Chapter 35: Flight
"Everyone's looking at you," she whispered excitedly as we moved through the crowd in the lobby, her arm hooked around mine, "and you're not even in uniform! Do you think they recognise you without it?"
Her eyes were wide and innocent when she looked up to me, and I placed a hand over hers as it clutched at my sleeve.
"Yeah, mom, considering everyone's here to see Commander Shepard I think it's a safe bet that they know who I am too."
"On the transport from Earth I heard some people talking about you, you know. They were planning on going to the Arena as well and one of them was saying it was a shame that you wouldn't be in the team today. Of course everyone's heard about Shepard, and I'm sure the reality more than lives up to expectations, but it looks like you've got yourself a few fans too." Her voice was on the sweet side of smug, like she was bragging about my grades instead of how good I was at killing people. "I know neither of you really want to be in the public eye, but still, it must be nice to know people look up to you."
"I don't know, I think the kind of fan mail Jena gets is enough to put me off ever being too famous," I remarked, thinking of the way her forehead had wrinkled in confusion and then stayed that way for a few hours as she sifted through letter after letter containing everything from a four-page sonnet about her hair to pictures of a bust of her that was sculpted entirely out of cheese. The bust was actually pretty good, considering, but I knew better than to say so.
Mom laughed, squeezing my arm affectionately, "Too late for that, I think. If you're not willing to enjoy it then I guess I'll just enjoy having a celebrity for a son – do you know how many freebees I got on the way here just because people recognised my last name? It was wonderful! I always thought I'd be so nervous going off-planet, but I had such a wonderful time meeting all those nice people that I barely noticed."
I smirked, "Lot of free drinks?"
She smiled back, her cheeks pink, "And why not? It's not often I get this kind of star treatment, and there's so much to celebrate."
I got the feeling that she'd smiled more today than she had in years. A few months ago I'd gone back to Earth for a couple of days to go with her to a memorial service for my dad and some others that had died in the same attack. Even at the service itself, it amazed me how she was moving from widow to widower, offering kind words, a shoulder to cry on, an offer of bottomless support, and taking none for herself. I had no doubt she'd been the same back in the war, desperately trying to keep up morale in a group of refugees as more and more of them were picked off. It was only when they'd said my dad's name that I felt my throat get tight, and suddenly her hand had shot out to clamp desperately around my arm as we stood there in silence and the words she'd written about him were read out to the crowd. I'd taken it between mine and held it tight, feeling her try not to shake.
Afterwards, she'd dabbed at her eyes delicately, breathed in deep, then let it out as a heavy sigh that seemed to carry with it all the grief she felt. She told me she knew it was what he would have wanted, to go out defending his home planet, buying time for others to escape. She told me they'd already all but said their goodbyes when the war had started and they'd realised this could be it, that both of them could be dead at any moment. And she told me how proud of me he'd been, how even though he hadn't always shown it he'd loved us more than anything. We'd never been close, but I'd still known my dad well enough to know he'd hate the thought of anyone going through hell just because he wasn't around anymore. Mom knew that. She'd kept up a brave face since he'd died, and had guided enough broken people through the stages of grief to be able to deal with her own remarkably well. After he was put to rest, almost a year after he'd actually died, she'd told me with red-rimmed eyes that for the first time since he'd been taken, she felt okay about it all. We still had a family, however small. We still had a wide open future. And she was been determined to make the most of it.
Her first trip off-world was to the Citadel, the first of many visits she had planned now that she had the time and the resources to do it all. I was just glad I could do something nice for her after all she'd done helping me to recover.
We reached the VIP area, and before mom could even say her name an immaculately-dressed asari beamed brightly, greeted us, and led us to our seats.
Mom flashed me another wide smile, her eyes darting about the place to take it all in.
"This is so fancy," she said in what she probably thought was a quiet voice as we took our places. It was pretty fancy – best seats in the house, a private booth, even more free drinks, and a view that took in the entire arena. There were even screens in front for instant replays and close-ups. I didn't tell her that I'd tried to pay for it but the Armax Arsenal Arena had flat-out refused when I'd told them who I was.
"It's your first time off-world," I reminded her, "Might as well make it something to remember."
"I don't think I'll ever forget this," she beamed, "thanks again for having me to visit – I didn't want to impose, it's just I know how busy you are and how difficult it can be for you to get time to come to Earth…and I know it's even harder for Shepard."
"You can call her Jena, you know," I said with a smirk, "no one else does, really. I think she'd like it." I knew she'd like it, though she'd probably still feel a little awkward, same as she did whenever she had to interact with civilians on a personal level. She told me she liked my mom, though, and I hoped in time she'd be able to relax around her. At least now, unlike the first time they'd met, I'd actually be awake to smooth things over.
"Well, then is Jena still meeting us afterwards?" she asked, looking at me as though I were still a teenager and she was teasing me about a girl she thought I liked. I tried not to smile too wide.
"Yeah, there's a place nearby on the Strip where we can get dinner, she's just got to do a few photo ops for the Arena first."
When she'd seen the pay packet for today's appearance, Jena had nearly sat down in shock. She had to wear Armax Arsenal armour and sign a release for all the images taken of her today, but otherwise all she had to do was show up, do what she did best, and get paid more than most people made in a year. There were even more camera droids around the place than usual, probably because the footage shot today would double as a commercial that would run around the galaxy.
Even with the hundreds of thousands of credits we'd both donated to the recovery effort and to various memorial foundations set up after the war, together we almost had more money than we knew what to do with.
The least I could do was give my mom a good time.
She'd stayed in the hospital while I was there, even after Jena had left. She'd asked me if I'd miss Shepard, who 'clearly cares about you a great deal'. Still on painkillers, still fuzzy, I'd let clumsy words slip out that confirmed all of her suspicions that I was head over heels for this woman she'd met by my bedside. She'd raised an eyebrow and looked at me as though I was telling her the sky was blue. Of course she'd known straight away. Jena might have been emotionally reserved, but she wasn't exactly subtle either, and mom could read people like no one else. Even if Jena hadn't given it away, I'd probably made it obvious even before I could talk properly again. Yeah, mom saw everything, but most importantly she saw the good in a woman with so many rough edges I doubted they'd ever be smoothed out. I didn't care how rough she was, though – she was perfect to me, and that was enough.
'She's a nice girl', mom had said simply, sincerely. I doubted that anyone, anywhere had ever said those words about Jena, but from my mom they seemed to fit. When she'd heard about Jena's exhibition match in the Arena here on the Citadel, she'd sent me a message telling me how exciting it all was, and that was when I'd invited her to visit. We had the room, we had more than enough money, and with mom still volunteering in rehab centres back on Earth, there was no telling when she'd next let herself have a holiday without some kind of push.
It seemed weird inviting my mom to watch my girlfriend kill a load of virtual enemies, but she was thrilled to be there. Hell, the way she was talking it was like Jena was part of the family. I guess she was, in a way.
"I hope they're not working her too hard," mom said, sipping on the long, clear drink the waitress had handed her, stuffed with fresh mint, "Seems to me she could do with a little time off – I know she's a lot more resilient than most people but everyone needs a holiday sometimes."
I smirked, "This is a holiday for her. At least this way she gets to do what she does best without really putting herself in harm's way."
"It is all fake, right?" she asked suddenly, a little alarmed, "They're not live rounds or anything?"
"Nah, it's all a simulation. The bullets still pack a punch and her armour's rigged to give a small electric shock to simulate impact, but she won't be in any real danger." I paused. "Not unless she gets up close to any of the explosions, at least."
"And is that likely to happen?"
I considered it. Jena was enough of a show-off without an audience. 'Yes' was the answer to that question.
"She's killed Reapers, mom," I said instead, "She'll be fine."
The first few warm-up matches with soldiers and professional competitors alike were pretty good, considering. I spent most of the time explaining the rules and pointing out a few of the more obvious strategic moves as my mom leaned on her armrest and stared intently at the screen in front, combat statistics scrolling across the bottom.
