A/N: For I_Write_Tragedies_Not_Sins.
This is a "modern" AU, there are geth and space travel, but no reapers and earth is largely as it is present day. Shepard was dismissed after Akuze so there is no n7 or spectre stuff.
I wrote this for the mass effect fic swap 2016, which I had never planned on participating in, only running. But then I_write_sins_not_tragedies needed a parter to swap with and I stepped up - she asked for a tragedy, and I pulled all the stops... BUT for those of you who like a less depressing ending, I have a epilogue/alternate ending because even I felt they deserved a little happiness. Thank you to Ruby/Solstheim & HeavenOnFire for giving me feedback - I simply ran out of time because RL was hammering me and I couldn't incorporate everything you suggested.
Also sorry for the lack of beta - didn't have time to find one. =(
"Suck it up, son of mine
Thunder blowing up your horizon."
John stepped through the door to the soup kitchen, he shuffled nervously on his feet not sure why he came here, and as the noises of the people talking and the smells of the room hit him he almost turned and left. He could stare down a thresher maw, but he couldn't walk through this room? He stopped fiddling with the hem of his flossed, old leather jacket, long past its glory days. Held his head high, fixed his cap and walked straight down the aisle between the tables.
He waited in line like everyone else, and timidly took in all of the kitchen, the buzz of voices and the smell of food, it smelled of something with cumin – it felt vaguely like home.
"Hey there." A soft deep voice said.
John looked up at a pair of smiling brown eyes, "I eh.."
The mouth belonging to the brown eyes smiled too, "First time?"
"Yeah." John admitted offering an awkward smile of his own.
"There are two menus," the man behind the desk said, "Meat." He pointed to a pot with something that looked like stew in, "and non-meat." He pointed to another pot, which looked pretty much identical to the first. John looked at the metal hand pointing to the second pot, it was slight blue, dinged and scratched from many years of service. "Eh, meat." He heard himself say never taking his eyes off the other man's metal hand.
"Meat it is." The man behind the desk said, "Are you very hungry?" He asked.
"Right." The man said and poured a healthy portion of mashed potatoes on a plate, and so much stew it almost ran out over the plate. "Good?" He held it out towards John for acceptance of the portion size.
"Perfect." John smiled, finally looking away from the metal hand, he wondered what one of those would cost you, surely something that smooth – cause it looked like and moved like an actual hand – wasn't cheap, and John was one-hundred percent sure it wasn't Alliance standard.
"Great." The man smiled again and handed the plate to John, "Got a military ID card?"
John nodded and went for his wallet.
The man chuckled, "Honestly I could tell, the dog tags and all."
John said nothing, he just handed the man his ID card.
The man looked at it, "Lieutenant Shepard." He said, "Welcome." The man's smile became a little sad tug of the corner of his mouth, "I'm Kaidan, if you need anything let me know." – They just stood there for a moment until Kaidan chuckled a little embarrassed, "Your food is for free." When John just looked up at him as Kaidan handed his ID back, "Veterans eat for free." Kaidan said softly.
"Oh." John nodded. "Great." He risked a little friendly smile.
"But… really, let me know if you need anything."
"Sure." John said, "Thanks." He turned around to face the tables and for a moment stood and stared out over the room not sure where to sit. Eventually he walked over and sat down next to a guy in a black down jacket in a wheelchair. He smiled politely as he sat, and then dug into his food, it smelled fantastic and tasted just as good. John closed his eyes as he reveled in the taste of the stew, trying to recall when he had had a real meal last, he couldn't remember. It had been MREs and then hospital food, all of it prepackaged and made to last for the next thirty years in some storage room. This, this was real food made by real people.
"Are you okay?" The guy in the wheelchair asked.
John opened his eyes realizing he must have zoned out. "Yeah I'm fine." He chuckled embarrassed, "It's just been a while, you know."
"I hear you." The guy said, "Kaidan is a motherfucking magician."
"He made this?" John asked, "That guy with the, uhm hand."
The guy grinned, "Yeah that would be him." He smiled, "I'm James." He reached in over to shake John's hand.
"John," John said shaking James' hand.
"Alliance huh?" James asked gesturing at John's jacket.
"Yeah." John resisted the urge to pick the ruined hem of his sleeve again, instead he just twisted his fork in his food.
"The best of the best." James smiled, when John just looked confused James laughed softly. "I was N7. Back before all this," he patted his wheelchair's side.
"Oh." John smiled a wide genuine smile. "Cheers to that." He lifted his water glass to salute James.
John hadn't realized how much he had missed having an actual conversation, not about war, but about nothing at all – the weather, their favorite game and how public transportation was a bitch. It felt normal, and so far from anything John had ever known. Usually when he was around people, all they saw was that he was a broken man, discharged from the Alliance, unfit to serve. But James didn't see that, or maybe he didn't care… or maybe he felt exactly the same.
Kaidan came and sat next to James, "James, you need anything? I'm closing down the kitchen now."
"Nah.. well you got any leftovers?"
"Sure do." Kaidan laughed, he turned his head to look at John. "How about you? You want some leftovers for lunch tomorrow?"
"Absolutely." John said smiling, "Thank you."
"Two doggybags coming up." Kaidan said as he stood again.
"Hey if you come back tomorrow, maybe we could play a round of black jack, what do you say?" James said with a little smile.
John could have laughed from joy, but he didn't, he just nodded. "Sure."
James leaned in over the table as far as he could and looked intently at John, "Tomorrow is meatloaf… or 'something meatloaf'ish' night."
"Looking forward to it." John said slowly standing, watching Kaidan coming back with two bags, he handed one to James and the other to John. "Safe travels." He said.
"Thanks." John replied with a smile before he turned and walked out the soup kitchen. The night was bitterly cold, the snow was the kind of snow that would soak your clothes real fast, so he zipped his jacket up. He was glad he had decided to come, he should have done it the moment he had been released but he had been afraid of… of what really? People? Conversation? That they'd ask? That they would try to get to know him? He had no friends because he wanted to friends.
Kaidan lit up in a bright smile when John came back the next night. "Shepard. You're back."
"Just John." John said, as he pointed to the loaf he thought resembled meat the most.
"Sorry, old habit." Kaidan said as he cut John a healthy piece. "Glad we didn't scare you off." He looked up at John swiftly; his gaze and smile giving away something that settled in the pit of John's stomach, if he hadn't known better he could have sworn that Kaidan was flirting. John cleared his throat and hoped his cheeks didn't look as warm as they felt. "Takes more than a doggybag to scare me off."
"Good." Kaidan said and handed John his plate.
A week went past like that, and then another week – until John couldn't even imagine a life without Kaidan's food, and James' horrible conversation skills. John had learned a lot about James in these past weeks, like he had a wife and she had recently divorced him, James had not said why but John imagined it was because he was drinking a little too much. He knew that James had had a very brief sprint with the N7 program, he had been handpicked but had been injured on his second mission after finished training, a Geth hunter had gotten the drop on him, shot him square in the back with a shotgun severing his spine. It was a miracle in itself that James was even still alive.
