Thanks to everyone who encouraged a sequel, and those who commented on "Everybody Knows". It took me a very long time to figure out how to twist a sequel around these two. I hope you like it. =)
And thanks to Robotkumo for the beta work. You rock!
No flowers on the alter
No white veil in your hair
No maiden dress to alter
No bible oath to swearThe secret marriage vow is never spoken
The secret marriage never can be broken
"So," Shepard smiled as the door opened, his dog Alenko wagging it's tail but not barking at the man who entered, "You're late."
"Sorry," James said, hanging his wet jacket on the inside of the door. "Remind me again why we had to move here? Is it a part of your elaborate scheme to lure me into the middle of nowhere, kill me and collect my pension?" James grinned and walked into the kitchen and wrapped his cold arms around John, grinning as Shepard squirmed when icy fingers met the warm and sensitive skin of his stomach.
"Pussy," Shepard grinned and squirmed more as James doubled his effort to put his cold hands up under John's shirt.
James kissed his neck and rested his head on Shepard's shoulder, looking down at the food John was struggling to prepare. "Who would have thought you actually have a domestic streak."
"Shh," Shepard hushed, "What if someone heard?" He flipped over the piece of chicken and grinned.
"Well, considering our nearest neighbors live fifteen minutes away, I could stand on the roof and scream it through a megaphone and no one would be the wiser." James stated, slapping John's ass as he let go and turned to leave the kitchen.
As soon as he was in the living room, he sat down in front of the cheap tv, and turned on the news. He turned down the volume and just stared at the gritty images of the Lunar base. Without the fancy technology there was no real way of knowing what was going on, and he was sure that there was more to it than the poor quality leaked video they were broadcasting suggested. He looked up as he heard Alenko's claws on the floor, and turned off the tv with a awkward smile when John came in right behind Alenko. "Smells good," James said.
John smiled and sat down next to James, "What's on the telly?"
"Nothing really." James said, digging into his food. "So what's the occasion?" He gestured at the food.
"We need to eat the chicken before it spoils?" Shepard mumbled with his mouth full.
James shook his head amused, "I know you John, you don't actually make dinner. You reheat shit, which you do very well, I might add." He looked up at Shepard again, "So what's up?"
John looked away and smiled awkwardly, "Okay you got me." He folded his expression into a dead serious one, and looked James straight into his eyes. "I know you're the family guy, not me, so – ehm... I was thinking that we are a family aren't we?"
"Yeah," James said with a puzzled quirk of his eyebrow.
"I'm not getting younger. I'm almost forty, and if we wanted to be a, uhm, larger family." His voice dropped to a near whisper, "I think it should be soon."
James blinked confused, "What are you saying?"
"I've always been okay with not having kids, but lately I've been thinking that maybe – you know... maybe we could do that." He blushed slightly, this had sounded much better in his head.
"John, please," James burst out laughing.
"Okay." Shepard said with a court nod, "I was just a thought."
James studied John picking his food aimlessly, and had he not known Shepard so well, he would never had guessed how upset he really was. "Come on John, we'd be horrible parents."
"Yeah, you're right." John nodded, he even offered James a short lived smile.
"Hey babe," James pulled John close, kissing his cheek, eyebrow and nose. "What's wrong with you, me and the mutt?"
"Nothing." John smiled a little more genuine this time.
James smiled back and kissed John sweetly, congratulating himself on deflecting that conversation without an argument. He loved John, he truly did. But, how could he ever tell him that he wouldn't even trust him with keeping a potted plant alive. It was just one of the facts of the universe, the sun rises in the East, grass is green, the sky is blue, and John Shepard did not have a parental bone in his body. He'd still binge now and then, though it had gotten much better, much, much better. It had been almost 10 months since he had had to pick Shepard up from some nameless bar. He ran his fingers through Shepard's hair, "Dude you need a haircut."
"Yeah." John just mumbled, leaning into the touch.
James woke the next morning by the alarm clocks insisting beep, he didn't make it half way out the bed before he was pulled back in. "You don't have to get up just yet," John mumbled sleepily, cuddling up against James.
"I kinda do," James sighed, but didn't move.
"No you don't." John whispered, pressing his morning erection against James' thigh.
"That's unfair," James whined, but turned to kiss John softly. "I'll get fired – again. And you know how hard it was getting this job."
John sighed and nodded, letting go of James, flopping back on the mattress staring up at the ceiling. "We need to paint," he stated drily, talking about the state of the bedroom ceiling.
"Come on man, that's hardly fair." James said, leaning in to kiss John quickly before he got out of bed. "You're bored here on your own, I get it." He turned in the bathroom door and looked at John in the bed. "Maybe, I don't know, pick up a hobby or something?"
John laughed bitterly, "Yeah, I always had a knack for crochet."
"Whatever," James huffed and went into the bathroom.
John was sitting on the porch looking out at the rain, listening to the dog snoring. The destruction of the mass effect relays had fucked the planet up big time, and had shifted the weather up and down. He could honestly not recall when he had last seen this much rain. Drifting halfway off to sleep he could almost see Kaidan stand on the middle of the floor of his Citadel apartment, only wearing his stupid military standard issue undies and swinging a bottle of booze, 'We're gonna have like ten kids, right? I always wanted kids, but I sorta thought it wasn't really gonna happen – but we...' He stopped and looked at Shepard, his eyes blazing with drunkenness and admiration, 'We're gonna be a real family one day, right?' - Shepard had laughed and reached for the bottle, but instead, found himself pulled in for a slobbery, horny kiss. 'You and I, we're gonna be a family some day.' Shepard had whispered in a solemn tone, that had made Kaidan smile that special smile which was only made for Shepard.
"Well I'll be fucked." He said to the rain, startling the dog. He had not even known it had been this important to him before James had turned him down. Licking his lips he thought that he could just about kill for a drink. "But I won't," he said out loud, startling the dog once more, "I won't Alenko." He reached down and scratched the dog behind its ear.
For a while he sat there and stared at the rain. "Are you as bored as me?" he asked, the dog ignoring him. "I'll take that as a yes. Look at me for instance, I am talking to a goddamn dog." He smiled down at the dog and then got up to go inside. His stomach rumbled and he looked at the clock, James should have been home by now. John sighed and figured it was because he had been fucking unfair this morning, he knew that James had to get up, but just for once he would love to – well, get things his way. James was right of course, it had been hard to land that job, and they could use the money.
He tried to busy himself with doing the dishes, feeding the dog, actively ignoring the half bottle of bourbon he had stashed away. Why did it bother him so much anyway? He didn't have any obligations any more, if they wanted they could just pick up and leave. They could go see foreign countries. They could do a lot of things, but they didn't, did they?
