Shepard's mind was a disorienting fog, recent imagery flashing through her head in a confusing blend of memory and feeling.
The Illusive Man. He had been there, standing in front of her, and he had tried to stop her. She didn't even know how he'd gotten there. Didn't much care, at the time. Control the reapers, he'd argued, out of his mind with panic and sickened conviction. She'd long suspected that he wasn't quite right, but she'd never seen him like that before, spewing slurred nonsense without his carefully practiced veneer of rationality.
She had been in so much pain at the time, she almost thought she had dreamed him up. Anderson too.
You did good, child.
Anderson, who had always been there when she needed him most, like a second father, trusting in her when no one else would. Defending her stance against Saren. Helping her get the Normandy for Ilos. Testifying on her behalf during her trial.
There were times when she felt she might not have been able to make the tough choices if not for the knowledge that his stalwart support would be there to buffer her at the outcome.
He had been there for her through it all, and he had been there with her at the end. But she hadn't been able to save him. The thought choked her, blurred her memory with feelings of guilt. Millions had died for her to get to that point. Millions hung in the balance. And she'd had to make the most difficult choice of her life, with no one to catch her if she decided wrong.
It had stared her down, condemned her, through the ghostly, illuminated eyes of the boy child that had haunted her nightmares.
But it had not been a boy, not then. It was them. Or whatever had created them. She had asked, but its answer had only made her angry.
By ones who recognized that conflict will always arise between synthetics and organics. I was first created to oversee the relations between synthetic and organic life…to establish a connection. But our efforts always ended in conflict, so a new solution was required.
It had been so much smoke and mirrors clouding her judgment like the pain that had thrummed through her limbs. It had to be wrong, she thought at the time. An entire galaxy to save, and she'd been told that some other species from some other cycle made stupid bullshit mistakes and now her world was paying the price. Because they couldn't find a better solution.
But she had. Hadn't she? It had told her so. That thing that was not a child.
You have altered the variables.
You did good, child.
She found herself blinking away real tears, her lashes fluttering open to the lure of conscious awareness as the swirl of memory faded to the background, giving her a brief respite from her horrible replay of those moments. Lights flickered above her, and she felt one tear slip from the corner of her eye. It dripped a hot trail down the side of her face to rest at her temple.
It tickled. Itched. She tried to reach up a hand to wipe it away, and only then did she become aware of the pain re-flooding her body like a searing brand.
She couldn't seem to get her arm to move. And then there was a shadow looming in her vision, blocking the obtrusive light burning her sensitive eyes. She felt the pull of the darkness, heard voices speaking in low tones. But they seemed so far away.
She was drifting again, her earlier questions becoming a damning shard piercing whatever was left of her consciousness.
Had she? Had she really done good? Or perhaps this was the feeling of failure, of choosing wrong. So many series of choices she had made, and they all led up to that final one. The one that mattered.
No. They all had mattered. That was the point. She had proven that damn Reaper collective conscious wrong. It had said there would always be destruction and chaos between synthetics and organics.
Your children will create synthetics, and then the chaos will come back.
They would rebuild everything. Synthetic life too. And this time they would find peace. She had proven that it was possible. Whatever civilization that had decided otherwise, they were the failure. It was their solution that was no longer viable. The variables had changed. Her cycle had learned, adapted, worked together. And they would do it again. She would show them, like she always had. She had staked her entire career on this one hope, and she would be damned if she gave it up now.
They would not rely on the old knowledge. The knowledge that had failed. They would rely on their own knowledge. Recent. From this cycle. And it would work. They had a better solution. That…that thing had confirmed it.
Clearly organics are more resourceful than we realized.
She felt a brief burst of pride at what they had accomplished, and for a short time it cornered her grief and anguish until there was nothing but darkness to replace it.
Voices in the distance cut through the fog and the pain returned, this time a throbbing ache instead of blistering agony.
How long had she been lying here, not moving, lost in the darkness?
