In the months that had passed since John came into her life, Tamworth had not change one iota. Yet, it felt as if it had. It took some time before Gabby realised that the reason why it felt so was because she had changed. She had found happiness. She had found love. She had wrestled a hodgepodge family out of dust and nothing and watched it grow.
Gabby hardly expected to find it all in a man who moved across the road. A man who was tall and scarred and broken in a soul-deep way, and yet remained kind in his own unique manner.
Such is life, Gabby thought with a sleepy fondness as she shuffled to bed. Smoothing a hand up John's side, she slid in behind him, burrowing into his warmth. Forehead pressing to his spine, she settled.
The drowsy rumble echoed loudly in the quiet of the night. Gabby hummed. "Yes. One hundred percent done. Go back to sleep, handsome."
John made an agreeable noise, sinking back into the softness of their bed. Gabby did not follow. Not yet. Tired as she felt, her brain was still clickin away. Pondering over all that had yet to come, of all that might occur. Buildings had grown on the lower part of her property, shining in their fresh coats and pure purpose, and soon Arabella would be moving applicants into the dorms. Full-time staff were already getting settled, as were the horses and ponies that would be permanently stabled there.
Not without some sadness, Kirk and Rene had left for their next tour. Red Team had moseyed their way through Queensland and the Northern Territory, taking their time exploring, enjoying the sights and indulging themselves with a leisurely pace. John spoke with them regularly, often amusing himself with retelling the latest tomfoolery Alpha and Omega had stirred during their fortnightly training in Tamworth.
Last time, Mary fed Thel cookies. It was possibly the most surreal experience any one of them had had. Strange as it had become, life was good. It was long, trying, and exhausting at times, but it was good.
Audibly, John sighed. Muscles shifted under her hand as he shifted and rolled over.
"I can hear you thinking."
"Got a lot to think about." She yawned, nuzzling closer when John lifted an arm in invitation. "Mm. My human furnace."
Fingers played along the bumps of her spine. Soothing and patient. "Are you worried?"
Gabby considered the question. "I'm…not sure. Maybe." She paused. "Are you?"
John was many things. A liar was not one of them.
"Will you please try and get some sleep now?"
At the plaintive mumbling, Gabby smiled. It was soft, and kind. "Only because you asked nicely."
Gabby curled close, tucking herself into the curve of his body, and shut her eyes.
Her dreams were sweet.
"You will not be required to attend the ball, Miss Edwards."
"What?" Gabby said, while internally she blustered about in confusion. "Is this a joke?"
"I don't joke." Hood clasped his weathered hands together, and pointedly ignored Cortana's laughter. "Often, that is. I know that I asked you to publically endorse the Alliance, however information has come to light that makes it a problematic statement at this moment in time. Concerning your safety, that is."
"Nothing to do with Reynolds," Cortana added before Gabby could begin to panic. "Red flags are being noted. You are a civilian, who lives in isolation, giving them your face – a target for any angry protestor - would be too dangerous." A coy smile, gentled by the softness in her eyes. "Even though you live with one of the best personal guardians around."
Hood's brows climbed up to his hairline. Abruptly, he looked entertained. Two decades of stress and war melted from his stern features. "You would know better than anyone, Cortana."
"I do." She floated, folding her legs together delicately. "You still want to come, don't you?"
"Yes." Gabby fixed her hands together. She was not nervous, but her stomach rolled at the implication of danger. Be brave, she told herself. "Be a shame not to wear a dress I spent a week making."
"Be certain of this, Miss Edwards." Hood imposed a heavy stare upon her, weighted by all that he had seen and done. It bore little compared to John's, but she minded the gravity of it all the same. "There will be no news coverage inside the event, and no film or photography either, but I cannot guarantee complete anonymity. There is always a chance that someone could slip through."
That statement rang in her head. There is always a chance, for things to go wrong, and for things to go right.The Alliance desperately needed a showing of people who were willing to bridge gaps between humans and Sangheili at this ball. Dignitaries, representatives, and leaders from all over Earth would be in attendance. While Gabby's face was not one known by these people, her actions would be watched, judged, and considered.