Shepard had promised a lot of things when they had picked up and moved from where James had found him. One of them was not to live with Kaidan's ghost, but he might have promised a little too much. It wasn't like he didn't understand that James didn't want to compete with a dead guy, and he didn't, he couldn't. But it also didn't mean that Kaidan was gone, Shepard didn't think he ever would be. He didn't know if he was comforted, or disturbed by this fact.
Turning on the television, Shepard laid down on the sofa, and Alenko saw his moment and jumped up behind him and got comfortable. "Goddamn sofa hogger." Shepard said without any bite, moving a little to make room for the dog. He zapped through stupid series, and romantic comedies, he knew that the post war people of Earth needed this brain dead stuff, they had had enough of hardship and death, but did it have to be so stupid? He rolled his eyes with the tall blond doctor made a lewd pun and the canned laughter almost drowned out the actress with her tits almost falling out her jumper, so you were left to rely on her facial expression, which no one ever saw cause they were waiting for her tits to fall out. "Bullshit," Shepard mumbled and changed channel.
Finally, he stopped at the news channel, turning up the volume. 'These images are all we have off the Lunar base for now, and speculations run wild. The remnants of the Alliance are silent, but -.' Shepard stopped listening, and just stared at the Lunar base feed, there was too much static on it to see much. For a moment he forgot to breathe, had he not rid the universe of the Reapers after all? Had some hid in a time-space pocket somewhere, and no one knew? He turned up the volume again '-Most likely terrorists-" the voice in the television said.
John sat up straight and rubbed his face in his hands. Under different circumstances he would have had a call from Hackett and would be on his way. But here he was on this sofa out in the middle of nowhere, stripped from his rank and achievements. That he blew up that Batarian system had drowned out the fact that he had stopped the Reapers. The people left here had needed someone to blame, and he had been first in line.
He sighed and got up from the sofa and went to the bathroom, aiming straight for the medicine cabinet and unscrewed the lid of the pills that his doctor had prescribed him for his trouble sleeping. He shook out two pills in his hand and swallowed them dry. Leaving the pill bottle on the sink, he went into the bedroom and went to bed, not taking off his clothes, or even his shoes.
"Good morning sleepyhead," James whispered, kissing John's temple.
"When did you get back?" Shepard mumbled, feeling most like his mouth was full of cotton.
"A little past midnight." James said, running his hand down Shepard's side, kissing his shoulder. "Sorry 'bout that."
"It's fine." John yawned, purring as James' hand made it to his inner thigh. He spread his legs slightly to give James more room, "You're awfully frisky this morning." John whispered with a sly smile.
"It's four in the afternoon, but yeah." James whispered hotly in Shepard's ear. Shepard reached out blindly to his side and grabbed the bottle of lube from the bedside table and handed it to James. James grinned, and poured some out on his hand, letting it drip onto Shepard's balls and watched as it slid down over his anus. James pulled down his sweatpants and slicked his own erection with a couple firm strokes, watching Shepard idly jerking himself off. He fucking loved that sight, and didn't think it would ever get old. Lube slick hands spread Shepard's ass cheeks and lifted his pelvis up a little. James found himself wishing he had pushed his pants further down, because they were in the way. He let go with one hand hand, pushed the elastic band of his pants down a little more, and then returned to Shepard's thigh, pushing it down towards John's chest. Testing, he rubbed his slick cock up John's crease, watching as he closed his eyes and jerked himself off a little faster. Without a word James pushed inside the welcoming heat. This would never get old, every time he did this it felt like someone punched all air from his lungs. Maybe their sex was routine by now, but that didn't mean it wasn't good, it was just like a drug that you had to have on a regular basis. Still, even if it never quite compared to the first time you tried it, it never lost it's allure and high.
James would forever be amazed at the filthy mouth on Shepard when he was all worked up and about to come, but today he was oddly silent, only moans and gasps, and an 'aw fuck' when he came across his own hand and chest.
"Made you coffee," James called as he heard John come out from the bathroom. He looked at the email once more, closed it down and logged out, not wanting John to stumble across it. He missed his omnitool something fierce, but those were strictly military and there wasn't a whole lot of them left. The world had gone back to emails and paper until someone could figure out how to harness the shattered mass effect fields.
John came into the living room with his coffee and only wearing a pair of black sweats. "What day is it?" he asked softly, sitting down at the opposite side of the small dining table.
"Tuesday," James answered casually.
"You got off work already?" John asked, sipping his coffee.
For a moment James thought about lying, but looking at John's puzzled blue eyes confirmed that he needed the truth. Not like the truth would be any less of a blow if he waited. "I quit."
"What?" John blinked confused. "You quit? Why the fuck would you do that?"
"Well... " James searched his brain for the right words, but didn't really find them. "I ehm... " Why was this so hard? It had not seemed like this big of a deal in his head, not when he had accepted. "I – eh, oh fuck." James rubbed his face, "I'm going to Washington, have to report in at 09:00 tomorrow, at the latest."
Shepard's face completely drained both life and color. "Oh."
"John, please," James reached out for Shepard's hand, and had fully expected John to take his hand away, but he didn't, he just sat there as were he a statue.
"The Lunar base?" Shepard finally said.
"Yeah," James nodded, "Hackett asked for me specifically, but I don't know why."
"Suppose it's important then," Shepard said stiffly. He looked up at James, his blue eyes hard as steel. "Rest of the surviving crew called in too?"
"I honestly don't know," James said, "But I suppose so."
John nodded, and finally took his hand away from under James' "So you better get going, Washington is quite the drive."
"I know," James said, finally looking away from Shepard. "Are – Are you gonna be okay?" he asked softly.
"Why wouldn't I?" Shepard barked angrily. Knowing that James didn't really deserve his anger, but he couldn't remember a time in his life where he had felt more insignificant and emasculated.
"Because I'm not here to -"
"Don't!" Shepard held up his hand to stop James from talking. "Don't you fucking dare finish that sentence."
James sighed and looked down at the table and his hands. He had known that Shepard would take this badly. How could he not? He was every bit the career soldier as James was, 'cept that option had been taken away from him. "For what's it's worth, it's gonna be weird that you're not there."
"Deal with it." Shepard stated dryly, getting up from his chair to pace the room.
James looked up at Shepard pacing the floor, "Question is, are you gonna deal with it?" He asked. "Your coping mechanisms are more than questionable when you're this upset."
"Well," John crossed his arms over his battle scarred chest. "If you were that worried about me, why the fuck did you accept the mission?"
When James looked Shepard up and down, he didn't know if he looked like someone who was gonna stomp his feet on the floor and cry, or ruin the furniture. "Because, I want to make sure it's 'just' terrorists, and not... you know." He pointed at Shepard, "You would have done the same fucking thing!"
