A/N: It's a little bit early but here's a Christmas-inspired Mass Effect tale for you all. Very slightly AU. Because I can :P
Re-Gifted: A Very Mass Effect Christmas
Of all the things retired Alliance Navy Captain Alison Shepard abhorred the most about the festive season, and there were a lot of things she abhorred - the madness that overtook people in shopping centres, prepared as they were to fight tooth and nail for a mere parking space, the fact that Christmas decorations appeared in shops as early as the first week of October and, of course, the rampant buy buy buy consumerism - the one thing that really irritated her was the horrific Christmas music.
Lately, where ever she seemed to go and whatever she did, her ears were assaulted by people blithering on about white Christmases and boughs of holly. Fa la la la fa fracking la. On more than one occasion, she'd been tempted to storm the centre management offices of the local shopping plaza and force - at gunpoint, mind - the people in charge of music selection to play something a little more soothing. Something along the lines of Tool's Ticks and Leeches. But even her status as a former Spectre wouldn't allow her to get away with such things. So she simply sucked it up and dealt with it.
The drive to the shopping centre this day was particularly burdensome. Shepard had woken up that morning with an incredibly strong desire to take her young daughter Lauren to visit Santa Claus. Shepard found this desire both alien and very very wrong and thought it was a likely sign of her tenuous grip on sanity slipping. Figures, she thought as she got up from bed to check on her bundle of joy, I get through the better part of seventeen years in the Navy, SEVENTEEN without failing a psych eval and NOW I start to lose my marbles?
The once-was Spectre padded bare-foot into her daughter's room. The walls of the child's bedroom were painted in bright pastel yellows and a mobile hung from the ceiling above her cot. Shepard never got the point of mobiles. It wasn't like they had any practical use beside providing something for small children to stare goggle-eyed at. But Shepard found she was overcome with an intensely strong desire to provide for her daughter all the things she herself never had growing up on the streets of Earth.
A parental presence for a start. Sure, the man named as the father on Lauren's birth certificate had tragically died in action not long after he and Shepard had met in an officer's bar on the Citadel and engaged in all manner of drunken debauchery best left unmentioned. "Yes, baby girl," Shepard said very quietly lest her bundle of joy hear her and awaken from her slumber shrieking like banshee, "You're a bastard. Just like your mother. Hey, don't feel bad. I turned out all right in the end."
Standing over the crib, looking down at her sleeping child, Shepard was filled with a love for her child so intense, her breath caught in her throat. She was also filled with the scent of pooey nappy. "Good God!" Shepard gasped as her baby rolled over in her sleep. "How can one child produce so much shite?"
After breakfast - wholemeal toast for herself, banana-flavoured puree for Lauren, Shepard looked out the kitchen window and checked on the flower gardens in the back garden. Roses, azaleas, more roses - the rich soils of Eden Prime had brought forth a rich bounty of floral beauty. Gardening soothed the retired officer's soul. Shepard found solace in being able to bring forth life with the same hands that had dealt so much death over the years.
"Mew," came a soft feline voice from somewhere outside. Shepard frowned. That damn stripey orange cat. If he was digging around in the garden again..."Mew!" The cry became louder as the cat sauntered out from around the corner of the yard, right in front of her. Tail up in the air, the cat headed towards the nearest rose bush and began sniffing around the base.
"Oh no, you don't!" Shepard hissed as the cat presented his rear to the bush and made ready to 'water the plants.' A quick glance behind her confirmed that Lauren was playing with her brightly coloured blocks in the playpen in the middle of the lounge room. "Lauren, I'm stepping outside to kick that cat's tail into orbit. For the love of all that is holy, don't go anywhere!"
