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It isn’t often Shepard beats Kaidan back to the cabin they unofficially share now. It’s a pleasant surprise, except that for some reason, she’s in full armor. Decked in all but the helmet, she greets him absently as he comes down the stairs, attention her omni-tool display.

“Testing something?” he asks as sits on the arm of the couch and undoes his boots. “Or is there an imminent combat drop I wasn’t informed of?”

“Tune-up,” she answers, “had to re-string the ventral assists, and the barrier calibration needs work.”

He can feel the click of gears turning in his head. This isn’t the battlefield, nor the preparation for one. They’re deep in the long black between systems, paradoxically far from their dire responsibilities. Out there, in the galaxy, the crisis continues to unfold, devouring whole planets and all the fragile lives that call them home. But in their FTL bubble, they’ve effectively stepped out of time. They can’t do anything right now except wait. Wait… and remove his boots, which after years of Alliance service, remains one of the best parts of Kaidan’s day. He peels them off and stretches his toes with contentment, contemplating Shepard.

She’s something to see. Usually when she’s suiting up, he’s busy doing the same. For once, he isn’t deep in his own headspace, running through his checklists, checking his own gear. The tension isn’t there, the pre-mission anxiety. He’s all here right now.

With her back mostly to him, Shepard fiddles with her omni-tool. She rocks gently, her heels lifting off the floor as she feels the way the weight of her armor pulls against the power-assist armature. He can see just enough of her face to picture the frown of concentration as she slides gloved fingers across the panes. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, bending into a knee flex. The armor creaks softly, the sound of the undersuit flexing against the bindings keeping the ablating in place. The interlocking spinal trunk traces the sweep of her back as it plunges into the pelvic girdle which encircles her waist in a tight embrace.

That armor is some of the best there is available for human fighters, Alliance or not. Refined over countless hours of simulation, live testing and real combat. Modified extensively, both by skill and blunt necessity. Damaged and repaired, old pieces swapped out for new tech. It’s an essay, an exhaustively researched PhD in the balance between speed and survival. There are, or were, companies that would make her rich to the point of lunacy for the feedback data that suit has produced over its tenure as the first human Spectre’s rhino hide. It is the poetry of an algorithm without a single wasted line.

It’s the… things it does to her shape. In theory, it’s all about maximizing biology. Ergonomics. But it so happens that the lines and shapes that best enhance the human body’s performance also do everything imaginable to enhance how it looks. If Kaidan were a more cynical sort, he might wonder if mesmerism was on the mind of the designers who etched the flex joint in the gluteal plates at just the right angle to carve a perfect pair of lines hugging their shape.

He stands, reaches out and trails a finger down the dorsal plate over her left shoulder blade, down the edge of the lock points that would rack a rifle. There’s a thin layer of grit built up from disuse. She prefers the lumbar rack for he shotgun, hip cross-draw for her pistol. Heavy gear at the waistline, she keeps her center of gravity low, rooted to the ground she threatens to leave every time she builds up a biotic overcharge. The memories of those charges echo in his nerves, each one a thunderclap against the patient baseline of gravity. Just as jarring and awe-inspiring as the center an atmospheric discharge.

She can’t feel the touch through the thick plate. Her mind is far away, running across an imaginary battlefield. Mentally testing known scenarios, inventing new ones. She inhabits two worlds. Two people, the same soul. One is the person he feels like he’s always getting to know. The other is the one he first met almost three years ago, in a moment he suspects was routine for her, but anything but for him.

He chews his lip as he lays more fingertips on the cool surface. He doesn’t get to just… stand next to Commander Shepard very often. Not like this, where he doesn’t have to keep the respectful distance. Or when closeness isn’t a matter of imminent life and death. The valkyrie, the engine of fury and power he was first bowled over by on Eden Prime. A juggernaught able to conquer even death, dragging an entire galaxy of fractious people on her shoulders, stubbornly pulling them toward survival one grudging step at a time. All that, and she’s just… here, in front of him, the storm momentarily at rest.

