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Part 1

"What do you think, Joker? You feel okay about taking the Normandy thru the relay?"

"She'll make it, Commander. All the readings are go. The test drone made it to Arcturus no problem. And there was a helluva lot of testing before that. Just give the word."

"All right, let's do what we came out here to do."

"Aye, aye, Commander. And, if you don't mind me saying so, it's good to have you back. Never felt right without you here."

"Thanks, Joker. Glad to be back and happy to be doing something useful. Let's go."

Strictly speaking, some of the fancy flying Joker is putting her thru on the approach to the rebuilt Charon relay is probably overkill, but who am I to deny him his moment. He's been through a lot.

Entry feels normal, but nothing that came after is anything like expected. There's a rough stuttering movement and the whole ship starts vibrating.

"What the hell? Joker, abort if you can!"

"Can't do anything... engaging FTL drive."

From my position behind his chair, I can see him frantically trying to control the ship. Finally the vibration stops. Everything stops. He throws up his hands and spins the chair around to face me.

"We've got nothing, Commander. No relay transit, no FTL. Wait... normal maneuvering drive just responded. Orders?"

"Let's figure out what happened and where the hell we are. This isn't Arcturus, that's for damn sure."

"Shepard... we didn't go anywhere. Our nav coordinates are exactly what they were at the time we entered the relay."

"That should be impossible. There's no Charon relay in sight. Are you getting any signal from a relay at all?"

"I don't know... there's something. I don't know what it is. It's kind of like an echo... a ghost of a relay. And yeah the stars line up. This is the Sol system. What the fuck..."

Joker's voice is showing some frustration. That's not going to help. I close the distance to his chair and try to talk him down. "Joker, take it easy. We're okay. Normandy held together. It's nothing you did wrong."

We need a plan. Think, Shepard. "The relay must not have been functioning properly. Let's move away from here a little, just to be safe. In case it shows up again we won't be sitting on it. Don't take us far. Just to a normal approach distance. Maybe it will cycle or something."

Time for an announcement. "Okay everyone. It looks like the relay failed. We're still in the Sol system. Just not ours. And the Normandy is pretty much dead in the water – we don't even have FTL, only basic propulsion. It would be a long slow trip to anywhere, even if we know where to go. We'll stay here for now and monitor the faint signals we're picking up from the site where the relay should be. Everybody take an hour and come up with some recommendations."

I need to do some more thinking about this too. Entering the starboard observation lounge, I see Kaidan beat me here. I join him at the viewport, standing close enough that our shoulders touch. He reaches for my hand and squeezes it silently.

"Hey, Shepard. How are you holding up? This isn't quite what we counted on for your first mission back."

Returning the squeeze of his hand, I meet his eyes and smile. "Hey yourself. I'm fine, just got better – I'm glad you're here. And this is why I wanted to make the first transit. In case anything went wrong."

"Yeah, I know. And it could be a lot worse. No sign of Reaper activity here at least. Humour me though, Shepard. Let's sit down while we wait for news. Take the weight off your hip for a bit. You might be glad later if you save your strength now."

In the two years since the end of the Reaper War, during all I've been through trying to recover after being found nearly dead, I've learned to trust Kaidan about these things. He's been there with me through every minute of it, and isn't trying to coddle me.

"Okay. We'll sit. I expect to hear from Traynor or Liara or someone shortly though, when they figure something out."

It doesn't take long before Traynor contacts me, but those few minutes have helped me clear my head.

"Commander Shepard."

"What is it, Samantha?"

"We have received a transmission from a local ship. Minimal armament. They are asking us to identify ourselves, all the usual pleasantries. The message is in English... repeated in twelve other languages, none of which I recognize. They''re also asking if we require assistance."

I get up and pace the length of the room and back while I'm talking to her.

"Start by telling them to stay clear of the area, and warn off other traffic if they can. If that relay is semi-active here it could pull a ship in and I don't know what would happen to them. It's okay to identify ourselves as an Alliance ship, but I'm pretty sure no one will have any idea what that might mean."

"Agreed. Commander, they are requesting to meet with us. I am dissembling."

