The air is heavy and stinks of sulfur and death and blood. It reeks but John still struggles to draw in even a hint of it. His armor is far too tight, pushing against his broken ribs which push into his lungs as he gurgles and rattles his way through another breath. His hands weigh a thousand pounds as he tries to lift them up enough to reach the catches to loosen the armor, just enough to allow a bit more air into his abused body. He thinks he's gotten the tips of his fingers off his legs but he can't quite tell because he can't feel his legs any more. There's blood dripping in his eyes and, for a fanciful minute, he wonders if the steady slide of blood against his face is what he feels in his lungs, that steady slide of blood as it fills his lungs up so there's no more room for air.
There's so much noise, so much everything around, a chorus, an orchestra of death and suffering all around him, as his head lolls to the side and he stares at a fellow member of Hammer team. The broken human isn't anyone that he knows, at least he doesn't think that he knows him, hopes that he doesn't know him but they stare at one another, death uniting them in their failure to reach the goal.
He's been here before, knows what it's like to die. He prays for it to come faster, quick and easy so he can stop trying to breathe.
He prays for it to stay far away, so that he can breathe and breathe until he's free again.
He wonders if this is how his mother felt. How his father felt when the slavers came and Mindoir suffered. He wonders if they felt it coming, the way he feels it coming.
"No," she says as she perches on a nearby pile of rubble. "It happened so fast."
He can't think of anything to say, not even if he had had the breath to say it. "Look at you, playing in the rubble. Come on, there's chores to do."
And suddenly he's free of the rubble and the armor, free of the rattling and the gurgling and free to run across the field after his mother, back towards the sunlit house, standing bright and white in the middle of the field of crops that he'd helped his father plant just a few weeks, months, days ago, he can't remember. It doesn't matter. His mother looks over her shoulder at him and laughs, bright and cheerful. He loves her smile, wants someone who smiles like she does, when he grows older. Michael, on the next farm over, had a bright smile like that, tasting like sunshine and happiness, a glass of cold juice on a hot summer day.
When he finally catches up to her, she holds out her hands and he takes them as they start twirling in a circle, laughter from both of them reaching up towards the heavens while his father looks on. Dizzy and lightheaded, he collapses to the ground.
Commander Corbin holds out a hand and says, "Get up, soldier. You have plenty more where that's coming from."
She's a tough woman, one of the toughest he's ever met. He's only been in the Alliance for a few weeks and she's kicked his ass six ways to Sunday at least fifty times over. Her N7 patch catches his eye as he takes her hand and is lifted to his feet. She swings a hard, right roundhouse at him, making him dance back as they twirl onto the dance floor, hands on hips and lip against neck. Her kiss tastes different than Michael's, huskier, darker, deeper. It tastes of experience and knowledge and shared loss. The tang of battle drifts across his tongue as she grasps his hips and then slams him into the wall, his head cracking back and aching as he opens his eyes to Kaidan standing painfully close on board a ship. He's wanted Kaidan since the first time he'd seen him, envied his morals and his unwillingness to use his biotics against others even though John (Shepard, isn't that who he is now? He's just Shepard, can't be John, John died in a field with his parents why is he thinking of that) is.
And then Kaidan calls him by name, over a drink, just says, "John" and John's heart is lost even though Shepard shakes his head and tosses the drink back. When he shakes off the alcohol, he's standing at another bar and Liara is grinning at him, gesturing towards something, somewhere, just a smile on her face and he wonders if she'd be all right with him tasting it, just a brief swipe of lip against lip but then there's Garrus slamming a hand across his back in congratulations for something, anything, everything. Tali shakes her head as Garrus holds forth on his amazingness, how he's better than everyone else and Shepard goes to point out that he's the only human Spectre when Anderson comes up and salutes him, sending him into an automatic salute back even though he's been under house arrest for god knows how long. Sometimes, he thinks that he's only ever going to see these four walls again but then he's walking down the hallway and Kaidan steps out, looking tall and proud and "Major?" and then there's the grin, quick and sly, the one that makes John want to taste and feel it against his own just like he has a hundred times over, wants to taste a thousand times over as they sit on the sofa, knees touching knees, the taste of steak still on their lips and he thinks that the only thing that would make this moment better is a bottle of Canadian lager for Kaidan, so John can taste it and Kaidan all mixed together and are they going to make it? He doesn’t know but the smile he gets, the distraction is amazing and just what he needs.
