Author's Note: I wanted to take on the challenge of writing this story because I thought it would be interesting to explore this aspect of human sexuality. There are lots of people out there who consider themselves predominately straight or gay, but there are a few people they'd make an exception for. I have several, myself. :) Anyway, I just want the readers out there to understand that sexual boundaries are a lot more elastic, and sometimes we don't all fit into the LGBTQ categories as neatly as some would have you believe. Keep in mind: I'm not saying that all it'd take is the right woman to turn a gay man straight. That's not at all what I'm getting at here. I'm saying that sometimes, the heart wants what the heart wants. Anyway, enough with the disclaimers. On with the story!
Of course he's heard of the Reapers. Everyone has, after the fight against Sovereign at the Citadel and the fifth fleet's sacrifice. There are the other rumors, too, spread by those who have opted not to listen to the Council's whitewash attempt and instead side with Commander Jane Shepard—that the Reapers are coming in force to invade not just one planet, but the entire galaxy.
Although the rumors are out there, the first Steve hears of the impending invasion is a Reaper scream that cuts through the air like a particle blade and startles him out of his concentration. He's working on polishing up an engine in the barracks not far from the Normandy when the invasion begins, and James runs into the room, strapping into his armor in record time.
"What's happening out there?" Steve asks, as if he doesn't know. In panic situations, rhetorical questions are the only ones to ask.
"Shepard was right. She was right all along." James tosses an empty duffel to him and he starts shoving supplies into the bag with numb fingers. At the bottom of his footlocker is a holodisk holding a recording he wants more than anything right now, and for a moment he can't breathe when he can't feel it there. But it's moved beneath a pile of shirts, and Steve fishes it out with a shaky sigh. It goes into the bag along with his toolkit, clothes, and toiletry kit. A necessity, like the rest of it.
They sprint for the Normandy, and James hands him a rifle while he hurriedly explains the situation. The shit has officially hit the fan, and they're supposed to rendezvous with Major Alenko, Admiral Anderson, and the Commander at the ship as soon as possible. The enemy is everywhere, dropping out of the sky with comet trails of fire streaming out behind them as they thunder to the ground. They are horrible, unnatural, worse than alien—they are walking abortions that should not exist. The fight for Earth has begun.
They make it onto the ship just before Shepard and Anderson appear, sprinting out of the line of fire. Her legs are pumping hard as she jumps up onto the cargo ramp and the Major hauls her inside. She turns back around to say something to Anderson, but Steve can't hear it—he's running take-off checks for a status report.
Suddenly, Joker is on the comm, yelling about huge cuttlefish falling out of the sky and not making a whole lot of sense in his anxiety. The message he's trying to convey is clear- Everyone strap yourselves in, it's gonna get bumpy. Shepard is onboard, the ramp closes behind her, an unreadable expression on her face. Anderson isn't there. It's the first loss, and already the Commander's mouth is set in a grim line that will become characteristic of her in the weeks to come.
The engines fire up, Steve gives the green light to Joker, and then Major Alenko is at his shoulder asking about the status of the Kodiak. It's running fine, only needs a minor tune-up, but there's no time for any of that because they're bugging out. Getting out of Dodge. Fucking off in a big way. James doesn't take the news well. Steve doesn't care where they go, as long as he's making a difference. Besides, he lost his home a long time ago.
They're off to Mars first, and James flies the shuttle out. While he doesn't want to leave the piloting to someone less talented, Steve isn't prepared for the wave of emotion that hits him when they break atmo. Fear, sorrow, anger, longing, fierce determination, panic—they all coalesce into something that sits in the pit of his stomach and won't budge. He hasn't felt this alone in months. He wishes more than anything that Robert were here.
While she's gearing up, Shepard sees the lost look on his face and tells him to go check in with Joker and go over the flight plan. It's a little nothing assignment that can wait, but he's grateful for it and knows what she's doing—giving him a moment to collect himself.
When he sees the state of the shuttle when they return, he regrets leaving the job to Vega; the guy's a great soldier on the ground, but behind the wheel he's still just a grunt. All that fades to the background when they pull the Major out, bruised and broken, and haul him up to the medbay. The look on Shepard's face, that grim resolve, never wavers. It's a mask she wears, another kind of armor.