And then there was Kaidan, John knew next to nothing about the man behind the smiling brown eyes and contagious smile. He knew that Kaidan spent hours with some of the other volunteers to collect free food from different stores, and then he spent hours doing his magic. John knew he was Alliance too, he had seen that Kaidan still wore his dogtags same as John himself. But apart from that he had no clue, he could deduct that Kaidan didn't have a family because of all the time he spent in the soup kitchen… Kaidan was the soup kitchen.
Today was apparently spaghetti night, John shook the snow off his boots and walked inside, he looked over where he and James always sat, but to his surprise James wasn't there. Puzzled he walked up to the desk. "Where's James?" He asked before Kaidan could even greet him.
"Don't know." Kaidan shrugged. "I wouldn't worry too much, he does that sometimes – maybe, maybe he is too drunk to get into his chair or something."
"Oh.. yeah, he does like his drink doesn't he."
Kaidan nodded. "Yes, yes he does."
John picked at the hem of his jacket, pulling a thread. "So maybe, uhm I could take some food to him, and maybe you know, check up on him."
Kaidan smiled wide. "I'll come with you."
"Great." John chuckled a little nervously, "Cause I don't know where he lives or nothing."
Kaidan laughed, "It's a deal then." He handed John his plate, "As soon as I close up shop, we leave okay?"
It was weird to sit here without James, and John realized how much he missed James' chatter about everything and nothing, it was strange to go back to silence. Anything not go back to silence!
Kaidan finished serving the last wave of people, and came and sat down opposite John at the table. "Is it any good?" He asked, nodding at the empty plate.
"Are you kidding?" John laughed softly, "It's amazing! I swear, I don't know what you did before this, but I hope it included cooking."
Kaidan chuckled, "Nah.. I was an battle engineer, you know – blow shit up, and disarm bombs." He wiggled his metal fingers. "Sometimes it just doesn't go your way."
"No it doesn't." John said and without thinking about it, placed a hand ontop of Kaidan's metal one on the table.
Both men looked at their hands for a moment until John pulled his hand back and mumbled "I'm sorry."
"Don't be." Kaidan said softly, he turned his hand so his palm was up.
John looked up at Kaidan unsure of what to do, was this an invitation or? He decided to play it relatively safe. "So is it like a real hand?"
"Uhm no." Kaidan laughed merrily. "It's cold and it's made of metal."
"Jerk." John laughed too, "That wasn't what I meant."
"If you mean is it connected to my nerve system, then yes it's like a real hand." Kaidan said with what John could only interpret as a playful wink.
John gingerly reached out and touched the middle of Kaidan's palm with two fingers. "You're right, it's cold." He laughed to diffuse the situation. "So how is it just the hand… or.."
"It's attached at the shoulder." Kaidan said.
"Amazing." John mumbled staring down at the metal hand and then up at Kaidan again, he couldn't quite read Kaidan's face. "What?" he asked.
"Just never had anyone say that before." Kaidan said, his smile still gentle but mostly he just looked confused.
"Must have been expensive." John said, "If it had been alliance you'd probably have ended up with a hook." He chuckled at his own unfortunate joke.
Kaidan laughed too, "True." He brushed a metal finger against John's wrist, it was so gentle that it could have been mistaken for a readjustment, but John was quite sure it wasn't, and again something stirred up inside his chest, something he had left behind a long time ago. "My parents paid for it," Kaidan suddenly said, "Used their goddamn life savings on this piece of shit metal."
"Must love you." John said as he slowly withdrew his hand again.
"I'm sure they do." Kaidan said with a nod, flexing his fingers. "I didn't ask for their sacrifice though." When John said nothing Kaidan just shut down the subject with, "My dad is career Alliance. He gave me this so I could return to duty – not to run a soup kitchen." Kaidan stood, clearly uncomfortable with talking about it. "I'll close up and meet you out front."
"Sure thing." John said, not telling Kaidan that he would have given everything to have a dad that expected something from him – shit, he would have given anything to have a dad.
By the time Kaidan came out from the backdoor of the soupkitchen, John was seriously contemplating doing jumping jacks to stay warm. "Sorry it took so long." Kaidan said "Come on, I'll turn on the heat in my car and you'll be warm in no time."
John just smiled gratefully at Kaidan, he had worried they had to walk to wherever cause he could no longer feel his toes and fingers. Kaidan led him to a red vehicle and opened the door letting John inside.
Kaidan turned on the heat and they just sat there for a while. "You know." Kaidan said softly, "I think you are the best thing that happened to James for years."
"You just listen." Kaidan said with a smile as he adjusted the rearview mirror. "You don't pity him I suppose."
"Whatever would I pity him for?" John asked surprised, "It is war, shit happens – he got a raw deal but a lot of people did."
"True." Kaidan nodded. "But you guys were soldiers." He swiftly looked over at John who was picking at the jacket hem again.
"But we are still just people." John said in a near whisper.
"That we are." Kaidan answered mysteriously. "Here, hold this." He handed the doggybag to John, and started the car.
The ride to James' building was silent; John just stared out of the window at the falling snow. "I wasn't really injured." He suddenly said, his voice sounded strange and intrusive in the silent car. "I was discharged in 77." He rested his forehead against the cool window of the car door.
"Doesn't really matter." Kaidan said without taking his eyes off the road, "We're here and we're today – right?"
John just smiled at his own reflection in the window. He wished it were that simple, he really did.
Kaidan stopped the car, "Alright we're here." He turned to John, "You want me to come with you?"
"Of course!" John said, "It would be weird if it was just me."
"If you say so." Kaidan said getting out of the car.
"Hey Kaidan," John said hastily as he too stepped out into the snow. "I was wondering.. uhm, eh… nah it's nothing. Let's just go –" Kaidan looked at John confused but shrugged and followed into the building.
John sighed as he entered the building; it was about as cold in there as it was outside. "What floor?"
Kaidan just blinked. "Ground floor, hard to scale the stairs in a wheelchair."
"Oh, right." John coughed to mask his embarrassment. "What number then?"
"11." Kaidan said flatly, "To your left up here." He pointed at somewhere behind the stairs where a hallway would fork out from the main hall. Kaidan smiled a little and then just led the way.
John just followed down the corridor wondering if James travelled all this way every day to the kitchen, it made no sense, there had to be a place similar closer to where he lived. Kaidan knocked the door, and it sounded like gunshots in the dead silent corridor.
"James?" Kaidan called. "James, it's Kaidan from Tin-Cup, are you in there?"
They waited for long minutes and they looked at each other worried. "Maybe he went out to get something?" John suggested.
"Not likely." Kaidan said darkly. "James? Come on!" He banged the door again.
John jumped as the door behind them opened, a haggard looking middle-aged woman looked out into the hall, staring straight at John and Kaidan, her face was stern until her eyes got used to the dim lights and she noticed John's dog tags, and squinted her eyes at Kaidan's hand. "You know James?" She asked.
"Yes ma'am." John said with a nod. "We're just bringing him food." The lady looked them up and down again. "We're friends of James and we're worried because he didn't show up tonight – so we thought we'd check up on him."
The lady sighed, "Alright." She reached behind her door and came out into the corridor with a key. "First sign of something weird, I'm calling the cops."
