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The Gift

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She heard his voice before she saw him.

Hannah Shepard sat ramrod straight in the lounge beside Counselor Anderson’s office. It had been kind of him, to tip her off that John would be on the Citadel, mere hours after she’d been told he was even alive.

She didn’t catch the words. They weren’t important. What was important was that they were his. Strong, lilting. Tinted with mischief. She felt the tears building before she could attempt to control them.

A week before she’d have given anything to hear it again. 

Hannah rose on numb legs, and he took a faltering step toward her. Footfalls light, even in that heavy hardsuit.

“Mom?” he questioned, in a tone that wasn’t really a question at all. It was raw. Young.

“I’ll let you two talk.” Anderson clapped John on the shoulder, nudging him forward before spinning on his heel, and shutting the door. A lock clicked closed behind him.

She wanted so badly to believe it. It looked like him. Sounded like him. From the way he stood—one hip cocked—to the shade of his eyes, and the set of his jaw. But she had to know.

“Where did I get this scar on my forehead?” Hannah asked, her voice brittle.

John seemed to understand. There was compassion in his eyes. As he spoke, they never left hers.

“I was angry after dad died. When you told me, I took the model starship I was holding, and threw it at the wall, and it hit you. One of the only metal ones I had. Go figure.” John’s cleared his throat as his voice broke. “It shut me right up, but you weren’t even mad. You just…let me scream. Let me cry myself out. And, you told me…”

“…I told you. It was okay to be angry, because I was, too.” Hannah’s breath hitched. “What is the first thing you said to me, after Akuze?”

John released a watery chuckle. “You noticed that my beard was bothering me. Must have seen me scratching at my face.”

Hannah laughed, brokenly. “It was the only time you’d move that week.”

“I couldn’t have held a razor. Couldn’t even get out of bed, so you did it for me. And it was such a small thing, butit meant everything.” John was the one fighting tears now. “I said…”

“…thank you.” Hannah’s face crumpled. “You said thank you…oh God…” She cupped one hand over her mouth. Almost scrambled the last few steps toward him. John met her halfway. Wrapped both arms around her.

She collapsed into him.

“I’m sorry…” He held her tight, breath hot against her cheek. “I’m so sorry…”

“Where the hell have you been?” Hannah balled up her fist. Punched him in the chest. Once. Twice.

“I was in a coma until a few weeks ago. If I could have called you, I would have, I swear.”

Hannah pulled back enough to get a good long look. Cupped his face between both hands. There were new scars–strange, crisscrossing lines, glowing faintly orange against his cheek.

“Oh, I’m so mad at you. But you’re here.” Hannah pulled him into her arms again. “I’m the luckiest woman alive.”

“Even though I came back looking like Frankenstein's monster?” John quipped. There was a levity to the words, and a glint in his eye Hannah immediately hated. Something almost…self-loathing.

“Baby, you could be Frankenstein’s monster. I’d be thrilled.”

It had the desired effect—he laughed. She always did know how to make him smile. Good to see she hadn’t lost her touch, but he avoided her eyes.

“What, are you talking about these?” She tilted his chin up with a finger. Brushed one of the glowing orange lines with her thumb. “Scars like any other. Don’t pay them a second of mind, do you understand me?”

There was a softness in his gaze. A vulnerability. But he was looking at her now. Smiling, almost bashfully. “Yes, ma'am.”

“Next time something like this happens, you tell me, the second you’re anywhere near technology.” She shook a finger in his face. “Or I swear to God, I’ll kill you myself.”

John at least had the good sense to look sheepish. “I didn’t know how. ‘Hey, mom. Sorry, I know I’ve been dead for the past two years, but now I’m not. Let’s have coffee next time I’m on the Citadel, my treat.’”

“That’s exactly what you say. I won’t believe you, but I’ll at least investigate.”

John grinned crookedly, taking her arm. “Would it help if I said there’s this great new coffee shop they opened near the docks?”

“Buy me one, and I’ll consider it.”

They made their way together toward the docks, Hannah’s hand in the crook of his arm.