He's heard the stories about her, everyone has. Born on Earth, raised by a gang, Shepard was steel forged in white-hot fire even before she joined the Alliance. She rose in the ranks quickly, earning loyalty and commanding respect wherever she went, even among her superiors. She was a powerhouse on the battlefield, a hurricane that destroyed everything in her path. Fiercely loyal to her friends, merciless with those who opposed her, she was the natural choice for the human Spectre candidate. Then, she was instrumental in defeating Saren and his Reaper flagship. The tales got taller and taller as her victories mounted up, but it wasn't until she died and was resurrected that she started to become a legend.
And now he's serving under her, directly responsible for her well-being in the most important war anyone had seen in 50,000 years. It's daunting, to say the least.
Over the next few days, once they start to build up their team and rack up wins wherever they go, Steve gets to see more and more of the woman behind the legend. When she comes down to introduce herself, insisting he call her "Shepard" rather than "Commander", she is easy to talk to, companionable and warm. She's short, maybe 5'6", even though when she's in armor she seems ten feet tall. She is unassuming. Normal. Human.
As he lays out the procedures for procuring supplies and tells her about his career and experience flying fighter jets, she doesn't give much away but the small smile that plays at the edges of her mouth encourages him. When she shakes his hand, it's with a nod of acknowledgement, equal to equal. He's impressed her, and that means a lot.
Her friends are almost as accomplished as she is. A quarian admiral, a turian Reaper advisor, the Shadow Broker, the Major, a krogan battlemaster. That last one takes him by surprise. They're on Sur'Kesh to retrieve the female krogan that someone inside the salarian laboratories has tipped Wrex off about, and the whole thing starts to go to hell when Cerberus shows up. Steve is just getting ready to take off and provide air support when Wrex asks him politely, at gunpoint, to kindly move the hell out of the way. He does, warily eyeing the eight hundred pound krogan as he takes the controls.
Steve has to give it to him, the guy knows his way around a shuttle. He's dodging incoming fire and leading Cerberus on a merry chase while Shepard and her team bring the pain down below. With someone else piloting, he has the opportunity to watch her fight, and it's an amazing thing. She plows through the indoctrinated soldiers, mows them down like grass, in a deadly dance of biotics and pure brute force. Kids use the word "awesome" to refer to just about anything, but Shepard and her team are the living definition of the word.
When he tells her about Wrex commandeering the shuttle, she laughs and shrugs it off. "Yeah, he kinda does that. You get used to it." Like being on friendly terms with a krogan is the most normal thing ever. Compared to the other things she's seen and done over the years, he supposes it is.
"Anyway, it's good to have you back safe, ma'am."
"The mark of a good mission, if you ask me." There's a glint in her eye that gives a hint at the humor beneath her words.
"Indeed. Is there anything I can do for you, Shepard?"
"Not right now, Cortez." She hesitates for a moment before leaving, giving him a queer look. It isn't until later that he wonders if it was because he'd offered his help, and when the last time she'd had such an offer was.
A little over two weeks in, and they finally have a little breathing room. Rather than run from one mission into another without time to clean the grit from one planet out of their armor before heading to the next, they can actually take some time to plan. The team is growing stronger, their focus a laser sight aimed at the Reapers, and Cerberus. Between assignments, Shepard makes frequent trips down to the shuttle bay to work on new weapon mods, secure supplies, or just shoot the shit with him and Vega. The three of them share an easy camaraderie, and for the minutes she spends down here she can loosen up little.
At first, it starts at the edges, insidious in its sneakiness: the depression that had enveloped him after Robert's death on Ferris Fields only a year ago. He'd thought he was finally getting better, but here it is again, encircling his heart in a vice-grip. When he's busy, it's not so bad; the Normandy is a warship now, and there's almost always something to do. At night, though, the cold space beside him is oh, so obvious. Here, at the end of all things, he longs for his husband's strong arms to hold him and tell him it'll be okay. Sometimes, in his dreams, he still does.
