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What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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April 11, 2154

 

The moment his daughter Jane was born, Jason Shepard knew his life would never be the same.  Placing a kiss on his wife’s forehead, he stood back and watched in envy as the bond between mother and baby grew, with Hannah finally able to get the newborn to nurse.  The surge of protectiveness he felt was so strong that it bordered on painful.  His little family was now the center of his entire universe, something he’d always longed for.  Of course, military life meant that they’d often be separated.  He was a career soldier, but it was Hannah who was quickly moving up in the ranks.  And so they had mutually decided that Jane would accompany him on deployments.  

 

“She has your eyes, Jason.”  His thoughts interrupted, he looked down at his baby girl and her beautiful green eyes, and declared, “Along with my heart.”  The brand new parents shared a tender kiss and beamed down at the little bundle in her arms.  

 

 

June 1, 2159

 

“Daddy!”  Five year old Jane threw her arms around her father’s shoulders and kissed him on the cheek.  She’d been waiting all day to share her good news.  “Ms. Snuffles got a ‘pormission’ to captain of the SSV Happyland!”  Jason corrected her, amusement in his voice, “Pro-mo-tion, pumpkin. And let me be the first to offer my heartfelt congratulations to Captain Snuffles.”  He gave the small stuffed puppy, in her outstretched hand, a sharp salute.  “She outranks me now, you know,” the lieutenant quipped.  Jane giggled at that and then noticed he was holding something.  “Is that for me?” she asked, pointing to the small box.  He handed it over, delighted at the look on her face as she opened it and discovered a new plastic ship to join her ever-growing collection.  “Thank you, daddy!”  He couldn’t resist buying these toys for his daughter.  She was acquiring quite the love of all sorts of space-faring vessels and he couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride at this shared interest.  

 

After extracting himself from the mighty bear hug she gave him, he kissed her forehead, “Why don’t you take your new ship to your room, along with Captain Snuffles, for a little bit.  I’ve got some people coming by for a quick meeting, and then we’ll go grab some dinner.  Just you and me, pumpkin.”  Jane nodded, and collected her toys, making her way towards her bedroom as she heard her father greet his visitors.  

 

Having decided that her fleet could do without her for a little while, Jane snuck back out to the living room, ducking under a side table to avoid being spotted.  She saw her father speaking with three individuals.  A tall, dark skinned woman who wore her hair in a tight bun, similar to her mother’s, along with a really old bald guy, who looked like he’d just tasted something awful, like vegetables.  She wondered if he always made that face.  Next to him was a man who looked to be around her father’s age, with dark brown hair and blue eyes.  Really blue eyes that were now looking directly down at her.  The man smiled, and it didn’t look like he was going to tell on her.  Still, she wasn’t happy about being discovered, and decided the best course of action would be to stick her tongue out at him.  He looked at the others, who were deep in discussion, and then, to her surprise, stuck his tongue out right back at her.  She covered her mouth to hide her giggle.  Most people in blue uniforms, who visited their home, were so stern and didn’t pay her much attention.  She liked this one.

 

It wasn’t long before the group was shaking hands and saying their goodbyes.  Her father clapped the blue eyed man on the shoulder, and said, “Get some sleep, Steven.  I’ll see you at 0400.  I’ve got a dinner date with Jane and then I’ll be doing the same.”  The man he called Steven smiled, “Go enjoy some time with your daughter.  Morning will be here soon enough.“  And with that, he took his leave.  

 

Jane tiptoed back to her room before she was caught eavesdropping.  When Jason opened the door, she saw the look on his face and knew he was leaving again.  “I’m sorry, pumpkin, but it looks like I’ll be shipping out tomorrow for a couple of weeks at least.”  He kneeled in front of her and placed a kiss on her nose.  “But not before I take my favorite girl out to eat tonight.  Wherever you want to go.”  She frowned and looked down at her fluffy canine friend, “Okay, but Ms. Snuffles says I get two scoops of ice cream this time.  Captain’s orders.”  He had to laugh at her ingenuity.  “Aye aye, ma’am.”

 

 

March 30, 2168

 

Jane stormed into their quarters with tears in her eyes and fury in her steps.  “Stanley Quinn is a jerk and I hate him!”  Jason was dreading this day.  He’d accepted that his almost 14 year old daughter was taking an interest in boys, but he’d also been hoping it would take a lot longer for one of them to break her heart.  Sighing, he got up from the kitchen table and followed her to her room, the door already shut and locked.

 

He knocked on the door lightly, “Hey pumpkin, do you want to talk about it?”  Admittedly, he had no idea what to say other than some tired platitudes.  But his only child was hurting right now and he’d do his damnedest to make it go away.  “No, I don’t” she replied in a shaky voice that told him she was crying.  It wasn’t at all surprising to him that she wasn’t going to make this easy on him.  

 

“What if told you I’ve got a pint of your favorite ice cream in the freezer?  You don’t even have to talk about the boy.  Just come keep your old man company.”  Jane wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her hoodie.  Of course, he’d use her sweet tooth against her.  And of course, it always worked.  “Which one?”  Might as well scope out the goods first.  It’s not like she wanted to make this easy on him.  “Maple pecan.  Imported straight from Earth,” was his answer.  

 

She opened her door and was immediately pulled into a hug.  “I’m so sorry, pumpkin.”  She hugged him back, even though being comforted by her father was making the tears well up again.  Before they could spill over, she stepped back and headed for the kitchen.  

 

Jane devoured the frozen confection.  Jason waited until she finished to speak again.  “Your mother will be here soon, would you rather talk to her?”  She shook her head, “No, she’d just tell me that I should be paying more attention to my studies and less attention to boys.”  He had to stifle a grin.  That sounded like Hannah all right.  “If I promise not to say that, will you tell me what happened?”  The teenager rolled her eyes, “Fine.  Stanley told me his dad’s been transferred to Gagarin Station and that they leave tomorrow.”  He didn’t know why that made him a jerk, especially since his daughter was well acquainted with military transfers and deployments, but he let her continue.  

 

“He knew about this days ago, but instead of telling me, he kept it a secret until I’d... until... “ She looked down at her hands, “...we kissed.”  Jason let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.  “Are you sure he was trying to deceive you?  Is it possible that he was delaying the inevitable so you could spend more time together?  Maybe he thought you wouldn’t waste your time on him if he was leaving.”  She furrowed her brow and seemed to consider his words.  “I guess it’s possible.”  He didn’t know what the truth was, but he could try to lessen the blow for her.  

 

“Does he want to stay in touch?”  She nodded, “He says he does.”  He reached his hand across the table, hoping she’d take it.  She did.  “Then give him a chance.  If he’s true to his word, at the very least, you’ll keep a friend.  And if he isn’t, he’ll be far enough away that, in time, you’ll forget about him and find someone worthy of you.”  He saw the corners of her mouth curve into the faint hint of a smile.  “Yeah, maybe you’re right.  Thanks, dad.”  He squeezed the smaller hand in is own.  “Any time, pumpkin.”

 

Jane rose from the kitchen table and pulled her long, red hair up into a ponytail.  “I suppose I should go tell him about the stink bomb I put in his suitcase when he wasn’t looking.”  Jason shook his head, “Yeah, good idea.”  He barely kept the amusement from his voice.  

 

 

April 11, 2172

 

On her eighteenth birthday, Jane Shepard wasted no time following in her parents’ footsteps and enlisting in the Alliance Navy.  She left the recruiting office feeling like her life was just beginning . She had big shoes to fill, two pairs, in fact.  But she knew if she applied herself, not only would she succeed, but she would make both of her parents proud.  In fact, her mom had taken a rare leave of absence to celebrate the occasion with her.  It would just be the two of them since her dad was currently on a mission and couldn’t get away.  

 

She was about to hail a sky cab when her personal communicator started beeping.  It was her mother.  “Jane, where are you?  I need to you come home right now.”  She was crying.  She never cried.  Jane knew right then and there that her father was dead.

Chapter Text

Jane had just lost her father and best friend.  At times, he’d been her only friend.  The last time she saw him, he was apologizing profusely for not being able to celebrate her upcoming enlistment.  He’d promised to make it up to her upon his return.  Something about buying her the most extravagant dessert they could find on Arcturus.  He’d always indulged her insatiable sweet tooth.  Be there to wipe away her tears.  Entertained her practical jokes.  Encouraged her fascination with the stars.  Loved her unconditionally.  And now he was gone.

 

Official reports said that Lieutenant Commander Jason Shepard had perished when his unit was attacked by a band of Batarian slavers on Anhur.  Their mission was classified, depriving her knowledge of details she wasn’t sure she wanted to learn.  

 

Jane ran a brush through her long hair.  It’d have to be cut short soon enough.  She’d dyed it black earlier that morning.  Seeing her father reflected in her own features — most notably his red hair and green eyes —  was currently too much for her to bear.  She pulled the newly darkened tresses into a ponytail, and looked up into the bathroom mirror to see bags under bloodshot eyes.  She looked like shit.  Not that she was looking to impress anyone today, but her visage so clearly highlighting her grief, left her feeling exposed.  A gentle knock at the door alerted her that it was time to leave.  

 

Although she’d attended military funerals in the past with one or both of her parents, often observing the grieving families, Jane didn’t know what to do or what was expected of her.  She felt lost, like none of it was real.  So she simply accepted the condolences offered to her and did her best to console Hannah.  It was obvious her mother was barely keeping it together.  Whether she was simply being strong for her daughter, or not willing to show too much raw emotion around so many, some of whom were currently serving under her, Jane didn’t know.  But she wanted to be a comfort to her all the same.

 

Faces started to blur, the voices of sympathy drowned out by a persistent ringing in her ears.  In the corner of her eye, she saw a man embrace her mother.  When they separated, she sensed a shared sense of grief from him.  As if her father had been a friend, and not just a colleague.  When he turned his attention to her, Jane realized she recognized the man.  Rear Admiral Steven Hackett took her right hand in both of his, “I’m so sorry, Jane.  Your father was a good man and a friend.”  The look in his eyes was a mixture of sadness and empathy.  “You were the light of his life,” he added.  It was those words that brought the sting of tears to her eyes, forcing them shut.  His grip momentarily tightened, and when she found the strength to look at him again, she saw the warmth in his striking blue gaze.  It was his eyes that brought a familiarity that she couldn’t quite place.  “Thank you, sir,” was all the response she could muster.  She hoped it sounded as heartfelt as she’d meant it to.  He gave her hand one last squeeze and then he walked away.  