He was a presence. Even if John hadn’t been all decked out in his N7 hardsuit, he had this way about him. An…aura that immediately drew notice. Heads turned as they passed. People whispered as they walked, but he seemed not to pay it any mind. Used to it, maybe.

First human Spectre, indeed.

When they’d finally reached the café, they entered, and the barista behind the counter looked up, preparing to fire the standard customer service spiel he’d likely been directed to spew at everyone. When he saw who it was that just entered, his mouth opened and closed comically, like a fish. Then, he fired off a picture-perfect ‘I’ll be right with you!’ before scurrying off to the back.

Rumors surrounding her son had been troubled of late, but most, particularly those living on the Citadel at the time of Saren’s attack, hadn’t forgotten what he’d done for them. Having a living legend walk into your coffee shop on a slow Sunday morning had to be beyond surreal.

The barista returned barely thirty seconds later with a woman who introduced herself as the proprietor of the café. For John’s part, he handled the attention with remarkable poise, smiling winningly at the woman and her star-struck employee. He flashed them a grin that managed to be both friendly, and reserved, rubbing the back of his neck in what she could only assume was a calculatedly charming gesture.

“I hate to impose, but would it be possible for us to sit somewhere a little more private? We haven’t had a chance to catch up in some time, and I’d rather not be disturbed.”

The café proprietor was only too happy to oblige. “Of course! We have a beautiful balcony area, if that’s okay.”

John smiled. “That’ll do just fine, thank you.”

Hannah allowed herself to be led, smirk tugging at her lips. They were treated like royalty, shown to a balcony overlooking the docks, seated at a table near the railing. And their orders were brought out to them so quickly, she swore she’d blinked, and opened her eyes to find a steaming mug in front of her. Now, that was service.

She gazed out into the distance, catching a glimpse of what could only be the second rendition of the Normandy she’d been hearing so much about, gleaming black, white, and gold in the artificial sunlight. It was a sight to see, even from so far away.

The only sight she wanted to see, however, was right in front of her. She reached for John’s hands across the table, and he took both of hers, clasping their fingers together.

“How are you?” she asked, earnest, giving them a squeeze. “Really?”

John looked away for a good long moment, heaving a sigh. “Hell if I know. It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve barely had a second to breathe.”

“You know I have to ask.” Hannah locked eyes with him. “How did you end up with Cerberus?”

John stiffened, shoulders rising so high, they bunched around his ears. “I didn’t ask them to bring me back. It wasn’t my fault.” The words were tense, clipped, and uncharacteristically defensive.

Hannah narrowed her eyes. “Honey, your ship got blown out from under you entirely without warning. Of course it wasn’t your fault. I don’t think that part is up for debate.”

“You’re in the minority, then,” John fired back. It tried for levity but fell just short—brittle. Hard. He paused. Took another breath. “That was unfair. I’m sorry. I can’t blame anyone for being skeptical. People don’t just…come back to life. Still, this is a relief. I wasn’t sure you’d be happy to see me.”

“Why the hell wouldn’t I be?” Hannah asked, incredulous. “I have questions, believe me. I have a lot of questions, but you’re here.” She gave his hands a shake. “You’re safe. That’s what matters to me. You are safe, aren’t you?”

“Eh.” He shrugged, lips twisting up into a smirk.

“I’m gonna need more of an explanation than that.” Hannah released his hands, taking a sip of her coffee. “I want the full debrief, soldier. Lay it on me. I’ve got two weeks of leave, and nothing but time.”

John laughed—finest music she’d ever heard. He gave her a mock salute. “Yes, ma’am.”

His report was…a lot.  No, ‘a lot’ was an understatement.  More like bullshit, or it should have been, at least. There were a lot of gaps in his story. Things he was foggy on or didn’t know. It had only been a few weeks since he’d been back on his feet, and he was shaky on the details. Yet, she could sense his baffled honesty. Hear his earnestness. Maybe it was naïve, but she knew her son. She knew this was him. And, she knew, somehow, what he was telling her was true.

