The benefit of mandatory shore leave, John was beginning to realize, was that it gave you time to enjoy things you normally wouldn’t be able to during the end of the world. Things like teaching your boyfriend to play the piano, or watching your husband read a novel instead of reports. Because of it, he’d gone joy-riding with Cortez and people-watching with Samara and now he was going to enjoy a long soak in the hot tub.
More like a pool, he thought, stepping into the water.
He settled onto the ledge, leaning back until his head rested on the lip of the tub, and let his eyes drift shut. The heat eased the tension in his body and he let out a contented sigh. It was echoed by a throaty chuckle and he peeked one eye open enough to make out Kaidan watching him from the doorway.
“There you are,” he said, letting his eyes wander.
“Here I am. Like what you see, Major?”
“Heh, you know it.”
Despite the words his voice was distant. His face had a particular lack of expression that John had learned to associate with dark thoughts and heavy conversation. Kaidan pushed off the wall and crouched next to the tub, trailing a finger along the surface of the water.
He drew a few more patterns before finally saying, “I want to take James on a date.”
“That’s what this is about?” John actually laughed. “You’d think we’d lost another planet by the look on your face.” He closed his eyes again, sinking a little deeper into the water. “Blasto 6 is playing at the Regency. Or - ”
“No,” Kaidan cut him off. “I want to take James on a date. Just James.”
“I think it’s important,” Kaidan continued, before John could say anything more. “Not just for him and me. For the three of us. You had six months to get to know him in Vancouver. We had our time on the SR-1. Vega and I . . . we never had that. And I think we need it, if we’re going to make this work.”
“You’re right,” John answered. “He’s not just our boyfriend, he’s your boyfriend. And you’re his. Take him out. Show him a good time. Woo him.”
Kaidan snorted. “‘Woo him’?”
“You know what I mean. Make him feel special. Like you did for me.” The words were soft, slightly distant, and Kaidan was contemplating how to answer when John started up again. “Miranda wanted to go out for drinks sometime so you could have the apartment to yourselves for the evening. Maybe this weekend?”
“This weekend would be good. I’ll talk to James when he gets back. But until then . . . ”
Kaidan leaned down to kiss the man in the tub, his nose bumping John’s chin. Shepard reached up to run wet fingers through his hair. He whined when Kaidan stood up until the major pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it toward the bedroom.
“Get in here and I’ll show you.”
* * *
James wasn’t nervous at first. This was Kaidan, after all. They had shared a bed, a shower, even a lover already. They’d seen and been seen armored and naked, wounded and after-glowing. At their best and their worst. There wasn’t any reason at all to be nervous.
And then he saw the roses.
At least a dozen - James suspected two - pale peach roses. Not a premade bunch from a drugstore rack either, an actual bouquet arranged with baby’s-breath and greenery. Everything about them screamed expensive, from their delicately sweet scent to the gilded tissue paper they were wrapped in. No one had ever given him flowers before, let alone anything as nice.
“These are for you,” Kaidan said, as if they could be for someone else. Maybe because James was staring at them dumbfounded.
“Thank you,” he finally managed but he still didn’t take them.
After a minute more Kaidan said, “Why don’t I put them in water before we go?”
“Uh, yeah. Good idea.”
The older man headed into the kitchen and James trailed behind, desperately trying to figure out what he had gotten himself into. Without the flowers to distract him, he now realized that Kaidan was wearing a suit and tie. He was pretty sure the coat was tailored. James himself was only wearing slacks and a button-down.
Maybe he should change?
He dismissed the thought as soon as it crossed his mind. He had rented the suit he wore to the casino; he didn’t have anything nicer to change into. Shepard might have a sport coat he could borrow but he doubted it would fit. Hell, he would probably have better luck with one of Kaidan’s but better to have no jacket than have to ask to borrow it.
“James?” The roses were in a vase on the counter and Kaidan was looking at him expectantly. “Ready to go?”
“Yeah. I mean, if you are,” he answered.
Kaidan took his hand and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
“You look nice,” he said.
James managed a “thank you” and a thin smile as they left the apartment.
* * *
Things were going from bad to worse and quickly.
The rapid transport shuttle had taken them to an area often called the Culinary District and Kaidan had turned them down the strip toward the mystery restaurant. They had a laugh when they passed Ryuusei’s, the “closed for renovations” sign still displayed in the window, and it helped James relax enough to thank Kaidan properly for the flowers. The major’s smile when he murmured, “I’m glad you like them” made James’ stomach flip.
His newfound confidence was short-lived however, evaporating completely the moment Kaidan stopped at their destination: La Belle, the most expensive and exclusive terran restaurant on the Citadel. The exterior was relatively unassuming - metal french doors polished to a shine and framed by frosted glass windows with the restaurant’s name cut into them - but the inside was a completely different story. Polished marble floors, several floating chandeliers, and a live pianist playing a baby grand piano on the lower level dance floor.