"Fair enough." John said as he stepped back for the lady to get to James' door. Both Kaidan and John held their breath as she opened it, terrible images flashed before their eyes if what might meet them inside. The lady pushed the door open and stepped back allowing Kaidan to hesitantly step inside in the dark apartment, he could see the television was on, the blue flickering light was lighting up the room. "James?" Kaidan asked softly.
They all heard what sounded mostly like a grunt, and John suddenly jolted into action, stepping into the apartment searching for the sound. He saw James laying on the floor, his wheelchair toppled over. "Shit!" He swiftly turned James around almost laughing as the man blinked drunken at him. "You scared me, man." John just sighed. "Come on, let's get you off the floor."
It took Kaidan and John longer than it should have to get James up into his sofa. Kaidan went to the kitchenette to reheat the food, and look for something that wasn't alcohol.
John picked up the wheelchair and placed it to James' right. "Is it good like this?" He asked James, who just nodded drunken. "James for fucks sake." John sighed deeply. "Are you gonna be okay?"
"No." James finally croaked out. He pointed to the data pad on the sofa table, up against the side of the wall to create more floor space. John went to get the data pad and handed it to James, he swiftly punched in a code and handed it to John, "Read it."
John took the data pad, looking uncomfortable but started to read. Kaidan was done with the food and came over to hand James his meal. "Hey you almost missed spaghetti night." He said, his ridiculous cheerful voice almost sucked up by the sadness in the room, like screaming into a pillow.
"Oh." John bit his lip, "I'm sorry James. That is terrible… but you can't –"
"I can't what?" James yelled, "She is my kid too!"
Kaidan looked at John for an answer, and John just shook his head.
"I know James." John said softly.
James looked up at Kaidan, "I just tipped over, trying to turn up the volume on the television." He looked down at the plate of Spaghetti in his lap. "I think I am a bit more drunk than I thought."
"I'm just glad you're alright." Kaidan said placing a friendly hand on James' shoulder.
John put the data pad back, when James spoke softly, his sorrow audible in his rough voice. "It was her idea you know, join the fucking Alliance." He looked over at John who stood by the television in the far end of the room. "Think of the money, think of Cat's future, Hazard pay." He frowned. "And this is what I got."
"Maybe." John came over to the sofa and squatted down in front of James, looking up at the listless man. "Maybe if you sobered up, and cleaned a little – she'd let you have your daughter over, right?"
"Did you read the fucking mail, man?" James sneered. "She means for her new husband to adopt my kid, my fucking kid!"
"I read it." John nodded. "But you can take it to court." He looked up at Kaidan, "Right?"
Kaidan nodded, "Sure you can." He squeezed James' shoulder again. "I could ask around and see if I can find a lawyer who'll take you on pro bono. I'm sure there is someone."
James nodded but they could tell he wasn't really listening.
"James for fucks sake, there is no need for you to be alone in this." John said softly, "We're right here."
James smiled bitterly, "Why would you do that? We're not friends."
John looked down at his feet, but Kaidan bent down over James to catch his gaze. "We're battle brothers, and that gotta count for something."
James' smile lost some of its sadness and he nodded. "Battle brothers, I like that."
When they left James' apartment they were both emotionally drained. Kaidan stopped at the curb. "You were good in there." He said softly, "Sure you weren't Alliance shrink?"
"No." John just sighed, "I was around them long enough though." He looked away from Kaidan not sure he wanted to watch the reaction in his eyes.
"Weren't we all." Kaidan said placing his metal hand on John's shoulder, "Hey you want to get some coffee before I take you home?"
John nodded, not sure why he even agreed to this.
"Come on." Kaidan started to walk in the slow falling snow, "there is a cafeteria down the street, open 24-7."
"Do you think he's gonna be alright?" John asked as they walked down the block.
"Hard to say." Kaidan admitted, "Can't really blame is ex-wife in not thinking his life choices is good for their child."
"There's that." John nodded.
"I've known James for a year now, and he has only gotten progressively worse." Kaidan said pulling up his coat to shield his cheeks from the snow. "I even had to quarantine him once, and make him promise not to show up dead drunk."
"That bad huh?"
"Yeah." Kaidan nodded, "I know he's dealing with a lot of shit, but his drinking is not exactly making it better."
John nodded. "But now he has us."
Kaidan turned his head and looked at John with a weird undecipherable expression. "Coffee's on me." Kaidan said after a moment of awkward silence.
The cafeteria was like any other big city, 24-7 dingy shithole. John sat down at a booth and Kaidan went to order coffee. "Milk, please." John yelled after Kaidan who just held up his hand to signal he heard it.
John stared down at his hands on the sickly snot colored table, what was he doing here? What was Kaidan's game? Why had he suggested this? And why had John accepted? The answer was unwanted and unsettled John greatly. He enjoyed Kaidan's company, he wanted to see him smile and laugh… he couldn't remember when he had last felt anything like this, maybe never. He wasn't sure. He was fucking John Shepard, he didn't have friends and he sure as shit didn't have lovers. If he wanted to get his freak on he'd pay someone for an hour.
Kaidan came back and placed a plate of cake that was possibly something resembling chocolate cake, and a cup of coffee in front of John. "Compliments of the house." He smiled. When John just looked quizzical, Kaidan smiled secretive as he sat down opposite John, "I lied, I bought it... you look like you could do with some cake, okay?"
John chuckled and turned the plate with the cake to get a better look at it. "Looks edible." He said with a snarky smile.
"Hey you." Kaidan kicked John under the table as he laughed.
John just smiled and took a nonchalant sip of his coffee.
They sat for a long while, and two refills in relative silence till John finally took a deep breath and asked, "Can I ask you something personal?"
"Yes?" Kaidan held out his cup for a refill, and the lady smiled at them both as she also filled John's cup.
"If your parents paid for all that tech, how come you work in a soup kitchen?" John asked watching as Kaidan's playful smile disappeared, "I mean surely they didn't pan out that kind of money for you to stir ports for poor people."
"They didn't." Kaidan admitted vaguely.
"I'm sorry I didn't mean to pry, I just wondered you know? Cause that is some damn expensive state of the art tech you got there."
Kaidan nodded, "It was when I got it." He licked his lips, "My dad wanted me to return to the Alliance, and when I didn't want to – let's just say we agreed to disagree."
"They kicked you out or something?" John asked.
"Yep you got it." Kaidan nodded.
"I'm sorry." John said.
"What about you?" Kaidan asked.
"Me?" John coughed, "Nothing to say really – no parents, no ex-wife, no children… Just me." He ran a finger across the rim of his cup, "Just the way I like it."
"Everyone needs somebody." Kaidan said as he attempted to get eye contact with John. "Even you."
"Yeah." John nodded measured almost as he agreed with his own statement. He looked up at Kaidan, his lips a fine line of measured animosity. "I watched my entire unit die screaming." He paused and scratched his neck, "I don't want anyone, I don't need anybody – I…"
"I'm sorry John, I really am. But that is just not true."
John smiled bitterly.
"If you didn't need anyone, you wouldn't come to the kitchen every night, and we wouldn't be sitting here, you wouldn't be telling me all this – and you wouldn't worry about James."