How does Kaidan always know what he needs? He's hope and happiness and faith, impossible to shake faith now that it's firmed up and just what was he going to say? What had he wanted to say? John needs to know that more than he needs his next breath, rattling and gurgling and wheezing, crushed underneath armor that weighs a million pounds, weighs almost as much as his hands. He can't get the clasp undone. He can't raise his hands to get at the clasp, just like the clasp of Garrus's hand on his shoulder as they say goodbye but he's not ready to be in that bar, just yet, the bar isn't there, he's not here where is he?
He's not ready to leave, just yet. Are the Reapers gone? Did he succeed? Or did he fail? Was there a control panel? Where's Anderson? Why does his armor weigh so much? Where are his legs? Is that blood in his mouth or is that the happiness and sunshine of Michael?
Is it the danger of Aria? It's bitter enough to be her, tangy and dark enough for her. He doesn't want her in his mouth, had only kissed her because he was lonely, bitterly lonely but he's not lonely anymore. They're old soldiers, he's got brothers in arm, he hasn't said goodbye, he won't say goodbye. He promised to wait. Kaidan is waiting to hold him again, he has to know. He has to know if Kaidan is waiting. He's promised.
He's scared. He's scared that he's going to die. He's scared that he isn't going to die. He can't taste anything but blood. He doesn't want to die with only the taste of his own blood in his mouth, failure in his ears and death before his eyes. He doesn't want to die here, with a stranger staring at him, even in death, with accusing eyes, asking him what the sacrifice was for if Shepard couldn't even finish the job.
John had refused to say goodbye. He refuses to say goodbye, to Kaidan. To Garrus. To Liara. To any of them. He's going to listen to Kaidan's order to stay safe. That means that he has to move his hands, has to get them to cooperate. It's sheer force of will that has him lifting his right hand up, slowly up as it drifts across his hip and then up his stomach and over his chest and rests on his shoulder, bent awkwardly and resting so that the tip of his index finger tickles the left side of his neck before he can grasp at the clasp.
It takes so much energy to release it, to pull it off his body and then there's a hand over his, touching it as it works to free him, from the armor, the weight of grinning lips against his distracting him from his task as they slowly undress one another, Kaidan stripping him and inspecting him, looking for damage. Curses fill his ears as Kaidan uses words like 'stubborn' and 'bullheaded' and 'hero complex' as he drifts his hands down John's chest before pushing him back onto the bed. "You ever go up against that… that… you know what? You want to go it alone, you go it alone but don't you ever do this to me again. I can't do this, you hear me. I care about you too much for you to… at least tell me next time! I would've helped, I would've been there, you didn't even let me say goodbye!" And then Kaidan is over him, pushing and pulling and tugging at his clothes until he's stripped bare, his legs numb from having all of Kaidan's weight on them as he rests against the stretcher (stretcher? When did he get onto a stretcher and how's it supporting the pair of them?).
And the Normandy is broken behind him, pieces of metal twisted and fractured as he looks for dog tags, hoping that he'll find them, hoping that he won't. He doesn't think that he'll be able to cope with all the dog tags, the hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of pounds of dog tags in his hands as he tries to salvage what he can of his lost crew and Miranda is there, taking the weight from him as she builds him again. His skin feels funny where she touches it, firm and impersonal, not like Kaidan when he drifts a hand across John's cheek and then cups it before sliding his hand back to cup the back of John's skull, pulling up into a kiss from where he lays on the ground, on a bed, someone in dirty armor shouting at him but he can't hear anything because Kaidan is panting John John John JohnJohnJohnJohn in time to his heartbeat (of course it's his heartbeat, he's loved Kaidan since forever) and then it slows, as their rhythm slows. As the woman in dirty armor, a N7 patch on her chest touches his forehead and he can't breathe, can't breathe from the weight of her hand on his forehead, can't breath from the way that Kaidan kisses him, can't breathe at all and suddenly he doesn't care anymore. Does he?
There's a light and a brightness and he starts walking towards it, wondering if it's going to kill the Reapers, once and for all, if it's the Crucible and maybe he isn't a failure, maybe he can find that beach and have a Canadian lager, straight from Kaidan's lips while Garrus rolls his eyes and insults them as they touch hands, a quick brush against the back of his hand.