I probably could have joined in and taken part in one of the matches, but…I didn't want to push things too hard. In the moment when I'd watched Shepard fall from the Normandy, I'd practically blacked out with terrified adrenaline only to discover that my biotics hadn't disappeared just because my amp had been removed, they were just buried a little deeper. The control and raw power I'd once had wasn't there, only asari had lives that were long enough for them to master biotics unassisted, but I was learning, little by little, to reach deep enough to find them, even without Jena's life on the line to give me an incentive.
With heavy concentration, I was working on levitating heavier and more complex objects, moving them around, the kinds of things that had been second nature to me with my implant funnelling all that power. Humans weren't supposed to be able to do what I was learning to do. I'd been offered surgery, a new experimental procedure to replace the implant that had almost killed me many times over, but I'd refused. It wasn't just because for the first time in my adult life I was able to go for more than a month without a crippling migraine, but also because this, right here, was uncharted territory. With the galaxy free from the threat of the Reapers, it felt like the right time to try new things and push new boundaries.
These days, it felt like anything was possible. Like we were on top of the world.
Maybe next time I'd join her in the Arena. It'd feel good to fight next to her again without our lives on the line.
The announcer was building up the anticipation expertly, teasing the crowd because he knew exactly what they'd come here to see. When he asked 'are you ready?' the cheer shook the stadium. The music started to thump below our feet, getting louder and faster, and when the words 'Team Normandy' left the speakers, the crowd rose to their feet in a ripple of action to applaud. Sparks flew from canons to welcome the first two team members as they swaggered out of the huge doors – Jack and James, the former wearing pieces of actual armour for once, and the latter carrying a weapon that would take two regular men to lift. Their faces shot onto the big screens, their names, titles, ranks and medals thudding in below the headshots. This entire set up was ridiculous, totally overblown, but I found myself grinning anyway. My mom was leaning forward with excitement, feeding off the energy from the crowd.
Jack and James turned to each other, bumped their fists together, and moved to opposite sides of the starting platform. Jena had told me they'd been in contact since they'd met at her party, and hinted that there might be something more than just competitiveness to their relationship. It made a strange kind of sense. An ego as big as Vega's needed an even bigger one to keep it in check, and Jack's was the biggest there was.
The music intensified, the announcer called out the name everyone was waiting to hear, and when she stepped out, her face flashing up on the big screen, she was Commander Shepard through and through, the same woman that had sauntered aboard the Normandy so many years ago, head held high, that smirk on her lips, filled to the brim with confidence and self-satisfaction. I hadn't thought it'd be possible for the cheers from the crowd to get louder, but suddenly she threw her arms in the air, demanding more, and the stadium exploded with roars and applause. The crowd was mostly human, but there were enough aliens around to make it clear that the appeal of the galaxy's greatest hero spanned all races. From her fanmail, that much was obvious. This was her first official public appearance in a long time, now, and this time there were no real stakes, no lives at risk, just a prize pot that was hers for the taking. I knew Team Normandy could beat the top score, hell, they'd break it in two, and I couldn't wait to see her work again. I leaned forward to get a better view, and my mom's eyes didn't move from the centre of the stadium, even as she leaned over to whisper that all this was 'so exciting'.
The competitors took their places as the match details were announced, the scenery started moving, obstacles forming, the virtual enemies flickering into life, painted with Cerberus colours. These days, people hated them even more than the Reapers. Monsters were one thing – they just wanted to destroy, their motivations were beyond us, but Cerberus was something else. They'd turned against their own kind, fought against the crew of the Normandy and sacrificed entire worlds for their ridiculous ideals. Monsters were one thing, traitors were another. No wonder the crowd were so enthusiastic to see Commander Shepard kick their asses one more time.
Numbers counted down with a flash of lights, and then all at once the match begun. The trio broke apart with a flurry of action, their movements carefully coordinated. Jena was sprinting around the side of the arena, the camera drones racing to catch her. She ran up an outcrop of rock, heaved her body forward, and unsheathed her omniblade to rip through the first two enemies in her path. The action replay came on the big screen immediately in super slow motion, showing the gritting together of her teeth, the murder in her eyes, the programmed recoiling of the enemies in the instant before she obliterated them where they stood.
She drew her pistol next and held it steady in both hands as she sniped at their scouts from across the battlefield, stepping quickly to move back to the middle. On the other side of the arena there was an explosion that shook the ground, and the replay showed James booting back a Cerberus Guardian into a group of several others before hurling a grenade and blowing it in midair with a shot from his monstrous gun.
A huge biotic shockwave rippled over the middle of the battlefield, knocking back their ranks like dominos. The atlas that had appeared from the ground turned to brace itself against the impact. At that moment there was a vicious roar, and in a move I knew all too well, Jena leapt high in the air, Jack caught her with stasis and hurled the Commander's body through the hole she'd created in their defences. The atlas recovered and righted itself, but it was soon bumped back as Jena's boots rammed it in the optics. Its arms came up to throw her off, but she was already slicing through the cables at the back with her omniblade. As sparks flew, she jumped to the ground, retrieved the shotgun strapped to her lower back, and the camera drone circled the scene at exactly the right moment to catch her blowing the atlas away. The crowd were ecstatic.
They were showing off, all three of them, but they were damn good at it. The audience were hanging on their every move, the cameras picking up every brilliant twist in their strategies as they came together and broke apart. The points counter above the main screen hadn't stopped rolling into higher and higher numbers since they'd started. They put on a spectacular show, the stakes building as more and more enemies flooded the arena. My eyes followed her movements, predicting her strategies, and I found my fingers twitching, wishing I was down there with her so we could fight side by side again.
The third and final round began with action so intense it was almost impossible to follow. Cerberus agents swarmed over the scenery, carefully programmed to divide and conquer the team. For a moment it seemed to be working. Jack was stuck on the defence, James had disappeared, and Jena was up on the big screen, her shields shattered, pinned down by heavy fire as the enemy drew closer to where she was crouched. If she was hit a few more times, she'd be out – game over.
Mom gripped my arm, leaning closer with fear in her voice, "Is she—"
Her voice trailed off as Jena turned to the camera, her lips turned up into a dangerous smirk, and the crowd almost hushed as she winked. I grinned. So cocky.
A grenade arced through the air and blew back the enemies that approached, James appearing seconds later to force the scattering troops down a main path with two exists. A biotic barrier cut off one route, and the camera showed Jack with one arm outstretched to hold it steady as she shot incoming Cerberus troops with the other. Jena sprang up and sprinted to the bottleneck, her shields reigniting in the instant before she appeared before the wave of enemies, her pistol drawn, aim flawless as she sniped them one after another. The word 'headshot' echoed around the arena again and again like an arcade game. The points counter was now just a blur.
Team Normandy broke apart one last time, Jena firing away at two heavily armoured mechs that bore down upon her. She ran down a narrow alley where they couldn't follow, and the two of them circled around instead. For a second it looked as though she'd get caught in the middle as the mechs on each side of her turned to fire, but James and Jack reappeared at exactly the right moment. From one side there came a biotic shockwave, from another a rocket blast from Vega's gun, and as Jena threw herself out of the way from where the machines were crushed together, she twisted her body around to hurl a grenade between them.
They exploded with what looked like fireworks, and the arena erupted with riotous cheers and flying sparks and the deafening ringing of the final bell. Several seconds passed before the point counter managed to catch up with itself and declare that they'd smashed the arena record.
My mom leapt to her feet to clap and I joined her, wide smiles on our faces. Team Normandy waved at the crowd, basking in the admiration sent their way. My eyes fell on Jena as she turned to all areas of the circular arena with her hand raised in a silent thanks. And then she looked up, scanning the VIP boxes, and when she saw me her smirk widened into a grin. The team came together in the centre of the arena for one last victorious post together before they strode back through the main doors, heads held high.