Few would be willing to make the first step.
Besides, in a moment of cheek, John had dared her to dance with Thel. Never had it been in her nature to back down from a dare. A double dog dare no less.
"I've made my decision."
Once more, Hood evaluated her. Finally, he conceded with a dip of his chin.
"Captain Oston has just landed, sir."
"Pardon me, but I have another meeting to get to." Hood pulled his cap on, and she followed him outside. There was a sudden knowing, an unexpected mischief, in the steel of his expression as he said, "Enjoy New York."
A bit perplexed, Gabby mutely watched Hood depart. Suspicion wove through her thoughts, stronger when Cortana trilled a laugh from the intercom on the abandoned aides' desk stationed outside Hood's office.
"John will be here in a moment."
"What's going on?"
The silence was telling. Soft footfalls heralded John just before he rounded the corner, his whole visage brightening with a buzzing excitement. He still had their bags. Were they not staying on the base?
At his gesture, Gabby fell into step beside him.
"Have fun!" Cortana's voice echoed from behind.
"Just what is up your sleeve?"
At the dry response, Gabby cracked a laugh. Still, there was an air of anticipation about John, so she did not question him again. Outside, John led them. Off the base and into a waiting cab. The cab took them towards the city, and then into it, and then Gabby realised she was actually in New York. A tiny squeak of surprise left her, and John laughed. Peeling her wide eyes from the skyscrapers towering above, Gabby saw the sheer delight crinkling his hard features.
The cabbie parked outside of a hotel and rattled off their fare.
Gabby gave into the urge and kissed John soundly. Laughter flowed into her mouth. She drank the sounds, welcoming them, and she didn't even blush when the cabbie cleared his throat irritably. Blindly, it seemed, John passed his card over the machine.
"A hotel, not thirty feet away," the cabbie muttered, and he said it again more forcefully once the payment cleared.
They clambered out. Alight inside and out, Gabby bounced on the balls of her feet as John gathered their bags. At John's wink, Gabby made a faint, creaking noise.
"Unbelievable. You are just unreal, John." She scooped up his free hand, pressed scarred knuckles to her lips. "Love you so damn much."
"I know," he said, and god, hearing him say that was wonderful. "Tired?"
After checking in, they ordered the dinner service and went straight up to their room. The impulse was childish, but Gabby still threw herself backward into the bed, giggling as the plush covers fluffed up around her.
"Immensely." A dreamy sigh floated out of her. She felt light. "When did you organise all this?"
"A month ago." Setting their bags down, John sat down on the end of the bed. Pulling her feet into his lap, he tugged her boots and socks off. Thumbs dug into the sore muscles of her calves. She groaned, quietly, and relaxed into the covers. "You deserve a vacation. So do I."
Dinner arrived. They curled up in the tiny loveseat, only half paying attention to the movie Gabby flicked on. The luxury of a lazy night was a balm to the chaos the last week had been. Last minute preparations for the ball, travelling, wrapping up the farm for Rangi to mind for a week…it had all been insanely busy.
Finally, they could just sit still. If only for a little while. It was nice.
And the next morning they explored New York.
It was not the picturesque scene Gabby had envisioned when she was young. It was better. Culture was rich, a different story found in every street, around every new corner. Graffiti covered walls bore layers upon layers of vivid artwork, and not so artful tags. New York was a mesh of past and present. Old décor lined tastefully with more current technology. Centuries of history all in one place.
Afternoon found them hand in hand, strolling through Central Park. They ate hotdogs from a vendor, smothered in mustard and ketchup; Gabby two and John six. Polishing off the last bites of her own, Gabby whipped her phone out and snapped a picture of John with half a hotdog stuffed in his gob. He saw, because of course he did, but suffered through it.
"Sam used to talk about New York hotdogs," John said after they had tossed the rubbish. "Said he wanted to come to Earth one day and eat nothing but."
