CHAPTER 1: Aftermath
He could remember the feel of her skin, the taste of her lips, the sounds she made under his touch. He had never felt more alive than he did in her bed. Last night was the best night of his life and now it was over. He woke up and immediately felt the waves of regret wash over him. She was Commander Shepard, savior of the citadel and paragon of humanity. He was just a grunt with the title lieutenant commander. He broke regs, but that wasn't what was weighing on him now. He was more concerned with the fact that he just ruined whatever bond he had with Lola.
They had fallen into a routine with each other over the last 11 months. It started on earth. He cared for her in a way that few other marines did. To him, she was more than just a hero. She was a person who had given her whole self to the Alliance and they repaid her with imprisonment. James saw the injustice of her situation and he felt like he had to make up for it. For everything wrong they did to her he needed to pay her a kindness; if to serve no other purpose than to keep her faith in humanity. Commander Shepard would later realize that James Vega had been the one thing that kept her from the brink of insanity.
They told stories in her cell; their greatest missions, life as a soldier and not much else. They both shied away from the personal things like family or failures. They were both broken in their own ways and couldn't bear the weight of exposing their regrets, even with one another. It was nice for each of them to have someone who understood how not to infringe on the painful bits of their lives.
Then, five months ago, Earth was attacked and they were thrown into this life. Fighting the Reapers in some roundabout political way. It was harder on James but Shepard was always there to pull him through. And as they neared the end and there was nothing left but to attack Cerberus and head to Earth, Shepard threw one hell of a party. It was in part to allow her team to relax before the onslaught and in part, to make the necessary preparations to the ship. James and Lola got drunk and they ended the night in bed together. Two halves of a whole that neither person knew they needed. And James didn't want to see the truth of it.
He wanted to believe that it was simple; that they were friends and that she was just his mentor. He wanted to believe that last night was the product of frustration and alcohol and that everything would return to normal. He wanted to believe that he didn't need her because he knew very well that he was probably going to lose her, to the Reapers, for the sake of a war that she had been fighting before anyone else believed it was real.
James tried to find solace in his work. When that didn't happen he tried to find peace in exercise but that failed too. His mind was on a road that always led back to Shepard.
He would remember little things at first. How he expected their night together to be hot and messy. He would remember how it was surprisingly and uncomfortably tender instead. He would remember the anticipation and the trepidation he felt with each of her advances. He would remember how it felt to have her under his fingers. He would remember the sight of her shirt coming over her shoulders. He could do nothing else but remember his night with Shepard and it confused him to no end.
He couldn't get her out of his mind and it was starting to agitate him. James Vega was not afraid of feelings most of the time. He was caring and found himself easily invested in the wellbeing and happiness of others but this was too much for him. He needed to be alone. He could feel the stares of the few people that were in the cargo bay, Esteban included. It was driving him mad.
It took James only a few moments to realize that the port observation room would be empty after a party like last night. No one would want to be within sight of alcohol, since most of the crew would be dealing with the worst hangovers of their lives. James hoped that the quiet would help him calm his aching mind. He left his workstation and made his way to the elevator.
His erratic behavior did not escape the notice of his friend Esteban.
The bar was empty and silent and James was extremely thankful for this. He didn't think he could manage to feign small talk with some crew member that he had no real connection with. He needed to figure out how to deal and quickly. The Normandy was heading to Cronos Station and Vega wanted to have a level head before they had to take on Cerberus.
James stared out into the void of space. The intention was to clear his mind but it would always wander back to Lola. He began to wonder when she realized that she wanted him. When did her feelings shift from respect and friendship to lust? James' confusion intensified as he grappled with things he could never find answers to by himself.
He sat there ruminating over Shepard for a good thirty minutes before anyone disturbed him and in that time he began to feel worse about everything that had happened. He might lose Lola sooner than he was prepared for and that was killing him inside.
Esteban waited for his presence to be acknowledged. Realizing that it wasn't going to happen anytime soon, he cleared his throat to get James' attention.
"Oh, Hey man." James said in a startled sort of way. He had been too far in the depths of his own mind to notice his friend's entrance.
"I never took you to be the brood in the corner type."
"Yeah, well I never thought I would have something to brood about."
"You know, in all the years that I've known you, I have never seen you this torn up over a woman." Esteban teased in the hopes of lessoning the grief written all over Vega's face.
"How did you…?"
"You and Shepard are not the most discrete lovers my friend."
"You think we're…It was just one night hombre."
"No it wasn't. You can pretend all you want but you started this dance back on Earth."
James knew that he was a flirt and a shameless one at that but he didn't think anything more of it. Not until yesterday. Now, well, now he didn't know if it all meant something more.
James sunk his head into the palm of his hand. He didn't know what to do or where to go from here and he certainly didn't know what to say to Steve. His mind was a maze that he couldn't navigate even if he had a map.
"Do you want some advice? Life as we know it is ending. If she were gone tomorrow, would you be able to live without her? Not just as a friend. Would you be able to live knowing that you would never hold her again, kiss her again? Could you move on knowing she didn't know how you really felt? If it's killing you that you aren't spending what could very well be your last moments with her right now, then you need to go tell her. I've spent more than two years living in a pool of regret, you have a chance to avoid that."
