Russell was back on Earth, the one planet he'd hoped to never set foot again. He was a long way from his Chicago stomping grounds filled with bad blood and worse memories, but even being a continent away didn't ease the hopelessness that was inextricably tied to his homeworld.
Once the Normandy had come into Earth's orbit, Hackett had given Russell and his crew ten days to put his affairs in order, after which time, he and every soul aboard the Normandy were to turn themselves in. Hackett made it no secret that he was being generous. Russell promised that he, alone, would come in in five, so long as he was given unrestricted access to travel during that time.
Luckily, Russell's word still meant something to at least one person in the Alliance and he was given a reprieve. However, one of the conditions was that he had to wear a tracker. If he was even half a day over, the Alliance would have forces at the ready to drag him in.
A harsh wind kicked sand up and into Russell's eyes, the only uncovered portion of his face. He swore as he fought not to rub them. He'd learned the first time that happened that grinding the grains into his wind chapped face and tender eyes hurt like a bitch.
"I don't understand why you resist putting your goggles on," Thane rumbled from somewhere behind Russell. "They're meant to prevent that from happening."
"They make my face sweat too much. Then that gets in my eyes, too, so I'm screwed either way." Russell said as he carefully brushed the sand off his lashes. "At least this way I look cool."
Thane rumbled his acknowledgement and went back to staring out over the sea of beige and brown that seemed to go on forever no matter where he looked.
Of all the places on Earth to visit, Russell never would have imagined he would ever come here. He hated heat in the extreme, and the few occasions when he'd had to deal with sand were less than pleasant. If he'd been picking a spot on the planet to enjoy his last few days of freedom, this wouldn't have been it. But he hadn't chosen this location for himself.
He'd gladly make the sacrifice. He'd suffer sand in every nook and cranny, deal with lips chapped beyond recognition. The sheer elation on Thane's face when they disembarked the Kodiak had made it all worth it. Even the two hour struggle with the tent was a pittance compared to what he'd gained.
"Are you quite sure you don't need help?" The sounds of the pieces of their temporary housing being clacked together agitatedly along with the wind and the shifting sands masked Thane's approach and Russell tried not to look startled when the drell suddenly appeared at his side. "I do have some experience in this area."
Russell wanted Thane to use this time to rest. Their fighting was over for the time being, there was no reason left for him to try quite so hard. He wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible, yet they were about to be torn apart in one way or another. In all the time they'd known each other, science had yet to make any advancement in the treatment of Thane's condition. Funny that they could keep President Huerta, a man who had been brain dead for several minutes, in office, but no one could make a significant breakthrough with a condition that, in Russell's very biased opinion, was far easier to deal with.
Passing through the crew deck late one evening, Russell ventured by the med bay and saw Thane being attended to Doctor Chakwas. A breathing mask on his face obscured his face as he sat on the table, a hand rubbing small circles on his chest. When he'd come to see Chakwas the next day, she'd told him it was just a stopgap measure, that Thane's situation was deteriorating slowly. She spared him anymore details like how long he had, but Russell had left the med bay shaken.
He'd done his own bit of research, asked Mordin, Chawas, anyone he could find that he thought qualified to give him the answers that he needed, but there had still been nothing. But he wasn't ready to give up hope. And he needed Thane to give science time to catch up with their needs.
Yet Thane said he didn't want to be treated as an invalid. He still had so much life left in him, so Russell stepped aside and let him take over setting up the shelter. At the rate Russell was going, they would either end up spending the night in the drop ship or back aboard the Normandy.
As Thane worked, his hands a flurry of movement as he assembled the beams to the right struts, Russell watched him anxiously for any signs of weakness, but Thane seemed as virile as ever. The dry heat could have been doing him some good, but it was far more likely that he was skilled at hiding the toll his illness had taken on him.
"So how does this compare to Rakhana?"
"I've never seen it first hand," Thane said, not missing a beat as he jammed two of the parts together until they locked loudly. "But compared to what you can find on the Extranet, it is fairly similar: just as barren, full of sand. I doubt there would be much variation, though Rakhana's terrain is a bit more apserous."
