Thanks for the favs, follows and especially for the reviews. They're always welcome :)
Special thanks to my fabulous beta, Janka, who took care of this chapter.
Shepard rolls onto her back, sighing in frustration: sleep does not want to come. The passing week was a blur, as the first part of work at Grissom is slowly coming to an end and the opening semester in the rebuilt academy is going to begin soon. Shepard is at that peculiar point of tired when it is impossible even to fall asleep. She sighs again. Last few days, once she finally falls asleep, the morning comes all too quickly.
The light of her comm blinks invitingly. Well, since she cannot sleep anyway, she might as well answer. She gets herself up, halfway, leaning on her elbow. She tugs the nightshirt down – oversized T-shirts are currently the only things she has, and the wretched thing always rolls up to her waist. Her old PJs are still somewhere on the Normandy – but there are always more important matters at hand than looking for them. As she leans over the comm, tangled hair gets into her eyes, so, swallowing a curse, she pushes the unruly strand back and activates the device.
"Did I wake you up, Theresa?" Steven is smiling at her, that slightest, soft smile capable of dissolving her irritation instantly.
"Couldn't sleep anyway. Something happened?"
"Just wanted to talk. Couldn't sleep either."
Shepard glances, then smiles. It never ceases to amaze her how quickly they have fallen into the routine of calling the other every time they want to chat the sleeplessness away. She looks at him again, more attentively: he is without his cap or uniform jacket, the first three buttons of his shirt undone and even though she had seen him wearing less, this still feels intimate. No one else sees him like this, no one but her.
Shepard inwardly curses the vid comm: she is an engineer, she knows how the blasted thing works. And yet every time she talks with Steven via the holo she has that distinct impression as if he was in the same room – almost, but not quite.
Steven's gaze glides over her: not a quick peek, not a slow assessing stare either. Just a look. As he has said, they both know where things between them are going, eventually.
She smiles mischievously. "Don't stare. All my PJs are still somewhere in the Normandy's cargo hold."
"You can always come over to look for them." Steven's face grows serious. "Would you like to visit the Normandy after I return?" he asks, in a quiet tone indicating clearly he means something else entirely, and they both know it.
Shepard looks into his eyes. "Yes," she answers slowly.
He holds her gaze. "I'll be there tomorrow, Theresa." There is something about the way he says her name... She cannot quite pinpoint it, but it feels as if he was able to put everything that is and has ever been between them into that single word. He never uses any diminutives of her name, but the way he says it sometimes sounds like it is a confession of feelings.
"See you tomorrow, then?" She keeps her tone level, but asking this trivial question so loaded with meaning fills her with a sense of exhilaration.
"I'll turn the comm off this time."
He probably will not, and Shepard expects no less from him. "Of course."
"So little faith in me?" he asks, with that twinkle to his eyes which appears there whenever he is jesting.
"So much faith in you," she corrects, smiling at him fondly.
"You should get some rest. Sorry for keeping you up so late."
"Do you know, Steven, that there's only one phrase you use more often than suggesting I should rest?"
"Does 'Hackett out' ring a bell?"
"Get some sleep, Theresa."
"Hackett, don't you patronise me. I'm an adult, you know."
She laughs; it is not really possible to chastise him any longer after such a comment.
He offers one last brief smile before ending the call. "See you tomorrow. Hackett out," he adds after a moment, a slight smirk on his lips."
In the morning, she looks into the mirror. Her hair is longer, reaching well past her shoulders, which does not go well with her face no matter whether she ties it up or leaves it loose. She needs to do something about it.
With a shade of amusement she notes that the make-up kit Miranda left her – a humorous parting cheer-up gift – is probably either on the Normandy too, or no longer exists. Also, not having worn anything even barely resembling a skirt since her teens, she suddenly realises that maybe a dress would be more appropriate for the occasion than her everyday clothes. But the cloth production on Arcturus is still in deficit. Also, the only circumstance when she might look good in a dress is when she would not have to move around in it.
She glances in the mirror again, and suddenly bursts into laughter, shaking so hard she has to lean against the wall for support. Haircut, dress, make-up? Heavens, what do these matter now, what do these matter when he has seen her freshly scarred after Aratoht, when he has seen her walking awkwardly stiff in the med-corset and seen her eyes impaired? None of it mattered to him.
Still, she is going to get that haircut. To remind herself who she used to be... who she still is. Plus, it will not hurt if she looks better. About the clothes... Clothes are less important. At some point of the evening they will have to go away, if she has anything to say on the matter.
Steven is waiting for her at the docks. Some crew members are walking past, having got their shore leave, and Shepard expects he will greet her officially. By now, her relationship with Steven is no secret, but people tend to get uncomfortable mentioning anything about it when Admiral Hackett is around.
