Chapter 119



The dead were beyond counting. Ashley had given up trying, partially because of the sheer variety of factors and partially because she simply didn't want to think about how much damage had been done in such a short time. Destroyed allied ships, fallen allied soldiers, civilians that had been slaughtered by Saren's forces, the destruction of one of the Citadel's arm. Grimly, she looked up. She could still see the lifeless arm that had once been home to millions of people, floating idly away from the rest of the Citadel. Even now, hundreds of rescue shuttles were diving into its depths, doing everything in their power to save the survivors who had managed to take shelter in sealed areas. The good news was that survivors were being pulled off. Not nearly enough though. There could never be enough survivors after something like this.

There was no getting around the fact that today was going to go down in galactic history for all the wrong reasons. The day that the very heart of the galactic community was attacked by a madman and permanently damaged the symbol of that community's unity. Though, Ashley couldn't help but reflect that the Council's unity had taken quite a few serious hits ever since the war had started. Grimly, she wondered if this would be the deathblow for it. The Hierarchy and Union had already blatantly ignored its wishes, the Council's inability to defend itself on top of that was a deadly combination.

Unless Ashley was mistaken, the Citadel Council would never wield the same power again. Its reputation had been dragged through the mud ever since the war had started. All three of its member races had taken up different positions from it, the Hierarchy and Union declaring war and the Republics staying neutral while the Council had technically been allied with the Coalition, and now this. Its influence had been tested and found sorely wanting. What this meant for the galaxy at large, Ashley had no idea. Truth be told, she wasn't thinking particularly hard about it, she had greater issues to worry about.

More and more ships carrying relief supplies and personnel were docking at the Citadel every hour. Its placement at the center of the Mass Relays meant that the response to the damage caused by the attack could not be any more immediate. It wasn't just official humanitarian aid organizations that were responding, although around a dozen different ones had already arrived. Civilian ships were coming in with such force that they were clogging some of the passages towards the Citadel. Food, water, medical supplies, some of them even ferrying small doctors from private practices who were working pro-bono.

The entire battle, and the destruction it brought, had left Ashley in an overwhelming state of shocked numbness and exhaustion. But looking out into the Serpent Nebula and seeing thousands of ships, from shuttles to hulking freighters, rushing to help those in need on such short notice, caused a small spark of pride to break through the stupor clutching her. Coalition and Council ships were out there, coordinating without issue. Even a hefty portion of Non-Council ships had arrived to assist, many without prompting. Tragedy, it seemed, could bring out the best in people all across the galaxy.

It was a very small spark, however. As proud as she wanted to be at the galactic community right now, she couldn't. She had not slept in the past 24 hours, not that she was certain she could if she tried, having spent it patrolling the Citadel for any stragglers of Saren's forces and helping with survivors. For the last 24 hours she had been surrounded by the dead and dying, a first hand experience of Saren's last, destructive act of spite. She had wanted to scream, cry, and hunt down every last one of Saren's slaves that were still crawling around the bowels of the Citadel, and all of it had crashed together.

Now it felt like she was moving through a haze. Through some miracle, none of the Normandy crew had been seriously injured during the final battle, a rare departure from their normal fates. As such, and as a result of their record, they had all been assigned to patrol the lower wards for any survivors of Saren's forces. While the majority of them had been annihilated in their suicidal charges, a few hunter-killers were still lurking in the darker areas of the Citadel, still following their master's order to kill as many as possible. Even dead, Saren was still dragging souls down with him.

They had been in the middle of their rounds when they had received a top priority communication from Admiral Anderson. They were to report to a secure conference room he had specified on the Presidium, at once. Additional Coalition units would move in to replace them on the cleanup campaign, they were needed for more pressing issues. Slowly, they had trickled in. It took some time, they had been spread out all over the Citadel in an attempt to put out the fires, but after an hour they were all there. Roger, Sheryl, Adam, Cornelia, Nora, Kasumi, Garrus, Liara, Wrex, Joker, EDI, Charon, Fawkes, Joker, and Ashley herself. For some reason, Franklyn Hurst and Rig were there as well. All of them were seated, minus Fawkes, around a large circular conference table.

The majority of them looked like they were dead on their feet. Ashley suspected that they had not had any better luck with sleep than she had. Sheryl looked as if she was half leaning on Nora, even while sitting down. Cornelia looked more physically active, no doubt a benefit of her mechanical nature, but Ashley couldn't remember the last time she had seen the woman with eyes that red. She had always been the type to wear her emotions on her sleeve, after all.

"I understand you're all exhausted and overworked, so I would like to thank you for bearing with me." Admiral Hackett, who didn't look much better than the rest of them, was sitting at the head of the table, Admiral Anderson right behind him. "I'll get right to the point. The Normandy and her crew have rendered an invaluable service to the Coalition and the galactic community as a whole. Over these past few months, you and everyone else on that fine vessel have done more than most do in their entire military careers, and you've all been nominated for the Coalition's highest honors. And considering both Anderson and I approve of that concept, it effectively means said honors will be issued as soon as the proper paperwork is filed."

There was a scattered response of half nods and grunts of vague approval. Hackett would have needed to be blind to not notice, but he chose to not comment. "I would also like to take this moment to extend my personal thanks to you and the sacrifices you've made. The pain that you've subjected yourself to and the burdens that you've bore were more than I could ever order you to." Ashley was certain she could see Sheryl clutching at her snow white arm. "Words cannot express my gratitude." This time he got a few smiles as a response.

