Outside the bar, revellers are hollering and singing, tootling on little tin horns as they stumble along the grimy sidewalks, clutching at their friends for support. It's 3 AM, but on Galactic New Year's, the celebrations last all night and the Citadel is the prime place to party. Inside the bar, the atmosphere is more subdued, with just a few gaudy decorations to remind patrons that 2227 is giving way to 2228. O' Malley's is a cop bar, a favourite hang-out for C-Sec detectives and beat cops because the drinks are plentiful, the lights are dim and they keep the music low. Executor Vakarian likes it here, especially on nights like tonight, when he wants to drink himself forgetful. There's nothing new about the New Year for him – he's seen 80 of them now and he doubts this one has anything good to show him.
Vakarian recognizes one of the cops sitting along the bar, a young turian sergeant from Homicide. He can't remember the man's name, but it doesn't matter now. The kid's good police, as he recalls. He gives him a nod, one that serves as greeting but is also calculated to inform the sergeant that the retired Executor and hero of the Reaper Wars wants to be left to scotch and solitude.
At other bars, people recognize his scarred-up old mug and want to take pictures with him. Some of them quiz him on the Normandy or his opinions on crime. Some of them demand autographs. The real sensitive ones see empty glasses lined up along his table in military rank-and-file and give him their condolences on the death of his wife. "Councillor Shepard was a remarkable woman," they inform him, as if he didn't already know. Those smug bastards are the ones Vakarian really despises.
At O'Malley's, the regulars just wave at his corner booth and carry on with business. Every so often, Mara, the bar's sole waitress, will stop by to refresh his drink and chatter at him. She's a pleasant girl, a bit chirpy for his liking, but he's used to her by now and he understands her good intentions. Sometimes, though, when Mara's face gets still, her large, green eyes remind him of Jill's and he'll start talking just so he has an excuse to look at them and pretend it's her. The young woman's voice and her nervous giggle always ruin the illusion.
"How are you tonight, Executor Vakarian?" Mara asks.
He minds his manners and musters up a decent reply. "Fine, thank you. How are you?"
"Have you made a New Year's resolution?"
"Only one," he says, taking a gulp of the scotch. "Get very drunk."
The young woman covers her mouth with her hand, indulging him with an unconvincing chuckle. "You take care now, Executor. You don't want to hurt yourself."
Vakarian doesn't contradict her. Instead, he looks across the bar at the vid screen, where Emily Wong and hanar commentator, Huanan, are doing their annual New Year's show. He can't hear their inane prattle because the vid is on mute but despite the make-up artist's best attempts, it's evident that Wong is getting on in years now. Her black hair is streaked with steel gray and there are deep folds running from the sides of her nose to the corners of her painted mouth. He can remember when the veteran news anchor was just an eager cub reporter chasing Jill and their crew all over the Citadel in search of a story. If it'd been up to him, he would've told her to get lost - maybe in politer terms than that, but his initial reaction had been one of scepticism and annoyance. Jill had humoured her, maybe because she was new to the Citadel media and found it amusing. In the process, they'd struck up a bit of a friendship or at least, a certain degree of professional respect. Wong was the only journalist his wife had ever liked, because she was honest, a straight-talker and didn't try to ambush them. Most other reporters had been wary of Jill and rightfully so, since she'd been known to answer interview questions with a hard right hook.
Wong isn't bad, he decides. She reminds him of old times and he's always been a sucker for nostalgia. Before he retired from the Executor's post, she'd stood up for the amendments he put through, which had surprised him. He'd expected her to gripe about organizational transparency and procedure like those soft-on-crime bleeding-hearts did on the liberal news stations. They called him Executor Draconian and made parody videos of him dressed in full military regalia, using his office as a sniper's nest to pick off shoplifters, jaywalkers and vagrants. Jill had tried to get him to laugh at it, but damn, it'd pissed him off. He'd tried to make law enforcement about getting justice for the victims, not paperwork, stats and playing cat-and-mouse games with criminals and scum-sucking defense lawyers, who argued for their clients' rights but couldn't care less about innocent civilians' right to walk the streets without fear of being mugged, raped or murdered. He'd striven to correct the system and for a while, his crusade had seemed to make a difference, carried forward by Shepard's newfound political clout. But the good will inspired by his leadership in the Reaper Wars couldn't last forever and after a decade in office, he'd finally been 'invited' to retire and take his pension like a noble turian of ancient times falling on his sword. When Jill had been around, it'd been okay. They'd travelled, attended events, gone to the shooting range. For the first time in his life, he hadn't felt as if he had anything to prove and strangely, it'd almost been...pleasurable. Maybe it'd been a sign that he was mellowing out with age.
