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Shepard is tired.

At every planet, every station where they stop off, there’s a new crisis. And with every mission, he watches his team become a little less resolved and a little more sloppy. They’re wearing down, all of them—and quickly. Some nights, Shepard thinks that by the time the council’s finally ready to make the last stand against the reapers, the crew of the Normandy won’t still be standing.

The war’s taken its toll on Kaidan, Shepard knows. For months, he’s watched the newly appointed Spectre-Major run himself ragged: volunteering for extra missions, fine-tuning the reaper tracking device with Joker, tinkering with the Normandy weapons system with Garrus, training with Liara, combing the galaxy for his students, liaising between Earth and the Council and whatever of humanity’s few colonies are still reachable. And even after all that, Kaidan chooses to use what little remaining time he has playing handler to the one man who’s not supposed to need his help.

Shepard can’t even count the number of times the major’s had to drag him away from his station in the War Room as he leans over the holodeck and his datapad—probably gaunt, probably swaying on his feet, probably bruised and still wearing flecks of dried blood from the last mission, and definitely not at all the shining hero the vids make him out to be. Shepard is merely frayed and defeated and so god damned tired.

He stands there for hours with steadily decreasing efficiency, no longer processing what his cybernetic eyes are barely even registering, but is unable to muster the energy to walk away. Kaidan never looks any better himself, but somehow he’s always there with a calloused hand on Shepard’s wrung-out shoulders and a firm reminder to sleep or eat or “go get his damn wounds checked.” Shepard hardly notices the new ones, anymore.

They argue a lot, these days. They’ve always bickered, often playful, sometimes irritable, and usually about anything in the galaxy—but this isn’t that. Shepard thought things would get easier for them, a little smoother, maybe, after their conversation on the Citadel, but it doesn’t. One of them always seems to run at a boil when the other is frigid, and they’re both too stubborn for their own good. The realization that they spend more time angry at each other than not aches in new ways that Shepard isn’t prepared for.

It was one thing to watch Kaidan walk away the first time. The rejection of his mission, of Cerberus—and by extension, Shepard’s new abomination of a body—was painful, but it was clear. There was no room for misunderstanding.

But it’s another thing entirely to stand face-to-face with the man you love across a chasm of shared hurt and history, to see the same tentative and mistrustful hope in your own head reflected in his eyes, and still not be able to reach him.

He doesn’t know what Kaidan needs. Shepard, for all his battle-worn prowess, his tactical efficiency, his tenacity—he can’t figure it out. Aboard the Normandy, there are no obvious enemies. The most impossible battle of the galaxy looms violent and ugly on the horizon, but there’s nothing here that Shepard can shoot or eviscerate. There’s just Kaidan, formal and disciplined and complicated and beautiful, and Shepard—tired, tired Shepard who can’t fix what’s broken.

So he keeps working. He checks in on the rest of his crew, logs concerns about resource allocation and limitations, listens intently at every squad meeting despite the incessant ringing in his ears while Garrus poses new tactical strategies and Liara shares updates on her research regarding the process of reaper indoctrination. Her ability to sound calm and professional despite the pain she must feel remembering her mother makes Shepard’s heart clench. He respects her so much. He respects and cares for all of them so much and tries to imagine a universe where they’re safe and happy and unscarred, but the mental image doesn’t come. He hates it for that.

Shepard reads report after report after report in the War Room, endless pages of casualties, paragraph upon paragraph of viscera and planets razed to nothing but bone and ash. He checks in with Hackett, who only ever offers him the same information about the slow-going construction of the Catalyst as the call before.

And at last, when he’s finally brave enough—or perhaps just sleep deprived and reckless enough—Shepard finds Kaidan in the observatory.

He’s breathtaking.

The boundless galaxy frames him in darkness, the same color as his hair. There’s gray growing in now, new and subtle and scattered along his temple, and it reminds Shepard of the scattered stars outside. He’s tense, his posture Alliance-standard and perfect, and Shepard wonders for a moment if the major noticed him coming in or if he just always stands that way, even when he’s alone.

Shepard remembers the first time he saw Kaidan relax, saw the line of his shoulders fall into something resembling ease and comfort—the night he almost called him John. It was years ago. He’d frozen in place so comically, so plainly expressive and so clearly baffled at himself that Shepard had barked out a harsh laugh. Kaidan had looked so flustered and contrite, his grimace nearly growing into a scowl before he simply sighed and leaned back against the wall of the mess with the heel of his palm pressed hard against his forehead. Shepard remembers the faint dusting of a blush peeking out from under his hand, and his playful “Migraine, Lieutenant?” had been answered with a muffled “Thanks for the talk” and a “you should go.”

He misses it.

All at once, Shepard realizes he’s been standing there long enough to be considered weird. Exhausted and feeling more than a little awkward, he takes a fortifying breath—you’re the savior of the galaxy, come on—and manages the last few steps forward to join Kaidan at the viewport.

“Hey, Commander,” comes the tired voice at his side. “Uh, Shepard.”

“Hey, Major.”

Kaidan turns to look at him like he’s ready to say something else, but something about his eyes is tight and haunted and Shepard hates it, so he opens his mouth first.

“John is fine.”

“What?”

“My name. John.”

“Oh. Yes, I, I know.”

“Oh.”

They slip into silence again, as charged and uncomfortable as it always is between them these days. Kaidan reaches up and after some aborted gesture, uses his hand to fidget with the dark sleeve of his undershirt. Shepard tracks the movement of his scarred knuckles and feels like he’s failed somehow. He forces his gaze upward to make eye contact, and tries again.

“Did you eat?” The question tumbles out and surprises Shepard slightly, not that he’d had any idea what it was he planned to say before he opened his mouth anyway. The question makes Kaidan pause in his fretting, and after a few moments, the pinched corners of his eyes soften, subtle, as he shakes his head.

“No. No, not yet.”

“You should eat.” Shepard realizes now that he’s just parroting phrases Kaidan would say to him throughout the day and fights down the absurd instinct to rub at the back of his neck self-consciously.

“Did you?” Kaidan eventually asks, returning him to the conversation at hand.

“No,” he admits.

“Hypocrite. Let’s go.”

Kaidan nods his head back toward the door, and Shepard follows him through the ship to the mess hall. They heat up a few protein packs and sit on the same side of the table, close enough that if Shepard moved just a little, he could probably brush their arms together. He doesn’t.

Crew members come and go as the two of them sit in a silence that’s infinitely more comfortable than they’ve had since Shepard died and didn’t stay dead. The moment feels brittle, so he holds it as carefully as he can.

They’re all so close to breaking, really—what’s one more brittle thing among them?

Kaidan doesn’t call him John that night.

But he’s here, glued to Shepard’s side like he intends to live and die there, his promise after Udina’s betrayal hanging between them, and that’s far more than Shepard ever dared to hope for. After everything they’ve been though, Kaidans’s still here. He’s not leaving.

And that feels like enough.