It's stupid to be jealous of a dead man, Vega tells himself, or an almost-might-as-well-be-dead man. And it's not very charitable of him either. His abuela would not be proud.
But he can't help that clenched feeling he gets when he walks into the makeshift infirmary they've set up in the Kodiak. When he sees Cortez there next to the still, silent ruin of Commander Shepard, clutching Shepard's left hand while Kaidan clings to Shepard's right. Can't help but think that Cortez still loves Shepard. And then he feels bitter and angry at Shepard, which isn't right, because the Commander is his mentor and his boss and, even after all they've been together, his hero. He wants Shepard to get up, now, to stop lying there half a corpse, to laugh at them all and get up and punch the shit out of some baddie while they all look on in awe.
Only some part of him doesn't. Some small, petty, shitty part of Vega wants Cortez to look at him and only him the way he's looking at Shepard right now.
He stomps that wretched feeling down and clears his throat.
"Hey," he says, when Cortez and Kaidan look up. Kaidan looks awful, like he went three rounds with a brute hand-to-hand. Esteban just looks worried and exhausted. "I traded some MREs to the local doc. He promised to come by and check on Shepard until Doc Michel gets back. Should be here in a few."
"Thank you, James," Kaidan says.
"Maybe you two can take a break while he checks Shepard out. Have a bite to eat. I can heat up--"
"No, thanks," Kaidan says. He hunches down lower over Shepard.
"Hey, you gotta eat. Keep your strength up. Shepard would want--"
Vega bites back a less than polite response to Kaidan's tone. The man is upset. He has a right to be a little short.
"Esteban?" he looks at Cortez. Cortez shakes his head.
"I'd like to stay, too, if that's all right. Maybe if you don't mind bringing something over?" Cortez glances at Kaidan, then Vega, giving him a deliberate, meaningful look.
Vega doesn't manage to abort his annoyed sigh in time. "All right," he says. "No problem. In-flight service for two. Coming right up."
"Thanks," Cortez says, smiling, and like that Vega's annoyance melts. He grins back.
Stupid, he knows, getting jealous. But what he and Cortez have is so new, and fragile, and Vega is big and prone to smashing fragile things. And Cortez and the Commander... Shepard's the one who shook Esteban out of his mourning over Robert. They'd grown pretty close, close enough for things to start to look serious, before Kaidan had returned to the Normandy with his apologies and open arms. Cortez even confessed to Vega once that he was sorry he and Shepard just weren't on the same page of life at the same time.
Whereas this thing that Vega has with Esteban still feels halfway like an accident. A series of lucky moments leading to a temporary arrangement--a clumsy, unintentional kiss in the midst of celebrating the defeat of the Reapers; Vega's awkward confession that he might think of Esteban as more than a friend; Cortez's surprise giving way to pleased assent.
Fragile. Fleeting. Not quite real yet.
Cortez murmurs something, leaning in close to Shepard. Above, Kaidan's agonized features ease into a sympathetic expression: love.
Vega feels the bitter twist of jealousy again and hurries to find the ration packs.
The nearest gym is a blown-out husk of concrete, so Vega makes do with the naked structural supports of a nearby building, doing chin-ups on an exposed metal strut and lifting chipped cinder blocks. Working out always helps him get his head in order. He works himself hard, pumping heavy until his muscles fail, until his arms and legs feel ready to give out underneath him.
Cortez finds him doing crunches, counting them off in sets of a hundred.
"Doc just left, Mr. Vega."
Vega sits up, mops the sweat off his nose with the back of his almost-as-sweaty arm. He tries a smile. "Just Jimmy. Remember?"
Cortez gives him a funny look. He takes a seat on a pile of rubble near Vega. "He says Shepard's looking as good as can be hoped. Might even wake up in the next day or so. He gave us some painkillers and a few spare medigels." Cortez shakes his head. "The man's damn hard to kill." His chuckle is fond, amused. The green-eyed monster stirs back to life under Vega's breastbone. "Still. Wish we could get ahold of the Normandy. I'm starting to think the worst."
"Joker's too good," Vega says, and means it, but Cortez just leans back against the broken concrete and smiles.
"Wish I still had your kind of faith." His smile goes crooked. "The optimism of youth, huh, Mr. Vega?"
"Jimmy," Vega repeats. "And hey. You're not that much older than me. When were you born? '56? '57?"
Cortez laughs. "If that's your biggest concern, you're definitely too young for me."
Vega gets up, stretching his left arm across his chest, and then up behind his head. "So I should start calling you 'viejito,' huh?"
Cortez stands, too. "Only if you're really trying to boost my confidence." He dusts off his legs. Vega can't help stealing a glance at his ass. "I should go back and check on Shepard. Doc showed me a few things to keep an eye on."