He could still remember the day Jill had received the diagnosis. He'd spent the morning fixing a couple of shelves in the kitchen of their Presidium apartment and he'd completely forgotten that she'd had a medical appointment, thinking that she'd spend her afternoon at the office. Upon entering, she'd startled him and he'd nearly hit his thumb with the hammer he was using to pound a nail into a plank of the wood.
That'd made her laugh, although experience told him that she was upset, that something was very wrong. Her hair, which had transitioned from blonde to white, was slipping free of its tortoiseshell clip and her eyelids appeared puffy, as if she had been crying.
"You're so handy," she'd said, running a hand along one of the shelves.
He would never understood why humans' eyes watered when they were sad, but whenever he'd seen Jill do this, he'd wanted nothing more than to remedy whatever problem was troubling her, by force, if necessary.
He'd dropped the hammer on the floor and eased to his feet, bending his knees slightly to efface the difference in their heights. "What's going on?"
Jill had explained the situation, trying to make light of it, although her voice was strained, her weariness evident from her bowed head, the way she failed to meet his eyes. "Hell, it's not like I haven't died before, right? The first time around, I barely even noticed."
"Don't say that. Anyway, you've only seen one doctor. A human doctor. You should see a salarian. Get a second opinion." His mind had leapt to Mordin Solus, but of course, the salarian had passed away decades ago. Still, maybe they could track down one of his old students, someone nearly as gifted...
She'd touched his talon gently, leaning into his shoulder. "Okay. Another opinion."
"It's worth trying."
In this case, there'd been little he could do, except accompany her to the hospital for more scans and then to the various oncologists and neurologists and radiologists, preparing her meals and administering her pain medication in the recommended doses. He wasn't a doctor. He'd barely passed his mandatory military first aid training. He could not fix brain cancer, what the oncologist had described as Oligodendroglioma, the ugliest word he could imagine. It reminded him of what'd happened to his mother and definitely gave him a new appreciation for what Solana went through taking care of her. Back then, he'd sent money to support his mother's care and spent time on the extranet researching various treatments, but he hadn't had to witness the suffering firsthand, to feel helpless against it. It was that feeling that'd made him want to a fist through a wall.
Jill had been brave for 431 days before she died, enduring the headaches, vision problems and spells of dizziness, the ravages of the chemotherapy and the sudden shifts in mood, jolts from happiness to irritation to uncharacteristic despair that were enough to induce whip-lash. It was as if the tumour was the Thorian creature's karmic revenge, its malignant tentacles spreading through her brain, playing puppeteer with its thrall.
Sometimes she would apologize for these bouts of weakness. "I'm sorry. I know I'm a pain in the ass right now. I'll talk to the doctors. I'll take more meds. I could go to a hospice and you could visit me and-"
"Are you joking? No way in hell. And I don't want to hear you say sorry again. There's nothing to forgive."
"There's everything to forgive. You've been so patient with me. Always so damn patient."
Secretly, he worried that the radiation on Palaven had caused her illness or that somehow, he'd exposed her to dangerous metals through their closeness. Jill's theory was that the Prothean artefacts had done it. They hadn't been created for humans and she'd taken a substantial risk each time she'd come into contact with one and used the Cipher. She'd been so quick to absolve him of any guilt, so grateful for everything he'd done for her and when she was herself, she'd shown the same humour and grit that she'd always had, never losing the dauntless courage that'd made him fall in love with her. A few hours before she died, she'd been cracking jokes, teasing him until he rewarded her with a laugh.