 

Hannah let out a shaky sigh, “I could really use a fucking drink or three.”  Jane wholeheartedly agreed.  “You and me both, mom.  Are you ready to leave?”  Her mother raised an eyebrow, but otherwise said nothing, as she gently grabbed a hold of her arm and lead them towards the exit of the venue.  “Your dad was never a fan of big gatherings.  Let’s go find a quiet place to remember him.  Just you and me...and a bottle of his favorite whiskey.”  That sounded perfect.

 

Later that evening, after Jane made sure a very drunk Hannah made it safely to bed, she finally let herself cry.  Holding back the tears all day had been exhausting.  She was glad she’d already packed her duffle bag.  Also that she didn’t really like the taste of whiskey and had opted for a couple glasses of wine instead.  A hangover was the last thing she needed.   She’d be leaving on a transport for boot camp in the morning.  It would almost be a welcome distraction, something in which she could channel her grief.  She would still work her ass off to make her parents proud, even if one of them was now watching from afar.  At least she hoped he was.  

Chapter Text

It had been one year since her father’s passing.  It was also her birthday, though Shepard had no desire to mark that occasion.  Hannah had called earlier to wish her well, thankfully not remarking on either reason this day was notable.  Over the past twelve months, she had started to feel closer to her mother.  They still wouldn’t see each other often, but they were building towards a stronger relationship.  And although she felt comforted, even from a distance, all she really wanted today was a hug.  

 

Shepard spent most of her afternoon aimlessly wandering the walkways of Arcturus.  She was on the station awaiting orders, and was feeling restless.  All of that walking did a lot of good to clear her mind, though she was conscious enough to avoid the immediate vicinity of her family’s old quarters.  

 

She was debating on whether or not to hit the gym, when she spotted a small cafe that had many alluring treats on display.  Shepard stopped dead in her tracks when she noticed the name of the establishment.  The Star Seeker Cafe had been her favorite eatery during her family’s time here as a child.  Her father would often treat her to dessert when she’d bring home an impressive report card, or just before he had to ship off.  But the most vivid memories coloring her mind at the moment, were of those on her birthday.  She’d been reluctant to go anywhere near the places that would so pointedly remind her of him.  But with a melancholic smile, she stepped through the door.  Maybe it was time she remembered.  And this was the perfect place to do so.

 

Sitting down at a small table, Shepard ordered a slice of chocolate cake, two scoops of vanilla ice cream, and a berry tart, all smothered in as much chocolate sauce as they’d be willing to part with.  Not that the ordering screen gave her that as an option, she just hoped they got the message by how firmly she’d pressed that particular button.  

 

Her mind started to wander to the point where she didn’t immediately notice the figure in dress blues standing and facing her, on the other side of the table.  She looked up to see now-Vice Admiral Hackett.  Having immediately snapped out of her nostalgic haze, she quickly stood.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there, sir,” she gave him a sharp salute.  “At ease, Private,” he waved his hand, indicating for her to sit down. “Is this seat taken?”  She didn’t have to look around to know that there were several empty tables, so he was obviously intent on joining her.  Although she preferred not to have company right then, she knew it wouldn’t do her career any good to express that desire.  “No, by all means,” she relented.

 

Hackett sat down, and curiosity got the better of her and her senses.  “So what brings you here, sir?”  She inwardly cringed at that.  Not used to dealing with brass, it might’ve been wiser to keep her trap shut.  If she’d blundered, he made no indication of it.  “Best dulce de leche on the station,” was his reply.  Shepard had just realized he’d brought with him a bowl of ice cream, topped with the caramel-colored confection.  “Not as good as my mother used to make, but damn close.”  She smiled at that, and the tension in her shoulders eased somewhat.  

 

When a waitress arrived with her, now embarrassingly, large order, Hackett raised an eyebrow.  “Are you sure you weren’t expecting someone else, Shepard?”  Once she realized he was making a joke at her expense, she quickly stammered, “I know it’s a lot.  But I’ve been living on MREs and I don’t know the next time I’ll be able to indulge like this.  And besides, today’s...”  She stopped herself before she said too much and looked away from him.  To his credit, whether he knew what she was about to say or was simply preventing her from rambling on defensively, he didn’t press.  “Enjoy your desserts,” was all he said, punctuated by a warm smile.  And with that they ate in companionable silence.  

 

After their dishes were cleared, Hackett had insisted on paying for her sugar-laced gluttony.  She started getting the impression that his presence here was not a coincidence, then waved away the thought.  He was an important man, and likely much too busy to take time out of his day for a grunt like her.  Even if she was the daughter of a friend.  Though, she supposed,  if all he was really doing was grabbing a bite, he very well could’ve just sent an underling to fetch it for him.  She mentally shook herself from that line of thinking, and stood after he had gotten to his feet.  “I’d better get back to my office.  Thank you for keeping me company, Shepard,” he extended his hand and she shook it.  “The pleasure was all mine, sir.”  And to her surprise, she’d meant it.  With that, he nodded and took his leave, while she started her long walk back to the barracks.

 

Shepard couldn’t sleep.  Her mind was still replaying what transpired at the cafe.  She couldn’t shake the feeling that Hackett hadn’t chosen that location by chance.  Making sure her bunkmates were either asleep or otherwise occupied, she walked over to the extranet terminal and looked up his service record.  She wasn’t sure why; there were likely no answers to be found there.  Scrolling through the usual, commendations, medals, etc., she got to the brief personal bio.  39 years old, unmarried, born in Buenos Aires to a single mother, who passed when he was twelve.  That’s where she stopped.  He’d mentioned his mother earlier.  And he had lost her at a young age, just as she’d lost her father.  His choice of dessert reminded him of her, while she had chosen to remember her father over an indecent amount of sweets.  He had been there for her.  Not out of pity or obligation.  Not to distract her from her thoughts or offer empty sympathies.  He was just there.   He knew what she needed because he understood completely.  

 

She never got the hug she’d wanted today, it would’ve been highly inappropriate coming from someone in his position anyway, but what he did give her meant so much more.

 


 

One year later, to the day, Shepard was on Arcturus once again, this time on shore leave.  While the acute pain of her father’s death had dulled a bit, she’d wanted to mark the somber anniversary in the same fashion as the last.  A small part of her had also wanted to test a certain theory.  She had found herself a table at the Star Seeker Cafe, when a familiar voice behind her asked, “Mind if I join you?”  She smiled to herself.  Looks like her hunch had been correct.

Chapter Text

Steven Hackett ran a hand through his short, greying hair as he surveyed his new apartment.  Having just been promoted to Admiral, overseeing the Alliance’s Fifth Fleet, he had procured himself a more permanent residence on Arcturus Station.  The spacious quarters included many amenities that would likely go unused for the most part.  However, he was grateful for the large kitchen — cooking being one of his hobbies he could still indulge in — and the smartly appointed home office, with a view of the small park across from the residential tower.  

 

He entered the work space and looked out the window.  Watching the kids below play with their caregivers, he couldn’t help but think about how his new home was more suitable for a family than a bachelor.  Hackett had always been fond of children, even contemplated having one or two of his own someday.  But his career had made dating difficult, let alone anything more longterm.  His last serious relationship ended over eight years ago.  Lovers had come and gone in the time since, but as he rose up through the ranks, romantic entanglements within the military had become much more complicated.  And civilians were never as forgiving about his workload.  So his love life had taken a backseat.  On most days, he was fine with it.  Today was not turning out to be one of those days.

 

Looking away from the window, Hackett sat down at his desk and decided to tackle the mountain of datapads that had been delivered by his assistant earlier in the day.  He’d had the day off to settle into the new place, but now he needed the work to settle his mind.  

 

Elysium.  He had been briefed about the major attack they were now calling the Skyllian Blitz, and had reviewed several reports on the battles with the pirates and slavers.  One such report had stood out more than the others.  Lance Corporal Jane Shepard had been on shore leave when the attacks began.  She’d rallied the colonists to help shore up their defenses, and singlehandedly held off the attackers when those defenses were breached.  Her actions were nothing short of heroic, and she was to be awarded the Star of Terra for her efforts.  He imagined a promotion would soon follow.  

 

Hackett was alerted to a new message from his terminal, shaking him from his thoughts. 

 

 

To: Steven Hackett 

From: David Anderson 

Subject:  Shepard

 

Steven, 

 

Just got word that she’s been fast-tracked for a field commission to 2nd Lieutenant.  In light of this, and her actions on Elysium, I’m recommending her for the ICT program.  She’s proven herself to be one hell of a soldier with a good head on her shoulders.  Hell, I might’ve even found myself a protégé.  

 

Let’s grab a drink next time I’m on the station.  And good luck with the move. 

 

- David 

 

 

He should’ve known Anderson would take her under his wing.  If she made it through N-School — and he had little doubt she’d go far, if not complete the program— he couldn’t think of a better mentor for her.  He sent off a quick reply and let his thoughts drift back to subject of their correspondence.

 

When Hackett waked into that cafe three years ago, it had surprised even himself.  Hannah Shepard had contacted him earlier in the day, from somewhere in the Attican Traverse, regarding an official Alliance matter.  It was evident that she wasn’t quite herself.  He knew that it had been exactly one year since Jason had died, and that it was likely weighing on her mind.  She had waved him off when he suggested that their business could wait, and that she take some time for herself.  Her concern had been with her daughter; they’d just spoken, and she was worried that the younger woman was troubled and alone on her birthday.  Jane had mentioned to her mother that she was spending time in the atrium district on the station.  And from that remark being slipped in to the conversation, he surmised that a question was being asked that Hannah was hesitant to voice.  So he offered to check on her, as a favor to both the fretful captain and to his late friend.

 

Initially, Hackett hadn't planned on alerting her to his presence, but upon finally spotting her and seeing the dejected look on her face, it triggered the pain he felt all those years ago when he’d lost his mother.  There was little doubt she was experiencing similar emotions now.  The desire to be left alone, yet not wanting to feel lonely.  It was then that he had made up his mind, hoping to overcome the former by preventing the latter.  Thankfully, it seemed he’d succeeded.

 

The following year, he hadn’t been surprised to find her back at the Star Seeker Cafe.  And she hadn’t looked particularly surprised to see him either.  After exchanging pleasantries, they’d mostly eaten in silence again.  Shepard seemed content, so he hadn’t felt the need to pollute the air with small talk.  When they parted ways, she gave him a genuine smile.  Hackett realized then that it was the first one he’d ever seen grace her lips.

