There was something strange going on with Admiral Steven Hackett's face.
The admiral had been puzzling over what, exactly, was making his famously grim face feel so weird (and weird really was the only word that described it appropriately) during recent days before realizing the simple answer, one so simple that it gave even him pause: he had been spending a lot of time smiling, lately.
The three weeks following his visit with commander Shepard had certainly given him ample reason to smile. The entire civilized galaxy was rising rapidly from the ashes of its intended doom, more rapidly than any of its inhabitants could have expected; cities were standing tall and proud once more, scarred monuments were restored and rebuilt, and a crippled interstellar economy was seeing its gears repaired and rebooted.
This trend of smiling - a sensation which Hackett was finding agreeable, if a little tiresome for the muscles of his face - may well have found its roots in the admiral's visit to Khar'shan, a day after his last visit to commander Shepard. On that charred world, the first victim of the Reapers and recipient of the full devastating brunt of their cold genocide, he had seen beings of every race and creed working side by side, offering comfort and camaradie to one another while bringing the cold corpse of a planet back to life. Hackett had turned to his peers, peers who had long since declared the batarian homeworld too far gone, completely irreperable, and the shock on their face had made him smile, for if he had ever wanted to see people proven wrong, it was them.
The smiling habit was likely bolstered by his subsequent visit to Palaven, the turian homeworld which the Reapers had targeted early on in an effort to cripple the galaxy's strongest military before it could muster itself. Hackett had expected to find the planet in the same state he had witnessed on countless vids and reports during the war, and there was damage, mind-boggling in its extent - but the determination and grit of its natives and their allies had suffered no such injury. It had been impossible not to smile, walking through the streets of the capitol city and watching turians and krogan, so recently divided by a centuries-old hatred, laughing and slapping each other's backs while cooperating to lay down new building foundations and clear rubble. Hackett wondered how the Reapers might have felt, provided their machine hearts were capable of feeling anything, if they could see the ultimate result of their deadly campaign - a galaxy more united than ever before.
Stopping by Thessia and depositing significant Alliance reconstruction resources there had done nothing to help Hackett's face revert back to its usual solemnity. The beautiful world's flawless appearance had been left with a scar, but that scar was on the mend, and the spirit of its asari children was contagious as they worked, singing with innate and compelling beauty, denying the vanquished Reapers the satisfaction of any lingering despair. Its soaring towers, aesthetically compelling and the marvel of the entire galaxy, soared up into the endless sky once more.
And now, sitting in the Alliance transport which had been selected to bear commander Shepard and his friends from the hospital to one of the city's spaceports, admiral Hackett felt that increasingly familiar tug at his lips. It was an idyllic winter day, crisp and dry, the sun beaming down from a clear blue sky, a far cry from the dreary wetness of his last visit. The streets were, for the first time since ancient harbingers of apocalypse had descended from the heavens, bustling with activity, and not just that of reconstruction workers (though they were out in force, too, many of them chatting agreeably and enjoying the weather); the citizens of the city, and Earth in general, were starting to live again. Families strolled down freshly paved sidewalks, storeowners accepted the money of much-needed customers, youths rolled down streets on recreational transports, and to Hackett's quiet amusement, small children gaped unashamedly up at towering krogan workers, whose reactions ranged from vague discomfort to warm greeting.
The longtime admiral checked his watch. It was early yet - just a little after eight o'clock, local time. The spacecraft which would take Shepard and his friends off of Earth and to their respective destinations was not scheduled to depart for another two hours, but Hackett wanted sufficient time to make sure the process was smooth and unobstructed. He hoped he had timed things accordingly.
He inhaled and then exhaled heavily through his nose, returning his gaze to the window. The closely built shops and businesses of moments ago were transitioning to the more scenic buildings and greenery which indicated Nathan Levitt Medical Center was near. The admiral marveled at the cleanliness of the area - if he had not witnessed it for himself, he would be hard pressed to believe that the Reapers' weapons had devastated the place not long ago. The small smile on his lips widened slightly. The cyle of the Reapers had been broken, but the cycle of life on Earth - and everywhere else - was already back on track.
"Uh, sir," a nervous voice, that of the armored Alliance soldier driving the vehicle, interrupted his reflections. "We might have a problem."
Hackett's smile faded, but he did not shift his attention from the slowly passing scenery his window looked upon. "Elaborate."
"Well, uh - sir, our parking space is kind of...blocked."
Irritation flared briefly in the admiral, but he controlled it as effortlessly as he always did. He had alerted the hospital staff that he was coming days ago - apparently, expecting that they would ensure parking availability in accordance had given them too much credit. Then again, he reasoned, they were not military, so perhaps the fault was his for not pressing the issue.