Little details about Sam and the other Spartans had been dropped of late. Small things, big things, here and there. She savoured every one.
"How old was he when he said this?"
"Twenty." A small, sad smile, barely more than a twitch in the corner of his mouth. "He was the best of us. The happiest."
"Well, they were pretty good." Her fingers gripped at her thighs, nails scraping against the denim of her jeans. "I'm sorry that he didn't get to try them."
"Me too." Bending forward, bracing elbows on knees, John let a long exhale draw all the air out of his broad chest. "My armour is being put in the UNSC museum. There will be a wing dedicated to the Spartans, and…I'd like to go, when it's open."
"Do you want me with you?"
"Yes." John worked his jaw. "Later, though, once the crowds have dwindled."
Gabby stretched out, ankle over ankle, and folded her arms together. She gave John some space, and drank in the sight of Central Park bathed in the hued of a golden afternoon. Thin beams of sunlight broke through the canopy above them, dappling what lay below with spots of brightness. John and Gabby were not the only people enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.
At first, it was just the bright pattern on the woman's shirt that drew Gabby's attention away from admiring the view. The woman laughed at whatever the child beside her said, turning in a way that revealed her face.
Oh, Gabby thought, shit.
Nails bit into John's skin. Gabby sucked in a sharp breath and he looked up. There was no danger, no screaming or shouting or panic that he could see, and John was confused. Yet her skin had taken an ashen hue, and her grip on his hand was fiercely tight.
"John…" she wheezed, and John's alarm rocketed up.
Gabby stopped. No words seemed to come to her. She stared ahead, just to the left, and John followed her line of sight and-
Ice bloomed in his gut and fire climbed up his throat. His heart gave a great and terrible wrench.
"Go. We need to go." Choking out the words, John stood. Gabby scrambled after him. "Please, Gabby, I can't-"
John turned, spinning on the spot, and nearly tripped over an old lady.
Luck, Cortana once said to him, you have a kind I've never seen before.
In that moment, as his own mother stared at him with too-wide eyes, John hated his luck.
Numbness swept over him limbs, a high keen swallowing all but the suggestion of Gabby calling his name, as the expression on his mother's face shifted from polite distance to shock.
He didn't want this.
"Mum? Is everything alright?"
"John? John, honey," Gabby crowded in front of him, forcing him to acknowledge her presence with a firm hand pressed to his jaw. He inhaled raggedly. "That's it. Stay with me, okay?"
"You called him John," his mother rasped, frail hands stretching towards him. They were caught by John's sister, who treated them with a hostile glare. She had grown so much from the girl he knew.
"I did." With care, and a subtle wariness, Gabby placed herself in front of John.
Grace's anger crumpled into despair. "Not this again, Mum. John is dead. Our John is dead."
"That thing was not my son!" His mother snapped, and it startled Grace and her son. His nephew. The boy seemed bewildered more than upset, at least. "John was healthy and happy and perfect. Whatever it was that I found in his bed was not him."
Foolish as it was, hope grew within him. Threading delicately between his ribs, taking hold of his battered heart. It was not fair, John thought. He had chosen to leave them behind, to do the right thing by the UNSC, to keep their dirty secrets of kidnapped children and stolen lives. John had chosen not to seek them out.
And yet, fate and all of her fickle tendencies had thrown them in his path anyway.
"Honey," Gabby whispered, "whatever you decide to do…I've got your back."
As what appeared to be an old, painful argument unfolded between his mother and sister, John realised that his mother had not believed Halsey's lie. Her cruel deception. There was a chance that John could get a fragment of his family back. All John had to do was meet his mother halfway.
Maybe his luck was not so terrible after all.
John swallowed. He met Gabby's compassionate stare, squeezed the hand still tangled with his own.
Softly, she smiled. "Always."
"What you buried was a clone," John said, and the sudden silence was louder than anything John had heard before. "I am John. Your John."
Anger returned to Grace like the tide of a tsunami, enormous and awe inspiring in its sheer wildness. "How dare you," she snarled, stomping forward and stabbing a finger at him. "How fucking dare you!"
