A/N: This is definitely the last chapter. I had to tweak the quote slightly to adjust for the setting. This chapter is also meant to wrap the story up in a way to tie in (hopefully) to ME3 when it comes out. Also, to avoid confusion, Subject Zero Jack will not be making any appearances in this story. "Jack" is still Jack Shepard. Lastly, this is not a songfic, and I don't own any part of Goodbye Can Seem Forever from Disney's The Fox and the Hound. Hope you enjoy.
Ch 3 – Stay
Ashley Williams, Operations Chief, Systems Alliance Marine Corps, woke up five minutes before her alarm was due to chime, as usual. She immediately began her daily routine the same way she had for the past couple of days of this leave – by laying in bed, staring at the dark ceiling, marveling at the miraculous turn of events she'd experienced.
Against all odds, Jack Shepard had returned to her. And she had returned to him. She knew for a fact that her family was already working out loose plans for a wedding. And Jack hasn't even popped the question yet.
She stretched and rose from the bed, hurriedly dressed, and dashed downstairs for breakfast. As she entered the room, she found her mother and sisters finishing their food, and Jack looking at a datapad while drinking some coffee. She fixed her own meal, then joined him at the table.
He flashed a quick smile at her before returning his attention to the datapad. A minute, and half of her eggs and bagel later, he placed the pad on the table and looked back at her. "Morning."
She smiled as she replied, "Yeah. The last one of my official leave."
He scowled at this and gestured to the datapad. "This message is a readiness report from Joker on the new Normandy. All systems are ready. They even cleared out most of the monitoring devices and Cerberus logos. Most of this is about the crew."
Ash nodded. "Since you more or less split with Cerberus, they all have to decide if they want to do the same."
"Exactly. Jacob and Miranda already resigned, back on the Collector station. The rest of the crew has apparently made their decisions. Some are going – a couple want to stay with Cerberus; more just want out after the trauma of being abducted and nearly melted into genetic sludge for making a Reaper. Many are staying."
Ash looked pensive for a moment. "So…this is the end of your leave, too."
Jack nodded grimly.
Ash thought for a brief second and continued, "Jack, why don't you stay with me?"
Jack sighed sadly. "Ash, even without a higher authority ordering me back out, I know the Reapers are on their way. I can't sit idle in the face of that."
Ash's smile matched the tone of his sigh. "I know. I just can't say goodbye to you anymore."
Before either could speak again, Marie Williams spoke up. "Ashley, if you could help me with the dishes?"
Uh oh. The only time the Williams girls were asked to help their mother with the breakfast dishes was when she had something she wanted to say to them.
As Ash rose to obey her mother, Jack watched and discreetly queued a message to arrive at the Williams family comm unit in a little while. Mrs. Williams had expected something like this and had told him to be ready to duck out if she called Ash to the kitchen.
Feeling rather guilty as he did so, Jack stood and left for the room he'd been using to grab his gear. He quietly stepped through the front door, hailed a cab, and returned to the spaceport. Upon arriving, he headed to the small shuttle pad area used by the crews of ships that were too large to enter the atmosphere and dock at the spaceport.
Jack passed through the security station and proceeded to Pad 4. He was almost to the shuttle when he noticed the second of the Normandy's two Kodiaks a couple of pads farther down the line. He shrugged and stepped up to his shuttle's hatch. As it opened, he found Miranda and Jacob waiting for him. He shook his head at the sight; it was still odd to see them in uniforms entirely devoid of Cerberus insignia.
Miranda was speaking over a radio link; Shepard focused on her end of the conversation. "Very well; Shuttle 2 is departing from Pad 7 in an hour; please be ready by then, and we'll see you on the Normandy."
Shepard quirked his eyebrow at the exchange; Jacob noticed. "Just finalizing some new recruits; here's the files we've got so far."
"One or two files are still missing, but those are late joiners." Miranda added.
As they flew, Shepard reviewed the personnel files of the new crew members. He'd finished all but one by the time they set down in the main hold. "Very good. Page me when they show up; I'd like to meet them."
Miranda nodded as he walked toward the lift. As he neared it, the door opened to admit Tali and a few others laden with a few things. He joined them in the lift and asked what the gear was.
Tali shifted a little before answering, "Supplies. Miranda sent a few suggestions regarding crew living arrangements ahead; we're implementing them."