Hackett faced forward and shifted to get a better look out of the vehicle's front viewport. Fully anticipating the sight of civilian craft hogging the parking spaces, he began to share an action plan with the driver. "Understood. Park here for now. I'll go and - "
His words, however, trailed off, for the obstruction at hand was not vehicular at all - and the truth of it was enough to flummox even the Alliance's most unshakeable officer.
Nearly a month ago, when commander Shepard had been discovered and retrieved, brought to the hospital for care, the military's efforts to keep the news low-key had proven unsuccessful, for too many beings had witnessed his impossible trek from the rubble pile on which he had awakened. As a result of the ensuing frenzied newsfeed reports, the possibility of a crowd forming at the hospital had been acknowledged and accounted for; and for the first week of Shepard's care, Alliance guards had stood watch outside of the hospital, prepared to disperse any gathering before it could get out of hand.
Calling them off when it had appeared no such gathering would form, as it turned out, was a mistake.
"Holy shit," one of Hackett's usually mute guards, sitting next to him, said, echoing his superior's thoughts even while breaching protocol rather spectacularly. "There must be a thousand of 'em."
Fortunately for the guard, he needn't have feared any cursory reprisals. Hackett could only stare in wonderment out the front viewport, where a great, colorful crowd was occupying both the hospital's parking lot and the stretch of road before it. Like the population of London itself, the demographics on display were widely diverse - there were volus, turians, krogan, salarians, batarians, asari, elcor, humans, and even vorcha, all mingling and camping close together with what appeared to be complete goodwill. Fires were erected here and there, their smoky exhalations reaching for the heavens; tents of different sizes and configurations stood by to provide cover from the unpredictable elements of London in winter; and signs, bearing inscriptions in a multitude of languages, were held in the hands of their creators or propped up in whatever way worked.
These signs drew Hackett's attention, for while their languages were varied, many of them had one thing in common, one word which he recognized: Shepard.
Gathering himself, the admiral placed one gloved hand on his door's handle. "Looks like we're not the only ones here for the commander. Set down here, sergeant," he told the driver. "This crowd doesn't change anything except the amount of walking we have to do. You'll remain here and wait for us. Keep in radio contact."
These orders, delivered efficiently and crisply by Hackett, seemed to shake his soldiers out of their own stupor, as well. The driver nodded over his shoulder. "Aye, sir."
As soon as the vehicle stopped moving, Hackett dipped his head curtly at his guards and pushed his door open, stepping outside into a chill breeze. Moving with fluidity and speed born of habit and training, his guards were quickly in place flanking either side of him, and with them in tow, the admiral made his way toward the crowd and the hospital entrance beyond.
Hackett was just beginning to hope, after weaving between the boisterous aliens of the gathering for a few minutes, that he and his entourage might slip through unnoticed when a portly human woman glanced at him, did a comical double-take, and lifted a breed of megaphone to her mouth. "Admiral Hackett is here, everyone! Over here - over here, admiral Hackett - "
Hackett and his guards increased their pace, taking long strides and brushing past beings as delicately as their discomfort allowed, but could not escape the probing eyes of the alerted multitude. The admiral was promptly enduring an endless stream of backslaps, offered hands and snapping image capture tools, as well as scattered applause and appreciative whistles.
The relief he felt as he reached the stairs leading to the hospital's front entrance - also inhabited by members of the crowd but more sparsely so - was akin to a diver reaching the surface after holding in breath for too long. Glancing over his shoulder to ensure that his guards were still with him and not consumed by well-wishers (and they remained at his side, albeit with slightly crazed expressions visible through their helmet visors), he showed himself into the hospital, putting the noise and cries of the crowd behind him, all too aware that escorting Shepard back out would not be the quiet and uneventful process he had envisioned.
Liara T'soni wove a lazy trail around the hospital lobby which had, for the last month, served as her home. All around her, preparation for the departure of commander Shepard and his friends was underway, but so deeply was she in her own thoughts that she hardly noticed.
At several points of her stay at Nathan Levitt Medical Center, she had wished that Shepard would hurry up and recover, that events would increase their tempo so that she might leave and begin the next chapter of her life, and indeed, she still looked forward to exploring the archaeological wonders of the galaxy with Javik. Now, though, a great weight had settled on her heart, and a kind of silent alarm filled her entire body, because for the next chapter to begin, the current chapter had to end.
The young asari's blue eyes, vivid but sad, surveyed the scene surrounding her. Garrus stood with the krogan, constantly adjusting the sleeves of his tunic and chatting with a nervous levity. Wrex and Bont both looked no less calm than they usually did, but Grunt, just as typically, wore his emotions plainly. The tank-bred was smiling and laughing in time with his turian friend's jokes, but shot constant and furtive glances around the lobby as though fearing it might disappear if he didn't.