Under his touch, the armor’s slick-smooth outer surface is broken only by the scuffs and dents, the interruptions of filler patches. This time, Shepard senses his straying fingers bump the power plant block. That, or the quiet hitch in his breathing gave him away. Her head turns just a little, chasing the raised eyebrow. Static crawls across his fingers. She seems amused, aloof like the predator perched on a high branch, watching. The light catches on the raised edge of the amp connector plugged into the back of her skull.

There’s a part of him quietly murmuring, this is not a thing you’re supposed to be doing. The trouble is, that only makes it that much better. In truth, he feels split down the middle most days too. And it seems like lately, the part of him that’s still completely aware of the urges originating down south takes a perverse pleasure in taunting his stiffly professional side.

You shouldn’t be doing this. Bad associations. His fingers amble down the armor’s spinal trunk. Don’t care, the heat purrs, indolent. Maybe his discipline is slipping. Or maybe next time they touch boots to earth, everything will fall apart, and he’ll never stand this close again. He shouldn’t be thinking that either, but it’s all just too immediate. He can remember where that filled round impact came from, he can still smell the burnt ablating, remember the heat of the bruise it left for days. There’s nothing hypothetical in their lives anymore.

Shepard shifts again, just in time to catch his hand with the smooth curve of the gluteal plate.

“What are you up to?” she asks mildly.

Her voice is pitched just so, sending shivers down his spine. Layers of hard and soft. Or maybe he’s drifted a little onto the battlefield himself.

“And if you give me a line about inspections…” she murmurs. Her omni-tool beeps.

Okay, so, it was the first thing that popped into Kaidan’s head. Instead, he just chuckles under his breath. “Just… helping.”

“Mm hm.” She looks back at her readouts. “What were those force numbers you pulled from the brute smash again?”

He draws little circles with his fingers while his mind wanders the same curves, delaying any kind of useful answer.

Her kinetic barrier comes on. In the silence of the cabin, he can hear the faint whine of dozens of capacitors building charge. He’s close enough to be partially inside the bubble as it pulses to life, flickering over his skin like probing whiskers. It raises goosebumps. Normal people might feel the whisper of displaced air, but deep in his mutant nerves he feels the inversion of gravity, a rush of fluttering wings over his sixth sense. Commander Shepard assumes another layer of her mantle. She’s armored and amped. Even without a gun, she’s a 7-rank Special Forces biotic, more than a match for the fiercest combatants the whole sentient galaxy has to challenge her with. An undisputed master of violent confrontation. It raises more that goosebumps.

He slips his fingers along the pelvic girdle, around her waist to where the belly plating dives down. The edges of torso and shoulder plate brush along his arm. The high, thick collar is a wall around her neck. The smell of her hair wafts over it, mingling with the crisp tang of ozone.

It’s one of her not-so-nice secrets, the violence. The thunder. Deep within every shotgun blast, every charge, linger a hundred thousand glittering shards of revenge for a life taken away all those years on Mindoir. It’s something she won’t say out loud, but he’s sure she knows he sees it. It’s hard to miss. He’s seen what fear looks like in a soldier, reticence. He’s lived the latter himself. And because of that, it’s hard for him to miss its fire-breathing opposite. The violence is the part you’re not supposed to enjoy... even if it’s exists in a simultaneous quantum state of hating it, too. Or perhaps more to the point, you’re just not supposed to admit it.

He doesn’t bring it up, she doesn’t talk about it. For his part, he’d be hard pressed to properly articulate how that violence figures into the reason he wants to be here right now, the reason he slipped so quickly off that edge he wasn’t supposed to, back then on Eden Prime. That it isn’t just the good side of her but the mysterious alchemy of the whole that enthralls him.

The part of him that should be horrified murmurs, weakly, you shouldn’t be doing this for one last time as he lets his body ease up against that chiseled armor, cool against the paradoxical heat building in him.

He’s closing his fingers over the twitching tiger’s tail.

He rests his chin on her shoulderplate, eyeing the display in her omni-tool without really seeing it. Instead he lets the kinetic barrier tickle his nerves while his fingers make another stealthy insertion around the corridor of sloping waist topography between hip and cuirass. His palms brush over the rondels under which the bundles of power assist muscle cable terminate from the leg groups and crosslink to the torso groups. It takes him down the slope at the edge of one of the few weak points of the armor, where the need for flexibility wins out -- the steep V flowing down from abs to disappear between her legs.