"No problem, Samantha. Just ask if someone could meet me anywhere other than either ship – I don't know, a bar on a mining asteroid maybe. Anything nearby. I don't want to go far from the Normandy."

"I will make the arrangements."

"One more thing, Traynor. If they're asking for a meeting, there's at least a fair chance they don't plan to attack us. Ask them directly if our ship is in any danger of attracting any hostile attention if we stay here."

"Roger that, Commander."

I feel his eyes on me before I feel his hands on my shoulders as Kaidan comes to stand behind me by the viewport. "Shepard, you're not going anywhere alone."

"I'll be fine... you should stay with the Normandy."

Kaidan murmurs very close to my ear, his voice pitched low. "Don't leave me behind, not again..."

I turn toward him, meeting his eyes, and see the reflection of every promise we've made to one another since London, spoken and unspoken. And I nod, reaching up to touch his cheek with my fingertips. "I won't. You're with me."

He nods and presses his cheek against my hand for a moment.

Time to see what we can find out. "Cortez, we'll need you with a shuttle. Joker, keep the Normandy right here and contact me if anything looks like it's happening with the relay. We won't be far – the coordinates they gave us are pretty close. It's a freighter station apparently. Makes sense, located just at the edge of the Sol system.

_________________________________

Part 2

Two hours later, on Federation freight station FCS Alpha just beyond Pluto

Our shuttle raises a few eyebrows, but not too many. The docking ring crews probably see all sorts of ships coming through here and they don't ask questions.

"Cortez, I hate to ask this, but I need you to stay with the shuttle. Stay in touch with Joker and let me know if anything changes."

"No problem, Commander. And, Shepard, watch yourself. We don't know much about this place. I know, I know... there's no sign of Reapers, but there could be other... Never mind. I know Alenko's got your back."

I can't help the smile. "Always."

It's not hard to find the canteen on this station. It might be a little harder to figure out exactly who we're supposed to meet up with here. Someone named T'Pol. Traynor thought the voice was feminine so we'll start with that.

The place is pretty busy, the clientele decidedly mixed. There are some uniforms, some work jumpsuits, some leather. Kaidan is in fatigues, but I didn't change out of my N7 leather jacket. Of course no one here is going to know what either outfits say about us.

Kaidan stops me with a touch on my arm. He nods toward the far side of the room.

"There, Shepard... in the back corner. There's a humanoid woman, alone. It looks like she might have some kind of insignia on her uniform, but it's hard to tell. Could just be jewelry."

I laugh. "Definitely hard to tell. Looks fairly nondescript for a uniform. Could be our contact though."

"Aren't many other possibilities. Mostly groups and a few men drinking alone."

"Okay. I'll introduce myself. I don't see anyone with visible weapons in here, but keep an eye out. We don't want any trouble."

"I'm right behind you, Shepard."

As we make our way toward that corner table, I can't help but notice that while maybe three quarters of the people here are human, there are quite a few other species represented. None of them are any that I recognize though. I guess it makes sense that Traynor got that first hail in thirteen languages.

"Hello. Excuse the interruption, but I'm supposed to meet someone. I'm Commander Shepard of the SSV Normandy. I'm looking for someone named T'Pol."

The woman looks up from a data tablet that she's been reading, and stands to greet us. "I am T'Pol, Captain of the Federation ship Seleya."

I extend a hand. She seems a little reluctant to take it, but eventually does. "This is Major Kaidan Alenko. May we join you?"

She nods. "As you wish. I was expecting you. If you would like something to eat or drink, you will need to order it from the bar. There is no table service." She takes her seat again. I notice that she's drinking what looks like it might be tea.

"Thanks. What do you recommend? Is that tea you're drinking?"

"Yes, though I warn you that the selection is limited. Most of the customers here prefer alcoholic beverages. This is simply green tea."

My first thought is that I could use a shot of whiskey right now. But that should probably wait for a later round. Kaidan catches my eye, possibly sensing my hesitation.

"Shepard, let me get something for us. Black tea for you, I know. I'm going to see if they have any lager."