A fond smile on her dark lips, Liara's eyes moved toward the lobby windows, where her lover, last of an ancient people, stood with his back turned to her and his hands clasped behind his back. To the others, she knew, Javik must have appeared stoic and cold, untouched by any nerves or apprehension regarding the day's itinerary - but Liara knew better. Their empathic bond lent her a potent awareness of the shifting feelings within him, the fear which was at one moment tightly controlled and the next, overwhelming, for he was bound for the first time to a future of peace and did not know what to expect, still wondered if such a thing was a betrayal of his long-dead brothers; the sadness, that he would be saying goodbye to the friends he'd made on the Normandy, friends which had become as tightly bonded and close as a family; and the excitement, for the same thing which frightened him, the concept of a future without war, thrilled him, too.
"Penny for your thoughts."
Liara blinked but recovered from her surprise quickly, turning to face Kaidan, who stood dressed in his full Specter armor. She smiled at him and wordlessly raised an eyebrow.
He chuckled. "Old expression. Asking what you're thinking about."
"I see." Liara glanced down and smoothed the front of her white coat with matching gloved hands. When she turned her face upward, her smile remained, but her eyes were far away. She looked around again, and then back to Kaidan. "It's...strange. I should be happy, but I can't help feeling like I'm about to lose something very dear to me."
Kaidan nodded slowly and stroked his freshly shaved jaw. "Yeah. I get that. I think we all feel the same way right now." He stepped up so that he stood next to her, facing in the direction of their friends. "We've been a family for the better part of the last few years. And now..." He shrugged. "We're splitting up. Leaving the nest."
Liara placed a hand to the center of her chest as though trying to soothe the heart within. "Yes. I'm just afraid that..." She gnawed at her lip, striving to put words to her feelings and thoughts. "Oh, I don't know what I'm afraid of. You're all so dear to me - the last few years have been the most important of my life - and I don't want it all to fade away. I don't want it all to become a distant memory, or forget the sounds of your voices."
Kaidan's face was somber as he watched Wrex deliver an inaudible line which sent Garrus and his fellow krogan into bouts of loud laughter. "I'm afraid of that, too. Again, I think we all are." He turned to Liara. "I gave up trying to predict the future a long time ago. It's impossible. In the end, only time will tell." He tapped his chest. "But I know I won't forget. You guys are the only family I have now. And personally? I think we've been through too much together for the bond to fade away. We're all a part of each other. Always will be."
Liara appraised him piercingly for a moment, and then her expression brightened, eyes seeming to find their warmth again. She rested a hand on Kaidan's forearm. "Thanks."
Kaidan winked. "No problem." He took a step away from her and held his arms open wide. "How do I look?"
Liara crossed her arms and cocked her head to one side. "Crowd making you feel self-conscious, Kaidan?"
The black-haired Specter grimaced. "You can't tell me all those cameras and eyes out there aren't a little scary." He tweaked at his glove plating. "But actually, I'm just asking because it feels like forever since I put this armor on. Afraid I messed it up."
Liara laughed musically. "Don't worry. You look very sharp."
Kaidan nodded his appreciation, and then froze, brow furrowing, as faint sounds of applause and whistling filled the air. "Do you hear that?"
The asari would have replied, had not the hospital's front door opened at that moment, granting entry to admiral Hackett and greater clarity to the noise which had inspired Kaidan's question. All of the lobby's occupants turned to watch as a slightly frazzled-looking Hackett and his omnipresent protectors strode closer to them.
"Admiral," Garrus greeted, meeting him halfway whilst everyone else also made their way over. "Fashionably early, as always."
Hackett stopped a pace away from the turian, clasping his hands behind his back. "Clearly, not early enough." He indicated the entrance behind him with a motion of his head. "How long have they been here?"
Wrex chortled. "Couple weeks. Started with just a few, mostly reporters. Tried to set up camp in here with us, but the staff turned 'em down like quarians on Illium."
"And so of course, they settled outside," Garrus continued for him. "Which, in turn - "
"Attracted more attention," Hackett finished grimly. He mulled over this for a few seconds, and then shook his head. "It doesn't matter. I'm sure that, by now, none of you would let a few spectators get in the way of leaving this place."
"Actually," Kaidan piped up, looking around at the others, "staying here really hasn't been that bad. In fact, gonna feel a little sad leaving it behind."
Hackett raised a gray eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"Yeah, Kaidan, let's not push it," Garrus said wryly, crossing spindly arms over his chest. "I've known cramped military freighters more comfortable than this place. That being said..." He laughed. "I'd do it over again. The company made it all more than bearable."
Hackett watched with a twinkle in his eye as the former Normany crewmates exchanged fond looks. "I've served in the Alliance Navy for more years than I care to count," he said. "I've seen dozens of ship crews and ground teams interact with each other. I've witnessed hundreds of soldiers fighting side by side, and the bond that forms as a result."