“Like what you see, do you?” she says. She flicks the omni-tool display, but the undertone of teasing in her voice is echoed not by her fingers but by the shift in her hips and the backside to which he is currently pressed. Sparks crackle down his spine.

“Hmm,” he murmurs, “might have to check the lock points. Fit needs to be perfect.”

Steel slips into her voice, authority primed to assert itself. “You better not be calling me an amateur, Major.”

It’s like the brush of fingernails down his stomach. “No ma’am,” he says, “just that we’ve been in the field a lot. All that wear and tear… sometimes it takes hand inspection to be absolutely sure maintenance caught everything.”

“How fortuitous you’re here to help,” she purrs.

He runs his fingers over the hip joint locks. “I thought so.”

Her armor is different than his, but they still have common design elements. He presses the release stud on the left side, and is rewarded by the click of it disengaging. The armor is powered, but not locked up. He smiles, sliding his thumb under the newly-loosened ablating. With his other hand he nudges the lock stud on the opposite side free. With both undone, the flexible ventral plating is loose, along with the codpiece. He slips a hand in deeper.

The back of the plating scrapes at his knuckles. But the undersuit beneath is at its thinnest, one of the places that has to flex in multiple directions. He presses down, sliding a little, feeling the give of flesh beneath.

She inhales, body shifting against him. He grips the edge of her hip plate and rubs a little more, feeling around down between her legs. She squirms against him.

“Might have to… get you out of this,” he suggests, rubbing. “Check everything…”

“Is that what you think?”

Her hand closes around his wrist. She turns. He has time to recognize the variation of the CQC hold executing itself in slow motion, because she’s not bothering to be at all quick about it. But when he tries to reverse the hold, it’s like leaning into an iron bar.

The slight upturn of her lips taunts him. Within a heartbeat his arm is trapped behind him, flirting with the edge of a twist. His free hand can find no purchase but the hard edges of her armor, his legs trapped by the couch.

Sometimes they roughhouse a bit. They’re physical people, and strength testing is something that comes naturally to marines who have an intimate understanding of their capabilities. But clearly, his understanding of her capabilities wasn’t as intimate as he thought. This is the storm, Commander Shepard assumed in her full mantle, who died and was reborn again as humanity’s savior. But who came back as something more than baseline human. On top of all that, she’s wearing a full suit of power-assisted armor.

He pushes, and this time he really tries. He’s not unfamiliar with encountering someone stronger than he. Among gene-modified and trained marines, his physical strength is fairly ordinary. But even in an imbalanced match, there’s always at least a bit of give, armor or no. Against her, he might as well be trying to arm-wrestle the Kodiak.

Commander Shepard seems amused by his efforts. She only has to tighten her grip a little and lean to pick his feet up off the ground, pressing him against the hard geography of her armored body. It becomes clear to him that since that fateful day above Alchera, every time they’ve touched, hugged, shaken hands, or had sex, she’s kept the warrior mantle at the door, in the hangar where they slouch out of the shuttle after a mission, on the floor in the clothes scattered at the foot of the bed.

Not so now. He grabbed the tiger by the tail, and she turned her full attention on him. The vice around his chest is more than just her grip.

“What to do with you,” she muses, “and your… busy hands.”

With the same ease that dragged him bodily from Virmire, and later Mars, she takes a few steps and heaves him onto the bed.

Before he can shift himself she’s on him, leg pinning his, opposite arm locking his down. The bed sags under their combined weight, armor and all. Her kinetic barrier fuzzes, flickering light distortions. He knows the many sensors are licking all over him, tasting this obstruction for threat, ready to spring to full repulsion. It’s like she has a dozen more hands, light feathery touches to compliment the iron grip. Different, stronger and less personal than the resonance of her native corona. Her attendant machine intelligence to whom he is an outsider.