Shepard's shoulders slumped, and he nodded, "Yeah, yeah, I suppose I would."
"John, look at me," James said, but when Shepard refused, he got up and walked up to him, forcing Shepard to look at him, placing a hand on each side of his face. "I could talk to Hackett, maybe you could come with me to the base at Washington, or... you know, something."
Shepard actually smiled but shook his head as much as he could with James holding on to him. "That would just be – weird."
"I hate to leave you like this, I don't mean to – you know. But, I just have to be sure." James said softly, trying to make eye contact with Shepard. "You could drive me there?" James suggested, wishing desperately that if just he could get him on the base, things could perhaps be sorted somehow, instead if him hiding in this cave.
"No," Shepard said softly. "You should pack and get going." He finally looked up and smiled a little stiff smile to James.
"Alright." James sighed, leaning in to kiss Shepard again, "I love you," he whispered.
"Yeah," Shepard mumbled and turned away as James let go of him.
"What are you gonna do without a car?" James yelled from the bedroom, "Maybe I should walk to the bus or something."
"I'll be fine," John yelled back, "Maybe I'll even grow to love it."
"Asshole." James laughed back, shuffling his feet as he returned to the living room. "Seriously though, are you gonna be okay?" He smiled a little awkwardly, "I want you to be okay, and.." Shepard didn't turn, he just stood and stared out into the rain through the window.
"Don't worry about it, I got Alenko to keep me in check." Shepard said smiling bitterly, but not turning around to face James. "Jimmy?"
"How long have you known?" Shepard asked sadly, "When did you receive your orders?"
"A week ago," James admitted. "I just didn't know how to tell you, and so I told myself that I'd tell you when the right time came, and..."
"The right time just never comes," Shepard whispered, "I know." He finally turned to James. He wanted to ask when he'd be back, ask him to call or something, but he was a soldier too, at least in his heart. And he knew that it was unfair to trouble James with something like that, so he just smiled, it felt fake and forced, but he managed. "I'll miss you."
"You better," James said relaxing a bit as Shepard came over to stand in front of him. To his surprise he twisted a finger in the chain holding James' dog tags.
"Can – Can I keep those?" Shepard asked.
James felt like the worlds biggest asshole as he pulled the tags over his head and placed them in Shepard's hand, watching as John's fingers closed around them. He suddenly realized it was because Shepard didn't expect him to come back. That's what this was about. God, the last time someone he cared for went into battle, they never came back. "I'll be back soon."
"Yeah," Shepard said listlessly, looking from James to the dog tags in his hand and back up at James. "Of course you are." He smiled another forced smile. Shepard wanted to say something about how he would feel more assured if he was going with him, or if he was there he would know that James was safe. But, it wasn't exactly true, now was it? It hadn't made any difference for Kaidan, he hadn't been able to keep Kaidan safe and he had been right there. Right there!
"Hey John," James said, getting worried when Shepard seemed to zone out, staring down at the dog tags, "I promise. I promise, okay?" He reached out and caressed John's cheek, making him look up. Somehow James wished he hadn't, he just looked resigned and withdrawn. "Did you hear me? I promise."
"Yeah," John nodded, leaning into the caress, feeling his chest getting too tight, and his throat dry up. He understood why James was leaving, but he didn't know how to react to it, he didn't know if he should hold on and never let go, because what if his promise wasn't enough. To be honest, he had never made a promise like it himself, because he knew he might not be able to keep it. Or, should just let him go, no strings attached – smile and wave. He took a deep breath and stepped back, out of James' touch. "You shouldn't let Hackett wait."
James smiled a little, "Yeah, he'd probably have my head for breakfast." He bent down and picked up his bag again. "Hey, I almost forgot!" He pulled out his phone and took a picture. He looked down at the screen of the phone. "I just realized that. You know, I didn't have a picture of you – Never thought about needing one cause I'm looking at you every day and all."
"Yeah." John said again, knowing that if he said anything else he would probably say all the wrong things.
James looked down at his feet for a second, and then covered the distance between them with two long swift strides, kissing Shepard. "When I get back, maybe we should look at that stuff you talked about the other day, maybe you're right."
"James," Shepard sighed kissing him back, "Just go."
"Alright," James whispered. He let go of Shepard, picked up his bag he walked out the door, not looking back over his shoulder. He knew that Shepard was watching him through the living room window. He scratched the dog behind his ear, "Look after him, Alenko," he said before tossing his bag into the Jeep before getting in himself.
Shepard stood there and watched James drive off, feeling terribly empty – A scarily homely feeling, that he had fooled himself into thinking he would never feel again. Shepard turned on his heels and went into the bathroom and took two more of his pills, hoping to sleep the next 48 hours away.
He wasn't sure what day it was when he woke, but judging from how hungry the dog was, he must have slept for quite a while. Shepard made coffee and walked out onto the porch. The air was getting chilly. It was still raining so he couldn't see the stars, he wished he could see the moon, for some reason he would feel closer to James if he could. Thinking of it, it was funny really that he had spent so long traveling amongst the stars, he had taken it for granted that it would always be like that, and that he would die in battle somewhere, on some godforsaken rock, not waste away in a cheap mobile home in the middle of nowhere, Earth. This was not how it was supposed to be. He took a sip of his coffee and smacked his lips. Nah, he was here to live out his and Kaidan's dream, the dream of a real family, of peace and making new roots.
On the fifth day, Shepard went for the half a bottle of bourbon he had hidden away. He wasn't sure what he wanted to dull the most, his loneliness, or his fears.
On the sixth, he walked all the way to the nearby settlement to do grocery shopping. He had all the best intentions, but came home after two days with dog food and four bottles of booze, two Bourbon and two Vodka. It was like slipping on an old coat, getting up and going to bed, drunk.
On the tenth day he didn't get out of bed.
And on the thirteenth day someone knocked on his door. Shepard ignored it, but the knocks insisted. Alenko started to bark, and in the end he just had to get out of bed to see who was there. He almost tripped over the dog when he went to get the door. He opened it and blinked against the weak rays of sunlight outside. There was two uniformed men standing outside each under an black umbrella. At first he didn't really think anything of it, until his alcohol riddled mind kicked in, telling him that he didn't know either of these people. "Yes?" he said, leaning on the door frame because his legs weren't exactly being cooperative. Alenko gingerly came out to see who their guests were.
"John Shepard?" One of the men asked.
Shepard licked his lips and looked at the men, one of them seemed vaguely familiar now that he thought about it, but he couldn't place him. "Who wants know?" he asked.
The vaguely familiar man stepped forward, "The United Army, Earth division." He smiled politely at Shepard's confusion, "What used to be the Alliance, Sir."