He paused, looking down at the floor, and then back up. "But I have never seen a group of warriors as close as you. I've never known a crew that would spend a month in a hospital lobby just to support their commanding officer. Commander Shepard is lucky to have you. The whole galaxy is."
Liara held one arm to her side with the opposite hand. "We've been lucky, too," she said quietly. She took a step toward Hackett. "Without you, admiral, we wouldn't be - "
Hackett stopped her with an upheld hand. "Say no more, doctor T'Soni," he said gently. "Consider it an expression of my gratitude. To all of you."
His hand lowered and shifted, so that he was offering it to her; after a moment's surprise, the asari smiled brightly and took it. Hackett's blue eyes lingered on her face, and then he moved to each of the other crewmates in turn, repeating the handshake and, in the cases of Kaidan, Garrus and Javik, performing crisp salutes.
He reached Urdnot Bont last. The krogan doctor took his hand almost reluctantly, but maintained respectful eye contact with the human admiral, a curious sight for those accustomed to seeing him as considerably more brusque.
"I have a feeling that the commander's ability to leave the hospital today is thanks in large part to you, doctor Bont," Hackett said, returning his hand to its place behind his back. "Thank you for your time and expert attention."
Bont rubbed his helmeted head in a way that almost looked embarassed, and grunt affirmatively. "Least I could do," he mumbled vaguely.
Hackett's lips twitched upward. "How is the commander?" He glanced at the others. "I take it everything is in order?"
"He's ready to go, if that's what you're asking," Bont said before anyone else could answer, sounding much more like his usual self. The krogan reached up with thick fingers and dialed at the side-clasps of his holographic visor. "He's been on physical therapy for two weeks. Combined with his intensive chem treatments and a regulated diet, he's able to walk comfortably. As long as he isn't pushed beyond that, he'll be fine."
Wrex chortled and slapped the doctor's humped back, earning an indignant glare. "That's Bont for you," he crowed. "What'd I say? Best damned doctor in the galaxy." He considered for a moment, and then added: "Maybe even beyond."
"I believe it," Hackett said, adjusting his uniform's collar. "The Krogan Union's medical matters are in good hands."
With Wrex beaming at him, the admiral turned about on his heel and took a few steps toward the stairwell. He faced the assembled friends again. "I'm not surprised all of you stuck around for this long. Now the time has come to move on. I'll go and fetch the commander. When we come back, I ask that you all be ready to depart. It's still early, but we want to avoid any chance of delays."
Nods and sounds of assent showed that he was understood. Signaling at his guards to stay behind in the lobby, Hackett cast one last glance at its residents of the last month and proceeded to the stairs, his polished shoes clicking against the white floor.
Tali was working busily in Shepard's hospital room, moving every which way and ensuring that his belongings were properly packed, organizing the various meds he'd been instructed to take with him - but all the while, her eyes were focused on him, on the man whose side she had hardly left for the last several weeks.
He was standing in full Alliance dress uniform, framed by the window, his back turned to her. It was still jarring to see him on his feet after such a long period of caring for him in bed, but the surreal nature of it was easily displaced by the happiness she felt. The nightmare prospect of an incomplete life was long-forgotten. He was healing just as her heart was, in body and, perhaps even more notably, in soul. During their many hours of comfortable discussion, nestled together under his blankets, she had come to understand that he was gaining control of his inner demons, converting the guilt they brought into more useful motivation.
Perhaps it was on those very demons that he was dwelling as she finished checking his travel bag for the umpteenth time (nothing had, in fact, vanished) and walked up behind him, her feet making barely a sound. Upon reaching him she pressed herself up against him, wrapping her arms around his torso and resting the side of her helmeted head on his back. "Everything's set."
There was no reply. Tali waited for a few seconds. "Shepard?"
His body tensed perceptibly and then relaxed. "Mm," he acknowledged. One of his strong, warm hands closed over her smaller ones. "Thanks for doing all that."
Tali tightened her embrace slightly, and then pulled away. She rested a hand on his arm and prompted him to turn around. "Let me get a look at you, commander."
Shepard obliged, facing her fully with a crooked grin. Tali looked him up and down very deliberately, tilting her head to one side and then the other, placing a finger to her mouthpiece.
"Well?" Shepard urged. "Does everything meet madam Admiral's approval?"
Tali sighed wistfully and stepped forward so that she was barely an inch from his chest. She reached up and fidgeted with the button on his sleeve. "You should really wear this uniform more often," she teased. "You look so...noble. Like one of the fairy tale heroes every quarian girl dreams about."
Shepard laughed. "Oh, yeah?" He wrapped his arms around her, planting his hands on the small of her back. "Well, now you'll just have to dream about me."
Tali placed her hands on his chest. "I already do," she murmured.
Shepard smiled in response, but she could instantly tell that he was distracted. "You okay?"