John slowly looked up Kaidan; maybe he was right? Maybe he was tired of screaming at the walls, and maybe he was tired of walking in circles in his one bedroom apartment. Maybe he was indeed lonely, and maybe that had been why he had decided to take home that flier about the kitchen, and hadn't just tossed it in the bin.
"I'm right here you know." Kaidan said.
John smiled as he felt something chip away at his bitterness inside. "Would it be too cliché to ask for your number on a napkin?"
Kaidan chuckled, "not at all." He pulled a ballpen from his pocket and wrote took a napkin, scribbling something on it and then pushed it across the table to John.
John opened it and looked at it, 'for sanity check, call me' John laughed, "Sanity check, huh? I like that."
"Yeah a sanity check." Kaidan smiled back, "we all need that once in a while."
John had promised James to go with him on some Christmas shopping, not that John had the slightest clue how to shop for a little girl. But James seemed like he needed the company, and John had to admit that it was a nice distraction from a terrible time of year. Even as a grown man it still did something to him watching how families would Christmas shop together.
"I don't think I'm ready for another toy store right now." James chuckled as the walked down the shopping street towards the promenade, the further towards the grey, wild winter sea they got, the more the wind picked up sending ice cold gusts of air through every layer of clothes they wore. "Might be time for a drink…" James caught himself and turned in his chair, "or maybe just coffee."
John nodded, "Let's go, we walked past a café a block back."
James grabbed the wheels and stared back the way they had come, "So what are you gonna get Kaidan?" He turned his head and smiled at John that walked to his left, "I promise I won't tell."
John looked every bit as worn as before, he didn't even look back at James as he answered, "Who said I'd get him anything?"
"Oh.." James nodded and focused on the café sign that came into view now. "I just assumed."
"Well don't." John growled.
"You really don't like Christmas, huh?"
"No, I don't."
"I loved Christmas before all this." James said angling his chair with precision to fit between a chair and a heater on the street café. "I guess I could go visit my uncle, but I don't know man…"
"Coffee?" John asked nodding towards the door to the café, he licked his lips, "and a burbon?"
James nodded with a smile, "Yes please." He turned to look out over the bustling Christmas decorated busy shopping street, filled with people with large bags, hurrying from one shop to another. Some talking to each other, others talking over the phone. He cupped his hands and blew warm air on his fingers waiting for John.
John came back and placed a cup of black coffee and a bourbon in front of James, "If you take anything in your coffee I'll get it, I just wasn't sure."
"Great." John sat down with his own coffee and bourbon. "So where do you want to go after this? You want to go look for that automated doll?"
"Yeah." James said, "I think she would love that."
"I think so too." John said, thinking back on the presents they had been given at the orphanage, it wasn't like they were terrible presents, they were just all donated from other people. As a kid, he would have given his left arm for a toy that came from a store. It still made him feel slightly guilty to buy something from new, he still heard the headmistress' voice 'second hand just mean that someone else loved it too'. Still to this day, he found himself in second hand store for everything from pots, to lamps, to clothes.
"I don't mean to pry," James said, "But how come you're not getting Kaidan a gift? I think he's getting you one." James took a sip of his coffee, "I don't think he would mind though, I mean that you don't have something for him."
"Why would he get me something?" John asked genuinely surprised.
"Because you're his friend." James blinked confused.
"Right." John mumbled into his cup as he took a sip. He placed the cup back on the table and sighed, staring out over the Christmas crazed shoppers. "Maybe you're right, maybe I ought to get him a little something."
James sighed, "Cheers to friends." He held up his glass of bourbon.
"To friends." John said, his smile mellowing a little.
James sighed happily, as the bourbon warmed his inside. "Do you think I should mail the presents or drop them off?"
It took a moment before John realized what James had been asking. He licked his lips for the aftertaste of the bourbon and shrugged. "Maybe it would be best to mail them."
"Yeah, you're right." James said softly, "I just want to see her, just for a moment you know?"
"I don't." John admitted, "But I can imagine it must be hard."
"Want to see a picture?" James asked, already reaching for his wallet. John really didn't want to see a picture but he didn't have the heart to decline. James handed him a photo and John looked at a younger James, sunburned and buff balancing a little blond girl on his knee. John smiled at the photo, "She looks like a cute kid." He handed the photo back.
"She is." James said.
"You'll see her again, man." John said, "Just let the lawyers do their shit, okay?"
James nodded, "You're right… could you maybe, uhm post these on your way?"
"Absolutely." John nodded.
That same evening he went to mail James' packages, he went by the thrift store to look for a present, he had never actually bought something for someone before, and he had no idea what to get. He looked at stupid figurines and still pictures in frames. None of it really seemed to scream Kaidan. He started to feel silly, why was he even in here? Then he saw it, a limited edition Alliance frigate – on sale. John didn't know if Kaidan had served on a frigate or not, nor did he care, he just knew this was the present for Kaidan. War or no war, space was where John had felt the most serene and calm, and he figured it was the same for Kaidan. He missed space travel, everything was so simple up there in the stars.
He went home and put the box with the frigate down on his table, he stared at it for what felt like hours, but it could have been minutes. Like it was a milestone in his life, and he didn't quite know how to deal with it, and it's presence alone served to remind him of the awful truth – he was tired, tired of being alone. Like if he handed this over to it's intended owner, it would be an offering of a sorts. John groaned, it was just a bit much wasn't it? Why had he thought it was a good idea at all? When you were alone, you knew what you had, once other people came into the equation everything became unknown and fragile. But no matter how John tried, he just couldn't imagine a world without Kaidan anymore, even if he just handed him dinner. It was his sole reason to get dressed and go outside and not just hide in here.
A day before Christmas James ended it, he shot himself with his service gun. John received a frantic call from Kaidan who was standing outside James' building. The lady who had opened the door for them back then had heard the gunshot and called the cops. Kaidan had just stopped by to check up on James and make sure he got some food.
John had not thought twice, he had thrown on his jacket and almost sprinted the entire trip through town to James' building. He saw the cop cars and the ambulance in a distance.
"Kaidan!" He called as he got closer, "Kaidan!" He turned around trying to see the familiar mop of back hair. "Goddammit!" he growled. Then he spotted him standing talking to a police officer, John walked straight to where they stood. "There you are!" he said still trying to catch his breath.
"John!" Kaidan pulled a surprised John in for a firm embrace. "It's so fucked up."
"I'm so sorry." John mumbled, holding Kaidan a little tighter. "I should have held a closer eye on him, I knew he was bummed out, but I had never imagined this."
"No one had." Kaidan whispered, holding on to John for longer than he ought to, and he didn't let go before the police officer called his name.
"You saw him last." Kaidan said to John, "Maybe you have something to add?"
"No." John shrugged, "I went shopping for Christmas presents with him, we got some stuff for his daughter and he asked if he should drop it off or send it. I told him to send it, and promised I'd do it."
"Name?" The police officer said.
"Oh, John Shepard. Alliance service number 5923-AC-2826." John said with a polite smile.
"Right." The police officer nodded, "Mr. Shepard, did the late Mr. Vega ever show you his service weapon?"
"Did you know about it?" The officer said, "Did you know he still had possession of it?"