"Theresa," he says by the way of greeting. Just her name.
A smile flickers on her lips. "Admiral."
They walk together, almost hand in hand, but not quite touching. Touch is not necessary – the connection is tangible anyway.
"You've changed your hair," he remarks.
"Was getting in the way all the time."
"And here I hoped you were trying to seduce me."
She glares at him, not quite believing what she hears. Her fingertips, feather-light, brush his wrist.
"Do I have to, Admiral?" she asks, smiling at him: a slow, playful smile.
"Not really, no. But it's always welcome."
She laughs out loud.
"Sir?" It is Joker on the comm. Why is it always the blasted fly-boy on the bloody comm?
Steven answers, in his usual composed, professional tone. "What is it, Lieutenant?"
"Incoming transmission from the Council. Also, admiral Singh tried to contact you, sir. Told him you're busy with a top-priority state matter."
Steven – apparently amused – glances at the 'top-priority state matter' that is standing right next to him. Then he momentarily focuses on the comm. "Patch the Council through, Lieutenant, I'll be at the QEC shortly. Good job with Singh." He disconnects without waiting for Joker's answer. "I am sorry, Theresa. It'll take but a few minutes, I promise."
"I've been waiting for months. I can handle another few minutes."
She is standing by the display of ship models, her fingers brushing along the elegant shape of the first Normandy. This used to be her cabin. Now it belongs to him. Some time ago, it would have felt strange to think he has slept and waken in the bed that used to be hers. Now it only feels natural.
Shepard comes down the few steps and glances at the photo on the nightstand; yes, it is exactly the same one she remembers. He did not change a slightest detail in the cabin, except for adding a small pile of datapads on the desk.
The door opens and Steven enters. "I'm sorry I kept you waiting."
As he takes off his cap and sets it on the desk, and then approaches her, Shepard realises she did not come here for talking at all, and that he must be aware of that. They stand by the empty tank, bluish light washing over them: a reflection of that scene from almost two years before. But now, she can see him: the scar across his cheek, all the lines frowns sculpted between his eyebrows. His pale blue eyes, focused on her, and only her. For a moment she entertains the thought that maybe all this time it has been his gaze pulling her towards him.
She reaches up slowly and touches his cheek, her thumb brushing along the scar there, all the way down to his upper lip. His hands brush her arms and come to rest at her waist, and now she can feel them: strong, steady, warm. His touch is gentle, but confident: no hesitation, no uncertainty. Shepard feels his eyes on her, intense, and lets the gravity of his gaze pull her closer.
Her fingers slide down his neck to the collar of his uniform, as his move up to cup her face. She tilts her head up and he leans towards her, both meeting halfway in a kiss. No haste; slow, gentle. Shepard does not believe perfect can exist, but this is damn close.
His lips brush her ear, his beard tickling her jaw as he whispers something incomprehensible against her skin.
His smile is millimetres from her face. "Binary star," he repeats.
Scientific romanticism, Shepard thinks, amused. She puts her arms around his neck and he holds her against him as she kisses him breathless. Her hands deftly undo the buttons of his uniform, and when she touches his chest she can feel his warmth through the material of his shirt. His fingers find the zipper of her suit.
They gasp for breath and he leans towards her again, his kiss open-mouthed, languid. His hand moves up her back, and she marvels at the little everyday miracles of physics as his fingers trail electricity along her spine. Her hand slips under his shirt just as his comes to rest at the back of her neck.
"You have beautiful eyes, Theresa," he whispers, the sound of her name soft like a caress. This single sentence, spoken in such a way, with all the meaning hiding between mere words, leaves her breathless.
"Steven..." she gasps, barely able to find her voice as emotions overwhelm her.
Momentarily, he puts two fingers across her lips to silence her. "You asked me once about morale, remember?" He brushes a strand of hair out of her face. "You are what keeps me going."
She would gladly turn it all into the usual half-joking business, as she used to, but his confession tugs at her mind – she owes him something in return. But saying it aloud – that would diminish the meaning of what she feels. "Steve," she whispers instead, just that, permeating all the emotions into her voice, knowing that he will hear and, like always, understand. Just as he said, they are a binary star, the two of them orbiting around a figurative common centre of mass.
"Theresa?" he asks, a single word, a question, about everything.
Breathing is difficult, but she inhales deeply, plucking up her courage, because saying it is more frightening than fighting Reapers was. She searches for words, but finds only one phrase. It seems fitting, somehow. "I trust you," she breaths, tilting her face up towards him for a kiss and parting her lips – the final answer and an invitation. He complies.
Shepard is lying awake, listening to Steven's even breaths right next to her, her gaze wandering over the room. Her cabin, his cabin – like the common centre of mass they are orbiting around. There is much more to it: the war, the struggles, the trust between them; but this room is symbolic. For a time being, it has been like a home for her, and now... it can be home again. Maybe even for the rest of her life. She glances at the man sleeping at her side. He is... Comfortable is not the right word to use in this context, but that is what their relationship is. Secure. Firm.