Shepard blinked, and ran a hand through his greasy hair, that he still hadn't got around to cut. Suddenly feeling all too sober, all in all a terrifying experience at a very inconvenient moment. "Alright." he mumbled.
"Can we come in, Mr. Shepard?" The other man asked.
"Yeah, yeah." Shepard waved his hand at them as he walked inside, God he needed a drink. "No need getting soaked. So what brings you boys all the way out here?"
"You, Sir." The vaguely familiar one said.
The other was placing the wet umbrellas by the door, and then stopped to study the pictures of the different crews of the Normandy.
Shepard poured himself a drink and sat down on the armrest of the sofa, staring at the two suits. "I don't see why, I don't see what the Alliance could possibly want with me."
"UAED.. Technically." The unknown suit said without looking away from the pictures on the shelf.
"This is staff Sargent Nilsson, and I am Lieutenant North. Janus North, Sir," The familiar one said.
"I've heard that name before." Shepard said, trying to recall when and where, but he couldn't. He hated when that happened, like a popcorn kernel getting stuck between your teeth. Annoying.
"I served on the Normandy, once." North said.
"Yes! You are the guy who could make sense of the Turian tech." Shepard smiled, "I remember you."
"Thank you Sir."
"So what does the UA-whatever. Want with me?" Shepard asked, taking a sip of his drink.
North wet his lips. "Shepard, Sir. We regret to inform you that your partner, James Vega, has been -"
"No," Shepard said, shaking his head.
"Has been reported missing in action, defending Lunar base 4."
Shepard just stared down into his drink, desperately wishing that this was just a nightmare, but the sour taste in the back of his mouth was a reminder that it was all too real. He knew that North was still talking, but all he heard was the rain on the porch, and his own rapid breathing. Like time stood still but still raced double time. His world narrowed down to the rapid sound of the rain, the empty feeling in his chest like life had been sucked out of him violently, and the rising bile. He dropped his glass and vaguely registered it shattering, and then he ran to the bathroom.
North looked over at Nilsson as Shepard stormed past him. "He took that better than I had expected," he said with a tiny voice.
"You think we should just leave the Admiral's letter and leave him to it?" Nilsson said squirming uncomfortably as they could hear Shepard dry heave in the bathroom.
"We can't leave him like this." North said.
"Well, we can't exactly trespass on his grief either," Nilsson argued, "We did our part."
North frowned. "When I was aboard the Normandy, he would have gone above and beyond for any of us, I see no reason not to return that."
Nilsson sighed, "Do you want to stay? I can send someone to pick you up in the morning."
"I think that would be best." North said, shrugging off his coat, laying it on a chair.
"North, he is a goddamn war criminal. Who cares if he blows his head off, or jumps off a cliff. Way I see it, he'd be doing the world a favor," Nillson whispered urgently, his hand hovering over the doorknob.
"I know," North said with a tired voice. "But I'm staying."
"Your call," Nilsson shrugged. "I'll tell them to pick you up around eight."
"Great. Thanks." North gave him a short smile before he went into the kitchen which led to the bathroom. He heard the door close and the car drive out of the gravel road. He stood in the bathroom door looking at Shepard jammed in between the toilet and the sink, his eyes closed, biting down on his fist. "Come on, Sir – Maybe you should come lay down. Is there – Is there anything I can get you?"
Shepard opened his bloodshot eyes to look at North who was crouching in front of him, looking worried. He wasn't even gonna ask why he was still here, or care what North might think about him. "What happened?" he whispered.
"A anti-alien terrorist group. Some fringe group of what was left of Cerberus, as far as I know," North said softly. "They wanted to destroy the com towers on the Lunar bases, so we'd loose whatever little contact we have with the rest of the milky way."
Shepard grunted a reply, feeling oddly relieved that it was not Reapers. He wasn't sure he was in any shape or form to fight them ever again.
North stood up and looked through the medicine cabinet. "Would you believe I actually volunteered for this," he said casually. When Shepard didn't answer, North crouched back down and handed him two sleeping pills but pocketed the bottle, so it was out of Shepard's reach. "Been following your career from the side, and when there was an opportunity to go visit, I took it. I'm sorry if that's inappropriate or sounds creepy." North chuckled a little nervously, "It's just that you did so much for me, making me believe in myself, and I wanted to return the favor, even if the circumstances could be better."
Shepard swallowed the pills dry, and relaxed against the wall, not talking, just waiting for his racing thoughts to slow down, dulled by chemicals.
Eventually North managed to get Shepard dragged into bed, and pulled the covers over him as he was already more asleep than awake. North went to the kitchen and made himself coffee, going into the living room, thinking that he would watch some tv to pass time. He stopped in front of the shelf with pictures. Smiling people in uniform. He picked up the first, nodding to himself when he remembered them from back then. Liara, Ashley, Kaidan, Garrus...and Wrex! North smiled as he looked at the crew, they had all been so damn young. He skipped the second picture with the Cerberus colors, and picked up the third, he looked at them all sitting on a sofa, looking relaxed. Apparently, Shepard had let go of his military doctrine a little, when facing the end of the world. He looked at Shepard and Kaidan sitting in the middle of the couch, Shepard's arm around Kaidan's shoulders, they looked relaxed and happy. Still, the picture just came off as melancholic. When North looked at the other crew, he noticed James Vega there too, standing behind the sofa, smiling at the camera. Moving further down the shelf, there was a picture of Kaidan in his navy blues, smiling proudly at the camera, and North guessed it was from when he joined the Spectres. The next picture was not in frame, it was a polaroid propped up against the wall, it was Shepard and James in front of a van, it was raining in the picture, but they both looked so fucking happy it made North feel a twinge of sorrow for what Shepard had lost twice. He didn't have to understand it to feel it, he knew what he would feel like if his wife was suddenly gone, like the world should stand still, honoring the horrible emptiness at his side.
North sat down in the sofa with his coffee, he wanted to talk to Shepard before he left, wanted to make him aware that missing in action could mean that James was alive, and that he might come home. Maybe give Shepard some hope where he clearly had none left. But on the other side North wondered if it wouldn't just be cruel, because the odds for him being right were slim to nil.
North had fallen asleep, and awoke to Shepard yelling. He sat up straight and rubbed his eyes, it took him a little while to realize that Shepard was talking on the phone, his phone. He listened in, not wanting to disturb the conversation.
"When have I ever asked anything of you, Sir?" Shepard yelled down into the phone, his voice thick with frustration and sadness. "I am begging you, please let me go look for him, please! Let me on a shuttle to Lunar base, just as a civilian. But, I need to go look, I need to make sure!"
North closed his eyes shut as Shepard let out what sounded mostly like a whine of despair and then just placed the phone on the desk, walking past North and straight out outside. North could hear the person in the phone was still talking, on the abandoned line.
