— 1 —

A Small Ship in the Vast Universe

It was not exactly like he had imagined it, being on the Normandy. The most technologically advanced ship the Alliance had was, without a doubt, impressive — as well as surprisingly big for having such a small crew — but what Shepard was thinking about didn't really concern the ship in itself; it was more about the people he had to share the space with.

He didn't feel like an outsider, but it was clear to him he did not exactly belong, either. People were nice enough, that much was true; everyone had accepted his and Steve's presence without obvious signs of suspicion. Steve had been welcomed to the cargo bay to work with the shuttles in his free time, and he — well, he was where he wanted to be, spending time with the marines on the crew deck and trading stories. Working, too, going through reports on Cerberus activities with Steve and pointing out the meaning behind them, if they knew — which, for the most part, neither of them did.

"Cerberus works in cells," he had explained Anderson. "I only know of the actions of my cell, not of the others. I can guess, but that's about it."

The explanation was an honest truth, but, naturally, the Alliance didn't buy it. That was one of the things that nagged Shepard even though he knew they had absolutely zero reason to trust them. He could be doing what he did best — shooting things — instead of reading and writing reports. I'm a soldier, not a god damn scholar. He only hoped he would get to be on the ground team when they would eventually land somewhere — Feros, his guess was, because that was where he would go.

Of course, he knew he had no right to ask for anything. But after spending a whole week trapped inside the spaceship, knowing full well it could take weeks before he got to breathe fresh air again — if he got to a planet that had air, anyway — he was getting agitated.

No surprise there.

"I'm going to take a break," he announced to no one in particular, throwing the datapad away. It clattered on the table, and Steve raised his head.

"That boring, huh?"

Shepard flashed him a wild grin, glancing at the marine sitting on the same table. Jenkins, the man's name was — a good sort, if a bit naive. Shepard had had so much fun telling him about that time with the mako and the thresher maw a day ago, as the guy was the best audience one could hope for — enthusiastic and the total opposite of skeptical. "Records from an abandoned Cerberus mining facility? Boring doesn't even begin to describe it. How's yours?"

"Trade reports, John. Want to change?"

The suggestion made Shepard groan.

He, of course, understood why they had to do this. The intel he had managed to grab from the base before fleeing hardly scratched the surface, so they were basically flying blind. Anything could be valuable, no matter how inane it looked at the first glance. If the Illusive Man was really going to take over the whole... galaxy, as it seemed, he would need resources, tech, unconventional weaponry and masterminds, and with those, the solution to the whole situation could be hidden anywhere. A mine might not have been a mine, and the trade reports could lead to an operative who could lead to... somewhere, certainly.

It was still a dull job to do. And they were the only ones with the time in their hands and the inside knowledge required to recognize patterns and possibilities — Shepard was one of the few people in the entire universe who had worked with the Illusive Man directly, and Steve had heard his fair share when flying the troops.

It was also a fitting punishment, as Williams had pointed out when Shepard had complained.

A charming girl.

"Hey, Rich? Want something from the mess?"

Jenkins made a face at the nickname. "I could do with a cup of coffee."

Shepard turned his eyes back on hist best friend. Steve's were already glued back to the reports, but the man waved his hand, knowing Shepard well enough to reply without him having to ask.

Shepard, in turn, knew what that particular gesture meant. It was not a "No, I'm fine, thank you" wave, it was a notion that said "Yeah, sure — just don't bother me right now". So he got up and left the starboard observation, heading towards the mess hall.

He did not meet Kaidan on his way there.

It was not like he had timed his break or anything, but knowing the man, the Spectre had woken up at four a.m. — he had mentioned something about that earlier — and needed a cup of coffee right about now to get through the rest of the day. It would have been nice to meet the guy, was all, as they hadn't had the opportunity to spend much time together before leaving the Citadel, and now on the Normandy the longest conversation they had shared had lasted four sentences.

If two heys counted as sentences.

He loaded the coffee maker, humming under his breath. Thinking about the Spectre made his heart beat a bit faster, which was... unnerving. Kind of awesome, but... not exactly cool.

Shepard threw his arms over his head and flexed his back.

"Making coffee?"

Startled, Shepard glanced at the direction of the voice before giving the woman his most charming grin. "Ashley. Such a nice day we're having."

Williams lifted an eyebrow as she stepped closer and grabbed a mug from the cupboard, bringing herself closer to Shepard than the man had expected. "Sure."

Shepard took a step back, bringing his hands down. He didn't have anything better to do with them so he crossed them across his chest, not feeling intimidated at all. Not that anyone would fault him if he did; Ashley Williams was damn badass. "So you've been with the Alliance all your life?" he asked to avoid awkward silence.