The cheers went on for minutes longer, even as the announcer mentioned the Arena's sponsors and urged attendees to visit the stalls in the lobby now that the match had ended. My mom sat down again, her eyes wide with wonder.
"That was amazing!" she gasped, "I could hardly follow it, she was just so fast, so determined! You'd think she'd been born with a gun in her hand or something." She laughed breathlessly. I didn't want to tell her how accurate her joke really was. Instead I sat back with her, picking up the beer I'd forgotten all about as soon as the final match had started.
"She's always been the best," I replied, "Still is. No one's doubting that after today, at least."
"After that demonstration I can certainly see why. I mean I knew she had to be pretty good, but I suppose you don't know what that really means until you see it right in front of you." She paused and stirred her long drink thoughtfully, her expression suddenly coy, "I did notice her looking for you at the end, there. She seemed happy to see you."
I said nothing, and just tried to control the satisfied smile spreading over my lips by drinking my beer as a distraction and staring straight ahead. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mom grin, the thin wrinkles around her dark eyes creasing up with humour.
"So," she started innocently, "how long are you going to make me wait for grandchildren, hmm?"
I clamped my hand over my mouth to stop the beer from flying out.
After my six-month imprisonment barely two miles from where I stood, I thought that I'd have been bored by looking out on Vancouver by now, but the view from the hotel's penthouse was spectacular. It was almost a year and a half after the war had ended, and the time had been used well. Beautiful towers and apartment blocks stretched into the sky, all traces of the Reapers' destruction wiped clean. In the centre of the city they'd built a huge arch as a monument to mark the site where the first Reaper had landed, but instead of creating something that glorified our enemy, it was dedicated to all those that had fought and died to protect the planet. From a distance the arch looked almost old-fashioned, but if you passed beneath it you'd look up to see names and pictures streaming across the stone, the high-tech display showcasing the billions of sacrifices that had been made to buy the Normandy time. You could stare up at it all day and not see the same person twice. There were so many to remember. Around the arch there was rarely a day where flowers and tributes didn't spill over onto the roads.
Part of why I'd looked forward to coming back here was so I could see the arch in person. I'd gone yesterday with Kaidan to leave a small token in memory of his father, and even though it had been pouring with rain that hadn't stopped entire crowds of onlookers forming around us, many of them having lost sons, daughters, parents, friends, all of them thanking us from the bottom of their hearts for fighting so their sacrifices hadn't been in vain. It had been almost overwhelming. We'd retreated back to our hotel room afterwards and watched the rain pound down outside, painting the sky black.
Today was the first sunny afternoon in a long, long time. It was a good thing, too. March in Vancouver was a dangerous time to plan a wedding, but even though it was still bitingly cold, the sky was bright and the air was clear.
I fluffed up the collar of the beautiful coat I wore and pulled it closer around my body. So high up and out in the open air of the rooftop, the wind cut right through my dress. It was exquisitely made – and expensive too – but not very warm or practical. It was the kind of thing I'd heard referred to as a 'gown' more often than not. I still felt a little like an imposter, but it was the first time in a while that I'd had an excuse to dress up, and I was determined to enjoy it, especially now that I'd accepted the fact that the 'sushi incident' as we were calling it was the exception rather than the norm, and not all my clothes needed a built-in shield generator. Besides, even if someone dared to attack such a well-secured event, there'd be no shortage of soldiers in full formal regalia to defend it. I'd done enough defending in my life, and for today I was going to enjoy just looking pretty.
I heard an appreciative whistle from behind me and turned back to see Kaidan leaning on the doorframe, eyes travelling down my form and back up again.
"You like it?" I asked, already knowing the answer as I opened my coat to show off the dress that hugged my figure – it was long and sleek and a deep, dark indigo colour that matched the pendant hanging from my neck. I even wore real shoes this time.
"It's a…good dress," he replied, apparently unable to think of anything more descriptive. I caught my reflection in the glass door behind him as he closed it to move over to me. My hair was long enough to be pinned back, and dangling earrings framed my expertly made-up face. A few years ago I wouldn't have recognised myself, but maybe that was just the smile tugging at my lips.
"Not looking too bad yourself, Major," I said, enjoying the sight of him in his full dress uniform, medals clamouring for pride of place on his breast.
I didn't get a medal in the end for my sacrifices. No. The Alliance brass had decided that a simple medal wasn't enough, so instead they'd named an entirely new medal after me and asked me to pick the first few people to receive it, those that had displayed 'outstanding dedication' and had gone 'above and beyond the call of duty', proving themselves 'protectors of Earth and true heroes of the Alliance'. It hadn't taken me long to submit a list of names. There'd been a small televised ceremony a year after the war had officially ended where I'd dusted off my dress uniform and found myself standing on a platform presenting the new most-prestigious-medal-ever to a long line of friends and allies. Kaidan had been last. I'd struggled with not smiling like an idiot when he shook my hand formally, a twinkle in his eye.
Now he was back in uniform again, and what a sight it was. The perfect picture of the hometown hero. At my words he brought a hand up to his hair and smoothed it back. Since his amp had been removed, the constant build-up of static electricity was no longer an issue, and as a result his hair had lost some of its height. I liked it better these days – at least now when I messed it up, it stayed that way.
"Is the cab here?" I asked, suddenly realising that he might have come back to our room for some reason other than seeing the dress I'd spoken about earlier.
"Not just yet, but soon," he came over to take my hands in his, thumbs brushing over my scarred knuckles, "the ceremony's at one, so we've got time."
I wrinkled my nose, "Anderson always was a stickler for punctuality, and I'm pretty sure Sanders is the same. I just don't want to be late, not today."
He'd probably mellowed out after the war, I figured. He'd still refused to retire, but he'd come off active duty and had stood in as the de facto prime minister of Earth for a month while a new government was being established. When Kahlee Sanders had found her way back to Earth they'd become an item almost immediately. Surviving a war put things into harsh perspective, and he wasn't the only one who'd found himself wanting to hold on to all the good things he had left. When he'd called to tell me that they were getting married, he'd seemed so happy, so utterly content with the world. In a moment of brutal honesty – probably because he'd just got engaged – he'd told me that, like me, he'd never thought we'd survive the war. He'd always hoped that his actions on Earth would mean that I'd make it through, but never in his wildest dreams did he ever think he'd see me or Kahlee ever again, let alone a world at peace.
We'd shared that heavy burden, him on Earth and me on the Normandy – that of keeping it together, of pretending to be confident when in reality we knew exactly how frightened we should have been. When he'd called to tell me the happy news, he'd looked so young that it was like the last ten years had never happened. She was good for him. He'd told me that even though so many others had thanked me already, including him, he had to say it one more time, because day by day he was realising just how much he had to be thankful for. And then he'd said he was glad I was still here to share it with him. We'd earned a rest.
I'd choked up then, only managed a strangled 'yes sir' in response, but I was sure he understood. I was happy for him, happy beyond measure. If anyone in this world deserved happiness after so many sacrifices, it was my old CO.
Kaidan smirked at me, looking suddenly boyish even with the silver in his hair. I smiled back, thinking of how he and I might never have met if it weren't for Anderson. He'd be glad to see us together, even if we were still keeping it as close to a secret as we could. Most of all I was sure he'd be glad to see me happy. I deserved that after everything I'd done.
The first time I'd kissed the man in front of me, even after the hundredth time, I never thought we'd last. I thought he'd be another flash in the pan, a distraction at best, but I'd been so, so wrong. And now here I was – thirty-three, a decorated soldier, a galactic hero, madly in love, and…
Well. That last part was my little secret, I thought as I pulled him in for one last proper kiss before we had to go and be around other people. For once, it was a secret I could enjoy keeping. At least for now.
I'd probably tell him later at the drinks reception when he asked why I wasn't drinking.
