He had been taking his time packing. He didn't want to leave the Normandy. As he took his duffel bag down from the shelf in the bathroom, Shepard sighed and headed for the bed. He plopped the bag down and headed to the drawers where he kept all of his clothes. He didn't generally keep a whole lot of civilian clothes around, but he had some. He'd never really noticed that most of them were blue or grey or black. An Alliance soldier through and through, he thought. He removed his shirts, a couple pairs of pants and some socks and boxers from the top drawer and tossed them onto the bed. As he opened the other drawers to see if he'd missed anything he was painfully aware that Ash's clothes were already gone.
"You look deep in thought." Liara's familiar, soothing voice came from the top of the stairs. He turned to her and smiled just a little, though he wasn't feeling particularly happy. This day hadn't been all that pleasant so far.
"Hey. I didn't even hear you come in." He motioned for her to come in. "Thought you'd be getting your things together."
She smiled and entered the room, making herself comfortable on the edge of his bed. "My things are ready to go, Shepard. I don't procrastinate like some people."
"Ha ha," he deadpanned. "I've been busy."
Liara's musical laughter flitted through the air. "I guess you could say that. What time do you leave?"
"Trying to get rid of me already?"
"No. In fact I'd rather you not leave at all, but I understand they need you in Vancouver. I saw Ashley this morning before she and Sarah left. She seemed… Well she didn't seem happy."
He groaned and tossed some of his underwear into the open bag. "Yeah. Something like that." He didn't want to elaborate. It hadn't been pleasant saying goodbye to Ashley this morning. She wanted to be there for him, and he knew that. But he also knew she wanted to see her family, and he needed the time to himself. He'd reassured himself he'd done the right thing by encouraging her to go, but it still didn't feel good. He was feeling selfish and weak, and that mostly pissed him off more than anything.
"I take it she's not a fan of you going to Vancouver without her."
"'Not a fan' would be putting it lightly, Liara."
He knew she wouldn't push. Liara always knew when not to push. "Most of the crew has already gone."
"Yeah. I had some time with them early this morning. It's tough saying goodbye."
"They've been a very special part of your life."
"I'm gonna miss them." His voice was sadder than he'd anticipated, but it was true. His crew had been a large part of who he was. In the many years he'd commanded the Normandy or some incarnation of it, the people that had come and gone had made up the bones and life of the ships, and he felt emptiness where their presence would have been now. It was just one more life change to adjust to.
"How are you doing?" Liara's voice had that particular tone to it, the kind where he knew she wouldn't be satisfied with his typical answer brushing off his concerns or feelings.
He sat down on the bed next to her and shook his head. "I'm not sure. I'm… adjusting to a lot."
"I know. You've been through a lot, Shepard." She took his hand in hers and squeezed. "More than I think even you realize."
He nodded. "We've all been through a lot, Liara. It's not just me. It's you, it's Ash, and it's everyone. We all struggled. But you're right. Maybe… maybe I don't know how to deal with this now that I have the time to deal with it." He ran a hand over his slightly grown out hair.
"You've been shouldering a burden for a very long time, Shepard."
"That's just it. I've wanted to let go of this for years, just get it done, get it over with, win the fight, save the world, and move on. And now that I have it's like I can't."
"Why do you think that is?"
He shrugged. "I'm not sure." He rolled his eyes and stood again. "Apparently I'm gonna find out though. Aside from the mandatory leave, Hackett has me talking to a shrink every day between meetings and physical therapy. That'll be fun."
"It might help."
He laughed humorlessly and shoved a few more things in his bag. His hand brushed something in one of the pockets and he made a face. He couldn't remember what it was so he pulled it out and looked at it. A small black box. Now he remembered. He opened it to find a small ring with a modest setting. He frowned.
"What is that?" Liara asked.
"It's a ring that EDI got me as a gift."
One of Liara's thin eyebrows rose. "EDI got you a ring?"
He chuckled. "Yeah. She didn't quite understand the concept of gift giving, or she meant it as a joke." He felt the sting of guilt in his gut. "I think it was her way of telling me how special I was to her." He stared at it for a long moment until he couldn't bear the sight of it anymore and then he closed the box and tossed it back in the bag.
Liara stood then. "I actually have to get going too. I wish I could stay."
He smiled. "I wish you could too."
She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He slipped his around her waist and squeezed her hard and close for a long time. He closed his eyes, letting her embrace soothe his mind as he melted into it. She kissed his cheek and returned his strong hug. They stood there for a long time and it occurred to him that the last time they'd been affectionate was when they both thought they were going to die, and she'd shared her memories with him. It had been, what he thought would be their last goodbye. He felt a lump in his throat as he held her there. Liara Tsoni. Without her he wouldn't even be here. She had been the one constant in the insane last few years that he could cling to.