She nodded. "Enlisted right after high school. You were with Cerberus all your life?"

Her question was innocent enough, but Shepard felt the need to defend himself anyway. There had been an accusatory tone in Williams' voice, he was sure of it; he just hadn't been able to detect it outright. "Me and Steve both joined them after they rescued us from batarian slavers," he explained. The woman's face softened somewhat.

"Sorry to hear that. About the slavers, I mean." She inserted her mug to the coffee machine and filled it with the black liquid, cringing when he saw how dark it actually was. "Seriously? How much coffee did you use for this?"

Shepard shrugged. "It's got to be strong to get us through all the reports today. Care to pour three cups when you're at it? Leave room for milk for two. The princesses in the back room can't handle the Shepard coffee without."

Williams made a face but did as he asked. "That's offensive," she said.

Shepard took his mug, lifting it to his lips straight away... only to burn his tongue.

Damn.

"What?" he asked. Meant to ask, at least, although what he really got out resembled something between a groan and a cry. A manly sound, all in all. It made Williams snort, though, and he glared at her. "It's hot," he... whined.

Way to make friends, me.

"I know," she replied dryly. "Enjoy your coffee. I'm off to work again. Be seeing you, Shepard."

Shepard nodded and waved before checking the fridge for milk, only to find out he had to make more. Sighing, he rummaged through the cupboard to find the ingredients and refilled the bottle, using too much condensed milk powder just like ground for the coffee earlier, and finally could leave the kitchen when he filled Steve's and Jenkins' mugs and placed the bottle back between some protein shakes. Seriously, though, the fridge's small enough as it is. Vega could store his drinks someplace else.

He didn't spill the beverages on his way to the starboard observation. He would have patted himself on the back had his hands been free.

"Coffee for everyone!" he announced as he entered the room.

Steve chuckled. Jenkins stared.

"It was a gruesome battle involving milk shortages and burned tongues, but I prevailed."

Jenkins hadn't yet gotten used to Shepard's way of acting and spouting nonsense every now and then, but Steve just accepted the hot cup with a wide smile. "Our hero," he said, hiding the sarcasm so well Shepard wasn't sure it even was there. That was the kind of man Steve was — you never really knew. It was easy to forget his devious side when he was so nice all the time.

"I know." Shepard sat down next to Jenkins, closer than the man felt comfortable with. The young marine shifted on his chair. "But please, it's just Shepard. No need to make up titles and names. Conqueror of the Mess would be quite a mouthful."

"That it would be," Steve agreed.

Jenkins remained quiet.

It took Shepard two more days before he got to sit down with Kaidan in the mess hall. Even then, Steve and James were with them, and Kaidan tried to read something while eating, and nothing invited Shepard to say the words he so desperately wanted to get out of his chest. "Hey there, Major. Missed you." Or maybe, "Hey — how about tonight, in your cabin? Just you, me, and a bottle of... water, unless you have a stash here somewhere".

Kaidan smiled, however, when he nudged his shoulder.

"So where are we going, exactly? Or is that classified?" Shepard said instead, trying to take a peek on the text over Kaidan's shoulder, purposefully leaning close enough brush the man's neck with his nose. It caused Kaidan — an Alliance officer to the core — to turn the thing down on the table and flinch.

And sigh. Shepard didn't know what that meant, but he decided it was a wow-I-want-you-so-badly-but-I-can't-so-being-this- close-to-you-is-torture-sigh rather than a sign of exasperation.

"We are going somewhere, right? When are you going to fill us in? You can't possibly believe either of us would compromise this information."

"Shepard," Kaidan said. Simple as that, yet effective, especially coupled with the tired look he gave the shorter man. Shepard shut up immediately, sitting back properly but not turning away.

He liked watching Kaidan's face. Even when the man was tired or pissed off or angry, his features held this certain softness, the color of his eyes gentle even when he was not feeling happy. His lips were another thing with those scars Shepard liked so much; right now they were slightly parted, and Shepard had to look away before he forgot his place.

An ex-Cerberus operative on an Alliance top-grade military vessel, on a mission with the only human Spectre. He wasn't a prisoner, technically, but he wasn't free either; he was there because he knew stuff, not because the Alliance or the Council trusted him at all. He was lucky to be there. Actually, he was lucky to even be alive — the Alliance had caught a Cerberus assassin a day before they left the Citadel.

He had wondered when the Illusive Man would send someone for them. It had taken surprisingly long.