Thane stepped back and appraised his work. It was a lot like assembling a house in its most rudimentary form. It was one large room with the pieces of the roof attached to the tops of the beams, fitting together like a puzzle. All that was left was setting covers over it, and they'd have a sturdy, temporary housing unit for the coming days. He'd achieved in thirty minutes what had Russell couldn't complete in hours.
It was just in time. The sun kissed the crest of the closest dune, signaling the approach of nightfall. The coming darkness would bring cold with it, and Russell wanted to be well inside by the time that happened. Russell moved to help Thane put on the finishing touches. They wrapped the nano-sheeting over the framework securely. When the edges met the edges of the beam, they stiffened and locked into place creating a seal to keep out wind, rain, and hopefully, sand.
They finished just as the last rays of light disappeared by hind the dune. Russell, weighed down like a pack mule, carted their supplies inside. Thane returned to his seat.
"I had hoped to take Kolyat to Rakhana one day." His voice carried over the fifteen or so feet that separated them. "It was Irikah's wish for all of those to go there once he could appreciate the significance of the trip. Time makes fools of all of us, I suppose."
It was the first time he'd mentioned his wife since he'd voiced his attraction for Russell. Russell figured it must be some sort of misguided attempt to keep him at ease, but it felt wrong for Thane to censor himself in such a way. Meeting her had changed his life, set him on a better path, and helped mold him into the man he was today.
Russell knew what that was like.
Thane always spoke of her with such fondness. It would be a crime to not share her memory. If Thane wanted to recount his time with her, far be it for Russell to deprive him of sharing openly.
Russell went to sit beside him in the sand and handfuls of the granules rushed to fill his pockets. Thane didn't turn to look at him, continuing to look out over the darkening scene.
"Forgive me… I find myself becoming more nostalgic these days."
"No apologies necessary." Russell wrapped his arms around Thane's shoulders. The breaths that expanded his chest were shaky and uneven, but Russell didn't mention it. If the worst came to pass, Chakwas had outfitted them with another of those machines and showed Russell how to operate it. A nebulizer she called it, and medication designed to help reduce the inflammation in constricted pathways. Russell didn't want to have to put his knowledge to use.
"I wish Kolyat could see this," Thane said solemnly. If they'd had more time to plan, Russell would have suggested bringing him along. He probably still had a chip on his shoulder for the whole… Joram Talid thing, but Russell was certain he could put that aside for a few days.
"Next time, we'll go to Rakhana. I mean, if I wouldn't be intruding." It was assuming a lot. He told himself he wouldn't be too offended if Thane said his presence was not exactly welcome, but he knew that he would.
"No, I think it would be alright." Thane scooped up a handful of sand and held it in his fist. Slowly, he relaxed his fingers and watched as the fine grains, almost like water, filtered through his fingers. "I've seen your homeworld. It's only fitting that I get to share something with you."
Thane said he wanted to sit a while longer, so Russell went inside and set them up for the night. Russell stretched bed rolls out on one side of the tent, side by side. He hoped Thane didn't mind him taking the liberty. Since his first encounter with drell skin, the drell in question had been inviting himself up to Russell's room and into his bed. A small cooker, their food and water supply, and a field terminal—for long ranged communication-were placed on the other.
Russell's comm was turned off, leaving the terminal as the only tie those still aboard the ship had with those on the ground, not that they should have been contacting him anyway for anything short of a ship wide system failure, in which case, they couldn't contact him anyway.
He sat at the terminal, checking to see if anything had changed in the six hours since they'd disembarked. Only one new message illuminated his inbox, but it was from someone not even in the same solar system. Russell double-clicked to open it just as Thane entered.
He stood near the doorway, shaking sand from his person. His jacket went first and he hung it beside Russell's.
"It was getting rather brisk out there. I thought it best that I come inside."
"Are you hungry? Thirsty?" Russell watched as he engaged a secret seam in the leg of his pants, and removed his boots like he should have when he first came in. Hopefully he hadn't tracked any in their sleeping area.
