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The steak sandwich isn’t bad. The Shard wine is awful. But Kaidan doesn’t care about either, because they’re not the point.

“What did you call it?" Shepard asks. "A sanity check?”

Kaidan huffs a little, even though his mouth is dry and he has to keep reminding himself to breathe. "Sanity check. Yeah."

"I hate to break it to you, Kaidan, but I don't think I'm too easy on anyone's sanity."

A million different examples of Shepard's particular brand of insanity dart across his memory, most of them involving the Mako.

Kaidan slides a hand across the table until their knuckles touch, the way they’ve done so many times in the past. Deliberately positioned knees. A hand on the shoulder that lingers half a beat too long. Fingers that brush when handing off a datapad. All those planned accidents. But not this one. This one is real.

"Good thing I know what I'm getting into."

"Yeah," Shepard says, corner of his mouth crooking in a smile. "I guess you do."

Kaidan exhales, and with it go years of waiting, grieving and regret. They’re sitting in an overpriced café with an artificial view, rationed menu and nothing but bad batarian wine to celebrate with. But when your lives together have been restricted to weapon mods, medigel reserves, and which canisters in a room full of mercs are most likely to explode, sitting still amidst the white noise is a rare high point. With Shepard it’s about finding perfection in imperfection.

And Kaidan does. Because damn, this wine is bad.

Shepard raises an eyebrow, quirk of a smile still resting on his lips. “Not like that lager you were hoping for, is it?”

“I’m a silver linings guy, Shepard.”

He laughs, a sound that warms Kaidan all the way to his toes, then stands unexpectedly, pulling Kaidan along with him. His hand is warm and covers Kaidan’s like a glove. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“To find you a Canadian lager.”

Kaidan’s about to protest, because leave it to Shepard to turn a wistful longing for beer into a life or death mission in which something will inevitably explode, but he doesn’t.  Resisting him is a little like trying to find a way around physics. Once you’re caught in his gravity you can’t get out.

~

Turns out Canadian lager is the only target Shepard can’t hit. They’ve covered most of the Presidium and what feels like half the Wards to no avail, to the point where Kaidan actually thinks he prefers fighting Reapers. At least when you’re getting shot at you get to stop and take cover every now and then.

He’s going to take a wild stab and guess Shepard wouldn’t know what to do with a beach if you gave him a lounge chair and an umbrella drink.

“Hey,” he says, smiling because the furrow on Shepard’s brow is nearly identical to the one he gets when scowling at a combat scanner. “How about we take a knee and forget about the lager for a while?”

Shepard glances over at him in surprise, as if he’s completely forgotten what they’re looking for in the first place and why. Put an enemy and a mission objective in front of him and Shepard’s a perfectly calibrated weapon, but when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve a heat sink he’s as dense as a neutron star.

“You don’t want it?” he asks, purposeful stride coming to an abrupt halt.

“Sure, I guess. But. I’d rather…well. I’d rather have you.”

There’s a double entendre there that Kaidan doesn’t pick up on until the words are out of his mouth, but if Shepard notices he doesn’t let on. Instead his expression softens, the furrows of his brow creasing briefly deeper before smoothing back out.

“Sorry,” he says, voice low and gruff like he’s forgotten how to use it. “I’m not that good at this.” 

“Well, to be fair neither am I,” Kaidan confesses. “You don’t really want to know how long I practiced that spiel I gave you at Apollo’s in the mirror.”