"Yeah, well." Vega feels himself tensing up. "Guess the Major's not much help." He catches up to Cortez, trotting along a half-step behind. Like a tagalong stray dog, he thinks. He hopes Cortez isn't thinking the same thing.
Vega tilts his head, points to his cheek. "Only if I get a kiss outta it."
And there it is again: the smile from Cortez that makes him think he's being foolish. That makes him think maybe all that time he wasted in the shuttle bay, wondering if Cortez was maybe interested in going for a drink, was exactly that, wasted; he should've made his move long ago. Cortez's hand slides across his broad back, unthwarted by the sweat and dust clinging to his skin, creeps up his neck and hooks there. Pulls him over and dry lips and stubble brush his cheek, and he can smell Cortez, the oil of his hair and his slept-in clothes and the pleasant musk of his skin. He gets suddenly, unfairly hard, turns his face so that their mouths meet instead. Cortez's lips part under his and he tastes a brief flicker of tongue before Cortez pulls back.
He would be embarrassed about the moan that emerges from him as they separate, but it seems to turn Cortez on, judging by the color that rushes to his cheeks. Vega slides his arms around Cortez's waist, closes the space between them again.
"You don't have to check on Loco now. What's a couple of minutes?" He corrects himself when Cortez raises an eyebrow and smirks. "Or, uh, ten?"
"Later," Cortez says, pulling away. His smile falls away.
Vega sags. "Yeah, later. All right."
As Cortez disappears into the Kodiak, Vega kicks the ground. There's a stray bit of cement in the way of his toe, and he cracks his foot hard against it. He crumples down, cursing. Half-hopes that Cortez will have heard and come out to see what's up, but no such luck.
Eventually he flops back against the ground, not caring that the cement dust and dirt is sticking to his sweaty body. No point in trying to impress anyone, after all. He doesn't stand a chance against Commander fucking Shepard.
Another day in the Kodiak, another shitty MRE meal.
Vega cleans up the foil packets after Cortez and Kaidan are finished eating, then checks the comm. He keeps hoping for word from Normandy. Or from Doctor Michel, who went to bring back Alliance support and a proper medical transport. But today the channels are filled with local traffic, the chatter of life resuming on Earth, and the occasional bit of comm-sex.
Vega eavesdrops a while on a pair of women, their soft murmurs and sighs making him hard and restless.
"I miss you so much," one woman breathes. "Waking up, seeing you there…"
"Miss you too. Love you so much. So fucking much. If you were here, I'd hold you close, and I'd kiss you, and I'd--"
Vega fidgets, thinking of Cortez. Thinking of what they'd say to each other, if they were separated, say, if he went off to help the locals rebuild, or something. If he'd gone to escort Doc Michel.
It'd probably be all grunts and "Mr. Vega"s, he supposes, that and reports on how Shepard's doing. He might as well have gone with the doc. Maybe when Shepard wakes up the Commander and Kaidan will decide that having a ménage a trois is perfectly acceptable and welcome Cortez into their machobunny little family.
Vega scowls and sinks lower into his chair. What the hell would he even do, anyway, if Cortez really said something like "I miss you and love you so fucking much?" He'd probably piss himself and run the other way.
More than a little resentfully, he glances into the back of the shuttle.
Shepard looms over him.
Vega jerks out of his chair and automatically salutes. When Shepard nods, he hastily drops his arm and mashes his thumb on the console to shut off the audio.
"Keeping busy, are we, James?" Shepard's laugh is wheezing, his voice barely above a whisper. He's leaning hard against the nearby bulkhead for support, his legs trembling underneath him. There's no blood in his face; even his lips barely have color.
"Mierda, Loco, what the hell are you doing on your feet?" He hurries to put an arm around Shepard's shoulders. The Spectre waves him away.
"Just need… fresh… air," Shepard says.
He gestures behind himself, and Vega sees Kaidan and Cortez, slumped against boxes and benches and both sleeping like puppies. Vega nods, and tiptoes over to the portside door, carefully lifting manual release. His efforts to keep silent are in vain: the latch releases with a loud ker-chunk and then a hiss of hydraulics. He swears. There's no way the sound won't wake up Cortez, if not both men.
Sure enough, a moment later he hears Cortez shout: "Shepard!" and then Kaidan is there, pulling Shepard back and into his arms, crushing him close. Cortez hovers nearby, and then, shrugging, throws his arms around them both.
"Watch… the ribs," Shepard grunts, but he's grinning.
"You should be lying down," Kaidan says. He's practically fluttering and clucking, trying unsuccessfully to steer Shepard back to the cot.