Lauren utterly ignored her, blue-eyed gaze intent on the shaky tower of blocks she was erecting. Shepard slipped outside and, keeping a close watch on the stripey orange cat from up the road, sidled around the side of the house to the hose reel. Clutching the nozzle of the garden hose like it was a weapon, Shepard twisted the tap open so hard something in her wrist popped. A high pressure jet of water shot from the nozzle and gleefully, Shepard sprayed the cat. Stripey Orange Cat was across the expanse of the back yard and over the fence in about the same amount of time it took Ferrari's latest offering to get from nought to sixty. Still smiling, Shepard closed the tap and returned the hose to the reel before re-entering the house.
Inside her playpen, Lauren was standing on shaky legs and attempting a few unsteady steps before falling down again. "Oh God, you're starting to walk already," Shepard gasped. The gasp was one part maternal pride - her little girl was so advanced for her age! and one part terror. Once she found her feet, the child would start getting into absolutely everything. The only thing more effective at getting into things than a small child was a kitten. Shepard shuddered, glad she'd long-since baby-proofed the house as much as possible.
Picking the squirming child up, Shepard cooed, "Come on, let's go visit Santa!" Even as she spoke the words, a voice from the backblocks of her mind was all but shouting, Visit SANTA? Are you out of your head? At this time of year, the parking lot will be madness personified! And you aren't authorised to carry the Widowmaker any more, remember? Shepard dismissed the thought as she headed for the car. Surely things couldn't be so bad as for her to wish for her old Spectre-issue shotgun?
It started with the godawful Christmas music spewing forth from the car's seven speakers. Lately, Shepard's mind had been so full of baby-related thoughts and worries that she'd forgotten to take an OSD of music with her. "Fine, I'll just listen to the radio," she told herself as she strapped Lauren into the child-restraint seat in the back. "Gah!" Lauren said, in apparent agreement with her mother.
"Yeah, right back at ya," Shepard nodded, got behind the wheel and thumbed the Engine Start button, a shiny red button set into the fake carbon fibery dashboard and the electric motor...made not a sound. The only way a person could even tell the car was running at all was by the bank of lights and indicators that lit up the instrument panel like a Christmas tree. Shepard found herself missing the comforting rumble of the Mako. Twitchy as the old warhorse was, at least you knew when the fusion plant was running.
Easing the car into traffic, Shepard also missed the armour plating and the 155mm roof-mounted cannon. In search of something rocking, Shepard used the wheel mounted audio controls to surf the local airwaves.
Joy to the world...Click
Dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh...Click
He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good..."Ugh! Stalker!" Shepard spat and thumbed the control again, so hard she was afraid her thumbnail would gouge the rocker switch out of the wheel.
Finally, when she thought she could take no more...I'm on a highway to hell, highway to hell, highway to hell...
When the ACDC classic ended, the 'radio personality' came on the air. "And that was ACDC with Highway to Hell and is it just me, or is anybody else absolutely sick to death of all this hoopla over Christmas? What kind of message are sending out to our youth with all this over the top consumerism? I want to hear from you, dear listeners. Dial 131 881 and let me know how you feel. I'm Dan 'The Man' Mann and you're listening to ROK4 Radio..."
By the time Dan the Man had finished his spiel, Shepard had the car pulled over and was furiously punching numbers into her mobile phone. "Ha! I got through," she said over her shoulder to Lauren who was looking out the window at the passing traffic.
From the radio came the announcer's voice, "And the board is lighting up like a, dare I say it? Christmas tree, people! OK....line three, you're on the air!"
And suddenly, Shepard found herself on the radio and addressing who knew how many listeners. Giving orders in the heat of battle had been a lot easier than this. Swallowing past a suddenly dry throat, she said, "Hi, my name's Alison. First time caller, long time listener."
"Alison, great to hear from you! So, what about the season of yule in particular gets your goat?"
"The endless Christmas music, the decorations going up in shops during the first week of October."
"I hear ya."
"The way people seem to take leave of their senses this time of year and just go completely..." she trailed off trying to think of an adjective that wouldn't require bleeping out.
"Gonzo?" Dan supplied.
"That'll work, thanks. Personally, I'd give the whole thing a miss and just ignore it 'til it went away, you know?"