"We should do something, some time," Shepard said when the silence started bothering him, "when we are both off. You aren't always on duty, are you?"

Kaidan turned off the datapad.

"I'm getting a little restless, is all," Shepard added, causing Steve to snort.

It made Kaidan smile. "Yeah?" The look in his eyes softened when he — finally — gave Shepard his full attention. "Would it make you feel better if I told you I'm taking a break tonight, then?"

Knowing Steve and James were watching — from the corner of his eye, he could see the young marine openly gaping, spoon half way to his mouth — Shepard grinned. "You bring the water and the protein snacks, I'll bring the movies."

"Movies?"

Shepard waggled his eyebrows. "Or just myself, if you prefer," he said. In his peripheral vision he saw Steve lean closer to Vega to say something when the man kept staring.

Heh.

"Considering your taste in clothing, I think I'd rather have just you, Shepard. I'm not too fond of Blastos, honestly."

Ignoring the bait, Shepard bit his lip, lowering his gaze and lifting it up again when the man shifted. There was a hidden meaning behind the reply, right before the bit about Blastos — which they would have to talk about, later, when he was less energetic and willing to read between the lines. "So that's why you were so eager to get me out of that t-shirt back then," he said in a low voice.

Kaidan chuckled.

Shepard's face felt hot. He shouldn't have thought about that day, the Blasto: Partners in Crime t-shirt on the floor, them in the bunk, Kaidan's shirt somewhere else —

Because, damn, his pants were tight.

Kaidan cleared his throat, probably reading Shepard's expressions well enough to pick up his trail of thought. "I have to get back to work. But drop by the captain's cabin around nine, I should have finished this —" he waved the datapad "— by then. Just... don't bring movies."

Shepard made sure to leer at Kaidan's backside when he left.

It was hardly acceptable for him to be so excited about tonight, but Shepard didn't really care. It was not that he wanted to spit on all the good things the Alliance had done for him and Steve; it was simply that Kaidan looked great in his fatigues, had his own cabin, and was willing to spare some time for him from that busy schedule of his. Fraternization, or breach of protocol or whatever, was the last thing on Shepard's mind. It might've made him care if Kaidan had fended off his advances, but the man hadn't — and since they were both all grown up by now, the Alliance could shove it.

None of it was enough to keep Shepard from knocking on the door right on time. Or to stop him from pressing his palms on the Spectre's chest when the man opened the door after the first knock, for that matter, or turning the guy and forcing him against the nearest wall right after.

"This is against the regulations, you know," was all Kaidan managed to say before Shepard kissed him hard.

He would have lied if he had claimed he hadn't thought about this all day, about the things he wanted to do, things they had already done. Hell, he had caught himself reading the same line four times over before he realized he couldn't focus on his work simply because of the memory of the sound of Kaidan's rough, hoarse chuckle and the look of his lopsided, small smile.

It still amazed Shepard how soft those lips were. And how willingly they parted under his mouth, right now, and how Kaidan used his tongue — and how he sighed when Shepard moved his hands around the guy and slid them down his back.

"You're so hot," he mumbled breathlessly against the corner of Kaidan's mouth.

Kaidan had not shaved that day.

Shepard did not see it the man's smile but he felt it with his lips — the same way he felt his name, Shepard, more than he heard it out loud. "Kaidan," he replied, tracing the Spectre's jaw with his mouth; a whisper against the two days old stubble. His lips burned with irritation.

Kaidan held him close, thumbs on his hipbones.

It was not the first time had been like this, but every single time it made Shepard just as soft in the head as it made him hard in other places. Kaidan didn't have to do much to make him forget the world around them, a sigh was all it took, and that didn't change no matter how many times he heard it. The thing was, he couldn't hear it enough.

"Shepard," the man repeated, louder this time.

Shepard grinned as he pulled the shirt out from under Kaidan's belt.

He still hadn't gotten over the nipple piercing, and Kaidan never objected when he brushed his fingertips over it. And if he had to take the man's shirt off to do it...

At this point, Shepard found himself on the bed, his head next to the pillow and his stomach under Kaidan's mouth, both of them shirtless in no time and Kaidan's hands on Shepard's belt. Whatever it was the Spectre had been meaning to say earlier flew out of their heads with Kaidan's actions, just like that; Shepard allowed his pants to be dragged down and there was no way in hell he would have stopped the other man's eager lips from touching his dick.

The noises he made were downright embarrassing.