Shepard looked up at the moon in the early morning sky. He didn't know if he was angry, sad or humiliated. He had accepted his fate, he had accepted that those who could have backed him up in court, chose not to because of their own careers. He accepted that he would be a civilian for ever after. But, he had never, ever begged. Never! And now, he was begging to deaf ears. He felt oddly castrated, like had this been before the end of the Reapers, he would have been able to move mountains in the name of diplomacy, both on account of the Alliance, but also as a Spectre. And now he wouldn't even be able to find someone who'd wanna drive him to the store. He sighed, trying to fight the tears he felt. Tears would not do no one any good, he could weep till the cows came home, and still it wouldn't change a thing, so Shepard swallowed his tears, and just stared up into the sky, deaf to both Alenko barking and North talking to him.
"Shepard, Sir," North shook Shepard's shoulder. "My ride is here, I have to go back to Washington. Do you... ehm, do you want me to check up on you? I could come by once a week or -"
"Kid," Shepard said with a flat voice, but turned to look at North, "I'm gonna be okay, it's nothing I haven't done before." The words was bitter and hard, but Shepard's eyes were swimming with emotion, unsure and broken.
"Are you sure? It's no trouble," North said, knowing it was a lie, but he hated to leave him like this.
"I'm sure," Shepard said and managed a little hollow smile. "If you really want to do me a favor, tell Hackett I told him to go fuck himself."
North bit his lip, not sure he wanted to do that, but who was he to deny Shepard? "I will, Sir." He turned and walked over to the car, looking over his shoulder twice at Shepard, who just stood there and looked up into the sky, the dog sitting at his feet.
The first two months, Shepard had been completely paralyzed, asking himself why he had let James go, if there had been anything he could have done differently, and most of all, what his last words had been. He also wondered if he was being punished because he got greedy, he had wanted a real family - and hadn't just been content with James.
The following two months Shepard actually made a little progress. He started going to veterans meetings again. They were held in the church hall next to the general store, and he had to pick up supplies anyway. Plus he had to admit he liked to hear someone else's voice other than his own once in a while, but mostly, he did it to honor James, who had sworn that these meetings were like balm to the soul.
Seven months after James had gone M.I.A, Shepard was woken up by a knock at the door. It was the sound he had been both hoping for and dreading. Alenko was barking madly, Shepard had stumbled out of bed and rushed to open the door, his heart beating, needing to open it and see James standing there. Instead he found himself staring out at two officials in suits once again, and one was carrying a standard military bag with a name, J. Vega, printed on the side. "No," was all Shepard said, feeling a terrible sense of deja-vu.
"I am sorry to inform you that your partner J. Vega has been declared killed in action, in absentia. His surviving relatives thought it fitting that you receive this. It is the personal items from his base locker." He pushed the bag towards the door step. "Do you accept it Mr. Shepard?"
"Yeah," Shepard said feeling dizzy. Of course he had not been notified or asked to sign any papers, he would never have signed them without more proof James was no longer alive. He was not 'family' like James' uncle was.
"It is assumed that you wish to be informed about the funeral arrangements," one suit said.
"Yeah." Shepard just said again, mostly in a daze. Idly wondering how much of a compensation James' bullshit uncle had gotten for signing the obituary documents.
"James Vega will be buried in absentia, two weeks from now. In Washington." The other suit said, "We will make sure you will be made aware of time and place."
"Thank you," Shepard said, staring at the bag. He didn't even notice the suits walking back to their car. It was like time stood still, and all there existed was James' bag, in inside it whatever earthly belongings that James had kept. Finally, Shepard came to life and took the bag inside, sitting down with in in his lap. Alenko jumped up on the sofa next to him, sniffing the bag, whining, and trying to crawl in between John and the bag. "Yeah I know." Shepard said, petting Alenko on the head, "We can do this." With a deep breath he pulled the zipper and opened the bag. There were civilian clothes and some pictures, of San Diego and people Shepard never met, and then there was a picture of the shuttle bay on the Normandy. Cortez and Kaidan posing in front of the Hammerhead. "Oh..." Shepard sighed, feeling his heart miss a beat, remembering how much they had actually all joked and laughed. Even if they were out facing serious threats, they had belonged, and had protected each other. They had been fucking friends. There was a picture of him that he didn't recall Vega taking, he was holding up a model ship and grinning goofy and victoriously. And there was a letter, he felt all weird about it until he saw it was addressed to him. Curiously he broke the envelope and two pages of neatly written pages and a picture fell out. He looked at the date, this had been while he had been incarcerated awaiting sentence, so maybe that is why it had never been given to him? He started reading, and had to stop. It was about Kaidan, and how James had attended the funeral, placing a flower for Shepard because he couldn't be there. He skimmed some more and realized it was a old condolences letter that he just had never gotten around to giving him. But then again when James had found him it had been a little late for this anyway, so the right time had maybe just never presented itself. He looked at the photo, it was Kaidan's gravestone. "Fuck..." Shepard sucked in his breath, he refused to cry. He knew James and knew that he had taken this photo to be a friend, because Shepard had not been there. After fighting the tightness in his throat and chest for a moment, he looked back down at the photo, the stone said 'Major Kaidan Alenko, 2151 – 2186 Hero, Spectre, Beloved Son and Partner, And a Loyal Friend.'
John put the picture and the letter away, taking deep breaths, not sure if he wanted to smile, because, after all this time, he finally knew that he had been 'allowed' to honor Kaidan, when he had always thought he hadn't. And now he was about to do it all over, there was nothing else of interest in the bag, only some magazines and more clothes. On instinct Shepard picked up a shirt and buried his face in it, it even smelled like James. The scent image was so overpowering that he could even hear James' laughter in the back of his mind. And that was when he gave into the tears he had been fighting for half a year, and wept into James' shirt till he fell asleep in the midst of all of James' stuff on the couch.
It took Shepard a couple of days of contemplating, but he decided that he couldn't stay here. He couldn't live in the house that he and James had bought, thinking they had a future. Every nook and cranny reminded him of James. He would drive himself crazy with it till he couldn't stand being inside, feeling mostly like an imposter in his own life. Not even booze would make that reality go away.
Somewhere deep inside he refused to believe that James was dead, even if he knew it was ridiculous. The evidence clearly spoke against it, there had been no ransom attempt from the terrorists, nothing indicated that James had been taken hostage, besides, there was no one else missing. Maybe they were right when they said that he had been mortally wounded and had wandered off into the moon dessert, and had died, no matter if Shepard would think he was too trained to do a rookie mistake like that, then if he had had a serious concussion then maybe, just maybe.
Shepard laid awake and wondered if James' last thoughts had been of him, if he was glad that John had been here and safe, if he grieved their life together would never happen, or if he had called out for him, hoping, waiting for Shepard to get him out of the situation like he had done in the past. But, no matter what scenario ran through Shepard's mind, it wasn't good.
