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Shepard sat in his kitchen, 0300 local time, working his way through a protein bar and unable to get back to sleep.

His mind was on Rannoch. He was sure he’d dreamed of it.

The galaxy… well, they never got the whole story. The quarians had no deep ties to any of the other races. Since fleeing their homeworld so many centuries ago, they’d been spurned by all outsiders as beggars and thieves. Only those aboard the Normandy… those who’d known Tali… knew that the quarians were a fiercely proud people, to the point of pig-headedness, who could just as quickly smother you with affection as smother you with criticism, but who you could never, never accuse of not loving each other.

Diana Allers had tried to set up an interview with him after Rannoch. Shepard had kicked her off the ship for even suggesting it.

Tali’s friends aboard the Normandy. They were the only ones left to mourn the quarians.

Himself, Kaidan, Garrus, and Wrex.

Well, not Wrex, not anymore.

Some part of Shepard wondered if Wrex had known about Rannoch before he attacked Shepard in the docking bay. If some part of Wrex’s fury for Shepard was reserved for Tali’s death, and not just Shepard’s betrayal of the krogan.

But Garrus, he was alive.

And he took Tali’s death hard. Hard enough that Shepard wondered if there’d been something there, between them.

For the rest of the war, things between himself and Garrus had never been the same. Garrus had once been a trusted confidante. The only person he could admit the genophage sabotage to, the only person he could admit Mordin’s death to. He’d been Shepard’s trusted lifeline during their time working with Cerberus. But losing Tali broke something in them, in their friendship.

He needed to apologize to Garrus.

Joker too. But that was still too painful to think about.

Shepard finished his protein bar and trudged to his terminal.

Garrus,

I’ve been thinking about Rannoch. About Tali. About the mistakes I made that led to that point. About how I let my frustration with the quarian admirals cloud my judgement. About how I let a peacemaker die because I was in a hurry. Back during the Saren mission, Kaidan once warned me about taking shortcuts. I finally understand what he meant.

I know Tali meant a lot to you. As a friend, at least. And I know you blame me for her death. And you’re right to do it. I blame me too.

There’s nothing I can do to fix this, because the only way it could ever be fixed is for Tali to be standing right here, alive, knowing her people are alive too. There’s no absolution for a mistake like that. Even calling it a “mistake” cheapens it. “Oops, bad call.” No, it was my choice, and I made it with eyes open.

I don’t expect your forgiveness.

I don’t deserve your forgiveness.

But I am sorry. For as little as that means.

Shepard

He read through the message one last time to be sure, then hit the “send” button.

He sighed and sat down on the couch and pulled up a vid.


Shepard’s omnitool beeped. For the first time in a week, he checked his messages.

Kaidan had sent a reply.

Shepard tensed. Odds were fifty-fifty that the message consisted of two words, and the second word was “you”. The thought made him sad.

Shepard,

You and your timing. I’m between Spectre missions right now. I’ll bite. When do you want to meet?

Alenko

Kaidan had signed off with his last name. Fuck, he had a lot of damage to undo.


They’d exchanged pleasantries, kept the conversation light and neutral.

But now they were sitting down at their table. The restaurant wasn’t very busy, and Kaidan had managed to get them a corner table with some privacy.

“So, what’s this all about, Shepard?” Kaidan said. He already sounded exhausted.

Shepard almost blew him off out of habit. Pretended he had no idea where Kaidan was coming from. He bit his tongue, sighed, and looked down at the table.

“We didn’t exactly part on good terms,” Shepard said. “I guess it’s been eating away at me.”

“At you, huh?” Kaidan coldly retorted.

Shepard didn’t take the bait. “You remember those chats we used to have on the SR-1?” he asked, looking up at Kaidan. Trying to project to Kaidan what things had been like for Shepard since the end of the war. “I miss those.”

Kaidan stared at him, then nodded once. “Yeah. I’d never trusted anyone enough to talk about what I went through in BAaT. Not even my parents.”

Shepard’s breath hitched, almost a sob, tears suddenly pricking at his eyes, the emotion coming from out of nowhere. He nodded, fought to hold it all in, to keep his voice still. “That meant a lot to me. That trust. I’m sorry I didn’t deserve it.”

Kaidan propped his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. He sighed. “At the time you did,” he said grudgingly.

“I fucked up, Kaidan.”

