It was Christmas Eve, and Jack was hiding.
Not particularly well, she knew. She'd chosen a dingy bar in downtown Vancouver as her hiding place. If she'd really wanted to get out of reach, she'd have lifted a shuttle in Alliance HQ and buzzed around the system for a few days. They'd know where she was, but they wouldn't be able to do much about it. And as the best biotic instructor the Alliance had on retainer, she was given a bit of flexibility with the rules.
Her chosen hiding place wasn't even an interesting bar, though still better than the alternatives. The patrons were mostly older men, dully watching the news and chugging weak drinks. A handful of more dangerous looking individuals played pool in the corner or hunched over a laughably low-stakes game of poker.
She was hiding; from Shepard, from her grudging responsibilities. She was hiding from change.
"You gonna order anything?" the bartender groused at her. "Or you just gonna park your ass in one of my seats all night?"
"Right, because there's a long line of people dying to order swill at your shitty bar," Jack retorted. "I'll order when I'm ready."
The bartender waved her off, scowling and turning back toward the TV.
Everyone watched the news in this post-Reaper galaxy. Organized sports and manufactured dramas no longer held the same allure; why bother when real life was so entertaining?
There were the requisite reports on Shepard and Kaidan, though most of it was guesswork. There were reports of increasing mercenary activity in the Terminus Systems; they were planning something, the reporters speculated. The repairs on the Citadel were coming along also. Many of the repairs would take years, but supposedly in five or six months people would once again be able to live and work on the station.
It would be just as well, Jack allowed. A lot of people had died in the wars, but somehow it seemed like even more had been left alive, and without the Citadel they wandered through the systems, either trying to survive or trying to make trouble. And without an actual seat of power, the Council was largely crippled in its ability to govern.
She fished a cigarette out of her longcoat and clamped it between her lips, pawing through her pockets for her lighter. Ah- of course. Remembered the cigarettes, forgot the lighter. She'd probably left it on the counter again, right in that fucking bowl that was supposed to help her remember to bring everything when she left the apartment.
"Need a light?"
She spun, nerves thrilling. Of course- of course it was James. He seemed to find her regardless of where she hid, as if he'd gained some kind of preternatural sense of her in the last days. Fucking meathead. "What are you doing here?" she asked him, glaring.
"I like this bar," he said, shrugging. "I came for a drink."
"I'd have thought you'd be at Shepard's." Her voice was raw, bitter.
"Nah. They need a few days. Besides, it kind of makes my stomach hurt, being around them too long."
He gestured impatiently. "You know- because they're too sweet? All lovey-dovey, kissing, hugging, touching. They need a few days."
"I doubt that'll do anything."
He chuckled good naturedly. "Yeah, you're probably right. Still, it's Christmas Eve. Wanted to give them some time alone before the brouhaha tomorrow."
Jack groaned, pinching her brow. "I'd forgotten about that."
"Now you can't say you forgot if you skip," he said, infuriatingly smug.
"Yeah, yeah." He flipped a lighter out of his pocket in an oddly assured motion, striking a flame. "Still need that light?"
She let a terse breath out from her nose before leaning closer to him, to the glowing ember that illuminated a narrow band of his features; the strong jaw, surprisingly sensuous lips. She saw his knuckles were latticed with scars.
"Thanks." She took a drag, blew it out in his face; baiting him.
But he only watched her with amusement, a slow, irritating grin turning his lips. "De nada. Can I borrow one?" he asked her.
"You know that's probably the stupidest way to ask for a smoke," she snapped, glaring up at him. "Are you planning on giving it back when you're done?"
"No, but I'll owe you," he said. "Probably wouldn't be the worst thing to have a good looking guy like me owe you something."
"You have a pretty high opinion of yourself," she retorted, but she passed him a cigarette, careful not to touch his hands.
"Surprised you smoke," she said, taking a deep drag. "You know they're bad for you, right?"
"Why would that matter to me?"
