Summary: Post-Thessia. All the stress, the anger, the exhaustion were probably expected of someone in his position, but the intense fear that had been eating away at him for weeks? Probably not. He was goddamn Commander Shepard, he wasn't supposed to be afraid of anything—but he was.
Nothing prepared even the most battle-hardened soldier for experiencing the fall of a planet first hand. To be surrounded by buildings, once notable examples of a race's engineering prowess, crumbling to little more than fragments in the blink of an eye. In their wake lay huge chunks of debris consumed by fires, acrid smoke burning the eyes and throat and threatening to choke off air to the lungs. The battlefield cacophony of rapidly discharged bullets, explosions, and screams only magnified the severity of the situation.
Despite all of that, what really sunk in was how little was left. It had been one thing to witness the destruction on a shuddery little screen-as if it was all just some fictional action vid-and another to step off of that shuttle and see it in person. If Thessia looked like this, Earth was likely worse. Thinking of home like that still felt like a sharp blow to the gut.
Finished drying his hair, John paused his thoughts for a moment while he wrapped the towel around his waist, a glance in the mirror as he smoothed out damp unruly brown tufts. He stepped out of the bathroom and carefully picked his way to the locker for a change of clothes, mindful of the trail of destruction he had made a few hours earlier.
Filthy, damaged pieces of armor were strewn from the stairs to the locker, carelessly ripped off in a bout of anger and left to lie wherever they dropped. The bedside lamp was resting on its side, taken out by a gauntlet gone aerial. A drinking glass, thrown against the locker by a once shaky hand, had exploded into glittering shrapnel that now littered the floor and armor. He'd clean it up eventually, but it was the least of his concerns for the moment.
Once changed into a simple black t-shirt and a pair of jeans lacking the amount of wear and tear he preferred, John sat down on the edge of the bed and poured himself another shot of tequila. He downed the mouthful of amber liquid, face immediately twisting into a cringe as the liquor seared the back of his throat. Leave it to James to know how to get the good stuff. He'd lost track of how many shots he had done in the hours since returning from Thessia; once nearly half full, the bottle was teetering dangerously close to empty. At least one thing was abundantly clear—they weren't helping. His mind was still drowning in thoughts and now a wave of nausea and dizziness, gifts courtesy of the tequila, had overtaken him. John flopped down backwards onto the bed and covered his eyes with an arm, letting his mind continue to dwell on thoughts he'd become much too familiar with.
Picking off all of those horrific creatures had long ago become nothing more than another day at work-a day that usually led to increasingly normal nightmares. Dreams of all the carnage and atrocities he'd experienced, deaths of friends, decisions he'd made, decisions he regretted, things that could've been, things that might never be. Sometimes he secretly wished the war was only a nightmare and all he had to do was get a good night's rest and it'd go away. In the morning, there'd be no more Reapers or war or death and everything would be normal again.
But those near sleepless nights led to zombie-like days that bled into one another. Thriving off of little more than lukewarm coffee most days only kept him conscious despite the exhaustion; awake and usually upright, but feeling like he was on autopilot in some sort of hazy dream world.
There was also the niggling feeling of failure he was unaccustomed to. Everybody had told him otherwise, but it didn't make him feel any less of a failure. Swarms of husks and cannibals were average, but everything else on top of those? That was damn near suicidal. He had gotten shamefully stuck behind the same chunk of debris fending off husks while Liara and Kaidan handled the rest with a skill and grace more likely to be associated with dancers rather than soldiers. Energy nearly sapped just getting that far, little had been left for the unexpected confrontation once in the temple. John was sure that was how Kai Leng got away; he let him get away.
John clenched the glass in his hand, briefly considering whipping it over his shoulder to join its companion, but the sound of the door whooshing open spared the glass's life.
Boot soles slapped softly across the metal floor, hesitating at the sound of glass crunching underneath. Kaidan stopped at the base of the stairs and took in the scene before him. The armor was understandable, but the glass? John had stormed off the shuttle the second the door had slid open. And just as quickly he had disappeared into the elevator. After earlier having had his hand shrugged off by the irritable man, Kaidan had given up and left him to his own devices, although he could see now that maybe he should have intercepted him sooner.