The wedding itself was wonderful. It was a relatively small affair, but packed with familiar faces and several high level political and military figures. I was glad I'd actually spent money on looking presentable. At the reception Kaidan and I barely had a moment together – there'd been too many people to talk to, too much do to, and the only time we had actually been with each other was when he'd taken my hand formally and asked me to dance, like he was anyone else, like I was anyone else. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but as he'd positioned my arms, smiled at me, and we started moving with the others that twirled around us, oblivious, I'd felt like a goddamn princess.
Sanders and Anderson had moved past us, a laugh bursting out from her lips as she stared up at him, her long, ivory dress swishing around her feet as they stepped lightly in time to the quartet that played in the background. I'd stepped on Kaidan's feet more than once and he pretended not to notice. I loved him for it. Someone took our picture and I didn't even care. Let them talk. Let them tell everyone. I wanted to kiss him, to plunge my hands into his hair, ruin the neat style he'd crafted this morning, claim as mine in front of all these people. If I'd been drinking, maybe I would have done just that. I blamed the hormones.
We'd left on a high. I'd never seen Anderson so happy as I told him goodbye, and without warning he'd pulled me into a hug, telling me he was so, so proud of me, and my eyes had stung even as I'd pulled my coat tight around my body and got into the cab outside, Kaidan already in the back seat. The barrier between us and the driver was up, the windows tinted, and it was the most privacy we'd had since we'd left the hotel that morning. The lights of Vancouver flickered over our faces as we sped through the city. Kaidan pulled me close, and I closed my eyes with pleasure when he leaned down to press a kiss to my jawline, my neck, running his lips over my throat, questing hands finding their way inside my coat to wrap around my waist.
His voice slurred a little from the many drinks he'd had when he murmured against my skin that he loved the way I smelled more than anything in the world. I smiled and parted my lips to tell him something about how I hoped he loved the rest of me too, or that my perfume must have worn off hours ago, or how he should stop kissing my neck because otherwise we wouldn't make it out of the cab. But I didn't say any of those things. Instead, I waited until he lifted his head to look at me, oblivious, and announced that I was pregnant.
As far as I could tell, it was from that time three months ago when I'd come back to the Citadel after a six week round trip to the Outer Rim via Omega, and we'd finally got to try out our hot tub. And then the guest bedroom. And then the couch again. At first I'd assumed all the symptoms were just my cybernetic body malfunctioning, succumbing at last to some horrible disease. The thought that something just had to go wrong was never far from my mind, and what with the unfamiliar sickness and irritability and tenderness I'd spent a few weeks being deathly paranoid that this was it, this was the catch to my happy ending. But then I'd finally got myself checked out, and the nurse had glanced at my record and told me that it was the first time I'd been without a ship doctor for long enough to let my injections lapse, and suddenly it had all made sense.
It had literally never occurred to me that my body could sustain life after everything it had been through. Of course my first instinct was to give in to the fear that gripped around my stomach with a crippling wave of nausea and just say no, to get rid of it, forget it ever happened, forget all the new possibilities it opened up. But then the thought came to me, bright and liberating, that I didn't have to. I left the clinic, sat down in the Presidium, stared intently at the swirling water in the lake, and came to a decision. It would be like an act of defiance. Like I was rejecting all the times I'd been told I was good for nothing but killing. I'd be making myself again, and this time it would be my choice. My life.
I'd never let myself think about it before, and now, against all odds, I actually wanted it. I didn't know why, I couldn't explain it, I just did. Maybe that was the point.
Miranda had been the first and only person I'd told until now. Once I'd decided to see it through, I'd been suddenly terrified that I wouldn't be able to, that my body would betray me somehow just as I was getting used to the idea. She'd told me that the meddling with her DNA had rendered her infertile, something I'd already found out by accident while rifling through the Shadow Broker's files, and that she'd been careful to make sure the same thing hadn't happened to me when Cerberus had reconstructed my body. She'd mentioned that others had been puzzled as to why she'd even included it in the Lazarus brief. It was then I truly realised that despite my fury at being treated like an experiment, Miranda had still always seen me as a person. I'd told her I was going through with it, and saying it out loud for the first time was the strangest thing. She smiled warmly in response and wished me luck. The more I said it, the more certain I was of my decision.
Kaidan wouldn't ask it of me. I doubted he'd even bring the subject up unless I did, because he knew enough about my childhood and my experiences of 'family' to know I had a list of issues a mile long. But this time I wouldn't let them hold me back. Not from this.
I couldn't believe how okay I was about all of it. And then I said the words out loud to the one person who definitely needed to hear them, and I realised with a sudden stab of terror that I had no idea what he'd think about it. I'd never even considered it, I'd just…assumed that I'd be the only one with reservations, and that if I could just get over them then suddenly everything would be fine. He'd never mentioned children, or us becoming anything as permanent as a family. Silence hung in the air of the cab, and I watched as his eyes unfocused, his brows lowered in confusion, naked emotions moving across his face that the drinks he'd had wouldn't let him hide. The lights of Vancouver flickered past, falling over us like flashes from a strobe light.
He asked me if I was sure. I told him yes, uncertainty clawing at my stomach, now tight with fear. He asked me how far along I was. I told him the answer, and added that I'd been carrying this secret around for almost a week. Why hadn't I just told him straight away? Why hadn't I asked him in theory first? Why had I been dumb enough to assume—
He asked me how I felt about it, his expression concerned, almost troubled.
I didn't know how I felt about it now. I tried to calm the fluttering of my heart and instead pictured the man in front of me holding a child that looked just like him, a child that could grow up and never have to experience the horrors that we had. We had so much love left to give. I imagined the two of us becoming three, and I didn't say anything, I just let my mouth curve up into a small, hopeful smile.
He didn't say anything either. Instead he plunged his hand into the complicated bundle of hair at the nape of my neck and pulled me close for a long, urgent kiss. It felt like the first time all over again. I arched closer, wrapping my arms around him like I'd fall if I didn't hold on tight. In between kisses I could feel the smiles tugging at his lips.
The light in the cab came on, harsh and unexpected. We were back. The hardest part was keeping our distance until we got to the elevator inside the hotel.
Back in our room I couldn't stop a giggle from bursting out as he took me in his arms, lifting me up, cradling me against him. The sky was clear and the lights from passing planes and shuttles fell through the full-length windows and onto the huge bed that was ours for the night. His hands slipped under my clothes and ran over my body like it was a work of art, lips trailing after. I found myself wanting to laugh and laugh and laugh, so giddy with all that had happened today. Every time I opened my eyes, the thoughts crashed into me again – I was in love, I was happy, the future was the brightest it had ever been, I was in love.
I reached behind me to hold his head down against my neck as he kissed along the vein, his chest against my back as I arched into him, hands holding my body close to his, one firm on my breast and the other slipping between my legs already spread wide. The breath was knocked from my lungs every time he moved in me, lips dragging over my neck in electric pulses of pleasure, whispering words softly into my ear. He played me like an instrument. When at last I let myself go, I threw my head back and he held me to him even tighter.
We lay there tangled up in expensive, exquisite sheets, sweat cooling on our bodies as we kissed, slowly and indulgently. His fingers trailed idly over my belly, eyes full of wonder. I wasn't showing yet, my abs were still firm and strong, and it struck me that maybe that was part of the reason I was still so relaxed about it all. My fitness regime would have to change dramatically, that much was for sure. Still, the feel of his hand firm and warm on my skin chased away any nerves I felt, especially when he used the word 'our', and the bundle of cells growing inside me suddenly became something real. We could do anything as long as we were together. Anything. Even this.
He told me I'd been right. He hadn't wanted to mention it, not unless I brought it up, because he knew that our upbringings had been very, very different. He told me – a little guiltily – that when I'd said those words he'd been preparing himself for anything, a freak-out, a long and intense discussion about my past and the future and what it all meant. We'd never spoken about it as a possibility, just like we'd never really spoken about the future, probably because we were used to all our plans going up in smoke as soon as they were made. He had no idea how I'd feel about it. And when he'd realised I was okay – more than that, I was actually excited – he'd been speechless.