"They're the finest bunch of lunatics I ever met, let me tell you that," Hurst said, banging his fist on the table in approval. "Damn proud to have flown with them." Hackett nodded in agreement. This had actually gotten a strangled laugh out of Cornelia. Ashley herself almost smiled. However, it died on her face when she saw the way that Hackett was looking at Hurst. He was attempting to look amused, but it didn't reach his eyes. They looked regretful. Something stirred deep down in Ashley's gut. Nothing good was about to come.

"But, sadly, we must move onto more somber matters," he said. "The fate of Jane Shepard." At once, the faint warm feeling that had been building up in the room died. All eyes were on him. Cornelia sniffed. "The Star of Terra is the very least we can give to her for what she did in stopping Sovereign, along with the Palladium Star and damn near anything else I can get to stick. I think I speak for everyone in this room when I say we all owe her our lives."

"Damn right," Garrus said, something that earned another round of nods, these ones much firmer.

"There is also the matter of her funeral," Hackett said. "I have spoken upon it with Admiral Anderson. Since John Shepard has yet to formally have his death honored, I felt that it would be fitting if we laid the twins to rest together." An old ache in Ashley burst back to life. She hated herself for thinking that way, but she had almost forgotten about John, Jane's death had completely driven it from her mind. Now, for the first time, the horrible truth dawned on her. They were both dead. She had known them since the three of them had been children, the brats of First Contact War veterans. And now she would never see them again. Her breathing sharpened.

"There's also plans for memorials to honor all those who fell in the war and the build up to it," Hackett said. "And if there's any good news to come out of this, it's that we can safely say that the war is over. This isn't a ceasefire anymore, it's a true end to the conflict. Diplomats writing up the peace treaties have even started calling it the One Month War just to hammer it in. Between the attack on the Citadel and both sides of the fight making a stand together, public support for the war has dropped drastically. Combined that with your discovery about the Reapers, it was the one-two punch needed to make continuing the war harder than ending it. Everyone is just...tired."

"And the fact that Shepard is dead and therefore no longer a target probably had a lot to do with that," Garrus said, his voice filled with bitterness. "Now that there isn't a scapegoat for the Rachni and the Genophage." Ashley shared Garrus's resentment. It was a complicated set of conflicting feelings. True, she was glad that the war was over, that there weren't going to be more raids or moral quagmires like Adek, but it maddened her to no end that Shepard's death, her suicide, was one of the key components to it. "And do they have anything over to say over the exact nature of her death? Don't tell me they put on some fake tears and talked about how tragic it was that she threw it all away? When they're the ones who probably pushed her there!?"

Ashley couldn't remember ever hearing Garrus shout in all the time that she had known him. It was startling, to hear his normally calm and often deadpan voice twisted with anger. No one else appeared shocked, however. If anything, many of those present seemed to share his frustration. Wrex was scowling, Liara looked furious, and Nora appeared to be half a second away from trying to bend the table in half with her bare hands. Ashley opened her mouth. She was the highest ranking member of the Normandy left alive-the ache in her throbbed again- and it was up to her to maintain discipline. But that stopped when she saw Hackett wince. A hole opened up in Ashley, a hole of pure darkness. She had no idea what it was or where it had come from. All she knew was that it was a horrible feeling that told her that the worst was yet to come.

"The circumstances around Jane Shepard's death are nothing short of a tragedy," Hackett said. "The fact that a soldier who did and gave so much felt the need to end her life in such a way is a blight on the Coalition's armed forces. We failed her in more ways than I can count. And as much as it pains me to say this, I must ask you. Have any of you spoken of the true nature of her death?" A heavy silence fell over the room. Many of those present had yet to speak yet, but there was a marked change in the room. Everyone was focusing on Hackett with undivided attention and razor-sharp focus. All signs of weariness had faded.

"What do you mean "true nature"?" Liara asked, sounding as if she didn't want to hear the answer.

Hackett made a very tired sigh. "I won't hide it from you anymore. The main reason you were all called here is that there are documents I require you to sign. Classified information nondisclosure agreements." Activating his omni-tool, Hackett pressed a few key commands. A dozen different chimes in the room went off, nearly everyone's omni-tools had burst to life. The only exceptions were with Liara, Garrus, and Wrex. Ashley quickly checked hers. A hologram of a legal document materialized in front of her, flickering and orange.

"What?" Wrex said, not even looking at one of his neighbor's copies. "You want us to keep our traps shut? About what, exactly?"

"We have been in talks with the Council," Hackett said. "Have you been to the upper wards of the Citadel lately? There are memorials being put up on near every level. Memorials to Jane Shepard. They're calling her the Savior of the Citadel. Not just Coalition, aliens too. Word of her death has spread like wildfire and public opinion on her has totally reversed."

"And?" Ashley asked. The horrible feeling inside of her was growing to near unbearable levels. It was at a crossroads where she still didn't know what was coming, but it was close enough that she was starting to suspect.