He raised an eyebrow. "What happened...?"
John raised the empty glass, toasting no one. "Decided to redecorate," he snarked. How ironic that he had chewed Joker out no more than a couple of hours ago for the same behavior. "I'd offer you a glass, but the other one's over... there." He waved in the general direction of the locker. "And on your boots."
Kaidan tapped the toe of one boot against the floor, and then the other, freeing the hitchhiking shards to avoid tracking them any further. Fearing more broken glass in the future was a distinct possibility, he moved to take the glass from John's loose grip and set it aside on the nightstand. The Commander had always maintained a relatively level public personality (with a few exceptions), but in private the toxic influence of crushing stress and liquor could occasionally bring out the more... unstable... qualities of his nature.
The older man took a seat on the bed, leaning back on his hands and looking over at his distraught partner. "Seriously-what happened?"
"Thessia, what else?" John answered simply. From the moment they had gotten back on the ship, he had made it abundantly clear that he wanted to be left alone. Depending on which extreme his mood was swinging toward, those that didn't get the message had been met with either little more than a grunt and a turned back or an uncharacteristic tongue-lashing. He had wanted nothing more than to retreat to the safety of his cabin, where he'd ended up taking misguided comfort in a bottle of firewater. He had known better-usually didn't even have much of a taste for the stuff-but all those bottled up memories and emotions and stress had gotten the better of him and, before he knew it, the glass had went flying.
"It wasn't your fault, you know."
Groaning, John sat up, vacant gaze directed at the metal wall, while he focused on just trying to maintain control over the chaos in his mind and heart. "Everybody I've talked to has said the same damn thing, but it doesn't make me feel any better." The words came out much more snappish than intended and he instantly regretted his tone. Nobody deserved harsh words less than Kaidan, but the nearly unflappable man seemed to take no notice.
"They're not saying it to make you feel better-they're saying it because it's true. Thessia was lost before we ever set foot on it, but that's not what we were there for. And we had no clue Leng would be there, behaving like the coward he is. If not for that, he'd already be dead and we'd have that data."
John winced at the disgusted tone in Kaidan's voice as he said the word 'coward'.
Kaidan hesitantly rested on hand on the other man's back. When John didn't flinch or evade the contact like he had earlier, Kaidan began to massage small circles of warmth along the man's back.
John leaned forward and propped his forearms on his knees, flexing his shoulders this way and that to maximize the amount of contact. "I know, I know... I'm just so tired of trying to be everything to everybody," he grumbled, rubbing at tired eyes with the heels of his hands. "Hell, I'm not even good at it and they expect it anyway; how is there nobody else capable of doing this? You outrank me—why isn't this your problem now?"
"I don't think I inspire the same, ah, loyalty that you do."
"What? Because you had a spine and stood up for what you believed in?" John waved his hand dismissively at the air. "You would've been in so much trouble if you'd joined me-maybe even more than me-and I wouldn't have wanted that to happen."
"True, but there was still the Citadel mess; I should've trusted you."
"No, you shouldn't have. Your job was to protect those thankless bastards—"
"Council," John drawled, emphasizing the word with single-fingered air quotes, in honor of his favorite councilor. "It was nothing personal-you were just doing your job."
"That's not what some seem to think."
"They can go fuck themselves." John snarled. He'd overheard the crew's thoughts on the matter and it infuriated him that there was ever any question at all concerning the Major's loyalties. Horizon, the Citadel, Cerberus-all of it-was a personal matter between them. There had been so many apologies between them, so many more than had ever been necessary. Everybody made mistakes-including John-and now was not the time to be bringing them up and condemning fellow crewmates with them. All anybody needed to know was that John trusted him completely.
Remorseful, John's voice softened. "I'm sure they're just looking out for me, but that's what I hate so much about all of this. Eden Prime was supposed to be a walk in the park, but that damn beacon-and then Cerberus. Everything got so fucked up; it wasn't supposed to be like this."
