Disclaimer: Mass Effect belongs to BioWare. Thanks to singeivoire for being a patient beta, even if she is unfamiliar with the game.
Kaidan rolled his neck as the door to the medical bay hissed open. His latest migraine had finally faded into memory, leaving behind a ravening hunger. It was always like that—his migraines usually made him nauseous at the very least, and so sick he'd be leaning over a bucket all night at the worst. When he'd started seeing tracers early in the day he knew it was going to be a doozy, so he simply didn't eat as a preventative strike. Now that the pain was gone, his body reminded him with irritated gurgles that it hadn't been fed since breakfast; never mind that it was after 0100 hours and everyone was dreaming the night away in their sleeping pods.
Except for one. Kaidan's steps faltered as he reached the mess and saw Commander Shepherd sitting at the far end of the table, idly twirling something into a cup.
"You're up late… ma'am," he blurted without thinking and winced. Smooth, Alenko. Real smooth.
Shepherd jumped slightly and looked embarrassed for some reason. "I could say the same, Lieutenant," she said as he punched in a request at the food processor.
"Migraine just went away. I'd be sleeping except that I'm starving." Bland but highly nutritious soup sloshed down into a bowl, and the processor beeped to let him know it was ready.
"Starving enough for that sludge?" Shepherd wrinkled her nose.
Kaidan chuckled and walked around the table to her end with his tray. "It fills the belly—hey! Is that what I think it is?"
In front of Shepard was a glass of milk—not the cloudy, watery stuff that the processor served but actually white—and a jar of peanut butter.
She laughed. The sound made Kaidan smile—she didn't laugh enough.
"Guilty as charged." She grinned. "Milk from an actual cow and peanut butter from actual peanuts."
"And graham crackers too," Kaidan commented, noticing the neat little stack of squares at her elbow. "Imported from Earth? How much did that set you back?"
"Enough," she confirmed, "but it was worth every cred." She dunked a graham cracker spread liberally with peanut butter into her glass of milk and bit into it with relish.
"So, why are you up so late, Commander?" Kaidan concentrated on crumbling saltine crackers into his soup in an attempt to make it more palatable. It was easier to talk with her when it was just the two of them—like when she sought him out after missions. Their almost-flirting had become the highlight of his day, though he reprimanded himself daily for the thought.
"Nightmares," she said candidly, not looking at him. "From the Prothean beacon. They had settled down by the time we picked up Dr. T'Soni… but the Cipher has… rejuvenated them." She bit into another graham cracker, something sad in her eyes.
Something clicked for Kaidan and he nodded. "Comfort food is great at times like that."
She looked up at him, surprised. "How did you guess?"
Kaidan choked down a swallow of his soup. "Back on Earth, before I was old enough to be sent to Brain Camp, I used to eat the same thing at my grandmother's house after school. She'd turn on these game show vids and make graham crackers and peanut butter for me until my dad came to pick me up after his shift at the base."
"My mom used to make them for me," Shepard said and Kaidan held his breath. She didn't often talk about her past. He knew the basics—she'd been born on one of the colonies and led a fairly normal life until slavers attacked, destroying everything and everyone she held dear. She'd entered Alliance military not too long after.
"It was always our bedtime snack," she continued. "She called it her guilty pleasure, since you're not supposed to eat that late or right before bed or something. But we'd talk and have girl time, you know? With Dad and Erik around—well, them being who they were—it was nice for just the two of us to have some quiet time."
"Who's Erik?" Kaidan asked, feeling a twinge of jealousy as he heard the affection in her voice. He tried to cover his interest by choking down another spoonful of soup and regretted it almost immediately.
"He's my—he was my brother."
"Oh." Kaidan's stomach clenched. Nice going, Alenko. "I'm sorry, Shepard. I—I didn't know…"
She met his eyes with a smile, not seeming to notice his impromptu informality. "It's okay, Kaidan. My brother was one of the brave ones. He fought the slavers with everything he had."
"He bled out from too many wounds and not enough medi-gel. Erik was a marine, on his first shore leave to visit us. He took a lot of the bastards with him though." Pride rang through her voice.
Kaidan nodded, stirring his cooling soup.
"Here," Shepard slid a few graham crackers over to his side of the table. "I can't stand to watch you eat that crap any longer."
"But this is your—"
"I have more hidden away, don't worry," she said with a grin.
"In that case." Kaidan pushed his soup away and bit down into the graham cracker. It was glorious, even better than his childhood memories remembered and for a moment he half expected to hear his grandmother scolding the contestants on the game show vids.
"You have peanut butter on your mouth," Shepard said, biting her lip to hide a smile.
Kaidan flushed, swiping at his lips. Crumbs showered the table.
"No, you missed it—here, let me." With that she reached over the table, grasped his chin with her fingers, and swiped her thumb across the corner of his mouth.
Kaidan froze at the contact—had she ever touched him like that? So informally, so—dare he think it—intimately? He lifted his eyes to hers and saw that she too seemed affected, but her face was hard to read.
A shuffling footfall was the only warning they had. Her hand retreated immediately, and Kaidan groped for his bowl of soup as Joker hobbled into the mess on his crutches,. He raised an eyebrow at the two of them.
"Party in the mess at 0200 hours? Why wasn't I invited?"
"What are you doing up so early?" Shepard asked, ignoring the quip.
"I may not have to do anything while we're at FTL speed, but I still like to get up and check the stats every now and then."
The moment between Kaidan and Shepard was lost. The tension of the regs and their respective ranks had come filing into the room along with Joker. Kaidan Alenko was a lieutenant again and she was his CO.
"By your leave, Commander," Kaidan said formally, standing up with his half eaten bowl of soup. She nodded in dismissal.
"I should be going too," said Shepard, following suit.
Within seconds Joker was left to himself. "Was it something I said?"
A/N: I ended up writing a companion piece to this story set much later. You can find it on my profile under the drabble catch-all "Shore Leave" with the title "Yes, no, maybe."