I watch him walk toward the bar, smiling involuntarily. It feels good to have him with me, to know he had my back, in every sense of the word.

Pulling out a chair, I take a seat across the table from T'Pol, leaving a chair next to me for Kaidan. Surprisingly T'Pol hadn't chosen the seat facing the bar and the door, so I'm glad to take that position. “Busy place. Must be on a major freight route. What else can you tell me about it?"

"About this facility?" There is a slight arch of an eyebrow before she continues. "Or is that a more general inquiry? I will admit to some curiosity about you as well. Perhaps we can exchange information. I would be interested in knowing where you are from and how you happened to arrive here."

Something about her speech patterns makes me think of EDI, not quite as detached as EDI had once been, but somehow an observer of humanity rather than a full participant. She's not an AI though. I felt a pulse when she shook my hand.

"Sure. I expected that. Specialist Traynor, your contact on my ship, told me she sent you some general information about us and about the Normandy. But if we are where I think we are, that probably didn't mean much. Especially the talk of mass relays and the Reaper War."

"No, I could not find any reference to mass relays or any war by that name in the Vulcan database. I took the liberty of transmitting the information to someone at Federation Headquarters who has access to information I cannot access from the Seleya."

I smile, unsurprised. "So you let the authorities know that there's an unidentified starship on the outer edge of the Sol system. I might have done the same in your position. I hope you told them we weren't a threat."

Kaidan picks that moment to return to the table with a cup of tea and a bottle of beer. I pick it up to check out the label. "Damn, Kaidan, it's your lucky day."

He takes a seat next to me, taking the bottle from my hand. "Hey, that one's mine, Shepard. Genuine Canadian lager, nothing like it in the galaxy. I guess that answers any question about where the hell we are. In a way."

I try the tea. Not bad. "T'Pol was just telling me she'd contacted their Federation authorities about us." I return my attention to her.

T'Pol takes a sip of her own tea, watching the byplay between us. "I believe you misunderstood my intention, Commander. I contacted the Federation President because he is an old friend of mine... and my former Captain. This is a rather unusual first contact situation – something of a specialty for him. He replied just before you arrived, and is on his way to join us here. I am not a diplomat, Commander. My ship is a science vessel. A few days ago, long range scans began picking up some unusual readings from the area where your ship eventually appeared. We came to investigate it."

"What kind of readings? Was there any change just before the Normandy appeared? Do you know if it exhibits any kind of cycle or periodic surge of some kind?"

"Yes, but we were unable to interpret the data. Perhaps together..."

I catch Kaidan's eye and glance at his omni-tool, hoping it will work here. "Kaidan, could you contact the Normandy and get Traynor and Joker in touch with T'Pol's scientists to share data? Probably will want Liara and Glyph involved too."

As he taps his omni-tool, nothing happens and I can see a few creases appearing between his eyebrows. But then it pings and he looks up with a smile. "Looks like it works fine, Shepard. I'll get right on it."

"T'Pol, does your ship have a virtual interface or holotech? Or even just some kind of image transmission technology? It's better if people can talk face to face... unless..." I catch myself wondering about the reaction of people here to the diverse crew on the Normandy. "This might sound like a strange question, but would your people have any problem working with species new to them?"

She lets the question sink in for a moment. "I don't know if you are aware, Commander, but I am Vulcan, not human. Most of those on the Seleya are also Vulcans, but there are also four Andorians, a Tellarite and two humans. We value diversity."

She pauses, staring down at her cup for a few moments before meeting my eyes again. "It has not always been so. Even now, pockets of xenophobia still remain, on Earth and on Vulcan... and elsewhere. But the Federation is a union of many worlds and peoples working together."

"That sounds like my speech, T'Pol."

I must be getting old. I hadn't noticed the approach of the tall man who is now standing by our table. He's not dressed distinctively, but carries himself with a confidence that I usually associate with high-ranking officers or Council members.

Kaidan and I both stand, and he immediately extends his hand to me. "Jonathan Archer, United Federation of Planets." He chuckles as he turns to shake hands with Kaidan. "I've still not gotten used to that... for a long time it was simply Captain Jonathan Archer of the starship Enterprise. That suited me better."