Cerberus was a sore subject for him. Sure, they had given him another chance at life, but at what cost? He had been such a fool to think he had been anything more than the Illusive Man's personal lap dog. They had wanted him to think he had free rein, but in reality it was just a really long leash. Get a little too bold, go a little too far and TIM would tug on that leash, reminding him who was really in control. In the process, TIM had nearly succeeded in taking away and endangering everything and everyone that ever mattered, ensuring John played by his rules.
And while the Alliance had not exactly welcomed John back with open arms, they at least hadn't completely treated him like the criminal he technically was in their eyes. It wasn't ideal, but it felt like home for the first time in years; military life was the only life he knew any more. But more importantly, that little smile Kaidan flashed him that day had melted all the bitterness in his heart. In that single moment, all the hope Cerberus had stolen was returned ten-fold. He wanted to keep moving forward, to see if there really was something between them; maybe all wasn't as lost as he'd thought it was.
Wrapping an arm around John's shoulders, Kaidan pulled him close and steered the conversation away from himself. Things had thankfully become relatively normal, but he was tired of constantly being reminded of his shortcomings when it came to dealing with the Commander. "You're burnt out, John. You always take on too much for one person and expect too much of yourself. You have a team for a reason; they have your back and care about you." His voice softened before adding, "I care about you."
John sighed and kept quiet. He knew Kaidan was right-everyone was-but it was just somehow easier to put the blame on himself and feel like he had some kind of control over these kinds of situations. Not having that control made him feel uneasy and lost, things he could not afford to feel right now.
"Do you really think we can win this?" John asked quietly, voice nearly a whisper, as if asking such a thing in his position was shameful.
Kaidan sighed. "If you'd asked me when this started months ago, sure. But after what we've been through..." he trailed off, looking up at the stars through the skylight. How many of those tiny points of light held life that was being snuffed out by Reapers as they spoke? "I...I just don't know anymore. Sure, we've beat Reapers before, but what it takes..."
Suddenly fidgety, John stood up and went to the smaller work desk. He rifled through the clutter of data pads and disassembled weapon parts, looking for nothing in particular, just trying to focus his thoughts into one halfway coherent stream. His hands brushed against the old helmet sitting in the corner and he picked it up. Turning around he leaned against the edge of the desk and began running his fingertips over the battle-scarred helmet, tracing every scratch and dent as if they would somehow give him the words to express the more difficult emotions he wanted to get out.
All the stress, the anger, the exhaustion were probably expected of someone in his position, but the intense fear that had been eating away at him for weeks? Probably not. He was goddamn Commander Shepard, he wasn't supposed to be afraid of anything-that was an emotion allowed for everyone else; he had to be fearless for their sake. But it was so hard. Every mission held the potential for loss; a single stray bullet was all it would take to destroy his entire world. He had considered trying to at least protect Kaidan by barring him from missions, but he knew the man would call him on it and, damn, if they didn't work exceptionally well together. But admitting his fears felt like admitting he was a coward.
There was that word again.
John bit his lip. Should he or shouldn't he? If he admitted his true fears, would Kaidan think less of him? Possibly even leave him? It was so stupid to think about, but it was those kinds of thoughts that had repeatedly prevented him from voicing his concerns and were slowly driving him crazy. His face must have mirrored his thoughts because he soon felt the helmet being removed from his hands and strong arms wrapping around his waist, pulling him into a hug.
John slipped his arms around Kaidan's waist, resting his cheek against his partner's shoulder, savoring the familiar warmth and that wonderfully clean scent that always conjured happier images of the ocean back home on Earth. If they made it out of this alive, he hoped there would be a home left to go back to.
In those terrible years after his parents had died, John had learned "home" was less a physical location and more of an abstract concept. He had spent years being shuttled around from one orphanage to another, but nobody ever wanted the weird 10-year-old who could move things without touching them. He was different-feared-and the other children were quick to remind him of that. So he'd run away.
He had run as far as his legs could take him, and wound up on a beach. In all of his sadness and anger, he'd forgotten those memories of his parents taking him to the beach; his mother had always been drawn to the ocean and and it was a love passed onto him. The distant crash of waves always soothed the hurt, reminded him that there was something bigger out there-all he had to do was listen. With only the sound of the waves, John had sworn he heard her voice, her laughter ringing out over the roar of the ocean. That night was the last time he had allowed himself to truly break down and cry. Boys living on the street and running in gangs didn't have time for tears and, as he soon found out, it was the quickest way to getting your ass beaten.
