Part One: Dog Tags
Earth, London, August 2nd, 2186
At first, it was like being underwater.
Keeley had only been to a beach once, but the experience stuck in her head especially since she'd been pulled in a riptide and dragged under the water. Only her biotics were enough to save her, but she still recalled the odd calm feeling, a feeling like cold and winter in her bones when there just wasn't enough oxygen to her brain. The strange grey gleam of light through the water was burned into memory.
Her ears rang. She felt the flutter of her eyelids and then, finally, the most agonizing breath of her life. All the pain she had ever known, every bruise, every burn, dying - all the pain rushed over her like the water had closed over her head in the ocean. She tried to scream, but her mouth was blood.
She made a sick, wet sound and thought of nothing but struggling towards the next gulp of air or towards death.
There was murmur of voices; shouting. The world brightened and there was a rush of chill London air.
The voice was far away and unfamiliar.
"Sergeant! SARGEANT! You'll never believe it. I can't…"
There was a face then, close enough to feel the brush of breath, warm against the damp of her face; the jangle of her tags.
"God in heaven sir, we found Commander Shepard!"
Part Two: Temporary Retirement
Earth, Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island, Canada, July 9th, 2187
"Not sure this is as tropical as I was hoping for, Shepard."
Garrus was complaining, but he didn't really mean it. It was warm. It was sunny. The sand was golden and soft and the waves were rolling just so. The air smelled of salt and seagrass and it didn't really matter that it was Canada instead of Brazil.
The docs were pissed that Shepard had checked herself out. She practically needed to pull a gun, but she was beyond tired of staring at the green hospital wall; she was too pale and the sun bronzing her skin helped hide the scars. There were some things medical technology could fix and some things they couldn't.
It still took time; though less than coming back from the dead, apparently.
The Catalyst lied and Shepard was the least surprised of anyone. She saw through its literal view of existence. Despite its dire warnings, its attempts to control her, she knew it lied. She tried not to think about it now – the world was repairing itself, the wounds were healing. She tried not to think about the way the tendrils of its control crept into her, maybe using the Cerberus implants to get a foothold inside of her.
In the end, the destruction had been far less than it had prophesied. The geth, now individuals due to the upgrades from Legion had shielded themselves. The remaining heretic geth perished, but Shepard had a hard time feeling any sympathy. The relays were damaged, but not beyond repair and the amount of tech and resources from the salvage of the reapers were going to keep scientists across the galaxies busy for years.
Keeley wondered if EDI died because of the Catalyst's destruction, or because the Normandy was lost.
She tried to come to terms with it but considering the lack of wreckage and the lack of bodies...it was so fucking hard. There was so much death, and so many MIA, she wondered if they would ever be able to account for them all.
Instead of wallowing, instead of giving up after everything she'd accomplished, every odd she'd defied, she lounged on a beach with a turian who looked all bony and dinosaur-like as he soaked up the sun. She had more scars than he did now, but he insisted hers were cuter. Tomorrow he was headed on a transport for Rannoch. He didn't like to be away from Tali any longer than he had to, but no Shepard without Vakarian, right? He was a good friend; Shepard wasn't always worthy of it.
"It's as tropical as I can handle, Vakarian, you scaly bastard."
Garrus chuckled. Shepard closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair, digging her toes under the warm sand into the cool dampness below.
"I'm glad you lived."
"I'll let you know when I agree."
She was surviving, as best she could. She scars hurt, but the sun helped. Her insides felt numb, but not much helped with that.
Part Two: Admirals and Elbows
Earth, Vancouver Metro Complex, October 2nd, 2187
They made her an Admiral, which was completely idiotic. But they gave her an office and a shiny new uniform and sometimes they asked advice about strange things like the Geth settlement on Rannoch and the mating rituals of the Drell.
The long sleeves of her blue jacket covered all the scars except the ones on her knuckles and the two creeping into her hairline where they cut open her skull to keep her swelling brain from killing her. She knew they could be fixed, but they weren't just scars, they were badges of honor. Made her look more bad-ass and less princess anyway.
She saved the world after all, couldn't be Cinderella forever.
Ships had started coming home, slowing streaming into the Sol system like lost baby chicks, burned around the edges. It was hard not to hope when the lists came across her desk. Lists and lists of names, some dead, some wounded but even more healthy and praising her name. There were the happy screams and tears of reunions at all hours echoing everywhere.