He said he'd never thought it would happen. And he'd been okay with that. But now that it was happening? He was like a kid at Christmas.
Together, we spoke until the sun's first rays started to brighten the sky outside. We made plans and promises. We decided things would have to change, we'd have to move. The apartment we shared on the Citadel was lovely, yes, but it wasn't the right place for a kid. Even I knew that. We spoke about all the things we wanted. We threw around names, but didn't come close to a decision. He thought of all the people he had to tell. I felt a secret thrilled at how much it would shock others. We realised we'd probably have to go public sooner or later, confirm the rumours that would definitely be circulating after we'd been seen together tonight.
It would be an adventure, that was for sure. We were good at those. We were good at shore leave, too. We were good for each other.
His skin was warm and soft. We slid over the sheets, wrapped up in each other. Kaidan's smile was like the first breath of planetside air. He was a happy drunk. And me? I was just…drunk on happiness.
"So…you're staying?" he asks me, leaning forward onto the bar and looking at me levelly. I roll the shot of whiskey between my fingers, pursing my lips as though in thought. He already knows my answer. So do I. The discussion before was meaningless – he could have just asked me directly, and I would have given the same response as I am about to now.
I bring the shot to my lips, knock it back, and it clacks back down on the bar. I shrug, as though what I'm about to say is no big deal.
"Sure. I've got things pretty good here. Don't know what I'd do if I left, anyway."
Anderson smiles, and there is pride in his eyes that makes me feel warm, and in the past few years I have learned to take this rush of positivity as a good thing, a reward, not something that makes me weak. He gestures to the asari behind the bar and she fills up two more shots obediently. It's cheap swill, but then this is a cheap bar. It isn't even shore leave. I'm only in here having a drink because as of seven minutes ago it's my twenty-eighth birthday.
It's been ten years exactly since I pressed my palm to the scanner and signed my life away to the Alliance. Ten long years in which I changed more than I ever thought possible. Those years were over, and now I was free, but in that time I've come to like this captivity. It feels more like freedom than the life I had before. I'm starting to feel good about myself, really good, and for the first time in my life I'm not scared of letting that happen. I deserve it.
"I'm glad, Shepard," he says after a while.
"Don't be, I'm just in it for the free guns and shiny medals," I try to smirk to show it's nothing personal, that I don't really care, but the smirk is turning into an actual smile and I don't come across as insincere as I want to. Anderson would probably see past it anyway. He has never fallen for my bullshit.
"Even so, I'm glad you're sticking around. The Alliance needs soldiers like you."
I turn, leaning back on the bar casually and gesturing to all that I am, "The Alliance has a soldier like me."
"And a good thing, too," he replies, suddenly looking serious, "there's an opportunity coming up, a joint project with the turians, and your N7 status could get you a long way if you—"
I hold a hand up to cut him off. To anyone else it would look beyond rude, but we understand each other. And I am smiling, a genuine smile for once. I imagine it makes me look affectionate rather than just plain offensive.
"Fine," I say, reaching back to snatch up the drink that has appeared on the bar behind me, "put me forward, tell me what to do, whatever, just…just don't talk about it tonight. Let me celebrate getting this far without being thrown back in a cell for good."
He nods thoughtfully, "Fair enough."
Bleach blonde hair falls in front of my eyes, and I shake my head to move it back. It's getting too long, I think. I'll cut it off tomorrow. My fingers reach up to tuck it behind my ears. Maybe I wouldn't cut all of it off. Maybe just the sides. It would be like a saw blade arcing over my head. If I was going to be the best N7 there was, I might as well be the most recognisable too.
Luca mentioned two months ago that he liked my hair blonde, and the look I gave him was poisonous. I told him if a time ever came that I gave a shit about his opinion on my hair, I'd damn well ask. Minutes later I pushed him into an abandoned cabin, suddenly aggressive, and we fucked against the slim bunk bed. That was the last time I saw or spoke to him. I'm good at sending mixed messages. I think if I keep him confused enough he'll stay at arm's length and just do what I want and never question me about it. That's the dream. I hate it when they try to understand me. Luckily he's about as deep as a puddle and takes me at face value. I'm glad he's not around tonight. I'm feeling too introspective to deal with him.
I meant to drink alone, but Anderson found me at the bar and reminded me of something that had been on my mind for a while – the end of my conscription. He wanted to know what it would take to get me to stay, but I told him there was no need. I wanted to stay. I found when I said it out loud that it was actually true. I want to stay. I want to keep going. I wouldn't know how to do anything else.
"You know, it's funny," he starts, looking down at his drink thoughtfully. I raise my eyebrows, waiting for him to elaborate. "I was told by four different people to declare you unsuitable and kick you out of the programme and back into prison. And that was only in the first year."
I smirk. It doesn't sound funny, but seeing as I'm still here now, I see the bright side. I was a fucking brat when I first came under his command. I was so determined to make their lives a living hell, to coast by on my skills and never really fall in line. I was twenty-one, and I respected no one, not even myself. The first time I tried to show off, make this new Commander of mine see just how ferocious I was, he'd put me on the ground and snarled into my ear that I wasn't as good as I thought I was. It still took years for me to calm down, but eventually I learned that I care more about earning his respect than I do about proving some dumb fucking point to a universe that was barely listening.
"Why didn't you?" I ask, genuinely curious. "I would have kicked me out. Actually scratch that, I'd have shot me first and claimed it was an accident."
He shrugs, a faraway look coming to his eyes, "I had a feeling about you. I saw potential. I remember being told that I didn't have to put up with you if I didn't want to, and I said…I told him, 'One day you'll see. This girl will surprise us all. She'll do things we can't even imagine. One day, she'll prove everyone wrong.'"
"Someday, kid, you could save the world," I quote the words I remember him saying to me once. I try to sound sarcastic, almost mocking, but the truth is his words branded themselves into my mind, and for weeks after I wondered what he meant by them. I realised eventually that it was his way of telling me how much faith he had in me, against all odds. He said it in anger – which I realised later was closer to disappointment – because I refused to stop acting like a sullen teenager. He yelled at me that I wasn't even trying, that I was a disgrace to the Alliance and more importantly to myself. I had too much potential to waste in simple spite. He's been defending me all this time, I realise. I owe him so much more than I thought.
He chuckles to himself, the tone of my voice making his words sound too sincere, too meaningful, and now that I am an actual adult who put to rest the impulse to destroy myself and everything around me, such emotional honesty seems out of place. He is still my CO, but we are on even footing, he and I. The respect we have for each other is deep and mutual.
"I meant it, you know," he looks back down at his drink, "I had high hopes for you – still do."
"I've already saved a world," I spread my hands wide, my elbows still leaning back on the bar, "remember? That whole clusterfuck in Elysium? My Star of Terra? If that doesn't count as proving everyone else wrong I don't know what does."
"You think you're done, then?" He asks, genuinely curious, "You think that's as far as you can go?" It's like he knows something I don't, like he's testing me, waiting to see how I'll respond. I don't know what to say. There is a beat where we look at each other, and I become very, very aware of how much he knows about my past.
"Why do you want to stay?" It is his final question, spoken before I have a chance to respond to those that came before. It is a good question, too. The answers are all linked together.
"Because I don't think that's as far as I can go," I reply, trying very hard to be honest and not to twist up my mouth sarcastically, lower the stakes by making it a joke, "I…I don't think I'm done yet. In fact I know I'm not." I straighten my back, suddenly determined to prove to him that I haven't fallen back into my old ways, that I'm not just coasting along again. "I'm not done yet, Sir. I'm staying because Elysium wasn't enough. I want more. I want to do more. I'm not done yet."
He looks at me intently, and at once I realise something else is going on here. He wants me to stay for a specific reason. He wants an assurance that if he puts his trust in me, I won't let him down. He nods, and I realise I've passed his test.