"Right, that will be all." The police officer smiled at Kaidan and John, "Thank you gentlemen."
"That's it?" John asked, "So that is what this is about? His goddamn service weapon!"
Kaidan pulled John by the arm, "Come on, it's not worth it." He said sternly, "Come on, drinks on me."
"That's bullshit!" John gestured animated in his anger, "Fucking bullshit!"
"I know." Kaidan said, still hauling John from the scene, "But it's not worth a trip downtown in a cop car."
John finally relaxed and sighed, "You're right."
Kaidan stopped to button his jacket up under his chin, "Fuck." He took a deep shuddering breath. "Fuck!" he yelled his voice breaking over.
"Hey." John stepped in front of Kaidan and tried to gain eye contact, "Look at me."
Kaidan finally looked up, his eyes red and teary. "He should have talked to me - us." He whispered.
"But he didn't." John cupped Kaidan's face with gentle hands. "He wanted this, and he didn't want us to stop him."
"You can't know that." Kaidan frowned, but didn't move.
"I don't," John admitted, "but it's what you have to tell yourself – because you should not feel guilty of anything." They were standing so close that John could feel Kaidan's warm breath on his face, and the warm skin under his hands, for a crazy moment all John wanted was to kiss him. Instead, he stepped back and let go of Kaidan, rolling his shoulders, "Come on, let's get drunk."
Kaidan just nodded and followed.
John woke in a strange place, he closed his eyes and hated the way the ground was spinning. He wished he could remember where the hell he was. A phone was ringing and it was not before he heard a gruff voice answer it in another room he realized where he was. He remembered vaguely getting here, he remembered Kaidan fighting with the key for so long that he had seriously contemplated sleeping in the hall. A cold wash of panic went through John, he hoped he had not done something stupid, or said something unforgiveable. "Shit." He coughed, he tried to assess if he was naked or not without opening his eyes. He wiggled his toes and they met something hard which he reckoned was his boot, so he was still wearing boots, which meant he would still be wearing pants – that was good. He would hate himself for the rest of his natural life if he jeopardized his friendship with Kaidan for a drunken inappropriate pass.
There was movement in the other room, and somehow John didn't really want to wake up to find out if he had been a sad, desperate idiot. He had a sneaking suspicion that he had.
"You awake?" Kaidan asked, his voice raw and hushed.
John opened an eye, and stared at Kaidan in his blurry vision, "Define awake." He mumbled.
"Well you're alive." Kaidan stated flatly and moved to the kitchen.
John groaned and sat up, holding his head in his hands, fighting the urge to throw up. Fuck he was still drunk, but he wasn't sure that Kaidan would be cool with him sleeping here again. He just had to get to his feet and get home.
Kaidan laughed as John stumbled into a side table on his way to the bathroom. "Careful there champion."
"Laugh it up asshole." John chuckled, rubbing his knee as he limped his way to where he thought the bathroom would be.
When John came back from the bathroom Kaidan had placed a cup of coffee on the table in front of the sofa. "Merry Christmas." He said saluting John with a coffee mug.
"Fucking hell." John groaned and slumped down into the sofa.
Kaidan laughed again. This was a good thing John thought to himself, at least he wasn't angry, and maybe he hadn't been a giant fool in his drunken stupor. John rubbed his face with his hand.
"Do you need to sleep some more?" Kaidan asked. "You can go sleep in my bed if you want to, no reason for you to wake all sore from that damn sofa. Believe you me, I fell asleep on it enough times so I know just how uncomfortable it is."
John wanted to ask Kaidan why he was cool with it, but he was too drunk and too tired and so he just nodded, and got up from the sofa to let Kaidan guide him to the bedroom. The bed was white and inviting, John fell face first into it's softness asleep almost the moment he hit the pillow and never noticed that Kaidan undid his boots.
Hours later John woke again. He could hear Kaidan sing along to the radio in the kitchen, and the pillow smelled of Kaidan, something light, something like hyacinths but not quite. John wished he could store this moment away intact, with all the smells and sounds. So he could take it out and relive it when he felt the most alone, when he would sit and stare at his walls in the small hours of the morning. How he wished he belonged here.
He stayed until he had to go to the bathroom so badly he couldn't ignore it and had to get out of bed. Kaidan didn't see him so he just walked straight to the bathroom, even his bathroom was simple, white and classic. John thought of his own once probably beige bathroom, it was miles from this. But then again, John never once gave a shit about how his home looked, besides it being clean – he was all about functionality.
John walked back to the living room, Kaidan had completely cleaned up after their drunken night, it even smelled clean and fresh. John came to stand in the door to the kitchen, leaning up against the doorframe he looked at Kaidan standing by the stove singing along to some tune in the radio. Even his goddamn kitchen was light and inviting, had a nice table for dining and everything, not like John's old dingy kitchen, which was mostly a holding place for takeaway leftovers.
"Good morning." John finally said softly.
"Oh hey." Kaidan sing song. "I hope you're hungry."
"Great! Would you get some plates up there?" He pointed at a cupboard, and then at a drawer, "And some forks."
"Sure." John said, and started to set a table. "You know." John said casually as he set the small table at the other end of the kitchen.
"Yeah what?" Kaidan asked as he blew on the spoon to taste the gravy.
"Nah it's nothing." John smiled.
"Here taste this." Kaidan scooped up a new spoonful and came over to where John sat, while he blew on the spoon, he held it out and with a little hesitation; John parted his lips to taste. "Good right?" Kaidan stood with the spoon still in hand and looked expectantly at John.
"Perfect." John answered.
"Great!" Kaidan grinned, "Then dinner is served."
Kaidan was chatting about everything and nothing, like yesterday had never happened. "Best Christmas ever." John said mostly to himself, but knew that Kaidan heard. "Ehm, not sure how this works, but I actually got you something, but it's back at my place, so you'll have to get it another day." John smiled a little embarrassed, "I'm sorry."
"You got me a present?" Kaidan said, "You didn't have to."
"I know." John said, "But I saw it and I just had to get it for you."
Kaidan smiled and John couldn't help but to smile as well. "I got you something too." Kaidan said, "Just wasn't sure if it was weird to give it to you."
"Why would it be weird?" John asked in all honesty.
"Maybe you'd think I was creepy, because honestly we haven't known each other that long and... well, I –" Kaidan stopped himself and stood from his chair, "Hang on, let me get it."
John leaned forward, looking after Kaidan as he left the room, feeling more excited than he felt he had the right to. Kaidan came back into the kitchen he laughed a little shyly and handed John an envelope. "Hope you like it, and merry Christmas John."
John stared at the envelope. "I can't believe you actually bought me something." He mumbled, his face heating up and he felt his smile widen to the point of pain. "Thank you!" He looked up at Kaidan who stood waiting impatiently for John to open the envelope.
"You haven't even opened it yet, you shouldn't thank me."
"I don't care what's inside." John said feeling all emotional and unable to hold the tremble out of his voice he swallowed nervously. "You bought me something, that's more than…"
"I didn't mean to upset you." Kaidan said worried, and sat down on his chair, he looked intently on John, trying to assess the situation. "I'm sorry if –"
"You didn't upset me, it's just." John took a deep breath, "No one ever bought me a present before."