She realized too late why it was a strange observation. "You swagger. Puffed up, conceited. I bet you pump the iron less to be strong and more to impress the ladies, am I right, Meathead?"
He grinned. "Sounds like you got me all figured out." He leaned closer. "Are you impressed?"
"It takes a lot more than that to impress me," she heard herself say. She'd meant it to be rejection, but it sounded a lot more like a challenge. Not to say he wasn't impressive, physically anyway. He looked less like a man and more like a tank. It was cold and raining outside, but all he wore was a t-shirt, giving full view of the muscles banding in his arms and chest.
Swallowing, she turned away. "I'll have that drink now," she called to the bartender.
Kaidan Alenko was not a particularly boastful man, but at this moment he could have quite easily claimed to be the happiest man alive. Across the table from him sat Shepard, her mouth stuffed with mashed potatoes, trying desperately not to burst into laughter. Her cheeks were flushed with happiness, her hair curling around her ears. And between them, their daughter lay in her cradle, sleeping.
"Don't choke," he warned, lips quirking.
She swallowed with difficultly. "You are such an asshole."
She took a swig of water, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "You know I like that joke. I could have died."
He only grinned; he often found himself lapsing into silence to grin at her, a bit stupidly perhaps. It was a completely involuntary reaction.
Three weeks ago, they had been reunited in the Alliance HQ hospital after nearly nine months of painful separation, just as their daughter Hannah had been born. Shepard had been beaten badly by a group of rogue veterans insistent on stopping the reformation of the Alliance, and Kaidan had commanded a limping Normandy home through FTL travel in possibly one of the most harrowing experiences of his life. Whatever either of them had suffered, however, the both believed it to be worth the result.
He and Shepard lived in a place oddly resembling their dreams.
They were never apart in those first days. They touched constantly; grasping hands, stroking hair, tracing the outline of features that had lived in memory for too long. He relearned her, the curve of her lips, the feel of her skin, the way she picked at her fingernails when nervous or upset. He relearned the way she would sometimes leave the cupboards open, her abysmal yet earnest cooking.
They were worshipful supplicants of the other, and of their child. For he had another person to learn, and he was a rapt student of his daughter. She fascinated the both of them; the sounds she made, her slow schedule, the way she would stare at the both of them with wide-eyed wonder. Though he knew he was tone deaf, he would sing to Hannah under his breath only to find Shepard watching them, torn between laughter and an expression of great tenderness.
They were both smitten, with each other and with their child.
Shepard wiped her mouth and threw the napkin on the table before leaning over the cradle, brushing her hand over Hannah's little head. "How long has she been sleeping?"
"Not too long," he said. "I fed her before you got home. She'll be out for a few hours more."
Shepard sighed. "I was looking forward to playing with her." 'Playing' wasn't really the right word, as Hannah was still too young, but there wasn't a closer term to what it was for Shepard, bobbing in and out of sight from the edge of her crib and scooping her up when she cooed.
"You can when she wakes up at 2am," Kaidan chuckled.
"I'll be waking you up with me, you know."
"Then I'll try and be properly grouchy."
Shepard snorted before brushing her lips on Hannah's brow. "You won't pull it off."
They cleared the table and did the dishes side by side, falling into easy silence. He hummed tunelessly under his breath and saw her smile. It took them ages to get anything done these days, for even though they usually tried to do a chore together, they both broke off from the task to touch in myriad and distracting ways. Shepard squeezed his hand in the soapy water and he pulled away from the sink and wrapped his arms around her, getting her clothes all wet.
"Kaidan!" she squealed, laughing. "You're making a mess!"
"I'll clean it up later," he breathed, kissing her neck.
He trailed his lips along her jaw, relishing in the way she shivered, the soft, needy sound in the back of her throat. Though they had reunited three weeks ago, they had not yet consummated their reunion. He had been cautious and concerned, considering she'd recently given birth, and he hadn't wanted to push any demands on her that she couldn't physically fulfill.
