So she calls me up to the Loft and I go, because you do what your commander tells you in this job, and I figure it's about Alchera.
A while ago she came by the bridge and and kept talking about the memorial, so I guess it's about that again. Last time she just stood there, out of armor but looking like the ceramic was still making her shoulders square. "I just got coordinates for the crash site. If you want to join me on the shuttle you can go." She looks awkward sometimes, when she's out of commander mode. Leadership's always there for her, you know? Waiting under the surface, even when she was under Anderson's command. It's not leading that's hard, but it got easier after Lazarus. Like the scars soaked it in, and maybe she can be a normal person who isn't afraid to not be a hero. Not everybody sees it, but I think I do when she comes to visit and just stands with me.
But anyway, that first time we talked about Alchera I said "I've gone already. Twice," and I didn't look at her. She hadn't been to the Normandy's corpse before so there was something she couldn't get about it yet. It wouldn't change her, or make her more or less awkward. The readouts in front of me gave strange shapes to the flat console. "On the anniversaries."
True story. Tali and Garrus came with me the first time and we picked through the wreckage. Found some dog tags, buried and frozen in the ice. We told Anderson about it, and he passed the information on to the Alliance. We never thought we'd have to tell Shepard. Kaiden wasn't comfortable going- that's what he told Tali, anyway. He told me he had a prior engagement. Those exact words, like he needed to be formal or else I wouldn't think he was manly enough or something. And Liara was...we hadn't heard from Liara in a while. We know now, of course, but then we wouldn't have guessed that she'd gone from digging for ruins to digging for information while we were brushing ice off the walls.
Shepard said they wanted her to plant a memorial, but Tali and I thought the Normandy needed to stay undisturbed. It had done enough falling already. Another jostle and another part might break. It needed to keep its shape now. The bridge looked like the underside of somebody's chin leaning on the ground, thinking real hard, jaw flat against the snow as we talked on top of it. This was before Lazarus, so the Normandy got Tali's weird alien feet and my awkward little shuffle and Garrus' policeman walk.
Look, I grew up on Arcturus. Big metal place, Alliance headquarters. Being a pilot isn't a big deal there. Okay, being an Alliance pilot kinda is, because we're the ones out there getting shot at when people don't like the Alliance or trade laws or taxes. But I didn't start driving ships because I wanted to be a hero. I did it because I was good at it and I had an uncle who did it. He also married a salarian and wasn't seen for a while, until he came back saying she wanted him to spend his whole life with her. I became a pilot because it was a whole lot more interesting than a desk job and a whole lot more interesting than using my disease as an excuse not to do anything.
But that's enough of that; this isn't a flashback. It's a story and it's time that it isn't all dream sequencey. The loft. Today. I've never been in there before. First thing I see is the glass wall with her bed behind it and the ship models hanging in the glass. Sovereign stretches these claw-tentacle things out like the plants waving in the fish tank, and they're trying to get the Normandy. She's there, all sleek like usual. I remember when I was first taught about the Tantalus core and why she's shaped the way she is, and then I see Shepard. She's standing at the bottom of the stairs, arms tucked against one another across her chest, hands folded under the sleeves of the Cerberus flight suit. She just looks at me.
I've always been okay with Shepard. I guess we're friendly, although we used to talk more before she died and came back walking like she might die again in a second. Maybe combat's just the same for her and maybe it isn't, I don't see that. But I swear she used to look over her shoulder at me when she left like just reminding me she was there, and that doesn't happen any more. Sometimes she just stands, with her arms crossed like that as she looks outside, and I don't know how to deal with that. There's too much silence for two people, and I start to think I'm becoming part of the ship, just sinking until there's metal up to my mouth tasting like blood and, well-
That's when I'll say something like take a holo, it'll last longer, because snark is very humanizing.
So Shepard's standing on the stairs like she's waiting for something.
"You okay?" I say.
"I will be." She shifts across the room and let her arms hang by her sides, comfortable again. "It's just...the Normandy was a good ship." She's looking at the wall, or the models, or maybe at me through them.
I say, "I get it. It's not quite the same without her."
"She was home. It's weird, that she's back but not really." Then she pauses and says, "I went," meaning Alchera because that's all we've been talking about lately.
I say, "I know?" because that was this morning and I brought her there. I'm looking at the Normandy again and I notice the old N7 helmet sitting on the desk beyond the glass, one curved thing in among all those straight lines.
She says, "Last night I walked into the wrong hallway because I was thinking like it was the old Normandy. I look up and see the stars sometimes and..." She shakes her head and looks up. In the square of skylight, purple blurs of matter interacting with the shield drift across the stars. She says, "They decided to put a viewport over my bed. Whose idea was that?"
And I notice the blanket tossed on the floor, corners curled and squished like she'd been trying to work it into cracks in the metal. She'd be standing on the bed half asleep trying to cover the stars because she'd started nightmaring again and then woke up. I don't think Cerberus did it on purpose. There's gotta be three layers of glass and shield up there. They won't let space get her.