"Yeah," the commander replied, much too hastily for her liking. He furrowed his brow briefly, and then his expression calmed. "Yeah. I'm fine. Just a lot to think about. Big day."
"Yes," Tali agreed softly, peeking past him at the window and the constantly seething sea of color visible through it. "Big crowd, too."
Shepard nodded, stealing an uncomfortable look over his shoulder and then turning back to her. "How about you?" He smiled. "Systems are 'go?'"
"Green lights across the board." Tali took a deep breath and laughed tersely. "Oh, I don't know who I'm kidding. I didn't think it was possible, but I feel even more anxious than I did before my Pilgrimage."
"Because we don't know what's next," Shepard told her, closing his hands over hers. "For the past month, we've been picking up the pieces. Doing a whole lot of sitting around and dreaming. Now..." He shrugged. "Time to dive back in. Back to improvising. A new adventure."
"'Adventure,'" Tali echoed, as though testing the word. She giggled. "I like the sound of that. Maybe no Reapers this time?"
"None of those," Shepard allowed. "But in case you've forgotten, Koris lives on Rannoch - "
He was interrupted by Tali, who slapped lightly at one of his hands and shot him a warning look. He laughed. "Kidding, kidding. I'm just glad Jorgal Finn didn't eat them alive or something on the way home."
"There was nothing to worry about," Tali said lightly. "You haven't seen my auntie Raan fight. Finn wouldn't have stood a chance."
"Now that I would pay to see." Shepard grinned and leaned his head forward, resting his forehead against Tali's visor. "Don't be nervous," he said in a voice both gentle and firm. "We're taking a plunge today, but we're doing it together."
Tali smiled up at him, thanking the Ancestors and gods of various origins, the same ones she had cursed and condemned while mourning Shepard's apparent death, that he was able once more to be her rock, her source of calm and strength. She rested her head against his broad chest and they stood there like that for a time, lost in their own contemplations and entertaining visions of what the future might hold.
They barely stirred when the door opened - by that point, no one in the hospital would have been surprised to see them in a display of affection - but both did turn their heads to recognize admiral Hackett as he strolled measuredly into the room, hands clasped behind him.
"Admiral," Shepard greeted him, straightening his uniform as Tali grudgingly pulled away. "Good to see you, sir. I wasn't expecting you so early."
Hackett stroked silently at his facial hair for a moment, glancing from the empty bed nearby to the man it had held for so long. "Medical science is an amazing thing," he said at last. "To see you on your feet, a mere month after those injuries you sustained..." He shook his head. "Happy endings in this life are rarer than I'd like. I'm glad that this is one of them."
Shepard accepted the admiral's proffered hand and listened as he continued speaking. "As for the reason I'm here early, it's because we were hoping to preempt any delays or complications. After pushing through that mob outside, I think it's safe to say the plan failed."
"You didn't know about the crowd?" Tali asked good-naturedly, crossing her arms. "So, Alliance intel doesn't have tabs on everything that happens in the galaxy, after all."
"For the time being," Hackett conceded mysteriously, and then he smiled at the quarian, exchanging a handshake with her. "I hear you've been taking good care of our officer, admiral Zorah."
"Yes, well, he's my officer, too," Tali said more than a little possessively, linking arms with Shepard for emphasis.
"Of course." Hackett eyed Shepard. "Fair to say that all the medicine in the world can't compare to the company of a loved one, isn't it, commander?"
"You could say that." Shepard grinned down at his quarian companion, whose effervescent eyes locked with his.
Hackett adjusted the brim of his cap. "Which reminds me," he said with a touch of hesitation. "I hate to bring this up on today of all days, but we need to resolve the matter I brought up last time I was here. I can't postpone it any longer."
"It's okay, admiral," Shepard assured him. "I appreciate that you gave me so much time. As it turns out, I - " he smiled once more at Tali. " - We reached a decision a long time ago."
Ever shrewd, Hackett's lips curled upward subtly, giving him the distinct appearance of one awaiting an answer already known - but wait he did, straightening his posture and clasping his hands.
Shepard gently extricated himself from Tali's hold and stepped forward, squaring his shoulders. "It's been my honor to serve in the Alliance," he said. "It's a part of me, more so than a lot of things. It's helped shape me into the man I am today."
He slumped a bit, then, as though relieved of a long-carried burden, and rubbed at the back of his neck. "But I've never been much of a juggler," he said quietly. "And I didn't go through hell for the Alliance. I did it for...something more..." he trailed off, gazing at Tali. He inhaled and returned his attention to Hackett. "With all due respect, sir, you'll have to deliver my rejection to the admiralty, along with my resignation...and gratitude."