 

Last year, when they met once again on that day, things were different; pleasantly so.  Shepard had asked him about growing up on Earth, and he had told her all about his childhood in Buenos Aires.  He’d asked about her studies on historic military leaders since it was a topic he was also well-versed in.  They swapped stories about missions in the field.  The conversation between them flowed freely.  Maybe a little too freely, a voice in Hackett’s head intruded.    One which he quickly brushed aside.  He could debate the appropriateness of these visits with himself later.  At that moment, he was heartened that Shepard seemed to be enjoying herself.  She’d even brought up the fact that it was her birthday and that she’d be meeting up with a friend that evening to celebrate.  After leaving the cafe, he’d watched her walk away in the opposite direction, not even realizing that he was doing so.  

 

Hackett never did have that debate with himself, he realized.  It may well be a moot point since she’d likely be training in Rio de Janeiro by the time her birthday rolled around this year.  And after that, it’d become far less likely that she would be able to make it to Arcturus every year.  He’d be lying if he said he wasn’t a little disappointed they wouldn’t be continuing what had become their little tradition.  But with her career accelerating at breakneck speed, she really couldn't afford even the illusion of partiality from someone in his position.  

 

He wasn’t quite sure when he stopped thinking of her as Jason’s daughter.    Now he viewed her as a strong, capable woman in her own right.  An extraordinary soldier and a budding leader.   One whose star was quickly rising.  There were other observations, of a more superficial nature, he’d made as well.   But Hackett thought it wise not to dwell on those too much.  

 

With a sigh, he pushed aside thoughts of Shepard and picked up a datapad that involved more numbers and less reflection.  The whole point of working on his day off had been to settle his mind, and so far he had done a piss poor job of it. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The Star of Terra was the highest and most prestigious medal awarded by the Systems Alliance.  And they had just given her one. Shepard stood in her dress blues, talking to the press, shaking hands with politicians and dignitaries, saluting brass, and just wishing she could sit down for five minutes.  Maybe even snag one of those pieces of cake she kept eyeing on the many decorated tables in the room.  While she felt immense gratitude for the recognition, it was still a bit disorienting to be center of all this attention.  As far as she was concerned, going above and beyond the call of duty was right there in her job description.  

 

This whole affair seemed a bit over-the-top, but Shepard knew that it was as much about PR for the Alliance, if not more so, as it was about honoring a single soldier.  So she would be their “shining example of humanity’s resilience, courage, and heroism,” as the Prime Minister had put it during his speech.  

 

Not seeing anyone else in her immediate vicinity who required her attention, she turned to locate her seat and ran squarely into a lean, but solid wall of admiral.  “Unf!  Sorry, sir!”, she quickly apologized.  

 

Hackett waved off her salute, “Relax, Lieutenant.  I just wanted to offer my congratulations.”  There was a slight, upward quirk of his mouth.  “Besides, I should’ve known better than to stand between Shepard and her dessert.”  

 

He winked discreetly as he extended his hand.  She took it while playfully narrowing her eyes.  “To be fair, Admiral, it’s chocolate cake.  I’ve determined that causalities are entirely acceptable in achieving my objective.”  

 

She detected his amusement as he gestured towards her table, “Then by all means, Lieutenant, carry on.”  

 

Not needing to be told told twice, she exuberantly belted out, “Sir, yes, sir!” and turned to make her way to her seat.  Feeling the slightest touch at the small of her back, she looked up to meet his eyes, “And thank you,” she added with a sincere smile.

 

As Shepard sat and ate her piece of chocolate decadence, she contemplated propriety.  What’s the worst that could happen if she followed her heart?  What would people say?  Would the fallout hurt her reputation?  In her mind, she could hear the whispers and see the looks on their faces.  No, she decided, it just wasn’t worth having a second piece of cake.  

 

Her decision seemed all the more sound when she saw Hannah approaching her table.  Her mother definitely would’ve had something to say about her gluttonous proclivity.  “Oh, honey, I’m so proud of you!”  

 

Shepard stood and accepted her mother’s hug.  “Thanks, mom.”  The older woman was beaming.  “I’m sorry again for missing the ceremony, but I got here as quickly as I could.”  The pair sat down and caught each other up on the past few months.  

 

A little later, Hannah excused herself to go make her rounds when a rather attractive man Shepard didn’t recognize approached her.  “I’d say you’ve done pretty well for yourself, Jane, but that’d be quite an understatement.”  He was grinning from ear to ear, and something in his hazel eyes made her face feel warm. 

 

She was, however, at a complete loss.  “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.  Do we know each other?”  Hoping not too come off as rude, she smiled at him. 

 

He grabbed two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter, and passed one to her.  Smooth, she thought.  “The last time we saw each other you copped to sneaking smoke bombs in my luggage.”  

 

She stared at him in disbelief, “Stanley? You certainly haven’t done too bad for yourself either,” she said while looking him up and down.  The words left her mouth before she could think.  But, hell, it was true.  

 

He laughed at that, “You flatter me.  But seriously, congratulations.” She motioned for him to join her and they swapped stories over a couple more rounds of champagne.  He recently became an engineer here on Arcturus, having moved back after graduating college on Earth last year.  His father was recently transferred to the SSV Einstein, where Hannah was currently serving.  

 

The longer they talked, the more their stares lingered between them, body language becoming more intimate.  Shepard told him that she was leaving for Rio in a few days.  He answered her with a hand on her leg and a whisper in her ear, “Then why are we wasting time here?”  

 

She didn’t really have a good answer for that, having fulfilled her social obligations for the evening well enough.  Shepard quickly emptied the rest of her glass and stood, extending her hand.  “Ready when you are,” she smirked.  

 

Hannah spotted her exit with the tall, light-haired man, and raised her eyebrow, disapprovingly.   Shepard smiled and blew her mom a kiss.  She knew she’d be getting an earful the next time they spoke.

 


 

Hackett had been expending great effort in not watching Shepard cozy up to the man at her table.  The fact that he even felt the need to avert his gaze left him with a feeling of annoyance.  He wasn’t her protector.  She was a grown woman, who could probably break that boy in two if the need arose.  No, that’s not what was causing him distress.  Deep down, he knew what it was, even if he refused let the word surface in his own mind.  He wouldn’t even acknowledge it when he saw her leaving with him; the young man’s arm around her, a hand resting on her hip.  And so instead he swallowed it with the rest of his whiskey.  

 


 

Shepard woke up the next morning feeling more rested than she’d felt in a long time.  Stanley was still sleeping, so she headed to kitchen to brew some coffee.  Even though she had told him the night before that she’d be leaving soon, she really hoped that he wasn’t expecting more than a night or two from her.  N-School was going to be brutal, she didn’t need to be pining over a long distance romance on top of it.  

 

As she reached for a couple of coffee cups from the cupboard, a pair of arms encircled her waist.  Stanley placed kiss on her neck, “Morning.”  

 

She set the cups down and turned in his arms, “Morning.”  He brushed some errant strands of raven hair from her face, “So are we gonna keep in touch when you’re gone, or was this just a one-time thing?”  

 

She’d give him points for his bluntness.  “Stanley, I don’t...”  

 

He stopped her there with an index finger on her lips, as if he knew what her answer was but didn’t want to hear the words.  “It’s okay, Jane.  Really.  I just wanted to know.”  Shepard could sense his disappointment, but said nothing.  “Look me up the next time you’re on the station. Maybe we can grab a drink or something.”  

 

She knew that they wouldn’t.  “Sounds good, Stanley.”  

 

He left soon after, while she was in the shower, without saying goodbye.  She had been hoping for a repeat performance of the previous night, but maybe it was for the best.  Especially if he’d been thinking that this was something more than it was.  After all, she had a mountain of laundry and packing to take care of.  And a mother who probably wanted a few words with her.

Chapter Text

Shepard arrived in Rio de Janeiro a couple of days before her N1 training began to do some sightseeing.  She’d never been to Earth before and wanted to experience the home of humanity outside of her course.  Or at least what could be absorbed in such a short amount of time.  

 

Opting to stay in a hotel before reporting to the Interplanetary Combatives Academy, she stepped out onto the balcony that overlooked the bay.  It was a rather warm afternoon, and the rain had just started to fall.  In her 22 years — well almost, she’d turn 22 the following day — she had never seen actual rainfall.  She leaned over the railing, allowing the drops of water to splash onto her face and dampen her hair, forcing a gleeful giggle to escape her lips.  

 

The sound of the room’s VI, alerting her to a incoming vid call, brought Shepard back inside.  She opened the terminal and was greeted by the image of her mother.  “Oh hi, dear.  I couldn’t reach you on your personal communicator, so I had the hotel patch me to your room.”

 

Shepard realized she must’ve turned it off while she was asleep.  “Sorry, mom, I was taking a nap earlier.”  Normally, she’d keep the device on, but was exhausted when she’d arrived, having been too excited to sleep on the transport to Earth.  

 

“I understand, honey.  You’re going to need all the rest you can get,” she smiled sympathetically.  “Just wanted to call and wish you a happy birthday since I might not get the chance tomorrow.  Duty calls, you know how it is.”

 

“Now more than ever,” Shepard acknowledged.  She noticed a bit more grey in Hannah’s hair, which was bound tight in its usual bun.  “It’s good you caught me now.  I’m going to get out early and spend the day seeing the city. Then treat myself to dinner at the restaurant downstairs.  Maybe take a nice long bubble bath in the big tub in this room.  Seriously, the thing’s huge!”

 

The older woman laughed at her daughter’s exuberance.  “That sounds like a lovely plan. Military life definitely teaches us to take advantage of any luxury offered while we can.”  She started to say her goodbye before stopping abruptly.  “Oh wait, before I forget.  I spoke with Admiral Hackett earlier.  He wanted me to wish you good luck on your training.”  

 

“Oh?” Shepard perked up.  She was fond of Hackett and was, admittedly, going to miss his company the following day.  She’d begun to look forward to their annual meetups, for lack of a better word, but it just wasn’t in the cards this year.  

 

“He certainly has taken an interest in your career, as of late,” Hannah noted.  “I think he feels an obligation to your father to watch over you.  It could be very advantageous.”

 

“Oh.”   Shepard wasn’t sure which implication she resented more in that moment.  Her mother’s insinuation that she take advantage of Hackett’s thoughtfulness for her own professional gain, or that his interest in her was of a fatherly nature.  She was taken aback by her disappointment in the latter.  