She hovers over him, looming against the bulkhead ceiling and framed hatch that he suspects is a skylight, but has never seen open. The kiss she plants on him lands like a mortar round, reverberating through his body down to his toes, all impact and heat. When she pulls away, it’s like she’s taken all of his breath with her.

This is the part in the movie where he makes a snarky comment, or maybe she does… smiles and backing down, laughing. That was close, they’d say. Almost slipped off the edge there. Except despite the dull pain in his pinned limbs, the bruises that are probably going to appear in a day or two, he absolutely does not want her to stop. His thought process has no input on his body straining to push up against hers. His free hand runs ungracefully up and down the form-hitting carapace, tugging and shoving at intervals. It’s all futility, every plate designed to deflect an intruder. Every move she makes is her choice alone, every time she shifts just enough to brush against him, hard sculpted breasts or arching her back just enough to graze the codpiece against his burgeoning erection and send sparks shooting down his legs.

She kisses him again, bruising, and another time. There’s speculation in her narrow gaze when she pulls away, licking her lips. She breathes out through her teeth, looking down at him. He imagines this is how a fly feels, bound in a spider’s webbing while she casually decides if she’s going to eat him now or later.

She suddenly pushes an arm under his shoulder, lifts up on knees and flips him neatly onto his front, arm still behind his back. He weight settles back across his lower back, gloved fingers trailing down through his hairline to his collar, slipping over his closed amp jack. That which he never lets anyone else touch, except her. It’s more than a little deliberate.

“Stay put,” she murmurs, breath hot against his ear, “that’s an order,”

He’s pretty sure his vocal chords try for a snappy ‘yes ma’am’, but it doesn’t really land with his face stuffed into the bedding. She rests her full weight on him a moment longer, meaningfully, pressing him into the mattress and giving his pinned arm a squeeze. Then suddenly the weight is gone, the mattress foam rebounding to its pre-maligned shape under him. The thousand-finger boundary of her kinetic barrier sweeps across his nerve endings as she leaves, boring into every crevice, heedless of clothing.

There’s a part of him, an animal brain, telling him to bolt now that he’s free. Not that there’s anywhere to go she wouldn’t be on him in an instant. And he knows if he tried, she would be. Somehow, paradoxically, it’s just tantalizing to imagine. The inversion almost makes him dizzy -- he still has a lifetime of habit imagining himself as the dangerous one, the person in any group who has to spend the most energy restraining something. Being careful. Now that seems laughable.

He hears her moving something by the dresser, and settles for gulping in some air and relaxing the muscle in his arm and shoulder. His other hand slides under him, down along the slick outer sheets to grab himself through his pants. Part protective instinct for his pinned member, all lascivious as the answering friction throbs in his chest. Dimply, he can’t believe this is happening. Overwhelmingly, he doesn’t dare break the spell.

Shepard returns, weight leaning into the mattress, the creak and edges of armor pressing into him. Gloved hands run the circumference of his belt, hiking it with a speculative tug. It’s an annoyance, just as much to him as to her. He shifts his hand up and wedges his fingers into the buckle latch, worrying it loose. The tension around his middle snaps apart.

Freed from the belt, she briskly disabuses him of his pants, shorts and all. Then she’s back on him, the cool armor a shock against his bare skin. It makes him squirm. She growls softly, recapturing his errant arm and kneading her hands into his muscles as she roves down from his lower back and across his ass.

A firm knee forces his legs apart, hiking his right leg up. His breath comes harder, riding a line of vulnerability that makes his every hair stand on end. She… feels around, crass as you please. Something like a laugh is trapped in his throat, but it’s not for hilarity’s sake. Hot sparks of lightning sizzle through him as her gloved hand marauds his most sensitive parts, probing. This isn’t elegant. Storybook. Yet his pinned hips twitch and strain in their prison as the yearning that has been something of an abstract rears into its full and hungry power.

He’s dimly aware of the sounds he’s making as she teases him, the hiss that escapes when something finally intrudes… slips just inside, breaking the seal. It’s gentleness coupled with insistence, pushing and retreating. The hand keeping his arm and entire front end in check is a sound against which he shivers. Like that hold, she flirts with the borderlands of pain as she inches forward. She leans back over him. He can hear the the smile in the breath that tickles his hairline, hard armored chest rubbing his back, knees digging into his thighs as the intruder pushes a little further in, and retreats again.