An uncomfortable and torturous minute passed in silence. "The general public does not appear to be aware that the nature of Jane Shepard's death was suicide," Hackett said. He wasn't making eye contact with any of them. "People seem to be under the impression that she sacrificed herself intentionally to save the Citadel. She did, after all, die in the depths of an ancient, alien dreadnought just after personally killing Saren. You can understand how a conclusion like that would be drawn."

"...You're not," Cornelia said, her red eyes blinking in disbelief. "Please tell me you aren't doing what I think you're doing." She was begging Admiral Hackett. Ashley wanted to beg too, but she knew it wasn't going to stop what was coming.

And then it finally did. "The war is over but inter-species relations are in a dangerously precarious place," Hackett said. His voice had sorrow in it, but it didn't waver. "We don't have to worry about a united assault against the Coalition, but smaller-scale conflicts could easily break out. The Batarian Hegemony will doubtless seek to regain control of Adek, the Salarian Union has shown its willingness to arm the Yahg, and tensions could easily spike again when the Krogan and Rachni populations grow to more substantial numbers. The impact of a hero, one who gave up her life to save the most diversely populated civilian center in the galaxy along with the leaders of most of the galaxy? That's something that can't be measured. And it's something we need right now. So. The Coalition has decided to let the galaxy think that's what happened. The true nature of her death is to be of the highest classification, violation of which is chargeable by treason."

Ashley looked around at the table. Rage was carved into the face of nearly everyone there. Charon and Fawkes had locked onto Hackett with cold, stony glares, Cornelia looked as if she was ready to start screaming, and Nora was shaking so badly that Ashley was legitimately concerned that she might attack the Admiral. Despite this, they all remained quiet. It seemed that none of them had managed to make it this far in their careers without learning to temper impulses that would lead to insubordination.

"And those of us who aren't Coalition?" Garrus asked sharply. "The Spectres, politically connected, and heads of state? Where do we fall in? Can't help but notice that we didn't get anything." Ashley's eyes drifted onto the three aliens in the room. Now that she thought about it, what exactly could the Coalition do in this situation?

Hackett sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. He looked exhausted. Odds were, he had gotten even less sleep than the rest of them. "You are quite right. The legal authority the Coalition has over the three of you is negligible. Any legal measures we would wish to impose on you would have to go through your respective governments. For you and Ms. T'Soni, those would be long and complicated processes, ones that would reveal more to the Hierarchy and Republics than we would like to." His eyes moved onto Wrex. "And in the case of Wrex, well, as you stated, he is the head of state."

"Yeah, thanks for that," Wrex said, his voice dangerously low. "So why exactly shouldn't I head for Tuchanka, right now, and announce to the entire planet that the Coalition is spitting on the memory of the woman who gave them a future? Because that's a generous interpretation of what you're doing right now." His eyes narrowed. "You people were ready to offer her up like a piece of meat to appease the Turians and Salarians. Now you're doing the same to her memories?" He spat onto the table. "Just when I was starting to develop some respect for you people."

"Wrex, your frustration is understandable," Anderson said, his voice carrying the tone of one trying to defuse a tense situation. "However, we need to look at the bigger picture here. Not just for the Coalition, but for the galaxy as a whole. The three of you have given so much to help the Coalition, words can't describe our gratitude. This is the Coalition Jane Shepard served and fought for, the one her mother served and fought for." Ashley was certain she could see a tear trickling down Adam's face. "Telling the truth only invites more death and destruction. Millions of people died in the One Month War, hundreds of thousands died before it thanks to Saren. There's been enough suffering."

"So we lie? We use her memory?" Liara asked, sounding outraged. "Deny that she was suffering? That she was lost and alone when she needed help? That you forced her under the authority of someone like General Hill for the majority of the war? Because I have no doubt that woman exacerbated the issue." The tension in the room was rising. More than a few of the Coalition members of the Normandy crew had gotten over their initial shock and were now staring at the two admirals with steely eyes.

"Sadly, yes," Hackett said bluntly. "This entire year has been one catastrophe after another. Eden Prime, Coalition colonies threatened with orbital bombardment, the massacres on Cor Mali, every last atrocity that was committed on the Batarian front of the war, the Yahg army, and now the Citadel itself has nearly been destroyed. It needs to stop before we are plunged into even deeper depths and start seeing causality ratings on par with the Rachni Wars and Krogan Rebellions."

"And Jane Shepard just happens to be the-" Garrus began, but Ashley spoke. It was too much to bear. She had to interject.

"Garrus?" she said. "Liara? Wrex? Please. She wouldn't want us to start another war up just for her memory." Ashley hated herself for saying it. The soldier within her was screaming to make a stand, to throw every last foul insult that she could think of at Anderson and Hackett, damn the insubordination charges. Part of her wanted to be standing right beside her friends that were fighting tooth and nail over their dead leader. But if Ashley was being honest with herself, when she imagined

Jane looking in on this room, she didn't see her beaming with pride at a crew that respected her. She could only envision a captain horrified at a fragile situation being torn apart.

All heads turned in her direction. Many eyes blinked at her in surprise, Roger was looking at her as if he was seeing her for the first time. "So, what?" Garrus said, his voice sounding as if the air was being let out of it. "We're just supposed to accept it?" Ashley nodded. "Just like that?"