"Really?" Kaidan asked surprised, "That is terrible!"
"It's fine." John shook his head, "Cause I got this." He ran his fingers over the envelope. "I mean it, thank you."
"Open it." Kaidan said, getting all nervous because John reacted to his dumb little present with more emotion than Kaidan had seen from anyone in years.
John slowly opened the envelope, almost with solemn care pulled out what was inside. "Tickets for the cinema?" John whispered, "I don't know what to say, thank you!" He looked from the ticket in his hands up at Kaidan with a sparkle in his eyes, and then he frowned, "Feel wrong to be happy today."
"Yeah." Kaidan said walking over to the stove to put over some water for coffee, "But I've done some thinking, about what you said last night." Kaidan sighed, "We couldn't have done a single fucking thing. He did this to himself."
John nodded, "I think most of us thought of it."
Kaidan nodded as well, but didn't answer.
"His kid is gonna be alright, and that's the important thing." John mumbled, still looking at the tickets in his hand. "Would you, uhm – would you go with me? To the cinema I mean."
Kaidan turned and looked at John and smiled, "Sure." He wasn't going to be modest about it because if John asked him, it was because he really wanted him to come.
John's smile widened.
It was ice cold the day they buried James, John's breath came out in little white clouds. He felt weird in his dress blues standing there freezing his ass off, why couldn't the alliance make a goddamn thermos version of this stupid outfit? He had not wanted to wear it, he was not alliance anymore, none of them were. But Kaidan had insisted that for James they ought to do it, he was Alliance to the bone, even if he liked to bitch and moan about it. And so John stood faithfully and was sure he contracted pneumonia from just defying the elements.
He recognized the kid from the photo, but he had never seen James' ex wife before, she was not alone, there was some business type standing behind her with a hand on her shoulder. John figured it was her new husband, or maybe her lawyer, fucked if he knew.
John hated funerals, and really he just wanted it to end. There was a fair turnout but the only one John had ever heard James talk about, besides his daughter, was his uncle, and he did not have a lot of nice things to say about him either.
When it was over John was frozen to the core and all he wanted was to get inside somewhere. He looked over at Kaidan who was standing talking with James' ex wife. He wasn't even going to try and understand what made James chose that way out, and in a selfish space in the back of his mind he couldn't help but to feel hurt that he and Kaidan hadn't been enough for James to stick around, that they hadn't meant more. He wondered if James had already planned it when they had been Christmas shopping. Should he have asked James if he was alright? He had looked and sounded alright to him, so why would he?
Everything can be scrutinized in hindsight. And truth was that John had not had a single suspicion that James suffered from anything than ordinary Christmas blues. He had not seen any signs, not a single fucking clue as to what was about to happen. Maybe James had tried to tell him and he hadn't listened? Maybe he was a horrible friend?
"Come on." Kaidan said softly as he walked past John on the way to the car, "Let's leave this place."
"Yeah." John followed Kaidan to the car. The inside of the car was as cold as outside, and they had to sit and wait for a moment for the car to heat up and bring life back to their fingers and toes. "So what did she have to say? The ex wife."
"Nothing." Kaidan lied.
"Don't bullshit me." John sighed, "You stood there for a good twenty minutes."
"Alright, she asked me about James." Kaidan said, "And I gave her the rainbow and unicorn version. No need for her to pass that guilt on to her kid."
"Well you don't know if that is why he did it, man." John said drily, "It could have been everything and nothing."
"True, but I just assume that –"
"Don't." John huffed, "The man is dead, don't assume you know what he was thinking."
"Sorry." Kaidan mumbled.
John didn't answer and the ride to his apartment was in silence, he mumbled 'thanks for the ride' before he got out, but didn't hear if Kaidan answered before he slammed the car door shut.
John didn't return to the soup kitchen for a couple of weeks, it was like the void that James had left behind had shifted something in his and Kaidan's friendship. It didn't feel the same, it had lost it's immediacy, and easiness. John was staring at his once green walls, turning a chipped coffee mug with a cartoonish wizard on it, in his hands. There were some pictures on the walls, a rug – once John had attempted to turn this place into a home, but it just never happened. Just like everything else in his life; it was just a temporary solution, something that would keep him afloat for a while.
In the first week he had harbored a weak hope that Kaidan would call him and ask him where he was, but he didn't. The day they had arranged to go to the cinema came and went, and still he heard nothing. Truthfully then he could pick up the phone and call too, but he felt it would be weird. Like what had linked them had been James, and now that James was not here no more, they didn't know what to do with each other. He still recalled that Christmas morning in Kaidan's bed, how soft and nice it had been to belong there, to exist in Kaidan's world.
John had wanted to tear up the tickets in anger, but he hadn't, he had just put them in a drawer and hoped he would forget about them. He could just use them himself and go see two different shows, but it felt weird. Maybe they just needed to stay in that drawer to serve as a memory of that one time he got a real present. For one glorious moment someone had thought enough of him to actually buy him something.
The present he had bought for Kaidan stood there on his table in it's box, staring at him. He contemplated to unbox it and just put it up on a shelf, but that felt weird too. In the end he decided that he should swing by the soup kitchen and pretend everything was cool and just hand it over and leave?
He had no battle plan, he had no bulletproof strategy – fumbling blind.
John stepped through the doors to the soup kitchen, but he didn't see Kaidan anywhere. He went to the counter to ask, box in his arms. The pimply volunteer said that Kaidan had taken some days off, but that he might be at his flat. For a moment John wondered if he should leave the box here, but he didn't, he walked out the door and started to walk all the way to Kaidan's apartment, his head a million miles away, but his feet remembering the route.
He waited for the elevator, so lost in his own thought that he had not noticed that someone stood behind him. "You're Kaidan's buddy, right?"
John turned and looked straight at this young man carrying a bag of takeout. "Yes." John said, "John."
"Jake." The man said, "Yeah thought I'd seen you around here before."
"Yeah, I just came by to drop this off." John said lifting the box a little.
"I thought you guys were going out tonight." Jacob said a little confused.
"Just dropping this off, I have other plans." John said with a fake smile, relieved that the elevator finally came down to their floor and opened with a loud chime.
"Ah alright." Jacob shrugged.
The elevator chimed again and they both stepped out, and John went straight to Kaidan's apartment door, he could hear laughing and music from inside, so he decided to just leave the box, recalling he had not made a card, he just hoped that Kaidan would know where it came from, and if he didn't it was alright too. He regretted not including the cinema tickets, because maybe Kaidan had more use for them than he did, didn't seem right that an expensive gift like that should go to waste in his drawer. He stopped and walked back towards Kaidan's door, but changed his mind again and walked straight to the elevator. As he was waiting for the elevator, Kaidan's apartment door opened and someone stepped out into the corridor. "Hey Kaidan, there's a box here." A woman said. John closed his eyes, wishing the elevator would just arrive fast. He could her Kaidan answer something from inside his apartment but couldn't hear what.
Swift steps on the carpet of the corridor, and John had to acknowledge that he would not make it out before this person made it to where he stood. "Hey Ashley!" Kaidan called, "Could you –" There was a long pause, "John?"