He heard her sniffle a little and as she pulled away she wiped a tear from her cheek and smiled, taking his hands in hers.
"Don't be a stranger, Shepard" she whispered.
She smiled and took his face in her hands, planting a short, sweet kiss on his lips before pulling away and walking to the door. When the door closed behind her, his heart sank and he stood in the silence of the ship for another minute or so before shaking it off and finishing his packing.
When he was done, and he stepped into the doorway, he glanced back at the cabin, his cabin, his home and the corner of his mouth turned up. Finally, he forced himself to turn away and let the door close behind him. He was ready to leave.
The trip to Vancouver was uneventful. He had a private transport, which was nice. He didn't feel like talking to anyone. Somehow the Alliance had already batted away efforts of some news outlets to try to get to him. Word had apparently gotten out about how the final fight had gone down, at least everything that could be told to the public. He hadn't looked at the news. The thought made his chest tight with anxiety. He didn't want the attention. He just wanted to be left alone. The trip gave him time to catch up on emails from friends and family. He had a chuckle at an email from his father, who claimed he single handedly saved the wilderness of Canada from the encroaching horde of "robot zombies." He hadn't spoken to his father yet, and felt guilty about it. He supposed he would talk to him soon.
Friends from the Alliance had also emailed him, some people he hadn't spoken to in ages, and they all suddenly wanted to know everything about his life. "I've gotta change my email address," he muttered to himself. He found emails from a couple of old friends as well, some of whom hadn't even know he was still alive until recent news reports. He smiled at an email from his old friend Marisa. She was still married, and by now had a son. He remembered the last time he saw her. Throughout the years they'd spent a lot of time together, and they'd spent one of their last nights together just before he'd first shipped out on the Normandy. The memory made him smile, and he responded to her happily. She would always be special to him. It occurred to him that she was probably one of the people that got the official news of his death a few years ago. She had been on his list of people to contact. He hated to think how that had hurt her.
Vancouver looked awful. Aside from the gloomy cloud cover and the misty rain, there wasn't a whole lot left of it. There were a few giant Reapers still laying sprawled across parts of the city. He could see the barriers surrounding them. No doubt it would take a long time to successfully clear and safely dispose of the debris. Hackett had reassured him that security was tight around those areas. Shepard didn't want to take any chances that the Reapers were still somehow active. On his recommendation they'd locked down as many as they could wherever they knew they were. It would be years, maybe even decades before they could even find all of them, he thought.
The shuttle he was in pulled up to one of the few taller buildings that still appeared to be standing. It looked like an apartment complex, though the Alliance had set up a temporary command on the first 10 floors or so. The real Alliance command had been destroyed almost entirely. The above apartments were where anyone working there was staying. He was greeted by a young serviceman at the door, who saluted and seemed eager to show him to his living quarters.
The elevator worked, and as they traveled upward, the guy explained where everything was in the command center. After a moment they stood there in silence, and Shepard could tell the man wanted to say something else. He looked at him. "Something on your mind, Corporal?"
"No sir," he said. "Well. Yes sir." He looked young, not more than twenty Shepard would have guessed. He almost couldn't remember ever being that young in the Alliance. Those were simpler times, when all he did was point and shoot, get drunk with his unit, sleep with eager women who loved a man in uniform, and beat his chest about how great he was. He was cocky back then. Back before Akuze.
"Speak your mind, Corporal. It's okay."
The kid looked relieved. "Well sir, I just wanted to say it's an honor to meet you. Your career is the stuff of legends if I may say so. I just wanted to say that."
Shepard nodded a little, not quite comfortable with the legend description. "What's your name?"
"Henson sir. Darren Henson."
Shepard extended his hand and the corporal shook it firmly. "Good to meet you too, Henson."
"This may be a weird time to ask, sir, but… any advice on how a grunt like me can move up the chain?" Shepard cracked a small smile. Henson seemed well aware that it had gotten awkward.
"Know when to follow orders and when to question things. Keep your head down and don't get killed. That's about all I know."
"And it's served you well, sir?"
He nodded. "Here and there."
Henson seemed satisfied with this as the doors opened on the 36th floor. "Thank you, sir. Apartment 3607 is yours. It's a nice one I hear."
Shepard stepped out. "Thanks, Henson." Then he nodded and stepped away as the doors closed, anxious to set his bag down and get settled.