In the end Shepard packed some clothes, some food for Alenko, pictures and other personal effects. When that was done, using his remaining booze and strips of an old pillow case, he creating some Molotov cocktails. At least he still remembered how to make those. And then he put a leash on Alenko, something he would never normally do. walking out of the house, he tied the dog to a tree and went back, and with a stony face lit one of the four Molotov he had, throwing it at the porch. The next he threw at the east side of the house, knowing the wind would pick that right up. He walked over to the back of the house, ignoring Alenko's barking, and broke the bedroom window, tossing one on the bed. The last Molotov went through the living room window.
Then he stepped back and watched as the house burned. He stood there and thought of Kaidan, and of James, but mostly James – watching what he had thought was his life go up in flames. It was a reminder to himself that nothing in life is truly yours. With a deep sigh he picked up the bag and unhooked Alenko, walking down the street towards Washington.
It took them ten days to reach the city, and half a day more to get to the army base. Shepard was a bit worried that Alenko would not be able to make that trip. He wasn't exactly young anymore, but he had seemed to join Shepard's resolve, to get here and worry about the rest when they landed. Besides that, Shepard was sure that Alenko was the reason it hadn't been so hard waiting on endless highways to catch a ride.
At the gate, the guard stopped him, "State your name and business here."
Shepard looked a little confused, but on second glance the guard looked too young to have fought in the war, "I need to speak to Admiral Hackett." Shepard said. "Look, I can call him up, and save us the trouble." He pulled out the phone, it's battery was dead, but the guard didn't need to know that.
The guard looked shifty, and looked up and down Shepard. In the end he just pulled out his walkie, and called up the guard tower. "Gate to Tower, there is a man with a dog here, wanting to speak to Hackett." He squinted his eyes, and said, "He got Vega's bag... hmmmh, yes, yes,... right away sir." He cut off the walkie, and pushed the gate open, "Here you go, Mr. Vega, sorry about the inconvenience. Your nephews locker is in hangar four, third row."
"Thank you." Shepard said, not about to correct the guard, and walked on base. It had been so long since he had been on an army base, he recalled that he used to walk tall, feel important, always hunting that next goal. And here he was, hunched, aching and probably looking like the homeless man that he was. "Come on Alenko." Shepard went to Hangar 1, which held the admin offices.
North was getting coffee, and heard raised voices from the front desk. He looked over his shoulder, and couldn't have been more surprised if he tried. "Wait!" He called, running to the desk, spilling coffee as he went. "I know him." He said to the young man at the front desk. He turned to Shepard, "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I came for James' funeral." Shepard said with a shrug. "Figured I'd check in on my old 'friend' while I was here. Besides, my phone's battery died last week, and I don't know when the funeral is." He said with a boyish smile.
"Come with me." North ushered Shepard down the halls, "You know, Samantha Traynor is here. Why don't we find her. She has her own office."
"Traynor huh?" He nodded.
North led them through corridors and back around the hangars, and entered another hangar, leading Shepard through a maze of corridors until he knocked a door. "Ma'am?" He said softly sticking his head in. "Ma'am I have someone to see you." He opened the door, and Shepard stared at Traynor.
"Hi Sam." He said, smiling, not sure what to do. She looked every bit a rigid military lady from where he stood.
"Oh my god! Commander Shepard!" Traynor stood up from her seat behind her desk, and covered the distance between them with long strides. "I'm sorry to hear about your loss. But, goddamn sir, it's good to see you." She wrapped her arms around him and he returned the gesture. Highly unregulated, but it felt good to be close to someone else, and truth be told, he had wondered what had become of his bright comm specialist.
"He's here for the funeral." North said, "Don't you think we could uhm... do something?"
Samantha nodded. "Yeah, you got a suit he can wear? I got a private bathroom he can use to wash up."
"That will work," North said, "Wait here,"
The door closed leaving Shepard alone with Trayor. "So when is the funeral?" he asked softly.
"Today." Traynor said, "Impeccable timing as always." She scratched the dog on the head, "So who's your buddy?"
"Major Alenko." Shepard said.
Traynor's smile faded, "Suppose this version knows how to follow orders?" She opted for a joke.
"Not really, no," Shepard stated flatly. "Neat office you got here."
"Yep," Traynor said, "Who would have thought the day would come where you'd have to salute me, huh?"
"I always knew it would come," Shepard said with a smile, "Congratulations."
"Alright," North said as he opened the office door, his arms full of stuff. "Here's a suit, and a razor, I don't think I have any shoes or a jacket. I'll have to see if I can work magic in the requisition center, so hang on." He put the load down on Traynor's desk, "I'll be right back."
Traynor, pointed to a small door in the back, "It has a sink, and paper towels, it just has to work." She handed Shepard the razor and the trimmer. "I'm gonna go see if I can find something for you two to eat, while you do... your thing." She smiled motherly and left.
Shepard walked to the bathroom sink and stared into the mirror. His hair was half gray half the chestnut color it had once. He hadn't really noticed when it was short, but now that it had grown to three inches, it was painfully obvious. He looked at his beard, which was graying as well, he looked like an old man. He felt like an old man. Carefully he took the trimmer and started to cut off his hair, feeling the familiar rough buzz under his fingers. He trimmed his beard, and it was mostly like unwrapping a present or something, like more and more of him emerged as he shed his fur. He washed his face and neck, looking back up into the mirror. He still looked old, his eyes were hollow and tired, and his crinkles had turned in to real lines. But at least he looked and felt like himself, he he remembered himself.
He washed up and went into the office in the nude, pulling on the black suit. He always hated suits. He was struggling with the shirt buttons as North came back. "Holy shit, Sir." North smiled, "You look like - yeah you." He put down a pair of standard military boots , socks and jacket. "I mean just in a suit and all."
"Thanks, North." Shepard sat down and pulled on the socks, and then the boots. He left the pants hide the fact they were boots and not shoes. He had to remember that he was a civilian now.
"I managed to hunt down two sandwiches." Traynor said as she handed Shepard one, and unwrapped the other for the Major. "Looking good, Sir," she said with a little smile.
"You don't have to call me sir anymore," Shepard sighed.
"Mr. Shepard, just sounds weird," Traynor argued. "Old habits, Commander."
Shepard rolled his eyes amused.
"We better get going," North said, looking at his watch, "I'll drive you there."
"But we have to disguise you, Sir. If people knew who -"
"It's fine Samantha, I ain't coming back," he stood up and hugged her, much to her surprise. She had never seen Shepard hug anyone. "Take care, and thank you."