I introduce Kaidan and myself. He pulls over another chair from a nearby table before taking a seat himself.

"Malcolm – Captain Reed – will be here shortly. He wanted to check in with station security." T'Pol nods, silently moving her data tablets to the side of the table to make room for more drinks, keeping just one in front of her. When it flashes, she scans it and taps a quick reply.

"Commander Shepard, I don't want to interrupt your discussion with T'Pol, but I would like to welcome both of you – and your shipmates – to our corner of the Federation. She and I both have plenty of questions, but I'm sure that you do as well."

T'Pol gestures toward the data tablet. "The scientists on the Seleya are in contact with your people, Commander. They have arranged a video link and are sharing data. Much of your technology – that involving eezo – is unknown to us, so interpreting the data may take some time. It is helpful that your Dr. T'Soni is a good teacher."

"Good. I'm glad the communication worked out. I'll pass the compliment along to Liara as well. And no need for ranks here. You can just call me Shepard, or John, if you prefer."

"And I'm just Jonathan." He stands as a dark-haired man in a blue jumpsuit-style uniform joins us. "And this is Captain Malcolm Reed. I'll let you all introduce yourselves. I'm going to get something to drink. Can I get anyone another round?"

Okay, I'm comfortable enough now. "Sure, whiskey straight-up..." I glance at Kaidan, who nods. "And another Canadian lager for Kaidan."

That seems to have caught Reed's interest. "Are you from Canada, Major?" His own accent is distinctively British.

Kaidan nods, smiling. "Good guess, Captain Reed. Vancouver. Yeah, beautiful city... before the war at least."

Reed was immediately attentive. "Would that be the Reaper War mentioned in your transmission? I'm afraid that's a conflict we have no knowledge of."

"Be glad about that, Malcolm." Since we're all shifting to first names, I try his. He doesn't seem to mind. "I wouldn't wish the Reapers on anyone – in any galaxy – anywhere. Ever." I start to say more, but Archer has returned with drinks, including a bottle of bourbon with two glasses and a Guinness for Malcolm along with Kaidan's lager. He pours a drink for me and one for himself, and then lifts his glass to Kaidan and me. "To new friendships."

After drinking to that, I reply with a toast of my own. "To Earth and home... yours and ours."

His drink barely touched, Malcolm returns to the subject of the war. "Was Earth endangered or involved in that war? You mentioned Vancouver."

I take a long swallow of the bourbon before I reply. "Nearly destroyed. Vancouver was the first city attacked. And not just Earth – some other worlds suffered even worse damage and casualties. It was a galactic-wide attack, the latest iteration of an on-going assault on organic life by the Reapers – a synthetic life-form determined to wipe us out." I set my empty glass down on the table, gripping it tightly as I feel my hand starting to shake, remembering.

Kaidan notices it and shifts his leg under the table so that our knees touch. At the same time, he moves to cover my hand with his. It's a signal that has developed between us... it means 'breathe, Shepard'. I do, gradually feeling the calm returning.

Kaidan continues the story, telling of the conclusion of the war – the part I can't really talk about. His eyes focus in turn on Jonathan, Malcolm and T'Pol. His voice is quiet. "Shepard was there, at the end. To stop the Reapers."

I relax my grip on the glass, but don't move out of contact with Kaidan's hand. I'm long past denying any part of our relationship.

Kaidan continues before any of them has a chance to comment, saying what needed to be said, things I couldn't begin to say. "He nearly died there. But Earth is safe. Very damaged, but safe. Some of our allied worlds weren't so lucky. It took a massive and united effort to save as much as we did."

Jonathan drains his glass and pours another, along with a refill for me. "My god, Shepard. I don't know what words I could offer to acknowledge something of that magnitude. Maybe I'll just make it personal."

His eyes meet mine, holding for a long silent moment before shifting his gaze to Kaidan. "I'm sorry for your loss. Both of you. It's unimaginable."

I notice that Malcolm has moved his chair closer to Jonathan's, and the thought crosses my mind that their legs might be in contact beneath the table like mine are still pressed against Kaidan's. A glance at their hands might be confirmation. Their wedding bands match.