"What else can we do?" Ashley asked. "If we scream and rage for all the galaxy to hear, we get nothing good out of it. Nothing she would've wanted." At that moment, Ashley could see the fight go out of them. Wrex still had fire in his eyes and Liara and Garrus had yet to let go of their outrage, but the trio slackened. Ashley felt dirty. If either of the flag officers had said that, it would've incensed them even further. From her it was different, more sincere, loaded with less self serving assumptions. She hated herself for it.

For a moment, everyone was silent. Stubbornness was still burning in them, but it was more a refusal to admit defeat than overall defiance. "She gets a memorial," Garrus said, with the tone of someone fishing for a concession. "Share it with John if you can. He's earned it just as much as she has."

"And make it very clear that she still suffered," Liara said. "That she saved the Citadel despite everyone calling for her blood. Don't whitewash that, you're already blotting out enough."

Hackett sighed. "I will see what I can do. Can I take this as a sign that you will keep this information classified?" He got a trio of reluctant nods as answers.

"Question," Charon said stiffly. "What about Tali'Zorah and Volker Hoffman? They served under Jane throughout most of the war." Ashley's heart jumped. She had almost forgotten about the two of them.

"That is complicated," Anderson said. "While his service is recognized, Volker is not a soldier of the Coalition. It's uncertain if he's even legally a citizen, his entire situation is a gray area. Tali, meanwhile, is directly connected to the Quarian Admiralty. Letting too many people know in the Coalition is something we're not confident in our ability to control, those outside the Coalition?" Anderson shook his head. "Volker has made his intention to live outside of Coalition territory clear. Our influence over the two of them is limited. They're both potential security risks. We can't-"

"You can. And you will," Wrex said, anger leaking out of his voice. "Those are my terms. Figure out how to tell them."

"We'll talk to them, we'll make sure they don't tell anyone," Ashely said, struggling to keep her voice level. "They'll understand. Neither of them are the type who'll start a war out of spite. Quarian culture is centered around the needs of the many, and Volker risked court martial to stop pointless death." She paused. "Please."

Anderson looked at her long and hard. "Very well." He wiped his eyes. Ashley could feel prickling at the back of her own. When would this be over? "But only in person. Call them back, this isn't something we're willing to risk leaking over communication lines. But before we go any further, I do need all Coalition personnel present to sign their non-disclosure agreements."

Several glares were shot at Anderson, but nothing else was said. Slowly, Ashley opened her Omni-tool, brought up the document, and traced her signature on it. With her example set, the others fell in line. One by one, each Coalition member of the Normandy crew swore themselves to secrecy. Nora was the last to sign, refusing to make eye contact with anyone as she did. With that done, Hackett and Anderson looked them all over.

"Thank you," Anderson said. "We've asked much of all of you, and this may be the most that we've asked. Your sacrifices will not be forgotten."

"I'm gonna make something very clear Hackett," Wrex said angrily. "Your species saved mine from certain extinction. And as of right now, you can consider my debt to you paid. The Krogan don't owe you any favors, and if you ask me for so much as a shot of Ryncol after this, I'll crack that fragile skull of yours." He gestured to the gathered members of the Normandy crew. "Them? They're honored guests on Tuchanka for life. You? You don't step foot on my planet unless it's for official business, and even then, I'll only be tolerating you."

"Is there anything else you need, Admirals?" Nora asked, her eyes still drilling holes into the table below her. Her hands were clenching at her legs, nails digging in as if she were an apex predator greedily clawing at prey.

"No. You're all dismissed," Hackett said. "And I think you've all earned two days of leave. Get some rest." Without a word, Nora stood up and strode out of the room, hands balled into fists. Rodger and Sheryl shot quick glances at Ashley before hurrying out after her. Everything after that felt like the aftermath of the attack all over again. Slowly, disjointedly, everyone clambered to their feet. Many of them had dead, glassy eyes, looking as if automatic motor functions was the only thing separating them from corpses. They stumbled out, one by one, with no rhyme or reason to any of it. Ashley watched them all go.

So. That was it. One final spit in the eye from this entire mess. Standing up, Ashley left without a word to either flag officer. She had spent her entire career thinking that she would follow in the footsteps of her father and grandmother, serving the Coalition military until she was unable to physically do so anymore. That wasn't reality anymore. The second her EAS date rolled around, that was it. She was retiring. Logically, she understood why the Coalition was doing what it was doing. It was smoothing out the aftermath of the war that had claimed millions of lives in a month, making sure that nothing else happened. That by doing this, millions of potential deaths were being averted. The rest of her didn't care. Her friend's memory had been smeared, used, violated.

Ashley's breath caught in her mouth, shuddering. The tears wouldn't come for a bit, she was sure of that. But when they did, they would be hard and many. Possibly, they would last all night and a few more nights after that. The others would be the same. Nora might go so far as to break something. Her inner duty said that she had a responsibility to ensure that her crew stayed in line, but she simply couldn't summon the urge to care anymore. Whatever court martial they could bring against her for failing to discipline her men would barely register compared to this.

The many of them would want to keep serving after this? How many of them had made the same decision she had just had, that the Coalition could do without them? It was hard to say. But she couldn't help but imagine that there wouldn't be very many who would stay. Why would they?

This was the end of the Normandy's crew.


