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They were running. His heart was pounding, faster than even the sprinting warranted. Shepard ran behind him, even though Kaidan suspected he could probably outrun Kaidan any day. And Kaidan wasn't a slouch. The ski team trained hard, even in the off season. Still, Shepard shadowed him, protecting his back. Kaidan knew better than to look over his shoulder for the train ticket inspector, but he could feel Shepard right behind him. Not that he thought the woman would actually chase them outside the station. They darted around pedestrians and around corners until they stumbled up a grassy embankment and came to a mutual halt.

He laughed, voice a little wild as they gasped for breath, bent over beside a thick tree that would have hidden them even if the woman had come chasing them all the way out here.

Shepard hopping the barriers and both of them running from the inspector; he had never done anything like it. Then again, he thought that a lot around Shepard. Shepard made a habit of things that Kaidan had never done. It made Kaidan feel like he'd never done anything in his life.

But he wanted to.

And the things he wanted to do with Shepard… Shepard grinned at him, and Kaidan stared, reveling in the flush edging over his cheeks, the sweat beading on his temples, the way his lips parted over his breath. Kaidan wanted to stumble forward and press his own lips over them, to push Shepard back against the tree till their bodies pressed together and… well.

But he didn't. There were a lot of things Kaidan didn't do.

"Come on," Shepard said, straightening and tipping his head towards the road. He stepped down from the grassy embankment and wove between pedestrians to cross the sidewalk and meander down it a ways. Kaidan fell into step behind him, watching as Shepard peered at the bus signs along the busy street, stopping at one of them to look at the maps more closely, tracing a fingertip along the line of one route. He tapped it in confirmation and straightened.

"This one."

The bus was just turning around the corner as he spoke and he grinned.
"You're like, my lucky charm or whatever," he said, smirking at Kaidan.

"Heh," Kaidan replied, since nothing else came to mind - he was too busy experiencing the flutter in the pit of his stomach to come up with words.

Shepard fished a crumpled ride receipt from last night out of his pocket. He smoothed it out a little as the bus pulled up in front of them. When the doors opened he hopped on and flashed the expired ticket to the driver and moved on, confidence paving his way past a closer inspection as Kaidan drew the driver's attention as he slipped his transit pass from his pocket, all laminated and neat, and swiped it, waiting for the chime. He smiled and offered the driver a polite nod before moving back to where Shepard was waiting for him in the middle of the aisle, feet braced against the slow shift of the floor as the driver let off the brakes. He turned when Kaidan neared and continued back into the bus.

"Where are we going?" Kaidan asked, following Shepard down the narrow corridor of the bus, dodging shopping bags and careless knees as they walked all the way to the back.

"You'll see," Shepard said as he grabbed the vertical railing and swung into his seat.

The way Shepard picked the seat in the corner, like he needed to have his back to something solid. It wasn't something Kaidan thought he really understood, but he didn't mind. Not when it put Kaidan between Shepard and the rest of the world, when it put him closer to Shepard than anything else.

His fingers bumped Shepard's thigh as they sat. Shepard slung his arm around the back of their two seats, leaning in till the curve of the underside of his arm bumped Kaidan's shoulder. He wedged a foot up against the corner formed by the wall below the window and the seat in front of them.

As the bus merged into traffic Shepard looked away from Kaidan towards the window. But after a moment, he cast a glance halfway back to Kaidan, looking more in the general vicinity of his knee, and then slowly the fingers of the hand around the back of the seat inched forward to brush against Kaidan's shoulder.

They rode for a long time like that, Shepard gazing out the window at the world going by. Kaidan gazing at him. The tiny freckles that dusted his cheek, and one lone one on his earlobe that made Kaidan want to touch it with his lips, his tongue. The curl of his eyelashes. The way the sun had tanned the skin on the back of his neck that he wasn't always careful enough to protect on his occasional landscaping jobs.

Somewhere along the way Shepard turned his head to look at Kaidan. Kaidan felt the urge to look away, to be embarrassed for getting caught staring, but he couldn't bring himself to do it, not when Shepard's crystal blue eyes were homed in on his own and the corner of his mouth was pulling slightly, the taut skin over his jaw flexing and he could feel the soft puff of his breath on his cheek.

And then those eyes narrowed at him as Shepard gnawed his lip and lifted a thumb to bump against the crease forming between Kaidan's eyebrows.
"Serious face," he said after a long moment.