The apartment was large, very nice. He suspected the rest of them in the building were as well. He glanced around the room as the lights came on. It was spacious, with an open floor plan. It was on the corner, so it was nothing but windows that looked out over the water. Two panes of glass had been recently replaced with a cheaper, more convenient kind of clear material. They were likely the casualties of flying debris. He laid his bag down on the leather couch and walked to the window. The view was almost beautiful, and everything looked fairly calm from that high up. If he didn't look closely he could almost convince himself everything was fine down below. His journey with the Normandy had started in Vancouver. And this was where it would end. Sort of poetic when he thought about it.
He took a moment to look around the rest of the one bedroom place. The bedroom and bathroom looked untouched by anyone. He wondered if that's how the Alliance found it. As he entered the kitchen, he wondered where the previous occupants were now. The thought made him cringe. They were either dead or the Alliance had paid them handsomely to give up their space for a while. He hoped it was the latter.
He opened the refrigerator. It was predictably empty. Someone had cleaned it out. Any food that was in it before the Reapers came would have long since spoiled in the many months they'd been at war. He remembered Corporal Henson had mentioned there would be rations. He opened a few of the cupboards and chuckled. In one, he found several various MRE's stacked neatly. The apartment was swanky, but he'd be eating like an honest to god field soldier for the next few weeks. There was something comforting about that. He thought of the times he spent with his unit hunkered down on some sweaty planet, waiting for a fight.
And then he remembered Akuze, and how everyone he had memories of were long dead and forgotten by the Alliance. But they'd never be forgotten by him. He had always made sure of that. There were times at night where he'd cycle through their names and faces in his mind, remembering something special about each one. Jacintha Quinn had red hair and she liked marshmallows. Harlan Woodsworth loved to hunt deer and could put away more shitty beer than anyone Shepard had ever known. Greggson Stigg was 6'8" and kicked the shit out of Shepard one night in a friendly sparring session. Then they drank until they stopped hurting. The faces and names never changed, but the things about them would come and go. He wondered if it would even have been worth it for them to survive Akuze. Would they have just died in the last few months anyway?
He quickly did an inventory of the other cupboards and came across a bottle of whiskey. He stared at it a moment and then grabbed it and a glass. It wasn't open yet, and he didn't figure the owner of the place would mind. He didn't really care if they did. He opened the bottle and poured a generous helping into the tumbler and headed for one of the black leather chairs that looked out onto the city.
He sat and exhaled a breath he felt like he'd been holding all day. He sunk into the chair and kicked off his boots, staring off into the twilight. The sun was setting and a purplish glow had engulfed the city. He noticed some of the buildings with lights on. Other places were dark, likely having not quite gotten power back yet. He took a drink and set both the bottle and the glass on the end table next to him. For a moment, he considered calling Ash, and then he thought he'd rather not. He couldn't decide, so he decided to send her a voice message.
He pulled up his omni-tool and keyed in her contact information that he knew by heart.
"Hey. It's me. I just wanted to let you know I'm here in Vancouver. The apartment is… nice. Not looking forward to tomorrow's meetings." He paused, not sure what to say next. "I hope you and Sarah got to San Diego fine. Let me know okay?" He sighed. "I know you're… not happy about this arrangement. I'm not exactly thrilled either." He realized there wasn't much else he could say without sounding like an ass. "Anyway I just wanted to touch base. I'll talk to you soon." He ended the message and sent it off, then took another drink of his whiskey. It was good. A nice bourbon, probably expensive. He planned on drinking a lot of it tonight.
"You win!" Ashley flopped down on her giggling niece's bed, pretending to be out of breath. Maddy had wanted to race her to the bedroom before being tucked in and Ash was happy to do it. She missed her, and so rarely got to see her. She was four now and getting big. She grinned at her aunt, her brown eyes sparkling, her dark curls wild on her head.
"Okay get in," Ash said. "You want a story or are you too tired from racing?" She helped her under the covers.
Maddy thought a minute. "I don't want a story, but I just want to talk."
Ash smiled and tucked the blankets up around her. "You just wanna talk. Okay then." She positioned herself on the bed to be lying next to her. Abby's home was outside of the main city and the neighborhood had been relatively untouched by Reaper forces. The Alliance had arranged for them all to stay there, in familiar surroundings. It was strange being at Abby's house and not celebrating something. Nothing would ever be the same her, she thought. But at least they were all together.
When she'd gotten home she hadn't been able to keep herself from crying when her mother hugged her. Her mother, her sisters, Abby's husband Michael and their daughter Maddy were all in the same place, and that made her relax for the first time in a long time. Lynn had finally heard from her long-time boyfriend, who had been away on business. He was safe too.