 

Before she could let herself analyze the hell out of that, Hannah, too, wished her luck.  “I know you’ll make me proud no matter what, Jane.  You always do.”  They said their goodbyes, and Shepard made her way towards the small bed in the corner of the room.  She shed her clothing before climbing under the blankets, still pondering her mother’s words and the feeling they’d invoked.  

 

Okay, maybe she had developed a small crush on the admiral.  Maybe.  But so what?  He was very much off-limits being her superior officer and almost twice her age.  And he most likely thought of her as nothing more than the daughter of a friend.  It’s not like they’d be seeing each other any time soon.  There was plenty of time to get over her infatuation.  And she certainly wouldn’t be lacking in distractions with N-School kicking her ass for the next several months.  Shepard sighed as she turned off the lights from the bedside console.  All she could see now were a certain pair of icy blue eyes.  Dammit.

 

After a surprisingly restful night’s sleep, one of the last she’d experience for the foreseeable future, Shepard showered and put on a pair of jeans, her grey Alliance hoodie, and black sneakers.  She grabbed a quick bite in the hotel lobby before heading out to explore the city.

 

Among the most notable sites she visited throughout the day were an art gallery, a local wildlife refuge, and an Alliance military museum with a beautiful memorial garden.  Anderson had tipped her off about the museum, knowing of her interest in military history.  Not a bad way to spend a birthday, she thought.  

 

Shepard capped off the day with a rodízio dinner at the restaurant in her hotel.  They had her at all-you-can-eat meat.  Since she was dining solo, she opted to eat at the bar.  No sooner had she finished her last round of steak, when a rather muscled man with a shaved head took the seat to her left and ordered a beer.  “You Alliance?” He pointed to her shirt.  When she nodded, he continued, “I assume I’ll be seeing you at the villa tomorrow then?”  He looked her up and down, seemingly unimpressed.

 

She straighten up a bit in her seat at that, “Yeah, that’s right.”  Shepard motioned to the bartender for another caipirinha.  

 

He extended his hand, “Name’s Briggs.” His grip was almost crushing when she shook it.  “Don’t feel bad if you fail out.  Just being here will look good on your résumé.  My sister’s an N3.  Tough gal.”  He paused to take a swig of his beer.  “From what she tells me of the courses, I’ll probably breeze through N1 through N5, no sweat.”

 

Shepard tried to hide her amusement.  Anderson, who happened to be the first N7 graduate, had told her the loudest talkers were usually the first ones out of the program.  “Uh-huh,” was all she managed to get out without laughing.  

 

Her condescending tone seemed to have gone unnoticed, so he blathered on about his greatness or something.  She’d stopped listening.  At least until she thought she heard a question.  Her name?

 

“Oh, it’s Shepard.”  She hoped that was what he asked for.  

 

Briggs narrowed his eyes briefly, then they widened as recognition became apparent.  “Jane Shepard?  Hero of the Blitz?”  She nodded.  “Shit!  It’s great to meet you.”  He shook her hand again, but this time without the vice grip.  She was getting used to people underestimating her before they knew her name.  At least his boasting came to an immediate halt.  They chatted for a bit before he paid his tab and left.  

 

Shepard, however, wasn’t going anywhere until she had dessert.  Waiting to flag down a waiter, she noticed one carrying a delicious looking piece of cake.  He was making his way towards her, and when she saw him light the candle, she knew it was for her.  The man placed the plate in front of her, “Lieutenant Shepard, this was made custom for you from someone who called before you arrived, and wanted to wish you a very happy birthday.”

 

Since she couldn’t show her appreciation to the sender, Shepard profusely thanked the waiter instead.  Initially, she thought her mother was behind this.  But upon closer inspection, the chocolate cake was layered with what looked like dulce de leche.  She could only think of one person who’d custom order that particular combination for her.  

 

He wasn’t there with her, but Hackett still found a way to make her smile on her birthday.  Dammit all to hell, Shepard chuckled.

Chapter Text

Shepard awoke from her nap still feeling exhausted.  The past two years of intense training courses and combat exercises — both simulated and not so much — coupled with very little sleep, had taken its toll.  She’d arrived on Arcturus Station the previous night, and was enjoying her first shore leave since she left for N-School  Aside from attending her N7 graduation ceremony this evening, she intended to spend as much of her time as she could in blessed slumber.

 

It still hadn’t quite sunk in that she’d actually received the prestigious designation.  Over the last several months, she’d witnessed some damn good soldiers drop like flies from the program.  The beefy marine she’d met in Rio, Briggs, hadn’t even made it past N2.  Shepard was privately amused that he hadn’t even outlasted his sister.  But like he had said, ultimately, there wasn’t any shame in failing out of the training.  She hoped he at least took his own words to heart.  

 

Her thoughts went back to the upcoming ceremony, the reason she was on the station in the first place.  Hannah had messaged her earlier, indicating she wouldn’t be able to make it.  Shepard was disappointed that she wouldn’t be seeing her mother, but understood.  Anderson had called the night before to congratulate her and to tell her he wouldn’t dare miss the event.  

 

She scrolled through some other messages that had been delivered while she was asleep.  Mostly friends and colleagues expressing their praise.  Surprisingly, there was even one from Briggs.  

 

But there was one name conspicuously absent from the list.  Shepard couldn’t help feeling a little let down.  She’d been right about being too distracted over the past two years to think about Hackett often, much less work out what exactly her feelings were for him.  What she hadn’t anticipated was the emotion being stirred up, all at once, at the prospect of seeing him again.  He would most certainly be at the graduation in an official capacity.  

 

This could go one of two ways, she figured.  Being in the same room with him again could fan the flames of a budding attraction.  Or she could discover it was more of a passing fancy.  Especially since she very much doubted his feelings toward her were anything but platonic.  And in her mind, that fact made fussing over the whole thing pointless.  Sighing, Shepard grabbed a protein bar on her way to the shower.  It was best to nip this in the bud either way.  

 


 

Admiral Hackett returned the salutes of the recent N7 graduates, four of them in all.  He shook the hands of each one, offering his congratulations.  Approaching the last of the group, he was taken aback by how much more beautiful she was than the last time he’d seen her.  “Congratulations, Lieutenant,” he extended his hand.  

 

Shepard smiled brightly, “Thank you, sir.”  He noticed her features were a bit more angled, losing a bit of softness.  But in its place was a steely confidence that was even more attractive on her.  

 

“The responsibilities about to be placed on your shoulders aren’t given to just anyone.  You’ve proven you deserve to stand amongst the best of us.”  Hackett clasped his hands behind his back.  “You’ve made the Alliance proud, soldier.”  You’ve made me proud. 

 

“I’m honored, sir.  And I won’t let you down.”  He couldn’t be sure of it, but it sounded like she meant him personally.  Hackett was never one to back down from danger, but if he didn’t find a way to extract himself out from under her emerald gaze, he was going to be in trouble.  

 

“See to it, Lieutenant.”  She raised an eyebrow at that.  “Enjoy your party,” he added with a bit of mirth and turned to make his way towards Anderson to discuss...anything that diverted his attention away from how damn well Shepard’s dress blues hugged her curves.  

 

Hackett had tried to put the younger woman out of his mind over the past two years.  Some days more than others.  Admittedly, he’d faltered quite a bit by sending her a treat on her birthday a couple of years back.  But when Hannah had mentioned that Shepard would be spending the day on her own, he couldn’t stop himself from inquiring where she’d been planning to go.  At the mention of the restaurant, the plan really just fell into place.  When his imagination supplied him with images of her enjoying the chocolate decadence —most of them involved her licking her lips — he knew he had to switch tactics.

 

Over the next several months, he went on a few dates here and there.  Nothing really came of them, especially once he realized he wasn’t looking for companionship; he was looking for a distraction.  And that wasn’t fair to anyone.  So Hackett ultimately fell back into his tried-and-true routine; he poured himself into his work. 

 

Hackett shook himself from his thoughts as he approached Anderson with an extended hand.  Here he was, looking for yet another distraction.  

 


 

Shepard watched Hackett walk away, and thought, well that’s that then.  It was obvious that whatever she was feeling, it was definitely one-sided.  While his professional demeanor was to be expected, she noted how much more reserved he seemed.  As if a part of him that she’d gotten to know had pulled away.  It really was for the best, although she wished it didn’t have to sting so much.

 

As the festivities started to wind down, Shepard realized she didn’t feel like calling it a night just yet.  There’d be plenty of time to be alone with her thoughts and she could use a drink or two before dealing with that.  

 

She found an unassuming bar not too far from the ceremony.  Taking a seat at the far end of the bar, Shepard ordered a beer.  She was conversing with the bartender, when she saw a familiar face sit down at the end opposite to her.  Nodding towards him, she told the middle aged woman to put his drink on her tab.

 

Shepard grabbed her beer and walked over to where Hackett was sitting.  He lifted his glass of whiskey towards her and she tapped her beer against it.  “Figured I owed you for the birthday cake in Rio.  Never did get to say thanks.”  She hopped up into the chair around the corner of the bar to his right.  

 

His eyes narrowed slightly, “And how do you know it was from me?”  The playful tone in his voice came as a relief to her.  There was the man she knew.  

 

“Oh I don’t know. I guess it could’ve just been a coincidence that a custom made cake, which just happened to consist our favorite flavors, made its way to my table on my birthday,” Shepard teased.  She lowered her voice, “The combination was delicious by the way.”  The way her tongue wet her lips had everything to do with the memory of the dessert, and nothing at all to do with the suggestion in her words.  That’s what she told herself anyway.

 

By the way Hackett’s eyes darkened, she was sure he picked up on the undertone.  Interesting.  “Is that so?” he smirked and leaned forward ever so slightly.  “It’s a shame I couldn’t have been there to have a taste myself.”  

 

Shepard almost couldn’t believe her ears.  Was he actually...flirting with her?  This certainly changes things, she thought as she leaned in a little, as well, intending to extend this little dance of theirs.  However, just as she was about to utter something on the other side of appropriate, Anderson clapped her on the back.

 

“Shepard, I was wondering where you’d run off to.”  He looked between the two of them, seemingly noticing their close proximity, and she felt strangely caught.  “Steven.”

 

“David.”  Hackett leaned back in his chair, and just like that, the admiral was back in place.

 

Anderson took the seat on the other side of her, and asked if she’d received her orders yet.  “Not yet, sir.  Do you know something?”