Kaidan blinked and then made his features relax and he smiled softly, glancing down at where the slightly-ragged collar of Shepard's tee-shirt curved over the edge of his collarbone. He wanted to lift a finger to trace the thin fabric against his throat, but he didn't. He glanced up at Shepard under his lashes. "Ah… yeah."

"Mm," he replied, his hand coming down to rest sort of half on his thigh, half on Kaidan's. "So?" Shepard asked flicking an eyebrow at him. Kaidan glanced down at his hand as the motion of the bus bumped his pinky against Shepard's.

Kaidan was about to open his mouth to reply when Shepard's head lifted abruptly then and he looked out the window. He reached up in a fluid motion to hit the stop signal.

"It's our stop," he added, nudging Kaidan with his hip when he didn't react immediately.

"Right," Kaidan said and grimaced as he hopped up. Why else would Shepard have hit the stop? He slipped down the steps, mumbling "Excuse me" a few times as he bumped knees and bags. He'd gone up a shoe size the last month and he still wasn't used to the bigger shoes. The bus lurched as it slowed and he grabbed the railings to stay stable. Shepard grabbed him, one strong hand landing on his hip. The bus doors opened and they jumped down.

Kaidan stepped up onto the sidewalk automatically, then turned to look at Shepard expectantly. They were on a non-descript street, one where it was a little residential, a little commercial. There was a quick-mart on the corner. Shepard glanced at him and rubbed a thumb under his lip before shrugging an answer to his own question that hadn't been said aloud and set off for the gap between two of the buildings. It wasn't so much an alley as a dirt path that ran between two chain-link fences. There were divots worn into the dirt from kid's bicycles, a couple pieces of litter but not too much.

Past the fences the dirt opened out to an expanse of grass that ran a few meters until it hit a tree-line that was mostly untouched by the development.

"I used to hang out around here," Shepard explained, which told Kaidan that once there had been some foster parents living around here with whom Shepard had been placed.

"Mm-hmm," Kaidan responded, wincing behind Shepard's back at his second (or was it third?) example of lacking eloquence of the day.

Shepard continued along the dirt path, hooking his thumbs into his pockets as he walked. He never put his hands all the way in them. Kaidan wondered if it was because they always looked like they might be a half-size too small or because he needed his hands free the way he needed his back to a corner. Maybe one day he'd ask him.

Maybe one day Shepard would tell him.

Shepard glanced back to see that he was following as he clambered up the side of a hill through a narrow track worn between the bushes and trees.

The tree line broke suddenly in a small bowl clearing, the hill leveling out into a ridge. A few meters ahead it dropped rather steeply down to where a rail truss towered over the jagged edges of the draw. A fence stood between them and the tracks but it was ramshackle and broken in places. Further on another stand of bushes and short trees blended into the back yards of some of the houses below. The light from the sun as it dragged closer to the horizon was shining off the buildings of the city center in the distance, creating blocky shapes against the sky, leaving wide rectangular swatches of light to sprawl across the rest of the city. The more organic shapes of the mountains on the horizon glowed bright under the clouds, the distant remnants of snow capturing the light in its crystals.

Kaidan's breath was tight in his throat as he gazed at Shepard, framed in the light and the stunning view beyond.

"It's cool, right?" Shepard asked, and for the briefest moment Kaidan though he could see a flicker of vulnerability or shyness touch Shepard's features before it disappeared beneath his customary cool.

"Yeah. It's… yeah." Kaidan said, voice low and soft as he paced forward to come stand beside him and gaze out at the view some more.

"Sometimes I would stay until the train came by in the evening. It gets all loud and you can kind-of feel the sound through the rock," Shepard said.

"The vibrations, yeah," Kaidan said.

Shepard glanced over at him. "We could do that. Or whatever."
Kaidan tipped his head on the whatever, licking his lips against unbidden images.
Shepard grimaced, "No, you know what? That's a dumb idea, we should-,"

"No, I'd like that," Kaidan interrupted him, glancing around for a likely patch of grass. He walked over and knelt, settling into the ground.

After a long moment, Shepard came over and flopped down beside him, sharing his view. Kaidan could smell the dirt and the grass and the bouquet of scents from the various plants around them. He could smell the faint traces of sweat on Shepard's skin, and the basic soap and detergent of the group home. But most of all he could smell Shepard himself, that indescribable scent that made Kaidan want to press his nose against the curve of Shepard's jaw where it met his neck and suck in a deep breath. Not just because it made him want to touch the warmth of the pulse at his neck, to curl his tongue over his ear - or any part of him really - but because of something else, something that was just...Shepard

"You're doing it again," Shepard said, still gazing out over the valley. "I can tell," he added, turning his head to smirk at him.