The moment is too serious. Far too serious for a birthday.
I smirk, raising my glass, "Who the hell knows, Anderson, someday I might even surprise you."
The sky was golden when I glanced out the window, the sun illuminating the scattered clouds and bathing the world in warmth. It was strange to think that it was the same sky I'd stared at as a child, small hands resting against cracked and dirty glass, wondering what the big, wide world out there was like, praying it had something better in store for me. I'd been all around the galaxy, seen all it had to offer, and yet I was back on Earth again, the planet where I was born, and it finally, finally felt like home.
I'd come so far, further than anyone else. I hadn't just won a war, I'd beaten everyone and everything that had got in my way and I'd earned my place in galactic history. At least, that was what the interviewer on screen was saying – gushing, really – as I watched myself from a year ago sitting opposite her, nodding along and waiting for an actual question. It had taken a lot to get me to consent to an actual in-depth interview, but it hadn't been nearly as bad as I'd thought. It was supposed to be for a documentary about the Reaper War commissioned by ANN in an effort to preserve the 'human perspective' on all that had happened, give our unique viewpoint as the people whose home planet was the battleground that started and ended the conflict. It had been sold to me as a way to show future generations all that was sacrificed just so they'd have a chance to exist. At that point I was still new to the whole idea of caring about future generations, but with one of them growing inside me I'd decided that a simple interview was the least I could do.
On screen, I shifted in my chair as I gave an answer to a probing question about our motivations to fight and my personal struggles with leaving Earth behind. She'd been good, that interviewer. A little too good, and I'd found myself talking more than I was used to. It was cathartic to get it all out there, though. And it was a way of putting an end to some of the ridiculous rumours about what had happened behind the scenes. I'd done my best to be honest and open, not to sugar-coat the hell we all went through.
When my daughter was older, maybe she'd see it and understand who I was a little better. I was already getting worried about shielding her from the fame that hadn't really abated since I'd come off active duty. It had taken a warning shot at a tripod before the reporters had actually left us alone when we brought her home for the first time. That was my world, a result of the choices I'd made, not hers. She had her entire life left ahead of her, and I'd defend both that and her right to make her own choices and mistakes with every breath in my body.
She twitched in my arms, tiny, chubby hands coming up to rub at her face, still serene in sleep. She was a good sleeper, something I was endlessly grateful for, even if I did have to keep waking her up just so she'd feed. I'd been terrified that she'd just scream all night like I was told I did, that I'd never have a break and would crack down the middle and end up hating something I was supposed to love with all my heart. I'd been terrified I'd look at her for the first time and understand exactly why my own mother had been able to be so callous and cruel. There was never much danger of that, though. Even if she had been born a total terror, I'd known as soon as I laid eyes on her that she would be the most important thing in my world. The pain of labour was nothing after I'd looked down at her in my arms, pink and raw and so perfect. The love I'd felt for her had been one of the scariest things I'd ever experienced. And that was saying a lot.
Now, pretty much the only thing I remembered from her first few weeks of life was me staring at her constantly, filled with total admiration and wonder. I didn't understand how it worked, the way that every stupid, inane little thing she did was so magical and fascinating to me. She was seven months old, and every new thing she learned, every time a new expression crossed her face, I was in love again. It was crazy. I felt crazy. But I loved it.
Her eyes opened, long, dark lashes fluttering sleepily as she scrunched up her face, her nose wrinkling. When she saw me looking down at her, she gave me a wide, gummy smile, completely open and trusting like only a child could be. It still seemed incredible that I'd made something so perfect, so untouched by all I'd done in my life.
The protective impulse that rose up inside me was almost as overwhelming as my love for her. I didn't know why I hadn't been prepared for it, seeing as it was an established fact that I became downright murderous when any of the few things I cared about were threatened. With that in mind, having a baby was the definitely the craziest thing I'd ever done.
"Look, it's mommy," I cooed, nodding towards the screen even though I was aware that her eyes hadn't developed enough yet to see it properly. She ignored my instructions and reached up to grab the tip of my nose instead, still half-asleep. Even her fingernails were soft.
"Sure, I have regrets," I heard myself say on the holoscreen. I looked back up to watch the programme, letting my daughter wake herself up in my arms. "Along the way I made decisions that I regret, but they were the right thing to do at the time, and I'm proud to say there aren't many I've changed my mind about. They were decisions that no one should ever be asked to make, but…we were."
The interviewer cocked her head to the side, a shiny curtain of crimson hair falling over one shoulder, "Can you elaborate?"
"Not without giving out some pretty top secret information, but there were far too many times when we were deciding to sacrifice millions of people, just so millions more could live. Hell, sometimes we were talking in terms of billions of lives, numbers I couldn't even imagine. We'd have to choose between saving a colony full of civilians or an outpost full of soldiers because there wasn't time for both, and there wasn't time to hesitate either. And I kept thinking 'who the hell am I to decide this? What gives me the right?' And since then I've realised – nothing gave me the right, just the fact that the decisions had to be made and someone had to deal with the aftermath. And I live with them, every damn day, I live with those choices."
"Did you wonder, sometimes, if it was worth it?"
I watched myself look down, hands toying with each other. At the time I'd been thinking of all those moments during the War when I'd thought about not moving out of the way of an oncoming Reaper blast, or not triple-checking my guns and shields, not doing all those little things that had become second nature and allowed me to survive for so long. I'd been thinking of all those times I'd just wanted it to be over because it hurt too much to continue but it would hurt even more to admit that. I'd wanted it to not be all my fault. I'd wanted it to end. If it hadn't been for Kaidan I'd have found myself staring into the abyss and begging it to swallow me whole. I leaned down to press a kiss to my daughter's soft hair, suddenly overwhelmed by how badly everything could have ended. Back on screen, my past self recovered quickly.
"Yeah. Sure I did. Hell, I barely slept – I kept thinking what if, you know, what if we were making all the wrong choices, what if we were on a wild goose chase that would wind up with all our resources wasted on this silver bullet that had never, ever worked before. We were flying blind the whole time, holding on to this idea that the Crucible could fix everything even though we had no idea what it was or how it worked, what it would do, any of that. It was a gamble."
"And if it had been a gamble we lost?"
On screen I barked a laugh, leaning back in the chair, "I'd be dead!" I exclaimed, my voice light and joking even though my words were true, "I'd like to think someone else would pick up the slack, maybe keep fighting, try and win the war, but the truth is…" I sighed, "The truth is, we wouldn't have gotten far. The galactic community needed to be brought together, and without the Normandy as a symbol we…really wouldn't have had anything. We probably wouldn't have made it through the next few months. They'd have won, simple as that. I guess it's not really a gamble if the only options you have are try something stupid or go extinct. Sometimes it's just a matter of taking a leap of faith and hoping there's something to catch you."
The interviewer smiled, her eyes sincere. I remembered thinking that I liked her, and that they'd probably taken great pains to find an interviewer who could coax answers out of me without pissing me off. I heard she had her own talk show, now.
"That's a lovely choice of words," she said warmly, "which brings me to my next question. It's well known that you'd worked with many of the people aboard the Normandy for years, human and alien alike. I suppose it's safe to say that your relationship with many of them was closer to friendship than just allies?"
"It is," I nodded.
"How important was their support during a time when it must have felt like you had the entire galaxy on your shoulders?"
"It was…" I tilted my head to one side and rested it on my fist, my arm propped up on the chair, "it was the only reason we could do the things we did. We supported each other, there's no doubt about that, but I think it's pretty obvious that I took more than my fair share. They all understood the pressures I was under, and they all helped in their own ways, however they could. They were the best crew anyone could ever ask for. You can't buy that kind of loyalty and dedication."
"You can only earn it?"
I shrugged, "I guess so. I don't know exactly what I did to deserve it, just that it was always there when I needed it."