Kaidan didn’t look up from his hands. “Yeah, you did,” he finally said. But there was no anger in it. Just disappointment, and the sense that Kaidan felt very, very old.

“You ever feel like… like you have this unshakeable feeling that something went wrong and you need to go back and fix it?”

“Constantly,” Kaidan said without hesitation.

“What would you change, if you could?” Shepard asked.

Kaidan sighed. “I don’t know. In all the time I’ve known you, I’ve been swept up in things beyond my control. I don’t know of any point where I could have made a difference.”

“I would have listened to you more,” Shepard admitted.

“When did you ever?” Kaidan said. He sounded worn down to nothing.

“I was listening to you back on the SR-1,” Shepard said. “We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but I respected your opinion. Respected you.”

Kaidan finally lifted his head out of the cradle of his hands. “Then what changed?” His voice was stone.

Shepard huffed. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know,” he repeated, almost a whisper. “I’m broken, Kaidan. I’ve been broken for a long time. And it got people killed.”

Kaidan didn’t say anything. Just pondered that, and put his head back in his hands.

“I guess I thought that bringing you aboard the SR-2 would magically fix that,” Shepard admitted “That we’d just pick up where we left off on the SR-1, and Horizon and Mars would just be distant memories, and we could all be a big happy family again on the Normandy.”

“And then you killed the quarians,” Kaidan said.

“And then I killed the quarians,” Shepard agreed. He sighed. “I sent a message to Garrus earlier today. Apologized for getting Tali killed. Told him he was in the right for blaming me.”

Kaidan exhaled. “It’s something,” he said.


Shepard dreamed.

He dreamed of Horizon.

“Sure, I remember you,” grumbled the ungrateful colonist in front of him. “You’re some type of big Alliance hero.”

Suddenly, the universe pulled hard to port, and Kaidan appeared from around a corner. “Commander Shepard. Captain of the Normandy. The first human Spectre. Savior of the Citadel. You’re in the presence of a legend, Delan. And a ghost.”

Delan grumbled some more. Shepard didn’t hear his words. All his attention was on Kaidan.

Kaidan approached him and offered a handshake. “I thought you were dead, Commander,” he finally said. “We all did.”

Shepard took the offered hand. Kaidan’s voice was controlled, but Shepard could hear the turmoil in it. At the time, Shepard hadn’t picked up on the reason.

“You don’t sound too happy to see me,” Shepard commented glibly. “Something bothering you, Kaidan?”

“Yeah, something’s bothering me,” Kaidan hissed. “I spent the past two years believing you were dead! I would have followed you anywhere, Commander. Thinking you were gone… it was like losing a limb.” Kaidan looked down, momentarily lost in his own thoughts. “Why didn’t you try to contact me?” he finally snapped. “Why didn’t you let me know you were alive?”

“Not my choice,” Shepard said, defensive hackles raising. “I spent the last two years in some kind of coma while Cerberus rebuilt me.”

Kaidan backed away in shock. “You’re with Cerberus now? Garrus, too? I can’t believe the reports were right.”

Garrus spoke up. “Reports? You mean you already knew?”

“Alliance intel thought Cerberus might be behind the missing human colonies,” Kaidan explained. Shepard had always remembered Kaidan being surprisingly calm during this part of the conversation, but now he could hear Kaidan’s fury giving way to newfound grief. “They got a tip this colony might be the next one to get hit. Anderson stonewalled me, but there were rumors that you weren’t dead. That you were working for the enemy.”

“Building the defense towers was just a cover story,” Shepard said. “The Alliance sent you here to investigate me, didn’t they?”

“I was here for Cerberus. You were just a rumor,” Kaidan said, his voice thick with resignation. Suddenly the fury was back. “I wanted to believe you were alive, but I never expected anything like this,” he snipped. “You’ve turned your back on everything we stood for!”

“Kaidan, you know me!” Shepard said. “You know I’d only do this for the right reason. You saw it yourself: the Collectors are targeting human colonies, and they’re working with the Reapers!”

“I want to believe you, Shepard,” Kaidan huffed. “But I don’t trust Cerberus. They could be using the threat of a Reaper to manipulate you. What if they’re behind it? What if they’re working for the Collectors?”

Garrus spoke up. “Damn it, Kaidan! You’re so focused on Cerberus that you’re ignoring the real threat!”