Kaidan looked away this time, blushing at getting caught in his train of thought.

"It's nothing," Kaidan said, fiddling with the hem of his shirt to give his hands something other to do than reach for Shepard's.

"Uh-uh," Shepard disagreed. "'cause, whatever it is that goes on in that skull of yours is never just nothing."

Kaidan drew a short breath then hesitated. He'd never just told him. He'd been too hesitant, hoping on the edge of glances and that intangible feeling of wanting that was so strong surely Shepard could feel it every time he was nearby. But maybe he didn't. So maybe he should - just say it that is.

He glanced at Shepard and in a rush of bravery he asked, "So, you want me to tell you what I'm thinking of."

Shepard just stared at him for a second, then leaned slightly closer and said, "Uh-huh."

Kaidan already regretted it. The rush of nerves in his chest was worse than standing in the tiny little gate at the top of a black diamond ski run about to start a race. Then again, there was a reason he still went back up the mountain every time.

"All right, I'll uh… I'll try," he said.

He gazed up at the little crescent moon peeking over the clouds on the other side of the sky, leaning back on his arms. Shepard shifted towards him and leaned on one elbow propped on his kneecap, his toe turning till it tucked just under Kaidan's knee, his other leg angled up towards Kaidan so his knee touched his hip.

"It like… all the stars in the sky. Or," he said, listening to the leaves rustling in the wind around them, "or like, the leaves in the trees."

He hesitated, mouth open over a word that wasn't right either. He pursed his lips, looking at the hole in the sleeve of Shepard's tee shirt and the scar that ran over his bicep below it. His fingers curled in the grass under them feeling their silken softness and the dirt below. Shepard's fingers in the grass pulled until the blades tore and snapped into his palm. He tossed the bits of green idly over Kaidan's hand tucked into the grass next to him.

"But not just those things. It's the… the broken bits and grassy bits in between. All of it. All the matter in the world is how much that I like you," Kaidan said, feeling the blush come over his cheeks even as he steeled himself against the rapid-fire pounding of his heart in his chest and the way his throat felt suddenly drier than it had ever been before any race. He watched Shepard's face as the words landed in his ears and his eyes tracked back and forth as he considered.

Kaidan wasn't sure but he thought he saw a flicker of wistfulness on Shepard's face. Shepard licked his lips briefly, glancing away as he rubbed his thumb at the corner of his mouth, his eyebrows drawing together before he glanced back at Kaidan. He squinted at him, the corners of his mouth turning up.

"That didn't make any sense, did it?" Kaidan asked with a sigh.

Shepard laughed low under his breath. "Nope."

Kaidan groaned, tipping his head back. Staring at the sky he missed the way Shepard's nostrils flared at the sound and the way his eyes tracked the bared skin of his throat. Instead he watched a hawk break over the trees and swoop over their heads and down over the cliff into the valley before it caught the thermal coming up off the sun-warmed asphalt of the street below.

Kaidan said, "let me try and explain again."

"Right, so birds can fly so high. And they can fly at you and scare you, or you know, poop on your head. But when you look at them, and hear their cry…
Well you… you see that they're beautiful... that's how I feel about you."

He tipped his gaze back down from the sky to look at the boy next to him. Shepard was looking at him with raised eyebrows now and his lower lip pulled between his teeth. Shepard blinked at him, then tilted his head slightly.
"What?" he asked, corner of his mouth twisting again.

Kaidan shook his head. "You."

Shepard rolled his eyes. "No, what are you talking about?"

Kaidan said, "You."

Shepard sat back, leaning on one hand behind him, gazing out at the valley, brows drawn down and teeth dragging over his lower lip . He thought about it for a long moment, then glanced down at the rumpled denim fabric over Kaidan's knee. Jeans that weren't too small and didn't have any holes in them.

"Thanks," Shepard said hesitantly, turning his hand on the grass so that his fingers could lay over top of Kaidan's, then lace down between them in a way that was much less open to interpretation than the brush of a hand over his shoulders or the bump of knuckles against thighs pushed close together by narrow seats. When Kaidan's fingers tightened around his and didn't pull away, he looked up at Kaidan and said, "I like you too."

Kaidan said, "Cool."