"Oh?" Jack thought back. Yes, he'd noticed Miranda tapping something into her omni-tool, but hadn't given it much thought. Until now. "Like what?"
Tali's behavior struck his memory; he'd seen it somewhere, in a setting that he'd regarded as not friendly. "Well…uh…simply rearranging a few people." The door opened, revealing Deck 3 and Tali's escape route.
The lift had already resumed its journey to his quarters when he recalled seeing Admiral Shala'Raan on the Rayya shifting in a similar manner…shortly before revealing knowledge she'd kept hidden. Shepard shook his head. He doubted Tali could even keep a secret like that.
Jack stepped over to his desk and slumped into the chair. His eyes automatically gravitated to the picture of Ash. The sound system in the quarters was set to play songs from vids from the late 20th through the late 21st centuries. One song started playing. He grimaced – it seemed eerily appropriate.
Such a short time ago
How you showed up
Needing me so…
He flashed back to Eden Prime, and their first meeting, when he'd rushed in to help her fight off some geth…
And out of our pain
Our happiness grew,
And I realized
I needed you, too…
The time Udina had grounded them at the Citadel came to mind…
How we used to play…
Mission after mission played before his mind's eye…
Those rainy days…
Kaidan Alenko's death on Virmire…
The fire's glow…
The night before Ilos…
And now I find
We're both alone…
Goodbye can seem forever,
Farewell is like the end.
But in my heart's the memory,
And there, you'll always be.
He sat like that for a while. Suddenly, the intercom chirped. "Joker here, Commander. Just letting you know we've left orbit and will be hitting the relay in about an hour. Also, Miranda said to tell you that the –"
"Never mind, Joker; I'm here. I'll tell him in person." The voice behind him made him jump rather high. He turned to find Miranda standing in the entryway next to EDI's holo-podium. She continued, "The new recruits are waiting for you in the main hold.
Jack thanked her and stood, making his way toward the door. Just as he reached it, she spoke again. "You know, Shepard, when I talked to my sister on Illium, she tried to convince me to quit Cerberus and stay with her. One thing she told me was a saying - 'The kindest, most endearing word in the galaxy: stay."
Shepard's voice hardened along with his expression. "Thank you, Ms. Lawson, but I'd like you to butt out of my personal life. Especially since I know that you know what's coming. And that I can't stay when I can do something about that threat." The Spectre didn't wait for a reply as he stepped into the lift and immediately pressed the button for the main hold. A second later, he sighed heavily and redirected the lift back to Deck 1 to allow Miranda to come down, too.
The door opened to reveal a rather bemused Miranda. She silently stepped in and waited. Shepard almost pushed the button again before catching his hand and turning toward her. "Look, Miranda, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you like I did."
Miranda smiled weakly. "Trust me, I do understand. I'm …sorry, too. I shouldn't have tried to stick my nose where it doesn't belong." The expression of having steel needles pulled through her cheeks faded into another smile. "I guess old habits die hard."
Shepard snickered at the limp joke as he pushed the button. When the door opened next, It showed Jacob and the other ground team members already there, along with several faces Jack didn't recognize.
He stepped out and gave a quick speech welcoming them to the Normandy. Then Jacob began to read off each name, allowing each to step forward and salute their new CO. Jack crisply returned each salute and shook their hands.
Finally, Jacob reached the last name on the list. "And our last volunteer…Williams, Ashley."
Jack noticed that the ground team members were huddled around one spot. They now parted to reveal Ash, standing there in her armor, with a large grin on her face.
She stepped forward. "You know, by all rights, I really should slap you for the way you left, my mom's idea or not." Then she pulled him into a tight hug. He returned the embrace with equal fervor.
After a moment, she stepped back to continue. "I already told my mom this, and now I'm telling you – staying with me doesn't mean we have to stay dirtside. We can stay together even on a mission like this. And I am staying-"
She was cut off by Jack Shepard catching her chin and pulling her into a kiss that could be described only as breathtaking.
Up on the bridge, Joker watched the video feed from the hold with a smile. EDI's blue beach-ball image appeared in its usual spot. "Jeff, we are approaching the mass relay. Course is charted for Illium."
Joker began working the controls with speed and efficiency. "Thanks, EDI. Let's hit it."
The Normandy neared the relay and began to draw off a charge from its substantial element zero core. A moment later, it vanished into FTL space, en route to the next adventure in store for its crew.