There are still scattered husks roaming the streets of London when Steve Cortez sets out on foot, pistol strapped to his hip and assault rifle in his hand. He’s a pilot, not a soldier, and he doesn’t have Shepard’s terrifyingly impressive biotics, but there’s nowhere to set the shuttle down that close to the beam.
“Lieutenant Cortez, where are you going?”
He ignores the crackle in his comm device and keeps walking, picking his way through the rubble. The big Reaper behind the beam had gone suspiciously still shortly after the explosion that had ended the Hammer strike force, but Steve doesn’t trust it to stay that way. That doesn’t stop him.
“Lieutenant, return at once. It isn’t safe out there.”
“With all due respect, sir,” Steve says tightly, huffing as a piece of broken concrete shifts below him, “I don’t give a good goddamn about safe right now.”
“I wasn’t asking. Return to the base. That is an order, Lieutenant.”
He doesn’t even hesitate. “I resign.” He’s almost there now, almost to the place where the Reaper’s beams cut a swath up the road, right over -- He ducks his head and pulls himself over a pile of rubble as the voice in his ear sputters.
“That -- that won’t be necessary, Lieutenant. Just… be careful.”
“Understood, sir.” He’s there now, where he saw Shepard go down on the screen. His heart is beating so fast it hurts, his palms sweaty against the rifle. He realizes that he didn’t even put on armor. He isn’t even wearing gloves.
He doesn’t care; there’s a flash of N7 armor less than six feet away, the bold red and white design scuffed but still whole.
He doesn’t realize he’s shouting Shepard’s name until he chokes off in the middle of it when he sees the chest piece move, and then he’s crying, hands raw and burning against the edges of the concrete pieces he heaves off that body.
He hasn’t seen a man so close to death since Major Alenko was rushed to the Citadel hospital what seems like a lifetime ago, but Shepard is still breathing, and Steve’s legs give out. He braces himself over that broken body, one eye out for husks as he raises the command center. There’s one pulling itself across the ground, legs blown off, and he raises the assault rifle and takes off its head just as his hail is answered.
“I found him,” he says, his voice catching in the tightness of his throat. “I found Shepard.”
“Esteban, if you spend any more time in here, I’m gonna have to bring you a tent so you’ll at least get some sleep.”
James’s bulk as he slouches beside Steve is comforting, but Steve can read exhaustion in every line of his friend’s body.
“You should go home,” James says, but it’s a token effort. He doesn’t expect Steve to listen.
“I can’t.” He rolls the empty coffee cup in his hand, eyes glued to the door. “I know what they said, but…”
“But you’re gonna sit your ass here for close to a week, and then when he wakes up and asks for you, you’re gonna faint on the floor because you haven’t slept. Then you’ll wish you listened to ol’ Vega.”
Steve actually manages a half-smile at that, a breathless huff of laughter. “You might have a point.” He gets up to throw his coffee cup away, and stops when James puts a hand on his arm.
“I’ll make sure they know to call you as soon as anything happens,” James says quietly, and Steve nods. It’s all he can do; his throat is too tight to speak. James seems to recognize this, sitting back and letting him go.
His hotel room is dim and empty, dusty with the lingering effects of the Reapers’ attack. The big machines are still perched around the city, lifeless husks themselves now, like the shell a cicada leaves behind on a tree. He can see one from his window, and he shivers. He pauses long enough to flip it off before he pulls the curtain closed and collapses on the bed.
“Mr. Cortez?” The nurse is handsome, although clearly exhausted himself. He smiles when Steve looks up, a particular kind of tenderness in his expression. “He’s asking for you.”
Steve’s whole body goes cold, then hot, and he stumbles to his feet. “He’s awake? Wait -- that’s -- of course he is.”
The nurse’s smile grows wider. “Well, he was asking for you in his sleep, too, and under anaesthesia in surgery, but he couldn’t have visitors then.”
Steve feels himself grin, big and goofy, and he has to look down at the floor when emotion overwhelms him. This thing with Shepard is still so new, relatively speaking, and he hadn’t been prepared for how deep his feelings went. They’ve been through a lot in a short time, but…
He was asking for you in his sleep, too.
“Thank you,” he tells the nurse, who is watching him sympathetically.
“Come on, then. I’ll take you back.”
They stop at a sterilizing station and put him in scrubs and make him wash his hands three times before they’ll let him into Shepard’s room. The doctor is standing there, clipboard in her hand, and she looks up and smiles when Steve comes into the room.
“He’s right here, Commander,” she says, and pats Steve on the shoulder as she walks past him. Then to Steve, “He’s all yours now, Lieutenant,” before she walks out, taking the nurse with her.
Shepard almost looks worse than when Steve found him in the rubble despite the time he’s spent in intensive care. He’s the most beautiful thing Steve has ever seen.
“Hey,” he says, voice hoarse and quiet, and wets his lips.
“Hey yourself,” Steve says back. His eyes are watering, but he can’t stop smiling. “You look like hell.”
“Feel like it too.” His hand twitches on the blanket, and Steve reaches down to catch his fingers before he can think about it. Shepard’s eyes flutter closed for a moment at his touch, and Steve has to sit down, collapsing into the chair by the bed.
“You scared the shit out of me,” Steve says, then kicks himself. That wasn’t what he wanted to say first.
Shepard laughs though, just a little, then coughs. “Yeah, me too.” He turns his head until he can meet Steve’s gaze and squeezes Steve’s hand weakly. “I came back for you.”
Steve’s eyes are more than watering now, but he manages a smile. “Our agreement was that you’d come back in one piece, Commander.”
Shepard smirks, but it’s a tired expression. “Not missin’ an’thing.”
His words are starting to slur, and Steve knows he should leave, let him sleep. But he stays a moment longer, watching him until his eyes close.
He’s still sitting there, exactly like that, watching Shepard breathe steadily in his sleep, when the nurse comes back in.
“He should rest,” the nurse says quietly, then hesitates, looking between them. “I can give you about a minute and a half more.”
Steve finally looks away from Shepard’s face long enough to kiss the faded, yellowing bruise on Shepard’s hand.
“I’ll take it.”
He should be used to it by now, but every time he wakes up, he lies still with his eyes closed for just a moment, afraid to open them, afraid it was all a dream.
But then the warmth at his back shifts, broad, scarred hand sliding over his stomach, and he lets out the breath he was holding.
“I know you’re awake,” Shepard says into his shoulder, followed by a soft kiss. “I can feel you breathing.”
“Yeah,” he says, because he can’t say anything else.
Shepard kisses up the slope of his shoulder to the curve of his neck, and Steve exhales deeply when his lips find that ticklish spot right beneath his ear. “Good dreams?”
Steve finally opens his eyes and shifts until he can see Shepard’s face. There are new scars there, and Steve can still picture the bruises that are long faded by now. He traces Shepard’s jawline, thumb scraping over the stubble on his chin, and kisses his mouth. Shepard pulls him close, then under him, big, broad body pinning Steve to the bed. It’s a welcome weight, and Steve groans as he shifts to let Shepard settle between his thighs.
He pulls back from the kiss and frames Shepard’s face in both hands, thumbs meeting on his lower lip.
“Not nearly as good as waking up.”