Was she a prisoner again?
Maybe she had chosen wrong. Maybe she hadn't done good. She breathed deep, ignoring the pain, clamoring back to consciousness. She must find out.
"Did it work?" A voice. It was her thoughts, for sure, but the voice she did not recognize. Dry, raspy. Pained and plaintive.
The shadow hovering at her side made a funny sound. Like a bark. Or a choke. A sharp sound that was quickly muffled. Laughter? It was laughter. She turned her head and blinked.
And blinked again. Her vision started to clear, and the features of the shadow were brought into sharp relief.
"Lola. I thought I'd lost you." He looked exhausted. And relieved. And pained. A swath of white over his forehead indicated an injury still healing.
She wanted to ask him how he got it, concern washing through her, but the other question was still important, so she repeated it. "Did it work?"
He smiled, and he leaned forward to speak in a soft voice, as if it were a secret. Or as if he were in pain. "If by working you mean the Crucible discharged some energy source that the science team are still dancing around like pijaks to figure out, which ultimately disintegrated the Reapers, then uh, yeah, I'd say it worked."
She felt relief. The Reapers were gone. That was the first step. "Everything was such a blur at the end. I…I passed out. Where am I? How…how did I get here?"
"You're at a temporary Alliance headquarters just outside London. We recovered you from the beacon site, not too far from here, actually. You were pretty beat up. Only you can tell us how you got back there."
An explosion from initiating the crucible had thrown her down. She remembered crawling, trying to get back to the point where she had entered. Crawling, and darkness. And pain she thought would never end. She didn't want to remember it. Not now.
She was more curious about what James had to say. "We?"
"Yeah, Garrus and Kaidan and myself. We were heading to the extraction point once we got the message that you had made it through to the beacon. The place was swamped with hostiles. I…I didn't want to go.
She sighed with understanding, closing her eyes against the bright light of the room. "So you disobeyed orders."
"Uh, not exactly." He sounded hesitant to speak so she opened her eyes again. She wanted to raise a questioning brow but she wasn't sure she could manage it. He sat there looking sheepish and so she stared at him until he continued. "I might have been a little bit unconscious at the time. It was….well honestly it was the major who made the decision to find high ground and hold out. We…we almost didn't make it. But then that red light just…"
He trailed off when she jerked her head upright, and immediately wished she hadn't, when the pain came flooding back in unrelenting waves.
"Kaidan disobeyed an order?" She tried to hide her wince, but her voice sounded shrill even to herself.
His eyes were sympathetic as he gently pushed her back against the bed, but there was laughter in his tone as he spoke. "Yeah well, you know how it is with Spectres. They do some crazy shit. Like take naps right when the battle is won."
She glared, not sure she was in the mood for teasing. He was starting to sound downright chipper and it was almost annoying. "Hey, didn't you say something about being unconscious at the end?"
He sat there next to her bed, his face so close she could see the flecks of color glinting in his irises, the greens and browns mixing to a deep hazel. He did not seem to be at all irritated by her quip, just sat there smiling, without even a hint of shame. She tried to scowl him into submission but the smile just got bigger, and it tugged at her.
She knew she was on drugs and her emotions were a riotous and confusing mess, but at the moment that damn beaming smile was oddly…infectious.
She laughed. It was a small choke of laughter, more like a sputter and it hurt like hell. But still she laughed, and it was the first time she had felt good since their shared night after Rannoch. "What a pair we make, huh?"
He was looking deep into her eyes when she said it, and she saw the seriousness replace the humor as he nodded his response. She wanted to talk with him further, but her brief moments of conversation and laughter must have drained her. She felt weak again, the pull of sleep drugging her mind.
James noticed, and she felt his warm hand squeezing her fingers. "Get some rest, Lola."
She still had so many questions. And so much left to say. She would tell him. When she woke up she would tell him.
There was so, so much she had to tell him.