"Any time, Commander." Traynor said, watching as Shepard picked up his bag, and pulled out his N7 jacket, it was worn and torn along the brim, but otherwise it looked exactly like she recalled. He zipped the bag back up, and nodded at North, "Let's go."
Shepard walked out of the military base with his head high, ignoring the whispers and stares. North walked him out to his car, and they drove off without incident.
The funeral had started by the time Shepard walked up through the headstones to where a couple of people stood. He didn't need to ask North, he knew the Lieutenant would just wait here, not wanting to intrude.
Shepard stopped at the edge of the funeral, noticing a couple of people he had never seen before. Stepping forward, past the huddle of mourners, stared down into the hole at the coffin which he knew did not contain James. There was no point listening to the soothing words the minister might be telling them all, it was a farce. Closure for James' family and for the army. Now that he was legally dead, they didn't have to look for him anymore.
The flag was folded and given to someone in the crowd, Shepard didn't look up but guessed that it was James' uncle, and it seemed only fitting it went to family. He had no need for it, still, it did make him feel oddly obsolete. He had fought with James, had taken him to hell and back, and had lived with him for a couple of years, didn't matter. He was not family in the strictest sense. Even if James himself listed him as next of kin, that is obviously not how the army saw it.
To Shepard's surprise, the person walked over to him. "You're Shepard I take it," the stranger said.
"Yes." Shepard looked up, only to look into a pair of eyes almost identical to James' "And you must be Emilio."
"Yeah." Emilio said, handing Shepard the flag. "This belongs to you."
Shepard gingerly accepted the flag. "It's kind of you, but I have no where to put it." Despite his protest, he made no move give back the cloth, as a matter of fact, he clutched it tightly, as if it were the sole thing that justified his participation in this funeral.
"It's fine." Emilio said sadly, "I think he'd rather the dog slept on it, than it rotting away in my closet."
Shepard nodded, grateful as Emilio left, because he was in no mood to talk what so ever. "2157" He whispered to himself reading the simple headstone. James Vega, born 2157, died 2194. Shepard didn't really read anything else on the headstone, it was something about a loyal soldier, hero and inspiration. James was all of these things, but he was also his James, the guy who he had lived and slept with for the last five years.
Clutching the flag even tighter, he took a deep breath, willing himself not to cry. He wasn't gonna cry, not now. Not with North hovering in the distance. Shepard felt bereft, and empty, not even sure how his legs were gonna carry him from here.
"Hey," North said at Shepard's side. "Is there anywhere I can take you?"
Shepard just shook his head. "Just go home."
"Yeah." Shepard said in a tiny voice, "And North? Thank you for – you know."
"Yeah." North said with a little smile, "Take care Commander."
"You too." Shepard just said, watching as the industrial digging machine drove over to pour the dirt on the empty casket.
It had taken Shepard hours to leave the grave, he had been cold and hungry by the time he walked out of the cemetery. He had no clue as to where to go, but figured it would be a problem that solved itself.
Eventually, he settled down in a tiny village by the sea, where he discovered he had a knack for fishing. It kept him busy, he earned enough money to live on and the fishermen here didn't care who he was. Some had fought in the Reaper war, some even back in the first contact war, and all they knew was that Shepard used to be a soldier. He was punctual, sober, single and he rose and settled with the sun.
It was evening when Shepard came home, he was tired and hungry and needed a shower. But, every day he told himself that he was tired the good way, the way you wear out when you use your muscles, and not just tired cause you can't stay awake any longer. He opened the door but there was no dog to greet him. "Alenko?" he called, but no answer came. Unsettled, Shepard turned on the light, and saw the dog laying on his bed in his one room apartment. "Alenko?" He asked again, the dog didn't as much as flinch. It was with a heavy heart Shepard sat down on the bed and gingerly touched the dog. "Guess your time was up, huh buddy?" Shepard whispered, wiping his eyes with his other hand. He had known this time would come, but he supposed you were never ready. At least Alenko had died of old age, and apparently in his sleep, that was about the best ending one could ask for. Carefully Shepard undid his collar, and placed it on the bed.
Getting up, he went to his closet and got the flag from James' funeral and gently swept it around the dog. Shepard couldn't think of a more fitting end for either. He carried it outside and placed it on the ground. Getting his shovel out of the shed, he started to dig a hole in his tiny square backyard.
It was oddly empty sleep that night, but, he figured that maybe it was a good thing that he had buried two things from his past. Literally. Maybe he could move on and start to enjoy life instead of just existing. He had his photos and dog tags, and now the dog collar too, in a small box in the back of his closet. He had decided it was time he stopped tormenting himself, he didn't need these things to know what he had done, and who had been at his side.
Burying himself in work took away the loss. This had always been Shepard's best coping mechanism, working till his focus was entirely on the task, and was able to empty his head of all worries. But, it was kind of lonely without the dog. He knew that his neighbors Annie and Lillian's dog had puppies some time ago, and he had not given it thought because the Alenko was old, and the last thing he needed was a puppy to annoy him, steal his food, and hog his favorite sleeping place. Shepard didn't know if all the puppies were taken, but he figured they were, so he hadn't asked about it. Something would come along eventually, it always did – that was the story of his life.
A few days later, Lillian had called the captain of the fishing boat that Shepard was aboard, and asked that John came straight by her place once they made it to shore. As he walked to their house, he wondered what could be so important that the captain didn't want him to stay and wrap up today's catch.
Knocking the door, Shepard couldn't help but to be both worried and anxious about whatever it was Lillian had to tell him. "John!" Lillian said, greeting him with a big smile as she opened the door. It made Shepard relax, cause at least it couldn't be bad news then. Maybe they had a puppy and wanted him to have it? That would actually be nice, he missed having another living thing around. Lately he had been talking to himself way more than he was sure was healthy for anyone.
"So John." Lillian said, waiting patiently as John took off his boots and jacket. "I'm sure you know why we asked you to come over."
"Not really... " he replied, but his tone gave him away.
"Okay sit down," Lillian gestured towards the sofa, "Annie, is the coffee done yet?"
"Right here," Annie called from the kitchen, coming into the living room with a tray with coffee and three cups on it. "Hey John," she said.
"Annie." Shepard smiled at the curvy redhead, "I'm getting the royal treatment here huh? Kinda makes anyone suspicious."
Annie laughed and sat down next to Shepard, starting to pour them all coffee. "First of all, happy birthday, John," she said with a little secretive smile.
"How did you?" Shepard didn't finish his sentence. Before Lillian came into the living room carrying a brown fur ball with legs and paws that belonged to a dog twice it's size.
"Well, I happened to glance at your employment papers at the wildlife office, and so – " She smiled a little embarrassed, "Well, it's sorta, kinda my job."