He hadn't been the only one who had been doing some thinking, it seemed. The anticipation, the tension all came down to hot, wet mouth sucking him deep, undoing hours of expectation and the swift buildup in mere moments. Kaidan was still mostly clothed and Shepard still had his boots on when he came as fast as when he had been sixteen years old and only discovering what a grown up's life had to offer. It was better, way better, but no less awkward, especially when Kaidan had to reach out for some water afterwards.

"Sorry," Shepard said. "I tried to warn you, but..."

In truth, he wasn't sure he had. It had all been too fast, too everything, but from the looks of it — the dilated pupils and the hard-on the man was sporting — Kaidan wouldn't probably remember one way or another anyway. As it was, Shepard pulled him down for a kiss, ignoring the extra flavors it had simply because the tongue work was worth it. It was a small price to pay for Kaidan's full attention, for the harsh, raspy kiss that left his lips tingling and puffy.

Kaidan bit his lower lip. Shepard gasped.

"Things I want to do to you," the marine whispered against his mouth.

"Things I want you to do to me," Shepard replied, easy. His heart rate hadn't slowed down despite the early orgasm, but he had regained some control over his actions, if not thoughts. He pushed himself forward, kissing Kaidan as he went until the other man had to stand to give him space to sit up. He bent down to remove his shoes, finally ridding himself from his clothes for good.

No use hiding anything under the fabric anymore.

Kaidan stood in front of him, hands on his sides. Looking down, lips parted, red and swollen, and Shepard felt a new heat rising somewhere below his stomach before he had even cooled down in the first place. The look on the man's flushed face was enough to make him want to lie down and allow the guy to do anything he ever wanted with him, but at the same time, he felt the need to act as well — he had never been accused of being passive, and he wasn't about to start now. Stuck in the indecisive state between choosing one thing over the other he stared, blue eyes locking with brown, and they stayed like that for a while. Just looking. Breathing.

In the end, Shepard pulled the man down, and then they were tumbling and touching, biting, sucking, fighting for control. Kaidan lost his pants and boxers but Shepard lost his advantage when he forgot to breathe and had to slow down to inhale.

Exhale.

Kaidan was talking in low, husky voice, whispering nothings that meant everything all the same; a request, a plead and an order, all rolled into the same sentences that culminated in one single word, Shepard. So yeah, he replied with the only way that occurred to him; taking the man into his hand and stroking while sucking the pierced nipple.

Kaidan arched to his touch.

Shepard was hard again, but it was hardly important. What mattered was how his hot skin met Kaidan's even hotter body, and how there was nothing to cover them but themselves. The ragged breaths they took, the ones they missed when Shepard moved back up again for some sloppy, eager, demanding kisses — that was what they had both been waiting for since the last time they had done this, that simple, honest want and closeness. Shepard couldn't read Kaidan's mind, but the responses, the reactions were there, as obvious as the day or the night sky or the view from the window above their heads. Shepard wanting this hadn't been in question, but the Spectre — Major Alenko, by the books kind of a guy, was a different kind of person, and he hadn't dared to hope this would still be the case after such a long time of not touching or even talking.

"Hey," he said. Sighed, more like, lips burning. "Do you want me to —"

Kaidan took hold of the back of his neck and pulled him down, cutting him off with another fierce kiss. It suited him just fine.

Shepard worked on Kaidan like he worked on himself, thumb brushing the man's sensitive tip with measured movements, his own dick sliding against the base of Kaidan's thigh. The man whimpered under him, demanding more, but they were too far gone; the need, the passion was reaching highs they would crash down from within the next two or so minutes, if not sooner. It was fast, hot, and messy, and when Kaidan came, Shepard squeezed every drop out of him like Kaidan had sucked him dry earlier.

The man reached out to touch Shepard, after, and he allowed it. He hadn't planned on finishing twice in the timespan of Kaidan coming once, but it was, he decided, a compliment towards the other man rather than anything else.

He was also the one to clean them up before the relaxation kicked in.

Kaidan lied still, cooling down. Shepard liked the vulnerable look on the man's face, the lazy expression and the fading flush on his cheeks. Neither of them spoke for a while; instead, Shepard brought his chest against Kaidan's side and put his arm around the guy, not exactly snuggling but... something, anyway.

"I had something to talk about," Shepard managed to slur against the man's arm. Kaidan's chuckle was soft and quiet. Tired.

It was the last sound Shepard heard before he, somehow, dozed off.

He woke when Kaidan's alarm went off.

His arm was pinned under Kaidan's head. His head wasn't on a pillow either, and he didn't have any cover beside Kaidan's arm and leg. The next thing he noticed was that they were both completely naked, save for Kaidan, who actually had his socks on.