James sighed and leaned back in his chair. She had slipped again into a fitful sleep. The sleep called to him as well, but he had fought off its incessant pull for days, only giving in for a few hours at a time. But even then it was a restless, nightmare filled slumber.
His chin was just hitting his chest when he heard the door open and he snapped upright again. He turned to see Kaidan Alenko standing in the doorway, looking every inch the Alliance Major and Citadel Spectre.
He stood up abruptly and ignored the pain sluicing down his arm as he snapped a sharp salute. "Major."
To his consternation, the major didn't look very impressed with his effort. "Not Major Asshole, Lieutenant?"
James felt himself flush. He had wondered when this discussion was coming. He had seen Alenko since that fateful day, but only in passing and only in the presence of others. Shepard's room, full of various members of her Normandy crew, all wanting to reassure themselves that she was, indeed, alive after the ship had returned again to earth from the rendezvous point. The winding, half crumbling halls of the London building where they had set up temporary head-quarters. They had exchanged glances on each occasion, but never words. There had been too much to do.
Humanity was still scrambling to figure out exactly what had happened. To figure out what was left of life in the smoking remains of the galaxy. Rescue operations. Recon. Settling skirmishes in the Terminus. The pie was so much smaller now and everyone wanted whatever pieces were left. Mercs were causing trouble. Major Alenko, the only human Spectre currently in commission, had been given many responsibilities. One horrible moment of disrespecting a superior just hadn't been important to address.
Or so James had assumed. Though now it seemed it was time to pay the piper. He only wished Alenko didn't look so damn amused about it.
"No, sir." He held his salute, despite the screaming pain in his arm, his fingertips brushing against the bandage on his forehead.
Alenko took pity on him. "Sit down, Vega, before you fall down. I'm not here about that. Not after what happened."
There was shared understanding in his eyes as Alenko moved to stand at Shepard's bedside, and he stared down at her for a long moment before finally speaking. "We've got so much left to do. The galaxy still needs her."
"The galaxy can damn well take a number." He couldn't stop the scorn in his voice for a million credits. He was surprised when Alenko agreed.
"She's been asked a lot. And she has answered. The galaxy needs people like you too, Vega. So does the Alliance. I'm putting together a team to settle…ah, some additional diplomatic concerns with the Batarians. I've heard good reports of your previous work in the system. You still want to continue your N7 training?"
James blinked. The way Alenko had said "diplomatic concerns" had made him shiver. N7 operatives didn't really often figure into situations of high diplomacy. But Alenko was right. There was a lot left to do. And he still wanted to fight.
He had once told Shepard it was the only thing he was ever really good at.
Shepard stepped off the elevator and stood for a moment outside the door to her cabin. She was back on the Normandy again.
She'd been offered some time to herself once she had been medically cleared, but she'd seen in Hackett's eyes the concern and desperation he was trying to hide. The Reapers were gone, but the echoes of the massive war were still rippling across the galaxy. Humanity was attempting to be at the forefront of the new order and the re-establishment of the Citadel Council. Commander Shepard was a name that carried weight.
And hope and reassurance and comfort. And a constant, unwavering reminder that joint efforts among all worlds could succeed when nothing else seemed possible.
She sighed, leaning her forehead against the door. A part of her was tired of being the galaxy's shining star. But during the long weeks spent in that recovery bed, she'd almost felt numb once realization and emptiness had set in. For so many years the answer to her internal 'what now' had been agonizingly, resoundingly clear. And for the first time she could remember, she didn't have an answer to her what nows.
So much of her life had been dedicated to the Reaper threat. She had given her life for it, and she had never really thought much about what she would do when it was over.
She didn't have a home to return to. She'd never really had one. She'd had ships and she'd had jobs. This was a trait she had received from her mother, who was already busy again with her admiralty duties after a brief visit with her daughter.
And so, when she had been faced with Hackett's offer of the Normandy and a crew and primarily diplomatic missions of her choice, with Spectre privileges no less, she had squashed the tiny part of her that had wanted to give it all up and had given him the affirmative.