Her fingertips brush his cheek lightly. Her fingertips – her body finally feels like her own again, as if in the wake of his touch it had dissolved into a supernova, and after that the particles formed anew.
Shepard smiles slightly, remembering his hands, confident but gentle as they were learning the shape of her body, recalling the texture of his skin against hers and the way their bodies fit together, and, heavens, that look in his eyes just before they collapsed onto the pillows, sated and exhausted.
She strokes his hair, keeping the touch feather-light so that it would not wake him, watching his face. She has rarely seen him so peaceful, even in sleep – a new facet to his features. A few hours earlier she has seen yet another unknown expression on his face - a sight she finds would be impossible to forget. Having seen his self-control snap and eventually shatter completely, having seen pure, raw emotion etched in the set of his lips and burning in his eyes... After that, she will never need to hear any words, for the memory of his face will be enough – the most elaborate confession of feelings she has ever witnessed.
She leans over, planting a kiss on his cheek, and he stirs, waking up slowly. When she raises her head, Steven's blue eyes are smiling up at her.
"What are you doing?"
"Watching," she replies, fingertips brushing his collarbone.
"You. On my pillow. I could get used to this, you know."
"Used to be your pillow, before you signed you resignation." He corrects, then shifts, gathering her in his arms. "But we can share."
"Speaking of my resignation... Do you think I could hide somewhere and live as a normal human being, not Commander Shepard? Being a hero is so damn overrated. I'm even seriously considering changing my name...
He leans down to kiss her. "Mhm, we can think about that... How does 'Theresa Hackett' sound to you?," he says when their lips part.
She blinks in disbelief, arms still wound around his neck. "Steven?"
"Have you just proposed to me?"
"Are you hoping my current still somehow clouded state of mind will affect my decision?"
"No." His gaze grows serious. "This should be a conscious choice, Theresa. Take your time."
She knows the answer. No one has ever had such a complete trust in her, no one but him. Unwavering. And all those times she thought her responsibilities were too much to bear, he has been there to listen, to support her. Her most loyal ally, her friend, her safe haven. Just as he said, they are a binary star.
She looks up, into his pale eyes, and touches his cheek. "I hope you can arrange a ring."
"I'll think of something. Roses can be a problem, though."
"Fine, no roses."
"You'd like me to do it the old-fashioned way, wouldn't you?"
She grins at him. "Let the chance to see the Fleet Admiral on his knees pass by? Never."
When she wakes up, Steven is gone, but there is a datapad on the pillow. A note is blinking on the screen.
— Make yourself at home. S. —
Wrapping herself up in the sheet, she gets up. She needs to finish her lecture syllabus and send it to the Academy, but getting some clothes is a priority. On the other hand... Maybe she can just forget Grissom; surely they can make through a single day without her. Dammit, I earned this one day off, she thinks, knowing very well that she will set to work first thing after breakfast. Still, fresh clothes would be nice.
She looks into the locker, filled with Steven's clothes, all neatly folded. There is a box behind an even pile of shirts, with its lid askew and half-open, a ribbon hanging over the side. She recognizes the pattern: it is a medal, that Silver Cross for bravery she remembers from his dossier. So he hides all his decorations, just as she used to while she still had them. They bring up too much memories, too many of them painful.
She opens the second compartment and freezes. Her box of medals and orders is there. Her digital photo-frame. And all her clothes, just as she left them. He left it all untouched, waiting for her.
She wonders when it has started, and if it could have even been before the war. Someday, she will have to ask him. She can pinpoint the moment she realised her feelings for him went far beyond friendship, but she has no idea when it began. It just... happened, of its own accord, as simply as that. All she knows is how they fit together, the connection so natural it truly feels like gravity: it probably had to begin somewhere, but all that can be said about it is that it is.
She brushes her hand along one of the suits. It smells of dust and disuse. She pushes it aside to find a pack of new underwear she remembers should be there, never used and not even opened. As for the clothes, she picks one of Steven's shirts instead. Not like she is going anywhere today.
Sometime after a shower, in the middle of the second cup of coffee, she sits down at the desk and sifts through the datapads. Projects, plans, resources, costs. Well, she can at least do something useful while she is at it. Reaching out for one of the nutrition wafers, she starts reviewing the first project.
She spends a few hours like this, occasionally pouring herself more warm coffee from the vacuum flask. Reviewing, correcting, making comments.
Finally she decides she had enough for today and returns to bed. There is a book on the nightstand, and she reaches for it. Toronto 2065 CE, Manswell Press, R. Diwari and L.M. Takashima, Astrophysics across the ages. Heavens, an actual paper book... This suits him so, so very much.
