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Monday, August 13, 2187 (afternoon)

“I have to say,” Liara began, “I’m surprised you two agreed to this.”

Kaidan had called a meeting in the conference room on the Command Deck. Shepard, Tali, Garrus, James, Javik, and Liara were standing clockwise around the conference table, with Kaidan at the head.

“I’m with Liara,” Garrus said. “Doesn’t feel right to face down Reapers without you, Shepard.”

“I’m not thrilled about it myself,” Kaidan admitted. “But the Council had a good point. Until the last transport reaches the Citadel, the refugees will be vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks. That’s a window of at least two weeks. If this were going to be an out-there-and-back mission, it might make sense to risk it. But for all we know, the Niacal investigation might take a month. Hell, it might even be a Reaper diversion just to leave the Citadel vulnerable.

“At a minimum we need Lam to stay behind; his tactical expertise would be invaluable in an attack. But to protect the most lives, what we really need is someone who knows how Reapers think. More than any of us, that’s Shepard.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Kaidan,” Shepard said, looking into Kaidan’s eyes. Six months since the end of the war, and he was finally starting to get used to the green glow. “It was your idea to bring the geth in on this, and you handled that Prothean Reaper just fine.”

“You’re not my CO anymore, you don’t have to give me the rah-rah speech,” Kaidan said, grinning at Shepard. Shepard smiled back.

“Ahem,” James coughed.

“Right,” Shepard said, looking away sheepishly. “Without my biotics I’d be off-balance in a firefight, so I couldn’t accompany the ground team anyway.”

“What do we know about the Reapers on Niacal?” Tali asked.

“Not much,” Shepard said. “Councilor Tevos forwarded us the eyewitness report she received. It came from the captain of a gray-market trading vessel. The captain said her instruments caught the passive silhouette of something Harvester-sized boarding a Reaper, somewhere over the northeastern continent. Then the Reaper took off at FTL. Too far away for LADAR confirmation, never mind a visual.”

“You’re not kidding, that’s not much to go on,” Garrus said.

“I concur,” Javik said. “We may be chasing a phantom. But we have no other clues since these Reapers went into hiding. I do not see an alternative.”

Liara nodded. “Well then. It’s over a day’s flight from the relay to the Orisoni system, so we’d best get underway soon.”

“Agreed,” Kaidan said. “Time to break the news to the rest of the task force.”

“… so given the timeframe, the Council wants us to remain here while Kaidan investigates,” Shepard finished. He and Kaidan were still in the conference room, but this time with the rest of Applied Theology.

“Hmm,” Lam said, holding a finger to his cheek. “Unorthodox plan. I approve.”

T’Nassa nodded. “Agreed. But given the chance that the Reaper threat on Niacal is real, would it make sense to divide the team more evenly?”

“Affirmative,” Gefyra said. “I calculate that the most effective division of resources would be if I accompanied Alenko-Major to Niacal.”

“I’m curious. Why you?” Shepard asked.

“Lam-Doctor and T’Nassa-Doctor function more efficiently when paired.”

T’Nassa and Lam frowned doubtfully at each other.

“I agree with Gefyra’s assessment,” Normandy interrupted. “Their professional competitiveness increases their speed of decision-making by more than 5.8%, with no concomitant loss in quality.”

“Additionally, because of my shared memories of the geth directly interfacing with a Reaper mind, I believe my knowledge favorably complements Alenko-Major’s own skills.”

Shepard glanced at Kaidan, who gave a slight nod in return.

“Sounds like a plan,” Shepard said. “All in agreement?”

Everyone present raised their hands – Lam and T’Nassa hesitantly.

Shepard nodded. “Okay, it’s decided. Pack your things, we leave in two hours.”

Shepard and Kaidan arrived in the Captain’s Cabin. As the door closed behind them, they turned to face each other while still standing in the entryway.

“So,” Shepard said, touching Kaidan’s hand. “We haven’t had time to discuss this in private.”

“No, we haven’t,” Kaidan replied, taking Shepard’s hand and lacing their fingers together.

“We’ll both be in comms range,” Shepard said. “You can call me every night.”