He keeps his wedding band in his front pocket, a warm and insistent presence that offers comfort, and reminds him of what he's lost. He needs that pain, though. To do any less than mourn Robert feels like the worst kind of betrayal. It feels like forgetting him, and that he can't bring himself to do. He has to carry on, for the both of them. Sometimes, it's more than he can bear.
Shepard seems to know that something's off about him. She makes a point of engaging him in conversation, arguing about the merits of the Mako (which she and Vega both wax sentimental over) versus the Hammerhead, discussing gun mods, rehashing old war stories. One evening, they're talking about their families back home and Shepard, predictably, doesn't have much to add on the subject. James heads to the mess hall with the promise to bring back some food for everyone, and Shepard asks Steve about his family. He's been dreading this topic for weeks, but she's looking at him expectantly and he can't help but tell her.
"I'm an only child. Lost my parents years ago." He takes a deep breath, then says, "I had a husband back when I was stationed on Ferris Fields. I'd rather not talk about it."
She looks up at him over the assault rifle in her hands, and the look she gives him isn't one he's seen lately. It's not pity, not exactly. Steve thinks it's empathy—the look of a person who knows what it is to lose someone.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Steve. If you ever want to talk about it, let me know, okay?" She smiles at him reassuringly, and he sighs in relief.
"I'll keep that in mind. Thanks."
"Anytime." He appreciates the fact that she's not at all awkward more than he can say out loud. Usually, people feel the need to excuse themselves because they can't think of anything to fill the silence after he tells them about Robert's death. Shepard stays, though, and before long James reappears with three plates of unrecognizable starch and the moment's passed, for now.
The salarian, Mordin, is still working diligently on the cure for the genophage, but there's still a long way to go. Initial estimates sit at somewhere near a week, maybe ten days, and in the meantime Shepard decides to make a stop at the Citadel to make contacts and stock up on some much-needed supplies. Wrex has been plowing through the levo food stores, despite his complaining that there's a distinct lack of thresher steaks on the ship, and they're running low on dextro rations now that both Victus and Garrus have taken up their postings. There's been some talk about the possibility of a quarian joining them soon if they can get hold of her, and it's clear the quarian is a friend from a long way back. Shepard is attached to her inbox and personal comm link as she waits for word.
The ship empties out, but Steve can't bring himself to leave. All that space, free to do whatever he wants, will lead to too much time for his brain to supply him with memories and half-formed accusations aimed at himself. He sets up camp at his station and starts work on completing the repairs to the shuttle, breaking apart and cleaning each firearm that was used during the last mission to rescue the Primarch's son. That one didn't go so well. Steve wonders if there was something he could have done from the air—maybe gotten into position under the kid to catch him as he fell, or maybe airlifted him out of there before it got so bad. It's a track he's been over before, a well-worn path in his head that starts to intersect with other, older memories.
Was there something I could have done differently? If I didn't listen to him and just jumped into one of the light transports, could I have saved him? Did it hurt when he died? Was it my fault?
Soon he's just leaning on the console, trying to breathe past the heavy lump in his chest where his heart used to be. No one should ever have to lose a child, or a spouse, or a parent, or sibling, or friend. The pain is too much. He thinks that if there really is a god out there, like some people say, then He is an unapologetic asshole.
He lays down on his cot, touches the empty space next to him, and falls asleep, both fearing and hoping for dreams.
The crew begins to trickle back in after their 24 hours are up. Traynor and Joker are the first ones back, and as the pilot makes his unsteady way up to the cockpit, Traynor comes over to talk. She takes one look at him and says, "Are you feeling all right, Steve?"
"Well enough, I suppose." Every time these variations of I'm fine come out of his mouth, he hates them a little more.
She puts a hand on his arm. "This war is hard on everyone. We all understand, and if you ever need to talk to someone—"
"Thank you, Sam. I'll do that." He knows that there are others out there mourning their own loved ones—hell, almost everyone he's ever known was on Earth, and most of them are probably dead now—but he still feels alone. Just then he's gripped by a need to hear Robert's voice, and he goes down to the shuttle bay to get the recording. His heart is in his throat the whole time; he's certain that something has happened to it, it'd be just his luck that his pack grew a hole all of a sudden and it's nothing more than a smoking crater back in Vancouver. His pulse doesn't slow until he puts his hands on it, and it's with shaking hands that he pushes it into his console.