The waiting had been tortuous for them both.
Gently, she disentangled herself from his arms, grinning a bit at his crestfallen expression. "Help me finish this and then we can 'visit'," she said, flicking him with a bit of dishwater.
"You are a cruel taskmistress."
"You love it."
He chuckled. Mm."
The finished the dishes and put away the leftovers; ham and mashed potatoes, with cranberry sauce. It'd been something of Christmas Eve tradition for his family, so they'd given it a go. They were going to observe Shepard's family tradition tomorrow, which was more low key; she and her mother would get into their pajamas, bring out a hoard of junk food they'd collected throughout the year, and watch bad movies.
He pulled her onto the couch with him, flicking on the TV without really paying attention to it. She buried herself in his arms, breathing him in, laughing a little.
"What?" he asked her.
"We're so boring!" she said, muffled. "Dinner, TV. It's almost like we're normal."
He reached for the coffee table. "Knock on wood."
"Hah! Honestly though, what could happen to the galaxy that would be worse than the Reapers?"
"I don't know if it'd have to be worse to get us back in the action," Kaidan equivocated, watching a stony-faced reporter speculate on the increasing rumblings of discontent in the Terminus Systems.
"You might be right," she said, smile fading.
"Hey, come on. No worrying." He kissed her brow, pushing her hair behind her ears. "Tell me about your day."
Since Shepard had been released from the hospital, she and Kaidan usually went about their Alliance business on alternating days, with one working and one staying home to watch Hannah. It usually meant both of them were too busy to miss the other terribly, but these evenings together were a sacred time. Hannah usually slept, and so they were able to talk and touch as endlessly as they needed without being disturbed.
Shepard grinned. "It was a good day. Trained most of the morning. I'm getting back to my old self pretty quick, the others say."
"You didn't have to jump right into it," Kaidan said, frowning a bit.
"I wanted to though. The doctor 'suggested' that I wait a few more weeks, but he didn't say I 'had' to. And since there weren't any complications during labor – aside from the concussion – I was allowed to train as soon as I wanted."
"Which was immediately."
"Don't be bitter. I like feeling like myself again. Like the old, tough, crazy Shepard." She grinned up at him. "Ooh- get up! I want to show you what I can do again!"
"I'm going to regret this, aren't I?"
"I won't hurt you too bad," she said. Her grin had definitely acquired a predatory edge.
Sighing, he stood and squared off with her, bringing up his hands in the standard defensive position. "Don't break any furniture," he groused.
"Don't be a baby. Try and hit me." She nodding, bringing up her fists. "If you hold back, I'll know."
"God forbid." He shot out – a well-aimed left hook – and she deflected it as easily as if he were a child and not a fully grown man.
"Try harder." Her smile had become wide and sharp, and she cuffed him on the side of the head, a taunting blow.
"Hah! I almost forgot what a smug punk you are in in hand to hand." He swung, another miss.
"If I'm smug I have full reason to be," she said, and this time she hit him with every bit of power she could muster; he blocked the blow but it definitely smarted where it had connected.
He didn't reply to her taunts, concentrating on the sight of her weaving in front of him, her tightly protected core, the deadly intent in her eyes. He had to admit- seeing her like this again was not only a relief, it was a bit exciting. She had always been a woman who could easily hand his ass to him on a platter, and he liked it; that they were just as capable as the other. Truly two parts of an equal footed whole.
He deflected another one of her tight jabs, grinning at the predatory glint in her eyes. "What was it you were going to show me, again?" he teased lightly, dodging another blow.
"This!" she hissed. She came at him without mercy; a right hook as powerful as anything he could muster. He dodged, but she'd been expecting that; with perfect, pure focus, she kicked his legs out from under him. He was on the floor the next thing he knew, her foot pressing into his chest, that smug, shit-eating grin pulling at her lips.
"I still got it," she said, inspecting her fingernails.
He was more stunned than hurt, the breath whooshing out of him in a weak chuckle. "I concede," he said as she helped him up.