She runs her fingers along the letters on the spine of the book, then opens it, brings it to her face and inhales. It smells of old paper, dust and ink, all the things she remembers– or maybe imagines – a book should smell of. Peace smells like that, and happy memories.
She knows the book is interesting, having read it two or three times in a common electronic format, but when her eyes begin closing she lets the book drop to the floor and drifts into sleep.
When Shepard wakes, there is a blanket over her. She smiles. She could get used to this, she really could. She gets up, then tries to straighten the shirt which has creased and crumpled during her sleep. She gives up pretty quickly and just tugs it down a little, but not too much.
Steven is at the desk, reading something – probably a report – on a datapad, his cap off and his uniform half-unbuttoned. Noticing her, he offers a brief greeting smile.
"I see someone here has been helping me with my job," he remarks.
"Just the easiest parts." She comes closer, touches his shoulder to get his attention and the slides onto his lap, putting her arm around his neck.
"I have some more work to do," he says, shifting so that she would not obscure the datapad from his view.
"Okay," she responds calmly. Then she proceeds to brush her lips against his ear, and a moment later he inhales audibly as her teeth gently scrape his skin.
Steven sighs. "I still have work to do..." Smirking, he puts an arm beneath her knees and the other around her back. "Which, apparently, will have to wait until tomorrow." He lifts her up, though with quite considerable effort.
"I'm that heavy?" she asks, in jest. She is not much shorter than he is, just about an inch and a half maybe, and while she had been an active soldier for over a dozen years before the battle of Earth, being an admiral did not require that much running, shooting, or anything of the kind.
"I'm that out of practice."
He carries her to the bed and lays her down, but she does not let go and pulls him down with her. He puts one hand on the nightstand to brace himself and not fall down onto her, knocking the photo frame standing there over. It lands on the floor with a metallic thud, and though it is a trivial detail, it spoils the mood.
Steven sits on the edge of the bed and picks the frame up. The picture inside is a map of Earth, moulded together from several photos taken by night. Shapes of continents and oceans, bejewelled with thousands of dots of light. Each of these lights represents a city. Each of these lights is gone.
Shepard inches closer, sitting right beside him. Her hand reaches out to brush the photo. What spoiled the mood was that they both know the picture so well, and what it represents, and she very much doubts they will ever be able to forget it.
"We gave Earth up," she says, a sudden wave of deep sorrow crushing over her.
"We had no choice." Gently, almost reverently, he puts the photo back onto the nightstand. Then he puts an arm around her and draws her close, holding her tightly against him, and kisses the top of her head. His lips linger at her hair. "We will come back, Theresa."
She finds his hand and laces her fingers through his. "I know." And she does. He always keeps his word.
A moment later, she climbs onto his lap. She cups his face and looks into his eyes. Then she leans to kiss him. Gently, unhurriedly, as if they had all the time in the world. He returns her kisses, hands sneaking under her shirt to draw lazy circles along her spine, then across her shoulder blades. She half-undoes his shirt, slowly, and puts her hand against his chest, feeling his steady heartbeat under her palm. All the while they are exchanging kisses, tender, unhurried. Telling each other how much they care, with no words, using only the Morse code of hands and lips against skin.
"Mind if I sleep in your bed tonight?" she breathes the question into his ear.
"I was about to suggest that." He lies down, pulling her with him. He is still fully clothed, and in the morning there will be wrinkles on his usually flawless uniform. The fact he pays no heed speaks more than words ever could.
She turns in his arms, curling up against him, content, her nose tickling his neck. She does not need more than simple closeness right now, and as he senses the relaxed stillness of her body, the touch of his hands becomes even softer, soothing.
He reaches into the pocket of his uniform and produces a ring; he has probably been planning this for quite a while. "Want me to go down on my knees?"
"No. It's perfectly fine as it is." She takes a deeper breath. "Steven, I don't give a damn about roses, you getting down on your knees, the ring. You know that."
"I would still like you to have it."
Shepard touches the ring, fingertips brushing along the curved line – she recognizes one of the high-performance platinum alloys. Very durable, commonly used for production of long-lasting, precise engineering devices.
She smiles warmly, looking up to meet his eyes. All she feels is there, reflected in his gaze, and with crystal clarity she suddenly knows for certain that it will work. Contact binaries are, after all, very stable configurations.
He takes her hand in his and slips the ring onto her finger. "Welcome home, Theresa."
This is it: the end of the story. (As you can see, my head-canon ending's colour is fluffy pink ;) )
I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed every minute of writing.
If you liked this fanfic, there's a complimentary story coming. So, stay tuned for more Hackett and some more Shepard in Epaulettes, a prequel-sequel to Binary Star.