Vega stared at a spot on the floor near his feet. Esteban had just shared the weight of his past and James knew how soon that could be his reality. In a day's time he could be the one living with sorrow and pain over what could have been. He thought carefully over what Steve asked. Could he manage to live his life without her?
The painful truth was no. He couldn't live this day without her. How was he supposed to manage weeks, months, or years without Lola? You would think that this realization would make James' course of action clear. Find Shepard and confess that last night meant everything to him. Tell her that he needed her in ways that he couldn't yet fathom. But, the thought of doing this made James sick. He could very easily be the only one who felt this way. She never hinted at wanting anything more than sex. What if his confession fell on deaf ears and she wanted nothing more than friendship?
"What do I do if the answer to all that is no?"
"Well, I can't really help you there. I got to get back to work anyway. If you need anything…Well, you know where I'll be."
It wasn't easy for James to be alone after the conversation he had with Steve. The quiet he had yearned for earlier was now crushing him. He was conflicted and didn't know how to resolve his problems. On the one hand he could tell Shepard everything; confess his feelings and hope for the best. This option hinged on the idea that she would reciprocate these feelings in some way. The thought of her not feeling the same for him tore at his chest.
The alternative was to keep this to himself. He could try to maintain the playful friendship that they had shared for nearly a year but he knew that every flirtation would carry new meaning behind it, at least for him. Every comment would be weighted and every time she would leave he would yearn for her just a little bit more.
This option would eventually overwhelm him. But then again, eventually might never get to happen. Maybe this option would spare James the pain of rejection. Maybe if one or both of them dies he could be content with the night they shared.
And then, James thought about how he wouldn't be content with this. One night with her was priceless but it would never be enough. She was like a drug, and he was addicted.
James stood up and paced the room. It wasn't a very large room so he found himself walking in circles more than anything else. He felt like a coward. He couldn't handle this. James laughed at how much of a fool he was. This was why he didn't fraternize. Things get complicated and no one makes it out unscathed. This was the lesson he learned from many of the military relationships he witnessed.
Two people fall in love. They end up on opposite ends of the galaxy. Maybe they still love each other but the distance is too hard to overcome. Or maybe someone dies. Maybe someone cheats. The possibility for failure is everywhere in the military and James had never seen someone successfully overcome that.
Vega was usually an optimist but self-doubt was something he had learned well after Fehl Prime and ending up on Omega. But there was something else he learned there too; sometimes there isn't a perfect choice. Sometimes there is just the best choice under the circumstances. He just wished he could figure out what that was right now.
He tried to think about a time before last night, before things became complicated. His mind drifted to the first time he ever flirted with Lola.
She had reached her breaking point. Shepard had been trapped in this room for more than a month and nothing could console her anymore. What was she supposed to do? If she didn't destroy the relay everyone would be dead. The weight of the lives she took, took a toll on her. 305, 362 souls were on her hands and she had no say in the matter. Now she was here, in a room. She had no ship, no crew and everyone now called her a traitor. She could feel her anger rising causing everything to annoy her more. She tried to calm herself but today had been the final straw. They were retrofitting the Normandy for Admiral Anderson. She respected the man and technically it had been his ship first. But the Normandy held special meaning for her and now it would never be her ship again…Shepard sank to the floor and let her head fall between her knees. She cried for the first time in ages but it did nothing to soothe her.
James usually knocked. Commander Shepard was not someone he wanted to piss off. She was a hero regardless of her imprisonment. But today he heard her from outside the room. It was muffled but he knew the sound of crying anywhere. He keyed in the code to get into her room and was shocked at what he found. He never saw the Commander as small, but in this moment she looked fragile. Shepard looked up at him from the floor with eyes that were swollen and red. He was taken aback and could do nothing but stare.
"Could you do me a favor Lieutenant? Go away." Each word was punctuated with anger and he suddenly understood what she was feeling. She couldn't handle the betrayal anymore. The alliance was her home, her family and they were treated her like an ingrate. He wasn't sure if he could handle it any more either.
"I have a better idea Commander."
"I am not a Commander anymore remember?"
"Bullshit. You will always be Commander Shepard. Anyway, I have a bottle of tequila in my room. I might get fired for this but you look like you could use a drink."
She chuckled at the thought of him getting fired. Not because it was amusing but because it had been a long time since someone was willing to stick their neck out for her.
"You trying to get me drunk?"
"No, I am trying to cheer you up. A beautiful woman like you should never be in tears."
"I'll have to remember that."
As Vega walked out of the room he chuckled. He just hit on Commander Shepard and she didn't kill him.
Vega was lost in his memory for longer than he intended and it didn't help him in the least. Did these feelings exist even then, when he barely knew her?
Vega was getting angry, last night was messing with his head. A week ago he was content killing Reapers and fighting the war. He was good at being a jarhead. She had put this notion in his head; the idea of them. He couldn't do this. Even if they could be together, this wasn't the right time. If he let his feelings get the better of him, they could all die before their fight was over.
He made up his mind in that moment. If anything were going to happen it would have to be after they both survived. He needed to be clear with Shepard because he didn't think that he could handle the flirting if they weren't both on the same page.
He stood up with clear purpose for the first time in nearly 24 hours. This wasn't the solution that he wanted but it was the solution that he knew he needed. He walked into the hallway just as he saw the elevator doors opening. He ran to catch the elevator before it left crew deck, and then he saw her.