Joker had been ecstatic, as she knew he would be. They were alike, in so many ways, and had been through so much together. The ship was as much his as it was hers. Chakwas and Cortez had agreed, and for the same reasons. Javik had looked relieved, and almost happy at her offer of additional work. There was much of the galaxy that he wanted to see. Liara had stated a desire to return to Thessia sometime in the future, but there was a reluctance in her eyes, as if she were afraid to face what her planet had become. For now she thought she could best help her devastated home in her role as Shadow Broker, a familiar job that she, too, was yet unwilling to give up.
Kaidan had shared a heartfelt goodbye. She had seen a different man in his eyes. A man confident and sure. He had his own command now, had worked tirelessly during the time she had been bed-ridden. He had accepted an offer for a brief respite, after being re-united with his mother, and was helping her re-build before taking her off planet for a journey of their own.
And then there was Garrus and Tali. She couldn't help but smile at the thought of them and their burgeoning relationship. They were hesitant about their new beginnings, and where to put down roots, and how they could manage to stay together with the demands and duties of their respective home-worlds. And so like Liara they had opted for the familiar method of helping the galaxy as a whole, together, at least for the moment.
And so here they all were again, more family to each other despite their differences, hearts still drifting in search of something more permanent. She hoped they would all find it eventually. If Jack and Wrex and Jacob could find it, she knew the rest of them could as well. For the first time since being in recovery, she felt the stirrings of warmth in her heart.
Her ship, her rag tag family, and her work.
It certainly couldn't last forever, but for now, it was enough.
She entered her cabin filled with thoughts of one soldier in particular. The soldier who had sat at her side during her long recovery, stunting his own in the process, despite her pleas for him to get some rest. During her increasing moments of consciousness, they had shared the familiar camaraderie that had bonded them since their first meeting. But once she had been given the clearance to leave her bed, she had not spoken with him since her decision to reclaim the Normandy just a few days previous.
She told herself she'd been busy with other preparations but really she'd been trying to work out what to say and how to say it.
She sat on the bed with a sigh. Her fish were still alive, that was something. Her models were all in place. She stood up in concern when she realized her hamster was missing again, but was instantly distracted when her cabin door opened.
And then he was there, filling up the space between the door and sucking all available air from the room.
She let out her breath in a rush and reminded herself to inhale again.
He was the same, and oh so familiar now. The breadth of his shoulders was emphasized by his tight alliance tee, his strong arms, corded with muscles, holding a paper box in front of the belly she knew was as hard as the rest of him. But he was different too. There was a new scar puckering across his forehead and plunging into his hairline, at his temple. A network of additional scars crisscrossed down his arm, almost in mockery of the tattoo she knew graced his other arm. And like Kaidan, his eyes told the story of their struggles and loss. They looked at her from across the room, really looked at her, and they were tired and warm and knowing and wary.
It was a heady combination, and she found her heart fluttering with a nervousness she wasn't accustomed to feeling, except in his presence. She opened her mouth to speak but he beat her to the punch.
"Leaving so soon, Lola?" He sounded accusatory, and she felt herself treading carefully in unfamiliar waters.
"No, there are still preparations to make."
"Were you planning on saying good-bye?" He bit out the words.
Her eyes widened. Did he think she didn't want him? Or maybe he already had other plans. She'd been told she could have her choice of team members, but it hadn't occurred to her that the Alliance might give her own top choice a better offer. Her heart raced and a trickle of fear spread down her spine. "Do I need to say good-bye?"
That was the wrong choice of words. His brow furrowed as a thunderous expression shadowed his face and he stalked down the steps towards her.
"What the hell kinda question is that? I thought I meant something to you. You can't deny it. You can try, but not so long ago that Prothean with the fifty thousand year old superiority complex seemed to be under the impression that all you could think about was me."
He was almost in front of her now. She breathed in sharply. "Javik told you that?"