Hackett nodded slowly. He made no comment for what seemed an interminably long time before responding. "And not a single man or woman will think less of you for it." He reached out and placed a gloved hand on the commander's shoulder. "You know, Shepard, it takes a big man to commit to something like admiralty, but between you and me, I think it takes a much bigger man to do what you just did. To focus with conviction on what's really important."
Shepard could only smile, meeting his military superior's gaze, the both of them reflecting on years of cooperation in harrowing times, on dangers mutually shared, events that would become the stories passed down to the next generations; and then Hackett squeezed his shoulder and withdrew his grip, his twinkling eyes briefly meeting Tali's.
He took a step back and gestured at the packed bags resting on the bed. "If you're ready, commander, let's get you out of this place."
This snapped Shepard back into the present. He shot another vaguely uncomfortable look out the window and then, in uncanny tandem with Tali, moved toward the bags. "Right, uhm - I guess we're ready."
Hackett intercepted the lovers before they could reach their goal, picking up the bags himself. Tali looked aghast. "Oh, no, admiral, you don't have to do that - "
"With all due respect, miss Zorah, I outrank you here," Hackett said, his goatee unable to fully conceal a grin. "I'll carry any bags I want." He strolled over to the door before Shepard or Tali could say anything, stopping short of it and facing them. "I'll go ahead to the transport and meet you there. Take your time - your crew is waiting in the lobby. I imagine you'll want a few moments with them before heading outside." He turned halfway and then paused. "And you may want to make sure you're looking photogenic. They're taking pictures for the history books out there."
He left, both hands laden with Shepard's and Tali's bags. The commander stared at the door as it closed behind him, and then looked to Tali, only to find her taking Hackett's advice rather literally, scrubbing vigorously at her purple visor with a cloth presumably pulled from one of her innumerable suit pockets.
He arched an eyebrow, but made no comment, opting instead for a fond smile. He offered his arm to her. "Well, miss vas Normandy, are you ready to go home?"
Tali stowed the cloth away, looking embarassed by her momentary lapse into vanity. She wrapped her arms around his and pressed close to him, taking one last look around the room where she'd been reunited with her love, dreamt of the future which was now arrived, and had, in many ways, undergone as much healing as Shepard.
"Yes," she said, turning to the threshold beyond which tomorrow awaited. "Let's go."
Unbeknownst to Shepard, the way he felt as he made his way through the corridors of Nathan Levitt Medical Center one last time, arm in arm with his quarian soulmate, bore no small similarity to Tali's state of mind when she had first ascended the stairs and gone to his room. Nothing seemed real - not the nurses continuing about their everday routine, not the various beings who uttered quiet gratitude to him in passing or gave respectful nods, not the glimpses out windows of a London strikingly vibrant; and in the back of his mind he wondered if any of it was real, if he was witnessing some form of afterlife or, most chillingly, if it was all some hallucination conjured by the Reapers as part of insidious indoctrination.
Such thoughts were fleeting, however, and he was given no time to dwell on them, for he was soon vaguely aware that they were descending the stairwell which led to the lobby. Shepard gulped. He would almost have preferred, at that moment, to dash across the barren and churned soil of London with Reaper weapons firing at him again than to take another step - because what, exactly, was he supposed to say to friends who had done more for him than he could ever repay?
Garrus's voice met his ears as soon as Shepard and Tali turned the last corner and emerged into the lobby. "There he is! The man of the hour, and his much prettier companion."
Shepard forced a grin despite his fluttering nerves, which were in no way soothed when all of his friends regarded him and moved to meet him. "They haven't kicked you out yet?"
"Oh, they've tried, but then they remember that they're dealing with the crew of the goddamn SSV Normandy and back off." Garrus reached him and punched his shoulder lightly. "By the spirits, Shepard, you look good as new. Are you sure you haven't just been taking this place for a ride? Taking advantage of free food and housing?"
Shepard laughed, but any comeback was forgotten as Liara wrapped him in a hug. "How are you feeling?" she asked, stepping back and smiling broadly.
"I'm okay," Shepard answered as Wrex and Grunt took turns ruffling the top of a dismayed Tali's hood. He rolled his arms about. "Ready to get out of here."
Wrex approached him. "Tell me about it. It hit me this morning. I've been sitting in a waiting room for a month. Me. Leader of the Krogan Union." He jabbed a powerful finger toward Shepard, a mirthful glint in his eye. "I expect you to do the same when I save the universe and need a hospital."
"Not like you had anything better to do," Urdnot Bont muttered under his breath, muscling his way through the gathering and with a typical lack of ceremony setting to various pokes and prods at Shepard's body. "Everyone knows your broodmate does all the work anyway."
"Y'know, words hurt, doc," Wrex opined, but his toothy grin testified otherwise.
Apparently satisfied with his physical diagnosis, Bont peered into Shepard's eyes and gave a curt nod. "Good. As of right now I'm releasing you from my care. Your woman here - " he indicated Tali, who blinked but did not protest the branding. " - has my contact information. If you feel your condition taking a turn for the worse, don't be a moron and try to sit it out. Tell me so I can fix it."