Shepard huffs, then wanders to an observation window in the Upper Wards, the straight line of his shoulders bowing as he rests his elbows on the railing and shifts his weight off his left hip. Kaidan comes up beside him, close enough that their arms brush. He wishes it could be more, wishes for two seconds they weren’t Alliance marines and the only human Spectres to boot, so he could slide a hand along the small of Shepard’s back and see if it fits, lean a head on his shoulder and just…exist. But he can already feel the gaze of curious onlookers – Shepard doesn’t exactly blend in with a crowd – and he can only imagine the field day the press would have if someone catches the two of them so much as holding hands. He’s pretty sure Hackett isn’t going to stop performing triage on the Fleet to scold them on a little inappropriate PDA, but it’s at least one small thing he can probably do without. Small favors are in short supply these days, and they’ll take any they can find. So Kaidan settles for the subtle intersection of space, and if his mind dwells a little too much on what the texture of Shepard’s lips might feel like or how damn good he looks in that leather jacket, so be it.

Shepard gazes out at the Ward arms running away from them out the window, like lit runways fading into the blue-lit haze of the Serpent Nebula. So simple to lose your way out there, cloaked in a gaseous fog that never lifts. Without stars to navigate by you might never find your way back.

“‘Member the first time we saw this view?” Shepard asks.

Kaidan shifts his weight in surprise when it dawns on him where they are – the same window they’d stood in front of on their first trip to the Citadel. Back when the galaxy first started looking bigger and more complicated than they’d previously thought. Before Shepard was a Spectre. Before Sovereign. Before the weight of the galaxy came down around his shoulders. Before Virmire. 

“Yeah,” Kaidan says softly. He can’t help but feel a little old. Considering all the joints that creak when he sits down and the grunts that come out of his mouth when he gets up, the strained muscles that take longer to heal than they used to, and the silver hairs growing around his temples, it’s probably more than a feeling.

Marines age before their time. Nothing you can do about that. You just enjoy what you’ve got for as long as you’ve got it.

He shifts fractionally closer to Shepard, the urge to kiss him getting harder to ignore. As if he senses it Shepard turns his head, canting it just enough to nudge Kaidan’s heart rate into the stratosphere.

“Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?”

More like a lifetime. In Shepard’s case it’s even true.

“Want to get out of here?” Shepard asks, in a tone that makes it hard for Kaidan to swallow.

“Yeah,” he manages. “I’d like that a lot, actually.”

“Good. Because I’d rather have you, too.”

Ok. So maybe he did catch the double entendre.

Artwork by MythicBeast

~

They hold it together all the way to the Normandy, but once they reach the elevator protocol and propriety are out the window. By the time they get to Deck 1 they’re kissing as though they’re both starving to death, which considering how long it’s been since that steak sandwich, isn’t far from the truth.

Good thing EDI can unlock the door, because there’s no way Kaidan’s letting him go long enough to do it himself. Shepard’s lips are chapped – that’s one question answered – Kaidan can still taste that godawful Shard wine in the back of his mouth (there’s a sword fighting joke to be made somewhere about the things they’re doing with their tongues, but Kaidan’s sure as shit not going to make it, because he has some sense at least) and it’s taking longer than it should to figure out which direction to lean without contorting in ways that belong on a gag reel. But Kaidan doesn’t care. It’s perfection through the imperfection, messy and careless, as though this is their last chance instead of their first.

They’re a few steps inside Shepard’s cabin before they have to catch their breath, either that or find themselves in a rather compromising situation with Dr. Chakwas, and Kaidan realizes he’s never actually seen Shepard’s cabin before.

The model ship habit he knows about, at least in passing. Shepard talked about it before on the SR-1, one of the few hobbies Kaidan had ever heard him mention. But the other thing takes him by surprise.

“Wait...you have fish?”

Shepard almost looks offended. “They’re soothing.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Fish.”

“They have names and everything.”

Shepard lists a few of them off. Most of them end with “the second,” “the third,” or in some cases even “the fifth.”

“What, are they descendants?” Kaidan asks. “Did the Normandy become a generational ship while I was gone?”

Shepard’s brow wrinkles, at first in indignation, but then in almost mournful acceptance. He sighs. “Replacements.”

Kaidan bursts out laughing. “Let me guess. You forgot fish need to eat more than once every couple of days.”

“Garrus may have gotten me an automatic feeder last trip to the Citadel.”  