A wild night, he thought, then tried to recall if there had been booze involved. He was fairly sure there hadn't.

"Damn, Major," he whispered against Kaidan's temple, trying to sound commanding but ended up ruining it with a... smile. A wide one.

He hadn't felt joy like this since...

... since that kiss in the passenger compartment of the shuttle on their way from Cronos Station to Noveria.

Waking up next to someone, with all the aches and all, made everything real. Kaidan's sleepy face when his eyes fluttered open was a sight he had never seen before. The slow realization settling in, the smile that followed... entirely something else as well.

"Morning," Shepard slurred and kissed him.

His lips were sore and irritation flared right when the sensitive skin brushed stubble, causing Shepard to move back after a quick peck. Kaidan closed his eyes as he sighed, bringing his hand to the bristle on his face.

"Sorry," he mumbled. "I should... get up and shave and... bring you something for... for that."

Shepard agreed, although he mourned to loss of the warm body next to his, even the heavy limbs over his chest and thighs. It was, however, worth it as soon as Kaidan actually got up and looked for his clothes. If having the man's body right next to his made Shepard happy, this view certainly did too.

"Take your time," he called, grinning when Kaidan gave him an unimpressed stare.

As the man dressed, boxers and fatigues and belts and shirts all over the place, he had time to go over what had happened last night. To remember the details. How out of control both of them had been the moment Kaidan had opened the cabin's door —

Shepard found Kaidan's pillow. Instantly, he pushed his face against it, stuck half-way between grinning and wincing.

He was way too old for this kind of romance. They both were. They were adults, smart and calm and ridiculously awesome, not some... hormone-driven teenagers who couldn't stop themselves from coming inside their own smallclothes while making out. It hadn't come to that, thankfully, but only because they had shed theirs so soon.

This wasn't the first time he thought about how he acted around the man. The Spectre made him do things; things he wouldn't do otherwise, things he hadn't ever thought he would do, or even think about thinking doing — it made no sense at all. As he watched Kaidan hide himself — and the hickeys Shepard didn't remember making — under the clothes, making himself presentable, he couldn't get past the madness of the whole thing. And yet... how damn lucky he felt.

He had never been in love. He wasn't...

He wasn't now, either, but something about this was so different from his past experiences.

"So, would you finally tell me where we are going? Has our Prothean expert found anything?" Shepard asked. He had taken a shower and dressed and slapped some medigel on his face and now with the coffee cup in hand he was starting to feel almost normal again. His feet were firmly on the floor, both metaphorically and literally, and it felt good, at least as long as he didn't think of how they were actually floating in space. It was all about perspective anyway.

He could lie in Kaidan Alenko's bed and daydream or he could get a grip and approach things as they were. So there he was in the mess, seated across Kaidan, drinking coffee, and his face stung only a little when he talked and the layer of medigel cracked and shifted.

"No, Liara's still — dr. T'Soni's still working on the data I gave her. It's a lot to interpret even with her knowledge." Kaidan seemed unaware of everything he was putting Shepard through just by being there. He looked relaxed, even happy, if you knew where to look; Shepard didn't, not yet, not really, but the tired stiffness in the man's posture had eased. "But she's hopeful. We should know soon."

Shepard's face lit up. "You're actually answering me!"

Kaidan half-frowned, half-smiled, battling against amusement. "Yeah. I guess I am." In the end, he lost, and Shepard gave him the biggest grin when he coughed to hide the snigger. "Anyway, we're — we're going to Feros as you suggested," he hurried to continue. "We don't know much and if you're right and Cerberus, um, knows that you, you know, know about their experiments on this Species 37, we have to move fast before they move their labs. It's been too long already."

Shepard's goofy grin died, slowly, at the name and at the unfortunate truth. He looked at his coffee, not sure how to respond. I wanted to go as soon as possible sounded a lot like I told you so, and they didn't even know yet if he had the right to say such a thing. Working with the Alliance was all about limits, personal as well as professional, and the stuff he and Kaidan were doing offended both. He wasn't sure if he was entirely willing to add cheekiness on top of it.

It was rare for him to think before talking, but he was going to take all the advantage he could get from the sudden change of behavior. Maybe Kaidan's thoughtfulness was rubbing off on him.

"Good," he said instead of anything else. "Who's going?"

Kaidan's mouth was full with the protein bar he had taken from the cabinet — it was his version of a breakfast, Shepard supposed — and he had to chew and swallow before he could speak. Clearing his throat, he replied, and what he said made Shepard happy enough to beam at him and... knock his mug over.

"Oops."