But those waves were tugging at his soul once more. His mother's voice was long gone, instead replaced by the deep, hushed voice of his partner.
"Talk to me, John, tell me what's really wrong."
John drew a shaky breath-this worrying had to stop. "I'm... afraid," he said cautiously, voice wavering.
"We all are," Kaidan murmured understandingly. "I'd be worried if you weren't."
The response did little to allay John's fears. "No, that's... I really mean... I'm terrified. I'm not ready to die again, especially not now." He paused, waiting for some kind of interruption that never came. "I just... I want more time with you." It sounded so selfish and pathetic put out in the open like that. People were dying pointlessly as they spoke and here he was, worried only about himself. If people knew the truth, they surely wouldn't be so quick to fawn over him; why would anyone so selfless and noble as Kaidan love him after such an admission? John quickly averted his gaze to the floor.
The breath hitched in his throat when he felt the warmth between them fade away. He had expected Kaidan to walk out, disgusted by the admission, not the brush of fingers against his stubbled cheek, trailing down to follow the hard line of his jaw. They came to rest under his chin, curling slightly to gently tilt his head back up. John's eyes hesitantly flicked back up to meet concerned brown ones, studying him so intently, as if they were trying to read his very soul.
And he definitely had not expected that kiss. Stormy blue eyes fluttered shut as relief washed over him, whisking away every negative thought that had plagued him for far too long. Every reassurance he could have possibly needed or wanted was loaded into that kiss. Tender, protective, fierce, possessive; how foolish he'd been to think this man would turn him away after all they'd been through together.
"We're all terrified," Kaidan breathed, "but just because we're willing to die for the cause doesn't mean we want to." He pressed another kiss to John's lips. "You've already sacrificed so much, already died for the cause-you deserve happiness, too. But we have to earn that happiness, fight for it." Kaidan purred, nipping at John's throat and receiving a soft moan in acknowledgement. "I lost you once and I'll be damned if I let it happen again."
The words were nearly a growl against John's skin, sending a shiver down the younger man's spine. A coy little smirk played across his lips as he reached behind himself and shoved a stack of data pads off the desk. The devices tumbled onto the couch, wedged next to the desk, one bouncing off and clattering to the floor. He sat down on the cleared workspace and reached out to put a hand behind Kaidan's neck, pulling him down for a proper kiss.
Kaidan turned away slightly to catch his breath. "Feeling better?"
The subtle, yet suggestive, octave drop in his voice sent a tingle of anticipation shooting through John. Breathless himself, he could only nod and manage a quick 'mhmm' in response. He wrapped his legs around the other man's waist and immediately felt himself being lifted off the desk.
"Shouldn't we clean up that mess first?" Kaidan asked, dropping John onto the bed and climbing on top of the younger man.
With practiced ease, John successfully opened and removed his partner's shirt in mere seconds, exposing the bare flesh he badly needed to feel against his own. "Later. Busy now." He grabbed the dog tags dangling over him and gently tugged, pulling Kaidan back to his lips.
Anxious hands soon began to explore, gliding over and under clothing, following the natural curvature of bone and muscle. Lips ghosted over bared shoulders and throats, occasionally leaving a memento in their wake.
John's fingers twisted in his partner's thick hair. "Kai?"
"Thank you." John smiled, finally giving himself over to the waves clearing his mind.
John rolled over and draped himself across his partner's chest. Eyelids heavy with exhaustion, he nuzzled against Kaidan's side. A smile tugged at the corners of his lips as John felt himself being pulled closer, cool sheets being drawn up against his own flushed skin. Unable to fight the sleep any longer, John closed his eyes and allowed one final thought to float to the surface of his consciousness before drifting off to sleep.
Home definitely wasn't a physical place-it was something you carried with you. It was anywhere you felt loved and accepted. It was a narrow strip of sandy beach and a starship traveling the galaxy. But most importantly, it was wherever your lover was. The fear of death would never completely disappear, but it felt much less overwhelming than it once did. Wherever home may be in the future, all that mattered was that they were together. That's what he was fighting for.