Trish woke to the sound of running feet, shouting children and something loud, sharp and painfully off key that could only be described as an unholy racket. Why is there always something noisy in christmas sacks or stockings? she thought.
That wasn't to say she didn't like Christmas, as a child it had been a truly magical time of the year. However since reconnecting with her childhood sweetheart, Nicola Shepard, the holiday season had been split into two varieties; ones where the marine was on leave, and ones where she was on active duty. This year, just like last year, they had been unlucky.
Realising that further sleep would be impossible, she forced herself up off the couch, neatly folding the blankets she'd been using in one corner and snuck out the room. Fortunately those members of the house already awake were still too focused on presents from Santa to remember about more basic needs like going to the toilet and brushing their teeth, so she managed to get into the bathroom without fighting or queuing. Her luck ran out however when she tried to get breakfast and found a veritable army of people inside prepping for the main meal later in the day.
"Out! Get out." The aunt who's kitchen it was ordered, waving a potato peeler in her direction.
"What happened to breakfast being the most important meal of the day?" Trish tried to protest with little success.
"That's only for the other 364 days of the year."
"This year was a leap year." She answered facetiously, managing to catch the piece of fruit that was lobbed towards her head in response before deciding to beat a hasty retreat. I bet they would have given Nikki food, I swear that woman can charm her way in to, out of, and around any situation.
Finding a slightly quieter room she curled up on a chair and tried to call her girlfriend, fighting hard to combat the sense of disappointment that swept through her when there was no answer. Instead she switched to text, typing out a message to send: [Merry Christmas sweetie! Hope they don't make you work too hard today. Love you always and see you in the New Year. (You better call me before then though) Love Trish xXx]
It wasn't until after she sent it that she realised she might have tempted fate. After all last year Shepard had been forced to educate a group of batarians on the fact that: 'peace on Earth and goodwill to all men' doesn't mean the Alliance won't retaliate if you try a slave grab in the outer colonies on Christmas Day. Trish hoped the lesson had stuck and her girlfriend would have a quieter day this year.
"There you are." A voice interrupted her musings and she looked up into the soft smile of her mother. "Come on, everybody's waiting to open the main presents."
The day picked up quickly after that. Presents, food, vids and boardgames, it was everything Christmas was supposed to be. Right down to the inevitable game of trivial pursuit.
"Who was the first human on Earth's moon?" Trish knew the answer. It began with an 'N' but it wasn't the name she said as she felt a vibration from her omni-tool on her wrist.
"Nikki!" She hurried out, with probably the only excuse her relatives would have allowed her to leave with. Answering the call, she found herself looking at a familiar grin and a pair of chocolate brown eyes that were warm and deep enough to drown in.
"Merry Christmas baby."
"Merry Christmas." Trish was glad to see her looking cheerful and less emotionally drained than last year, although that didn't necessarily guarantee a carefree day on her girlfriend's behalf.
"I see you got my present. It looks good on you." The soldier offered and Trish's hand jumped to the pendant round her neck, an intricate silver dream catcher with turquoise beads.
"It's beautiful, thank you. I got you a present too but I'm afraid you'll have to wait until you get home before you can open it. I can give you a sneak preview if you like?"
"Ooh that sounds promising. Careful though, what if we're caught?" Shepard smirked salaciously.
"What? Urgh... Head out the gutter you. That's not what I meant."
"Pity. Alright, alright. I promise to be good. What's my present?" Trish paused, not as any sort of response to the teasing but because she suddenly wasn't so certain if her 'gift' was such a good idea. This year had had a few roller-coaster moments for the soldier, including her first trip 'home' to Mindoir since the raid. Having accompanied her girlfriend to the 'Tenth Anniversary Memorial service' Trish had come to realise that, while she had on a theoretical level known that Nikki had lost everything back then, she hadn't truly understood quite how much that meant before their trip. That when Shepard had left Mindoir the first time she'd had nothing left but her name and the clothes on her back.
"I'm not sure I should give it to you. It might make you cry."
"Nonsense. Marines don't cry, our eyeballs sweat." Came the typical macho reply and Trish scoffed despite herself.
"Fine, but don't say I didn't warn you." She raised her wrist, pressing the necessary commands to send the file over to Nikki's omni-tool, the soldier smirking as she received it.
"Oh a photo? And you said it's not-..." She trailed off as she opened it, her breath catching as she saw the image within. Silence stretched out for an age as Shepard gazed enraptured at something she never thought she'd see again, and in some ways she never would.
"You ok sweetie?" Trish asked concerned.
"Yeah. Wha- You... How?" Came the broken voice, words having to be physically forced past the lump in her throat, her eyes still not lifting from the picture.
"I asked my mum if she still had any of my old omni-tools from when I was a kid. She did and I found some photos from Mindoir on there. It's from your 16th birthday party." Nikki nodded, the cake in the middle kind of gave that away but it wasn't where her attention lay. No, she was glued to her parents' faces. The pair of them rolling their eyes in mock despair and actual pride while her elder brothers; John and Mark, messed around trying to cover the candles up so she couldn't blow them out, and younger brother Kevin tried to steal some icing off the side.
"I found some more too. Put them together in a photo album for you."
"Thank you. I... Thank you."
The image blurred as her eyes did more than just sweat but she didn't care. It was a snapshot of her past true, but more than that... it was the first time she'd seen her family in ten years.