Jessica had killed seven of those weak, emaciated cyborgs in the last nine hours she had spent patrolling the lower wards of the Citadel. Slowly, they were starting to thin out, attrition claiming their numbers. Most of the hunter killer forces that were hunting down the stragglers were moving in packs, but she had been cleared to head out on her own. Between her power armor and tactical cloak, it had been agreed that it was better that way. Kneeling down, she removed her knife from the throat of the latest one she had eliminated.

It and two other cyborgs were now lying on the ground in the middle of what had once been a bustling shopping mall. At least five dozen dead now littered the ground. Much of them had gaping wounds from gunfire, burns from bizarre Collector weapons, but some had been torn apart. Claws had torn open their guts, slashed apart their throats, or in one or two cases, torn apart down the middle. The sights saddened Jessica, but didn't turn her stomach. Her time with the Enclave and Goeth had hardened her to the sights of slaughter.

The smell, however, was another story. She had never stayed around long after an operation, she and her sisters had always been long gone before the corpses had started to turn. At that moment, the reeking stench of dozens of corpses undoing hours of rot, combined with the unpleasant fluids leaking out of their mouths and nether regions, was making it near impossible for Jessica to not retch. Forcing herself to swallow, she pressed on. This area had been checked and cleared. Best to get out of here before she was sick.

"This is Moore, five minute check in, nothing to...oh. No, it's nothing. Just bumped into a Coalition operative. Over and out." Jessica stopped. A soldier in Enclave power armor, a super sledge at her sign and the Latin letter for Sigma painted on her shoulder. Cadence Moore. For a moment, the two of them stared at each other, expressionless helmet staring into expressionless helmet. "So," Cadence said, awkwardly. "Are you doing all right?"

When she had first seen the woman, Cadence wasn't sure what she had felt towards her. Confusion, uncertainty, and a sense of vertigo had all come crashing down on her at once. The moment she spoke, however, all of that parted to make room for a single, powerful emotion. Hatred. Hatred towards this woman, towards everything she stood for, to everything that she had ever done, including standing by a woman who had greenlit atrocities. "Don't," Jessica said, her voice a raspy hiss. "Don't you dare. I'm not your friend, don't treat me like it. Not after everything you've done."

It was hard to spot someone stiffening when they were in a full set of power armor, particularly the bulky Enclave models, but Jessica still saw bits and pieces where Cadence became more rigid. "I had nothing to do with what happened to your sisters," she said defensively, with a tinge of outrage. That flared Jessica's temper even more. Who had given her the right? "I didn't even know that-"

"I don't care," Jessica said, her arm shaking as she forced herself to slide her knife into its sheath. "We were suffering, at the hands of the man who made you what you are. You knowing nothing doesn't mean anything. You didn't even bother trying to find out. And your friend, Warren." The man's face came clearly into her mind's eye. The insecure, pathetic, overly macho waste of space who had never missed a chance to pick a fight with Grace. Grace, who had been incapable of truly fighting back, but who postured as if she did. Grace had been tortured, mutilated, and indoctrinated for years. What was Warren's excuse? "He made everything worse. And you just stood by."

"Albert and Warren are both dead," Cadence hissed. "You're not the only one who's lost-" but her words were cut off by a wet choke. Jessica didn't remember grabbing her by the throat, but as the vague feeling of the Enclave operative's soft, fragile windpipe through the tiny gap in her armor reached her mind, it felt good. It felt right. Cybernetic hands closed around the one choking Cadence, but they did nothing. A lack of oxygen was already starting to affect her, she couldn't fully focus.

"Albert and Warren?" she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "The mad dog and the older brother who couldn't keep him on a leash? Oh. Oh what a tragedy." Her grip tightened, forcing a wheezing gasp out of Cadence as her already starved lungs were emptied. "The only tragedy that happened on Sur'Kesh was that the Yahg didn't finish the job that they started. All three of you should've died down there, but I'll settle for two. Them and the hundreds of thousands of others you lost down there. But you lived when Samantha Gaule died. You lived when my sisters died. And what do you do? You whine."

Anger overtaking her, Jessica spun, slamming Cadence into a nearby wall, denting it and earning a weak cry of pain. Her struggles were growing weaker now, her eyes were starting to roll into the back of her head as her limbs went slack. For a moment, a single moment that felt as if it stretched on till eternity, Jessica considered finishing it. She would just need to choke her a little more until brain activity ceased, let her go see the brothers she cared so much about. But something stirred in the back of her mind. Not guilt, not a sense of moral wrongness, but an obligation. The Coalition had freed her, given her a place to belong, restarted her life. And her murdering an Enclave operative would cause nothing but headaches and turmoil for them.

Reluctantly, she let go. Cadence gasped for breath as she slid to the ground, her hands clutching at her throat. "You don't know pain," Jessica said, her voice only just audible. "You've only tasted it. Don't ever tell me that you've suffered when you and yours stood by and just watched while atrocities and torture happened under your watch. And just remember that the Coalition only tolerates you because it needs all the friends that it can get. When you're worthless to them, I won't stop." With that, she brought her leg up and drove it straight into Cadence's abdomen. Between her cybernetics and her armor, the blow earned a screeching groan of metal on metal and a breathless gasp from Cadence.