Before Kaidan can utter what he’s sure is a really good, smartass comment about marine casualties and stupid jellyfish, Shepard shuts him up with his mouth.

The fishtank must be made of pretty stern stuff, because in his hurry Shepard knocks Kaidan’s head against it, lips to Kaidan’s throat, thigh pressed between his legs. Kaidan accidentally trods on his foot in an effort to give him better access, because fuck it feels amazing and he doesn’t want him to stop.

Shepard’s not the kind of guy who stops. There’s a whole fucking universe that can attest to that.

Shepard’s shoulders shrug as Kaidan tugs off his jacket and flings it to the floor. The cabin may have started neat but it’s not going to end that way – just like them if you think about it too hard. Kaidan usually does. Shepard usually doesn’t.

It’s a give and take.

Their hands stutter, fingers fumble, missing their mark as often as they find it. Both in search for the right balance, the cadence they fall into so easily on the battlefield, the cues and tells and lifelines that always bring them home.

But this isn’t hostiles and thermal clips, bullets, blood and death. This is life, this is living, something they never seem to get the hang of. For people like them, joy and pleasure is usually just making it to the next day, not Shepard’s breath hot against his neck, thumbs hooked into his belt, pulling their hips flush and feeling they’re both hard. It’s not sliding his hands up under Shepard’s shirt, traveling along the uneven shape of the Cerberus tech fused into his spine before shoving the cotton up and over his head, catching Shepard’s arms helplessly in the sleeves and tugging until they both laugh. It’s not the clack of their teeth in their rush to close the distance again once the offending piece of clothing is off and puddled at their feet.

This is something they’re going to have to learn.

Shepard takes a step back, tightens his grip on Kaidan’s belt loops and pulls. It’s swift and sudden, with the kind of strength he normally reserves for taking down an unsuspecting cannibal that wanders too close to cover, and it sends Kaidan capsizing into him with a sound that’s so embarrassing he’s never, ever going to live it down. Shepard grunts – unknown number of muscles and ligaments he’s pushed past their limit too many times jumping up to complain – but somehow holds him up, then smiles. Grins.

“I’ve got you.”

Kaidan can’t think of a reply that isn’t completely ridiculous, so he makes his mouth more useful and pushes his tongue past Shepard’s teeth.

Shepard gives as good as he gets. 

They manage to make it to the bed without falling down, even though Kaidan nearly ruins the whole thing right then and there by tripping on the stairs.

No chance. Not this time. All the failed takeoffs, bad timing, staying silent when they should have spoken, shutting down when they should have opened up…they’re not letting this one go by. Just this once. Just this time. They’re going to get it right.

Shepard reaches behind him, feeling for the bed, takes a seat on the edge when he finds it. They’re both breathing hard, faces flushed, lips swollen, eyes unfocused. Any chance they had at slow is long gone, maybe never existed in the first place. 

Clumsily Shepard searches for the zipper of Kaidan’s pants as Kaidan tugs off his own shirt – without getting stuck, which is something at least – and casts it aside. To his surprise Shepard stops, breath caught in his throat, and just stares.

Kaidan tries to identify the expression and can’t. It’s pure emotion, honest and unfiltered, no bureaucracy no walls, no deflecting, just Shepard, and it’s almost better than the soft touch of his calloused fingers feeling out the musculature of Kaidan’s abs.

Almost.

“You look good, Major,” Shepard says, voice soft and reverent, fused with want that sends a sharp stab of heat to the base of Kaidan’s spine.   

“You’re not so bad yourself, Shepard.”

“Factory refurb,” Shepard replies, sighing in frustration when he only manages to loosen Kaidan’s pants enough to get them halfway down his ass. “They covered up the flaws with a new coat of paint.”

“There’s a lot more to you than fresh paint,” Kaidan breathes, as Shepard leans forward and traces his lips down the flesh of Kaidan’s stomach. The small pockets of warmth he leaves behind give rise to goosebumps when cool air sweeps back in.