T'Pol focuses her attention first on me and then on Kaidan, and the phrase she uses sounds almost like a ritual. "I grieve with thee."

I acknowledge her words with a silent nod. Kaidan thanks her.

She glances at Jonathan and Malcolm before sharing a story of their own brush with annihilation. "... and the entire arm of the galaxy would have been rendered uninhabitable by corporeal species if the destruction of Earth had not been prevented."

I catch a small nod of acknowledgement as her gaze shifts away from where Kaidan's hand still covers mine, glancing at the two other men at the table. But her words are directed to Kaidan and me. "It would appear that you two have much in common with Jonathan and Malcolm. Jonathan was nearly killed in detonating the Xindi weapon meant to destroy Earth."

Malcolm has been very quiet, his beer almost untouched since talk of the wars began, but he adds to T'Pol's account. "For several weeks, we had no choice but to presume he was dead." Even though this happened many years ago, there's still a bleak hollowness in his voice that is all too familiar. I catch Kaidan's eyes on me, maybe feeling a renewed relief that I'm still here with him.

Jonathan reaches for Malcolm's hand, mirroring Kaidan's hand on mine. "It took a long time for me to recover... from the deaths, the decisions, the wounds. Give yourself that time, Shepard." His voice is quiet and barely veils the emotion behind it. "The scars will always be with you, but let yourself grieve... and mend." He looks at Malcolm for a long moment, a look almost too personal for the time and place, before adding one more thought. "It's good that you don't have to go through all of it alone."

This whole discussion has turned pretty personal surprisingly quickly. But I like him, Archer. He reminds me of Anderson in a way. Older, but someone who still lives like he isn't. I get the feeling that part of the reason he hopped a fast ride out here to meet us might be because it offered an escape from a desk in an office with no view of the stars and endless political tangles. The man is clearly a diplomat and by his own description, an explorer. But it sounds like he's been a soldier as well. Maybe not his first choice, but he did what was needed. I respect that. A lot.

T'Pol's communication device pings again. She opens a file, reviewing the message and data it contains. "It would appear that the signal my ship picked up is related to your mass relay. The first appearance of the signal corresponds with your records of the initial tests performed with the relay. The phenomenon is cyclical, as you suggested. The cycle period, based on limited data, is approximately thirty-six hours."

I let that sink in. Maybe we do have a chance at getting home. If it works both ways. And if we don't end up in some other Sol system. "So I guess we arrived via an inter-dimensional rift of some sort, created by the malfunctioning relay."

She takes another look at the data. "It is plausible. I have no better explanation."

Jonathan smiles at her. "So the Vulcan Science Academy has nothing to say about it? It sounds like something they might claim is impossible."

I catch the slightest quirk of her lips that might possibly be a smile. "I have learned, over time, to exclude the word 'impossible' from my vocabulary. Inter-dimensional intersections, temporal shifts – as Jonathan remembers, those are things I once stated to be not possible, since the Vulcan Science Academy had no knowledge of them. I have learned, first-hand, that they are real. So your mass effect technology and intergalactic relays... I have no knowledge of them, but you are here. You are clearly human, and display a convincing knowledge of Earth beverages."

Kaidan nearly snorts his beer at her dry observation. I squeeze his hand and release it. "He does, at that. The man knows his beer. As for me, I never lived on Earth much before the war. I grew up on starships in a military family. But it's home now. And I would like to get back there. There's a lot of rebuilding to do."

Jonathan looks like he wants to say something but isn't sure about it. But he meets my eyes and issues an invitation. "It looks like you have at least a day before the relay cycles again. Would the two of you like to pay a visit to Earth?"

I feel Kaidan's leg pressing tightly against mine as he murmurs. "It's your call, Shepard."

His voice is calm, but his eyes are hooded and the worry lines are back in his forehead. I'm pretty sure we're in agreement here.

"I appreciate the offer, Jonathan. It's tempting. But I think we'd better stay with the Normandy. It sounds like that cycle time isn't exact... and I don't want to miss the window."

