AN: Final Chapter of this fic. Thanks once again to all who have reviewed, followed, favourited and taken the time to read this story. It really does make my day and feeds my addiction for writing these. :)
~I am not there, I do not sleep~
When he looked back to the vid screen Shepard's smile had faded slightly, and she continued resolutely with the grim task of doling out all her most treasured possessions.
"The rest of the data files on this OSD are all my personal files. Photos and vids from years ago, mostly friends, family and me, a few performances."Kaidans brow furrowed, a quizzical look crept across his tear streaked face.Performances? What did that mean? "I used to play piano and sing a little when I was younger. I loved music. Because of that there is a hell of a lot of songs on that OSD. I hope you enjoy them like I used to."
She used to, when did she stop? Why did she stop? Knowing that he'd never know the answer to these and a thousand other questions was a saddening torment. He felt as if he was letting her down. Someone should remember her completely, know all there was to know about her, but nobody did and now it was too late. He wished he'd asked her more, but she was always a little guarded with her memories and emotions. He understood why and opted to give her time to open up to him, little did he know that time was not something they had in abundance. If he'd have known that, he'd have tried harder to make each second count, to squeeze every last drop of potential out of their short relationship. She wanted him to remember her as Mandy Shepard, the woman, but he didn't feel he knew enough about her. She felt like a half-finished painting, some parts beautiful and intricately detailed, others a painfully blank patch of canvas, never to be filled.
"I bet your itching to know what's in that box right? Well, you can go ahead and open it now."
Shepard paused, giving him time to slide the box closer to him. With a sense of anticipation so intense it was almost palpable; he reverently opened the box, holding his breath. He gently tipped the lid back on its small brass hinges, letting it rest against the cool glass of the coffee table and looked inside. The lining of the box was a deep red satin and nestled within the sleek smooth cocoon were several small items. Random objects waiting for her to bring relevance to them.
"There should be a small titanium case in the box."
Kaidan reached in to retrieve the case from within. He turned it over in his hand and gazed quizzically at the Alliance logo emblazoned on the top, as he unclipped the fastening. The small, golden, star-shaped object within glistened in the glow of the vid screen. Being an Alliance soldier, he recognised it instantly.
"I'm sure I don't need to tell you what that is." She smiled but he could tell it was forced.
The Star of Terra was beautiful and intricate. It hung from a large blue ribbon coiled under the display pillow on which it rested. He'd never seen one up close before; they were so rarely handed out. This medal was one of the highest honours that could be bestowed upon a marine, and was only presented to those that the Systems Alliance deemed to be heroes of humanity. Shepard had earned hers during the Skyllian Blitz in 2176. She had been on shore leave on Elysium, when a huge band of pirates, slavers and Batarian warlords laid siege to the colony. She had single-handedly managed to repel the mercenary forces long enough for reinforcements to arrive.
"I still say that was some kind of PR stunt, I didn't earn the damn thing. Elysium wasn't a victory, a lot of people died. In point of fact, more people died than were saved in Illyria, where I was. Civilians, children... good soldiers." Her face clouded as her gaze drifted down, no doubt in response to some unpleasant memory of the battle to save the colony.
"Why reward me for not being good enough at my job?" Her mouth pressed together into a hard line and she closed her eyes briefly as she sighed. "Anyway, it's yours now. Do what you want with it."
It was obvious to Kaidan that she kept the medal as a reminder to do better, do more, act faster. The notion was laughable in this instance. He'd seen the reports at the time of the siege, what she had done was astounding. As a fresh faced 22 year old 2nd Lieutenant she had saved that colony and countless lives. She had earned this award without a shadow of a doubt. He flipped the star over in its case and read the inscription emblazoned across the back.
'FOR COURAGE AND VALOUR UNDER FIRE, ABOVE AND BEYOND THE CALL OF DUTY'
How could she say she hadn't earned that?
"There's a necklace in the box." She hastily moved on. Kaidan deposited the case on the table and routed through the box for the necklace. He found it nestled in the satin at the bottom.
"It's my mum's locket; there are pictures of my family inside."
With his large calloused hands, he shakily fumbled with the delicate latch of the locket and carefully opened it. Inside a tiny holovid flickered to life. The first three dimensional image was of a middle aged man, with thick dark unruly hair the same rich brown as Shepard's. He had a weathered look about him, as of someone who has spent a lot of time outside. His eyes were a steely gray and his smile was genuine and welcoming.
His visage flickered and faded, to be replaced by the image of a middle aged woman. Her head is flung back in laughter, her auburn hair tumbling around her shoulders and her cheeks flushed. It was plain to see this was where Shepard got her full lips and bright azure eyes.
