The vidlink flickered into life, and there he was.
He sat at a desk in his officer's uniform minus the jacket, revealing a thin navy blue t-shirt and strong arms. It had been a while since they'd seen each other, but he hadn't changed much. No new scars, and his dark hair was as short and well-groomed as ever. Still handsome in that classical way, all muscle and hard lines, from the line of his jaw to the bridge of his nose to the stoic angle of his brow.
But the only thing Shepard ever noticed was his eyes. Windows to the soul, people said, and for him she agreed. Even when things got personal, he always kept a sort of calm about himself like a shroud. It had been one of her guiltiest pleasures to fluster him with a smirk and a suggestive remark and watch him scramble to pick up the pieces of his shattered composure, because she never had to. All she had to do was look in his eyes and she could read him like a book.
Right now, the book's title was 'Pleasantly Surprised.'
"Shepard." He smiled, perfect white teeth. "Hey."
"Hey yourself." Already, she felt the beginnings of a smile tug at her mouth. "Glad I caught you. Figured you'd be off somewhere."
"No, I just got back. Finishing up a report," he said, lifting a datapad off his desk. "What can I do for you?"
"Putting together another crew. Shakedown, nothing serious."
Their conversations could seem curt from the outside, short phrases and single words, even back when they were together. Probably what made it so easy for Shepard to talk to him in the first place, and what made him comfortable enough to open up around her. There simply wasn't a need for so many words between them.
"Really?" He chuckled. "You must be excited."
"A little," she admitted.
"You need some recommendations?"
She quirked an eyebrow at him. "No, Kaidan, I don't."
On the other end of the line, he blinked. "Oh."
"You're massively overqualified for any position I could offer, but." She shrugged. "If you want one."
Something slipped across his eyes. Anxiety? It was gone too fast, and he covered it with humor. "You know, technically I outrank you, Commander."
She obliged him. "Not on this ship you don't, Major."
"You're right about that." Kaidan forced a brief smile. "I don't know, Shepard. Two Spectres on the same ship."
"Yeah," she agreed, a bit too quickly. "A little wasteful."
"We're supposed to be the embodiment of self-reliance, right? At least that's what they said when I was inducted."
"Got the same speech." She raised a fist. "'The right hand of the Council, instruments of their will.'"
That got a wry laugh out of him.
"I only hung up on them a couple of times," she protested mildly.
"Yeah," he said, drawing out the word. "I remember."
Shepard rested her chin in her hand and stared at him through the vidlink. There was a companionable silence that didn't last long.
"No sale, huh."
He shook his head, and she sighed.
"Not a lot of old crew on board for this one."
"It's not that they don't want to be."
"I know." Shepard stared at her fish tank. It was empty again. "I know."
Kaidan shifted in his seat. "Look, Shepard-"
Bip bip boop, the door chimed.
Shepard glanced over her shoulder. "Come in."
The door opened, and Garrus walked in, a pair of datapads in one hand. "Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I put together a couple more dossiers that you-"
He looked past her and saw the screen.
"-might want to look at," he finished quickly, placing his hands behind his back and tucking his mandibles tightly against his face.
Shepard nodded, and Garrus walked up and set one of the pads on her desk, then promptly made for the door. He shouldn't be doing that, she thought. These were her quarters, and he was welcome here. If it were anyone else on the line, he would stick around to discuss the dossiers when she was finished. She felt her jaw clench in irritation. This was stupid. They were all adults.
"Garrus," she called out before the door closed. He froze, and turned on his heel to face her respectfully. "Where are you going?"
He hesitated, then stepped back inside. The doors closed behind him. but he stayed near the entrance to her quarters, still at parade rest. Shepard frowned.
"Don't just stand there, sit down."
He quickly walked past her desk, down the stairs to the small living area and plopped down on the couch.
When she finally turned her attention back to her screen, Kaidan was clearly preoccupied. His eyes flickered as he stared at nothing. He seemed to come to a decision, then leaned forward and laced his fingers together.
"Shepard, if that offer's still on the table, I'll take it."
Shepard actually felt a muscle below her eye twitch, which was new. "If this is about-"
"It is." He quickly raised a hand to halt her reprisal. "But not the way you're thinking. Shepard..." He bowed his head and sighed, raised it back up again. His eyes said he was apologizing. "I've got nothing going on. The op I just finished didn't require a Spectre's attention, and there's nothing tying me to Earth or the fleet. I'm not needed here."
"Two Spectres on the same ship," she repeated, voice free of inflection.
"Spectres have worked together before. You remember Jondum Bau. His team did good work during the war. I just..."
He raised a hand to his temple. Migraine. He still got them, side effect of those old L2 biotic implants.
"I didn't have a better excuse. But I can't keep avoiding you just because things might be uncomfortable. I once said that you meant a lot to me as a person, that I valued your friendship, and I meant it. Now you're asking for my help, and I'm running away." He scoffed at himself and shook his head. "What kind of man does that make me?"
Shepard was glad Kaidan couldn't see her hands on her knees as they flexed momentarily into tight fists. She had been just as complicit, just as guilty of what he was confessing to. She had called him as a courtesy, because he was old crew, but she had never really wanted him aboard. But why wouldn't she? He was a good soldier, talented and disciplined and noble. One of the oldest friends she had in the service. She had loved the man, for fuck's sake.
