— 5 —

A Better Day

Kaidan was not the first person Shepard saw when he came around, but he was the first one Shepard asked for before making a face and falling back onto his back, groaning. Steve immediately pressed his hand on Shepard's shoulder to stop him from moving.

"Welcome back," he said, voice full of relief and eyes as blue as ever. He slid his hands carefully around Shepard's shoulders. "Don't ever do that again." It was a good, warm hug, and Shepard tried to lift his arms to return the gesture, only to let out an annoyed sigh when he found out he couldn't. It made his friend smile for some reason.

Steve slid his arms lower, around his waist. He smelled good, Shepard noted distantly, of aftershave and something else, something that for whatever reason made him think of certain young marine. Before he could ponder about it, Steve tugged and reached behind him for his pillows, propping him up.

"What happened?" he managed to rasp out when the man returned to his seat. Then he coughed.

Steve took hold of his hand and placed a cup of water in it, pressing both his palms around Shepard's and helping him lift it to his lips.

The water was warm.

"You saved James's life. Among others."

Shepard stared at him for a little while before closing his eyes. "Yeah. That's informative."

It was not a joke, but still, Steve smiled. "I know. Sorry. But that's the most important bit."

Shepard didn't reply, and the other man didn't continue. Maybe it didn't matter. Eventually, he opened his eyes to look at his friend, asking for Kaidan. Again, it occurred to him.

"He went to see Anderson. From what I understand, he's the only reason why I'm allowed to be here with you. Although your heroism plays a big part of it, I'm sure. It's hard to deny anything from the one person who stopped the Illusive Man himself and sacrificed themselves for another person. Or, well, tried to."

The truth was, Shepard didn't remember anything but the grenade on the Illusive Man's hands — Vega down, Kaidan shouting, "Hand it over or I'll shoot!" — him running, falling, the shock and the following blackness, and even that felt distant and unreal. Maybe he had pushed James out of the way, tackled the old man, thrown the explosive far enough — he wasn't sure.

"I... couldn't let you lose James, too," Shepard muttered. It felt... right, so he was pretty sure he had thought that before doing... whatever it was he had done, precisely.

He loosened his fingers around the cup, and Steve took it away, placing it on the nearby table. Then the man took hold of his hand again, cool fingers against his warm skin.

"Right," he said.

The expression on his face shifted from worried to distant to sad, and vulnerable, and whatever. Shepard was getting too tired to read anyone, which in itself was depressing. Steve was always open and honest about his feelings, and here he was, lying in some hospital, too weak to even recognize his best friend's facial expressions.

"There's something on your mind. Out with it."

Steve squeezed his arm before taking a deep breath, preparing to talk, only to exhale when he was supposed to. His emotions were all over his features, even in the way he sat and in the way he kept holding onto Shepard like he was in desperate need to feel his presence. Maybe that was the point.

"I'm right here, Steve. Talk to me."

Finally, the man did open his mouth. "I don't want to lose you, either," he managed to say. "You know that, right? You're important to me. Don't you dare forget that."

Suddenly Shepard's throat felt tight. Being important to someone was not a thing he was too used to, even if he and Steve had been close for years; he had never considered himself too valuable. Definitely not irreplaceable. Maybe he should have.

His face felt hot. "I'm here," he repeated. He had no idea what else to say. Everything felt too real, went too deep under his skin. He was speechless. He could not find the words to return the statement, to say you're important to me, too. No words could cover it, anyway. All he could do was to squeeze Steve's hand and look into his eyes and ask for him to know it besides everything — his inability to speak out, his tendency to downplay his feelings —

Before Shepard was able to shake himself out of his emotional haze, the door opened behind Steve and a familiar figure entered.

Steve turned to look at the door. When he faced Shepard again, he let go of his hand and got up.

Kaidan looked like hell. Apparently, Shepard wasn't the only one who had gotten hurt — there was a new barely-healed scar on the man's cheek and he favored his left foot, and the bags under his eyes were pretty damn dark too. Seeing him in such shape made Shepard swallow the goofy smile he had almost flashed the other man out of instinct.

Instead, he just stared at him, barely noticing Steve when he brushed past the Spectre on his way out.

"Hey," Kaidan said, moving closer, past the chair and straight to Shepard's personal space. He leaned in and brought his hand on Shepard's rough stubble, lips on his forehead, close to the scar on the man's hairline. When Shepard tried to speak, he got interrupted by Kaidan's mouth on his, moving down from his forehead to his lips in a smooth move. It was a soft, tender kiss, almost like the man was afraid of hurting him if he pushed too hard.

"Never do that again," Kaidan whispered when he pulled back too soon. Not far though; his hands were still on Shepard's face, and when he spoke, Shepard could feel it against his skin. "I swear, if anything had happened to you..."