I say, "Stick it up with some magnets. That'll fix it," and move down the stairs toward the blanket. She just trails me, comfortably, like the old friend that she is. (Glances over her shoulder and what's she thinking right now? I'm thinking I don't date crew but after every stupid foolish heroic thing I've seen her do I'm starting not to care. Anyway if I lose her she'll just come back.) She doesn't doubt herself. She just looks at me as I bend and pick the sheet up. I fold it like a proper Alliance soldier folds his blanket in his pod and I set it on the edge of her bed.
Yeah, it's sentimental. It's a crazy gesture to take care of my commanding officer, but I want her to know I'm around. Cause maybe all those standing sessions were just her wanting the same thing.
I smooth the blanket militarily crisp and move away, not looking at her. (Because I have 'prior engagements' of course, not because I don't want her to know how unsettled I was.)
It's funny how things can go back to normal so quickly after something big happens. After the battle at the Citadel, people started walking around on the presidium again weeks after Sovereign nose-dived into it. They probably started right then moaning about how the weather regulations mean they can't grow their posies right. And weeks after she's alive again I worry about what Shepard's thinking and why she acts the way she does.
She says, "I missed that ship. But I'm sure you did too. You had more time..."
She's looking at me now, in no way ashamed, and maybe she should be. I don't know.
I say, "I visited your memorial too."
She gives one long, tight laugh. "I should go someday."
"I wonder...will they take it down?"
She says, "It'll be the ex-Shepard Memorial," and I laugh too and she says, "Or the Shepard ex-Memorial," and "We'll go together."
Then she takes a couple steps closer and I want to hug her, but then she looks over her shoulder and it's not at me this time, it's at the Normandy model floating in the case. And I realize why I never really thought of her as, you know, available. Even after she's miraculously alive and I don't think Cerberus is ever coming to take her back, or to get me for fraternization while we're talking about that. But except for the over-the-shoulder eye contact, it always seems like Shepard's attention's on something besides me. She looks at EDI or the cameras or the holos. She even watches people like they're things, like they're weather patterns moving around her. With the atmosphere escaping all the time they're the storms she's got: Jack's roof-tearing tornadoes, Thane's quiet patter of thunder before rain, Kelly's sun...
See, this crap is distracting. If she thinks like this all the time, well, she's never quite really here. I think that's why she can deal with stuff like Cerberus and Virmire and entire quarian courts letting her handle the fate of their civilization.
And that's why I'm pretty sure she didn't call me up here to profess her eternal love to me.
She says, "I feel like I took you away from her."
"From Normandy? Nah."
"I dragged you out."
It takes me a minute to process this, because I spent about a year figuring out how not to blame myself for having to be dragged. There were some spectacularly liver-curdling chemicals involved. "You're blaming you? I'd think that if anybody we'd blame me. I wanted to stay behind."
"Yeah, but you're...what was it, the best helmsman in the entire Alliance fleet? I could've trusted you."
"And we'd all be in little pieces now, instead of just," and I almost say both of you, but Normandy isn't real in the same way Shepard is, right, and anyway she's not in pieces. She's back and it doesn't matter who we blame.
Shepard continues. "But you're the one still looking for closure and you won't move on until you've gotten to put her to rest somehow. And I thought Alchera would do it, but I guess it wasn't enough." She moves toward the desk and picks up the helmet she died in. It's been sitting on the desk like a souvenir.
I say, "Well thanks, Kelly," but nicely.
"I wanted to help."
I say, "I know. It's okay. I, uh, appreciate the effort but I feel like you're missing her too."
Broken things can't fix broken things.
She says, "I am."
I'm not sure how we got to this soul-searching thing and part of me wants it to stop, fast. Part of me knows that part's being an arrogant, defensive idiot. I like being an arrogant, defensive idiot, it makes other people look like even bigger idiots. But this is so freaking uncertain. The air has almost no temperature and Shepard bites at the inside of her lip.
She says, "But I think partly I'm missing the stuff she represented, and some of that is you."
And then part of me realizes that there's a woman standing in front of me who is, I'm pretty sure, about to tell me I want you to love me like you loved that spaceship, which is a pretty crazy thing even these days-
But I'm not complaining, even though arrogant-idiot-Jeff starts to look a lot like professional-intelligent-Jeff.
But it's not love really, it's closure, or whatever thing helps us to go on in a world where there's mass relays and Tantalus Cores and holograms but also diseases and genocides and late nights where you turn the wrong way on the walk to the bathroom and run into a wall, because there was a hallway here on the last ship.
Shepard looks me in the eyes like she's calling for a pickup.
I take the helmet from her. It's steely and cold and heavy.
She says, "You can keep it," and gets her arms around my waist, pressing against me soft and sudden.
I say, "It's just a thing," and bow my head to kiss the flat, square plate where her mouth would be under the mask.