“I’ve always wanted to come here,” Kaidan said once they were settled into their seats. “Their filet is real you know. Personally selected from only a handful of cattle farms. It’s supposed to be the best you can get off-planet.”
“Yeah . . . I’ve, uh, heard that.”
James was distracted, examining the other guests as discretely as he could. He was relieved to find that he was not inappropriately underdressed, though he was certainly in the most casual tier. Several of the men were in three-piece suits or even tuxedos. He wished he had thought to put on a tie. When his attention finally made it back to Kaidan, the older man was watching him with a curious expression.
James dropped his eyes, not sure if his clothes or his manners were more embarrassing, but Kaidan just smiled and said, “It is a little warm, though.”
Then he took off his tie and stuffed it into his coat pocket. James blushed a little when Kaidan loosened his collar, just as the waiter arrived and filled their water glasses.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said. “Have you had a chance to look over the wines?”
“Ummm, no. Sorry.” James answered. His felt the blood drain from his face when he glanced down at the list. Even if he chose one at random he wasn’t sure he trusted himself to try and pronounce it. “What do you suggest?”
“The zinfandel is quite popular, sir. Or if you prefer white, the chardonnay.”
James hummed, hoping it sounded more thoughtful than bewildered, and turned the list to give Kaidan a better view but Alenko didn’t give it a second glance.
“I think I’d like a beer,” he said. “ Estrella , please.”
The waiter nodded politely, then again when James had the same, and excused himself to retrieve their drinks. He took their order when he returned and then they were alone again. They attempted small talk, which was consistently halted and awkward, and James almost wished the waiter would come back to improve the conversation.
Finally, after one particularly long pause, Kaidan said, “I’m sorry.”
James managed not to let his jaw drop but only barely. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting him to say but that wasn’t it.
“I’m doing this all wrong,” he continued, “I wanted to do something nice, just the two of us. I wanted to show you . . . that you’re important to me. Wanted. But I, uh, have a strong suspicion you’re feeling more . . . uncomfortable than anything.”
“What? No.” Kaidan raised an eyebrow and James corrected himself. “Well, yes.” He gave an exasperated sigh, leaning back a little from the table. “Look, I’m sorry, okay. I’m just not used to all this . . . fancy stuff. I don’t drink wine. I wear a t-shirt nine days out of ten. And I’ve never gotten flowers before. I’m out of my element and I don’t . . . ”
. . . want to mess this up, he thought but he couldn’t form the words out loud.
“Do you know why I asked you here?”
“You wanted a steak that came from a cow?”
Kaidan laughed and shook his head. When he finally started again, his voice was soft and vulnerable. James’ stomach flipped again, though this time it was accompanied by a lump in his throat and a tightening in his chest.
“I’ve thought about bringing John, more than once. When I was planning to propose. On our wedding night. So many times while I was at Huerta. But I never did.”
He paused, studying the beer glass as though the secrets of the universe were somewhere in the amber liquid.
“Do you remember the day after all that clone business? John was meeting with Hackett, or the Council, or God knows who. It was just the two of us and things were going . . . about as well as they are now and you decided to cook. Some kind of soup, nothing elaborate.” Kaidan laughed. “It was the best thing I had ever eaten. And I knew, I knew, I wanted to come here with you. Because Shepard is an amazing man but he would call protein paste gourmet if you heated it up and covered it with hot sauce.”
James laughed, a real laugh that melted the lump and loosened his chest and most importantly made Kaidan laugh too. He looked . . . not exactly younger but timeless when he laughed. James wasn’t sure he’d ever noticed the way the corners of his eyes crinkled or how the curve of his lips pulled at the scar there.
“I don’t want to mess this up,” he admitted when he regained his composure. “Loco is, well, Loco and you’re . . . ”
“I’m . . . ?”
“Mierda , where do I start? Gorgeous for one. A good guy for another. Tech wiz. Biotic god. Hell of a soldier. Honestly, I feel like I’m out of my league and . . . I just want to make this work.”
“Me too,” Kaidan answered. “So, let’s start over. Just enjoy the night, the food, the company?”
“And it is good company.”
* * *
The apartment was dark when John got home. His trek up to the bedroom was perilous, a mix of the hour, the poor light, and the wine he and Miranda had spent the better part of the night enjoying, but the sight that met him was well worth the danger.
Kaidan and James were asleep on the bed, both shirtless under the covers. Kaidan was in the middle of the bed on his back with James lying mostly on top of him. John stumbled through changing into his pajamas, making more noise than any self-respecting 7 should. James stirred but Kaidan gave the top of his head a sleepy nuzzle and he relaxed again. John smiled as he crawled into the bed on Kaidan’s other side and before long all three men were sound asleep.