"Okay." Shepard extended a hand. "Thank you for everything, doctor Bont. I owe you a lot."
To his minor surprise, the krogan instantly gripped his hand and pumped it firmly. "You owe me nothing, commander."
Kaidan walked up with a grin on his face, thumbs nestled under his ammunition belt. "So, Shep. Race you to the transport?"
Shepard crossed his arms. "Do you make a habit of challenging the handicapped to footraces, Major?"
"Only the ones I know I can beat." The Specter embraced Shepard briefly. "Take it easy. Don't want you breaking anything. Staying here has been fun, but I don't think I could take another day."
"Don't worry about that, Kaidan," Tali said, pressing herself against the commander's side and staring with playful intensity up into his face. "He's on a very short leash."
Javik stepped closer to the gathering, linking arms with his asari partner. "We are both cursed with willful mates, commander. I advise you to take her words seriously, or she may well end up using actual constraints."
"Duly noted," Shepard said dryly, smiling at the prothean and then nearly doubling over as Grunt slapped him on the back.
"I can't believe it, Shepard," the tank-bred krogan roared jubilantly, drawing a wince from Javik, whose heightened sense of hearing no doubt seemed a curse for that split second. "You'd make a better krogan than most krogan. Nothing keeps you down for long!"
"If you keep slapping my back like that, that might change," Shepard wheezed. Grunt guffawed in response and slapped it again.
After rediscovering his ability to breathe, Shepard looked around at his friends, one arm wrapped around Tali's hip and an unquantifiable number of thoughts and emotions racing across his mind. In the end, though, he was still just a soldier, not a speechmaker, and he settled for the only words that he could muster. "Guys, I..." He averted his gaze, and then looked back to them. "I don't know what to say, or...how to say it. Staying here like this, for a month...all the visits..." His voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "Thank you."
Liara and the others smiled at each other. She stepped toward the commander. "Shepard, we should be the ones thanking you. None of us would be who we are today without you. None of us would even know each other, and we certainly wouldn't have defeated the Reapers without your determination and leadership.
"But most of all, you've been a friend to us. You've listened when we had a problem and couldn't get it out of our heads. You've given us advice and guidance. Goddess, Shepard, you've put your life on the line countless times to help us resolve personal problems. You're a great man, and it's been our honor to know and serve with you."
Shepard shook his head numbly, his eyes glistening. "No," he said, voice wavering a little. "I'm not. I'm just a soldier. You guys are the great ones - you guys are the ones - " He looked around agitatedly, and then pulled away from Tali, stepping toward Garrus. "You, Garrus - I mean, without you, I would have gone crazy - you've always stood by me and never lost hope - "
His eyes swept the assembly, and he moved to the krogan. "And you guys - Wrex, Grunt - you taught me so much, you fought so hard - " He swallowed audibly and turned to Kaidan, placing both hands on the biotic's armored shoulders. "Kaidan – hell, there's nothing I can say - you're the brother I never had - "
He shook his head again, just as distractedly, and approached Liara and Javik. "Liara - you poured everything you had into fighting the Reapers - you were a voice of reason even when - " His eyes flitted to Javik. "And Javik - I've never seen a more committed fighter - without you, I don't - "
Shepard took several steps back, away from everyone, looking strangely vulnerable and exposed, his emotions nakedly visible on his face. His eyes found Tali, watching him with concern, and he walked to her, pressing close and placing one hand tenderly on the side of her visor. "And Tali...my Tali..."
He squeezed his eyes shut. His friends glanced at one another, unsure of what to do; but when Shepard looked at them once more, eyes still shining, he spoke, quietly and with composure. "No, Liara," he said. "I'm nothing without my crew."
All apprehension evaporated, and everyone gathered close around Shepard and Tali, providing touches of comfort and solidarity; they remained in this huddle for a while, each understanding without words the thoughts and feelings of the others, until finally they mustered and moved as one toward the hospital's entrance, old comrades embarking on their last journey together.
It was deathly quiet when the former Normandy crew stepped out into the open London air. The horde of spectators stood all facing toward them, many craning their necks to get a good look at the beings which, by all accounts, were responsible in no small part for their continued existences.
Shepard tightened his grip on Tali's hand and nodded at his friends on both sides of him. He took his first step forward, down one entrance stair and then another. The others followed suit, looking around with awe - the crowd seemed much bigger than it had from inside.
The group passed the small cluster of reporters, mostly asari and human, standing on the side of the stairs. For whatever reason, not a one of them opened their mouths to ask questions or press for an interview, though their camera drones diligently captured every movement.
"Well, this is awkward," Garrus grumbled.
