I'm so sorry for the delay. This was incredibly hard to write - and honestly, I debated with myself whether I should just keep writing individual chapters, but there was nothing in those chapters that hadn't been explored before. I gradually had to talk myself down from it, because I knew if I started I would never, ever stop, and as much as I've loved working on this story, it needs an end. It almost didn't get passed one chapter, and now it's here.
Thank you, readers and reviewers, so much for all the wonderful support and feedback throughout this story.
Hackett watches the stars every night.
He traces her supposed trajectory with the tips of his fingers against the cracked windowpanes of his apartment. It's easy at first, as the pockets of data come streaming back to them every few days, then every couple weeks. Still nothing, everything fine. Then, one day, five months in, there's nothing. He doesn't panic, but he stands every time someone knocks on the door, his body pressed forward, until they enter with a chagrined expression and the hope leaves his body like a sigh.
He and Hannah swirl around each other for the first few weeks of silence like objects caught in each other's orbit, unable to pull away but not quite able to touch either. Even in the dead of night, lying awake next to each other, a thin strip of space separates them. For all that Riley had brought them together, it is still because of her that they stay away, each nursing their own private worries. Joy is so much easier to share than grief, and neither one of them has ever been especially good at giving words to their emotions.
After the first year, Hannah comes to him while he's preparing for bed.
"She's not dead," she says, her arms crossed. She lacks the wild intensity that coursed through her after the Reaper war. It's been replaced with something hard, a dare that she doesn't speak.
"I know," he says, and he wills it to be true.
If anyone could survive out there, it's Riley. She's beaten the odds so many times before. She can do it again. To drown out the little voice that reminds him but everybody's luck can run out, he crosses the room and takes Hannah into his arms, kissing her, pulling her towards the bed. She doesn't resist, and it feels like forever since he had contact with another human being. He wonders if they can start to define themselves on their own terms, rather than on their collective love of their child.
It's not easy. The silence hangs over them like a fog, but they do their best to muddle through, calling to each other whenever one gets lost, making their way through the din with clasped hands. Life starts to resemble something of what it once was- though Earth is a roughened, hardier version of the one that was destroyed… and so are they.
The Alliance tries to appoint Hackett as some sort of military president. He declines. He organizes an election instead, something that proves expensive and time consuming, but he never once doubts that it's the right thing. The one thing they've earned, after the Reapers and the subsequent fallout, is the right to choose. Riley nearly died defending that right, nearly died exercising that right, and he'll be damned before he tarnishes that gift.
By the end of year one, most of the elected government agree that it's highly unlikely that Commander Shepard and the fleets are coming back. They propose a holiday. It feels like a betrayal, but he knows that people need a public place to grieve and commemorate. He and Hannah sit in the house the whole day, half naked and drinking wine out of cups, discussing long forgotten stories of Riley's childhood – how she hated peas, how she had her first crush on an NCO when she was twelve, how she'd thrown her first punch at thirteen and had been severely disciplined but had refused to back down from her actions, saying only, He deserved it. They laugh until they cry.
Life settles into a kind of normalcy. It's a very different thing to live with one person as a partner than to live on a ship full of subordinates. They learn to read one another's moods, and ebb around each other like currents. Nearing the end of the second year, it becomes instinctual.
He's making a call when Yamamoto enters. He glances at her, and is about to reply to something the Dalatrass has said when Yamamoto crosses the room and ends the call. He blinks at her a few seconds before the indignation comes. She can read him too well, because that's when she drops the datapad on his desk. He smiles when he reads it, warmth blooming in his chest.
"Remind me to give you a raise," he says, standing.
Yamamoto smiles back at him. "I've already marked it on your agenda, sir."
Hackett claps her on the shoulder and leaves his little office. He moves down the hall and finds Hannah hunched over documents. He takes her hand, drops a kiss onto it, and pulls her out of the room.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
"You'll see," he says.
"I hate surprises," says Hannah. "I'd rather just know."
He smiles at that, swinging his hand to catch hers. "Let's go for a walk."
Hannah grumbles and he takes that as consent. They walk hand in hand down the cracked and uneven pavement, taking in the buildings that are slowly, so slowly, being rebuilt. If anyone recognizes them, nobody says a word, though they get a few nodded heads in their direction. They also have a few eyes slide away, accompanied by quickening feet that turn the corner. It doesn't matter. The sunshine cascades down upon them, and despite the fact that he's spent the majority of his life on starships, he knows there's nothing he'd change about this exact day.
She sees the bow of the ship before he does, and her inhalation is sharp. Her hand convulses around his, eyes wide. When she turns to him, her mouth isn't working. She drops his hand and takes a few lumbering steps towards the spaceport, body keeling like she can't quite get her balance. A few steps later and she's found her rhythm, one foot in front of the other, faster and faster.
Hackett follows behind at a walk. He digs his hands into his pockets and turns his face up to the sky, enjoying the warmth. He should've learned a long time ago that things always happen in their proper time, good or bad, but more than that, he should've learned that whenever Riley looks death in the face, she always says no.
Quarians and turians are milling about inside, unloading sealed crates of what can only be element zero. Several salute him as they pass, and he inclines his head at them. Then, in front of him, like something out of a vid, his two women stand. Hannah's hands are on Riley's face, but instead of weeping, she's smiling. Riley's smiling too, and as he approaches, those smiles turn on him and he can only answer.
"You're late, Captain," he says, crossing his arms.
Riley raises an eyebrow. "Captain?"
"I promised you a promotion, didn't I?" he says.
Understanding spreads over her face, and her smile becomes softer somehow. "I didn't forget." She extricates herself from Hannah and comes forward, hesitant at first, then faster as she throws her arms around him. He can't recall the last time they hugged, and he's sure it must've been before she left, the day that she left, but all he can remember is holding her in his arms right before he walked away into obscurity all those years ago.
"Welcome home," he says.
"Thanks, Dad," she whispers to him, and all he can think is, yes, now – now is the beginning.