The drell shook his head. "No need to trouble yourself. The tent is small enough that I'm sure I can attend to my own needs easily enough." Russell spared him a quick nod and a smile before turning back to the screen.
The message was from Garrus. He'd made it back to Palaven without any complications. He was still settling in, but he outlined his plans to take their case to the hierarchy, but it would be slow going. His mother wasn't doing well, but he didn't seem to want to linger on that, instead turning the conversation to the topic of Russell's love life. He wanted to know how things were progressing, if he should be shopping for wedding gifts.
If they were face to face, Russell would have ignored him completely and made him talk about his mother's condition at length. But from this distance, it was hard to tell how much pushing was too much, so Russell left it alone.
Russell was about to type out a noncommittal answer when his right ear felt strangely warm.
"What will you tell him?" Russell felt the words rumble from Thane's chest into his back as Thane draped himself over him. He wrapped his arms around the Spectre's middle and tucked his chin on Russell's shoulder, literally reading over it.
Russell shifted, arranging Thane's hands, one atop the other, on his belly and gripped them with the hand that wasn't working the terminal. "What should I tell him?" Russell wasn't sure of that himself and was open to suggestions.
He hadn't given their relationship a lot of thought, instead, just reducing it to the bare facts and taking them at face value. He enjoyed Thane's company, and Thane seemed to enjoy his. There didn't seem to be much else to it than that, but did there have to be? It was unlike any other relationship Russell had been in. It was mostly mental stimulation, with very little physical aspect. They were close, they kissed, they touched, but rarely did it come to more than that, due, in large part, to Russell's hesitation.
He was afraid.
After seeing how sickly Thane looked in the med bay that night, it scared him to even think of touching him. He didn't want to be the one thing that sent him over the edge, aggravating his illness to a new level. They'd never even talked about how this relationship would proceed given Thane's health and inexperience with both humans and males, and Russell didn't want to be the one to bring it up.
Russell would have told Garrus all of this and more if he didn't have another set of eyes on his screen, but in lieu of that, he lifted up the arm bearing his omnitool and snapped a picture.
"I'll show him that," he said as he typed a snarky little message to the turian. "And let him draw his own conclusions." He piggybacked on the terminal's Extranet connection and sent the image off.
"A wise, if avoidant, solution." Thane chuckled and Russell's ears started to burn. God, he loved that sound. He didn't hear it enough.
A slim hand slipped beneath the fabric of his shirt and languidly stroked his belly, gently scratching at the sparse hair there. "Would you mind telling me, in words, how we're doing?"
As much as Russell was enjoying Thane's attentions, he knew it was only a matter of time before things escalated to situation critical. Russell longed for the chance to engage Thane in a more physical setting, devoid of the violent basis of sparring, but he wouldn't ask it. If Thane wasn't up to it, he could do without it, and just handle his desires the same way he'd been doing it since he boarded the Normandy: ignore them until they reached a breaking point and then deal with them in the quickest and most discreet way possible.
After Torfan, Russell lived a life of solitude, with as few attachments as possible. He'd found his way to Ian, but for a long time, that was it. He would argue that it didn't count, since he was a civilian, but among his peers, Russell had been known as a lone wolf. What was the point of getting to know the people in the trenches with you, if one of you was going to die the next day? But then he started the hunt for Saren and picked up Garrus, Tali and Wrex along the way and all that changed.
He tried to tell himself that it was an ordinary level of concern, the type commanding officers had for their subordinates, but it quickly became more than that. He sought them out for their council, and later their companionship. Looking back on it now, Garrus was the first friend he'd allowed himself to make in years. But just as he was coming to grips with the idea of making himself vulnerable, Thane entered his life. He tried to relegate him to the status of friend. Then one day, he found himself caring just a bit more about one crewmember's well-being over all others.
By that time, it was too late to go back.
"I'd say we're doing alright." And they were, as far as Russell was concerned. Everyday Russell learned something new about the man he was in love with as well as himself. He never would have thought he'd had the capacity to care for someone the way he did Thane. He enjoyed just watching him as he slept, listening to his stories, and the privilege of just being near him. If they never moved beyond this point in terms of physicality, Russell would be alright with that.