She closed her eyes and breathed. Still loved, if she was honest with herself. Not in the way that he would want, certainly not in any way that would ever hurt what she had with Garrus. But she cared. She couldn't help that, and she didn't really want to. Despite what had happened between them, he deserved that much of her.
She opened her eyes and found the image of him staring down at his desk, clasped hands in front of his mouth and shaking his head. The anger in his eyes was directed inward, which was typical of Kaidan.
"Should have made time. Shouldn't have let us get this distant." He sighed and lowered his hands. "Sorry, Shepard. I'll let you go."
He reached his hand to switch off the vidlink.
Kaidan waited. Shepard shook her head and chuckled humorlessly, running a hand through her hair.
"Still setting impossible standards for yourself, I see."
His hand lowered and he shrugged. He was silent, and so were his eyes.
"You know what you are?" She forced a smile onto her face. It wasn't as hard as she thought. "A man of the most stubborn integrity."
He breathed out a laugh. "I've heard it said."
Shepard hesitated one last time. Internally, she tore into herself for doing so. "I'll expect you within the next two days."
Kaidan, too, seemed to hesitate, but his eyes bespoke his relief. "I'll be there."
She nodded, then reached over and clicked off the vidlink. Shepard sat up and looked through the glass case above her desk, past the model of the quarian ship Qwib'Qwib. Garrus was typing away at a datapad, trying to look busy or distract himself, but she knew he had heard every word.
Shepard tried to keep her tone as neutral as possible. "This going to be a problem?"
"No," he replied too quickly. Then, after a moment, he lowered the datapad and looked up at her through the case. "Not if it isn't for you."
Shepard pushed herself up from her seat and descended the handful of stairs. She sat next to him on the couch and leaned back, closing her eyes.
"It shouldn't be."
She could feel Garrus staring at her. Then he leaned back into the cushions and she heard him keying at his datapad. "Well, Commander, if you want your Executive Officer's opinion, you need only ask."
Shepard ground her teeth, pinched the bridge of her nose for the second time that day and scowled. "Would you cut that shit out. Christ, you never pulled rank this much."
The keying stopped.
"Sorry," he said, voice less resonant as he spoke through flattened mandibles. "Being an ass."
An uncomfortable silence followed. Shepard let her hand drop to her lap and sighed angrily. "Fuck me," she cursed at herself.
Garrus waited a beat longer than he normally would. "Not sure I'm in the mood, Shepard."
Shepard let herself laugh. She reached over and patted Garrus' armored knee.
"Didn't mean to bite your head off, big guy."
"It's okay. Don't know what's wrong with me."
Shepard shrugged. "You're nervous."
"Never been nervous about a promotion before."
"I was terrified when Anderson made me his XO."
He turned, startled. "Really?"
"It happened so fast after I made N7. He was taking a big risk on me, and I just didn't want it to blow up in his face. I told him that, and you know what he said?"
She felt an ache in her chest as she remembered her captain, her mentor. Her friend.
"'I've met your mother. A Shepard in command is no risk at all.'"
A respectful silence followed as Garrus looked down at the floor. Then: "It's not really about my ability, Shepard."
Shepard looked at him until he looked back up at her. She could read Kaidan easily, but Garrus' eyes could occasionally be inscrutable to her. She wondered if he knew that.
"Nothing's changed," she insisted once again.
"And everything's changed," he said, completing a phrase. What she'd said their first night together.
"And look where that led." She smiled softly and stroked his thigh. "Same thing, Garrus. We were just expressing what was already there."
"Hmm." He blinked. "Didn't think about it like that."
"That's all it is," she said, leaning her shoulder against his. The armor dulled it, but she could still feel the faint trace of his warmth. "Formalizing an existing professional relationship."
He leaned back, and they balanced against each other. She could smell him, pennies and smoke and a hint of leather. "We still haven't formalized the personal one."
She looked up at him with half-lidded eyes. "I said yes, as I recall."
He smiled and bent his head down, his forehead pressing briefly against her own. His voice rumbled in her ears. "You did, didn't you."
She smiled and made a little contented noise in the back of her throat as he raised a hand to caress her collar bone. "We'll get around to it, Garrus. You know I'm not big on ceremony."
"I did offer a turian wedding."
"Well." Shepard raised her hand from his thigh and stroked the tip of his scarred mandible with her finger and thumb, savoring the way his eyes closed as he purred. "I'd want something a little more elaborate than saying 'I do' before a soldier of equal rank and then signing some documentation."
He opened his eyes and pulled away, feigning offense. "It's very pretty documentation."
She laughed, then climbed onto him, resting in his lap. Her hands wrapped around his collar, and his hands rested on her legs. The armor made him bulkier and her less comfortable, but she didn't care.
"The war's over, and we're not going on a suicide mission, Garrus. There's no rush."
Garrus looked dubious. "Never known you to be so patient."
She gave him the smirk he was fishing for. "Never known you to be so impatient. Not about us, anyway."
"Just want to live life while it's here, Shepard," he said with a sigh.
The mood turned more solemn. Shepard looked in his eyes and this time, she saw vulnerability. She leaned in and kissed him, but she kept her hands away from his fringe and broke away before he could raise his hands to her waist. They still had work to do today.
"You are. We are."
He breathed deeply, and she felt his chest rise and fall slowly. "Yeah."
"Now you wanna help me with those dossiers, or just sit here all day?"
He stared at her. His mandibles moved slowly, out then in.
She bit back a laugh and flicked his nose. "Come on," she said, climbing off him, "let's take a look at Liara's first."