Vancouver became a city of hope, just like London had become a symbol of survival.
So many ships had hit the relays before the Crucible fired; heeding the call for retreat they sped across the galaxy hoping for somewhere to hide. Those that had been caught in the shockwave from the Citadel's explosion were flung wildly through the stars missing their intended destinations by light years. Like a lot of other technology, they had damaged components – anything linked to a network, like comm systems, databases, research libraries; they burned out with much of the data being corrupted. Only stand alone systems, FTL drives and life support mostly, were unaffected. But that meant a lot of ships having to navigate home by piecing together old star charts or finding the nearest inhabited world and filing through their back-ups were finally coming home and might be coming home for months or even years to come.
Every day became one more day the Normandy was still MIA and one more day of assholes and elbows. Admiral Shepard covered up Keeley's weaknesses with perfect Marine bravado.
She drank beer at Vega's grave sometimes.
Part Three: If the Shoe Fits
Earth, English Bay, Vancouver, December 23rd, 2187
Keeley met Amanda Alenko at the Thanksgiving Remembrance Celebration at Alliance headquarters. The powers-that-be made it clear it was not a memorial service because there were still people coming home all the time.
Amanda recognized the woman her son had reluctantly told her about, more than she recognized the hero of the galaxy. Keeley was grateful for her sudden and immediate friendship. She couldn't remember having a mom of her own; Amanda Alenko was a widow and grieving mother and gratefully clasped her ersatz daughter into the bosom of her family like she'd always belonged there.
It wasn't what either of them wanted, but it was close enough.
Amanda had insisted Keeley come stay for Christmas and she couldn't think of a reason to say no. Strands of blonde whipped around her face in the brisk of the wind out here on the balcony overlooking the bay. The remains of the sunlight painted the snow and the rolling water in a dozen shades of blue and grey.
Garrus would have been completely pissed off by the temperature. It made her smile.
The sliding door to the house muffled the oddly distressful little family noises. It was surreal, like a painting or some sentimental vid in there – a tree with little lights and extended family and the smell of ginger and nutmeg and fireplace smoke. It was more family than Keeley had known outside the Normandy and they were all too polite in that particular Canadian way that allowed her some privacy despite obvious concern for her well being.
In a half hour they'd have ham and turkey and a table that looked like a magazine cover but everything still tasted a little bit like ashes. She'd eat anyway. That's what animals do when they need to survive.
The voices had been rolling like the waves on the bay, roiling higher, receding back; cresting into white foam and then falling into silence. She heard the silty sound of the door sliding open and she braced herself to go back in and put on her brave face.
She could be brave for Amanda. She'd done so much for Keeley, she'd shared baby pictures and stories and told her everything Kaidan told his mom when he thought she was dead and gone. She could do it for a woman who's heart was a thousand times stronger than her's was; she saved earth, she survived the impossible and instead of living she shuffled through survival ….
Keeley turned around. That voice. Those brown eyes and Jesus Christ...The air was pulled out of her lungs. It was easier to breathe in the vacuum of space.
"I..." she coughed. "Wha...how?" She took a gasping breath. "Where the hell have you been? What did you do with my ship?"
A laugh like hot coffee. "I was hoping for something like in the movies, but I suppose I earned this on Horizon, didn't I?" A fluid shrug, as familiar and warm as a blanket dropping across her shoulders. "Brought the ship back in one piece. It's a hell of a story, but I brought the Normandy and everyone else home...except EDI. Joker's not quite the same, but I think he'll be okay eventually." A wistful smile. "Anyway, sorry I'm late."
Keeley's smile was lopsided and ridiculous and she wasn't entirely sure how she'd managed to get so goddamned lucky.
"I forgive you," she said, regaining her footing and her senses. "This time. Just promise to never do this again."
"Don't worry, I'm not letting you out of my sights again Commander."
"It's Admiral now."
A single black eyebrow raised. "Should I salute?"
"I don't think that's necessary, Major Alenko," the mirth returned to her voice. She heard the tinkle of laughter. They had an audience and it only seemed fitting. "I think you should just kiss me."
A step forward, two. This close and even closer.
"And that's an order, Major."
"Aye, aye ma'am."
The glass slipper fit perfectly.