Thane was of a different mind.
He brushed his lips on the sensitive patch behind Russell's ear, one the Spectre was sure he'd never shown him. One of his hands went further up Russell's shirt, fanning his fingers out over the human's chest. The other went low, slipping beneath a military grade waistband and resting just there. "Is that so?"
In that three word phrase Russell could hear the tender strands of his control starting to snap. He was only doing what he thought was right. Why was it never easy?
"You don't have to do this," Russell whispered and surprised himself by meaning it. He'd never been the selfless type, but this trip was all for Thane. He'd had no ulterior motives other than granting one of his wishes and trying to give the man some peace.
"I'm very aware of what my duties are, commander." Thane's hand slid lower, brushing against the juncture where brain and biology so often waged war. "And I'm not in the habit of doing things I don't wish to." To punctuate his point, he took Russell in his grip and gave a long, upward stroke.
Russell had given some intense thought—mostly when he was alone—as to what this particular act might feel like. The one and only time Thane had touched him in a way that was more than friendly, his hands had been rough, like calluses, but that was gone today. They felt almost as soft as human hands. Russell had no time to dwell on how that might be possible before Thane started moving again. He scooted closer, the hard length of him pressed against the small of Russell's back.
"If it bothers you, I can stop. But you needn't worry about any discomfort on my part." He stroked Russell's length again and the Spectre went rigid.
"Does it bother you? Do you wish me to stop?" Thane's motions crept to a crawl, his breath still warming the back of Russell's neck.
"No," Russell said finally. He was only human. Weak, and susceptible to the promise of pleasure. "Don't stop talking either."
"You find my voice agreeable, then?" There was a strange quality just beneath his normal register, like the purr of a large, satisfied cat.
"Something like that," Russell breathed, leaning back into Thane just a little. For someone with no experience in this area, the drell was certainly holding his own. Or maybe he was lacking in just the area of performing on a partner. The thought of Thane employing this very technique in a more familiar setting… Russell would pay money to see that.
"Is there anything in particular you'd like to hear?" His lips grazed Russell's ear, clearly getting into his role now. His voice was just so decadent, a word Russell had never used to describe anything in his life. It was like silk, like velvet as it glided across his skin.
Russell shook his head. "You could read the comm listing for the Normandy and it'd probably have the same effect." He'd thought about doing so once, but shelved the idea because it seemed utterly ridiculous and he couldn't bear the thought of having to explain to Thane exactly why he wanted such a thing. He hoped that he knew that Russell was joking. Mostly.
Thane laughed again, low and dark and secretive. Russell found himself getting addicted to the sound. "A story then." Thane slipped his hands free of Russell's clothes and received a groan of protest for his trouble. He ignored it as he guided them backwards from the terminal a bit. He moved from behind Shepard to his front and straddled his lap. Looking Russell in the eye, his fingers nimbly lowered the zipper of his jumpsuit away from his throat to make himself comfortable. Obviously, he planned on being here a while.
"Once, there was a human warrior, thought to be one of the most ruthless in the galaxy, but it was all due to a mix up. The battle that had earned the warrior this title hadn't left him unscathed as others assumed. No, every life lost left a wound in his breast until there was nothing but a gaping hole where his heart had once been. "
"This sounds awfully familiar." As much as Shepard didn't want to hear his story, for he'd lived through it himself, he wanted to hear where Thane went with it. Thane pressed on as if he hadn't heard Russell's protest.
"The human wandered around, thinking he was to blame, the chasm in his chest widening with every battle, ever sacrifice, with every hollow victory. He started to believe the things whispered about him, that he was a villain, a murderer, that there had been a choice that he just hadn't seen because deep down he'd wanted so many to die. He became afraid of him, didn't trust himself to make the right decisions, he didn't believe in himself. So he tried to hide. To numb himself, and it worked, for a time."
He took Russell's hand and placed it on his zipper. When the human's fingers had the little tab pinched between them, Thane guided his hand downward until it reached the end of its track. "And now I don't know which I'm supposed to pay attention to: your mouth or everything else."