Frantically, she grasped up and undid her helmet, sending it clattering to the ground. Dry heaves echoed from her as she struggled to breathe. For the better part of a minute, there was nothing else. Then, finally, a deep, desperate inhale. Heaving heavily, she looked up at Jessica. Her expression wasn't what Cadence had been expecting. A bit of sadness and regret mixed in with the disbelief. A tiny part of Jessica prickled with guilt at what she had done. But it was a very small part of her. The rest of her was glowing in triumph. For years the Enclave had hurt her, tormented her, torn her and her sisters apart. This wasn't even close to making them even. Besides, she had picked a fight with an armed super soldier, not a defenseless teenager. Maybe if Cadence spent a decade begging for forgiveness, she would apologize for this.

With that, she left the Enclave soldier on the ground, heading out to finish her patrol.


"Fuck," Volker whispered, for the tenth time that minute. He was pacing up and down the interior of the modified shuttle he and Tali had been living in ever since their departure from the Coalition. When they had first left, he had welcomed the long trip to Quarian space from the Batarian front line, it was time alone with no one else except Tali. The low maximum number of light-years per day the craft was capable of compared to the Normandy had been a blessing in disguise. No war, no one shooting at them, just a chance to safely let their guard down, watch a catalogue of vids, and explore their budding relationship.

Now the sluggish ship felt like a coffin and a prison cell rolled into one. The two of them had breathed a sigh of relief at the announcement of the ceasefire, hoping that this meant their friends were safe. Then word had come through about Saren's attacks. They couldn't go anywhere on the Extranet without seeing pictures of the shattered arm floating in space, or the rising number of confirmed casualties. There had been no debate between them, they turned their shuttle around and headed straight for the Citadel.

It had been an agonizing ordeal. Even with Tali pushing the shuttle to the limits of its capabilities, both legally and safety wise, it had taken them a week to get there. The lack of communications made everything worse. Lines in and out of the Citadel were being heavily restricted to avoid them being swamped and hampering relief efforts. They had been unable to raise anyone from the Normandy, which had been the true hell of the long trip.

Every news channel Volker and Tali said the same thing over and over again. Jane Shepard was dead, they had lost both of the twins. The first few nights after that had been the hardest. Both of them had ended up crying themselves to sleep more than once, seeking what comfort they could out of each other, with Tali pushing her new immune system to its limits. When the grief had passed over them, a raw panic had taken its place. What about the others? What had happened to them? They had gotten no answer, from the news feeds or from their many desperate attempts to contact officials from the Coalition or Quarian end. Even Tali's attempts to reach out to her father ended in dead ends, with Rael'Zorah having no better luck than they had.

When they had finally reached the Citadel, things had not improved. They had spent the better part of a day not even allowed to dock, but hover outside of the Citadel well beyond the effective fire range of any ship while their request to land was processed. And they had been informed that they were bottom priority right now. Logically, Volker understood why. Aid ships were still streaming in through the Mass Relays, and a few hundred other shuttles, private freighters, and even a yacht or two were forming a mass outside of the Citadel's reach, waiting just like they were. Most, if not all of them, were trying to reach their loved ones too. But knowing that there was a good reason for their waiting didn't make it any more bearable.

Then, towards middle day on their second day waiting, a voice crackled over their COM line. "Shuttle NA-94127? Do you read me?" The voice on the far end sounded exhausted. Volker had no trouble imagining a heavy lidded Salarian struggling to stay conscious as the chaos was just barely managed.

"We read you!" Tali, displaying more patience than Volker ever could, had been sitting at the controls and watching them like a hawk. Pouncing, she responded to the hail at once. "Have there been any updates?"

"Yeah. Someone who gets paid way more than I ever will has moved you to the front of the queue. Don't ask me why, top secret, highest security, all that crap. Just land at dock A-82, sign what you're given, and do what you're told, all right?" Volker glanced at Tali, trying to see how she reacted to the blunt nature of the traffic controller. It was hardly the worst someone giving him orders had acted, at least a Luger wasn't being waved threateningly this time. If Tali was bothered, however, she hid it well.

"Understood. Docking now." Typing complex controls into the shuttle that Volker still barely understood, Tali stood up as the shuttle began an automatic descent towards one of the four remaining arms of the Citadel. Without a word, she stood up. Her silver eyes looked into his, unobscured by a face plate. They were raw, puffy, and an unpleasant tinge of purple. He couldn't look much better, sleep has been infrequent lately, and interrupted commonly when it all became too much. Stepping forward, she pulled him into a tight hug. The favor was returned without a second thought.

For several minutes, the shuttle accelerated to approach the station, then braking as it neared the docks. Even with her immune system strengthened, Tali kept her full body suit on most of the time, only baring her face most of the time. Most of it was strong polymers designed to be vacuum sealed, but in many places soft purple fabrics had been sewn in. The Quarian people had a tendency to add touches of softness and warmth to their formerly cold and sterile lifelines. Volker had grown to cherish the feel and touch of that fabric, almost as much as Tali's bare skin.

For a moment, they stayed there, tightly intertwined. His hands gently gripped at the soft parts of her suit while her hands gently sifted through his hair. For a moment, the pain all fell away, it was just the two of them. Then, all too soon, the shuttle came to a clanking halt. Reluctantly breaking apart, they turned to face the door with one last look at each other.

On the other side of the door, a quartet of heavy infantry, two Standard and two Meta-Humans, stood at attention, a man in a formal suit between them. "Mr. Hoffman, Ms. 'Zorah," he said briskly, nodding at each of them. "There have been...sensitive developments since your department. After much debate, considering that these matters involve your old colleagues, it has been decided that they can and shall be divulged to you, under controlled circumstances."