"Feel like I've been lying down enough."
"You're going to make yourself worse!"
"Don't think it gets much worse. Except the time that I died. That was definitely worse." Shepard wheeze-laughs.
Kaidan sets his jaw. "I'm not losing you again. So lay the fuck down."
Shepard snorts, but he allows Kaidan to ease him towards the cot. "Glad to be back, too, Major," he says, softly.
Kaidan's expression goes goofy. Vega tells himself he feels disgust and not envy.
Cortez reaches past Vega and closes the Kodiak's door. He says, "Were you letting Shepard outside? What the hell were you thinking, Vega?"
"Jimmy," Vega says, but nobody hears him.
Baboso, Vega thinks, as he hurls the crumbled drywall into the reclamation unit nearby. Stupid idiot, to think that a few (dozen or so) quick, hasty fucks in the afterglow of saving fucking Earth means anything serious. What is he, a fucking schoolgirl? He cracks a beam, brittle and blackened from the heat, over his knee.
He's helping the locals salvage their old homes and businesses. In theory, at least. It gives him something to do, something to keep his mind and his hands occupied. Lets him blow off all his pent-up energy.
One of the civilians pokes their head into the building. "Lieutenant Vega?"
Vega whips the pieces of beam into the reclamation unit. They make a satisfying clunk-whirrr and the civilian jumps. "Yeah?"
"Timu spotted an Alliance shuttle overhead. You said to tell you?"
Vega raises his eyebrows. Doctor Michel is back at last. And probably with orders from Hackett, if that old fart is still alive. Maybe that will be good. Maybe that's just what he needs. A bit of duty to get him back in order and stop moping over one Steve Cortez.
"Oh. Yeah. Gracias."
When he gets back to the Kodiak the shuttle has landed, the doors open and a couple of Alliance soldiers waiting inside. The familiar blue hull, emblazoned with white Alliance markings, makes Vega's heart leap a little. The shuttle is absurdly shiny, factory-new looking.
The soldiers salute Vega and he salutes back. He approaches the shuttle. "Doc Michel inside?"
One soldier nods. The other says, "Is it true? Commander Shepard's alive?"
"Yeah," Vega says. "Yeah, alive and kicking. Or kind of… leaning."
The soldiers glance at each other and start gossiping in low voices. A moment later, Doctor Michel emerges from the Kodiak. Two Alliance medics follow close behind her with Shepard on a stretcher, Kaidan scrambling to get next to them. Even at a distance, Vega can hear Shepard's protests.
"I really can walk! James, you saw me. You tell the Doc. I'll be fine--!"
"That is my call to make, Commander," Doctor Michel tuts.
Cortez comes after them, a packed bag in each hand. Vega stands aside and lets them pass. As Cortez goes by, Vega asks, "Did we get new orders?"
It's Kaidan who answers. "This is just a medical evac. You'll get orders soon enough."
"Oh," Vega says.
He watches Kaidan climb into the shuttle after Shepard. Cortez hands up one of the bags.
"Guess you're going too, Esteban?"
Cortez turns and frowns at Vega. Vega keeps talking. He's afraid to hear what Cortez might say.
"It's all right. You should be with Shepard. Think I'm just going to hang back here, yeah? So I don't get in the way. And somebody's got to keep the Kodiak company, right? If you need her back, you just holler, okay? And don't--"
"Shut up, Mr. Vega," Cortez says.
Vega shuts up. Cortez hands the second bag up to Doctor Michel, and then he faces Vega. Vega holds his breath.
"So this is goodbye," Vega says.
Cortez arches an eyebrow. Vega swallows. "Shutting up now?"
Then Cortez puts his hands on Vega's shoulders, and leans in, and kisses him. It's a good kiss--no, an amazing kiss; Cortez's lips just brushing Vega's at first, and then stroking harder, and then open-mouthed and intruding and taking and claiming. A kiss like this should go on forever, Vega thinks, and it gets pretty close. Vega's lips burn when they finally break apart.
Cortez steps back, still holding Vega's shoulders, and shakes his head.
"I'm not going with Shepard, you idiot," he says. "You're stuck with me. And you'll probably regret it. So you can stop hangdogging around and being jealous, all right?"
Vega blinks, startled. "You… you could tell I was jealous?"
"You were practically green."
Cortez pauses and waves as Doctor Michel closes the shuttle door, but as the shuttle lifts off, his full attention is on Vega and nothing else.
"Now, if you're done, I think we have a lot of catching up to do." He grins and slips his arms around Vega's waist, rubs his thumbs in the small of Vega's back. Nuzzles Vega's jawline. "Jimmy."