 

“As you know,I’ve been given command of the SSV Tokyo and I’m bringing you aboard with me,” Anderson declared.  Hackett didn’t seem surprised by the news, naturally, and looked on approvingly.  

 

Shepard was pleased with this development.  She respected Anderson, who had become a mentor to her.  Serving under him directly was exactly what she’d been hoping for.  “I look forward it, sir.”

 

The captain shook her hand as if that sealed the deal unofficially, and accepted his vodka tonic from the bartender.  Lifting his glass, he proposed a toast to the new N7 operative.  “You walked through hell and came out the other side, forged as an elite soldier.”

 

“And you would certainly know, sir.”  She raised her own glass with a nod.  Chancing a glance at Hackett, Shepard felt his blue eyes studying her with an unreadable expression on his face.  Nonetheless, he also lifted his drink to join in on the toast.  

 

Anderson gripped her shoulder, “You did good, child.”  

 

At those words, Shepard knew that it was no longer just her parents who she wanted to make proud.  But the attention heaped on her all evening was starting to wear her down.  It’s not that she was ungrateful, but she was far more comfortable with being out in the field and getting the job done.  The accolades were nice, but not the reason she signed up.  

 

She finished her beer and stood, stifling a yawn, “It’s getting late.  I should go.”  With Anderson there, her previous conversation with Hackett certainly wasn’t going to progress further for the time being.  Still, the evening had been enlightening and she had a lot to contemplate with regards to the admiral.  Shepard wished the gentleman a good evening and headed back to her assigned quarters with a hopeful grin plastered on her face.

 


 

Hackett had stayed behind to have another drink with his friend before returning to his apartment.  He hadn’t expected to see Shepard when he chose this bar.  In fact, the only reason he stopped in was a futile attempt to take his mind off of her.  And then there she was, sauntering towards him after buying him a round.  That newly acquired confidence marked in every slow step she took in his direction.  He knew before she’d even opened her mouth that he was quickly losing the silent battle with himself.  

 

And then a subtle suggestion from her red lips, and suddenly every valid reason he had for keeping a respectable distance between them went out the airlock.  And so he reciprocated.  Hackett honestly couldn’t decide if Anderson’s appearance a moment later was a blessing or a curse.  But with the way Shepard had moved a little closer to him, that wicked glint in her bright green eyes, he was leaning towards the latter.

 

In the morning, he knew he would likely feel differently.   Now that the intoxication of her closeness was starting to fade, the rational part of his brain was kicking in again.  She’d be reporting to the Tokyo in a couple of days, and he could only hope the distance would quell his desire.   

 

Since that wasn’t going to do much for him at the moment, he decided to take a shower.  A very cold one.  

Chapter Text

Shepard paced the walkway of the SSV Tokyo’s docking bay on Arcturus Station.  She wasn’t due to report in for a couple more hours, but pacing in her small quarters had gotten rather old and she’d wanted a change of scenery.

 

It had been almost two days since she’d seen Hackett at the bar, and she was starting to wonder if she’d completely imagined his flirting.  He’d said he was busy with meetings when she’d sent him a message asking if he wanted to grab a coffee.  Maybe it was true, but it seemed like he was avoiding her.  If she’d crossed a line, she preferred just to get a reprimand and move on.  But instead, she was left to wonder.  Which is why she now had all this damn nervous energy to expend.  

 

She had resigned herself to boarding the cruiser early, when she heard her name.  “Oh honey, I’m so glad I caught you!”  Hannah pulled her in for a hug.  “We just docked a day ahead of schedule.  I thought I might have missed you.”

 

When her mother released her, she spotted the man that had occupied her thoughts for the better part of the day.  “Admiral Hackett, sir.”  He ordered her at ease when she went to salute him.

 

“Just escorting the captain here to see her daughter.  I’ll give you two a moment.”  He casually strolled towards the railing at the other end of the walkway.

 

Shepard’s gaze followed him.  Hmm, convenient.  Conveniently safe for him, that is.  

 

“I have to attend a mission debrief with the admiral, but he insisted that I try to find you first since you would be leaving soon.”  Hannah reached out and tucked an errant strand of her daughter’s black hair behind her ear.   “My only child, an N7,” she beamed.  “I just wanted you to know how proud I am of you, Jane.  Your father would be so proud too.”

 

“Thanks, mom.”  Shepard was happy to get these precious few minutes with her mother; they happened so rarely these days. 

 

Hannah looked over to where Hackett was standing, several yards away.  “I should go.  I love you, sweetheart, so much.  And I’ll be in touch soon.”

 

“I love you, too”. The two embraced once more, before the older woman made her way over to join the admiral.  Shepard allowed her eyes meet Hackett’s when he turned around, searching for...something, anything.  He gave her a slight nod, letting his gaze linger ever so slightly, before turning and walking away with Hannah.  

 

Well, that clarifies absolutely nothing.  She sighed and sauntered over to where she’d left her duffle bag, picked it up, and made her way to the docking tube.  

 


 

 A few months into her tour, Shepard got word that the Tokyo had changed course and that they were now en route to the Euler System.  Before she had a chance to ask why, Captain Anderson called her to the briefing room.  He informed her that several of the top Alliance brass would be on Benning in two days to meet with representatives from the Turian Hierarchy to discuss a potential top secret collaborative project.  

 

Intel reports indicated that a faction of terrorists — part of a Terra Firma extremist offshoot — were planning an attack in the area of the summit, around the same time.  It wasn’t yet clear if the two were related, but the proximity necessitated quick, covert action.

 

“They’re not postponing the meeting, sir?”  Shepard tried to mask the trepidation she felt, not knowing if Hackett was to be part of the Alliance delegation.

 

“The site has been secretly moved to another facility,” Anderson reassured her.  “We can’t afford to give the turians a reason to back out.  This project is still in its infancy.”  

 

She relaxed a little at that.  Anderson pulled up a map on the console.  “A bomb is being hidden in a warehouse just outside of Joughin, here,” he pointed.  “I’m sending you in with a small team to secure it, and neutralize any combatants.  Bring in any that you can for questioning.  We need to find out what they know, if anything.”

 

“Understood, sir.  I won’t let you down.”

 

After the rest of her team for the mission was summoned and briefed, Shepard headed to her bunk to grab some shut eye before they hit the relay.  

 


 

Shepard was fidgeting with the new scope of her Avenger assault rifle onboard the drop shuttle.  Their LZ was a few klicks from the agricultural warehouse housing the bomb.  The sun was setting, which would give them cover as they made their way through the alleyways of the industrial district.  

 

Looking at the members of her team, Shepard realized she only knew two of the four, Kearns and Chan.  Though she did recognize Rodriguez and Hayes from seeing them around mess on the Tokyo.  She made a mental note to get to know more of the crew.  

 

As they approached their drop, Shepard double-checked the seals on her black N7 armor.  They exited the shuttle on foot, and immediately ducked into the nearby alley.  The team moved quickly over several blocks without incident.  Approaching the warehouse, she motioned for the squad to hold, so she could get a look through a large window and assess the situation inside.

 

Through the open pane, she spotted three human individuals, two men and a woman, up on the second story loft, huddled in conversation.  Each of them armed and sporting the unique symbol of the terror group on their sleeves; the severed heads representing the alien Council races, arranged in a triangle.  The imagery and symbolism sickened her.

 

No visual on the bomb, itself, but that was expected.  Shepard motioned Rodriguez — a crack shot of a sniper — to her position, pointing to the trio inside.  One nod, three precise shots, and the upper level appeared to be clear.  

 

After waiting for any others inside the building to come check out the commotion, and seeing no activity, Shepard lead the team inside through the same window.  

 

A thorough search of the main room, including the loft, ensured there were no other hostiles in the immediate vicinity.  There were four doors on the ground floor — excluding the exits — so they’d have to comb through those one-by-one.  

 

As they cleared the final room, finding neither the bomb nor any more of the militants, Shepard let out an exasperated breath.  “Either they’ve moved the bomb or intel was off the mark.”  

 

“That would explain why there were only three of the bastards standing around here.”  Chan wiped her brow with the back of her hand.

 

Shepard readied her communicator to contact Anderson, when she noticed an irregularity in the otherwise smooth metal floor.  “What’s this?”  She bent down to run her gloved hand over the grooves.  It looked like a hidden trapdoor.  

 

As she tried to pry the thing open, Kearns led the rest of the group out of the room.  “When we were approaching the building earlier, I thought I saw some crates ‘round back.  We should check them out.”  He motioned towards the back exit.  “Shepard’s got this covered.”

 

How the hell did I miss those? She finally got the latch to open, when three successive gun shots rang out.  Shepard quickly got to her feet, Avenger in hand, and raced through the door.  A blow to the back of the head sent her to the floor and her rifle skidding away.

 

She felt hot metal at the base of her skull.  “I’d advise you to stay down, Lieutenant.”  Kearns.  What the fuck?

 

From where she was sprawled, face down on the cold, hard surface, she could see the lifeless forms of Rodriguez, Chan, and Hayes in a growing pool of blood.  Trying to not to panic, she discreetly activated her comm when Kearns bent down to retrieve her weapon.  

 

“Never pegged you for a traitor, Kearns.”  Shepard ignored the searing pain and hoped Anderson, hell anyone, was listening.  

 

“I’m not the one willing to sell out my humanity to work with fucking turians,” he spat.  

 

“And what exactly would you call the cold-blooded murder of your fellow soldiers, solidarity?”  

 

“A means to an end.  But don’t worry, ma’am, we need you alive.  As the Hero of Elysium and an N7, you should fetch us a tidy sum from the Alliance”  He moved into her field of vision, pointing his pistol at her.  “That doesn’t mean I won’t incapacitate you if you try anything.”

 

“There’s no bomb, is there?”  

 

“Nope.”  Kearns snickered.  “We didn’t think you’d show if we just asked nicely.”  Moments after he disappeared from her view, she felt her hands being bound behind her before she passed out.  

 

Shepard awoke some time later being pulled to her feet and shoved into a nearby chair.   Her hands and feet were then secured.  She felt nauseous and lightheaded, and figured she had a concussion.  Kearns activated his omni tool.  “It’s done.  Shepard’s ours.”  The hell I am, asshole.

 

After sending his message, realization dawned on his face and he quickly strode towards her and ripped the commutation device from her ear.  “Ah, I don’t think you’ll be needing this,” he snarled as a bullet tore through his hand holding the pistol directed at her. 