Kaidan gave Shepard’s hand a squeeze. “Yeah. I know.”

He paused.

“It’s selfish of me,” Kaidan continued, “but I wanted to turn the Council down. Two weeks of honeymoon just wasn’t enough, you know? I guess… I guess I wish the universe would just give us a break. Let us have more time together.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

Shepard placed the palm of his free hand against Kaidan’s cheek, then leaned in. Kaidan responded by meeting the kiss, slowly unlacing their fingers and wrapping his arms around Shepard. Shepard mirrored the embrace, pulling Kaidan in and breaking the kiss to nuzzle Kaidan’s cheek. Kaidan hummed with pleasure as Shepard kissed his neck, the sensitivity of his cybernetically-enhanced skin nearly causing him to shudder as Shepard exhaled against the wetness left behind. He pulled Shepard in tighter.

“You know,” Shepard spoke against Kaidan’s neck, a hint of mischief in his voice. “We do have time for a quickie.”

“I noticed that,” Kaidan said, his smile pressed against Shepard’s temple. “Two hours,” he chuckled. “I know for a fact you can pack in fifteen minutes. You planned this.”

Shepard pulled back to see Kaidan’s face. “So?” he asked.

“So…” Kaidan unwrapped Shepard’s arms from around himself and gripped Shepard’s hands with his own, pinning them against the wall behind Shepard. Shepard made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a growl. “Thanks to you, I have time to do this.” He pressed himself against Shepard for another kiss, but where the first had been gentle, this was primal. Kaidan poured all the passion he could muster into this kiss, alternating between battling Shepard’s tongue into submission with his own and tugging Shepard’s lower lip with his teeth, all the while holding Shepard immobile. Shepard groaned.

As Kaidan finally relented, Shepard breathlessly asked, “Bed?”

Kaidan pressed his forehead against Shepard’s and stared into his eyes, unblinking. “For the next 90 minutes,” he said in an even but uncompromising tone, “you will address me as ‘sir’.”

Shepard’s breath hitched. “Bed, sir?”

“Don’t understand why Shepard specified two hours,” Lam said, tapping his foot on the cargo bay floor. “Should not have needed half that time.”

Garrus rolled his eyes.

Tali looked anywhere but at Lam.

James turned beet-red at the moment he figured out the answer.

Javik stared at Lam, one corner of his mouth turned up in a contemptuous half-smile. One could almost hear the words ‘stupid primitive’ hanging in the air.

“Most salarians would share your confusion, I’m sure,” Liara said, keeping a straight face but unable to hide the amusement in her voice.

After that hint, it only took him a second. “Oh,” Lam said. “By implication, reproductive ritual of some kind, then?”

“More accurate to describe it as a pair-bonding ritual in this case,” T’Nassa said matter-of-factly. “Think of it as strengthening the bond before an extended separation.”

“Pair bonding,” Lam huffed. “Suspect I will never understand amniotes.”

Just then, the elevator door opened, and Shepard and Kaidan stepped out, a large duffel bag slung over Shepard’s shoulder. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” Shepard said. “Had some things to take care of.”

“Shepard-Spectre, did you ha-” Gefyra began.

Tali interrupted it by waving her hands in a semicircle, palm down, in an ‘oh god no, stop’ gesture.

“-ve any difficulty selecting which items to bring?” Gefyra continued.

“No, I was just… going over some things with Kaidan,” Shepard said.

Javik looked like he was about make a ‘pheromones’ comment, so Garrus elbowed him in the ribcage.

“Cortez, is the shuttle ready?” Shepard shouted.

Steve popped his head out of the Kodiak, oblivious to the awkwardness happening just outside. “Good to go, Shepard,” he said.

“Then I guess this is goodbye,” Shepard said. His friends lined up to send him off; he hugged Liara and Tali, gave Garrus a handshake that turned into a bro-hug, fist-bumped James, nodded respectfully at Javik, and gave Gefyra a classic handshake.

Kaidan was last in line, and Shepard gave him a long, lingering hug and a kiss on the lips. “Love you,” he whispered.

With that, he boarded the shuttle, followed by T’Nassa and Lam. The door closed, and the shuttle took off.