"Only too well, Alison."
"But here's the thing: I have a small child, a daughter and I want her to have all the things I never had growing up...and if that means tolerating all this craziness for her sake, I'll do it."
"And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the kind of selfless approach to life we just don't see enough of these days. Alison, it's been great talking to you and good luck with the whole parenting caper. Trust me, you'll need it."
Shepard replaced the phone in its little plastic cradle on the dash and got her electric appliance on wheels back into the flow of peak-hour traffic seemingly intent on committing vehicular manslaughter. Within moments of re-entering the traffic, the ex-Spectre was forced to slam the sole of her sensible flat-heeled shoe into the brake pedal as an oversized silver SUV cut in front of her from the left lane. "Mother-" Bleeep! The rest of her curse was drowned out as Shepard let loose with the only offensive weapon in her car's limited arsenal - the horn. And draining who knew how much of a charge from the battery to boot. She'd be lucky to even make the shopping centre at this point.
The driver of the silver SUV stuck an arm out the window and flipped her off. Shepard's eyes narrowed with impotent fury and her fingers tightened up on imaginary gunnery controls. The rear window of the Suburban Assault Vehicle bore one of those ridiculous Baby on Board signs. "Congratulations, you had unprotected sex and got knocked up! So did I but you don't see me advertising the fact!" An irate Shepard ground out.
Supposedly, the original aim of the Baby on Board signs was to alert paramedics and rescue personnel in the event of a ten-car pileup to the fact that a child may be in the car. Fine and dandy. Though anybody even half awake could tell by the sheer presence of a child restraint, bags of disposable nappies and the like that a child may have been on board. These days, however, the signs seemed to be used to boast that the owner of the sign had, in fact successfully reproduced. It was just one more facet of everyday civilian life that Shepard just didn't get. Even the Thorian on Feros five, six years back had made some kind of sense.
Glancing at her daughter in the rear view mirror, Shepard managed a wry smile, "One day, all of this shall be yours," she said and gestured expansively at everything outside. "You poor thing," she finished, returning her hands to the wheel. Lauren merely babbled baby-talk at her.
The universal translator, fashioned into a necklace around Shepard's throat offered up no useful interpretation and Shepard observed, "Whoever cracks that code will become rich beyond imagining. Then they'd just have to translate the monosyllabic grunts teenagers tend to use in lieu of actual speech." You know, like, whatever!
The rest of the drive was blissfully uneventful and Dan the Man kept up a constant string of old Earth rock and metal to keep his listeners from gouging out their own eardrums from over exposure to Christmas carols.
The shopping centre car park was a battleground. Literally. Shepard turned off the highway and entered the parking lot. Even at this relatively early hour - it was still before 0900 Eden Prime Time - the ground-level parking bays were at least eighty percent full and Shepard's fellow motorists didn't seem inclined to be civil with regards to deciding who got which space. It was everybody for themselves. Horns blared, fists and middle fingers were furiously shaken about and shouts of "That's MY parking space, BITCH!" were all too audible.
For the second time that morning, Shepard wished she had a really big gun at her disposal. Not for committing wanton slaughter, mind. Just for the purpose of warning off anybody she deemed to be a threat to not only herself but, more importantly, to Lauren. Calmly driving past the craziness and waving to the driver of the silver SUV - whose vehicle had been the unfortunate victim of an over-zealous parking maneuver and been left with a dented front bumper - Shepard drove up the ramp to the rooftop car park which was only fifty percent full.
Soon Shepard had her blender on wheels parked and plugged into one of the charging stations thoughtfully provided by the shopping centre management for people to charge their cars' batteries while they spent money they couldn't afford on crap they didn't need. From the rear of the blender, Shepard removed and unfolded Lauren's stroller. The stroller had the kind of chunky rubber wheels and suspension that would have made it suitable for off-road adventures. Though quite why a person would want to go off-road pram-driving in the first place was a mystery to Shepard. The stroller was safety-certified and that was all that mattered.