He knows that voice. It's his mother's voice. It's his father's. It's Michael's. It's "John". And then it's not at all. It's not anything. It's everything. "I'm going to fight like hell." And he is. He keeps his promises, always has ever since his mother made him promise to hide in the barn, hide in the fields, get away from the house, go out there and keep his word because keeping his word keeps him alive just like his fear as he looks back and sees his home in flames and the light is disappearing and his breath rushes back into his lungs. He can't breath but he is breathing, it's thick and hard and smells horribly, smells like sulfur, smells like Krogan. Smells like oil and Geth and someone needs to change a filter or something and EDI forgot to recycle the air, hasn't she? She's got to stop kidding around with them and recycle the air. Joker should tell her that and he'll ensure that he does because there's no way that Joker wants to breathe this in, no one should have to breathe this in.
"Shepard, can you hear me?" Of course he can hear. He's right here, isn't he? Except that, no, he's not, he's down below but now he's not again. Now he's right here and his eyes won't open. There's a sharp pain and then… then nothing, his thoughts scatter and he's nothing. No where. He's in space, the dark black of a box, no stars or anything around. For a moment, he panics, air drawn sharply into half-filling lungs, leaking air like a punctured balloon and then a path lights in front of him, like it did in the Geth collective mind. A gun appears in his hands and he walks along, constantly circling, over and over, as he tries to figure out where he's going, where he's been because as he steps on a new block, the old block disappears.
As he walks along, a rumbling noise gets louder and louder, a pounding rhythm that his feet naturally match. Everyone might tease him for his inability to dance but he can march in time and he starts humming along with it ba bump and then ba bump half a second later and then ba bump half a breath later and then the noise is so loud that he wonders if this is what Kaidan hears from his own heartbeat when he's having one of his migraines, if the light that bursts forth in front of him is what Kaidan sees bursting behind his eyes, out of the lamp and fracturing and puncturing as it spears into him, pulls him apart and then sends him flying, spinning into a million pieces and then.
The air doesn't smell like sulfur. It smells recycled and EDI. EDI. The Normandy. He won't run again. He can't. They need him.
He needs them.
A sharp pain. It hurts, burns his chest and makes his breath stutter and stop and start again. The air doesn't smell like sulfur and it's not thick and it doesn't taste of Krogan.
There's a touch against the back of his hand, fingertips drifting and touching and anchoring. Only one person has ever touched him like that, only one person makes his biotics spark and dance like that, in the heat of a tender moment.
Light bursts into his eyes and he cries out, throat sore and scratchy and scarred.
"Shh, John, shh. I've got you." And there's the voice he's wanted, the voice he's needed. The voice that he's fought for and the voice he won't deny. Can't deny. Needs. Loves. "Slowly, remember? Slowly."
There's a hint of humor, just enough that it's obvious familiar indulgence rather than mockery or laughter, as fingertips press against his temples and massage while something goes over his eyes and he opens them once more to see blurry darkness with light leaking in cracks.
"I've got you, just like you've always had me. I've got you. Slow." As the cracks drift, light dancing with tiny dust particles drifting along in that shadowy world underneath hands, yes, those are hands over his eyes and then. Then.
Then there are brown eyes staring at him and this. This.
This is what he's wanted. "Don't you ever do that to me again, you hear me? I can't do that again. I can't take it. You're going to break me if you try that again. I told you before, John, I told you that you can't do that and you never listened. You have a team, a crew and I've told you. I've told you to rely on us. I've told you that we're here and that you're only human and that without you there isn't anything else and and and and and" and then Kaidan is crying, touching lip against lip and it's the slide of tears on his skin instead of blood.
He closes his eyes under the pressure against his skin, against his chest where Kaidan's hand pushes against his broken ribs, forcing them into his lungs, pain bursting across his chest and into his arms and legs (he can finally feel his legs, oh thank god, there they are, even if they hurt like a bitch) and he moans into Kaidan's mouth.
His breath in his lungs rattles as Kaidan pulls back sharply. Light bursts into his vision again and he closes his eyes against it before forcing them open because, even if this is a dream, even if he isn't here with Kaidan, he is right now. This time, the pain is welcome, if only for a second, with Kaidan's hands on his body, touching his face and his chest and his arms and his hands and his legs and his hair and … and bliss.