
He's a mess, cold sweat slick and skin pale, his eyes bruised and dark ringed. She strokes the sweaty hanks of hair off of his forehead.
"I don't want you to die."
It comes out unintended but she's got the grace, at least, to not add aloud what she's thinking - she doesn't want him to, but that won't stop him. She can tell by the way his eyes soften that he appreciates the effort.
"Not… dying today," he replies, his face screwed up with the effort. "James still owes me from poker night."
She laughs, short and sharp, echoing off the walls like another shot. James startles, from his post by the doorway, but settles back down.
"If you died, I wouldn't know what to do. You always know what to do. James and I... I don't know how you did it, when I…"
Kaidan says nothing, just stares up at her with those soft eyes understanding. He closes his eyes and her blood jumps, but he's just blinking slowly.
"I love you."
She doesn't respond aloud, just nods, tears pricking at the corners of her eyes.
She double checks his vitals and, satisfied that he's not about to die in the next ten minutes, she tucks the emergency blanket closer in around him and gets up to talk to James.
James always takes a bit to unravel when she's prickled him. It's not a sulk, just a wall of hurt he builds around himself, the kind that hardens if left alone too long. Maybe used to be she could get in a few well placed kicks to his middle and take him down to the mat to get through it, but the years they've spent together have given her at least a few other tools.
(Though sex is probably also off the table, she thinks.)
"I would feel it, too."
She knocks his forearm, hard enough that she knows he can feel it through his armor. "If Kaidan… if something happened, I would feel it."
"It's always a possibility, you know? That something could happen. I'm not stupid." James says it in a tone that anyone who didn't know him as well as she did would read as petulant, but she knows it's just the weakening in him. When James goes, he goes in bits and trickles and then all at once.
But it's different now, facing it. She gets it. Last time they thought she was dead, when he'd watched her back as she ran toward that death alone - he'd had Kaidan, and Kaidan had had him. She'd been naive enough then to think that would be enough.
She knows better now.
"I love you. Both of you."
Shepard swallows past a lump in her throat.
"I know you do." A kiss to her temple, stubble rubbing familiar friction against her skin.
Shepard is on watch but she's fading a bit, exhaustion creeping over the edges that even the stims can't ward off forever. She jerks awake sharply when the proximity alarm sounds and her turrets start firing. Wasn't the last of them after all, it seems.
She takes the first guy by surprise after she kicks James awake with a hard stomp to the armored ribs, and she can't see him in the dark and the smoke but she can see him on the HUD, his racing heartbeat and Kaidan's alarms.
If she has to die, she'll do it with them, she'll always do it with them. Never alone, never again, never dying out in the cold and black as the air ran out, an icy grave below her. All of them together, just like they always have been. Since London. Since the Citadel. Since Mars.
Since Alchera. Since Akuze.
"Stand down, Commander. We got 'em."
She decides right at that moment that Cortez has the best voice she's ever heard in her life.
She remembers drowsing in a desk chair, but when she wakes up she's curled around Kaidan in his cot. Close beside them, James has pulled up another cot, one thick leg hanging perilously off the side.
She asks Chakwas with a raise of her eyebrows why she hasn't thrown them out yet. She's not known for running a sloppy Med Bay.
"I asked you to leave, Commander. You said you were 'overruling me on Spectre authority' and then promptly fell asleep."
Shepard owes that woman another bottle.
Kaidan's eyelids flutter and her world narrows quite rapidly down to a single point in space, not quite between crinkle of his eyebrows.
"You look like shit," she says.
"You're a romantic, Shepard." Kaidan's voice is low, but a tired, familiar low. Kaidan after a late night in bed, not Kaidan dying, slowly bleeding out on the-
"Hey," he says, and squeezes her hand. James wakes up ungently, rising halfway only to catch himself before he falls off the cot entirely. He swears, loud enough to make Chakwas snort from the desk in the corner where she's pretending to ignore them.
It's just a coincidence that finds their fingers woven together, James and Shepard's hands resting in an unbandaged space, a little below Kaidan's heart. The moment in the vid where she rolls her eyes and goes to make more popcorn.
Never alone again, she thinks, weaving them a little tighter. Not as long as we live.