"I promised to take you to the sea, Grace," he said, and the rest of her words petered into nothing. Grace choked. Warmth soared under his skin with how right this decision felt, and John smiled. "We had a bird called Cinnamon with blue wings. You liked to sing. All of you, together. I was terrible. I don't remember much, but…"
"You remember us, my boy. That is enough." Tears made steady tracks down cheeks wrinkled with laughter and grief in equal measure. His mother came closer, and Gabby shifted without a word. John bent to accommodate his mother's height. Her hands were cool and achingly familiar as they framed his jaw. "Oh, my darling boy. I never gave up. Not once."
I forgot about you, John almost confessed, I forgot about you for thirty years and I am so sorry.
Grace had clapped a hand over her mouth. She stared, and then she cried. Great, fat tears rolling endlessly down. "Impossible," she heaved. "You can't-You can't be…"
"You look just like your father." Fingers mapped his face, heedless of the many scars that mottled his skin. His mother traced the line of his jaw, the arch of his brow, the length of his nose. "My eyes, and your fathers face. Oh, how I've missed you, my son."
"Scar!" Grace blurted. "You- my brother- had a scar on his left elbow."
"He has a lotta scars, Mum," his nephew whispered, tugging on Grace's sleeve.
John was already bending his arm, twisting at the waist so that Grace could see for herself the faded, silver streak that slashed over his elbow. "Football," he said, almost giddy as the memory fuzzily played in the back of his head. "You tackled me."
"Because you pantsed me," Grace said, faintly, hand hovering over his scar. She blinked, and then she launched herself at him. Surprised, John stiffened. Nerves alight, his body struggled between the desire to accept a touch his mind told him was welcome and familiar, and to reject what his training told him was a danger. It was just a hug. A desperate embrace.
A hand pressed to the small of his back. Its shape was young in his memory, with only new feelings that were bright and loving attached.
"Breathe," Gabby soothed.
John inhaled. Exhaled. He curled an arm around Grace's shuddering shoulders, pulled her close. Grace shook. Maybe John did too.
"Come and meet your uncle, Johnny," Grace sniffled, pulling back far enough to reach for her son. He shuffled closer, curious, and took his mother's hand.
John knelt, and he smiled.
"Hello," he said, "my name is John."
Night threatened, and John parted from his family with a promise to meet again. They were reluctant, as reunited family are wont to do, but their flight home was in the early morning and they needed sleep.
"You will see them again."
"I know." John tugged the door to their room shut behind them. He pulled out his phone, dialled a number. A strange expression warped his features. "They won a competition."
"Yes, they did." Gabby could just heard the hum of Cortana's voice. "Enjoying the sights?"
"Cortana," John said, forcefully.
"You deserve them back."
Heartened by the show of faith, of affection, Gabby left them some privacy.
Still, once secreted away in the bathroom, she sent off a text to Cortana.
Cortana sent back a winky face.
It was the evening of the ball.
Gabby sat still as the stylist Arabella had hired fussed over her hair. Blonde locks were twisted and pulled into an up-do that looked elegant, and far simpler than it actually was. Her eyes were lined with kohl and smoky shadow, a hint of gold in her inner eye that matched the colour of her dress.
The stylist slid one more pin into place and declared her work done.
"Tell me, Gabby," Arabella began once the stylist had left, "is the rumour mill fluttering about that there will be dancing tonight true?"
"It is." Slipping a pair of short, black heels on, Gabby felt strange. It had been a long time since she had gotten all dolled up for a party. Not since she was young, thrumming with the need to explore all that life could offer while the war was a distant thing between men. "Anyone you're hoping to nab for a spin around the room?"
"Perhaps. Should I even ask you the same?"
"Oh, stop it." Gabby flapped a hand against the others bared shoulder. "You know John and I are partners. You visit the farm at least once a month to see the centre!"
"It is all coming along rather swimmingly, isn't it?" Satisfaction marked Arabella's words. "Two more centres will open by the years end. Finally, we can help everyone. Are you happy with it all?"