John sighed; this had been a bad idea. But he couldn't very well just stand here, and he wished harder than before that the goddamn elevator would come. "Hey." He turned and looked at the surprised woman next to him, she was a fine boned, dark haired lady. Attractive by any standard, and John hated her instantly. "Just dropped off something, didn't want to intrude. So I'll just be –"
"Don't be ridiculous." Ashley said next to him. "Come have a drink with us."
"I really can't." John said with a weak smile, he felt like screaming, crying and vomiting all in one. This was why he didn't have friends, this was why he was alone, and this was why he had preferred it that way. No surprise, no heartache.
He turned all the way and saw Kaidan stand right outside his door. "Please John," he said.
John started on a reply, but the elevator chimed behind him and he had to make a choice. "Another day." He lied and slipped into the elevator. Ashley stood next to him, and she was about to say something when the door opened and more people came into the elevator, talking, laughing.
He walked all the way home in the cold, his head spinning. Was Ashley why Kaidan had not called him? And why was he acting like a lover scored, they hadn't even been real friends ever. He could try and rationalize it away all he wanted, but the awful truth was that John had been a bit more hung up on Kaidan than he thought. He should just have kissed him that day on the street, maybe this had never happened. Either Kaidan would have gotten angry with him, or not, but either way he wouldn't be here.
Hello hindsight my old friend, John thought bitterly to himself.
He made it home and locked his door, the dark apartment seemed like a perfect picture of his mental state, and he hesitated before he turned on a light. "You're being ridiculous." He chided himself out loud as sat down on his bed, falling back into the mattress. He had no right to act like this, and he had to get his shit straight. He would call Kaidan tomorrow and apologize for being a jerk.
It was still dark when he woke by someone knocking on his door. He wanted to ignore it, but when he heard Kaidan call his name, he got out of bed to answer the door.
Kaidan looked relieved when the door was answered. "Did I wake you?"
"It's fine." John opened the door up, "Come on in."
"It's four in the afternoon man." Kaidan stated.
"Must have been tired." John shrugged. "So did you have a good night out yesterday?"
"Yeah." Kaidan gingerly sat down on the corner of the bed, "Ashley picked up this annoying friend from the airport, and I forgot how her friends drove me nuts."
"I need coffee, you want some?" John asked, ignoring Kaidan's answer.
"Thank you for the present." Kaidan said.
John stood with his back to Kaidan boiling water at his kitchenette, "I figured that space was where I always felt most calm. So –"
"It's a thoughtful gift really." Kaidan said.
"You're welcome." John said. An uncomfortable silence spread through the dark apartment, "So tell me about Ashley."
"I don't know what to tell." Kaidan said in a near whisper. "We used to date, and when all this with James happened, I just gave life a thought you know?"
"So are you dating again?" John asked, hoping that he sounded casual.
"Sort of." Kaidan said.
"Why only sort of?" John asked, turning to hand Kaidan his coffee, before he sat down in his old blue recliner, with his own cup.
"I don't know," Kaidan blushed slightly, something John had never seen before. "She's amazing sex, but… well nothing really changed from back when we were together, I mean she still wants me to go back to a desk job with the Alliance."
"Ah." John nodded. "I'm sure someone else will run the soup kitchen, I mean there is nothing holding you here."
John's heart lurched, but his smile stayed in place. "I'll be fine, don't worry about it."
"Battle brothers, remember?" Kaidan said with a little smile.
"Yeah." John admitted, "But it's just words."
"So is a marriage vow, but it doesn't mean that the words aren't heartfelt." Kaidan said with a frown.
"If you say so." John said, his smile still in place. "Look Kaidan." He leaned on his knees and looked directly at Kaidan in the poor light of the apartment. "You don't have to feel obligated, okay?"
"I can't help it." Kaidan ran his metal fingers through his perfect hair, and sighed.
John stood up and placed his cup on top of a little bookshelf, which held a total of five books. "Everyone leaves for one reason or another, all I am asking you is to do it with a little fucking dignity. Don't insult my intelligence."
"I'm not… I just…" Kaidan huffed frustrated, "I like to believe that we are friends you and I, and –" He turned the tacky mug with a chicken with sunglasses between his hands, searching for the right words. "James' death did something to us both, we can deny it all we want but it did, maybe had us question things, or I don't know – rethink what is important I guess."
John rose a questioning eyebrow, but didn't interrupt.
Kaidan looked straight up at John, "You know the ancient Chinese proverb; Never believe someone who claims they're fine through clenched teeth?"
Kaidan smiled when John actually chuckled, "you're so full of shit, man."
"Absolutely." Kaidan smiled, relaxing a little. "But so are you." John took a deep breath, and was about to answer, but Kaidan cut him off. "You are not fine John, I'm not fine – none of us is fine, we haven't been for a long time, and James just reminded us of how 'not fine' we are. You say you don't care, but you do. You cared about James, and you care about me, otherwise you would not have driven through town to deliver your present. And I care about you, cause otherwise I wouldn't sit here, calling you out on your bullshit."
"Maybe you're right." John mumbled as he slowly sat again, reaching for his cup on top of the bookshelf. "I walked though, I didn't drive."
"Like that makes it better." Kaidan smiled a little, "Come on John."
John looked up at Kaidan, his expression open and vulnerable, a look Kaidan couldn't really remember ever having seen. "What do you propose we do about it?"
"We start over." Kaidan said holding out a hand to John, his human hand. "We could start at the cinema if you want to." He closed his fingers around John's hand as he placed it in his, shaking it as if they were confirming a closing bid on livestock.
Laughing they both emerged from the cinema; the movie had been absolutely ridiculous but it was okay because John couldn't remember when he had laughed this much. He knew he had tried to leave all this behind, but he was happy that Kaidan had not let him.
John tossed a handful of popcorn at Kaidan, laughing at it stuck to his hair. Kaidan tossed his entire box of popcorn at John and started to run across the parking lot laughing, and John followed in hot pursuit.
The both stopped, and Kaidan waved at a figure in the dark parking lot. John followed when Kaidan walked over towards the figure and the car, the closer they got he could make out that it was a woman, it had to be Ashley then, his smile faded.
"Hey baby." Kaidan said, sounding cheerful walking over to kiss Ashley. "Thanks for picking us up."
"You got popcorn in your hair." She laughed and picked out a popcorn from Kaidan's hair and tossed it on the ground. "Hi John." She smiled at John who stood a little further away.
"Hi Ashley." John mumbled.
"So was it a good movie?" She looked from John to Kaidan.
"No it was awful." Kaidan chuckled. He turned towards John, "So where can we drop you off?"
"I'll take the bus." John said with a smile.
"It's freezing." Ashley argued.
John smiled the fakest of all smiles, "It's fine really, I gotta run some errands and stuff."
"We can drop you off at the store." Kaidan said.
"Nah, I gotta go to more than one shop." John shrugged, "let's do this again some other day, huh."
"I hear the sequel is out in some months." Kaidan grinned.