The next image to be displayed was of a young man in his late teens or early twenties. He was tall and toned, tanned skin and with the same thick shock of brown hair as her father. His eyes are a slightly darker shade of gray and framed by thick lashes. His smile... his smile is a carbon copy of the smile he loves more than any other with the same slight elevation on the right side.
He was replaced by a slightly younger girl. Her hair, a fabulous light auburn, is cropped to her shoulders and flicks out at the sides. A fine feathering of layers frames her face. Her eyes are azure blue like her mothers, like Shepard's, but that is where the similarity ends. Her lips are thin but shapely and her are cheeks full.
As the image of the girl fades she is replaced by an image that stops his heart. Shepard. There is no mistaking her. She's young, so very young, 13 at the most. Her warm chocolate locks are artfully pulled back into a ponytail. The thin tendrils escaping are perfectly curled. She had thick bangs, swept slightly to one side. The scar on her right cheek that he'd kissed so often was not yet there. He sparkling blue eyes melted his heart. There was no trace of the sadness and hurt that he always saw lying just below the surface. Her full bee stung lips are quirked in a playful smile. He scanned the locket with his omni-tool, copying the image. After a brief pause the image flickers to life in front of him, larger, clearer. He smiled sadly at the image before him.
"My brother made that for her. He was as good with tech as you. She was thrilled with it, never took it off. Look after it Kaidan." She pleaded earnestly.
He solemnly nodded his head, closed down the larger image before him and gently shut the locket, placing it softly on the table.
"My sisters charm bracelet is in there too. It was my grandmothers, she passed away when I was young and it was handed down to Ella. I used to sit on her lap playing with it. There's a little church charm that opens up." As she spoke with evident fondness, Kaidan retrieved the charm from the now almost empty box, a small twinge of sadness washed over him when he realised this was coming to an end. "I used so sit for hours opening it and looking inside."
He flicked open the charm easily. Inside were three little figures, two kneeling before the third, a tiny silver couple getting married before a priest. It was so detailed. His heart sank a little as he examined it. If things had worked out between them, he might have proposed to her. They might have been married, had children together. They would have had her azure eyes and his olive skin. He would have liked to think they would have inherited his calm nature but he knows that Shepard's wild side and flare for adventure would likely have taken hold. They would all run him ragged, his children running wild around their house and his wife shrugging apologetically for some reckless action or other. She would mouth 'sorry' and 'I love you' to him, unable to be heard over the din of their offspring. This is the future he saw for them as he lay there watching her sleep in their hotel bed, just days after sovereigns attack on the Citadel. The future that died along with her in the pressing cold vacuum of space.
"I was always so jealous of Ella back then." Her voice bringing him back to the present. "I really wanted that bracelet, I used to constantly try to get her to trade with me, but she never would. My mum promised me that she would get me one for my 18th. That of course never happened, but I look after my sisters bracelet, and now hopefully you will too." She smiled fondly.
"Just two more things left now." she informed him sadly as she glanced over her shoulder once more, watching him stretched out on the bed behind her. "I better be quick, you're getting kinda restless over there. There should be a small book with a battered green spine. It's my copy of The Wind in the Willow. Yes, an actual honest to goodness book, complete with the best thing in the world... old book smell." She smiled widely. "That little book has been in the Shepard family for a long time. It means the world to me."
He stared down at the small worn book in his hands, lifting it to his face he inhaled the comforting musky aroma of the aged paper closing his eyes. He delicately opened the book and smiled. On the inside page was a list of names, owners of the book. Shepard's name was the last in the line.
"My father and I used to read it together. It was my favourite story, still is I guess. I used to attempt to draw the characters from it as a child but stick figures are about my limit. I'm not at all artistic."
He paid close attention to these little tip bits of information. These would help him add colour and definition to the half finished canvas of who she was. The more he could paint the less guilt he would feel for not knowing her as well as she deserved.
"Ok, last but by no means least, there should also be a small leather binder, grab it out." hesitantly he set the book down like it was some priceless heirloom, and when he thought about it, it was, to him at least and to her. He returned his attention to the box.
The binder was tucked neatly along one side. The leather was soft and smooth from age and constant use. In the lower right corner, three letters were embossed on the surface in a flowing golden script, A.H.S, Amanda Hannah Shepard. There was a small ornate golden button stitched to the centre of the front cover, with a delicate leather strap wrapped around it holding the book closed and the contents secured. Kaidan unwound the leather and let the binder fall open in his lap. Inside were countless sheets of old discoloured paper, each sheet was covered in hand written music.