 

Kearns dropped the weapon and cried out in pain.

 

“You’re right, she doesn’t.”  

 

Shepard didn’t need to look in the direction of that gravelly voice to know who it belonged to.  But she was glad she did.  Hackett was a quite a vision in dark blue armor, his gun trained on her captor.

 

And then she felt immediate guilt.  Three members of her team were dead, she’d just been rescued from a ransom attempt, and all she could do was ogle her rescuer.  She’d blame the crack to the head she took earlier.  

 

Hackett closed the distance, not taking his eyes, or his aim, off of Kearns.  “Are you okay, Shepard?”

 

“Yes, sir.  Aside from a possible concussion.”  She didn’t miss Hackett’s stare harden towards the injured man, nor his grip tightening around his sidearm.  “Kearns alerted his contacts before you arrived.  I think we should expect company soon,” she warned.

 

Hackett didn’t seem to be concerned. “Apparently, they were waiting nearby for his call.  Unfortunately for them, they weren’t expecting to be...greeted before they reached the front entrance.” 

 

She would’ve liked to have seen that.  Stop it!

 

Kearns dropped to his knees at hearing that backup would no longer be coming, still gripping his wounded hand.  Shepard knew they needed to interrogate him, but a part of her still wished Hackett had aimed for his head.

 

The front doors opened, and several heavily armed Alliance personnel poured into the warehouse.  “Take Sergeant Kearns here into custody,” Hackett ordered, lowering his weapon at last.  He bent down to untie Shepard’s feet before moving around to free her hands.  When she went to stand with his assistance, the dizziness hit her hard and she fell back onto the chair.  The last thing she remembered before losing consciousness again was seeing concern in the admiral’s blue eyes.

Chapter Text

Shepard woke up in a med clinic bed in Joughin just before dawn the next morning.  That’s what the doctor had told her, after asking if she knew her name, rank, and the current date.  She’d been unconscious for most of the night and as suspected, the diagnosis was a concussion.  She had no memory loss and the scans ruled out any serious damage.  The recommended treatment was a few days of rest, although she knew it would soon become an order once Anderson had anything to say about it.  

 

They were going to keep her there for several more hours to monitor any symptoms.  She put her head back down on the pillow once the doctor dimmed the lights and left the room.  Her armor had been removed at some point, leaving her in a white tank top and black leggings.  Figuring she might as well take advantage of the quiet accommodations and relatively soft bed, she closed her eyes and tried not to think about her utter failure the night before.  

 

The sunlight streaming into her room roused Shepard from her blessedly dreamless slumber.  She stretched her long limbs and rubbed her eyes, adjusting to the brightness bouncing off the sterile looking walls.  It was then she noticed the figure looking out the window, hands clasped behind his back.

 

“Admiral?”  Her voice sounded weak from sleep.  She cleared her throat before sitting up in the bed and throwing back the blankets.  As she swung her legs over the side, moving to stand, Hackett turned and put up his hands to stop her.

 

“Relax, Lieutenant, this isn’t an official visit.  Anderson will handle the debrief once you’re discharged.”  His tone softened.  “How are you feeling?”

 

Shepard squared her shoulders, preparing to give him some bullshit answer about how she was fine.  The last thing she wanted to project was weakness, especially to a superior officer.  But the look in his eyes, coupled with the way he inched a bit closer to her, seem to signal that he wasn’t just looking for reassurance of her fitness as a soldier.  He wanted the truth.

 

Still, it didn’t hurt to make sure.  “Off the record, sir?”  It almost sounded like a plea.

 

“Of course, Shepard.”  Hackett took a seat in the chair next to the bed and removed his cap, seemingly to put her at ease.

 

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “I failed them.”  Shepard put her face in her hands, as if in defeat.  “I’ve seen soldiers die.  Too many.”  Rubbing her face in an attempt to fight back the tears that threatened, she continued.  “But Rodriguez, Chan, and Hayes died on my watch.  And, in some way, I feel like I failed Kearns as well.  I just...I failed them all.”

 

“Losing soldiers under your command is one of the hardest parts of the job.  I wish I could tell you it won’t happen again, but you and I both know that I cannot.”  

 

She could feel his gaze on her, but couldn’t look at anything but the floor.  “Yeah.  I know.”  And she did, but it didn’t do anything to lessen her guilt.  

 

“I know what you’re going through, Shepard.  Believe me, I do.”  At the raw sincerity in his voice, she raised her head and finally looked at him as he continued.  “But I also know my words, alone, aren’t enough right now.  So what you’re going to do is honor those lost and their sacrifice, learn from your mistakes, and become stronger.  For them and for yourself.”

 

Shepard couldn’t do anything other than nod.  She didn’t trust her voice at that moment.  Hackett was right, but it’s not like she had a choice either.  Wallowing in her misery wouldn’t bring them back, but doing better in the future might prevent more from joining them.

 

Resting her forearms on her knees, she groaned.  “It doesn’t help that you, of all people, had to bail me out like I was some damsel in distress.”

 

Hackett all but huffed at that.  “You think I’ve never had my ass pulled out of the fire?”  

 

She realized she’d sounded ungrateful.  “Don’t get me wrong, sir, you were certainly a sight for sore eyes and I’m thankful for what you did.  But what were you doing there?”

 

“I, along with the other Alliance representatives, arrived here in Joughin yesterday evening to discuss specifics before meeting with the turians.”  He leaned back in the chair.  “Anderson had heard your conversation with Kearns over his comm and was scrambling a ground team from the Tokyo.  But it was going to be faster for someone already planetside to reach you, so he contacted me.”

 

That made sense to her.  Shepard learned from the recon that local law enforcement was pretty much a non-entity in the industrial district.  Most of the warehouses there stored grain and agricultural equipment, and crime in the area was surprisingly rare.  She also doubted that the Alliance would want it to get out that they had a terrorist operative embedded in the ranks.  

 

“And the meeting, sir?”  She hoped at least one thing had gone according to plan.

 

“Occurred as scheduled this morning,” was all he’d say.  

 

She nodded in relief.  Due to its top secret classification, she knew any other questions would go unanswered.  She switched topics instead.  “So do you always travel with full armor, sir?” Her voice was slightly teasing.  That image was one she wouldn’t soon forget, and smartly decided to keep that part to herself.

 

The corner of his mouth quirked up, “When there’s a credible threat of violence, yes.”

 

Oh, right.  “Fair enough.”  She gave him a small, embarrassed smile.

 

At that, Hackett stood up and closed the distance between them.  Before he had the chance to say anything, a nurse walked into the room to let Shepard know that her discharge was being processed, and that the doctor would be right in to check her over one last time.

 

When the nurse left, Hackett lifted his hand and rested it on her bare shoulder.  “How’s your head, Shepard?”

 

She felt warmth spread through her at the unexpected contact.  “Aside from the goose egg, I feel alright.”

 

His icy blue eyes were intense as he gave her shoulder a squeeze and visibly swallowed.  “I’m glad you’re safe.”

 

It took all her inner strength not to lean forward and do something incredibly stupid.  Not to mention career threatening.  Instead she whispered, “Thanks to you.”

 

Shepard couldn’t be absolutely sure, but it seemed like he was struggling with the same temptation.  The fact that he was staring at her lips was a fairly good indication.  

 

After several tortuous moments, his hand left her and he took a few steps back just as the doctor entered.  

 

Hackett retrieved his cap and moved towards the door.  “Get some rest, Lieutenant.  That’s an order.”

 

“Pretty sure Anderson will back you up on that one, sir,” she assumed.

 

“Of that, I have no doubt.”  He then pointed to a fancy, white paper bag on the side table next to her that she hadn’t noticed.  “Also, make sure to eat something,” he advised with a wink.

 

The doctor politely cleared her throat.  Shepard wanted to thank the admiral for...everything.  But now that they were no longer alone, she settled on a warm smile and a salute.  Hackett returned both and took his leave.

 

Once the exam was over and the doctor was satisfied enough to sign off on the discharge, Shepard opened the bag.  Inside was a big, gourmet chocolate cookie.  She took a bite and closed her eyes.  Her heart still hurt for the ones she lost.  But now, she realized, there was also a part of it that no longer belonged to her.  Dammit.

 


 

 

Back on the Tokyo, Anderson had debriefed Shepard and she learned more details about Sergeant Kearns.  He’d become radicalized by his cousin within the last year and officially joined their cause a short time later.  Their original plan was to take Alliance military hostages by feeding them false intel about a bomb, and subsequently abducting the responding forces.  The plan changed somewhat when Kearns, himself, had been assigned to the investigating team.  With Shepard leading the squad, he knew she, alone, would make a much more valuable bargaining chip than a random bunch of marines.  

 

Turns out the group apparently had no idea about the Alliance meeting with the Turian Hierarchy.  Shepard didn’t know whether that made her feel better or worse.  On the one hand, terrorists learning that kind of top secret information would’ve signaled a much bigger problem, to say the least.  On the other, to know that good soldiers lost their lives for nothing more than some credits, made her sick to her stomach.

 

Shepard was right about one thing though, she wasn’t going to be seeing any action for at least the next few days.  Which was why she was now in the crew quarters, cooling her heels.  She wasn’t even cleared to look over datapads.  

 

Being alone with her thoughts wasn’t something she looked forward to.  Too many unwanted images flashed through her mind.  Too many emotions to sort through.  

 

She thought about what Hackett had said about becoming stronger.  If she put all of her effort into becoming the leader Anderson still thought she could be, who she thought she could be, maybe she wouldn’t forever be haunted by the ghosts of her failing.  

 

And by taking the admiral’s advice, maybe, just maybe, she could avoid confronting her feelings for him. 

Chapter Text

It was getting late on Arcturus Station.  Steven Hackett took a sip of coffee as he looked over yet another report of a mission that’d been successfully lead by Lt Commander Shepard.  

 

It was easy for him to forget that it had been over two years since he’d been in the same room as her.  She was gaining quite the reputation as a strong leader, whose methods occasionally raised some eyebrows amongst the top brass.  Anderson’s influence, no doubt.   No one could argue, however, with her results.  The list of commendations and medals to her name was quickly outgrowing those that belonged to officers twice her age.  