Jonathan nods, accepting my answer. But I don't feel right about it. I feel like I owe this man the truth.

"Actually, that's not the whole reason. Maybe not even the main reason. Truth is, it wouldn't be our Earth. But it would look a lot like what ours used to look like." I take Kaidan's hand again. "And that would hurt. A lot."

There is understanding in Archer's green eyes and in the mute inclination of his head.

"I can invite you all to the Normandy though, if you'd like a tour. She's a fine ship... been through a lot."

Jonathan glances at Malcolm, who nods agreement. "I think we might just take you up on that, Shepard. T'Pol?"

"I need to get back to the Seleya. I would like to review all of the data myself. It has been an honor to meet you both." She gathers her tablets and stands to go. Kaidan and I do the same. T'Pol raises a hand, palm facing us, her fingers split into a V-shaped salute.

"Live long and prosper."

I don't try to shake her hand. This ritual farewell seems much more suited to her culture. "Thank you, and your crew, for everything you've done for us, T'Pol."

After she leaves, Kaidan and I linger a little while longer, trading stories with Jonathan and Malcolm, and I tell them where Cortez has our shuttle docked. They prefer to follow in their own runabout, but we'll meet up at the Normandy.

I remember something I should do before we get back there. Giving Joker a ping on his omni-tool, I leave him a message. "Get your baby ready for some visitors. Incoming."

Knowing Kaidan will smile at the phrase I'm about to use as we take leave of Jonathan and Malcolm, I can't resist.

"Well, we should go now."

_________________________________

Part 3

"This is quite a ship you have here, Shepard. And your pilot gives one hell of a flight deck tour."

"Joker? Yeah, he's the best. This ship is almost literally his life. He once risked his entire career to prove he could fly her better than anyone else they wanted to assign. I'm sorry he couldn't give you a flight demonstration. You being a pilot, you would appreciate the manoeuvrability."

"I'm sure I would. I'm glad he had some simulations I could watch."

We're in the loft on the Normandy, sharing another drink. Jonathan swirls the amber liquid in his glass, lost in thought. His next words surprise me.

"I envy you a little, Shepard. And admire you, much more than a little. From all I'm hearing, you didn't have to go back out there after the war. Even if the medical issues weren't so serious, it sounds like you've done enough."

My turn to study the liquid I'm about to down. "I had that conversation with the Alliance admirals and with the Council – the galactic governing body that Kaidan and I ultimately report to. The admirals wanted to promote me to a desk and the Council suggested that I could take diplomatic assignments."

Jonathan smiles at that. "But you're here instead. Testing repaired mass relays... on your old ship, with your old crew."

There's a lump forming in my throat at that, and I try to swallow it away with another sip of whiskey. It's a bottle that Kaidan gave me as a 'welcome back to the Normandy' gift. This seems like a good occasion to share it.

"Not everyone is still here. You saw our memorial wall. There are a lot of ghosts here, but they're our ghosts and I can live with them. I'm no diplomat and god knows I'm not much good with politicians. I'm just an old soldier, and I want to do what I can to continue to serve."

Jonathan unexpectedly raises his glass to me in a silent tribute. "You're a lot better at saying no than I was."

"I only put one condition on my return to duty – that Kaidan and I would be serving together. I've hurt him enough, there's no way I'll leave him behind for a mission."

Jonathan nods in agreement. "Malcolm and I made a similar agreement when I left the Admiralty to take a diplomatic posting. It meant some sacrifices in his career, or at least a change in direction, but no regrets."

_________________________________

 

Speaking of Kaidan and Malcolm, the two of them are just now joining us. Kaidan accepts a drink, but Malcolm demurs.

"I expect we'll be heading back to Earth in a bit, and one of us needs to be sober enough to drive." The smile directed at his husband takes any sting from the words, and he's rewarded with an equally warm smile from Jonathan. I hope Kaidan and I still look at each other that way when we've been together as long as the two of them.

"Can I offer you tea instead, Malcolm? I always keep some around."