"What happened?" Tali said frantically. "Is everyone ok?"

"There have been no serious complications suffered by any of your former crew mates," the man said. His voice was infuriatingly controlled and monotone. "But they are at the center of rather complicated affairs. They wish for you to be involved as well." Activating his Omni-tool, the man brought up a glowing document. "But before we can permit that to happen, I must ask the both of you to sign this non-disclosure agreement. I recommend you consider this carefully. The Coalition is in the middle of drafting treaties between its allies as part of the war's ending. And while it is a process that we suspect will take months, possibly the better part of a year, we intend to ensure an extradition treaty is signed between us and the Quarian people. The Coalition has ever intention of acquiring the tools to enforce these NDAs." A sad look crossed his face. "Don't sign these idly. What you'll be told if you do, you're expected to take to your grave."

Volker exchanged another look with Tali. Uncertainty had been eating away at them during their entire trip to the Citadel, a raw, all consuming panic at the fate of their friends. Now a new uncertainty was hanging over them, one that replaced the overwhelming intensity with an uncomfortable emptiness. As horrible as the journey had been, the two of them had at least been aware of the possible worst outcome: their friends dead. But now? Now they were in an utterly alien situation, having no idea of what they were about to be sworn to silence on.

"Have the other members of the Normandy crew signed the same thing?" Tali asked. At once, the man gave a brisk nod. It was such a simple question, a deduction the two of them probably could've made on their own given five minutes to think and talk. However, with it answered, it changed the situation ever so slightly. This man, Volker didn't even know his position within the Coalition, and he had not so subtly implied his willingness to jail the two of them if they didn't keep their silence. And the Normandy crew was in the same situation. Tali and he signing would be falling in line with them, sharing whatever burden that they were struggling with. A great, howling void of uncertainty was spread out before them, and their friends were somewhere inside it.

Together, not even needing to look at each other for confirmation, they stepped forward together. One after the other, they reached forward and signed, the display splitting in half into two separate documents. Idly, Volker noted that his was in German while Tali's was in a Quarian script. Universal translators were mainly good for audio, not the written word. These had been prepared in advance for them. After a moment, the documents were signed. "Very well," the man said. "Follow me please."

The walk through the Citadel was brief and brisk. The heavy infantry tightly flanked the duo, never straying more than a foot away from them. A cavalcade of movement surrounded them, the docks choked with floods of workers running inward with full pallets and boxes of supplies, or returning with empty containers. Volker didn't see anyone that was hurt or dead. Enough time had passed for that to have stabilized and for the worst of it to be in the past, but there was enough frantic energy that he had little down that countless people were still fighting for their lives. A Nightkin wearing the cross of the Followers wouldn't be charging forward, clutching a crate marked with a red cross in each arm, otherwise.

Upon leaving the docks, they broke off from the main flow of the relief workers, heading down a small side passage that was marked off, a holographic display in an alien language flashing above. The Council had apparently not adjusted much of their warnings for Coalition citizens. Most likely it was an authorized personnel only sign. They continued down their path, finding themselves in a passage without windows or noticeable traffic, only the occasionally frantic alien clutching a datapad. Eventually, they reached a plain, unassuming door on the side of the narrow hallway. "One of your crewmates volunteered to inform you. You'll find her inside. Knock when you're ready to leave." The man ended his brief explanation by pushing the door open.

Inside was a room devoid of features aside from lights, a table, and chairs. A lone woman sat in the center, her head in her hands. Stirring at the door opening, Cornelia looked up with red, puffy eyes. With a clang as her chair was overturned, she crossed the room in a blur, throwing her arms around Volker and Tali and pulling them close. "Thank God," she whispered, her voice hoarse. "You deserve to know."

"Know what?" Volker asked. "Cornelia, what's going on? They didn't tell us anything." Swallowing, Cornelia took a step back and gestured to the table. Slowly, they approached, the man closing the door behind them as they took a seat. Then Cornelia began to explain everything. And a tidal wave of horror came crashing down over Volker. Seconds slowed to a painfully slow crawl as the horrific truth was revealed to him. Jane Shepard had let herself die.

He had no idea how long it took for Cornelia to lay everything out. Minor details seemed to take an eternity for her to clarify, such as why the truth of her death had to stay a secret. All he knew was that every second felt like torture, a moment where he had to sit there and process the reality of what had happened. Eventually, Cornelia looked at them, wiping tears from her eyes. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry. You left her with us and we couldn't help. I'm sorry."

Volker stared at her in disbelief. To his right, he heard a choked noise as Tali slowly started to cry. He had no doubt that, in a minute, he would be joining her.


The funeral had been a quiet, tepid affair. There had been debates from within the Coalition about making it a grand, broadcasted affair. Eventually, however, it had been decided that a private, closed funeral would be better for preserving the lie. Only the members of the Normandy crew and immediate family. That was why she was the only one there that hadn't been a direct subordinate of her children.