 

The operation on Benning seemed to have little to no long-term effect on her morale.  Or so the psych evaluations had said.  Hackett could still see the utterly dejected look on her face when he’d checked up on her afterwards.  As her superior officer, he’d given her the words of wisdom given to him long ago.  As a man, he’d wanted nothing more than to take her into his arms and make the pain go away.  Hell, there was a moment when he thought she might kiss him.  And he was pretty sure he wouldn’t have stopped her.  

 

That’s when he knew he’d needed to put some distance between them.  Shepard was his subordinate, twenty years his junior, and the daughter of his late friend and of a current colleague.  While he’d already been well aware of all that, he’d also fooled himself into thinking a little one-sided attraction was harmless if he never acted on it.  

 

It was the realization that she might feel the same way about him that had forced Hackett back to reality.  Sure, she had flirted with him once or twice.  But anyone who knows Shepard has heard her slip suggestion into her words, often inadvertently.  In that med clinic, though, there was no mistaking that almost expectant look in her green eyes when they were inches apart, his hand on her shoulder.  That look simultaneously heated his blood and sent a chill running through it.  

 

Forgetting about her was easier said than done.  Especially when they, not too infrequently, crossed paths professionally.  That, alone, was all the more reason to take a step back.  When she wasn’t in close proximity, things seemed so much simpler.  Jane Shepard was off-limits and that was that.  And he would keep repeating that to himself until it became his mantra.

 

Hackett sighed and rubbed his face in an attempt to clear his mind and refocus his attention on work.  He’d need to wrap things up if he wanted to meet Anderson on time for drinks.  

 


 

Shepard hadn’t planned on drinking that evening.  She was enjoying her last bit of shore leave, but didn’t want to wake up with a hangover.  It was probably too late for that.  Staring at her glass, she tried to remember how many cocktails she’d had when Ensign Carla Murphy interrupted her calculations, “Commander, next round’s on me.”

 

“Now you’re talking, Murph!”  Shepard downed the rest of the blue liquid in her glass.  She’d made good on her intention to get to know her crewmates better over the past couple of years.  Murphy was also a former spacer brat, and had lost her father when she was a teenager.  They both knew what it was like to have difficulty making and keeping friends.  It seemed natural that they’d hit it off so quickly. 

 

Sitting across the table from them were two guys, whose names Shepard could not remember for the life of her.  They’d offered to buy the women drinks, but now she was just wondering how much time she had to put in with them before her and Murphy could move on without seeming rude.  

 

The nightclub was supposedly the hottest on Arcturus currently, but Shepard found it too loud to carry on a decent conversation.  Just as she was about to lean over and yell into Murphy’s ear, the blonde quickly stood and grabbed one of the guys by the arm, leading him to the dance floor.  

 

Shepard looked across the table at the man who remained.  She suddenly realized he actually wasn’t too bad looking.  In fact, he was rather attractive.  She pegged him to be in his mid to late twenties.  By the way he carried himself, she was almost sure he wasn’t a soldier.  And right now, that was fine by her.  

 

Flashing him a smile, she got up and took the recently vacated seat next to him.  “So what do you do for a living?”  Small talk was something she loathed, but Shepard figured it was better than staring at each other in awkward silence.  

 

“I’m a senior parliamentary assistant.  And you?”  Suddenly, his hairstyle made sense.  She swore everyone in politics went to the same barber.  

 

“Alliance marine,” she answered.  

 

He looked her up and down, as if sizing her up.  “Yeah, I thought so,” he grinned.  

 

The volume of the music was certainly not conducive to conversation.  Not wanting to shout all night, Shepard nodded towards the dance floor.  “Shall we join our friends?”

 

“I was about to suggest the same thing.”  They stood and he led her not too far from where Murphy was practically grinding on her dance partner.  Shepard wasn’t exactly the best dancer, but with enough alcohol to ease her apprehension, she just let go and let the music guide her moves. 

 

After several songs had decreased the amount of space between their bodies, Shepard excused herself to use the ladies room.  As she was freshening up at the sink, Murphy exited one of the stalls.  “So looks like you and Will are hitting off.”

 

Shepard silently thanked her friend for saving her the embarrassment of having to ask him his name again.  “Yeah, and my dancing didn’t even scare him away,” she chuckled.

 

“I think Mark and I are gonna head back to his place soon.”  Murphy winked, as she reapplied her lipstick after drying her hands.  

 

“Oh?  Lucky guy.”  Shepard waggled her eyebrows.  “Have fun, Murph.  And be careful.”

 

“Aye aye, m’am,” Murphy gave a mock salute and hurried out the door.

 

“Oh and you still owe me a drink!” Shepard shouted with amusement.  

 

When she made her own exit, she noticed Will had wandered over to the bar, so she headed that way.  

 

“Care for a drink?” he asked, while motioning to the bartender.

 

“Sure.  I’ll have whatever you’re having.”  The lighting was a little better here and Shepard could now see the highlights in his auburn hair.  And that his eyes were blue.  

 

He ordered two beers and she expressed her thanks when he handed her one.  Will seemed just as adverse to small talk as she was.  They exchanged smiles in between sips from their glasses, but mostly stayed silent.  

 

Shepard wondered if he was calculating his odds of going home with her.  It had been awhile since she’d been with anyone.  While she wasn’t opposed to casual sex, it sometimes left her feeling even more alone.   But anything more meaningful seemed out of reach for someone like her.  There was her career, which was a choice she made without reservations.  And then there were the feelings she had for someone who she had no business having feelings for.  Someone she hadn’t even seen in two years.  That was something that was out of her hands. 

 

Having made up her mind, Shepard finished the last of her beer and leaned in to give Will a peck on the cheek.  “Thanks for the beer and dancing, but I should go.”  

 

Although his lips quirked up at the sides, she could still see the disappointment on his handsome face.  “Can we do this again some time?”  He sounded hopeful.

 

“If you’re still free in six months.  I start a new tour tomorrow.”  While she actually wouldn’t mind seeing him again, she knew he’d forget about her by then.  And vice versa.  

 

“Then it’s a date.”  He didn’t sound at all convinced.

 

As Shepard left the club, she pondered why she’d wasted an opportunity for companionship, even if it was just for one night. It was her last day of shore leave, and Will seemed like a decent guy, not to mention attractive.  And they’d definitely had chemistry on the dance floor.  She could make up a hundred excuses as to why she left.  But in picturing his face, she knew the real reason.  Why did he have to have blue eyes?

 


 

The next morning Shepard was regretting that she’d agreed to meet Murphy for coffee before they reported in to the Tokyo.  She’d gotten too little sleep, and had wanted nothing more than to hit the snooze button on her alarm.  At least this cafe had some damn strong coffee and gooey cinnamon rolls almost as big as her face.

 

The silly grin on the blonde’s face told Shepard all she needed to know about how the rest of her friend’s evening had gone.  “Are you planning on seeing him again?”

 

“We said we’d keep in touch.  But you know how that goes.”  Murphy shrugged.  “It would be nice to have someone to come back to for once.”  She let out a wistful sigh.  

 

“Yeah, it would.”  It really would.

 

“So?  You and Will?  Don’t keep me hanging, Commander.”  Murphy playfully elbowed her in the ribs.

 

“We said our goodbyes at the club.  He was a great guy, but...”  Shepard couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.

 

The young ensign had no such problems, however.  “But you’re still pining over the same man you have been since I met you,” she accused, rolling her eyes.

 

“Hey, I’m not pining,” Shepard defensively protested.  “It’s complicated.”

 

“Complicated how?  Either he feels the same way and you’re just wasting time, or he doesn’t and you need to move on.”  

 

Shepard had successfully diverted from the topic in the past.  But now that she was actively avoiding potential lovers, she knew her friend wasn’t likely to let it go this time.  “It’s not that simple.  He was a friend of my father’s.”  A partial truth.  “And he’s still in contact with my mom,” she added, hoping to drive the point home without revealing too much.

 

“Ah. I guess that does complicate things.”  Murphy smiled sympathetically.  “But I still think you should tell him how you feel.  You can’t hang in limbo forever.  If he rejects you, it’ll hurt like hell, I know.  But aren’t you hurting yourself now, by not knowing?  At least you could get some closure and eventually heal; find someone who is just as crazy about you.  And if he does feel the same way, you get your man and I look like a genius.  Everyone wins.”

 

Shepard laughed at that and then sighed.  “I just don’t know if I can.”  She couldn’t reveal that not only would she be risking her heart, but also her career.  And so she decided to buy herself some time.  “But I’ll think about it.”  And Shepard meant that.  After all, it’s what she’d already been doing for the past two years.

Chapter Text

Shepard had a feeling that she’d be following Anderson to serve on the SSV Normandy when he was given command of the ship.  But it came as a surprise when he’d chosen her to be his XO.  When she’d first heard about the prototype frigate, and its co-development with the turians, she finally knew what that top secret meeting on Benning was all about.  It seemed fitting in a way that she’d be on board for its shakedown run later that month.

 

News of her new position must’ve traveled fast, since she’d received several messages in the past hour.  She scrolled through the list of senders.  Mostly friends, colleagues, and her mom.  But the one with the oldest time stamp is what really got her attention.

 

 

To: Commander Jane Shepard

 

From: Admiral Steven Hackett

 

Subject: Your new role

 

 

Shepard,

 

 

You’ve more than earned this.  I know you’ll continue to make Anderson and the rest of the Alliance proud.

 

 

- Hackett

 

 

There was a time, not too long ago, that a message like that from the admiral would put a smile on her face and color in her cheeks.  But now, she felt nothing more than a small appreciation for his professional pat on the head.  

 

After her talk with Murphy several months ago, Shepard knew she had to make a decision.  Her friend had been right; she needed to move on.  It just didn’t have to involve actually telling Hackett that she had feelings for him.  He’d made no effort to see her again after Benning, which made it quite clear how any confession of hers would be received.  It was that realization that made her see that she didn’t have to say a thing, he’d already rejected her.  And it was that awareness that was needed for her heart to finally let him go.  

 

Shepard fired off some quick replies to her well-wishers before standing from her desk and stretching.  She didn’t have much time to get ready for the gala later that evening.  Even though the Normandy had already been named, a bunch of politicians there on Arcturus wanted an unofficial christening to show off and brag about the Alliance’s newest technological feat.  While not entirely thrilled about it, Shepard knew that humanity needed the PR.  

 

Since the event was not an official military function, formal attire was expected.  And that meant she’d been forced to buy a dress.  The red, strapless getup was currently laid out on her bed, practically taunting her.  She didn’t find her dress blues all that comfortable, but at least they didn’t involve high heels and gravity defying bras.  