"I wouldn't be surprised." John smiled. "See ya." He shuffled a little indecisive before he turned and walked across the parking lot again towards the bus stops. He couldn't be in that car, he didn't want Ashley to be nice, he wanted to hate her. He stuck his hands in his pockets to keep warm. He didn't know when he had fallen in love, but he wish he hadn't, he wished he could make it stop. A world without Kaidan was almost too hard to imagine, but a world with Kaidan and Ashley was worse. He should have said something, he should have told Kaidan – but he had just not been ready to admit it to himself either.
Maybe he should just leave? Find a way to leave all this behind, because as long as he stayed he would be caught in this limbo. Funny how he could go into battle without fear, but he couldn't tell Kaidan how he felt because he didn't want to risk being caught 'out there'.
John stopped at the bus station, he looked at the different destinations. He could take a bus home, or he could buy a ticket to somewhere far away, just for a little while – get his thoughts right. He walked up to the ticket booth and smiled at the older gentleman behind the glass, "I'd like to go to the ocean," He said feeling like a complete moron, "Which of these busses will –"
"Number 67" the man behind the glass said with a little smile.
"Thanks." John said, "A ticket please."
It took John a while to think about it, "No."
The ocean was everything John could have wished for, outside the season it was almost empty of people, and the ice cold rain made sure the beach was his. He turned on his data pad and hit record. He had not planned anything but after two days of complete solitude he knew that now was the time to be brave, a different kind of brave than to go into battle. And this kind of brave did make him flinch, it scared him shitless.
"Hey Kaidan." He said with a little smile, trying to ignore his own face on the data pads surface. "Look!" He turned around to capture the grey beach and the dark sea. "This place is amazing." He smiled and then took a deep breath, "Look I tried to write you letters but I can't seem to get the words down, and so I decided to go for a video mail. I… I ehm, I am sorry that I just left like that, and I am sorry that you are probably worried – but this was something I had to do." He started to walk down the beach while recording. "I hope… just had to get out of the city, had to think. I guess you're right about James' death making us think about stuff. And that is why I – " He paused, idly pulled his beanie further down over his ears. "It's all just so fucked up." He said softly, "I thought I had it under control, I thought I knew how to be your friend," He laughed mirthlessly and for a moment just stared down at the wet sand and his boots. "But turns out I don't know how to be the kind of friend you need."
He started walking again, "I am really sorry Kaidan." He felt his cheeks heat up even if the rain at the ocean was ice cold. "I'm really bad at this shit, expressing my feelings isn't exactly a part of my core competences." He stared straight into the camera, his eyes sad and his lips trembling slightly, "I fucking love you." He looked away from the camera and bit his lip, "Fuck."
For a second he thought of just tossing the data pad. "- So… I think I'm gonna stay here for a while, I like the ocean and I need to regroup and come up with a new plan. I don't expect you to answer this, and I know it's a dick move to just throw it in your lap like this." John frowned, "I have no excuse for keeping it secret other than selfish reasons." He laughed again but it only sounded bitter and sad. "When all is said and done, I wish you all the best – stay safe, and again I'm sorry for being such a fucking coward." He ended the video and without looking it through, he hit send to Kaidan and then turned off his data pad. He didn't want to hear Kaidan's reply if he even replied. Maybe he could get around to moving on now that he had said good bye.
A part of him felt like he was overreacting like a lovesick teenager, but as he stood there and stared out over the dark waves rolling in towards shore, he knew that it could not be different. No it was time he got back to what was important, time to start over. Maybe he should have lied? Maybe he should just have left and Kaidan would never have known why, did it matter why? "This is what you get", he mumbled to himself and the sea, trying to convince himself that he was fine, he had always been alone so this was no different. No nasty surprises or feelings you couldn't handle when you were alone, yeah had to get back to that. And John wished desperately that he had never walked into that damn soup kitchen.
A year later John had moved from the room by the ocean, deciding that another life was waiting for him elsewhere, and maybe just maybe he would find something to fill the horrible Kaidan shaped void in his life that he couldn't seem to shake. He had taken up a contract as a cargo transporter at a civilian airport; he needed something to do instead of picking old wounds until they festered.
His shift had ended and he waved at his colleague who walked across the parking lot, and zipped up his jacket, knowing it would be fifteen minutes before his bus arrived. He idly popped the lid of his thermos mug and took a sip of coffee, secretly happy that whoever had put the last pot over had not been a tea drinker.
There was someone else at the bus stop, it was unusual at this hour and in this area, but not impossible.
John looked up at the other person, squinting his eyes in the dark. "Do I know you?"
"It's me." Kaidan said as he stepped further out into the light.
"But…" John stared at Kaidan, "I don't… I mean what are you doing here?" He blinked at large snowflakes got stuck in his eyelashes.
"Looking for you of course." Kaidan shrugged, "Your coworkers told me you always took the bus here. Still can't be bothered with a car I see," he smiled awkwardly.
John wet his lips, his brain desperately trying to make sense of all this. "Buy why?" Was all he could think up.
"Your ID is deactivated, so I couldn't call or email." Kaidan stated.
"I know." John answered flatly, he had deactivated the ID after first ignoring and then being scared of Kaidan's answer or lack thereof, and when he had not used his ID for some months he had deactivated it, the answer couldn't hurt if he never got it. "I said what I had to say."
John shrugged, not meeting Kaidan's eyes. "I knew the answer."
"Oh really?" Kaidan crossed his arms over his chest.
Finally, John looked directly up at Kaidan, just seeing him standing there in the falling snow made John's chest ache painfully. "Why are you here? What do you want?"
"I – I don't know." Kaidan smiled nervously. "Take you out for a coffee?"
"I have a life here Kaidan," John said squeezing his thermos. "Far away from the Alliance and –"
"Look, I understand." Kaidan said with a little nod, "Please, could we go somewhere warm, or just with less snow – and talk?"
John smiled amused, "Did you really cross the damn country to take me out for coffee?"
"I did." Kaidan said calmly, "Or rather I had no plan until ten minutes ago. Coffee is nice though, also coffee is warm."
He never could say no to Kaidan, not really. "Alright, there is a diner close to where I live, but you're paying."
"You know." Kaidan said staring off into the snowy darkness in the direction where the bus would come, "You said you were bad at expressing feelings, but still you were the brave one – I should have said something, I should not have taken you for granted. And for that I am sorry."
John looked down at his thermos in his hands, funny how men never looked at each other when they talked feelings. "I wasn't brave, I was just cornered," he mumbled.
Kaidan barked a bitter laugh, "I was an idiot for thinking that the solution to it was going back to whom I was before this damn metal arm." He turned to John and looked directly at the other man with sad eyes, "Like trying to stop time, only to realize that you are miles from the same person you wanted to preserve." Kaidan stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and looked after the bus again. "I would have said yes." He said so softly that John had a hard time hearing it from the wind.
For a long time John just stood and stared at Kaidan, unable to connect with what he just heard. Honestly, he had no idea where to go from here. He was shaken from his thoughts by the bus. "Come on," He gingerly touched Kaidan's arm ushering him towards the bus, "Let's go get that coffee."
Should you think that I skipped over the Kaidan Ashley thing, you would be right - and it is on purpose. So the original ending is that John leaves and Kaidan stays with Ashley (maybe) but that is beoynd the story. The Epilogue is just fanservice for those who thinks they need a happy end, and then we don't need ex-lover bagage, right?!