Vakarian finishes his drink, noticing that his vision is clouded and his neck has to work harder to support the weight of his head, which keeps tilting backward as he slumps down into his chair. He's old and in shameful condition for ex-military and a C-Sec veteran, although he's still pretty spry by civilian standards. When Jill was around, he used to take care of his physique – cardio every day, weight training every other day, unless he was on active duty, in which case he didn't have to worry about a lack of exercise. He'd started drinking to comfort himself after the diagnosis, something he relied on to get himself through, anaesthesia, like the pills Jill took, like the morphine they gave her near the end, when the doctors conceded defeat and left her to battle on against an impossible enemy.
The state funeral had been decorous, solemn and completely unlike the Jill Shepard he'd known, the eulogies were so reverent and awestruck they sounded as if they'd been written by Conrad Verner. Whoever had taken care of her body had done a good job of disguising the weight loss she'd suffered during the chemo. The paint on her gaunt, but still-lovely face and the white wig over her cropped hair created the illusion that she'd been healthy, that she'd simply drifted off to sleep and never woken up. This probably comforted the other mourners and the people watching on the news vids, but it frustrated him. It was dishonest and he felt as if it invalidated her suffering, the pain and the struggle and the torturous, ever-hopeful love that they'd shared in those last months. Tali, Grunt, Samara, Kasumi, Miranda, even Legion...all the surviving members of the Normandy crew put in an appearance, except for Jack, who, true-to-form, showed up two weeks late, looking scrawny and haggard as an flea-bitten, old alley cat, with a new tattoo of a pistol featuring the initials 'J.S.'. At first, he'd planned on telling her to go to hell but she'd brought alcohol and seemed almost apologetic, so he'd let her come in and they'd reminisced about old times and poisoned their livers. After she left, he'd kept drinking and he hadn't stopped.
The truth was, before the cancer, he'd tricked himself into thinking that Jill couldn't die, not again, not after everything they'd survived together. It was a cruel joke that it took her own body to kill her, especially since she'd always been so fit and healthy, confident that her physical training wouldn't fail her. Even after they'd buried her in a memorial specially set up in the Presidium Gardens, part of him still expected her to show up one day out of the blue, when he needed her most and least expected it.
He looks at the door hopefully, but she doesn't stride in dressed in her old N-7 armour, dodging gunfire and shooting mercs as she marches towards him. It is a ridiculous wish and he is a ridiculous old drunk. It occurs to him that he should feel ashamed of himself. In his youth, he'd disapproved of General Septimus, that legendary turian commander who'd turned into a grumbling old sot over a foolish infatuation with the Consort. Now, by the spirits, he'd become just like the man, although he had the excuse of having been in love with a better woman and having truly lost her, after nearly half a century of companionship. It is a cruel irony. Looking down at his empty glass, he laughs, a bitter sound from his raspy throat.
Leaning on the table, he gets to his feet, saunters over to the bar and pays his tab, leaving a good tip for Mara and her green eyes. Out in the street, people are still celebrating and a couple of rowdy salarian kids race by, shouting "Happy New Year!" at him as they pass. Considering the amount of scotch he's put back, he's remarkably steady on his feet, although he does have some trouble entering and exiting the elevator up to the Presidium apartment complex. After rifling through his pockets and uttering a few choice words, he finds his keycard and enters the comfortable flat that he and Jill had shared for the past fifteen years.
He takes his heart medication and prepares himself for bed, folding and putting away his clothes as he always does before sleep, although his work is clumsy.
I need to stop drinking, he thinks. He knows that Jill wouldn't like this new habit of his, just as she disapproved of his taste for revenge and the extreme lengths he once went to satiate it. She'd give him hell for putting his health at risk, for behaving so recklessly when he was smart enough to know better. Knowing her, she'd appeal to his stubbornness and his self-respect and if that failed, she'd put on her old commander's voice and phrase it as an order. His turian military training and her leadership were so deeply ingrained in his mind that sometimes she'd actually been able to get away with that, causing him to snap to, like they were still on the Normandy. If Jill were around, she could've convinced him to change, but now that she was gone, he'd have to convince himself.
