James knocked on the door before he could decide it was a bad idea. He'd only known the guy for what, six months? It seemed kinda presumptive to just barge in on him like this. Not to mention kind of a breach of guard-prisoner etiquette.
But nobody ought to be alone on Christmas Eve. That'd just be sad. Besides, he'd brought a present.
The thought reinforced his resolve, as the door slid open, revealing Commander Ajax Shepard, the most (in)famous man in the Alliance, wrapped in a bright red dressing-gown, feet tucked into matching slippers, sitting on his small sofa, watching a vid.
"You're a little absent-minded, Spirit."
"No, I'm a LARGE absent-minded spirit! Doh-ho-ho-ho!"
James blinked, slightly taken aback by the sheer domesticity of the scene, but Shepard smiled at the vid, before turning it down and looking up.
"Hey, Vega. What's on your mind?"
Well, here went nothing. "Just figured you might want some company. And I brought you this." He set the bottle down on the coffee table, along with two glasses. Port wine, the nicest he could afford on his salary. Not his usual drink, but he'd had a little before, and he remembered the stuff had tasted of Christmas. It had seemed appropriate.
"Sure," the Commander replied with a small smile, moving further along the sofa to accommodate him. "I was just watching an old film, anyway. But don't you have family?"
James shrugged,sitting down heavily. "Not really."
Shepard nodded, not asking for more. "Fair enough."
Clearly, not in the most talkative of moods. But then, James reflected, as he opened the bottle, the Commander was never in a talkative mood.
From what he'd heard of the man, he'd expected some crazy-eyed motherfucker, built like a brick shithouse. He'd expected a caged tiger of a man.
But this? Was this really the Hero of the Skyllian Blitz? The first human Spectre? The guy who'd hunted Saren clean across the galaxy? The man who'd burned the Collectors out of the sky? The man who'd destroyed the entire Bahak system? This little man, with his neatly-gelled hair and his long chin? This quiet, unassuming man, who sat like a puppet with his strings cut, that barely moved, barely talked? Barely ate? Were they sure they'd got the right Ajax Shepard?
He didn't look like a man who'd hunt you to the galactic core. He looked like a man who'd barely bother to follow you across the room. He'd seen him on the vids, sure, but the vids hadn't shown his sunken eyes, or his gaunt, hollow cheeks. The fight was gone from him, and some days it made James nervous just to be in the same room as him.
But it was Christmas Eve, and it didn't look as if Shepard was going to be getting any visitors. If he was even allowed any. So he handed him a glass, and settled back with his own, as he turned his attention to the film. A large man in a puppet suit was singing about Christmas morning. Fair enough.
"Cheers," he said, and Shepard responded in kind, taking a long sip. His green eyes widened in surprise, and he set his glass down, almost reverently.
"That's good stuff."
James grinned. "Ain't it just?" And it was, warm and toasted. Perfect complement to the snow piling outside.
The two sat in slightly more companionable silence for a while, as the film played. Suddenly, Shepard felt compelled to speak.
"I've always liked Christmas. One of my favourite memories, as a kid, is of a Christmas morning, must have been twenty-three years ago, now. It was in the orphanage. It'd snowed, but the sun was out, and we were all gathered around the tree. I got a model ship." He grinned at the memory. "An Alliance fighter, all in pieces, the sort you put together with glue and stick transfers on. God knows where it is now, but I still have a collection of ships like that. Somewhere." He trailed off a little, and James was willing to bet money he knew why. After a second, he looked up, and turned back to the film.
James felt he had to fill the gap. "You know, when I was a kid, Christmas always started around midnight. My Mom would get me up, and we'd go attend Midnight Mass. I always hated Midnight Mass. Now I kinda miss it, though."
"It's funny, the way that happens," Shepard agreed.
James glanced down, and noticed that Shepard's glass was empty. Reaching forward, he took the bottle and refilled it, topping up his own in the process.
"You know you're not supposed to call me that, Vega," Shepard said, as he always did.
"I know," James replied, with a shrug. "Anyway, you got anyone out there? 'Cause I could try and get a message out, if you wanted."
The look on Shepard's face made James flinch. Damnit, he'd been stupid. He'd just been talking, trying to shoot the shit like you normally would. He'd forgotten about-
"Thanks," Shepard said, with a small smile that didn't quite work. "I mean that sincerely. But I don't want to get anyone else in trouble on my behalf. Besides, they don't have Christmas on the Migrant Fleet."
-the quarian. Boy, had that one caused trouble. First six weeks after the tribunal, she must have sent about a hundred messages. Some of them had come damn close to getting through to him, too. Given the techs quite the runaround.
"It's alright. Thanks for coming around, James."
"Hey, don't worry about it. Merry Christmas."
He shouldn't have had that drink. One drink ended up coming in seventeen glasses, and then he ended up drinking radioactive spirits and getting poisoned and all manner of bad things happened.
He'd left the bottle. James had left the bottle.
Ajax tried not to look at it, concentrating on the credits rolling past on the vid screen. But it would be so easy, so easy to just reach out and fill his glass again, to feel that warm flush creep down his throat, to get that fire settling in his belly again. It'd be nice, for a while.
He'd tried to stop, or at least cut down, after Haestrom. It was shameful, but he didn't want her finding out about the drinking. She'd looked at him like he was invincible, and that was the best thing in his world right then, the way she'd looked at him. He didn't want to spoil that. He hadn't wanted to let her down by sinking into the bottle. Besides, Cerberus had fixed it so alcohol just tore through him, barely having time to intoxicate him before it wore off. It was hardly worth it, but he'd done it anyway, because it was the only way he'd ever seen people deal with stress.
But he'd kicked it, at least for a while. He'd stopped drinking, he'd finally found the presence of mind to ask Tali to go out with him (even if the term was a little inaccurate, given their situation. They'd only managed three 'real' dates, 'real' being defined as 'nobody was shooting at anybody for the entire evening'), and he'd even got his entire team through the Omega 4 relay and back.
And then he'd killed three hundred thousand people with the flip of a switch.
That. That had been bad. And the only thing to do, the only thing that wouldn't just make things worse, had been to turn himself in. He hadn't wanted to. Hadn't wanted to tear them apart after such a short time together. But he'd had to. And she'd understood. Of course she had. Fleet first, always.
And, of course, they didn't let him drink in here. That was just unfair. But now, now he had a bottle. Merry Christmas to him.
No. No, not now. It wouldn't be forever. They wouldn't just leave him here to rot. Eventually, they would need him again, and he'd be let out. And the first thing he'd do would be to send a message to the Migrant Fleet.
The drink would keep until then. Slowly, he put the stopper back on the bottle, and put it in the bottom of his footlocker, wrapped up in a jumper.
And he dialed up the opacity on his window, laid down in his narrow bed, and waited for the dawn.