"And forty is a big deal," Lillian chimed in. "So happy birthday, John. We named her Nova. Of course, you can call her anything you want."
"Nova," Shepard said accepting the puppy from Lillian, "That's a great name." He smiled at the puppy, being rewarded with a puppy kiss.
"But, we actually have something else," Lillian said. Looking over at Annie, she continued, "We recorded something from the news the other day, since we know that you don't care for the news and probably haven't seen it."
"Oh?" Shepard idly petted the puppy, who had settled happily in his lap.
"Yeah," Annie started, sipping her coffee, "Remember that time you got shitfaced drunk at the spring dance, and we drove you home?"
"Yeah," Shepard said with a crooked smile, "Well, I remember you telling me how I got home."
"During that time in the car we had a conversation that I didn't care to tell you about at that time, figuring that you'd be embarrassed that you told us private stuff like that, after all you are a pretty private man."
Shepard felt the earlier unrest again, and looked from Lillian to Annie.
"You told us about James," Lillian said from the other side of the table. "I guess you told us because you figured we wouldn't question it, or judge you."
Shepard wet his lips, thinking for a moment about how to reply. "It's not that I'm ashamed or embarrassed, it's just not important." He shrugged to simplify the topic, not really wanting to talk about his love life.
"We understand." Annie said, " And that's why we kept it to ourselves, until we saw this."
Lillian pushed play on the recording, and Shepard just sat there with his fingers buried in Nova's fur, watching with his mouth open, not knowing how to react. It was James stepping off a shuttle, and the news speaker saying something about James Vega having been discovered imprisoned on a tiny colony of renegade Cerberus soldiers. When the UAED had descended upon the cell and arrested everyone, they had freed James, and now here he was back on Earth. "God." Shepard just gasped.
"That is him right?" Annie asked, knowing her question was sorta stupid judging from Shepard's expression.
"James is alive? After all this time... Jesus... Who would have thought?" Shepard whispered more to himself than anyone else.
"Wanna borrow a phone?" Lillian asked, holding a cellphone over to Shepard. "I know you don't have one."
"I, eh.. No.. Maybe it's for the best to leave him be. Maybe it would be -"
"John." Lillian said sharply, holding the phone out to him, "Call whoever you need to call."
Shepard looked up at the women, his eyes blurry with emotion. "I... okay." He took the phone and called the one number he recalled. "Hello?" He said when the base operator picked up. "I need to speak to Janus North, Lieutenant Janus North."
"Just a moment." The operator said, leaving Shepard with static, and he figured it was some annoying waiting in line music that had never been fixed.
"Myeah... This is North." A tired voice said in the other end.
"It's Shepard," Shepard said. "I just saw that they recovered James. Is... ehm, is he okay?"
"Shepard! Oh my God, we have tried to find you like you wouldn't believe. Yes... yes he is okay. He has been looking for you, but you seem to have covered your tracks pretty well."
"Yeah, stopped cashing in my checks, and started to work. I didn't want to be found, that's all." Shepard said with a little boyish grin, knowing he outsmarted the army intelligence.
"I'll give you James' number, you got pen and paper?"
"Can I have something to write on?" Shepard asked, taking the notepad and pen that Annie handed him. "Yep, got it"
North gave Shepard a number before he hung up and told him not to be a stranger.
For a moment Shepard just sat there with the phone in his hand, staring at the number on the page. He wasn't sure he should do it, he wasn't even sure why he was this hesitant. Maybe it was because he didn't want to explain himself, or want to admit that he too gave up... or maybe he just didn't want to reopen the wounds.
"Go on," Lillian said, "We'll be in the kitchen." She looked at Annie who got up from the sofa as well.
"Alright.," Shepard sighed, "But, I don't know what to say."
"I'm sure something will come to you," Annie snickered and closed the door to the kitchen, leaving Shepard alone in the living room.
He trembled a little as he punched in the number, and waited as the phone rang. His palms were sweaty, his heart racing. He was just about to hang up when the phone was picked up. "Yeah?" James said out of breath, "Who is this?"
"Jimmy?" Shepard said after a long moment of silence.
"John?" James whispered in the other end... "Is that you?"
"Yeah," Shepard said, feeling heat flush his cheeks and a wide dumb smile spread on his face. "Yeah, it's me."
"God! Where are you at? They couldn't find you, and North was afraid you'd gone and done yourself in somewhere," James said, realizing too late that he probably shouldn't have said that. "John... for fucks sake man... I... where are you?"
James was standing on the harbor waiting for John to come ashore, he was sipping a beer which this lady Annie had given him. When he had arrived here he had gone to the tavern and asked for John Shepard, and Annie and hugged him, much to his surprise – but he figured that John might had talked about him or something. She had given him a meal and a beer to go, and even showed him where the boat would come in. So here he was, trying to wrap his mind around John being happy in this tiny fishing village. But John did thrive doing hard manual labor. The picture he got from the people here of John was a lot different than what he had heard the first time he had come to find him. James sipped his beer, but maybe this was what he needed too? Back when he had fallen in love with Shepard it had been John who had needed someone. Now the tables had turned and it was James who needed someone. He understood what had gone wrong between them before he had left for the Lunar base, that he had just wanted to maintain the bubble where they could hide from the world completely. That was impossible, everyone needs to feel wanted and needed in the bigger picture, and especially someone like John Shepard – he would wilt and die if he is just left to his own, idle hands and all that. James understood that now, Funny how it took something like this to make him realize that. He had lost friends in the war too, he had been sad, cried and cursed. But he had picked up and moved on, he hadn't been traumatized on the level which Shepard had. Fat chance that John would ever admit to something so fragile, as being traumatized, but now James knew that was exactly what he was. And he was right, they needed to start over, not just to patch things up, but to burn it down and rebuild it as something new completely.
He was lost in his own thoughts as the fishing boat settled at the harbor, he didn't see John get off the boat and securing the rope.
"Hey John, is that someone you know?" one of the fishermen asked, nodding towards James who was staring out over the sea, lost to his own daydream.
"What?" John looked up, and saw James standing there. He looked skinnier, and more ragged, but no doubt it was James. "Yes," Shepard said, "Just a moment." He left the boat and jogged over to where James stood. "Hey stranger," He grinned, his smile widening to the impossible, as he saw James' face light up when he noticed him.
"John." James all but leaped into Shepard's arms. "You're here..." was all he said.
"I'm here." Shepard whispered back, holding James tight to the point of bruising. "Don't ever do that again."
"I won't." James mumbled, muffled into Shepard's jacket.
"Jimmy" Shepard said softly, burying his fingers in James' hair. He would have kissed him if they hadn't had an audience. There was no words to explain how he felt, to hold the man he had thought was dead for a year, no matter what he wanted to say, it all sounded fade and hollow, "Let's go home."