Tomorrow, he decides, as he slips beneath the bed covers, he will throw out any alcohol still remaining in the apartment. Ignoring his hangover, he will get up and ease himself into the exercises that he used to do every morning. After a healthy breakfast, he will walk down to the C-Sec Veterans' Affairs Office and arrange for some sort of gainful occupation, work for the public good, so that he's no longer moping around the apartment.
When he's finished there and he's caught up with old colleagues, maybe he'll go down to the shooting range and take out some of his frustration on the red and white targets.
At dinner, he'll eat at his favourite restaurant in the Wards, Karma, a place that he and Jill used to go often, but he won't order his usual glass of red wine.
In the evening, he'll practice his domus game, playing both the white and the black pieces and ensuring that black side wins, because those were the ones Jill always took. He'll watch the news, keeping note of the latest developments in the project to re-build the quarian homeworld. The affairs of the galaxy will start to matter to him again, because he'll realize that he still has purpose and meaning and skills to offer.
He will not look at the door expectantly. He will not envision Jill Shepard racing towards him, just as she was when she ran through the scope of his rifle, not knowing that he was Archangel and that his heart was hammering in his chest, his blood singing through his veins at the very sight of her. It'd been a miracle, but tomorrow, he will not hope and yearn and even occasionally, pray, for that miracle to repeat itself. No, tomorrow, he will cure himself of this drunken pining and resume being a contributing member of society. Jill will be so proud of him and he will feel better, knowing that her spirit lingers in these rooms, the place where they lived together and passed many happy years and some arduous ones too, times of trial, effort and accomplishment. These are his New Year's resolutions.
He is so full of aspirations, so wound up with good intentions that he quickly tires and falls into the kind of sleep that he has only discovered in his old age, a comforting, unknowable and seemingly infinite darkness that soothes every ache and eases every doubt. Right before he drifts off, he remembers following Jill into battle and he chuckles, thinking of the phrase he used to say in his eagerness to impress the Spectre with his loyalty, his steadfastness, his willingness to learn: "Right behind you, Shepard".
The next morning, the young turian sergeant, Arsom Meridan, knocks on Executor Vakarian's door, wishing to check on him. He has admired Vakarian since he was a young recruit on Taetrus and part of him is hoping that the old veteran will be in a sociable mood and invite him in. When Vakarian doesn't answer, Sgt. Meridan knocks again and then prods at the door mechanism in disappointment. He is utterly surprised when the door slides open, but it is not magic, just a matter of luck. In his drunken return home, Executor Vakarian forgot to lock the door behind him.
Sgt. Meridan steps across the threshold, leaning into the apartment and looking around. The place is in good condition, neat and orderly except for the empty wine bottles on the kitchen counter.
"Executor Vakarian? Sir? It's Sergeant Arsom Meridan from C-Sec. I wanted to stop by and ensure that everything was well, because if there's anything I can do to be of assistance to you, it would be my honour..."
There is no answer, although the young officer sees Vakarian's credit chit lying on the dining table. Surely he would not leave the house without it.
He peers down at the holos arranged carefully on a nearby desk. There are images of a human female at various ages, the woman he recognizes as Commander and later, Councillor, Shepard, the general's wife, who is something of a legend on the Citadel, although he has never encountered her in person. Some of the pictures are taken at parties with the general, who appears much younger and taller, although his face bears the same distinctive scars. Other holos were obviously taken on trips across the galaxy. He recognizes Tuchanka, Palaven and Illium, although the picture with a rickety iron tower poking at a blue sky has no meaning for him. He has never seen Earth or heard of the old, beautiful city that humans call Paris. What he can discern from the pictures is that the general was once a happy man, one who didn't need to stumble through his days in a drunken haze.
"Sir, I realize that this is highly unorthodox, but I feel that unusual circumstances sometimes require - " Sgt. Meridan stops in mid-sentence, seeing General Vakarian lying in his bed, the blankets tucked up under his mandibles.
He will go and check the veteran's pulse just for form's sake, but it is already evident to the officer that he is dead. When he leans over the body, he is startled to see that Vakarian's scarred face is set in a smile, as if he were greeting an old friend.