Shepard noticed, as they reached the final stair, that Hackett's Alliance guards were standing at the front of the crowd awaiting them. Once the Normandy crew reached them, the soldiers turned about and gently began pushing members of the crowd aside, forging a path through the multitude.
It was impossible not to look around at some of the diverse faces. Shepard turned his head from side to side, eyes sweeping the mob, noting the turian, asari, salarian, vorcha, human, krogan, volus and elcor who gaped at him and his friends, some of them whispering to each other, perhaps to comment that they looked awfully unremarkable considering their reputations.
After a minute or two of continued progress in this vein, just as it seemed they might clear the crowd without a single sound being uttered, an asari woman lunged out at Shepard and grasped his arm tightly. The commander's eyes widened in surprise - the Alliance guards made to subdue the woman, but something in her eyes, some unspoken message in them, compelled Shepard to hold up a hand, halting the soldiers before they could reach her.
The asari, clearly in her Matriarch years, skin a dark pink and with bright blue eyes, reached into a pocket and pulled out a datapad which displayed an image of two younger-looking asari, both with her skin color. "My daughters," the woman said thickly, as though fighting to contain emotion. "Unara and Besari."
"They're beautiful," Shepard started to say placatingly, but she continued like she hadn't heard.
"The younger - Besari - " the asari's slender finger pointed at one of the daughters. "She died when the Reapers hit Thessia."
Liara, standing just behind Shepard, covered her mouth with a hand to stifle a sympathetic sound. Shepard's face grew solemn. "I'm sorry."
The woman shook her head and indicated the other depicted daughter. "Unara - she was on Thessia, too. Hiding in tunnels. It was only a matter of time until she - and I couldn't - " she placed a hand on her chest and swallowed. Her eyes turned up to Shepard's face; her grip tightened. "She's alive because of what you did. What you all did," she added, looking at the other crewmates. "Thank you, commander. A thousand times, thank you."
Shepard, at a loss for words, worked his mouth a few times and nodded. The asari mother released her grip and stepped back into the crowd, eyes never leaving his face.
A man standing near her, a tall and muscular human with dark skin wearing a construction worker's garb, began to clap, bringing both mighty hands together slowly but loudly, nodding approvingly. Shepard stared at him, still unable to do more than watch - but then he had to turn his attention to another nearby being, this one a turian, who also began to clap, and then another as they, too, joined in; and then he could not keep up with it, for the entire crowd was joining in, hands with varying numbers of figures and different skin textures clapping together in a timeless display of appreciation and respect.
"Oh, Keelah," Tali breathed, barely audible over the rapidly spreading din.
"Now there's something to tell your grandkids about," Kaidan said in a small voice.
"My ears!" Javik complained in a considerably less sentimental fashion.
The rest of the voyage to the Alliance transport was a blur of continued clapping and passing backslaps, of shouted thank-yous and praises, of journalists finally snapping out of their bizarre fugue and snapping questions both rational and outlandish, of war survivors blinking away tears and smiling at the multi-species group which had fought so hard to preserve their lives. After an unknown number of minutes - or hours, Shepard could not say - the crowd thinned and the dark blue Alliance vehicle which would bear him and his friends to their futures became visible, as well as Admiral Hackett, who leaned against its side, clapping his gloved hands with a wry smile on his lips.
"You look like you just went through armageddon," the admiral shouted to be heard.
"We did," Shepard shouted back. "Time for a vacation."
"Sounds nice." Hackett gestured at the vehicle behind him. "Where to, commander Shepard?"
The former commander of the SSV Normandy, fastest ship in the Alliance navy and product of what was, at the time, unprecedented cooperation between turians and humans, looked down at Tali. They gazed into each other's eyes for a moment, and then Shepard looked back to Hackett with a smile on his face. "Take us home, Admiral."
Generations later, students in history classes would see several images in their textbooks resolving the chapter on commander Shepard and the crew that helped him to fight the war against the Reapers: one of an asari and a prothean, hands joined as they clambered into an Alliance transport which, the caption said, took them to the beginnings of a long and illustrious archaeological career; one of a black-haired human biotic, the second human Specter, comforting a mourning woman from the crowd which had formed outside Nathan Levitt Medical Center, arms wrapped around her; one of a decorated turian soldier, formerly a C-Sec officer, arms slung around the shoulders of the chieftain of the Krogan Union and his most trusted subordinate, a laughing tank-bred (also visible was a grumpy-looking doctor with blue robes); and most memorably, an image of the commander himself, locked in a kiss with the quarian woman he would spend the rest of his life with, her visor sitting forgotten on the ground while the crowd behind them cheered raucously.
It was, many students would decide, a nice way to end a war.
A/N: And that's it! Final chapter. Big thanks to everyone who followed the story, particularly those of you who left a review…or two…or three. Hope you had some fun while reading.