A moan rises from his throat as Shepard strays lower, skimming the hem of Kaidan’s briefs. The moan turns to a gasp as one hand finds a way down the front of Kaidan’s pants, gently rolling him through the thin fabric. Kaidan rocks forward, Shepard’s other hand strong and steady on his hip.

“I need to get these off of you,” Shepard mutters, tugging at that damned zipper with a growl lodged deep in his throat.

“Is the great Commander Shepard going to be defeated by a few straps and buckles?”

“Fuck Alliance fatigues.”

They give up on stripping each other down and do it themselves, shucking off their boots and socks as quickly as they can. There’s no way to take the awkwardness out of smelly socks, no matter how good you are, so they just do it and get it over with.

Shepard’s back hits the bed first and Kaidan uses the advantage, pinning him down and doing some exploring of his own.

There’s a lot to see.

Shepard’s armor is as much a part of him as the person underneath it, and he’s not just talking about the hardsuit. There’s the military fatigues. The leather jacket and jeans that make it really fucking hard to pay attention. He’s got shield emitters on all of them, and they’re no less protective for being figurative.  

But skin tells a different story. It doesn’t hide the scars. The wear. The truth. Shepard’s all lean muscle over hard edges – biotic metabolism, just like his – not an ounce of him wasted or spared. His skin is a star chart of things he’s put his body through, and Kaidan’s navigating it as best he can. It hurts to think how much of that history Cerberus erased when they brought him back from the grave. The things Kaidan can’t see. Things he’ll never know.

So he focuses on the things he does know. Shepard’s body is familiar, but only as it functions in a hardsuit. Where it’s weak. Where it’s strong. How long before his amp overheats, how much punishment his barrier can take before he’s spent and vulnerable. He knows Shepard’s weak left hip – still weak, even after he’s been rebuilt from the ground up, because the man doesn’t know how to roll to the right every now and then – and how to protect him from it.

Now instead of gauntleted hands searching ablative for a breach to seal, Kaidan’s fingers skate over bare skin, find where it’s whole and where it’s broken. Instead of checking his biofeed and reading Shepard’s pulse he feels it under his palm, flesh and blood instead of numbers in his HUD.   

This is better. This is much better.

It’s better when Shepard’s hand glides across the inside of his thigh and wraps Kaidan’s leg around him. It’s better when their limbs tangle in the sheets, and Kaidan nearly knocks him off the bed trying to get free from the loop snaring his foot. It’s better when the muscles of Shepard’s belly jump as Kaidan ghosts them with his fingers.

Shepard threatens him with bodily harm if he ever lets it slip that the Savior of the Citadel is ticklish. 

They’re messy but eager, feeling their way through one touch at a time. The angles that fit. The ones that don’t. They’re both seasoned soldiers with joints that pop and bones that ache, nursed along each day with a little dose of aspirin and a lot of grin and bear it. Some they already know, others they discover with winces and grunts when a hand strikes the wrong spot or a something torques left when it needs to torque right. When Shepard discovers the limited range of motion in Kaidan’s right knee, he pauses and frowns.

“Thought you said you got that taken care of. Before I died.”

“Blew off the physical therapy,” Kaidan replies.

“Idiot.”

“Says the guy who’s afraid of bone knitters.”  

Right around then Kaidan forgets himself and rolls Shepard on that bad hip, for which he mumbles an apology that’s lost somewhere in the sweat, skin and the heat of Shepard’s mouth.

And oh, fuck, his mouth. Kaidan almost stops breathing when Shepard drops his head and takes him in, tongue sliding up and down his length until Kaidan sees stars. His hands skid over the top of Shepard’s head in a desperate attempt to find something, anything to hold on to, but the soft suck and pull of Shepard’s lips makes it hard to care about anything, including gravity.