The friction, external and internal both, is maddening. His deep-down brain is playing for him a laundry list of things he’d like to do right now -- moves and shifts to accentuate, accelerate. But Commander Shepard will have none of it. His efforts get deflected, spinning off into the bunching of sheets and gasped exhalations, curling back into the magma pressure in his gut. It doesn’t matter if it’s saving the galaxy or fucking, it will happen on her time.

The intruder pulls out completely. The sound that jerks out of his throat is probably downright embarrassing. He shivers, biting his tongue, fingers grasping at sheets and empty air, body pushing desperately against the iron wall of Shepard’s insistence. Something back there teases, prodding along the edges against a backdrop of soft unknown sounds.

A new intruder, bespoken by its cool and slippery hide, introduces itself. It slides along the valley of his glutes, establishing the lay of crude geography from front to back and front again. Still pinned under him, his erection feels like a stick of C4 lying against his abs.

The intruder breaches his weakened defences with ease, but pushes the walls back further this time. It shoulders right up to pain, the force of it pushing a gasp out of him. She massages back a little, testing. His hips squirm, bruising himself against the armored constraints. Pain be damned. He can hear himself begging, though it’s not wholly with words. When the new push happens he’s sure again this new one is definitely bigger. The raw slick sensation rolls up through his entire body, all the way down to curl his toes. He bites his tongue, hard, to keep from barking out loud. Not wanting her to retreat again. Content or cruel, she pushes deeper, leaning over him again.

“D’you want to see?” she purrs in his ear.

He gasps assent, trapped in the crux of giddy and strained.

His entrapped limbs come free, flooding heat into maligned joints. Her brisk and firm grip straightens his legs and frees his arm just in time to roll him.

The odd advantage of artificial anatomy -- the intruder stays buried in his backside, filling, as she rolls him over. His horizon spins and see-saws. Commander Shepard is the sun rising suddenly over the peaks and valleys of rumpled sheets. The pressure off his chest rebounds on him as a rush of heady air, making his vision swim. Half-delirious as he is, she seems like a goddess enshrined in a gloomy temple, haloed and looming in the dim shimmer of blue. The light catches in her inhuman retinas. The storm, the demon, the valkyrie. Killer and savior, carved of iron and gold, forces his legs apart again, hiking his hips, reaches down to grip the pinion on which he remains skewered.

She thrusts , spine arching, teeth bared. The inversion of their… usual position backs into him, bull-strong, up from his base anatomy and inward from imagination to a collision he’s sure he can feel all the way to his hair. Can she know how profoundly she embodies a fantasy right now? That most deeply private and guilty dream, fleeting and so beneath the gaze of his professional self. Guilty and glorious and impossibly even better than his prior imagining. Somehow the armor played into it, the mantle. But how could he ever imagine... She thrusts and shifts, lips curving at his panting surrender, not even bothering to pin any of his limbs when the sheer weight of her gaze alone does the job. One hand down between them still, she feels around with her pinion, almost cruelly clinical until she seems to find that angle that rubs his insides just so. Up and forward, the perfect marriage of internal pressures.

If he had any semblance of dignity left, it abandons him when she escalates to a pounding rhythm. She swats his hands away from his erection, growling, and all he can do his grip his own arms behind his head, squeezing, and suck in all the air he can find, curving his hips to keep the friction ever building. The air swims with clashing biotic coronas. He’s not even sure when he let his get away from him, except that it too falls under her sway, vibrating to the ineffable rhythm pressing down both around and within him.

The magma pressure in his gut builds, maddening. Behind his head, his fingernails dig into his arms. Tongue between her teeth, Shepard reaches down and very deliberately wraps her fingers around his erection, giving him ample time to appreciate the sweep of each finger as it curls into place, back and knuckle plates scraping his stomach. The sudden collar of pressure answers and inverts the one moving inside him.