With her squirming girl-child strapped securely into the pram on steroids, Shepard entered the shopping centre. Immediately to her right, just inside the sliding door was a man-sized mechanical dancing Santa. Triggered by Shepard's movement, the Santa began to sway jerkily back and forth while a tinny voice repeatedly chanted "Ho Ho Ho. Ho Ho Ho. Ho Ho Ho." Shepard gave Dancing Santa a death-stare as she passed by and into the shopping centre proper.
And experienced near-total sensory overload. Between the Christmas muzak pouring forth from hidden speakers to the walls and ceilings liberally festooned with red and green tinsel and fake pine trees decorated with fake snow absolutely everywhere, Shepard simply stopped dead for several moments as fellow shoppers, intent on worshipping at the altar of the great god Consumerism, flowed heedlessly around her.
"Baby girl, I think we made a very big mistake in coming here," Shepard was forced to acknowledged. Lauren didn't hear her. She was gazing raptly at a procession of young women in tight green and red leotards, masquerading as Santa's Elves. "More like Santa's Nymphomaniacs," Shepard muttered as she observed the too-tight material stretched across surgically-enhanced bosoms All I want for Christmas are my D-cup boobs! Shepard shook her head and mentally kicked herself back into motion.
As a rule, Shepard didn't bother with Christmas shopping. Still, she maintained close ties with several people she'd served with during her tenure as Spectre, Operations Chief Ashley Williams among them and she felt honour-bound to grit her teeth and go Christmas shopping. The horror...the horror.
The first stop was a bookstore that still traded in tomes with actual physical pages. Eager to escape the seething crush of humanity, Shepard pushed the off-road stroller into the shop. Even in here she couldn't escape the Christmas muzak. Worse, the young woman behind the front counter, Santa hat perched over her dark hair was adding her singing voice - which sounded to Shepard like a cat being fed into an industrial meat grinder - into the mix. "JOY to the WORLD!" the young woman sang-shouted.
"Somebody please kill me now," Shepard groaned, rubbing a hand across her forehead. Lauren wiggled around and bounced up and down in the stroller, in an apparent attempt to dance to the music. Oh goody, my child has been possessed by Satan.
"Hi!" Santa Hat Girl chirped as she caught sight of the tall woman and the baby. "How can I help?"
"You can start by turning down the music," Shepard spoke through gritted teeth. The grinning rictus worn by Santa Hat Girl faltered momentarily before she reinforced it. Mercifully, she picked up a remote control from the counter before her and pointed it into the air. The music volume dropped enough that Shepard could almost hear the throbbing in her temples.
Santa Hat Girl came around the front of the counter and, upon seeing the form of Baby Shepard in her stroller, leaned over her and proceeded to go absolutely ga-ga. "Awww! Aren't you just the ceeewwutest widdle baby! Yes you are! Yes you are!"
"Hey!" Shepard snapped, "Quit talking gibberish to my kid, she isn't stupid!" Probably got more of a brain in her head than you, sweetheart.
Santa Hat Girl snapped up to her full height and planted her fists on her hips, "Well sawwry!" she caterwauled.
Shepard sighed, "Look, I'm sorry I snapped at you." Santa Hat Girl reacquired her death's-head grin and Shepard could feel her own facial muscles ache in sympathy.
"Apology accepted! Now, what can I do for you?" Shepard began to wonder if maybe Santa Hat Girl's rapid mood fluctuations might not be caused by some kind of chemical with which the young woman had gotten high. Still, if she had to work with constant Christmas music pummelling her ears, Shepard might well have been tempted to pop a few pills and trip the light fantastic.
"I'm looking for books of classical poetry and literature," Shepard said, observing the dilated pupils and wide-eyed stare of Santa Hat Girl. Yep, she was off her face on something. Just be glad she isn't operating heavy machinery Shepard told herself.
"Oh you mean like Dick and Jane!" Santa Hat Girl said brightly and led the way towards the childrens' section before Shepard could voice an argument.