"Yeah, and he was not happy about it. Are you going to deny it?"
She shook her head, a barest movement, barely noticeable. He was so close now. The relief and emotion rushing through her system had made her unable to speak past the lump in her throat.
"Are you going to do something about it?" She winced at the desperation that had threaded its way into his voice.
She knew she had to speak, but she felt panicked and all the words came out in a rush. "I lost your lucky card. I'm so sorry. I know how important it was to you and I know it was the last thing you had left as a reminder of your mother."
"The card? Do you think I care about the damn card right now?" He looked lost, and she rushed to explain.
"No. But it was a symbol. Of how I was never alone. Of how much you meant to me. You're right, James, I can't deny it. I kept that card with me always, as a reminder of how you made me feel. The strength that you gave me, without even knowing. I should have told you. I just…well it wasn't something we could really talk about, at the time. Or so I thought. Maybe I was wrong."
The words were still all jumbled but the look on his face somehow made up for it. He was smiling, a crooked half smile full of tenderness and amusement. "This is what I get. You know there's a saying about never falling in love during a total eclipse? But no one ever said anything about falling in love when the world is falling apart. I don't think there's a way to do it right."
"What?" She felt breathless now. Weightless. He hadn't really said the words. But he had. Sort of.
"I love you, Lola. Look, are you going to take me with you or what? I have your hamster."
He said the words with the same level of conviction as if he had made an argument based on his expert ratings in marksmanship. He was holding out the box but she still couldn't focus on anything except his face and the swift thump of her heart against her ribcage. He had taken care of her hamster. She had forgotten about her little pet during the messy aftermath of the war but he had not forgotten. And he loved her, as she loved him. She had waited too long to tell him. It felt like forever. Like she had loved him forever. It was a brave new world now, and she would be damned if she lived it without him at her side.
"I love you. Come with me. I don't know where we're going yet, but I know I don't want to go anywhere without you."
He moved to set the box on her table and then turned to reach for her. His smile had broadened, but his eyes were serious and full of intent.
"I thought you'd never ask. It's not the end of the world anymore, you know, but this still isn't gonna be easy."
"I think we can manage."
He gently pulled her forward into the curve of his arms to claim her mouth with his own. It felt so good, she could barely focus on his teasing, softly spoken words against her lips.
"As long as you promise not to punish me for insubordination when I beat you at poker."
She smiled and nodded. "I promise I won't ever let you beat me at poker."
He picked her up in his arms, her feet dangling off the floor, laughing into the curve of her neck, and she was again amazed at his strength, and how easily he could soothe her cares away. He pulled back to look at her again, as he let her slide down his body until her toes hit the floor. She saw the moment the laughter left his face and desire rose up to replace it.
He grinned wickedly as he lowered his head to whisper in her ear. "There's one game we both can win."
She sighed with contentment as he kissed her again, his deft hands already tugging up her shirt and caressing the soft skin around her waist. She felt the bed at the back of her knees, and couldn't resist a giggle as he pushed her down upon it. He joined her, and as she gazed up at his familiar, handsome face, she knew that he was the real home she had been missing all her life.
She was finally home.
And everything else they could manage.
It was her last coherent thought before she lost herself in the heat of his touch.
A/N: I can't believe I actually finished. When I started, I admit that I didn't have much of a plan, but I kept going, plodding along and inspired by all of your lovely reviews and constant support. Big thanks to those who were brave enough to offer critique, I learned and feel like I am a better writer for it. Thank you to those who offered detailed comments, I know that it takes time to do so and it really inspired me to continue. Thanks to everyone who offered squees and love. All reviews I read multiple times and I cherish each and every one! I've been hanging around a few other fanfic categories, and I am very sure that the Mass Effect readers are the absolute BEST (and of course I am partial to the James Vega fans!). All of you have been so very generous with your support, even when I have faltered and bumbled through a few chapters, and even now I falter and bumble and can't find the right words to convey just how very grateful I am.
So, thank you!