"I love you, but I know you. Don't make me an anchor, promise me, Steve."
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
His own voice saying, "No, don't" still haunts him. He's been saying it for months now: Don't, Robert. Please don't be dead. You don't know what it's like now, living without you.
The twelfth time it plays through, a shadow falls over his forearm and he can see Shepard's trademark red hair in his peripheral vision. He knows there are tears streaming down his face and that it's probably not a good idea to let his superior officer who trusts him with her life to see him coming apart like this. He knows this, but he can't bring himself to act like he's fine anymore.
"Commander," he says, and the deadness in his voice scares him a little. "Sorry. Didn't see you there. This is a recording from Ferris Fields, months ago. I lost a lot of friends that day." He turns around and sees her there, and he has to avert his eyes from the naked sadness on her face. "I . . . lost my husband. I grieved, said goodbye, made my peace . . ." Except that's not exactly true. This isn't peace, not at all.
He's surprised by the feel of a pair of arms encircling him and opens his eyes to see the top of her head, pressed against his chest. The tears he's trying to keep at bay spill over again and he hugs her back, resting his cheek on her head. He's getting her all wet, she must feel it, but she doesn't move. His breath hitches and her arms tighten around him, rubbing his back in soothing circles.
"I just . . . I miss him so much, Shepard," he says, and the words crack and shatter. She nods wordlessly, her hair rubbing against his chin. He's forgotten the comfort of being in someone's arms, and the sadistic part of him rebels against it for an instant before he lets out a shaky breath and gives in to it. She shifts her weight from foot to foot and he moves with her; the rocking motion, her warmth, and (perhaps this most of all) her silent understanding make the tears less bitter, hurt a little less. By the time they've tapered off entirely he feels a little lighter, hollowed out. The depression is waiting in the wings, but somehow it seems more manageable as long as her arms stay around him.
He pulls back a little, and she lets him go with one last squeeze. He wipes at his face and she touches the damp spot on her hair, and they both laugh a little at the inherent absurdity. It feels good to laugh; it's been entirely too long. "Thanks, Shepard."
"I said anytime, and I meant it." She boosts herself up on the counter and he leans beside her with a sigh. "He must have cared a lot about you."
"He really did. And the feeling was definitely mutual."
"Tell me about him," she says, and for a moment Steve has no idea where to begin. Robert takes up so much of his head space these days, but he doesn't know how to describe him.
"He was a little taller than me with these deep brown eyes that just sucked you in, you know? Soulful eyes." It's like these words open up the floodgates and soon he's telling her all about the time they both got really drunk in Germany and wound up spending the entire night with a pair of hardcore techno ravers who wanted nothing more in the world than to open the two of them up to the wonderful world of slam dancing, and Shepard's laughing along with him. He's so wrapped up in the telling of the story and reliving good times that for a few minutes he's forgotten the pain that's been riding him all this time. He goes quiet and realizes he's smiling, and it doesn't feel forced or mask-like. She gives him a friendly nudge and gets him chuckling again.
"I appreciate your coming down, Shepard."
"No problem. I happen to enjoy your company, so I'd've been down here eventually anyway." Her eyes go more serious and she says, "Are you okay?"
"Don't worry. When I'm in that pilot's seat, I'm there 100%. I won't let you down."
She smiles and says, "Not what I asked."
He knows what she meant, and sighs again. "It's going to take a while for me to be okay, I think, but I feel a little better now."
"Good." She pats his shoulder and hops down to the floor. "You have the link to my omnitool?"
"I think so. It's in the public ship listing, right?"
"Yep. Ping me anytime you need to talk."
She ducks down to catch his eye and smiles when he meets her gaze. "I mean it, Steve. No more moping by yourself."
He nods, and it starts to hit him—he really isn't alone in this. Not anymore. He's got a friend, a support system. "Aye aye, ma'am."
She hollers at James to get back to work and stop doing crunches, for god's sake, and James fires back with a barely-veiled flirty comeback that makes her laugh, and then she heads off for destinations unknown with one last wave as the elevator doors slide closed. Steve turns back to the console, takes out the recording, and buries it in his pack again.