"There's no conceding about it- your ass is mine."
"Sure, sure. You know, I like this," he told her.
"You like getting your ass handed to you by the mother of your child?"
"Hah. No. I mean, I like seeing you back to your old self," he equivocated, rubbing his head before collapsing again on the couch. "I like knowing you're able to handle any trouble."
"Well, I was able to handle trouble when I was pregnant," she reminded him, checking on Hannah before flopping down beside him. "Not as easily though."
"I remember," he said, frowning a bit.
"You know, we train with armor and weapons weighing us down, but being pregnant is so different. It messes with your center of gravity, your reflexes, response time. You're so swollen and cumbersome that the most simple thing becomes a chore, even though I never weighed as much as I would have wearing full armor and weapons," she explained, gesturing animatedly.
"I can't even imagine."
"I love Hannah more than anything, but I am just . . . so glad she's here and not in me anymore. Don't get me wrong; I do miss the bond, sometimes. She was physically part of me and now she's not. But I like feeling like myself again. Is that bad?"
"I don't think so."
"Well, anyways. I did that today; knocked James right on his ass. You should have seen his face. He was holding back too; trying to be nice, trying not to hurt me."
"He won't make that mistake again," Kaidan smirked.
"You got it. Spent a few hours at the range; pistols, biotics, tech. Still a bit rusty, but getting back into it. Had a meeting with Hackett; he's worried about the mercenary activity, and the Council has been having some problems."
"He say anything in particular?"
"No- it's just it's been hard for the Council to govern on a galactic scale since the end of the war. Having the Citadel back in a few months will help that, but for now we're not in the best position. It's not helping that the mercenaries in the Terminus aren't having the same problems coordinating."
"Of course not," Kaidan said, frowning.
"I don't know. Hackett won't say as much right now, but I think he wants us up and moving again soon. You know . . . since we're Alliance heroes, we're Council Spectres, we ended the war. Etcetera. He wants us in the public eye."
Kaidan was silent for a moment, watching Hannah sleep peacefully in her cradle. "How are we supposed to do that?" he finally asked. "We have a child."
Shepard chewed on a thumbnail, ill at ease. "My mom didn't get much leave after I was born either. She hired a nurse who took care of me while she was on duty. I don't even know how she functioned; worked all day, stayed up with me all night. And she wasn't a Spectre."
"Where was your dad?"
"I don't know," Shepard said, pursing her lips. "She never talked about him."
"You don't think they'd let one of us off duty while the other is on?"
"We're both Spectres. I doubt it." She sighed, pushing a lock of hair behind her ears. "Right now, this is all speculation; I'm not sure this is what Hackett wants. But I am pretty sure it is what the Council wants, and sadly we have to answer to them both."
"Yeah . . ." He thought for a moment. "While I don't love the idea of having to hire a nurse, we do have a bit of an advantage there."
Shepard looked up at him. "How so?"
"We have a handful of very close friends who happen to adore our daughter," Kaidan said, smiling a bit. "If we had to do something like that, at least we'd be able to find someone we could trust. Like your friend- that biotic?"
"Jack? She's on retainer, so I'd have to appeal for a transfer. That's assuming she'd even want to do such a thing."
"Come on, Sam. You've seen the way she looks at Hannah."
Shepard softened a bit. "She'd kill you if you ever accused her of loving something, you know."
"No accusations necessary. Just a friendly question."
"From me, right? You coward."
"Guilty. Like you said, though- it's all moot until we're directly ordered to do something."
Shepard was quiet a moment. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I mean . . . Mom and I made it out of that situation all right. Look at me; I'm an upstanding member of society and all."
He grinned. "Absolutely."
"Just . . . I wish we could stay the way things are now," she said softly. "We're both working, so it's not like they can say we're ignoring our responsibilities. But we have a home and a schedule and a little bit of stability for once." She pressed a fist to her eyes, rubbing stubbornly. "For the first time since I can remember, really."