"Thank you, but no, I'm good. Kaidan and I stopped off in the mess for a few minutes earlier. "

He joins Jonathan on the couch, settling comfortably close. I make sure there's room for Kaidan next to me, happy to feel the solid warmth of his shoulder against mine.

It seems Malcolm and Kaidan have gotten on well together.

"I want to thank you for introducing me to Garrus. I appreciate his taking time to show me some of your hand weapons. It's something of a hobby with me."

I snort, knowing how little it would take to get Garrus going, given the chance to talk weaponry with another expert.

Kaidan laughs as well. "I know he enjoyed it. Actually I had a mental bet with myself about which of them would be the first to mention calibrations."

"I hope you didn't bet against Garrus on that one, Alenko."

He shakes his head. "No, I'm afraid the odds were against you on that bet, Malcolm. But you gave him a run for his money. And I know he was interested in that phase pistol you showed him in return. He's probably working out schematics for it in his head as we speak. I hope it wasn't too classified."

Malcolm's smile morphs into a very amused smirk. "You'll be a long way from anyone who might care. I hope it's useful to you. For the most part you seem to have it all covered, in terms of hand-weapons."

I like the idea of Garrus turned loose with an idea for a new pistol. "I'm sorry most of ours use eezo technology that your galaxy doesn't seem to have. But now that you know of it, you can keep an eye out for it on deep space exploration missions."

Jonathan looks and sounds much more relaxed than when we first met this afternoon. "Maybe if we find some, we can build a slightly malfunctioning mass relay and pay you a return visit."

Crazy as the idea is, it makes me unexpectedly happy that he would imagine trying it. "Just set the cycle time longer, so you could stay awhile and see the sights. We'd be glad to show you around."

A few hours later, Kaidan and I say our goodbyes and watch their sleek runabout shift into FTL – warp drive they call it – and head for home. We'll stay in touch with T'Pol on the Seleya until our own departure. Assuming it will work.

_________________________________

 

Back in the loft, we kick our boots off and Kaidan draws me down next to him on the couch. Letting out a long breath, I rest my head against his shoulder. "Well, that whole thing went down a lot better than we had any right to expect."

He touches a kiss to my temple and murmurs. "I feel good about our chances. We'll get home okay, John."

"Yeah. We will. And we made some friends today. Archer has had a pretty amazing career. His ship was their first FTL deep space vessel. Did you and Malcolm find some things to talk about?"

"We did. The usual things – London, Vancouver, our ships, our partners..."

I'm a little surprised by the last topic and shift to face him. The whiskey brown eyes that meet mine leave nothing of his feelings to the imagination. “What did he have to say about us?"

Kaidan cups my cheek in one warm hand, tilting my face for a gentle kiss, taking his time, reminding me how much he loves me. It quells a tension I hadn't expected to feel. I remind myself that none of their conversation was going to become tabloid fodder. He was just talking privately with a man he has a lot in common with.

"Only that he understood how it feels to almost lose someone you care about. How hard it is, even after you have them back again. And how much guilt you can feel for somehow avoiding a brush with death that you should have shared."

I nod, pressing my face against his warm hand as defense against the memories. "Yeah. He would know that first-hand. Jonathan told me it was hard to live with himself afterward, trying to make peace with his decisions. Sounds like he had to make some morally questionable choices, do some things he never thought he'd ever do.

Kaidan takes my hand, stroking my palm with his thumb. I know that he knows I could have been talking about myself. "I didn't know about Malcolm's guilt feelings. But it makes sense. It must have been hard for him to let his captain take on a suicide mission. I guess you would understand that."

"I told him it was what it was. But that it sounded familiar. That you'd had to go with the best of some bad choices. And that you have a lot to live with."

I wrap my arm more tightly around him, knowing he's right. His voice drops to little more than a whisper and his eyes lock onto mine.

"He said one more thing about you, John – 'Not just a lot to live with. Shepard has a lot to live for. And he has you there for him.'"

My kiss begins in gratitude but deepens into a need that promises a happily sleepless night. But for now, I'm content to simply stretch my legs out up on the couch and rest my head in Kaidan's lap. He lays a hand on my chest and I cover it with mine.

"He's right. I do."

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