"Yeah. Been hearing that a lot lately." Shepard opened his eyes to meet Kaidan's, unsure of when he had even closed them in the first place. As if it mattered, because there was worry, pain and — relief and affection and tenderness there in Kaidan's gaze, and it was more important than anything right now. "But I'm fine. Better than you, I bet. What's with the leg?"

"It's nothing."

Shepard sighed, but then couldn't help smiling, because hell — pots, kettles and all that jazz. They were both way too stubborn. "You're something, you know that, right?" he said, lifting his hands — carefully, this time — to wrap them around the other man. Apparently the almost-dying part resolved all the problems they'd had before, which suited him quite fine.

The fondness in Kaidan's expression was enough of a reply. He chuckled and Shepard kissed him. The grim, heavy mood lifted with the raspy sound, and Shepard felt lighter, even happy. Hell, the room seemed brighter all of a sudden.

"When will I get out? Do you know?" he asked, eager to leave. He still wasn't the type to rest peacefully even though his arms felt weak and he would probably need someone to help him to the bathroom. He was, in fact, restless. The exhaustion from the emotional confrontation with Steve had vanished, just like that.

Kaidan hadn't even done anything.

Just the man's presence made the galaxy a better place to live in — or, a hospital to be in, in this case. For whatever reason, Kaidan cared for him for all he was, for all the fights they'd had or the confrontations they'd avoided, all the dumb things he did and said and the weird expressions his face kept making, and accepted him — and that in itself was a miracle of a kind. Miracles generally made one's days brighter.

Shepard coughed. All this mushiness made his face feel way too hot. "So... the doctors? When will I get out?" he repeated, desperate for something to make him feel less... lovey-dovey and more like a seasoned soldier who headbutts krogans and, apparently, saves marines from suicidal maniacs. It made him think too much when the other man didn't reply and just kept studying him.

The crow's feet around Kaidan's eyes deepened when the man smiled.

Shepard shook his head. It made the room spin, but it set down when he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.

"The doc told me you'll be fine in a couple of days. But you have to stay in bed until that," Kaidan finally replied. When the bed patient frowned, he smoothed a not-crinkle between Shepard's eyes with his thumb. "It's not so bad. These beds aren't uncomfortable, and the food... actually, the food is rather bad. But it was never good on the Normandy, either, so you're used to it."

Shepard scowled. "But I'm fine," he insisted, "I just need to... you know..." he trailed off, looking for a good way to say I just need a wheelchair and a babysitter and I'm good to go, only to realize there was no way to put it.

Sighing, he changed the subject when he saw Kaidan was about to open his mouth. "Anyway, how's the business with the Alliance? Are they going to drag us to court any time soon?"

Kaidan tensed. He seemed a little uneasy, if not worried, and Shepard wanted to take the words back. Damn. "Not to bring down the mood," he added, knowing well enough the damage had already been done.

"Neither of you is going to jail," Kaidan said.

"Right."

Kaidan turned his eyes away. "Anderson is on our side."

"Isn't that a good thing? Surely they'll listen to him." Shepard scratched his arm and winced as he pulled the IV a little. "I mean, the Illusive Man was caught. I doubt Cerberus is going to be trouble anymore. We helped. Steve said he was allowed to be here with me partly because of what I did for you, so obviously the Alliance knows everything about our mission."

Kaidan took a while to answer. "About the Illusive Man... he died. From the blast. You're alive because I managed to shield you before the grenade went off. And, uh, the Alliance, they..." he started, then leaned in to kiss Shepard, lightly nibbling the lower lip before slipping his tongue in to explore the man's mouth. Despite knowing well enough he was being stalled Shepard gave into it, because hey — Kaidan's kisses versus dealing with reality? No competition there.

And the Illusive Man?

He couldn't say he was sorry.

Unfortunately, Kaidan didn't forget about their conversation during their too-short make out session.

"The Alliance, uh... " The man smoothed an imagined stray hair back to his hair bump. "They... are not exactly happy with... how I've acted. With... you know. You."

Shepard... gawked, feeling the familiar heat settling slowly to his cheekbones. "They... know? About us?"

Kaidan sighed. "We've been pretty damn obvious, Shepard. Even without the security tapes back from the time you and Steve were in detention..." He, infuriatingly, didn't look flushed; just a tad ashamed. "They think I'm too close to you to be objective. So my vouching doesn't do either of you any good. Anderson's the only one standing between you and the court, now." Shepard opened his mouth so he hurried to continue, "I'm sure his word is enough to keep you from prison, though. I just can't promise they'll clear all the charges."

Shepard closed his mouth. Then he shrugged. "That's all?"

"What do you mean, 'that's all'?"