Shepard chimed in, siding against Kaidan. “You’re letting how you feel about their history get in the way of the facts.”

“Maybe,” Kaidan said, sounding unconvinced. “Or maybe you feel like you owe Cerberus because they saved you. Maybe you’re the one who’s not thinking straight.”

Shepard swallowed. He felt like the inevitable bad end of this conversation was barreling toward him like a dreadnought at FTL.

“You’ve changed,” Kaidan continued. “But I still know where my loyalties lie. I’m an Alliance soldier. Always will be. I’ve got to report back to the Citadel. They can decide if they believe your story or not.”

Shepard felt his guts twist as Kaidan turned to walk away.

“I could use someone like you in my crew, Kaidan,” Shepard said weakly. As soon as he’d started saying it, he’d known it was the wrong thing to say. But he couldn’t stop himself. Kaidan’s incoming rejection made his face burn and his chest ache. “It’ll be just like old times.”

“No it won’t,” Kaidan said coldly. “I’ll never work for Cerberus.” Kaidan’s voice softened. “Goodbye, Shepard. And be careful.”

Kaidan turned his back on Shepard and walked away for good.

In real life, Shepard had walked away, mulling the conversation over and over in his mind, twisting Kaidan’s words into something harsher than they’d truly been.

In the dream, Shepard stood there and softly wept. All that fury he heard in Kaidan’s voice, all that righteous indignation at Cerberus… none of it had been directed at Shepard himself. Only worry, and grief, and sorrow.

Kaidan hadn’t been thinking straight. But neither had Shepard.

Shepard remembered his glib words at the start of the conversation. His own ignorance of how much pain his death had caused Kaidan. How scared Kaidan had clearly been that Shepard was a Cerberus plaything.

For the first time since that conversation had happened in real life, Shepard forgave Kaidan.

Truly forgave him. Understood why Kaidan said what he said, and accepted that he needed to say it.

Shepard fell to his knees and wept.

“Well, ain’t that a fucking sad sight to see,” a voice said from behind him. Despite the words, the tone was gentle.

Shepard wasn’t even phased. The memories from his previous dreams were already there.

“Who are you?” Shepard asked sarcastically, not bothering to stand up or turn around. “Ghost of Christmas future?”

The voice laughed, a joyful tittering. “Mr. Scrooge, you’ve been very naughty,” they said suggestively, then broke into laughter again at their own joke.

Shepard finally turned his head to look, and… and was at a loss to explain what he was looking at. It wasn’t a person, so much as the primordial idea of a person… or, perhaps, two people? They had a mix of features that looked both like a human and like one of those Alternian aliens he’d met. When he took in the big picture, he had the sense of flashing, blinking, always shifting between states. And yet, every part that he examined was still. Blank. Absent. The platonic idea of a person, standing where a person should be.

Somehow, the figure had a mouth that looked like a kitty-cat face and their feet were floating about half a meter off the ground.

Yup, there it was. That sense that the universe was falling off the hinges.

Shepard clambered to his feet and stood before the being.

“What’s going on?” Shepard finally asked.

“You’re dreaming, silly.”

“Yeah, I got that,” Shepard said. “I guess this means you entered my dream bubble. Who are you? And why are you here?”

“Ooh, those are both purrfect questions,” the figure said. “My name is Davepeta, but who are any of us, really? Hard to tell when there’s an endless purrsession of timelines full of people who are almost us, but not quite. And I’m here because I’m trying to meet up with my friends, and your dream bubble was on the way. I thought I’d pounce in and purr hello.”

Shepard crossed his arms. “Go ahead. You have your own questions. Ask away.”

“What questions?” Davepeta laughed. “Hey dude, we can talk about whatever you want to talk about. I mean, you probably want to talk about that guy you’re in love with, but if you don’t wanna that’s none of my business.”

A queasy feeling settled into Shepard’s gut. “In love with him? I think you’ve got the wrong idea.”

Davepeta shrugged. “Who is he?”

“Kaidan Alenko. Lieutenant Commander in the Alliance when this memory happened.”

Davepeta chuckled. “That’s not who he is. That’s just his name and a fact about him.” They appraised Shepard, still smiling but with a hint of seriousness to it. “If you ended up in another universe where he had a different name, how would you know him when you found him?”

“His face?”