Kaidan spent the two years after Shepard died trying not to feel, the one after he came back trying to remember how. Now it’s the only thing he’s got. The only thing that matters.

His nails dig into Shepard’s scalp as he cries out his name, hips jumping into steady palms. Shepard takes it, takes him, guides him past the breaking point and to the other side, body quaking, hands trembling.

Some things might take a little while to figure out. Others they’re doing just fine.

“Holy shit,” Kaidan murmurs when he finds his voice again.

He’s going to have to work on eloquence.

Shepard slides back up beside him, wiping the corner of his mouth and grinning. He starts to say something but Kaidan kisses him instead, hard, pouring three years of waiting into it. Shepard sighs into him, the sigh turning to a keen as Kaidan rolls him on his back, one hand gripping his ass, the other…well. Shepard’s good with his mouth. Kaidan knows a thing or two he can do with his hands.  

“Fuck, you’re good at that,” Shepard pants.

Kaidan mumbles into the crook of his neck. “All in the mnemonic.”

“I was kind of…fuck…expecting you to make a heat sink joke.”

Okay. They’re both going to have to work on the pillow talk.

But not now. Not as Shepard arches his back and moans with Kaidan’s hand wrapped around his arousal, gasping his name, low and ragged, like it’s the only thing keeping him afloat.

Hell, maybe it is.

When Shepard comes it’s hard and fast, no second thoughts, no regrets.  Just the two of them, in a cabin big enough to swallow them whole if they let it. It’s tempting. Kaidan’s pretty sure he could get lost in Shepard if he tried. There are a lot worse places to be.

The euphoria fades, leaving them warm and drowsy, limbs twined, the real world a little closer but still far enough away that they can put it off for a while longer. With Shepard’s arm resting solid and heavy across his chest Kaidan’s willing to try putting it off forever.

“Hey,” Kaidan says.

“Hey,” Shepard replies, raking his fingers through Kaidan’s disheveled hair. “You know, I didn’t know you could mess that up. Kinda proud of myself, actually.”

Kaidan rests his head on Shepard’s shoulder. “Contrary to popular belief, I don’t use biotics to style my hair. A rumor I’m 98% sure I can blame on Joker.”

Shepard chuckles, and Kaidan can feel the vibration.

“It’s a good look on you.”

“Wait until morning,” Kaidan laments. “I think it qualifies as its own lifeform.” When he realizes what he’s said he snaps his mouth shut, hoists himself up on one elbow to meet Shepard’s gaze. “Uh, sorry. I don’t want to…presume anything. I can go if you’d like. Or, when you’re ready.”

“Kaidan.”

“I mean, I don’t want things to move too fast—”

Kaidan.

“—and it’s not like when I asked you to meet me at Apollo’s you imagined you’d wind up naked in bed with one of your crew—”

Shepard kisses him. Long, slow and deep. It takes a minute to recover.

Okay. Okay.

…Okay.

“And what if I did?” Shepard tells him.

Kaidan doesn’t have an answer for that. Turns out it’s the right one.

Shepard brushes a thumb along Kaidan’s jaw. “We’ve lost enough time, don’t you think? Why don’t we make the most out of what we still have. Get a good night’s sleep. For once.”

“Yeah,” Kaidan says, running a hand down Shepard’s arm, hovering over a scar near his elbow. He tries not to think about the implications in those words. That Kaidan’s not the only one losing sleep at night, feeling the galaxy collapse in on itself a little at a time. That maybe Shepard’s even more tired than he is, because the symbol they’ve all pinned their hopes on is just as human as the rest of them.

That’s something to worry about tomorrow. When the armor’s safely in place and the heartbeat reverts back to a number instead of a warm thump beneath his hand.

He exhales. “That sounds…great. Actually.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Shepard wraps his arms around him. Now that the frenzy is over it’s just warm bodies and breathing. Something they can hold onto to stop the spinning.

Someone to live for. Maybe love.

That, Kaidan thinks, isn’t going to be a problem.