We spoke about the crew, then, briefly rattling off a few names, images of them appearing on-screen detailing what they were up to these days. I spoke their names to my daughter as they flashed up, sometimes asking if she remembered who they were even though I knew she didn't. All had gone on to incredible things, and 'proud' didn't come anywhere near to how I felt when I thought about how most of them had dropped into my world. There was a pause after I spoke about Kaidan joining the crew of the Normandy once he'd been made a Spectre. And even before the interviewer had said anything, I'd already been preparing myself for what would come next.
"Speaking of Major Alenko," she started casually, "as the only two human Spectres at the time, you must have worked very closely together on the Normandy," footage rolled across the screen of Kaidan and I in different situations – in the hangar bay before a mission strapping on weapons, in front of the galaxy map plotting our next destination, sitting in the port observatory, me breaking out into a startled laugh and then shutting my mouth and side-eyeing him as though he'd told me a joke so terrible it was almost offensive to humour itself.
"Did I hear a question in there somewhere?"
"Well, would you like to comment on your personal relationship with him?"
"The Major and I…were very close, yes. We still are. Alenko's a hell of a soldier, he was the most powerful biotic I'd ever worked with, and…you know, he's just…" I watched myself glance down, a little faraway smile on my face, and I remembered thinking that that goddamn interviewer must have been on the edge of her seat with the scoop she thought she was about to get, "he's a good person. There's nothing malicious or selfish about him. He really does just want to help people. It's as simple as that. Even when we first worked together years ago, I thought 'this guy should be in all the recruitment vids, because he's the perfect Alliance soldier'. He's noble. Honourable. It's pretty damn rare to find someone like that."
"Hey look," I whispered as Kaidan's photo flashed on the screen, nuzzling my cheek against my daughter's as she sat comfortably in my lap, "it's daddy too. Doesn't he look handsome in that uniform?" She babbled in response, reaching out to the screen distractedly.
"And now?" the interviewer pressed, "I understand that since retiring as a Spectre, Major Alenko is based at the Academy in Vancouver."
"That's right, yeah. War is hell for people, but it drives tech development like nothing else, and we saw some incredible advances in the field of human biotics." That was a line I'd learned almost word-for-word. I'd wanted to sound like I at least had some idea of what I was talking about, after all. "He's in the Academy at the head of a new division to develop the potential of young biotics, something he started doing before the War. It was tough on him, losing his implant like that. I mean he was so used to being the best there is, and now he's…well I wouldn't call him ordinary, not when he's the focus of so much research into the upper limits of biotic potential these days, but he can't funnel the kind of raw power he used to. And as for the Spectre thing…I think that was always my dream rather than his – he took on the responsibility because he had to, and he's still one of the best soldiers the Alliance has, but now that there are no immediate threats to galactic peace it's a good chance to try something else. And he's happy. Which is what counts."
"I have to ask, Commander," her expression shifted so it looked like we were two old friends sharing gossip, and I saw myself tense automatically in response, "I'm sure you're aware of the rumours that have circled about the two of you since the War. And seeing as you've just announced you're taking two years off active duty, I was wondering if you could shed a little light on…well, everything."
I'd known that she'd ask that eventually, and I was sure that I'd be able to come up with a brilliant, witty, on-the-spot answer, but my mind had gone blank. And then I'd just decided to be honest. It would come out eventually, right?
"I'm…uh…well I guess now's as good a time as any to say that – if all goes to plan – in just under five months I'll be having a baby."
Her manicured eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "You…you're pregnant?"
The shock in her voice calmed me, made me feel more in control, and on screen I looked downright tranquil as I nodded once, "I am."
To her credit, she recovered quickly and instantly switched back to reporter mode, "How…how do you think you'll handle such a dramatic change of pace?"
"I hope pretty well, but…you know, a family is something I never thought I'd have, so I guess I'm still wrapping my head around the idea. I know it'll be a challenge, but I think I'm ready for it."
"So it was a surprise?"
"Yeah, but it wasn't unwelcome. I think after the war, after seeing so much lost, it just feels good to…to have something." I was sure at the time that there was a better way to put it, but I hadn't thought of one since. I didn't own my daughter, but she was still mine. She was something I could pour all my heart into, something I could look at and be truly proud of – even though right now she couldn't do anything but eat, cry, laugh and shit herself, I was still proud of her. Maybe it was selfish to think of her as 'mine', but I didn't care. Sometimes love was selfish. And we were happy. I was starting to learn that sometimes that was all that mattered.
"So that explains the two years away from active duty. Given what you've said about your life on Earth as a teenager–" it had been a long and thorough interview, though I'd managed to keep at least a few secrets close to my chest " – it sounds like this will be the first real 'break' you've had in a long time."
"Yeah. Maybe the first one ever, it sure feels like it anyway. But I think that's good – you spend your whole life doing one thing, you forget you ever had a choice. And this is…something that'll force me to slow down. Take it easy for once. Get some perspective. I mean it's still scary as hell, but then I figure if I can stare down a Reaper I can probably handle a kid." I hadn't meant it to sound so carefree, I'd been well aware that the two required very different kinds of bravery, but even so I hadn't been prepared for just how different it all was. If it hadn't been for Kaidan by my side and his mom on call to reassure me that we were both doing just fine and that my newborn probably wouldn't shatter in my scarred hands, I didn't know how I'd have got through the first few months. I kissed my daughter's soft head again and breathed in the smell of baby powder and something else that made me melt inside. When I'd spoken about her on screen, I'd had no idea of just how overwhelming, all-consuming and terrifying my love for her would be.
Suddenly the interviewer seemed to remember what started off this whole revelation, and she leaned closer, her eyes alight with intrigue, "And how does the father feel about it?"
I smirked, but my eyes were dancing with humour, "Kaidan's pretty excited too."
She sat back, satisfied, "I suppose that's as close to a confirmation as we're going to get, right?"
I shrugged, relaxing into my chair with a grin, "I didn't exactly keep it a secret – that picture of us dancing at Admiral Anderson's wedding was all over the news cycle, and I mean—" there was a half-second of silence where I would have said 'shit' but the network cut it out, "—we're living together. I don't see what's so interesting about it – I led the most diverse crew of world-class operatives ever assembled, brought together armies, resolved centuries-old conflicts, saved the entire galaxy from extinction, and still the thing people are most interested in is my damn love life."
The interviewer's head cocked to one side, her chin cradled delicately in her fingers, "I suppose one could argue – as you have – that after so much sadness and loss, it's only natural to want to focus on the pure, simple joys of being alive. And as humanity's most celebrated hero, someone who was more than willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of us all, it's hardly surprising that the world wants to see you happy."
I watched the emotions flicker across my eyes, my face still carefully arranged in a casual half-smirk. Her words had hit me somewhere deep. At the time I'd barely considered what the rest of humanity thought of me. I'd always thought of them as something close to livestock – sheep that had to be tended and protected because they were too stupid and fragile to protect themselves, but at that moment it occurred to me that while they might have thought of me as a legend, they were also proud to call me one of their own. And back then, four months pregnant, no new missions or assignments on the horizon, I was on the cusp of joining them in the simple act of living rather than constantly fighting to justify my own existence.
At the time, I'd been about to enter a world where my only responsibilities would be to myself and my new family. Not billions of people I didn't know. Not planets full of civilians crying out for a saviour. There may have been new challenges on the horizon, but there were no new battles left to fight. At least, none in my own head.
"I am happy," I replied simply, "and…it's been hard, but I'm finding peace, day by day. I'm content." There was a pause, my brows twitched together in thought, and I remembered telling myself that this was supposed to be an honest, candid, human interview, and that I should just relax and— "You know, I never thought I'd say that and mean it. But I do. I really, really do."