“Let me make sure I have this right.” Hannah shook her head. Took a steadying breath. “You were clinically dead.”

“Allegedly.”

“And this…Lazarus Project, was funded by Cerberus entirely for the purpose of bringing you back, because they think you are humanity’s best hope for survival.”

John nodded. “In a nutshell.”

“Our colonies, the ones that have had entire populations disappear, are being targeted by Collectors, of all things. And Cerberus is supporting and funding the fight to stop them.”

“We think they’re working for the Reapers. The Illusive Man believes what I’ve said about the coming invasion.”

“This project was…expensive, I imagine.”

John leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. “Over four billion credits, I’m told.”

“I hate to say it, but it seems like an awful lot of trouble to bring back one man.” Hannah reached out for his hands again. He took them. Seemed to sag onto his forearms, where he propped them against the table. “You’re worth it to me…but to the world?”

“That’s what I said.” John shook his head. “The Illusive Man could have trained up an army with that. When I asked him, he said that I’m unique. That I inspire people in a way that can’t be duplicated. Now I’m ‘alive,’ practically a fugitive of the Alliance. The Council is being true to form and pretending to support me without actually doing anything. Anderson doesn’t trust me. And Kaidan...”

“That cute Lieutenant you took a shine to?”

John mumbled something unintelligible, but the scowl on his face spoke for itself.

Hannah scooted her chair around the table so she could sit beside him. “Wanna talk about it?”

John outright refused to look at her. “I’m not stupid. Even if the Normandy hadn’t been destroyed, I was his commanding officer. Kaidan is a career man. A soldier, through and through. We were never going to be anything more than we were, but it doesn’t matter. I refuse to treat his friendship like it was a consolation prize. It was important to me. He was, and now I’ve lost him. Horizon made that clear.”

“I heard about the attack.” Hannah pursed her lips. “Collector’s work, I take it?”

“My team and I came in the middle of the invasion, managed to save half the colonists. Kaidan was stationed there.” John’s lip curled with disgust, not aimed at Hannah. “He looked so betrayed. Looked at me like I was a… a thing. Like I wasn’t even human anymore. How can I blame him when I don’t know he’s wrong?”

Hannah’s heart clenched.

John continued none the wiser, staring off into the middle distance.

“It’s just logic, I suppose. I’m an unknown. A loose canon. No one holds onto a gun they can’t trust to fire. Why should this be any different? Why take that risk, when you can just buy a new one and save yourself the trouble?” John laughed, but it wasn’t a pleasant sound. Twisted, and sharp. “No. I don’t blame Kaidan for walking away. God knows I wish I could.”

There was a sardonic twist to John's lips. A crooked, bitter tilt to his smile as he sat there, talking about himself as if he were a thing to be used, and thrown away.

Fuck that.

“Johnny, look at me.”

Her son sat ramrod straight, his jaw clenched. Still, he refused to meet her gaze.

She gripped him by the chin. “You may have a few new parts inside, but you are not an object, and I will not entertain any talk to the contrary.

John favored her with a dead-eyed expression—so reminiscent of what she’d seen in that hospital room after Akuze, she felt bile rising in her throat.

“You are not a thing.”  She shook him. “God damn it, John. You’re not a gun, with a sticky trigger.”

“You don’t know what I am.” John was blinking rapidly, his voice wavering. “I don’t know. I could be an AI, or a clone, or a…”

Hannah took him by both shoulders. “You're my son.”

“Am I?” John scoffed. Released a watery, humorless laugh. “How can you be so sure?”

“Come here.” She gruffly grabbed his chair and spun it around. Threaded her arms around his waist and tucked herself beneath his chin.

John said nothing, but he put his arms around her. Buried his face in the crook of her neck. He had to bend nearly in half to manage it. It couldn’t have been comfortable, but he clung to her, shaking.