Shepard took a deep breath, feeling a little frustrated. "I was one of their best operatives, Kaidan. I've killed people just because they opposed Cerberus. It doesn't matter what I thought I was doing back then, it's something I have to atone for anyway." I thought this was obvious. "I have responsibility here. I'm only worried about Steve. He was never there in the front lines, he only fixed and flew shuttles and did technical stuff. Do you think they'll believe this, at least? He hasn't done anything wrong."

Kaidan gave him an intense, long stare. It made Shepard feel tired again, so he shut his eyes and leaned on his pillow. "Don't just... look at me. Say something."

"John."

The use of his given name startled the man. Kaidan had never called him anything but Shepard so it alone was worth the special attention, and there was also the tone of his voice. Heavy with feelings, pleasantly raspy but with a hard edge. Not demanding, though. Asking.

"Kaidan," he replied, locking gazes with the guy.

"You do know that you..." the man paused, breathed. "You were redeemed the moment you switched sides. The moment you looked the Illusive Man in the eyes and didn't shoot, or at the very least the moment you told us to go and went for the grenade yourself. That you were with Cerberus in the first place was because the Alliance failed to protect our colonies —"

"Don't," Shepard quickly interjected. He didn't want to discuss this, not when he had been feeling so good, not when he and Kaidan... they'd been okay for a moment there.

No glaring. No emotional distance.

"Don't make excuses for me just because we're... whatever we are."Shepard's face felt hot. "Maybe they are right. Your feelings are affecting your judgement." He could see the annoyance settling in Kaidan's eyes, the small flicker of the fine muscles of his face; he hurried to continue before he could ruin their truce completely. "But it doesn't matter what either of us think, does it? Can't we just... be happy the Cerberus' taken care of and enjoy our time off?"

Kaidan looked like he wanted to argue, but then let it go with a deep breath. "Right." He smiled, amusement over his features. "But I must admit there's got to be something wrong with my life when being a patient in a hospital contributes as shore leave."

Shepard laughed for the sake of clearing the mood. "When I get out, we should really get some of that for real," he said. Kaidan's grin was familiar, but it felt like ages since the last time he saw it, so he enjoyed every second now.

"I heard about this great place in the Presidium, once." Kaidan squeezed his hand, leaning in. "Great food and plenty of good lagers to choose from. I never got to go there."

Shepard recognized the reference. He smiled.

"Sounds great."

There was no moon but there were stars, a real view projected on the Citadel's artificial sky.

Shepard rested his head on Kaidan's chest, breathing against the fabric of the man's shirt. They were lying on the balcony of Kaidan's apartment, backs against a thin mattress Kaidan had dragged out for them; counting the heartbeat, Shepard listened to the steady rhythm, feeling content and small. Sometimes hearing, feeling Kaidan's heart was the only way he knew that this, they, were real, that there was the fourth pronoun instead of the first and the third or the first and the second — that despite their difficulties, none of it mattered because simple words like me and you and him and us were not enough to tell anything about their feelings anyway.

He was feeling emotional.

They had been on their first date, so maybe, just maybe, it was acceptable. Apollo's steak sandwiches had been amazing. Great selection of lagers, too — Kaidan had closed his eyes when he took a sip, and the sight of the man's throat, bared to the sunlight, and the happy expression on his face afterwards were enough to convince Shepard he was heading to the right direction in his life.

He followed the trail of hair on Kaidan's stomach to the man's navel and down to the boxer line with his fingers. The shirt rose to the guy's waist and didn't fall back; the skin underneath was warm, even hot to his touch.

Biotics really did run hot.

He did not complain. He loved it even if he woke to it at night all sweaty and had to proceed with carefully untangling their limbs before he could finally slip out from under the covers. It was a choice, and he knew it was all — Kaidan was something a single stray bullet could take away from him just like that grenade could have taken him that day. The idea terrified him more than he dared to admit.

"Tickles," the biotic hummed and Shepard forgot how to frown.

I love you was on his tongue before he realized it. He did not say it out loud, but for once, the thought didn't startle him; he lifted his head and turned to kiss the scars on the guy's lips. The one on the lower lip. The one under the nose.

Kaidan smiled before kissing him back, affectionate and chaste turning into exciting and hot in a quarter of a second. It was something he did with his mouth without thinking about it like Shepard did, all the time, when he was not doing it.

There was no tongue, not this soon. There was only the mouth that twisted in a very specific way and the lips that were softer than a soldier had any right to have.

Your mouth is unfair had been a funny compliment, Shepard had thought, especially since Kaidan himself had the most kissable lips in the whole universe.

His breath got caught in his throat when the Spectre rolled them around. Shirt rode up to his waist and skin met skin, stomachs touched all the while lips touched lips. Shepard found Kaidan's hand and he slotted fingers between fingers, palm against palm, the biotic's lifeline not pulsing with literal life but it was something Shepard got out of the contact anyway. Strength. It was like a part of the discipline that had been drilled to the Sentinel-class biotic got through the calloused skin despite all the scars crossing some of the lines, soothing him just as well as listening to the steady heartbeat under Kaidan's ribcage did.