There was another question, but my daughter chose that precise moment to wriggle around in my arms like a kitten stretching out, her perfect, round, pink lips making syllables she didn't understand. At least I hoped she didn't understand them, otherwise I'd be wondering why she'd selectively learned 'da' but not 'ma' just yet. I lifted her up and started to bounce her, chubby little legs dancing excitedly over my lap, tiny toes curling into my legs as she panted with excitement, her smile huge and eyes wide. She puffed out her cheeks, blew the air out through pursed lips, giggled, and started saying 'da' again. She had no idea what she was doing or why, but I loved every moment.
I made a face at her. She burst into peals of laughter, her chest shaking under my hands as I held her up. These same hands had killed countless people. The same body that had given her life had also ended so many. So much blood will never wash off, the words I'd heard in my head every time I was told I was nothing more than a killer, a weapon. Maybe it wouldn't wash off. But maybe I didn't want it to.
If I'd realised anything, anything at all since the war had ended, it was that finding a new life didn't have to mean escaping from the old. I'd been a neglected daughter, a child soldier, a trained killer, a conscript, a rebel, a prodigy, an agent, a Spectre, an outlaw, a leader, a hero, a legend, a saviour. I'd also been a lover. A friend. A Commander. And now I was a mother. I was all of those people, and all of them were me. I was Jena Shepard. And for the first time in my life, I didn't want to be anyone else.
"So how does this story end?" The interviewer asked, and I craned my neck so I could see the screen over the top of my daughter's head. "How can we as a species – or even as a galactic community – look at everything we've been through, all we've overcome, and move on?"
"It's on again?" Kaidan's voice brought me back to the present moment as I heard him come into the room behind me. I looked back over the top of the couch to see him putting a few bags down on the kitchen counter, his eyes resting on the screen as the camera switched back to me and I rattled off some optimistic answer that talked about the human spirit or something just as cliché.
"It's been a year since it was released," I replied, turning back to my daughter to bounce her up and down again, work out some of the excitement that had shot through her tiny body as soon as she heard her dad's voice. "And I like how my hair looks. Do you know how long it took them to make it look so effortlessly messy?" The last part was said as he came up behind me, leaned over the back of the couch to wrap his arms around my shoulders, and kissed me firmly on the cheek.
"Your hair always looks good," he insisted, his low voice in my ear making me grin against my will, "especially when it's messy."
He reached forward, slid his hands around mine and picked up our daughter, standing up straight and moving around the couch as he held her close, kissing the thin tufts of hair that curled around her ears and mumbling sweet nonsense that made her squeal with delight.
"Your bit's happened already," I told him, turning down the volume on the set as he sat down next to me.
"What, the part where you talk about how noble and honourable and handsome I am?" His words were muffled by our little girl's head as he shifted so she could get a grip around his neck and hug him tight, legs stretching out to support her body. She'd be walking soon enough. I'd have to barricade the house.
"I never said you were handsome," I replied sternly, struggling not to smile back.
"You implied it." He was trying to give me a teasing little smirk, but he broke out into a chuckle as his daughter started gumming his shoulder ineffectively. I laughed despite myself, scooting closer. Adult conversations were difficult to come by these days – though we both had other obligations, our lives had to revolve around her for now, this little person that depended on us completely. I'd been home for a few days while Kaidan had been tied up at Alliance HQ, and while it had been nice to not have to think too hard about galactic politics or remote peacekeeping missions, my trigger finger was getting itchy. Without any missions on the horizon, I'd have to settle for seeing my old squadmates again. At least most of the Mass Relays were up and running again, which meant inter-system comms were almost back to normal. It also meant that the invite list for what was supposed to be a quiet reunion was growing daily.
"Any news?" I asked, assuming he'd been able to get in touch with the others.
"Vega's definitely coming," he replied, scrunching up his face as his daughters hands padded against it, "and Anderson and Sanders can make it too. Still waiting on Garrus, but Tali's already said yes so I'm pretty sure he'll be there too."
"I didn't want it to be a big thing," I protested half-heartedly, "just dinner or whatever."
"You reached thirty-five," he glanced over to me, "With your record, I think it's something to celebrate."
"Seems so old," I said distantly, "feels like I was in my twenties five minutes ago." My girl made a loud, long noise in what I assumed was agreement as she explored the planes of her father's face.
"If you want you can pretend to be thirty-three again," he replied, likely referring to the two years of my life I'd lost in a lab and would never get back.
"I've already celebrated my thirty-third, if I tried that again they might come expecting a party on the same sort of scale," I said grumpily, "I only threw it to celebrate ending that fu…that woman'slife." My language had cleaned up a lot since last year
"Then do whatever you want – you know they'll just be happy to see you," he replied, "and you," he added, kissing his daughter's head. Most of the others hadn't met her yet. I already knew that James was going to be such an enabler. I'd already made every one of them promise that they'd never, ever buy a 'baby's first shotgun' type of gift, even as a joke. I was keeping her as far away from that life as I could. James had settled for sending an official Blasto toy, which I found almost as offensive. He told me it was my own fault for refusing to give anyone the rights to my likeness or life story. No official vid. No merchandise. No more fucking Shepard VIs. So he said he'd had to settle for getting her the galaxy's second favourite Spectre instead. She'd already done a good job of gumming several tentacles into submission. Liara's gift had been my favourite – a tiny attachment to her crib that projected the night sky of hundreds of different planets I'd visited onto the ceiling of her room, atmospheres and swirling clouds and stars that would calm her instantly. As beautiful as it was, I would still spend all my time when I was in her room just staring down at her in total wonder.
I looked over to her now, to the way her eyes – the colour of exotic, golden rum – were wide and excited, her cheeks full as she giggled up at her father who was doting on her like she was the only star in his sky. I'd never had a father, not really, but I still knew enough to know that Kaidan was turning out to be pretty damn good at being a dad. I wasn't surprised. We'd both lost too much in our lives to be careless with the good things we had now. We'd both been through so much hardship and pain and sheer agony just for this one moment, and…it had all been worth it. Together, we'd made a world fit for the next generation, a world where our daughter – and maybe her siblings, I was sure I'd miss the way she smelled as she got older – could grow up and never know war or conflict or fear. It was a fantasy, probably unrealistic, but I'd earned a little optimism after all I'd done.
After running and fighting all my life so I could be the best, to get to the top of my game, to prove all of them wrong…
After all of that, what I'd found was the only other person in this galaxy who understood. He'd seen every part of me, right into the deepest, darkest pits of my soul, and he'd accepted me. He'd loved me. He'd given me that soft place to land, the light at the end of the tunnel, and now, he'd given me a family. If I loved him for a hundred more years I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to pay him back.
For the first time in my life, I found I didn't want to fly away to somewhere else. Each moment that passed me by was a memory I wanted to treasure forever. It was the peace I'd never found in all my lives before. And it wasn't over, that was the incredible thing – there was a future ahead with so many possibilities it blew my mind to even think about. In just over a year I'd be back on duty and so would Kaidan. We were still young, still strong, there was so much more that we could do with our lives. Planets to explore, battles to fight, peace to keep, but it wouldn't be like it was before. This time, it would be a choice. Maybe I'd give my daughter a brother or sister, maybe I would take up that offer of giving instruction at the N7 Academy, maybe I'd look into buying that colony after all on a planet full of beaches so I could take my family to the seaside every day….
Whatever I did, wherever I went, this time it would be different from before. This time, I'd have a place to call home.
- The End -
A.N. WOW CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? I've never finished any of my fics before, EVER, and this is the very first one I've actually slogged through.
And you know what the best part is? It's not over yet!
Over the past few months I've been re-reading parts of this story, and I've decided on rewriting large sections of earlier chapters, changing the story around, and building up more of Jena's backstory. So that's what I'm gonna be doing now! If you're interested, keep tracking this story. When the re-write is done, I'll replace all the chapters and due to the re-structuring there'll probably be one or two extras, so you may get a 'new chapter' notification.
Thanks for sticking with me until the end! Please drop me a review to let me know what you thought, or if there's anything you want me to address in the re-write. You guys fucking rock, thanks for being so awesome 3