John had never been a tactile person. He wasn’t averse to touch. He just didn’t routinely seek it out, even as a child. Yet, if everything he’d told Hannah was true, he hadn’t received a single touch—a solitary, kind gesture, since he’d died two years, one month, and six days ago. That he wasn’t aware of the passage of that time hardly seemed relevant in the face of so much trauma.

He had been surrounded by doctors, terrorists. People whose job it was to bring back Commander Shepard. Who hadn’t given an ounce of a damn about him beyond their next paycheck.

Combine that with the turmoil of coming back to your life, only to realize you couldn’t have it anymore, and it was a wonder he was so startlingly well adjusted. Anyone would be starving for affection after that, and Hannah would rather shoot herself in the head than deprive him of it, now or ever.

“I know it's hard right now, but we’re gonna get through this,” Hannah murmured, cupping the back of his head.

John released a watery chuckle, his voice muffled.

“I mean it.” Hannah was grateful they had the balcony to themselves. If that bitch reporter, or anyone else approached them now and gave him a hard time over this, her entire career was going to implode when the Alliance arrested her after she fucking killed them.

“This is so fucked,”  John spat. “Everything is wrong.”

“Watch your fucking mouth,” Hannah quipped. John’s laughter seemed more genuine this time.

“Wonder where I got it from,” he fired back, separating from her grip. He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand, scowling when his gloves got in the way.

She shooed him away. Wiped his face with her sleeve.

It was John who caught her hands this time. His eyes were red-rimmed—identical to hers, the exact shape and color—with his father’s strong jaw, and proud, high cheekbones. He smiled softly. Rubbed a thumb over her knuckles.

“I have to stop them,” he murmured, holding her attention. His gaze was hard, steady with resolve. Hannah didn’t have to ask what he meant.

“I know,” she answered. Shook her head, with a scoff. “You never could resist a lost cause.”

John chuckled. This time, it reached those eyes. “That kitten on Earth one shore leave when I was eight benefited from it, as I recall.”

“God, don’t remind me,” Hannah groaned. “You caught pneumonia, and I didn’t sleep for three days.”

“And the kitten was fine,” John replied, brightly. “It was too little to have survived out in the rain all night.”

“So were you,” Hannah scowled. John blinked back at her, the picture of innocence.

Her expression broke first. She laughed, helplessly. “You’d been playing at starship captain from the moment you could crawl. When you added, ‘protector of innocent kittens,’ I knew it was over. Now you’re off, taking on Reapers. Collectors…”

Hannah felt herself getting choked up—heard it, in her voice. She didn’t have a prayer of John letting that go, unnoticed. He frowned. Tightened his grip on her hands.

“I can’t think of a better man for the job…” It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. “Dear God, I wish I could.”

John sat up straighter. His eyes were still red, a trace of tears standing in them. His face was steady with resolve, and she could see no lie there, peering back at her. He believed what he was saying. “It won’t be easy, but I’m building a good team. I’ll make sure we’re ready.”

“You’d better.” Hannah glowered. “I want you back in one piece.”

“I’ll do my best.”

She took a shaky breath. Her mind appreciated that he didn’t try to lie, even if her heart didn’t. “You always do. And Johnny?”

“Hmm?”

“Not everyone in the Alliance is a blind bunch of fools. Anderson is wary. So was I, before I saw you again, but he’s on your side, as is Admiral Hackett. They can see the big picture. Hell, Hackett is the one who tipped me off in the first place. And, I have it on good authority he’s responsible for the lackluster response the Alliance has had in detaining you. He’s trying to buy you time.”

“Then I’d best make use of it.” John finished off the last of his coffee, making a visible effort to lighten the mood. “Now, I seem to remember you saying something about two weeks of shore leave. Cerberus may be questionable at best, but they’ve built me a hell of a ship. You know, if you’re interested…” He presented the option almost bashfully, and Hannah couldn’t stop herself from grinning. It was comforting to see those little glimpses of the boy she’d always known, beneath the man.

“I wouldn’t miss it,” she replied, taking his hand. He pulled her to her feet.

They moved toward the exit, arm in arm. She knew he couldn’t promise her tomorrow, but today was a gift.