"Hey," he said softly, and he pulled her close, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. "It wouldn't be ideal. But I won't be picky now; as long as I have you and Hannah, I don't need anything else."
She made a bitter sound. "I wouldn't be surprised if they asked us to split up when they finally do ask."
"That's not an option," he said firmly. "And they wouldn't be in a position to push the issue."
Finally, she smiled up at him. "You're right."
"I know I'm right," he said, kissing her. "It's pithy advice, but try not to worry about it, okay?"
She brought her hand to his cheek, tracing the angle of his jaw before leaning in to kiss him again. "Okay."
He brushed his lips on her temple as she trailed her fingers up his thigh. He tensed through the pleasure of it, a bit startled. She was usually more careful, considering the healing state of her body and their inability to do what they really wanted. But she did not relent.
He cleared his throat. "So . . . you had a doctor's appointment today," he said casually.
But she wasn't fooled. She knew the unspoken question as easily as if he'd shouted it in her ear. She clearly heard the shift in his voice, the stirrings of hopeful desire. "Well, she said I'm looking good. All healed up, in great shape. Perfect bill of health." He was not imagining the slow grin that pulled at Shepard's lips, the slightly coy yet hungry cast of her eyes.
"And . . . ?" he trailed off, feeling boorish for saying it aloud.
But Shepard knew, of course; he suspected she could sense his thoughts with the ease of reading a book. She leaned close so her lips were only an inch away from his ear. "Good to go," she breathed.
He'd pinned her in the time it took to take a breath. "You waited to tell me!" he accused, staring down at her on the couch, hair splayed around her head like a messy halo.
"Yes, I'm very bad. Are you going to teach me a lesson?"
"Not without also depriving myself," he said, hovering over her only inches apart; taut, wanting.
"Too bad," she breathed, but then his lips were on hers and there was no more talk.
"So then she pins me, and she's got this shit-eating grin on her face and her boot on my throat," James was saying, gesturing so animatedly that he almost knocked his beer off the counter. "I can't even get enough air to say 'uncle.'"
"Serves you right for underestimating her," Jack said, smirking.
"You said it. I mean, come on! I'm not a total jackass! I was trying to be a gentleman, you know? She had a baby a few weeks ago, for crying out loud."
"You know she's been obsessively training since she got the grudging okay from her doctor, right?" Jack pointed out. "She's been fucking chomping at the bit to have a go at someone. Big meathead like yourself, trying to be all chivalrous; you might as well have painted a 'kick my ass to Luna!' sign on your forehead."
But James laughed. "I know, I know. I deserved it. It's nice to see her back in form, though. Not that she was even too far off. I swear, if they make 'em tougher than Shepard, I'd like to see it."
It was wholly unwelcome to realize the curdling in her gut was envy. "She's great if you go for that girl-scout thing," Jack said, taking a swig of her watered down beer.
"Hey, now." James paused mid-drag, turning to look at her very slowly, and she saw the dawning realization on his features as clearly as sunlight. "You're jealous!" he accused, grinning like a dope.
"The hell I am. I just made a fucking observation!"
"You should see your face!" he crowed. "Red as a tomato."
"Yeah," she said, stubbing out her cigarette on the bar. "Because I'm getting pissed."
"Whoa, there," he said, holding up his hands. "Easy. It's all in good fun."
"Fun for you, maybe."
"You'd be a lot happier if you learned to laugh at yourself," he said, draining his beer to the dregs.
"I'm plenty happy," she scowled. "I got a boring, respectable job. I got a place to hang my coat. I got a friend with a new baby. I'm positively rolling in ecstasy."
"Yeah, careful you don't get any more," he deadpanned. "Your face'll crack in half."
She stared at him, not amused.
He sighed. "One of these days I'll make you laugh. Really laugh, too- not that bitter snarking you do. That's a promise."
"Best of luck," she smirked at him, lighting another cigarette and blowing a smoke ring in his face.