"As you can see, we have a wide selection of books suitable for children!" Santa Hat Girl enthused. Shepard resisted and urge to tap into her little-used biotics and levitate the irritating twenty-something into and through the ceiling.
"Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner," she managed to keep her voice level. Ash was sure to enjoy that. It was literature and it was classic.
"The Rhyme of the ancient what-now?" Santa Hat Girl replied with a completely straight face. Either she really was as painfully ignorant as she looked or she was really enjoying yanking her customer's chain.
Shepard gently pat the woman's forearm, as though she was hoping to soothe a skittish animal that had the potential to bite. "Why don't you just go back to the counter and I'll sort myself out?"
"OK!" Santa Hat Girl replied enthusiastically and flounced off to the front of the store, too-short skirt bouncing up high enough as she went to reveal the fact she wore no underwear. OK Alison, just breathe...in and out...think calming blue thoughts.
Eventually, Shepard did find a copy of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, paid for it and got the hell out. Behind her she could hear the cat in the meat grinder sound of Santa Hat Girl singing along to White Christmas.
Pausing in the food court, Shepard checked Ash off on the shopping list stored in her omni-tool. Next up was the snarky helmsman of the Normandy, Joker.
Earlier in the month, before the Christmas craziness had reached fever-pitch and the lunatics proceeded to take over the asylum, Shepard had ordered a coffee mug from a nearby gift store and requested the following message be printed on it: Galaxy's Greatest Pilot superimposed over the symbol of the Systems Alliance.
Before she got there however, her baby began crying and Shepard's Spectre-Sense told her it was nappy changing time. Of course, the nearest parents' room was about the equivalent of three football fields in the direction she'd just come from. By the time she'd gotten Lauren onto the change table and began changing her, the child's cries were rebounding off the gaily painted walls, seemingly amplified.
"She's got a good set of lungs on her," another woman with child commented as Shepard finished up.
"Doesn't she just?" Shepard conceded as she turned to wash her hands. Stuck to the surface of the mirror was a laminated sheet of A4 paper bearing instructions for the correct procedure for washing one's hands to prevent the spread of Gas Bag Flu. Pay particular attention to the skin between the fingers? What the Eff?
"The Health Department's kidding, right?" Shepard asked the other woman and nodded to the sign. "I mean, come on! Who doesn't know how to wash their hands?"
"I work in a clinic. Trust me, the lack of proper hygiene procedures would scare the utter crap out of a person," the other mother confided in low tones before departing with her own offspring. Shaking her head at the absurdity of the times in which she lived, Shepard collected her baby, placed her back in the stroller and departed the parents' room, heading for the gift shop and Joker's mug.
The fellow behind the counter, a middle-aged man with long grey hair pulled into a pony tail looked up as she entered and uttered a small gasp before composing himself.
"Good morning," Shepard began, noticing the way the man seemed to be studiously avoiding looking at her face and wondered why. Then she remembered the old knife-wound scar on her left cheek, a memento from her gang days on Earth. Smiling sweetly, Shepard deliberately turned the left side of her face towards the man and had to bite down on the inside of her cheeks to prevent herself laughing aloud at his obvious discomfort.
"Is...is there something I can, ah, do for you?" he managed to ask, selecting a spot over her shoulder and engaging it in a staring contest. Shepard nodded.
"I ordered a coffee mug a couple of weeks ago?" she began.
"Oh! Oh yes! I have it right here!" the shopkeeper exclaimed, clearly eager to have this hideously scarred crone out of his sainted store as quickly as possible. It wasn't as though Eden Prime lacked the proper medical facilities to correct such damage. The woman's bearing suggested, to him at least, that she wore the scar as some badge of honour. Scandalous, absolutely scandalous. And the worst part was, the woman was quite attractive, scar aside.