With one last burst of ownership, she leans on his leg, cold and hard armor into hot muscle, arresting his counterthrust as she ramps up the twin rhythm. The iron wall ripples back into the arch of his back and of fierce invective in the exaltation of a god he’s never met. The climax hits him from behind and below, so utterly out of his hands he almost doesn’t feel it coming until he can’t breathe anymore. The boom of blood rushing in his skull is echoed by something in the room, the rush of air and tickling dancing crackle of biotics. The magma heat pumps onto his stomach in time to the aftershocks of confined waves bouncing back and forth.

She thrusts again, lifting the restricting armored limb, head cocked as if checking to be sure there’s no more to give. He pushes back against it, his nerves dancing with the fading rush. Swears again, all vocabulary reduced to the single-syllable bursts his vocal chords can manage between gasped breaths.

For a moment, the raucous motion settles into a dizzy, heady peace, pain and pleasure rolling into the warm, receding rush. His blurry vision resolves, the dancing coronas fading back into the dimness of the room. Shepard still looms over him, but her smile has lost the tiger’s edge and now seems nothing but amused, satisfied. Abruptly, the intruder slips free of his ass, leaving to tighten in both relief and regret. She leans over him, pressing her forehead into his, breathing hard to match him.

This is Commander Shepard’s intimacy, her moment of connection. All the times in the past where she seems to reach out, to seek a kind of personal touch, it’s through the brow. The rest of her, of them, is always locked away behind all that technology… but whether its a palm to the brow-plate of the dead, or a quiet headbump between the living, this is how the storm, the valkyrie takes a brief human form. He forces his aching arms apart and rests hands on her hot cheeks, the only flesh part of her exposed. The tableau holds for a moment, breathing into each other.

The spell breaks. She flops to the side of him, shoulder armor bouncing off his arm. He looks over to see her claw free of the rest of the lock points on her torso plating and wriggle out of the whole upper carapace in a manner entirely undignified for the galaxy’s ostensible savior.

“You okay?” he says. It sounds reasonably coherent, so his surprise.

“Hot,” she says, tongue lolling out. “TCL wasn’t running.” The rhino hide slides off the edge of the bed and thuds when it hits the ground. Her face is slick with a sheen of sweat.

Reality seeps back in, pushing back the overwhelming madness of arousal. Without temperature control, her body heat would have started to accumulate sharply within the suit. Kaidan chuckles, understanding, rubbing his face. The angles of the room start to make sense again. He gropes and finds her arm and hand. This time its flesh, an echo of the dozen hot and sore spots all over him. Sore and… hm. With his free hand he reaches and paws around for the tissues by the side of the bed.

Mess dealt with, he stretches languidly and rolls up to Shepard, wedging his face into the angle between head and neck, breathing her in.

“You, uh, want anything?” he asks quietly.

“I’m good.”

“Sure?”

“More than.” She smiles out from under the wrist draped over her eyes. “Having a front row seat to watching you writhe around like a worm on a hook… well, that did most of the job on its own. Didn’t take much to boot that over the edge.”

He chuckles, wrapping his arm around her middle. She’s damp with cooling sweat, smelling of undersuit and humanity. “I wasn’t sure…” he murmurs, “well, how seriously you’d take that suggestion I made.”

He’s discovered one thing in recent weeks -- that in all the length and breadth of the galaxy, there is no truly suave way in which to broach the subject of adding certain things to the coital repertoire. Especially not when just having the time to be alone together is in itself a deeply novel occurrence. Luckily, he doesn’t seem to lose points for it.

“Me neither,” she says. Her arm shifts back, and she stares at the ceiling. “but hey, fabricators have to be good for more than killer gadgets.” She smiles. “That was… that was pretty fun, wasn’t it?”

Kaidan laughs quietly. “Your gift for understatement remains undiminished.”

Just like that, the mantle is gone, the storm vanishing over the horizon. She’s human again. All warmth and smells and breath, fingers kneading into his bicep. So strange to think how the two can inhabit the same space so effortlessly, a galactic supernova with the woman now in his arms as its tether. How many people have ever seen the whole, the duality distilled into one body, the way he’s seeing it now? As she nestles her head against his he thanks the multitude twists of luck that thrust him into her orbit, this flesh and blood and destroyer of worlds.