With the lease of her land and animals, Gabby finally had decent, stable income. Once she had realised this, stress that had plied her for a near decade melted away. Her animals were treated well, they were helping people, and indecently, aiding the economy of Tamworth itself.
"I am," Gabby said, and she was. "Ready?"
They left Arabella's office, their dressing room for the evening, and settled in the nondescript town-car that would ferry them to the event hall. The ride was short, and the driver went past the highly visible entrance out front. In the glimpse Gabby saw, she counted two dozen news crews and a plethora of security guards keeping them under control.
The car swerved into the underground carpark. Already, half a dozen other people dressed to the nines milled around, waiting to be admitted or for others to arrive.
Gabby only had eyes for one.
Ignoring the flutter of laughter behind her, Gabby slid from the car as fast as her heels would let her. Attuned to her as he seemed to be, John was already turning to meet her, a smile in place. It grew at the sight of her own.
"Hey," she said, a bit breathy because, wow, he cleaned up gloriously. Shoulders impossibly broad in the clean lines of his suit, he cut an impressive figure. "You look very swanky, handsome. Very Bond."
"I'm wearing a tie, not a bowtie." A glance trailed from her toes to her crown. "You are beautiful in gold."
"So are you." She playfully tugged on the silken tie laying over his breast, made of the same material of her dress. "Spartan gold, baby."
With laughter in the warm brown of his eyes, John offered his arm. She accepted, and marvelled at how happy he was. It was more than finally, fully retiring from the UNSC, more than finding the family that he had given up hope of ever seeing again, more than finding a place in the world that he could be content with. More than all of it, because for John happiness was not so easily achieved.
Finding a home may have had something to do with it though.
"You are distracted."
"Just thinking about you." Settling her free hand over the warm steel of his forearm, Gabby squeezed. "Lovely as New York has been, I'll be happy to go home."
"We'll be home tomorrow," John said, and Gabby sank against him. "You will never get over that, will you?"
"Not any time soon, at least."
John led them into the ballroom. A good hundred people mingled within. Some faces Gabby recognised, but most of them she did not. By the bar, Hood was surrounded by a group of people with similar stony bearings. Alpha and Omega were in clusters of twos and threes, spread around the room, and chattering to groups of people. It was hilariously easy to spot the Sangheili, towering over the humans in the room as they did, and Gabby passively approved of whoever Arbiter had found to tailor the suits for his people. She had designed the suits, but had not had the time to actually make them herself.
Moving deeper into the room, Gabby was acutely aware that more than a few stares lingered on them. Was it John, she wondered, or was it her? There were enough people here with the clearance to know how tangled Gabby had become in the fate of the thwarted assembly. Or, to know the face behind Spartan 117's visor. The attention was unnerving.
Snagging a flute of champagne from a passing waiter, Gabby forced herself to sip and not skull the whole lot. "Why are they staring?"
"We are a pretty pair."
She nearly snorted champagne out of her nose. It took her by surprise, such a comment, considering that she had always detected a self-consciousness within John about his war-torn appearance. How it made him appear to others. Delight had her hiding hiccups of laughter in her glass.
Pace easy, they wandered around the room. Gabby watched the people, all of them, and saw unease in some. Many here were not from the UNSC, and were unaccustomed to being in the presence of the twenty or so Sangheili in attendance. While no visible divide parted the peoples, there were those who stuck firmly with what was familiar.
Red Team arrived. As they had no compunctions about letting the world see their faces, everyone on the room knew who they were. Eyes were upon them within a heartbeat.
"Go on." Lightly, she pushed John towards his family. "Don't forget about that dance you promised me."
"Don't forget about that dare."
They parted. Gabby joined a bored looking Stevenson by a pair of Sangheili. As she shifted, the hexagonal pattern in the material of her suit caught the light, shimmering in a wave of deep blue. "Ma'am," Stevenson greeted, "may I introduce Fleetmaster R'tas and Head Engineer Jal'tiess."