"Which, is up to you, but you did ask me to speak." Thane looked up from under heavy lids. He'd been tracking the movements of his zipper and had his head bowed. Now, he looked at Russell, his mouth turned up in a sly grin. "Have you tired of the sound of my voice already?"
"Then I'll continue, shall I?" Thane grinned before launching back into his story.
"The human would have continued on like that, half in a dream if not for another fatal mistake that almost cost him the life of a trusted friend. He'd had his eyes rudely opened and he found the waking world worse off than when he'd left it. But that seemed to be the kick he needed to reclaim his life, to seek his redemption.
"He went to those around him for their advice, for their council and their words inspired him to make take the first steps to changing his life for the better. Yet while he was at his lowest, looking for guidance, his quest for redemption inspired another to start on a quest of his own." He leaned forward, his lips barely brushing over Russell's who sat transfixed. He couldn't move if he wanted to. He'd never wanted to think of his story in such eloquent terms before. He'd honestly never spent much time sitting and just thinking of the things he'd gone through, too busy trying to survive them, but Thane had. He'd paid attention to his trails and spoke them back to him in a way that made the story sound like something to learn from, rather than a junkie trying not to screw up too much.
"I'd thought I'd done enough when I spoke to my son again, prevented him from following me down this dark path, but to be happy with that would be accepting the bare minimum. And in following your example, that wouldn't have been anywhere near enough." He took Russell's hand and pressed it to his chest. The heartbeat was strong and irregular, by human standards. It didn't have quite the same two part thump-thump rhythm, but rather hiccupped after the first. "It wasn't enough for the relationship with my son, and it wasn't enough for me."
He slipped his hands under Russell's shirt again, pulling it up to his collarbone, pausing there before he tried to pull it the rest of the way off. "Just like now. Sitting here, just looking at you won't be enough." Bunching the shirt in his fist, Thane lowered his mouth to Russell's chest and latched onto his nipple. He rolled it between his teeth, making Russell gasp. Where the hell had he learned that?
He pulled away, the hardened nub throbbing. "If you have any objections that don't have to do with the state of my health, now would be the time to voice them. "
Thane had seen right through Russell, just as he always did. It wasn't that he was put off by Thane's illness. He still found him attractive, as if that were even in question, but the last thing he wanted was to worsen his condition. In the notes he'd gleaned from the Shadow Broker's database, physical activity should help, but knowing just how physical was the key.
Thane seemed up for dictating that.
He pushed Russell down to the padded floor, attacking his mouth, yanking his shirt off over his head. Warm lips were pressed to Russell's neck as Thane's hands were everywhere at once: on his chest, his hips, cupping him through his fatigues. At some point, he'd thought that Thane would be a bit more shy about this whole thing. He had said that Russell would be his first male, but he was going at him with such passion, leaving him confused. It was like he was overcompensating. Desperation tinged his actions, moved his hands quicker, faster. Before Russell knew it, his shirt was on the floor by the door of the tent and his pants were well on their way to joining it.
Russell held onto that last active synapse firing in his brain and took hold of Thane's hands. The drell looked at him perplexed.
"Not like this." Not with Thane in such a frenzy, doing it because he thought he had to. He didn't want to introduce Thane to this new world in a way that could be potentially disastrous. "We'll go slow, like I said before."
He knew why Thane was so eager to start this, though he doubted the man would ever admit it. He was afraid, though he doubted the man would ever admit it to him.
Russell kicked his pants off, and despite his words, helped Thane out of his suit. He bit his lip and almost considered going back on his word when he saw that Thane was as bare as the day Arashu made him and God was he gorgeous. He wasn't going to take this as far as Thane had probably planned on doing, but he took a minute to run his hands along Thane's shoulders, his belly, his hips.
He stopped himself before he went too far and pushed Thane down against their bed roll. He pulled the blanket up to their waists and just lay there, looking at him, trying to memorize the dark eyes that seemed to be working just as hard to drink him in.
There would be another time where they wouldn't have to rush, where they could take their time and most of all doing so because the mood struck them, not because they felt it was their only chance.
Russell would make sure of it.