Hannah Shepard had forced herself to speak over the empty, symbolic coffins for both of her children. She didn't want to be there, she wanted to be anywhere else. Both of her children, dead. No one was looking at her as she spoke, with the exception of Ashley Williams. No doubt word had made way around the Normandy that their captain hadn't received a single letter from her mother regarding John's death. Hannah would have to carry that until her dying day. She had been too overwhelmed to write back to Jane, despite the several letters that had all but begged for some form of contact. She hadn't known what to say, had been terrified what she would have said had she replied.

Along with the grief John's death had given her, resentment had filled her. Jane had been his CO. Why hadn't she done anything? Shame had kept that anger repressed, but she had been terrified of it growing, spreading, poisoning the way she looked at her daughter. Now though? It was all over. Both of her children were dead. She would never see them again.

The back of her eyes stung with half formed tears, but she blinked them back. Every last praise she could think of her children was flowing out of her mouth, but it sounded hollow. Everything she was saying was inadequate. Nothing but hollow platitudes were coming out of her mouth, utterly inadequate at describing what wonderful children she had had. Only simplistics praises seemed to come to mind, brave, selfless, driven, kind. It was all the type of meaningless drivel that you adopted by default when praising someone else's child.

Then, before she had time to properly adjust, it was all over. Final words were said, the empty caskets were lowered into the soil of Eden Prime, and everyone present slowly departed. Eventually, Hannah was alone, except for Ashley Williams. Softly, she put a hand on the Admiral's shoulder. "I'm sorry," she whispered. With that, she walked away,

Hannah looked down. They were on a private lot of land purchased by the Coalition specifically for these two. There were talks about a monument, but Hannah couldn't bring herself to care. Her children were gone. "Admiral?" She turned around. Admiral Anderson was there in a blacksuit, a data pad in his hand, flowers in the other. "We're lesser now that we don't have them," he said, laying the flowers down on their grave. "Words can't describe how sorry I am."

"They can't for me either," Hannah said, wiping away the tears that had started to form. "What is it?"

Anderson sighed as he moved forward, holding the data pad out. "The update that you requested." Wiping her eyes one last time, Hannah took the pad. On it was a map of the galaxy with the borders of the countless galactic polities on it, as well as the position of fleets.. "The Krogan have begun colonization efforts of planets near the former DMZ. They've already laid claim to around a dozen, even if it's only with a handful of settlers. The Blood Pack has effectively become the official armed forces of the Krogan people. In response, the Turian Hierarchy has increased the number of ships on its southern border to compensate. We also have reason to believe that they have begun construction on additional dreadnoughts that would push them beyond the limit permitted by the Treaty of Farixen. What is particularly concerning is we have gathered evidence of the Hierarchy and the Union cooperating on joint research projects in regards to power armor, energy weapons, and most concerning, Reaper technology."

Hannah's stomach clenched as Anderson continued. "The Enclave, Quarians, and Geth are also all expanding. They appear to have an uneasy ceasefire, fighting alongside each other against the Salarians has helped things a bit between them, but none of them truly trust each other. They're almost in a soft Cold War. On the other side of the galaxy, we're continuing to prop up the Sovereign Dominion of Adek, but it's struggling and on the verge of economic depression. People only aren't leaving it because there's rumors that the Hegemony is undergoing a minor civil war. We're still looking into it, but they appear accurate so far."

"On the more mundane front, the economic juggernaut that was the Asari economy is starting to slip. They earned no friends when they stayed neutral. Quite a few high profile contracts between them and the other Council races are being broken and economic sanctions are being imposed on them. Sanctions are also being imposed on the Elcor, but as their economy is mainly self-sufficient, it's having little effect. Some politicians are arguing we should use this opening to secure relationships with them, but public opinion of the Asari isn't very high right now. Oh. And no one knows where Matriarch Benezia is. I'm starting to suspect we won't for a long time, if ever."

Admiral Anderson looked out over the map. "This is our galaxy now," he said somberly. "So much more free people, but less stable in many ways. And we have to hold it together." One month. The war had only lasted one month and yet it had done all of this. And now it fell to them to keep it from getting worse. Her children had died keeping the One Month War under control. Or rather, as some people were already starting to call it, The Pointless War. What was left for her to do aside from pick up the pieces?

Not much.


Author's Note: I'm not dead yet! My writing energy has just been utterly dead. Yeah, I have really mixed feelings about this story now, but I wasn't willing to let it die. This is the penultimate chapter, and I honestly feel like everything important has been covered here. The final chapter will be an epilogue that mainly exists to tie a bow around everything else, maybe answer a few more questions, but From the Ashes is basically over at this point. The epilogue will basically be there to show that, despite everything, the Normandy crew is all right.

It's been one hell of a ride. I started this story in high school and now I've finished grad school. I've started another passion project and I've finished Avoiding Stupid Deaths, opened and closed a , started working full time, paid off my car and student loans, and I don't know what the future has for me. I wrote nearly a million words for this and wow that's a lot. I have mixed feelings looking back at this story, as the early chapters are really rough at points. But I learned a lot writing this story, and it helped me grow oh so much as a writer. Thank you so much for sticking with me for so long through this crazy, stupid, ride. It's been so much fun. I'll see you at the ending.

I would like to thank my legacy Patrons, SuperFeatherYoshi, xXNanamiXx, RaptorusMaximus, Davis Swinney, Mackenzie Buckle, Ryan Van Schaack, ChaosSpartan575, and LordofNaught for their amazing support.