"Demon's Mate," they intoned in unison.
"Good to meet you." Gabby struggled to keep a straight face at the title, and at the way R'tas warily clutched at an untouched wine glass. "Would you like me to take that?"
"Etiquette did not permit me to refuse it when offered." With what she thought was a grimace, R'tas passed the glass over. It was a deep-bodied red, fruity with a hint of spice. Indulging, Gabby let the richness linger on her tongue. "I must commend your efforts with the garments. Long has it been since I saw my kin in little other than armour. It is a good sight."
Jal'tiess rasped a commiserating noise. "Design is good. Light, durable, no movement restriction. Hard to accomplish with our physiology."
It damn well had been difficult. Making pants that worked with their leg structure had been a pain in the ass. Not that Gabby voiced this. "It was hard," she said instead, "but worth it. Stevenson?"
"Good fit." Stevenson rolled her shoulders a few times. "Nice not to be stuffed into UNSC regalia."
Which, really, was the whole point behind the dress code for the event. No one there tonight wore any uniform, no medals clipped to their breast or rank emblazoned on their shoulders, no armour coloured after a position. Such things were earned in the war they had only just crawled their way out of, with little but their skin intact.
Tonight was about the future.
A future they would have to make for themselves.
"You are staring," Thel dryly said. "As one is wont to do when their Other is in sight."
Unoffended, John let him have his laugh. Like watching Gabby astride Thunder, whip cracking under the force of her strength, John was utterly captivated. She had not the grace, or the posture, that Douglas did while they turned around the dancefloor. Yet, there was something enthralling about her movement all the same. A confidence, a gentle trust. Gabby had always been beautiful, John thought, but when she smiled his heart soared.
My star, he thought, fondly.
"I love her. I'm allowed to act like a fool."
"Fools in love," Thel mused, "that is a saying of humans, is it not?"
John hummed. Douglas twirled Gabby, causing the hem of her dress to flare. She was laughing.
"Tell me, how long before you head home?"
"Soon." Fangs clinked against the wine glass as Thel drank. "If all goes well."
"It seems to be."
"That it does." Somewhat stunned, in a subdued way, Thel cast his rusty gaze about the room. "Too long has it been since I have felt hope, my friend. It is a good feeling."
Clapping Thel on the shoulder, John left him to his thoughts. Douglas saw him coming, and twirled Gabby right into his arms with a two-fingered salute.
"Oh!" Gabby braced herself against his chest, cheeks flushed and eyes bright. "Another dance?"
"Can you manage?" She had been dancing for the past hour. After their initial dance together, Gabby had gone and made good on the bet, and it had been a peculiar sight – Gabby small and splendorous compared to the lithe bulk of Thel. Alpha and Omega had parted into human and Sangheili pairs and joined them on the dancefloor, as John had hoped. More than a few stares around the room said that they had not expected to witness such. To those that knew him well enough, Hood had appeared very smug indeed. "Your feet must hurt."
"They're playing a slow song now." With a hum, she settled in the loose embrace of his arms. "Think I can manage just one more. For you, anyway."
And so the night went.
"New York was nice," Gabby unlocked the door, kneeling when Boomer scampered up to his beloved master in welcome, "but it's good to be home."
As he strode into the home they had built for themselves, John thought of all that he had lost, and all that he had gained – family, friends, a life worth more than death.
Yes, John thought, it was good to be home.
Two years later they had a child. A daughter.
They named her Sam.
Life was good.
Readers, it feels so good to finally list this story as completed. This story, and your support, has literally changed my life. It got me through some heavy times, and now John has the ending that he deserves, Cortana gets to ignore 343's storyline and rampancy, and there is no stupid Guardian's nonsense destroying their happiness.
Thank you so much for your patience, support, and kindness. It all means the world to me. A huge thank you to my dear friend Sassy, who put up with my whining and gave me enormous amounts of feedback on the re-write.
As always, feel free to ask me questions and join me on Tumblr as birdy-in-the-blues. Drop a final comment on your way out!