 


 

As Shepard had suspected, this whole affair was little more than an opportunity for the politicos to pat themselves on the back.  The members of the press there were eating it up as well.  She was well aware that the higher she climbed in the ranks, the more of these spectacles would require her presence.  And the thought filled her with dread.  Facing down pirates, terrorists, slavers, and the like, was one thing.  Having to endure all the phony smiles and puffed up egos was downright torture by comparison.  

 

Trying to look on the bright side, Shepard supposed she could work on her diplomatic skills.  It really wouldn’t do her any good to converse with people, wearing a pained expression on her face and projecting abject misery.  

 

She spent the next hour or so speaking with various members of parliament, ambassadors, and reporters. Many of those she talked to requested a photo with her, which made her feel even more self-conscious about her choice of attire.  

 

As Shepard made her way to the bar for a much needed drink, she spotted Staff Lieutenant Kaidan Alenko, who’d also be serving on the Normandy.  He looked just as thrilled to be there as she did, if only by the way he eagerly drank from the bottle of beer that the bartender just handed him.  

 

“Evening, Lieutenant,” she greeted, sidling up to the bar next to him and ordering herself a glass of wine.

 

“Hey, Commander.  Quite a party, huh?”  Alenko’s eyes surveyed the room.  “You’d think with all the so-called VIPs in attendance, they’d spring for some decent beer.”

 

“I think the Alliance may have blown all of the beer money building the Normandy,” Shepard joked, before taking a sip of her wine and looking around the room, herself.  

 

As she heard Alenko chuckle at her quip, she spotted Captain Anderson speaking with Ambassador Donnel Udina and another figure she couldn’t quite see since a waiter was currently blocking her view of them.  Shepard didn’t pay them too much mind as she turned her attention back to the lieutenant.  “If it makes you feel any better, they didn’t have much of a wine budget either.”

 

“You know, it really doesn’t.”  They both laughed while simultaneously signaling for another round.  “Might as well take advantage of the open bar, eh?”

 

“You got that right.”  Shepard turned and leaned against the bar while waiting for the bartender to return, when she caught sight of the other person talking to Anderson and Udina.  His hair was now fully grey, and she’d never seen him in formalwear before, but Hackett had barely changed since she’d last seen him.  It was suddenly several degrees too warm and her heart was beating a little too fast.  How could he still have that effect on her?  She was over him...wasn’t she?  

 

Shepard was suddenly made quite aware that she was staring at him, when his blue gaze met hers from across the room.  Dammit.  It was too late to pretend she had just been scanning the room, so she smiled and turned back to Alenko.  

 

“Are you alright, ma’am?”  Her change in demeanor had clearly not gone unnoticed.  

 

“Yeah, just got a little uh, heartburn.  Whatever spices were in those hors d’oeuvres are not agreeing with me.”  It was the first thing she could think of.  

 

“Why don’t you go sit down.  I’ll see if the bartender can whip up something for that.”  He seemed genuinely concerned, which made her feel like an ass for lying.  

 

“Thanks.”  The less she said right now, the better.  Shepard walked over to an unoccupied table and took the first seat she saw.  She wanted to put her face in her hands and will herself to disappear, but that really wasn’t an option.  All it would do is attract attention, which was the last thing she wanted at the moment.  

 

Instead, she chanced a glance at Hackett, who was still deep in conversation.  Despite being over him — and she was over him — she couldn’t help but notice how good he looked in his black and grey suit.  Stop gawking.  It was then that she noticed Udina look her way, followed by Anderson, and then Hackett again.  What the hell is that about?  Where they talking about her?  

 

“Here you go, Commander.  Bitters and seltzer, the bartender swears by it.”  Alenko handed her a tall glass.  

 

Shepard took a sip.  “Thank you.  This should calm things nicely.”  It didn’t taste too great, but she didn’t have a choice but to drink it.  At least while he was standing there.  “Looks like things are starting to wind down.  I think I’m gonna live, so feel free to make your escape while you can.”  

 

“Aye aye, ma’am.  I hope you feel better.”  He gave her a tentative smile as they said their goodbyes.  

 

Once she was sure he was gone, she pushed the glass aside and waived down a passing waiter, who happened to have a tray of sparkling wine.  When she looked at the spot where the trio of men had been obviously discussing her for some reason, Shepard noticed they’d already dispersed.  Well, whatever the reason, she was sure she’d find out sooner or later.  Her more immediate concern was getting out of there without coming face-to-face with a certain admiral that she was utterly and completely over.  

 

“Shepard, I couldn’t help but notice your empty plate in the vicinity of a rather large dessert table.  Allow me to rectify that.”  

 

Shit.  She looked up to a rather smug looking Hackett holding a plate of chocolate truffles.  Instead of feeling gratitude towards his gesture, Shepard felt anger.  Over three years and not one word, aside from official business, and he thinks he can just continue where they left off?  Maybe he didn’t spend that time agonizing over his feelings the way she did over hers.  And that thought just added to her ire.  

 

“Thanks, but I’m not really hungry.”  Shepard averted her eyes and studied the glass in her hand.  This was not good.  Snipping at a superior officer because she can’t suppress her own feelings for him was definitely not good.  

 

“Take a walk with me, Commander.”  

 

She knew that tone.  It was one that would brook no argument.  The one that meant you fucked up and were about to hear about it.  Without any further word, Shepard stood and followed Hackett onto the empty terrace.  

 

No words were spoken as they walked along path that wound its way around the venue.   Once they had gotten far enough from the festivities, leaving them in near silence, Hackett stopped and turned towards her.  “Was it something I said, Shepard?”  He actually had the audacity to sound amused.

 

There were so many ways in which she could reply in that moment.  That it wasn’t anything he said; it was that he didn’t say anything for three years.  She wanted to know why he got close to her then abruptly pulled away without a word.  And where did he get the nerve to just casually resume almost-but-not-quite flirting they’d been engaging in?  

 

But Shepard didn’t utter anything of the sort.  Instead she lifted her head and looked directly at him.  Her anger instantly dissolved into something else entirely at seeing the concern on his face when she didn’t answer him immediately.  

 

Taking a tentative step forward, she locked her gaze with his and simply whispered, “I missed you.”

 

Hackett briefly shut his eyes and took a deep breath before closing the distance between them and pulling her into a tight embrace.  Willing herself to breathe, Shepard wrapped her arms around him.  Once she was able to force air back into her lungs, she inhaled deeply, taking in the distinct scent of his aftershave.  She could feel the pounding of his heart against her chest, and was pretty certain he could feel hers as well.  The feeling of contentment being in his strong arms was overwhelming.  But she needed more.

 

Pulling back slightly so she could see his face, Shepard looked into his eyes.  Several moments passed before she realized he hadn’t moved a muscle since clutching her to his chest.  He was still holding back, yet his intense gaze never left hers.  Leaning her face towards his ever so slowly, she brought a hand to his face and gently traced the scar that ran down the right side of his face, stopping just shy of his mouth.  “Steven...please,” she softly pleaded.

 

Something inside him must’ve snapped as he moved to grip the back of her head and finally claimed her lips with his own.  Hackett’s kiss was full of desperation and passion.  And in turn, Shepard poured all the emotions she’d been suppressing, all of the unspoken words into kissing him back just as intensely.  

 

When she ran her tongue along his bottom lip, the fingers at the base of her skull tangled into her hair before he opened his mouth in invitation.  They softly moaned in unison as the kiss deepened.  Shepard felt like her whole body was on fire.  Even though they were pressed tightly against one another, she needed to get even closer to him.  

 

Just as his lips left hers on a journey towards her neck, she heard voices.  One of them belonging to Captain Anderson.  Shit.  Shit, shit, shit.  In an instant, they separated from one another, trying to get their breathing under control.  Shepard smoothed her hair while Hackett used a handkerchief to remove traces of her lipstick from himself.  

 

As soon as they looked mostly presentable, the voices retreated, leaving the pair to their privacy.  But the air had changed between them.  When Shepard looked at Hackett, he looked regretful.  “I’m sorry, Jane,” he uttered, barely above a whisper.  “We can’t pursue this.”

 

She wanted to ask why, but Shepard already knew the answer.  Their careers were on the line, and they’d nearly been caught by her CO.  During their very first kiss, no less.  So instead, she simply answered, “Yeah, so am I.”  She took a deep breath and walked past him to lean on the railing on the edge of the balcony. The cool metal was a sharp contrast against her heated skin.    Hackett joined her, but kept a few feet of distance between them.  She didn’t look at him when she spoke again.  “If I was a civilian, would it be different?”

 

“It doesn’t matter.”  

 

“It matters to me.  I need to know how you feel about me, even if we can’t be together.”  Shepard knew she sounded desperate, but she wanted to hear it at least once.  

 

“My feelings are irrelevant, Shepard.”  He turned to her, his tone softening.  “I think you already know how I feel.  But would it really make things easier to hear me say the words when we can’t act on them?”

 

He had a point, she supposed.  If he admitted what was in his heart to her there and then, it would be almost impossible for her to let him go.  “No, I guess it wouldn’t.  Quite the opposite, in fact.”  Shepard stood up straight and finally looked at him.  “I know things can’t go back to the way they used to be.  But promise me you won’t be a stranger this time.”

 

Hackett gave her a rueful smile.  “I can do that.”  Moving a little closer to her, he brought his hands up to cup her cheeks.  “You’re an extraordinary woman, Jane Shepard.  I’ve been a military man for over 30 years, seen war, ended lives, ordered soldiers to their deaths.  I can truly say that walking away from you right now is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”  And before literally doing just that, he leaned in and placed a soft kiss on her forehead.  

 

As Shepard watched him go, she mentally cursed every regulation against fraternization in the books.  As a soldier, she knew why they were necessary.  But as a woman, whose heart was currently breaking, she resented the hell out of every single one.  

 

She knew that Hackett was protecting her, more than himself, from the potential fallout since she’d be the one to face the harshest repercussions.  The fact that he’d deny himself what he so clearly wanted, for her career’s sake, made her desire him even more.  That, in and of itself, was a cruel irony.

 

One small comfort was that she’d gotten some closure at least.  There wouldn’t be any nagging doubt or what-ifs keeping her up at night.  Time would be the only thing to truly heal her heart and allow her to move on.  And her upcoming tour on the Normandy would keep her mind occupied well enough.  After all, it was for her career that Shepard was sacrificing her love life in the first place.