Quickly the man retrieved a white cardboard box and all but shoved it across the counter at Shepard. Shepard picked up the box, eased open the top and carefully removed the mug before making a show of inspecting it for flaws. Finally she nodded and put it back in the box.
As she paid for the coffee mug the man said, "I'm sorry but, I know a very good cosmetic surgeon who can...help with your...uh, facial...hmmm," the man pointed at his own face.
Shepard snorted laughter. She probably should have been offended by the man's behaviour but found the whole situation perversely amusing. "You think that's bad?" she said in a conversational tone of voice, "You should see the bullet scar in my stomach." Seeing the man's face pale, Shepard leaned in and whispered, "Do you want to see the bullet scar?" The man recoiled so fast Shepard thought he might overbalance and fall over backward. "Guess not," she shrugged and left the store. She and Lauren had a date with a fat man in a red suit.
The queue of people, mostly weary-looking young mothers grasping writhing children by the hand, undulated slowly from side to side as it moved closer to the jolly overweight man in the red suit and fake white beard. Tell me again why I'm standing in line to see Santa? Shepard asked herself as the child in front of her emitted a constant wet sucking sound as he attempted to suck his thumb off his hand. You're standing in line to see Santa because you see it as an expression of the love you have for your daughter and you've been brainwashed by society into believing that if you don't bring your child to see Santa, you're a horrible mother the voice in her mind flatly responded.
Right, thanks for clearing that up.
The woman who was mostly likely Thumb-Sucker's parental unit turned towards Shepard and her stroller, eyes going wide. "Isn't your child a bit young to be visiting Santa?" she asked in a haughty tone of voice whilst looking down her long blade-like nose at the former Captain.
Shepard merely smiled as though she weren't fighting a monumental urge to spear the stiffened fingers of her right hand into the woman's throat and watch her stagger around attempting to breathe. "Isn't your child a bit old to still be sucking his thumb?" Shepard said and the other woman's brown eyes widened so much that Shepard feared her eyeballs would fall right out of her face. "He's what, six, seven years old?" she continued, watching as the child continued to suck his thumb.
"Well, I never!" the woman snapped and yanked her son out of the queue, "Come along, Wilburforce! We're going home!"
By the time she reached the front of the line and stood before the man himself, Shepard had managed to stifle the stream of giggles that had ensued when Wilburforce and his mother departed though the occasional snort of laughter still escaped from her lips.
"Ho ho ho! And what's your name, little girl?" Santa boomed. To her credit, young Lauren didn't seem at all fazed by the appearance of the man in red. In fact she was sleeping.
Smiling impishly, Shepard sidled up to Santa and perched on his lap. The guy the shopping centre had paid to wear the suit and spend hours at a time shouting Ho Ho Ho was a professional and didn't bat an eyelid at the thirty-something woman he suddenly found in his lap. In fact, he found the situation quite...interesting.
"My name's Alison," Shepard said in a throaty voice. Oh, this was wrong on so many levels but God she was having a fun time.
"And have you been a good girl this year, Alison?" Santa asked, warming to the part.
Shepard tipped Santa a wink, "Wouldn't you like to know?" Laughing she stood up again and presented Santa with her baby.
As holographs were taking of Santa and Shepard's still-sleeping daughter, the former Spectre found that, despite the craziness she'd come to associate with the holiday season, the day hadn't turned out as horrendously bad as it might have.
And as she departed the store with her daughter, Shepard reflected that the time she had shared with her child and the new life that stretched out before them both was perhaps the greatest gift of all.
Author's Note: Certain elements from this story are inspired by real-life events - a Stripey Orange Cat has been sighted around the house numerous times and he gives our elderly cat fits. In local shopping centre public toilets, laminated posters have directions on the correct procedure to wash your hands and prevent the spread of swine flu. I could not make this stuff up. Santa Hat Girl is entirely make-believe. Unfortunately. :P
As always, a huge thank-you goes out to everybody who's reviewed these insane ramblings I call fan-fiction.
Wishing you all a merry non-religious specific holiday season and a safe 2010.