"I missed you a lot you know." Ash said, tweaking Maddy's little nose.
"I missed you too."
"I hear you've been busy, starting school soon huh?" Ash thought it best to just continue on the path of normalcy, though she had no idea when any children would be able to get back to school, or if their schools still existed.
Maddy nodded. "I can count to 30 and spell a lot of words."
"Thirty? Wow. You sound like you're gonna do just fine." She chuckled. That had made Maddy smile. And then Maddy looked sad. "What's the matter, sweetie?"
"Uncle Thomas died."
"I know. It's okay to be sad." She wasn't sure what else to say. "He was trying to protect everyone from all the bad stuff that was happening."
"A lot of people died," Maddy whispered.
Ash sighed, lying on her side, looking at the beautiful, innocent face that had seen too much ugliness and war far too young. She nodded. "Yes they did. But the important thing is that we're all safe now."
"I don't like to go to sleep."
"No? Why's that?" She stroked Maddy's hair lightly.
"I'm afraid the monsters will come back," she whispered quietly, as if the very mention of them would bring them right to her. Ash's heart wrenched in her chest, but she smiled at Maddy.
"Hey listen. I promise you the monsters will never come back. We stopped them."
"Did you stop them? Mommy says it was you."
Ash chuckled. "Well I helped a little. But you're safe now. We're all safe. I promise."
Maddy looked like she was thinking this promise over for a long time, before she finally nodded. "Okay."
Ash smiled at her. "I love you. Now get some sleep." She sat up and rubbed Maddy's back a little before Maddy sat up quickly and hugged her hard. It knocked the wind out of Ash, but she put her arms around her and squeezed.
"I love you too," a little voice said, buried in her chest.
Ash held her close, not wanting to let go for a moment, before kissing the top of her head. "Okay let's get you to bed." She tucked her back in and kissed her again. "Good night, Maddy."
"Night Aunt Ash."
Ashley turned off the light and made sure to leave the door open a crack so the light would come through. When she was little she was afraid of the dark, and her mom had always left the door open a crack so the hallway light could come through. She headed out and straight for the front porch. She needed some fresh air.
The night air was warm. It was summer and San Diego was always warm. She closed her eyes as the breeze blew her hair a little. She could smell the ocean, which wasn't that far away. It was a welcome change. All she seemed to smell for weeks was burned out buildings, ashes in the air, and god knows what else in the wake of the destruction. She heard her omnitool ping and glanced down. A message from Shepard. She smiled and opened it. It looked like it had been sent a couple of hours ago, but she'd just only now gotten it. Communications were still spotty all over.
"Hey. It's me. I just wanted to let you know I'm here in Vancouver. The apartment is… nice. Not looking forward to tomorrow's meetings. I hope you and Sarah got to San Diego fine. Let me know okay? I know you're… not happy about this arrangement. I'm not exactly thrilled either..." There was a long pause. "Anyway I just wanted to touch base. I'll talk to you soon."
She sighed and opened her own message to send back to him.
"Hey Shepard. Got your message. Sarah and I got here fine and everyone's being taken care of. It's really great to be able to spend some time with them." She thought for a moment. "Maybe you were right. Maybe we both need to get our heads on straight before…" She sighed. "I dunno, before we can…" She shook her head and forced a laugh. "I'm not really making any sense. I think I'm just tired. I just… I hope you're feeling okay today. Give me an update when you can about the meetings. Let's talk soon." She closed the message and took a deep breath.
"Hey." Ash turned to find her sister Abby standing at the doorway, two glasses of red wine in her hands. She smiled at her sister, who stepped forward, handing her the glass. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop."
Ashley sipped her wine. "No it's okay. Just letting him know we're all fine." She looked at the wine. "Good to see the Reapers didn't get into your stash."
Abby chuckled. "If they had I would have stopped them myself."
"Hey I like wine!" They both laughed and Abby leaned on the railing next to Ash. She was shorter than Ashley, and had a lighter brown hair color. Her body type was curvier than Ash's lean, athletic frame. Their similar features gave them away as sisters, but Ashley always thought Abby had a much softer, warmer and more feminine look to her. She was every bit a mother, and a constant nurturer.
Ash shook her head. "Maddy's in bed."
"Thank you for doing that. She hasn't been sleeping. Didn't sleep at all the whole time we were away."
"I know. She told me."
Abby looked down. "I guess none of us have really been able to process all this. I just wish I could make her forget all of this."
"Maybe she won't forget, but she'll move on." She smiled. "I guess we all will."
Abby smiled. Ash was used to seeing disturbing things. But her family wasn't. She hoped they'd all be okay.