Davepeta waved that idea away. “Nah, that’s silly. That’s just another fact about him.”

He thought about Kaidan. About who Kaidan was. About what made him Kaidan.

Suddenly, the dream shifted. They were no longer standing on Horizon. They were on board the Normandy SR-1.

Kaidan stood before him. He was telling the story about BAaT training. How he tried to defend Rahna. How he killed Commander Vyrnnus by accident.

Shepard watched dream-Kaidan retell the story, watched the emotions play across his face.

Trust. Kaidan’s trust of Shepard. Kaidan was sharing something deeply personal about himself, about who he was. He was giving Shepard a gift.

Worry. Kaidan was afraid Shepard would reject him. Exposing himself, showing vulnerability to Shepard. Afraid that Shepard would take it the wrong way, cheer him for killing Vyrnnus or chide him as weak for feeling guilt afterward.

Control. Kaidan was trying to hide how much he cared about Shepard’s reaction. Trying to steel himself for rejection.

It was dizzying. He’d known it all along. Had seen the signs… noticed the signs, in fact. Noticed them enough that they were clear as daylight in his own dream-memory.

Tamped them down. Hidden them. Buried them. Ignored them.

Kaidan had loved him. At the time when Kaidan had told him this story about BAaT and Rahna, Kaidan had loved Shepard.

And the heartbreak in his chest told him that he loved Kaidan right back.

Well ain't that the saddest fucking story that ever got told.

Davepeta floated up to Shepard’s side. “See, you’ve got the hang of it! That’s a pretty good memory of him.”

Shepard agreed with the sentiment, but… “Why this memory? What makes it good?”

“Well, it tells you about something meaningful that happened to him. This was an important event in his life that shaped who he is today. Right?”

Dream-Kaidan stood still as Shepard continued to study the man’s face. “Right.”

“But it also tells you something about how he feels about it. If someone else had done the same thing in his place, they would have felt differently about what happened. You see?”

Shepard nodded. “Okay, yeah.”

“That’s what it means to be one person instead of another,” Davepeta said. “Different timelines, different choices, but it’s the same you in every timeline. And the reason it’s you and not some stranger that answers to your name is because all the different versions of you are connected through your feelings about the things that happened to you.”

Shepard thought about his choices. If different choices led to different timelines…

“What if I want to be another me?” Shepard asked. “What if I fucked up my timeline so badly that it’s time for a hard reset?”

Davepeta, for the first time in Shepard’s memory, frowned.

“I’m sorry,” they said. “It doesn’t work like that. If it’s possible for you to have made the choices that resulted in that timeline, then there’s already a version of you living in that timeline. And you don’t have the right to replace him. Or her, or them.”

Shepard considered the idea that, somewhere out there, there might be a Shepard who was somehow the same person as him, but a different gender. It… didn’t feel as ridiculous as he thought it should.

“And you really shouldn’t talk about a hard reset so casually,” Davepeta said. “Even if it’s possible for your universe, things like that always come with a big price tag.”

They considered him.

“But I’m pretty sure your universe doesn’t even have a mechanism for that. Just spending time around you, I can tell that your universe runs on different rules than Paradox Space. Which makes it really amazing that you’re here in the Furthest Ring at all! I think it’s pretty neat that we got to talk, despite coming from totally incompatible universes. I know a lot about this stuff, and even I would never have guessed that could happen.”

Shepard finally looked away from Kaidan and saw that the dream was starting to destabilize.

“I guess our time is almost up,” Shepard said.

“Yeah,” Davepeta said. “I wish you could stay longer, it gets lonely out here and it’s nice to talk to people. But I want you to keep in mind what I said about knowing your alternate selves, okay? I don’t know enough about your situation to hand you the answers, but I get the feeling that you’re walking the path of Heart right now, even if you’re going about it in a very Mind-y way.”

Shepard didn’t quite know what that meant, but he got the gist, and he smiled anyway.

Davepeta floated over to him and gave him a hug. If he’d been awake, he would have freaked out, tried to bolt away from the unsolicited touch. From a stranger, no less. But somehow, here, wrapped in dream logic, it made total sense. There was no danger. No panic.

“Take care of yourself, you emotionally repressed weirdo,” Davepeta whispered in his ear.

And, for the first time in a long time, Shepard woke up with a ghost of a smile on his lips.