"My dad brought me this for my 10th birthday, after he found me using mum's lipstick on my bedroom wall to write my music. I never did like using datapads or terminals for that. I don't know why, it just seemed wrong some how. It's all my own work. If you know someone who plays, I don't mind if you get them to play it to you. Most of it is not that good, but there are a few I'm proud of." Her eyes were filled with wistful nostalgia.
Kaidan placed his hand gently on the topmost sheet of paper and delicately ran the tip of his fingers across the sweeping line of notes. This was something so special. It represented hours upon hours of her work and creativity. There was such care and attention evident on the pages. He was immeasurably touched that she wanted him to have this. He had no idea she even played an instrument, let alone wrote music. He longed to hear the songs she'd written. To see if he could hear her in the gentle melodies.
"And that's it, that's all I have. Not much to show for my life really when you think about it, but then I never did want to leave behind a lot of possessions. I just want to help protect life, keep it safe or die trying. I like to think I've done that. So whether I die on Ilos or wherever we head after that, don't feel bad Kaidan. I hope you can take some comfort in the fact that you are the one person I trust to look after these things. You're such a thoughtful and caring man, I couldn't pick a better person to trust with what's left of my families legacy."
His eyes were fixed on her now, her face slightly pained and her lips lifted in a sympathetic smile. His heart ached. His hands fisted as a desire to hold her and touch her swept over him. He longed to tuck her hair behind her ear and kiss her ardently.
"Ash once showed me a poem that she recited at her fathers funeral, it's a message for those left behind. I like to read it to you."
Kaidan pursed his lips and felt the familiar constricting of his chest and throat.
"Don't stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Don't stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die."
He bit his bottom lip and began to sob silently, letting himself sink into his grief like a pebble tossed in a cold dark lake. He stood slowly made his way across the room towards the vid screen on unsteady legs. Reaching out, he ran the tips of his fingers down the image of her cheek and let out a ragged breath, as Shepard looked down and sighed. When her eyes returned they were full of sadness and longing.
"Kaidan. I..." She was interrupted by rustling from the bed behind her.
"Hey Shepard, what are you up to over there?" She blanched and closed her eyes briefly before smiling and turning round to answer him.
"Hey yourself. I... couldn't sleep. Just recording a video message for someone." She shrugged.
"Oh. Say uh... I'm getting kinda cold and lonely over here. I could sure use a little something or someone to warm me up." he could hear her quietly chuckle but he couldn't see the radiant smile he remembered her giving him.
"Let me finish this off and I'll see what I can do about that."
"Well, don't take too long. I may start without you... or fall asleep." He chuckled knitting is hands behind his head.
"Alright Kaidan." Shepard turned back to the screen with a sad smile. She leaned in close and her voice again became a barely audible whisper.
"Well I guess that's it." she glances over her shoulder. "Duty calls... goodbye Kaidan."
Her gentle smile froze on the screen for a few seconds then vanished.
Kaidan felt like he'd been sucker punched in the gut, he couldn't breathe, couldn't think. He suddenly felt an oppressive weight bearing down on him, he could hardly stand. Resting his back against the wall he slowly slid to the floor, buried his head in to his knees and wept until sleep claimed him.
When he awoke several hours later, his head was pounding and his throat was dry. The skin of his cheeks felt tight from the now dried tears and his eyes were puffy and sore. He slowly rose to his feet, his sense of grief feeling like a heavy weight around his neck, as he made his way to the kitchenette sink.
He splashed cold water on his face and neck before trudging back to the sofa and dropping onto it with a heavy sigh. He looked down at the items spread out on the table, the items that were hers and now are his. He thought if he had something to cling on to that the pain would lessen. That's why he'd come here after all, looking for something of hers, something special to her. Now he had that in spades, but the emptiness inside was still there. Still as agonisingly raw as a fresh open wound. They were just objects at the end of the day, what he really wanted was her. Clinging to these items was like grasping at shadows, he could see her there but she was still out of reach and always would be. There was no easy fix for this, no magical cure. It would just take time, not to heal, never to heal, but for it to become tolerable.
With a sigh he quietly placed the items back into the box, including the silver fork. Closing the lid, he set it beside him on the sofa and curled himself around it, hugging it to his heart.
After a moment he reached for his omni-tool and tapped out a few commands. Shepard's image returned to the screen.
"Hey Kaidan. If you're watching this, I guess I didn't make it."
He closed his eyes as the vid started again and listened to the sound of her voice, a single tear running down his cheek.