Abby finally sighed. "I was half expecting Shepard to come with you. It'd be nice to meet him. Sarah says she really liked him."
Ash smiled at the thought of him. "Yeah. He's… well you'll meet him eventually. He has business to deal with in Vancouver. No rest for the weary, you know?"
"I bet." Abby looked at her sister. "I know you were a big part of helping to stop this. You're an actual real hero, Ash. You know we're all really proud of you. And I know Dad would be insanely proud of you."
Ash felt the sting of tears in her eyes and blinked them away. "It was a team effort. It wasn't just me, or just us, or even just humanity that saved Earth. Everyone came together and worked so hard." She smiled. "So much of this is because of Shepard." She took a deep breath. "I mean he ended centuries of war between different species. He united this entire galaxy. I can't even begin to tell you everything he's done. It's amazing. Shit he even took down a Reaper on foot."
Abby's eyes widened. "What?"
"I'm serious. I saw it happen."
"Yep. But that's just what he does." She shrugged. "When he's needed he just...gets it done. He's amazing." She realized she was gushing just a little and stopped herself.
Abby laughed. "Well I officially approve of your boyfriend."
Ash chuckled. "Gee is that all it took?"
"I'd say he's probably, literally the best man in the world right now isn't he? Like that's just science?"
Ash chuckled. "Yeah I guess so. He's still just a person though. The epic tale of Commander Shepard is all true. I mean most of it is classified, but he's very human. That's something I love about him." She looked down, suddenly very sad that she wasn't there to help him through his pain.
Abby sighed. "Guess you've both seen some pretty crazy things huh."
Ashley looked down. "Yeah. I guess so. A lot of them real bad."
Abby touched her shoulder. "How are you holding up?"
"I don't really know, to be honest. Being here, being with you guys just… It's amazing, but I feel out of place."
"Out of place?"
"It's like I look at this family, this kind of life that I used to be a part of, even when I was just a soldier and it's just… I don't know that life anymore." She felt an unexpected tear fall down her face. "All I've known the last few years is war. This world ending threat, the heaviness of it." She took a deep breath, as if the word heavy had almost made her feel like a weight was upon her. "In a way it's scary to think about life without it."
"How do you mean?"
"I have nightmares almost every night," She admitted. "Whether it's my unit on Eden Prime, all the horror I've seen, losing my dearest friends, losing Shepard." She laughed a little. "I've just kind of gotten used to this constant feeling of dread over the years. This ever present survival instinct. It's almost a comforting routine, waking up all the time feeling terrified or angry or sad or knowing that you might die today or the world will end."
"What does Shepard have to say about it?"
She shook her head. "He doesn't really know. I mean not everything. He has his own demons. He's always been supportive when I needed it, but there are some things I chose not to share. It would just be something else for him to worry about."
"Because of what you guys were doing?"
Ashley sighed. "It was very important to me that I be strong for him. He shouldered a lot of weight."
"So did you. Maybe more than you know."
Ash swallowed the lump in her throat. "Maybe. It was always just easier to pretend to be okay, to convince him that I believed we would win."
Abby put her arm around her and held her close. "Well maybe now you guys can talk about it. You can work through it and be happy. You do make each other happy, right?"
"I guess it's that with everything happening, there wasn't really a chance to be happy. There wasn't time to be anything really. Anything but focused on the mission I mean. So it's like everything I know in the past few years, and everything I associate with Shepard is very… unhappy." She looked down. "I mean what if we don't know how to be happy? What if the basis of our entire relationship was all this… stuff. What if neither one of us knows what to do with ourselves if there's not some bad guy to chase or some galaxy to save."
"Do you love him?"
"Of course I do."
"And does he love you?"
"Yes. Very much. Why?"
"So that's a start then." She sipped her wine. "And you know maybe you're both wondering the same thing. What happens when all the crazy stuff isn't there anymore? And besides. There will always be bad guys to chase."
"Yeah I guess." She inhaled deeply. "You know we didn't talk much about our future. I don't think either one of us really thought we'd come out of this."
Abby shrugged. "So now you figure it out. Both of you."
Ash smiled at her sister. "Yeah. Maybe. Thanks for listening."
There was a long pause. "You know… it might not be such a bad idea for you to talk to someone."
"I know. It's just, not now. I'm not ready." She downed the rest of her wine. "I'll burn that bridge when I come to it."
"Okay." Abby let it drop. She was good at that sort of thing. She never pushed. Lynn would have pushed her, but Abby understood that personal is personal. She was grateful to have her here. Ash sighed and rested her head on Abby's as they stared out into the night, hoping that Shepard was sleeping without nightmares tonight.