Sometimes he felt he was merely reacting to life instead of living. But with Kaidan, he was sharing a life, and it was almost like that was the key to being alive in the first place — to share, to touch, to see and be touched and seen in return.

You make my life worth something, was the other phrase Shepard swallowed before it rolled off his tongue.

His mouth was busy, anyway.

Kaidan cradled his face with the hand he was not holding. Thumb on his jaw, fingers splayed against his neck and his ear. It felt more intimate than a blowjob or a bitemark on his shoulder, and in truth, moments like these made Shepard feel more naked and vulnerable than anything else — these moments when he felt so much and did so little, just pressing soft kisses on puffed lips scraped by five o'clock shadow and holding the guy close. They could feel each other's hearts through the thin materials of their shirts, somehow suddenly beating in sync; they could feel the goosebumps and the sighs, the warm exhales on their faces as they did not pause to breathe. They were so close they had been farther apart when one of them had been in the other, like that night after Shepard had gotten out of the hospital.

Kaidan's eyes were dark and huge when he finally moved his head back to get eye contact, and Shepard breathed through parted lips. Swollen lips, tingling like the sensitive skin missed the graze of the slightest of shadows as much as Shepard himself did, already. He lifted the hand on Kaidan's back to the man's neck and pushed — or pulled, depending on the perspective.

Kaidan moved his hips down as Shepard arched his hips up.

Shepard didn't know what was going to happen to him, to Steve, to the first human Spectre Major Kaidan Alenko, Alliance Navy. He only knew he had shot blind and hit the jackspot, and that besides meeting in the worst circumstances, they were going somewhere. And Steve and James, they were as well; that alone would make him smile like a fool..

Shepard had everything he needed.

"You do know," he said suddenly, soft syllables escaping his lips before he could think about it and ruin the moment, "that I am yours."

Kaidan looked at him. He knew this was the closest to I love you he was going to get.

"I do," he replied, kissing Shepard right after. "I am, too. You know. Yours."

Shepard got something in his eye.

Shepard stood next to Steve in the dock, looking at the Normandy; the sleek design, the Alliance colors. It reminded him of the moment when they were staring at it the first time, too speechless to get anything out. Now they knew what it was like to fly inside it, to fight outside of it; the routine, the coarse linen of its bunks.

That was a difference between now and then.

The bigger thing — they were also free men now. Not shackled by the Alliance, serving in hopes of reducing their punishments as well as for wanting to help save the galaxy from their former boss. Now they were making their own calls, and that they were here, it was a choice; their clothes weren't marked by anyone. A rogue organization, Systems Alliance.

They were here to say goodbye.

"I'm too old to enlist, Kaidan," Shepard had said. Steve had declined the offer as well, saying he had gotten a work offer, that it was good enough for him; he wanted to get a family, not transfer people from battle to battle until one of them didn't make it or made it in a body bag.

Shepard wasn't sure what he was going to do, himself. But he knew his future would include the brightest Alliance had to offer, one way or another.

"If you had told me this is where we're going to end up, I wouldn't have believed you," he said softly. "We're actually civilians. Free civilians."

Steve chuckled. "I give you two months and you're begging for the Alliance to get you back to the front lines."

Shepard smiled. "Maybe I'll become a mercenary." He lifted his hands above his head and stretched, something popping in his shoulders. He ignored it. "And then I'll sit in bars of all sorts and let the youngsters buy me drinks in exchange for the stories of my adventures as John Shepard, the Scoundrel."

Steve shook his head. "The Scoundrel. Very terrifying."

He missed the reference. Shepard didn't mind, because he had never been happier — and besides, he was still a Blasto person despite Kaidan's attempts at turning him around. "Yeah."

They stood some more time in silence. Then James joined them and wrapped his arms around Steve from behind, and Shepard had to turn the other way to hide his grin.

Kaidan was there to meet his eyes. He he hadn't heard the man's footsteps; it made him jump, although he would deny it ever happened if anyone asked.

"Still quite a view, huh?" the Spectre asked, smiling like he did when he was genuinely happy, a small pull at the corners of his mouth. "It won't feel the same without the two of you, though."

Shepard reached out, squeezed his hand. "But we'll be here when you come back." What they were — he still wasn't sure, but somehow, the past weeks had helped stabilize their relationship. They had a bond of some sort.

They could do this.

Kaidan seemed to be thinking along the same lines as he surprised all of them when he closed the distance and kissed Shepard, right on his mouth. "I'm counting on it," the Spectre whispered against his lips.

Shepard melted to a lovesick puddle of goo.